All Stories Are About Change: The Millions Interview Catherine Ryan Howard

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Catherine Ryan Howard’s latest novel Run Time, out now from Blackstone, follows Adele Rafferty, a struggling actor who is ready to abandon her dreams of stardom when she gets a last-minute offer to star in a horror movie called Final Draft. But she soon realizes not everything is as it seems, as life on the film set starts to mirror the terrifying events in the script. A CrimeReads Most Anticipated Book of Summer 2022, Run Time is a high-concept thriller that blurs the boundary between fact and fiction.

Howard is the author of several thrillers, including The Liar’s Girl and The Nothing Man. We talked with Howard, who lives in Dublin, about Run Time, her career trajectory, and how women writers are pushing the thriller genre forward.

The Millions: Let’s start at the very beginning. Prior to writing full-time, you worked as an administrator for a travel company in the Netherlands and a front desk agent at Disneyworld. How did you decide to make the leap and start your career as an author? What did that journey look like?

Catherine Ryan Howard: I always wanted to be an author, ever since I was old enough to figure that authors existed and books didn’t just appear. But although I talked about it a lot, read all the “how to” books obsessively, stalked published authors (ahem), I never actually did any writing— which, it turned out, is a crucial part of getting published. (Who knew?!) So instead I spent much of my 20s having adventures abroad, and ultimately I ended up working in Disneyworld in Florida. When I got back to Ireland in 2008, I wrote a memoir about the experience and self-published it two years later. An article about a Disney cast member (DisneySpeak for employee) disappearing from a Disney cruise ship led me to researching maritime law— which basically makes a cruise ship the perfect place to get away with murder—and in the summer of 2014 I finally finished a draft of what would become my debut thriller, Distress Signals. I drew up a list of agents, followed their submission guidelines to the absolute letter and, finally, one of them took me and my novel on. It was pre-empted in a two-book deal five days after it went out on submission, and two of those days were Saturday and Sunday—so very, very exciting and totally surreal at the time. It sounds straightforward in hindsight, but I wasted a lot of time not writing, primarily because it was nicer to stay in the place where everything I wanted might yet be mine rather than write something, submit it, and find out it was never going to happen. I had to get past that fear, which took a while.

TM: You’re quite prolific: since 2016, you’ve published six novels—that’s a book a year! How do you maintain this kind of literary output? Do you find the writing process gets easier with each successive novel? 

CRH: My last book, 56 Days, which was set during Ireland’s first lockdown, from March to May 2020, was a really interesting experience for me because when it was published in August 2021, everyone was aghast at how quickly I’d written it and how fast my publishers had got it on the shelf. But I wrote it on the same schedule as I wrote all the others. The real-life events in 56 Days just exposed that. Writing is my full-time job. It’s my only job—I’m childfree and making stuff up is what I love doing more than anything else in the world. If it took me longer than a year to write a novel, that would be weird. A few months back I posted on Instagram that I was starting a new book, and someone commented, “You’re already writing another one?! You’re a machine!” But when your spouse gets up on Monday morning to go into work having just done a full day of it on Friday, you don’t say, “You’re going in again? Today? You were just there!” This is my full-time job; I act accordingly.

The process does get easier in some ways, but writing a book is still bloody hard work. I usually start by letting an idea percolate and take shape in my brain, which looks a lot like re-watching things on Netflix and shopping for stationery. Then I superfluously color-code an Excel spreadsheet and use it to plot out the major twists, turns and reveals. Then I start writing, starting slow but speeding up as I go. I almost always write three drafts, and each draft is like a brand-new book—I say I have to write three books for every one. For the first and second drafts I’ll start with a blank document and start typing from scratch but when it comes to the third I’ll go into the existing document and make changes. Then there’s usually a polish after that, draft 3.5. The whole thing takes approximately 12 months from beginning to end, but I do a lot of my percolating while I’m putting the finishing touches like copyedits or checking page proofs, to the previous book.

TM: Your debut novel, Distress Signals, was a bestseller on both sides of the pond. Were you surprised by its immediate success? Did having a bestselling book right out of the gate create any sort of pressure for you as you began writing your next books? 

CRH: It was technically a bestseller but in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it way, and it was a long (long) way down the list. To be honest, the year my debut novel came out was the worst year of my life. I know that sounds very #firstworldproblems, but I’d desperately wanted this thing since I was 8 years old, finally got it at 33, and it looked absolutely nothing like I’d imagined or planned or dreamed about. And that was devastating. Publishing pushes the narrative that debuts make a splash and then it’s all downhill from there. But my last book, 56 Days, was my most successful by far—and it was my fifth. And some exciting things I can’t talk about yet have just happened, right after I submitted my sixth novel. Now, in hindsight, I’m delighted my career has followed the trajectory it has, each book doing a little better than the one before, because I appreciate every success so much more, and I think—hope—that consistent, organic growth is a much better recipe for career longevity than a splashy debut you can’t possibly top. It didn’t feel that way back in 2016, though.

TM: Just days before Distress Signals was published, you were taking the first of your second-year exams at Trinity College Dublin. What was it like publishing your first book while being a student? How did you manage the competing demands? Did being a student prepare you at all for being a bestselling author, or vice versa?

CRH: I was a mature student, which I think you call non-traditional. I was a 32-year-old freshman. I had dropped out of college first time around, and I’d always regretted missing out on the college experience and also feared that there were serious gaps in my reading. In January 2014, I decided I needed something in my life other than waiting for a “yes” from an agent or an editor, so I applied to study English at Trinity College Dublin, renowned for its beautiful library and educating all of Sally Rooney’s characters—and Sally herself. Knowing then that my free time was going to be seriously squeezed, I finally finished my novel a couple of weeks before orientation. Six weeks later I got an agent and six months after that, I got a book deal. I still had three and a half years of the degree to go and, by then, I’d realized that, really, I hadn’t missed out on anything. I didn’t enjoy the vast majority of the books we studied, and I found it really weird that the whole business of publishing seemed to be invisible to everyone. For instance, we spent hours discussing a certain book as if it were some seminal, groundbreaking text when I knew it was merely a series of newspaper columns that some agent or editor had had the bright idea to collect in a book and slap a price-tag on. It wasn’t canon, it was commerce. But no one wanted to acknowledge that. But I’m glad I went because I might never have finished my novel otherwise, and I really benefited from a couple of modules where I got to write under the supervision of established writers who really made an impact on me and how I work, like Ian Sansom and Carlo Gébler. And anyway I couldn’t have broken my dad’s heart twice by dropping out of college again.

As for managing competing demands, it was simple: I never read anything the whole way through and I wrote all my essays in all-night caffeine-induced fever dreams in the hours before they were due. I also had a memorable exam in post-colonial literature where I was so hungover after a few days of book-launching that I almost skipped it, but then downed two espressos, ate an avocado with a spoon and, in the exam, pretended that I was running out of time by making my writing messier and messier until I switched to bullet points because I didn’t have the energy to do any more than that. But I got a 2:1 in that exam and I got my degree so, hey, it worked. (Sorry, TCD!)

TM: Run Time partly takes place on the film set of a horror movie called Final Draft. What led you to set the novel within the world of movies? What kind of research into the process of filmmaking to bring Adele’s experience on set to life?

CRH: My brother John is an actor and he was in a 2016 independent Irish horror movie called Beyond the Woods, which was shot at an old farmhouse in the seclusion of the Irish countryside in the dead of winter. He told me that one of the first things the crew had to do was visit the local police station to warn them that if someone called to say they’d heard screams coming from the woods in the middle of the night, it wasn’t someone getting murdered, it was just them filming. I immediately thought: but what if it was someone getting murdered, and they were just using the movie as a cover? That’s where the idea for Run Time originated.

As for research I relied mostly on John’s experiences in the industry—particularly for the scene at the beginning where Adele, the narrator, auditions for a painkiller commercial—and on another friend of mine, Caroline, who has been an actor and a screenwriter and on sets for a lot of her adult life. I made things easy for myself though because, without spoiling anything, only a small portion of the action is actually a film being made. When it came to the ins and outs of shooting scenes, set-ups, etc., there is literally nothing anyone does for a living that someone hasn’t made a very helpful instructional YouTube video about, it seems.

TM: Many of the Run Time’s most compelling moments of horror unfold as Adele realizes that her life on set has begun to mirror the sinister events portrayed in the script. The fact that the novel revolves around the filmmaking process creates such fertile ground to explore themes like artifice, performance, duplicity, fantasy. How did you want the novel’s setting and theme to complement—or perhaps bristle against—each other?

