Living in a Way That’s True: The Millions Interviews Jaquira Díaz

When I’m in a slump, I have friends who know how to put me back on track. Last fall, the state of the world and my place in it—and, by extension, my writing—had reached a low point. At just the right moment, a friend handed me an advanced reading copy of Jaquira Díaz’s Ordinary Girls, a debut memoir about family, queerness, identity, and being seen.

I wasn’t ready for this book. Yet all my life I’d been waiting for this book. In Ordinary Girls, Díaz writes about vital subject matter with a brilliance I wanted to understand. It’s not hyperbolic to say that, at times, I literally had the breath knocked out of me reading Díaz’s words on the page. I asked myself over and over again how she did this, and then I thought, what if I asked her?

I was thrilled when she agreed to the interview. When we got on the phone together, we talked about grief, complicated relationships, craft, and just whom Díaz is writing for.

The Millions: I love on the last page of Ordinary Girls you talk about the girls you wrote the book for. Why is it so important that the book reaches these girls?

Jaquira Díaz: It was important for me throughout the process to remember whom I was writing for, because otherwise I would have stopped writing. It was so difficult to get this book out. And to be honest, the book wouldn’t let me go. I had to get it out of the way before writing other things, before moving on to writing fiction. And, in order to do that, to finish the project, I needed to remind myself whom I was writing it for. So it helped to keep returning to the opening. I kept thinking about all the books I needed when I was growing up, when I was in school, and all we read in class were books by cis, straight, white men. And I kept thinking about how this book might be the first time a queer Latina, a queer Afro-Latina, sees herself in a book, and how that would have been important to me growing up.

TM: This was one of those books I read that made me feel seen in a lot of ways I hadn’t before, and I could imagine how impactful it would have been if I had this book when I was younger. You write about carrying the weight of intergenerational trauma and the history of your people no matter where you go. Do you feel that writing this book has changed the feeling of that somehow?

JD: Yes, absolutely. It felt like in all these years of writing, I had been avoiding writing this book, avoiding talking about sexual violence, colonialism, trauma. I felt that in some ways by being silent I was contributing to the violence and erasure that is so prevalent in our communities, that haunts our communities. Talking about sexual violence and colonialism and other kinds of racialized violence—how not talking about it can feel like a burden. The process itself was grueling, but being done with it felt like such an accomplishment. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took 12 years to finish the book, and I’m definitely changed after having written it. I have more faith in God now. I have more faith in myself. I feel much stronger, definitely much stronger than I was right in the middle of writing it. The book literally made me sick. I had the worst insomnia of my life while writing this book. I gained weight. I lost weight. I gained weight again. I had to go to the hospital because I wasn’t sleeping. It took a real physical toll on my health; so being done with it feels like such an accomplishment.

TM: You write about very complicated relationships with your family and chosen family in super difficult situations. And I feel like you do so without anger or bitterness. Instead, you do it with fairness. How did you do that?

JD: First of all, I needed to be honest about my role in all of this, about who I was and who my family was. It was very important to me to write about the real people, to be as close to the truth as possible. I needed to interrogate not just everyone else’s role, but myself and who I was. The project of this book became much more about making connections and interrogating things about the larger world than it was about telling a story. Which is why I keep returning to certain themes of girlhood, of sexual violence, of silence, of secrets, of monsters. And it became much more about making those connections and speaking out than it was about following one linear story. For years, I avoided writing about my mother, for example, because writing about my mother was so painful. She was one of the hardest people to write about because, in so many ways, she broke me.

I also thought, If I am not honest, readers will be able to tell. In that process of digging for the truth—for me, but also for my family members and my friends—I started thinking about forgiveness. In the middle of writing this book, I was able to forgive my mother, and we have a very different relationship now than we did back during the years that were covered in the book. We’re very close now. We have a loving relationship, and I think part of that was definitely forgiveness. You know how they say that when you forgive people, it’s much more about yourself than it is about them. It’s for you. And being able to forgive all the people in my life, and myself, that made all the difference. I definitely wanted to write something without pity or glory or anger, something that was honest. That spoke to a factual truth but also a larger truth.

TM: How did you write about grief when it came to complicated relationships? You talk about when your maternal grandmother passed away and you had not seen her for a while, but the grief hit you so viscerally. And it’s such a complicated relationship because there was a deep family bond, but there was also distance out of self-preservation. Can you talk more about that?

JD: When my mother’s mother—she died by suicide—when I found out that she died, I didn’t really understand what I was feeling because our relationship in life had been so painful. She was abusive. She was racist. She was homophobic. She was abusive in more ways than one. Physically, emotionally, psychologically. And I didn’t even know that what I was feeling was grief. During the years she was alive, I spent so much time telling myself that when she died, I wouldn’t feel anything. And when she actually died and I was finally facing the reality of it, I was actually questioning whether or not I was feeling grief. I wasn’t sure. I had this limited idea of what grief actually was, because of my experience with it, which had been mostly dealing with my paternal grandmother’s death. That was painful. But then I realized after Marcy died that grief was more than just one feeling. Grief was painful, but it was also joyous. And it was anger. And it was depression. And it was anxiety. Grief was like experiencing every single emotion you’ve ever felt all at once. And navigating that when my maternal grandmother died was much more difficult because I didn’t know what I was feeling.

TM: I’ve always had this question of what we are allowed to feel when it comes to grief and complicated relationships.

JD: I definitely felt that when Marcy died. Because I was sad and because I felt pain, I felt I was in some way betraying myself— she had inflicted so much pain on me and on my family.

It took a few months for me to feel like it was okay to feel what I was feeling. That it would never truly make sense but that that was fine.

TM: Near the end of the book, you wrote about the differences in how you processed the grief for both of your grandmothers. With your paternal grandmother, what do you feel like she would be most proud of?

JD: I think she would definitely be proud of the book, but she would be prouder of the way I live my life. That I have faith. That I found love. That I’m living in a way that’s true to who I am, that I’m not pretending to be someone else.

TM: Is there something about writing—about the kind of things that your book has—that you wish you would see more of in memoir?

JD I definitely wish that there were more writing about girlhood and navigating a certain kind of home. I definitely wish there was more writing about girls growing up in poverty. Queer girls, black and brown girls. I didn’t have any books like that growing up. I mean, I certainly looked for them. I went to a library and what the librarians handed me were books about white people written by white people, written mostly by white men. I wish that there were an abundance of books about brown and black girlhood, about girls who grew up working class or in poverty. I also wish that there that there were just more books about Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora. When I was writing this book, I mean, I searched out almost every book written by a Puerto Rican in English that I could possibly find. And there weren’t that many.

TM: Yeah, I feel like when Lilliam Rivera’s novels (The Education of Margot Sanchez and Dealing in Dreams) had come out, I had similar thoughts.

JD: If only Lilliam had been writing when I was a girl—that would have changed my entire world.

TM: And I felt similarly about T Kira Madden’s memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, and then I felt the same thing with your memoir. There are so many different elements for me that resonated like being mixed race and what that means and how you’re looked at in this world. Why was it important to include writing about being mixed race?

JD: Well, one of the things that I always knew growing up was that we definitely were not white. We definitely did not belong. We were made to feel—and by we, I mean my sister, my brother, and I— like we didn’t belong in my mother’s white family. We definitely didn’t look like them. Also, my black grandmother made it clear to us that we were a black family, and that no matter how we looked to the world, we were a black family and we would be treated like one. Those are things that in our families I knew, but when I went out into the world, when I went to school, nobody saw me as black. People didn’t know unless I told them. And sometimes people didn’t believe me. It always made me feel like I was both invisible and hyper-visible, living in some liminal state where no one really saw who I was. And it was very important to kind of get that through to the reader. How much of my childhood and adolescence and even much of my adulthood was spent without really being seen. And also how exhausting it is to go out into the world and have people look at you and not really see you, never really understand who you are.

TM: Do you feel like writing this book was also a way to bring some of that together?

JD Yeah, in some ways. We all have to have some sort of reckoning with race. Being biracial, being a light-skinned black person, also means that you might be racially ambiguous, that you walk in the world with a certain amount of privilege that other black people don’t have. And for me, I definitely feel like it’s my responsibility to use it to open opportunities for other black people who don’t have the privilege of being racially ambiguous or treated the way that I’m treated. I definitely feel like I’ve had access to a lot of things that some of my friends haven’t had access to. And there have been moments in certain organizations when I realize that there is a possibility that I got this opportunity because they didn’t know I was black and it certainly made me feel like shit, but also made me feel like I had a responsibility to try to open doors for other people.

TM: I know this was very hard to write, but what was a joyful element of writing your memoir?

JD: God, that’s a very difficult question because it was so, so hard. One of the most joyful moments, to be honest with you, was to be able to write the acknowledgements, to thank people who have meant something in my life and have helped me, even if they just helped in very small ways. And to show them how that very tiny thing they did was very important in making me who I am, in helping this book become a reality. That was probably the most joyful moment.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:

‘Ordinary Girls’: Featured Nonfiction by Jaquira Díaz
A Year in Reading: Jaquira Díaz

Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall was published in 2019 to a chorus of near-unanimous praise. Reviewing it at The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot wrote, “[Ghost Wall] is a worthy match for 3 a.m. disquiet, a book that evokes existential dread, but contains it, beautifully, like a shipwreck in a bottle.” The novel tells the story of Silvie, the sheltered daughter of a brutish father obsessed with the ancient lifeways of pre-Norman conquest Britons. Silvie accompanies her father and mother on an anthropological journey through Northumberland with a university professor and group of graduate students. As they move through the countryside and bogs, they move back through time and the journey becomes increasingly harrowing, as it invites the reader to ask, “How far removed are we really from our ancient ancestors and their traditions?”

