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Halloween is a favorite holiday around the Tin House offices, which is kind of surprising, because we still have to come into work and it typically isn’t considered one of the Five Great Drinking Holidays—4th of July, Labor Day, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and the NBA Draft. Regardless, here are our staff’s recommendations for how to spend your Friday night.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): Oh, spookiness. Let’s see. I once flipped through a copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho in a bookstore and was haunted by that for quite some time. I don’t really like talking about it now, as a matter of fact. But the book that really freaked me out and still does is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which as I imagine every reader of this blog knows is about the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Kansas–the most unsettling part of all is that it was all based on misinformation: the killers thought there’d be money in the house when in fact the Clutters were known to eschew cash as much as possible. After I read that book I looked around my little efficiency apartment and found it genuinely scary for the first time. The book has also ruined farmhouses for me. Whenever we drive past some lovely old house set amid the rolling hills and my husband says, “Oh, wouldn’t that be nice?” and I say, “No. Absolutely not. Nonnegotiable.” The idea of a house, out there in the emptiness, grips me with dread. I admit it’s not really logical that I think it is safer to be surrounded by more humans, given that they’re the perpetrators of pretty much all that’s awful in the world (Come to think of it, maybe the most terrifying costume of all would be just a person standing around with a sign that says, “Human Being.”), but it helps. I thought In Cold Blood was an excellent book, but I don’t ever want to read it again.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): If there were ever a good time to work on your zombie film French, right around now would be it. “Les clés dans la piscine, le mari à la morgue!, The keys in the pool, the husband in the morgue!” says le Commissaire Alfred Fichet in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 classic, the chilling psychological thriller Les Diaboliques starring Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot. Between the original title of Georges Franju’s 1960 international sensation adapted from Jean Redon’s novel, Les Yeux sans visage and its title in English, The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, (premiering in 1962 in the US), you’ve got a pretty good idea of some of the major grisly themes to look out for in any language. La Rose de fer, The Iron Rose, Jean Rollin’s 1973 hallucinatory horror film about a young couple who, for their first (and last) date, wander through a cemetery late at night and hang out in a crypt never to leave again, allows you to enjoy a scary movie and at the same time sharpen your language skills for the next time you come face to face with the living dead in your local bar/grocery store/gas station. All clowning around aside, there’s a wide and rich selection of very fine and ghoulish French horror films out there from classic to camp—all perfectly spooky for this Halloween, and all perfectly accentuated.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Associate Editor, Tin House Magazine): There is nothing I love more than Halloween. Truly, nothing. Maybe my family, that’s it. I mean, what’s not to like? The chance to surreptitiously peek inside your neighbors’ houses while trick-or-treating? Fun-sized candy, the funnest candies of them all? The cultural mandate to make a costume? The excuse to watch horror movie after horror movie while encamped in a pile of feathers and silver ductwork tubing and hot glue sticks while making said costume? I am such a horror movie wimp and yet absolutely live to have the bejesus scared out of me in new and upsetting ways. Oh, the misty, watercolored memories: a screening of The Shining in my college film series during which the film reel melted mid-viewing, to the abject terror or everyone in the audience; or the time my high school friend and I let ourselves into his grandmother’s house late at night to watch the Korean thriller Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance on her big-screen TV and screamed in abject terror when she snuck up on us from behind, half-dressed, wailing in French; seeing The Sixth Sense in middle school in a theatre where the heat wasn’t working and hyperventilating in abject terror when the projectionist walked down the theatre aisle, his breath visible in the beam of his flashlight, just as it gets cold when the ghosts come for Hayley Joel Osment. But my all-time favorite horror movie remains the original version of The Mummy with Boris Karloff–the slow awakening in the sarcophagus! the ring that sucks our your soul! the world’s creepiest fez! My best horror memory is of watching it with my cool older cousin, then wrapping my dad in toilet paper and sending him to wake said cousin in the night. No abject terror, but definitely worth the shot.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Somehow I’d slept on Cronenberg’s first couple features, but as the Criterion Collection recently put a couple of them up on HuluPlus, I found my way to to his 1979 horror film The Brood. Just to be clear: I love Cronenberg. Love him. With a few exceptions, I think he’s one of our very best. And this movie’s got all the stuff we count on him for: the mood, the psychosexual bodily obsession, that weird-ass violence, the high camp. But Jesus. Pair this movie with Gone Girl and you’ve got an instructive double-feature on the dangers of “unhinged, hysterical women.” In this case, all those unruly female emotions are literally made flesh-and-blood, and they exact murderous revenge on anyone that inconveniences the ex-wife of our hero. Normally, I don’t think it’s fair or particularly interesting to read biographical material into fiction, but I happened to be looking up the creepy cult-leader fella on IMDB (Oliver Reed!), and happened upon this morsel: “David Cronenberg wrote the film following the tumultuous divorce and child-custody battle he waged against Margaret Hindson. Cronenberg also said that Samantha Eggar’s character, Nola Carveth, possessed some of the characteristics of his ex-wife.” It’s an interesting failure to be sure, and I’ll long have nightmares about those navel-less, snowsuited trolls, but if blatant misogyny gets your blood boiling, you might do better to scroll past this one and watch Scanners instead.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): Like Tony, I love David Cronenberg. Like Tony, I’m going to half-heartedly recommend a piece of Cronenberginalia that I don’t really believe in. On a recent interstate road trip, I made a first foray into the world of audiobooks. The book would be Cronenberg’s debut novel Consumed, read by the actor Cronenberg directed to a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in less than ten minutes of screen time, William Hurt. I couldn’t pass up the prospect of Hurt whispering descriptions of Cronenbergian sex and violence (and sexual violence) to me as I drove over lonely mountains in the dark. Delightfully, Hurt ends up reading in a hilarious range of accents, from American to French to Canadian-Jewish to French-German to Vietnamese, Japanese, and Dutch-born-French. Fully two chapters of the novel are a monologue from the drippingly sensual French sex cannibal Aristide Arosteguy, during which I completely forgot William Hurt existed, and the smears of fog and rain on the windshield began to take strange, unsettling shapes. Though the novel on the whole was somewhat disappointing, Cronenberg’s signature grotesquery—sexual cannibalism, 3D printed deformed penis replicas, experimental breast cancer treatments, Kim Jong-Un—all in the uncomfortably sexy whisper of William Hurt, is the strangest, most terrible company while trying to fall asleep at midnight at a rest area in Eastern Oregon.
Jakob Vala (King of Halloween): In high school, my best friend and I watched the entire Halloween series over a weekend (excluding Resurrection, which hadn’t been released and is only worth watching if you’re a completist). Candy-fueled horror binges weren’t unusual for us, but that particular weekend remains our most ambitious and most memorable. While we still view October as an excuse to gorge on all things spooky, grown-up responsibilities and geographical distances mean that most movie watching is done apart.
Last weekend, I limited myself to the first Halloween and it’s second half, Halloween II. It’s all downhill from there anyway. Halloween wasn’t the first slasher flick, but it set a distinct tone and brought the genre into the mainstream (though it owes its existence to the vastly underrated Black Christmas, which I obviously save for December). I love everything about Halloween, from a dorky Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut to director John Carpenter’s brilliant and eerie score. Innovative camera work and moody framing build tension without feeling contrived. The dialogue is dated, but still authentic and charming. Carpenter stayed on to write and produce Halloween II, leaving the role of director in less capable hands.* Regardless, the atmosphere of the original is preserved and a satisfying conclusion reached.**
Other October standbys include: Tucker & Dale vs Evil, Misery, Trick ‘r Treat, Lake Placid, Joshua (2007), Grabber
*Rick Rosenthal, who also directed Halloween Resurrection, starring Tyra Banks and Busta Rhymes …
**Originally, Halloween II marked the true death of Michael Myers and the series was intended to continue on anthology-style, with a different All Hallow’s Eve-related storyline for each film. However, Halloween III: Season of the Witch was truly terrible and fans were disappointed, leading to Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers and its many sequels.
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.
Next up to the podium, Jodi Angel.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?
Jodi Angel: When it comes to writing, my first experience in the “real” workshop environment was in graduate school, because that was the first time I actually felt like a writer—I was officially enrolled in school to be a writer, and I had taken ownership of that title. So it’s my first workshop, and it’s my first time having my manuscript critiqued by all of these other writers I was in the class with—writers who, like me, were defining themselves as such for the first time—and I’m nervous and excited and pretty sure my story is caught somewhere in the borderland between amazing and mind-blowing, and the workshop starts and the class is pretty tentative and there’s a lot of vague and generous feedback, and I’m feeling pretty accomplished, and then the professor takes her turn with my story. Let’s just say that she may not have seen my brilliance in the same way I did. She gutted the manuscript—said there was no plot, nothing happening, nothing at stake—no PLOT! Seriously?! And then she went so far as to rubber stamp WHERE IS THE STORY? on page three of the manuscript, and I sort of felt like Fred Flintstone when Mr. Slate goes on one of those tirades and you see Fred shrinking down smaller and smaller as the lecture goes on. By the time workshop was over, I was about 6 inches tall, carrying my gutted manuscript, limping down the hallway, realizing I know nothing. I know nothing. There is a happy ending to the story, but I can’t write it.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?
JA: The best piece of advice I have ever been given in a workshop is that the hardest decision you will ever have to make is how to get your characters from the taxi outside at the curb to the apartment on the 5th floor—do you write out the details of them walking into the building, and all the description of setting and action, or do you simply skip to them in the elevator, or heading up the stairs, or standing in front of their door with keys in hand—or do you cut right to them in the apartment and forget the walk up? What that piece of advice means is that you have to make deliberate choices when you’re writing—and every choice is for a reason. If you don’t know the reason you’re making the choice, then you don’t truly know the story you are writing.
TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?
JA: I always find myself going back to Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House because it’s an engaging read, and while it isn’t exactly a book on craft, it is a book on the technical aspects of writing. I liked a few things that Stephen King had to say in his book On Writing, and I suppose what I like best about that book is his voice—King makes the reader feel like we’re all in this writing thing together, and if you do this and that, and then maybe this again, you can make a story happen. I like that approach. I think that books on craft can be valuable, but I also think they can be overwhelming, and you really only need to own two in your entire life. The only way to really learn to become a writer is by writing.
Jodi Angel is the author of two collections of short stories. Her first collection, The History of Vegas, was published in 2005 and was named a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2005 as well as a Los Angeles Times Book Review Discovery. Her second collection, You Only Get Letters from Jail, (2013), was named as a Best Book of 2013 by Esquire. Her work has appeared in Esquire, Tin House, One Story, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Byliner, among other publications and anthologies. Her story, “A Good Deuce,” was named as a “Distinguished Story” in The Best American Short Stories 2012, and her short story, “Snuff,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2014. She grew up in Northern California—in a family of girls.
We meet the eponymous small Texas town of René Steinke’s Friendswood in the wake of a hurricane. The sun has come out for the first time in days and still Friendswood is agitated and unsettled, unwell. Containers of biohazardous chemicals buried by a local oil refinery have been unearthed by storm, and along with them, the insidious secret history of the medical catastrophe they’ve wrecked on the town. As Steinke opens Friendswood here, she begins a story not simply of disaster but of reckoning, asking if and how a community can recover from the ways it has poisoned itself.
