At Entertainment Weekly, Colson Whitehead shares how he found his voice for his newest novel, Harlem Shuffle, and how it has evolved over time. “After my poker book, The Noble Hustle, I’ve been able to find my voice really quickly,” Whitehead says. “I think it was writing in that first-person voice: There was a confidence there, and it stayed with me. Not a lot of people liked that book, but I’ve felt sure-footed ever since. [While] I can easily find flaws with my earlier novels, I really feel 100 percent behind my last four. I also know it can all come crashing down, so I keep working and trying not to coast. The fear that my luck has run out keeps me going.”
“Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train. He has a plan to stay in Cambridge permanently.” —John Maynard Keynes in a letter to his wife describing Ludwig Wittgenstein (1929)
Somewhere along the crooked scar of the eastern front, during those acrid summer months of the Brusilov Offensive in 1916, when the Russian Empire pierced into the lines of the Central Powers and perhaps more than one million men would be killed from June to September, a howitzer commander stationed with the Austrian 7th Army would pen gnomic observations in a notebook, having written a year before that the “facts of the world are not the end of the matter.” Among the richest men in Europe, the 27-year-old had the option to defer military service, and yet an ascetic impulse compelled Ludwig Wittgenstein into the army, even though he lacked any patriotism for the Austro-Hungarian cause. Only five years before his trench ruminations would coalesce into 1921’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the idiosyncratic contours of Wittgenstein’s thinking were already obvious, scribbling away as incendiary explosions echoed across the Polish countryside and mustard gas wafted over fields of corpses. “When my conscience upsets my equilibrium, then I am not in agreement with something. But is this? Is it the world?” he writes. Wittgenstein is celebrated and detested for this aphoristic quality, with pronouncements offered as if directly from the Sibylline grove. “Philosophy,” Wittgenstein argued in the posthumously published Culture and Value, “ought really to be written only as poetic composition.” In keeping with its author’s sentiment, I’d claim that the Tractatus is less the greatest philosophical work of the 20th century than it is one of the most immaculate volumes of modernist poetry written in the past hundred years.
The entire first chapter is only seven sentences, and can easily be arranged as a stanza read for its prosody just as easily as a logician can analyze it for rigor:
The world is all that is the case.
The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
The facts in logical space are the world.
The world divides into facts.
Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.
Its repetition unmistakably evokes poetry. The use of anaphora with “The world” at the beginning of the first three lines (and then again at the start of the fifth). The way in which each sentence builds to a crescendo of increasing length, from starting with a simple independent clause to a trio of lines that are composed of independent and dependent clauses, hitting a peak in the exact middle of the stanza, and then returning to independent clauses, albeit the final line being the second longest sentence in the poem. Then there is the diction, the reiteration of certain abstract nouns in place of concrete images—”world,” ‘facts,” “things.” In Wittgenstein’s thought these have definite meanings, but in a general sense they’re also words that are pushed to an extreme of conceptual intensity. They are as vague as is possible, while still connotating a definite something. If Wittgenstein mentioned red wheelbarrows and black petals, it might more obviously read as poetry, but what he’s doing is unique; he’s building verse from the constituent atoms of meaning, using the simplest possible concepts that could be deployed. Finally, the inscrutable nature of Wittgenstein’s pronouncements is what gives him such an oracular aura. If the book is confusing, that’s partially the point. It’s not an argument, it’s a meditation, a book of poetry that exists to do away with philosophy.
Published a century ago this spring, the Tractatus is certainly one of the oddest books in the history of logic, structured in an unconventional outline of unspooling pronouncements offered without argument, as well as a demonstration of philosophy’s basic emptiness, and thus the unknowability of reality. All great philosophers claim that theirs is the work that demolishes philosophy, and Wittgenstein is only different in that the Tractatus actually achieves that goal. “Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical,” writes Wittgenstein. “Consequently, we cannot give any answer to questions of this kind,” where “of this kind” means all of Western philosophy. What results is either poetry transubstantiated into philosophy or philosophy converted into poetry, with the Tractatus itself a paradox, a testament to language that shows the limits of language, where “anyone who understands me eventually recognizes… [my propositions] as nonsensical…He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.” The Tractatus is a self-immolating book, a work that exists to demonstrate its own futility in existing. At its core are unanswerable questions of silence, meaninglessness, and unuttered poetry. The closest that Western philosophy has ever come to the Tao.
Of the Viennese Wittgensteins, Ludwig was raised in an atmosphere of unimaginable wealth. As a boy, the salons of the family mansions (there were 13 in the capital alone) were permeated with the music of Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms (performed by the composers themselves), the walls were lined with commissioned golden-shimmer paintings by Gustave Klimt, and the rocky bespoke sculptures of August Rodin punctuated their courtyards. “Each of the siblings was made exceedingly rich,” writes Alexander Waugh in The House of Wittgenstein (and he knows about difficult families), “but the money, to a family obsessed with social morality, brought with it many problems.” Committed to utmost seriousness, dedication, and genius, the Wittgensteins were a cold family, the children forced to live up to the exacting standards of their father Karl Otto Clemens Wittgenstein. Ludwig’s father was an iron man, the Austrian Carnegie, and the son was indulged with virtually every privilege imaginable in fin de siècle Vienna. His four brothers were to be trained for industry, and to be patrons of art, music, poetry, and philosophy, with absolutely no failure in any regard to be countenanced. Only a few generations from the shtetl, the Wittgensteins had assimilated into gentile society, most of them converting to Catholicism, along with the few odd Protestants; Ludwig’s grandfather even had the middle name “Christian” as if to underscore their new position. Wittgenstein had a life-long ambivalence about his own Jewishness—even though three of his four grandparents were raised in the faith—and he had an attraction to a type of post-theological mystical Christianity, while he also claimed that his iconoclastic philosophy was “Hebraic.”
Even more ironically, or perhaps uncannily, Wittgenstein was only the second most famous graduate of Vienna’s secondary Realschule; the other student was Adolph Hitler. There’s a class photograph from 1905 featuring both of them when they were 16. As James Klaage notes in Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Biography, “an encounter with Wittgenstein’s mind would have created resentment and confusion in someone like Hitler,” while to great controversy (and thin evidence) Kimberly Cornish in The Jew of Linz claims that the philosopher had a profound influence on the future dictator, inadvertently inspiring the latter’s antisemitism. Strangely, like many assimilated and converted Jews within Viennese society, a casual antisemitism prevailed among the Wittgensteins. He would even be attracted to the writings of the pseudo-philosopher Otto Weininger, who in his book Sex and Character promulgated a notoriously self-hating antisemitic and misogynistic position, deploring modernity as the “most effeminate of all ages” (the author would ultimately commit suicide in the house where Beethoven had lived as an act of Völkisch sacrifice). When promoting the book, Wittgenstein maintained that he didn’t share in Weininger’s views, but rather found the way the writer was so obviously wrong interesting. Jewishness was certainly not to be discussed in front of the Wittgenstein paterfamilias, nor was anything that to their father reeked of softness, gentleness, or effeminacy, including Ludwig’s bisexuality, which he couldn’t express until decades later. And so at the risk of indulging an armchair version of that other great Viennese vocation of psychoanalysis, Wittgenstein made the impossibility of being able to say certain things the center of his philosophy. As Brahms had remembered, the family chillily acted “towards one another as if they were at court.” Of his four brothers—Rudi drank a mixture of cyanide and milk while in a Berlin cabaret in 1922, distraught over his homosexuality and his father’s rejection; Kurt shot himself in the dwindling days of the Great War after his troops defied him; and Hans, the oldest and a musical prodigy, presumably drowned himself in Chesapeake Bay while on an American sojourn in 1902—only Paul and Ludwig avoided suicide. There were economic benefits to being a Wittgenstein, but little else.
Austere Ludwig—a cinema-handsome man with a personality somehow both dispassionate and intense—tried to methodically shuffle off his wealth, which had hung from his neck along with the anchor of respectability. As it was, eventually the entire fortune would be commandeered by the Nazis, but before that Wittgenstein dispensed with his inheritance literally. When his father died in 1913, Wittgenstein began anonymously sending large sums of money to poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, whose observation in a 1909 lyric that “I am so afraid of people’s words./They describe so distinctly everything” reads almost as a gloss on the Tractatus. With his new independence, Wittgenstein moved to simple log cabin on a Norwegian fjord where he hoped to revolutionize logic. Attracted towards the austere, this was the same Wittgenstein whom in 1923, after the Tractatus had been published, lodged above a grocer in rural Austria and worked as a school teacher, with the visiting philosopher Frank Ramsey describing one of the richest men in Europe as living in “one tiny room, whitewashed, containing a bed, washstand, small table and one hard chair and that is all there is room for. His evening meal which I shared last night is rather unpleasant coarse bread, butter and cocoa.” Monasticism served Wittgenstein, because he’d actually accomplish that task of revolutionizing philosophy. From his trench meditations while facing down the Russians—where he ironically carried only two books—Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief —he birthed the Tractatus, holding to Zossima’s commandment that one should “Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood.” The result would be a book whose conclusions were completely true without being real. Logic pushed to the extremes of prosody.
