How We Endure: The Millions Interviews M.I. Devine

“Julia Zavacky comes down to us today as an eccentric accomplice to an eccentric artist well supplied with accomplices—a factory of them,” M.I. Devine writes, describing the mother of Andy Warhol. “But what if, instead, Julia, you signify—your journey, endurance, sacrifice—a human depth upon the surfaces of things, even the surfaces of a son.”

Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry is an inventive, playful, and rangy consideration of that human depth upon the surfaces of things—an examination of what it means to put “the mom back in pop.” It’s the type of generative book that left me with a personal syllabus of poetry and film—Devine has a way of magnetizing himself to past and present, bounding across references and texts.

M.I. Devine is, along with Ru Devine, the pop music project Famous Letter Writer. Their debut album Warhola was released on Big Deep Records, and was recently featured on NPR. Devine earned his PhD in English from UCLA. He has won the Gournay Prize for Creative Nonfiction, was a finalist for the American Studies Zuckerman Prize from the University of Pennsylvania, and has received support for his work from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is an associate professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.

We spoke about the definition of pop, the merits of playful literary and artistic criticism, and how Warhol still haunts us.

The Millions: The first section of Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry begins with a photo of Andy Warhol and his mother, Julia. The arrangement of the photo places Julia at the forefront—which is true of the book as a whole. I feel like Warhol “haunts” this book more than he is physically or literally present in the text. What is the spirit of Warhol himself in the book?

M.I. Devine: Well, there’s maybe a double haunting, because for me Andy is Warhola, the immigrant’s son.

So, let’s start with Julia Warhola, his mother. Her infant daughter dies in her arms while her husband is in America. (I’ve called this elsewhere the Pietà of Slovakia). She came here alone when the border was closing in 1921. Year of pandemic, persecution: sounds familiar, right? Everything is haunted: now by then, 2020 by 1921, Andy by his mother, a name by its erasure. Call it a haunting, or call it the deep continuity between all things. I call it pop. Why not?  

That’s how the book starts, with a kind of prose poem about this nobody woman crossing the water, this folk artist. She’s my “reusable muse.” She cut soup cans into flowers, and taught Andy how to use scissors, how to remake, recrop, repurpose. 

To your question, then: Andy as a spirit of reproduction—in every sense of that word (as child, of course, but also as force, as strategy) is what haunts the book. To reproduce is to repeat, and pop is always a bid against death, against our own ends. It says we’re not just these woods we wander in, to quote Richard Wilbur (wildly out of context—which is a very pop thing to do!). It’s a portrait of Marilyn the day after her death. A soup can that’s maybe your mother, for sure. And it’s Kendrick Lamar singing “Promise that you’ll sing about me,” it’s Leonard Cohen’s Casio “Hallelujah.” It’s a way to live. Our equipment for living. How we endure. 

I see Andy, in other words, as endlessly affirming. Our desire to cut through. To make new. Tyehimba Jess tells you to use scissors on his poems in Olio and I see Andy there. I see him in the long takes of Cuarón’s Roma, a mother and her stillborn child.

You might say that we know so much more than Andy. Maybe so. But of course he is that which we know. 

TM: Your references to film and music are encyclopedic in this book—and both well-crafted and entertaining. How would you define “pop,” and where does poetry belong within or related to that definition?

MD: Pop means saying something deep in a stupid way.

To say something stupid in a deep way, of course, is to be an academic. (Okay, okay, maybe that’s just from a meme I just shared. Ha! If it’s not it should be.)

But I think there’s something there. Stupid is flow. Stupid is your body. It’s your stupid limits and our stupid forms and the stupid fact that we all die. Andy suffered seizures as a kid and he knew all about the body. We’re not free. So much we can’t control. Right? Right. Pop is most pop, most stupid when it leans into that, let’s say, and a little bit of light shines through, and then we feel at home. We sing along. Pop is deeper than you suspect and probably more superficial than you can take. It’s the skin and the soul. It’s Stevie Smith’s poetry. It’s waving and drowning, the body and the sign; it’s a dead man explaining it all at the end, which is an absolutely stupid and wonderful thing.

Pop is MF Doom, a rapper who wears a kind of superhero mask. It’s repeating the title of his song “Sofa King” three times fast. (Try it.) And pop is especially the opposite of pop, obviously. Doom has a line that goes, “All fake rappers, 23 skidoo.” As far as I can tell, it’s a reference to, among other things, a very early Edison film called “What happened on 23rd Street”—a stupid little bit of cinema in which a woman stands on a subway vent and, voila, you know the rest, Marilyn Monroe. “23 skidoo” means beat it, stop watching, scram. And it means Keep Moving! Which is what all pop says, right? How did that expression reach Doom? Who cares? This is pop’s archivist poetics, the thrill, remixing, flowing, telling us what’s real and, you know, what’s not—who’s just the fake rapper. 

Perhaps this sounds stupid. If so, I’ve answered your question.

TM: You write about one of the poet Philip Larkin’s selfies: “He’s thin here, alone, taking a picture of a mirror, which of course is what we all did before our phones grew smarter.” Later: “Can a form be selfish? And what’s that even mean? What are forms but rooms you put yourself in, self-portraits that keep things out, let things in?” How would you describe the “form” of this book? 

MD: Oh, God, talk about stupid, using Philip Larkin in a book about American art! What was I thinking? And of course it gets worse: while traveling in Genoa, I took a selfie with a bomb that is unexploded in this absolutely stunning cathedral. It just sits there like a statue. And a few things occurred to me: 1) The British fired it there about three months after Coventry, Larkin’s hometown, was absolutely razed in WWII. And 2) The rather Gothic bomb was shaped almost identically like the cathedral. Okay, I’m getting to the point: Later that night, I watched a Pearl Jam cover band (quite good) and took notes on all of this—Italian Eddie Vedder singing “Young girl, violence,” Larkin’s city erased, the bomb unexploded in a church. Now what part do I leave out? What part do I keep in? I began by writing about how forms repeat and endure, and somehow I ended up here! With Eddie Vedder telling me that things change by not changing at all!

The point is: this is all very Andy, who’d be a great writing teacher. He said, “When you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.” So, I guess I’ve tried to be a bit stupid, which is maybe what literary criticism needs.  Writing is taking a selfie and it’s knowing you can’t help but let in the chaos, the clutter, the noise. When I finished writing my book I read Amitava Kumar’s Every Day I Write the Book. It’s advice for academics, but it’s really just great about writing as every day practice—as pop, and open, and conflicted, and stupid, even, and, look!, there’s Elvis Costello! Writing is life. 

So order and chaos, pattern and chance, I wanted all of it in the pantry, footnotes that aren’t footnotes at all, distractions, startling juxtapositions. It’s all part of the journey, starting with Julia’s journey—for the reader. Into America, into the violence and beauty. Into great writers and artists I love. Into my writing.

TM: “I am not Jesus,” you write. “I can’t speak plainly. I’ve wept and fasted. Write and wait. Give you what I cross out.” There’s a great rhythm and layers to these lines, which I see reflected in the way you write of John Donne: “Donne doesn’t explicitly say whether God exists outside of language. Perhaps because Donne so loves the wor(l)d that he just doesn’t care. Like Hopkins, he reads in the Book of Creatures the unmistakable authorship of God. But undone, always undone is Donne. He has to complicate things. God is a strange king. And so hard to know.” Maybe it is because I have been reading a lot of that pun-admirer Marshall McLuhan, but it feels like punning and play are a big part of your prose. Is Warhol adjacent or present in that linguistic and intellectual play, for you? How about his mother?

MD: Well, to quote Kumar quoting Geoff Dyer quoting Albert Camus: “After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly.”

Look, there’s a deep humorlessness that stains our understanding of art and creation. It took, what, about half a century for art critics to actually even read the words Picasso and Braque were cutting up in their paintings. Cubism’s a cut up! Oh, now I get it! Visual puns, verbal puns: to get it means you use more than your mind; you use your body; you let art touch your body; you laugh when you see that cutting up “Le Journal” makes some joyful nonsense. Jouer. Jouir. My book’s brilliant cover designer, Jeff Clark, ran with that idea. Collage is less about fragments and more a punning strategy about depths and surfaces. 

Am I divine? I’m not. And this feeling of epistemological play is rooted, I guess, in a broader approach to writing. Who am I to say what art should teach me? Art will not be possessed, nailed down. Andy’s mom titles his book 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy and Andy’s like, Nailed It! One of his earliest religious works: “The Lord Gave Me My Face but I Can Pick My Own Nose.”

But the part you mention first is from “Dead Poets”: my elegy for Sam See, a poet, professor, and dear friend who tragically died. I process his death by returning to early childhood encounters with Duchamp in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Looking through peepholes at death. At life. I found it all terrifying and wonderfully out there as a kid. This sounds bleak, right, but pretty soon Andy crashes the party and the elegy, as all elegies do, turns joyous. I didn’t plan that. But it’s precisely because of this spirit of play, of affirmation and life one finds in the pantry, I guess.

Death is stupid, like I’ve said, and our only hope is to outwit it. 

Jesus said to Lazarus “Come forth.” But he came fifth so he lost the job. 

TM: There’s a fascinating bit here about film historian Tom Gunning’s observation that in early film, spectators were cued to the act of display and movement, something like “See the still image spring to life!” You mention that this “pop throwback” has “become more and more common post-9/11,” and consider it “an attempt, I think, to recover a shared experience.” Why didn’t it return after other traumatic events?” What was it about 9/11—and us then and now—that prompted this resurrection?

MD: The 21st century has seen the great early cinema revival, no doubt. Our 1890s peeps watched cat videos on a loop, and, turns out, we watch cat videos on a loop. Sure, some of our cats are more poetic (please google Louiswildlife, a German cat, immediately) but the point is what you’ve said before: a kind of haunting. And hauntings are good! That’s where the spirits are! In lots of ways our digital habits have returned us to the wild sublime of the medium. Dogface 208 skateboards and sings to Fleetwood Mac on TikTok to a trillion views and it’s like you’ve never seen the sunset before; it’s like you never seen our massified, inhuman infrastructure of roads before; it’s like you see for the first time the body in space, singing, free.  

This return, I think, began, ironically, with a brutal collective GIF: 9/11. After the Towers, and the run-away machines, artists responded in all sorts of ways, from Foer to Scorsese in all sorts of magical ways that I write about. I think we’ve been trying to heal that wound, taking new control over our machines, because that’s what pop does. Remixing, recovering, going “old school.” Back to innocence. We are like Andy the amateur not quite sure knowing how to use his camera, you know? And that’s beautiful. It’s a way of unknowing better, which is all we can ask for from art. If readers tell me that they unknow art and America and Andy and even writing better after reading my book, well, that’s all I can ask for. 

Ghosts Who Walk Among Us: The Millions Interviews Claire Cronin

“Horror fans are often asked to explain why to people who don’t like or understand the genre—to offer an apologia,” Claire Cronin writes in Blue Light of the Screen: On Horror, Ghosts, and God. “I’ve always felt haunted…There is something about watching ghosts on screens that satisfies this personal unprovable.”

Some books arrive at the
perfect time, but Cronin’s fascinating book feels absolutely made for this
especially disturbing Halloween. It speaks to the transcendence of her concerns:
she reveals how horror, ghosts, and God exist among each other.

Cronin’s vignette-style
structure arrives like whispers in the dark, or frenetic prayers. Her sense of curiosity
permeates the book. Fans of horror films and Catholics—devoted or drifted—will
love this unique book, but so will those who seek to understand fear.

Cronin is a writer and musician. Her latest album, Big Dread Moon, was described as “a full-length folk horror movie” by The Fader. She has written for Fairy Tale Review, Bennington Review, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in poetry from the University of California, Irvine, and a PhD in English from the University of Georgia.

We spoke about writing that scares us, the power of ritual, and the ghosts who walk among us.

The Millions: Blue Light of the Screen is unique, expansive, and scary—and I don’t think it’s merely because I read it during the Halloween season. Your book mines the spiritual in a true sense: the world of spirits and the spirit. Were you ever scared while writing this book?

Claire Cronin: I did sometimes feel scared of what I was revealing about myself. The process of writing about my past called distant memories to surface, and some of those memories were scary—or sad.

While
working on the book over several years, I also became more attuned to uncanny experiences
and weird synchronicities. By the time I finished it, I found I was more of a
believer in the mysterious and supernatural than when I began, which was not
the outcome I expected.

I think my experience of the spiritual world has always been one of awe, fear, and dread: the “tremendum” in Rudolf Ottos’s definition of the numinous as “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” It wasn’t ghosts and demons that most frightened me while writing; I was haunted by God.

TM: While reading your book, I recalled this observation by Father Andrew M. Greeley from The Catholic Imagination: “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility.” Catholicism and God permeate this book—there’s even a Johannine (Gospel of John) cadence to some of your formulations about horror, like “We see it to believe it, and in believing, see.” What makes Catholics particularly receptive to horror and discussions of mortality?