The paperback edition of Ghost Wall was recently released, and I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Moss about her novel-writing process and technique in the first of what will be an ongoing new column at The Millions focused on craft.

Adam O’Fallon Price: One thing I love about this novel is that it’s short! And I don’t mean because it couldn’t be longer, or because I wasn’t enjoying it, but I simply like a short novel, and in my limited publishing experience, it is quite difficult to get a very short novel through. We need short books! Can you talk a little bit about the length of this book and related process?—i.e. was it whittled down from a much larger draft, or did this always feel like this was the right size for the story? And was there any pressure from the publishing side to pad it out more?

Sarah Moss: It really just came that way. I finished it and there it was, short. At first I thought that meant it was an interesting exercise but of no use; I was working on a longer novel anyway and this was the distraction project. But I mentioned it to my agent and she wanted to see it, and then to send it to my editor and so it went. At first I kept protesting that it wasn’t a novel and I didn’t want to give readers short measure, but I was more or less persuaded that people really don’t buy books by weight. Certainly no-one suggested padding.

AOP: On a semi-related note, I think one of the reasons for Ghost Wall’s brevity is it doesn’t muck around with a great deal of backstory or throat clearing. The main narrative puts us right into the reenactment excursion and keeps us there, a perfect choice as it creates a sense of readerly discomfort that matches the unnerving journey of the characters. Was there a temptation to do more exposition and general setting up?

SM: I think all my books start rather suddenly. I like to put the reader behind the narrator’s eyes in the first sentence and worry about setting up later. As a reader I’m patient with exposition and landscape and weather—I rarely read for the plot and like slow books—but as a writer I want every word to be earning its keep.

AOP: I’m also curious about when you really felt you “knew” your main character, Silvie: her thought process and personality. Was there a particular place where she emerged, or was it gradual? I’ve been asked this question before and my best answer is that I tend to feel like I know a character when I know their sense of humor. Is there, generally speaking, a way that you tend to find “into” your characters’ heads?

SM: I think for me it’s maybe about inhabiting the character’s body. Once I can feel her skin and push her hair behind her ears, feel her shoes on her feet, I can start.

AOP: Ghost Wall features a good amount of area-specific (Northumberland, correct? I’m a hopeless American.) flora and fauna as well as a great deal of information about Iron Age lifeways. I wonder how much this background inspired the novel, and how much writing the novel simply necessitated this information. Chicken, or egg, or both?

SM: Yes, Northumberland. I love that landscape partly because I have no history there, no personal or familial claim on it. My desire to be there is simply aesthetic and I feel no need to belong to or own it. I became suddenly interested in the Iron Age before I had any idea I might write about it, which is how it often goes for me; a passion for Japanese textile design or the history of obstetrics grows in my mind and later I find it’s for a book. (Or not; sometimes the fascination comes and goes without producing anything much.) So background first. I always start with a place: weather, birdsong, soundscape. And then history, archaeology, architecture. Characters come later.

AOP: One of the interesting choices in this novel (among many) is the lack of quotation marks, with dialogue embedded in the narrative. It seems right to me, though in a way I find difficult to articulate—something, perhaps, in the way it captures Silvie’s budding, confused consciousness. I wonder what you think it does, and how you feel the book would read differently with standard dialogue?

SM: I’ve been surprised by how much some readers mind about speech marks. After all, different languages do it differently, and I wonder if readers who are upset by the dialogue in Ghost Wall are similarly bothered by French or Spanish. I’d been playing with dialogue and interior monologue in my previous novel, The Tidal Zone, and here I wanted to take it a bit further. It’s all in Silvie’s head anyway; the narrator is older, remembering, so the speech isn’t exactly direct in the first place.

AOP: Were there any moments in the drafting of Ghost Wall that really surprised you? Not asking for spoilers, but were there any character moments or small but significant plot turns that seemed to pop out of nowhere?

SM: I liked the way the animals emerged and made patterns. It wasn’t planned until I saw that it had started to happen, and then I developed it.

AOP: Finally, a very dumb, but perhaps thematically appropriate question to end: in terms of writing a first draft, are you a plan ahead-er or flashlight in the dark walking through the woods-er?

SM: Both! Spend two years making a map and then put it in your back pocket and ignore it while you hack a path through the wilderness. Just remember that you invented that wilderness and, however it feels, you’re responsible for everything from the mining rights to the sunset.

Only the Lonely: The Millions Interviews Teddy Wayne

Teddy Wayne has an interest in loneliness. “I’ve always been most drawn to novels about protagonists who are deeply alienated; it’s where I’ve felt artistic empathy the most intensely, with both the character and, often, the author, in that the character’s attempts to break free of his or her solitude can be mirrored by the attempt of the writer to connect with the reader, or vice versa,” Wayne told The Millions. “It seems as worthy a subject of artistic exploration as any, and possibly the one to which literature is best suited.”

Wayne’s latest novel, Apartment, which brims with desperation, brilliantly captures the complex and complicated layers of loneliness. Set in the 1990s and largely inside and around Columbia’s MFA program, Apartment follows the lives of an unnamed narrator and his budding friendship with classmate Billy, a man with a background far removed—by politics, class, and geography—from the narrator’s own experiences. Once the narrator offers Billy the opportunity to live rent-free in his apartment, the pair’s friendship begins to change. And not for the better. What follows is a subtle, sly page-turner about disconnection and its impact.

Wayne and I spoke recently about loneliness, desperation, and, of course, Apartment.

The Millions: When I see that a new Teddy Wayne book is on the way, I feel like I know to expect a novel that’s going to be about loneliness in some measure. Kapitoil, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Loner, and, now, Apartment each explores what it means to be lonely in such profound ways. What is it about loneliness that attracts you as a writer?

Teddy Wayne: I’ve always been most drawn to novels about protagonists who are deeply alienated; it’s where I’ve felt artistic empathy the most intensely, with both the character and, often, the author, in that the character’s attempts to break free of his or her solitude can be mirrored by the attempt of the writer to connect with the reader, or vice versa. To get highbrow, loneliness is the emotional equivalent of Wittgenstein’s private language argument: a language incomprehensible to anyone other than the speaker is therefore not coherent even to the speaker. In reductive, more metaphorically social terms: without other people, we can’t know ourselves. It seems as worthy a subject of artistic exploration as any, and possibly the one to which literature is best suited.

The other main focus in each of these books is psychological life under capitalism. There are numerous spokes radiating from this, but the intersection with loneliness is the one I’ve been most interested in—how the scrabbling for resources in a finite world divides us up, whether into individuals or tribes, amplifying our distance from one another.

TM: Contemporary culture has a tendency to blame technology for why so many people feel lonely, but Apartment, which is a perfectly realistic story set in the mid-’90s without really any reliance on technology, serves as a good reminder that loneliness isn’t an exclusive characteristic of the technologically-focused 21st century. Did that have anything to do with why you chose to set your novel in the ’90s or did you make that choice for an altogether different reason?

TW: I wanted to set a novel about friendship in the last pre-Internet age, when we were forced to turn to the people nearest us for companionship rather than to a screen. The Internet, of course, has been as much a balm for loneliness as an accelerant, rendering physical barriers immaterial and aiding people who do better at a keyboard than a party. But the bigger themes on my mind for choosing the mid-’90s were the post–Cold War politics of the era—the start of the contemporary culture wars and the rightward movement of the country, Clinton’s re-election notwithstanding—and its shifting notions of masculinity and gender (to cite one popular culture example used in the book, it’s hard to imagine a unisex fragrance like CK One gaining mainstream appeal in the ’80s). The narrator and Billy are emblematic of these dynamics; it was the last time two guys from the “two Americas” could have realistically become friends, as these fault lines have become canyons during the Bush, Obama, and especially Trump years.

TM: Apartment is a complex character study, and the narrator and Billy are both dynamic and complicated characters. I want to ask about their friendship. (I think I can call their bond that.) Loneliness is what brings them together. What do you see as being the reason they stay together for as long as they do?

TW: It certainly starts off as mutual loneliness, in that the narrator has been physically isolated as an adult (since his sublet is illegal and he can’t take the chance of harboring a roommate) and never had a truly close relationship of any kind. And Billy is a newcomer to New York and hasn’t breached certain levels of intimacy, either; they end up genuinely connecting across their differences. But then money enters the equation more perniciously—the narrator lets Billy live in his spare room rent-free, in return (at Billy’s insistence) for some cleaning and cooking—and soon Billy is something of a kept man, tethered to the narrator’s patronage. Why the narrator keeps Billy around is up to the reader’s interpretation, since the narrator himself refuses to answer the question honestly.

TM: Did you find one character to be more difficult than the other to write?

TW: Billy had gone through several iterations before the final version. He’d always been more of a man’s man than the narrator, but his autodidactic skills were more polished in previous drafts, and his politics were far more liberal. He was a little too perfect, in all ways, and striking the right balance of plausible strengths and flaws was challenging. The narrator changed, too, especially in one central way (that’s never explicitly spelled out in the text) that helped define him for me. In a very early draft, that element didn’t exist at all, then after a revision it was front and center; neither extreme worked well.

TM: Do you mind talking about your decision in keeping the narrator nameless?

TW: There have been a lot of semi-autobiographical novels lately in which the narrator is unnamed as an intimation that he or she is the alter ego of the author (with the real name on the cover of the book), or out of some conviction that character is inherently unstable and thus we shouldn’t ever attempt to create fictional personages, so why bother naming them. For Apartment, I thought of anonymity as the narrator’s permanent affliction: he’s a background figure, an observer rather than a participant who, it’s suggested, won’t leave behind any kind of legacy, and even in his own story he doesn’t get the honor of a name.

