Nobody’s Martyr: The Millions Interviews Shannon Reed

In Why Did I Get a B?, her memoir about teaching, Shannon Reed writes “I enjoy teenagers. I like that they have to be convinced to like you.” It’s one of the many lines in Reed’s book that feels authentic. 

“Authentic” gets thrown around a lot in the world of secondary school teaching because, like the teenagers peering at a new teacher, educators are a skeptical bunch. We’ve been misrepresented by politicians and bombarded with assessment fads. I say this ready—as one can be during a pandemic—to start my 17th year teaching high school English.

I’m happy to report that Reed’s book about her life as a teacher is not only authentic, it’s quite moving. Early in the book, she writes that “to be a good teacher is to care very much about people.” Ultimately, that’s what makes a great teacher: compassion. Kids are often hurting, and we’re not there to simply teach them content—we’re there to help them to live.

Reed is hilarious and humble about the teaching profession: the exact right mix. We see her struggle and thrive, teach and learn, help and hope. It’s a great read for educators—rookies and veterans alike. 

Reed has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Poets & Writers, Buzzfeed, Vulture, and The Guardian. She is a visiting lecturer in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. 

We spoke about the dangerous myth of teacher-as-martyr, the adjunct life, and what this upcoming academic year might look like—in or out of the classroom.

The Millions: When people who don’t work in education pontificate about the profession, I often want to spontaneously combust. So I loved your great and accurate list: “If People Talked to Other Professionals the Way They Talk to Teachers.” Later in the book, you note these myths or perceptions continue for you, even as a professor: “I hate that even in the halls of academia, there are folks who feel teachers should be nice, but not funny; hardworking, but not ambitious; proud of their students but not proud of their own accomplishments.” What are one or two of the most troubling misconceptions about teaching and teachers—and why do you think they persist?

Shannon Reed: Truly, I know that all professionals rightly complain that people make assumptions about their jobs, but is there any other profession about which so many people make so many assumptions than teaching? I suspect not. You’re absolutely right—I am obsessed with the mythologies around teaching, and often ruminate about how they hurt teachers (and, more selfishly, me). What never seems to get factored into the conversation, but which might be changing now, due to what the pandemic has taught us, is that our society cannot function without teachers. We really ought to be doing everything we can to keep good teachers in the profession, including giving them the opportunity to become good teachers, and pulling in as many new ones as we can. Eliminating those belittling misconceptions would so help with that. 

Because I deeply appreciate an opportunity to go off about this, I’ll unpack my three most troubling misconceptions. First, because most people attended school, they think they understand what teaching is as a profession. A moment’s thought shows this is nonsense—I go to my car mechanic all the time, but can barely check the oil—but it’s pervasive. Many peoples’ understanding of teaching is located in their recollection of their least favorite high school teacher. I find that this problem is true for many professions—I’m constantly asking my emerging fiction writers not to set their stories in hospitals unless they’ve spent time in one as an adult—but because school is so much a part of our growing up, many more people have a blind spot about what they don’t know about teaching that they simply do not realize.

Second: the idea that teachers must personally like a student in order to teach them well. This baffles me. If I again go back to the car mechanic, while I expect him to be fair to me, I don’t get upset if he doesn’t want to chill with me outside of the half-hour I spent getting my oil changed every few months. He does his job well, and I get what I needed. We don’t need to be besties. Yet some parents deeply believe that their children’s teachers can only do right by their children if we actually really like them. It’s weird. I wouldn’t trust an adult who wanted to befriend my 12-year-old, you know? But people confuse what good parenting is with what good teaching is. 

And, finally, my biggest annoyance is the idea that a good teacher must be a martyr—always available to students, always giving of herself (Let’s be honest, the martyr teacher is usually a woman), never full of dreams and desires and needs and wants of her own. This is so harmful, both to the students and the teachers, while being extremely helpful to those who’d like teachers to have to work so hard they never have the energy to raise concerns about low salaries and stuff like that. I’d offer just two examples of supporting evidence, and leave the reader to think on the harm this misconception causes. First, when I taught first year composition at Pitt, I’d ask students to write about their favorite teachers in high school. The vast majority of them would write about some poor soul who came in at 6 a.m. to tutor them before swim practice, or who came back to school on weekends for test prep. This, my students would always assert, made them the best teacher, unlike the rest of those who just wanted to go home at the end of the day! In a discussion, I would then ask my students if they would like to have a job like that one. Turns out: they did not. Secondly, I cannot tell you how many times a graduating senior has sat in my office and mentioned that they’d like to be a teacher—they like kids, they like education, etc.—but they don’t want to give up their entire lives to their job… or they’re not going to do it. 


TM: Your father and your grandfather were pastors. Some people thought you would be one, also: “I liked to be center stage, and pastors often are.” But you never felt that calling. Do you feel like there is a pastoral element to your vision of teaching, and working with students? 

SR: My dad and grandfather were ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) pastors. I’m really proud of being Lutheran, and prouder still of the way the ELCA has become more progressive in my lifetime, ordaining women, performing same-sex marriages, and being a leader in protecting immigrants and refugees. 

To answer the question, yes, I think so. I am not interested in converting my students (or anyone, for that matter), but I welcome the chance to talk about faith and religion with them. They often are struggling to reconcile the principles they were taught by their faith homes with the often-more progressive ideas of academia, and trying to find a way to hold onto both, especially when dealing with a new understanding of their own identity. That’s a tough road to walk, with as many different pathways as there are people, and I hope to be there for them as they do. Of course, this never comes up in the vast majority of student relationships I have, and that’s cool, too. 

For me, being a pastor is rooted in working in love to support your congregation through their life journeys. I see being a teacher very similarly. As I write in the book, I do try to love all of my students, and meet them where they are, then help them move a little bit further down the road. That is a wildly different process—for some students, I may help them discover that they’re fine writers and that they want to start that career path; for others, my big help is to teach them that they have to come to class to pass. It does remind me of what I saw my father trying to do with his congregation—he might have visited a dying member in hospice and then driven directly to counsel a couple getting married, then written a sermon, all in four hours. Flexibility, clarity about the goals of the work, and an overarching desire really help when you’re doing work that varied and intense, whether it’s as a teacher or as a pastor. 

TM: You write about your experiences teaching preschool through college. Were you writing about teaching while teaching primary and secondary students (during lunch, breaks, after school)? Or did these pieces arise afterward?

SR: I’ve been asked this question a number of times, and I think it’s because teachers desperately want to cling to the hope that if they just organize their time correctly, they will be able to pursue an artistic calling while also teaching. So I am truly sorry to say, nope, I didn’t write a single word of this book until I left full-time teaching to go to Pitt’s MFA program. I did teach then, but it was one college course of 20 or so students, not the five different classes of 30 students I was teaching in a New York City high school. I did write a little while I was teaching high school, mostly on weekends and in the summer, but at that time I was focused on writing plays. 

But I don’t want to neglect the other part of your question—I think I would have found it impossible to both teach secondary students and write about teaching secondary students at the same time. (I didn’t think of myself as a writer when I taught preschool, so I don’t know if I would have felt the same.) I remember thinking very carefully about what was happening around me, and writing emails about my work to my parents and friends, and talking to my best friend Andrew about everything, as if I was trying to form the core that I could return to later, when I was ready to write. And when I got to Pitt and finally took a creative nonfiction class in my last year (I was a fiction major) one of the first things I wrote was the first draft of what became “Paulie” in the book. So I think I was subconsciously preparing, and just waiting for the right time to write about teaching. Two years into my three years at Pitt, where I felt safe and appreciated, and knew I would get helpful revision notes from my classmates and professor, then I was ready to dig back into that core. 

TM: You share your experience adjuncting. It’s a perilous situation, as you note, for both exhausted and under-paid (and under-appreciated) adjuncts, as well as the students—who often don’t realize they are being taught by contingent faculty. In “On Adjuncting,” you make an effective case for why the particular sense and security of full-time professors is good for students, so I was wondering: was there a full-time professor during your college years who especially inspired you? 

SR: Thank you for this! I want so much for readers to know and think about adjuncts. I had no idea that all of the professors at my college weren’t full-time, tenured professors, and I think about how differently I would have treated those who were adjuncts if I had recognized that they didn’t have any job security and were paid very little. 

To be honest, I’ve taught in so many schools and gotten several different degrees, so my recollection of specific professors before Pitt is somewhat fuzzy. But I can say that I had amazing professors at Pitt, many of whom are now my colleagues, which is weird, but great! Everyone I took a class from in the MFA program was a full-time, tenured professor, I believe, and not a single one of them failed to teach me a great deal about the work of being a writer. I remain grateful to all of them, but Irina Reyn, Peter Trachtenberg, Angie Cruz, and Michael Meyer really took the time to connect with me and my work. It is a strange thing to teach someone who is around your age, but all of them handled that gracefully with me. In many ways, their belief in my abilities went beyond my own sense of what I would be able to do and gave me the courage to pursue writing as a career. I think that’s a nice thing, to believe in your students a little bit more than they believe in themselves. 