As with her books Holy Skirts and The Fires, Steinke writes Friendswood with equal parts precision, lyricism, and compassion. (Only she could make me root for the hapless Bible-thumping real estate agent, Hal.) Aside from its many pleasures at a sentence and character level, Friendswood is also one of the best portraits I’ve read of life in the Bush-era West, where personalities may be outsized but social nicety is a delicate scrim laid over all manner of discontent–at least until it isn’t. It was a pleasure to talk with Steinke about her phenomenal book and writing in the eye of the storm.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: Two main storylines draw us through Friendswood. Lee, whose daughter Jess has been poisoned by toxic oil byproducts leeching from the town’s soil, crusades to stop a literal cover-up and redevelopment of a Superfund site; teenage Willa, raped by members of her high school football team, sets her community reeling with news of what’s happened to her and begins seeing signs of the apocalypse. What made you want to place these two threads—eco-disaster and sexual assault—side by side? How do you see them illuminating each other?
René Steinke: Although the two events are separated by time, they’re related thematically. When I began the book, I was fascinated by ideas of the Rapture, the popularity of all those Left Behind novels, and a certain feeling in parts of the country that the end of the world is upon us. Is that a wish for the world to end or is it a way for people to locate their fears about the present state of things? I’m not sure. But it seems linked to another kind of anxiety about the environment, the material future of the land, water, and sky. Willa’s visions of the beasts, which she thinks might be signs of the apocalypse, manifest her terrors, but sometimes she seems to be wishing for the apocalypse, as a way to escape the trauma of the assault. Lee, on the other hand, spends nearly every waking moment trying to preserve this particular space on earth, where she and her family once lived. In her own small way, she’s trying to prevent a different kind of apocalypse.
Finally, the novel tells the story of how this town failed to protect these two teenaged girls, Jess and Willa.
EKH: One of the emotional and intellectual thrills of reading Friendswood for me is getting to see multiple perspectives on a single event. As your narrative moves between the vantages of four different characters, there are these electric moments in which I see characters setting themselves on inadvertent collision courses or keeping secrets or feeling pain which is hidden to the others. The idea that there are two sides to every story may be an old saw, but it’s one I take with new heart here. How did you decide to write the book this way? And why using these four, particular characters out of all the ones in the book?
RS: Thanks, yes, I very much wanted the book to have that effect. The novel had that structure from the beginning—it intuitively seemed the best way to write about the ways that trauma plays out in a community, and it’s also a means to represent morally complex ideas. I think the structure also has a lot to do with my choosing to write about Texas, where an atheist lives alongside a Fundamentalist Christian, an environmentalist lives next to someone who doesn’t believe in climate change, etc. That’s partly why small-town Texas makes for good drama—it’s a version of America in a microcosm.
Also, I’m always most interested in writing about interior life, so I don’t like to write from the omniscient perspective— I don’t like to feel that distance between my narrator and the characters. So this is a way to have some of the sweep of a larger scale narrative, without giving up intimacy with the characters.
In the beginning, there were two other characters, aside from these four, but their stories began to feel too tangential to the story, so I cut those parts of the draft. I’m not entirely sure why these four characters in particular came to me. Lee and Willa, I suppose, have some of the same DNA as my previous female characters, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in Holy Skirts, and Ella in The Fires. I think Dex and Hal were probably born from all the eavesdropping I’ve done in Texas—and it was thrilling to write for the first time from a male perspective. I think I settled on these four, partly for the balance between males and females, teenagers and parents.
EKH: I should ask, too, about the one time when you slip out of rotation between the perspectives of your four main characters to insert a chapter told from the point of view of Willa’s assailant, Cully. Why this disruption in structure, and why place it so late in the book?
RS: That’s the breaking point, really, in terms of tension, and I felt there needed to be some opening up of the structure, partly to complicate the questions that the story asks. Also, I wanted Cully to be kind of a rogue, chaotic element, not a monster (which I think would make his part in the rape easier to dismiss), so I needed to make sure he was fully realized as a character before he gets injured. Otherwise, what happens to him might be merely a punishment.
EKH: I loved the character of Willa and the idea of her visions. She seems to me to be drawn from a long and venerable line of young women who see too much or too far beyond the mortal coil– Joan of Arcs, Cassandras. What made you want to write about Willa? What makes her and her kinsfolk such potent characters?
RS: I’ve always been fascinated by mystics, and the women you mention, and also more contemporary women, who went to extreme lengths to pursue their spiritual calling, like Dorothy Day and Simone Weil. And the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the Dada artist and poet at the center of my last novel, is also squarely in this camp. These women are great characters because there’s an inherent conflict between what they see and what everyone else sees. Which vision of the world is more perceptive? In Willa’s case, I was trying to figure out whether or not the visions, as horrible as they are, also help her to get through the trauma. Do the visions serve a purpose only to the person who sees them, or do they reveal something more? Continue reading
From our 2010 Summer issue (#44), Paul Griner’s “Animati.”
We were going to surprise him from the closet. He was going to be surprised when we jumped out, there was no doubt about that. He was just a temporary extension of us, and besides, we’d told him we couldn’t come. It was dark, and our shoulders bumped, and we had to be careful not to hit the hangers. At first we had giggled, knowing he wouldn’t be there for a while, but the longer we stayed in and the more likely it was that he’d soon arrive, the more we quieted. At last it was only our breathing. Our breathing and the scent of deodorant. Of sweat. Of minty breath and whiskey breath. There were so many of us, stretching away behind me, rank after rank. I began to wonder. How many were there? I was glad I was in the front, that I’d get the chance to be first. There was so much I was going to tell him. What do you intend, he was going to say. To surprise you, I’d tell him, clutching him to my chest so he’d feel my heart. All those years it had been beating, and now I wanted him to touch it. Palm under my blouse, warm flesh to cooling flesh, wrinkled fingers sinking into my skin. He was so old! But I was old, too. Our hearts would beat the same. Then it would be his turn to be in front, to decide who we were waiting for next. I was yet to go forward but I could feel myself slipping back into the embrace of those fanning out behind me. Did the back ranks even know who we were waiting for, or were they turned in another direction, awaiting something else?
Hurry please, please, please hurry. I want to know
Paul Griner is the author of the acclaimed novels Collectors and The German Woman and the story collection Follow Me, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick. He teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville, and his story collection Hurry Please I Want To Know will be released by Sarabande in May 2015.
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.
First up to the podium, Karen Karbo.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?
Karen Karbo: I graduated with my MA in Cinema and had never taken a creative writing workshop. In this one, with Joyce Thompson, taught through Northwest Something Something Something and held at an upstairs room somewhere in downtown Portland, we were expected to write and workshop one short story. I racked my brain for something that I hoped was exotic and entertaining, and wrote about a Russian emigre I’d known while working as a secretary at the Slavic Department at USC, where I’d gone to grad school. After I read the story, Joyce said, “I feel as if every character in this piece could have his OWN story.” Because I had no better ideas, I wrote their stories, and then I wrote the stories of the minor characters in those stories, and eventually I had ten stories told more or less chronologically in ten different voices. It became my first “novel” (really, linked stories), Trespassers Welcome Here, published by Putnam’s in 1990.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?
KK: The first draft is for YOU, the writer; the second and subsequent drafts are for the reader. Trying to do both things at once — figuring out what we want to say, while also fashioning it for another human being to read — is the cause of writer’s block.
TH: Your strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
KK: As an instructor: I had to explain to the lone dude in the class why all the women wanted to kill him for writing “She was very intelligent, even though she had large breasts.” His rational was that it was TRUE. I thought I was going to have to call campus security.
TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?
KK: The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick. Because no matter how experienced you are, it’s always tough to discern between a great set-up, and a great story.
Karen Karbo is the author of the best-selling kick ass women trilogy, including The Gospel According to Coco Chanel and How Georgia Became O’Keefee. Her memoir,The Stuff of Life, was a New York Times Notable Book and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Tin House, the New York Times, Esquire, Elle, Vogue and salon.com. Hawthorne Books has just reissued her novel The Diamond Lane.
The Bishop leaned toward the vanity, tweezers poised, and considered two uncomfortable truths. The first was that he rather liked the vanity, a piece of furniture named in sin, and second, more alarming, was that he believed eels to have souls. Both, perhaps, distractions from the third realization: his eyebrows were exploding. They were whiter and more unruly by the day, a worry he usually dismissed; but today, given the breakfast company on the way, he dwelt.
He’d dropped the tweezers when the BBC announced that the world’s oldest eel had died. It’d expired in a well in Sweden, where mourners now gathered, piling flowers. It reminded the Bishop of the week flower piles had competed and then merged for Lady Di and Mother Teresa.
His excess eyebrows snowed onto the oak vanity, a piece of furniture that reminded him of the one commandment he couldn’t care less about, and more generally, his Biblical cherry-picking of late. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain, he’d tell his potty-mouthed grandson dutifully, cringing at each admonishing. He was grooming for that child this very morning, preparing to preside at the boy’s confirmation service. That’s what he told himself. That’s why he was perched at the vanity, a guest of the Archbishop in London, removed from his usual Sunday routine at Winchester Cathedral. Today: pluck eyebrows at Lambeth Palace, deliver sermon at Westminster Abbey, breakfast in between.
He’d been up late into the night, sitting cross-legged on the second story landing, a spot he doubted any Archbishop had paused, and drifted between rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and listening to the world go to shit on the radio: Gaza, Ukraine, some racist town across the pond in Missouri, and this ISIS thing, which supposedly made al-Qaeda child’s play. How to welcome his grandson into this world? The boy’s mother had done that years before at Royal London Hospital, but in the morning, the boy would become part of the world of the church.
This morning, the eel’s death punctuated the global updates, and suddenly the Bishop was adjusting the volume on both his iPhone and hearing aid. ISIS beheads an American journalist in Syria, and the world’s oldest eel dies at one-hundred-fifty-five. After the second story, the Bishop muted his hearing device, tuning out the world for a moment, and lowered his eyes to prayer, praying first for the eel’s mate, one-hundred-ten, now alone in the well. And then for the deceased creature itself. Lord have mercy on his soul. Eyebrows ready, he followed the prayer with a text message: “Sermon finished. Do come over for breakfast.”
Tea was laid before the two gentlemen at a green-marble table where the Bishop supposed Archbishops wrote their Westminster sermons. The Bishop ate Cheerios, while his guest dined on bacon.
“Diarmaid, I’m losing it,” the Bishop said. “This morning, I prayed for an eel. A dead eel. The eel’s soul, which I’ve spent my whole life understanding not to exist. When a fox ate Pip’s dalmatian puppy, I explained the dog wasn’t in heaven. But now.”
The theologian chuckled. “Cecil, oh Cecil. War would have done you well,” he said.
“And you’re one to talk,” the Bishop said.
“There’s perhaps no regret greater than failing to join the Royal Air Force,” the theologian said.
“I beg to differ,” said the Bishop.
“Your afterlife argument notwithstanding,” the theologian said.
The Bishop refilled the theologian’s tea. “Pip joins the church in two hours,” he said.
“Shall I edit your sermon?” the theologian asked. “Check for traces of the eel?”
“It’s bizarre to think that Pip will live to see what the church turns into,” the Bishop said.