The Tractatus was the only complete book Wittgenstein published in his lifetime, and the slender volume is composed of a series of propositions arranged within one another like an onion. Its seven main propositions are asserted axiomatically, their self-evidence stated without argument or equivocation—a book not of examples or evidence, but of sentences. A Euclidean project that reads as if hermetic poetry, with claims like “A logical picture of facts is a thought,” which in its poetic abstractions is evocative of something like John Keats’s “Truth is beauty.” Part of its literary quality is the way in which these claims are presented as crystalline abstractions, appearing as timeless refugees from eternity, bolstered not by recourse to anything but themselves (indeed the Tractatus contains no quotes from other philosophers, and virtually no references). His concern was the relationship between language and reality, how logic is able (or not able) to offer a picture of the world, and his conclusions circumscribe philosophy— he solves all metaphysical problems by demonstrating that they are meaningless. “Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts,” writes Wittgenstein. “Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity… essentially of elucidations.” All of the problems of philosophy—the paradoxes and metaphysical conundrums, the ethical imperatives and the aesthetic judgments—are pseudo-problems. Philosophy exists not to do what natural science does; it doesn’t explain reality, it only clarifies language. When you come to Ludwig Wittgenstein on the road, you must kill him. The knife that you use is entitled the Tractatus, and he’ll hand it to you first.
When Wittgenstein arrived at the Cambridge University office of the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1911, he had no formal training. So bereft was his knowledge that Wittgenstein couldn’t pronounce some of the philosophers’ names correctly. Biographer Ray Monk maintains in Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius that his subject had never even read Aristotle (despite sharing an affinity with him). And yet a few months into their studies together, the latter would declare “I love him & feel he will solve the problems that I am too old to solve.” Though after the Austrian had argued that metaphysical problems are simply an issue of linguistic confusion, the elder thinker would despair that “I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy.” At the time that Wittgenstein met with Russell, he was studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Manchester, pushed into a practical field by his father. During his time there he invented several different metal airplane propeller blades exemplary in their ingenuity, but he was unfulfilled and despondent. He had come to believe that only philosophy could cure his spiritual malaise, and so Wittgenstein spent three years at Cambridge, where he travelled in intellectual circles that included the philosopher G.E. Moore and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Finally, he was also able to live openly with a lover, a psychologist named David Pinsent. He would dedicate the Tractatus to Pinsent, his partner ironically killed in an airplane crash training for the war that they fought on the opposite sides of. After his return to Austria, Wittgenstein worked a multitude of disparate jobs—he was a school-teacher in the Alps, unpopular for discharging corporal punishment; he was a gardener in a monastery (and inquired about taking vows); and he was an architect of uncommon brilliance, designing a modernist masterpiece for his sister called the Haus Wittgenstein, which in its alabaster parsimony and cool rectilinear logic recalls the Bauhaus. When that building was completed in 1929, Wittgenstein finally returned to Cambridge, where he would be awarded a PhD even though he took no courses and sat for no exams. Russell had recognized that not all genius need be constrained in the seminar room. And still, after his successful defense, Wittgenstein would clap his advisor on his shoulder and say “Don’t worry, I’ll know you’ll never understand it.” Years latter Russell would remark that he had only produced snowballs—Wittgenstein had generated avalanches.
Hubris aside, Wittgenstein was dogged by a not unfounded fear that the Tractatus would be misinterpreted, not least of all by analytical philosophers like Russell who valorized logic as holy writ. Twentieth-century philosophy has long suffered schism between two broadly irreconcilable perspectives on what the discipline even exists to do. There are the analytical philosophers like Russell, Gottlieb Frege, G.E. Moore, and so on (including, technically, Wittgenstein), who see the field as indistinguishable from logic, to the point where its practice shares more in common with mathematics than Socrates. Largely focused in the United Kingdom and the United States, analytical philosophers are, as Russell writes in his A History of Western Philosophy (the work which secured his Nobel Prize in Literature), unified in a sense of “scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs upon observations and inferences as impersonal…as is possible for human beings.” Continental philosophy, however, is much more concerned with the traditional metaphysical and ethical questions which we associate with the discipline, asking what the proper way to live is, or how we find meaning in life. Associated with scholarly work in Europe, largely in France and Germany, a primary question to a continental philosopher like Martin Heidegger could be, as he writes in What Is Metaphysics?, “Why are there things at all, and why not nothing? This is the question.” To Russell that’s not a question at all, it’s pure nonsense. Wittgenstein would perhaps also see it as meaningless—though not at all in the same way as his advisor, and that makes all the difference. As with his interpretation of Weininger, it’s how things are nonsense that’s interesting.
In the city of Wittgenstein’s birth, the dominant philosophical movement at the time he published the Tractatus was a gathering of analytical philosophers known as the Vienna Circle. Composed of figures like Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, and Kurt Gödel, the Vienna Circle argued something not dissimilar to what Wittgenstein had claimed, understanding metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic conjectures as nonsense. At the core of much of their work was something called the Verification Principle, an argument that the only propositions that are sensical are from either deduction or induction, either from mathematics or empiricism, and that everything else can be discarded (that the Verification Principle would fail its own test wasn’t important). But if the Vienna Circle agreed with Wittgenstein about how much of traditional philosophy was nonsense, the latter invested that nonsense with a sublimity they were blind toward. Perhaps the earliest to misinterpret the Tractatus, of which the Vienna Circle were nonetheless avid readers, Schlick invited Wittgenstein to address them in 1926. When he arrived, rather than giving a lecture, Wittgenstein turned a chair to the wall, began to rock back and forth and recited the verse of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. An arresting and moving scene: handsome Wittgenstein in rumpled blue shirt and tweed jacket, a man whom the American philosopher Norman Malcolm would describe as possessing a face that was “lean and brown…aquiline and strikingly beautiful, his head was covered with a curly mass of brown hair,” davening as was the ritual of his ancestors, perhaps chanting Tagore’s line from The Gardner that “We do not stray out of all words in the ever silent,” a disposition more in keeping with the Tractatus than anything written by the audience. Carnap, to his credit, quickly realized their mistake, recalling that Wittgenstein’s point of view was “much more similar to those of a creative artist than to those of a scientist; one might almost say, similar to those of a religious prophet or a seer.”
Though classified as one of the most important logicians of the 20th century, Wittgenstein’s earlier thought is more poetry than philosophy; the curt, aphoristic pronouncements of the Tractatus deserving to be studied alongside Rilke and Paul Celan. Both in form and content, purpose and expression, the Tractatus is lyric verse—it’s poetry that gestures beyond poetry. More than just poetry, it’s a purposefully self-defeating logical argument that exonerates the poetic above the philosophical, for if the Vienna Circle thought that all of the most interesting things were nonsense, then Wittgenstein knew that faith was the very essence of being, even if we could say nothing definitive about it. As he writes in the Tractatus, “even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course, there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.” Something Taoist about Wittgenstein, his utterances evocative of Lao Tzu’s contention in the Tao Te Ching that the “name that can be named is not the eternal name.” With the Tractatus, Wittgenstein mounted the most audacious ars poetica, a book of verse written not in rhythm and meter but in logic, where the purpose was to show the futility of logic itself. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent;” its most famous line, and the entirety of the last chapter. Things must be left unsaid because they’re unable to be said—but literally everything important is unable to be said. Understood as a genius, interpreted as a rationalist, treated as an enigma, and appearing as a mystic, Wittgenstein was ultimately a poet. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” writes Wittgenstein, and this is sometimes misunderstood as consigning everything but logic to oblivion, but the opposite is true. In a world limited by language, then it is language itself that constitutes the world. Poetry, rather than logic, is all that is the case.
Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House was published on Feb. 23. If ever there was a month to consider what it means to be inside, it was the February that came nearly a year into a pandemic that kept most people homebound. The novel’s protagonist, Megan, is a new mother who is homebound in the way all new parents are. She is tethered, physically and emotionally, to a newborn whose arrival has shrunk her world to sleepless nights and endless feedings. Except Megan isn’t alone, even when her husband returns to work. The ghost of Margaret Wise Brown, author of the children’s classics Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, is also at home alongside Megan.
Fine’s first novel, What Should Be Wild, was shortlisted for the Bram Stoker Superior First Novel Award and the Chicago Review of Books Award. In The Upstairs House, she once again returns to examining the world through a supernatural lens. We chatted about hauntings, motherhood, and how language can bring us both closer and farther from understanding.