CRH: I don’t really consider themes when I sit down to write. They tend to organically emerge and evolve over time. With Run Time I realized early on that what I was really writing about in this novel were the dangers of wanting something too much. When I got the phonecall that someone had offered on my debut novel—at 12:59pm on Monday, March 23, 2015, yes I do know the time down to the minute thanks very much—the overriding emotion I felt was relief. I had finally done the thing that I had been trying to do all my adult life. The next thing I felt was absolutely certainty that I never ever wanted to want something that badly ever again—because what happens if you don’t get it? The #LifeCoachesofInstagram would have us believe that it’s just a case of write it down, make it happen, or dream, believe, achieve, but the reality is most people do not get the things they dream of having. So at what point do you give up? How do you turn off the wanting? And what if what you want is a book deal or an acting role, something that could happen at any moment, without warning, changing everything? How do you truly stop wanting that? What if you can’t? And what if the wanting gets in the way of you making good decisions and, you know, living life? That’s the journey Adele, Run Time’s narrator, is on. Obviously there are parallels with my own experience—I’m very, very lucky I got the thing I wanted, because I just can’t imagine how I’d have coped with not getting it. I still don’t know how not to want it. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else but this.

TM: What did the process of writing Run Time look like? In terms of plot and character, how much did you already have planned out before you took to the page?

CRH: For me, plot is character, and vice-versa. I don’t see how you can separate the two. The plot tends to come to me first, and that naturally generates the people the plot will involve. For example, if you decide to write novel about someone stuck in a cave for a week, and then you decide that that person is one of the world’s most experienced cave divers, you’re really going to have dig for the drama. But what if they’re claustrophobic, can’t swim, and have never done anything more risky than mixing drinks? Now you have a story. And if you do it the other way around, if you start with the risk-averse non-swimming claustrophobe, you’ll be asking yourself, what’s the worst thing that could happen to them? What’s the biggest obstacle I could throw in their way on their journey to becoming version 2.0 (which they must do; all stories are about change)? And back into the cave we go.

In terms of planning, I usually plot out the main beats of the story on an Excel spreadsheet, just so I have some goalposts to aim for along the way, and I always know what the “truth” or the big reveal is and I work backwards from there. Writers who plan in advance (plotters) tend to get a bad wrap from those who don’t (pantsers). There’s always an inference that plotting in advance is somehow less creative than those who just sit down and start typing. But we’re all doing the same thing: at some point, we have to figure out what the story is. Some people do that in a first draft, but I do it in a spreadsheet just before I start writing that. There’s no right way to write a book, only the way that works for you.

Run Time was a bit unusual in that the full screenplay for Final Draft, the movie they’re shooting in the novel, is inside the novel itself. I had a lot of fun writing that, especially because in the world of the novel the screenplay is written by someone without a lot of success or experience so that was my get-out-jail-free card if it turned out to be absolute rubbish.

TM: Many readers might associate the thriller/crime genre with male writers like David Baldacci, John Grisham, Dan Brown, Lee Child, James Patterson—the old guard. But women writers have been major players in the genre for decades, as well as pioneers in reimagining what the genre can be. As a woman writing thriller/crime novels, does gender play any role in your work? Are there any tropes employed by male thriller writers that you are looking to reimagine? Are you ever aware of certain expectations being placed on your work because you’re a woman?

CRH: Yes, those names continue to sell well to their established readerships, but the freshest debut among them is from 1998—Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, and that’s only his debut if we discount his co-writing 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman in 1995, which I don’t. Even though 1998 still sounds recent to me it’s actually a quarter of a century ago, so that group is hardly a barometer of the crime/thriller zeitgeist. They don’t tell us where the genre is now or has been recently, and they cannot tell us where it’s going.

The future is most definitely female—and the last couple of decades have already been that. Today’s bestseller lists are dominated by the likes of Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley, both of whom are just getting started, and the most mega-selling titles in the genre in recent memory, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train—which each sold approximately 20 million —have been by women too, namely Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins. Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing has been on the bestseller lists for so long it’s grown roots; it’s a murder-mystery, essentially, so I think we can claim it too.

Then there’s the likes of Lisa Jewell, Tana French, Flynn Berry, Laura Lippman and many, many more, consistently hitting lists, getting TV adaptations, winning prestigious awards and elevating our expectations of the genre with their incredible writing. The most exciting, original and, yes, thrilling crime/thriller novels I’ve read in recent years have all been by women—books like True Story by Kate Reed Petty, Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka, and My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. What male writer is pushing at the boundaries of the genre and playing with its forms and conventions in even half as exciting a way? I can’t think of one.

Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic, women dominate the genre so entirely that a panel of Irish crime/thriller authors is notable if it includes a man and, since its inception in 2009, Crime Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards has been won 11 times by women but only twice by men. To my knowledge the only book to fit firmly in the commercial end of the crime/thriller genre ever to be longlisted for the Booker is British crime writer Belinda Bauer’s Exit, and it was when another female crime-writing star, Val McDermid, was called to the judging panel. As I type this, there are five crime/thriller novels in the Irish top 10 and only one of them is by a man, John Grisham, at number seven. But sitting pretty at number one, having sold double what he did, is Karin Slaughter. And I haven’t even mentioned Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, or Ruth Rendell yet, to name-drop a canonical few. I’d like to retire the claim that men dominate this genre. Because they don’t.

As for expectations, I can only say what I expect from my fellow female crime/thriller writers: authenticity. Men have a very different relationship with fear. For them, it’s a worst-case scenario, an outsized nightmare that almost certainly won’t happen. For us, it’s something we live with on some level all day, every day, and have since we were teenagers. It’s so engrained in our brain stems that we don’t even realize how many everyday decisions we make based on it. We don’t walk lonely paths with our earbuds in. We’re careful with the information we share online. We know to avoid that shortcut home after dark. We pick a quiet carriage on the train, but not the quietest one in case something happens and we need help. We text our friends to let them know we got home okay. Our relationship with fear, therefore, is a much more intimate one. That’s why we have so much so-called domestic noir, where the threat is coming from inside the home, or maybe even from the other side of our bed. Men just don’t experience the world in that way; their fears feel a bit exaggerated to me, unlikely to actually effect the average person. And, increasingly, female writers can be relied upon to foreground the victim’s experience, even in novels that are ostensibly about serial killers, Notes on an Execution and These Women by Ivy Pochoda being great examples. I suppose, as a female crime/thriller writer, that’s always on my mind: that even when you have a male killer and might even include chapters from his POV, these are ultimately his victims’ stories, the women’s stories. They should be told accordingly.

Regimented Bodies: The Millions Interviews Barbara Bourland

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Barbara Bourland’s riveting new novel, The Force of Such Beauty, opens with the breathless escape attempt of a modern-day princess named Caroline as she endeavors to leave her marble prison once and for all. In the pages that follow, Bourland traces the path that plunged Caroline into such visceral desperation, revealing how swiftly “happily ever after” can morph into a cage. What unfurls is a darkly relevant depiction of the ways in which societal power structures hinge upon the subjugation of the female body. Caroline’s story submerges the reader in the depths of contemporary royal womanhood and only allows you to surface in those final pages as the tension builds relentlessly to a shocking conclusion. (Reader, I gasped out loud—let’s just say you’ll never look at a tiara the same way again.) I spoke with Bourland over Zoom about the princess trap, the inescapable pervasion of the monarchy, and fiction as catharsis. 
Abigail Oswald: In your author’s note you mention drawing from stories about Charlene Wittstock, who allegedly tried to escape on two different occasions before her wedding to Prince Albert of Monaco. You also touch on various miseries in the royal lives of Diana Spencer, Meghan Markle, and Kate Middleton. Was there a particular aspect of these women’s stories that led you to the character of Caroline?
Barbara Bourland: Well, they’re all modern women, like you and I. Millennial women in the United States, 40% of us got to go to college—like, the horse has left the barn. We lead what the Victorians would call a public life. It’s really interesting how Kate Middleton went to a great school, St. Andrews; Meghan Markle went to Northwestern. 
Charlene Wittstock is obviously an inspiration to the book because of her role as an athlete and then a princess. I found that to be such a particular kind of tragedy, because I think of Olympic athletes as the pinnacle of physical independence. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that maybe that’s not necessarily true, because of how much they have to do to stay at the top. I know some things about Charlene, but there’s a lot that I don’t know about her, because she’s a real person, so I wasn’t going to try to pretend that I knew about what her interior life was like. 
All of these women, their lives—it’s fascinating how pervasive the princess trap is, it’s such a Faustian bargain. And particularly when we look at Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton, who are so well educated, you’d think, Gosh, didn’t they know? And they didn’t know. And I was really curious about why they didn’t know.

