David Shields and I met almost 30 years ago, just after the publication of his breakthrough second novel, Dead Languages, at the sadly now defunct Bailey/Coy Bookstore in Seattle. We’ve been discussing and debating literature and media ever since. The occasion of this conversation is the release of his 21st book, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention, which I was lucky enough to read as it evolved through several drafts. “I wasn’t going to read it because I’m so tired of anti-Trump shit,” says Bret Easton Ellis about the book, “but I love the book, agree with everything Shields nails about this moment. It’s the best summation of Trump I’ve come across. Such a relief to see someone get it. I was reading passages to my millennial Communist ‘Trump is going to kill us all’ bf, who didn’t say anything, just rolled away.” 1. Blowing Things Up Scott Karambis: Why did you decide to take on the Trump project? Do you recall the inspiration? David Shields: About a year and a half ago, Melanie Thernstrom, whose first book, The Dead Girl, I hugely admire, said to me, “I know what your next book should be.” She mentioned one of my earlier books, Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, and thought I should keep a diary, as I did with Black Planet, but use Trump as the sort of magnetizing force and see what happens. For me, the whole point of writing is freedom from other people’s expectations, but Melanie’s suggestion struck me as difficult to dismiss. I could stop imposing my Trump insights on perfect strangers on the bus. SK: Trump has to be the most discussed human in the world. The coverage and commentary are literally nonstop. Were you concerned your riffs might not breakthrough the noise? DS: This question is kind of a nonstarter for me. Every topic has been covered from the beginning of time. In ancient Athens, everyone already thought pretty much every topic had already been thoroughly covered. Every writer imposes his or her consciousness on the time in which he or she lives. I’m not a political journalist with inside information (beyond about a dozen leaked transcripts). I’m not a trained psychotherapist. But I’m not aware of anyone having written about Trump in the way I have. SK: How would you describe that way? DS: I’ve always been terribly interested in the self-destructiveness of human beings. Trump’s self-hatred is a key source of his connection to other human beings. A third of the country, say, responds to the way in which he’s a “total loser” who’s housed in a “winner’s” palace. Also, as Richard Nash says, the business of literature is to blow shit up. The business of Trump is to blow shit up. To people who “run things”—the “media,” the government, the courts—he just keeps saying, “Fuck you.” For people who are really sad and lost and angry and dispossessed of the future, this is invaluable. Frank Bidart is very good on this: We all live symbolic lives—through TV, film, literature, love, politics. Trump’s base is a fan base; it’s fan fiction; through his bellicosity, they’re expressing by indirection their rage. 2. Collage Is Not a Refuge SK: But in terms of existing material, it must have looked insurmountable, and growing bigger every second. How did you approach the otherworldly abundance of Trumpiana? DS: The way the book works for me is that you see all these Trump alter egos, substitutes, avatars (see the Frank Bidart point above). Every single person in the book, including occasionally myself, is meant to be a Trump surrogate. If you read the book the way I want it to be read, every moment in the book is connected by a spider web and every part of the web vibrates. I’m a bit of a pack rat. I just gather stuff. When I was writing The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, which is being published in February, at one point I had literally 3,000 pages. The final version of that book is quite short, as is the Trump book. SK: That’s a lot of pages. Do you have a method for organizing it or is it intuitive? DS: A huge number of narratives have five gear shifts. For instance, dawn, morning, noon, dusk, and night. Every Greek tragedy. Every Shakespeare play. Very nearly every movie. I’m obsessed with collage form, but collage, as I like to say, isn’t a refuge for the compositionally disabled. I’m hyper-aware of each collage book of mine having distinct and graduated emotional and philosophical gear shifts. So the Trump book might, to the casual reader, feel loosely curated, but in fact it’s organized to within an inch of its life. 3. There Are Many Answers SK: For all your rejection of traditional narrative structure, you do make use of some of the most dominant cultural narratives of modernism. Family romance dynamics, for instance, play a significant role in many of your books. DS: The psychoanalytic thread is there, for sure, but it’s woven into an entire tapestry of many different threads, I hope. It’s not as if I say, “Here’s my explanation of Trump: X or Y or Z.” I’m just saying, “Here are many ways to understand his brokenness and how crucial that brokenness is to understanding his appeal.” For instance, I treat Trump’s insane relationship with the media as part of a family romance; he’s obviously trying and failing (needing to fail) to get the perfect love from mass media that he never got from his mother and father. SK: Media has been a central concern of yours from the beginning. I’m curious—what’s the source and enduring interest in media as a topic? DS: I grew up in California, where both of my parents were journalists. The movie business was never very far away. Also—and this is what my first nonfiction book, Remote, is about—in the early 1980s, something shifted, having to do with wall-to-wall media filling every crevice in American culture, and now of course this has become exponentially magnified with the invention of the web and social media. I just feel in my bones—and I know on my nerve endings—that the real story is no longer what happens; it’s how what happens gets mediated. Or at the very least it’s about the relationship between the former and the latter. SK: You write a lot. As you know there have been many writers, especially British and American writers, who have been criticized for overabundance. The implication is usually that facility reveals either a lack of seriousness or care with their craft. Whether you worry about that or not, what do you think motivates your rate of production? DS: Of all the things to worry about, that doesn’t make my top 1,000. At this point, I hope my collage scissors are pretty sharp. I know how they cut. (Joyce: “I’m happy to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.”) So, too, I’m hyper-aware of my own mortality, for some reason, and I just want to get a lot of work done while I’m still present and accounted for. If I were to explain my somewhat accelerated rate of production over the last several years, I do think it has to do in part with the controversy that my book Reality Hunger caused in 2010. There’s a way to see every book that I’ve written since then—and there have been a dozen or so—as practice to Reality Hunger’s theory.
Vanishing Twins: A Marriage (Soft Skull Press, 2018) is a rumination on desire, creativity, and the people who complete us. Told in elegant, precise vignettes, author Leah Dieterich uses ballet, philosophy, pop culture, and literature to gently tilt and examine the many facets of her identity. Dieterich got in touch with me when she moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, this year—I’m a recent transplant from New York—and we started going to readings and writing events in PDX together. Earlier this summer we spoke about monogamy, performance, and craft at her dining room table, a fuzzy outline of her sleeping daughter on the baby monitor between us. The Millions: Was there a particular incident or feeling that spurred Vanishing Twins? Leah Dieterich: I was writing a novel that was based on myself and my advertising partner, where I was imagining that we were running away from our jobs and responsibilities and taking a VW van up to Big Sur. I had been working on this novel for a couple of months, and then this one night when I was writing at a café in Santa Monica (where I ended up writing most of the book), it started to take a different turn. I started writing about the French ligature with the O and the E smashed together, and I really didn't know how it fit into the scene that I was writing, but it was coming out. I remember feeling so good about it but also concerned. I knew I wanted to follow this thread, but I had no idea what it had to do with the novel. At the same time, it felt like an epiphany. I realized that instead of the novel, this was what I wanted to write about. I wanted to explore my actual life in these weird ways—not necessarily as straightforward memoir, but using the interests I have in language and in other writers and thinkers to explore certain events and themes in my real life, rather than trying to make things up. I finally gave myself permission. I said, "I just want to write about my own life and that's OK." TM: I've been reading a lot of Sheila Heti, somebody who's known for straddling that line between fiction and non-fiction. How Should a Person Be? is a "novel" but— LD: I think the subtitle of that book is A Novel from Life. TM: Yes! And Motherhood has an unnamed narrator, but in How Should a Person Be? the narrator is also named Sheila. And of course real-life Sheila also has a best friend named Margot, same as in the book. Were you ever tempted to call Vanishing Twins fiction? LD: Yeah. Once I started being really honest about my story, I got scared and thought, “Maybe I should call this a novel." It felt like a way to hide, perhaps. I tried to query agents with it as an autobiographical novel in the vein of Sheila Heti's book, but in the end, the agent who wanted to represent me called it a memoir (since I think I’d had a casual conversation with her about whether to call it fiction or nonfiction) and I was like, "OK. If you wanna call it a memoir, and you think you can sell it as a memoir, then let’s go for it." I didn’t really have to do anything to the book to call it a memoir. I’d already changed all the names of the characters from my life, and since that’s totally acceptable in memoir, I just kept them the same as they’d been when it was called a novel. The names were an important part of the narrative or structure of the book—having all three of my main characters’ names begin with E. TM: I was wondering about that choice. LD: Yes. I wanted to make them feel sort of interchangeable. I wanted them to overlap. TM: Did the people—the three Es—know you were going to write about them? LD: Yes. I had written a short story inspired by my relationship with Elena before I started this book, and she’d seen that. My work colleague, Ethan, also knew; I had written a short story with characters inspired by us that I’d shown him. That scene actually appears in the book. Eric (my husband) always knew that I would be writing about our life. I didn’t have him read the book until I thought it was ready to send out to agents. At that point, I’d already had my mentor, Sarah Manguso, read it and give me edits on two separate occasions over the course of two years. The first time my husband read it, he said it was beautiful but he didn't like the way that he was portrayed. To his credit, he was like, "I'm not the audience for this book and I still think you should send it out." I did send it out, although somewhat reluctantly, and luckily I didn't get an agent for it then. It was kind of a relief because if someone had been like, "We want this," and then I would have had to decide if I wanted to sell the book knowing he was unhappy with it, that would've been horrible. Some of the agents that rejected it had interesting feedback that I read to him and he total agreed with. I thought, "If I work on the book with this feedback in mind, hopefully it will satisfy this, or any other agent, and also my husband." I showed him the manuscript before I sent it to a new batch of agents and he was like, "This is amazing–this version totally solves all of my problems and I think it’s incredible.” In the end, it worked. He was happy and I got an agent, but it took a year of revisions until I queried again, right before I was about to give birth to my daughter. That had been my deadline for myself. I think the process of revising the book helped our relationship in a certain way. It helped me have more perspective on the time in our lives that I was writing about, to have delved into it more deeply. I think that's why the book ended up being better. I think before, I was just scratching the surface with his character, and mine too for that matter. We weren’t full people on the page. TM: So it wasn’t that you didn't include enough about him, but maybe you just needed to include— LD: The right things. I was so selective in what I had chosen to remember, but luckily, I had a lot of documentation. During that time in our life, we had been living apart, (he in New York and I in Los Angeles) so much of our communication was written. TM: Emails? LD: iChats. A lot of instant message. I would save all of the conversations that felt significant, both with him and with Elena (who lived in London). I had all of that. I knew that I would do something with it someday, so I saved it all. I literally went through about 20 chat transcripts that were each two to three hours long. This is weirdly masochistic and totally the way I operate, but instead of just reading them, I transcribed them all word for word. I had read some of them many times already for research, but I tended to skim them. Transcribing forced me to relive them. I spent a few months just doing that every single day. I’d be at the coffee shop crying over my laptop because I felt like I was in that moment again, but this time I could be the observer, too, which was even more heartbreaking for me. I could drop into the role of myself eight or nine years ago, but also see her from a distance. TM: That's crazy to think about going back through and kind of reliving it. LD: It was amazing. [millions_ad] TM: You incorporate a bunch of outside texts into Vanishing Twins. Did you write the narrative first and then go through and add in the research bits? Or would things jump out at you as you were constructing