The Millions: The Upstairs House is a novel about a woman who is haunted by Margaret Wise Brown and Michael Strange, after giving birth. How did you approach the initial idea for the novel? Which came first, Goodnight Moon or the ghost?
Julia Fine: I knew fairly soon after my first child was born that I wanted to write a novel about the postpartum experience. Those first few weeks with a new baby are unique and unsettling and really disrupt the foundation of a new parent’s life. It felt like a great space to set a book, because it came built-in with both a sea-change and so many sources of tension and confusion—the exhaustion and the grueling feeding schedule, the new responsibilities, the foreignness of the body, the loneliness. Initially I’d envisioned a Rear Window-type story, but instead of Jimmy Stewart with a broken leg, it would be a new mom up at all hours, watching her neighbors. I started to write, but I was struggling with the idea of the new mom as an observer, rather than the impetus for action. Luckily, while I was working on that project, I was reading my son Goodnight Moon and decided to look up its author. Once I’d read a bit about Margaret Wise Brown, I was hooked, and once I started researching Michael Strange, her lover, I wanted to write about both of them. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to put the two stories together, and whether this was, in fact, one book, and landed on a haunting as a solution on both a technical and thematic level. Margaret and Michael were both, in their own ways, obsessed with the legacy of their work, image-conscious, and careful about crafting their personas. This attention to memorialization and self-presentation fit nicely into the schema of a haunting—because what new parent isn’t haunted by the idea of the person they might be had they not had kids?
TM: I read this book about four months postpartum with my second kid, and there were times I felt almost shocked to see that experience described simultaneously with care and with horror. How much of The Upstairs House was written in your own postpartum days? Or did this novel require a bit of distance from your own experiences of giving birth?
JF: I started seriously drafting the book about a year after my son was born, but I’d been thinking about it for at least six months before I actually put words on the page. I journaled a bit while postpartum (and by journaling I mean I used the notes app on my phone while nursing at night when something particular struck me), but most of what became the novel came much later. I felt very underprepared for the postpartum period, and I think some of that prompted me to pay close attention, so that I could at very least tell my close friends without kids what to expect.
TM: Did you seek feedback from postpartum parents during the writing? I definitely felt that The Upstairs House captured that postpartum vulnerability in a way I haven’t seen before and I’m curious if you’re hearing a lot of that from readers?
JF: I had a good friend who’d had postpartum depression read through a fairly early draft and give me notes, but most of what I wrote was in response to my own experiences, researching PPP, and candid conversations I’d had with friends. When my son was very small, I didn’t know many people in similar situations, but as he got older and we ventured out to parks and classes, I got to know more new parents and realized that what had felt like such an isolating experience was actually quite common. It means a lot to have readers who are parents reach out and say that they feel seen. I’ve heard from people who had kids decades ago who say the book brings them back to that specific time of their lives, and people who have newborns while they’re reading.
TM: Speaking of kids, can you tell me a little about your writing routine with young kids?
JF: Oh gosh. When I had just one, I’d write during his naps. It felt like a contest where he could wake up at any time and I just had to get as many words down as I could before the buzzer. In a way, that constraint helped create some of the urgency of the book. It definitely helped me to be less precious about a first draft. Once Covid hit and my son’s school closed, any sort of routine went out the window. I edited The Upstairs House on weekends, when my husband could take my son. And then my daughter was born immediately after I turned in my final draft to the publisher and I basically pressed pause on my next project. She’s nine months now, and napping more regularly, so I’m hoping to get childcare sorted and back into a routine soon. It’s so, so hard to write with a baby. I have so much respect and awe for anyone who gets work done in those first six months.
TM: I hesitated to ask that question, as it seems it’s only ever asked of women. But I also feel it’s important not to disappear writers’ non-writing lives in interviews. Are there other non-writing parts of your life that inform your work, or this novel in particular?
JF: Honestly, every aspect of my non-writing life informs my work. Some things are more obvious than others, like the fact I went to graduate school and have small children. But even things that seem totally non-related end up having an effect on what I’m writing—fiction writing is inextricable from living in the world, and at its best even the most surreal, speculative stuff is a response to an emotion or an idea prompted by the non-writing life. Or I guess another way to phrase it is that it’s all the writing life, just not necessarily always putting words on the page.
TM: And because it touches everything at this moment, can you tell me a little about publishing a book during the pandemic? Any unexpected surprises?
JF: Virtual events have had their ups and downs. I think a lot of people who couldn’t have come to anything in person because of location or childcare or disability had access in a way that felt exciting. But I’ve really missed the community aspect, especially immediately after the event, when I’d usually be able to go give hugs and catch up and celebrate.
TM: The narrator of The Upstairs House, Megan, is working on a thesis. Throughout the novel you include bits of her academic work, including an interest in language and definitions. I loved the tension this created, as Megan is also unable to name or define exactly what is happening to her. When writing, is this tension something that comes to you early? How do you build it through the revision process?
JF: Megan’s attention to language began is an homage to Margaret Wise Brown, who, like many children’s book writers, was intensely aware of every word she put on the page, and how it would resonate. Her books might seem simple, but everything in them is thoughtful and deliberate. Margaret raved about Gertrude Stein, and was part of an early childhood education movement that was effectively translating what modernist writers were doing for adults into books for children by focusing on immediate sensory experience and eschewing traditional narrative. And when women describe their experiences with postpartum psychosis, the break that psychiatrists call a “flight of ideas” isn’t too dissimilar from the experience of reading, say, James Joyce, or another modernist writer using stream-of-consciousness as a stylistic move. Women talk about fixating on certain words and how their layers of meanings and sounds and associations prompt seemingly unrelated trains of thought. So, the focus on language worked well both as further connective tissue between the modern and historical stories, and as a way to understand Megan.
In this particular book, that tension within Megan was important at an early stage. For all its supernatural shenanigans, this is actually a fairly quiet, interior novel that hinges on Megan’s repression and refusal to accurately self-reflect. She’s alone with the baby for most of the book, and so the major conflict (other than the ghosts and the historical relationships) is between her responsibilities and her desires, her past and her future. I found that etymology worked as a way to watch her ground herself—digging as far as she could to find some sort of stable foundation—and to get sideways at some of what she bottles up. It was slow going at times, but whenever I wrote a word that felt like it was ringing a bell—I’m not sure how else to describe that sense of aptness—I’d go look at its roots, and see if I could use them to dig deeper into Megan. I did go back a bit in revision to make sure the etymology was balanced, and added or removed a few asides here and there, but mostly it was done in early drafts.
TM: Were there any words that surprised you, when you went to look up their roots?
JF: “Baby” was a fascinating one. I’d suspected it was related to the first sounds an infant makes when they start babbling. But it’s also tied to the Latin for baby doll, pupilla, and was used archaically to talk about both dolls and reflections—specifically the image of oneself seen through another’s eyes. It felt serendipitous to be writing about motherhood as a reflection of the self, and then to find this history.
TM: In your author’s note you share a little on your research. Both the women who appear as ghosts and the danger women can be in after giving birth are subjects that are not commonly read about or discussed. What do you think we lose by not drawing them out more? How do you hope your work combats that?
JF: It’s so important that we not romanticize new motherhood. Our ideas of what a “normal” postpartum experience looks like come from the representations we see in literature and film, and the honesty with which our friends and family talk about their own experiences. It’s hard enough to be a new parent without the added guilt that you aren’t doing it right, or the loneliness of thinking no one else has had these feelings. The postpartum period is such a vulnerable time, and the more open we are about the many “normal” ways to transition into life as a parent, the more we can provide the necessary support to new parents and their babies.
As for Margaret and Michael, I feel very lucky that no one else jumped on the chance to fictionalize their relationship before I did. Margaret, especially, was complex and fascinating, and knowing more about her life has changed the way I read her work. I’m hopeful a new generation of parents will now be able to appreciate her books as transgressive, innovative works of art, and not just something to race through to get the kids to bed.
The route to publishing a book of poetry can be harrowing—especially for first books and books published via the contest system. With 500, 800, or even 1,500 manuscripts vying for the top spot in each contest, the odds are so bad that finally securing publication can feel like winning the lottery. So when a book contract does finally arrive, it can be tempting to do the briefest scan of the legalese before signing and sending it right back, as if reading too closely or asking questions of the press could make that good luck disappear. Even if you’re inclined to be a more critical reader of your contract, it can be hard to know exactly what all the sections mean, what’s standard, and where you might ask questions or try to negotiate.
