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Knowing

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Our newest issue has hit the newsstands. Here, from its pages, we are pleased to present a poem by Ruth Madievsky.

Tiny-House

KNOWING

How does the tongue know how do the fingers
know the leg the cunt
the cable running from eye to nose
this feeling like an empty illuminated office
where a stockbroker
is eating out his intern how does the mind know
which stories not to share at parties
in what organ does loneliness reside
loneliness a wool blanket
a seizure of light
the secret handshake by which the woman
who feels like a throw dart knows
what the man who feels like a safety razor knows
the knowing that one thing
suffocating another does not mean they touch
that eventually everything even loneliness atrophies
and still there are autopsies
that read like book reports there are lemons
that can’t grow seeds
what do the inessential organs know
and is it different from what the body
at the bottom of the lake knows
if everything was once ocean
why aren’t there shells beneath our feet

Tiny-House

Originally from Moldova, Ruth Madievsky is a poet and fiction writer living in Los Angeles. Her debut poetry collection, Emergency Brake, was published by Tavern Books on Valentine’s Day 2016 as their 2015 Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection.

Posted in From the Magazine, Poetry

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Tin House Issue 70: Winter Reading

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In case you missed it, Issue 70 was released late last week. Here with an introductory note from the past is our editor, Rob Spillman.

Tiny-House

As I am writing these words before the election, I do not know if the United States has elected a madman who has the potential to scorch all life from our planet. What possible value can art and story and poetry have in the face of such pending insanity? Everything.

Jo Ann Beard’s harrowing story “The Tomb of Wrestling”, brutal and beautiful, about a woman facing an intruder in her rural home, contains enough life and heart to power us through the next ten elections. Jim Shepard takes our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, specifically our decaying rails, and makes art from the raw material. Thank you Jim and Jo Ann and all of the storytellers. And thank you to the poets at this time, at all times. Walt Whitman, in the Song of Myself, wrote, “I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Thank you, Rae Armantrout, Chaim ben Avram, Shayla Lawson, Ruth Madievsky, David Tomas Martinez, Miller Oberman, Tommy Pico, Christopher Soto, Gerald Stern for your untamableness, your irreducibility, your mysteries.

We hope that the barbaric yawps contained within these pages reflect our times and are also timeless, that they capture what it is to be alive now, and for those of you reading in the future, that the words resonate with you as well.

 Tiny-House

Issue 70 features fiction by Jo Ann Beard, Antonya Nelson, Jim Shepard, Michael Andreasen, Rebecca Makkai; poetry by Rae Armantrout, Ruth Madievsky, David Tomas Martinez, Shayla Lawson, Tommy Pico, Gerald Stern, Christopher Soto, Miller Oberman, Chaim ben Avram; an interview with Mark Leyner; and Lost & Founds by Sam Lipsyte, Julia Cooke, Steve Almond, Jess Pane, Teow Lim Goh. It’s available online and at your local bookstore!

Posted in From the Magazine

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What Needed Screwing Got Screwed

Weird Scenes Catalog Cover

An excerpt from Los Angeles in the 1970’s: Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine (edited by David Kukoff) 

Tiny-House

Any good craftsman carries his tools.
Years ago they were always at the ready.
In a car. In a knapsack.
Claw hammers, crisscrossed heads,
thirty-two ouncers. Wrenches in all sizes, sometimes with oil caked on the teeth. Screwdrivers with multicolored plastic handles (what needed screwing got screwed).
I had specialty types: allen wrenches,
torpedo levels, taps, and dies.
A trusty tape measure.

Maybe a chalk line…

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In the 1970s, I labored within industrial Los Angeles—in a steel mill, a foundry, a paper mill, a chemical refinery, and in construction. I had skills: truck driving, mechanics, welding, carpentry, smelting, piping, down, and dirty. When people think of the city, they generally don’t conjure up steel mills or auto plants. The images tend toward Hollywood. Glittering lights. Marquees. Sunset Strip. More like beaches.

Los Angeles is that, but it’s also the country’s largest manufacturing center. Today it leads in aerospace, defense, and the so-called creative economy—movies, music, fashion, design. It has the largest commercial port in the US: the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors.

I’m now part of that creative economy, the current official poet laureate of the city with fifteen books in poetry, children’s books, fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. I cofounded and help run a cultural space, bookstore, and small press called Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

But in the 1970s I was an unlikely working class hero (I was more likely a working class fool). When union-negotiated consent decrees in the 1970s brought African-Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and women into the higher-paid skilled jobs, previously dominated by white males, the Bethlehem Steel Plant in southeast Los Angeles hired me for their “repair gang.” Prior to this I labored in unskilled drudgery. The year was 1974. I had just married my “high school sweetheart,” who received her diploma only two months before the wedding. Less then a year after, we had our first child.

I recall donning my hard hat, safety glasses, steel-toed shoes, and mechanic’s uniform, and staring at the mirror. I felt as if my life had purpose, direction, longevity. This job had rotating shifts, including “graveyard,” often double shifts (sixteen-hour days), and great pay, particularly with overtime.

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The plant’s nineteenth-century equipment was brought over from back east around World War II, when LA also boasted fabrication, assembly, or refinery work in auto, tires, garments, canneries, shipbuilding, aerospace, meatpacking, oil, and more. We had GM and Ford plants, Firestone and Michelin, Boeing and Lockheed. This industry drew workers of all ethnicities from the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, the Southwest, and Mexico for what were largely well- paid, mostly union jobs with pensions, health benefits, and a taste of blue-collar stability.

Despite being miles removed from the industrial powerhouses of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the like, in LA you could follow much of this industry from the northeast San Fernando Valley, to the Alameda Corridor north of downtown, down to the Harbor. Whole towns with names like Commerce and Industry thrived.

But in the mid-1970s, deindustrialization began to hit throughout the country, picking up steam in the 1980s, mostly due to advanced technology, including robotics. Labor-saving devices became labor- replacing. Major industries also sought cheaper labor markets in the South, Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia, and such— impoverished areas with little or no regulation, down to dollar-a- day wages, and low living standards. Then during the first Reagan administration, the worst recession since the Great Depression exploded in 1981–82 and the unemployment rate went to double digits. Only the 2008 recession cut deeper.

Homelessness became a permanent feature of American life.

We all know about the Rust Belt that traversed through states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Los Angeles may not be considered part of the Rust Belt, but the impact was the same. As plants closed, the two most industrial cities—Los Angeles and Chicago—were known as the “gang capitals” of the world when drugs, guns, and gangs became key to a new, largely illicit economy.

Mass incarceration, which heightened in the 1990s, turned into its own “industry” arising from the crisis. In California alone, the state went from 15 prisons with 15,000 people in the early 1970s to a height of 34 prisons and up to 175,000 prisoners in the 2000s.

The places I worked at during the height of industrial might in the 1970s went down—Bethlehem Steel in 1981, and at St. Regis Paper Company, National Lead Foundry, Chevron Chemical Refinery at various times… I can go on and on. Some three hundred big mills and plants were gone by the mid-1980s. Forever. And with it, any illusion of stability.

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What needed screwing got screwed…but only figuratively. In the literal sense, it was far less constructive.

I don’t want people to forget the City of Angels as a City of Workers. My decade or so in that time, that industry, were extremely meaningful to me. At the same time, we can’t go back fully to that kind of work. Instead the city, the country, and the world is crying out for something new and momentous—aligning our governance, our economy, our environment, and our culture to the possibilities of the new technology as well as the creative potential in every person, family, and community.

And, again, Los Angeles leads the way…

I often met other travelers, their tools in tow,
and I’d say: “Go ahead, take my stereo and TV.
Take my car. Take my toys of leisure.
Just leave the tools.”
Nowadays, I don’t haul these mechanical implements. But I still make sure to carry the tools
of my trade: words and ideas,
the kind no one can take away.
So there may not be any work today,
but when there is, I’ll be ready.
I got my tools. 

Tiny-House

In 1954, Luis J. Rodríguez was born in El Paso, Texas. He grew up in Watts and the East Los Angeles area, where his family faced poverty and discrimination. A gang member and drug user at the age of twelve, by the time he turned eighteen, Rodríguez had lost twenty-five of his friends to gang violence, drug overdoses, shootings, and suicide. He wrote two autobiographical accounts of his experiences with gang violence and addiction, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone, 2012), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Curbstone Books, 1993), winner of the Carl Sandburg Award of the Friends of the Chicago Public Library.

His books of poetry include My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004 (Curbstone Books, 2005), winner of a 2006 Paterson Poetry Book Prize; Trochemoche (Curbstone Books, 1998); The Concrete River (Curbstone Books, 1991), which won a PEN West/Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence; and Poems Across the Pavement (Tía Chucha, 1989), which received San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center Book Award.

He is also a journalist and critic and the founder of Tía Chucha Press, which publishes emerging, socially conscious poets. In May 1998, Curbstone Press published his first children’s book, entitled América Is Her Name. In 2014, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Rodríguez as the poet laureate of Los Angeles. Rodríguez currently resides in California and manages the Tía Chucha Cultural Center in San Fernando.

All Photos by Luis J. Rodríguez

Posted in Essays

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The Eighteen Days’ Campaign

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Translated by Edward Gauvin

from The World of Paul Willems

Tiny-House

I was in what they call the 18 Days’ Campaign. Eighteen days of war is, of course, not a lot at all, but for me it was a very intense time, of which I retain a very vivid memory. I was called to active duty in September 1939. Near the Albert Canal at first, not far from Herentals, and then to Liège, where I found myself on May 9, 1940. I was in the mounted artillery. During my days of compulsory military service, I had a horse, but upon being called to active duty, this horse metamorphosed into a bicycle. As I was on leave that night, I’d gone into town with a few fellow soldiers and dragged my heels about going back, lingering a bit in the cafés and streets. It was nice out. At dawn, I returned to the heights of St. Nicolas, where the army had requisitioned me a room. It wasn’t very far from my company’s command post. On my way back, I saw a light on there and went to investigate. They told me a very serious alert had been sounded, that something significant was underway, and I should go put on my combat uniform. So I went and got ready and packed my bags, thinking that this alert was probably no different from the others. Fifteen minutes later, I stepped outside and saw in the clear blue sky—it was a splendid morning in May—hundreds of planes flying high above, seeming to shimmer with light. In the distance, detonations could already be heard, and I realized that we were at war.