the story? LD: That's a great question. One of the main outside texts is A Lover's Discourse, by Roland Barthes. I was obsessed with that book. I’d bought it while we were living apart. I hadn’t started writing Vanishing Twins yet, but years later when I was working on the book, I’d be writing these little snippets of action, a scene I remembered from my life and it would remind me of something from A Lover’s Discourse, or from Adam Phillips’s Monogamy and I’d think "I should go get that and look at it.” When I’d feel blocked, I’d transcribe all of the quotes I’d underlined in these books. That way I felt like I was always accomplishing something even if it wasn’t generating new material. Once I copied down all the things I’d underlined, they started finding their ways in or inspiring new sections. When my husband and I moved back in together after living apart for nearly three years we went to dinner at a friend's house in LA and the friend started talking about Adam Phillips, and he was like, "Have you read Monogamy? It's amazing." He brought this little book down from the shelf. I don't remember perfectly because I was really drunk, but I remember being upset about the book and its title, because though my husband and I had closed our open relationship, I was still very anti-monogamy in theory. We borrowed it and my husband read it, and was like, "This is amazing. I think you'd really like it." I was resistant but I acquiesced and once I did, I was like, "Oh my God." I was floored. That book changed my life. It complicated everything I thought about monogamy and made it seem dangerous (which I liked) and a worthy challenge, instead of something boring you do out of laziness. [Monogamy] is so short. There's basically just a paragraph on each page. They're vignettes, or propositions. As I began writing Vanishing Twins, that book started to find its way in too. I write in a program called Scrivener. Do you use it? TM: I don’t, but people love it. LD: I really love it. Especially for this type of book where there's a lot of short sections that are interchangeable. I would spend hours rearranging them. It's really easy to do because each section is listed in a column on the left and you can just drag and drop them and move them around. Before I started using it, I was using Word and I had like 20 pages and I just couldn’t keep track of everything. I think having Scrivener helped the book start to grow, just from a file organization standpoint. It’s a really important part of how the book came together. TM: In Vanishing Twins there’s heavy use of white space—it's a distinctive form. Were there other writers besides Phillips who gave you permission or encouragement to do that? Was there a particular blueprint you used as you were constructing the book? LD: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was my blueprint, really. That moment I described, when I was working on the road-trip novel and I began writing about the O and E ligature. That was when I was like, "I want to write nonfiction. I want to write lyric essay or memoir in the vein of Bluets or Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay." There's this thing in L.A. called Writing Workshops Los Angeles that Edan Lepucki started. That’s how I met Sarah Manguso, actually—I took a one-day poetry workshop with her. Anyway, they had a memoir class, but I was like, "There's no way in hell I'm going to be able to actually get to this class on time after work and/or have time to participate and read everyone's work,” but I thought the teacher and the syllabus sounded really interesting, so I contacted her. Her name is Chris Daley and she’s now running WWLA, and I said, "Can I just do an independent study with you?" And she said yes. We met at a coffee shop and I showed her the pages I had, and said "I love Maggie Nelson and I love Sarah Manguso. I want to write a book that is about my life but is not straightforward memoir. I want it to be more...” TM: Lyrical. LD: Yeah. I told Chris, "Here are my pages. I love Bluets. What advice do you have for me?" Some of the pages were about the œ ligature and some were about my open relationship and some were about twins because concurrent to wanting to write this book, I had also had the idea to write a movie about a young married couple who are struggling to grow as individuals while maintaining their bond who meet a set of identical twins and end up getting into a relationship with them—the woman with the one sister and the man with the other sister. Chris said, "Maybe twins could be your blue.” It was like a lightbulb went off over my head. But it was her head. Then she said, "That's just a thought—it doesn’t have to be that.” I wasn’t even listening anymore. I was off and running. I hadn’t seen how I could connect all these seemingly disparate ideas and concerns but once she presented it to me, it was so obvious. TM: It's always interesting when someone else can see the common themes in your work more clearly than you can. LD: It made it so much easier to write, because any time I was trying to come up with new material, I would be like, "What about binary stars? Those are twins." It was like a prompt. TM: Before writing this book, you existed in two different artistic spheres: dance and advertising. I wonder how ballet and writing ad copy influenced the writing of Vanishing Twins? LD: To write for advertising, you have to be very concise. I was telling someone the other day that there is a rule that you can't have more than six words on a billboard. So I was used to cutting things back to their core. Sarah Manguso is all about concision and cutting everything you possibly can, which for me was easy because it’s what I did all day. That I think, definitely informed my style and the way that I write. For dance, I don't know. That love of performing might be one of the reasons I write memoir. It’s a way to put myself out on stage in a way. I think I miss that from dancing, that feeling of being out there and being exposed. Somehow I think if I was writing fiction, I would feel more like I was hiding and that wouldn’t be as satisfying. TM: In the book, you talk about making the decision to cut your hair short and stop wearing makeup—abandoning what some might refer to as performative femininity. At the time, your husband is not into this change. I wonder if that issue has persisted—are you aware of femininity as a performance still? LD: Ever since I started writing this book I feel like it has allowed me to express the fullness of my identity so I worry less about how I dress or how long or short my hair is. I don’t need my appearance to do all the heavy lifting anymore. My hair is really long right now and I like it, but of course I still sometimes think, "What if I cut my hair really short again?" but I resist because I know my husband likes it longer and at this point in my life and relationship, I want him to find me attractive just like I want to find him attractive. I have a LOT of opinions about his appearance so it’s only fair that he should have them about mine. I'm sure I’d have to have those negotiations with anyone I was in a long-term relationship with, regardless of their gender. I rarely wear makeup anymore which is something I’ve carried over from my more tomboyish days, but occasionally, and I should say VERY occasionally, I put on some lipstick. TM: It feels a little like a costume to me at this point, especially after having kids. I wasn’t wearing it for a long time because I was too busy, but I do now on occasion. My kids will be like, "You look different. You look pretty." It's so weird that they notice that, and weirder that they like it, that they’re already receiving cues about what is “pretty” and that they’ve attached a value to that. It's so bizarre. LD: It is. I feel the same way. I've always felt weird about wearing makeup that is observable—stuff like red lipstick. I own it and think it’s pretty, but I still feel the same way I felt when my mom put lipstick on me the first time for Halloween when I was eight, and I felt like I couldn’t close my mouth. I still feel like that. I don't know how to hold my mouth when I’m wearing it. TM: Did you feel a duty to be honest in this book? Were there things that you specifically left out because you didn't want to hurt somebody? LD: I did leave things out. There were other relationships I had while we were open, but they weren't as significant. They felt extraneous and would have complicated the narrative. I think that was one of the main things I learned about memoir—that you don't have to talk about everything. That was the thing that was hardest for me to realize: I have the freedom to give this thing a shape.
I dislike car culture so much, it's rare for me to actually agree to drive to anything when visiting Los Angeles. Except maybe for Roy Choi's Kogi tacos. And to visit Eso Won Books, a unique and charming bookstore in the historical Leimert Park neighborhood. The store recently made a cameo in an episode of HBO's Insecure, the L.A.-based series by creator and star Issa Rae, who comments, as her alter ego Issa Dee, “it's like my favorite place, ever. They support a lot of up-and-coming black writers.” At Eso Won I was greeted by the affable James Fugate, co-owner of the store with Tom Hamilton, who was behind the register. James had such a wide-ranging opinion of so many interesting reads, I ended up leaving with a pile of books—novels, nonfiction, children's books—as did some of the family members who accompanied me. Ta-Nehisi Coates has called Eso Won his favorite bookstore in the world—it has something for everyone, including the writer who has done the sad bookstore signing where barely anyone shows up: In 1995 they hosted a young writer with a new memoir, and only about eight people showed; they ended up moving the chairs into a campfire type circle and had a nice intimate chat with the author ... Barack Obama reading from his book Dreams from my Father. Obama and Bill Clinton have since done signings at the store (held at an off-site location, since the store is fairly small), as well as Maya Angelou, Misty Copeland, and a variety of local figures. "It was a good signing," James remembers. "[Then] in 2006 Obama told Random House that with the Audacity of Hope book he would only do our store." Although unfortunately, "It was a big event and our co-sponsors didn't have us listed anywhere or even on stage. Even now the Museum that it was held at says they hosted Obama, but no mention of Eso Won." Yet they go on. I asked them some questions about the store and The Millions: What was the genesis of this amazing store? Are you the original owners? James Fugate: We started in 1988, I was working as a bookstore manager for Compton College where I meant Tom Hamilton and third partner, and he’s moved to Maryland. Tom and Asamoa wanted to start a store and I met with them to talk about it. They passed on starting a store, as I thought it would be very hard to generate business, but as the manager of the Compton College Bookstore I had developed a great selection of Black books as general reading material for the students and I was being asked to come to various community functions to sell books on the weekends. The bookstore was run by Barnes and Noble’s college division and I felt very uncomfortable coming to Black community functions and representing Barnes and Noble. So I came up with the idea of selling on my own with Tom and Asamoa on the weekends. Tom and Asamoa had the seed money to start buying the books and I had the ordering knowledge to put the concept together. TM: What does Eso Won mean? JF: Eso Won means Water over Rocks. Asamoa and his wife had visited Aswan, Egypt, and the African name is said to be Eso Won. We had the saying for some time that as water flows over rocks, so does knowledge flow through books. TM: Who are your main clientele? JF: Our customers come from Central L.A. for the most part, mainly where most Black people live. But we also draw from all over the city. We were able to benefit from many many L.A. Times stories, plus amazing book signings. [millions_ad] TM: What do you like most about being a bookseller? What's the most surprising thing? JF: For me the most surprising thing about being a bookstore is meeting customers who love your suggestions. I love talking about books that really move me and seeing people respond to those. Seeing people respond to emails for new books that we like is another plus. There's a $200 signed Obama photo book coming this November and we’ve sold 20 just from our emails. It just blew me away. TM: Who are your best/worst customers? JF: The best customers are just the good people with pleasant attitudes. The worst are the many, many nutcases who come to our store and signings. Both Tom and I are just sick of them. I could write a book on the many incidents we’ve had over the year with customers and authors. I would write the book, but I need a co-writer. Trust me—we’ve had more than our share. TM: What are some of your recommendations? JF: Chokehold by Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler may be the best book on race I’ve read since The Psychopathic Racial Personality. As a college student I struggled to understand hate. Blacks, Jews, Asians, Indians and Latinos all seemed to be feared by far too many white people. Psychopathic helped me understand why. Chokehold is the first book I’ve read which gets racism today. Plus Paul has very workable ideas on solving issues related to mass incarceration and other issues. TM: Are you yourself a writer? JF: Tom, Sam (Tom's son), and I are not writers at all. I would like to be, but writing is hard work. I don’t have many favorites authors right now. Walter Mosley is one, but some of my favorite books are The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley, Chester Himes—all of his books, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.; Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean is outstanding, a roadmap to the insanity of the right. TM: I always ask the booksellers to recommend another bookstore. What's yours? JF: I love The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. Their motto is, "What are you waiting for? We won't be here forever." Just about any used store is a favorite. TM: Any last thoughts? JF: Last thing: Books have knowledge and reading books gives you knowledge and power.