TM: “I think the best part about teaching is the academic year,” you write. “The rise and fall of the seasons.” This is a marked contrast with time spent working in an office, where: “We were never working toward anything—no finals, no breaks. Just a relentless corporate slog to perhaps getting promoted or whatever, something, someday.” I always tell people that the seasons—throughout the academic year, and after—are what make teaching a magical experience for everyone, students included. We are in an unprecedented time, though, for education (and everything else!). What about our seasonless pandemic? How do you feel about the coming academic year?

SR: So unprecedented! I seem to have called down some sort of Office Cubicle Spirit who’s laughing at me now teaching from my home instead of in the midst of Pitt’s beautiful, bustling campus. I apologize, world. This is not what I wanted. 

That said, I don’t see the pandemic as seasonless. Yes, I have spent too much time peering into a laptop from my dining room over the last four months. Yes, there is a strange sameness to the days—I just wondered to myself, “Why are you working so hard on a Saturday afternoon?” It’s Thursday morning.—but I am still aware of the passage of time, and the change of the seasons, and I would encourage everyone to connect with the environment around them if they possibly can, in order to help that awareness grow. I try to take a walk every morning, and note what’s blooming, what’s dying off, how the sun is hitting the sidewalk today. This is the information I’d take in without really realizing it if I was on campus, from the way the acorns bop me on the head early in the semester to my switch to entirely sensible duck boots as we finish off finals in the snow. I’m just trying to be more intentional about seeing its subtleties. 

How to translate that intention into my courses, which are very likely to be online, is something I’m thinking a lot about. Whereas I might have begun an in-person class with a casual comment about the weather, I’ll need to be more intentional about that online and find those little moments of human connection—what are you doing over the weekend, has anyone watched that new Netflix show—that would otherwise not happen. Intentionality can feel forced, but I try to think of it more as a deliberateness, which is not a bad quality in a classroom. I’ll tell my students what I am doing, and why, too. 

I have my concerns about the upcoming school year, as does every educator I know. In many ways, I will have an easier time of it: I do not have kids that will need my supervision, I’m not worried about a partner’s job loss, and I generally teach small classes of motivated students who have elected to be there. All of that will help, and I’m lucky. My deepest concerns are about how my health and disability will affect my students’ experience. Because I augment my bad hearing with lip-reading, classes in which everyone is masked are essentially pointless for me, unless I wanted to lecture for the entire time, which I do not. I also have some autoimmune issues, so I really doubt that I can safely be teaching in person this coming fall. Thus, it’s on me to make my online classes as engaging, worthwhile, and accessible as possible, so I am doing a lot of thinking about that. My supervisors in the English department are, too, and I feel a true confidence that our department’s classes will still be worthwhile for our students. 

At the same time, I try not to sink into despair. While it’s important for teachers and professors to plan as enriching a classroom experience as we possibly can, there are always factors out of our control—if the course meets in a sunny room without air-conditioning, it’s nap time for everyone. If that unique mix of students really hit it off, it doesn’t matter if I’m on my A game or not—they’re going to have amazing discussions. So there are always things out of my control, and those seasons I can’t force are part of the fun of teaching for me: the season of 8 a.m. composition class, and the season of the math professor who never erased the five blackboards he filled with problems before he turned over the classroom to us, and the season of having a student who worked for a pizza place who would bring free pies to Wednesday night classes. This will be a different season of over-earnest how-are-yous and sketchy wifi connections and never really knowing how tall any of my students are, I guess. There will be benefits to teaching online I haven’t thought of yet. I’m still excited about the new school year! 

Our Private and Public Lives: The Millions Interviews Sanaë Lemoine

I met Sanaë Lemoine in graduate school nearly a decade ago, when we were both in our 20s. We often spoke about literature, writing, and teaching, and yet, we were never in workshop together. I was always curious about her writing, so when I received an early copy of her debut novel, The Margot Affair, I eagerly began. Reader, I gasped when I finished the first page. I then read the page again—aloud this time. Just take a look at this opening line: “On stage my mother was her truest self.” I love the seeming simplicity here, the power and confidence beneath those words.

Again and again, Lemoine’s sensuous sentences surprised me. The Margot Affair, out now from Hogarth, is the story of Margot, the secret daughter of a French politician and actress. At its heart, it’s about our public and private lives, family secrets, and what happens when our desire for acceptance supersedes our need for caution.

Lemoine and I had planned to meet in person for this interview, but the pandemic altered our plans. Over the phone, we discussed debuting during this time of uncertainty, transforming the personal into fiction, and the connection between language and home.

Crystal Hana Kim: This is a complicated, stressful time for all of us. I feel deeply for writers, particularly debut writers, who have books coming out now. How have you been feeling about the publication of The Margot Affair during the time of the coronavirus?

Sanaë Lemoine: I always imagined that the weeks leading up to book publication would be a stressful and emotional time in my life, no matter what else was happening around me. The thought of having to appear in public to talk about my book, of having strangers read it for the first time, especially as someone who is shy, was already causing me anxiety. But now, those stressors have either shifted or heightened. Maybe the most difficult thing is finding space to think about the book and self-promotion. I was sick for a few weeks, and during that time I wanted to curl up on the couch and forget I had ever written this novel! Some days, talking about the book or promoting myself feels near impossible, or at the very least, fraught.

I am hopeful in the sense that on a personal level, books and especially novels have always provided me so much solace, especially during difficult times of my life. They were incredibly soothing and comforting, especially in their ability to transport me to other worlds. I hope I can provide that experience for someone else.

The other thing I’m grateful for, which feels like a relief, is that I finished writing the book months ago. In a sense, the hard work is behind me. I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve found it more difficult to generate creative work, especially fiction. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to be in the middle of a project with a deadline looming over me. I think it would be hard to find the same focus and energy.

CHK: I feel the same way. I’ve found it harder to have the sustained focus to write fiction. Yet, that’s why it’s so important to celebrate your book. Writers put years into their work. Art is critical during times of isolation and uncertainty. For those who are unfamiliar, can you tell us what your book is about?

Sanaë Lemoine

SL: The novel is set in contemporary Paris and is the story of a 17-year-old girl named Margot. She is the hidden daughter of a longstanding affair between a French politician and a well-regarded stage actress. Margot’s father divides his time between his official family and hidden family. Margot has spent her entire life yearning to be recognized by her father as his legitimate daughter. The summer before her last year of high school, when the novel begins, she meets a journalist and makes the impulsive, reckless decision to reveal her father’s identity to him. This shatters her world and reconfigures the dynamics of her family. The novel takes place in the aftermath of this reveal. It charts the relationships that Margot forms as she’s confronted with the consequences of her actions.

CHK: When did you start writing this book? What was the process like?

SL: So long ago! I started writing the novel in my early 20s, and now I’m 30. It was my first year of the MFA at Columbia. I found myself writing stories that circled around the same characters and themes, that all took place in the same world. I kept returning to this character, Margot, who would eventually become the narrator of the novel. But it was a slow process. There was one class at Columbia that was really instrumental, a year-long novel workshop with Victor LaValle. It was his first year teaching this class—it was a kind of pilot program. His thinking was that it’s difficult to workshop a novel in one semester by only looking at excerpts of 20 or so pages at a time. He wanted us to workshop 50 to 100 pages so we could tackle structure, character arc, and plot. Several of us were writing interconnected short stories as opposed to novels, and without really noticing what we were doing. He helped us understand how a novel is made up of tension and plot.

After the MFA, I continued writing the novel for five to six years. I was working full time, so the way I wrote was quite on and off. There were several rounds of rewriting from scratch on my own, then a few deep revisions with my agent, and finally edits with my editor. The novel went through so many iterations. There’s a part of me that thinks I could have endlessly revised it.

When I think about the process of writing the book, what’s most interesting to me is how it evolved as I went from my early 20s to my 30s. There’s this interesting thing that happens where you as the writer are changing in important ways, but the fictional world you are working within is quite contained and restricted. My narrator is young, and the novel takes place over the short time frame of one year. I could feel myself becoming restless and wanting my narrator to also grow with me, make wiser choices, but instead I had to stay in her world, refine it and dig deeper into the questions I was exploring.

CHK: I know that Victor LaValle is always impressing upon students the importance of plot, which I don’t think is discussed as much in the MFA. A catalyst that drives your book is that Margot realizes her own invisibility as the daughter of this secret relationship. She decides to take action. How did you come up with the plot points of this book? 

SL: Plot doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s not how I create a fictional world or what drives my writing. The plot for this book was like pulling teeth. My approach to writing is through characters, scenes, and observations. For a long time, my novel just read as a series of scenes where nothing much happened, and the plot points that I believed were there were so subtle that I don’t think anyone else could pick up on them. One of the most helpful exercises Victor had us do in the novel workshop was a reverse outline. We had to break down our book by chapter to look at what was happening scene by scene—whether there were gaps and missing connections, whether we were exploring the consequences and repercussions of significant events.