TM: Apartment is a dark novel, but it’s also darkly funny in sections. When the narrator’s story “Camp Redwood” finally gets published and he realizes his classmates won’t see his success without some added action on his part, he says: “Columbia’s library didn’t carry the journal, but I planned to put one of the contributor copies that I would receive in its magazine rack so everyone could see what had become of the story they’d spurned.”

With a novel that’s so focused on loneliness and desperation, did you intentionally set out to add in a few moments to lighten the story a bit?

TW: As an example of how subjective humor is, I didn’t intend for that passage to register as comic, but as, in fact, lonely and desperate—though now, seeing it out of context, I can see how you might have read it that way. (At the same time, his desire to show off the literary journal in the library isn’t that different from the modern urge to tweet “My latest, in the ____”.) But that is, at least, the kind of comedy I like best: humor that is twinned with sadness, one the temporary absence of the other but marshaling power through its missing cousin. Apartment has the most understated humor (read: is the least funny) of my books, and I’ve noticed that I, unfortunately, have become less funny as I’ve gotten older, too, whether through an attrition of wit or, I hope, greater contentment and less of an antic need to entertain. As I personally dislike books that have no comedy to them whatsoever, and because I was going for an overall elegiac, poignant tone, I did consciously sprinkle in lighter moments, mostly via secondary characters (especially Robert Stockton, a hard-drinking, self-mythologizing writing professor).

TM: So much of the book revolves around writers and their work, so I want to ask about artists. The narrator and Billy have an interesting conversation—in the middle of a political argument by the way—about what kind of people become artists. The narrator says, “I suppose it’s people who have something to say, with the talent and discipline to express it, and the empathy to see other viewpoints.” Billy replies, “And also the people who have enough of a financial cushion to fall back on in case they don’t make it. Which means not many people like me.” From a 2020 lens, do you think both perspectives are still pretty accurate?

TW: Yes, likely more so now, given the increasingly marginal financial rewards of these fields and the skimpier safety nets below. We justifiably talk a lot about race and gender concerning the arts, but surprisingly little about class. Some of this is because it’s less visually conspicuous an identity and it’s harder to pin down one’s precise status on the continuum of money, but mostly, I think it’s because there’s a lot of shame attached to the privilege that enables most artistic lives. No one wants to admit that they’re a successful writer, filmmaker, painter, or musician (or successful anything, really) in large part because they had a financially stable background. Talent and hard work certainly have something to do with where you end up, but zip code is still destiny; it’s a lot easier to spend eight years writing a first novel or take an unpaid internship when you know that you have an upper-middle-class parachute you can open in an emergency. The irony in Apartment is that the narrator is not only ashamed of his upper-middle-class provenance, but thinks it’s an artistic detriment, since he has nothing worth writing about, whereas he fetishizes Billy’s Midwestern working-class authenticity.

TM: Near the very end of Apartment, the narrator admits, “But solitude, I’ve discovered, isn’t so bad once you come to expect it.” At first, I was feeling all optimistic about his future, but, then, I stepped back and reprocessed his statement and—well, I felt like I’d been punched it the gut. It’s a sad, beautiful ending to an equally sad, beautiful novel.

TW: Thank you. I always aim for an emotionally ambivalent climax, what Robert McKee calls ironic endings. The epilogue that follows the sentence you quoted complicates that sentiment a little, in ways I won’t spoil. Like many people, I read the last page of a book slowly (I vaguely recall an Onion article making fun of this practice), wanting the emotional dam the author has been building to break in the closing sentences, and the novels I’ve loved most reward that: the tone of the final words seems to spill over into the empty space below them, the textual sign that you’ve returned back to your own life, its own pages still unwritten—hopefully changed, maybe a little less alone.

Books Are a Place to Put Your Feelings: The Millions Interviews Jami Attenberg

Jami Attenberg, author of seven novels and recent New Orleans transplant, is a very considerate interviewee. I know everyone starts these little intros with gushing remarks; it just seems polite. But I was her third interview of the day. She asked which publication I was with, again? She told me she’d planned it out so that she would give slightly different answers to each interviewer, so it wouldn’t be just the same stuff on each platform—even though, she added, her publisher reminded her that “there’s nobody who reads all of them. Maybe your mom.” She said she’d once made a spreadsheet, after the breakout success of her novel The Middlesteins, in 2013, to track what she told each interviewer, and then her publisher told her this was insane and there were better things to do with her time. As a fellow listmaker, I was impressed and intrigued.

We conducted this interview over the phone, me in my windowless office in Madison, Wisc., Jami in her house in New Orleans. Halfway through, there was a strange noise and she told me that her dog was humping her leg. Then he started eating dirt. We continued the interview anyway, discussing grief, families, Jewish books, and the post-production side of writing and publishing a novel. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

The Millions: Where does your latest novel, All This Could Be Yours, fit in the line of your previous work? Is it a departure, or a continuation?

Jami Attenberg: It feels different because it’s set in New Orleans. I was writing about a place I didn’t know very well, and through writing this, I got to know it better. My last two books, Saint Mazie and All Grown Up, were in New York, and then The Middlesteins was in Chicago. Even with Saint Mazie, which was set in the past, I didn’t feel insecure or nervous about capturing the city, because I had lived there for so long. So here was my new home, and it was just a real challenge to get to write about something different like that. Also, all my books have dysfunctional families, or families in them, but to have that be the primary focus of the book was something I hadn’t done that in a while. You know, I wrote The Middlesteins in 2010.

TM: What kind of research did you do for the novel?

JA: I went to a lot of places. I wanted to know the landscape, not just of New Orleans but of Louisiana. I think it’s really easy now for people to just look up a bunch of stuff online, but when you really put yourself in a situation, I think, something’s always going to come out of it. I drove to a pecan farm in Alabama, and I was talking to somebody who worked there and I was like, can I walk around the farm? And she said no, it just rained last night, so there’s snakes everywhere. Which I never would have known in a million years, that that’s what happens after it rains on that farm. So it became, like, I’m definitely putting snakes in there! At this point, this is my seventh book, so I’m really in tune with how much I need to do my work, what I need to do in order to write things.

TM: You mentioned you hadn’t written a family novel in several years. All This Could Be Yours shares a lot of superficial similarities with The Middlesteins, but in many ways they’re also very different books.

JA: I think they’re very different books. A lot more happens in All This Could Be Yours, there’s just a much bigger plot. The Middlesteins is a novel, but it feels more like linked stories. Right? Each chapter is kind of its own compact thing. You could have pulled out any of those chapters, and read them and had a complete experience, whereas I think with All This Could Be Yours—some of the chapters could be excerpted, but they work best together.

TM: Something I really liked about the novel is the way the narrative floats in and out of the consciousnesses of different people. You have this claustrophobic family, and then these detours, these offshoots into other characters’ heads. So I was wondering how you came to that, if that was always part of the novel for you.

JA: The intention originally was that it would just be the four main characters. Whatever I intend to do when I start a book, though, I don’t want to say that it falls apart, but it definitely bends to whatever my instincts are. It’s good to have somewhat of a strategy going in, but also, especially with a first draft, I just kind of let my freak flag fly. Whatever’s going to show up is going to show up, and I’m just going to let it go. So these characters just, fairly insistently, demanded to be heard, and I just let them! But they weren’t as strong as they could have been initially.

I have an initial round of readers, and then I was getting notes from another, second tier of readers, and Laura van den Berg was part of that. She’s an incredible reader. She’s an incredible writer too, but she’s really good at giving notes. Very thoughtful. She said, I really think you need to lean in a little bit more to this kaleidoscopic vision. So I had them in there but I hadn’t fully—I knew they were there, but, sometimes you just need a nudge. So I went back and did another round where all these characters got tightened up a little bit.

It’s fun, right? Very fun and very playful, there’s a lot of little, for lack of a better word, tricks that I use in the novel. Times that I’m talking to the reader directly, or where these little characters show up. I’m definitely very playful and experimental with my structure—always. Every book needs to feel different. Even if the subject matter is dark, I still want it to be an entertaining ride.

TM: There’s a lot about criminality and bad men in this novel. Victor Tuchman, the patriarch, whose hospitalization provides an organizing structure to the novel, is so alluring to all the people around him. At one point, a friend of his wife, Barbra, says, “Isn’t there something so sexy about being married to a criminal?” Obviously, there’s a lot about Bad Men and Ugly Men going on right now. What is compelling about this kind of criminality, to you as a writer and to the characters in the novel?

JA: I mean, I personally am not interested in it. I’m not attracted to those kinds of people. What I was interested in was why Barbra was with Victor. This book was about understanding what men like that leave behind, and how it impacts families and communities. There’s a reason why you only see Victor for two seconds, you know. Because I could really give two shits about men like that. I’m done. I’ve heard them enough. I’ve heard enough talking from them. So I was interested in why—how he impacted people, and why people put up with him.

TM: The Tuchmans, like the Middlesteins, are Jewish. The older Tuchmans, especially, socialize and grow up in a space of Jewish community. Is it important to think about this book as a Jewish book?

JA: I think it is. But I definitely did not sit down and say, gonna write a Jewish book. It’s just who the characters were, how they showed up. Writing The Middlesteins, the fact that it was really embraced as a Jewish book was quite surprising to me. I was writing about a specific community, but I thought that they were, and I believe they are, a very universal family, and I feel the same way about these characters. It’s part of who they are, but in a way they could be lots of things.