In Daniel Torday’s latest novel, Boomer1, ex-journalist, bluegrass musician, and failed academic Mark Brumfeld sparks an online movement against the economic tyranny of the baby boomers—all from the basement of his parents’ house. Told from the perspectives of Mark; his ex-girlfriend, Cassie, who is quickly rising through the ranks of an online media company after refusing Mark’s marriage proposal; and Mark’s mother, Julia, a former musician who has lost most of her hearing, the novel takes a probing look at what happens when our best-laid plans falter, our political debate falls apart, and we open doors that can’t be closed again. Torday is the author of the novel The Last Flight of Poxl West and the director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. I spoke with him over email about the baby boomers and millennials, Shakespeare, the purpose of fiction, and the political chaos threatening to swallow us all. The Millions: Why are the baby boomers the focus of Mark’s ire? In his situation—unemployed, living in his parents’ basement—I can imagine him veering far left and railing against capitalism or far right and becoming obsessed with keeping immigrants out. What’s so special about the boomers? Daniel Torday: Straight to the white-hot center of things! I like it. I guess I have two answers for this one. The first is the no-beating-around-the-bush fact that this is at heart a novel of contemporary politics. I’d had Occupy Wall Street in mind ever since that movement ultimately failed for not having a clear enough goal or leader. I wondered how to dramatize it. I’d also begun to feel itchy about how identity politics were at times coming to shut down conversation and being increasingly adopted by the political right, picking up on rhetoric that had long been roiling the left. And so the idea of letting Mark Brumfeld take on the baby boomers directly, from his standpoint as a millennial, just felt right. If there’s a clear limit to allowing one’s politics to come solely from identity it’s that there’s just no choice in the matter: In some way you’re always walled into certain aspects of the identity you’ve been given. And what's more intractable than one’s birthday? It also fit for my own vantage point—I’ve had the weird luck of not really being in a generation. I was born in 1978. So I’m not quite a Gen Xer, and they say millennial birthdays start in 1980, ’81, ’82. I feel like that liminal space—one foot in, one foot out—is the best place to be as a novelist. But probably the truer answer is that, apparent or not, Boomer1 is a loose retelling of Julius Caesar. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare for my last novel, and while reading Caesar, it occurred to me that there's something resonant, at least in the first two acts, with the way Cassius and Brutus talk about Caesar’s power—and the way millennials and boomers can be portrayed at odds with each other. So many lines just pointed in that direction. So the characters in Boomer1 map onto Shakespeare: Cassie is Cassius, Mark is Brutus, Julia is Julius. I went back and looked at the original Plutarch source material and it was a watershed. Plutarch’s book, while often read piecemeal, was called Parallel Lives—he was comparing biography from Rome to see how lives over the centuries paralleled each other. Which came to feel a lot like what I was after here, seeing how Julia in her 20s wasn’t all that different from Mark and Cassie. And it turned up all kinds of little flourishes I wouldn't otherwise have hit on myself: Joni Mitchell is quoting Caesar in the line “I am as constant as the northern star” (well it turns out she’s actually Leonard Cohen quoting it to her, but). Caesar was losing his hearing and that opened a door to Julia’s character for me. The FBI agents who come in late in the book get to have the names of Brutus’s conspirators. That kind of stuff. TM: Going off what you mentioned about the parallels between Cassie, Mark, and Julia, I’d like to ask you about the point of view of the novel. We get a third-person-limited POV that shifts between the three main characters, and they frequently describe their experiences of key moments in very different ways. Why show those incidents from multiple viewpoints? DT: Until this book, the third person has always shot me through with abject terror. It just seems so impossibly limitless in what you can do with it. My first two books were told all in first-person voices, which just feels much more natural to me. The boundaries are set. One question I always puzzle out with students is: How much do you want your fiction to sound like speech, and how much should it sound like writing? I think my favorite writers mostly play with aesthetics that sound much of the time like speech—Nabokov, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, Barthelme, even Kafka and Beckett in their own ways. But then Anna Karenina is probably my favorite novel and it’s just this kind of tennis-without-a-net free indirect narration. In the opening chapters we move between multiple characters and even briefly enter the head of Vronsky’s dog. So it felt like a challenge I was ready to take up. Then again, as you observe—all three narrators here are very close thirds, so the rules are mostly in place of what we have access to and what we don’t. I’ve actually been kind of pained in early reviews of the book to find some reviewers referring to it as “satirical”—which to me is way off. It’s a category error. I want this to be a funny book, and to reflect the world we live in, but none of the points of view are satirical. They’re just very close to the way three different humans actually think—if that sounds like exaggeration, maybe we’re not listening well. It’s my hope that Cassie sections still sound like Cassie thought, Mark sections like Mark thought. And I really try to avoid flashback, so it felt like by being very close to Julia in particular, we could get back to 1968, say, just by staying very close to her point of view. And it revealed all kinds of things to me—how you can use the third person to tell a story that still sounds like speech, keeping the language alive and vibrant, and accesses a character’s thoughts in a whole new way. TM: Let’s talk about Mark’s thoughts—does he have a realistic view of the world, or are the boomers just a scapegoat for his own personal failures? Or is the troublesome thing that it’s a mix of both? DT: So ... Mark spends a lot of time ranting about baby boomers on YouTube, and in the book it leads to a more or less open revolution of millennials attacking boomer icons. To some extent I just wanted to see what ranting on the page would look like. My dear friend, fiction writer Karen Russell, said to me over lunch once, “You’re such a good funny convincing ranter, you should rant in a book more.” So I had in the back of my mind that would be its own weirdly literary endeavor, getting that live language on the page. I think Mark is both completely right—and totally misguided—all at once. I’ve been thinking a ton lately about how maybe the biggest trouble our culture is in isn’t “fake news” but a version of its opposite. I don’t mean to minimize how awful actual fake news is, but we shouldn’t let it distract. More insidious and widespread is a kind of sophistry that overemphasizes the truth of any particular fact. We have access to so much information. From the pre-Socratics forward, Western culture’s great strength has been that we’ve always known relying too heavily on any single fact can lead us astray—that’s what sophistry is, and that’s why Plato and Aristotle created whole intricate lasting systems of thought to combat it. Our job is to view multiple facts, multiple viewpoints, and synthesize them. As Fitzgerald had it, “to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Right now we view so many things so quickly and with such vitriol that we've forgotten what nuance even sounds like. Did I just get ranty there? Sorry. Allow me to disagree with myself, then. To return to your question: The idea was to let Mark make his case as forcefully and rationally as possible, and then to let Cassie do the same, and Julia do the same, and then back away slowly and carefully. Chekhov has this amazing thing in his letters where he says something like, “It is not for writers of fiction to decide big questions. The writer’s job is simply to describe as accurately as possible people who have been speaking about big questions.” I teach a novel-writing class every spring, where we read like 13 novels in three months, and one realization I always have after all that reading is the extent to which great writers just let each scene, each sentence, do what it’s doing as loudly and convincingly as possible in the moment. When you do that, you can’t escape disagreeing with yourself. Presenting multiple viewpoints. Maybe even ranting! [millions_ad] TM: Mark's ranting on the internet takes him to some places online he's never known about before. And while he may give a dynamic performance in YouTube videos, his other online interactions, particularly with the group known as Silence, are a bit underwhelming for a would-be revolutionary. Where did that dynamic come from? DT: You know, I’m well into work on my fourth book, and I still feel like a novice each time I pick up a pen. I guess if I’ve worked out a bit of a process, it’s to let a character act and ramble for a while—and then to figure out what it looks like when their hopes and desires hit up against the reality of their world. So for Mark that meant setting him free to fuck up his life in Brooklyn, to rant, and then to see what that might mean. So I spent a bunch of time poking around the “dark web” and reading what I could about that world. There’s a Canadian researcher named Gabriella Coleman who's written a ton about Anonymous, and her books gave me a lot of background. I also did a bunch of research about what analogous examples could look like: the Boston Marathon bombers, Anwar al-Awlaki, the guy who founded Silk Road and then was arrested. Then I jumped back to the ’70’s and read a bunch about Patty Hearst, SDS, the Weather Underground. Then I jumped back and read a bunch about Emma Goldman. Then I jumped back to the 1850’s and read everything I could get my hands on about John Brown. You could say that’s my other instinct: jumping back, and back, and back. Which is a long-winded way of saying that once Mark had given what felt to me like convincing rants, when I let my imagination test them against the weird tricksters and hucksters—so, Americans—he would've encountered in the dark recesses of the web seven or eight years ago, I suspect it wouldn't have gone particularly well. He has some real, valid gripes, but I suspect most of the folks he would’ve excited would have been more of the burn-the-motherfucker-down crowd. And not to nerd out too hard, but again, that dynamic felt so in keeping with Marcus Brutus to me. He allows Cassius to convince him to lead Caesar’s assassination, and it’s basically a tragedy of errors from there, from Mark Antony’s famous “I come to bury Caesar, not praise him” speech forward. And shit, living through the last two years of politics feels a lot like that, too, doesn’t it? Well-intentioned people, and some very not-well-intentioned people, and their actions leading to all kinds of awful consequences, intended and otherwise. Tragedies of errors, piling up. TM: Right—no matter his intentions, Brutus has opened the door to political violence, and it’s a door that can’t be easily closed once it’s opened. That’s exactly where Mark’s headed, whether he’s realizing it or not. And with our political situation today, I’m thinking a lot about the doors that can’t be closed once they’re opened. It seemed like the Republicans in the Senate refusing to consider Merrick Garland was crossing a line in a pretty heinous way. Now I’m reading articles advocating for the Democrats to pack the Supreme Court to 15 members to reclaim a liberal majority and split California into six different states to tip the scales in their favor in the Senate. But then does the Supreme Court just keep growing and growing any time a single party controls the executive and legislative branches? It’s scary to play that out. Did writing about Mark, Cassie, and Julia give you any insight into the balance between no-holds-barred fighting it out and trusting in institutions in hope of better days? DT: Nicely put. Like most folks I know, I was pretty despondent after the election. I turned to one of my old mentors over email and he said, “Well, there will still be music, right?” I should say we've been discussing Boomer1 here as a “political novel,” and I'm OK with that, but I’m also tempted to argue that any novel that grants you access to character is political by nature. That’s what I take Chekhov to be saying in his letter, and maybe it’s the opposite of how a first read might take it—not that literary fiction doesn’t take up philosophical and topical material. But that the sheer act of saying, “Here’s the limited, complicated, flawed, emotional, deep, rich way people think, presented in words on the page. Now read it.” And in doing so, you’ll be engaged in a political act. Facile as it might sound, I still trust down deep that if any of the venal, corrupt, autocratically inclined folks in the current presidential administration were really to sit down with a work of art—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Alice Munro, Marquez, Grace Paley—they’d come away less able to enact the evil they’re busy at now. Though, you know, good luck on both fronts. Which, I guess, is to say ... I have not one iota more sense of what’s ahead after writing this book. I feel like I hardly understand what’s behind. I did have the strange experience of finishing this book, selling it, and then having to look at it again after November 2016 and rethinking and retooling a whole lot of it. Things I thought were going to be implausible and inflammatory seemed weirdly tame. Things I thought were innocuous needed a new cast. I struggled a lot over whether it was problematic that the guys in Silence weren’t guided by the bigotry that's taken over much of the trollish web, but I think I settled on a feeling that back in 2010 or so, the Breitbart-ization of those musty corners hadn’t yet taken over or become inevitable. I’m a huge fan of Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, which I reread while writing, and I thought of the early 4chan guys as being way more like Coyote than anything. But then … Coyote would make a monumentally bad president. Somehow we live in a country where people would’ve voted for him. Poor Melville, not alive to see it. Or to take it one other direction: I felt excited in this book to have much of the revolutionary lens of boomers and millennials be focused on music. Literally, the music of the past 100 years in American life, from bluegrass to psychedelic rock to punk and forward. And that institution sure isn’t gonna fall. Punk rock isn't going to soften to an autocrat’s lies—it’s going to gain new edge. New relevance. I suspect art’s place will grow stronger, be more necessary, the uglier civic and political life gets. Not “content.” Not “vertically integrated media.” FUCKING ART. I think all the time about that great thing from Philip Roth after he returned from Communist Eastern Europe in the late ’70s: “In America everything goes and nothing matters, while in Europe nothing goes and everything matters.” It sure feels like a whole lot matters these days. TM: You share a lot of the same background as Mark: You were a magazine editor and a bluegrass musician—though you ended up with a job as a college professor. What was it like drawing from your own work experiences to put Mark on a path that ultimately led him back to the basement of his parents’ house? DT: Well, I haven't committed any acts of terrorism, domestic or otherwise. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. But you know I was in the middle of a long, complicated job search when I started writing Boomer1, details about which are too boring to get into here. So many of the emotions behind Mark’s character felt close for me. And I think as a novelist there’s always just that need for proper nouns and telling, specific details, and in putting Mark in a Brooklyn and a Baltimore I knew, I felt I could pull it off. Which is to say, with regrets to Flaubert: Sure, Mark Brumfeld, c’est moi. But then Cassie Black, c’est moi, and Julia Brumfeld, c’est moi, aussi. I think to really pull off characters with as close a third person as I've given them, for so many pages, for me at least, there has to be a real affinity there. Weirdly and unexpectedly, I think I came to feel the closest to Julia. There’s this joke I used to think would make a good first line for a memoir: I spent my 20s trying not to become my father and woke up at 30 to discover I'd become my mom. Funny because it’s true. So sitting with Julia's character, granting her an etiology that was kind of my teenage dream—opening for the Dead in San Francisco in the late ’60s, playing in that music scene I idealized when I was a kid—I got to live out a series of fantasies. I mean, in my imagination, imagining a middle-aged woman while sitting in my home office every day for a number of years. Weird wish to have fulfilled, I guess. But it definitely went from having Julia there as a foil, making a necessary counterargument about how millennials might feel about boomers, to her being on equal footing as a main character in the book. TM: Here's a lighter question to end things on: Was it fun to create the fictional media companies and literary journals (RazorWire, The Unified Theory, The Czolgosz Review) that exist in the novel? DT: Yes! Let’s remember that this is a funny book above all. And also let’s remember that I’m a book nerd. So in starting to imagine fictional version of magazines and websites, I had to leave it all out on the field. The Unified Theory was called Les Mots Justes in early drafts, but that didn’t work, so I just left it in there as a joke. And trying to get some little trails of revolutionary breadcrumbs in there felt important, too, with one like Czolgosz, which as we learn in the book was the name of an anarchist who assassinated a president. The RazorWire one was a little more complicated. I found myself sending Cassie on this upward trajectory, and that meant putting her in a kind of “new media” company. Just uttering that phrase, “new media,” hurts my teeth. She ends up fact checking “content” there, and now my whole body hurts. Content! What happened to art? Journalism? The essay! I worked as an editor at a big national magazine for years. For a long time we resisted having much online presence. It was one of the last magazines to publish original work online. There was this fear that doing so would kill print. But then the web really took over, and by the time I was gone, they had a web presence. Everyone did. They created “content” instead of articles, essays, stories. The New Republic bragged about becoming a “vertically integrated digital media company.” (Ahhhhccchchch!!!!) And for a while, a long while, all these moves and the encroachment of social media didn’t kill print. And now. Now here we are: Google Analytics directs us to what’s being read, and so what to read. Most folks I trust feel print will be more or less gone within a decade. Where has that all gotten us? Even the direst jeremiads in 2000 wouldn’t have said, “An autocratically inclined P.T. Barnum of a president.” And yet ... As a famous lyricist once said, “Nothing left to do but smile smile smile.”
