Dissecting Desire: The Millions Interviews Sarah Gerard

Sarah Gerard arrived on the literary scene with her collection of essays, Sunshine State, three years ago, garnering much praise and being hailed as a “writer to watch.” Her debut novel, Binary Star, received similar praise two years earlier. The Florida-born writer just published her highly anticipated novel True Love, but not before the book made its presence known vis-a-vis every book preview under the sun. And for good reason.

Nina, a struggling writer, college drop-out, and professional bad-decision-maker, forgoes the muted suburbs of Florida for the calamity of New York City in pursuit of the kind of love that will countervail the past she’s left behind. Her search for fulfillment is anything but linear, oscillating between the various people in her life like her mother, a narcissistic lesbian living in a polycule; Odessa, a single mom with a similar penchant for toxic men; Seth, a detached artist who’s lack of commitment permeates every facet of life; Brian, who sets the bar for stability low, but whom Nina considers her most stable partner; and Aaron, a former classmate and aspiring filmmaker who lives with his parents, with whom Nina initially develops a creative relationship with—leaving her life as a writer in the middle of it all.

Told with acerbic wit, keen observation, and elements of dark humor, Gerard’s True Love is a timely tale of yearning for connection in a world that is fragmented by default.

The Millions: I see pieces of myself in Nina. Did she come to you like that or did she arrive on the page fully formed from the get-go?

Sarah Gerard: She took some massaging. I went through a few different names and occupations, and at one point had given her a very cumbersome backstory. Hardest was landing on what her motivation is, moment-to-moment, and also long-term—and how those two things might be in conflict. The tone of the book was also difficult to land. For the first several drafts, Nina just had no sense of humor, probably because, ironically, she wasn’t being totally honest with the reader.

TM: How did the idea for True Love come to you?

SG: I was asking broad questions about what love is and how it operates, in my life and in the world. It’s both ambient and directed; a state of being and an action. It’s ecstatic and painful and joyful and crushing. Very often, we can’t seem to find love—or what my partner and I call “good love”—though we want it very badly. A character is a mode of inquiry, so I used Nina as a vehicle to explore how people might get in their own way, looking for love; where we learn to love; how we know love is present; and what love, or the desire for it, leads us to do. I was also, as the title might suggest, curious about the relationship of love and truth.

TM: Your previous novel, Binary Star, hones in on addiction and codependency, which are also, in some form, present in this book. Why did you want to continue your exploration of these themes?

SG: One definition of love that I offer in the book is that of an addiction. Another is a trance. In either case, it’s an altered state of seeing and sensing and understanding. In the book, I define trance as an inwardly directed, selectively focused attention, to the exclusion of all else. I was also thinking of love as a substance that could be just as easily used to manipulate and exploit and traffic in as a drug.

TM: Florida lit is a genre in and of itself. Your debut collection of essays, Sunshine State, I believe, stands at the helm alongside the work of Alissa Nutting and Kristen Arnett. What nod to Florida did you want to give by having your new book start there?

SG: Structurally, my intent was to divide the story into two parts. Florida is much slower and lazier than New York City, so there’s a tonal shift midway through the book when Nina and Seth leave. The world of the story becomes darker, in my mind, and more claustrophobic, threatening. The Florida setting is somewhat disturbing, yet edges toward absurd and provincial, whereas New York is dangerous and exploitative, as Nina experiences it. She’s also separated from her friends and her support network after she leaves Florida, so although the city seems to close in on her, it is also lonelier.

TM: I love the specific references to the neighborhoods in New York City, especially the bookshop where Nina works. I know you were a bookseller at two of NYC’s beloved indie bookstores. What other similarities do you share with Nina?

SG: I love independent bookstores. They really do the Lord’s work. I’ve worked at McNally Jackson Books and Books Are Magic, and would work at another bookstore in a heartbeat. There’s nothing better than talking about books all day, then spending half of your retail-wage paycheck on books because you get a staff discount and have been shopping at work. Seriously, though, bookselling has taught me so much about writing and publishing. 

TM: I’m particularly intrigued by Nina’s friend Odessa. She offers this contrast, makes certain things about Nina stand out more. Was this your intention in writing her?

SG: Especially in a first-person narrative, the catalyst for character transformation has to originate outside of a character. Change comes about as a result of friction in the narrative. Nina and Odessa are very different people, but they have a long history, and know each other on a fundamental level. So, Odessa both offers a counterpoint to Nina, as well as a touchstone for who she is, on a base level, when she may feel as if she’s losing herself—or as when, as Odessa points out, she’s lying. Odessa also calls Nina out for her class privilege and her selfishness. A lot of characters call Nina out for various things. Ultimately, each one of them offers a window onto a very tangled situation.

TM: As someone who, at one point, could have been the brand ambassador of toxic relationships, I sometimes fear of stepping back into my old habits. Like, I have to consciously remember the emotional work I’ve done in years of therapy. Do you think we can become addicted to those types of relationships and, if so, do you think we can ever truly move beyond them without them haunting us?

SG: Toxic relationships are hurtful, and exist on a continuum of uncaring and manipulative behavior, ranging from microaggressions to violence. It haunts us because it hurts us. Unlearning it takes self-reflection, and practice acting with compassion, as well as setting boundaries. Forgiveness is also important, and that includes self-forgiveness.