CC: Well, the version of Catholicism I grew up with combined ordinary, post-Vatican II masses and catechism with my mom’s more magical beliefs and practices. From a very early age, this gave me the sense that our lives stood in a complicated relationship to the hereafter, and that we were sustained by our connections to invisible beings: God, Mary, the Holy Spirit, angels, and the dead, which meant both saints and dead people we knew personally. I learned that even if I couldn’t directly experience these beings, I should speak to them as if they were always present and listening. That whatever suffering I might face on earth was very small compared to the suffering of those who came before, and smaller still compared to the torments I might face in purgatory or hell. There’s a real horror to this idea, and it’s distinct from the secular, nihilistic horror of a vacuum. It’s a depth that’s filled with something—not a void.

And of course, the central rite of the Catholic mass is the sacrifice of Jesus’s body. This is very violent and mysterious. Catholics are taught to think of the eucharistic bread and wine as the literal flesh and blood of Christ. Through the power of the ritual, these substances are transformed. They are not symbols. When you’re actually in church, however, it’s hard to believe this because the eucharist still tastes and looks like bread…but there are stories of saints who were so holy that when they ate communion, they said it tasted like raw meat.

I
think this muddling of the symbolic and the actual is what set me up to be an
artist. I am, and always have been, fascinated by questions of what’s real and what’s
unreal, what’s manifest and what’s occult. I learned elaborate prayers to the
dead, saw images of wounded and transfigured bodies, heard gruesome stories of
the martyrs, and took seriously the threat of demonic evil. All these things were
present in my psyche before I recognized them in the horror genre.  

TM: “TV is a medium of ghosts,” you write. You title one section “Spirit Box,” and tell the eerie story of the 13th-century St. Clare of Assisi, the patron saint of television—who, unable to attend Mass in person, saw a vision of it projected on her wall in the convent. She is your namesake; what do you have in common with her? What does it mean to experience the world—material and spiritual—through a screen, a vision?

CC: I’m sure I’d be a disappointment to St. Clare. I’m not willing to give up everything I own, become an ascetic, and serve the poor with someone like St. Francis. My dad chose the name for me after his mother, but he’s also had a long career in the television industry, so it  fits in several ways. Or perhaps the name determined my fate, and I grew into it.

I think visions seen on TV, movie, or computer screens are very different from spiritual visions like St. Clare’s, but the problem of visions is something I spend the whole book worrying about. In one sense, a vision is by definition unreal—it’s a delusion, fantasy, or dream. But at the same time, a spiritual vision can reveal something more true and real than what’s normally perceptible.

I don’t know that people are capable of experiencing reality in some pure, unmediated, wholly physical way. We’re always drifting off into visions of the past and future. We become overwhelmed by memories and fantasies and moods, and we spend many hours watching images flicker across screens. Some of us, like St. Clare or William Blake or the poet H.D., have spiritual visions so powerful that ordinary reality fades in comparison.

There is something about watching a convincing horror film that is akin to having a terrible vision or a nightmare. But I think it would be an oversimplification to say that films are the same as dreams or delusions, or that witnessing an apparition of a ghost in a horror movie is the same as seeing a ghost appear at the foot of your own bed. The difference is the essence of the thing, which is the hardest part to define and yet the most important.

TM: I love to see Malachi Martin included in this book! Hostage to the Devil was a book I found in my house as a kid, and, fresh off repeated viewings of The Exorcist (and probably clutching a rosary), I pored through Martin’s disturbing tales. For the uninitiated: could you tell us a little about Father Martin? And how do you see possession relating to ghosts?

CC: Yes, thank you, Malachi Martin is fascinating! I still don’t know what to make of him. He was an Irish priest who left the Jesuits in the mid-1960s because of their alleged corruption, then he moved to New York, where he began a writing career and started practicing as an exorcist. He’s most known for Hostage to the Devil, which gives a terrifying and convincing account of several possessions. The book was a bestseller, but reviewers weren’t sure how seriously to take him, and he won as many followers as enemies.

I like Hostage to the Devil and find it scary, but I’m more convinced when I hear recordings of Martin speak. He gave a few long interviews on Coast to Coast, Art Bell’s long-running fringe paranormal talk show, and I found Martin to be so erudite and charming that I sincerely considered everything he said, though much of it is plainly impossible. The effect of that was chilling.

Within the world of horror, Martin was in the same circle as other paranormal investigators, like Ed and Lorraine Warren, and mentored a few contemporary demonologists who are still working in the field. The stories from these exorcists have been used as fodder for fictional horror films for decades.

As for the differences between demonic possession and ghostly hauntings, I think a person can be haunted, literally or figuratively, in such a strong way that it can seem as if they are possessed. What I mean is almost Freudian: that the ghost of a deceased parent or other ancestor can stay with a person and dwell within them, determining their interests, moods, and thoughts.

A
demonic possession is something totally other. It’s not a frustrated or unhappy
human spirit exerting its influence. It’s a nonhuman entity that has only
hatred for our species and wants to see us utterly destroyed. In horror films and
paranormal reality shows, these two kinds of spirits often coexist: a house or
a person may be tormented by both demons and ghosts. Very unlucky! But a demonic
possession is much worse; your soul is at risk. A demon works with a logic and
power we can’t understand and shouldn’t underestimate. No matter how frightening
a ghost may be, they are essentially the same as us.

In
my book, I think about haunting and possession as different metaphors for the
experience of depression and suicidal ideation. Both are states of being
overtaken by a negative force. My description of those states gets a little
more complicated and nuanced in the manuscript.

TM: Rilke, Plath, McLuhan, Merton, Deleuze, Sontag, Styron, Baudelaire, Kristeva, Freud, Lucretius, and Barthes all make appearances in this book—and that’s nowhere a complete list of thinkers and writers you reference. You include an especially great quote from Deleuze: “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film.” I can’t help but receive this quote in the world of 2020—and connect it with your observation that horror, possibly more than any other genre, “gives its fans the gratifying daze of repetition.” Are we somnambulating through this moment? How do you view horror films during a time of visceral, worldwide horror?

CC: It’s a good question, and we’ll see what happens in the next few months—if things get better or worse as the year comes to an end. Since lockdown began for me in March, I’ve have had the strange sense that life has never been more virtual, more screen-mediated, yet the danger which keeps me trapped inside is physical. I have never felt more aware of my own bodily fragility and mortality, and never more afraid of the hatred, violence, and delusion in our country, which is making the pandemic so much worse.

No
matter how much time I spend “doom scrolling” on social media or reading the
news on my phone, I don’t feel numb. I don’t think we’re sleepwalking through
this, though time has taken on very strange proportions, and life has often
felt surreal. The distance between me and everything that’s awful (which is,
perhaps, the distance of a screen) doesn’t make the situation less emotionally
charged, it just makes me feel more powerless. But of course I’m grateful that
it’s not my body on the line right now, and that I have the tentative good
fortune of health and safety.

I think people are still watching a lot of horror in 2020. It can be a helpful genre in a terrible time because it works as a distraction (replacing a bad thing with something worse) and as a way to think through questions about evil, violence, and death at an entertaining distance. There are many subgenres of horror that speak directly to the issues we’re dealing with now, though as always, I get the most satisfaction out of ghost stories. I think a lot about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died this year, and I wonder what those ghosts might ask of us in the future. I suspect they’ll be returning, seeking justice.

Bonus Links:—Eight Horror Films About WritersTerrify Yourself with These Ten Horror NovelsTen Haunting Ghost Stories for Halloween

A Project of Defiance: The Millions Interviews C Pam Zhang

C Pam Zhang’s first novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a thrilling, lyrical take on the harsh and beautiful landscapes of the American West, and its muscular writing shows that even these seemingly ironclad narratives—the white, American cowboy—are actually more fragile than they seem, if not entirely breakable.

The story centers on two Chinese American siblings on the lam after their sometimes abusive father dies, leaving the two orphans to do whatever they have to do to survive. The story takes place in a kind of dreamscape that both feels in and out of history. For instance, we all know the story of the forty-niners, but trying to follow the chronology in a literal way initially confused me. The sister who is the narrator tells the story of the sister whose gender is more fluid—in this layering, the novel also becomes a look at the stories we tell ourselves about other people who are close to us. Part of the book is narrative by a ghost. There is gold, and also tigers. But the narrative about the West has always been a myth, and myths are open to reinvention.

The book was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and Zhang was nice enough to answer some questions.

The Millions: Why the West—can you talk a little about your intentions (conscious or unconscious) to revise/rewrite the iconic, white-centered American West?

C Pam Zhang: I suspect that most writers have two answers to this question, and I appreciate your trying to unearth them.

My original intention was simply to have fun, to plunge into the joy and possibility of language. I wanted to mix the rangy cowboy poetry of pulp Westerns, the pidgin Mandarin of my childhood, and a game of trying to avoid gendered pronouns. Language itself was the entry point into this sound and rhythm of the world of the book, which is one of adventure, harshness, beauty, speed. I wrote several drafts of the novel before the subconscious intentions unearthed themselves. I grew up reading stories of the American West as my own family moved westward. The loneliness, starkness, and epic qualities of this landscape were imprinted on me through the Little House books, John Steinbeck’s oeuvre, Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry. But eventually I realized that none of the people in those books reflected myself or my family. My project was one of defiance, in a way.

TM: The novel takes place in XX42 and XX67; dates with the XX in the century is usually the reverse of how it’s done; is this referring to a different calendar system?

CPZ: I borrowed the idea from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. The idea is one of stepping just outside the boundaries of our world.

TM: How about the research? Did you feel like you had to confirm the actual possibility of tigers, or how did you proceed?

CPZ: The tigers, the XX in the dates, and the epigraph “This land is not your land” all function as signposts. Something like Here there be dragons on the margins of old maps. I was aware of readers’ tendencies to see this book as realistic, straightforward historical fiction, and I wanted to mark the novel as something different.

I had a delicate relationship with research. I was able to write the first draft of the book without research because I spent a good chunk of my life in the California public school system, and had foundational knowledge about the Gold Rush and the presence of Chinese workers. That misty place between the facts and my memory of them was the place of mythology that I wanted to occupy. In later drafts, I combed through dates and historical events—sometimes to use them, often to ponder how I wanted to deviate from them. Historical research is important, but in fiction it’s just as important to allow your imagination room to breathe. I mentioned defiance above. I have a somewhat defiant, combative relationship with the historical record, which is deeply political, written largely by and for white men. There are so many stories of women, people of color, indigenous people, immigrants, queer folk, the impoverished, and the dispossessed left out of written history. As a woman of color, I take it as my task to let my imagination expand into the spaces of erasure.

TM: What writers or other cultural producers were your influences?

CPZ: All the writers above, as well as Angela Carter, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Carson, Marilyn Chin, and, most profoundly, Toni Morrison. She was my first teacher in having the audacity to tell your story and trust the reader to follow your voice. Beloved is a reminder that you can let the surreal into the real, and that an emotional truth can have greater impact than mere facts. I would be remiss if I didn’t, at this particular point in history, acknowledge how great a debt Asian-American writers and other writers of color owe to Black writers. They have expanded so many boundaries in literature, and taught us to reclaim space previously thought of as marginal. I would not exist without Morrison and others like her.

What was is like having your first book come out during the Covid-19 pandemic?

My book came out right as California was sheltering in place. The pandemic has lent a surreal air to the whole endeavor; I still haven’t seen my book in a store and have had a hard time feeling like I’ve crossed the finish line. I’m not one for the limelight or public speaking, so I didn’t mourn the loss of a 15-city book tour as much as I might have. I mourn that tangible sense of finality.

My overwhelming experience, however, is one of great gratitude for the bookstores that have provided so much support as they themselves struggle. An incomplete list of bookstores people should support so that I, selfishly, can visit after this pandemic ends: Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes, Bookshop in Santa Cruz, Changing Hands in Tempe, Greenlight in Brooklyn, Solid State in D.C., Literati in Ann Arbor, Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, and Bookmarks in Winston-Salem.

TM: What’s your current/next project?

CPZ: I’m pretty superstitious, but suffice to say it is the complete opposite of this first novel. No more child protagonists, no more history. Lots of twisty adult fun.

Bonus Links:
—Correcting History: On C Pam Zhang’s ‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’
A Year in Reading: C Pam Zhang

Making Sense of Trauma: The Millions Interviews Melanie Abrams

The title of Melanie Abrams’s second novel, Meadowlark, evokes something peaceful, tranquil. From the first page, however, readers are thrown into a series of increasingly volatile scenarios. It soon becomes clear that the idea of tranquility, while indeed present in the novel, is always just out of reach, buried under the complexity of power, cults, motherhood, and childhood trauma. The tension in the book has an immediacy to it that might prompt most readers to speed along, riding the fast-paced narrative to its stirring climax. To do so, though, would risk missing an intricately layered tale that forces us to untangle trust from obligation, care from fear, and devotion from affection.

In her debut novel, Playing, Abrams tackled the lofty subject of kink and alternative sexuality with precision and subtlety. Here we get that same meticulous eye turned to the world of spiritual/communal life and alternative parenting.

I caught up with Abrams via Zoom, and our discussion, through its medium of isolation and social distance, felt very much attuned to the current chaos of the world around us.