“And you won’t be watching from heaven?” the theologian asked.
“I find myself believing less and less in a place you claim will be absent your company.”
“You old sap.” The theologian stood and rumpled the Bishop’s white hair. “Good luck this morning. I’ll be thinking of the eel and hoping you don’t embarrass Pip from the pulpit.” The theologian still attended the Bishop’s services in Hampshire, sometimes, but not on a morning like this, in London, a family affair, the day the last of his progeny joined the church.
The theologian nodded his quiet goodbye from the doorway and the Bishop felt better, but simultaneously worse, seeing that Diarmaid’s hair was likewise whitening. He couldn’t imagine a place without the man’s company. In fact, it was easier to imagine nothing at all: the void, the abyss, the nothing, those words that clamored to do the best they could, as the theologian put it. The theologian had believed once, had even been in line to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, and still the Bishop prayed nightly for his soul. He also prayed that the Lord would forgive the rush of joy he’d felt in learning that the theologian would need his help reconnecting with the Lord.
At the pulpit, the Bishop glanced down at the boys’ choir, trying to decide which child would introduce his grandson to cigarettes. Through their hymns, high-pitched and tiresome, his mind wandered back to the eel and its lonely mate. To have both World Wars pass, trapped in a well, that was one thing. But to face another half century of confinement alone?
The boys took turns leading prayer, and the Bishop smiled as Pip’s voice filled the Abbey. His eyes met his daughter’s, and his wife’s, all too proud to regard the moment as prayer. And then, behind them, he saw the thinning hair he knew so well. The theologian’s lips were tight, and for the first time, their eyes met during prayer. When Pip sat down, and the next boy took the lectern, the Bishop again bowed his head. He tapped at his iPhone: Kayak, Expedia. British Airways had a flight to Sweden this evening. By morning, that lonely eel would know the North Sea.
Patrice Hutton is the director of Writers in Baltimore Schools. She’s currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her writing appears in The Hairpin, Prime Number Magazine, Mount Hope Magazine, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and Public Books. She tweets at @patricey.
Tin House is thrilled to congratulate the poet Jay Nebel for recieving the 2014 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Chosen by poet Gerald Stern, Nebel’s book “Neighbors” is a guide to the underworld of neighborhoods, family life, friendship and addiction. These poems are full of the blood and guts that make up our smallest interactions as well as our most important experiences within the hours we call life.
We were fortunate to publish a few of Jay’s poems in our 2012 Winter issue (#46), one of which appears below.
By Jay Nebel
Yesterday a woman walked into a Moscow subway
with explosives taped to her chest
and blew herself and forty others to pieces.
There was a spark and then, like someone had folded
the station in half, they were gone.
Her first name meant paradise
though it sounded more like doesn’t it.
You can find paradise anywhere.
I love names. I whisper them
when I want a cigarette: Hemingway, Dostoyevsky and Levis,
Bruce and Jane, Paradise. One of my coworkers enjoyed
branding my arm with a burning metal spoon.
His name was Scott, so plain and American-
sounding, so abbreviated,
though Scott analyzed Foucault and rolled his own cigarettes
and played electric bass.
In high school he sold acid to the same football players
who’d beat him up outside of McDonald’s.
After turning their eyeballs inside out for thirteen hours straight
they never touched him again.
We will do crazy things.
Sometimes I would wait inside my apartment lobby
with the lights turned off
so I could scare the manager
out of his skeleton. He and I were like Clouseau
and Kato, attacking each other for months
at odd hours of the night. One of my neighbors loved pissing
on his wife and another worshipped the smell of manure
and licked envelopes until her tongue bled.
I discovered paradise while smoking pot in a minivan,
until my friend mistook a Buick Skylark
for a cop car, shoved my head down into the lighter
and burned off my eyebrows. At his last public viewing
Abraham Lincoln’s eyebrows
had also disintegrated. This is the picture
his enemies would have loved to keep
in the breast pockets of their tuxedos while floating down the river
on a Sternwheeler. My ideas about paradise
have changed. I feel better knowing now
that my friend who seared my eyebrows
weighs over four hundred pounds.
Her paradise sizzles at the all-you-can-eat Mongolian grill.
You can find yours anywhere.
Paradise in the aisle next to the grapefruit and the cough medicine.
Paradise sucking another man’s toes over sheets
of tattoo flash. In the light saber and the dinosaur,
in your three-year-old singing Wayne Newton through the child monitor,
Paradise entering the station alone,
kneeling down and opening her jacket.
Jay Nebel‘s work has appeared in numerous journals. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and son. His last speeding ticket was over three years ago, and thankfully, there are currently no warrants out for his arrest.
There is no hotter ticket at our annual Summer Writer’s Workshop than a lecture from the Boz. As he does in his essential craft book The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction, Boswell’s lectures present a mix of autobiographical moments and brief vignettes from his own work, which he then transposes into blueprints that all writers can learn from and lean upon.
Alternating between the story of a group of young basketball players making their way to the county fair and a dissection of the story’s architecture, Boswell’s 2010 lecture focuses on the complex moments in fiction that startle and amaze and examines what there is to be learned from their formation.
There is plenty of craft to be had, plus a character names Penis Eyes.
Robert Boswell has published seven novels, three story collections, and two books of nonfiction. He has had two plays produced. His work has earned him two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His latest novel, Tumbledown, is out now in paperback.
Welcome to Broadside Thirty, a digital showcase for young poets. Each entry will feature a single poem under thirty lines, written by a poet under thirty years old. This week we feature Lucia Stacey.
That I have to go to the gynecologist
in Brooklyn, because I chose the cheaper
health insurance plan. That I will sit
speculum-sore for ages, waiting for the L.
That there’s no heat in my bedroom
(sexual or otherwise). That I have to go
to Bushwick to admit this to a stranger.
That I can blow smoke upon waking.
That I spent money on Sharon Olds
Anne Sexton, Victoria Redel, and wine
instead of chicken or peaches or beans.
That I did everything
I wasn’t supposed to (but only last Sunday).
That the ceiling fell
into the shower and I stood naked
on the deck to get clean. That no one saw.
That I learned indifference by watching
a mouse hemorrhage internally in glue.
That my laundry man has only one eye
and three teeth. That he said to call him Tony.
That I know what chemical to use
to disintegrate the body
of a pigeon, trapped and died in the wall.
That I held an accidental séance
because of all the candles and incense.
That I’ve considered the $5 psychics
selling fortunes on Canal street.
That I can recognize black mold.
That I recognize faces on the M72.
That I am recognized. That I am not.
Lucia Stacey is a twenty-three year old graduate of Davidson College, where she majored in English and won the Charles E. Lloyd Award for Excellence in the Field of Creative Nonfiction. She has had poetry and flash-fiction published in Out of Our, Columbia Journal’s Catch and Release, Ozone Park, The Atlas Review, and The Chicago Quarterly Review. She is a member of the Poetry Society of New York’s Poetry Brothel. Lucia works in biodefense and lives and writes in the East Village in New York City.
Submissions to Broadside Thirty (poets under thirty years old may submit up to three poems, each under thirty lines) or any other categories on The Open Bar may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org with the category name in the subject line.
Through his two novels, Akhil Sharma has turned the wrenching lives of collapsing families into gripping narratives. An Obedient Father, his 2000 debut, is told largely from the perspective of Ram Karan, an official living in New Dehli in the 1980s. There’s a haplessness to Karan, and his efforts to perpetuate a corrupt lifestyle–but there’s also a far darker aspect to his life, the revelation casts his relationship with his family in a far more complex light. In revealing Karan’s own justifications for horrific acts, Sharma unceasingly dissects his protagonist’s mind.
His latest novel, Family Life, follows the Misha family as they move from India to New Jersey; it follows Ajay, the family’s youngest son, as he must contend with his family’s disasters: an accident that befalls his brother, and his father’s alcoholism. Ajay’s discovery of literature is also one of the most interesting examples of its kind that I’ve encountered in fiction: it’s shown as a kind of saving grace, but it’s also deeply realistic in its depiction of how someone can haphazardly find themselves through creative expression.
In person, Sharma is open, questioning, and incisive. We sat at Veselka in the East Village and discussed his novels, the lengthy process of writing Family Life, and how its title’s evocation of classic literature echoes Sharma’s own taste in books.
Tobias Carroll: I grew up not far from where Family Life is set, and so reading it left me with a significant sense of central New Jersey. To what extent were you relying on your own memories of that area in the 1980s as opposed to doing research on it?
Akhil Sharma: It’s almost completely memory. In fact, there was an apartment complex that’s referred to; in one of the earlier drafts, it had a much bigger role, and because I did not want to do research, I just changed the name of the apartment complex so that it would not be limited by that.
TC: Were there other areas where you didn’t want to be constrained by the specific history of a building or a place?
AS: I’m sure I did. I can’t remember off the top of my head. For me, it isn’t exactly that I don’t want to be constrained, but that when I begin working with nonfiction, I begin to feel this pressure to include things in the novel that I would not feel interested in. To some extent, not checking my memory allows it to be slightly purer.
TC: I was reading the interview you did in Salon, where you talked about the number of drafts that you’d written of the novel. I’m curious: was that all the same narrative, or was it a much more sprawling narrative? Were there pieces from that process that might end up going elsewhere?
AS: I don’t think they will go elsewhere, although there are portions that people have suggested might go elsewhere, that can be excerpted. I don’t have any desire to touch that material, but I think that there are pieces that could be. The other drafts, many of them are in the third person; some of them are from the point of view of the father, some from the point of view of the mother. There are drafts which are much more about alcoholism, and about the father and his interactions with the Indian community, especially with the idea of alcoholism. All of these things which were left out. It was never a grossly large novel, but there were many versions of the novel.
TC: If you wrote a scene from another character’s perspective that didn’t make it into the final version of the novel, did you still find yourself relying on that, that those scenes were informing what was happening in the novel?
AS: I presume that many of the things that didn’t make it into the novel inform what I write. That would be true for everything. The danger, I imagine, is that you change certain viewpoints of the novel and be evident that the change is not in the book. I can imagine that creating a muddiness in the work.
TC: Family Life begins in the present moment and then flashes back, and it ends with the narrator coming to one particular realization. What was the process like in terms of creating that almost dreamlike scene in the opening, where the main characters are in a very different position than any other time we see them in the book?
AS: I’m not totally sure how I generated that scene. The logic of it was that I wanted to figure out a way to allow the language of the eight-year old, the nine-year old be a little more sophisticated. And so by making clear that this was retrospective, it allowed some of that complexity to come through to the younger Ajay. That was the logic of it. I was also very conscious of creating–it’s a bracketed narrative, but the brackets don’t match up. It doesn’t close. There is a dreamlike-ness of it, or an unsettling-ness to it. And that, I wanted.
There isn’t symmetry. Symmetry was something that I had to resist; that’s sort of my default setting. I chose to resist it because, I think, with a work like this, with a situation like this, the repercussions go on and on and on. And so any ending would be false. The book has two beginnings and two endings. The first ending, the scene with the flashlight, I can see as a symmetrical ending.
The art teacher’s wife left him, and their two sons, for another woman two years ago. The art teacher, who taught high school in a suburban area of Miami, thought he was a pretty good dad, except for the one time when he brought the boys to a birthday party with a hired Barbie character and fucked Barbie in the upstairs bathroom.