If You Have to Go, the new collection of poems by Katie Ford, is a book that conjures powers of possession. I feel that way about all of her books: Her poems bring me to a mystical plane somewhere between language and life. I’m left shaken. Her willingness—we might even call it her essence—to write seeking the untellable makes her work unique. Ford’s new book is anchored by a sequence of sonnets, the first of which begins, “Empty with me, though here I am.” She’s a kenotic poet, and we can feel, in that emptying, an ardent desire to see the knobby and surprising routes of which poetry can be capable. Her books are ones to sit with and contemplate—much the same as I feel about her conversation. Ford is the author of four books from Graywolf Press: Deposition, Colosseum, Blood Lyrics, and If You Have to Go. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Paris Review, and she holds graduate degrees in theology and poetry from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She teaches at the University of California, Riverside. We spoke about poetry, theology, and what happens when language fails us. The Millions: You studied theology at Harvard—your first and latest books are dedicated, in part, to Gordon D. Kaufman, who taught you there. Could you talk about him as a mentor? What did you learn from him? How does he remain an influence? Katie Ford: Gordon D. Kaufman was the first theologian—living or dead—that I trusted in a thoroughgoing way. I had been studying Christian theology, mainly, because I wanted to learn how to articulate just where and how particular forms of Christian thinking proceed from flawed and/or injurious methodologies. Kaufman’s An Essay on Theological Method was formative to my thinking, as was everything he’s written from the 1990s onward. He disowned his earliest work. I remember being in his office with him, looking at the massive systematics he published in 1969—Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective—and he told me, “Don't read that. I didn’t know how to do theology then.” It wasn’t until he traveled to the East and had conversations with a broader range of religious thinkers and practitioners that he said he understood that all theology and religious language is an imaginative endeavor and a human construct. This may sound obvious to some, but it’s not very widely accepted that all of what has been written—including religious scriptures and normative creeds and prayers—is made by us and is, therefore, limited and flawed. That which is ultimately mysterious and ultimately real (I’m fine calling that ultimate reality “God”), is approached with human language, not a specialized language that is infallible simply because its content is theological. This recognition holds us responsible when that language goes awry, as it often does when it mixes with governmental or ecclesiastical power. We are responsible for creating metaphors and approaches that might remedy wayward, often authoritarian constructs. More than that, though, this recognition begins in reverence for that which, by definition, is mysterious. And just because we are acknowledging human imagination in theological efforts doesn’t mean what we are directing that language toward—the ultimate reality—is “imaginary” or make believe. Some readers miss this point, sometimes willfully so, just to take Kaufman down. I cannot overspeak Kaufman’s influence upon me, nor how dear he remains to me now. When I dedicated Deposition to him, I went to his house for a visit. He was developing dementia at the time, so I asked him, “Did you see that I dedicated my book to you?” And he said, “I did!” as if it had just popped back into his mind. “I scarcely know what to say,” he said. I think a theology that begins with this posture—I scarcely know what to say—would serve us well. If You Have to Go, in part, made me feel like I was behaving as a theologian, and nearly everything conveyed theologically in it can be traced back to what Kaufman taught me, although I think it’s only now—20 years later—that his work has truly been integrated into my way of thinking and being. The last time I saw him, I was with the writer Sarah Sentilles, who also was profoundly influenced by Kaufman. We sat in his back patio. I asked him if he remembered what he and I talked about years back. He said, “No, but I remember it was very important.” And it was. TM: I’m always interested in the routes of poets. You first began writing poetry “seriously” when you were 19, studying under Tess Gallagher, no less, at Whitman College. Had you converted from prose—or was poetry your first writing genre overall? KF: Poetry was my first genre. And only genre, really. I’ve written essays here and there, but prose isn’t my love, and I’ve never written long-form prose. Perhaps you’re thinking Whitman College was named for Walt? I wish. It was named for the Whitman missionaries. It’s a secular school but traces back to white religious colonization. In any case, Tess came to Whitman when I was a senior, and studying with her drenched me in her astounding sense of figuration and the lyric poem’s “singing line,” as she would say, which she likely learned from Yeats (Tess has much Irish in her, and is often living in Ireland), Akhmatova, and García Lorca. She sounds like this: “Terrible the rain. All night rain, / that I love. So the weight of his leg / falls again like a huge tender wing / across my hipbone.” Her mind moves with a brilliant, pure-gift originality, leaping and shifting, but always trustworthy, always returning us to ourselves anew. I was with her once in the Portland Japanese Garden, and we decided to write a poem together. I wrote a few lines, then she did, then I did … at one point she looked at a waterfall and started a gorgeous metaphor about a bear showing itself finally in the water as it fell. I looked at her and said, “How do you do that?” and she laughed and said, “I don’t know.” There was humility in her laugh, a recognition that however the gift comes, it’s the whence that’s inexplicable. TM: What led you to study theology? KF: I’ll let the fraught content of Deposition be the lengthy, 60-page answer to that. The book traces the aftermath of my own short but awful participation in a fundamentalist, evangelical sect when I was 18. When I was 22, I applied to Harvard Divinity School because I had a pained intuition that I needed to study the thinking and methodology that can cause Christian sects to be so devastating. I wouldn’t have said it that way then, but that’s what it was. I went to Harvard Divinity School on that intuition, and then began studying the big guns of Christian thinking: Aquinas; Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Barth, Rahner, and so on. I ended up writing a major paper on how these theologians at times proceed, in their writings, with the same methodology as perpetrators of violence. Perpetrators, for instance, begin by defining the reality of their victim. The victim’s life is redefined by an authority stolen away by the perpetrator. These theologians all begin in this way, defining reality (invisible and visible, the former of which is most problematic) in their own terms in order for others to have their lives defined and explained by a stolen authority. Once you yoke this starting point to image-making that doesn’t acknowledge, as Kaufman stresses, the utter mystery we stand before, I think theology becomes astoundingly misguided. I won’t go into all of what I traced between theological method and perpetration, but that’s what I was working on. I’ve had a desire to actually return to that paper and work on it further ... In short: Disturbance led me to study theology. And disturbance most often leads me to write poems. TM: What were the differences between the lived, experienced Christianity of your youth, and your study of faith through theology? KF: When you study theology and world religions, you can either end up in an internal schism of confusion and turmoil, or you can revere the human history of myth- and meaning-making, their aspirational, perplexed, reaching instincts. For me, a statement of faith would be a confession of not knowing. I believe that the more you admit you cannot know, and do not know, about the divine, the more “faithful” you are, although I don’t often use the word “faith” or “faithful.” The construction is useful here because I’m hoping to subvert its normative use. I was raised in a home that by heritage was Norwegian Lutheran. It was culturally so, even as it was religiously so. Both aspects, I have to say, were deeply good and fruitful—my parents are socially and politically liberal, the ethic was one of service to others, and we had rituals and customs that grounded us (I have a brother and a sister) in repetition and the mythology of our religion. None of my disturbance, as I mention above, was due to my childhood. While at Harvard, I wasn’t known as a person of faith. I was profoundly wary of Christian doctrines, creeds, and interpretations of the world. My own experience had attuned me to how excruciatingly systems of belief can bear down upon one’s internal life. My orientation was toward the lived life—the daily burdens or sufferings—of the person living under Christian systems of belief. I should say, too, that I simply have an innate curiosity about human religion. To me, it is a vast field of fascinating inquiry. And the stakes are very high. I’d like to say, too, that the study of one’s own religious tradition only is able to destabilize that which is inherently unstable, and only needs to be feared if someone doesn’t want instabilities of thought and heart brought to light. Such study can become the depths of religious practice. TM: Your work brings to mind three other writers I adore: Mary Szybist, Fanny Howe, and Paul Lisicky (his prose poems, in particular). Who are writers that you are drawn to (curious about? inspirited by?) on spiritual/liturgical wavelengths? KF: I love all of those writers and am honored to come to mind in their company. Fanny Howe’s lyric essay “Doubt” is a touchstone for me. I think Mary, Paul and I would all love to be in Fanny’s company to listen to her talk and ask her questions for as long as she’d allow. She’s one of the great poets of our time. What she asks of herself, and of all of us, are inquiries of unparalleled depth. I think Paul and Mary are after that as well. If I had to narrow myself to a list of writers who bring a sense of spiritual resonance, I’d say these authors: Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, Frank Bidart, Ilya Kaminsky, Jorie Graham, Linda Gregg, James Wright, Li-Young Lee, Marina Tsvetaeva, Audre Lorde, Robert Hass, John Berryman, and Shane McCrae. I’ll indulge in a few long-dead authors as well, naming John Donne (especially his sermons), Hildegaard of Bingen, and Basho. I’m also deeply nourished by the ancient noncanonical gospels and writings found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Today I finished the book Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, which includes a translation of “The Gospel of Judas” (by King) and an extended scholarly meditation on how this gospel reshapes our sense of the arguments and debates going on from the very beginning in the early Christian period. It doesn’t matter if someone believes what’s said in these noncanonical writings, at least not for me; what matters is an absorbed understanding that there was no singular “first” Christian community or normative set of beliefs and practices. The communities were wildly diverse from the start. This is a fact that disempowers present-day fundamentalists who argue, inherently, that there is “one true faith.” And it can undercut Christian Nationalism as well, which I find deeply perverse. Every religion, when desirous of or attached to governmental power, goes terribly awry. The subversion of such power is inherently Christian. It’s important for Christians to look this straight in the eye: They follow a politically and religiously subversive dissident who was executed by the state. It ought to be a protest movement of the highest order and intensity, wherever and whenever state corruption and brutality occurs. TM: They appear in Deposition, your first book, but the lines “What you are looking for cannot be / found now” feel as if they permeate all of your work: a palpable sense of longing. Where does that sense come from? Does longing birth your poems, or is it a discovered place? KF: Perhaps the 24-year0old who wrote, “What you are looking for cannot be / found now” should have regarded those lines as her own theological starting point. I suppose I couldn't integrate that idea in its fuller manifestations for quite some time in my own life. Theologically speaking, I align myself with negative theologians who argue we cannot name the attributes of God but can only say what God is not. It simply cannot be found now. One might argue we can find traces, or feel them, or experience manifestations of it (God) via love and service to others, but I believe we are seeing “through a glass darkly.” Yet there is longing, yes. But I have grown more settled in knowing that human illumination is enormously partial. It doesn’t upset me, although during the composition of If You Have to Go, I was painfully startled by lonesomeness, and the suddenness of that—of being solitary after 11 years of marriage—gutted me. I had to build my life up again. And for me, that hollow cannot be satiated by some sense of communion with the divine. I’ve tried that. I need humans, and my longing is mostly reaching toward humans. Longing is somatic for me. I feel it, right now, in my chest, shooting out for something, for someone, to hold onto. When I desire to speak from it, I desire to do so via poems. Emotions aching to attach to an idea, to an articulation—this complex compels me to write. The only requirement for me when I begin a poem is that I feel something deeply, but I don’t know what that “something” is. I’m inside of the poem to find out what it is, what the constellation of images, ideas, and human relationships is that has driven me to feel so upset, or desirous, or, at times, still. Stillness in a poem is more rare for me, but I believe If You Have to Go has a few still points where a reader can rest in a calm. “Psalm 40,” for instance, and perhaps “All I Ever Wanted.” TM: “Belief and doubt on the form of faces. / Ask the faces / which is which?” You’ve discussed the curious reaction to Deposition, the misinterpretations of you as a fundamentalist Christian poet as perhaps being a result of the “deeply secular” world of poetry, how that world can misconstrue the appearance of faith and religion in verse. How do you feel about the secular, the spiritual, and poetry now—years later? How do you think the contemporary poetry world (and perhaps the world of poetry criticism) responds to faith and doubt on the page? KF: Well, I’ll say right away that I know the risks of engaging religious language on the page, but I’m willing to take them. When I use religious language, it’s necessitated by the poems themselves and is a sincere articulation. It has never occurred to me to be ironic in my use of theological language, and what I can say about a reader’s response to faith and doubt on the page is this: I believe readers are tired of ironic renderings of faith and doubt. I think people want to believe the author is sincere. As tiresome to me as Christian fundamentalism is atheistic fundamentalism, which so very often utilizes religious language ironically, or worse, mockingly. Atheists can also succumb to fundamentalist fervor and rigidity of mind but can be unattuned to that risk. But to return to sincerity of religious language, I think readers are often intrigued and even nourished by original lines of poetry that use words like God, Lord, Allah, Christ, Buddha, the gods, enlightenment, and so on. Poetry is in a particularly strong position when it comes to such language, as poetry’s first demand is for original language, acute sensory renderings of the world, and subtle, internal interrogations. In the end, poetry is pressing as far as it can until it hits up against mystery, the unsayable. And coming to that limit, and feeling that limit, is an ecstatic experience. I suppose it’s as close to what I might call “religious” experience as I get. And readers are right to want that, and should put down books that aren’t pressing toward that limit, that are satisfied to offer articulations that are facile, general, or easily won. Such books are insults to the intricacy and subtlety of human experience. When such a book addresses belief and/or doubt in a facile way, it can feel like a higher offense, as the stakes are at a heightened pitch. So the poetry has farther to fall. TM: If I were asked to name my favorite poem of yours, I would say, “All of them!” But if I had to choose, it would be “A Woman Wipes the Face of Jesus.” There’s this wonderful poem, “Rosary,” by Franz Wright, that is so simultaneously narrow and grand: “Mother of space,— / inner // virgin / with no one face— // See them flying to see you / be near you, // when you / are everywhere.” I feel that way about your poem, which in six lines contains almost a hundred variations and vibrations: the woman, Christ, the cross, tenderness, folklore, and more. I return to it like a devotion. This is a longwinded way of saying that you can accomplish an incredible amount in a short space, so: Could you talk about the shorter poems that pepper your collections? Do they “arrive” differently? How do you see them working, or speaking with, your longer pieces? KF: You’re very kind toward my work, thank you. I’m humbled that it might be a ritual piece for you, a devotion. Again, my very-younger self wrote that poem, and if I remember correctly (without going to the garage to rummage through my Deposition box), that poem was extracted from an abandoned longer poem. I often “find” a small poem within the body of a poem flailing about, as it’s very hard to sit down and successfully write a poem of less than, say, eight