TM: Nina’s mother is very much a presence in her life, even though her absence—especially when she constantly dodges her daughter’s attempts to visit her—is what mostly comprises that presence in Nina’s heart and mind. Do you think her relationship with her mother holds her back, maybe even influences her bad decisions?

SG: One of the questions I was asking in writing this book is where we learn to love. Early relationships are foundational, and patterns are very hard to break, especially when they’re deeply ingrained from a young age. Nina and her mother are more similar than she realizes. There is a lot of her mother in her desire to please, her martyrdom, her inability to take responsibility for the ripple-effects of trauma, her bossiness—just to start. Nina’s path to healing her relationship with her mother begins when she finally sets a boundary with her that she can hold.

TM: Has writing this book taught you anything about yourself?

SG: Everything I write teaches me about myself. It also teaches me about the world.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Transforming Florida: On Sarah Gerard’s ‘Sunshine State’
The Path to Destruction: On Sarah Gerard’s ‘Binary Star’

‘Want’: Featured Fiction from Lynn Steger Strong

In today’s edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Lynn Steger Strong’s novel Want.

Following on the heels of Hold Still, the novel won praise from Kirkus, which called it “a wise, unflinching, and compelling novel about womanhood,” and Vulture, which hailed it as “a defining novel of our age of left-behind families.”

It was hot already, wet and sticky—college; I was nine-teen; she was twenty; she’d driven from her school three hours away to spend the summer with me—and she shaved my head out on the roof of the row house I shared with two other girls and laughed as large chunks of hair fell down to the porch; the buzz of her hands on my neck was the closest that I’d come to joy in years. For weeks, we’d talked about it, a joke I made that she latched onto. I liked the thrill she seemed to get at the prospect: a sort of recklessness I’d receded from—mostly, then, I was locked up in my attic room—just as hers was amping up.

I didn’t think I’d care what I looked like after. I had images of waiflike women with large features staring back at me from pictures, pictures that I’d found online when we first discussed shaving my head. I must have cared if I searched this. I must have been invested in how it’d turn out in the end. These women were all barefaced as well as bareheaded: Sinéad O’Connor, cancer victims, Yael Stone. All of them wide-eyed toward the camera. All of them gaunt. Their features threatened from their faces, big and unprotected, unapologetic; it was the viewer, though, who seemed to need protecting then.

That my features were too small and my face already too wide and blunt was not something I’d considered. That I’d gained weight and what was, would always be, too soft had gotten softer was something I tried not to think about. But then the hair had fallen to the porch and we were sweeping it into the trash and there was nothing to be done but to wear skullcaps in the wet summer heat and try to forget it was possible that I was making passers-by afraid.

I didn’t mind because she loved me like that. She loved me most when, at night, she’d rub my back as I cried about whatever small thing made me cry that day and she could tell me my crying was allowed and important, that she’d be there no matter what. She reached her hands over the nubs of my head, strong and sure and doting, she talked and talked, until I fell asleep.

Men sought her out, always. I was an obstacle they had to overcome. They pretended to care about what I was reading so she would see that they were kind and thoughtful. They would half listen to the things I said as they turned their chairs closer to her. We both brought books to the same bar every night—it was the summer I read all of Woolf and Faulkner—the presence of the absence, circling, circling but not ever touching, knowing that there was no such thing as saying just exactly what one wanted, no such thing as connecting wholly with another human, but still trying anyway. She sometimes picked up whatever I had finished so we could talk about them afterward. The bar was Irish. They served colcannon and champ, boxty, boiled bacon and cabbage, and we’d split a big, hot meal after not eating the whole day. It was half old men, locals, and half undergrads who wanted to declare themselves as different from the kids who went to the fancy burger place or the oyster bar down the street.

I read and she held the books close to her, unopened, flirting with the bartender or pretending not to notice when men looked. I nodded and sometimes let myself pretend these men were interested in my answers to their questions. When they circled their chairs to face only her, I went back to my book. It was the contrast that never failed to shock me. We felt so much aligned during the day, at home, alone, walking down the street. We were the same age, from the same place, equally unrelenting, depressive, bookish. But the shape of her face, the way clothes hung on her body, her perfect skin, the largeness of her eyes: we were such completely separate things.

She came home with me almost always. When we made fun of these men later, the experience of their desperate want felt shared. It was mine insofar as I had gotten what they wanted. One of them called me a dyke bitch when I asked her if we could please go home after he offered to pay for her fifth beer. This one was attractive. Smart. It was 2:00 am. I’d read an entire novel in the time we’d been there. Probably she would have slept with him if I’d not made my face so sad when I’d asked if we could leave. If she’d not also heard what he’d said.