The morning after Judy left, the art teacher ate Coco Puffs for breakfast. He let his sons open a box of Fruit Loops and a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch—it was a decadent breakfast. The boys chattered excitedly as he stirred the chocolatey milk with his spoon.
Why did Judy leave him? “Well, the answer’s obvious,” the younger son would say. “She was a lesbian.” “Don’t call your mother a lesbian,” the art teacher would say back. Still in love with Judy, the he got angry when people explained her only in terms of her sexuality.
He had met Judy at a girl-band show (retrospectively, he wondered if that had been the first sign that Judy would leave him for a woman). He’d asked her if the previous band was any good. “They played ‘Grease’ from Grease,” she’d said, with a smile.
Before the older son left for college, the two sons saw their mother on three-day weekends—President’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, etc. She made them grilled cheeses and let them watch all the TV they wanted. It took a forty-minute bus ride to see her because the sons were too polite to ask their father to drive.
He never thought that he’d end up in Miami, with children but no wife. In college, he had read Art in Theory cover to cover and thought that he would move to New York to try the starving-artist thing. He ended up in Miami because he followed a girl there. The girl broke up with him soon after the move, but at least Miami had a blossoming art scene and cheaper rent than New York. For five years he tried selling his work, but his work didn’t appeal to gallery owners. He resigned himself to becoming the undiscovered great artist of his century and got a job teaching high school.
Most of the students he found dull. The few kids he liked he asked to his office, encouraging them to keep drawing and recommending them books.
Years after Judy left, he took an extra liking to Angela, one of his seniors. He favored Angela because she was smart. She was also lovely, in a mousy, unaware-of-herself way, though she was no good at art—Angela didn’t have the concentration to render the yellowy and blueish shades of the skull he’d placed at the center of the striped still-life table.
Angela liked the art teacher too. One day, Angela was bold enough to put her hand on his. Their courtship was barely perceptible. In his class, she was a mediocre student who got a B+ out of sheer effort, but when she visited him in office hours they talked and talked. He never told her about Judy. He was the mentor, patiently listening to Angela’s high-school dramas and worries about getting into college. They saw each other often. Angela gave him blowjobs in the parking lot of a funeral parlor. She would gather her hair in a ponytail, tying it with a hair band, and bend over.
He considered marrying Angela—she was only two years younger than his older son. He imagined inviting Judy and her girlfriend to the wedding and his relatives tittering over their plates of cake.
He even visited Angela at the University of Chicago. He was going to propose, but when he saw her—she’d gotten a nose piercing and gained a little weight in her hips—he realized he couldn’t commit himself to someone who wouldn’t stop changing rapidly in the next ten years. “Call me when you’re thirty,” he said.
When he returned from Chicago, his younger son asked him about the Art Educators Conference he had supposedly attended. The art teacher gave his son a weary smile and said that the state of art education was very bad in this country. He told him to become a lawyer or a doctor. “Don’t follow your passions. They lead you to weird, lonely places. Nobody talks about this.”
Anna Mebel is an MFA candidate in poetry at Syracuse University. Her work has appeared in Broke Journal.
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): I have just started reading a novel I’d never heard of by an author I’d never heard of (but you may have heard of it, since it was just short-listed for the National Book Award). Last week, I walked by a book lying in the wrong place at Powell’s. On the front cover of An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine, is a blurb by Rachel Kushner. That was enough for me to pick the book up. On the back cover are blurbs from starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. That was enough for me to open the book. The description was compelling: A seventy-two-year-old woman who lives alone in her Beirut apartment translates one book into Arabic each year, thirty-seven thus far; they have never been read by anyone else. Aaliya narrates her story, reflecting on literature, philosophy, and art, as well as the Lebanese Civil War and how it affected her family and her life. But it was the blurb from Yiyun Li on the front flap that sealed the deal: “There are many ways to break someone’s heart, but Rabih Alameddine is one rare writer who not only breaks our hearts but gives every broken piece a new life.” A book that will break my heart and then give every piece a new life? SOLD!
Jessica Miler (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): I’m reading Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before by Karelia Stetz-Waters, the newest book from Ooligan Press, where I am a staff member. It tells the story of Trinuu Hoffman who’s just entering high school in southern Oregon in the early nineties. As Trinuu comes to the realization about her identity as a lesbian, the battle over Measure 9 heats up. Filled with colorful characters who leap off the page and a dizzingly, lyrical style, Stetz-Waters’ newest (and first) YA novel is one that has stayed with me since the first time I read it in the acquisition phase.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): This is what I’m reading on a bench near the Danube :) Self by Barry Dainton (part of the “Philosophy in Transit” series by Penguin), The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille, New Selected Poems by Eavan Boland. [Matthew sends this note from an indeterminate European location, where we assume he is spending his time sitting on park benches in a respectably tattered cardigan, tossing seed to birds, making funny faces at passing children, and, of course, reading. -Desiderata Editor]
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I’m reading Mike Sacks’s Poking a Dead Frog, which is interviews with and essays from comedy writers. I’m not a comedy writer and have no aspirations to be one, but Sacks’s series on comedy should be a must-read for any writer, even ones who don’t share my Simpsons and early Onion obsessions. (Fools.) There’s so much about structure and craft, the behind-the-scenes thought processes of classic TV shows and movies, and–maybe my favorite aspect but also something I’m just realizing now– a welcome, effective antidote to writerly preciousness.
Colin Houghton (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): After finishing Charles D’Amrosio’s upcoming book, Loitering: New and Collected Essays, I was in a heated search for a new collection of essays. John Jeremiah Sullivan was hard to miss, his 2011 collection, Pulphead, has garnered praise all over, critics called him the next David Foster Wallace, a title he seemed to modestly shy away from (who wouldn’t). But, real talk, the amazing thing about Sullivan has nothing to do with DFW, or his newfound cult status as essayist of the times, it’s the raw humanity that seems to live in every sentence the man writes. Sullivan shies away from any sort of noticeable condescension in his work, instead he turns his talent onto whatever bizarre corner of the culture he’s investigating, and unpacks all things real and profound that lie in wait. The FSG paperback has a really hip cover your non-reader friends will love, but if you get the chance, buy the audiobook, Sullivan reads his own work with dry and enamoring Southern conviction.
Joey Carmichael (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I managed to remain blind to Saunders’ words until last summer, when I discovered a copy of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline on a bookshelf in my Brooklyn sublet. After that, I picked up its adjacency, In Persuasion Nation. (Thank you, Caity, for your taste in literature.) Last fall, I got my hands on Tenth of December. Last week, I went all in and bought Pastoralia and The Braindead Megaphone on the same night. I’m savoring these stories and essays—most days, drinking them in slow with my morning coffee—but I’m already reminded of what I love about Saunders’ writing. His short stories shed visceral truths in dystopian garb; his essays (thus far) lay bare intellectual truths that remind us of our own false attire. And make you chuckle to yourself in public all the while. I pick each morning’s genre like I pick my outfit—that is to say, with minimal thought, whimsically—but whatever I read is sure to cling to me far longer than whatever three-to-six-year-old 100%-cotton t-shirt I throw on.
Diane Chonette (Art Director): In an effort to hold onto summer for just a wee bit longer, I recently picked up The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. The slim volume is a delicious little slice of Finnish island life through the eyes of a 6 year old girl and her aged grandmother. Light-hearted discussions intermingle with deeper topics as the two companions explore their natural surroundings. The book has given me the last little glow I needed before putting summer to rest.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): My dad was troubled when, several years ago, I asked for a copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior for my birthday; surely, I needed no further invitation to fixate on my own or others’ ineptitudes or failures of grace. But with Miss Manners, one comes for the discussion of asparagus and “at home” card etiquette, and stays for the gentle excoriation of the “gentle readers” who make their queries under false pretenses. Miss Manners knows when to call a spade a spade, or a bride-to-be a venture capitalist, or a grandchild a boorish parasite–although of course, she says as much only with the utmost politesse as she turns the tables on her letter writers. Miss Manners is so good, so much more clever than her prey, that it’s almost not sporting. Before the magnanimity of Dear Sugar, before Steve Almond’s compassionate heavy meddling, there was the bite of Miss Manners. Long may it reign.
Talal Achi (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): I’ve just finished reading Ursula LeGuin’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World. Like the other novels of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle, this one is set in a universe where countless worlds are populated by countless humanoid species. Some of these worlds—those technologically and ethically advanced enough—belong to “the League,” an interstellar coalition of which one distant purpose is to resist the return of an ancient galactic evil called simply, “the Enemy;” others, like Rocannon’s world, formerly (before the end of the novel) known as Formalhaut II, are yet too primitive to be admitted into the League, and are instead monitored by such agents as Rocannon, a League ethnologist. Formalhaut II is a world peopled by several distinct humanoid species (tall black men and women with blond hair, the Angyar, who ride windsteeds—flying cats—live lordly, Beowulf style, and are served by a smaller race—white, with dark hair, the quiet Olgyar; the telepathic Fian, slight kindhearted elf-like dwellers of the wood; their sturdy dwarf-like cousin race, the Gdemiar, also telepathic but much more dour; the tall, strange Winged Ones, who look like angels but behave like hive insects; and the minuscule Kiemhir, who resemble rodents), and, when the rest of his ethnological survey team is obliterated by an army come from a mutinous League planet to take over this world and subdue it so as to use it as a base of operations, Rocannon interacts with all of them in his (epic) quest to make contact with the League. Although Rocannon’s World is not quite as clean a work as some of the others of the Hainish Cycle (like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed—the first set on an ice-planet on which everyone is androgynous, the second set on a barren desert moon on which an amazing society has managed to make anarchy work viably and gracefully), it is nevertheless a very well written, very enjoyable book.
Alyssa Persons (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Florida has always struck me as an otherworldly appendage to the US, chock full of things whose existences I have no problem acknowledging (alligators, Disney World, etc.), but that I’d rather not ever experience. I thought I might remain carefully ambivalent towards Florida and its various idiosyncrasies, but it seems none other than Joan Didion found a way to successfully tear me from my self-imposed ignorance. If Didion published a book comprised only of her grocery lists I would probably be reading that at the moment, but for now Miami will have to do. Her sharp social and political commentary navigates between the shiny, glamorous veneer that Miami projects and the corruption and general unease that permeate the city. She casts a portrait of Miami as not so much a typical American city than a kind of liminal meeting point between Washington and Latin America–teeming with politicians, exiles, immigrants, and revolutionaries. I’m not booking a trip to South Beach any time soon, but Didion’s Miami has me mesmerized.
“Suddenly this defeat.
The blues gone gray
And the browns gone gray
A terrible amber.
In the cold streets
Your warm body.
In whatever room
Your warm body.
Among all the people
The people who are always
I have been easy with trees
Too familiar with mountains.
Joy has been a habit.