Very soon, within half an hour, everything had come to life, soldiers were arriving from all over. Instead of dispatching us to our post, which was toward Seraing—we’d have had to cross the Meuse—we were told to beat a retreat because the Germans’ first thrust had broken through our frontlines and the army had to regroup farther back. An hour later, as we were readying to leave Liège, the German planes appeared, much lower than those we’d seen at first, but they didn’t drop any bombs. When the infantry saw the planes, they fired at them with their rifles.

Just then, I felt—I think many people had the same feeling—a kind of wild joy, as if at that very moment I found myself freed from the weight of all my life had been up till then, as if an absolute freedom had suddenly risen up before me. Perhaps the world was about to explode, perhaps everything would be destroyed, but at that moment everything was still intact, and the only unmistakable thing was the total availability of the present moment and our total ignorance of what would happen an hour later. And all those soldiers firing on those planes seemed overjoyed: naturally they knew it would do no good but they were in an incredible state of exaltation, one that however had nothing to do with courage or fighting spirit. And I said to myself: this is it—finally, everything’s going to blow! I didn’t know what was going to blow, but still, the feeling of exaltation was there.

And the retreat began. I’d been given a priest’s old bicycle; it still had wooden rims, and on the rack I carried the manuscript for my first novel, Everything Here Is Real. The novel wasn’t entirely finished yet, and at the time, it was the most important thing to me, much more so than being mobilized, or the war.

That first day of the retreat was still fairly dangerous, because the Germans had started bombarding the roads. But I was not—at least not that day—directly threatened. I beheld from a distance those infamous Stukas diving down at forts, and the detonations were very violent, but it all seemed unreal. And so we fell back all that day, and through the night, too, until one in the morning, on foot, on wheels; we weren’t going very fast, of course, since the roads were mobbed with refugees and the whole army pulling back. At around one, we came to a halt in a small garden, I can’t remember where anymore. It was spring, there was a wonderful smell of flowers—wisteria, it was. We could hear the endless rumble of carts going by, but inside that garden, where we were to await our platoon, I was very happy. I felt simply wonderful. And since I had a little flashlight, I dove into Everything Here Is Real and revised certain passages. I hadn’t a thought for sleep. The curious thing is that I could’ve worked on the book the night before, the ninth, but since we weren’t at war yet, I’d gone out drinking with friends instead, and it wasn’t until the night after that I felt the urge to work, amidst that tremendous tumult, just as one world was sliding by, when we felt ourselves invaded.

 

Continue reading

Posted in Essays

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Aquabot

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Since Kurt didn’t relate well to living things, his sister Val got him an Aquabot for his birthday. It arrived from Amazon in an oversized box that held an ordinary glass fishbowl, a green plastic shark and an extra card of button batteries. “Activates when submerged in water,” the directions said, so Kurt filled the bowl, dropped the fish in and carried it to the coffee table. Seconds later, he was enjoying a wine cooler and chips while the robotic shark dove up and down, swam laps and explored his world with apparent eagerness. After another cooler, Kurt called Val and waited for the beep. “Good present, I like it,” he said. In fact, he liked the Aquabot so much, he went online to search the company’s other products. Turned out, they made several, and over the next weeks, he ordered their electro-magnetic ant, spider, larva and scarab, all functional without the water and each capable of different tricks. His favorite, the larva, wriggled along his kitchen floor, swerving on its micro-robotic wheels when it detected obstacles with its infrared sensor. Next best was the hyper-charged scarab, which scuttled furiously in one direction, then took off in another, bouncing off walls and flipping over when it landed on its back. They were plastic, sure, the larva deep, dark blue, the scarab a lurid red, but they were lively and entertaining, till their batteries ran down.

Kurt, a retired widower who’d driven a bus for thirty years, bought a few for every room, appreciating the activity and the company but of course keeping this to himself. Who had to know? He lived alone, his sister Val in another state. He wasn’t friendly with his neighbors. Only once in a while did he take his pets outside, if, say, he felt like grilling on his hibachi.

One day, stepping onto the patio, he left the slider open and two scarabs shot out, disappearing under rose bushes, where he could hear them stalling and spinning. “Just sec,” he said. “Hold your horses—” loading wienies on his grill. Before he was through, one of the bugs seemed to free itself and scampered toward him with animated glee. “Why you little—” It wasn’t the bug, though. It was a cat, who’d somehow managed to leap his fence and find the toy. Black and white, it studied him briefly like a maître d’ in a tux. Then, with a weird grumble in its throat, it gathered itself and sprang at the scarab. The scarab dodged it. The cat crept flat along the ground and pounced—the scarab scuttled sideways. After a few minutes, when his meat was crisp, Kurt sat down to watch them fight it out.

This cat was not like other cats. It didn’t meow for food. It didn’t rub against him for attention. It just wanted his bugs.

All afternoon they stayed outside, Kurt changing the batteries when the toys ran down. At night, he collected them and invited the cat in. The cat accepted, but coolly, stretching first, as if to emphasize that no promises were being made. Kurt opened an extra can of tuna. When the cat paced beside the door, he let it out, leaving the door open for it to let itself back in. Before bed, he set two larvae squirming across the kitchen, and the cat played till it got tired. Right there, curled on a pile of dishtowels, it conked out.

In the morning, Val called. “You okay? I’m worried about you, Kurtie. Why not move here to Minnesota?”

Kurt tucked the phone under his chin and poured Cheerios for the cat and himself. The cat ignored the food and whacked a scarab into the pantry, pursuing it till Kurt heard them crashing around amid Coke cans and tumbling boxes. The cat skidded back into the room. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said.

Spotting the Cheerios, the cat trotted over and sniffed, then sat down to wash itself.

“You’re not lonely?” Val asked.

It was hard to fool this guy. For instance, with the Aquabot. Kurt had carried it to a counter and switched it on, expecting the cat to go wild.

The cat studied him. That’s a fish? Don’t make me laugh.

Did it wink then? He thought it did.

“Not really,” he said.

Tiny-House
Los Angeles writer Susan Heeger has published fiction in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Good Housekeeping, Brain, Child and Pinball. “Aquabot” is part of a story collection she’s working on with LA illustrator and graphic designer Simon Steiner called Animals Like Us, in which animals help humans solve problems, fall in love, improve their characters and find peace.
Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Lost & Found: Pedja Jurišić on Meša Selimović

Lost & Found

Even the greatest literary triumphs of a small language often suffer the fate of a shipwrecked heroine lost at sea: If by extraordinary luck and effort she manages to briefly catch our attention, we soon lose her in the tide, she is again disappeared and remembered only by her loved ones.

So it is that the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Death and the Dervish, one of the best novels in the rich Serbo-Croatian literary tradition, has passed by largely unobserved. Unless you have a personal or professional interest in the Balkans, it is very likely you have not encountered the masterpiece or its author, Meša Selimović.

For those of us with the good fortune to be acquainted with his works, Selimović’s novels are often personal and affecting. Set during Ottoman times, Death and the Dervish grapples with heavy subjects: loss and injustice; guilt of the survivor and the unrepentant perpetrator; consciences stained by a lack of moral courage. These themes resonate especially strongly with we many who, in our various ways, experienced the catastrophic destruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Though I’ve since argued that such a historicized reading can impede richer interpretations of Death and the Dervish, I, too, first experienced the novel as a portrait of Bosnian psychology.

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In Death and the Dervish, the brother of a Sufi dervish is thrown into a fortress for unknown reasons. The dervish attempts to intervene on behalf of his brother but his slow and indecisive measures stand little hope of success. The plot of the novel is drawn from the tragedy of Selimović’s brother, Šefkija. An officer in the Partisan resistance during World War II, he misappropriated bits of furniture in the wake of the liberation of his home town, and was summarily executed for the offense. There were people who thought his brothers didn’t do enough to save him.

While he was still just a tall child, the body of my brother became his own inscrutable fortress. Suddenly and without any apparent precipitating cause, he lost an awful lot of weight and grew increasingly weary and jaundiced. A kid at school asked him what was up and noted that he looked like Big Bird from Sesame Street—an excellent joke, my brother thought. The doctors finally diagnosed him with primary sclerosing cholangitis—PSC—a rare liver disease. He received his first liver transplant at 15, his second at 24. In the next three, five, or ten years, he will require a third transplant, someday likely a fourth, and so on. By the example of our father, a concentration camp survivor who coped with his traumas with stoic magnanimity, or from some other incomprehensible, bottomless reservoir of strength, my brother has faced his own mortality with more dignity and courage than some of us have confronted hair loss. He sometimes explains his illness as having “won” an unfortunate genetic lottery and accepts his condition—and a dizzying accompaniment of complications that encumber his health and daily life—with extraordinary equanimity and capacity for pain. To this day, I haven’t heard him complain once. Continue reading

Posted in Lost & Found

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Ghost Songs: Excerpts

 

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Daddy and me

I hear breathing, a dry broken noise like fabric dragging on rough wood. On the wall in my hospital room, something shimmers in the afternoon light. It is my father. I sit up and avert my eyes and he becomes more defined, as if he is meant to be seen from the far side of the eye, where apparitions live.

The air is mineral-heavy, like it might rain inside the room. A sharp, sweet odor deepens around me—garbage and rotten apples. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I collapse forward, close my eyes, and hold my breath against the smell—but I can’t hide from the sound, a dry struggle to breathe. My father is lost and doesn’t know where to go.

 

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My parents throw a party in the big house on Park Hill in Yonkers. Grown-ups gather in the living room and there is a lot of talk and laughter, a record playing low in the background, Rosemary Clooney singing about the mambo.

My brother and I are the only children at the party. I am four and Jerry is five. My baby sister, Tracy, is still too small to be out of the playpen.

“Look, Mommy!” I say and dance side to side to the mambo song. The ladies laugh and clap.

Cigarette smoke drifts overhead toward the kitchen, blown by two fans set in open windows. Everyone is sweating. Two ladies take turns leaning their faces and bare necks close to one of the fans.