During the day, I could forget about this. My roommates both went back to their childhood homes and we had the whole place to ourselves for the last month. We’d get up early and walk over the MIT bridge into Boston. We wore T-shirts and sports bras, cotton shorts and flip-flops, just like we’d done all those years at home. There was a tree outside the house where I lived and we would pick mulberries to eat from our hands and pockets on our walks. We’d stop in Central Square for coffee. She’d get chocolate cake but never finish it. I’d get a quiche and then she’d pass me what was left of her cake. We drank cup after cup of coffee. Still there was the talking. Talking, talking. About the books that we were reading, about what we wanted, needed, thought then that we couldn’t live without. I imagine now that it sounded and was shaped like what lots of young girls say they want and need when they’re nineteen and twenty. She wanted always to be loved and wanted. I wanted to be anything but whatever I was then. We loitered on the basement floors of used bookstores when it got too hot and we were tired. We got ice cream on Newbury Street and watched the tourists yelling, pointing in the duck boats on the Charles. We went to see movies; sometimes we snuck piles of food into our bags and stayed for hours, leaving one theater and sneaking into another. We’d see three or four films in six hours, stumbling out bleary and exhausted, the whole day having passed. I’d forget then, on the best days, that we were separate. Our words and wants and limbs would overlap. A man came up to our table at the coffee shop and dropped her a note, a pencil-sketched picture of her, I just couldn’t stop looking, he wrote at the bottom, already gone. Three of the baristas asked her out. I’d gained weight, stopped running for long stretches of time, and none of my shorts fit. My head was still bare and sometimes people gawked, but mostly I could disappear inside reading and talking. I bought more cotton shorts and wore old, large sweat shirts with the sleeves rolled up.

I was paying for her. My parents paid. She was staying in my attic apartment until she found a place, except she never looked. She was meant to get a job but never did. We put our whole lives on the card I had, had always had, for living. She alluded sometimes to feeling bad about this, but I demurred and didn’t let her talk too much about it. I didn’t want to spend long stretches of time without her. The rent had to be paid regardless and she ate so little. At night, her drinks were always bought by men.

One night, we went out to dinner. I wore a green cotton strapless dress I’d had since high school that had seemed to fit in the dark apartment but did not. She wore a low-cut black silk tank and perfect pants. The busboy kept coming over to refill our waters. Even when I stopped drinking mine, to get him to stop, he found reasons, changing out our silverware, refolding her napkin when it fell off her lap. He was boorishly attractive, younger than us, broad-shouldered, dark hair, shockingly blue eyes. She pretended not to notice through the first course. But we spent every day together, every night and morning. We talked about the same things over and over. I saw her turn her body toward him. She let him look at her. When he finally spoke, his accent was South Boston born and bred. You want more bread?

He left her a note, scratchy handwriting, a pen borrowed from a waiter; he’d written his number and the word “drink” with a question mark. I was still hoping we could laugh about this later. I was still thinking if I ignored him she would too. It’ll be fun, she said. We’ll go together. I didn’t want to. The energy was different between them than with most of the others. I could feel her wanting him to look at her, instead of acquiescing to it; I already understood I wouldn’t be able to convince her not to go. I wanted to scream and cry and wrap both of us inside the tablecloth until we were home and no one could touch us with their eyes or food or drinks or pens or hands. I want to go home, I said. Fine, she said. Her voice was hard.

I left and she didn’t. He dropped her off at my apartment the next day before noon. For weeks, she disappeared for days to be with him. I always knew where she was at night if she wasn’t across from me in bed.

She made fun of him in front of me. His sheets, she said. Her face scrunched up. I’m not sure they’ve ever been washed.

She was affecting this not caring. She tried to convince me I still mattered most of all. He’d dropped out of high school, lived with a cousin in South Boston, no real plans. She said when he fucked her he got angry just before he came and she liked the way his ass felt in her hands, taut and small compared to the rest of him. Twice, she showed me bruises he’d left across her body. I ran my hands slowly over them, one on the shoulder, another just below her chin, her skin so white and poreless, even in summer, the purple splotches popping, angry, with smaller patches of brown and blue. Later, I reached slowly up into myself with that same hand and let myself remember her pulse thrumming; I thought about their fucking, imagined the feel of that hard, angry ass overtop of me.

He stopped returning her calls after a month. She pretended she didn’t care. Then she told me she thought she might be pregnant. She refused to take a test but left a message on his phone. I went to the CVS and bought the test for her, but she refused to take it. Instead, she curled up next to me in my bed and cried, her phone clutched to her. When he still hadn’t called her back a week later and she was still calling, warning, saying she’d take care of it herself except she didn’t have the money now (I knew this wasn’t true and had also offered to put an abortion on my parents’ credit card) I found a used tampon in the bathroom under two sheets of paper from the day’s news. We were the only people in the house.

Excerpted from Want by Lynn Steger Strong. Published by Henry Holt and Company, July 7th 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Lynn Steger Strong. All rights reserved. 

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Shells: Picking Apart Pain and Womanhood
On Sheila Heti and (Not) Motherhood
The Mourners

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Nugent, Tenorio, Martin, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Benjamin Nugent, Lysley Tenorio, Andrew Martin, and more—that are publishing this week.

Fraternity by Benjamin Nugent

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fraternity: “Terry Southern Prize–winner Nugent digs into Greek life at an unnamed western Massachusetts university in this winning collection (after Good Kids). In ‘God,’ Delta Zeta Chi members admiringly nickname a classmate God after she writes a poem calling out Delta president Newton as an ‘early detonator’ in bed. ‘The Treasurer’ stars incoming Delta treasurer Pete, whose dedication to the brotherhood impairs his reasoning after he’s sexually assaulted during a leadership test, while in ‘Ollie the Owl,’ Nugent conceives a comical alternate reality where the fraternity’s wooden owl mascot comes to life and attacks students. ‘Safe Spaces,’ the lone tale featuring a female protagonist, ponders the aimless nature of a broken heart, as dropout Claire, high on cocaine, seeks refuge at Delta house after being rebuffed by a former lover. While Nugent shows consistent talent for capturing the voices and shallow ambition of college students, he stumbles when he leaves the campus—the collection’s weakest story, ‘Fan Fiction,’ dawdles as Newton, the Delta president from ‘God,’ moves to Los Angeles and dates a famous director. Despite this aberration, the rest of the collection pulses with energy, and Nugent commendably weaves humor and drama to shine an unflinching light on the young adults convening behind fraternity walls. One can almost smell the stale beer on the page.”

Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Scorpionfish: “In Bakopoulos’s ruminative follow-up to The Green Shore, 30-something Mira returns from the U.S. to Greece after her parents’ deaths to clean out the apartment she grew up in. The city she encounters is not the one of her childhood. Athens is plagued by strikes, drugs, the government debt crisis, and the junta, and refugees hoping for a better future have migrated to the city, ‘the safest dangerous place in the world.’ Like the city itself, Mira’s sense of self is in flux as she lingers in her parents’ apartment. Enter the Captain. Mira’s new neighbor is an older man recently separated from his wife and children who prefers the ‘placeless universality of the sea’ to land. Both spend the summer figuring out who they are in the wake of huge life changes as they explore the city with old friends: Fady and Dimitra, who have taken in a refugee; Aris, Mira’s ex-boyfriend, a rising politician and father-to-be; and Nefeli, an older artist Mira’s known since childhood, who understands, better than anyone, how the past, present, and future selves coexist. While Bakopoulos’s emphasis on themes of identity is at times heavy-handed, she skillfully captures the characters’ sense of feeling stuck between stations. This riff on the adage that you can never go home poses essential questions on what it means to belong.”

The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Son of Good Fortune: “Tenorio’s mordant and moving debut novel (after the collection Monstress) follows the travails of an undocumented Filipino immigrant mother and son. Nineteen-year-old Excel reluctantly makes the long trek back to the apartment where he grew up in Colma, Calif., from Hello City, a relaxed town of hippies and techies near the Mexican border, where he’d moved nine months earlier with his girlfriend, Sab. Excel has a debt in Hello City—$10,000, to be exact—and his only option is to ask for his old job at The Pie Who Loved Me, a restaurant where ‘pizza goes to die.’ His mother, Maxina, a former action star, lives with Joker, Maxina’s childhood martial arts instructor and a grandfather figure to Excel. These days, Maxina makes a living scamming American men seeking obedient Filipina wives online. Excel and Maxina have had a turbulent relationship since Excel’s 10th birthday, when Maxina told him they were tago ng tago (hiding and hiding)—but with such a large debt to pay back, the pizza earnings aren’t enough, and Excel turns to Maxina for help. Written with great empathy and sly humor, Tenorio’s tale of Excel and Maxima’s gradual reconciliation takes a searing look at the ways they’ve taken care of and failed each other. This is a wonderful achievement.”

Alice Knott by Blake Butler

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Alice Knott: “Butler (300,000,000) unwinds a vertiginous, deeply interior tale of art vandalism and a woman’s derangement. When a video showing the destruction of a Willem de Kooning painting goes viral, copycat crimes erupt across the world. The de Kooning, among other destroyed works, turns out to have been stolen from Alice Knott, an aging heiress isolated in her family home for decades. Traumatized by her childhood, Alice suffers from extreme dissociation and is bewildered by herself and her mother, father, stepfather, and twin (or ‘untwin’) brother. Her confusion extends even to the nature of her house, which shape-shifts in her mind (‘there always seemed to be new rooms, and different dimensions to the past ones’). As Alice becomes a suspect in the crimes, Alice Novak, a conceptual artist Butler confusingly describes as Alice Knott’s doppelgänger, dies, apparently during a performance. Meanwhile, acts of art-terror proliferate along with a pandemic of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease; natural disasters; and a contagious delirium that infects even the U.S. president. Butler’s penchant for ambiguities flowers in Alice’s convoluted ruminations, which predominate in this challenging novel. Unfortunately, the labyrinthine language will leave readers trapped alongside Alice in her harrowing hall-of-mirrors self, unmoored to any grounding context, and Butler’s attempt to portray mental illness is overwrought and tedious. The conceit and experimentation are fascinating and admirable, but miss their mark.”

Want by Lynn Steger Strong

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Want: “Strong’s impressive follow-up to Hold Still explores the energy it takes for women to sustain themselves in a world that leaves them feeling ‘less than, knocked down, not quite in control.’ Now living in New York City, Elizabeth and her unnamed husband are ‘eighties babies, born of plenty, cloistered by whiteness… brought up to think that if we checked off certain boxes we’d be fine.’ Elizabeth has a PhD, but tenure-track professorship remains out of reach, and her husband, the first in his family to attend college, once worked for Lehman Brothers and now struggles to get a carpentry business off the ground. Due to their unstable employment and scant insurance coverage for her C-section and root canals, they are deep in debt (‘my body almost single-handedly bankrupted us’). As the couple advance through the bankruptcy process, buoyed by their love for their young children and at times each other, Elizabeth becomes caught up in repeating an old pattern with her friend, Sasha, who is anxious about her pregnancy after a previous miscarriage. Strong unpacks the fraught history of Elizabeth and Sasha’s friendship dating back to their teenage years, delivering great insight on how the exhausted women have found themselves wanting—male attention, babies, choices, recognition, respect—as they compromise their dreams in order to survive. This is well worth a look.”