AO: Each of your novels often revolve around a central issue or question that women face. In I’ll Eat When I’m Dead, you write about the compulsion to control our appearance, and in Fake Like Me, you explore the fear of being inadequate; The Force of Such Beauty deals with the idea of what it means to be special. Caroline’s desire for specialness is used by people in power to manipulate her; at other times, she uses it herself to excuse bad behavior. Why did you want to approach this particular theme with this book, and how does it fit into your larger body of work?
BB: Yeah, I mean, you know—it’s capitalism! We live in a really complicated economy and a really complicated society, in which none of us can escape that endless pursuit of feeling distinguished as an individual. It’s the opposite of looking at a society and trying to figure out what is best for everybody, because you’re always put in a position of having to do for yourself first. And that’s a really suspect interior instinct. 
All of my books deal with these same kind of suspect interior instincts, because people of our generation are in this fissure where we’ve had all of these advantages that for thousands of years no woman had, and we’re starting to see them. We’re starting to experience them and to understand what it is to have the things that historically men had for so long, and stuff that was kept from us. So we can have whatever kind of public discourse about “You can be whatever you want to be, you can have whatever you want,” but at the end of the day, we were born into this world. We didn’t build it, we just live here. And we are going to be influenced by all of the things that came before us, and there’s princess stuff in the atmosphere. In all of my books I’ve been really curious about trying to use fiction as a catharsis to dig these things out of myself that don’t feel like choices, and the princess stuff doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels like I was born knowing it. 
AO: Caroline drops out of school to pursue her career as an Olympic marathon runner. Much of her identity seems to be tied up in her athletic achievements, even after a devastating injury ends her career and requires reconstructive surgery. How do the threads of Caroline’s unfinished education and her athletic background coalesce to make her the princess she later becomes?
BB: Princesses in public life have very regimented bodies. And this is true not only for royal women, but also for celebrities. When you look at celebrities’ bodies, they have the bodies of elite athletes. They have bodies that take hours and hours each and every day to create, not just with exercise, but controlling your diet, cosmetic surgery—whatever it is, it’s a lot of work to look that way. With Caroline coming from an athletic background, we get to investigate how it actually feels to do that. When I hear contemporary cultural discourse about the state of public women’s bodies, and the amount of work it takes to look the way, say, Natalie Portman looks, it’s usually really misogynistic and really unkind. And whether you’re going for an Olympic gold medal or you’re trying to have a career as an actor, the actual physical experience of being that athletic is the same thing. I really wanted to be able to see the transformation of Caroline’s body into this object on a pedestal from a perspective that would help the reader feel empathy instead of judgment. 
The thing that turns Caroline into a princess is the thing that turns every woman who has no power outside of the home into a princess, and that is a lack of education. Without education, we are doomed to have the same lives that women have had for thousands of years, which is that we have no choice but to stay at home, to have children. Princess stories are so much about potential. The whole glow of happily ever after, the whole thrill of it, is leading right up to the day that you’re married. Everything that’s attractive about a princess is about her fertility, or the potential of her fertility. And then when that ends and women are mothers, there’s no fairy tales about mothers—there’s no stories about that. Mothers kind of cease to exist—they cease to be reproductive potential for the state, so they cease to matter. But we do. We’re here. We are living, breathing beings. We have full lives. 
AO: How does Caroline’s story—the control that’s exerted onto her, her relegation to reproductive resource—map onto the current moment of women’s rights in America?
BB: I’m completely devastated that this exists as a post-Roe object, as a post-Roe piece of culture. I’ve been sitting here stunned. Obviously there is a huge part of America that does not want women to have reproductive freedom, and the sense of that part of America breathing down my neck and infiltrating my dreams and sense of self is part of why I wrote this book in the first place. That didn’t have to come in a post-Roe world, obviously—it was in a pre-Roe world where even things like contraception always made me feel like I was on a leash. It’s really hard not to feel like you are just always on a leash, like you can be anything you want as long as you’re still a wife and a mother, as long as you do it right now and as long as you never stop. That feeling was what drove me to write this book. 
I recently wrote a piece for Ms. Magazine about the way in which the monarchy infiltrates our daily lives in the form of the family; I think these things are a pervasive part of our lives. We do have the inherent right to control our reproductive futures, but the law has changed, and that is bad. I think what we can learn from this is that laws can be changed, and we just have to keep fighting. The forces that want to keep us at home and keep us in the kitchen will not stop, and we can’t stop, either, and if we get this sense that we are supposed to stay at home, that we are supposed to walk two steps behind men, we gotta get it out of ourselves. I hope desperately that every woman who reads this book for the rest of their life will feel, when they see a princess thing, instead of feeling “Ooh, sparkly,” you know, they’ll feel “Gosh, princess stories are narratives of state control over women’s bodies.” 
AO: How did you go about writing the character of Finn, our ostensible Prince Charming, and crafting that complex relationship? He’s kind of a love interest-slash-villain, isn’t he? 
BB: Oh yeah, because he’s a collaborator, right? He has no independence from this process. But the classic love story of “Baby, I’m gonna take care of you” is also an argument for authoritarian government, and that is the tenor of their early romance, which she can’t see because she doesn’t have, like, a master’s degree in political science—she’s not gonna be like, “These are troubling things to say.” But he’s also smart and lovely, I think he’s very appealing and has a lot to recommend him as a charming person.
The really age-old stereotype of a “big, strong man” is so fascinating to me, because masculinity is its own prison that takes away the humanity of men as well. Obviously I’ve been talking a lot about how it feels to be a woman, a cisgender woman, but I think masculinity has its own challenges, and that is what Finn is in—he’s stuck participating in this government and participating in this life. If Prince William walked out the door tomorrow and was like, “You know what? Monarchies are bad. Let’s take this all apart,” they would force him to abdicate, and someone else would take his place. It wouldn’t matter that he spoke out—he would be shunned and ostracized, obviously, in the way that his brother has been. I don’t think Prince William has freedom from that—the institution is bigger than the person. And that’s true of Finn as well in this book, and I think it’s very heartbreaking… Institutions put us into tragic situations. The question is, how do we find freedom from being in that place to begin with?

The William Trevor Reader: “Mrs. Acland’s Ghosts”

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I’ve mentioned before that one of the pleasures of a project like this is the way certain types of story begin to recur and constitute subgenres of the author’s output, categories of which the author may or may not have even been aware. As we approach the midway point of the Collected, several Trevorian modes begin to repeat, some rather insistently. For instance, and very generally, there are a large clutch of stories inspired by travel that take place on the continent. There have also been more than a handful of “Person Losing Their Shit at a Party” stories, about which I’ve written fairly extensively.

“Mrs. Acland’s Ghosts” represents another strain of Trevor story, namely a kind of Irish Gothic, also represented by the likes of “Miss Smith,” “The Hotel of the Idle Moon,” and “In at the Birth.” These stories, and a few others like them in the collection, more surely soon to come, have much in common with their compatriots in the Collected, but with aspects that nod toward the tradition of gothic horror. In the case of “Mrs. Acland’s Ghosts” the gothic element is to be found in the mode of storytelling itself. The bulk of the story is a letter written by a Mrs. Acland, a woman institutionalized by her husband for seeing ghosts, to a Mr. Mockler, a 63-year-old tailor who has apparently been chosen randomly as a recipient. The framed epistolary form is, of course, familiar from novels like DraculaFrankenstein, and, particularly, The Turn of the Screw, which frames the governess’s eerie tale several layers deep. There is something inherently unsettling about this form of narrative—I don’t just mean a character receiving a strange letter, which, of course, nests one person’s story into someone else’s. There is a way that the story at hand, and its significance, feels somehow attenuated by the reader-character/narrator’s presence just outside the frame. The story makes this diminishment explicit at the end, seeing as Mr. Mockler muses about the sadness of Mrs. Acland’s ghosts—her imagination, in other words—not being honored.

It occurs to me, writing this, that even in the non-gothic/horror stories, there is often a related atmosphere to be found in the Collected. Needless to say, few stories in the Trevor canon (and, really, few in the canon of great short stories) are cheerful or sunny. The general weather and mood of these piece is one of oppression: darkness, clouds, rain, damp; the average Trevor protagonist or narrator is likewise oppressed by the immutable facts of their life. There is also, as noted previously, a taste for the macabre or grotesque character that evokes O’Connor and early Ian McEwan. Beyond these specific genre markers, however, I think there’s a specific quality of irrevocability in the gothic that speaks to Trevor’s worldview.

“Mrs. Acland’s Ghosts” offers an extreme example of this aspect. As the sinisterly named Dr. Friendman informs Mr. Mockler “All her childhood, Mr. Mockler, her parents did not speak to one another… In the house there was nothing, Mr. Mockler, for all her childhood years: nothing except silence.”  That summary description of the isolation and silence Mrs. Acland endured in her childhood is not a human span—it is a span of Stokerian, Poeian terror. And the terror exists not only in the duration of that traumatizing silence, during which she dreamed up the ghosts that keep her company, but in the almost mythic quality of its absoluteness. Trevor’s characters so often, in some fundamental way, are born into and live most comfortably in darkness. The pure depth of isolation and misery depicted in many of these stories feels similar to the fairy tale and myth from which the gothic derives much of its energy.