I speak from firsthand experience: when I got the contract for my first book, Double Jinx, from Milkweed after it won the National Poetry Series, I knew only enough to know that I didn’t really know what it all meant. I asked a mentor to review the contract, and she confirmed that it was standard and fair. Her sole suggestion was that I request more author’s copies. Those extra 10 copies made me feel like a business genius. It was only as I began to work on the opposite side of the contract, as I solicited contributors and secured permissions as the co-editor for an anthology, The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, that’s forthcoming with UGA in 2022, that I got a clearer sense of how contracts work. I also learned that many poets, even those with several books and an agent don’t always know exactly what rights they’ve given to whom and when!
Based on my own experiences and conversations with publishing professionals, I hope to demystify the contract process and explain the key terms you can expect to see in a poetry book contract. In general, a contract should delineate the responsibilities on both sides: when the poet will submit a final manuscript and how the press will handle it from there. You should see information about the editorial process, including copyediting and proofreading, as well as details about the book’s design and how royalties will be calculated and paid out. Chantz Erolin, an editor at Graywolf, reminded me that the responsibilities outlined in a book contract go both ways, noting that “one of the advantages of the legal document is that it holds the press accountable to the poet as well.”
Though the contract can be intimidating, all the editors I spoke with encourage poets to ask questions. Copper Canyon Press publisher Michael Wiegers says he often meets with poets new to the press to review the contract and answer questions. Erilon said, “I understand the intimidation, and I understand the hesitation around asking questions, but I just encourage it so much.”
So, before you sign, here’s what you should read carefully, what you might be able to negotiate, and a few things that might be red flags.
Grant of Rights
The first section of the contract, probably called The Author’s Grant or Grant of Rights, is where you’re officially granting the publisher the right to publish your work. As the author, you control all the rights to the work, which means you control who can print it, perform it, put it on a tote bag, and so on. Without a grant of rights, your publisher can’t move forward. As Peter Kracht, director of the University of Pittsburgh Press, put it, “The starting point is the author has all these rights, by dint of authorship, and we need a document that transfers the rights to us, or otherwise, our hands are tied. We don’t have the right to do anything with the material.”
Rights are defined in terms of format (paperback/hardcover/e-book, and so on), length of time (or “term”), and territory. The publisher will likely write this section of the contract in the broadest terms possible, so that they will have the rights to all media for the full term of copyright and any renewals throughout the world. Several organizations, including the Authors Alliance and the Authors Guild, advise against granting your press any rights they are unlikely to exploit, such as audiobook rights or translation. Michael S. Gross, the director of legal services at the Authors Guild, advised me via email to “always pay attention to the grant of rights sections, and make sure you are not granting non-print or translations rights.” The presses I spoke with told me that poets without agents only rarely negotiate this section and pointed out that if you retain those rights, it becomes your responsibility to sell them.
Instead of reserving rights, another approach is to ask your press about its ability to help you make use of them. If you believe there will be a market for your work overseas, for example, you could ask your press about its ability to help you with that.
Granting your press the right to publish your work is not the same thing as assigning it your copyright. Several experts advise against transferring your copyright to the press; instead, you should see language in the contract indicating that the press will register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office within three months of publication. Having your copyright officially registered provides you additional protection in the event of unauthorized publication of your work, and also creates a clear paper trail if someone wants to identify the rights holder for your book in the future.
Royalties and Other Financial Matters
You probably won’t be shocked to know that there’s not much money to be made in poetry for either poet or publisher. (Rachel Mennies’s excellent Paying to Play: On Submission Fees in Poetry Publishing gives more context about the economics of poetry publishing for writers and presses.) Though there’s no magic word you can insert into your contract that will change the financial landscape of poetry publishing, you’ll still want to understand what your contract says about how you’ll be compensated for your work.
That compensation might come in the shape of a prize, an advance, royalties, or a combination of those things. It’s important to know that, if you receive an advance, you will not be paid royalties until your book has “earned out” the advance, meaning that you’ve sold enough copies for your press to recoup the advance it paid you. That said, advances seem to be relatively uncommon, especially with university presses and first books. Winning a prize remains the best way to make money on your poetry.
Royalties can be calculated in three different ways: as a percentage of the book’s cover price; as a percentage of net income, which reflects the price paid to the publisher by a bookstore or online vendor; or as a percentage net profit, meaning that the publisher calculates royalties after deducting cost of producing the book. At nonprofit presses, royalties are likely to be calculated based on net income, which means you’ll get a percentage of what a vendor pays your press rather than what a customer pays the bookstore.
Because the margins at nonprofit presses are so small, you’re unlikely to be able to negotiate your royalty rates or change the way the press is calculating your royalties. Several editors explained having royalties remain standard across their press’s contracts as an issue of fairness. Kracht, for example, told me that “we keep the same contract for every winner of a given prize. We feel it’s the fair position to take, so nobody’s getting a better deal than anybody else who wins the Agnes Lynch Starrett.”
There are two things you might try to negotiate with respect to royalties. If your publisher isn’t able to increase royalties for print, you might try— as Allison K. Williams suggested in a recent post on Brevity’s blog—requesting a higher royalty rate on e-books. You could also look for or request an “escalator clause,” meaning that as you sell more copies, you’ll get a higher percentage in royalties. Wiegers told me that, following the success of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Copper Canyon added an escalator clause retroactively to Vuong’s contract as a way to fairly compensate him for his book’s sales; that clause is now part of Copper Canyon’s standard contract. Black Lawrence Press also has an escalator clause in their standard contract.
Your contract should also explain when royalties will be paid out. Gross noted that poets should “make sure there are set royalty periods and firm deadlines by which the publisher must report.” Gross also suggested poets look for an audit clause, meaning that the writer or a representative can request a review of the book’s sales to ensure royalties are being paid in an accurate and timely manner. The language around royalties can be particularly confusing, and you should feel comfortable asking your press for clarification about anything you’re not sure you understand.
Author’s Copies and Discounts
Another way you’re likely to be compensated for your work is through free books called author’s copies, and a discount on additional copies. Ten author’s copies and a 40 percent discount seems to be average though some presses will grant additional author copies. Wiegers said he likes it when writers ask for additional author copies because it tells them they’ll be working hard to promote their book. Other presses see this as a matter of fairness and prefer to keep the number of author’s copies standard for every writer.
Some very small presses do not pay royalties and instead compensate their writers solely through author copies and discounts. Gross dislikes this practice and noted that “when publishers won’t pay money royalties, I get concerned.” However, some poets may feel that having the book published with a press they like is sufficient compensation. The decision of whether to publish with a press that does not offer royalties is ultimately a personal one, and poets should make that decision based on their goals for their books.
A final note about money: if your book uses epigraphs or otherwise quotes from copyrighted work, your contract will likely stipulate that you’re responsible for securing permission to use that work—a process that can be time-consuming and expensive. Leigh Stein told me that with her first book there was a Modest Mouse lyric she felt was essential for the project, so she ended up spending a quarter of her advance on the permissions to use it. (Permissions fees for poetry are generally less expensive than music.) Your press may be willing to advise you on whether the text you’re using falls under Fair Use, and you can also consult the Authors Alliance’s guide to Fair Use for Nonfiction Authors.
Option or Right of First Refusal
Your contract may also include language arounds options or a right of first refusal for your next book. If you’re happy with the press and would like them to consider publishing your next book as well, this kind of clause can feel like a compliment to you. However, you should understand that this language tends to favor the press because it reserves their right to consider your work before you pursue other offers while making no guarantees that they’ll publish your book.
You might consider clarifying two points in an options clause. If it’s not already in the contract, you could ask that the press stipulate the period of time (90 days is standard) they’ll have to consider your work before responding. You could also specify that only poetry will be covered under the options clause. It might be the case that you’d love for your press to publish your next book of poetry, but you’d like to keep your options open for other, more commercial projects you’re working on, such as a young adult novel or a memoir. And if you later secure an agent for those other projects, she’ll likely appreciate that you’ve cleared this potential hurdle for her.
Cover Art and Book Design
Your contract may or may not specify exactly how cover art and design will be determined, but if it does it’s likely that the language is very firm about the press having final say. However, in practice, the design process is often more collaborative. It’s often helpful to scan the press’s recent books and share with the design team several covers you especially like. When I worked with Milkweed, I was asked about my preferences among the several covers their designers had produced for my book, and I was thrilled when my first choice was theirs as well. With my forthcoming book with LSU, my editor said they’d be open to suggestions of cover art, and they approved the image I shared, a watercolor by the British artist Kate Walters. If you’re not thrilled with the cover options you’ve been given, your editor can likely serve as an effective bridge between your vision for your book and the design team. With the initial drafts of a cover for my chapbook, Acadiana, I disliked the overall look but was struggling to convey why. My editor Kit Frick was able to translate my preferences about font and color palette into language the book’s designer understood, and we were all much happier with the result after her intervention.