After the Body by Cleopatra Mathis

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about After the Body: “Over the last four decades, Mathis (Book of Dog) has quietly crafted lyrically precise, often harrowing poems in which the poet’s ‘throat is a long avenue of ice,/ cutting the familiar good words/ at their source.’ This generous volume draws from the poet’s recorded gifts and losses: poems of early and late motherhood, a child’s mental illness and institutionalization, human and nonhuman deaths within and beyond the poet’s purview. As the poet studies ‘the art of now and wait, to love/ what’s not a part of me,’ the swamps and bayous of her childhood home morph into the woods and coastlines of New England: ‘Some pinion/ connects who we are with whatever pulls us/ to walk into the evening’s wetland grasses/ in an air made of sounds we listen for/ …the grace of seeing that will save us.’ To these earlier works are added two dozen new poems of extraordinary acuity, many of them attempts to describe the wracking pain as the poet struggles with crippling illness. Rereading the poet’s past work through her present reveals hidden continuities. In these knowing poems, readers may recognize their own humanity, as well as the sometimes-impossible conditions of living.”

Cool for America by Andrew Martin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Cool for America: “Martin (Early Work) captures young adults’ aimless searches for stability in this bleak, revealing collection. In ‘The Changed Party,’ during a rained-out vacation on the Jersey shore, Lisa and Gary, freshly reunited following a separation, discover their eight-year-old daughter Amanda’s compulsive habit of picking through the garbage and are troubled by a friend’s drinking. In the title story, an unnamed assistant professor spending the summer in Missoula, Mont., wrestles with a powerful attraction to his friend’s wife, who helps him recuperate from a broken leg. In ‘The Boy Vet,’ a baby-faced veterinarian pressures a softhearted literature PhD dropout to pay for emergency surgery on a stray dog. The protagonist of ‘Bad Feelings’ distracts himself from his mom’s surgery by going to ‘the third sequel to a blockbuster adaptation of a young adult book series’ despite having not seen the others, and loses his keys in the empty theater. Moments of cynical humor pop up amid drug use, tumultuous relationships, or other self-defeating outlets for the characters’ creative and personal frustrations. Though the people begin to blend together, each story has at least one or two standout, bleakly funny lines. Martin’s sardonic tales are decent, if not breathtaking.”

Nobody’s Martyr: The Millions Interviews Shannon Reed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Private and Public Lives: The Millions Interviews Sanaë Lemoine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanaë Lemoine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must-Read Poetry: July 2020

Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

After the Body: Poems New and Selected by Cleopatra Mathis


An excellent collection that leads with her new poems, finely attuned to the body and aging. “Bed-Bound” begins: “I live in the seam of stitches and throb.” The narrator wakes to hear the “insistent / ceiling fan above, dull blade / covered with detritus, spinning / to a vague thunder.” Mathis knows the power of pacing and line breaks. “Time creeps”: a phrase stabbed in the middle ground of the poem. “The storm of tiny bugs / the heat brought in, hovering / over the skin of pockmarked fruit.” The narrator quarantined, with “nothing but pain to consider.” Time will pass. Bodies will age. Yet: “it is patient— / so patient, pain is.” The theme returns in “After Chemo,” when mice “took the house” because they “never expected me back.” “My house is a sieve. In and out they go / with sunflower hulls, cartilage bits, / nesting, nesting.” Mathis considers aging further in “Not Myself”: “For the first time, I could see a link / between me and all the other / impossibly dead, or the one who had gripped the dead / in their arms.” There is an elegiac strain to these new poems: a mother bemoaning the passing of her elders, lamenting the turn of her own body, hoping for a long life for the young. Readers new to Mathis will appreciate her selected work that follows the more recent material. “The Perfect Service” is one of several great poems about parenting: “The truth is, the child protects me, takes away / the obligation to be someone other than myself.” The narrator watches her child move in the spring, “his clumsy feet / hidden in the grass, his fat palms in the thick / clumps of narcissus, everything’s naked.” She wonders how “he might disappear / if I turn my back.” Her child would enfold into the world, escape, but “what about me, / how could I face all this beauty in his absence?” Other selected pieces ponder nature and death—inevitable processes. “In Lent”: a deer dies near a gate. “Do I have to watch it be eaten? Do I have to see / who comes first, who quarrels, who stays?” She wonders “which flesh preferred by which creature— / which sinew and fat, the organs, the eyes.” Mathis suggests that we are surrounded by ferocious appetites. “And I hear the crows, complaint, complaint / splitting the morning, hunched over the skull. / They know their offices.”

Nobody: A Rhapsody to Homer by Alice Oswald


A hazy, mysterious, transporting book by the Oxford professor. Oswald’s epigraph notes that when Agamemnon journeyed to Troy, he paid a poet to watch his wife, but the poet was rowed to a stony island. The bard has drifted, off-course and forgotten: left “as a lump of food for the birds.” The book is suffused with a shifty, macabre feel of disembodied spirits and chants, an ingenious method of capturing the eerie sea. Oswald captures the feel in her lines: “As the mind flutters in a man who has travelled widely / and his quick-winged eyes land everywhere.” Even stories “flutter about / as fast as torchlight.” Fate speaks of the poet stranded on a stony island, where “he paces there as dry as an ashtray,” blithering errant poems, watched skeptically by the sea-crows: “what does it matter what he sings.” Oswald’s description sings throughout. Seals breathe out “the sea’s bad breath / snuffle about all afternoon in sleeping bags.” A little dazed ourselves, we can easily imagine “hundreds of these broken and dropped-open mouths / sulking and full of silt on the seabed.” Among this ancient world, Oswald drops prescient lines: “there are people still going about their work / unfurling sails and loosening knots / it’s as if they didn’t know they were drowned.” A purgatorial sense pervades the poem, capturing the terrible and magnificent sea: “a man is a nobody underneath a big wave / his loneliness expands his hair floats out like seaweed / and when he surfaces his head full of green water / sitting alone on his raft in the middle of death.” I can’t help but think of Yeats’s Spiritus Mundi here, a wild vastness beyond us: “Let me tell you what the sea does / to those who live by it first it shrinks then it / hardens and simplifies and half-buries us / and sometimes you find us shivering in museums.”