lines. Eight—the octave—is when, for me, an argument unwinds via detail and the development of a voice, and is simply roomier, more elastic. I’m happy when my books have a variety of reading experiences, and often the very small poem offers a crystalline moment in a collection. “Still Life,” a short poem in Blood Lyrics, was written in one night (as is the rule at the Community of Writers in the High Sierra), and I felt brevity was a confine I needed, as I was deeply fatigued, I had my 2-year-old with me, and I was in my hotel room, a toddler staring at me from her crib, bobbing up and down, and a children’s song, “Down by the Bay,” was stuck in my head. So I wrote the phrase, “Down by the pond ...” and then I asked myself what the most unexpected thing to find down by the pond might be—the farthest thing from “where the watermelons grow”—and I wrote “addicts sleep.” Perhaps showing the whole poem will be easier than explanation: Down by the pond, addicts sleep on rocky grass half in water, half out, and there the moon lights them out of tawny silhouettes into the rarest of amphibious flowers I once heard called striders, between, but needing, two worlds. Of what can you accuse them now, beauty? The last sentence was something I forced upon myself: I was so fatigued (I like thinking of fatigue as a formal constraint!) that I simply said: Stop this poem. Then I had the amazing poem “American History” by Michael S. Harper in mind, which ends with the rather scolding, scalding question, “can’t find what you can’t see, can you?” I borrowed that tone of voice and grammatical cadence to write the last sentence. I knew it was risky of me, as I was claiming I had written these humans into a form of unexpected beauty. But when are people suffering addiction ever rendered as beautiful? So I decided to let it stand. That poem went through almost no revision after the first draft, which is entirely rare for me. Almost never does that happen. Short poems have to have some guts. They are far riskier, I think, than their longer brothers and sisters. In the poem you cite, I remember feeling terribly uneasy with using the word “tenderness.” But there are times when even sentimentality must be risked. And I’ve had more response to that poem than to any other in Deposition. But you know what I think? I think, above all, poets have to guard against becoming cold. TM: I like the occasional literary conversation about poetry and prayer. David Yezzi has said “poems and prayers have different ends: the end of a poem is aesthetic communication, the end of a prayer is God. Liturgy works to tune the soul; poetry works to tune the emotions.” Jericho Brown talks about how “writing poetry has probably been the best teacher for me learning to pray.” More than any other poet I am reading now, I feel like I am sitting in front of prayers when I read your work: They are incantatory, solemn, otherworldly (when you end the poem “Flee” from Colosseum with “I gave you each other / so save each other,” it feels like God is talking—really). Could you talk about the connections, intersections, differences between poetry and prayer? KF: Perhaps what prayer and poetry have in common is that they both must be revised. I think people need to witness what they are actually saying in their prayers. Is what they are asking for ethically sound? Do prayers of gratitude take, as their object, something granted via economic and/or racial privilege? These questions can make prayer fall silent for quite some time. I’m interested in when prayer falls silent, when it isn’t just another form of wanting. Prayers have human motives, and we need to approach them with critical suspicion. Is anyone out there wanting a prayer to say for the next year? Then pray for your trespasses to become known to you, and ask for nothing but the fortitude to bear the revelation and the strength to make amends. It’s a hard thing to ask for. I rarely dare it. It’s intriguing to me that you say my work acts as prayer for you, as I’m very often desiring to subvert traditional Christian thought, although the chastening, godlike voice of “I gave you each other / so save each other” can easily find biblical correlatives. I knew I was taking on a godlike voice in those lines, but I had no belief at that moment that I was channeling. Nor did I feel like I was praying. I was making, and I felt myself to be the maker. At times there is a religious desire to define all things as forms of prayer—art, writing, reading, parenting, walking, thinking, etc. But I resist this. It undercuts the inherent value of those pursuits and doesn’t allow them to stand on their own two feet as necessary human endeavors. I don’t want my mothering to have to be buoyed up in importance by calling it a form of prayer. It’s not. It’s mothering. And my poems are poems. I’m not praying, I’m writing. If a reader takes those poems in as forms of prayer, I’m honored. We all need to find language—as I have, for instance, with a revision of the prayer of St. Francis I’ve grown to love—that we direct outward toward the unknowable realities. But we also need to know that language is fallible, that it’s an effort. Fallibility isn’t necessarily an ugly human fact. It can be a rather beautiful, actually, if we name it as such. But then we have to try again, fail again, try again ... TM: As a reader, your new book If You Have to Go feels like a return to the world of Deposition, a place of spiritual longing, where past and present are joined. It is a fantastic book, grounded in a sequence of sonnets that accumulates so well (as you do with other formal moves in previous books). It feels, again, as a book of longing: “All goes to gone. God of my childhood, / with your attendant monstrosities, / have a little warmth on me, bent and frozen.” When I finished it, I felt physically and emotionally spent; it was a transformative experience. Could you talk about the writing of this new book? KF: I was physically and emotionally spent myself! I felt like that sonnet sequence was going to kill me. Many things articulated in the sonnets came at great cost. At the same time, I felt I was in the middle of something artistic that would never, for me, happen again. It’s a time of my life I don’t enjoy looking back at, but I remember its insomnia, and how, at 4 a.m., I’d wake up, go down the path to the little studio our Los Angeles rental had beneath the main house, and I’d write for three hours, a little more, a little less, until I heard my husband and toddler daughter waking up, walking (and pattering) in the main house, and I’d stop my writing and walk back up to the house. I don’t remember the mornings very clearly after that initial window. The end of a marriage fashions its own dull, pained light. To articulate that light, I realized very easily that, in my writing, nothing could be ruled out or considered out of the question as artistically old-fashioned, tired, dead, worn out, or even archaic. In fact, I landed upon a form (it seemed comic, I remember lightly laughing when I began it) practiced by the poets of the 17th century—the crown of sonnets, a corona, in which the last line of one sonnet becomes the first of the next. I just decided to try it. And each morning, I’d have the last line of the previous poem to start the next. I wrote the sonnets sequentially—meaning I didn’t leave gaps and hop around, or write sonnets and then order them—and the first 20 or so came very fast. Two months or so. Then things slowed a bit, and the fluency of the beginning stage left me. Portions of the sequence were doggedly tricky, and I began to have narrative questions I don’t usually have as a lyric poet. For the sequence to end, I had to wait quite some time. How would it end? I had to wait for my own life to unfold. The poems in the book that are not sonnets were written when I knew I had content that needed other forms. Now that I’m truly done with the book and it’s in the world, I feel a bit bereft. I know I won’t ever be inside of those sonnets again.
As Anne Elizabeth Moore states in her 2017 collection, Body Horror, chronic illness is more common in women than men, so it is no coincidence that these are the diseases society often ignores. This point is in direct conversation with Zoje Stage’s Baby Teeth (St. Martin's Press, July 2018), a delicious literary thriller that debuted last month. If you haven't discovered Baby Teeth, the novel is told from the perspective of two third-person narrators: Suzette, a stay-at-home mother recovering from surgery for Crohn’s disease; and Hanna, her nonverbal 7-year-old. Hanna is an angel when her father, Alex, is around, but left alone, she terrorizes her mother. Seeing her mother’s illness as a sign of weakness, she looks for ways to sabotage her, to damage her. Bottom line: Hanna loves Daddy and wants Mommy out of the way. Permanently. Despite all of this, I felt sympathy for Hanna. I could see where this little girl, though drastically misguided, was coming from, thanks in large part to Stage’s masterful use of language. I reached out to St. Martin’s Press, who graciously gave me a review copy of the novel and put me in touch with Stage for this interview. The Millions: Zoje, thank you so much for agreeing to discuss your novel with me. I hate the word “unputdownable” because it feels like overused marketing copy, but in the case of Baby Teeth, it was true. I started reading around 7 o’clock one evening and only emerged from my couch five hours later—dazed, dehydrated, finished ARC in hand. Baby Teeth has been hyped as a new take on the “bad seed” genre, and while it excels as a summer thriller, it’s also gotten buzz from critical outlets like The New York Times Book Review. With that in mind, I want to explore your novel on the level of writing as craft. First, I have to say, I love your novel’s gray areas. Hanna isn’t 100 percent unsympathetic, and as the reader learns, Suzette isn’t a fully blameless victim either. Do you think this effect would have been possible without the two third-person points of view? Were the earliest drafts told in this alternating perspective? Zoje Stage: Before I started writing this novel I had to figure out how to tell it—and it was the decision to write it in dual POV that set me on my way. If I had told the story only from Suzette's perspective, not only would Hanna have seemed less sympathetic, but I think the one-sided aspect would have derailed some of the sympathy readers have for Suzette, too. In addition, a lot of the tension in the book comes from the dual perspective of seeing how these two characters interpret the same event differently, which makes people question if one of them is more right than the other. TM: So true. There’s something about such different takes on the same event that does it for me. Did the characters’ voices come to you fully formed or more gradually? I’m especially curious about Hanna, who, though mute, has a rich, almost-synesthetic inner life. When she tries to speak, alone in her room, the first chapter says, “bugs fell from her mouth, frighteningly alive, scampering over her skin and bedclothes.” The novel quickly cashes in on a side “benefit” of her mutism—“making Mommy crazy”—but is there a deeper reason Hanna won’t speak? In the opening chapter, Hanna opines that “Words, ever unreliable, were no one’s friend.” (This was the moment I, a commiserating writer, fell in love with your book.) ZS: Hanna's voice arrived fully formed, and I loved writing her chapters. Because she's not the biggest fan of words, I tried to think from the perspective of what things looked like to her. I think Hanna has many reasons for not speaking: an initial dislike of her own voice, a frustration with not being able to say things as "richly" as the images she sees in her head, and the awareness that it gets her a certain kind of attention. That attention goes back and forth between parental concern and annoyance, but it gives Hanna her own way to feel special. Her mutism became a sort of obsession where, after doing it for so long, she truly doesn't know how to stop. To a certain degree, Hanna knows she'll lose her identity if she begins speaking, and that frightens her. Who will she become? And thank you for singling out the "Words, ever unreliable, were no one's friend" line—it's one of my favorites in the book! It makes me laugh every time I read it, because of course I make my living with words. But Hanna experiences words as being inadequate, having found she could never articulate all of her feelings or thoughts. [millions_ad] TM: Let’s talk about setting for a moment. Though horrible things happen outside of the Jensen family’s home, I felt the greatest frisson of fear when Suzette was alone in the house with her daughter. This claustrophobic, oppressive feeling reminded me of the way each night in a horror film offers one more scare, one more piece of the puzzle. I was fascinated by the way the house Suzette and Alex designed together—a symbol of their love, much like their child—could grow into this warped and violent nightmare. Can you speak to any influences you had when developing this mood for your novel? ZS: Once upon a time, the concept behind this story existed as a screenplay I'd written and hoped to direct, and mood was the single most important aspect. I was very influenced by European cinema, which often has a "cool," detached feel, even while delving into realism. The mood in my book was inspired by elements from two particular films: Let the Right One In (a Swedish film from 2008) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (a 1975 Belgian film). I wanted to have this beautiful, pristine domestic environment that becomes a prison for the woman who's there all day. And the house, in my opinion, with its sophistication and cleanliness, is very "adult," as if neither Suzette nor Alex ever quite made room for a child. TM: I didn’t catch that at first, but you’re absolutely right. There aren’t many (or any) Hanna-friendly spaces in the house. With that in mind, it’s interesting to consider that Suzette sees Hanna as her rival for Alex’s affection and even fears that Alex will side with their daughter over her. I read this fear as not just emotional, but also a very real fear for her financial livelihood. Because of her husband’s career as an architect, Suzette has been able to take years off of work to face motherhood and life with Crohn’s disease. Even so, Suzette frequently worries about “proving her worth,” as though she will be tossed away if she is not beautiful or useful. Does her fear of being left financially alone factor into her more irrational fear of competing with a 7-year-old for her husband’s love? ZS: It is terribly unfortunate that Suzette feels about herself and her life that she would be nothing without Alex. And as her memories in the novel show, it doesn't help that she didn't experience unconditional love from her own mother. Suzette can easily envision a possibility where Alex loves Hanna unconditionally—because that's what good parents "should" do—while his love for her comes with conditions. Her health improved during the early years of their relationship, which undoubtedly was an ego boost for him, but she fears what will happen if her health spirals out of control. There are so many ways that it could impact Alex, from injuring his selfish pride to forcing him into a caregiver role to opening his eyes to how she sees herself: disgusting, on a physical level. And absolutely there is a financial concern. Perhaps of interest to readers is the fact that I've had Crohn's disease for 35 years. I'd hoped that by publishing novels I could improve my quality of life, as I was living on a [federal] disability payment of $627/month. So I'm personally familiar with this scary scenario of trying to keep your head above water while living with a chronic illness and not being well enough to work full-time. Suzette understands her limitations and knows that working full-time may never be in her future. Making things work with her husband is an imperative, and not just because she loves him. Since I like to pretend that my characters exist separately from me, I have to wonder if Hanna, very early in life, caught on to Suzette's imbalanced love: that Alex was the center of her universe, not her child. Is there a possibility that what Hanna once wanted was her mother's love? TM: Yes! I feel this so strongly. Multiple sclerosis, which my mother has lived with for three decades now, can be exhausting for its patients and can make emotional accessibility difficult. To use a common analogy, I now understand that my mother only has so many spoons per day, and some days there aren’t spoons enough for that connection. I wish I had understood this when I was Hanna’s age. Wow. Zoje, thanks so much for this interview. I hope that, if there isn’t a sequel, we can get a film version of Baby Teeth. To close, I have to ask: What is life like now, on the other side of your publication date? Are there any Zoje Stage projects in the works? ZS: The question I am most frequently asked—almost daily, via social media—is if I will write a sequel. I know I disappoint readers when I say no, but I consider the story set in its trajectory. One of the things that is most interesting to me is how each reader brings their own interpretation of that trajectory, and so often what I'm really being asked is "Will you write another book with evil Hanna?" Every once in a while a reader has a different sensibility and a different understanding of Hanna—where she is a troubled girl in a deeply dysfunctional family, but is not without hope. I love that readers are projecting these characters into the future on their own, but because I fall on the minority side—of believing that there is hope for Hanna and her family—it seems unlikely that I could write the satisfying sequel that many readers want. That said, I have a literary horror novel well in hand, with a publication date around winter 2019. And I have another book in progress, a bit more of a thriller. I'll keep it all vague, but rest assured I am a busy, busy writer.