But I’m waiting to hear the Jewish response to this book. I have one really big Jewish event I’m doing at the very end of my tour, at my mom and dad’s new temple in Florida. [Laughs.] There are enough characters in this book that aren’t Jewish, though, that it does feel like a bigger tableau. Whereas The Middlesteins was very claustrophobically—as it turns out—more Jewish than I thought it was.

TM: Did it feel different to do events for The Middlesteins in a Jewish space?

JA: Yeah. It’s weird because I’m not a practicing Jew, so I had not spent time in any sort of religious buildings. Anyway, I came out of doing all these events in a really interesting place, which was that I sort of embraced my Jewish cultural connections more within myself. I’ve lived in New York for so long, which is, like, the most Jewish place ever, so I didn’t really think about it too much. But then to go and talk to all these people about their families—often, that book triggered conversations about people’s struggles with health issues, or people in their lives who have had those struggles, so it ended up being an incredibly enriching experience for me – and an honor to talk to these people. So I have learned to just take whatever comes my way. Books are a place to put your feelings. I’m just happy when people give a shit! Really. Truly. And get something out of it.

TM: You said earlier that you’ve figured out, by now, pretty much what you need to start writing and get your work done. Does that extend to the publicity side of things?

JA: [Laughs.] I don’t really like it. I don’t think it’s healthy for a writer. I think most writers would agree with me that the hardest part of writing, or being a professional writer, is the actual publication. My first book came out in 2006, and I still remember what it was like when you weren’t counting on the Internet, and you weren’t counting on lists. You were waiting for reviews. And I’m still waiting on reviews, but now it’s like, if I’m not on this list or that list, you know, that’s what so many magazines and newspapers and websites are doing now. And I’m not knocking the list! Please! Put me on every single list! It’s just weird to see it. I’m just going to imagine that it’s really hard for people to break out these days, you know, it’s a real struggle to figure out how you promote your book, and how you get recognized. I have so much sympathy for all my fellow writers, and I try really hard to read as much as I can so I can talk about people’s books and promote things – and I don’t do it unless I really like something.

TM: Since you mention it, then, is there anything you’re excited about right now? What are you reading?

JA: I just started reading Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, and I’m very intrigued by it. Let’s see. I just read Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson and it was excellent, I really enjoyed it. A proper book. And I read Morgan Parker’s YA novel, Who Put This Song On?, I enjoyed that, and also Mary H.K. Choi’s Permanent Record, I always enjoy YA. I read and blurbed Jenny Boylan’s Good Boy, I liked that, I thought it was very heartfelt.

But the true pleasure is about to come, in about a month or so, after most of the reviews are in—so I can stop worrying about that—and people will just be reading the book. Once you get to that it’s quite delightful. You’re hearing from people who really liked the book, who are getting in touch with you. The joy is about being read.

Back to your earlier question, the other thing I’ve noticed is that there’s an evolution in your relationship with your work. You have a relationship with the book when you write it, where it’s just yours. Then you get another relationship when you give it to your editor and you start working back and forth and getting copyedits and things like that. It becomes something slightly different and not 100 percent yours anymore, even though you’re doing most of the work on it. And then it gets read and it gets digested and people have questions and people may interpret it—not incorrectly, but maybe not as you would have desired, and that can be complicated. And then, about a year later, I have found that the book comes back to me, and it’s mine again. It’s been altered by all of these opinions, and these experiences, but I can sort of reclaim it for myself. So I look forward to that also, a year from now, when it’s just mine.

She Cared Enough to Take It As Far as She Could: The Millions Interviews Rob Garver

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 

Pauline Kael was the most renowned film critic of the 20th century. It’s a strong statement, but inarguable: You may not have loved or agreed with or even respected Kael’s criticism, but you could not deny its robustness, passion, or significance. For Kael, movies were both high art and utterly relevant to our daily human existence; and movie reviews thus mattered accordingly.

What She Said, a new documentary about Kael’s work as a critic and cultural force, had its theatrical premiere at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles on December 13 and will open at Film Forum in New York City on December 25. It was a pleasure to interview New York-based filmmaker Rob Garver about the film—what it is, what it isn’t, and, of course, “what she said.” 

The Millions: Let’s start with the film’s title: In The Hollywood Reporter’s review, Todd McCarthy suggests that film criticism as an “art” (versus a “craft”) is up for debate. We learn in the film that Kael had originally hoped to be a playwright, but that she was rather bad at it. She also tried again to be involved in moviemaking later in her career, when she attempted to co-produce a film with Warren Beatty (she ultimately withdrew from the project). Tell us why you think Pauline Kael was an art maker.

Rob Garver: She was an artist because she had a gift and she cared enough to take it as far as she could go. Pauline was really not a film critic; she was a writer whose subject was the movies. She gave all of herself to it—all her knowledge, experience, and talent. Not to mention humor, wisdom, honesty. Even if you felt she was wrong about a movie, she was always enlightening—or funny, or maybe rude, or all three at once. And she believed that at his best, a critic could be an artist too. She wrote about that.

TM: I couldn’t help thinking of Susan Sontag: She too is better known for her criticism, while she aspired to be a great novelist, and also attempted to make a film (which was not well received). Both women were passionate about the art of filmmaking but had almost polar opposite tastes. (They also had a common nemesis in Normal Mailer!) To your knowledge did they ever encounter each other?

RG: They were both California girls—as was Joan Didion—but I don’t know if they ever spent any real time together. I believe I did find a note from Sontag to Pauline (as I did from Didion) in Pauline’s archives at the Lilly Library. A friendly note, about one of their books.

TM: How much time did you spend researching Kael’s archives, and what were some of the most engaging or surprising things you found there?

RG: One of the first things I did was to hire a great researcher named Rich Remsberg, and together we spent two weeks in the archives. One of the great things we found were the letters from celebrities, some of which made it into the film. Some that didn’t were a series of letters from the famous producer Ray Stark—about five or six letters written over a period of about 10 years. Funny and interesting because they were initially friendly, but then, over time, become more and more frustrated, because Pauline is obviously not giving his movies the love he feels they deserve.

The best part of her archives, though, are the many letters she wrote to a couple of her close friends when she was in her early 20s—as a college student at UC-Berkeley and then in New York after college. It’s Pauline at her most vulnerable and emotionally naked, and most intellectually voracious. She was interested in everything. She was a young person who very much knew herself, but who also struggled with acceptance I think, because of her strong opinions, even at that age. She also seems to have understood how the world worked already.     

TM: You convened quite an all-star cast: Greil Marcus, Camille Paglia, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Schrader, David Edelstein, Joe Morgenstern, Alec Baldwin, David O. Russell, Sarah Jessica Parker as the voice of Pauline Kael, and others. Was there anyone you’d really hoped to include who refused or was otherwise unavailable? Did you consider enlisting today’s prominent critics (e.g. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, David Denby and Anthony Lane), or younger critics? Do you think the new generation of filmmakers, actors, and critics know how central Kael was to film culture during her time?

RG: I would have loved to talk to Woody Allen and Warren Beatty, but I don’t think they wanted to talk to me. I tried. Spielberg I tried, DePalma I tried. David Lynch I tried. Armond White I tried. Michael Moore I tried (he can’t stand Pauline), Manohla Dargis declined, A.O. Scott didn’t respond (but he wrote a lovely obit in The New York Times when Pauline died). Denby I didn’t approach as I already had several critics, but they were friends, and I think they had a falling out. Some people just don’t like to go on camera, and I respect that.

Not sure about current critics knowing Pauline. Some do. Eric Kohn at IndieWire teaches a class in criticism at NYU, and Pauline is part of his lesson plan. Others have told me the same thing.  But I think unless a critic is steeped in film history—and they should be—they don’t know her, or don’t know her well anyway. I think Pauline’s first five books are just fantastic, great reading for anybody, critic or not. But if you’re a critic who hasn’t read at least one or two of Pauline’s early books, I think you probably need to.

TM: In the film, Molly Haskell says about Kael, “No male critic had as much testosterone as Pauline.” Kael was notorious for championing violent films like Bonnie & Clyde, Scorsese’s early film Mean Streets, the films of Brian de Palma and Francis Ford Coppola, as well as sexually controversial films like Last Tango in Paris. She was a feminist by example—speaking her mind, pursuing her ambitions, never compromising in order to be “nice.” But I wonder how/if Kael would engage today’s feminisms and/or the #MeToo conversations. Any thoughts?

RG: You can never say for sure, but one thing about Pauline that seems to hold up pretty well: She didn’t like messages in movies, she didn’t belong to groups, and she was never called a word with an “ist” at the end. I think, yes, she was a feminist by example, but she wouldn’t like to be called one. She did it on her own, in her own way.

She also loved the bad boys—Sam Peckinpah and James Toback, the guys who often shot from the hip, even if people like Toback missed more than they hit, creatively.

As for #MeToo, it’s hard to guess. Toback made a fool of himself and got caught, and I think she would not be on his side in that case, despite her friendship with him. And Harvey Weinstein she might see as a clueless narcissist in the vein of some of our current leaders. Of course, she was a woman, and a very sensitive person, and probably one who in her personal life didn‘t take any shit from men. But I think she was more the aggressor in sex. She did not have many long romantic relationships with men, I don’t think, but most of her friends were men.

I could imagine/hear her often taking the side of the men in the #MeToo debate (she was supposedly a champion debater in high school). I can hear her telling women to wise up—that if a guy is telling you to come back to his hotel room to audition, it’s a bad idea! I can hear her saying that men are naturally predatory when it comes to women—so watch your back! I think she would probably be on the side of men more than women in some of these cases. That’s just my guess. I think she might be on Woody Allen’s side, since she knew him and he didn’t have a pattern as others did. But who knows? Mostly, she didn’t take sides in her life, publicly, on public issues. She does write about the rape in the movie Straw Dogs in an unusual way, expressing feelings of both eroticism and revulsion. That’s a great example of her honesty coming through. And I think if she wrote that review today, she might be plundered.