Culture Shock: Reassessing the Workshop

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I had been living in Japan for 20 years when I moved back home to the United States in 2011. Upon my return, I decided that I would finally focus my energies on creative writing. But where to begin? The more I consulted friends and colleagues, the more I heard the same thing, over and over

“Whatever you do, don’t get an MFA.”

I received this advice from published authors and, even more frequently, from MFA-holders themselves. My understanding of MFA programs was limited—I’d heard of the prestigious “Iowa Workshop” but was otherwise completely unaware that MFA programs in the U.S. had exploded in popularity over the past two decades.

In Japan, there is no such thing as an MFA. People who want to be writers study things like literature and journalism. My own undergraduate background was in philosophy from Berkeley, and I later got an MA in Japanese literature and linguistics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In grad school, we read voluminously, wrote translations, and did literary analysis. After graduating, I worked as a translator in the fields of business, government, and academia. It was around this time that I had what was probably the best creative-writing “craft” experience of my life: I was hired to translate a novel from Japanese to English.

More than once I’ve been told by successful writers that if I wanted to become a writer, I should copy out by hand my favorite novel. “You have to write out the entire thing,” one of them told me. “You can’t imagine how illuminating it can be.” I’ve never done this exercise myself, but I believe that I’ve experienced its intended effect doing literary translations. Translating a novel was a formative experience for me as a writer because I learned that writing is like any other art: while talent can’t be taught, technique can be learned. So, how exactly does one learn technique? I decided to take creative writing classes, earning my Certificate in Creative Writing from UCLA Extension and attending classes through Stanford Continuing Education’s program, as well as a handful of other writing centers. It was then that I experienced the creative writing workshop for myself.

So, what is a workshop?

It is, first and foremost, an American invention. The basic idea is that a group of writers, sometimes called a cohort, submits a set number of pages to the group—usually students submit in small groups or singly. The cohort then provides structured feedback concerning strong and weak points in the writing with suggestions for development and revision. During this time the authors are under “a cone of silence,” a kind of gag order. Authors are not allowed to speak during their own workshops until the end, at which point they can thank their cohort and perhaps provide clarification or ask a question or two.

In his 2021 book Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, Matthew Salesses argues that, at base, workshops should enable writers to articulate their artistic visions. I remember when I started working on my certificate at UCLA Extension, a friend in one of my first classes told me that the best outcome I could hope for was that “the classes will help you understand what you like.” I was skeptical. Is that all? But as I continued to study, I came to agree with my friend. It is valuable to be able hammer out one’s own artistic vision through conversation with other people. For this reason, giving feedback is usually more valuable than receiving it, which is also something most writing teachers will tell you.

But Craft in the Real World also vigorously critiques the American MFA program and the workshop model in general. (Salesses was just appointed assistant professor of writing at Columbia University’s MFA program.) Salesses wonders: if only one type of writing is held up as “good” and the programs remain highly insular, how can an artist articulate a unique vision? He writes:
If you have been taught to write fiction in America, it is a good bet that you have been taught a style popularized by Ernest Hemingway and later by Raymond Carver, sometimes described as ‘invisible,’ that is committed to limiting the use of modifiers and metaphors, to the concrete over the abstract, to individual agency and action, and to avoiding overt politics (other than the politics of white masculinity). Instead of a political argument, a character might angrily eat a potato.
Ironically, the workshop’s roots are overtly political. It was by reading two books—Anis Shivani’s Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies and Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War—that I learned about how the U.S. government, via the CIA, interfered in the creation of the Iowa Workshop, and how this interference continues to inform the multitude of writing programs we have today. From 1941 to 1964, Iowa Writers’ Workshop director Paul Engle fundraised for the program by using explicitly anticommunist rhetoric, promising to promote American values through the teaching of creative writing. Among the program’s donors were the Rockefeller Foundation, State Department, the Fairfield Foundation, and the Asia Foundation, the latter two of which were CIA front groups.

And so the Iowa Workshop became a form of soft power to push back against Soviet collectivist ideas. As a result, writes Bennett, the Workshop was mandated to promote stories centered around the private life of the individual. Literature was to highlight “sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies. Anything to ensure collectivist movements would not form.”

Elif Batuman, in a 2010 essay in the London Review of Books called “Get a Real Degree,” argues that these rules have become so embedded in creative writing shops that today they are not questioned. Sometimes called psychological realism, the basic canon encourages a kind of writing style that is based on strong individualism, an encapsulated self out in the world. And in fiction, as well as a lot of nonfiction, the name of the game is something we call “conflict.”

You will often hear in workshops that conflict is the fuel that drives all story. We are taught to begin in-scene—and then, teachers tell you, “stay in scene”—and to begin as close to the central point of conflict as possible. From here the story moves toward its resolution. Along the way, there must be plenty of “character development.” One of my fiction teachers told me that this focus on character arcs is almost an obsession in American literary fiction.

Americans read far fewer books in translation than readers in places like Japan, Poland, France, or Spain, and the workshop is even more insular than the general reading population. My biggest complaint about my workshops, shared by many of my cohorts, is that we read the same books and stories over and over again. There is a case to be made that this insularity and practice of narrow reading has helped create a canon of bland and cookie-cutter books.

2.

Throughout Craft in the Real World, Salesses questions the extreme whiteness of creative writing programs. (Tongue and cheek, Batuman, in her London Review of Books essay, places “writing classes” at #14 on a list of “stuff white people like.”) Speaking anecdotally, my writing classes and workshops have overwhelmingly been taught by white female instructors. Taught by faculty that is so homogenous—racially, linguistically (teachers have been primarily monoglots with no experience reading globally in other languages), and in gender—the classes present a narrow and skewed system of aesthetic values.

In her 2017 book The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, Gish Jen unpacks the way differing underlying concepts of self inform the various storytelling traditions around the world. Throughout her career as a writer, Jen has made a case for fiction that combines both Eastern and Western craft. In the West, she says, this concept is something she calls the “big pit self,”
a self unlike any other in the world, assertive and full of self-esteem, and yet anxiously protective of its self-image and obsessed with self-definition. Why is it, exactly, that Americans must have fifty flavors of ice cream when other cultures are happy with ten? Why do we talk about ourselves so much? Why are we consumed with the memoir? Why is personal growth so important? Does self-esteem come at a price? And why do we see work the way we do, and how did we get this way?
In contrast to the “pit self,” Jen explores a notion of self that is far more prevalent outside the Western world, the interdependent “flexi-self” associated with collectivistic societies. In this case, the boundary between self and world is “nowhere near so absolute. It is, rather, porous and fluid—a dotted line.” It would only be natural that this latter sense of self would inform the writing traditions of those countries. And so, the American workshop can be encouraging or stifling depending on one’s background. Because, as Salesses argues, the workshop is all about societal expectation. Being so firmly founded in cultural norms and ideology, it will not promote artistic rule-breakers or genre-defilers.

3.

After 20 years in Japan, where for the last decade I thought, dreamt, and read mainly in Japanese, my thinking and writing now reflects Japanese storytelling styles. I prefer more meditative writing with constant pivots and turns. I love surprises, and prefer the lyric over the concrete, the “nobility of failure” over the hero’s journey. And more than anything, I love books that refer to other books.

Salesses, who was born in Korea, reminds us that not all traditions favor conflict, or character-driven models, like the hero’s journey. He cites Chinese, Korean, and Japanese stories, which “developed from a four-act, rather than a three- or five-act structure: in Japanese it is called kishōtenketsu (ki: introduction; sho: development; ten: twist; ketsu: reconciliation).” The kishōtenketsu structure informs fiction, nonfiction, theater, and even the movements of the tea ceremony. It is a profoundly different aesthetic system from the Western model, with its primary focus on conflict. Perhaps the most common critique I hear from Western readers about Japanese fiction is that nothing ever seems to happen.

Last year, I reviewed Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban Futures for the Asian Review of Books. Multispecies Cities is a collection of climate fiction set primarily in the Asia-Pacific, that seeks to imagine what cities might look like in a future of multi-species co-existence and green justice. The stories are filled with a polyphony of voices—some non-human and a few non-alive—working together to bring about solutions that address global warming, the extinction of animal species and the coming climate disaster. The stories in Multispecies Cities call on us to change not just what we write about, but how we write. The stories themselves question progress-based narratives and stories of the individual, or the lone hero. At first, Western readers might even feel disoriented by these stories of cooperation and immersion in the environment, where rivers speak and stars can be heard. You might need to re-read some of them to assess what is going on when no-one wins or loses, overcomes or fails—because at first glance nothing seems to change.

Salesses laments that we have come to teach plot as a string of causation in which the protagonist’s desires move the action forward. He says:
Western fiction can often be boiled down to A wants B and C gets in the way of it. This kind of story shape is inherently conflict-based, perhaps also inherently male (as author Jane Alison puts it: “Something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?”). In East Asian fiction, the twist (ten) is not confrontation but surprise, something that reconfigures what its audience thinks the story is ‘about.’
In workshop, “Nothing happens” is always meant as a criticism, an inherently bad thing. This can be stifling for a writer who doesn’t read for urgency or conflict in everything.