The Millions: In the novel, two of the main characters, Simrin and Arjun, grew up on a compound called Ananda. Throughout the book, the reader can’t help but think about what is or isn’t a cult. By the novel’s end, we may have an idea of what is, but we’re still unclear on what isn’t. Do you think of Ananda as a cult?

Melanie Abrams: I thought a lot about this both during the writing of the book and after, and I really struggled with what to call both Meadowlark and Ananda – cults, intentional communities, communes, counter-communities, and (specifically for Ananda) an “austere spiritual compound.” Labeling either of these communities as “cults” felt reductive and unnuanced, but there’s no doubt that some of the more nefarious aspects of cults are present in both.

I did a lot of research on cults and there’s agreement that a cult generally has three features: 1) a charismatic leader who eventually becomes the defining element of the group, 2) some sort of brainwashing that eventually leads to members doing things that aren’t in their best interest, and 3) economic or sexual exploitation by the leader or higher ups. By this definition, Ananda probably wasn’t a cult in the early days, and you can even see members actively resisting this definition when, post-Waco, the kids are “drilled to answer prying questions about their lifestyle with, ‘Ananda Nagar is not a cult. A cult maintains totalitarian control over its members and is led by a self-appointed leader who has complete authority.’” But by the time Simrin, Arjun, and Jaishri run away, it does seem to adhere pretty closely to the above definition of a cult.

TM: What kind of research did you do on cults to write this book? Were there any specific examples that you used in your writing?

MA: I’ve always been fascinated by cultish environments—from outright cults (like The People’s Temple) to intense self-improvement courses (like Lifespring) to fundamentalist religions (evangelical Christianity)—so being able to justify going down the rabbit hole of research in service to the book was incredibly fun (although, clearly, also painful).

Eventually, I narrowed my focus to cultish environments with either a large population of children or where children were somehow the focus of the ideology of the group. This took me all kinds of places. The saddest was probably researching The Children of God who believed sex with children was a divine right, but I also branched out into learning about more benign communities. Living in Northern California was great because we’re at the epicenter of where commune life began, so I was able to interview people who grew up on Adidam and Black Bear Ranch and hear about what it was like to be raised in these environments.

I also was interested in alternative ways of raising children, so I did a lot of research on families who subscribe to untraditional philosophies like unschooling, where children don’t go to school and instead let life be their teacher, or who believe in concepts like indigo children which is a New Age theory that believes some children possess supernatural abilities. You can definitely see these childrearing ideas at play in Meadowlark.

TM: And how was the novel shaped, or perhaps how did it change based on some of that research?

MA: When I talked to people who were raised on some of the Bay Area communes I mentioned, I was actually surprised to find most of these people had almost exclusively fond memories of their time growing up (or they were refusing to engage with the negative memories). I think this is partly why I was reluctant to make either Ananda or Meadowlark “too” bad, that and the fact that both communities grow out of a very altruistic place and only begin to devolve when the characters are about to leave.

I hope both communities come off as nuanced, but…I can’t ignore that my initial nuance was probably too nuanced. Ananda was always the strict spiritual compound that Simrin and Arjun bristle against, but in early drafts, it lacked the harsher punishments that are now in the book. Luckily, I had some fantastic readers, and both my agent and editor said, “yeah…you got to make this place worse.” Narrative-wise, it was just difficult for readers to understand why two teenagers would run away from the only world they’ve known without some kind of pretty significant inciting incident. And they were right. With students, I’m always talking about how whatever you write must be in service to the story. Characters need to want something and something has to be at stake. You can’t make a spiritual compound relatively bad and expect your main characters to want to get out. Not much is at stake if running away just earns some extra cleaning duties.

Likewise, I also have a habit of idealizing characters (at least in early drafts), and this happened with Arjun. He is a golden boy, and it was easy for me to see him exclusively through Simrin and Bethany’s rose-tinted glasses. Harder was seeing that in order for Simrin and Bethany to have the epiphanies they do and the narrative to really work, Arjun couldn’t just be misguided, but had to also be intentionally manipulative and narcissistic.

TM: For your first book, Playing, we did an interview that focused primarily on kink and sexuality. This book doesn’t touch on those subjects, or at least not in overt ways. But I wonder in what ways interpersonal power dynamics, similar to those in Playing, are still at work here.

MA: The novel I’m working on now is all about sex, drugs, and rock’n’ roll, so the more Dionysian elements will be back soon. But yes, I do think there are power dynamics at play in Meadowlark, and for those looking hard enough, even some pain/pleasure.

I hope Arjun is more nuanced than just being the charismatic power-hungry player at the center of the book, but he is definitely intoxicated by attention and spends much of the book either jockeying for or occupying a place of control. When he’s young, you can see him trying on what it feels like to be the “chosen one” and rejecting Simrin when she doesn’t tow the line. And, of course, as an adult, he’s very comfortable sacrificing a whole community of people so he can advance his agenda and stay in the spotlight. I think the difference in this book is that although the women surrounding him allow for some of his grandiosity, they are ultimately the ones who refuse to submit to his vanity. They are firmly in control, direct the narrative, and determine what happens to them, and Arjun.

And, maybe, I can never completely get away from the idea of pain and pleasure as cohorts. Ananda, the ashram Simrin and Arjun run away from as teenagers, hold this idea as a central tenet: “‘Pain and pleasure revolve like a wheel.’ If you didn’t like something, the grown-ups would say, wait patiently for the wheel to spin. They hadn’t liked a lot of things, but they had endured. Pain, then pleasure; pleasure, then pain.”

I’ve always been fascinated by this binary—whether in a sexual context or while moving through the world. We’re constantly moving from pain to pleasure and back again. Even motherhood travels fluidly on this pain/pleasure continuum, and you see this in the book. Simrin and Bethany were constantly hurt by their own mothers and are constantly trying to course correct with their own daughters. Sometimes they succeed, but the truth is there is always pain in being someone’s mother, and in being someone’s daughter. As well, I was really interested in exploring what it means to connect and disconnect which maybe exists on its own wheel—the pleasure of really knowing someone, of really feeling seen, and the pain of losing that.

TM: You have this really impactful way of positioning adages or aphorisms as both clichés and as deeper truths within the world of the characters. Simrin’s mother, in a scene that is both terribly sad and almost comical, says “to want is both to desire and to lack.” Do you think that balance of seriousness with something like absurdity plays a role in the way your characters develop?

MA: I’ve always loved writers who are able to capture both the tragedy and the comedy of life in their writing (think: the unrivaled Lorrie Moore), so I’ll happily take the compliment, but I think it has more to do with the idea of connection and disconnection, or feeling seen and feeling invisible. Simrin’s mother, the higher ups at Ananda, even Arjun espouse these very self-helpy truths. When Simrin’s mother says the above line, it’s ridiculous. She’s completely blind to Simrin and what Simrin has lost, but the comedy (I hope!) stems from this—from being completely invisible to the people who should see you most clearly while also being able to see the absurdity of this.

Even Juniper, at 11, sees this in her father. She’s most uncomfortable with her father’s idea that Meadowlark kids have “the power to do anything” because she’s pretty sure it’s not true. But what do you do with the knowledge that your parent is outright lying to you? It’s very hard for children to see their parents as deeply flawed. Much easier for children to internalize and see themselves as flawed. It’s why childhood trauma is so insidious. It makes the victim feel at fault, which is of course tragic, but when victims are able to finally see, there’s anger of course but also a kind of perverse humor that comes with finally being able to see clearly because how can it not be absurd? To have been told your whole life the sky is green only to find out it’s the blue you were pretty sure it was to begin with? If you don’t also find it absurd, it would kill you.

TM: Motherhood, in this novel, feels central to understanding the full breadth and depth of how you’re exploring attachment. How did you navigate both critiquing and embracing the concept of attachment, and how important did it feel in crafting this book?

MA: It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that I didn’t really know I was writing a book about motherhood until it was very much done. I did know that I was writing a book about connection
and disconnection, being seen and unseen, basically about the effects of childhood trauma (which, for better or worse, seems to be what I write about). But obviously, this is a book all about motherhood—the relationships we have to our own mothers and the relationships we have to our children. Both Bethany and Simrin have mothers that are checked out at best and abusive at worst, but both Bethany and Simrin are determined to not repeat this. They’re, unequivocally, much better mothers than their own, and their attachment to their children is much healthier, but even “good” mothers are flawed.

And good mothers see that their attachment to their children is strong, but not everything. Simrin can help Quinn navigate the world, but she can’t make it easy for her. In fact, she’s partly to blame for passing on the synesthesia that complicates Quinn’s life. And Bethany, despite attempting to distance herself completely from her past and the world that hurt her, can’t alleviate Juniper’s pain. She sees “her own hypervigilance in so much of how Juniper approaches the world, the same cost-benefit analysis of nearly every situation” and is taken aback by the fact that “so much of what she has always assumed is nurture–she is surprised to find–is nature.”

TM: Since you mentioned how you often write about childhood trauma, one thing I’ve noticed is how frequently other writers, even very talented, thoughtful writers, default to easy explanations regarding the subject, instead opting for puzzle pieces that fit nicely together. You don’t seem content with that though, and I’m wondering if that nuance is something that came naturally to you or if it was something you had to work at?

MA: I think all writers are interested in nuance. Even in genre fiction where “good” guys and “bad” guys are expected, good writers hope to create multifaceted complicated people. I think the problem comes when writers try to make characters fit perfectly within a narrative. I was aware of this in my first book. The main character is fundamentally shaped by a single childhood accident that dictates much of her life, but she also comes to see that whom she is has been shaped by more than just one incident. She’s shaped by nature, nurture, trauma, etc.

In Meadowlark you can also see the characters shaped by their childhoods. Simrin and Arjun grow up under strict dictates. Still, this trauma allows an incredibly strong and tender bond to develop between them, and it’s both the trauma and the connection that drives them as characters and allows the book to unfold the way it does. I think the key is to allow your characters to drive the narrative, not the other way around. If you create complex people, you’ll (hopefully!) create complex, compelling plot.

As well, I think most writers have experienced some kind of trauma in their development. Why else would we feel propelled to do this excruciating work if not partly to make sense of some of our wounds? Still, I wasn’t raised in a cult (like Simrin) or forced into the entertainment business (like Bethany), but I think that’s the joy of writing. You can channel your own trauma and make narrative sense of it, something harder to do in real life. I’ve always loved the Lorrie Moore quote, “The proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What the cook takes from the cupboard is not the same thing as what is in the cupboard.” I think good writers take what’s in their cupboards and make lovely, messy sense of it.

Bonus Links:
Cultic with a Chance of Rain: The Novel and Cults and Novels About Cults
From Father Divine to Jim Jones: On the Phenomenon of American Messiahs

An American Nightmare: The Millions Interviews Dave Eggers

With the presidential election drawing near, it seems there has been an increase in Trump-related books, though the publishing industry has steadily published titles about Trump or inspired by him since he took office. Dave Eggers, author of numerous books, founder of McSweeney’s and Scholar Match, and co-founder of 826 Valencia and Voice of Witness, has reported on Trump’s presidency for The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, and recently turned to fiction to focus on the subject.

Eggers’s latest book, The Captain and the Glory, is a hybrid of political satire and allegory that begins when a new captain, modeled after Trump, takes over a cruise ship called the Glory. The book presents the Captain as cowardly—he hides under his bed, listening to a voice in a vent—and cruel. While the ending of this slim novel is hopeful, the inhumane acts may be what linger most for readers.

During what is now commonly known as “the before times,” I spoke with Eggers at the McSweeney’s office in San Francisco to discuss The Captain and the Glory. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the upcoming elections, the American Dream and Nightmare, and Trump’s cruel policies. 

The Millions: What do you think is at stake this election?

Dave Eggers: Well, I don’t think I could handle four more years myself, but whether it’s four more years or just a year, I do believe that we can bounce back and think that the values that we typically live and stand for will be restored. I think he’s once in a lifetime. There’s nobody with his combination of fame, charisma, madness, and seeming expertise in certain things. There’s nobody like that, there hasn’t been, and I don’t think there will be.

I think that the dignity of the office will humble the next person in the way it’s supposed to. That’s what I hope and believe, and that’s what I wrote at the ending of this book, because I actually can’t imagine it being any other way. If there was another person like him in the wings I would be scared, but I don’t know if that person exists.

TM: In a PBS NewsHour interview, you mentioned that the American Dream “is always alive and always under threat.” I think that The Captain and the Glory is your take on the American Dream, specifically post the 2016 election, and I like to define these kinds of terms and concepts. How do you define the American Dream?

DE: Well, you walked through Scholar Match on the way here and that to me is the embodiment of the American Dream, where higher education is much more accessible here than it is in any other country; we have more colleges, we have more of an egalitarian approach to it. Higher education has been the catapult to class mobility since the beginning of the Republic, since Alexander Hamilton came from the Caribbean and got his degree and came here with nothing and ended up as Secretary of Treasury and one of the framers of the nation.

You see the American Dream alive every single day, and the most sort of bedrock and corny aspects of it—if you work hard, you can get ahead; if you play by the rules, as they say, you will be given opportunities. You know, I’m from the Midwest, we believe in some simple but provable concepts. I believe that’s where I define the American Dream, where it is about anyone from here or from elsewhere in the world, if they come here, opportunity is available—it is not always available, but for so many, tens of thousands, if not millions, every year, it becomes a reality.