My experiences are fairly typical, and all the presses I’m familiar with solicit the writer’s input about design. Kracht shared that poets often select the art for their covers: “Ninety-nine percent of the covers on our poetry books, the art was selected by the poet, often before they even approached us. And I’m here to tell you that 99 percent of the time, we like what they chose and we use it. There’s something about the way poets’ brains are wired aesthetically, they pick good art.”
If you’re concerned about the contract language around cover art and book design, you can ask for right of approval—which gives you the ability to approve (or reject) a cover or design—or right of consultation, so that the press would have to discuss the cover with you. What’s most important is that there’s clarity about the process and you trust that your press will take care with your book. If you’ve generally liked the appearance of other books your press has published, you can be reasonably confident they’ll make an attractive book for you as well.
Marketing and Publicity
Presses vary to the degree in which they will make specific commitments about marketing and publicity in the contract itself. By the time you’re signing a contract, you should have had a conversation with the press about its plans to promote your book. The author questionnaire, which you’ll fill out to help your press develop a marketing plan for your book, can give you additional information about your press’s marketing efforts. If you haven’t yet received an author questionnaire, you can ask for one at this stage.
In terms of specific marketing efforts, you can ask your press about distributing review copies and submitting your book to post-publication prizes. Some presses are very generous in their distribution of review copies, and others are more limited in this area. However, I’ve found that even small presses, who have less capacity to mail physical copies of your book, will make an electronic version that you can share directly with people interested in reviewing your book or interviewing you. Similarly, submitting to post-publication prizes can quickly get expensive for a press, but you should feel comfortable asking what your press is able to do in this area. As long as you’re questions are thoughtful and requests are reasonable, asking about marketing and publicity early in the process signals to your press that you’re also excited about launching your book and will also work hard at getting your book into the hands of readers.
A quick aside about poetry and marketing: I don’t know any writers who got into poetry because of a love of marketing, but promoting our own work is, in fact, just part of the job. If the self-promotion aspect of publication feels uncomfortable to you, I’ve found Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal to be a really helpful resource. It outlines both the support writers might get from their press’s publicity department and how writers can work on publicity themselves. Since most poets are working with a much smaller publicity department than the prose writers Maum’s book primarily targets, it can help us think about how to don a publicist hat and work on behalf of our books.
A Few Red Flags
Finally, a few red flags or issues that at least merit a serious conversation with your press: In general, you should not be paying money to your press. Diane Goettel of Black Lawrence said that requirements that require you to guarantee a certain number of pre-orders or personally purchase a number of copies are a sign that you’re potentially dealing with what she called a “predatory press.” Similarly, Kracht warned about presses that ask writers to pay for things like copyediting. He remarked that, “if a press asks you to cover the cost of copyediting, you’re almost certainly dealing with a vanity press, no matter what they call themselves.” Goettel also noted that authors should look carefully at how actively a press is promoting its books; presses that publish a ton of books each year without much promotional support for those titles are ones to shy away from.
A refusal to discuss the contract with you— or to issue a written contract at all—constitutes a major red flag. A reasonable publisher will want you to understand your contract and should be willing to explain any areas of concern, so unwillingness to discuss the contract with you would be a concern. If a publisher won’t issue a written contract at all, that’s a major red flag. After her first book of poetry won the first contest she entered it in, Stein told me the publisher declined to offer a written contract, saying they didn’t need to be so formal about it. Rather than risk entrusting her work to someone who wouldn’t specify the terms of their agreement in writing, Stein pulled the manuscript and had to wait another two years, until after she’d published her debut novel, to see that book of poetry in print. She said that it was worth it to wait, rather than turning her book over to someone she didn’t have total confidence in.
The good news is really scary stories like Stein’s are relatively uncommon, and the vast majority of presses want to do right by the poets whose work they publish. As Wiegers said, “we’re not the poetry version of oil barons. We’re just trying to get the work out there.”
Additional Help with Your Contract
I’ve occasionally felt envious of novelist friends who have agents with the expertise to review contracts and negotiate on their behalf. If you’d like that kind of personalized guidance, the Authors Guild offers contract review as a free service to its members, and they’ve just made their Model Trade Book Contract, which was previously only open to members, freely available online. The Authors Alliance Guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts is a comprehensive free resource that provides detailed explanations of rights, royalties, and other issues. If the mere thought of asking your publisher questions about your contract, much less doing anything you’d call “negotiation,” makes you queasy, its guide has a helpful chapter on how to approach negotiation that begins by reminding writers that “negotiation is a conversation, not a confrontation.”
One of the most helpful comments on this point came to me from Wiegers, who suggested that instead of thinking of the contract as an obstacle or a point of debate between poet and publisher, that poets should think of the contract as “a way in which you’re collaborating with your publisher to navigate capitalism.” From the other side of the desk, Chelsea B. DesAutels, whose book A Dangerous Place is forthcoming from Sarabande at the end of this year, described the contract as “the framework for your relationship. It literally sets out the contours of what you owe to each other.”
The terrain of poetry publishing can be intimidating, and it can seem like at every turn there are signals telling you how stiff the competition is and how you should be grateful for anything you get. But your work—the poems you’ve likely labored over for years—has immense value, whether or not you ever make much money on it. When you entrust your work to a press, you should have clarity on the terms of that relationship. Understanding your contract is one way to assert the value of your work.
This year, I had the jarring experience of reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble after Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I do not recommend this pairing, nor would I have chosen it for myself, except that Fleishman was on hold at the library with a 400-person waitlist, and if I didn’t read it right away, it would be another four-month wait, and it wasn’t a book I wanted to buy, mainly because it’s on the long side and would be cumbersome to carry around in hardcover.
The Overstory, on the other hand, was an even longer book that I did buy in hardcover a few months after it was first published, in the spring of 2018. I started reading it shortly after I bought it, and was immediately impressed by the narrative variety of the first 200-some pages, which contain a series of discrete short stories about people and their relationship to trees. Although the stories are from the point of view of humans, the lives of trees quietly steal the narrative.
As an example: The first story in the book seems to be about an immigrant couple moving to the Midwest at the turn-of-the-century but is actually about the chestnut seedling that the husband carries in his pocket and plants on his farm. As the tree slowly grows and reaches maturity, three generations of human life unfold nearby, lives full of drama that could be the subject of multiple novels, but instead are quickly summarized. The real miracle, Powers tells us, is the survival of this particular tree, which evaded the blight that killed four billion American Chestnut trees in the first half the twentieth century.
The Overstory is full of miraculous stories about trees, and it changed the way I see the green giants in my neighborhood. Now I notice their behaviors: In the small park near my apartment, I’ve observed that a number of the trees nurse shoots at the base of their trunks, and I wonder why they’ve chosen this reproductive strategy—does the parent tree think it’s going to die soon and is hedging its bets? (Then, when the Parks Department prunes the saplings, I wonder how the trees feel about that.) In another part of the park, two trees of different species lean toward each other, their leaves intermingling to form a picturesque canopy. There doesn’t seems to be any reason for them to grow so closely and I wonder if they’re friends, or if there is some other benefit from this growth pattern.
The most beautiful trees on our block are the gingkos that tower alongside the Catholic church. In the fall, their fan-shaped leaves turn golden and drift into the backyard our family shares with our upstairs neighbor. One afternoon, when I was sitting outside reading The Overstory, I noticed that a gingko seedling had grown up in the crack between two patio stones. I was struck by its fragility as well as its strength: here was a tiny thing that could potentially grow into something taller than my apartment building, taller even than the church. It could outlive me and my children—depending, of course, on its ability to adapt to the saltwater flooding that will become a regular occurrence in my neighborhood in the coming decades.
I decided to save the seedling, and transplanted it into a small pot. Then I went on vacation. I took The Overstory with me, but I also brought along my seven-month-old baby. I thought for sure I’d read during her naptimes, but instead I dozed off. When I finally got back to The Overstory, a few weeks later, I found I couldn’t remember several of the characters. It felt daunting to start over. So I put it aside—for a year! Meanwhile, my ginkgo seedling grew ten inches and sprouted three leaves.
I returned to The Overstory during another summer vacation, this time with older children and the determination to set aside reading time. I got the book out immediately after the kids went to sleep, and read for two-hour stretches for five nights in a row. To read every night for two hours is generally wonderful, but when I finished The Overstory, I felt a kind of awe. I think it’s the best book to read on the climate crisis, and I say this as someone who read several books on the subject over this past year, including The Uninhabitable Earth, Losing Earth, Falter, and The Myth of Human Supremacy. I got a lot of useful information from these books, and they definitely stoked my anger, but I didn’t stop, midway through any of them, to plant a gingko seedling—though I did engage in panicked online real estate searches for inexpensive property in elevated regions.