TM: I’ve read that your interest in making this film began with your own admiration for and enjoyment of Kael’s reviews. But the film doesn’t shy away from giving voice to her detractors, showing the ways in which her sharpness, at the height of her powers, could injure filmmakers and their careers—David Lean did not make a film for 14 years after being eviscerated by Kael both in a review and publicly at a luncheon—not to mention ruffle the feathers of mainstream moviegoers. Would you say that the central tension or conflict of Kael’s legacy is the question of motives?

RG: Not in my book. I know there are many who think she was out to “get” people, but if you read her books, which are made up of her published reviews and essays, they are almost entirely thoughtful, honest, insightful. Hardly ever personal, although she could go there. I think maybe a more central “tension” might be her “rightness” on some of the big movies of her era. Many still get upset about her review of their favorite movie from 40 or 50 years ago. That speaks to who she was, and the power of her pen. I don’t think anyone gets upset about Rex Reed’s review from 50 years ago, or even Vincent Canby’s review from 20 or 30 years ago.

TM: Her supporters describe her as courageous and generous, her enemies as cruel and narcissistic. Her own daughter, Gina James, spoke to what she believed made her mother tick: “She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well she had no negative effects. This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice.” Does the film lean one way or another on the question of Kael’s essential character?

RG: Oh I love Pauline, despite her flaws, because I’m similar to her in some ways. If I love a movie, I’m all in; if I don’t, it’s hard to accept that people don’t see what I see. I’d make a terrible critic. So I can see where she came from, and I can feel for her because I know it wasn’t easy for her. (She also said she couldn’t be friends with someone who disagreed with her on a movie.) She had to avoid people in restaurants, at parties, in the streets. A price she paid. And she was a very outgoing, generous, and magnanimous person. But, I think she believed she was right, always. She believed she knew best and that people should listen to her.

TM: Kael’s unapologetic subjectivity seems to be a point of controversy in any assessment of her criticism: She could forgive one film for the very same flaw that made her love another. She critiqued “auteurism” for its emphasis on the filmmaker’s mark, but then became enamored of de Palma and to some degree Godard. Where do you think we stand now on the spectrum of subjectivity and objectivity in film criticism? Is the “I” of the film critic anywhere near as present in today’s film criticism as it was in Kael’s work? If not, are we better for it or worse?

RG: More than critiquing auteurism in particular she critiqued “isms.” She critiqued belonging to a cabal of thought. She believed in coming to a movie—or a painting or a piece of music or a book or play—with everything you are, with all your experience, and being open to it, not simply looking at it through the lens of a theory. That’s what makes her so fun to read: her windows are open, not half-closed. And she was never “all in” for any one filmmaker. She liked some of DePalma, some of Altman, some of Scorsese. Her job was to criticize, not to be a fan.

I think film criticism is probably much more subjective overall now, partly due to Pauline’s influence, but mostly due to the digital age, where everyone can publish their opinions. Bloggers can be very personal in their “reviews,” and I think this has probably bled over to professional criticism.

TM: Bio-documentaries often explore an interesting or important figure beginning with their childhood and background. What She Said doesn’t linger much on Kael before she became a well-known critic—which is to say there doesn’t seem to be much interest in psychologizing her. Was this your preference/decision, or was it more your sense of what her preference would have been?

RG: That would have been a different movie, much more narrow, and specialized. I wanted to make a film that was an expression. Not an analysis or comparison, or an effort to figure out why she was who she was, and why she wrote those things. I mean, I do think some of that comes through, but I was more interested in showing her work, and how it became part of the culture. My film is just what the title says it is—it’s “what she said,” not “why she said.” I’d be very happy to watch that movie if someone else made it though.

I wasn’t making it for Pauline, or making as I thought she would like it. The movie is my impulses and expression. I guess I’m channeling her, but I’m doing it in a way that pleases me. I just wanted to make her come alive.

TM: Do you think or hope What She Said might bring renewed attention to some of the landmark and classic films of Kael’s time? I know for me, it made me want to rewatch Bonnie & Clyde and all of Altman’s and David Lean’s films, and to watch Christopher Strong and Casualties of War for the first time.

RG: That would be nice. There are so many remakes these days that if you’re really interested in movies, you should know where they came from. Pauline mentioned that a few times—that what seemed new to audiences didn’t seem new to her, partly because she was, one, so well read and knew the great literature before she ever started writing about movies, and, two, knew movies and had seen so much.

One of the many things I found in the research that I learned about Pauline was that she was a voracious reader who went through all the works of so many novelists and poets in her 20s—not just one book, but she would read everything by that author and then move on to another author—and it formed a bedrock for her writing about movies later on.

And it is very fun to watch a movie after reading one of her reviews. She wrote a great review of the Fellini movie Satyricon and wrote about how she thought Fellini was really the good Catholic school boy who loves sex and sin, but who feels guilty about it all at the end of the day. Funny, and she makes you see her view.

TM: This is your first feature film. Tell us a bit about your own career trajectory.

RG: Many false starts, and a lot of plugging away without results. I’ve made my own short films since I was a teenager, and have done other things to make a living—but always working on my own projects and trying to break through with one of them. Writing scripts, developing ideas. This is my first one to break through. I want to make a fiction film that I’ve been working on since before the Pauline movie, and I’m writing a second script that is an out-and-out comedy, which is what I like most.

TM: Any theories on why this one broke through?

RG: I always felt very strongly that this could be a special movie, and I felt completely driven to make it. And I love the movie. That’s probably why it broke through. But also because Pauline is such a compelling figure: complicated, strong, powerful, flawed, but without the brazenness of so many in the movie business. She was like a buddha, in a way, in her certainty. A buddha who loved to drink and smoke and swear and live like a bohemian.

TM: Was it important for you that the film have a theatrical release, given Kael’s strong attachment to seeing movies in theaters, with audiences?

RG: Definitely! That’s what I told my sales agent when they signed on—that I wanted to get a theatrical release because my movie is primarily a “theatrical” movie, in that I tried very hard to make it visual and cinematic. Also because it’s a movie that stirs up a lot of feelings and ideas, and so when people see it in a group, there is always a lot of conversation afterward. But now we’re set to open in 30-plus cities theatrically this winter in the U.S. and Canada, and in more markets internationally. So thank fully my wish came true.

Freedom in Telling the Truth: The Millions Interviews Adrienne Brodeur

I was first introduced to Adrienne Brodeur and her memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, when I was invited to a breakfast at the offices of her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Midtown Manhattan last spring. The breakfast was catered, tables laid out with a bountiful spread of exotic meats—wild game, naturally—only a few of which I could identify. While we ate, Brodeur regaled us with the story of her childhood, one of sprawling coastal mansions and summers on Cape Cod, cocktail hours and lavish meals of squab and foie gras, and a massive ruby- and diamond-encrusted necklace from India. As I picked at my plate, self-conscious about getting meat stuck in my teeth at a table of industry influencers, I wasn’t sure if Brodeur’s book—which sold for a staggering seven figures—would be for me. In addition to her rather glamorous upbringing, Brodeur has also led an impressive literary life: Before her current position as executive director of the literary nonprofit Aspen Words, she was an editor at HMH and founded Zoetrope: All Story with Francis Ford Coppola. This author’s story, and her world, seemed so far from mine.

But when I started reading Wild Game, I was whisked away to Brodeur’s world, devouring the memoir like an exquisite meal in one feverish sitting. The book centers around an affair between Brodeur’s mother—an elegant, enchanting, and highly narcissistic woman named Malabar, who studied as Le Cordon Bleu and could whip up clams and pâté in the time it took to quaff one of her signature (and very strong) Manhattans—and a close family friend named Ben. It was an affair, and a lie, that lasted decades, a drama in which the young Brodeur played the role of both confidante and coconspirator. She kept the secret like it was her job: she lied to her beloved stepfather and brother; covered for her mother; and often helped orchestrate trysts between the lovers, rewarded by Malabar for her loyalty with a love that was by nature conditional. It was an extravagantly constructed deception, one that led Brodeur to years of depression, self-harm, and shame. But more than the secrets and the scandal, more than some mommy-dearest tell-all of the rich and destructive, what I found in Brodeur’s book was a much more universal story: one about a mother, a daughter, and the trauma we inherit. It’s a beautiful and tenderly wrought book about loss, reclamation, family, and forgiveness; about the secrets we keep to protect the people we love, and how women so often carry the pain and wreckage of their forebears. I spoke to Brodeur about the book, how writing it helped her process the secret she kept for so long, and how becoming a mother helped her decide to finally tell her story. 

The Millions: This book feels like the story—and the secret—you’ve been waiting your whole life to tell. Did it feel that way to you on some level—inevitable? Or was there a catalyst, a specific moment when you knew you had to write it?

Adrienne Brodeur: A bit of both. It’s funny—for a long time, way before I started to think about a serious memoir, I used to play the story for laughs. I tried to turn it into a romantic comedy and even published a piece in Modern Love years ago where I focused on the humorous aspects of this crazy saga. But when I started a family of my own and as my children grew, I realized that I had to dig deeper and reexamine the way I was brought up, and look closely at the mistakes I’d made. Writing this book has been a form of atonement. It has also forced me to take a serious look at the legacy of deception that plagued my family for generations, a cycle that I’m determined to end, with me.

TM: It’s difficult to write about the people we love, especially when there’s pain at the heart of the story. Several of the key players in this story have passed away, but Malabar is still alive, though she now has dementia. Did you feel like such losses were necessary before you could write this book? Did you still struggle with writing about these lives, and if so how did you work your way through it?