― Jack Gilbert, “Rain”
When all the other girls in our class were fawning over Justin Timberlake and Nick Carter, we were in love with a crocodile hunter. Not just any crocodile hunter, but The Crocodile Hunter. My twin sister Nikki and I would crowd close to the TV on Saturday mornings, flip to The Discovery Channel, and watch as Steve Irwin fearlessly wrangled rattle snakes, hippos, lizards, and crocs. We were enamored by his sun-toasted skin, his almandine eyes and desert-blond hair, the charming gap between his front teeth. We ran around the house imitating his famous catchphrase in our crude Australian accents, “Crikey, mate!” We went to the Discovery Store in the mall and made Mom buy us toy crocs of our own to wrangle. Nikki even got a Stretchy Steve-O doll, whose arms stretched when you pulled them hard. We would each grab an arm and pull in opposite directions, pulling Steve as hard as we could.
The Halloween of 2003, when we were nine years old, Nikki went as Steve. We dressed her in a short sleeve khaki button down, matching khaki shorts and tan boots with tall white socks. One of Dad’s belts, which was too big for her, we fastened loosely around her waist. We got her a little rubber snake to bring around too.
Nikki and I had a fascination with nature. Mom bought us science kits that would help us identify indigenous leaves and insects. We had a huge book called “The Nature Book,” where there were colorful images of animals and plants in all different ecosystems. My favorite was the Rainforest, and hers, the Ocean.
At first Steve did the show on his own, but then got married to Terri and they took their honeymoon hunting crocs. It was a TV special that Nikki and I wouldn’t miss. Steve and Terri were to us the most perfect couple. They would take turns driving the van or holding the camera, each narrating the scene in perfect calmness and elation. In 1998, Bindi Irwin was born, and would be a regular addition to the show. Steve was now more than a crocodile hunter. He was a husband and a father.
There were plenty of close calls on the show, where Steve would watch a rattlesnake slithering on a branch and then it would suddenly strike. But Steve was always low on his knees. He was a professional that preached safety at all costs.
2006 was our first year of Junior High, and we were excited. Nikki and I always loved school. At recess we would play Marine Biologists and look out through imaginary binoculars to search for dolphins, whales or manatees. We loved science class, where we would be dissecting frogs this year. On September 4th, the last day of summer vacation, I watched the news. Steve Irwin was dead.
We always knew Steve was fearless, but never believed he was mortal. According to the report, Steve was stung by a venomous stingray while filming a documentary about the deadliest sea creatures in the world. I ran up to Nikki’s room with tears in my eyes and told her what had happened to Steve. We sat on her bed. She held Stretchy Steve-O in her hands and we stared at him, crying.
This was our first experience with death and mourning. The loss of our first love. We cried for Terri and Bindi. We saw Bindi speak about her father on TV, at his memorial service. She was eight years old and addressed her audience with such poise, among them, her mother and her younger brother. She said she wanted to serve animals just like her father. And we cried again for our crocodile hunter.
Kaila Allison is a senior at New York University studying Creative Writing and Adolescent Psychology. She has published fiction in the Minetta Review, the Gallatin Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and Potluck Mag.
The futurologist sits alone in his gaping office. It’s the future. It’s been the future for a while. Meanwhile, he falls asleep and asleep and asleep in his chair. He dreams palely of his wife slicing tomatoes in the kitchen.
One day, he’d like his children and his pale wife to see the moon. But vacations are expensive. His job as a mid-level futurologist just doesn’t cut it.
Because he’s already seen them once, most things materialize for the futurologist sans magic. Like how he knew, on the chilly morning of November 26th, a small packed snowball would come sailing through the window from between his daughter’s fingers. This is what keeps him from a promotion. He can only anticipate banalities, those moments in days that are never dwelled upon. He hoards the humdrum. The other futurologists are hard at work on wars, the day the last truck of fossil fuel will gurgle into the distance, the plans for how a cancer-killing drug will be distributed once it’s discovered. He can’t see those things. They loom just outside his cranial cavity like moons in orbit.
Tomorrow morning his children will form balls of dough in the kitchen and make cookies that will flatten in the oven. He won’t tell them this will happen. He will instead, before work, gaze at the roundness of the silence left by his wife on her pillow. There will be a note about a notice she got regarding discounted rockets to the moon, discounted space suits as well. He will throw it away. At work he will organize and reorganize and reorganize the files of lives: the cereal breakfasts, the long black skirts yet to be purchased, the wrong turns that won’t make anyone late for anything.
After a while, one of his colleagues will walk in and tell him what she has seen: tomorrow the futurologist will be laid off. He wasn’t aware this would happen but did, about a week ago, see what will happen just after: how he will procure the white stress ball from his drawer and squeeze it until it pops, tinier spheres scattering across the grey tile.
As he sleeps at his desk, something pulses in his temples. The day before his wife leaves with the children, here’s the future he’ll see: a cloud-choked sky. A note, in his mind slightly blurred, saying something about “seeing the bigger picture.” Tiny half-moon indents in the palms of his hands.
Kristen Steenbeeke is a writer living in Seattle, Washington. Her poetry has appeared in Pacifica; her quasi-fiction on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She is the marketing manager at Hugo House, a nonprofit place for writers.
If a modern film version of Pride and Prejudice were produced today, some of the main characters should be gay, Elizabeth and Darcy should not get married at the end, and Charlotte Lucas should be played by a tabby cat. At least, those were the conclusions made by students in a college course I taught last winter. The course covered film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, from the 1940 Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson version, up through Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’ Diary, (with plenty of time for Colin Firth and Keira Knightley along the way). By the end, each student had to write a twelve-page pitch for a new film, with results ranging from Kung Fu Prejudice and Elizabeth Bennet, Superhero, to a creative mash-up of P&P and The Great Gatsby.
Undergraduates, especially English majors, tend to be very good at applying the lessons of literature to their lives, and Jane Austen’s world of courtship and marriage provides a stark contrast to the hookup culture on today’s college campuses. As one young woman put it: “I wish I had a Mr. Darcy pining for me, but that is not how the real world works, which is depressing at times. I also do not have the opportunity to go to balls and dance with eligible bachelors. Instead I am stuck in fraternity basement parties, with sweaty frat boys grinding against me to sexist rap music.” She didn’t want to live in Austen’s world, but she had no illusions about her own.
I appreciated my students’ openness as they crafted their final papers, but I can’t say that I was equally forthcoming. I didn’t mind sharing my oldest daughter’s impressions of college parties, or the culture my other girls were encountering at our local high school. But I never mentioned the messy truth about my own life—that once a week after class I was driving over to a lawyer’s office to hammer through the last stages of a protracted divorce.
Reading Pride and Prejudice—and watching all those films—is a grim exercise when you’re going through a divorce. You tend to get a little cynical about Elizabeth and Darcy’s prospects for long-term compatibility. Most days I found myself sympathizing with Mr. Bennet, the bookish father who retreats to his library to avoid his flighty spouse’s chatter. That was me—the studious English professor with the happy-go-lucky husband, fretting over family finances while my soon-to-be-ex flew our three daughters down to Florida for a spree of multiple amusement parks.
I met my husband when I was in college, the summer after my sophomore year. He lived in Washington while I was studying in Boston, so we maintained a long distance relationship for two years, then got married one month after my graduation. Only one of my college friends told me directly that she thought I was crazy to get married so young. My students, however, were much more clear—young women who get married in their early twenties, especially right out of college, are nuts.
Early marriages, they insisted, might make sense for couples like Pride and Prejudice’s Jane and Bingley, who are blandly cheerful, traditional and hopelessly naïve. But Elizabeth and Darcy? By the novel’s end they’ve known each other for less than a year, and Elizabeth, as she tells Lady Catherine, is “not yet one and twenty.” In the twenty-first century, Elizabeth and Darcy would be well-educated and ambitious, eager to establish their careers before marrying. They would certainly have sex, see each other steadily, and maybe even live together for a few years. But marriage, according to my class, would have to wait.
I don’t know that the later marriages of career-driven couples have any more chance of success than the early matches of previous generations. My own marriage lasted for twenty-five years. Still, deferring matrimony does give young people, especially women, a chance to develop as individuals, to live on their own, and to understand what they really want from a life partner—questions I had delayed until my late forties.
My class had strong opinions about life partners. For instance, why should we assume that a modern Elizabeth would marry a man? Darcy is a fine name for a woman, and several students who were planning rom-com films imagined Elizabeth and Darcy as a happy lesbian couple.
That made sense to me, given the social life I was experiencing at the time. Getting divorced is an exercise in female bonding. Over the two years of my separation I’d been introduced to a whole new circle of wonderful women—mostly divorced—all wanting to avoid being the singleton at couples’ parties. I’d been to wine tastings with divorced women, concerts with divorced women, cafes in Paris and New York with divorced women. I’d lingered in a Turkish bath in Istanbul with a divorced woman. If we had all been gay or bisexual, the romantic possibilities would have been endless.
Instead we sat around getting mildly drunk while we laughed about bad dates, no dates, and Match.com vs. Eharmony.
I’ve never been on a book tour. Everyone says book tours are rare now anyway and so there’s probably no chance that I’ll ever go on one. And so when I hear that an author is on a book tour and complains about his/her driver and endless nights in drab hotel rooms I can’t help but feel that the author is doing the wrong thing: complaining. Except maybe complaining is part of the glamor of a book tour.
Even though I’ve never been on an actual book tour I do have a fantasy book tour. My fantasy book tour is like a cruise in one of those old movies. I arrive in my quarters and there’s an enormous bucket of flowers waiting and one of those huge fruit baskets wrapped in cellophane. A phone rings and my driver arrives, a nice person who knows where the signing is so I don’t have to get lost on the way or parallel park. We arrive at the signing and people are waiting for my signature and those people are extraordinarily kind…but this account is getting so boring. One of the best parts of my fantasy book tour: I return to my hotel room gratified and don’t spend the night regretting something I did or said. I don’t act like that woman in The Waste Land who mutters, “My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad.” No, I feel more like Walt Whitman wanted us to feel. And there’s a mini-bar in my hotel room. And someone has left something for me: a bowl of fresh raspberries topped with enough whipped cream to suffocate a cow.
I sleep happily and the next morning the driver—who has become a friend for life and also happens to be an importer of marvelous free trade coffee which she/he brings along for me in a thermos—drives me to the next stop on the tour. The next stop is like Paris except it’s only twenty miles away and nobody knows French—and people actually line up to buy one of my books. And that book is meant for each reader in some deeply meaningful way and, once again, people are extraordinarily kind. And I resist drawing a little picture next to my signature, because that can be profoundly irritating and may lower resale value.
I should mention that although I’ve never been on a book tour I have done book signings. In one of my favorite signings I was posted next to an author of erotic literature featuring baseball players. She was warmly welcoming and brought all sorts of swag: sexy magnets, sexy book marks, sexy baseball cards. This was at a Barnes & Noble, and we had been expressly forbidden to bring swag to lure people to our tables. But she wrote about the forbidden, and so the forbidden was her territory. I think I sold one book and gave away two, but it was still one of my favorite signings, because where else would I have met an author of baseball erotica? It was an opportunity to be a writer on whom nothing is lost—like Henry James. Besides, I liked the author, and there were plenty of opportunities to ask questions.
But sometimes signings are miserable. There’s a crowd passing by and you’re like a small zoo animal of no particular interest.
I have given readings that were worse than any of my signings. For one of my readings only two people showed up—a married couple who kept saying, “We thought the place would be packed!” Out of pity they gave me a collection of humorous revisions of that one psalm that begins “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil.”