The Caiplie Caves by Karen Solie


“In terms of poetics and philosophy,” Solie has said during an interview, “I do find the limit of language a profound and powerful zone. It’s where failure becomes energy.” The Caiplie Caves ponders that zone of linguistic border and failure, especially what happens when we see the progression of a narrator’s ruminations. The collection begins with a prefatory note that tells the story of Ethernan, a 7th-century Irish monk who went to the Caiplie Caves in Scotland “in order to decide whether to commit to a hermit’s solitude or establish a priory on May Island. This choice, between life as a ‘contemplative’ or as an ‘active.’” Framed and interspersed with these monastic contemplations, many poems in the collection are anchored in the contemporary. The interplay between imagined past and literary present creates a rich effect. The contemporary sections are rife with great lines: “My many regrets have become the great passion of my life.” Others stir with their figurative language: “but for the banks of wild roses, the poppies you loved // parked like an ambulance by the barley field.” Solie’s verse feels operatic at points: “Our culture is best described as heroic. / Courageous in self-promotion, noble / in the circulation of others’ disgrace, // its preoccupation with death in a context of immortal glory / truly epic, and the task becomes to keep / the particulars in motion // lest they settle into categories whose opera / is bad infinity.” Among these present concerns, Ethernan continues to contemplate, often with wit: “In this foggy, dispute-ridden landscape // thus begins my apprenticeship to cowardice.” He is not the type of person “who leads others into battle // or inspires love.” The devil is in the discernment: “if one asks for a sign // must one accept what’s given?” After all, “I wanted an answer, not a choice.” Ethernan’s life is long gone, but his spirit allows Solie to make contemplation a form of haunting: “I have outlived my future, why invite its ghosts // to bother me where I sleep?”

Code by Charlotte Pence

A book suffused with genuine optimism—without sentimentality. An early poem in the collection, “The Weight of the Sun,” sets the pensive stage. The narrator is “tilting / the rocking chair back and forth / with my toes,” a rhythm that carries her through a 4 a.m. feeding. She looks outside, and wonders if “everyone on this block” is “wishing for sleep, / for peace, for the coming day to be better // than the last.  She stares at the blades of grass; realizes that a red fox “is the one who / flattens the path through the lawn.” Her mind wanders: “Behind every square of light flipped on, / someone is standing or slouching, // stretching of sighing, covering / or uncovering her face.” Other poems, like “While Reading About Semiotics,” deliver sharp moments of dread, as when a cottonmouth seethes, rushing toward her “with its wide ghost of throat.” It’s a great, odd image. Pence often has a pleasantly sideways manner of looking and layering, as in “Lightening,” which plays with the multiple connotations of the word. “You are dropping, / my baby. Twisting / your way down.” The word, the narrator notes, is also used to describe “the moment before / death. Another release.” Yet there’s no etymological explanation “for such a linguistic hike.” She wonders this wordplay while walking “these brown woods / where deer thin / to vines.” Similar playfulness exists in the meandering “Zwerp”: “Three mud- / puddle frogs // leap-flee / from me.” The frogs “take light — / blur it, bold it — / with long, slick / legs, all muscle // memory / of place and space.” One late poem, “I’m Thinking Again of That Lone Boxer,” reveals her range in subject and style. The narrator watches a man boxing in Baltimore’s Herring Run Park: “City gridlock stood / beside him as he slipped and bobbed, countered / and angled.” She thinks for a moment about herself, about motherhood, but is drawn to the man’s precise swings. She won’t call him a dancer; he’s “a man fighting in an empty / field against himself,” and the sight stirs her: despite him being ready to land or receive a punch, “how / can I not believe in the possibility of peace?”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Stein, Sullivan, Baker, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of  Leigh Stein, J. Courtney Sullivan, Calvin Baker, and more—that are publishing this week.

Self Care by Leigh Stein

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Self Care: “In this sharp satire, Stein (The Fallback Plan) revels in wellness culture gone toxic. Devin Avery and Maren Gelb are cofounders of Richual, a Goop-like lifestyle company seeking to ‘catalyze women to be global changemakers through the simple act of self-care.’ (That the company doesn’t have a maternity leave policy is a particularly juicy irony.) Richual uses sponsored content, paid influencers, confessional blog postings, and merchandise like ‘Believe Victims’ beach towels to attract and monetize its user base. Devin, rich and devoted to a strenuous dietary and beauty regimen, is the face of the company, while Maren, who got her start working for a nonprofit feminist organization and has a mountain of student loan debt, ensures Richual runs ‘like a well-moisturized machine.’ That machine hits a rough patch after a woman publishes an essay about the problematic sexual predilections of Evan, a former Bachelorette contestant and prominent male investor in Richual, threatening the company’s feminist bona fides and driving a wedge between its cofounders. The plot flies by, but the real appeal lies in Stein’s merciless skewering of startup culture, bloviating entrepreneurs, fatuous trends, and woker-than-thou internet denizens, a vanity fair of 20-somethings who are at once conspicuously privileged yet vulnerable, earnest yet hypocritical, navel-gazing yet engaged, independent-minded yet tribal. Stein’s sharp writing separates her from the pack in this exquisite, Machiavellian morality tale about the ethics of looking out for oneself.”