The other piece of advice that has stayed with me is something that he said—I’m forgetting how he phrased it—but it was something along these lines: when you come to the end of your novel, you want to think about where your main characters land. Who is safe and unsafe? Who needs protecting and defending? Who protects who? That was useful in thinking about the character arc as a journey, especially for this novel which has a coming-of-age element.

CHK: I love that advice; I’m going to hold onto that as I write.

SL: Yes, it gave me shivers. I feel like you really do that in your novel, If You Leave Me, perhaps subconsciously. At the end, you have a clear sense of who is safe, who is well, and who isn’t.

CHK: Thank you. I want to talk more about the themes in your book. The Margot Affair examines issues of power, sexuality, exploitation, and the secrets we keep from those around us. Were you thinking actively about these issues while writing or did they form over time?

SL: Yes and yes. I was thinking about these themes early on. My entryway into the novel was actually imagining a friendship between a ghostwriter and a teenage girl who happens to be the illegitimate daughter of a politician. Together they start writing the daughter’s memoir. From the beginning, I was interested in family secrets and what happens when those secrets are spilled, especially when the stakes are so high, and when they move beyond the private sphere of the family.

I was also interested in exploring this relationship between a 17-year-old girl who is learning how to exercise her independence and coming into her own, and this older woman who is already established in her career. I wanted to understand the dynamic between these two characters, what their own desires were, and how they would fuse and conflict.

As the novel went on, I became more drawn to the question of Margot’s agency. I wondered what it would be like for this young woman who is between adolescence and womanhood, to go from invisibility to visibility. Why would she have made that decision and how would she grapple with the repercussions?

Until a much more recent draft, Margot wasn’t the one to spill the secret of her father’s identity. For a long time, I resisted that—it’s obviously the more interesting and complicated choice because if she’s the one who breaks the silence, then she has to confront the consequences of that action. It’s a decision that encapsulates that time in her life, where on the one hand, she feels wise and believes she understands the world, especially because she’s lived this different life, but at the same time, she’s naive and there’s a lot she can’t anticipate or see. I wanted to capture that contradiction in her.

CHK: What were the personal, literary, or cultural inspirations for The Margot Affair?

SL: On a personal level, I was inspired by events in my own life. My father hid a second family from my mother and me for several years. I was 21 when he told me about them. My parents had started the process of divorcing. That same summer, coincidentally, I was in Paris working as a researcher for a journalist who was writing a nonfiction book on France through the lens of seduction. One of my assignments was to read a novel written by the daughter of former French president François Mitterrand. He had an illegitimate daughter whose identity was only revealed to the public when she was 19. This daughter, Mazarine, became a novelist.

I was drawn to her novel, and looking back, it’s not that surprising why, but in the moment I’m not quite sure I connected the dots. There’s something that I loved in the way she portrayed the intimate father-daughter relationship behind closed doors. It was less about him as the president of France and more about their bond, away from the public gaze. At the same time, my family was going through a complete transformation. A couple of months later, I started writing what would become The Margot Affair.

What I can now see, and maybe it wasn’t fully formed at the time, was that I was taking a private upheaval that I was experiencing with my parents and exploring it in a heightened way by raising the stakes.

CHK: We were talking about your handling of plot, but the language is also so beautiful in this book. I underlined all throughout my reading. Can you tell me more about how you approach language? I know you’re also fluent in French and Spanish; do those tongues affect your writing in English?

SL: The way I approach language is to write longhand. I love writing on paper; I don’t always have the time or patience, and I didn’t write the entire novel longhand, but I find that writing by hand slows me down. It opens more possibilities for images and sentences that lead me to unexpected places. I’m not someone who is constantly tweaking sentences and word choices when I’m revising, so I think it’s really helpful for me if I can slow down during the drafting process. When I can allow myself to be led by the writing more, there’s something magical that can happen.

The truth is that I’m self-conscious about languages, and I haven’t really spoken to anyone about this. I think I’m just formulating it for myself thanks to your question. As background, my father is French, my mother is Japanese. She raised me and my brother speaking Spanish because she spent most of her adult years in Argentina, and she’s most comfortable in Spanish. Until I was four, I spoke exclusively French and Spanish at home. Then, I moved from Paris to Melbourne and was put in an Australian school, where I first learned to read and write in English.

We moved back to France when I was 12, and I found it difficult to assimilate into the French schooling system. I had to learn French grammar and spelling from scratch. I was at a strict Catholic private school for a year, and the students would tease me for not being completely fluent, the teachers would read my tests aloud to comment on my spelling mistakes. It was humiliating. I’d come home in tears every evening. The greatest challenge was that French literature, unsurprisingly, was my favorite subject. I loved to read and write, so I was very motivated to do well in that class. I worked tirelessly to make up for lost time. But even today, I’m most comfortable in English.

Specifically, in writing this novel, I had a lot of fun playing around with French and English, especially when I was stuck in dialogue. For instance, I’d say the sentence in French and then translate back into English. It gave me more flexibility in terms of images and metaphors. I felt like it allowed me to play with word choice in a way that was perhaps more liberating. That felt true to the book, which is written in English but presupposes that you as the reader will suspend your disbelief and imagine that all characters are speaking French.

CHK: That’s so interesting because I think a lot of people in America want to know more than one language, and would perhaps be envious of your knowledge.

SL: It’s of course such a privilege to have learned languages without really trying, aside from when I was learning how to read and write in French. I guess it’s always going to be something that’s linked to my sense of self and identity, not feeling quite French or Japanese or American, and trying to make sense of my heritage, and whether your language, or the language you feel most comfortable in, defines who you are and your sense of home. I struggle with the idea that English is the language I’m most comfortable speaking and expressing myself fully in—my language of comfort. Sanaë is a Japanese name and is easy to pronounce in French and Spanish, but impossible to say properly in English. And France as a physical place still is so much my home, even though my parents no longer live there. When someone speaks to me in French, or I read a French book, or watch a French movie, I feel that indescribable pull towards home. When someone says my name in French (or in Japanese, of course), I think: Oh, that’s me.

CHK: Let’s talk about the delicious food-oriented details in this book. I noticed that you have a “What Margot Ate” section in your website, with recipes from the novel. How has your cooking and editorial background influenced your writing?

 SL: Food has always been a great passion of mine along with writing. After I graduated from the MFA at Columbia, I started working in a test kitchen and then as a cookbook editor at Martha Stewart and Phaidon. What’s funny is that I didn’t start out writing a book about food, but of course it managed to seep into the world of the novel. Food is a vehicle of communication for the characters—it’s a way that they show their love for one another. For example, Margot’s mother, on her daughter’s birthday every year, prepares hot chocolate. It’s such a simple thing; she’s not a woman who enjoys cooking, but it’s this ritual she does year after year. She doesn’t tell Margot that she loves her, but this act is one of true affection and care.

The relationship between Margot and her father is also centered around food. He is someone who loves to eat, enjoys going to restaurants, and has imparted that love to Margot. Food is sometimes used as a tool of seduction. Early on, Brigitte, a ghostwriter who befriends Margot, invites Margot into her home for afternoon tea. She serves a homemade pear clafoutis. When Margot walks into her home, she smells butter and caramelized pears. There’s something immediately exciting and comforting in that.

I’m always thinking about what my characters are eating and cooking when I write about their world. It seems just as important as what they’re saying to each other, maybe because that is how it is in my own life. When I was thinking about building the world of the novel beyond the novel itself, I thought about writing recipes from the book. I took the different dishes that appear throughout and transformed them into recipes, in case readers would want to recreate them in their homes. (You can find a few on my website.)

CHK: I started the with a somber question about the pandemic, so I’d like to end on a more hopeful note. During this strange period of sustained crisis, where are you finding joy? What kind of art sustains you?

SL: On a very basic level, what has sustained me is my love of cooking and food. That’s something that I was mostly able to do even when I was sick. I miraculously didn’t lose my sense of taste or smell, and I think there’s a god out there because I had every other Covid-19 symptom! Especially for a writer, I find it wonderful to have that balance, to be able to stand in the kitchen and make something with my hands, and then see and taste a concrete result. I feel so lucky to be able to do this in a low-stakes way in my kitchen day after day.

In terms of turning to art for comfort, I was finding it hard to read early on. Now my mind has calmed down a little bit. When it was difficult to turn my attention to novels or longer forms of writing, I picked up The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. They’re so brilliant. In a sketch or couple of words, she’s able to conjure an entire world. Her stories have the depth and feeling of novels. I fell in love with her writing all over again. My favorites, unsurprisingly, are the ones with food, like “St. Martin” and “Kafka Cooks Dinner.”