5.

I have spent roughly half my life in Japan and half in America. For so long, I had two languages switching back and forth in my mind, one for America, one for Japan. There were different clothes, ways of speaking, foods to eat, body languages, and styles of friendships. It has been an enormous adjustment to permanently return to America in mid-life. I have had to relearn and get reacclimated to a lot. But I never would have expected that reading and writing would be the most challenging adjustments so far. I had not realized how insular American publishing is, how few books that might broaden Western tastes are actually translated for the American market, and how translations are almost completely ignored in creative writing classes. And how students are made to read and re-read the same books over and over again.

And so, I find myself in a quandary. It is not that I think we should scrap existing syllabi, but rather that we must make room for other storytelling traditions in these programs. And this must start with reading. As Matthew Salesses repeats again and again in his book: what is being taught as universal rules of good writing in these programs is nothing more than a highly narrow understanding of literary taste.

I wonder how we can ever change the world if we don’t first change our dominant mode of storytelling, with its intense and politically-motivated focus on individual experience and conflict? The future of creative writing programs should be radically inclusive, allowing not just for a multiplicity of voices but of a wide variety of traditions. There is room on the syllabus for wider reading that pushes back against the established rules of the workshop—literature in translation, for instance—that would infuse new ways of thinking, fresh forms, and more creativity into a cookie-cutter literary landscape.

As I look toward my own studies, I feel ambivalent. As someone who, as a reader, tends toward more international styles of storytelling, I have never been a huge fan of writing that is scene-driven, nor have I ever been all that interested in the hero’s journey—much preferring Borges and Calvino to Carver or Hemingway. Before I do anything else, I think I need to make my own rules. There is value in the workshop. My writing courses have challenged me to think about how and why people read, to engage with the purpose of the art. I am convinced that people read not just to be entertained, but to be enchanted. There are many roads to that place of enchantment, some less traveled. But in the end, that is a road that I will have to discover for myself.

Laughter Is the Truth: The Millions Interviews Nora Zelevansky

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Nora Zelevansky’s latest novel, Competitive Grieving, out in paperback from Blackstone on TK, follows Wren, who is reeling after the sudden death of her best friend Stewart. Daunted by the intensity of her grief, she does whatever she can to avoid facing reality—namely, dreaming up the perfect funeral plans for everyone she meets. But when she is tasked with taking care of Stewart’s estate, she can no longer hide from her loss as she reflects on—and discovers new things about—Stewart’s life.

Zelevansky is also the author of the novels Will You Won’t You Want Me? and Semi-Charmed Life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, Elle, and elsewhere. We caught up with her to talk about parenthood, self-help, artmaking, and the personal story behind Competitive Grieving.

The Millions: The impetus for writing Competitive Grieving was very personal for you. Can you talk a bit about that?

Nora Zelevansky: In 2017, a year that was tumultuous for many of us, one of my best friends from childhood died, a friend who I considered like a kindred soul. (That’s not usually how I express myself, but, in this case, it felt true.) He was charismatic and gifted at everything and had experienced a moment of notoriety as a musician, so many people felt close to him. In the aftermath of losing him, I watched (and, okay, sometimes participated) as people behaved not at their best, clawing for a kind of recognition of their significance to him. Of course, the only person who could really confirm or deny any of it was him—and he was gone. I became fascinated by the whole phenomenon and, one day, announced to another mutual best friend that I was going to write a book called, Competitive Grieving. For maybe two minutes, I was kidding. And then I realized I wasn’t.

TM: The novel’s protagonist, Wren, feels so fully fleshed out. Did you find you were infusing any parts of yourself into her character as you wrote her? Did she come to you fully formed or did you discover her as you wrote?

NZ: Thank you! I guess, as a writer, you always infuse some elements of your own worldview into your characters, unless they’re so drastically different from you that you’re envisioning your opposite. I tend to give them exaggerated versions of my flaws (at least, I hope they’re exaggerated). Wren’s habit of planning strangers’ funerals does mirror a habit I have of imagining strangers’ love stories and my own funeral, actually, but I don’t struggle with the same issues as she does in relationships. Maybe, in some ways, all of my characters are Sliding Doors versions of me. I never write with an outline though, so she definitely wasn’t fully fleshed out at the outset and came to fruition as I went along—and was even more fleshed out after my many, many edits.

TM: Though its subject matter is serious, and it certainly strikes darker chords throughout, Competitive Grieving is at its core a comedy, as well as a love story. How were you able to balance the novel’s shifting moods and genres, tackling grave issues while maintaining a sense of levity?

NZ: For me, humor is a gigantic coping mechanism. The most important one, maybe. Especially in dark times (the last few years in the world, for example), I need those moments of levity to keep me afloat. And I like to read that way too, especially lately. I need bursts of light to balance out the dark, an edge of hope to keep me going. So, it was natural for me to approach the idea of grieving with comedy. I find those moments—when you’re reminiscing with friends about someone you lost, for example, and all burst out laughing about some flaw that he had—to be the most authentic and cathartic. Laughter is the truth.

TM: In addition to being a moving story, Competitive Grieving contains a lot of insights that readers can apply to their own lives as they grief. How do you feel fiction might be able to help us lead better lives in a way that is unique from, say, self-help literature?

NZ: I’m not a reader of self-help, though I’ve spent many years covering wellness and editing wellness content. I think it’s totally possible to find solutions via those types of books, but nothing is one-size-fits-all. Sometimes, assuming that there’s one surefire solution can put pressure on us to fix ourselves and make us feel like we’ve failed if it doesn’t help. Stories, on the other hand, contain multitudes. Whether fiction or memoir, to be able to read about someone else’s experience and perhaps relate or commiserate is invaluable. To be able to laugh and cry at someone else’s journey, with someone else, when perhaps you’re working through your own personal issues, is cathartic. Of course, fiction has the added benefit of wish fulfillment, if the author so chooses. In grieving through make-believe, everything can wind up okay in the end.

TM: Since the start of the pandemic, the experience of grief has become ubiquitous, whether people are mourning the loss of loved ones or mourning the loss of milestones or mourning the life they thought they might have. Although you wrote the book before the pandemic, this is the world that Competitive Grieving was published into in 2021. How did you find that shaped readers’ reception to the book? Were you at all surprised by the newfound resonance it took on given how the world had changed?

NZ: Were it not for the 2020 election, which created a kind of publishing blackout except in specific sectors, Competitive Grieving would have been published that fall. I’ll be honest: I was initially bummed about having to wait so long to see it all come to fruition. But it turned out to be the most amazing blessing. The book came out when the world actually needed these kinds of stories, and it became a small part of what I see as an incredibly important conversation about grief. One silver lining to the pandemic’s horrible toll has been a new kind of openness about loss, a dispensing with taboo, and I am so honored to be part of that discussion on any level. One of the greatest rewards of this book has been having people reach out to me to share their own competitive grieving stories. It’s something I never anticipated and has meant a ton to me.

TM: Last year, you wrote an essay about the challenges of grieving while being a parent. In it, you talk about how you found sharing stories about loved ones with your children as a way to communicate your grief. Sharing stories is, of course, what writers do. Did becoming a parent at all change you as a writer or impact your writing? Did it shape Competitive Grieving at all? 

NZ: Becoming a parent definitely changed my writing routine, I’ll say that. I used to think I needed some kind of immaculate setting in which to write—only first thing in the morning, only with the right cup of tea, only before anyone spoke to me, only when the moon was in Sagittarius and waning (just kidding—I don’t even know if that’s a thing). But, when that became an impossibility, I changed my tune. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention (no pun intended). Before I had children, I remember stressing aloud to my father, who is a visual artist, about having time to write once I became a mother. He said, “You can’t believe how much you can get done in a short amount of time until you have kids.”

TM: Two of the epigraphs that preface Competitive Grieving are attributed to Groucho Marx and Katherine Hepburn—so it’s no surprise that in college you majored in film and visual art. How do you find your knowledge of film and visual art shape your work as a novelist?

NZ: Both mediums are so inextricably linked to my being at this point. I grew up on the Upper West Side with a visual artist father and contemporary curator mother. I spent my early childhood running around performance art events in Soho when it was still a dilapidated pit (which is to say, there was not yet a J. Crew), and wandering MoMA’s galleries alone while the museum was closed to visitors. My parents’ friends were all freaky but serious artists and writers. And my older sister was born obsessed with performance and currently runs a theater incubator called The Mercury Store. So discussions around this kind of creative work—and even having “important work”—were the entire backdrop of my childhood.