“Cheers, Vincent!” a man with rolled-up sleeves says to my father, who is holding a bottle and pouring more into their glasses. “And where is your mother-in-law this evening?”

“That great doorfull of a woman?” my father asks, and the man laughs boisterously. “Be glad she isn’t here, Emmet, she’s got a tongue that could clip a hedge.”

Someone takes the needle off the record and asks my father to sing “Nell Flaherty’s Drake.” My father stands:

He could fly like a swallow or swim like a hake

Till some dirty savage, to grease his white cabbage

Most wantonly murdered me beautiful drake!

Everyone smiles and claps.

“To grease his white cabbage . . .” my mother echoes, then bows her head and laughs, her eyes wet.

“Sing the part about the pig!” Jerry cries out.

May his spade never dig, may his sow never pig

May each hair in his wig be well thrashed with a flail!

People raise their glasses. My mother says my father’s name: “Vincent,” and it sounds like the noise dimes and pennies make when he jingles them in his pocket.

“My uncle Michael never sang that one,” my mother announces to everyone, “and he knew them all. He and my father were off the boat!”

My father, who is standing in front of the screen door, takes his handkerchief from his pocket and wipes the dampness from his forehead. “Romantic Ireland is dead and gone,” he says. “It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”

Thunder sounds just then and everyone cheers. Behind my father there is a sudden downpour.

“Ye brought the rain, Vincent!” Emmet says.

I go to my father and stand at his leg. I touch his freckled forearm and he puts a big hand gently on my shoulder, nods slightly at me.

“Thank God!” cries one of the ladies who had been standing near the window fans. “This should cool things off.”

 

Inch Strand

 

I am still a child when I find out that neither of my parents has actually ever been to Ireland and I wonder how they can love and miss a place their ancestors left before they were born. Yet somehow I understand. And even though I am young, the idea of Ireland fills me with an inexplicable nostalgia, as if it belonged to me once and I somehow lost it.

 

 

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Nanny does not like our house in New Mexico. It is in a development on desert land just off the highway to Albuquerque. New houses are being built around it; construction workers yell at each other in Spanish between the deafening sputter of a power saw.

I like visiting Nanny in her room, where she sits on a chair most of the time with her door ajar, smoking Salems. She gives me Mounds bars and Hershey’s Kisses, sings to me, “I love you, a bushel and a peck! A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” She calls me sweetie and tells me what a good girl I am. She praises my drawings and tapes them to the wall under her crucifix. I can close my eyes when I hug Nanny and feel the hard drum of her heart against my arm, and traces of my mother are there.

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We four kids stand in a little group in front of the house. Dad holds the Brownie box camera at his stomach and looks down into the window at the top, where he sees us reflected. Then he snaps.

Jerry says that the camera has an eye that’s just like a human eye because the lens turns what it sees upside down. Dad taught him this, he says.

Later when the camera is on the kitchen table, Jerry calls me over to look at it.

“It came from the East,” he says. “It’s older than me and you.”

I peer down into the square window, but all I see is a faceted chamber made of thick glass.

Jerry says, “When you press the click button, the camera remembers.”

“It has a memory?” I ask.

He nods.

When the Brownie box camera is left for weeks high up on the bookshelf in the living room, I wonder if it is my father’s eye and memory that are in there, separated from him.

 

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Dad has bought Mom a new camera. It is small and held to the eye, not to the chest or stomach like Dad’s Brownie box camera. Mom’s eye and the camera’s must be in synch. It sees what she sees.

I watch her on the lawn, watering the trees. After she turns off the hose, she crosses the street and holds the camera to her eye. She does this a few times, and then backs up a little farther.

Later, she comes in, removes the film, and drives away to drop it off for developing. I get the camera and take it outside, cross the street, and stand where she had been standing.

Is it the height of the trees she’s charting? When we first came to this house, the ground was unplowed, unirrigated desert land, dry and hard. My mother worked it until it was rich and black, the hose and sprinklers on for long hours every day until water ran over the sidewalks and down the sloping street. She planted gardens and a lush lawn, a willow tree and poplars that have grown into giants. In the dry desert neighborhood, our house is enclosed in its own forest of shifting shadows.

 

 

Galisteo street

 

 

I’m sitting at the table trying to write a paper for school when I sense that something, someone, is lying very still on my mattress. I know it is a she. The air feels silky with this fact. She does not want to hurt me. She doesn’t threaten me.

I sit frozen, unable to move, and as if to snap me out of my paralysis, the refrigerator in the kitchen shifts on and hums, a low, steady rumble.

I know who she is. I stand, but I won’t look at her. She is me, deflated and tired with her eyes closed, lying on her back under the covers. I would go to her and smooth her hair and tell her that everything is all right, as if she were a younger sibling, except that I might discover that she is cold, that she is not breathing. Or even worse, she might be cold, not breathing, and then suddenly open her eyes.

Cliffs of Moher

 

When I leave Inisheer very early in the morning to visit the other two islands, turf fires burn along the shore. We lift sail in a good breeze just as the sun arrives, the gray overcast weather utterly gone. I can see in every direction. The horizon to the west is endless, without a definite demarcation between sea and sky, and the mainland to the east, cliffs and lowlands, beach and rocks.

We soon dock at Inishmaan, which we tour on foot, a small group of us led by a tall, long-limbed Galway man named Michael Slattery, who asks us to call him Mick. We pass limestone cottages issuing smoke, fragrant of both earth and kelp. Curious children watch us from doorways. Indolent cows graze in fields congested with wildflowers.

Mick tells us that the three islands have four or five dark-haired families said to be descended from seals, and that less than a decade before, the local priest drove a witch from these shores.

After viewing gravestones defaced by weather, druid altars, and prehistoric forts overgrown with moss and lichen, we go on to the big island. Walking along roadways in the brightness, I search for signs of Laura, but she is nowhere to be seen. Mick remarks that the island is curiously empty of tourists for such a fine day.

I take out my map of Ireland and draw a tiny dot on the north point of the northernmost Aran Island. This is where I am in the world right now, ocean all around me. I look toward Galway Bay to the east, its circle of water washing into the Atlantic, where my grandfather and uncle Michael set sail for America.

 

Tiny-House

Regina McBride is the author of four novels, including The Nature of Water and Air (a Barnes & Noble Discover Book) and The Land of Women. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she lives in New York City and teaches creative writing at Hunter College.

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Lost & Found: Joseph Lee on Francis Stuart

Lost & Found

In 1940, Irish novelist Francis Stuart traveled alone to Nazi Germany, leaving behind his wife and children. Stuart lived in Berlin for the next five years, two of which he spent making radio broadcasts for Irland-Redaktion, a German radio program that broadcast Nazi propaganda to Ireland. Stuart’s best-known novel, Blacklist Section H, fictionalizes this experience. Stuart’s legacy remains controversial today. Many Irish critics admire him as one of the most important Irish writers of the 20th century; some cannot forgive his Nazi ties. Despite this controversial status—perhaps because of it—little is known about him and his motivations. Most of his books are now out of print.

I first encountered Blacklist my junior year of college and spent the following summer tracing Francis Stuart’s path through Ireland and Germany. I also went to the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, where I read Stuart’s diaries from the war years. Everything I learned added depth to the novel and made me question the roles and responsibilities a writer faces as I think about what kind of writer I want to be. The stakes of these questions seem almost as great in our time as they were in Stuart’s. What will art in Donald Trump’s America look like? What should it do? Although flawed in many ways, Blacklist Section H is a significant attempt to navigate and figure out what public work artists can and cannot do.

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Stuart’s protagonist in Blacklist, H, believes that “nothing short of the near despair of being utterly cast off from society and its principles could create the inner condition conducive to the new insights that it [is] the task of the poet to reveal.” H’s conviction that poetry and literature come from a place of exile mirrors the foundation of the real-life Stuart’s interest in Nazi Germany. Stuart believed that he needed to go to Berlin to unlock a hidden part of himself, a dark yet essential part of his being, deeper than political belief. Throughout Blacklist, H repeatedly expresses his desire to be despised, as he struggles with his own apathy toward other people.

Although Stuart was in his 40s during the war, I like to think of Blacklist Section H as his bildungsroman. He spent his twenties and thirties in Ireland building his literary career and his family with Iseult Gonne (a prominent figure in Dublin’s literary elite). As his personal life began to fall apart—largely because of his own insecurities—he focused more and more on seeking the ineffable, mystical space that H yearns for in Blacklist. Even though he was 20 years older than I am now, I identify with Stuart’s stumbling attempts to combine art and politics while dealing with the difficulties of his personal life. What political responsibilities does a writer have and how should we as readers respond to a writer who held offensive or dangerous views? Ignoring their work seems almost as bad as venerating it. We may not be in a World War, but our political reality also demands art that takes responsibility for the world it comes out of.

Figuring out what Stuart did with this responsibility is complicated by his own attempts to erase all negative evidence from the war, which is ironic because of H’s belief that society’s scorn will elevate his art. In journals from the end of the war, Stuart often wrote that things were going badly “for us” or that “we” might face difficulties, a clear indication of the degree to which he had mentally and perhaps politically aligned himself with the Germans. Many of these lines have been edited; Stuart (usually in a different pen, possibly many years later) has crossed out the “us” and “we” and replaced these first person pronouns with more objective terms like, “the Germans.”

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Early in H’s days in Berlin, he gets sent to Frankfurt to speak with a British prisoner of war who is a fan of his novels. Captain Manville asks H why he came to Germany—“siding with the enemy,” he calls it—and H replies that “The situation I’ve involved myself in, however disastrous for my reputation, and perhaps because it is disastrous, gives me a chance of becoming the only sort of writer it’s in my power to be.” H doesn’t fully endorse societal alienation until after he is settled in Germany. Bound to this choice, H attempts to make the best of it; perhaps being in such a place might be good for his career. At the end of the chapter, H muses, “Though being branded as a Nazi by those from whom most of his readers would have to come, scarcely argued well for his future, no matter how his work developed.” Living in Germany and being relatively apolitical doesn’t make Stuart a Nazi, . Stuart, who fled to Berlin because of personal insecurity about his work and his marriage, bet his literary career on the premise that public revulsion would transform his writing. And it did, but maybe not in the way he hoped. Continue reading

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Coastal Craft: Ada Limón

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As we continue to make plans for our upcoming Winter Workshops, we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences. 