At another reading a man in the audience squealed like a pig, but I’ve recounted that story elsewhere and so I won’t go into that. And like probably every writer, I’ve given a reading where an espresso machine expressed regular, sadistically timed indignation.
Then too, I have also been that person in the audience at readings who gives the writer the creeps. I once introduced myself to another writer with great enthusiasm—we had a mutual friend. The writer’s male companion said, “I’m sure you’re a very nice person” and led me away by the elbow.
Worse: something happened when I was an appreciative audience member at a well-known novelist’s reading. After the novelist finished reading, everywhere I looked suddenly turned crisper, brighter. Even the maple trees in the window behind the writer became brilliantly lit—the way things appear illuminated after you’ve concentrated for a very long time on a remarkable painting. I tried to communicate this to the writer. He interrupted and said, “You’ve just told me that while I was reading you couldn’t stop looking at trees.” A few years later I went to another reading by this same novelist. He opened with an anecdote about a woman who insulted him by telling him that during his reading she couldn’t stop looking at trees.
My slim hope: could there have been another woman?
But back to my fantasy book tour. After I finish my book tour I return home, happily refreshed. As it turns out, my book tour has been so inspiring that I immediately write a book. The process is exhilarating and the book practically writes itself. The book is called My Book Tour! and has so much potential to draw readers that my publisher sends me on another book tour. And I whine about the book tour a little bit, to keep things interesting. Whining is just sharing specific information at a high pitch. It’s like, you know, opera. And then, because one good experience leads to another, I write an opera.
Lee Upton’s collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, appeared in May from BOA. She is the author of the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy; the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; and the poetry collection Undid in the Land of Undone, among other works.
On Today’s Nooner, newlywed Bianca Stone goes back to the altar as she reads from her collection Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House Books/Octopus).
Bianca Stone grew up in Vermont, graduated from NYU’s Creative Writing Program, is the author of several poetry chapbooks, and a poetry comics series. She is the illustrator of Antigonick, (a collaboration with Anne Carson), and her poems have appeared in such journals as American Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, Best American Poetry 2011. She lives in Brooklyn.
Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report is available now from Tin House Books.
Incident Report 1
The time was 2:15. A young man swaggered into the library. On his shaved head he wore a grey tweed hat. The words Love and Fuck, printed in large, dark letters, decorated the back of his green army jacket. His black boots added weight to his presence. A small, fine-boned man, his eyes were the pale blue of a summer sky. Chains of varying thicknesses and degrees of intricacy, each link handwoven from copper wire, hung from his shoulders and crisscrossed his chest. He settled himself in a chair by the large window, behind the paperback spinners. At 4:15 he came to the desk and asked to borrow, “please, if possible,” a small hand-held vacuum. “I’ve got some shavings I’d like to clean up,” he explained. For the preceding two hours he’d sat, stripping electrical wire with the aid of his pocketknife. I brought him the battery powered Dust Buster from the shelf at the back of our workroom. I could think of nothing in the Rules and Regulations to prohibit me from lending it to him. He thanked me, and, crouching down, cleaned the debris from the carpet surrounding his chair—his territory of responsibility.
Incident Report 2
The time was 11:15 AM. A slender woman with unusually dry and pale skin entered the library at an angle. She slipped in sideways. All of a sudden she was there, moving forward, lightly on her feet, as if prepared to elude an attacker. Her restless, almost colourless eyes took in her surroundings. She approached the Reference Desk, where I sat scrolling through the e-mails suspended in my In Box. “Where are your career information sheets?” I indicated two thick black binders. She peered in the direction I was pointing, but made no move to cross the room. “Shall I show you the binders?” I offered. “I see where you’re pointing. I’m not a fool.” Her voice snipped the word “fool” from the air and pasted it on my forehead. I lowered my eyes. The female patron in question set off on her journey. Several minutes later, she returned. “Those binders,” she informed me, “are black.” “Yes,” I agreed, “they are.” “Then why did you say they were purple?” She leaned forward to make it clear that no route of escape was available to me. “Did I?” “You did. You said, ‘those purple binders over there.’ You knew they were black but you lied to me. ‘Those purple binders,’ you said.” I muttered my apology. “I didn’t intend . . .” She cut me off. “You did. You said purple, those purple binders. You knew they were black, but you told me they were purple.” “I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear.” “You were perfectly clear. Purple binders, you said. You lied to me.” I attempted to distract her from the subject of colour by asking, “Were you able to find what you wanted?” She glared at me through her white eyelashes. I repeated my question. “Were you able to find what you wanted?” She held my gaze with her hard little eyes, now the colour of dirty snow, and considered my query. “It’s not my abilities that are in doubt, but yours,” she informed me. “I asked you a simple question, and you lied to me.” The anger in her voice dragged, like a fingernail across a blackboard. I shifted my attention to her collarbone. She spoke her final judgment. “You should be put outside in a cage on the sidewalk.” Again I lowered my eyes to the computer screen in front of me, and read, but the words had become hollow gourds, little seeds of shrivelled meaning rattling inside them.
Incident Report 3
This morning, the first to arrive, I unlocked the back door of the library, shouldered my bicycle, and descended the narrow stairs into the dim basement. The grey metal box fixed to the wall opened easily to reveal two vertical rows of stiff black switches made of a hard plastic. I started at the top and moved down. Each switch, succumbing to the pressure of my thumb, produced a loud “click”—a sound of finality—as it flipped from “Off” to “On.” Throughout the library above me, lights lit up. Nothing irrevocable had occurred. At the end of the day the lights would go off again. And yet for a few seconds I’d experienced certainty and a fleeting sensation of power. Sounds are more convincing than most of reality. My name is Miriam Gordon. I am an employee of the Public Libraries of Toronto. I am thirty-five years old and a “Clerical,” or that is how they referred to me until last month when they changed my title. I am now a “Public Service Assistant.”
Incident Report 4
This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump palm of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her for her gift.
Incident Report 5
In the library workroom, a schedule hangs from two clips. As always, the day has been divided into compartments, as if it were a train about to set out on a well-planned voyage along shining rails. My initials have been pencilled into many of the little boxes that correspond to each hour between 9:00 AM and 8:30 PM. We, the staff, don’t always greet the public with enthusiasm. We don’t feel, every one of us without fail, that we are travelling out, embarked upon an adventure, and yet there we are, inscribed in our little boxes, as if the day were pulled by a solid locomotive. Every morning in the warmth of my bed, as I surface from sleep, fear—small as a cherry stone, it cracks open behind my breastbone. I don’t want the fruit. With each quick breath the fear grows, a rustling of leaves in the cavity of my chest. But soon I’ve washed, dressed, drunk a cup of tea, eaten a piece of toast, and am on my way to work, riding my bicycle in a prescribed direction.
Martha Baillie is the author of four novels and has been published in Canada, Germany, and Hungary. Her poems have appeared frequently in journals such as Descant, Prairie Fire, and the Antigonish Review. Her nonfiction piece “The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach” was published by Brick: a literary journal. Her most recent novel, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, was published in September 2014 by Tin House Books.
I walked halfway across this morning, and it made me feel ordinary. Everyone who crosses the Golden Gate thinks of jumping. Even the kid with his skateboard pissing off the pedestrians imagines their reaction if he’d careen down the cable from the south tower and launch himself toward Fort Point. It always depends on savoring a reaction you won’t be there to witness, not so different from writing a letter like this.
The hedge fund broker thinks of jumping in his velour jog suit. The mother herding her three kids drunk on ice cream. The symphony oboist, the bluegrass picker. The dreamer with her long red scarf, the dreamer in his black Giants jacket … but all of them are dreamers.
Better to drink yourself to death with Chartreuse or Benedictine and be found in the morning in tomato vines like an old monk. Better to hang yourself from a beam in the vestry just to have the word vestry in your obituary. I might plan my death just to invoke certain words from the dictionary: coloratura, Reykjavík, cast-iron, longitude, salt. That would be a work of art. Not the swan dive from the span, the term itself a cliché: swans don’t dive. They flap to earth with extraordinary clumsiness, graceful only in flight. Of course, we’re all graceful in flight. It’s not flight that separates the graceful from the clumsy.
The deck is 250 feet above the water: it takes four seconds to hit. We take certain things for granted: gravity, oxygen and, if we’re lucky, sleep. We take for granted the joy of being here to register our pain. But pain eliminates precisely the gap between itself and the one who registers it.
What I fear most is that, while one of those four seconds might be exhilarating, in the last long, split second before I hit, I would realize my stupidity: a soldier hiding in a cave years after the war is over. To kill myself only to be mocked at my funeral, over multicolored bean casserole, as if I’d made a mistake, like when I was a child in the pageant playing one of the three kings and I’d put on my mother’s hat with the green silk grapes instead of my crown because it was the most beautiful thing I knew.
Sometimes I think my whole life has been an attempt to undo that moment, an attempt that has been successful to a disturbing degree. Sometimes I see men, and women too, stop breathing for a moment when they see me because I’m the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen—my features mean something to them, something real that has nothing to do with me.
What I mean is: I know what Medusa felt like. The snakes of green and white jade intertwined, shining, ecstatic.
Robert Thomas’ latest book, Bridge, is a work of fiction published by BOA Editions, Ltd. His first book, Door to Door, was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa as winner of the Poets Out Loud Prize and published by Fordham University Press, and his second book, Dragging the Lake, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. He has received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and won a Pushcart Prize.
Most of us can remember the exhilaration of being released onto the playground from a stuffy elementary school classroom, the awkwardness of a teenage movie theater make-out session, or the reckless thrill of getting tipsy before a high school dance. These are the transformative experiences and emotions that comprise Timothy Denevi’s captivating nonfiction debut, Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD. But Denevi examines these scenes from his childhood through the lens of ADHD. How did it feel to be a six-year-old on Ritalin, or a teenager watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on Dexedrine? Hyper chronicles Denevi’s journey from initial diagnosis through fifteen years of treatment, providing readers with a window into his unique view of the world with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Supplementing these personal memories is the scientific history of ADHD as a condition. Since the late 19th century, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others—from Sigmund Freud to Alfred Strauss to Michel Foucault to L. Ron Hubbard—have disagreed over the disorder’s causes and symptoms, and the most effective methods of treatment. Denevi weaves this research into his personal narrative to create a book that is not just funny and heartwrenching, but also informative and illuminating—a rare history of ADHD from a patient’s perspective.
Reading Hyper can give you a sense of Denevi’s affable, electric personality—he was voted Biggest Talker in his middle school yearbook, after all. It’s Denevi’s thoughtful, friendly enthusiasm that makes his prose such a delight to consume, and that made this interview such a pleasure to conduct.
LIZ WYCKOFF: Hyper is such a compelling exploration of a psychological condition, including both your own personal narrative and a fascinating social history about ADHD. When did you realize this was a story you wanted to tell?
TIMOTHY DENEVI: That’s an excellent question. When I started graduate school, I had the idea to write a book about the baseball player Barry Bonds—about how the cultural discussion of him in the national media was extreme and, in my opinion, dangerously incorrect—but instead, in my writing workshops, I found myself drawn to moments that resided at the very beginning of memory: images and situations I’d always carried with me but that, when expressed through the artifice of narrative, began to feel defamiliarized and fresh; I wasn’t sure what they meant or why I’d held on to them for so long. The beginning of the project, then, was an attempt to articulate these moments, the series of which came to represent the first chapter of the book.