Which brings me to Fleishman Is in Trouble, the novel I read immediately after The Overstory. This was a book that everyone seemed to be talking about, and I was very eager to read it. It’s set in contemporary Manhattan, and follows a newly divorced single dad as he navigates online dating apps and feels aggrieved about the poor treatment he’s getting from his ex-wife. Later, we hear the wife’s side of the story. Like everything Brodesser-Akner writes, it is ridiculously entertaining and smart, but when I was about halfway through, it occurred to me that I had just read 200 pages without a single reference to plants or animals. Eventually, the divorced dad gets a dog, somebody looks up at the stars, and I think the dad notices a tree. But that’s it. After the rich tapestry of The Overstory, it struck me as a flat, desolate world of buildings and cell phones. I felt sorry for the characters not because their marriage had ended, or because their children were unhappy, but because they were blind to other living things. I thought: no wonder they’re so lonely.
To be fair to Brodesser-Akner, any number of contemporary novels would have struck me as overly focused on human concerns after The Overstory. Most fiction is filled with human characters who don’t give much thought to non-human species. While writing this essay, I came across this passage in Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This quotation is from a filmmaker named Sergei Gurin, who documented the evacuation of the contaminated zone. After showing one his films to a group of schoolchildren, he is startled by a boy who asks why the animals weren’t also evacuated:
I couldn’t answer that question. Our art is all about the suffering and loves of people, but not of everything living: animals, plants, that other world. . . I want to make a film called “Hostages,” about animals. A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees, and birds. They’re closer to me than they were, the distance between us has narrowed.
I think this “strange thing” is what must happen to all of us if we wish to address the environmental crisis. We need to get closer to plants and animals, to remember that we are all living on this planet together. If you read the climate action platforms of the leading presidential candidates, you’ll see a lot about creating jobs, saving the economy, and averting catastrophe, but nothing about the beauty and value of plants, animals, insects, fungi, and clean air and water; nothing about our shared love of particular landscapes and bodies of water. That seems strange to me, even disturbing. It also seems like poor rhetorical strategy. Our affinity for other living things is our spiritual inheritance. We need a global leap of imagination to reclaim it. A book like The Overstory is one that starts to get us there.
In this engaging graphic novel, Nebula Award-winning sci-fi author Okorafor wittily turns New York City’s LaGuardia Airport into LaGuardia Interplanetary Airport and into a pointed allegorical indictment of the United States’s current racist anti-immigration policies.
Set in a future in which Nigeria has welcomed and benefited from extraterrestrial immigration (although not without conflict), Nigerian-American doctor Future Nwafor Chukwuebuka flees from Lagos to New York, where she grew up. She is pregnant, but also smuggling an intelligent plant-like alien—a refugee, in other words—that is fleeing violence.
Okorafor perfectly captures the absurdity and calamity of our current political moment and her artist co-creators render it in vividly and richly colored drawings.
LaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor and artists Tana Ford and James Devlin will be published in July by Dark Horse/Berger Books.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
John Wray’s fifth novel Godsend is both a culmination of his magpie approach to fiction writing and a complete departure from his work thus far. The premise—a young American woman joins the Taliban in the summer of 2001—is so straightforwardly narrated, with such unerring control, that Wray’s ambition and achievement only dawned on this reader in the days after finishing it. This is partly due to novelty. Godsend is the kind of go-for-broke political novel that’s rarely attempted and almost never succeeds. A writer would have a better chance of turning a eulogy into a wedding proposal than maintaining Wray’s high-wire act. Godsend supplants traditional elements of the political novel—a large cast of characters, thesis-driven monologuing, signposted symbolism—for an intimate approach: We’re positioned just over the shoulder of 18-year-old Aden Sawyer on her journey of inexorable destruction.
The novel opens in suburban California, where Sawyer is saying goodbye to her alcoholic mother and philandering father (who happens to teach Islamic Studies). She’s off to a madrasa near Karachi—toting her Pashtun boyfriend Decker, who oscillates between ambivalence and sarcasm—to study the Koran. In Pakistan she passes as a teenage boy by shaving her head and binding her breasts; she calls herself Suleyman. Soon she is recruited into the Taliban by the charismatic, reluctant Ziar (the madrasa elders repeatedly advise against this). As James Wood pointed out in The New Yorker, Aden’s coming-of-age narrative is intertwined with greater radicalization, a cruel hyperbole of the old “loss of innocence” trope: We know Sawyer will commit greater and more terrible acts of violence. We also know we can’t stop reading.
Wray has previously received a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007. I expect Godsend will bring a few more accolades to his CV. We conducted this interview over email as he traveled for his book tour.
The Millions: First things first: I understand the novel came out of a chance aside during interview research for a nonfiction piece on John Walker Lindh?
John Wray: That’s right. I was in Afghanistan on a journalist’s visa, looking for people who’d known Lindh during his time as a soldier in the Taliban’s infantry. At one point, in a small, half-destroyed village north of Kabul, we were delighted to find an old man who claimed to have known the boy soldier, Suleyman, which was Lindh called himself. Then, to my amazement, the old man mentioned, in passing, that he’d also known the girl. That’s how he put it: “the girl.” He couldn’t tell us her name, or much about her at all. That’s when this novel began.
TM: How did you come to Aden Sawyer’s voice? The novel places a heavy burden on her, which she wears lightly: She must be credible as an 18-year-old American, with knowledge of Islam, who is deeply rebellious but must operate within an order and religion which prizes submission (no pun intended).
JW: That’s always a slow and mysterious process, arriving at the voice of a book’s central character. In this case, it could be argued that Aden’s voice is the book’s voice—we’re always with her, always seeing the strange world she moves through with her eyes. I think I found the voice of the story—how it would sound, how it would feel, the somewhat stark, ominous mood it should have—and Aden’s voice came out of that.
TM: I would say it’s a departure from your previous work, but every one of your novels is quite different from the others. The Lost Time Accidents was a 500-page, century-spanning novel on metaphysics written in a kind of comic high-European register. Godsend reminded me of a line from Philip Roth: After he wrote a long book, the next one was inevitably an act of rebellion. Was that true for you? I gather there may be more an element of chance to how you begin each project.
JW: I couldn’t agree more with that quotation from Roth. In my case, every new book is an act of rebellion against the last. It takes so damn long to write a novel—for me, anywhere from two to seven years—and I couldn’t imagine sitting down afterward and beginning something similar, either in tone or subject matter. I’d jump off the nearest bridge.
TM: That’s a risky way to write though, isn’t it? No temptation to pen a Lowboy sequel? (Kidding. Kind of.)
JW: It is a risky way to write. But not as risky as jumping off a bridge!
TM: There’s also risk in tackling the subject. A cursory glance at the acclaimed books of the past few years shows an interest in autofictional inwardness (Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard), historical settings (Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan), or multigenerational portraits (Jesmyn Ward, Min Jin Lee)—though in truth that last group is a perennial for writers. Terrorism and Muslim extremists are such third-rail subjects; did you approach the writing differently because of this? Related, are you nervous about being misread along these lines?
JW: You can’t court acclaim. The third rail has always been the one with juice in it, at least for me, at least so far. The best writing is the most urgent writing, I think. By which I mean the writing that matters most to the writer. I suppose that’s common knowledge, but it’s important to remind myself of it from time to time. Because of course the pressures to write acclaimed (not to mention marketable) books is considerable. And it only gets heavier with every book you publish.
As far as being misread—well, that’s another thing altogether. I did have that fear, and to some degree I still do. But it’s that fear that keeps me honest. It makes me work harder.
TM: The book’s surety and evenness of tone is a great strength here: It’s apparent on close inspection how much work went into its seeming effortlessness.
Sawyer’s early line, “Not a girl, not a boy. Just a ghost in a body” signals her growing desire for self-effacement, which called to mind Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Were there texts in the Godsend constellation you read as research or saw as touchstones?
JW: I read Hunger in my early 20s—luckily, or unluckily, before I’d found out what a Nazi its author was—and it impressed me, though I can’t remember why. It wasn’t a touchstone for Godsend, though of course many other books were. A Farewell to Arms comes to mind, and Shirley Hazzard’s novels, and All the Pretty Horses, and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke. I’m not exactly sure why those are the books that I’m mentioning—others were maybe more important. But there you go. My memory is terrible.
TM: I’ve heard you enthuse for Shirley Hazzard before, and lament she’s not better known or read widely. I haven’t read her work yet—tell me what I’ve been missing.