AB: I didn’t intentionally wait for people to pass away to write this book, but I will say that it is always a struggle to write vividly and honestly about the people you love. What I didn’t know is that I would develop a reservoir of compassion for every single person in this book, myself included. When you explore people’s lives deeply, it’s hard not to forgive them their flaws, and to acknowledge both the highs and lows that shaped them.

TM: You render Malabar with such empathy. Despite the harm she caused you, you write her as a vivid, complex, and complicated character—larger than life, charming and magnetic, wholly human in her failures and flaws. There were times while reading this that I hated her for her selfishness, for how she treated you, but there were so many moments of tenderness I couldn’t help but feel profound empathy for her too. What was the process like in creating her as a character on the page—with all her darkness and her light?

AB: One of the surprises of writing Wild Game was the empathy I developed for my mother. In examining her life, I begin to understand anew the incredible losses she endured—twice-divorced parents, an alcoholic mother, the discovery of a secret sibling, the tragic death of her first child. Writing Wild Game was a heart-expanding process. It taught me to see my life with more nuance. We all have darkness and light within us. My mother made some terrible choices, but she also suffered greatly, endured many tragedies, and still managed to find moments of joy and tenderness.

TM: It seems like in order to write this book with so much empathy you’ve had to forgive Malabar. Have you forgiven yourself? Do you still carry some of the shame you write about, that you carried for so long, or have you been able to let it go?

AB: It is always easier to forgive others before you can even think about forgiving yourself. I still carry shame, of course, though I’ve worked hard to let some of it go. As a society, we seem to want “closure” on all of the unpleasant parts of our lives, but the past is always with us, and although we can reckon with the events that shaped us—and hopefully move beyond them—I don’t believe they ever disappear completely. I will always be someone who spent her formative years in a world where deception and secrets were the norm, and in doing so, I hurt people I cared deeply about. I make a conscious effort every day not to repeat these patterns.

TM: So much about this book is about inheritance, about intergenerational trauma. There’s alcoholism, narcissism, abuse both emotional and physical—and its ripple effects. In a scene near the end of the book, when you give birth to your daughter and then see your mother, we can feel the terror, the weight of all the things you’re afraid to pass down. Did writing the book help you reckon with that fear?

AB: Yes, it did. Writing this book not only allowed me to put feelings into words, it helped me understand my past, heal from those old wounds, and face my fears of passing intergenerational traumas along. I’m sure I will make mistakes as a parent, but I’m even more sure that they will not be the mistakes that my mother made with me. My mother believed we were two halves of the same whole, which was both thrilling because I loved her, and incredibly stifling because it prevented me from becoming my own person. We were codependent in the extreme. I love my children more than anything, but there’s nothing I want more than for them to stand on their own two feet, apart from me.

TM: Books about family trauma, especially those by women, often get called cathartic. But as a reader this story really did feel something like catharsis—like a purging or a cleansing. The story was based on a secret, and publishing the book feels like a big final way to break the silence you kept for so long and release it into the world. Did writing this story feel like catharsis? And now that it’s out in the world, how does it feel?

AB: First of all, thank you for saying that. I’m so glad you felt that way as a reader. Writing Wild Game was an intensely cathartic experience. Needless to say, I felt vulnerable writing the book, because I really put it all out there and tried not hold back, even on things I felt ashamed about. I do feel vulnerable now that it is out in the world, but I also know that every reader will bring his or her unique experience and lens to this story, and that, in a way, it is no longer just mine. People’s reaction to the material differs dramatically. The book has elicited sympathy, horror, and everything in between. And that’s okay. I enjoy hearing about other people’s relationships with their own mothers—everyone has a story.

TM: Food plays an important role in this book. Malabar the gourmand, Ben the hunter, the title based on an idea for a cookbook that the two devised as a platform upon which their affair could thrive. Food is not just an important part of your family history, but both the site of trauma and a vehicle of desire. It’s so sensually and viscerally rendered on page, the moaning over meals, popping bites in one another’s mouths, the ringing of necks and the breaking of bones, that it seems to function as a metaphor for the affair and the harm caused by it. Did you always know that food would play such a central role in this story?

AB: One thing you just have to understand is that my mother, for all her flaws, was a truly gifted cook. She was simply magical in the kitchen. You could hand her a bag of squab and a bundle of herbs and she’d whip up a gorgeous, restaurant-worthy meal. If Instagram had been around back then she’d probably be a foodie star. So yes, writing the food scenes was fun for me because it was so sensual and vibrant. Everything about it felt R-rated. Even the language she used: succulent breasts, luscious thighs—you get the drift. When I thought back on the events of my life and started to construct the scenes for the book, I thought in terms of meals. The night my mother and Ben began their affair my mother had made this feast and I can still picture the table like it was yesterday. Every meal described in the book is indelible in my mind. And it was all so delicious.

TM: Literature also plays an important part in this story. Your late stepmother, Margo, who serves a maternal role that your mother couldn’t, gives you stacks of books that help you begin to envision yourself more autonomously in the world. Which books did you read while you were writing yours, and which have been most influential?

AB: I still remember the first stack of books Margo gave me way back when: Jim Harrison’s Dalva, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, and Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Three such different books, all involving young female protagonists who must sort out complicated problems, which enabled me to imagine ways I might do the same. That is the beauty of books, of course: Every one of them takes you out of the bubble of your own experience and into a whole new world. Thanks to Margo, I’ve been a passionate reader for my adult life, and ended up making a career in the world of literature, too.

I’ve devoured memoirs for at least a decade before writing my own. I love Elizabeth Alexander for the poetry of her prose, Mary Karr for the audacity of her voice, Jeanette Walls for the grace and compassion with which she described her deeply flawed parents. The book that influenced me most as I wrote Wild Game was Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which contained a line that served as my guiding light: “For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” I really hope this comes through.

TM: In the epilogue, you write about your own daughter, who’s about to turn 14—the age you were when the affair began and your life changed course. I’m sure this book is going to resonate with a lot of daughters, especially those who have complicated relationships with their mothers. Did you write this book in part for your children? Who else do you hope will read this book, and what do you hope they might take from it?

AB: I didn’t so much write Wild Game for my children as I wrote it for me so that I could be a better mother to my children. I hope that this book helps anyone with a complicated or secret-filled past know that they can get to the other side. I truly believe that the more we suppress or hide our stories, the more they control us. It’s when we confront them—and own our pasts—that we are able to move beyond them toward a brighter future. There’s such freedom in telling the truth about who we are.

No Such Thing as “Not Racist”: The Millions Interviews Ibram X. Kendi

To fight racism, people need to be antiracist, which is different from being nonracist. In his new book, How to Be an Antiracist, ideas columnist for the Atlantic Kendi explains the distinction—and why it’s so important.

The Millions: What motivated you to write How to Be an Antiracist?

Ibram X. Kendi: I think that the people really motivated me to write it. What I mean by that is my last book [the National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America] was a narrative history of racist and antiracist ideas, and I would often speak of this long-standing debate between racists and antiracists, encouraging people to be antiracist. People would often ask me what that means. The more people asked, the more I realized there was a need for this book.

TM: Being antiracist sounds more active and intentional than being nonracist. What is the difference?

IXK: When I look out at American society today, I see that, typically, when people are charged with being racist, their response is “I’m not racist.” The term “not racist” has primarily been a defensive term, a term of denial, and that’s really all its meaning has ever been. So, I would argue that there is no such thing as “not racist”; it exists only as a denial of being racist. However, an antiracist would have definitions of racist ideas and racist policies and would admit when they were being racist, or when they supported a racist policy, and then seek to essentially not do that again. The heartbeat of racism is denial, is consistently saying, “I am not racist,” while the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, self-reflection, and seeking to grow change.

TM: Your writing suggests that it’s arguably most crucial for people of color to be antiracist. Why?

IXK: If black people believe the problem is other black people, they will spend their time attacking other black people instead of attacking racism. That will only make our condition worse. For me, everyone is responsible for striving to be antiracist, but if you are materially suffering more than other people as a result of forms of racism, then it’s in your interest—the interest of people of color—to be antiracist. That has always been the case, because people of color have always led the way of antiracism in this country.

TM: What are some ways we can begin to practice antiracism? Where does one start in looking at their immediate surroundings?

IXK: Everyone is different and everyone has different passions. What I would suggest is for people to think about the spaces and places they hold most dear. Perhaps you’re a school principal who is most concerned about the citywide curriculum or a nurse in national nursing associations. Look at the racial inequities and disparities in that space and place and then recognize that those disparities are not the result of racial groups—behaviorally or biologically. The fundamental cause of these inequities is racist policies. The next step is to figure out who has the power to change these policies. Join those people. Support them. Fight with them to create a more antiracist space.

TM: Can one ever actually be an antiracist, or is antiracism perpetually an act of becoming, of recognizing and committing to change?

IXK: Yes, no one ever becomes an antiracist. The reason why no one can ever become one is because to grow up in this country, and in many other parts of the world, people are raised and trained to be racist. In many ways, people become addicted to racist ideas. It’s like a personality characteristic. Once we decide that we want to be an antiracist, we can’t just wake up one day and be one, just like we can’t wake up one day and be free of an addiction. It’s an everyday process. One has to be constantly challenging themselves.

TM: So, in a sense, someone striving to be antiracist is sort of like a “recovering racist.” Is that right?