I’ve been reading more nonfiction lately. I’m reading Minor Feelings right now, which I’m really enjoying. I don’t usually read as much nonfiction, but I’m feeling very energized by it. I also find myself returning to novels that I’ve already read, especially books that transport me to another place. I wonder if other writers are doing this as well. For example, Yoko Ogawa and her strange short novel Hotel Iris, which I’ve now read several times. I also never tired of Ishiguro, specifically his first novel, A Pale View of Hills. I love his ability to capture a feeling, and his sentences feel spun out of magic.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
A Year in Reading: Crystal Hana Kim
What Are We Willing to Sacrifice? On Crystal Hana Kim’s ‘If You Leave Me’
Lucy Tan and Crystal Hana Kim in Conversation

Art Imitates Life: The Millions Interviews Sam Lansky

Listen, I’ve never had my chakras realigned but I do have a crystal somewhere that probably needed to be charged four full moons ago. When it comes to new-age spirituality, I’m probably a bit cynical. But I’m not one to look askance anyone’s religious, spiritual, mystical—or anything in between—practice.

Especially after I finished reading Broken People by Sam Lansky.

Like any good book, it challenged my ideas on how we practice self-care, self-awareness, and introspection. Without being prescriptive, Lansky’s exploration of how pain and trauma live in the body is triumphant in its careful, sensitive, and often humorous exploration of complex and nuanced topics.

After Sam (the protagonist), overhears a conversation about a globetrotting shaman at a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills—“he fixes everything that’s wrong with you in three days”—he’s skeptical but his interest is piqued. A young man on the edge of emotional collapse, Sam agrees to sign up for a weekend—a three-day ceremony—facilitated by the shaman who promises to tap into the divine by using ayahuasca, a powerful South American psychoactive, as a gateway. Whether the ayahuasca was a placebo,,magic, or myth, the ghosts in Sam’s memory prove to be a powerful force of their own.

Broken People explores the space between the material and the mystic,, and carves a space for the neurodivergent in the midst of it all: a place to coexist with pain and, eventually, learn from it.

The Millions: As someone familiar with your work, including your memoir, The Gilded Razor, it’s apparent that this novel is a work of autofiction. What made you go this route instead of writing another memoir? Did it have anything to do with you experiencing resistance when pitching another memoir, like your protagonist does?

Sam Lansky: Greg! You’re not going to let me off easy here, are you? This is what I’ll say about this: The publishing market is its own slightly temperamental thing, and I’ll admit to some anxiety about memoir fatigue, particularly from a relatively young writer. But I also had a genuine desire to get away from the trap of the “I” voice, which was a place I’d been living in for much of my career, and this felt like an opportunity to mine some of my own experiences while experimenting with a medium I hadn’t explored yet.

TM: Your protagonist is also named Sam. Why did you choose to name him after yourself and not create greater distance with another name?

SL: I don’t want to be prescriptive about what readers should take away from this book, but the story I most wanted to tell—and the one I tried to tell with Broken People—is about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how sticky our seductive tendencies to self-narrativize can be. Naming the character after myself felt like a way to address that head-on—I intended it less as a way of saying, “This is a book about me!” and more because I have thought so much about how my own propensity for storytelling can be my worst addiction. To call the character Sam points out my complicity in that pattern.

TM: Every body of work—be it a memoir or a novel—follows an arc and aims for tonal consistency. What was it like fitting your real life story into the narrative framework of a novel?

SL: After my first book came out, I spent about a year writing without much sense of structure or narrative cohesion—it was just a familiar, therapeutic way of processing my experiences. Then, an encounter with a healer—not unlike the one Sam has in the book—shifted the way I had been thinking about my own loss and heartache. Very quickly this narrative snapped into place, and I felt like I had a really clear sense of the shape of this story, which I’d been missing up until that point.

TM: What tools did fiction equip you with that may not have been utilized when writing another memoir?

SL: As a journalist and writer of personal narrative, I long felt beholden to accuracy, even if the pact you make with a reader as a writer of memoir is more about memory than the facts. Having the freedom to compress, imagine, or rewrite stories or characters that may have started as lived experience but then got to shape-shift into something more dynamic or imaginative felt like such a gift.

You know, I came up during the golden age of the personal essay (which critics like Jia Tolentino have written about so smartly), and I felt very steeped in the culture of so-called “confessional” writing; it’s almost been something I’ve had to deprogram from, both my perception that it’s inherently positive or valuable to write about yourself and also the way that doing so serves my ego and fuels my narcissism. Writing this book as a novel felt like a very gentle tug away from personal narrative. My next book will be much more of a departure. I’m giving you my word on that. Mercifully, I’m not as interested in myself as a subject as I once was.

TM: Your novel moved me to my core: that’s a pun (Intended, thank you very much), because the shaman identifies a mass in Sam’s core, which basically stores the years of trauma he’s experienced. It made me think about what I live with, things I’m learning to live with. Was writing this novel a way of coexisting with the pain in your life?

SL: I’m glad to hear it resonated with you so viscerally. (Sorry.) This is tricky: I think there’s a tension between learning to live with your pain and refusing to fight your demons because they feel intractable. I should also say that I’m not a guru; if I wrote a self-help book, it would be terrible. Far be it from me to dispense life wisdom! But, both with my first book and with this one, I discovered a lot of grace in the phenomenon of, for lack of a better term, releasing it—that I had turned some tale of personal struggle into something useful that no longer belonged to me, because it now belonged to readers, and so it wasn’t mine to carry anymore. I do think we continue coexisting with pain, but I also believe, more and more, that we can learn to transcend it.

TM: Do you think that, as a society, we need to move away from the language that includes “healing” and “being fixed” and focus more on accepting the role of pain and trauma in our lives?

SL: Yes! Although I might draw a distinction between “healing” and “being fixed.” I’m definitely suspicious of anything being fixed, but I am more willing to consider a vocabulary of healing. (Maybe too willing, if I’m being honest with myself.) For those of us who’ve had access to resources like therapy or self-care—and that access is a tremendous privilege in and of itself—there can be a tendency to pathologize everything, or to view our feelings as problems to be solved. A lot of my own growth over the last couple years, as a writer and as a human being, has come from asking myself questions like: What is this discomfort trying to show me? Is there wisdom in this pain? Which I realize sounds very witchy, but I mean it in a real, practical way.

Let’s say I’m at a party and I’m having a ton of anxiety—which has been the case at every party I’ve ever been to, by the way. My first impulse is to make the anxiety the problem, and by extension, myself. But what if the anxiety is my body’s infinitely wise way of telling me that the party sucks? Can I embrace the anxiety as a teacher instead of as a fault? And can doing so allow me to be more forgiving with myself? I also think that, as the extraordinary pain of the last few months has laid bare—both from the pandemic and then more recently from the reckoning around violence against Black people and police brutality in America—we have an urgent responsibility to honor pain and trauma in our society, both the personal and the collective. It’s tempting to want to compartmentalize, or to shut down whether we are feeling our own anguish or witnessing that of others. But as we process and move through our own pain, we crack open and become more capable of empathy. That, to me, feels like its own form of healing. 

TM: Towards the end, I was reminded of something my therapist has been trying to teach me: radical acceptance. Is this something you practice in your life?

SL: It’s something that I aspire to, but I don’t know if I’d call it a practice! I’m not someone who’s historically done a great job of embracing life on life’s terms, and that’s something I’m still working on. When I got sober, people in recovery talked a lot about acceptance, and I always felt uneasy about it. My unwillingness to accept what was happening was the primary driver of my ambition—if I was truly in acceptance, wouldn’t I become complacent? But I’ve come around to it much more, or I should say that my resistance has softened. Even if I’m not in radical acceptance, I push back more gently now. Also, it sounds like you have a good therapist.

TM: I feel like the people in my life fall largely in the middle of the Venn diagram, between cynic and believer. What do you want your reader to take away in regards to the intersection of materialism and mysticism?

SL: One of my biggest frustrations with the rhetoric of self-care, especially as it’s tied up with contemporary mysticism, is that it can feel so rarefied and so classist. But self-love and self-acceptance should not be solely available to people of a certain tax bracket or race—bluntly, they are not the exclusive domain of wealthy white women, regardless of how they are sold—and I don’t really believe that you need a fancy shaman to “fix” you. Part of my goal with Broken People was to interrogate that bougie New Age culture, about which I feel so much ambivalence, even as it continuously props me up through my life. I’ve been reflecting on my own potential for healing and the extent to which change can be incremental, and function outside of a capitalist framework; my earnest hope is that it leads readers to do the same.

TM: What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?

SL: You know, it’s funny—I think I learned that I am capable of saying the thing that I need to say, even if it scares me. Though it’s fiction, I poured so much of myself into this book, and it feels like a radically vulnerable act of public nudity. But for whatever reason, I needed to tell this story, and so I did, as plainly as I could. Now there are no more cobwebs.

Bulletproof Coffee to Bulletproof Vest: An Object Lessons Interview

As contributors to the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury, Dinah Lenney and Kenneth R. Rosen each chose to investigate the deeper meaning and implication of a thing they encounter with some frequency—Dinah as a writer of memoir and personal essay, Ken as a war correspondent. 

Dinah’s book, Coffee, turns out to be a personal history in which she confides and confronts the challenges of the day-to-day. And in Bulletproof Vest, Ken grapples with an introspective journey into the properties and precisions of his object on a molecular level and on the world stage. 

The authors caught up to talk about not only coffee and bulletproof vests, but research and writing, process and metaphor, the things we can afford to take for granted, and the things we can’t and don’t. 