There’s something especially rewarding about befriending someone who is quiet—a sense of finding something special and rare. I met David Wystan Owen a few years ago, when we overlapped in our time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He and I never took a class together, and in drafting this introduction, I tried to locate my earliest impressions of David or recall an anecdote about how we became friends—but I failed. It seems our friendship sprung fully formed from the dive bar we frequented in Iowa City—I.C. Uglies, a dark, scummy gem with cheap whiskey—one of the few places we could meet in small groups without running into crowds of acquaintances. We were seeking a bit of isolation, a bit of privacy, a safe place to talk. That is a bit of the feeling one gets when walking into to the private lives in his debut collection, Other People’s Love Affairs (Algonquin, August 2018)—a feeling of having walked into a quiet space, unseen. David gave me an ARC of his book last spring when I visited him and his partner, Ellen Kamoe, in the Bay Area. I planned to read the 10 stories on the plane ride home to Seattle. I settled in and opened it just before takeoff. Instead of finishing, I found myself teary and pensive at the end of the first story. The plane was still near enough to the ground that I could see texture on the brown shoulders of grass below, and already I needed a break—to save the rest. I found myself spending much of the plane ride turning over just this one delicate story in my head, rereading the ending, tracing back the gestures and movements of each character toward one another, and looking for the origins of the subtle distances that ultimately prove uncrossable. Every story in the collection is this way: It's a book to savor. David’s father is an immigrant from England, and David and Ellen recently co-founded the gorgeous journal of immigrant and refugee writing, The Bare Life Review, along with our friend, writer Nyuol Lueth Tong. Having grown up with an immigrant parent, a sense of dislocation characterizes David’s understanding of what it means to be a person, and each of the stories tenderly examines the ways residents of a fictional British town, Glass, feel their own forms of dislocation. We sit beside them in moments of small humiliation and private triumph that too rarely earn such attention and care. When David and I correspond these days, it’s often about the nosier parts of our world—the headlines, the outrages. In a time of such loudness, it's a comfort to remember that small daily experiences compose the truly memorable parts our lives, and these stories serve as such a reminder. While these characters misstep, hurt one another, reveal their follies, and betray themselves, we get the sense that each of them is deeply known and beloved by the writer, and we come to care as well. I recently spoke with David about his book and his writing life over Skype. The Millions: These stories are set in a small, fictional English town, which you’ve named “Glass.” I know that you grew up in Berkeley—which is not a small town. Would you speak to your relationship with England, both personally and as a setting? D. Wystan Owen: Well, as background, my father is English and met my mother in London. They were married in the United States, and then our family lived in England for about a year when I was 2 years old. When I learned to speak, at least in in full sentences, my first accent was British. So in a lot of ways, my connection to this setting feels linguistic to me, rather than rooted in a familiarity with specific places. That said, I have visited often. My grandparents lived in a town called Preston, which is just outside of Weymouth—sort of southwestern coastal England. I imagine Glass being a little like Weymouth, but smaller—sort of a fading resort. TM: The stories are connected mostly by place rather than by characters or events. How did Glass come to be a home for your characters, and when did you know you were writing a book about people who lived among each other? DO: In drafting, the word “Glass” first appeared in the title story, which I wrote in 2012. The stories started to coalesce around that setting after I’d written a couple more. When I was writing the stories, for a long time I was just setting them in storyland. It wasn’t America; it wasn’t England; it was just in the world of the story. And people in workshops would ask, “Where is this set?” The language felt sort of in-between, because that’s the language I grew up speaking in my house. My dad had lived in the States for a long time, so he didn’t speak exactly like a British person—but he also didn’t speak like an American person. The language of this book and the way characters talk is not exactly how people on the southwestern coast of England would speak, either. If a person who lived there picked up my book, they wouldn’t feel like the language was exactly right. But there’s a different type of truth there. Because the language my father spoke is contained in that “in-between” language, and that’s the displacement of immigration, which is in turn resonant with other forms of emotional disconnection and rupture. That language is the thing that made the book come into being in the first place. TM: In “A Romance,” Abigail says, “Most young people do not stay in Glass,” which made me wonder about the people who do spend their lives there, so isolated and yet so near one another. What do the constraints of a small town environment give you from a narrative standpoint? DO: Yiyun Li has an essay, “It Takes a Village to Tell a Story,” which explores (among other things) the role gossip plays in those settings—the secrets people have in small towns, which they need to have, because if they don’t, everyone will just know everything. I don’t know if my book has that sense of people gossiping about each other, but these stories, for me, are about the secret lives people carry on simultaneously with the lives they present, and that feels like a small town thing. You don’t have privacy, so instead you have secrecy. TM: There’s timeless quality to your style—it feels very classic—and certainly belonging to the same family of writers you admire, like Yiyun Li and William Trevor. It was interesting to hear you say that, in drafting, stories are set in “storyland,” and I wonder if storyland exists apart from time as well. How much does time enter into your idea of setting? DO: At least in drafting, I don’t think about time much as part of setting. I’m most interested in people’s feelings, which aren’t so dependent on that. Sometimes it becomes necessary to consider: in a story like “A Romance,” for example. In that story, the main character, Abigail, has the feeling that it would be shocking if people knew she wasn’t a virgin. That’s not really a thing that would be shocking now, even in a small village, so you have to think a bit in that case about when the story might be set. But this book, for better or worse, doesn’t really gesture outside itself very often, to things like the sexual politics of the world we inhabit. Mostly, it creates meaning internally—whether that’s a strength or a weakness, I don’t know. TM: Would you be willing to share a bit about your relationship with Yiyun Li? I know she’s a mentor of yours, and I wonder what it’s been like to have the mentorship of someone who is also such an important literary influence. DO: I went to the University of California, Davis, for grad school [getting an M.A. in English], and she was my teacher. I was not writing very good work at that age, though many of my classmates were. I was doing what I think a lot of people do as undergraduate writers—just trying shit out. So it wasn’t that Yiyun read my work and thought it was so good. But, I just really liked her, so I set up an independent study with her, where we read together. We read Trevor, we read Graham Greene and Edith Wharton—two other writers I just love. And then we kept reading together after. I would go to her house in Oakland, and we would have agreed upon two or three novels to read and we’d have, like, a book club. I love Yiyun’s work, and I do think about it a lot in writing, but I was even more influenced by the way she read. I had never been taught to read that way. She’s extremely inquisitive. When she reads something, she comes in with a hundred questions. Like “Why do you think this character did what he did?” or “Do you think that character really meant it when she said ...?” And her approach is so much better for writing, because all those questions become things you could write your own book about. TM: After William Trevor’s death, you published an essay on LitHub in which you wrote, “We have so few private spaces anymore. The world is kept so seldom at bay.” I’m wondering if you could expand on your idea about privacy as it relates to the writing life. DO: I think the reason I like books is because you get to enter into this world where you’re alone. You leave behind your life outside that book, and in fact you enter this world where you don’t even exist. There’s this total erasure of yourself. And it’s true of writing, too. One thing I remember distinctly from when I was a kid is the experience of going to the movies. Often my grandmother would take us, and I remember the feeling of walking out of the theater and knowing that, in a minute, she was going to ask whether I had liked the movie, or what I thought of it. I remember dreading that moment, because the experience of seeing the film was something private for me. That private experience was something I didn’t want to give up. [millions_ad] TM: You have a relatively private life yourself. What are some of the ways you protect your own privacy to give yourself space? DO: I’m a bit of a homebody, both personally and professionally. I mostly work at home. Sometimes a library, but I tend not to work at cafés. And the friendships and relationships that I value a lot are, I think, pretty intimate, but I don’t have that many of those. I think some people feel good when they share their own emotional lives with other people, either via social media or by being more emotive in social situations. They want their internal state to be seen and recognized, and that feels comforting. There’s maybe a feeling of solidarity if they find someone else has had a shared experience. I don’t feel that way very often. I usually feel like I’ve lost something, a bit, except with people I really trust and feel close to. When people ask me about stuff I’m working on, I’m not good at talking about it. And it’s necessary sometimes, with agents and editors. I think one reason writers are so bad at talking about our work is that we’re reluctant to give it away. When I see someone post on social media something like, “I finally figured out the ending to that story I’ve been working on,” I want to say, “Well then go write the story—don’t tell me!” I just don’t understand that impulse. I don’t relate to it. To me, the moment I tell you something like that, I’ve given away the thing that was the reason I wanted to write in the first place. TM: I’ve seen reviewers focus on the loneliness of your characters. I think that feels right—they are lonely—but I’m also interested in the other edge: I see many of your characters motivated by desire—a desire to connect, of course, but also a sexual desire. Some of your characters find love in relationships that could be called queer, and some find connection in relationships that aren’t reflected in any of our codified ideas of love. Is the nature of a character’s desire often a starting place for your work? DO: I’m glad you said that. There is something I’ve heard said about the book, or maybe it was something that was true when there were fewer stories and is less true now that they’re all put together: that the book is somehow “sexless.” In workshop, Marilynne Robinson—of all people!—called one of the drafts “chaste.” That’s obviously true when comparing it to, say, [Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You]. There’s little to no sex on the page here. But I do think the desire for physical intimacy is present and important to the stories. In some cases, that desire developed over drafts. The story “Housekeeper,” for instance has an element of … if not desire, then at least physicality. The scene in the shower is one of the last scenes I wrote. I wrote it after I’d published the story, years ago, without that scene. And the story did feel less without it. TM: We’ve never been in a workshop together, but as I was reading these stories, I noticed that in your movements in point of view and even through time, you break many of what might be thought of as “rules” in workshop. What was the workshop experience like for you? DO: I like workshop. I think it’s good to learn about what your writing is actually doing for readers, because it’s hard to know. So I enjoyed it, and I think it’s a good process for a lot of people, but it also does make people weirdly prim. We had to talk about point of view a lot when I was workshopped. It’s funny because the stories are not avant-garde in any way, and yet it’s, like, shocking to switch point of view. And this is all stuff people were doing 150 years ago. If you read Chekhov or Mavis Gallant, they just do whatever, and it’s always enjoyable. TM: Your stories aren’t particularly long, but they feel novelistic in some sense. We often get a raw moment in a character’s life and then see that moment refracted through later experiences. I wonder if you would speak to the way you manage time within a story. DO: I think I basically picked that up from William Trevor. A lot of his stories are like that; the past and the present are brought into the same plane. And this seems truer to me. We don’t see our lives as beginning here and going in a straight line there. The past and present are with us simultaneously. The past haunts us with its presence and it haunts us with its absence. I am interested in memory and the way characters hold onto things that happened to them—and don’t get over them. From a craft perspective, one of the things that is interesting to me is to put the past and present into the same moment. So instead of having a scene in the present and then jumping to the past, you just describe it at the same time. You can use tense to clue readers in, but readers also just understand the logic of it. And so you can have in the same paragraph a sentence about the present story followed immediately by backstory, and the impression you give is that the person is thinking about those things simultaneously. The memory is present and bearing on the action as it’s unfolding. And I think it reduces the feeling of artifice a story can have, when we’re saying, “Just so you know, this thing happened a long time ago and it’s important, so I’m going to tell you about it now, and then we’ll go back to the present.” TM: Do you feel like there is anything you learned from the process of putting these stories into a book that you can carry into your next book? DO: All of these stories got revised significantly. Some of them hadn’t been touched in years. And so I think I learned, again, about the extent of rewriting. Every time I’ve reached this point where I think, “Now I understand how much you have to rewrite, and how important it is,” I realize I have to do more. TM: Your sentences are just lovely—and I know such elegant simplicity only seems effortless. Just on a granular process level, how do you work? Do you labor over each sentence in a first draft or are you working and reworking your sentences through revision? DO: Sort of both. Either because I can’t get the sentences right the first time—but I try anyway—or because what seems right the first draft isn’t right anymore for subsequent drafts. I do labor over them. They do all get rewritten. But I labor over them in the first draft because the sentences are what cue me into the thing the story is about on an emotional level. I think this comes back to what I mentioned earlier about the way my family talked in my house growing up. It seems a large conclusion to draw from a small thing, but my focus on sentences might be just as simple as having a parent who spoke with an accent. Because then you learn to identify who a person is by how they talk—because the most important person in your life talks differently from other people in a distinctive way. The sound of language, the way the sentences are, the cadence of them … That is who people are to me. TM: Finally, I can’t let you go without asking you about The Bare Life Review. The first issue offered me some of my favorite reading over the past year. Would you speak a bit to your goals with the journal? DO: Our mission with The Bare Life Review is to foreground the talents of our contributing writers, which makes it a bit hard to talk about sometimes, because I am hesitant to put into my own words what their work has already so eloquently stated. We wanted a journal that sort of reversed the paradigm of asylum and refuge, of inside and outside, this troubled notion of “giving voice”—these are among the world's most gifted writers; they already have voices. So the journal is intended simply to celebrate them, and (we hope) to offer some amplification in exchange for the wisdom, the beauty, and the delight they impart.