At the same time, I think that Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, when he was part of the administration, all of these people, would very much like to limit the access to that American Dream and pull up the ladder, close up the borders, and keep a white majority and limit those opportunities to people that are already here and can prove their lineage to Norway ideally. I think that’s where it’s always under threat.

I don’t think in our lifetime the American Dream, as it pertains to new arrivals, has ever been so explicitly denied. There might have been implicit or quiet ways of making people feel unwelcome, or favoring certain groups, but this is the first time in our lifetime where from the highest levels we’ve said, Enough, enough of any of you from countries that we don’t consider favorable to our national demographic. It’s never been so punitively and cruelly stated, I think.

TM: It’s been said that we’re living in a moment of crisis, that these things have always been present, and the volume has been turned up. I think you partially answered this next question, but how would you define the American Nightmare?

DE: Well, I think in many ways we’re living in it, in the cruelty, the denial of rights, the denial of the rule of law, the naked xenophobia, the glorification of ignorance in a way, the black hole culturally speaking of the White House—having no recognition of any cultural contributions that the United States has or makes or can export. It’s been the first administration in probably 100 years that hasn’t had one artist visit the White House at any time. Instead, like out of any authoritarian playbook, there is an exaltation of the military, of the police, of anyone in Europe, of order. For a liberal democracy, this is as far as we can go toward illiberal authoritarianism without completely breaking the American experiment.

At the same time, weirdly, our checks and balances and our legal system and organizations like the ACLU, keep proving every day that there are ways to thwart, slow down, push hurdles in front of, and outright defeat so many of these policies. One of the most encouraging moments was seeing Ivanovic and Bill Taylor, and dedicated civil servants, come out with incredible earnestness and talk about their work and talk about the mission that they’re tasked with and how important it is to create a hedge against Russian imperialism. It was heartening to see there are tens of thousands of people like this in the government that are so sincere. They are what make the government run and hold themselves and the country to the highest standards.

It was restorative to see civil servants in public expressing basic outrage about what they see as an infringement on and an abasement of the dignity of their mission. That makes me think that there are so many more of them than there are the Trumps and the Bill Barrs. The vast majority of Washington and all government systems are sincere people.

TM: It sounds like that even though you think that we’re living in a nightmare, knowing that these folks work in the government, helps you feel more hopeful or secure about the future.

DE: Yeah, it was a good reminder. I think the foundation is strong. There’s a certain amount of damage you can do from the Oval office, but I don’t think that it’s enough to irrevocably alter that foundation.

TM: You’ve talked about scaling down setting and characters in The Captain and the Glory in order to satirize D.C. What things did you intentionally leave out?

DE: Melania, it started with Melania, maybe. It’s both too easy and too mean.

TM: In what ways?

DE: Well, I had passages written about somebody like Melania, and it seemed too broad, actually, and I guess too easy. I was about to say I consider her a victim of this predatory clown, but I don’t think that she’s a victim.

I think you have to decide on who that cast of characters is. When you shrink the cast and the setting and you create a universe with its own rules, you don’t have to at all conform to the logic of D.C. or a government anymore. There’s something inherently funny about a cruise ship, and the people that work on it. At the same time, if you consider what is to be a happy, celebratory atmosphere and turn it a little bit and the people that serve you mojitos and lay out the deck chairs become a pseudo-militia that carries out what amounts to ritualized drownings of certain people, then it can get really dark, really quickly. I wanted that to be part of it from the start. There’s this ridiculousness at the superficial level, which we’re living with, but then, at the same time, Trump and his cohorts enact policies that have ended the lives of countless people and created a culture of menace and fear for millions.

I was visiting a family that I wrote about before, that has been living in a church basement for a year and a half. A woman that came here because her ex had threatened her life, and she was quite sure if she didn’t leave, she would be killed. She left one child with her mom, came up here with her youngest child, presented herself at the border, applied for asylum, and they gave her a court location but no date. They said they would tell her the date and time of the court appearance. They never did and they tried her in absentia and they issued a final order of deportation. If she goes home, she dies. She has two American kids now, she’s been working— she’s exactly who we should be protecting in every way, and we should be keeping her with her American children where they can do harm to no one and live their lives in peace; but instead, the government has put the full force of its authority into removing her. They most recently fined her almost $300,000. They issued a terrifying letter saying that she owed the government $300,000. They tried to lure her out of the church, so that they could arrest and deport her, which they do a lot of times. And that level of venom and cruelty is, at least to me, new and soul shaking and hard to live with.

There’s the ludicrous communication and superficial appearance and clownishness, and then there’s this cruelty and our capacity for tolerating cruelty. Those were the two themes of the book from the beginning.

TM: Yes, and in the Captain and the Glory, there seems to be an attempt to get at the Captain’s internal reality, almost as a way to explain why those themes exist. In the book, it seems that his fear and paranoia are fueling the clownishness and cruelty.

DE: Yeah, and in the book, the Captain starts as a little bit more of an empty vessel than Trump is, I think, in real life, and the voice in the vent articulates and confirms his fears and gives him an action plan for them. In my studies of Trump, he’s always been a racist and he’s always been a xenophobe, but it turned up many notches when he ran, and I think his handlers, starting with Bannon and Miller and others, convinced him that this was important to his base. I’m sure Nixon was the same kind of fearful and loathing personality, but, in public, he had some discipline about expressing it. Trump’s lack of discipline is actually the reason why we see the nutty side.

If you read the tweets before he was in office, more and more, he was always inclined toward the conspiracy, whether it was Muslims dancing after 9/11 or starting with the Central Park Five. He was always ready to believe the worst of anyone that wasn’t white, for one thing. Then he started courting and being advised by people like Bannon, Alex Jones, Stephen Miller, and coddling the alt-right—that was the voice in the vent, originally it was an amalgam of Alex Jones, Stephen Miller, Bannon—people that do present a bleak, paranoid, fearful view of the world that is about threats and about invading hordes. He gravitates towards those voices, because they stoke these fearful embers in him and that is something that’s fascinating to me.

I was trying to get at that the Captain is such a cowardly person that he has to live largely under his bed, and there has his fears confirmed and articulated by this disembodied voice. It’s one of those things where it started writing itself, because a lot of this was written in a stream of consciousness, in the first draft. Sometimes that’s where you get your best and purest truth—when you just let go and, like the shaping of a dream, you realize afterward that it’s speaking to something that you haven’t been able to articulate otherwise. I think writing from the subconscious is rewarding sometimes.

TM: Slightly related to the subconscious, I was thinking about symbolism. I was thinking about the vent and the ship and what they might mean on a symbolic level. But I think you might be fascinated with ships, or maybe they appear in your work because of San Francisco, your setting.

DE: Well, obviously I think it’s subliminal—you’re always seeing oceans, water, island, and ships. Once I knew that to make this at all interesting, it couldn’t be in D.C., and it couldn’t be exactly now, it couldn’t be landlocked or land-bound; you do have to completely change the venue to tell a story that has parallels, but doesn’t kneel before the facts at all times. You have to tell your own story that is appealing and entertaining on its own—and I was determined to do that.

I wanted the story to go into even darker places, and to show nobody aboard that ship is suited to revive it—they’ve been transformed, paralyzed, and desiccated, and it’s only those from elsewhere that have heard the legend of the Glory that are equipped to restore it and to believe in the mythology and to believe in those books of laws and principals. Refugees from tiny vessels come having recovered the floating manuals and guiding principles and laws, saying, I thought you might want these back. I didn’t know that was the ending until I wrote it.

TM: Right. You didn’t know that that’s where you were heading. Given that it’s a book about the American Dream, and that you believe in the foundation of the government, and you believe in the American Dream, it makes sense that your subconscious would take you there, right?

DE: Yeah, I’ve always said the people that dream the American Dream the best are immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants—it’s always been that way—I don’t think there’s any exception. We’re not ourselves without constant influx of new people, that has always been the energy of this country and it always will be. On a basic entrepreneurial level, all the statistics say immigrants are double or triple the rate of entrepreneurship and that’s important to me—I am sort of an entrepreneur, too.

I hope that we’ll be okay. The number of asylum seekers we’re taking in has dropped almost to historic lows, the number of turnarounds at the border is higher, higher than ever. It will take a lot of effort to get that back up again, because it’s hard to open the doors once people have gotten used to them being closed. But I do think that the people that will remind us of why this country exists are not necessarily going to be the Stephen Millers and Bannons and Trumps of the world—it’s gonna be people that actually have read and believed in the words that define the country in the first place.

TM: Earlier you mention cutting Melania out. I’ve been thinking about the Captain’s fascination with his daughter. As a reader, I think it’s clear he has sexual desire for her—the way he’s looking at her. It’s something that the narrator goes back to again and again, and I’m interested in why this book includes it.

DE: The book is mirroring his public comments on Howard Stern and elsewhere, and when he said, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, I’d perhaps be dating her.” Because there are too many outrages to count, we forget 90 percent of them in any one assessment. We elected somebody who had been accused of and demonstrably was a predator, bragged about it, and also expressed amorous interest in some way or objectified his daughter in the national media. There were certain things that I wanted to remind people of.

TM: You mentioned being an entrepreneur. In an interview on Connecticut Public Radio, you listed some attributes that you thought should be necessary for the president. You mentioned empathy and knowing the Constitution, among other things. The presidency is kind of a macro example of leadership. What attributes do you think are necessary for leaders on a more micro level, in small businesses or institutions?

DE: Empathy, again, of course. There are positions for people that lack empathy and they could be in places where they could do less harm. I think empathy is genetically predisposed to have more or less, but I also think it’s something that could be taught, simply by reading a lot and listening a lot.

Intellectual flexibility, curiosity, eagerness to listen and learn, a presumption that you don’t know much and that everybody around you can teach you so much every day. I think one of the great joys of life is you go through it knowing how little you know and taking such pleasure in the relief that you’re really not going to know 99 percent of anything. So, if you consider yourself a vessel that has room to be filled, then that’s so liberating in a way. I’ve learned so much even in the last 20 years being with McSweeney’s.

With 826, I knew 100 percent I did not have any qualifications to run a nonprofit, so I was going to do mostly listening and helping along. All Nínive Calegari, the co-founder, and I ever did really was aggregate everyone’s ideas into a workable form and execute them. So tenacity, the ability to achieve the result, would be the last attribute.

Bonus Links:
A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s ‘The Circle’
The Perils of Writing Wilderness: On Dave Eggers’s ‘Heroes of the Frontier’
Stranger in a Strange Land: Dave Eggers’s ‘The Parade’

Too Beautifully Sinister Not to Indulge: The Millions Interviews Adam Wilson

Adam Wilson’s second novel, Sensation Machines, opens on Michael and Wendy, a couple desperate to eradicate their home of bedbugs, and from there the novel quickly swoops and swarms to include a murder, a corporate conspiracy, a world-changing invention, and the rampant disquiet of global economic pressures. It’s a novel based in relationships that sprawls to a worldly view.

Wilson’s debut, Flatscreen, showcased an intrepid youth fighting through a haze of drugs and dashed sexual hopes, and his story collection, What’s Important Is Feeling, followed a host of pseudo-adults through tough though often hilarious moments. Sensation Machines likewise deals out its fair share of sad people in sad existences, but it also uncovers how much our society informs our behavior, how inundated we are by technology, and how beset we are with problems of our own making.

Wilson’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, and The Best American Short Stories. The brilliance of Sensation Machines is in the author’s smooth and utterly believable worldbuilding, even if the future represented here is one to fear rather than embrace, one to work against instead of one to apathetically claim.

The Millions: One of the first elements that struck me about Sensation Machines was the worldbuilding risks you took, blending contemporary life with an invented future. In the novel, people still ride around in cars, but baristas are robots and food is delivered by drones. How tough was it to ride that line, to invent a future setting while staying within a realm that is so (frighteningly) close to us?

Adam Wilson: It was a big challenge, and one that quickly became more challenging with Trump’s election in 2016. I started working on Sensation Machines in 2011, and my original idea was to write a novel set around the 2008 Wall Street crash. The problem was that the more research I did, the less interested I became in writing something grounded in such a specific historical moment. Reimagining the book in a near-future setting felt freeing; I liked being able to make stuff up. But of course, then the world started changing very rapidly, and it became increasingly more difficult to imagine what that near-future might look like. I ended up having to do a lot of re-writing to ensure that my dystopia was appropriately dystopic.

TM: In a similar way, you reference historical events like the #MeToo Movement and the Occupy Wall Street protests to further feed the worldbuilding. Was this an organic development, or was it a calculated move to house the novel’s roots in the very real problems of society?

AW: It was organic in the sense that I tend to be drawn toward the zeitgeist. Fiction, for me, is in part a venue for sorting out my feelings about what’s going on in the culture. And what I like about fiction is that it feels like a safe place to explore those feelings without needing to put forward any kind of concrete thesis or answer. As I said, I started working on this novel in 2011, in the midst of Occupy, and I think I started writing about it just to see if I could figure out what Occupy was and how I felt about it. The same goes for a lot of the material in the book. There are certainly musicians–including other rappers–who have meant much more to me than Eminem has, but I wanted to write about him because I’ve never quite known where I stand on him, or what an appropriate attitude toward his music might look like. It feels inherently fraught to proclaim oneself an Eminem fan, and that makes for the kind of friction that I’m interested in exploring.