Dinah Lenney: I’m remembering my daughter once had a teacher who was all the time saying, “Everything is connected to everything else.” (She never mentioned she was quoting Da Vinci…) So can we connect our objects, you and I? Did you know there’s a brand of coffee called Bulletproof?

Kenneth R. Rosen: I do—I remember it from my post-graduate days of putting grass-fed butter into my coffee, or something like that—something about being bulletproof in the gym, or bulletproof under the stressors of cubical office life. 

DL: Says here on their site: “For the CEOs, the churners and burners, the parents, the dreamers, the people who want to be the best versions of themselves.” I’ve never tried it, though. And I know that’s done, butter and coffee—I haven’t tried that either, myself. Nor have I ever seen, so much as worn anything bulletproof. How did you decide you wanted to write a whole book about bulletproof vests? And how did you know where to start?

KRR: Bulletproof vests were an easy conduit to writing about safety and security, perceived and actual, as most of my travels in conflict zones were marked by fears not typically associated with bulletproof vests or what we might call Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): I was more terrified of working with fixers I never met, of missing deadline, of not being sympathetic enough to my subjects, of failing to answer questions correctly while detained at airports across the Middle East and once back stateside. I knew that the bulletproof vest, always located in the trunk of whatever car I travelled in, was a symbol of protection but suppressed anxieties rather than quelled them completely. Likewise, the vests themselves stood for the products we use and effort we make to do things that might otherwise scare us. 

DL: I love that, the thing standing in for other things. In my case, I hoped coffee would be a way to talk about time. As in where does it go, and how to make it last. But coffee seems so ordinary (that’s what I thought at the start anyway). We mostly take it for granted, right? Even if you don’t drink coffee, chances are you’re acquainted with people who do. 

The thing about your object (the bulletproof vest in the trunk of the car); if the feelings around it are familiar—or universal (anxiety, fear)—the object itself is very evidently anything but. So I wonder how far you take the metaphor. Like, do you consider the case of the sensitive flower who needs a bulletproof vest (in the guise of a good cup of coffee, maybe?) to deal with her day job, for instance? Or do you mostly tell stories about times when an actual bulletproof vest did or didn’t come in handy? Or even saved a life?

KRR: Never in a tactile sense. I have never been shot and never really wore my bulletproof vest while on assignments in Iraq and Syria. What made me most at ease, what offered me the most protection, were the people I travelled with: the fixers and interpreters and my editors with whom I emailed with every night. I look at bulletproofing from that perspective, as something we come to develop through relationships and rituals. Say, a heavy set of blankets at night or a piping-hot coffee in the morning. 

DL: And was there piping-hot coffee in the morning? Kidding. I’m kidding, you don’t have to tell me (but you can!).

KRR: Coffee always. Always. And forever. Which is how I imagine you felt…you wanted from the outset for time to play into the writing and themes throughout your book. Was there something that came of the writing which was counter to what you had thought you’d find in coffee? I’m thinking of Dave Eggers’s The Monk of Mokha and the shocking story behind where our coffee comes from.

DL: Well, yes,  that’s always true, isn’t it? That things come of the writing—there’s the reason to write in the first place. But in terms of what came of my research, definitely, yes, that, too. Starting with Eggers—early on I read his book, and it was shocking all right. High stakes coffee, coffee to literally die for. But there were other things that surprised me—the sweetness of a coffee cherry straight from the tree; the political history of coffee, and its longtime presence in art and song; my own growing fascination with the variations of taste and smell. 

The interesting thing, though, for both of us sounds like, is that you start out writing about an object, whatever it is, and you wind up thinking about people, right? Or place? Relationships, personal history, yada yada. Some writers might want to avoid that sort of thing. Might shake it off, and force themselves to get back on track. Whereas for me— it’s so useful to have a way to fool myself into the kind of writing I most want to do. 

KRR: This makes me think of the description of a mug through which Philip Roth traced his father’s father and their family lineage, in the opening sequence of Patrimony. A mug wasn’t simply a leak-proof vessel and holder of a shaving razor, but rather the grounding Roth needed to understand he came from elsewhere and that sometimes a family line can, overnight, or however disturbing to our ontological security, cease to exist—like the potential meaning behind an object, replaced as lives overturn and the object changes hands.

DL: Exactly. We endow objects much in the way we endow relationships. So the way we feel about things (and people, and place) says as much about us as those things (people, places). And, in particular, the thing about a thing—an object, I mean—is that it very often contains all of the above. It’s a vessel of meaning, right? And now I’m wondering if my job wasn’t easier than yours in the sense that I was dealing with something so common. Coffee is ubiquitous, it turns up everywhere, that’s what I discovered. Never mind all the stuff in the news, and on the shelves in your local bookstore. Coffee is a prop, if not a bona fide character, in literature, and film, and TV. It appears in galleries and museums. And almost everyone has a coffee story. And is eager to tell it. Truth is (now I can confess), I spent some months feeling overwhelmed by my object. Whereas a bulletproof vest. That’s so specific. Did you know from the outset how to approach?  What you wanted to say? What sort of research did you have to do, and how did the writing itself surprise you? What did it yield—the writing, I mean—that you couldn’t have known when you started?  

KRR: Actually I think yours was more difficult, precisely because of its ubiquity and the place it holds in the negative space of our collective imagination. As you note, a coffee (mug, bean, machine, etc.) is such a fixture—from the home to the office, to communal and ceremonial gatherings,  to everywhere in between—I empathize with your struggle. Yours was the harder task. Sure, not everyone has a few sets of bulletproof vests and ceramic plates lounging around their home office, but I had to impose certain feelings onto the vest that might not be necessarily associated with it. I took pains to underscore that these vests do save lives, that I was thankful enough never to have seen them in action in that way. I likewise took pains to relate the vest to something people do recognize—like coffee. Something that brings a sense of continuity and comfort. We might now be talking in circles.

DL: Well, not so much that we’re talking in circles as that our objects really are connected. In the sense that they turn out to be ways to write about some of the same things. Continuity and comfort. There it is, well said. And you knew you wanted to write about those things?  

KRR: I knew from the outset that I wanted to write about the vest as an anxiety blanket of sorts. And I knew that in order for me to succeed with downplaying its role as a physical protector and upping its role as an emotional guardian, I had to juxtapose the vest with what actually—in my few years traveling through war zones—made me feel safe. It’s why I splice chapters of memoir with reported, historical, and cultural sections. In this structure, the writing came fast and easy. I completed the manuscript in about three weeks, followed by a few editing run-throughs. I also hired an independent fact-checker to review the manuscript, which is a profession of protection and security in its own right.

DL: Three weeks! Ken, three weeks. I’m guessing this sort of sustained focus makes for a smooth read. Whereas coffee-the-book happened (happens) in fits and starts. (I just looked that up, that expression—dates back to the 1500s, just like coffee.)

KRR: Do you still feel that same sense of being overwhelmed when you have a coffee now? I’ve heard writers talk about their process as a total divestment from the world, with the eventual gradual return to the news cycle, families, vacations, something of a shock. What might surprise me that I may not have already known about coffee? Any strange traditions you came across in your research? (Likewise, where did you begin your research?)

DL: I really did start with Dave Eggers’s book. Or no, wait—even before I read The Monk of Mokha (and talk about daunting: to sign on to write about coffee only to find out that Dave Eggers got there first), I went to see a coffee farm in Goleta. I tasted the cherries—I got an idea of how labor intensive is the process; what it takes to get coffee from the orchard to pot; and all of us taking the stuff for granted, as if it grows on trees, which it does, but not in vacuum-sealed bags. 

As for strange traditions. Well, the strangest might have to do with our fetishizing the process the way we do. I mean coffee has been delicious for centuries, right? For hundreds of years people have been brewing the stuff with their eyes and noses—checking the color, the aroma at every stage—but now. Now we have gadgets galore—we’re madly weighing, measuring, investing in special kettles with special thermometers.

KRR: But those newfangled gadgets are a way of elevating what we’ve come to know about coffee, no? In a way, they further that centuries-old tradition of sniffing and sipping and enjoying. An object has that power: to take something recognizable, something mundane or otherwise ever present, and reintroduce it. Think of seltzer! Man, they used to deliver that stuff in wooden cases. Now the majority of us enjoy it more regularly, with our own carbonation machine at home. An object can make something cool, or desirable again. 

DL: Well, yeah. I love my Sodastream, love, love, love it. Although I also love the idea of people delivering things in wooden crates—Ken, I’m old enough to remember the milkman, and the galvanized box on our back porch where he left two glass bottles of whole, two of skim, red and green tops, depending. Crate/box/package, gosh, there’s a whole array of objects to reckon with, right? Altogether? As in “Containers”? One at a time? “Paper bag”? 

KRR: Oh my god, those galvanized boxes—I forgot all about those! And there I go, swept off into memories of my childhood at the Jersey Shore, all at the behest of an inanimate square. 