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Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience (as a participant)?

Ada Limón: I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle and I had never had a poem “workshopped” and I was surprised at how the experience felt so overwhelming, but also useful. I was terrified at first, especially when a reader would get something “wrong” or misread my intentions, but eventually I learned to love that workshop because I learned what advice to take and what advice not to take. It immediately made me aware of readers and audience. It was key in forming my writing later on.

Tin House: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

Ada Limón: The best piece of advice I heard in any workshop was that everything in the poem had to be working toward the larger meaning of the poem.

Even if a line was brilliant and beautiful, if its not furthering the thrust and life of the poem, it needs to be cut.

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Tin House: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

Ada Limón: I studied with Phil Levine when I was a graduate student at New York University. He was a generous teacher, but also notoriously hard on poems that he didn’t feel were really working.

He once looked at a poem I was working on and I could tell he hated it. Kazim Ali, my friend and classmate, said “But Phil, don’t you think there are some beautiful lines here?” And Phil said, “Yeah, I just wish she’d put them in a f*%$!ing poem.”

It destroyed me at first. But, he was right

Tin House: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean”album?

Ada Limón: We lived about an hour from the beach growing up and my best friend and I used to listen to Van Morrison when we were driving out to Salmon Creek or Bodega Bay in her little red pickup truck. So Van Morrison’s “His Band and The Street Choir” “Astral Weeks” “Moondance” “Into the Music” well, all of it really. His voice reminds me of the waves now.

Tin House: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

Ada Limón: My favorite poems always change and alter depending on my mood, but there’s this marvelous poem “Elk” by Robert Wrigley that I adore:  It’s dark, but wow, amazing.

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Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer splitting her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California.

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Saint Burma

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Plottoists brought it all back home last week for our final round of THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, and the judges phoned in from their respective Thanksgiving locations to fight it out for the winning story. Congratulations to winner Nikki HoSang, whose clever “Saint Burma” delivers a homecoming we never expected.

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Jo was fluffing the vermiculite bedding around the snake eggs when Mary, the kid who cleaned cages and answered the phone, stuck her head in the door.

“I know you’re getting ready to put the eggs in the incubator,” she whispered, “but there’s a guy on the phone? He says he has your snake?”

“Did he say what kind?”

“He said it’s a Burmese python.”

It was her python. Just bigger, older, slower. The guy who called said he’d traded a Vietnamese blue beauty snake and a couple of cat geckos for it. Normally, he said, he wouldn’t have let that little blue beauty go for nothing, but once he saw the markings on the Burm’s head, he was a goner, a dead man, in love. And then, he said, and then! He remembered reading Jo’s article in SCALES! and put two and two together: his new giant girl had to be her old childhood pet, her old buddy Saint Burma.

“It’s not every day you see a snake with a cross on its head,” he said. “Something special like that, you know the owner’s missing that animal bad. And besides, she just seems like a little saint.”

 

They worked out a deal. Saint Burma would stay where she was for a few days more, just until Jo got a cage set up at her place. Just a few days more, that’s all.

 

Homecoming day and Saint Burma smelled like roses! Had the guy given her a bath or something? He swore he hadn’t bathed her at all, swore she was just freakishly clean.

“Her shit don’t stink, either,” he said.

“Oh, come on,” Jo said.

“Seriously,” he said. “If anything, it smells like burnt sugar.”

“Like caramel? Right,” Jo said. She locked Burma in her cage and looked around,

suddenly ashamed. The guy patted her on the shoulder, one awkward pat, and then another, and then a little sentimental squeeze. He let himself out.

 

Size. Eleven feet? Twelve? She’d been barely six feet when Jo had driven her out to the wildest park she could find, slung her around her neck and walked and walked until she found a big, sunny rock to lay her down on. It wasn’t meant to be cruel. She was just too big, too vast, too patient. Who could trust a gentle snake?

 

Now she was beatific beyond reason. She stared into some unseen mystery just beyond the kitchen counter when she wanted Jo to let her out, she slithered up on the couch and nosed the remote until Jo came and turned the TV on. She liked to curve herself around Jo’s shoulders, and she liked to thump the floor with her tail. Jo stopped channel surfing when she stopped thumping. Another wholesome Dolly Parton movie.

What was she this time, an angel?

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Nikki HoSang lives in California, where she works for a public library.

Here’s the prompt that inspired Nikki’s story: {B}, for many years mysteriously absent from her home, seeks a happy renewal of old ties by returning suddenly and unheralded to her native place.

Next up: our five winners go pen-to-pen for the Grand Prize, a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland. Stay tuned to hear the winning stories (read by their authors) and a live announcement of the Plotto Writer In Residence December 10 on Oregon Public Broadcasting. And revisit the winning stories from Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, and Week 4!

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

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Pieces of Soap: About the Cover

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In the design brief for Stanley Elkin’s Pieces of Soap, editor, Tony Perez, suggested I look to the title essay for ideas. In Elkin’s humorous meditation on mortality and compulsion, he writes about his soap-stealing obsession, describing the massive collection of pilfered soap that fills his home:

Because I have, in basket and hamper, in all summertime’s lanyard-laced, twiggy, wickery woodwork like a woven porch or patio furniture, stashed in its indoors-outdoors texture like supple, vaguely rain forest, vaguely jungly splinter (vine, picnic’s processed straw like a coniferous soup or an evergreen vegetable, all the indeterminate tropicals and periodics of the American breezeway elementals—Adirondackian, Poconosaic, Ramapoaon—spread over good green loaves of lawn, all that luxuriant matter of the undeciduous year), five or six thousand bars of soap.

Coincidentally, soap was already on my mind as I’d just spent some time looking at vintage soap labels for a side project. Tony and I both grew up using and reading Dr. Bronner’s and the iconic type-packed label was another influence.

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2. Dr. Bronners

As I thought about designing the cover to resemble a label, I began to envision the book itself as a bar of soap. And why not make an actual bar of soap? Having zero soap-making experience made the idea even more appealing.

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The Rest of the Novel

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THE REST OF THE NOVEL

For conveying ideas, novels are among the least functional and most decorative of the blunt instruments. (Could this be a universal truth, some starry, operative mathematical principle? Most stars are decorative too, of course, their function merely to peg the universe in place like studs in upholstery, servicing the elegancies, strumming its physics like a man with a blue guitar, fleshing all the centripetals and centrifugals, stringing the planets like beads, some beautiful pump of placement, arranging night, moving the planetary furniture, and fixing the astronomical data, but less useful, finally, in the sense that a handful more here or a dollop less there could make as much of a never mind as corks or rhythm, less useful, finally, than mail or ice cream.) And if, a few times in a way, novels like Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast or Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath come along to legislate, or raise a consciousness or two, or rouse a rabble, to make, I mean, what history or the papers call a difference, why that’s decorative, too, I think, a lip service the system, touching the bases like a superstitious braille, pays art—like, oh, the claims made a few years back for the “We Are the World” folks when it was really the Catholic Relief Services already on site during the Ethiopian famine that did the heavy lifting.

Well it’s not the novelist’s fault. Not that they don’t deserve some of the blame, leaking encouragement like someone paying out line to fish, some of your have-cake-and-eat-its like a little miracle of the loaves. And there are still a few big mouths who stake claims for the ameliorative shamanism of—hark! this is interesting: not the book so much as the writer—the practice of fiction—the loyal, Nutso Art Jerk Groupie, like some devoted cultist, the last Deadhead, say, worrying like holy beads the shoelace on his wrist he thinks is a bracelet making confrontation with an Elvis Presley impersonator.

Isn’t it pretty to think so, though? To take oneself as seriously as one’s readers sometimes do? To believe, if only briefly, and if only by the light off the gloss of the brittlest mood swing, in the justice or even the palpability of one’s cause, to Don Quixote principle, any principle, and raise to the level of purpose what in the final analysis is only what given egos, fashionably or not, fashion or no, frozen in mere season’s hipped au courantness, perceive as beauty.

Because aesthetics is the only subject matter, because style is, and all calls are judgment calls. Because ideas are even scarcer than those fabled two or three stripped plots, those fabled three or four basic jokes, art a fugue ideal finally, the hen’s-teeth variations, genre revolving around itself, the spin-off, like a few chips of colored glass in a kaleidoscope.

Because ain’t, when you come right down, the rest of the novel like the rest of the novel, as all detective stories are like all other detective stories, dick-fic a piece of the mother-lode main? Not just who done it but how it’s done, how it’s always done, the who-done-it as orthodox and ritualized as positions in ballet in which, like the do-re-mes, all music has its source, from Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe. Almost as if a detective’s relentless, endless questions along the stations of his investigation, the forced march of his focused, inquisitive rhetoric, were the natural music of the world, or as if such men were tone deaf to intrusion, to all the hectoring socratics of their quest. And the hell this plays with character, all the battering-rammed intent of obsession, the armored callus of the soul, the boring tyrannicals of personality. To say nothing at all of the other played-upon players in the game, their passified, invaded lives and suspect, squirmed evasions. Form, I mean, creates cliché. It horses stereotype. Think of Mr. Falk’s Columbo and you have almost encyclopedically the finite limits of the genre—only his rumpled raincoat and his smarmy awe and merely partially put-on turnip-truck airs and naïves, only the feigned clutter of his personal human laundry, only that final question delivered at the door and springing, it would seem, from the goldened-over grove of his slapped and mythic forehead a studied idosyncratics all he has for character, shtick in lieu of life and charm and will, tic in lieu of depth, as if Hercule and Holmes and Dalgleish and Marple were really, give or take an eccentricity, ultimately the same invulnerable party, their very invulnerability almost a product not so much of their slick sleuthfulness as of their authority, the fascist bent of their being, and their recyclability as characters, their cloned and clannish serial essence, not even the motives of the criminals changing—love-greed or cash-greed—only always the victims and cases, sometimes the weapons. In it, amateurs or not, professionally, which is to say objectively, which is to say marginally, indifferent and blind as Justice herself, with no more rooting interest in who did what to whom than, ideally, the jury impaneled to determine the guilt or innocence of the party arrested. In it professionally. So standing outside the loop of the novel itself. Which is, of course, no place for any proper protagonist to stand at all. Their invulnerability protected, too, not just by the almost apostolic authority of their badged office but crazily, by, well, profit motive, so that sometimes even after their authors age and sicken and die, their characters live on, doomed like ghosts to sequel their lives, their impersonate lives assuranced, too, by the genre in which they ask their bruising, devastating questions, questions that, in real life, would earn, at least for the amateurs and busybodies, the private eyes and mercenaries, blows, bullets, all the wrenching, gut-kicked pile-on of a cornered rage; even the Mike Hammers, Sam Spades (colored into character by first-person rhetoric), and laconic dirtied Harrys a sort of race of stunt men finally, their asses covered by camera angle, so that for all the knocks they take to the head, for all their stand-in saviorhood, they are guaranteed survivability, too, as though the life/death arrangements of their furious, spurious danger were only a kind of faked sportsmanship, like taking fish with a net, say, or shooting game from out the window of an airplane.