TM: In exploring those subjects–Eminem and Occupy–did the novel help you to find where you stand on each of them, how you feel about them?

AW: Well, I think Occupy is a fundamentally good thing, though I’d still be hard pressed to define it. And I’m still ambivalent about Eminem, an artist whose imagination and skill I greatly admire, but whose art will always, on some level, disappoint me. But my hope is that the novel asks more questions than it answers. Which is not to say it doesn’t have a worldview–and one of deep and abiding skepticism at that–but that I’d like to think its spirit is more searching than didactic.

TM: And yet even with all the heavy context, Sensation Machines is laugh-out-loud funny in so many places. How do you navigate the injection of humor into what is a pretty downtrodden backdrop and often despondent characters?

AW: Humor tends to be my default mode, so the challenge for me isn’t in injecting humor–it’s usually the first thing that’s there–but in making sure the humor doesn’t come at the expense of a deeper emotional engagement, and that, in fact, it works in the service of the larger story I’m trying to tell. And it is a challenge—it’s very hard to get myself to cut a good joke! But sometimes it needs to be done. Luckily, outside readers can be very useful arbiters of which jokes don’t warrant inclusion. The book’s editor, Mark Doten, is a joke-cutter extraordinaire.

TM: In the first portion of the book, the perspective strictly toggles between Wendy and Michael, while in the second we get several new characters and their viewpoints. Where did this structure come from, and what was the intent behind holding off on the rest of the cast in the beginning?

AW:  Originally, the book was going to all be in first person a la The Savage Detectives, and in those early drafts the whole cast came out right from the beginning. But navigating between so many first-person voices was a challenge, and so much jumping around at the beginning was an impediment to narrative thrust.

When I started writing the book, I knew that I wanted to use a big canvas to tell an idea-driven story, but I also wanted the novel to feel intimate and human in a way that I’m often disappointed that big canvas novels aren’t. To pull this off, it felt like I needed the novel to somehow both include a big cast of characters and be primarily focused on just a couple of them. Its success is not for me to judge, but the structure I landed on was written with this goal in mind.

TM: The third section “Parentheses” references Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and her notion of a death that is parenthetical or “just announced in parentheses without commentary.” In this section, we see the beginning of Wendy and Michael’s relationship, which took place just after 9/11. How much does 9/11 influence the characters in Sensation Machines? How much does it influence your writing?

AW: I was wary of approaching 9/11, in large part because it’s been written about so much over the last couple decades, and written about so well by heroes of mine like Deborah Eisenberg and Don DeLillo. But the farther I got into the novel, the clearer it became that this event would have been formative for my protagonists, and that to avoid it was a cop-out. But I also knew that I needed to approach it from a fresh angle, and the thing I landed on was this question of what it would be like for 9/11 to occur between this couple’s first and second dates. One of the novel’s big subjects is the relationship between individuals and world-historical events, both in terms of how these events are shaped by the choices made by individual people, and also how these events shape individual lives. Having Wendy pursue a career in advertising because she’s in awe of the media’s manipulation of this national tragedy felt too beautifully sinister not to indulge.

TM: Although you’ve written Sensation Machines into a dystopia, in the final movement of the novel, Wendy’s sleazy colleague Greg says, “We’re living in something very close to a utopia. Food is in abundance. So is medical care. Cars run on sunlight. Meat grows on trees. If you cut off your finger you can print a new one at home and fly in Drone MD to inject you with anesthetic and sew it back on.” Would you want to live in this kind of a world? Do some of us already, in a way?

AW: We’re living in some version of it, yes. The book is meant to be hyperbolic, but not exponentially so.  And certainly technological advancement can be a really amazing thing–I’m not arguing otherwise. But I think what the novel asks readers to be wary of is the way certain changes in the culture–some of which are brought about by technology–are so quickly and skillfully packaged, sold, and integrated before we’ve really had a chance to think through their possible consequences.

TM: Although in terms of characterization and relationships this book bears a striking resemblance to your debut, Flatscreen, the worldbuilding and futurescape of Sensation Machines is new. Is this departure a one-off, or something you’ll chase down again?

AW: I keep trying to make every project as different from the previous one as possible, but I inevitably end up back on my bullshit, as the kids say. It seems hard to imagine writing something set in a near future right now when that near future feels so impossible to predict, and yet, I find myself tinkering with the idea anyway, probably because I’m a masochist.

TM: What are you working on now? What new projects do you have simmering?

AW: I haven’t had any time to write since the pandemic hit. My wife works full-time at a demanding tech job, so I’ve had to be a one-man daycare for our two-year-old son. But before that, I was just finding my footing in a new novel that I’m not quite ready to talk about yet, but that I hope to get back to sometime soon.

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Adam Wilson

Searching for Home: The Millions Interviews Aimee Nezhukumatathil

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, the debut book of essays from poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, made me nostalgic for my childhood—spent poring over encyclopedias and marveling at the entries on animals. 

In fact, I wish Nezhukumatathil would have written those entries—her unique mixture of humor, contemplation, memoir, insight, and paradox reveals the complexities of our natural world. Complemented by beautiful illustrations from Fumi Mini Nakamura, World of Wonders is appropriate to its title. 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poems. Her most recent book, Oceanic, won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, ESPN, and Tin House. A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, she is a professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. 

We spoke about how her parents inspired her love of nature, the difference between writing poetry and essays, and who gets to tell their stories of the outdoors.

The Millions: Your books of poetry, especially your latest, Oceanic, reveal a world of wonder through verse. How does prose—in the form of essays—affect how you think and write about the natural world?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: For me having the space in an essay allows me to unfurl and roll out an image creating whole scenes and while I still use elements of poetry, (metaphor, music, alliteration, etc.), writing an essay allows me to linger instead of rushing down the page.

TM: “A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark, too dark, our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless midwestern light.” These are the first two sentences of the book, and I love the poetic paradox of the second line. This reference puts your mother at the literal front of your narrative, and she appears throughout the book, as do other family members. How do you envision your perception of your mother as it relates to the way you see and appreciate nature?

AN: I love that question, but I’m much more interested in seeing how readers see both of my parents, Asian immigrants helping their bookish eldest daughter navigate white spaces both in and out of doors. But I will say that my mother and my father were my first environmental teachers, and silently watching them hold their heads up high while they experienced racism throughout my childhood and yet still maintained their sense of wonder absolutely informs how I shaped this book.

TM: In one section of the book, you describe that most of a beetle’s life is in the shadows: “When we see these beacons flashing their lights, they usually have one or two weeks left to live.” You then write: “Learning this as a child—I could often be found walking slowly around untrimmed lawns, stalling and not quite ready to go inside for dinner—made me melancholy, even in the face of their brilliance.” You have a talent for creating such a mood in your writing: for lack of a better word, I would almost call it a “comfortable” sense of melancholy, a type of resigned peace. What about the natural, wild world elicits that feeling for you? 

AN: Thank you so very much! The easy answer is that being outside was always a place of comfort and magic for me. Fireflies never asked me “what are you?” But I also realize with great sadness that feeling of comfort does not exist for everyone, especially many of my friends of color. There is so much that I don’t know about the natural world but I view that curiosity as a good thing, a place where I feel alive and my pulse quickens because I genuinely want to know the hows and the whys of creatures and plants with whom I share this planet.

TM: Early in the book, you write about the fragile comb jelly, whose “hundreds of thousands of cilia flash mini-rainbows even in the darkest polar and tropical ocean zones,” but which must be handled with the tenderest care (“If you want to observe one up close, scoop it into a clear cup and take a look-see that way.”) That image stayed with me when I read your description of suburban Phoenix in the 1980s: “an abandoned white roller skate, its neon-pink bootlace frayed,” in the parking lot of Fry’s Food and Drug. How you “wore keys tied to yarn around our necks or fastened with a giant safety pin in our pockets like our moms showed us,” since “those were the days our teachers told us of kids who never came home from school.” You mention wanting a “sentinel” of your own, something “to watch out for us.” There feels like a tension between the wild (or perceived wild) world and the constructed safety of the domestic. Where does nature fit within this tension? 

AN: That’s a marvelous question. So much nature writing I grew up with only focused on the wild or places where humans did not primarily live. And these narratives were beautiful and haunting but I had hoped to find someone who could experience awe and wonder from the suburbs or rural small-town America, where a person with brown skin learned to navigate the outdoors and the “constructed safety of the domestic.” You can imagine the pickings were slim to none. I guess I just internalized that for so long, and that, coupled with me not being a scientist but instead a writing professor, meant that my narratives would be inauthentic somehow. But over the years I’ve been happily proven wrong as readers from all over the world have assured me. I’m just hoping to open up more of a conversation about whose outdoor experiences get told and taught and why.

TM: “I’ve felt the sting of moving from home to home.” There’s an itinerant theme to this book; in a way, it feels connected to the cartographic sense of your poetry, with you as explorer (of memories, of narratives). Often in the book you metaphorically connect yourself with animals. Could you talk about these themes of migration and perhaps even metamorphosis? Did the writing of this book—the arranging and retelling of these experiences—move or change you? 

AN: The central question of searching for home is one I’ve been trying to answer my whole writing life, and I imagine I’ll spend the rest of my life answering in some way or another. I have different answers for that now in 2020, married and with two tween boys than what I had when I was a newlywed, or when I was fresh out of grad school, or when I was 10 and looking at the nature books I checked out from our school library and wondering why I never saw an Asian American in them. I wrote a good portion of the book after the 2016 election and I’m not going to lie, there were many difficult days in writing about wonder and belonging, when most of the current leadership’s platform was built on fear, xenophobia, and a distrust for knowledge/science. But on my darkest days of writing, when I thought of my loved ones—it was easy to insist on and remember how good it feels to express astonishment and to be curious about others. I try to not be prescriptive in this book, because really, who am I to tell other people how they should live—but my hope is that readers are guided towards a possibility of tenderness and wonderment towards other living things.

Bonus Link: —A Year in Reading: Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Pointing Toward Truth: The Millions Interviews David Hollander

His website never once mentions his name. A Twitter account named The Fexo—of which he dubiously denies ownership—claims to be the author of his work. The self-effacing David Hollander nevertheless showed little trepidation about sitting down with me for an interview, appearing promptly on my computer screen via Zoom one day in July, with the Covid-19 pandemic still peaking in the United States and the September 1 release of his second novel, Anthropica—delayed from May 1st—once again in sight.

Anthropica is the long overdue follow-up to Hollander’s debut novel, L.I.E., which was published in 2000 when the author was 30 years old. A pillar of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, Hollander has toiled in near-obscurity for 20 years, publishing fiction in a variety of literary magazines but coming up short in his efforts to publish a second book. Those loyal fans and former students who have kept up with his literary output know that Hollander’s imagination, syntactical verve, and distinctively bleak sense of humor remain undiminished. With its talking robots and scientific mumbo-jumbo,,its awe at the profound mysteries of the universe and alternating love and disdain for human endeavors, Anthropica proves to be a stylistic and thematic culmination after a long period of refinement and reflection.

Two of the three co-founders of Animal Riot Press, Katie Rainey and Brian Birnbaum, studied with Hollander at Sarah Lawrence in the mid-2010s. As his close confidants in the years since graduating, Rainey and Birnbaum conspired from the outset to work with Hollander on bringing out his unpublished manuscript, the initial draft of which was completed around 2014. And indeed, Anthropica is only the second title published by this fledgling press, making it a crucial book in shaping Animal Riot’s literary sensibility.

I was especially curious to hear from Hollander about the process of being published by former students, and the experience of having the editorial tables turned. But first, I wanted to learn more about his writing practice since the publication of his first novel.

The Millions: You published L.I.E. three years after finishing your MFA at Sarah Lawrence. How did it get picked up by Random House?

David Hollander: I got a call out of the blue from this high-power agent at ICM who had picked L.I.E. out of a slush pile accidentally; he mistook my name for someone else’s. He called me, and he was like, “Who are you? I really love your book.” At that point I’d spent a year or more querying blindly, having agents either refuse to look at the book or reject it quickly, sometimes even viciously. But within two weeks of my signing on with ICM, there was a bidding war for L.I.E. I like to hold that experience up to some of my later failures to publish books—I try to remember that rejection doesn’t necessarily dismiss a work’s worth or viability. In many ways publishing is a crapshoot. A book has to get to the right person at the right time, unless you’re connected in ways that I certainly am not.

TM: How did you react to that sudden success? Was there a sense that you were one of the rising stars from your MFA class?

DH: It’s funny. I’m trying to write an essay right now that talks about this, and what my own expectations were then. Yes, I certainly would have been seen as one of the rising stars of my MFA class, and I certainly saw myself that way, although I had adopted a humility so deeply false it almost convinced even me. But in fact, I thought I was the Next Big Thing. Random House had planned to print 25,000 copies and they had booked a national tour for me. But then, when advance sales figures were lower than Random House expected, they started scaling things back. The 15-city book tour became a five-city book tour, then it became a New York book tour, then it became essentially a bunch of readings out on Long Island to about four or five senior citizens. So everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, but I was not paying attention to any of it because I was too young, too inexperienced, and too lost in this vision I had of myself now as a successful writer.