DL: Exactly. Anyway. I’m not overwhelmed anymore, no. Only grateful, not just to be done, but for the doing itself. It’s nice to simply look forward to getting up and making that first pot of coffee, which, having written the book, I appreciate more than ever. Not just because it’s actually better—though it is. But having given it all that time and thought (in fits and starts), I’m not likely to take coffee for granted ever again. At some point in the process, I had enough material to write, I dunno, three books, at least, and each from a different angle. Did you feel that way, too?

KRR: I’ve never had enough assignments. My “unpublished” and “story idea” folders grow by the day, as well as objects I could totally see myself writing about one day. 

DL: Did writing the book change your relationship with the anxiety that first prompted the idea? Or with the vest itself?

KRR: For bulletproof vests, it did further my ability to witness events and visit regions, countries I otherwise would have felt out-of-place visiting. One of the first scenes in the book takes place at a hostile environment training course where myself and other journalists and aid workers are taught to treat ballistics wounds (as best we can) and to evade capture. The training manifests itself in its final form as the vest, which takes all the knowledge of safety and literally displays it.

DL: Are you still working in war zones?

KRR: I do still cover armed conflict. Though I had worked for three years in conflict zones before writing this book, my fourth article from Iraq was a personal essay on how traveling to a conflict zone as a naturally anxious and depressed person enlightened me to my own baseless woes. The bulletproof vest was a natural foil.

It seemed to me that everyone is scared, always, whether it be worry surrounding the start of a new job or entering into a new relationship or deciding to enlist in the military or go off to college. To crib from Michael Herr, we carry things (physical, emotional, spiritual) to help us pull ourselves through. In war, for me, that ends up being the friendships I have formed with my fixers and interpreters. 

Were you to write about a new object, what would it be and why? Have you taken closer looks into other objects as a result of your writing an OL book?

DL: I know a writer who wants to pitch “Orchestra”—which is a great idea, isn’t it? But I tend to think small—if I were to do another OL book, I might go with piano or guitar (or singer!) as opposed to band. Although I like the idea of a book titled Band. But you know what I’d really love to write about? Windows.

KRR: Perhaps another OL book is in your future? Didn’t you write a book called The Object Parade?

DL: It’s true; I can’t seem to get enough. That’s why I pitched Coffee, along with other items, and that was the one the editors liked. Honestly, I feel like I could write about objects for the rest of my writing life. (Herr is absolutely right—they pull us through, and also they remind us where we’ve already been.) How will I ever move on? Why should I?

Fate, Capitalism, and Football: The Millions Interviews Katherine Hill

Katherine Hill has always been an omnivorous sports fan, someone who can get caught up in March Madness, World Cup soccer, Wimbledon, and the Olympics. But football was the sport she wanted to explore in her second novel, A Short Move, which follows the life story of Mitch Wilkins, a high school football star who makes it all the way to the NFL. For Hill, football was the perfect sport for thinking about fate: “There were so many formal aspects of the game that were interesting in terms of thinking about a lifespan—the stopping and starting of the clock, the specificity of each position and what each particular player’s skills are, what they’re good at, what their job is on the field. And with the intensity of its collisions, with its demands—it’s such a physically demanding sport—it really felt like kind of the perfect metaphor for life under capitalism.”

Told from a variety of perspectives, A Short Move begins when Mitch is in utero, and his parents are deciding whether or not to have him. (Spoiler Alert: Mitch is born.) The reader then meets Mitch at different points in his life, sometimes seeing the world through Mitch’s eyes, other times inhabiting the perspectives of Mitch’s parents, coaches, wives, and teammates. It’s a kaleidoscopic approach that looks beyond one man’s individual talent to the ecosystem of people, places, and industries that both nurture and exploit an athletic gift. 

Hill is a friend of mine, our connection forged in part by the fact that we both have school administrator parents, an occupation that entails a certain amount of moving around. Born in Washington D.C., Hill grew up in Manhattan, small-town Ohio, central Virginia, and suburban Maryland. A Short Move hops all over the country, but the heart of the book is in central Virginia, where Mitch is born and raised. It’s a region that Hill remembers well, maybe because she left it at a formative age, in her early teens, to go to high school in the suburbs of D.C. “When you move a lot, you notice differences in culture. Amherst, Virginia, and Bethesda, Md., are just three hours apart, but the climate is different, the people are different, the politics are different. It’s night and day.”

I had hoped to interview Hill in person, in her Brooklyn home, but in these times of quarantine, we ended up talking over the phone. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

The Millions: Tell me how you came to write this particular story, a cradle-to-grave
story about a football player.

Katherine Hill: It started with a short story that I wrote that was about a woman who drops out of college and finds herself working in retail. Her name is Alyssa, and her father, a minor character, is a former NFL football player. I wrote that story, thought it was a one-off, and published it in n+1. The editor asked me if it was part of something larger, and it actually wasn’t, but sometimes you just need someone to ask you that question. I was really interested in the father, so I wrote another story about him, when he is basically the same age that Alyssa is in the first story. He’s 18, about to go to college, and he has an awareness that he’s about to become the person he’s going to become, that he’s on the cusp of some new self. In that story, I met his mom and his girlfriend and I wanted to know more about all these people. I also found it interesting to think about the huge changes in his life, from his late teens to his early 40s. I wanted to fill in the gaps knowing I could never actually fill in the gaps. But I wanted to plot out his life and its trajectory.

TM: What
do you mean you wanted to fill in the gaps knowing that you couldn’t fill them

KH: Well, one of the really important features of this book is the absences, which is something I’ve always been interested in, artistically. In theater, it’s the stuff that happens offstage. In visual art, it’s the negative space. And in novels, it’s the stuff that’s off the page or between the lines. From the beginning of this project I was attracted to the idea of a novel that would invite the reader to supply a lot—the actions and events that are not put into words by the author. I thought this structure made a lot of sense for a story about an athlete who wears many different identities, who experiences blackouts as a matter of course, and whose body develops rapidly, and also falls apart rapidly within a compressed period of time. He’s a retired old guy in his late 30s. For most of us, late 30s is prime.

TM: You use
a lot of different points of view in your novel: Mitch, Mitch’s wife, his
father, his coach, his teammate, his mother. I wondered how you decided which
points of view to include?

KH: I centered the book on the family: I started close and then moved out. I was really interested in his mother, first of all, who raised him on her own. And also, the absent father. And then his first wife. Perspective from the family seemed really important, because it’s a life narrative, not a classic sports story. It’s a family novel. Some of us grow up and have our full story from womb to tomb without family being a huge part of it, but for most of us, the family that you leave, the family that you raise, the family that you work hard to build—in many ways that is the plot of life. But Mitch also has an important public life, so I had to include some perspectives from that world. And I think, in a way, the perspectives I found there were also familial. His teammate, D’Antonio Mars, is like a brother, a fellow traveler. So there’s a family quality to those sections of the book, too.

TM: Were there points of view you attempted and then decided not to do?

considered doing something with a reporter, and someone involved in the corporate
sponsorships of athletes. But in the end, I just went deeper on the family. Even
though I was interested in gaps and leaving things out, it’s inevitable—for me,
anyway—to want to get to know my existing characters better. And so I worked
that out by going very deep in short sections. You get to know the characters
very well during a particular moment in time.

TM: Was
there a character who surprised you?

KH: They
all did. One of the bigger surprises for me was the solidarity between Mitch’s
mother and his first wife. They clash in the beginning, so realizing that they
might find a way to get along was a lovely surprise and kind of a
counter-intuitive one—but one that I was really committed to once I realized it
could be true. The more standard and more boring story is one of rivalry and
irreconcilable differences. In this case, that seemed like the direction it was
headed in, but it emerged in a different way.

TM: Do you
think of this book as linked short stories? Can they stand alone?

KH: I did think of it as a novel in stories, or an episodic novel. A book that was really important to me when I was writing was A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is a novel but also kind of a collection of stories. I just admired so much of what Jennifer Egan did, the way we had to imagine what had happened to characters between what she calls point A and point B. I actually think you have to fill in a lot more with her book because she has so many characters, whereas with my book, Mitch is always there at the center. He’s the spine of the novel. His life is the structure.

TM: I think A Visit from the Goon Squad has been pretty influential to writers, it gets mentioned a lot. I think it gave people permission to think about how to structure things in a different way.

KH: Agreed.
Permission is a great word. I think many of us are looking to bust out of the
current conventions of novel structure, which somehow feel so fixed. Which is
interesting to me because the novel is actually a pretty unregulated form,
unlike the sonnet or the tragedy. It’s a kind of wonderfully lawless form.
Maybe it’s something about the commercialization of it, or the institutionalization
of creative writing as an academic discipline, that’s tricked us into thinking
the novel has a set form. But Egan reminded us that the form has so many
possibilities—that it’s actually defined by its infinite possibilities. The
only one standard feature being: figures over time.

TM: This
is your second book. How did it compare to writing your first book?