IXK: On one level it is recovery, on the other it’s advancing an antiracist project—to challenge those racist policies and be a part of movements and organizations that are toppling them and replacing them with antiracist policies.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

You and I Have Peril in Common: The Millions Interviews Saeed Jones

Saeed Jones’s How We Fight for Our Lives has landed on many most-anticipated book lists. The author’s second title, after the 2014 PEN Award–winning poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, explores his experiences as a black, gay teenager in Texas. We caught up with Jones to learn more about his writing process and what inspires him.

The Millions: Tell me about How We Fight for Our Lives—why you wrote it and what it means to you.

Saeed Jones: People often call it “coming of age,” which isn’t entirely inaccurate; I just tend to think of it as the story of “coming into self.” My intention was to chart the journey to the point in my life at which I felt truly self-possessed.

I wrote it because I get very emotional when, going about my business, I encounter people, especially young people, who are in the midst of that journey. It’s hard feeling that you are not yet who you want to be—even more so if you feel that you are surrounded by people actively working to prevent that emergence.

I hope this book helps people coming into themselves feel less alone—and less crazed by the way America lies to young people about what they’re experiencing. I know young people aren’t the only ones who feel this way, but they were first on my mind when I set out to write it. That’s what brings me back to the blank page every day: How can I help people feel less alone? How can I explain how I stopped being a stranger to myself?

TM: You mention Greek mythology and James Baldwin as early influences. Can you talk about any other writers or works that have resonated over the years?

SJ: I just moved into a new apartment and have been going through my books as I reorganize them. This morning, I found a signed copy of Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. My teacher recommended it to me in the seventh or eighth grade, and I was so taken with it that she gifted me a signed copy in January 2000. I couldn’t believe an author—a real author—had spelled my name correctly. In keeping with some of the broader themes of my work, it’s both telling and quite funny that my other favorite book around that time was A Time to Kill. I loved all of Mildred D. Taylor’s books as a kid too.

Alexander Chee’s writing has been important to me for quite some time. In college, I found a very sexy, experimental short story he published in a now defunct online queer literary magazine, and it absolutely burned through me. Everything I wrote for at least a year after that was probably just mimicry of what he had accomplished with that piece.

I was introduced to Audre Lorde—via the poem “Generation”—my junior year of high school, and her work has since been a major influence through every phase of my life as a reader and writer. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House remains seminal. And, of course, Patricia Smith. I started reading her in middle school, started showing up at her readings in college, communicating with her in graduate school, and somehow befriended her at some point after that. I’ve had a very lucky life as a reader.

TM: You talk a lot about libraries in your book and their role in your development—not just intellectually but in that one memorable scene, sexually. What role did libraries play in your upbringing?

SJ: I guess, growing up as a black kid in the suburbs of North Texas, the library was one of the first public spaces I could regularly visit alone and enjoy without suspicion. It felt like I was just a person there, free to use my time and attention as I pleased. It was very freeing, even if—at the time—it didn’t strike me as so profound. Young people always take what they believe is “theirs” for granted.

TM: There’s a scene in your book where you realize your life is in danger, but the whole book is permeated by this kind of awareness of the collective possibility of danger experienced by both black and gay men. The reader really gets the sense that it isn’t just your story but the stories of everyone who’s grown up like you. Can you talk about that choice? To emphasize the collective rather than the individual?

SJ: I grew up with a creeping sense of peril. I’d feel it and try to ignore it. The news, teachers, or family members would try to impress it upon me, and I’d briefly recognize it and then try to ignore it again. In the ninth grade, a black teacher—who I do believe was well-intentioned—got very frustrated with me one day and kept me after class. “Don’t you understand,” she basically yelled, “that it’s a miracle that you’re a black boy in the ninth grade and you aren’t in a gang, in jail, or dead?” And I just remember being like, “Girl, this is Lewisville, there are no gangs here. Calm down.” And I was probably right. I didn’t want to accept the simplistic, cliché, do-or-die worldview she was trying to apply to my life. But, in many ways, America is simplistic, cliché, and do-or-die when it comes to young black people. She didn’t know I was gay; I can’t even imagine how much more dramatic that lecture would’ve been if she had. The point is, the peril is present and it doesn’t even make you special. Whether you know that or not, if you aren’t a rich straight white man, you and I have peril in common. Ain’t that a trip?

So then, in writing the memoir, I sought to honor how I felt about my circumstances at the time and how other people felt about our shared circumstances and, at least, to gesture toward the fact of our circumstances. That’s why I made a point of referencing some of the news stories that were getting a lot of attention at the time. You spend a lot of time in my head as a character and you certainly hear from people like my mother and grandmother and others, and everyone rarely agrees on what’s what. Then, occasionally, there are moments like Matthew Shepard’s and James Byrd Jr.’s murders that no one can argue with. The peril is factual and, as you note, collective.

TM: Can you talk a bit about grief and its role in your writing?

SJ: Loss was already a major theme in the poems that became Prelude to Bruise. My mother passed away suddenly when I was in the middle of writing that book. And I learned a lot about the differences between loss and grief, to say the least. It literally exploded my writing. If you look at the poems in Prelude, you can identify the later material by identifying the poems with more white space and unexpected line breaks. Grief did that to me and my writing. It exploded my expectations and introduced these blank pockets of deep feeling. My prose writing became more fluid and lyrical.

My mother was my first champion. She always encouraged me to read and write. And she seemed to be the only person who was entirely unsurprised when it started paying off in terms of pathways and opportunities. I think she always knew I would become a storyteller in some way. I had to write about her because erasing her from the story of how I came into myself as a person and a writer would’ve been ahistorical. Also, I love her. And, in its way, this book is very much about love.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Texas Book Festival.

The Private Life of Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry shot to international stardom in the late 1970s as the lead singer of the new wave band Blondie. Now, at age 74, Harry has produced a candid, harrowing, and humorous memoir, Face It, that looks back at her eventful life—as a child put up for adoption, as a dreamer scuffling in New York, through Blondie’s rise and dissolution and reunion, and her solo career as a singer and actress. Along the way, Harry introduces readers to a sizable chunk of the pop pantheon, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and John Waters.

The Millions: You say in your book that you’re a private person. Why did you take on the challenge of writing your memoir at this point in your life?

Debbie Harry: I sort of got persuaded to do it by my manager, but after I got started, I enjoyed the process. I think in a way what it’s done for me is just to clear away a lot of the debris and be done with it. I’m really looking forward to making some new music and possibly writing some more stories.

TM: You mention in the book that memory is subjective.

DH: I’ve done a lot of interviews with Chris [Stein], my partner, and inevitably we remember different things. Fortunately, together we sometimes create a better understanding of what we’re talking about. But, yes, memory is subjective.

TM: You say you were influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale. Were there other memoirs, maybe music memoirs, that resonated with you when you were writing this book?

DH: For a long time I was really, really interested in autobiography and biography, and I’ve read quite a few. And they’re fascinating, but I sort of got out of the habit. Recently I picked up Chronicles, Bob Dylan’s memoir, and he’s quite a good writer. And I’ve read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, and some of her sentences are just mind-blowing, so good.

TM: You say in your book that you still love New York, even though it’s unrecognizable from when you were making your way here in the 1960s and ’70s and even the ’80s. What do you miss most?

DH: I don’t know that I miss any building or restaurant or anything like that because that’s always in flux in New York. I discovered that after being out on the road. I’d go out on a tour for a couple of months and come back—and something would be completely gone, and there would be something new in its place. That kind of transition and change in New York City is normal. The things I miss a lot are the enchantment and the drive of the ’70s when I was just getting started with Blondie. That was a really special time, getting all that going and me and Chris having this wonderful relationship and the excitement of the scene and the other bands. It really was a privilege to be a part of that.

TM: Are there things you don’t miss about the good old days?

DH: The problem for us was survival. We weren’t making any money and we were scratching to get by, but I guess what helped somehow was our youthful enthusiasm—and optimism, basically. Day-to-day would seem like, “Oh, this is hard! What’s gonna happen?” Sometimes it was almost deliciously scary that you would be fighting against these odds. The reward of having a creative enterprise and having it be accepted is kind of amazing. It’s not like anything else. You’re at your wits’ end, and when you make the slightest little bit of a gain, it’s like, “Oh, man, it’s unbelievable!” You really do get a great feeling.

TM: You mention that Marilyn Monroe was a big influence. You describe her as “a woman playing a man’s idea of a woman”—with a lot of smarts behind her. That’s Debbie Harry in Blondie, too, isn’t it?

DH: To some degree, yeah. I actually don’t think I was as smart as Marilyn. She was playing with the big boys, you know. The music world is not quite as cutthroat as the movie business. The more money that’s being spent to produce a project, the more intense and tense and crazy it gets. The movie business is definitely in that league.

TM: Is your own movie career something you prize a lot?

DH: It really is. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great directors, but I’ve never been in a position to be a producer or a writer or a director on a film. I’ve always been hired to play a part or make a cameo, so the responsibility hasn’t been on my shoulders. But it’s a tremendous enterprise. Look at John Waters. He started out from such an underground position and was so controversial. Much the same as David Cronenberg—again, a very controversial, independent director who slowly built to a point where he was making very commercial pictures.

TM: Have you read any of John Waters’s books? He’s a fine writer.

DH: Yes, and he’s an artist who has exhibited in galleries. And he gives lectures—I love his lectures, they’re fabulous. He’s so knowledgeable and so entertaining about B movies.

TM: In your book, you write that “success quickly started to feel anticlimactic.” Do you still feel that way?

DH: I think I understand the nature of the business a lot better, and my own nature. I think I’ve come to an easy resolve about it. But for a person like me who was not familiar with showbiz, it was a bit of an eye-opener. You know, I was kind of idealistic and foolish—and I’m still kind of a fool, but at least I have a little bit more experience.