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mexican Gothic: “Moreno-Garcia’s energetic romp through the gothic genre (after Gods of Jade and Shadow) is delightfully bonkers. In the 1950s, Noemí, a flirtatious socialite and college student, travels from Mexico City to rescue her cousin Catalina from the nightmarish High Place, a remote Mexican mountain villa. Catalina has recently married the chilly, imperiously seductive Virgil Doyle, heir to a now defunct British silver mining operation. Beset by mysterious fevers, Catalina has written to her uncle, Noemí’s father, telling him, ‘This house is sick with rot, stinks of decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment.’ Noemí clashes with Virgil’s father, Howard—who subscribes to theories of eugenics—along with a set of oddly robotic British servants. Beset by horrifying dreams and visions, and unsettled by a peculiar fungus that grows everywhere, Noemí soon fears for her own life as well as Catalina’s. In a novel that owes a considerable debt to the nightmarish horror and ornate language of H.P. Lovecraft, the situations in which Noemí attempts to prevail get wilder and stranger with every chapter, as High Place starts exhibiting a mind of its own, and Noemi learns that Howard is far older than he appears to be. Readers who find the usual country house mystery too tame and languid won’t have that problem here.”

Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Friends and Strangers: “Sullivan’s intimate, incisive latest (after Saints for all Occasions) explores the evolving friendship between a new mother and her babysitter. After journalist Elisabeth Ronson moves with her husband, Andrew, and infant son, Gil, from Brooklyn to Upstate New York, Elisabeth struggles with the demands of motherhood and faces loneliness and disconnection. Then she hires Sam O’Connell, an art student at the nearby women’s college, to babysit. Elisabeth likes the upbeat Sam, though she has misgivings about Sam’s 30-something boyfriend, Clive, who proves to be untrustworthy,. Elisabeth and Sam correspond over Christmas break while Sam visits Clive in London and Elisabeth spends the holiday entertaining her parents and in-laws at home. Elisabeth and Sam argue about Clive, and Elisabeth’s father-in-law, George, provides another source of tension: Elisabeth finds his leftist rants tiresome, while Sam, via email, takes encouragement from George to campaign for improved working conditions on her campus, and struggles to understand if Elisabeth sees her as a friend or employee. Observations on domestic and social interactions add weight to Sullivan’s inquiry into Elisabeth and Sam’s interior lives, showing where the cracks seep into their friendship. Readers will be captivated by Sullivan’s authentic portrait of modern motherhood.”

A More Perfect Reunion by Calvin Baker

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A More Perfect Reunion: “In this rich, meditative account, novelist Baker (Grace) identifies the current ‘backlash of white bigotry’ following the election of the first African-American president as a moment of national reckoning akin to the Continental Congress, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. In the process of examining why and how those earlier opportunities to ‘escape from the original sin and eternal problem of race’ by fully integrating blacks and other minority groups into American society fell short, Baker offers a wide-ranging and erudite analysis of U.S. history, politics, and culture—from the arrival of the first slave ship at Port Comfort, Va., in 1619 to discriminatory policies built into FDR’s New Deal and an interracial adoption story line on the TV show This Is Us. He critiques identity politics (‘my grievance versus your grievance’) on both the right and the left, and accuses liberals of preserving racist power structures by reaching compromises with white supremacists in order to advance piecemeal progressive reforms. Though Baker doesn’t make the mechanisms for ‘extend[ing] the full social contract’ to African-Americans clear, he paints an incisive picture of the gaps—in wages, education, life expectancy, and criminal justice—that he says need to be closed in order for the promise of democracy to be fulfilled. This powerful call to action resonates.”

Also on shelves: Destination Wedding by Diksha Basu.

Bonus Links from Our Archive:
Loving That Wild Thing: Leigh Stein’s ‘Land of Enchantment’
Arrested Development: Leigh Stein’s ‘The Fallback Plan’

Telling Tales out of School with Jeff Hobbs

It’s early on a Wednesday morning, and Jeff Hobbs, bestselling author and stay-at-home dad, is sitting in the family room of his “old beater” house in Los Angeles, dressed in a gray Oregon Track T-shirt, talking about the art of juggling child-rearing and a writing career.
“I don’t know if Mr. Mom is an offensive term,” Hobbs says via Skype. “I guess it’s archaic, but I kind of am with my kids pretty much all the time.” Most days, he gets up at 4:30 a.m. to write at the family dining table, when, he says, it’s dark and cold and nobody is emailing.
That table is where Hobbs, 40, wrote Show Them You’re Good: A Portrait of Boys in the City of Angels the Year Before College. Out in August from Scribner, it covers about a year in the life of a group of senior boys at two Los Angeles schools as they navigate their social and academic lives and work toward a common goal: getting into college.
“I wanted to write about kids living through their senior year, as they apply to college and deal with that process and its outcomes, and all the nonsense in between,” Hobbs says. As for why he focused on boys: “I felt like the emotional lives of boys are minimized in what’s still a machismo culture.” He takes a beat and adds, “I also thought an adult male probing the emotional lives of teenage girls might not go over well with their parents.”