As for film, I worked as a development exec in LA before I became a writer and married a filmmaker-cum-graphic novelist. Even my in-laws are documentarians! So, my intense exposure to all of this art (high-low and in so many forms) no doubt shapes everything I do from the ground up. Honestly, the really crazy thing would have been if I became an accountant or corporate lawyer. That would have been more lucrative, in retrospect.

TM: You wrote two novels prior to Competitive Grieving, Will You Won’t You Want Me? and Semi-Charmed Life. How did the experience of writing Competitive Grieving compare to your previous novels?

NZ: The year I started writing Competitive Grieving was so overwhelming. Trump had just taken office, I was pregnant with my second child, I had a toddler, my best friend died, my uncle died, I had a big birthday (don’t worry about it!). That’s all to say that I have little to no memory of writing this book. Maybe it’s because it was so linked to my mourning process too. I wrote my first novel during National Novel Writing Month and, for me, the best process is still always to dump a first draft quickly, so I can go back in and get to the nitty-gritty. I do know that, because of the circumstances of having a newborn and a toddler, I wrote this one in small chunks—even writing an entire chapter on my phone in the car on a road trip while the kids slept.

TM: Do you have any recommended reading for those working through grief right now? 

NZ: I think different people probably need different things, and at different points in the process. I do think there’s such thing as too soon. When feelings are so raw at the beginning, I imagine most of us need to hide in distraction and escape—anything but thinking about the actual loss. But, whenever one is ready, some of my person favorite books about loss are This Is Where I Leave YouBeach ReadThe Year of Magical ThinkingA Man Called OveThe Great Believers, and, most recently, Crying in H Mart. The J.D. Salinger short story “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” is maybe my favorite of all time. Again, for me, a mix of humor, pathos and raw honesty is the pinnacle.

Alive and Fighting: The Millions Interviews Edgar Gomez

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Edgar Gomez is a Florida-born writer with roots in Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. Their debut book, High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir, has received universal praise—and let me add my voice to this choir of accolades. Rich in detail, intelligence, and emotion, High-Risk Homosexual is a literary joy and a vital addition to coming-of-age memoirs. Gomez does not shy away from the difficult truths of growing up Latinx and gay in a world that is too often cruel and unaccepting. But with grace and humor, they have served up a remarkable, inspiring, and poignant book that belongs in every library and on every high school and college reading list.

Gomez graduated from the University of California, Riverside’s MFA program, and their words have appeared in many publications including Poets & Writers, Narratively, Catapult, Lit Hub, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Plus Magazine, and elsewhere online and in print. I spoke with them about the possibilities of memoir, the utility of labels, and High-Risk Homosexual.

DANIEL A. OLIVAS: High-Risk Homosexual is your first book. How did you decide to introduce yourself to the literary world with a memoir rather than a novel or short-story collection?

EDGAR GOMEZ: When I first started writing as a kid, I was all about fiction. I’d sit down and start inventing things and for some reason I didn’t understand, up through college, that pretty much all of my characters were straight, white, usually rich people. This wasn’t intentional. It just never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be. Those were the kinds of people that were written about in the books I grew up with and so those were the kinds of people I wrote about. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was writing in the tradition of queer and other marginalized folks throughout history who weren’t able to speak openly about their lives and so used other, more “palatable” characters to tell the stories they wanted to tell. 

It wasn’t until I started taking classes in college with professors who asked me to write nonfiction that my stories—for obvious reasons—began to have people who looked and spoke like me, came from the same places. In retrospect, even when I was writing for fun and wasn’t thinking about being a Writer with a capital W, I didn’t believe someone like me could be the main character. Even then I’d internalized the demands of a publishing industry that is often racist/homophobic/et cetera and puts certain voices on a pedestal and accuses others of not being “marketable,” which we know isn’t true. Those demands are still there in nonfiction, but there’s something nice about not being able to change the facts of my life. Even if I wanted to be more marketable, there’s a limit to what I can do to make that happen. I love being limited in that way, because I sometimes worry that if I wrote fiction I’d go back to being that student who was afraid to center themselves. 

DAO: Writing is hard, lonely work, though for many, including me, it can be incredibly fun and exhilarating especially when readers start to react to your efforts. How would you describe your process of writing your memoir including the difficulties as well as joys in writing it?

EG: At this point in my life, I’ve probably had over 60 jobs, from selling bootlegs CDs at the flea market as a kid, to cocktail serving at a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen. And to be honest, writing might be the easiest job I’ve ever had. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard, but I’m constantly grateful that I get to do work where my creativity is valued and I’m not breaking my back, though writing does require you to hunch over for hours. 

My process is straightforward. The majority of the time, I already have one big memory that I know I want to write about. I may not know what the story is, but I know there is a story hidden in there somewhere. I open a word doc or the notes app on my phone, vomit out as many details I can remember about that memory, and after about a month of doing that, I have what amounts to a bunch of puzzle pieces. I use those to figure out what picture to make. That’s the hardest part, because there’s so many different directions that you can go, and also because I want to make sure that the picture is interesting and useful to other people, not just me. There’s no guaranteeing that it’ll happen, but when someone does tell me my story helped them, it feels like magic every single time. 

DAO: Labels play a key role in your memoir: Latino/a or Latinx. Gay or straight. High-risk or low-risk. In your view, what are the dangers of labels? Can labels play a positive role in life?

EG: I don’t believe labels are always the worst thing. I want to know what kind of milk I’m buying. I want to know if I’m going to a gay bar and if it’ll be Latin night and they’ll be playing salsa or reggaeton. It’s when we apply strict, fixed labels like that to human beings, who at our best are always growing and adapting, that things get trickier. I’m a Pisces (does this count as another label?)—I’m always changing my mind. 

The most off-putting thing to me about labels isn’t the labels themselves, but who is doing the labeling, because they’re often used to continue harmful agendas. “High-risk homosexual,” for one, is not something I would have called myself when I applied to be on Truvada, a once-a-day pill that reduces your risk of contracting HIV, but the medical system in the U.S. did. I see a direct link from that label to the misconception that only queer people contract HIV, which leads to violence against the LGBTQ+ community as well as to members of the heterosexual community who think HIV is just a gay disease. Like everything else, labels can be good in moderation. And let people decide who we are for ourselves. 

DAO: In your acknowledgements, you thank many loved ones and mentors. But you also say that you “want to hold space for the queer people who lost their lives at Pulse. I will think of you and thank you my entire life.” You then offer “rest in peace” before listing them by name, the vast majority of whom were Latinx. It is a very moving manner to conclude your debut book. Could you talk about why you’re grateful, and what such a loss tells us about our society?

EG: The shooting at Pulse was more than a headline for me. The people who died were people I danced with on Saturday nights, who bought me drinks, who stood next to me at drag shows and cracked jokes with me in line for the bathroom and offered me community when I was at my most lost. They were people who, at a time when the world tried to convince me that being who I was would only lead to pain and suffering, showed me joy. 

Losing them is another reminder that this world has a lot of healing to do. The shooter was someone who had a lot of internalized hate, racism, and homophobia ingrained in him. I think of the lives he took whenever I feel like my work on this earth is done, and whenever people outside my community claim there is no danger to our human rights. Remembering them makes me acutely aware of how lucky I am to be alive and fighting.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2022

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We spend plenty of time here at The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook
6 months

2.
6.

Refuse to Be Done
4 months

3.
5.

How High We Go in the Dark
4 months

4.
7.

Either/Or

2 months

5.
8.

Sea of Tranquility
3 months

6.


The Angel of Rome: And Other Stories
1 month

7.
10.

Forbidden City
2 months

8.


Paradais
1 month

9.


Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace
1 month

10.


The Tartar Steppe
1 month

Four titles bounced to our Hall of Fame this month: Ulysses: An Illustrated Edition by James Joyce and Eduardo Arroyo (illustrator), The Penguin Modern Classics Book by Henry Eliot, When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, and Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen.

This marks Franzen’s fourth trip to our site’s hallowed hall, and for streak spotters out there: it’s his fourth consecutive novel to earn the honor. For the rest of the authors—even Sunny Jim—it’s their first trip each.

Their movements opened four new spots on our list, so this month we welcome The Angel of Rome by Jess Walter, Paradais by Fernanda Melchor, Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace by Yiyun Li, and The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati.

Once again, among a group of four only one of these authors has reached our site’s Hall of Fame: Walter’s Beautiful Ruins made it in 2014. However, shout outs are due to both Jess Walter and Fernanda Melchor whose books were featured in our Great First Half 2022 Book Preview last January. (Yours truly previewed the Melchor…)

Regular Millions readers may also recall last year’s interview with Yiyun Li about 85 Days, a War and Peace-based and pandemic-inspired reading project. More esoteric Millions readers might just recall one of Li’s best lines from it: “I … need a big book in my daily reading. It’s sort of like your daily bread, right? We can eat oysters and anything else, but the daily bread is War and Peace.”

On the horizon we foresee at least one spot opening next month, so stay tuned and let’s see what it’ll be, and whether it brings company.