KH: My first book, [The Violet Hour], is the one that taught me how to write a novel. And it felt very exciting because I was doing this big thing. I was writing a novel—it was so ambitious! But it also felt scary because I had no idea what success was going to look like. I mean I sort of had an idea, because I’d read a lot of novels, and I was trying to enter their company. But until you’ve done it, you haven’t done it. So there was this kind of incredible relief and elation at the end, and I started the second one on the high of having completed the first. I thought, I know how to do this now! I’ll just do it again! It got off to a great fast start. Much faster than the first one, which required a lot of wrong turns and starting over and re-outlining and all that. But the second one, once I had the first two moments in time—the daughter and the father—was easy to outline.

The first novel had a very
complicated structure of going forward and backward in time, and it was also a
family novel. So there are similarities between the two. But the structure of
the second novel is more radical. I’m not sure it’s more ambitious, or harder
to pull off. It’s just aesthetically more radical from what we consider to be
the standard form. And as I was making it, I had to have a lot of faith that
the choices I was making were good ones. Because once you start building
something, it becomes more itself and harder to pick apart and rearrange. It ran
into a lot of trouble getting sold. I was tested on that front, and it hurt,
but I always believed that I had made the right choice.

TM: What
was the trouble you had in selling it?

KH: It’s a pretty typical story. I actually think what happened to me is what happens to many novelists writing their second books. My first novel was published with a major press, and got some nice review attention, but it didn’t light the world on fire and it wasn’t a bestseller. So when the time came to sell my second novel, and it was more formally daring than the first one—which happens a lot, too—my first publisher declined to publish it. That was a big blow. They had an option on it, and I thought once you’re in, you’re in. Which is so naïve. But I had to believe that to write it. That kind of stupid confidence is really necessary when you’re working on a big, risky project.

My agent was like, it’s fine, this book is amazing, it will sell. I made a few revisions because I always have to revise after rejection, and then he took it out pretty widely in New York. They just all rejected it. I don’t even know how many. It was probably 30 or 40—a huge number of publishers. I was numb at first, then I was devastated, and then I was determined. It was a very emotionally volatile time, because I had devoted my entire artistic and professional life to this book. I’m a professor, I teach writing, and I had to get the book published to keep my job. But I’m also pretty stubborn about my creative work. My agent and I had some hard conversations. He still believed in it but had felt pretty discouraged by the response.

The one theme that emerged
was that people weren’t into the structure. But for me, the structure was the book. It’s a life narrative,
chronological, from before our protagonist’s birth to after his death, and it’s
told episodically through a relay of perspectives. I was so committed to the overall
effect. I didn’t want to write a different football novel, and I didn’t want to
write a different family novel. And so I went out in search of independent
presses that would be more open to formally challenging projects. I got a
couple of offers and Ig was really enthusiastic. They got it right away and
were excited about it. It was all the affirmation I needed.

TM: How
has it been coming out with a book during this strange time of Covid-19?

KH: Well, fortunately for me, it’s corresponded with the strange and wonderful time of having my first baby, so I was home all the time anyway. I knew at some point during the first months of her life that I would turn my attention back to promoting the book. And that is all still true and the same as I imagined. But one difference is that everything physical has been canceled. I was going to have readings in several places, a mini book tour. So that’s a bummer, because I love the chance to do big readings in the cities I’ve lived in—D.C., Boston, Philly, and New York. But, I guess because I have this wonderful baby, it doesn’t really feel like a loss. If anything it’s like, oh well, I don’t have to worry about the trip. Maybe that’s short-sighted. But a book lives for a long time, so I’m hopeful there will be opportunities in the future when we can gather again. Which I do believe will happen, maybe not as soon as everyone wants, but at some point.

I think a lot of publishers
have been cancelling and postponing or moving their books, whereas we just
stayed the course. So it remains to be seen how affected we will be by that
decision—to be coming out in June when people are still at home or only
tentatively going out. I’m hopeful that one of the things people do at home is
read. And maybe they’re sick of screens, so maybe having a book with pages will
be appealing to more people in this moment. I think if it had come out in
March, when everyone was getting used to this new life, that would have been
worse, but with June I’m bizarrely hopeful.

TM: Since
this is a football book, I have to ask you about football: What team do you

KH: I follow Washington. I can barely say the name out loud. So yeah, we have a racist name, it’s really bad, and we should change it. But I said it for many, many years before the current effort to stop. So, that’s my team. It’s a terrible franchise, the owner is despicable, and the team has been a disappointment for, I don’t know, 20 years? They last won a Super Bowl in the early 1990s.

D.C. is the closest thing I have to a hometown and I married a D.C. local. I followed them obsessively throughout the 2000s, in my 20s, especially in the years I lived in Philadelphia. Every Sunday my husband and I went to this ramshackle sports bar called Cavanaugh’s and watched the team play. We had to go out because unless you have Direct TV, you can’t follow anyone but the local team on television. And the local team was the Eagles.

On the one hand it was it was kind of nice because we couldn’t just stay at home and have our private obsession; we had to go out to a communal space, which is what sports want. And in Philly, we had all these wonderful fan friends. They were friends from, I think, a Quaker camp in Maryland. Many of them had gone to college in Philly and stuck around and they were all involved in social justice in some way—just the most decent, best people you could ever meet, and all die-hard Washington fans. Not only that, they were our kind of fans: in love with the players, optimistic, and really faithful. So we would watch with them. We literally met just sitting next to them at the bar.

I think that experience was something that led me to write this book, just that kind of die-hard fandom in my 20s. And, as I think often happens when we devote ourselves to a subject, the process of writing the book or going deep on the subject actually cures you of the subject, a little bit. I’m now watching less football than I ever have in my life. It’s not because I’m protesting the treatment of the athletes or anything like that; they’d want me to watch. It’s just because at this time in my life, I feel like I did football. Though I’m also pretty sure it’ll always be there for me to come back to. I have a daughter now, and I’m sure watching the game will be something we do together, which is something I did with my parents.

TM: What
was your research process like for the book?

KH: I read a lot of football memoirs and journalistic accounts of football seasons. It’s sort of a classically clichéd genre, so I had to work hard to find the ones that would be illuminating and interesting—that would spark my imagination in some way. I have a shelf of pretty good books that got me thinking about the day-to-day experience of the athlete. I read Warren Sapp’s memoir, Sapp Attack, which is really outrageous but has a terrific voice; and Tony Siragusa’s memoir, Goose; and Nate Jackson’s memoir Slow Getting Up. He’s a pretty decent writer, and he wasn’t a star, which is such a valuable perspective. There’s also a really wonderful book by Nicholas Dawidoff called Collision Low Crossers, about a single season with the New York Jets—that’s full of really great details. So, books like that, that’s where I started. I also watched a lot of old game footage and did some in-person interviews. I spoke to a few former players, and I found this really wonderful YouTube show called The Real Rob Report, with Michael Robinson, who was a fullback for the Seattle Seahawks. It’s really hard to find now, you can only get little bits and pieces of it, but it was basically a behind-the-scenes perspective. He just had so much great locker room footage, which was the one thing I was never going to get access to. I toured one practice facility, the Baltimore Ravens, but they wouldn’t let me in the locker room.

A lot of the research was
just armor I needed to convince myself that I could write about this world that
I had never participated in myself. I had to make sure I got the football
details right, or right enough, and I had to make sure I was representing a
possible truth about our world. The harder stuff was the emotional and
psychological stuff that no amount of research can teach you. You just have to
let the characters discover that themselves, and you have to discover that with

The Desire Not to Be: The Millions Interviews Garth Greenwell

In Cleanness, Garth Greenwell’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut What Belongs to You, the author brings readers into an intimate and explicit relationship between an unnamed narrator and a student named R. Greenwell’s first and second books aren’t necessarily a pair. One does not need to be read before the other, but they both do revolve around the same characters, location, and time.

Cleanness expands on what Greenwell built in his first book. Long passages explore the queer body and the love and sex that comes with it. The narrator and R. live in Sofia, Bulgaria, where they are happy together, but there is a sense of end looming over their heads. The book begins and ends with explicit scenes of sex—more than the fleeting moments in his first book. Greenwell delivers these moments with such beauty and frankness, without shying away from the sadomasochism and voyeurism that fill these men’s relationships.

I spoke with the author about the relationship between his first two books, his approach to crafting his novels, and why Cleanness needed explicit sex scenes.

The Millions: What Belongs to You Came out three years ago. When did you start thinking about Cleanness?

Garth Greenwell: I started writing the earliest sections of Cleanness in 2011. I wrote several of the chapters at the same time as What Belongs to You. I would finish scenes for that book and turn and write scenes I knew would be for a different book. By the time What Belongs to You was published in 2016, I probably had about half the book written. The other half was written in the years since.

TM: How did you know what was meant for your debut as opposed to this book?

GG: It was really clear to me. I had a very early intuition that What Belongs to You needed to be a streamlined container and really focused on the relationship between these two men. I knew there were other aspects of the narrator’s life and world that I wanted to explore.

What made it okay for me to leave that out of What Belongs to You was that I knew there was this other book that was more of an ample container that could contain more places and more characters.