Hobbs is the author of two previous books: the 2007 novel The Tourists, about a man who seduces both halves of a couple (“I don’t recommend it,” he says of his debut), and the 2014 nonfiction book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League. The latter explores race, class, economic disparity, and maleness—subjects that Hobbs revisits in Show Them You’re Good.
At the heart of Show Them You’re Good are four students, two from Beverly Hills High School and two from Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School (which is in a neighborhood called Florence-Firestone, north of Compton). From Beverly Hills High, there’s Owen, the well-off son of Christopher Lloyd, co-creator of the TV show Modern Family, and Jon, a Chinese Jewish kid whose immigrant mother moved the family to a small apartment in Beverly Hills so that Jon could have access to a good school. From Ánimo Pat Brown, there’s Carlos, a son of undocumented workers who’s trying to secure Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protection, and Tío, an aspiring engineer whose father is an alcoholic. “They’re all super cool,” Hobbs says of the boys, whom he followed from August 2016 to June 2017 and still stays in contact with.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Hobbs says his own high school experience was “pretty unremarkable”—he got good grades, he ran track—and that going back to high school to do research was in no way a return to the glory days. “I just felt old,” he says with a smirk.
Developing a rapport with his young subjects took some time. “I’m an awkward guy, so the first couple of meetings were stilted,” says Hobbs, who has a tendency to pause often when he talks, giving his speech a unique halting rhythm. Pretty soon, though, he was immersed in the teens’ daily dramas.
“I spent a lot of time in their homes, I went to family dinners, and to dances and proms,” Hobbs recalls. “I was running around Los Angeles a lot, and it’s weird to tell your kids that you won’t be home for Friday night dinner because you’re going to a Halloween dance at a high school in South L.A., but, you know, my kids know what I do.”
Hobbs’s kids, now ages six and 10, sometimes joined him on his expeditions. They played while he conducted interviews. “It happened frequently that year,” he says. “It worked out. I think it was nice for the boys to get a glimpse into my life, too.”
Show Them You’re Good shows its quartet of high schoolers striving to get good grades, filling out blizzards of college application and financial aid forms, and dealing with family issues, including a sick parent (Owen) and an unstable living situation (Tío). Readers get to root for them as they forge their futures.
“This is a book that crosses over cultures, class, and race, and that’s at the heart of what Jeff Hobbs is looking to bring to the world,” says Hobbs’s agent, David Black at the David Black Literary Agency.
Colin Harrison, Hobbs’s editor and the v-p and editor-in-chief of Scribner, adds, “Line by line, Jeff is just a lovely writer. He’s careful and slow in the making of prose, and it shows. The guy couldn’t write a bad sentence.”
Nonfiction writing didn’t always interest Hobbs. “I stumbled into it when my friend Rob Peace died,” he says. Peace was Hobbs’s roommate at Yale, and after the two graduated in 2002, Peace returned to his hometown in New Jersey and began selling drugs, which led to his 2011 murder by a drug dealer. Hobbs struggled to make sense of the tragedy and, at the suggestion of his wife, began writing a book about Peace. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace became a bestseller. There are currently 250,000 copies in circulation, across print and e-book formats, according to Scribner, and the book is being adapted into a movie. Hobbs’s wife, Rebecca Hobbs, is a film and TV producer and is producing the film with Training Day director Antoine Fuqua.
“I always felt like this story needed to be told to help people walk in someone else’s shoes,” Rebecca says. “It explores this idea that in order to make it in America you have to leave behind what you came from, and how unacceptable that could be.”
Hobbs remains keenly interested in examining people’s lives and understanding their motives. His next book is about kids in juvenile halls and detention centers. “I’m not good at much, but I’m pretty good at asking questions,” he says. “And I’m really good at listening.”
As a bright morning light filters in through his living room window, Hobbs hears his kids rousing in the next room. It’s time to make breakfast and maybe chat with his daughter about the pet rats she wants to buy. (“I’m skeptical,” he says.) Then it’s a full day of dad duty. And the next morning, before the sun comes up, it’s back to writing.
“Talking to someone that no one has heard of, that isn’t famous, and somehow helping their story become part of a reader’s story—that’s pretty neat,” Hobbs says.
Bonus Link:
Jeff Hobbs in His Own Words

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics’

There’s a reason why Jack Kirby, co-creator of such iconic comics characters as the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, and Captain America, is called the “King of Comics.” One of the great innovators in the history of American comics, Kirby (1917-1994) is arguably the greatest superhero comic book artist of all time.

In the new graphic biography, Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, comics artist and biographer Tom Scioli pays tribute to Kirby in a vividly illustrated and comprehensively researched examination of Kirby’s life and career, from his rough-and-tumble childhood on the Lower East Side of New York to his military service during World War II to the transformative comics he created for Marvel and later for DC.

In this 11-page excerpt, Scioli depicts Kirby’s early life on the Lower East Side and his early interest in becoming a cartoonist and comic book artist.

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics by Tom Scioli will be published in July by Ten Speed Press.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Art Imitates Life: The Millions Interviews Sam Lansky

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

Especially after I finished reading Broken People by Sam Lansky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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