This month’s near misses included: The Collected Stories (William Trevor), Pure Colour, Hell of a Book, The Hurting Kind, and Essays One. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Poetic Life of Samuel Menashe

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Samuel Menashe, who died 11 years ago this month, lived most of his life in a three-room railroad flat on Greenwich Village’s Thompson Street. He was reluctant to call himself a poet, though if accused, he wouldn’t deny it. In 2003, at the age of 79 and after decades of toiling in relative obscurity, he was awarded the Poetry Foundation’s first-ever “Neglected Masters Award.” This all-too-fitting capstone cemented Menashe’s legacy as a poet of unambiguously astonishing power who, several honors and admirers aside, was famous most of all for not being famous.
Looking for a thread of silver lining, it might be tempting to pigeonhole Menashe as a poet’s poet—he had many celebrated champions, among them Donald Davie, Stephen Spender, Danielle Chapman, Dana Gioia, and, perhaps most meaningful for Menashe, Austin Clarke, who praised Menashe’s work in the Irish Times and even recited some of it on the radio. Menashe’s most crucial ally was probably the poet Kathleen Raine, who helped him find a London publisher for his first collection and contributed its forward. But to say that Menashe had any major impact on his peers or the generations that succeeded them would be a stretch. When, as an experiment, I googled “influenced by Samuel Menashe,” it took .57 seconds to return exactly zero results.

In the introduction to his 2005 self-titled collection, Menashe writes, “When the Beat poets ‘made the scene,’ I heard the pious platitude that it was good for poetry, but it was not good for my poetry. If confessional poetry was to the fore, I had nothing to offer its devotees.” Echoing these sentiments, Don Share, another notable admirer, wrote upon Menashe’s death, “In our time of poetry movements, schools, coteries, and communities, Samuel Menashe was singular and self-sufficient.”
Share’s observation has a more positive spin than Menashe’s own, though one can’t help but wonder if Menashe’s singularity didn’t perhaps necessitate his self-sufficiency. There is no doubt strength in numbers and, counterintuitive as it may seem, being part of a movement can actually help an artist to stand out. The creator who goes it alone might garner interest and admiration, but it can be harder to determine their overall relevance, which to a critic means it’s harder to justify writing about them. In fact, even some of the most visionary and fearlessly independent artists like Picasso and Dylan were at least partially associated with larger movements (in their cases, cubism and folk, respectively), even as they clearly dominated them. Davie perhaps put it best when he wrote, “One trouble is that [Menashe’s] poems are as far from being traditional as they are from being in the fashion, or in any of the several fashions that have come and gone, whether in British or American poetry, over the last twenty-five or for that matter one hundred years.” Being consistently out of fashion is hardly a recipe for recognition, let alone financial comfort.
Would Menashe then have been better off if he’d tried to attach himself to a more “fashionable” movement? Could he have ingratiated himself, for example, with the Beats? This seems unlikely. While the spirituality in Menashe’s work would surely have resonated with the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac, those poets’ energy, exuberance, and expansiveness, not to mention their legendary subversiveness, could not be more different than Menashe’s dignified, finely chiseled poems.
How about the confessional poets then? There is plenty of autobiography in Menashe’s poetry, but its minimalism and enigmatic nature puts him at odds with that movement, as well. As Danielle Chapman notes, Menashe “doesn’t dredge through memories or parade us through his bedroom, and, except as the archetypal mother, father, or friend, he rarely makes mention of specific people or places.” When he does dig into his roots, however, the results are marvelous:

My father drummed darkness
Through the underbrush
Until lightning struck
I take after him
Clouds crowd the sky
Around me as I run
Downhill on a high—
I am my mother’s son
Born long ago
In the storm’s eye

What about the New York School? “No, they won’t have me,” Menashe said of the city’s famed poetry scene of the 1950s and ‘60s. It doesn’t seem a good fit anyhow: While poets like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbury wrote charmingly and inventively about their struggles to put words on the page, and about the form itself, their work is worlds apart from Menashe’s spare approach to the same subject matter:

The statue, that cast
Of my solitude
Has found its niche
In this kitchen
Where I do not eat
Where the bathtub stands
Upon cat feet—
I did not advance
I cannot retreat

None of this is to say that Menashe’s work exists in a vacuum. In a wonderful video interview from 2009, we are treated to a shot of some of the books that clutter his shelf, which include Shakespearean sonnets and collections from Blake, Frost, and Yeats. In interviews, Menashe would frequently cite the influence of Blake and of English translations of the Hebrew Bible. The latter might raise the question of whether Menashe could be thought of as a Jewish poet—a valid proposition. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, his first language was Yiddish, and Jewish themes pervade his work. His first American collection was called No Jerusalem But This, whose title poem “The Shrine Whose Shape I Am” contains these lines:

There is no Jerusalem but this
Breathed in flesh by shameless love
Built high upon the tides of blood
I believe the Prophets and Blake
And like David I bless myself
With all my might

At times, he is unabashedly spiritual and some of his poems could almost pass for psalms:

O Many Named Beloved
Listen to my praise
Various as the seasons
Different as the days
All my treasons cease
When I see your face

However, “Jewish poet” is an exceptionally broad category, and if some of his themes may overlap with modern Hebrew poets like Yehuda Amichai and Hayyim Nachman Bialik, there is also something distinctly American about his cadence. And unlike modern Yiddish writers like I.B. Singer or the masterful Chaim Grade, Menashe experienced and wrote about World War II through the lens of having been a U.S. soldier rather than a Holocaust survivor. He took part in the famous Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, and his wartime experiences suffuse his work, even as they’re often veiled in mystery:

Do not scrutinize
A secret wound—
Avert your eyes—
Nothing’s to be done
Where darkness lies
No light can come

Menashe is similarly ill-suited to be grouped in with the so-called “Deep Image” poets who gained prominence in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The rich, vivid language of poets like Gallway Kinnell, James Wright, and Diane Wakoski is replaced in Menashe’s poetry by a far simpler, sparer vocabulary. His minimalism is in fact part of what makes his work so intimidating: he wields so much power with so few tools.
I wonder if Menashe ever felt tempted to adjust his poetry in order to better fit in—perhaps, but then he would have been a different poet. Whether intentionally or unconsciously, many creators have been all too willing to compromise their work by allowing forces beyond pure, unadulterated self-expression to impact its creation. Samuel Menashe, it seems, never made such a bargain.
In his later years, Menashe sometimes seemed rueful about his lack of recognition, even as he marveled over his long overdue accolades and the legacy they granted to his work. In a 2005 interview with Adam Travis of the Poetry Foundation, he said that his had been “the opposite of a life buttressed by grants and having a publisher and going to him every few years with new poems. Each time I’ve had to start from scratch.” When asked if there were any merits to obscurity, his reply could not have been more emphatic: “NO! No, no, no, no, no! You want your work to be read. Obscurity means you’re not read.”
Even if Menashe’s underappreciation has on some level come to define him, is that really so terrible? In my own brief but fateful encounters with Menashe over the years, I never once thought of him as unsuccessful. Watching him recite his poetry in his regal, Jimmy Stewart-like voice before a loving crowd at the Bowery Poetry Club was nothing short of magical. Success can take many forms and can mean different things depending on the artist or the medium. Samuel Menashe focused on the work rather than the scene, lived frugally and modestly and achieved his much-deserved recognition just in time to get some satisfaction and no small measure of bemusement out of it. There’s a purity to the way he led his artistic life, a charm and grace. You might very well call it poetry.

The William Trevor Reader: “Last Wishes”

“Last Wishes” is a long—and, in my estimation, very good—story, that tells the tale of Mrs. Abercrombie, a rich widow who, upon her husband’s death, sequesters herself within his ancestral estate, Rews Manor, for three decades, where she is attended by a faithful staff of five. Rews Manor has, during this time, become infamous and somewhat beloved in the nearby town. As we’re told: “In the 1960s and 1970s, when life often had a grey look, the story of Rews Manor cheered people up, both those who told it and those who listened. It created images in minds and it affected imaginations.” Visitors are allowed to tour the manicured grounds, with proceeds benefiting a local charity, but the only townspeople to lay eyes on Mrs. Abercrombie for years have been a window-washer and the town doctor, Dr. Ripley. When Mrs. Abercrombie dies suddenly, the house is thrown into understandable grief and confusion, especially given the fact that Mrs. Abercrombie failed to sign a new draft of her will, which would have legally allowed her beloved employees to live on in the house for 20 more years. The butler, Plunkett, devises a plan to blackmail the elderly Doctor Ripley, by accusing him of malpractice, into withholding Mrs. Abercrombie’s death certificate, so that Plunkett can bury the great lady in the backyard beside her husband, and everything can go on as it had—an immoral plan lent appeal by the fact that it would, in fact, be largely honoring her actual last wishes. But the doctor will not be bullied, and when he tells the assembled hangdog staff that a judge would likely have honored Mrs. Abercrombie’s wishes regardless, he knows the staff will not now stay at Rews Manor, “because of their exposure one to another.”