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Laws

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PLOTTO took a turn for the harrowing last week. Protagonists committed crimes ranging from casual murder to poor artistic taste, political apathy to the unleashing of spiders. Or did they? Congratulations to winner Zana Previti, whose mysterious “Laws” brought us characters so convincing we thought we knew them, and so haunting that, by the end, we weren’t so sure.

Check out this week’s prompt here!

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Sister Clotilde held the boy by his shoulders and marched him into the Headmistress’s office.

“Hey!” protested the secretary.

Sr. Clotilde turned, glared, and slammed the door.

“Sister?” Sr. Frances asked.

“Tell her,” Sr. Clotilde instructed the boy, “exactly what you said.”

The child—Max Patrick, nine, and clearly wearing the school uniform of an older, larger brother—sighed.

“I told Billy. I think, I maybe killed someone.”

Sr. Frances stared.

“Yeah,” said Sr. Clotilde. “Yeah.”

 

Sr. Clotilde was young; she taught third grade at Saint Margaret’s. It was, despite its name, an all-boys school. Sr. Clotilde had taken her vows at twenty-five, didn’t wear habit, and she had hard, grey, unblinking eyes. Despite the others’ seniority, and the rumors that another teacher had once broken a first-grader’s hand, the boys feared only Sr. Clotilde.

 

“Explain, please, Max,” said Sr. Frances. She capped her pen.

Max glanced at Sr. Clotilde.

“You may leave, Sister,” said Sr. Frances.

“Nope.”

“Sister!”

Sr. Clotilde spun and banged the door shut.

Sr. Frances raised her eyebrows. “Explain, Max.”

“Then I can go to recess?”

Sr. Frances considered. “Yes,” she said. “Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Was someone hurt?”

“I didn’t—I just told Billy. No.”

“Told Billy what?”

“Mom and Dad were arguing. They thought I was asleep.”

“Okay.”

“They said, when I was really little . . . I don’t remember hurting anyone. But they said, like, killed.”

“It’s okay, Max.” She handed him a tissue.

She recalled something. She’d been worried, at the time. When he was starting pre-school, Max sitting and coloring . . . his little hands sore with red, tiny marks.

She looked at him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

They spoke a little longer. Sr. Frances sent him back to recess. Then she dialed a phone number.

“Mr. Patrick,” she said. She explained her purpose. “John, I have to ask.”

“Yes,” he said. He was quiet. Sr. Frances waited.

He explained.

“His hands,” she said. “She bit him?”

“Yes,” he said.

Sr. Frances nodded. And after a moment, she hung up the phone. She closed her eyes.

 

After lunch, Sr. Frances found Sr. Clotilde grading quizzes. The boys, at their desks, worked on long-division problems.

Sr. Clotilde looked up. Sr. Frances came over to her, then bent and whispered in her ear.

The young woman exhaled and took the Sister’s hand. They looked at the children. Twenty fragile mysteries raised their heads and stared back.

Sr. Clotilde’s grey eyes clouded, then looked away. And one boy sitting far in the back suddenly wondered if any of it was true at all . . . if prime numbers were as unbreakable as they said, if zero times anything was always zero, if the way he had been taught was the only way, or if there were other ways, infinite ways, and if one day the laws of division might—suddenly—no longer apply . . . all these problems made unsolvable, all his careful work made nonsense.

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Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine, and her MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho. Her work has been published in The New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, RHINO Poetry, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She was recently named the recipient of Poetry International’s 2014 C.P. Cavafy Prize for Poetry, and works now as the Fall 2016 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. 

Here’s the prompt that inspired Zana’s story: {A} believes himself guilty of a crime which he cannot remember having committed. 

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

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Pieces of Soap

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PIECES OF SOAP

This would have been after the ms was first diagnosed but before the chair glide was put in, before, in fact, anything very important was wrong with me at all. Before the wheelchair, before the walker. Probably before the canes even. Though I may already have owned a cane. Using it larkily, boulevardierly, like Fred Astaire, say, like a prop for my disease.

Ourselves, a visiting professor, and the Lebowitzes in the living room conjoined. For drinks and dip and conversation assembled. And I forget now how it came up, though you have my word it was naturally. No one, I mean, set anyone else up. So it must have been naturally, in the sense, I mean, that anything coming out of left field like that is natural, thrown in compulsively—from the hip, on the mind, off the chest. Naturally. Organically. The visiting professor had made this, well, confession. Or maybe not this confession at all so much as this shy, tentative admission, sly, something between a pretended amusement at a harmless foible and the genuinely expeditionary—a little like someone fishing for a compliment.

I didn’t need Joan’s or the Lebowitzes’ encouraging glance. What, for an opening like this? Your one-chance-in-a-million opportunity? I was out of my chair and on my feet like a shot. (So it would have to have been back in the mists of time, back in the golden age of my arms and legs, of my skin and balance.) I grabbed the professor’s elbow and motioned for him to follow. “Come,” I called over my shoulder, taking the stairs two and maybe three at a time. “Are you coming? Good,” I said. “Come up, come up.” I remember I was already laughing. (Because I knew what I was going to say. Because your chance-in-a-lifetime, one-in-a-million-opportunities don’t come up every blue moon or cold day in hell, so maybe without even knowing it, you have reflexively, already prepared, primed and polished, not staircase wit but its opposite, as down pat as a comic’s practiced squelch, except that mine was not even rehearsed but something all condition-ripened second nature, like ouch! or yippee! Natural. Organic.) And now he was in the upstairs hall with me. I directed his attention this way and that. “What,” I said, “you steal soaps from hotels? You do?” I directed his attention to the bathroom. “You think so? You do?” And even had a reply ready, what I hope I would have said in his place. This was not staircase wit either. “No,” I hope I would have said, and offered up the punch line from the old joke, “but the guy that sells me salt, can he sell salt!” Though come to think of it the professor’s was close enough in its way, even though what happened was that all expression drained from his face, he closed his mouth, and narrowly shook his head a few times. It wasn’t a punch line. It was better. It was pure submission signal.

Because I have, in basket and hamper, in all summertime’s lanyard-laced, twiggy, wickery woodwork like a woven porch or patio furniture, stashed in its indoors-outdoors texture like supple, vaguely rain forest, vaguely jungly splinter (vine, picnic’s processed straw like a coniferous soup or an evergreen vegetable, all the indeterminate tropicals and periodics of the American breezeway elementals—Adirondackian, Poconosaic, Ramapoaon—spread over good green loaves of lawn, all that luxuriant matter of the undeciduous year), five or six thousand bars of soap.

The thousand-bar point spread is not insignificant. There are men so rich they cannot reckon their true wealth and must wait on probate for even a ballpark figure. I do not really know the extent of my soap collection.

But this ain’t about souvenir. It isn’t even about memento. Proust isn’t in it, or near it—or wasn’t. And if I’m no connoisseur of soap, then neither am I soap’s bag man. His assorted flotsam and jetsam, his cardboard dreck, is for the rainy day—provisional, pointed and purposeful as annuity. It is, I mean, contingent—plan abiding time, tool waiting on emergency. Not like my own two or three hundred pounds of wrapped motel, hotel, airline, railway, and steamer soaps and others, too, some of which I have and some of which I have seen only (from the stately homes of England, royal weddings, the sealed tombs of pharoahs, from all impressive, high-ticket places—the soaps of San Marino like an intimate postage, the Great Wall, soaps of the poles and trade winds) in imagination—equatorial soaps, space soaps, soaps of the jet streams and ocean currents. The stamped soaps of Heaven. The branded soaps of Hell.

I write, you see, more from the grave robber’s viewpoint than the collector’s, more from some spiritual homeopathy than either. Soap’s little miniatures passed out like Halloween candy, soap as superstition, soap as sod and soap as relic. As a piece of my private public record.

Oh, it’s complicated. Here, I think, is how it happened.

My father was a traveling salesman. On his rounds two and three weeks, three and four weeks at a time. Bringing back in the dop kit, like little picture postcards, the house Palmolives and Luxes, their Camays and Lifebuoys. From the Radisson in Minneapolis. From the Milwaukee Pfister. From Grand Rapids and Greencastle, Indiana. What Fargo looked like, what Rapid City did, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids. Views of Springfield, Illinois, and Joplin, Missouri, two and three bars high in the medicine chest. My pop’s soap strictly for use, for blow, not show. Knee-deep in ethics, tutored in the waste-not/want-nots of his sensible prairie territory and ecologicals, my old man never stole a soap he didn’t intend to bathe with. Glimpses of motor courts in Nebraska a bar’s sidebar, never the point. For whom a mile held neither nostalgia nor beauty nor even simple interest, who kept score in a different currency altogether and who would have worried about me if he’d caught me pouring over, like some kid miser, the architecturals of the various hotels, counting the stories, its “fireproof” rooms, the skyline of individual blocks, studying the little cars out front, squinnying the tiny, to-scale, guest populations entering, exiting, the revolving doors on the wrappers. It was quite like examining the drawings on money, or the golden graphics on a package of Camel cigarettes, trademark’s mysterious etchings. Some tropism in me for logo itself. With all the makings but without the knowledge of a stamp collector. This accidental tourist altogether. Who put no stock in baseball cards and had no hobbies. (Though, briefly, when I was seven, I actually did have a stamp collection, a hand-me-down from a college-bound distant cousin who put away childish things and gave not just into my charge but granted me in absolute freehold and fee simple forever her stamp books and catalogues and little waxy envelopes. All of which for a promised but reneged, undelivered quarter from a closer cousin, I tore up, burned, destroyed.) Not even, not yet, the simple hobby of soap.