Elliot Reed explores adolescent loneliness in his debut novel, A Key to Treehouse Living. “This condition of loneliness and isolation is largely universal, and it’s uncomfortable, so young people find lots of ways to cope with it. There are many ways of coping,” he said. Reed’s debut follows the rural midwest adventures of William Tyce, a young character who equally enjoys the outdoors and reference books; it is William’s admiration for these books that gives his story its structure. William learns not only how to survive in a world that is largely absent of others but also how to really and truly live. Reed and I spoke about loneliness, wisdom, imagination, and of course, A Key to Treehouse Living. The Millions: I read A Guide to Treehouse Living as an ode from William Tyce, the young protagonist, to the rural midwest and—maybe even more so—to the outdoors in general. Among other things, William has a love for campfires, rafts, rivers, and his treehouse. Do you share this love of the natural world with your protagonist? Elliot Reed: Yes. When people buy a book thinking it’s going to be about treehouses and find out it’s not really about treehouses, the hope is they will feel some consolation from there being a lot of nature in the book. If you haven’t floated down the Missouri River, I recommend it. Pick a cool day in the fall when there’s not too much flooding going on and beware of the silver carp. These large fish will jump right into your boat. If you want an even better experience, go float the Eleven Point River in the Ozarks. It’s called the Eleven Point because 11 springs pour into it. The water is deep, clear, and flows slowly between nice cliffs. Very few people around. You can still find hellbenders there. I know a fabulous canoe rental based out of Alton, Missouri, I’d be happy to point you to. Whether they provide snorkel gear, I don’t know. TM: The glossary-style structure you implement in A Key to Treehouse Living is incredibly consuming. Why did you decide to write in this unique format? ER: It was an accident. The first entry I wrote was “Bugling.” I don’t know why I wrote it, and I had no character in mind who would be writing it other than me. I liked writing about doing something I knew only a little bit about and making it sound authoritative. This goes back to my brief tenure as the head writer of the blog How to Start Your Own Handyman Business. I am not a handyman. Never have been. I thought what I wrote about bugling sounded funny, so I kept going. TM: As the story progressed, did you find the structure difficult to maintain? ER: Once I realized I was writing something that had volume, and something from a perspective that was not my perspective, I came to understand that I needed a big event. I looked out my window, and there was the Missouri River. The structure was easy to maintain, but I always knew it would feel like the story began flowing in an actual direction once the river was introduced. TM: William is a kid who is wise beyond his years. Whether he’s talking about the importance of reference books in “Annotations,” giving information about the “Eskimo language” in “Athabascan,” or offering solutions to nightmares in “Betta Fish,” William knows a lot about, well, a lot of things. How much did you have to research to give William this kind of insight? ER: I didn’t do any real research. I knew a little bit about the mounds because I was obsessed with the mounds for a while. I knew a little bit about hail-damage repair because I was briefly head writer for the microblog known as How to Start Your Own Mobile Dent Repair Business. I have never repaired a dent except for one time, and that had nothing to do with hail. I would, however, recommend you cite or quote William’s glossary in an academic research paper and then send me your paper. If I’d done research, I think this would be a very different book—I remember trying, once or twice, to consult an outside source, but the process felt untrue to William’s character. [millions_ad] TM: I want to ask about the loneliness William experiences. His mother is dead. His father abandoned him. His uncle isn’t really around. He doesn’t have very many human connections at all. In his own entry for “Luminescence,” he says this: “A person’s skin can also seem to glow, and you may want to be inside of it. Sometimes you may want to have another person’s skin surround you like the walls of a parachute house. Feelings can also be luminescent—physical sensations experienced in the darkness can glow with warm heat and then disappear all of a sudden as if obscured by a cloud.” Do you view his separation from people as being sad, or is it what empowers him? ER: The Dalai Lama says we should be alone for 30 minutes of each day, right? When you follow William as he makes connections to a world in which he seems to be a foreigner, you should absolutely feel empowered. People screw him over or forget about him a lot, but he’d rather write about the ways he keeps moving forward. TM: Do you think this sense of loneliness William experiences is rare in our world for young people, or is it largely universal? ER: This condition of loneliness and isolation is largely universal, and it’s uncomfortable, so young people find lots of ways to cope with it. There are many ways of coping. William’s coping mechanism is he creates a glossary of terms that demystify his existence. If you’ve ever become immersed in a dictionary or a field guide to identifying things in nature, you may have been coping with that fundamental loneliness through the act of getting to know other things. TM: My favorite section is “Making Things Up.” It’s beautiful, and I love how William states the importance of imagination. In his entry, William writes, “The Boy Scouts say you need food, water, and shelter to survive, but they forgot to say you also need to make lists, and you need an imagination. With an imagination, you’re never quite alone, even in a fort deep in the woods when nobody’s around.” As the creator of this character and this story, how important has imagination been in your life? ER: I’m an only child. I had just one person I would describe as a friend my age before fifth grade. Like other children, I played computer games, so my imagination was outsourced that way. Myst is a good game: You’re alone on an island with a bunch of weird buildings, are given no instructions, and there seems to be no real problem. I lived in Prague for a few years when I was a teenager, and I didn’t speak Czech, so I had to use my imagination when trying to decipher what people were trying to say to me. I had to imagine what the signs said at the castles and churches we’d visit; then I’d see there was an English translation and for whatever reason suspect it had been mistranslated. TM: I’m sure you’ll hear mentions of your novel alongside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time due to, if nothing else, the voices of the young protagonists. Who are some of your favorite young literary characters? ER: I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t read those books, but they’re in the top of the pile on my bedside table. The first book that comes to mind is a children’s book called Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn, but that’s just a few pages long and is mostly beautiful drawings of runaway children building their town of forts in the wilderness. They have this town of forts and then a local dog finds them and gives up their location. I prefer Simons Manigault to Holden Caulfield, hands down, though I barely remember anything about Edisto. Then there’s Hushpuppy from the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Hushpuppy is among the greatest heroes of all time. Scout, from Toni Cade Bambara’s fabulous short story “Gorilla, My Love,” has an unforgettable voice that must have rubbed off on William. Then there are the boys from the movie Stand by Me. I think they spend an afternoon smoking cigarettes and trading baseball cards in a treehouse in that movie. What could be better?
OK, Mr. Field—the debut novel from the South African-born, London-based writer Katharine Kilalea—is the story of a man and a house. Mr. Field, a concert pianist who lives in London, suffers a wrist injury after a performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.” With the payout he receives, he buys a house in Cape Town that he had read about on the train before the accident occurred and moves there with his wife, to her mild dismay. The house, known as the House for the Study of Water, is no ordinary structure. It’s one of a number of replicas of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a modernist building that stands outside Paris. As Mr. Field and his wife begin their new life in the House for the Study of Water, their home’s alienating architecture begins to take a toll—first on their relationship, and ultimately on Mr. Field’s grip on reality. Take, for instance, this passage, in which he gazes out a window after a gust of wind blows out the glass: Everything was exactly the same as it always had been, of course it was, but there was something vague about the way my eyes registered the world. Whereas previously I could see things clearly—the trees, even their individual leaves—now when I looked out the low-flying gulls were almost indistinguishable from the white specks that came off the tops of the waves. Things were on the cusp of not being themselves. I had the idea that it wasn’t my vision deteriorating but the very glue which held the objects of the world together growing old and weak. Kilalea’s lucid prose absorbs the reader into Mr. Field’s increasingly uncanny experience of his surroundings and himself. This slow, steady unhinging reveals the strangeness of his world—and ours—anew. Kilalea was kind enough to answer my questions about the novel over email. The Millions: What was the initial impulse behind writing OK, Mr. Field? How did that first idea develop into what the novel became? Katharine Kilalea: Some time ago I visited the Villa Savoye, which most people seem to love, and hated it. I’d already spent over a year writing a dissertation on the perversity of the building—the unnaturally narrow shape of its windows, the coyly hidden position of its entrance—without seeing it in its actuality, so I was surprised to discover that the building, which in my imagination had been something wonderful, was in fact very ordinary. And so unsexy! The stud walls were so porous that I could hear people in other rooms, talking, going to the toilet—presumably, if you lived there, having sex. It reminded me of the overexposed feeling I’d get when writing (or publishing) poetry. I was working for Farshid Moussavi, the architect, at the time. “Why are you writing a book about a building that you hate?” she said. Sometimes it occurred to me that if I could work out why I hated the Villa Savoye I might understand what I hated about writing poetry. Sometimes it seemed like I was using the Villa Savoye to write about a feeling, a kind of desire I suppose, which I was reluctant to write about directly because (in the same way as one ought not to take too much pleasure in an ice cream, say, or a dog, or a question) there’s an element of perversity in it. The building stood in front of that feeling, or stood in for it, as if substituting the words “feeling close” with “being close.” TM: OK, Mr. Field is concerned, in part, with the interplay between outward order and internal disarray. I see that conflict as embodied in the House for the Study of Water, which is this impeccably designed living space that becomes the site for its occupant’s unraveling. It’s a feature, too, of the way you’ve designed the novel itself: Its motion is careful and its prose restrained as the world of its protagonist comes apart. Do you see that tension between order and disorder as an animating force in the novel? Is it a feature of the act of writing? KK: The idea of order in a novel is, I think, quite literally the ordering of events. That’s what animates a novel, the knowledge I have from the moment I open it that something is going to happen, the business of waiting, trusting that one thing will lead to another to some climax or conclusion. It’s interesting; in poetry, “order”—rhythm, especially—guards against disorder, whereas in a novel, order stands against dullness. Which differentiates fiction from life—makes it more sexlike than lifelike—because in life, of course, there’s the possibility that nothing will change, nothing will happen. The tension, for me, is the wedge which this idea of progress drives between fiction and life. Is what makes a novel worth going on reading so different from what makes a life going on living? (What makes me go on living? Nothing. I just do!) I paid attention to climaxes while I was reading. The climaxes of some of my favorite books, instead of being moments of clarity or revelation, seemed to be points of disappearing or dissolving. They had a vague, misty quality. In The Magic Mountain, having spent hundreds of pages waiting for Hans Castorp to finally speak to Claudia Chauchat, their conversation is in French so I can’t understand it. Having spent weeks reading about K.’s quest to reach the Castle, Burghel’s offer to help is met with a smile, not because the object of K.’s desire is finally within reach but because he’s about to fall asleep. TM: Another contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of the novel is the way that structures meant to foster intimacy can instead inspire isolation. As a definition we encounter in the novel has it, a house is “a machine for living in together,” yet it’s the House for the Study of Water that drives Mr. Field and his wife irrevocably apart. Music, too, often functions as a way of bringing people together, but in the novel it works in the opposite way: Mr. Field’s performance of Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” early in the novel alienates him from his audience, and when he plays it again later, alone, it carries him further into himself. What is it about those structures for connecting us—homes, songs—that can instead cut us off from one another? What makes that an interesting subject to you? KK: I’m fascinated by the difference between loneliness and too much intimacy. The Villa Savoye seemed to think of intimacy as a kind of heightened proximity to other people—seeing each other and hearing each other and being with each other constantly. That much “togetherness” would drive me mad. In fact, Le Corbusier’s descriptions of how his buildings bring their inhabitants closer to nature reminds me of Daniel Schreber (famously analyzed by Freud), whose psychosis took the form of an overly intimate relationship with the outside world: The sun spoke to him, birds read his thoughts. Schreber tried to drown out the voices by reciting poems and playing the piano. So he used music as a way of keeping things out, shutting himself in. That’s my experience of music: The more I’m carried away by it, the more I find myself thinking about myself. [millions_ad] TM: This is your first novel but your second book. Your first was a book of poetry. How was writing this book different from writing poetry? In what ways, if any, do you see the novel as continuous with your poetic project? KK: Somewhere between writing my book of poetry and this novel, I wrote a long poem which I think of as the hinge between the two. The poem is the opposite of prosaic—the images don’t make sense, the syntax doesn’t make sense, some of the words are nonsense. It was written at a time when, for reasons that were never clear, I had great difficulty in expressing myself. I was unable to speak properly; I couldn’t finish sentences and often couldn’t find the right word at the right time. Perhaps the music of the poem supplemented those unfinished thoughts and made sense of them, because I couldn’t write poems after that. Then, after a while, sentences started to appear. I miss poetry, but it’s a great relief to be able say something rather than having to convey it intravenously, as is the way of poetry. TM: Many of my favorite recent novels were written by writers who began their careers as poets—Ben Lerner, Garth Greenwell, Anna Moschovakis, and you. Would it make sense to you to think of the contemporary English “poet’s novel” as a form with certain specific characteristics? What might those be? KK: I’m not at all confident about this, but here goes … I wonder whether Ben Lerner and Garth Greenwell’s novels (I’m looking forward to reading Anna Moschovakis) share a cynicism about instinct, or the naturalness of feelings. There is a sense of feelings behind feelings, thoughts beneath thoughts; you settle on something only to discover, a moment later, something different buried beneath it. It makes it impossible to land anywhere, which is something I recognize from poetry, the sense that everything must be unsettled, that you think of a thing one way, but really … TM: One of the features of OK, Mr. Field I found most compelling is the subtle prominence of animal life, from the sea or sea-adjacent creatures (seals, squid, seagulls) discussed when Mr. Field goes to the restaurant to the spider that he sets on fire to the dog that becomes his companion. What role do you see animals as playing in the novel? KK: It’s not easy to describe feelings. You can only describe what caused them or what it looks like when a person is smiling, crying, etc. The thing about animals is that, since they can’t speak, perhaps, their bodies are very articulate—they seem to register feelings with their whole bodies through tail wagging, head cocking, etc. Also, although animals seem to experience roughly the same feelings as we do—guilt, affection, enjoyment, being left out, etc.—they’re not expected to be moral. For example, whereas people are expected to experience attraction to other people, preferably ones of a similar age, background, and so on, dogs are allowed to hump table legs or handbags. TM: In an early scene, when Mr. Field meets Hannah Kallenbach, he notices a shelf filled with “big books, the kind of grand European novels which concern themselves with the human condition.” I thought of this as a winking way in which the novel both acknowledges the tradition of which it is a part (it’s also a novel that explicitly concerns itself with the human condition) and differentiates itself (it’s not a big book). Elsewhere, you’ve mentioned The Magic Mountain as an influence. What other books do you consider OK, Mr. Field in conversation with? KK: I do miss the modernist project’s ambition to tackle death, love, the meaning of life. I’m still anxious about the meaning of life! There were a few books which were—are—always on my desk while writing: The Magic Mountain, Correction, The Castle, and Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles, all of which I treat as odd love stories: for death, a castle, a soap bubble, a foetus, a placenta … Bernhard’s Correction and The Loser were too thematically similar to OK, Mr. Field to ignore, though anyone trying to write while reading Bernhard knows how terribly infectious his style can be. TM: In the novel, Mr. Field moves from England to South Africa, which is the reverse of the path of your own life. What, if anything, do you see as distinctly English or South African about the novel, or even distinctive of the interchange between the two? KK: OK, Mr. Field was initially set in the Alps—as an homage to The Magic Mountain, I think—but I’d only been there once, so halfway through, I transposed it into South Africa, which I knew better. I realized, then, how dominating a presence South Africa can be, because suddenly I felt the need to write in great detail about its sunsets, the seaweed, etc. (which felt wrong: too much looking out, not enough looking in). There is a perverse pleasure in withholding that visual description, because the landscape is beautiful, yet that restraint seems common among South African novelists: Their books have an arid quality; they don’t sing. The changing of countries at the last moment was also willfully contrary, a corrective to the unspoken regulation that a South African writer should concern themselves primarily with South Africa and things associated with South Africa. TM: What are you reading and working on now? KK: I’m about to re-read Lolita. It’s not my favorite Nabokov, but I’d like to write about, and think about, sexuality, in an amoral way.