TM: What did you make of the critical response to L.I.E.? Reviews, while mostly positive, tended to focus on the novel’s portrait of suburban malaise, which you’ve said is not its primary subject.

DH: It was a sad thing for me, because the parts of the book that were most roundly criticized were the parts that I thought were the most interesting, or at least the most personal. I was not that far removed from studying philosophy as an undergrad, where I got pretty deep into philosophy of mind and the study of consciousness. I was thinking a lot about selfhood, which I suspected was a mirage. In his essay “The Nothingness of Personality,” Borges keeps repeating a line: “There is no whole self.” That idea was pivotal for me in the construction of L.I.E. Harlan, the book’s protagonist, is discovering that he’s not real, that he’s a character in someone else’s story. The implication was that that’s true for all of us…the self we clutch white-knuckled is just a social construction. Anyway, no one even acknowledged that aspect of the book; there was not a single word about it in any of the reviews. It was shocking to me that I could have written a book that I thought for sure was about X but was perceived as being about Y. I learned a lesson from that, too—not that I should make my intentions clearer to the reader, but that I couldn’t control their responses the way I thought I could. That’s when I learned to expect to be misunderstood.

TM: Can you say more about the philosophical underpinnings of your writing? A lot of fiction that draws on philosophy incorporates some kind of discursive mode, which often uses characters as mouthpieces for ideas that the author wants the reader to consider. But that isn’t the case in L.I.E.; I think you found a way of embodying your theme in the book’s form, rather than making your characters sit around and dissertate.

DH: That’s a really generous observation, thank you. A book I really loved around that time was Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, in which characters are definitely having frequent, heavy conversations about art and philosophy. But that wasn’t what I loved about the book. To me, its philosophy was more fully felt through its structural conceit—there is more than one way to read or arrange the story, which to me spoke to ideas from French literary theory, that hierarchies are in opposition and that you could assemble this same narrative into many different shapes, each one informing a different conclusion. A story like Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” is, for me, similarly philosophical because its self-devouring structural arrangement suggests something about the nature of reality. It’s not just postmodern gimmickry: the fractured way in which that story proceeds feels much closer, to me, to what it really feels like to be a conscious creature moving through a shifting environment, than, say, the “realist” fictions of Alice Munro, which, while beautiful, don’t match my thought patterns in any way that I recognize.

TM: Are you proud of L.I.E. 20 years later? 

DH: In a word: yes. But it seems to have been written by a teenager. I really wish that there were not so many sexually explicit passages so that I could show it to my kids. In fact I wish I could take a lot of parts out, or rewrite them in a way that was more generous. I did not know anything about what it was like to be a middle-aged adult, for instance, and when characters in that demographic pass through stories in L.I.E. the writing is basically idiotic. But there’s also something about the quick pace and youthful energy of L.I.E. that I don’t think I could reproduce now. And I like that energy and feel nostalgic for a time when I could write that way.

TM: Have your kids read any of your other fiction? 

DH: So far they haven’t been that interested, although my older kid, who’s 13 now, really wants to read Anthropica, and I think I’m going to let them. They’re good at self-censoring, and I don’t think Anthropica has a lot of, like, explicit erotic stuff. There’s a nihilism to it, but my kids know my sense of humor by now and shouldn’t be too startled.

TM: While Anthropica is more conceptually and structurally sophisticated, more refined on the sentence level, and more generous in spirit (contrasted with the frequent nastiness of L.I.E.), to me it is recognizably the work of the same author.

 DH: No one else has said that, but then only half a dozen people have read Anthropica, and of those, only maybe one or two have read L.I.E. But that is good to hear.

TM: Obviously you didn’t know at the time that you would go 20 years without publishing a second book. When did your youthful bravado start to wear off?

DH: It took a really long time. After L.I.E. I worked on this book for a couple of years I was calling No Man Is. I brought a finished draft to my agent at ICM, and he read it and even showed it to a couple of editors. He thought it was interesting and “Kafkaesque,” as he kept saying. That book was me doubling-down on some of the philosophical preoccupations of L.I.E. in a way that was a lot more deliberate. The prose was super dense; I was reading a lot of John Hawkes at the time and was influenced by his stuff. The agent convinced me not to keep trying with that book, even though he thought if we went to a small press, which I did not want to “lower myself” to, there were possibilities. He ultimately said, “Let’s see what you do next, because whether or not your next book sells is going to have a huge effect on your career going forward.” So then I began working on another book that was set in the same fictional town as that second, now unpublished book. I called it Follow Down the Light, which I thought was vaguely Faulknerian. But now I was really out to prove, with every sentence, that I was the greatest writer who’d ever lived. I remember showing it to a good friend and he told me, “This is really hard to read,” which I took as a compliment. I was like, “Yes! I’m doing it! It’s really hard to read!” When I showed it to my agent—now we’re probably six or seven years removed from L.I.E.—he said, “Uh, David, I think it’s time for you to find some new readers.” But I still thought that I was The Next Big Thing, you know, and that it was going to happen. We parted ways amiably, but in my head I was like, “Clearly, mighty ICM agent, you’re a philistine and you don’t know how to represent extraordinary work.” It’s really embarrassing to think about this because he was anything but a philistine, he was a brilliant and good person. But so I found a new agent who was young and hungry, and eager to get a writer who had published with Random House on his list. He tried to publish Follow Down the Light for two years. It got rejected by probably every publisher on earth. During that time I was working on stories, so now I had a short story collection that the new agent also tried to sell, attracting rejections that were becoming painfully familiar in their tone and wording. “It’s extraordinary, it’s amazing, it’s non-derivative… we can’t publish it.” For a long time I took these declarations of my excellence to be sincere, but in retrospect I realize that’s just what editors say when they don’t like something. So by now over a decade had gone by since L.I.E. And I was probably just about ready to give up. It was 2012 or so, which is around when I was meeting you, Seth.

TM: I started at Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 2013, and I took your class in my second year. I didn’t have any sense at the time that you had “given up” on writing. 

DH: I just thought, okay, well, it’s not happening and I don’t want to write fiction anymore. Somehow I started writing Anthropica in this sneaky way where I didn’t even know I was writing it. I was so downtrodden and broken-hearted with how things had gone for me that I could not admit that I was trying to write another book. So I started writing it as a Gchat novel—like you know how you used to be able to put a certain amount of text in the status box of Gchat? I would just write these little set pieces and post them, 300 characters at a time, in my status box where people I conversed with frequently could see them. This is what I did for like a year or year and a half. Before I knew it, there were a couple hundred pages of this so-called Gchat novel. I still was telling myself I wasn’t going to publish it; the whole point was that I was doing it for me. It was fun, and I liked the idea that there was a novel hidden behind a brick wall, and all you could see of it was through cracks in the wall. Something about that gave me pleasure. But it turns out all along I was writing yet another novel, probably the most ambitious novel yet. I just couldn’t admit it to myself. But eventually when I had something that looked like a complete book, I showed it to the agent. He was receptive and had some thoughts on it, so I worked on it for maybe another year or so based on his recommendations and then it went out to publishers. I thought, okay, this is going to be it, because this is the one where I wrote it for myself, the way it was with L.I.E. I had rediscovered the joy of fiction writing after it had become like oral surgery for a really long time. And…nothing happened. The rejections rolled in with all the customary false praise. The agent really tried, too, I have to give him credit. That was crushing. I felt like I was at the end of the line. This time I didn’t just pretend to give up. Between when Anthropica stopped making the submission rounds and the day Katie said she wanted it for Animal Riot Press, I wrote nothing. Not a word of fiction over those two, three years. I don’t really know what the lesson here is. It’s not exactly this uplifting story of perseverance, but it does seem like I had to surrender all hope before something good could happen.

TM: Did you get any satisfaction, over those 20 years, out of publishing short stories in literary magazines? McSweeney’s, Fence, Post Road, and Conjunctions may not be household names, but they’re respected publications among serious readers of contemporary fiction. 

DH: The thing it probably did more than anything else was give me a platform to be able to teach. But I never fooled myself into thinking that it meant anything beyond that.

TM: Your unpublished books were the stuff of legend among your students. Why did you decide to let Katie read your novel?

 DH: Because she kept asking. And I think I had it in my head that if I was unable to publish it, I would send it to 10 people, just so 10 people on Earth would have read it. I think I figured she would be one of them, but then I didn’t really send it to none other people after that. Maybe just two or three. Brian Birnbaum was one of them, but that was later.

TM: How did it feel having the roles reversed, to have two former students not only publishing you, but working with you on the manuscript, editing you? 

DH: What’s weird is that it didn’t feel odd at all. I mean, these were former students, but also great writers who I trusted. I got some good initial notes from Brian, which made me aware of things about the book that were impenetrable. Brian’s a really smart guy, and if he wasn’t getting certain things I knew I should revisit them. But Katie’s notes were honestly the best I’ve ever gotten from anyone. Right away, she found ways to connect the two or three things that were sitting unconnected and that had caused me mental spasms for years. Her notes were just incredible, and then over the course of three or four months, after having these conversations with her, I probably wrote… well, it was the first time I’d written fiction in two or three years, remember, and I would have thought it would take some time to get back into things, to find my voice again, but it wasn’t like that at all—I just immediately hit the ground running and wrote another 120 pages or something. And that’s what filled out the book and brought it all together. So it was not strange to be working with former students, but I was surprised by how great the editorial feedback was, given that that had not been my experience with Random House, where you would think you’d probably get superior editorial feedback.

TM: When you started Anthropica, when you were composing snippets in Gchat, which parts of the book came first?

DH: I’d been having these conversations with a couple of people, including my dear friend Jonathan Callahan, about the central premise of Anthropica, this crackpot idea that everything is only here because we want it to be. I’ve always been skeptical that there could be enough stuff to maintain our levels of consumption. I mean, the planet’s not that big—you can circle it in a swift flying jet in a matter of hours—so how can it have this much oil stored up in its bowels, for instance, or this much coal? It just seems really unlikely. So I was writing into that conundrum. I think the opening Stuart Dregs chapter where he’s coming home, and his wife is intentionally allowing him to overhear her affair, and he has his computer program running—he’s invented this algorithm that can track natural resource consumption—I think that was one of the earliest things I wrote. Almost as a set piece, more like a short story than a novel chapter. When I looked back at my notebooks recently, I saw that really early on, I was already making these little maps for other chapters or sketching out other characters. I was clearly in some way already planning something big. But so originally there was that Stuart piece, and I was writing some bits in the voice of a robot—not like they are in the book, because now a lot of the robot stuff is just these conversations going on in a hangar while the robots play chess—but I was writing these soliloquies in Fexo’s voice, none of which made it into the book. For a while I guess I was just messing around, testing out how many parts the book could hold. I was often asking myself: What would be fun to write next?

TM: Apparently, what was fun to write, for you, was science fiction. Although in no way does Anthropica feel constrained by, or beholden to, any particular genre. Were you conscious of this influence as you wrote?

DH: I grew up on science fiction. But by the time I got to college, which was pretty late for me, I was discovering so-called literary fiction. I remember reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and being like, “Holy shit! This is a thing you can do?” I never wanted to go back to what I thought of as straight genre fiction. But my understanding of how science fiction works has shaped my writing, and I frequently borrow conceits from science fiction. My work features a lot of sentient androids, for instance, but it’s almost like the science fiction is a facade I’m erecting so as to have something my ideas can stick to. I like to steal forms for purposes they were never meant to serve.

TM: I also think that much of Anthropica operates in more of a psychological-realist mode, which doesn’t put it at odds with sci-fi as much as it approaches those ideas from a different angle.

DH: It’s almost like realism within a non-realistic matrix. In the course of every hour, I probably toggle back and forth 500 times between feeling like everything is imbued with enormous meaning and beauty and that I have to be responsible to it, and thinking that everything is completely meaningless. I think my inability to remain in either of those two positions—this flipping back and forth like a binary switch—I wanted the book to feel like that, to toggle between things that feel very psychologically real and heartfelt, where there is genuine pathos, and a kind of nihilistic disregard for anything we humans might create or dream up. I think what you’re talking about, the psychological realism within this science-fictional set of parameters, I think it’s supposed to feel a little like that toggle.

TM: That’s exactly how it feels. The scope of the narrative is cosmic; at a certain point, it dawns on the reader that some chapters take place after the destruction of Earth. Yet the reader is never invited to trivialize the everyday foibles of the characters.

DH: I hope that that registers to some readers. I remember writing some of those chapters that are from the future, where characters are being interviewed by the robots after everything has been obliterated. Even though you’re aware of the fact that this is all going to end in fire, it shouldn’t in any way lessen the intensity of feeling the characters are experiencing as they pursue tenure, or an Ultimate Frisbee National Championship, or love. I want those pursuits to feel meaningful despite the fact that you know they are coming to an end.

TM: When did you begin teaching at Sarah Lawrence?

DH: 1792. No, I started when L.I.E. was coming out, September of 2000.