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Lost and Found: Nathan Knapp on Shohei Ooka

Lost & Found

“Experiencing the sacred is the opposite of being alienated,” wrote Susan Sontag in a 1971 journal entry—yet Sontag knew also that the “‘sacred’ always involved risk of death, annihilation.” Shohei Ooka’s Fires on the Plain (1951) is strung along just such razor wire. A Japanese novel about a troubled young soldier during the darkest days of World War II, the novel seamlessly braids Christian imagery with the nightmarish effects of cannibalism. On the surface, it’s a combination that sounds totally unpalatable, but Fires on the Plain—based in-part on Ooka’s own experiences as a soldier in the Pacific Theater—is a novel of strange and horrifying beauty, deserving to be set on the shelf next to the most necrotic of works by Cormac McCarthy. Though during his life Ooka became one Japan’s most well-respected and admired novelists, his work is almost entirely unknown today in the West.

Tamura, the book’s protagonist and narrator, wanders through the thick jungle and burning plains of Leyte Island in the Philippines, cut off from his fellow soldiers, starving. Forced to forage for whatever food he can, he is invited by a dying officer to partake in the officer’s flesh, presented as sacrament. The annihilation of one being contributes to the life of another, but results in a kind of holy madness.

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It’s just such holy madness that dominates Fires on the Plain. Tamura is followed everywhere he goes by a pair of eyes that may be the eyes of God—and may be the eyes of a hungry killer. A disembodied flame comes to him in the night, quietly driving him toward the holy—or perhaps unholy—madness that marks the rest of the book. “It was not because I was still alive that I clung to the notion of life, but because I was already dead,” he writes in the novel’s early pages. But: “if I no longer belonged to the world, I at least did not have to undertake to kill myself. I smiled with satisfaction.” (This is one of the novel’s more cheerful pairs of sentences.)

I found the novel quite by accident on the shelf of a small bookshop, The Globe Bookstore, on a cloudy day in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. I’d never heard of his work, never seen it in a bookstore. The note from the translator on the copy I found, published in 1967, placed awkwardly on the back cover of the book, claimed it was known as “the most important novel to have come out of the last war,” meaning World War II. Despite the book’s supposed importance, it seemed odd to me that the book’s publisher could not be bothered to update the book’s jacket copy—America had already finished the Korean War and was in the midst of the Vietnam quagmire at the time of the book’s printing. The most recent edition of the book in English, released by the same publisher, came out in 2001.

Finding anything out about Ooka proved to be just as much of a head scratcher. There is precious little biographical material about him available in English. There has been only one book-length English-language study of his work. So much for “the most important” Japanese novel of World War II. (This is certainly not an indictment on the novel itself, but on America’s nearly total ambivalence towards works by non-Western writers.) What I was able to find about him amounted to little more than the short bio contained in my copy of the novel itself, which made it clear that the novel was at least partially based on his own experiences fighting in the Japanese Army in the Philippines near the tail end of the war, and that he’d been captured as a POW.

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Originally published in Japanese in 1957 as Nobi, the book combines the nightmarish mood of McCarthy’s Child of God with the contemplative, oblique darkness of W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Whereas McCarthy describes the horror of inhumanity in its externally manifested forms—on-page necrophilia, say—and Sebald indirectly underscores the horror of Germany’s past in the subconscious imagery of his narrators, Ooka’s novel does both. Fires on the Plain begins with a sense of oncoming death, segues into the horror of cannibalism and total human deprivation, and culminates in a surreal, perverted religious fervor only matched by the work of Flannery O’Connor. Continue reading

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The Fact and the Shadow: A Conversation with Thalia Field and Laurie Sheck

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Laurie Sheck and Thalia Field are writers who train in the fire. For decades, their work has broadened our sense of what a text might do and be by mining the fissures between genres, reanimating voices from history and science, and setting match to existing forms for the sake of inventing them again. In their latest books, Experimental Animals: A Reality Fiction (Field) and Island of the Mad (Sheck), both turn their attentions to questions of morality, discovery, and the bodies in which all we animals live. For all this shared ambition, Field and Sheck had not met prior to this conversation–and so it is a particular privilege for us to share with you this literal meeting of the minds. –Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, Tin House

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Laurie Sheck: Although in subject matter and approach our books are very different—Experimental Animals is a highly textured collage that accrues through the uncanny juxtapositions of documents having to do with vivisection, Claude Bernard and 19th century science and literature, while Island of the Mad takes a kaleidoscopic, multi-vocal form composed of discrete, interlinked fragments involving the at first apparently disparate subjects of Venice, Dostoevsky, plague—both privilege fact as central. They display a fascination with, and I might even say a humility toward, a deep appreciation and respect for, the genius of the real. Both also embody a shared conviction that nothing is more radical or searing than the real. And it seems that for both of us, too, this orientation led us each to feel our way toward an exploratory, flexible form. And so, just as reality constantly slips free of categories, so did both of our projects.

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You’ve subtitled your book A Reality Fiction. I think of mine as a kind of kaleidoscopic hybrid. The impulse toward hybridity is, in part, an impulse toward inclusiveness. I found myself asking, how can I build a book around not one fixed center, but angles into thought? I sensed a conversation that could accommodate the textures of the mind without marginalizing or glossing over its contradictions, by-ways, doubts, swerves, inconclusiveness. A conversation I hoped would surprise and unsettle me, and from which an unanticipated, textured questioning could arise. A conversation I could learn from.

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I sense this very much in your book as well. With Experimental Animals my impression as a reader is that you let the documents both guide and surprise you even as you did voluminous archival research and chose from among an overwhelming number of documents with an intensely acute, curating eye. In choosing Venice and the plague my areas of investigation, whole worlds opened up before me, and I felt privileged to be a student of that world—part of my task was to make a place for those facts. To just let them be and be there to be noted. So, for instance, I learned there was a Day of the White Page in Venice in 1576, when after years of the plague-ledgers being filled with gruesome daily deaths suddenly there was a day when the page was left blank: no one had died. I found there was a doctor, Dr. Gaspare de Comité, who after years of recording his patients’ deaths wrote his own name in the ledger and then, astonishingly, his own time and date of death, signed and verified by himself.

Thalia Field: I am intrigued by your notion of facts and the real, and agree that there’s something particularly potent about how these concepts are themselves ephemeral, lyrical, even controversial. What I most learned from all my years researching in archives was how tenuous the notion of historical facts are—which is one reason why Darwin appears in my book. Not only does he intervene in the story of vivisection, but he has a poetic sense of the process of making and discovering history.

Also, I discovered that what was “real” in the archives (meaning what is still on paper) was always equally matched by what was missing, and so the fragments of curated text in my book serve both to stand for history (capital H and small h) as well as point to those screams and silences and gestures that history cannot or does not record. This sense of the aural is especially crucial, as it plays the role of primary mover toward action in the book—whether to silence the sounds or to save the animals making them. I appreciate how voices are equally important to the telling of Island of the Mad, as residue of the literary characters. The aural is often considered beyond history, and maybe this relates to the tentative nature of facticity.

LS: That’s so interesting. For every “fact” there is an absence that shadows it. Something silenced, powerless, lost. In your book you quote Zola as saying that a valid orientation for the novel is “Here is what exists.” And Dostoevsky, who figures prominently in part two of Island of the Mad and whose novels were criticized for being “fantastical” and exaggerated, wrote in a letter from 1869:

“…I have my own special view of reality (in art), and what the majority calls almost fantastic and exceptional sometimes constitutes the very essence of the real….in every newspaper you come across the most real facts and the most odd…but they are reality because they are facts. They occur and they are not exceptional.

Both are writing about realism but from different angles. (I’m struck that they were born only nineteen years apart.)

Dostoevsky’s point was, basically, if you want to accuse me of exaggeration, fine, but just pick up the newspaper and tell me if it sounds any less fantastical than my books. Dostoevsky’s definition of the real included psychological extremity and intensity. Island of the Mad has been referred to as having a dream-like quality, but I see those qualities as an aspect of the real which involves the material and immaterial, the visible and the invisible.

Besides, a lot of what we decide is the “real,” and indisputably “fact” may not be, so the definition is ever-thorny. One of the epigraphs to my book is by the astrophysicist Brian Greene that essentially says in the far future the universe will have changed to such a degree that there will be no stars within proximity of earth and so future astronomers will think we who claimed to see them lived in a delusion. Continue reading

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PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, Week 5!

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“FIRST AID TO TROUBLED WRITERS,” the Boston Globe announced in 1928—“GRINDS OUT PLOTS WITHOUT ANY FALSE START.”

 

Calling all writers who are obsessed with plot and obsessives who can write a mean story. We want you!

 

 

THE RULES:

 

Every Wednesday for five weeks, we post a prompt from William Wallace Cook’s classic how-to manual Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Simply use this prompt to write your own 500-word (or less) story. Stories must be submitted by Monday, November 21 at 5:00pm PST.

Click here to submit via Submittable.

 

Whether you’ve written a Plotto story every week or this is your first submission, we can’t wait to read what you send our way.

 

The Week’s Prompt:

 

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In the book, {B} indicates a female protagonist, but for our purposes, feel free to write from the point of view of any gender.

THE RICHES:

 

Weekly winners will be published on tinhouse.com, read their stories on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s State of Wonder, and receive the new paperback edition of Plotto.

After this final week, Grand Prize Judge Paul Collins—NPR’s “Literary Detective”—will crown one winner the Plotto Writer-in-Residence. The Plotto Writer-in-Residence will be awarded a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland, travel expenses paid.