JW: Finally an easy question to answer! Shirley Hazzard is one of the masters. No one writing now has her eloquence, it often seems to me, or her intelligence, or her judgment. In an era in which the writer’s identity and persona are the industry’s main marketing tools, it’s no wonder that she isn’t better known—she had no interest in inserting herself between her readers and her books. The idea of letting one’s work stand for itself seems almost quaint these days, and Shirley’s “profile” no doubt suffered as a result; the fact she often took a decade, or more, to write her deceptively slender novels most likely didn’t help, either. But The Transit of Venus is one of the great novels in English of the 20th century.
TM: This is your fifth novel. Taking a step back: Are there ideas or concerns you see across your work?
JW: It’s so hard to take stock of one’s own work in this way—it’s like trying to study the back of your head without a mirror. A perceptive reader told me recently that my books tend to feature protagonists who carry belief to extremes—political radicals, religious fanatics, the mentally ill, lovers in way, way over their heads. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but I do like the sound of it.
TM: It sounds accurate to me. There are often protagonists of great conviction, and of course a strong narrative voice.
In terms of structure, Godsend has an accumulating momentum, a kind of awful, inexorable feeling of doom (in a good way). It’s so rare to read something for 230 pages without a moment of friction. How does that come about for you? Are you drafting with an outline in mind? Or rearranging and cutting in the revision stages? Or—and I would believe this—is the muse just dictating into your ear while you exclaim, “Yes, yes! Bingo!”
JW: I never use an outline, strange to say. Outlines feel too much like school. I’ve always operated under the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that if I’m excited by what I’m working on, the reader will be too. An advance plan would certainly speed things up a bit. But whoever claimed that the easiest books to write are the most gratifying books to read? Not this cowboy.
TM: The New York article about your place in Park Slope looks like a midwestern undergraduate’s fantasy of life as a Brooklyn writer. Do you debate autofiction while playing ping pong? Read Proust to each other over corn flakes? And more seriously, how’s NYC for novelists these days? Gary Shteyngart said in an interview all his friends have left for Berlin or the Hudson Valley.
JW: Life for novelists—or for any kind of artist—in New York these days is bitter. I had the great good luck to have been tipped off to something affordable almost 18 years ago, an apartment with low maintenance the down payment of which I could afford with my very first advance, and to have been pushed into taking that terrifying leap by someone who had a clearer sense of what the future held. It was dumb luck, basically. So it’s given me real pleasure, possibly the greatest satisfaction of my adult life, to be able to open up the place I now live in to people doing good work. What the fuck is this city going to be without its artists? The prospect makes me sick.
TM: Your books operate within sets of constraints, as if each was a challenge you’d set yourself (apart from the natural challenges of writing novels). What does your cutting room floor look like? Are there half-completed projects? Abandoned epics set in the German countryside?
JW: I actually cut very little from my manuscripts. That fact surprises me as much as anybody. I’m a firm believer in the dangers of regarding one’s own writing, especially at the early stages, as some kind of precious and finite commodity; so I’m very willing, and even excited, to trim the fat whenever I can—but writing is also like pulling teeth to me, so I tend not to over-write. I’m not as loose as some—I’d like to be, but I’m not. I guess you might say I value economy. I don’t like to waste stuff.
TM: Reviews have noted Godsend’s straightforward, nuanced treatment of religious belief (another third rail in contemporary fiction). I wonder if you could speak to how you approached it, and your thoughts on religious belief in novels in general.
JW: I’d say that some kind of passionate belief is crucial to the central character of any novel—without a degree of fanaticism, or at the very least fiercely held and defended points of view, it’s hard to generate enough conflict for a book, or even a conversation, to be genuinely suspenseful. I’m not a religious person myself, in any conventional sense, so diving head-first into the intricacies of fundamentalist Islam was pretty daunting. But Aden, my protagonist, arrives in Afghanistan knowing next to nothing about the life she’s chosen. Her ignorance helped me to feel more at peace with mine.
TM: Last question! Forgive me for beating a dead horse, but it should be noted how unique this novel is in the current landscape, at least with respect to a gigantic leap of empathy and artistic imagination across gender, faith, geography, etc. What’s your impression of books being published these days? Do you wish more writers would take leaps like this? I swear I’m not trying to set you up for a clickbait response—I’m curious about your read of the scene and if you had advice for emerging writers…
JW: There are always worthwhile novels being published, if you search hard enough. I’m looking forward to Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive at the moment, and to Marlon James’s experiment in speculative fiction, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The appeal of fiction—both for the writer and for the reader, it seems to me—lies in escaping one’s socially-dictated point of view. Fiction is about looking out at the world through someone else’s eyeballs. It’s about getting strange, in every available sense of that word. That’s how a novel should feel: It should make you, however fleetingly, a stranger to yourself. Everything else is just memoir with fictional frosting. I’ve had quite enough of that.
Celebrating its eleventh consecutive year of honoring literature in translation, the Best Translated Book Awards is pleased to announce the 2018 finalists for fiction and poetry (we announced the 2017 and 2016 winners here at The Millions; see the 2018 longlist here, and read more about this shortlist at the Three Percent website).
The winners will be announced on Thursday, May 31 as part of the New York Rights Fair, following the 4:30 panel on “Translated Literature Today: A Decade of Growth.” Thanks to grant funds from the Amazon Literary Partnership, the winning authors and translators will each receive $5,000 cash prizes. Three Percent at the University of Rochester founded the BTBAs in 2008, and over the past seven years, the Amazon Literary Partnership has contributed more than $140,000 to international authors and their translators through the BTBA.
This year’s fiction jury is made up of: Caitlin Baker (University Book Store, Seattle), Kasia Bartoszyńska(Monmouth College), Tara Cheesman-Olmsted (Reader at Large), Lori Feathers (Interabang Books), Mark Haber (writer, Brazos Bookstore), Adam Hetherington (author), Jeremy Keng (reader, freelance reviewer), Bradley Schmidt (translator), and P.T. Smith (Ebenezer Books, The Scofield). The poetry jury includes: Raluca Albu (BOMB), Jarrod Annis (Greenlight Bookstore), Tess Lewis (writer and translator), Aditi Machado (poet and translator), and Emma Ramadan (translator, Riffraff Bookstore).
Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins (Canada, Coach House)
Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Iceland, Open Letter Books)
Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (France, New Directions)
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Argentina, Open Letter Books)
Return to the Dark Valley by Santiago Gamboa, translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis (Colombia, Europa Editions)
Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)
I Am the Brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff (Switzerland, New Directions)
My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Two Lines Press)
August by Romina Paula, translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft (Argentina, Feminist Press)
Remains of Life by Wu He, translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry (Taiwan, Columbia University Press)
Best Translated Book Award 2018: Poetry Finalists
Hackers by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Goransson (Sweden, Black Ocean Press)
Paraguayan Sea by Wilson Bueno, translated from the Portunhol and Guarani to Frenglish and Guarani by Erin Moure (Brazil, Nightboat Books)
Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjaer Olsen, translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen (Denmark, Broken Dimanche Press)
Spiral Staircase by Hirato Renkichi, translated from the Japanese by Sho Sugita (Japan, Ugly Duckling Presse)
Directions for Use by Ana Ristović, translated from the Serbian by Steven Teref and Maja Teref (Serbia, Zephyr Press)
Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Ugly Duckling Presse)
A friend texted me a few months ago to tell me her period was late. We spent five minutes going back and forth on the specifics, but I was about to teach a class and she was getting on a train. Remember, I said, just before I put my phone away, the abstract idea of the thing is always scarier than the thing itself. This is a sentence I wanted to whisper to Sheila Heti’s main character throughout the reading of her book Motherhood. This is a thought exercise, I wanted to tell her, but it has very little relation to the actual thing.
Of course, Sheila Heti knows this. Her character—who, like her similarly Sheila Heti-like character in her previous novel, How Should a Person Be? is to be understood as both a stand-in for Heti and sufficiently Heti-adjacent that scenes might, in moments, have been altered for effect—acknowledges and plays with motherhood as abstract idea throughout the book. Heti’s character knows the abstraction’s relation to the thing itself is limited, but it is perhaps her knowledge of this that is one of the forces keeping her decidedly unwilling to become a mom.
She likes ideas of things. She revels in abstractions. She seems less sure of what to do with actual life.
But just as that autopsied body revealed a startling lack of something to my mother’s eyes, so in the moment of marrying I felt deceived: marriage was nothing more than a simple human act that I would never be up to fulfilling…so I fear will be the first moments in the delivery room, after having the baby laid on my chest, when it will hit me in a similar way as to how those moments dawned: there’s nothing magical here either, just plain old life as I know it and fear it to be.
I recognize this feeling so completely. I felt it when I got married. When we had kids. The feeling that this Big Life Event was so shockingly like the rest of life, the fact that magic maybe only ever existed in my head. Or maybe that magic only existed fleetingly. I love the man I married. I love our marriage. I love motherhood, but most of it is exactly like the rest of life: confusing and exhausting, messy, complicated, never like I planned. This is also, of course, the relief of all these major life decisions: there is just more—sometimes more crowded, more exhausting, sometimes more joyful—life on the other side.