TM: Climate strikes are taking place all over the world today. There’s a picture in the book of you onstage in Argentina last year with the words “STOP FUCKING THE PLANET” on your back. Are you optimistic or gloomy about the future of the planet?

DH: Unless we act very quickly and very seriously, I think we’re in a lot of jeopardy. I’m not optimistic unless people get on it right away and start appreciating how beautiful the planet is and how desperate the situation is. Unfortunately, the majority of the world’s population is busy with their own day-to-day survival. If every single person on the planet took an hour or two out of their week and did some serious environmental work—cleaning water, cleaning rivers—it would really be important. If you talk to Vivienne Westwood, she’s much more up on the science. And many scientists are saying we’re beyond the pale.

TM: You mention in the book that you’re making some new music. What are you working on?

DH: Just writing snippets, little bits and bobs of ideas for lyrics and themes. I’ve been parsing out some of the instrumental tracks, and I’m trying to learn about new artists I really haven’t been paying attention to. All the little pieces are filtering into my brain. Hopefully in the New Year, I’ll get in the studio to do some solo work.

TM: Who are the musicians you’re listening to?

DH: One is Aldous Harding. She has this great video on YouTube called “The Barrel.” The song is very interesting and quirky, and she comes more from being a poet. There’s some great stuff out there. Let’s face it, rock ’n’ roll has come a long way; it’s very sophisticated and it encompasses a lot of attitudes and instrumentation.

TM: Do you think you’ll have a new record next year?

DH: Oh, God no, I don’t think it’ll be out that soon. Thinking positively, we could possibly get an EP out.

TM: Are you going on a tour to promote your book?

DH: I am. I have about five or six dates around the country, and then I go over to the U.K. and Germany. I’ll be at the Miami Book Fair.

TM: Good luck with the book. I hope it sells like Krispy Kremes.

DH: Oh, thanks [Laughs.] But not as fattening!

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

The Humanity of Being Freakish: The Millions Interviews Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here celebrates weirdness. “A writer like Carson McCullers was so important to me, to reveal that freakishness but to also assert the humanity of being freakish, that meant the world to me,” Wilson told The Millions. “And so I try to do that in my work, try to build a story that lets us live in this strange place and still retain those elements that make us who we are.”

Wilson’s latest novel follows the complicated friendship of Lillian and Madison, two women who were college roommates until a scandal forced their separation. Out of the blue, Lillian receives a letter from Madison, welcoming her back into her life. But (major) strings are attached. Madison needs Lillian to be the nanny for her twin, spontaneously combusting stepchildren, Bessie and Roland. It doesn’t take long for Lillian to find herself more connected to the two children that she could’ve ever imagined.

Nothing to See Here is a hilarious yet tender exploration of what it means to be a family—and to love. Wilson and I spoke recently about parenthood, home, and, of course, Nothing to See Here.

The Millions: I love the weirdness of “Wildfire Johnny” in your most recent collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. In that story, the protagonist transports back in time by slitting his throat with a magical razor. Your new novel, Nothing to See Here, exists in a similar realm of magic. For you, when you set out to write this new book, did the magical element come to you first? Or was it the initial story of Lillian and Madison, the two ex-roommates and best friends, that drew you into the more fantastic story with the children?

Kevin Wilson: The magical element came first, the weirdness. For me, stories begin with conceit and novels begin with character, and that’s typically how it works, but this time the magic was pushing me toward finding the narrative to support it. And that just happened to be a novel.

TM: Speaking of magic, Bessie and Roland, the two children at the center of the novel, have a pretty distinctive trait: When they get agitated, they spontaneously combust. What sparked the idea?

KW: It’s an obsession of mine, has been since I was probably 9 or 10 years old. I might be wrong about this, but I remember a friend of mine in grade school had the Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown set of books—which I wanted so badly but was so expensive and my parents were not going to let me order something over the phone—and there was a small section on spontaneous human combustion and it just locked into my brain forever. I thought about it a lot, this recurring image in my head of people bursting into flames. And then I kind of worried that I might burst into flames. That felt logical to me. And then I kind of wanted to burst into flames, that it might help me feel better if I could just burn off all this anxiety inside of me.

In my first collection of stories, I wrote about a character who lost his parents when they spontaneously combusted. And I thought that might be the end of it, that my obsession had a little pressure relieved and I could move on. But then I wrote my first novel, The Family Fang, and one of the characters gets a role in a movie as a nanny for kids who bursts into flames. And it still didn’t get rid of the images in my head. I kept going back to that little plot point in the novel and worrying it again and again and thinking about the nanny and the kids, and I knew that I was going back into it.

TM: So much of the novel is about parenthood. When writing about the way Lillian and the other adults handle Bessie and Roland, did you find yourself channeling your own personal experience of parenting?

KW: Raising a regular kid is pretty similar to caring for a child who might, at any time, burst into flames. Children are combustible. They’re mysterious in wonderful and also scary ways. I know, in my heart, that I’m a decent parent. I know that my children are wonderful. But I feel some guilt that in those early years, I sometimes was afraid of not only what I might do to them, mess them up in some profound way, but also of what they might do to me, how I might crumble under the weight of their need.

I think parenting, even when you put your whole heart into it, is fraught with anxiety, the worry that you’re making a person and hoping they survive. There are times when I feel like I’m not capable of caring for another person, that I’m not strong enough to do that. But I have to find a way to do it. And I think writing about that anxiety, working through it on the page, helps me deal with it in the real world.

TM: I think that, oftentimes, it’s easy to write kids as being the ones who need love, care, and attention from their parents and to forget that parents appreciate—and even need—some of these similar things from their kids. Nothing to See Here captures that parental desire for affection through Lillian: “I imagined them walking the aisles of the library in town, picking out books, books that we could confidently check out without worrying about them catching on fire, dead lord, the rescinding of our library card. I imagined them inside the mansion, then leaving for school, then coming back home. I imagined them sleeping in a bad that wasn’t mine. Where was I during all this? Far away, right? Like, if I got the kids to this level of normalcy, they wouldn’t need me anymore. And I wasn’t sure if I was happy or sad about it.” When you set out to write this book, did you know you wanted to look at some of that parental vulnerability? Or is it something that just comes naturally to you in your writing?

KW: Every night, I read to my oldest son, who is now 11. He lets me read to him, a book we pick out together, and then, because he reads on his own, when I’m done he’ll then read his own book by himself. So we sit in this bed, so close to each other, and I read to him. And I know that this will eventually end, that he will not need this. And maybe, even now, I need it more than him. Most days, that 30 minutes when I’m reading to Griff is the happiest part of my day. The goal is that Griff and Patch, my other son, eventually don’t need me anymore. But I can’t reconcile that yet. So, again, I write about that anxiety.

TM: I want to ask about the thematic emphasis of home. Early on, when Roland and Bessie arrive at the guesthouse at which they’ll live, Lillian tells them they are home. But she adds this: “I knew it wasn’t my home. And it wasn’t their home. But we would steal it. We had a whole summer to take this house and make it ours. And who could stop us? Jesus, we had fire.” Finding a place we know as home is complicated for many of us, isn’t it?

KW: I write a lot about home. At the heart of it, I’m a domestic writer and my focus is almost always small and contained, trying to build a world that will hold a few people safely. And I think that’s just my nature. Because I live so fully inside my brain—that it’s always kind of racing alongside the real world—having a physical space that I know will hold me is important. I think we’re constantly looking for that space that will contain us and the people that we love, and it just goes on and on and on, constantly adjusting that space to accommodate people who leave or come into it.

TM: Near the end of the novel, Bessie admits of her fire, “I don’t ever want it to go away…I don’t know what I’d do if it never came back.” Then, she asks Lillian, “How else would we protect ourselves?” I’ve thought about this exchange several times since I first read Nothing to See Here. Bessie seems to have accepted her power as a part of her identity, but at the same time, that desire for the fire is for protection. For you, did you think of this fire as a blessing or a curse? Or is it something else altogether?

KW: I think about that line a lot, too. I think the world can be so scary, that sometimes we need to hold onto those elements of ourselves that cause us the most anxiety, that keep us separate from other people. This just occurred to me, but I received an email a few weeks ago from a young man who a few years ago came to a reading of mine. And I had talked about Tourette syndrome and my trouble with bad thoughts, with looping, constant thoughts that can overwhelm me. And those thoughts make me obsessive, makes it hard for me to ever let go of anything. And he said that he’s been working to develop these methods to erase those tics, to help people not have those aspects, and he wondered if I might meet with him and begin that process. And I never wrote back. And the reason is that I don’t want to lose those things anymore. Maybe earlier, it would have been nice. But I honestly don’t know what I’d do if my brain worked differently than it does now. I think I’d be frightened of not having that stuff in my head, or what would replace it. It keeps me separate from the world enough to feel safe, to have a place inside of me that, even if it’s scary, it’s mine.

TM: Nothing to See Here celebrates outcasts and weirdness in such a tender, affecting way. I think many of us who love books and reading probably self-identify as being outcasts in some kind of way, and to read a book that so boldly celebrates weirdness and shows the inherent power in being different—well—it’s special.

KW: I think at an early age, because my parents were the most supportive and loving people because my sister took care of me and watched out for me—even though I felt so different from them sometimes, felt like something was wrong with me—I knew that I was human. I don’t know if that makes sense. What I mean is that even when I thought of myself as weird, as deficient, I always asserted my humanity, believed that I deserved to be in this world. And a writer like Carson McCullers was so important to me, to reveal that freakishness but to also assert the humanity of being freakish, that meant the world to me. And so I try to do that in my work, try to build a story that lets us live in this strange place and still retain those elements that make us who we are.