 

Click here to submit!

 

You can check out the winning stories from the first three weeks here, here, and here.

 

Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots (out now!)

In the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

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Hear more about Plotto and the Master Contest of All Plots on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s State of Wonder.

 

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Terms and Conditions

Open to U.S. residents aged 18 or over only. One entry per person per week. Entries must be the original work of the entrant and not previously published anywhere else. Entrants will retain copyright in their submitted entries; however, by entering, all entrants license Tin House a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish and use each entry in any and all media (including print, radio, and online) for publicity and news purposes. There is no cash or other alternative to the prize stated and the prize is not transferable and no part or parts of the prize may be substituted for other benefits, items or additions. By entering, any subsequent winners agree to allow the free use of their names and general geographic locations for publicity and news purposes during this and future promotions by Tin House. Completion and submission of a short story will be deemed acceptance of these terms and conditions.

Winners will read their stories on OPB’s State of Wonder, which will require them to sign a material release permission form. The Grand Prize Winner will be notified by phone; the phone call will be recorded for an episode of State of Wonder.  

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Lost & Found: Rachel Riederer on E. F. Schumacher

 

Lost & Found

A timely reminder that the economy is not just a math problem, from Tin House #55: This Means War.

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We’re used to ideological wars in economic and political thinking: small government versus big government, the 99% versus the 1%, vouchers versus public schools. But one idea that seems to bind together economists and politicos of all stripes is the notion that economic growth—all economic growth—is necessary and good. In this context, adherents to “postgrowth” ideologies—those who believe that there is good growth and bad growth, who recognize that a finite planet cannot produce infinite wealth—are zealots, radical and rare. One of their founding fathers is E. F. “Fritz” Schumacher, whose 1973 essay collection, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, made Schumacher, an economic advisor to the Britain’s National Coal Board, into an unlikely patron saint of small-scale, local production and “voluntary simplicity.”

“Today,” Schumacher writes, “we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism.” When Schumacher started work on the book in the 1960s, this “giantism” must have seemed new. In 1959, McDonald’s operated over one hundred restaurants, all within the United States; Walmart did not exist and neither did OPEC. By 1970, McDonald’s had opened restaurants in Canada and Puerto Rico, OPEC had grown to include ten members, and the Walton family’s chain of thirty-eight stores was about to become a publicly traded company. Schumacher’s essays were a diagnosis, one that still holds today: we’re burning through irreplaceable resources, our work is becoming more automated and less fulfilling, and we’re calling this “progress.” As a cure, he offers an entirely new way of thinking about economics. The book is a call to abandon the “monster economy” in favor of “a lifestyle designed for permanence.”

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Schumacher writes about economics as a religion, a field that not only measures human activity (like other social sciences) but also provides it with an end goal: infinite growth. Instead, he asserts, the goal ought to be “the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption,” because the goal of never-ending growth presents two enormous problems–one practical, one metaphysical. First, we simply don’t have a never-ending supply of resources, and acting as though we do can only lead to crisis. Second, the pursuit of growth makes us measure consumption not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. “The modern economist is very difficult to understand,” writes Schumacher. “He is used to measuring the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less.” When put that way, it’s clear what a silly idea this is—yet measuring “standard of living” in amount of goods consumed is a core tenet of economic orthodoxy.

Schumacher’s essays are thick with such elegant takedowns of economic sacred cows. “The market is the institutionalistion of individualism and non-responsibility.” Cost/benefit analysis is “a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price.” And perhaps most famously: “The substance of man cannot be measured by Gross National Product.” Schumacher would have turned one hundred in August of 2011, a month and a day before the Occupy Wall Street protests began. He died in 1977, and I wish that he’d lived to become a centenarian so we could have seen the signs he might have brought to Zuccotti Park.

Schumacher’s most radical idea was that business and technology ought to exist on a human scale, at a scope that people can actually understand. “There is wisdom in smallness if only on account of the smallness and patchiness of human knowledge,” he notes, and also because small groups of people take better care of each other and of communal resources than do “anonymous companies or megalomanic governments which pretend to themselves that the whole universe is their legitimate quarry.” It’s still a radical idea. Buying local food, growing a community garden, making or purchasing items made in small batches—these activities have become trendy, but they are viewed more as stylistic choices than as the result of revised economic thinking. Even as artisanal products and ultrasmall businesses become more popular, they’re considered pet projects. The idea that bigger is always better, or at least more efficient, is still too deeply ingrained in our culture—economies of scale! Costco!—to see small-scale enterprises as anything but twee. And so making the tiniest possible batch of pickles and selling them within bicycling distance of a kitchen factory designed for employees’ well-being as well as efficiency must be a manifestation of hipster nonsense rather than a thoughtful and rational choice.

And okay, it’s hard not to caricature companies like Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers Chocolate, which imports its cocoa on a handcrafted sailboat. Its employees all eat lunch together and there’s a piano in the warehouse. Last year [2011 at the time of this article’s first printing], New York Magazine profiled several similarly committed small businesses and smirked that Mast Brothers is “like a child’s dream,” using the condescending tone reserved for kooks who dare to think outside the big-box store before moving on to pose the all-important question: Can it scale?

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I like to imagine a good-natured but slightly impatient Schumacher responding to this. Schumacher might also poke fun at the way we’ve fetishized the tiny and the local. He warned that the key to all things is balance; he was pushing for small-scale enterprises because of the dominant trend toward enormity; he might have done the opposite if the world had a “prevailing idolatry of smallness.” Still, I think Schumacher would smile on any business based on the truth that a worker—even a manufacturer—ought not to feel like an automaton. And as for “Can it scale?”—that’s simply the wrong question. Instead, one might ask if the employees enjoy their work, do they receive health insurance, how much fuel does wind-powered shipping save, and do the workers have fun playing and listening to that piano? But this is not what we’ve been trained to do, laments Schumacher: “Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.” Continue reading

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Between Two Worlds: The Backdrop of The Long Room

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At the end of the 1970s and during the first year of the succeeding decade, I lived on a boat on the river Thames at Chelsea. It was scorching in summer, freezing in winter, somewhat basic by way of plumbing in all seasons, but undeniably romantic. The Thames is a tidal river and runs swiftly; although the boat was permanently moored, it rose and fell by twenty or so feet twice daily on the ebb and flow, lurching and creaking on the water. When I lay in bed at night, with only inches between me and the river, and the small boat straining against its fetters, it was easy to imagine taking off and heading out to the North Sea. There were estuarine scents on the air always: salt water, mud, and marshes; and water sounds mixed in with the city sounds of traffic, sirens, voices.

I didn’t see it at the time but now I think that boat, that home, which hovered somewhere between land and water, which had a postal address but no mains drainage, was an apt symbol of a stage that was transitional for me. I had recently graduated from university and was working in London; those were the years of learning to be adult, of trying to make my own way, of finding out about life, and falling in love. Only a few years later, love having swept the sensible alternatives out of the way, I left my job and London, not knowing that I would never return to live there.

Looking back, I also recognize that those years were a watershed for Britain too. It is only in hindsight that we see how and when things change; while we are in the midst of them, it’s hard to discern a pattern. The moments when the living know, absolutely and at the time, that their world has changed, are very rare. (In Britain we had one of those this year, when we woke to the result of the vote on leaving the European Union.) And of course, the past has multiple strands. To pluck one thread out of the complicated tangle and to say that it defines a time is to simplify absurdly. And yet, I think we can say that in Britain life did change as the ’70s became the ’80s.

Broadly speaking, postwar Britain chugged its way through the ’50s and ’60s without dramatic changes of direction and with a general consensus on such matters as the provision of public services, the value of a mixed economy, the role of trade unions, and defense. But the election in 1979 of a Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, inaugurated a shift in societal attitudes. It was not immediately apparent, and it was not simply driven by politics. Yes, the free-market counterrevolution was part of it, with the privatization of industries that before had been state-owned, and the battles between government and workers, but there was something else, a sort of energy perhaps, that over the next decade transformed this country, for better, on the whole, although in some respects for worse.

My novel The Long Room is set in London in December 1981. I chose that year for several reasons: it was genuinely pivotal; there are certain parallels today; and because I remember it particularly clearly. There were riots that spring and summer in South London; angry people tearing through the streets, looting shops, setting fire to cars, and hurling petrol bombs at the police. In the mornings, the stench of scorched rubber, the shop windows boarded up, and everywhere an eerie quiet, after the rage of the night before.

There was a lot of anger, pent-up or released. The jobless figures soared. So did inflation. Mrs Thatcher authorized the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, and armored vehicles on Britain’s streets. The Yorkshire Ripper was found guilty of the murder of thirteen women and the attempted murder of seven more. A boy fired six blank cartridges at the Queen. And, month by month, through much of the year, IRA hunger strikers died in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, ten of them in all.

That year, a bomb exploded outside the Chelsea Barracks, killing two and injuring fifty. It was a war, of sorts. Another war, the Cold War, was still being fought in the background of our lives; there were military citadels buried under London and “mutually assured destruction” remained a phrase on people’s lips. By then, it may have seemed that the gravest dangers of that war had already been averted, but it was an age pervaded by a constant level of anxiety nonetheless. As we now know, that anxiety was justified; as late as 1983 the Soviet leadership mistook a routine NATO exercise as cover for imminent nuclear attack.

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Thanksgiving

 

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Fictional writers got more than they bargained for last week. They sparred with disgruntled protagonists, relived their memoirs, and reckoned with that minor character they killed off in Chapter One. Congratulations to the winner of Week Three, Carolyn Oliver, whose poignant “Thanksgiving” reminded us the story is never over. 

Check out this week’s prompt here

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Sarah Park appreciated the new dentist’s sensitivity. Unlike Dr. Stewart, who, while Sarah’s mouth was full of metal instruments or toothpaste, loved to ask her the kinds of questions whose answers her publicist sent out with advance copies of her books (“Where did you get the idea for this one?” “How long did it take to write?” “What are you working on now?”), Dr. Williams betrayed not the slightest interest in Sarah’s novels. Instead, she kept up a steady stream of quiet commentary on Cleveland’s resurgence and the weather outlook for Thanksgiving, asking questions that Sarah could answer with a slight tilt of her head.