Bina Shah was introduced to me via Facebook by a mutual friend who is a fine short story writer. She contacted me directly about her first novel, which I published. I don't believe she wrote her new novel, Before She Sleeps, thinking it would become a dystopian thriller, but it was clear to me that her writing was moving in this direction. I, on the other hand, reached a point in my career where I felt I'd said most of what I'd wanted to say, shared my many minute observations about unusual families, complicated relationships, and love between mismatched people. Going by the advice of my then-agent, I began to write tighter narratives, at the center of which was a mystery that needed to be solved. Black Diamond Fall is the second novel that I've written in this new vein, and I like to think that despite the constraints, it is stylistically similar to my earlier novels. We spoke about our books via email. —Joseph Olshan Joseph Olshan: Your first novel, A Season for Martyrs, was a fascinating portrait of Pakistan in 2007 and the last three months of Benazir Bhutto’s life. The novel's narrative was written at a high literary elevation in the sense that the present-day narrative was in counterpoint to a kind of lush, lyrical mythical history of the Sindh region of Pakistan, where Bhutto grew up. Some of the novel's best writing portrayed this history. When you began writing Before She Sleeps, which is set in a future society where the female population has dangerously dwindled, did you have any idea that you'd be writing a novel that would end up reading like a dystopian thriller? Was that your intention? Did you consciously write with a thriller audience in mind? BS: I just read an article called "Stephen King's Top 20 Rules for Writers" (I feel like there are at least a hundred versions of the same piece) where he says that when you write a story, you're telling yourself the story, and when you rewrite, you're taking out all the things that are not in the story. I don't think I write with an audience in mind so directly, not in the way that I'd be mindful of their reactions and expectations if I were narrating it to a group of listeners, or even my 5-year-old nephew. What I am doing when I write is not quite to tell myself the story, a la Stephen King, but to get it down. Any working writer knows what I mean by that phrase: capturing the story, rather than inventing the story. I'm doing what Michelangelo did when he saw a fully formed statue in a block of marble: He used his tools to chisel it all out of the rock. I'm no Michelangelo, but the story already exists in my head as an entity: elusive, amorphous, and fully alive. I'm getting it down on the page before it gets away from me. How I shape it, mold it, form it and direct it is my craft, but it's already there on some plane that I'm accessing as I write. JO: But you ended writing a dystopian novel very much in the vein of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. And sure enough, all the early reviewers are likening your book to hers. In a starred review Publishers Weekly urged fans of Atwood's book to read yours. How much of an influence did The Handmaid's Tale have on your writing Before She Sleeps? BS: I read The Handmaid's Tale in college and while it was a very powerful book, I wasn't able to make the parallels between the Christian fundamentalist society Atwood envisions and the equally frightening one I envision in Before She Sleeps. But when I returned to Pakistan and lived there 20 years among some of the worst conditions for women, I was able to see them. What Margaret Atwood imagined happening in the future was already happening now in the regions of South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Only the cultural and religious contexts were different; the patriarchy, the misogyny, the control over women and their lives was the same. So rather than thinking about The Handmaid's Tale in terms of influence, it was a point of reference for me as I wrote Before She Sleeps. I did reread The Handmaid's Tale while I was in the process of writing Before She Sleeps just to make sure I wasn't over-borrowing specific terms, concepts or plot points. JO: It seems to me that Before She Sleeps is a timely novel in the sense that it tells a story about women taken advantage of and kept in check by men, rebelling and triumphing when they find a higher, more secure ground where they can live more freely. As you know the #MeToo movement began with a kind of rebellion and caught fire. Can you try and relate this new movement to what has gone on in Pakistan, where women have traditionally been subjugated to men? BS: In talking about Before She Sleeps, I feel the need to make the point (somewhat repeatedly) that feminism, rebellion and resistance look different in different parts of the world. I got an early review of Before She Sleeps which basically said the women weren't independent enough, which in my mind boils down to: "They weren't feminist enough." But feminist enough for whom? When you live in a part of the world where honor killings exist, where a girl or a woman can be killed for marrying the partner of her choice, then even falling in love with someone is an act of resistance to that patriarchal system. Also, Pakistani women have traditionally been subjugated to men and the patriarchal tribal systems that operate in my country. They have resisted both directly and indirectly. They find a way to go around obstacles rather than straight through them. The concept of "smashing the patriarchy" is very new to Pakistan; it has been brought into the country by a global wave of feminism, including the #MeToo movement, over the last four or five years. We always thought of finding our rebellions within the patriarchy, and this is exactly what Before She Sleeps portrays: a subversion of the system, not destruction outright, because that seems impossible given the scope of the power and control against the women. It may look like a compromise to more Western eyes, or it may look like women reacting with courage and elegance to an impossible situation. Now I have a question for you: Just as Before She Sleeps is a switch in genres for me—from straightforward literary fiction to dystopia with shades of speculative, science, and technology fiction—you've switched things up with your forthcoming novel, Black Diamond Fall. It's being characterized as a "literary thriller," which I associate with excellent books like The Alienist by Caleb Carr and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Was it hard for you to make the switch between semi-autobiographical literary fiction and a mystery/thriller? Were you aware of the change in genres, and how did it affect your writing? JO: Well, first of all, all my fiction is semi-autobiographical—even Black Diamond Fall. I don’t have the ability to write a story where some large part has not occurred within the realm of my own experience. A novelist needs to discover what they can and cannot do. If they are unable to make this distinction, then their output will be wildly inconsistent. Having written and published 10 books, I’ve learned what I cannot do. So Black Diamond Fall, while a mystery of sorts, is semi-autobiographical in the sense that its central relationship, its deepest chords resonate with a relationship I had, a relationship that stirred me up in all the right ways for fiction. I spun around that a tale of disappearance and vandalism, both of which were based in fact: A student disappeared from the Middlebury College campus in 2010, and shortly thereafter the Robert Frost homestead (which is open to the public) was vandalized. This is my second effort at suspense fiction, and I’ve learned that readers of this sort of fiction have expectations that must be addressed by the writer. In this sense you might say I was broadening my craft, whereas writing literary fiction is solely about creating a balanced sphere of a world—and sometimes fine literary novels do not take the audience into consideration and can be hard-going. BS: On that last note, on taking the audience into consideration, is the writer really obligated to keep the audience in mind when writing? I've encountered difficulty with questions of a similar nature, asking me if I write for a "Western audience" or a "Pakistani one." I always say that I don't think about an audience like that, but what's your philosophy on this as a writer? JO: Every serious writer has to try and take a step back periodically and ask themselves if a reader can objectively relate to what is on the page. By the time one has written and published a book or two, this process should be pretty rote. But the first and foremost concern is the integrity of book itself, and as I was beginning to say in the last answer, a book is like a sphere, a whole world with a balanced ecosystem, and the writer is the godlike force creating that world. Once the world itself has literary integrity, it should be inhabitable by all different sorts of people. It should be universal. And the reader should be able to recognize this universality and in so doing, find comfort in reading. I am the editor of your novel. I’ve gone through it several times in the editorial process, so perhaps I no longer possess the degree of objectivity toward your work that a fresh reader has. But in my opinion what distinguishes your novel is the fact that you are deeply familiar with the cultures of North America and West Asia and this is brought to bear in Before She Sleeps, a novel that, though located deeply in your native culture, feels American in many ways. Now here is a delicate discussion that I think readers of The Millions will be interested in: the editorial process itself. I’ve edited two of your novels, and I think we’ll both agree that I asked you to do more work on Before She Sleeps. It’s true that by this time we’d built up a trust that allowed you to be very receptive to my editorial concerns—much more so than several of my other writers, some of them first-time authors, who have, in my opinion, given me a remarkable amount of pushback. As an author of several books, can you give a sense of what it was like to go through this intense process? BS: First of all, I'm curious to know how you think Before She Sleeps feels like an American novel! As you know I spent the first five years of my life in the U.S., and then six years in college and graduate school. I'm in the United States this summer in the run-up to the novel, and I keep thinking about the impact of America on my life; it seems to have found its way into my writing as well, as you say. Before She Sleeps was, for me, an ambitious novel. So when I had my manuscript ready to show to you, I knew there were flaws, but I couldn't identify them, let alone fix them, because I had no objectivity at all. I welcomed the idea of my editor as collaborator, someone who would read with a fresh pair of eyes and be able to see what was wrong in terms of structure, pacing, ideas, and so on. I found your role as editor tremendously supportive; whatever you suggested for the novel was done in the spirit of making the book as strong as it could be before it went to publication. I wanted it strong, and because you're not just an editor but also an acclaimed novelist, I knew you were sensitive to my needs as a writer, to be supported but also challenged in the revisions. I think the process of working on the book together, as editor and writer, was exhilarating: You weren't afraid to ask me bold questions; you were very decisive about what you felt needed expansion or cutting back; you were uninhibited in your praise of what you thought were strong passages or characterizations. You also brought a different perspective to my work, as a male, as an American, and as someone who is experienced and confident as a writer. I appreciated that perspective; it gave a richness and depth to the novel that expanded its scope and its power. You infused it with an energy and spirit that is very characteristic of you as a person, too, and in you I found an affinity for dramatic tension and a fast pace that served the novel very well. Because that's what it's all about, in the end: You do what you need to do to make it the best book it can be, and when an editor believes in you and your work, it's very easy to trust them right back and just go for it.