TM: Was that a strange feeling—to teach there so soon after graduating? To put yourself in the position of teaching others only a few years out?

DH: No, at that point it all felt like destiny. At that time my thesis advisor, Mary LaChapelle, was the chair of the fiction writing department, and when she heard that I had a book coming out, she got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to come be a guest and teach a class, and I thought yeah, that’ll be great. I thought for sure I’d be good at it, I’ve been good in classrooms my whole life. And I think I was good at it. I came back for another year, and then a year turned into three years, and then they moved me over to the MFA program. I was still so high on myself as The Next Big Thing that teaching was a lot easier than it’s since become. Plus I was still really close to the age of the students so I felt like I was their big brother or something. Then some time passed and I became like the young, cool uncle. Then some more time passed and I became the young dad. Now I’m older than a lot of my students’ parents. Of course the students are always the same age and you are drifting away from them… that’s a weird and sometimes sad thing about teaching.

TM: Can you describe your practice of teaching writing?

DH: I think the crux of my teaching is that I really have no kind of product that I’m trying to select for—I don’t want my students to write postmodern fracture fiction any more than I want them to write organic psychological realism. I’m trying to help everyone find their way and to give them tools that they can bring to whatever kind of writing they feel like they want and need to do. I think I have an openness, and I also will latch onto something that a student does well and try to get them to develop that thing. The goal is to help each writer maximize their gifts and write the sort of text that they—and not you—would like to read.

TM: When browsing the MFA course catalogue, your workshop description immediately stands out in the way it openly questions traditional workshop practices. You also teach a class called “The Enemies of Fiction,” inspired by a John Hawkes quote—can you explain what that means?

DH: Right. Well Hawkes said that he began writing with the belief that plot, character, setting, and theme were the enemies of the novel. Of course Hawkes’s books had all of those things; it’s more the spirit of the quote that excites me. He believed in structure and language as the drivers of fiction. He didn’t want to write carefully constructed, well-plotted, efficient stories. He wanted to burn down the world. And that’s the thing for me: you can learn to write what I think of as an MFA story—or what I would’ve called an MFA story 10 years ago; the MFA world has become a lot more aesthetically diverse—you can learn how to do that, but if you don’t have anything to say, if you don’t have any vision, if there’s no urgency to the work, then it’s like making a table or something. The Hawkes quote for me is more about the spirit in which fiction is written than about anything inherent to the craft of fiction.

TM: A lot of the books you hold dear are often branded as “difficult.” Do you think of them as difficult?

DH: Difficulty is a moving target. I will tell you my favorite effect as a reader of fiction: you come across something on page 28, and you’re like, “I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to put it in the bank.” And if you read deeply enough, and if the writer has done their job correctly, something on page 147 will illuminate that page 28 mystery. I wanted Anthropica to be like that all the time, where almost every chapter would be something you had to hold onto and later connect to something else. Every time I answered a question that the reader might have, I wanted to raise another one.

But to return to the question of difficulty, if I have to work hard to figure something out, whether it’s in the work of Hegel or the work of David Foster Wallace, then a book seems to have more weight and meaning. If I have to go to the book, instead of allowing the book to come to me, reading becomes a journey, an experience. And I guess I just value the experience of a book, without which reading feels like, I don’t know, watching a movie or something. In fact, sometimes, what gets held up as great—the books that win all the prizes—often seem like crass Hollywood nonsense to me. Everything good or meaningful in life seems to require effort and reading is no different.

TM: There are also different kinds of difficulty. Sometimes we’re just talking about highly complicated sentences; other times, it might have to do with a novel’s structure. But it also sounds like you’re talking about something more fundamental, about works that deviate not just from the methods, but from the very aims of traditional storytelling.

DH: Well, I also think most people are uncomfortable with relativism. People want to know what the rules of life are. They want—and who can blame them?—to settle into the life project knowing what to pursue in order to find contentment. So the idea that all of the strictures and mores that we are creating in an attempt to structure a meaningful life are themselves constructions and arbitrary and could easily be otherwise—that’s a really uncomfortable thing for most people. Wallace insists that you think about those things. And if you don’t want to think about them, you’re not going to enjoy his work. If you don’t want to think about the fact that our lives are extremely short—nasty, brutish, and short—and you want your literature to be an escape from the awful fact of your ephemerality, then of course there’s a whole lot of fiction you’re not going to want to read. It’s the people who want to think about these things and want to find their anxieties and fears—the things they’re hauling around on their backs every day—reflected to them in the art that they interact with…those people are going to be attracted to some of the fiction that’s considered cold or cerebral or gimmicky or yes, difficult. For me, literature, fiction, has never been about telling stories, as it is for most people. For me, it’s been the only avenue that points toward truth. It’s the only way to try to say a true word, and even fiction can’t say a true word, but it’s the only way I’ve found to try to commune with some of these difficult, contradictory, mutually exclusive, paradoxical truths that seem to be with me every second.

Bonus Link:
Fiction Is Better Than It’s Ever Been: The Millions Interviews Brian Birnbaum

Into the Wild: The Millions Interviews Alden Jones

It’s not seamless, and it’s not supposed to be. In The Wanting Was a Wilderness, Alden Jones exposes the frayed edges a writer must contend with when gathering the pieces of her story, and then offers a pattern for assembling them into a narrative. On its face, The Wanting Was a Wilderness is a critique of a widely beloved book, and its detailed analysis is what you might expect from an award-winning professor of creative writing and cultural studies. But Jones’s analysis of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild quickly becomes “a springboard, mirror, and map” for Jones’s own journey, and The Wanting Was a Wilderness transforms, before our eyes, into her own raw and inviting memoir.

At age 19, Jones abruptly left college to spend 85 days in the wilderness as part of an outdoor education program. She climbed a 17,000-foot volcano in Mexico, caved in Tennessee, spent long stretches lost on the Appalachian Trail, and fell in love. But not until reading Wild two decades later did Jones consider how she might transform what felt like a private experience into a work of nonfiction to be enjoyed by readers who hadn’t been there. As she fashions her story, Jones invites readers behind the curtain, exposing each step of her writing process as she examines how Strayed accomplished a similar task. She shows her work, including her missteps and false endings, with a tone of genuine intimacy. The result is a masterclass in memoir writing. I spoke with Jones about her book, the craft of memoir, and being open to where a story will take you.

The Millions: What is a common misconception about memoir?

Alden Jones: That it is beholden to the facts.

TM: If not facts, what is memoir beholden to?

AJ: Memoir is beholden to the truth. But it is not the same kind of “truth” we mean when we talk about journalism, which is beholden to verifiable facts. This is a frequent discussion in creative nonfiction classes: How do you remain loyal to the truth while telling a story using details you can’t possibly remember in any perfect or provable way? You simple wouldn’t be able to write about your childhood with any clarity at all if you didn’t have the leeway to invent details to build a sensory experience for the reader. So as a memoirist you are beholden to the “spirit of the truth”—Like: I don’t remember if I was wearing that exact dress, but it is definitely a dress I wore around that time. You can’t make up details to serve the plot or put words into someone’s mouth that they never would have said. But if you want to include dialogue in your memoir in order to make your characters come to life, you’re going to have to approximate with this spirit of the truth in mind. Perhaps thanks to the discussion prompted by James Frey’s naked invention in A Million Little Pieces, readers understand that when they pick up a memoir they are trusting the writer to be telling a true story, but not a literal one. Memory is fallible and personal; if someone else from my Outward Bound crew were to write about our experience in the wilderness, it would likely be a very different story with some conflicting accounts of what happened. But I did my best to tell the truth in The Wanting Was a Wilderness, including reckoning with some things about my 19-year-old self I’d rather not have down on paper.

TM: You’ve written about this time in your life before. More than 20 years passed between the time you spent 85 days in the wilderness as a participant on an Outward Bound course and when you began writing The Wanting Was a Wilderness. But in the meantime, you published the story collection Unaccompanied Minors (2014), which featured “Flee,” a story about a young woman in a wilderness education program; you’ve shared that your inspiration for this story was your real-life experience on Outward Bound. Why did you first turn to fiction to explore this autobiographical material? Had you ever considered writing this story as nonfiction prior to The Wanting Was a Wilderness?

AJ: I had not ever written about this experience as nonfiction before starting The Wanting Was a Wilderness, and I never intended to. Even during the time I was on the trail, I knew it was important to write down as much as I could; I knew I would become a writer, and that I would use this Outward Bound material somehow. But there were a few reasons it never occurred to me to write about my experience as nonfiction. The main reason was that in the early 1990s, when I was on the trail and in college taking my first creative writing workshops, the genre of memoir as we understand it now didn’t really exist. James Baldwin and Ernest Hemingway wrote memoir, but it was not yet a widespread genre for regular people. It existed mainly for established writers who were considered important or who had proven expertise on a certain subject. But even when fiction began to yield to creative nonfiction in the mid- to late-90s, I never thought I could transform my experience on the trail to nonfiction, because I didn’t understand how I could possibly do it without seeming sentimental or trite, since the whole experience was deeply emotional and involved so much challenge and so much growth and so many “I believe in myself!” moments, along with a lot of behavior—on my part, and the part of my companions—that was flat-out ridiculous and embarrassing. When I wrote about it as fiction for the story that became “Flee,” I put a filter on my experience so I saw my companions and myself as our worst, most comical selves. I chronicled our lowest moments and exaggerated our flaws so that the reader could laugh at our expense. The way I presented us in fiction wasn’t totally inaccurate, but it wasn’t the full picture either.

I was really happy with the story “Flee,” but something always nagged at me about not being finished with the material. I knew I hadn’t gotten to the bottom of my experience in that rendering. So when this book project materialized, I knew it was time to do the really hard thing: figure out how to tell my wilderness story in earnest.

TM: One of your goals in this book, which you articulate in the first chapter, is to “demystify the memoir writing process” by analyzing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. You state your strategy as “using Wild as springboard, mirror, and map.” Could you explain the three functions in greater detail and how they connect Strayed’s Wild with your memoir?

AJ: I knew when I began writing The Wanting Was a Wilderness that I had two main tasks: To offer a thorough critique of Wild. And to elevate the book beyond a work of criticism by making my response to Wild somehow personal to my experience of reading the book, including what I brought to it and what I took from it. It was obvious why I was drawn to Wild: I’d endured a similar physical journey. The most obvious and available approach to writing about it would be to weave my own story into the critique in a “mirror” kind of structure. Like: hey, I recognize myself in that part where Cheryl loses her toenails! Let me offer you my similar anecdote. Sometimes mirroring happens naturally, but at other times I felt like it would make me like that person at the party who follows up someone’s really engaging story by launching into an uninvited story of a similar thing that happened to them, effectively sucking the life out of the original story. I had to have more of a genuine, thoughtful engagement style. By breaking down Wild as a successful memoir, I drew myself a “map” of how to construct a memoir, and in some ways I followed this map. But the map would only carry me so far—I wasn’t trying to mimic Wild—and so ultimately, it became a springboard for a more sweeping exploration of how to tell a true story, how to write an authentic persona, and the telling of my own story as both a traveler/hiker and a writer.

TM: The second chapter in this book is titled “This Is Not the Book I Sat Down to Write.” You mention how you paused and resumed writing this book. You also write that “Where you are in your life determines the kind of book you are going to write.” How much time passed between when you started the book and when you finished? How did this duration and the life-events therein affect the outcome?

AJ: “This Is Not the Book I Sat Down to Write” is the second chapter in The Wanting Was a Wilderness but the last chapter I wrote. I have a long-time trusted reader, Valerie Stivers, who read the early finished manuscript without this chapter, and told me the revelation at the end of the book—that I’d gotten divorced, and that writing this book had something to do with it—was jarring. Why not give the reader some clue that it’s going to happen at the beginning of the book? And she was right. I had to make that “lost” period of my life and writing process part of the fabric of the story from the beginning.

What happened was I arrived almost exactly at the halfway point of my first draft when my marriage suddenly ended. I had to stop writing in order to manage my personal life, which included parenting three kids under six, selling a house and finding another house to live in, splitting up the stuff, and moving, all of the most consuming life stuff. And of course the emotional turmoil. It took me two years to return to The Wanting Was a Wilderness. When I did, I had a very different outlook on what my book was about. Something about living an authentic life was at the heart of Wild and my inability to continue in my marriage. Something about reading and rereading Cheryl Strayed’s work was a breaking point. Now I had to write in order to figure out what. Altogether, including the two-year break, it took me three and a half years to write this teeny little book. But without the life crisis that informed its trajectory, it would have been a much simpler and probably less interesting book.

TM: What advice/recommendation would you give writers who are working on projects in the midst of major life events—career changes, deaths, births, divorce, marriages, etc.?

AJ: If it helps you to write while you’re experience a major life event, you should write. But don’t expect to produce your best work if you’re struggling emotionally. And if you need to take a break from writing to attend to your life or your emotional health, you should do so with no regret. If you’re going through something you want to remember and explore later, perhaps in book form, take lots and lots of notes, but don’t try to structure them into an essay or book until you have some distance from the events.