I admire many things about this story. I admire its slow, patient pace, the two introductory pages it devotes to building the backstory of Rews Manor and Mrs. Abercrombie, and the other three pages it spends introducing the backstories of the servants: Plunkett; the housemaid, Tindall who occasionally sleeps with Plunkett; the cook, Mrs. Pope; and the two gardeners, Miss Bell and Mr. Apse—all of the servants misfits of one form or another who have come to love working at Rews Manor. I admire the general ambition in creating this cloistered little world—the story has the world-building reach of a small novel. And I admire the deftness with which Trevor handles this large ensemble. As usual, Trevor’s narration glides effortlessly from consciousness to consciousness, beginning with a distanced, village narration, moving to Mrs. Abercrombie before her death, then Plunkett and the others, before its ultimate destination in the doctor’s mind, as he dashes the servants’ hopes. 

One element of “Last Wishes” that works so well is the humble motivations of the characters. While the scheme they concoct and almost enact is grand, the desires it protects are anything but. The servants have found a place in the world where they feel comfortable and needed, where their small talents have been given room to breathe and thrive. Considering Plunkett’s plan, we are given this summary paragraph of massed character motivation:

Mr. Apse remembered a lifetime’s association with the gardens at Rews Manor, and Mrs. Pope recalled the cheerless kitchens of the YWCA, and Miss Bell saw herself kneeling in a flower bed on an autumn evening, taking begonia tubers from the earth. There could be no other garden for Mr. Apse, and for Miss Bell no other garden either, and no other kitchen for Mrs. Pope. Plunkett might propose to her, Tindall said to herself, just in order to go on sharing beds with her, but the marriage would not be happy because it was not what they wanted.

It is characteristic of Trevor’s fiction that these people want so little, have no higher aspirations than to simply be left alone in their peaceable routines, and thereby be allowed to preserve a little bit of dignity. Dignity—the difficulty of achieving or maintaining it—is, I think, the great unspoken theme of Trevor’s fiction, and the unspoken emotional motivation of the majority of his characters. And it is immensely powerful in this role. Dignity is, after all, a nearly invisible thing if you have it, but all-important and all-consuming if you don’t have. The stakes in Trevor stories are, at once, miniature and vast as life itself.

Get into a Rhythm: The Millions Interviews Laura Warrell

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Laura Warrell’s debut novel Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm is a luxuriant dive into the world of jazz and love. Trumpet player Circus Palmer swims through a series of captivating women—including his daughter, Koko—without landing on the unconditional love he has for his instrument. Yet it is Circus’s women who comprise the joists and crossbeams of this engaging novel. I had the good fortune to catch up with Laura Warrell by email.

Martha Anne Toll: How did you first come to writing?

Laura Warrell: I never consciously decided to write. It came naturally. I began once I learned how to handle a pencil—I wrote my first book when I was six, although my mother claims I was five. Throughout my childhood, I wrote stories and film scripts so I could become a movie star and act in my own films. In college, it dawned on me: I like acting, but I love writing. Very little in had to change. I was already writing constantly, so now there was simply more intention and more desire to understand craft. I got two writing degrees, learned to read with a closer eye, and participated in classes, conferences, anything I could do to get better.

MAT: What kind of reader were you as a child? And now?

LW: I read to escape a somewhat challenging childhood and to imagine a life: loads of racy YA books, including Judy Blume, because no boys had crushes on me though I was crushing on them. In high school I read a lot of Jackie Collins—again, to imagine a much sexier life. In high school I discovered literary and classic fiction; that’s where Toni Morrison and Alice Walker came in. I attempted Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, found Vonnegut and Toni Cade Bambara.

Nowadays, I like to keep up with all the amazing authors who are publishing now. I’ve met many of my contemporaries online and through other literary communities, and I want to read their books. I’ve just finished my friend Liska Jacobs’s The Pink Hotel, which was so fun. I’m looking forward to Daniel Nieh’s Take No Names and Cleyvis Natera’s Neruda on the Park. I can’t wait to see what Raven Leilani, Brit Bennett, Isle McElroy, and Dawnie Walton do next. I adored The Secret Life of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw. I’m also a fan of Danzy Senna and Steve Almond.

Toni Morrison is a favorite: she models the idea that you should write about who and what you want to read about, and stay true to it. I turn to the greats, like Munro or Bambara, when I need to get unstuck, and have lesser-known favorites like Jamie Quatro and Christine Schutt who are brilliant with language. I love international writers like Javier Marias and Marguerite Duras, and also turn to poets when I need to get into a rhythm: Giovanni, Neruda, and Sexton are go-tos.

MAT: What was your work life before the book and currently?

LW: For a while, I looked for “day jobs” to fit around writing. I worked in editing and public relations, and as a fact checker at a glossy magazine, which was fun but not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. After my divorce, I moved to Europe to write and have adventures, which I did! There, I taught English and realized how much I actually enjoy teaching—I liked moving around a classroom and engaging with other people. When I came back to the U.S., I got the necessary credentials to start teaching at the university level and have taught in English departments on both coasts. Few things give me more pleasure than convincing students to go for it.

MAT: How did you come to write Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm?

LW: For longer than I care to remember, I was involved with a charismatic musician, the kind of fella women swoon over. Like Circus Palmer, this guy was impossible to pin down. I wondered why so many of us become entangled and enchanted by these slippery characters. We’ve seen these kinds of relationships explored from the perspective of the cad, because we want to know what drives him, but we rarely see these relationships from the points of view of the women who get their hearts broken, or are smarting from being cast aside. I wanted these women to have their say and a chance to right their romantic ships, though maybe not all of them will.

MAT: Music is also integral to your book. Can you talk about how you got it on the page?

LW: I need to dig beneath the surface and fully inhabit my characters before putting them on the page. With Circus, I didn’t simply need to know who was his favorite musician or how often he practiced; I needed to know what the horn felt like in his hands, how the horn worked, and how his mind came up with melodies. I read great books about jazz musicians, focusing on their creative processes and psychologies. I wanted to give Circus habits that reflected the precision and obsessiveness of the jazz greats, which is why he won’t touch his horn unless his hands are clean. It was crucial to convey how the music would sound and feel to Circus and Maggie. I wanted readers to “hear” the music and groove to it. My research included long luxurious quotes from the greats, people like Louis Armstrong and Coltrane. I also asked the musicians in my life, especially my students at Berklee College of Music. So much of what I observed in them shows up in the novel.

MAT: How did you conceive of the novel’s structure?

LW: Men like Circus walk in and out of other people’s lives, which I wanted the structure to mirror. Chapters can stand alone, and characters show up and disappear. I also like that the structure mirrors music, particularly jazz, wherein each player steps forward to take a solo and share her interpretation of the main melody, which, to extend the metaphor, is each woman’s love affair with Circus.

MAT: I felt the strongest relationship Circus had was to his trumpet. Could you elaborate?

LW: Most jazz musicians love their pianos, saxophones, and trumpets more than anyone or anything. Through their instruments, they form both a private and public relationship with what they love, music. Musicians are the luckiest because there’s a physical manifestation of their creative inspiration they can hold and touch. We joke about the faces musicians make when they’re playing since they often look like they’re having sex, but I imagine it as an erotic experience. Inevitably, I imagine, musicians form the closest relationship with their instruments because of the amount of time they must spend to master them. I loved the idea of Circus being capable of love, devotion, commitment, and sacrifice, but not willing or able to exercise that with people.

MAT: Musicians practice for thousands of hours before they can perform at the level that they do; what does your writing practice look like?

LW: I wish I had a consistent writing practice. As an adjunct professor, it’s hard to get into a rhythm. You’ve got mountains of papers to grade one day, then nothing the next. One semester, you’ve got classes Monday afternoons, the next you don’t. As soon as I form a habit, life shifts and I have to form a new one. So, I just make sure I sit down at some point and write. I’m a list maker. I write a schedule for myself each new week and make sure to pencil in at least two hours every day to write, at least five to six days a week. I do my best to stick to it.

MAT: What about your book’s path to publication?

LW: What a long, arduous path! It took two years, fifty agent queries, and countless rewrites before I landed my agent and a book deal. The end was fantastic—a six-way auction and a deal with Pantheon and the phenomenal Lisa Lucas. The beginning was rough, so what I can offer is the conviction that if we believe in our work, we mustn’t give up. I hope my journey can gives writers some hope. We have to keep doing the work—writing, revising, showing it to trusted readers, and revising again.

MAT: What’s next?

LW: I’m working on my next novel, also about the challenges of love and connection. Clearly, I’m obsessed with fractured relationships and the myriad ways we rob ourselves of what I consider the most meaningful experience in life, which is love.