TM: R. played a vital but small role in your debut and is now back for Cleanness. What made you return to him?

GG: The earliest thing I knew about Cleanness was that the heart of it would be the relationship with R. It was interesting to have What Belongs to You be what it was and write the scenes with R. who only really appears on Skype. It was interesting to leave so much out and so much of that relationship untold because I knew I wanted it to be in this other book.

I hope the books are independent and that someone can read Cleanness without having read What Belongs to You, but they do intermingle. It’s not that one is a sequel or a prequel. They occupy the same geographical and temporal space. If someone reads What Belongs to You and then Cleanness or Cleanness and then What Belongs to You, I hope they would be much richer books.

TM: The books are siblings in a sense that they coexist and touch each other’s lives but you don’t need to know everything about life for another life to make sense. 

GG: Also, there is a tension in me as an artist where on one hand I desire well-made or well-shaped things and enjoy a formally satisfying object. On the other hand, feeling the artifice of that and how inadequate those perfectly shaped objects fail to represent the reality of our lives.

It’s a way of trying to have my cake and eat it, too. To have these books that are elaborately shaped, but there is an acknowledgment between the two that there is an openness to these shapes. My hope with What Belongs to You was that the first two sentences lit a fuse and the bomb that it led to went off in the last chapter. That book was a thing in it of itself and shaped in a way that it was as satisfying as I could make it.

If you put Cleanness next to it, the shape that book made is forced to open up again. Cleanness filters in and then What Belongs to You filters into Cleanness. That is something very appealing to me. Having books that are their own thing but also constantly opening up into one another.

TM: I was very engulfed by your sense of place and how you present Sofia to us in such a manner where you don’t beat readers over the head with place and setting. What is your approach to writing about Sofia?

GG: I think my approach to writing, in general, is that it is a discipline of looking. It is a way to observe the world in the fullest intensity of all of my faculties. My physical sensorial apparatus and my moral faculties. It’s something interesting to me, and is something I can’t explain to myself, about what I can invent in fiction and what I can’t invent in fiction.

Something I cannot invent where there is a complete block is place. I wrote What Belongs to You when I was living in Bulgaria. Much of Cleanness, about half, I wrote after I left Bulgaria. That was really difficult. I found I would be blocked in a scene, let’s say if I couldn’t remember what a particular street corner smelled like at 10 o’clock at night. I would wrestle with myself and tell myself to make it up and I couldn’t.

I spent one to two months in Bulgaria every year I was working on this book and I would go around with a notebook seriously recording sense data. I was trying to make verbal sketches in case they would become helpful to me writing this book.

When I work with students about scenery, I do think it’s true that much of the art of conveying reality lays not in perfusion but in selection. It’s not a matter of accumulating sense data, but trying to sniff out that particular detail that will bring a world to life.

TM: Do you think you’d ever be able to write about a place you haven’t spent a lot of time in, or will your works primarily be set in Bulgaria or even Iowa? 

GG: I do think as I was finishing Cleanness that the chapter of my creative and affective life that has been about Bulgaria has come to a state of completion. It made finishing the book very hard, actually. Place has been the start and finish of everything I have written. I can’t imagine writing well about a place where I had not had a profound experience in. I don’t think the profundity of experience is equal to time spent. I can imagine being in a place for a weekend and having a profound experience enough to write about it or spending 10 years in a place and feeling the same way.

I can’t imagine setting a book somewhere that I didn’t have a profound experience in. Who knows, maybe in 10 years I’ll feel that way, but can’t imagine that right now.

TM: The body of this book also features a lot of long passages. What about those long takes on a subject appeals to you? 

GG: It doesn’t really feel like a choice. I think I tend to think slowly and I need to dwell in order to think through a thought completely. When I was writing both books or when I am writing anything, my mantra is to be patient and to dwell in a scene until I feel like it taught me everything it could teach me.

I like writing where I feel like a writer is wringing a situation dry and they are not eager to move on. The feeling that they want to stay with a particular moment until it has done all of the work it can do.

That said, the center of the book, which is called “The Frog King,” is in fragments. The new project’s early material has also been in that fragmented vein. It was a surprise to me when “The Frog King” was written that way. It’s been a surprise with the new project. I’m not sure where that is going to lead, but it is exciting to see significance driven by juxtaposition as opposed to by a feeling of wringing a scene dry.

I feel that feels constant with poetry writing, which I have done most of my life as a writer. It feels the way poems are composed. I adore writers like Michael Ondaatje who use fragments in very brilliant ways. That is to say, I am interested in other forms as well.

TM: I always adored how your passages, as you say, wring a moment dry because it feels like the mundane is cinematic and dramatic. I’m drawn to that because mundane is what most of our lives are.

 GG: I believe that revelation lies all around us. One of my most central beliefs about literature is that literature is a way of looking. It doesn’t have to do with extraordinary or unusual events. It has to do with a particular attitude taken toward the world.

TM: This book also deals with sex, which you have written about in the past, but this book feels a little different. How has writing about sex and the body changed for you between books? 

GG: I actually think Cleanness is quite different in that respect. One of the biggest surprises about the reception of What Belongs to You was how much people talked about sex when there was very little sex in that book. I think that does say something about where mainstream, literary American publishing was in 2016. The fact that a book like mine, which did have explicit passages that equaled maybe two or three pages, seemed so surprising to people.

Some of the most explicit scenes in Cleanness were written before the What Belongs to You came out, but I did feel in response to that reaction, I felt I’ll earn that conversation in that book. I wanted to push what I could do in writing about sex.

I feel like sex is this extraordinarily complex and dense act of communication. Wringing a moment dry of its significance is really fascinating and to try to see how one can untangle the various kinds of communication that are happening during sex. I am also just interested in sex. Sex seems to be interesting in a scenic way. I am interested in how bodies occupy space during sex. I am also interested in it in an emotional way and what people feel during sex. I am also interested in a philosophical way. I think sex is the source of our metaphysics and where we have our greatest intimations of transcendence. It’s something that can do a lot of work in fiction.

I was also just interested in the challenge of writing something as explicit as I could make it, as well as making as high art as I could make it. These characters are in moments that they themselves view as degrading but I wanted to treat that situation with all of the serious and dignity bestowed upon high art.

TM: Were the scenes featuring sadomasochism and more explicit content scenes you wanted to write previously but couldn’t for whatever reason?

GG: One of the things that concerns me when I write about multiple characters is the question of power. In What Belongs to You, the question of power is layered in many ways. It has to do with nationality and class and beauty and desire. There is a way in which that was fertile enough and complex enough without the added layer of S&M.

In some sense, both S&M and sex work raise questions of consent and what extent we can consent to things and what extent we can’t and how difficult that is to discern. In writing Cleanness, I knew I wanted to write about sadomasochism and think of questions of consent and coercion. I wanted to write about the desire not to be. Sex is an expression of that desire not to be.

The book is called Cleanness and I think there is something in us that longs very much for cleanness. I think cleanness often represents the desire not to be. I think there is also something in us that longs for filth. I think the longing for filth can also be the desire not to be. I think those things can also be the desire to occupy the body and connect with another body. Sex seems like such an emotional and moral tangle. I wanted to view it from as many different angles as I could in this book. The different kinds of communication that sex can be, like communicating with a stranger or communicating with a beloved; I wanted there to be a kaleidoscopic surveying of sex as human activity and communication in the book.

TM: How has sex and queerness changed in literature since you were a young student learning to write to now as a teacher teaching others to write?

GG: I think it’s hard to say anything that is really true about that. I’ll hear others and hear myself talking in really simplistic ways about that, but I actually don’t think it’s simple. I think queer sex, but also sex in general, I feel our culture is constantly losing and having to reinvent the resources for addressing sex in art.

I often hear this narrative that people weren’t writing queer sex before the 1980s or stopped in the 1980s because of the AIDS epidemic but started again in the 2000s. I think if you look closely, none of that is true. Gordon Merrick wrote The Lord Won’t Mind trilogy which is still jaw-droppingly explicit and that first book came out in 1970. Maybe there is more latitude for explicitness in mainstream publishing right now in this moment. I do think there is more latitude for a range of possibilities for queer life. It doesn’t shock me if there is a book about a monogamous gay couple or if there is a novel with a polyamorous community. I think there is much more acknowledgment that various ways of life are legitimate and have a place in literature.

Something I think about in Cleanness is anal sex and it does feel our culture is very adverse to talking about anal sex and especially anal sex between men. In What Belongs to You, there is no representation of anal sex. In Cleanness there is a lot of it. I wanted to think of anality and what it means to try to represent that in a way that doesn’t let people look away from it. I do think a lot of acceptance of queer people in our culture is dependent on not thinking about men fucking each other. Writing that book has made me more sensitive to anality in general in literature. D.H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterly’s Lover is so good about writing about anal sex and it is jaw-dropping to see how willing he is to go there.

So every time I think our age has allowed us to do x, y, or z, I look back and realize others were able do it.

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

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

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

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

Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Samanta Schweblin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Free of Time: The Millions Interviews Samantha Harvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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