LW: The narrative is constantly shifting between scene and exposition, memory and scientific research. How did you braid those distinct threads of the piece into one another?
TD: I really believe that a memoir, to be effective—to be more than the sum of its parts—needs to jump beyond the concept of “pain on the page,” as in: the act of expression, while important, can’t be the only thing that matters. Memoir as a form allows you to navigate the space between the present-you and the past-you in the way few other artifices allow. After all, if everything that can happen has happened—which is as good a way as any to describe nonfiction—part of the book’s momentum needs to reside instead in the distance that separates the action and the actual telling.
That being said, part of my goal was to recreate the perspective of the child-me—to keep the camera as close to how I saw the world, then, as possible—and as a result, I found myself struggling on a structural level with the best way to achieve such closeness and also emphasize the perspective of the present-day me. I tried various avenues—playing with tenses, adding a bunch of reflection, even including a present-day thread—but it all felt false; I could feel these devices trying to do the work they were meant to accomplish, as opposed to said work naturally being done. So instead I began to include the historical thread. This way, the reader could get the perspective of the adult-me, along with context on what was going on, in a way that helped to break up the intensely emotional point-of-view that drives the child-me parts.
As for actually braiding these threads together, I tried to see each chapter’s personal narrative in terms of theme and then attach the broader essayistic parts along similar lines. The first chapter, for me, was about causality: the search for the causes of my behavior braided with the history of the search for causes of ADHD; the second, treatment; the third, education; the fourth, perception; the fifth, the disorder through the lifespan; and the sixth, where we’ve arrived at now. The transitions between each thread were often difficult to achieve, but there are so many fantastic examples out there of writers who braid essay and narrative effectively, and I found myself reading them over and over with an eye for their transitions—in this sense, the works of W.G. Sebald and Michael J. Arlen were especially helpful.
TD: Ha! Goodness no. It wasn’t until I had hundreds of pages of narrative and still felt as if the book wasn’t working correctly that I finally planted myself in the University of Maryland library and spent more than a year reading everything I could about the disorder. I’m not sure I would’ve done it if the project itself, in its structure, hadn’t called out for it, so to speak. So in this sense, everything I came across felt surprising, but what really struck me were the perspectives of the doctors I read—how their negative and positive traits seemed at times to shine through the dense academic tones of their articles. One of the things that also surprised me, however, was the fact that it never really seemed to occur to these medical professionals that the work they were doing on ADHD would be judged not just by their colleagues but by the subjects of their actual studies. And in this sense, the act of retelling the history of the disorder from my point of view is part of the argument the book is trying to make—its broader theme.
LW: What books and/or writers served as models for you, in structure or content or even genre, during the writing process?
TD: I tell my students that you should always try and imagine five of your favorite writers in the room with you while you write a scene; how would they express in a completely different manner the very subject you’re trying to address? For this book, I re-read the nonfiction of Tobias Wolff; I was so struck by the fact that, even when he’s replicating a child’s point of view, the reader has such a clear sense of his authorial intelligence. Michael J. Arlen and W.G. Sebald provided excellent examples of transitions. The short stories of Stephanie Vaughn, especially “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” and “Dog Heaven,” were great templates for how to employ effective imagery within first-person narratives. Syntactically, more than a few of my sentences draw on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and the works of Denis Johnson. Each morning, before I start writing, I try and copy out a page or two from what I’m currently reading, and looking back at my notes, it seems that while finishing the book I was reading (and writing out) a good amount of these writers, along with Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Julian Barnes, and James Salter.
As I look back on the process, a passage that really stuck with me during the book’s composition comes from the ending to Calvino’s “Aquatic Uncle”: in this narrative, the main character Qfwfq, who’s been alive since the beginning of the universe and is now telling the story of his life to an audience that, naturally, is much younger than him (Italian fabulism!), recounts the moment in evolution when life transitioned from the ocean to the land, which also happens to be the first time he fell in love—and was subsequently dumped for not being savvy enough:
“It was a hard blow for me. But, after all, what could I do about it? I went on my way, in the midst of the world’s transformations, being transformed myself. Every now and then, among the many forms of living beings, I encountered one who ‘was somebody’ more than I was: one who announced the future, the duckbilled platypus who nurses its young, just hatched from the egg; or I might encounter another who bore witness to a past beyond all return, a dinosaur who had survived to the Cenozoic, or else—a crocodile—part of the past that had discovered a way to remain immobile through the centuries. They all had something, I know, that made them superior to me, sublime, something that made me, compared to them, mediocre. And yet I wouldn’t have traded places with any of them.”
LW: Some of the book’s most poignant moments focus on your inability to perceive your behavior the way onlookers do. As you describe it, “the other students and the teacher were far away until suddenly their world surged across mine.” Could you talk a little bit more about the process of writing from the perspective of your younger self? What were some of the challenges of attempting to describe events the way you experienced them decades ago?
TD: It made for awkward transitions back into the real world, that’s for sure; I remember, while working on the section about middle school, looking up from the coffee shop in which I was writing and seeing everyone there in the way I once had, as a pre-teen: out of all these people, who would be plotting against me and who would be on my side—who made up the in crowd here? I shook it off in a few seconds and returned to my present perspective—I didn’t know anyone in the café to begin with, of course—but the sense of entering so deeply into the craziness of the past was at times haunting. Which is part of the goal of the book, of course.
I remember a story the writer Jo Ann Beard once told, in a workshop, about trying to re-create the teenage perspective for the book she was working on; she went to see one of the Twilight movies at a local theater and found herself wanting to yell at Kristen Stewart’s character “You stupid girl—he’s gonna leave you the first chance he gets!” But that’s the adult perspective; as a writer, she had to shrug that off and see the sexy boy-vampire in the way the other teenagers in the theater did—in the way she herself once would have. It’s a more difficult move than you’d think, one that can at times feel like writing fiction: you’re re-creating a point-of-view that no longer exists, despite the fact that you once lived it.
First we filled the holes, each only nine or so millimeters wide. The maintenance staff had tools on hand. A bit of spackle, smoothed and sanded did the job. A touch of fresh paint.
Except now there were spots where the paint seemed different, glossy squares a foot across that (in the right light) showed exactly where the holes had been. The squares weren’t as noticeable as the holes themselves, but we couldn’t quite ignore them. So we had the walls painted, top to bottom, giving a uniformity to the sheen. Everyone was pleased with the result. Those classrooms now looked bright and open.
Except that, when moving from room to room, we could immediately tell which were different, which had been recently redone, and it reminded us, made us look more closely for the places we’d spackled. So we contracted a group of men in white suits and cloth booties to spray the whole school down, wall by wall, two even coats. And when they were done, it looked so new and clean that we could no longer tell, not really, which rooms had been the rooms with holes.
The place practically shone.
It looked so good in fact that we decided to do the floors as well—not cover them over with a layer of linoleum as we’d done in the last renovation, but pull them up and replace them altogether, because now those floors were the oldest part, the clearest reminder. We moved out all the desks and the shelves and the furniture in the lounge and the sports equipment caged in the gym. We moved out the pencils and books, and the globes that no longer seemed to spin the same and put it all in storage in temporary containers parked out behind the school—stacked it and stuffed it and locked it away. The workers worked, first ripping out the layers of old floor, filling dumpsters with debris, then installing the new. And when the floors were done, it really was a different place altogether. We almost didn’t recognize it. The whole place smelled of fresh paint and polyurethane.
Paint and polyurethane and something else. Was it cordite? Or tiny particles of burnt black powder still moving through duct systems, never fully filtered? The smell grew day by day, taking over, outbrighting even the newly painted walls and newly sealed floors. We couldn’t bring ourselves to empty the storage containers. All of the books and maps and audiovisual equipment seemed better off where they were. We opened the windows and it faded a bit, but not as much as we’d hoped. We tried to ignore it, but the smell was real and present and would not go away.
Then we realized we could change the filters in the air intake system, an easy fix—like filling a hole.
Except it was too easy, wasn’t it? Opening a window, changing a filter. The filters filtered the smell so we could no longer smell it, but that didn’t stop the smell from existing. It was still there, somewhere, unsmelled, moving through the ducts and vents. And we could change the filters again, sure, so that less of the smell remained, but less wasn’t good enough. Even if we changed the filters five hundred times, even if we left the windows wide open day and night, would the air ever be fully filtered? Could it? We found ourselves in a Xeno’s paradox of air particles, which got ever smaller but wouldn’t quite go away. So we took a vote and decided unanimously to replace the system itself, even though it couldn’t have been six years old. We had it all pulled out, not just the machine in the utility room that pumped air, but the ducts as well. This meant ripping open the newly painted walls and some of the ceiling, but it had to be done.
And of course, we had to paint again, once the new ducts were installed (ducts that had never held that invisible smell (whatever it was), or the outgassing of construction paper and dried paste, or the breath of our children). So the painters painted, covering the walls with a few more coats—a few more layers between past and present. And with the furniture moved out, and the new air and new paint, it was almost as if it had worked, as if everything could go back to normal at last.
But when the time came, we couldn’t bring ourselves to empty the storage containers. Opening them at all seemed dangerous. Some of us felt as if we no longer knew what was inside. There were detailed lists of what we’d put where, but when packing all those things, had we really noticed the details? Perhaps that phantom smell had permeated not just the building, but its furnishings as well. Or maybe there was something more in there that we had not yet conceived of—some other worse surprise—a stain or a stray hole we’d missed, so focused were we on the walls. Many felt they could not see another hole and survive it. Others admitted that the little desks themselves, with or without holes, would be too much to bear. Others wished we hadn’t tried to fix anything in the first place, that we’d just taken the whole thing down, brick by brick, and done away with the holes that way, permanently, forever.
In any case, we could all see now that it was far too soon to empty the containers or send children back. For one, just look at those windows–so glaringly dated now that everything around them has been redone. And the roof? That roof is a tragedy. And how had we not noticed the grass? Both in front of and behind the school? No one with a conscience could leave it as it is. No one with a heart could stop short of digging up every last blade of it.
Mika Taylor lives in Willimantic, Connecticut (a.k.a. Romantic Willimantic, a.k.a. Heroin Town USA, a.k.a. Thread City, a.k.a. Vulture Town) with her writer husband, PR Griffis, and Petunia von Scampers their crime-solving dog. Her writing most recently appears in The Kenyon Review Online, The Collagist, and Guernica.
A series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry.
Laila Lalami is a talented novelist and a discerning critic, a voice of reason and empathy online, and an old friend. Her third novel, The Moor’s Account, offers a new point of entry into a true story — the Castilian conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez’s would-be conquest of the Americas. The narrator, Mustafa al-Zamori, is Moroccan, a former merchant and now a slave whom the Spaniards have renamed Estebanico. An enslaved man called by this name actually was reported to be one of only four survivors of the ill-fated Narváez excursion, but his story hasn’t been told until now. The Moor’s Account is fiction of the lushest, most psychologically satisfying kind, a tale of freedom and slavery, of the homes and families and choices we’re born with and the ones we make for ourselves.