TM: You spend some time in your book analyzing the “situation” and the “story” of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in the context of Vivian Gornick’s seminal book The Situation and the Story. In the case of Wild, the situation is Strayed’s trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, and the story is Strayed’s processing of grief and self-actualization. It seems like you knew going into The Wanting Was a Wilderness that your situation was your own wilderness journey as a teen with Outward Bound. At what point in your writing did you figure out the “story”?

AJ: When I returned to the book after my two-year hiatus I knew I was writing towards the idea of authenticity. Authenticity, being true to oneself, is a major theme in Wild and in Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” letters, and in the saga of my sexuality during the time I was in the wilderness. But I was also writing about writing—both Strayed’s and my own—and being truthful and authentic applied to the actual mechanics of how these stories were best told. I realized what I had here was a meta-memoir. How do you tell a true story? How do you tell it well? How well do you have to know yourself in order to understand the truth of your own story? What might go wrong or cloud an authentic account? I had to show my work in order to get anywhere close to answering these questions. So the form of the book itself might be the story.

As any good memoir has both a situation and a story, Roland Barthes wrote that all good photographs have a studium and a punctum. The studium is the subject matter, the thing we can all agree on. The punctum is that thing that pierces you, that pricks you, and this is not necessarily the same for everyone. I think the “story” can be like the punctum; it’s not the same for all readers. Ultimately you, the reader, get to decide what this or any book is really “about.”

TM: There is an intimacy built between you and the reader in the “behind the curtain” moments where you, as you say, “show your work” to the reader, elucidating your thoughts and techniques. Sometimes these are subtle moments with a quick sentence clueing the reader into your strategy. Other times you spend pages dissecting and narrating both Strayed’s process and your own. What made you decide to be so explicit and direct in your approach to these moments?

AJ: I didn’t really decide to break the forth wall. At a certain point in the writing process it seemed like a logical thing to do. I’d written this one pivotal section that moved around in the book a few times. And since I was writing a memoir about how to write a memoir, it seemed natural to explain to the reader how it landed where it landed and why I’d made the choices I had. When writing a memoir, or any long narrative, you work so hard to make everything appear seamless, but there is so much messiness to tame in order to present the reader with a seamless story. Since the book was ultimately about the choices I was making about how to tell my story, it seemed necessary to expose the unruliness of the process. Narrative flow is not a magic trick—it’s work. Ideally, when reading a book, we are completely unaware of the construction process and can get lost in the story itself. But craftspeople want to understand how something was built, and I was writing with them in mind during these moments.

TM: Towards the end of your book, you call attention to the trend of women memoirists ending their stories in marriage, writing “Women memoirists do this all the time, too often, and we need to understand resolution on different terms.” Do you anticipate any objections to this statement from your readers, or from other women memoirists?

AJ: I think I would receive more opposition about that statement if I hadn’t already done it myself. My first book, The Blind Masseuse, ends with me getting married and having my first child and having to figure out how to remain a “traveler” even after I’d settled down. It was an organic ending to that story, and it felt like a genuine landing at the time. I still believe it is. But I also can’t deny that I was, deliberately or subconsciously, playing into a faulty cultural belief that marriage is a woman’s ultimate landing spot, some kind of achievement that means we have arrived where we are supposed to be; even if I personally married a woman, it’s still a patriarchal trap. The problem isn’t necessarily that women memoirists do this. It’s that the culture makes us feel this imperative so strongly. I’m not saying no memoirist, female or otherwise, should ever use marriage as a final plot point. But if we can choose something else, if we resist that expectation, we can ask the culture to consider other ways women come to resolution. I tried it both ways. For The Wanting Was a Wilderness, because the book’s whole message at some point pointed towards embracing the messy truth and the narrative’s need to reflect that truth, I had to find resolution in the disorder. Even though Wild ends in marriage, Cheryl Strayed’s ending is less about marriage as a landing spot, and more about owning and occupying the messiness of our life and how that ultimately affords us self-acceptance. And I hope The Wanting Was a Wilderness offers that message, too.

Bonus Links:
Put It in a Box and Wait: The Millions Interviews Cheryl Strayed
Susanna Moore, Cheryl Strayed, and the Place Where the Writers Work
A Bit About Frey
Why We Need Memoirs
Who Says Memoir Has to Be Nonfiction? The Millions Interviews Tyrese Coleman
Here Is the Needle, This Is the Thread: ‘Safekeeping’ and the Liberation of Memoir

Image Credit: Flickr/Bureau of Land Management

Rethinking Suburbia: The Millions Interviews Jason Diamond

In fiction, film, and real life, it has become comforting and convenient for us to stereotype the suburbs. Suburbia, so it goes, is a façade; a place where secrets lurk like grubs beneath well-manicured lawns. Jason Diamond’s excellent new book The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs reveals the truth is far more complicated.

Diamond’s omnivorous and expansive sense allows him to weave history, popular culture, literature, film, and his own experiences into a revelatory take on suburban life. “The suburbs aren’t one thing or another,” Diamond writes. “[W]e try to pigeonhole suburbia, act like it’s a great big boring monolith of conformity and tract housing, but there’s so much more to it than that, and we need to understand it better.”

The Sprawl enables such new understanding. Diamond’s first book was Searching for John Hughes. The features editor for InsideHook, he has written for The New York Times, Esquire, The Paris Review, New Republic, Pitchfork, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Eater, and elsewhere. 

We spoke about the bucolic melancholy of the suburbs, the perfect movie to capture the feeling of suburbia, and how suburban life is used for political rhetoric.

The Millions: Your preface begins with an affirmation—“I’m suburban. I’m of the suburbs”—and a confession that it took you a long time to admit your appreciation for the small touches of suburbia: freshly cut grass, shopping malls, and “grilling meat on a Weber grill I spent an hour trying to light.” What causes people to hesitate voicing—or even accepting—their affinity for the suburbs?

Jason Diamond: I can only speculate as to people’s reasons, but I’d wager it’s why some people tell you they’re from New York when they’re from Long Island, or they’re from Los Angeles, but don’t specify which part. We don’t have a lot of overt pride in suburban places. The suburbs are just there, defined by what they’re not. Many of these places aren’t built to stand out—they’re just places to live and, for some, to leave. One of the things that I felt more clearly as I did my research is what links one suburb to the next is the feeling of an absent builder. Someone made this place, sold the homes, and moved on. They aren’t structured to cultivate community. Lawns are a far way off from shared green spaces. For people that grew up in cities or in rural areas where community is important, I’m sure that seems really off. For people who grew up in suburbs, that lack of community becomes that feeling of being disconnected, bored, and that there’s nothing to do in your hometown except maybe hang out in the Chili’s parking lot. People aren’t really happy with this explanation. But our individual experience of alienation in suburbia informs our entire idea of what “the suburbs” are, and I don’t think people like me, who left the suburbs, want to revisit that feeling. Which, again, fair. But not every suburban place is the same. 

TM: You note how the suburbs “have taken on the status of cultural oddity,” and include some salient examples: The Twilight Zone, the fiction of Shirley Jackson and John Cheever, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, all works that I teach as examples of suburban literature—to a classroom full of suburban teenagers. I’m especially interested in Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” an iconic tale from 1964 that remains so accurate to a certain sliver of suburban life. You write that his mixture of realism and surrealist scenes show “that no matter what we do, no matter how much we make, how happy we pretend to be, or how far we’re willing to journey, our demons catch up to us.” Why are these ideas especially relevant to the world of the suburbs?

JD: I think Cheever really did a fantastic job of summing up what is dark and odd and messed up about the suburbs, and I think the suburbs do a fantastic job of summing up what is wrong with America in many ways, which is why artists keep going back to these places for inspiration. America has lied to itself for its entire existence. It is a place that has tried to run from its demons, all of the terrible, horrific things it’s done, and hopes that it will all just go away. For too long, America pretended that centuries of racism and violence was in the past, and nothing more. But I believe that the suburbs have really come to symbolize the pathology of “American exceptionalism,” that things aren’t as great as we want to make it out to be, and we don’t want to look under the carpet, so to speak. We don’t want to face these things. Suburbia is a really obvious metaphor. We just hope we’ll be protected by the walls we put up around us. I can read “The Swimmer” today and, sure, it’s still at its heart about a sad, middle-aged man who has lost it all, who cheated on his wife, whose kids probably hate him, and whatever other sins Neddy finally has to face at the haunting end of the story—but I can also look at it as a metaphor for America. That we go through this journey, blind to everything that’s going on around us, and then suddenly we come to a spot where we can’t keep moving. We reach the end and what do we get? A big empty house we’re locked out of. America, especially these days, often feels like it’s at the end of something, just standing outside of some big, empty house that we can’t get into. We tried to hide from all of our past transgressions, and now we’re Neddy Merrill. 

The good news is that I think things can change. At least, I hope they will. 

TM: Your description of a scene from Back to the Future when Marty McFly is at home in Lyon Estates is spot-on: “It’s lonely; something you realize after you’ve watched enough movies and TV shows about the suburbs is that they’re often shot that way.” You share a number of films that dramatize suburbia in all of its permutations. I know it’s a difficult task, but if you had to choose one as The Movie of the Suburbs, what would it be, and why? 

JD: That’s a tough one. Part of me would say Blue Velvet, because it’s a masterpiece, but it also starts out looking at what I talked about in my last answer: what’s underneath. That part where we see all these symbols of a certain type of suburban ideal, then it descends, literally, to the ground beneath the trimmed grass. But I’m actually going to go with the film Over the Edge. It’s obviously dramatized in that really gritty, almost silly late-1970s, early-’80s way, but it also really captures perfectly how alienating and mind-numbing places can be, and how often we really do just build places because we claim the space and then throw them away. 

TM: In the chapter titled “Monsters, Mad Men, and the Mundane,” you write “The truth is that, often, people from the suburbs create the things they’re most afraid of from their anxiety and angst.” You describe the wild Satanic Panic of the ’80s, which often spiked in suburban areas, and I can’t help but think of our shared appreciation for Unsolved Mysteries, a show that I watched while in the suburbs, and which often depicted strange things happening in those suburbs. How does the suburb, a place with “a structured and structuring way of being,” affect our sense of imagination?

JD: Growing up in the suburbs, to me, felt like a challenge to either be one way or another. To accept the way things seemed or to investigate, to push further, to engage a natural curiosity. A lot of suburban places offer wide open spaces, but these places also get filled up with a lot of unnecessary, unnatural filler: parking lots, box stores, office space they’re never going to fill up. I was really fascinated by what Rem Koolhaas calls “Junkspace.” He points out “the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than all previous generations together, but somehow we do not register on the same scales,” and I think that could be applied to so much of what we see in suburbia. And when I talk to people in the suburbs, and from the suburbs, they generally just have overwhelmingly negative things to say. How could we have created so much shit, and have all of it be so empty? The best answer, then, would have to be that actually there was another reality behind the one that we were seeing. It feels like, if you were like me growing up in the suburbs, the only plausible explanation was for there to be some ghost world beneath the one we were seeing. It couldn’t possibly just be subdivisions all the way down. I don’t think people from the suburbs are any more or less creative than people from anywhere else, but I definitely felt like I had a heightened sense of otherworldliness because this world was just so stupid. You have to make things up and that’s how you get by. Imagination in the suburbs isn’t a survival instinct, but it’s close. 

TM: “It’s important that the suburbs, which have long been connected to whiteness and to keeping certain people out, are shown as places where anybody can and does live.” I read that great line of yours the same day that Donald Trump tweeted an article from The New York Post, writing “The Suburban Housewives of America must read this article. Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!” How—and why—are the suburbs such fodder for politics and polemics?

JD: Beyond their outsized symbolic power—truly just titanic rhetorical asteroids—there are good reasons for why the suburbs have these stereotypes attached to them. The suburbs were largely white for most of their history. There is no denying that they were white on purpose. From handshake deals to redlining that kept people of color, immigrants, and Jews from owning a slice of the “American Dream,” there are structural ways the suburbs have been entwined with whiteness. So they mean whiteness to him, because he’s a literal thinker. And because he doesn’t know or doesn’t care that the suburbs have demographically changed, you could see why he thinks there is a certain kind of voter in the suburbs who will be attracted to fear-mongering like this. But the suburbs just aren’t demographically as white anymore. The suburbs have changed racially and economically. These places aren’t perfect, but they have changed, and I think that’s good for the country. 

As to why politicians love the suburbs, I think it is a holdover from a different time when you could more easily stereotype suburban voters. They’re “soccer moms” or “commuters” who work in the city, but like in Westchester or something out of Mad Men. And while there are definitely still parents who drive their kids to soccer practice in an SUV, I think politicians and pundits really believe it is that simple: That people are simple, that the suburbs are simple. And maybe it was simple 30 years ago when you knew you were aiming for the hearts and minds of mostly white, middle-class types, that you could put a pin down on a map in any suburb and know what kind of person lived there. But I don’t think it’s that way anymore. I think people in the suburbs are far more complex and diverse, and some politicians get it and others don’t.

Bonus Links:—Returning to My People: Reading Tayeb Salih in the SuburbsZone of Strangeness: On John Cheever’s Subjective SuburbsSomething Sinister on the North ShoreA Year in Reading: Jason Diamond