When I told a friend I was about to start reading Sheila Heti’s book she looked at me and smiled. We’d spent part of the lunch we’d just had together ogling a baby at a nearby table. We’d spent some of the rest of lunch watching a video of my three- and five-year-old on my phone. I liked it, she said. It was 150 pages too long, but I liked it. My friend doesn’t have children, but she’s thinking of it. She’s at the beginning of her 30s, still with a broad enough swathe of time in front of her, that she can be thinking about it, for a while still, without the stakes feeling too high. It was like 450 pages, my friend said. It should have been 300 pages, but I liked it. When I got the galley in the mail a week later, the first thing I did was check the page count: 278.
I bring this up because I also felt like the book was too long, but on purpose, as if Heti is performing for us what it felt like for this woman, thinking the same thing over and over again, having the same types of dreams, the same types of fights with her partner, the same kind of conciliatory sex. This feels like part of her project. If this is a book about (not) motherhood, it is also, a book about the female body and its limits and its strength. It is also an intense, sometimes maddening, performance of female ambivalence.
Heti uses a recurring act of her main character asking an i ching coin yes or no questions throughout the book as a sort of exercise in external surety. The character acknowledges that it’s random; we watch as she asks enough yes or no questions so as to make them further her larger project.
The form breaks a few times and she’s smart and charming enough to call herself on it, to acknowledge this is just a way to force herself outside her own brain, “its useful, this, as a way of interrupting my habits of thought with a yes, or a no.” Of course, the coin only interrupts her briefly and she can easily outwit it. She asks enough questions, gets enough yeses, and her habits are quickly reestablished.
Once, when I was hugely pregnant the first time and walking around a small town where my husband had work and where I had come along, I walked into a bookstore off a crowded street and the woman behind the counter looked at me and said, that huge thing is never coming out of tiny little you. I had big babies and am not a big person. With both our girls, people pointed at me on the street in my final months. But it has to come out, I said to her, horrified. It has to come out, I said a second time; she looked at me and laughed. I walked another hour after that, shaken and crying. What if it was still possible to take it back? I had been so grateful to have decided. I had been so happy, for the first time maybe, to be so surely interrupted, to just let my body act.
This is the trick of the physical bodily world to which we must all succumb in some way. Heti’s character can outwit nearly every yes or no that’s offered to her, but the no she gets or lets herself believe when she turns 40 is the only thing that can actually, and finally, interrupt her habits. She will not have a baby, so it seems, all of a sudden, after years of back and forth, because her body says so. She doesn’t have to think in circles any more.
Heti’s character less decides not to have a child as decides to wait out her body’s ability to procreate. This is, of course, its own sort of decision. She’s a fiercely intelligent woman. She knows what time passing means. There is a scene in the book where she goes to see about freezing her eggs to prolong this timeline, but she opts against it. There is talk of money there, but it also seems that she needs this experience of deciding not to to be more wholly contained. It is a type of deciding that feels less like deciding than the vasectomy enacted by a man she meets at a party, less deciding than the IUD she gets then has removed. But still, it is the same decision insofar as there is no baby at the end of the book. It has the same physical consequences, contains the same absence in the end.
Containers were what I thought about the whole time I read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. I thought about what words contain and how that is determined for us early, what books contain, and what bodies contain. I thought about the ways in which we are at the mercy of each of these containers, how our ability to acknowledge their limits and their capaciousness can determine so much of how we choose to live.
In a class I taught a few months ago, we read a handful of what I thought of as revolutionary female writers: Clarice Lispector, Jean Rhys, Rachel Cusk, Samantha Hunt. All of these women I think of as fierce consciousnesses, not beholden to the traditional expectations of the novel, not beholden to traditional expectations of the Female. In each of the books we read by these women there are pregnancies; there is an acute awareness of the female womb. One of these pregnancies ends in an abortion, one in a dead baby, but the womb as character, as part and parcel to the character’s status as Female, is present in each.
In the Lispector, Passion According to GH, the book is largely about language. She is interested in absencing words, as we understand them, from their expected meaning; and she does this even with her “pregnancy.” The main character in the novel is “pregnant,” but she knows immediately that she will abort the baby, so then, “pregnant” as in filled with something that will one day turn into a baby, is not that, but something else. Of course, women have for centuries been pregnant and it has not resulted in a baby, but Lispector lets us see this clearly, that even the most seemingly certain word, an empirically provable fact of the body, does not have to be.
Each of these women forces the words around the female body to become something other in their telling. Hunt, in her short story “A Love Story,” whose character is a mother, is asking her status as “mother” to also hold within it the word “sex,” to also contain words like want and need. Each of these books succumbs to the fact of the female as a specific type of body that is also a container, a vessel maybe for the womb and for procreation, each of these books seeks to explore what else “Female,” “Mother,” “Pregnant” might be.
Heti’s character seems both to want to explore this and also to be fighting against the fact of the limits of it, both in what her body might hold, but also in the words as they were delivered to her up until then. Close to the end of the book we spend some time with Heti’s character’s mother at her house close to the sea where she lives alone. We know already this is Heti’s character’s dream of old age as well. It is also one of the reasons she gives for not wanting to procreate. She wants to be old by herself and without obligations. It seems her mother has achieved this, though, of course, her mother also has her. Her mother is perhaps the most compelling character in the whole book. For obvious reasons, I guess, but, most of all because she seems to have managed to largely not mother, even as a mother herself.
When this woman describes going to visit her mother in medical school when she was a child, she says, “there seemed to be nothing so glamorous or romantic in the world as a mother who lived alone in an apartment with her colored pens and books.” Later, she explains that she had a friend ask her once (though she doesn’t say at what point in her life) if her mother was dead. Close to the end of the book, while staying with her (still living) mother in her house by the sea, there is the following scene,
Right before my mother left the room, she spoke, with some confusion, about women who say that raising kids is the most important thing in their life. I asked her if motherhood had been the most important thing in their life, and she blushed and said, No—at the very same moment that I interrupted her and said, You don’t have to answer. I was there.
Her mother, it seems, was able to be both Mother and Not Mother at the same time; a sort of extraordinary feat of female ambivalence; a resounding accomplishment of the abstract outpacing the physical fact. And, of course, this also isn’t true. She is a mother. She birthed this woman and her brother. She is just Mother in a different size and shape and with different preoccupations and interests than we might expect.
Both my mother and my sister are lawyers. They both have four kids. They’re both married to lawyers. My sister is a partner at my mother’s law firm and the only major difference between her life and the life my mom lived is that she works fewer hours, because she is a partner at the firm my parents built when we were kids. If you ask my sister what it is that bothers her about our mother she will tell you that it is the fact that, if someone at a party tells my mother that she looks familiar, she will mention she’s a lawyer, and not that she’s a mom. She’s a very successful lawyer. Her kids, my sister argues, are also a success. The fact that her first response is to trumpet her accomplishments infuriates my sister. It is one of the things about my mom I like the most.
My mother and I don’t speak much. On the surface, my life could not be less like hers. I run though, and she runs. I look like her. I love my kids fiercely, if not in the way of other mothers. I am obsessed with work. I am both a corrective to everything I see as how she wronged me, and more mother just like her than I might ever say out loud.
All of this to say, part of Heti’s project seems to be to push the limits of the Female, to upend the necessity of Mother, to suggest whole worlds that might exist beyond the making of other smaller versions of ourselves. But what her book also does is remind us of the limits, both of our bodies and our thoughts. For all her abstract acrobatics, this feels like a book about the complicated way Heti’s character both does and does not love her mother; it feels like an exploration of the ways our bodies hem us in.
Heti’s character doesn’t actually decide one day not to be a mother, the same way, when I found myself accidentally pregnant at 28, I more just decided to not get rid of it for a few months; she lets time run out and then watches as her body decides for her. We watch as her body, month after month, controls her thoughts and moods and feelings, even as she continues to be brilliant on the page. We’re reminded again and again that we are contained not just by our bodies, not just by time and the roles long since established by biology and culture, but by the way we’re taught to think about the words that are meant to define our bodies, contained by the specific, intransigent ways those words might mean in our own lives.
“On January 14, 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus—America’s oldest and best circus, America’s last true touring circus—announced that it was closing, and six days later the country mourned, with an exit parade, a grand-finale funeral: the inauguration of Donald J. Trump.” Year-in-Reading alum Joshua Cohen, whose Book of Numbers spent seven months on our top-10 list back in 2015, and whose new novel Moving Kings made our most-anticipated list for the latter half of this year, reflects on the end of an era for The Point.