Maud Newton: In a Lives piece for the New York Times Magazine, you write that your mom was left in a French orphanage in Fez in 1941, and that, over the years, you had many theories and stories about how she might have ended up there. Your thirst for the truth eventually led you to take a genetic test, but in the end, science couldn’t give you the kind of answers you were seeking. “Only stories could,” you said. Do you think the mystery of your mother’s origins is part of the reason you’re a writer?
Laila Lalami: I think it certainly played a part. When I was growing up, I could never shake the feeling that there was something different about my family. All my friends had maternal aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, whereas my extended family consisted solely of relatives on my father’s side. We also did certain things differently at home, like sing French lullabies instead of Arabic ones, or eat pain perdu with mint tea—habits my mother brought with her from the French orphanage. Being different meant that I became more sensitive to detail, more attuned to all the ways in which a person belongs to or is held apart from a group.
For me, the desire to write came from my love of books and my need to tell stories. But I think there’s a connection between feeling like you’re different and wanting to tell a story. When you write you can, at least temporarily, tame that feeling of difference.
MN: You and I have talked a lot about the privacy issues that the vast DNA databases like 23andme’s raise. How do you feel about revelations that the Department of Defense is funding research into DNA-based mugshots?
LL: Terrified! I find it frightening that the government would have access to databases of DNA evidence on people who have committed no crimes at all. There is a very real risk of error and abuse. But more than government, I’m also concerned about how such data might be used or sold by the corporations that have it. Will insurance companies have access to it? Will our employers?
MN: Mustafa, the narrator of The Moor’s Account, has been taken from his homeland, stripped of his name, enslaved, and carried along on Narváez’s 1527 expedition to La Florida. On his journey, and when he is captured at his destination, he sustains himself in part on memories of the stories that his mother told him as a boy. His own memoirs are in a sense a continuation of that tradition. “What each of us wants, in the end,” he writes, “whether he is black or white, master or slave, rich or poor, man or woman, is to be remembered after his death. I am no different.” It’s such a wonderful, nuanced novel, and one that underscores the arbitrariness of whose stories are preserved to time and whose are forgotten.
LL: Although I didn’t realize it at the time I started working on the novel, I think one of the things that interested me most was exploring the ways in which some stories are celebrated, propagated, and even canonized, while others are passed over or forgotten.
In history, the stories that prevail aren’t necessarily the best or truest; they’re the ones told by the most powerful people. The beauty of fiction is that it does not obey that pattern. A writer can choose whichever perspective she deems to be the best for the story.
MN: I’m interested in repetition in families, in echoes or the lack thereof down through the generations. Do you think about shared traits or tendencies when you look at your own family?
LL: Yes. Because I know so little about my mother’s ancestry, I often find myself wondering whether certain traits are inherited from my father or my mother. And I do this with my daughter, too. For instance, no one in my family (or my husband’s family) is a musician, but our daughter has always had an aptitude for it. So I always wonder if it’s not because of a distant relative on my mother’s side.
MN: Helen Oyeyemi’s most recent novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, draws on the myth of Snow White to interrogate the conceptions of beauty implicit in the practice of “passing.” Have you ever felt burdened by the kinds of assumptions people make about you or about your ancestry based on your appearance?
LL: I have curly hair, but when I blow it straight I’m often assumed to be white or Hispanic. And that has led to some interesting experiences. For example, with straight hair, I’m never pulled aside for that “random” screening at the airport. Or if I’m at a party and someone starts talking about the Middle East, I hear offensive things that would not necessarily be said to my face if my ancestry were known. But if my hair is natural, then I get a whole set of other experiences. Once, a flight attendant grabbed a strand of my hair as she was walking down the aisle and asked me if it was natural. Why do people think it’s okay to touch a stranger’s hair without asking permission first? Another time, a gate agent forced me to check my carry-on, while the blonde woman ahead of me had three bags and a pillow. I was grading papers once on a flight, and a woman asked me if I taught grade school. I said no. “Oh, high school?” she asked. “No,” I replied. There was a pause. “College?!” she said, with astonishment in her voice. Anyway, it’s endless.
MN: Those of us who attempt to trace our ancestry: what do you think we’re seeking?
Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She attended Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, University College in London, and the University of Southern California, where she earned a Ph.D. in linguistics. She is the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and the novel Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize longlist. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, the Guardian, the New York Times, and in numerous anthologies. Her work has been translated into ten languages. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Her new novel, The Moor’s Account, was published by Pantheon.
Maud Newton is writing a book about the science and superstition of ancestry.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): The world of Visual Arts is crazy and keeps expanding like a bowl of Strega Nona’s pasta. But one of my favorite authors who has constantly showed up with her fork and spoon, Chris Kraus, wrote an amazing guide of recent movements in her book Where Art Belongs which Semiotext(e) published through their Intervention Series back in 2011. It’s a bright orange book, a blast to read, and will make you want to do some cool shit.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): For inimitable prose style, Proust and Nabokov (among lots of others) come to mind, and as far as soccer style goes, Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti’s The Italian Job: A Journey to the Heart of Two Great Footballing Cultures is pretty terrific. Vialli, former striker for superstar teams Juventus and Chelsea and previous manager-player for the latter, writes about Italian and English soccer with wit, depth and a sharp eye as to how these two pitch mega-powers play, strategize and manage—both literally and metaphorically—their teams. From calcio cameos by José Mourinho to Marcello Lippi to Sir Alex Ferguson to excerpts from Sun Tzu’streatise The Art of War that Vialli and Marcotti (a journalist for Corriere dello Sport) include in their discussion about how ancient warfare tactics (circa 544–496 BC) can successfully be applied to modern soccer strategies, this is a book that has something for most any footballer fan, professional or amateur. Despite a title that seems to be rooting for the tricolor flag of green, white and red, The Italian Job takes both countries into serious soccer consideration with insight and brio. Bonus prize: Come here for all you need to know about “The Tactical Dogma: Stuck on 4-4-2.”
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): As an Ethan Hawke true believer, I was predisposed to like Boyhood. That said, gentle reader, I can’t think of a recent movie that’s moved me more. There are times when the seams show in the actors’ performances, especially of the kid, and yet I’d feel mean faulting them there, because to me it’s almost not what the movie is about. Maybe particularly because I saw the movie at a moment of personal flux, watching however many years’ worth of moments accrue in the life of Boyhood’s boy made me almost sappy-grateful for the progression of time, for the fact that things keep on happening–at least, until they don’t. In the midst of a couple of disorienting weeks, I kept telling myself, “Just think of Boyhood,” of that fact that there’s more life waiting for me beyond what I can see, that the movie keeps going, and that in itself is worth watching.
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): The year after I graduated college I lived with two friends in a split-level house in Charlottesville, VA. About five months into our year lease, we were joined by a third friend. I think he was initially supposed to stay a month or so, but he ended up living out the lease on the basement couch. As I recall, he was unemployed for the better part of those months. This was the mid-aughts and he spent his bounteous free time downloading whole libraries of music and movies from torrent sites that were as obscure to me then as they are now. The show I remember most is The Trailer Park Boys, a Canadian sitcom about three dope-smoking friends who live in, duh, a trailer park called Sunnyvale. There were four seasons out then and a Christmas special and, God, so many of my fondest memories of that year involve watching or quoting that show. The quality dropped well off after Season 5, so it was out of nostalgia, mostly, that I started watching Season 8, that Netflix just released. And, as they say, holy fuck boys, is it good. An absolute return to form. The episodes and jokes have the pop and ridiculousness of their best work and the season is sustained by a strong narrative backbone I won’t spoil for you by explaining here. Back to The Third Friend: I’m not sure he ever paid rent and he contributed to bills sporadically at best and he drank our booze and freely partook of our other stupefacients, but he used to claim that he was contributing to the house by way of all the awesome media he was introducing us to. There was a monetary value to this kind of exposure that we were overlooking. I thought this was just the steamiest load of horseshit I’d ever heard and told him as much. I was working two and at one point three jobs to make ends meet. But now, almost ten years on, as much pleasure as the show’s given me, I’m inclined to agree. So, Third Friend, consider whatever debt remains forgiven once and for all. At this point, who knows, I may even owe you.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): My best cousin (read: whichever cousin I last drank beers with) sent me a book in the mail the other day. It was Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. She said on a sticky note: “Her brother is Colin Meloy and her dad is an attorney who handles most of the Democratic Party’s work in Montana, but she’s still my favorite Meloy.” The stories feel like bas-relief panels carved out of real life—immutable, inevitable narratives written in athletic, singular sentences. I read this book in bars and coffee shops and waiting rooms and in basically every moment I wasn’t behind the wheel of a car, because I couldn’t just put it down and forget about it. It finally came unglued from my hands and I put it down, sticky note stuck safely to the title page, and made room around it on the shelf for the rest of Maile Meloy’s books.
Lance Cleland (Winter Workshop Guru): Taking part in the inaugural screening of Portland’s “Red Vines, Nutter Butter, Film Jamz” series, I recently re-watched 1993′s football-noir classic The Program. While many people rightfully remember it as the forebear to the vampire-on-campus craze that would come a decade later, what impressed me most about the film is its ahead of the curve take on many of the most controversial social issues of the day. For instance, take this sensitive depiction of a star college athlete who can’t afford to call a tow truck because the university he makes millions for won’t give him a justly deserved stipend.
Like all truly powerful films, The Program has many layers. Some of which can be found on Halle Berry.
The bakery was hot, stifling, but Melba shivered again. Before morning, it was night, thought Melba, but what kind of night? She tried to remember the night. She had heard a long, lonely hoot outside her window, and finally, unable to sleep, she had gone downstairs to cook a tiny pancake. Meanwhile, Bev Hat had died and Ned Hat had become an old man. Grady Help had crept into her house and crouched beneath her kitchen sink, and maybe Dr. Buck too, and Hal Conard had made his rounds through the streets of Dan.
Nothing can really be known about the morning or the night, thought Melba. I suppose that’s why we have dates. The numbers make tiny equations and we can learn the numbers and feel like we’ve settled something. Melba, not for the first time, marveled at the strangeness of morning and night sharing a date when they were so palpably distinct.
If Melba were mayor of Dan, she would see that this was changed. It would be her first initiative. Day and night would be divided, no longer lumped together by the chuckleheaded mandate of the calendar. The change was bound to be popular; it was reasonable, and it would serve to speed things up—dates flying past, two or maybe even four dates in a twenty-four hour period—so one no longer had to drag along from midnight to midnight, forced to consider an experience so protracted and yet so disjunctive as a single unit.
But when before did I ever hanker for a political voice? Melba touched her throat gently, then pinched and wiggled her windpipe, rather roughly.
I’m so tired of thinking, she thought. The only distraction is small bodily manipulations and I’m tired of those too. She looked with hope at the bakery door. The bakery door banged open. In walked Don Pond.
Thank—, thought Melba.
Don Pond was the bakery’s first customer every day, but he never boasted.
“It’s luck, Melba,” Don Pond had told her, long ago, back when they were still assessing one another’s prospects as people. Melba had just handed him his bags of garlic sticks and psyllium husk brownies and listened politely.
“I don’t move faster than other men,” Don Pond had said, “and I don’t wake up any earlier. I can’t say I’m more deserving than they are, either. In fact, many would say I’m less deserving.” Continue reading