“You hosting Thanksgiving at your house? Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans?”

Sarah nodded, stretching the corners of her mouth into what she hoped was a smile. The dentist’s voice, soothing and somehow familiar, covered her instruments’ scraping sound.

“Now me, I make all that—well, my husband, he helps too, especially with the vegetables—but there’s this one thing I make that no-one else does. Pumpkin pie trifle.” At Sarah’s raised eyebrows, she went on, “It’s an English dessert. Usually cream and jam and custard and cake, but mine has gingerbread for the cake, pumpkin custard, whipped cream with maple syrup, and toffee instead of jam. Gives it a good crunch. Can’t believe I’m carrying on about sweets, but there’s just something about you that makes me want to tell my secrets—you can go ahead and spit now.”

As she turned to rinse her mouth with water from the tiny blue cup, the diamond pattern flexing with the slightest pressure, Sarah’s eye caught Dr. Williams’s left hand. The third finger of the glove was empty, pressed down to her palm with paper tape.

She nearly choked on the faintly medicinal water.

Thirty years earlier, she’d written her first novel about a girl from Cleveland with nine fingers and one abusive English boyfriend. She had never settled on an afterlife for Jasmine, who she’d left in the spring of her first year at CSU, working weekends at Tommy’s and pregnant with the boyfriend’s baby, about to ask her mother for help. She’d wanted the reader to draw her own conclusions.

Dr. Williams was just leaning out the door to ask the secretary for a copy of Sarah’s x-rays. Sarah took her in: just the height she’d imagined, same strong arms. Softer in the middle, but then, so was she.

“Are your kids coming home for Thanksgiving?” she asked before the dentist brought out the tiny mirror to check her work.

“Oh, two of them are here already. My oldest is out in California. She’s almost thirty, and this is the first time she’s bringing her girlfriend home. Lucky it’s not her father’s turn to see her. I can’t wait. Let me fix that bib for you—there. Isn’t it amazing how our children turn out?”

Her eyes above the mask crinkled with the grin Sarah couldn’t see.

Tiny-House

Carolyn Oliver lives in Massachusetts with her family. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Slush Pile Magazine, Midway Journal, matchbook, and Free State Review, among others. Links to more of her work can be found at carolynoliver.net.

The prompt that inspired Carolyn’s winning story about the story was: {A}, a novelist, meets personally in real life a fictitious character from one of his stories. 

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

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Tender

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From This Means War (Issue #55)

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TENDER

Dear patriot

Dear catastrophe

None of this means what we thought it did

 

Dear bone fragments

Dear displacement

Dear broken skin

I am in over my head

 

Dear prisoner

Dear, dear wounded

You have earned our respect

 

Dear glad hands, curbed dog

Dear perfect object

The same night awaits us

 

Dear put upon

The day folds over and begins again

 

Dear bad animal

Dear caged thing

There was something about you

 

Tiny-House

Camille Rankine  first full-length collection of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses was published by Copper Canyon Press in January 2016. She is also the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize and a finalist for The Poetry Foundation’s 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship, she was featured as an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet and the April 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

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The Long Room: An Excerpt

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Stephen slots the unlabeled cassette into the machine. He doesn’t have great expectations of this tape. Helen is rarely at home during the day in term time and, in the evenings, the calls that she receives or makes are too often of the practical, brief sort: Can she fit in an extra lesson tomorrow? Cover for Mr. Burbage? Collect her watch, now ready, from the menders? Meet outside the theater for a play that starts at half past seven?

It is only when the arrangements and the diary engagements involve the subject that Stephen must record them. And he does. He writes them down in meticulous detail on each day’s report sheet, cross-referencing where necessary, adding information if it might be useful, making carbon copies as required.

 

8 December 1981:

Subject of interest and wife expected at Greenwich Theatre on Tuesday 14 December, 9:30. (To see production of Another Country—cf. tape dated 6 December, which details provisional plan made by subject’s wife and her friend Laura [Cummins, q.v.].) Tickets now booked. Probability of restaurant dinner later, location not yet known. John Cummins also attending theater. No one else expected to be present.

 

When he writes these things, he pictures Helen looking forward to her evening, getting ready, getting dressed, and later coming home, in a taxi, half-asleep. He prefers to see her living her life alone.

He knows that Helen is busy. She teaches music to young children at a school in Knightsbridge; she is sociable and often invited out. But even so, she is a kindly friend and a loving daughter. She makes time to telephone, she remembers birthdays, she asks after health and happiness, and she regularly telephones her mother.

Her mother lives in a village by the Suffolk coast, called Orford. When he first heard Helen name the village, Stephen looked it up in the atlas kept in the Institute’s library; it is not far from Aldeburgh. She has a gentle voice, just like her daughter, but with the faintest trace of Irish in it, and she evidently lives alone. That’s another bond that he and Helen share: elderly mothers on their own.

He presses the play button and the tape begins its smooth transit from one spool to the other. Recording is activated by incoming and outgoing calls. In a Bravo-level investigation such as this one, where the product is delivered daily, the tapes are often short.

As this one is. One incoming call, at 17:54, unanswered. An outgoing call at 20:17: subject to his father.

“Dad? Hello, it’s me. How are you? Just to say we’ll definitely arrive in time for supper. That is unless there’s a massive holdup on the motorway; you know how bloody it can be getting out of London on a Friday evening. But I can push off a little bit early, and Helen has a half day, so with luck we’ll beat the lemming rush.”

His father is pleased. He informs the subject that his guns are cleaned and ready in the gun room. Harry’s Saudi millionaire, it now appears, won’t be down till Sunday, which comes as a relief. He and the subject’s mother are looking forward to seeing their sons. The forecast’s good. Should be ideal conditions.

The subject and his father had talked about these plans before. Rollo Buckingham already knows that he will be at his family home in Oxfordshire and that the party will be joined by an Arab businessman (who had been easy to identify, from information already given on the telephone to the subject by the subject’s brother Harry). Rollo had not thought there was anything unusual about a weekend’s shooting or that extra surveillance measures should be taken. The subject’s father was formerly Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Buenos Aires, Dublin, and Vienna, has a knighthood, and now sits on the boards of several leading companies, including the brewery that Stephen knows to be the source of Rollo’s fortune. He is also a personal friend of the Director. There is no way the Director would consent to a covert surveillance operation at that house, even if there had been any point.

The subject was saying good-bye and was about to hang up when his father asked:

“Could you possibly talk Helen into giving it a go? Quite honestly, I sometimes think she sounds like that advertisement: I haven’t tried it because I don’t like it . . . And it’s an awful shame to miss out on such good fun.”

“Really, Pa, I think she made her mind up long ago. But I will try to talk to her again tomorrow, when we’re driving down.”

“Ah well, I suppose it could be worse. I mean at least she’s not a vegan. Your mother and I were only saying that the other day apropos of Christmas. Mamma’s bought her a really rather super leather purse.”

Stephen ejects the cassette and flings it across the room. It strikes one of the metal cabinets that are lined up against the wall opposite the windows, and falls to the floor with an audible crack. He retrieves it and sees that half the outer plastic casing of the cassette has sheared off. In a moment of confusion, as there is no option on the pro forma envelopes for deliberate damage, he slips the tape into his trouser pocket.

Now for the second tape. The orange label is there to show that no one has tampered with it between collection and delivery to the designated listener. Stephen unpicks an edge and peels the label slowly off.

Continue reading

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On the Election

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—Langston Hughes

Tiny-House

All of us at Tin House are enraged and saddened by the election. Now, more than ever, we believe in the power of story, in empathy, in inclusion, and that all voices have the right to be heard. Don’t give up hope. Fight back against racism, homophobia, isolationism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and the lie of the single story. Fight back with action, and words. We will keep fighting alongside you. —The editors of Tin House

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PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, WEEK 4 of 5

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“FIRST AID TO TROUBLED WRITERS,” the Boston Globe announced in 1928—“GRINDS OUT PLOTS WITHOUT ANY FALSE START.”

 

Calling all writers who are obsessed with plot and obsessives who can write a mean story. We want you!

 

 

THE RULES:

Every Wednesday for five weeks, we post a prompt from William Wallace Cook’s classic how-to manual Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Simply use this prompt to write your own 500-word (or less) story. Stories must be submitted by Monday, November 14 at 5:00pm PST.

 

Click here to submit via Submittable.

 

We’ll be back next Wednesday with the fifth (and final) prompt!

 

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In the book, {A} indicates a male protagonist, but for our purposes, feel free to write from the point of view of any gender.

 

THE RICHES:

Weekly winners will be published on tinhouse.com, read their stories on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “State of Wonder,” and receive the new paperback edition of Plotto.

After five weeks, Grand Prize Judge Paul Collins—Guggeinheim fellow, author of nine books, and mastermind behind the Introduction to Plotto—will crown one winner the Plotto Writer-in-Residence. The Plotto Writer-in-Residence will be awarded a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland, travel expenses paid.

 

Click here to submit!

 

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTS (out this month!)

In the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

 

 

 

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Hear more about Plotto and the Master Contest of All Plots on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s State of Wonder.

 

 Tiny-House

Terms and Conditions

Open to U.S. residents aged 18 or over only. One entry per person per week. Entries must be the original work of the entrant and not previously published anywhere else. Entrants will retain copyright in their submitted entries; however, by entering, all entrants license Tin House a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish and use each entry in any and all media (including print, radio, and online) for publicity and news purposes. There is no cash or other alternative to the prize stated and the prize is not transferable and no part or parts of the prize may be substituted for other benefits, items or additions. By entering, any subsequent winners agree to allow the free use of their names and general geographic locations for publicity and news purposes during this and future promotions by Tin House. Completion and submission of a short story will be deemed acceptance of these terms and conditions.

Winners will read their stories on OPB’s State of Wonder, which will require them to sign a material release permission form. The Grand Prize Winner will be notified by phone; the phone call will be recorded for an episode of State of Wonder.  

Posted in Events, Fiction, Tin House Books

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See You On The Other Side

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We are off to drink away the pain of this campaign watch the results.

See you tomorrow. We hope.

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