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Once you wear a birch skin,
foxes can’t possess you.
You’ll see through their guises.
Cold July, a girl is peeling
the bark from a white birch
like a brittle tape.
Our climate is full of them.
We offer the fox god
rice in bean-curd purses
The girl holds her thin bark
against the paling sun
in the overcast sky.
Don’t scratch your scab. Foxes
are drawn to the smokey smell
of your healing wound.
Mother’s voice, rising mist.
and my hand undressing
the birch against all harm.
My child, my course of scars,
You’ll always fear being owned
by something other than
yourself. My unblessed.
Miho Nonaka is a native of Tokyo and a bilingual poet. Her poems and essays have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Ploughshares, Cimarron Review, American Letters & Commentary, Iowa Review, Satellite Convulsions: Poems from Tin House and American Odysseys: Writings by New American (Dalkey Archive Press). She teaches English and Creative Writing at Wheaton College.
Coop stepped forward and stood over the bag, his head cocked. “What the fuck did you do?”
From our current Summer Reading issue, “The Cat” by Jackson Tobin
We tumbled into Coop’s basement through the cellar door, tracking snow and stench from the putrid Backwoods cigars Fitz was always burning, mulch and sawdust rolled in a dirty sock. The four of us—Coop, Fitz, Nate, and AJ—like always. There were no windows, and many of the bulbs had burned out among the ceiling tiles, so where light did come from the recessed fixtures, it was a hazy cone of yellow, filtering down like a jail yard spotlight.
Nate burst in last, a full thirty seconds behind. He’d still been in the house when we took off running, and now he came in the door holding his backpack out in front of him. As we spread out on the floor of the Coopers’ filthy basement, peeling off our sweat-soaked ski jackets, he placed the backpack carefully in the middle of our circle.
Something was moving in the bag.
“What?” AJ said, his voice already squeaky with fear.
“Unzip it,” Nate said. He stepped back, sat down cross-legged.
Now we watched the black JanSport as if it were stitched up with dynamite. Our pupils were still shriveled from the blinding winter light outside, so we couldn’t trust our eyes—but there was no mistaking the sound. An angry rustle of paper, a tearing of fabric.
Coop stepped forward and stood over the bag, his head cocked. “What the fuck did you do?” he said to Nate. But his voice was fat with admiration, his grin a salute.
It had been Coop, that morning, blinking in the nuclear snow glare, who said, “Let’s go see Toby Peterson.” Toby was a prissy kid with doting doctor parents. Coop hated him the way Coop hated rich kids, and poor kids, roided-out jocks and Internet geeks, know-it-alls and idiots. Which is to say, it was nothing personal, exactly, us picking on Toby that particular snow day. Coop was all for equal opportunity when he terrorized.
We were out on the frozen baseball field, standing around grinning in our outgrown snow clothes. School was canceled. The night before it’d snowed hard, a whole season’s worth folded up in one long gray cloud. The temperature was falling all through the storm and by the end a hard inch of crust glazed on top of the powder. We felt taller, with all that new earth underneath, and feeling taller was of outsize importance to us. In any group we knew where we ranked in height and every other hierarchy: if we could slosh down a Poland Spring of cheap vodka without puking; how many times we’d been punched in the face; whether we’d had sex yet, and if so, how crippling the stories of our incompetence were. Unfortunately most answers put us right in the middle, and the middle is no place for a sixteen-year-old boy. To be at the top was fine, but even better to be at the bottom—to have suffered. To have a reason for the anger that came off us like a smell; sometimes loud and sometimes hardly noticeable, but always there if you got close enough.
But it had to be the right kind of suffering. Coop had a dead mom—this was the right kind, the cool side of pain. She died when we were still in middle school. Coop and his three brothers all buzzed their heads before the funeral, and when they stood in a line at the gravesite, they looked like different versions of the same person, as if each could turn to his left and glimpse his future, two years, four years down the line.
It was a horrible thing, of course, but mostly for the adults, who debated when a cocktail of Ambien and Belvedere was simply self-medicating and when it was suicide. For Fitz, Nate, and AJ, our parents’ affairs and slow poisonings now seemed fine. Just regular. And Coop? Coop finally had something to be angry about.
The rest of us had two-parent households and, unlike Coop, fathers who came home every night, fathers who asked us how we were—fathers who cried. We had no wars and no death and an inescapably bright future, and in the warmth of that future’s light we gnashed and squirmed. We were as furious as Coop. Maybe more so.
Toby Peterson lived in a big house on Falls Pond, all timber and glass. We’d been taking turns pissing in the Petersons’ mailbox when Fitz slunk around to the backyard. Oi, he yelled after a moment, and we all came around.
The door was open, just a crack. Fitz stood there, a bent little grin burning in one corner of his mouth. He had his hands jammed in his pockets, a posture of victory—he’d nudged up the bar and knew no one would get over it.
Except then Nate lurched forward, kicked off his boots onto the bristly WELCOME mat, and slipped into the house.
“Christ,” Fitz whispered. “I didn’t tell him to go in. Nobody said to go in. You guys saw.”
But no one said anything in reply. We stood there, our gloved hands cupping our eyes, pressing our faces to the glass. Through clouds of hot breath, we watched Nate slink around the first floor. Watched him creep up the stairs, his feet leaving the top step.
When his socks reappeared, we scrambled over the snowbank and out of the yard. AJ looked back and saw Nate stumble on his way out the door, falling farther and farther behind, but then we went around the corner and he was out of sight. All we could do was keep running and hope he was behind us. Continue reading
A December or so ago, I drove a 26-ft truck from Florida to Massachusetts. I’d done it before. Scratch that: I’d done the reverse.
Everything my wife and I owned sat massively behind me, but this only started to seem ominous when the truck began to transmit cryptic diagnostic messages no one could properly explain on a screen on which I was told no messages should appear. I now think I was deep into some factory-level protocol, but that’s just me putting words around something I don’t understand, something that tried, just a little bit, to kill me.
On the morning of the second day, a few miles over the Virginia border, the truck went dead stick in about fifteen seconds on 95 in the rain. I’d had an alternator kick out on me once on the highway, and that was like this, only this was much, much faster: a progressive power failure starting with the radio and ending with the power steering, brakes, and drive-train. By the end, I was standing on the brakes, wrestling the nearly useless steering toward the median, in a slalom I can still feel in the pit of my stomach.
Writing chaos is tough, in part because there’s no such thing as chaos: only order we can’t discern or don’t understand or dislike so much we reject it out of hand.
Christina Stead narrates this kind of terrifying order better than anyone I know: sometimes in a kind manic aerial shot, sometimes in a fever of words that pour from everyone’s mouth toward a fixed point in the center of the reader’s mind. I think of her as George Eliot angry in a 20th century way, but she remains obscure because—beyond the frustrating and persistent neglect of ambitious women writers—we are only rarely in the mood to admit the world is ever quite like this: terrifying, terrifying on a normal day. Her most famous novel, The Man Who Loved Children, makes Dostoyevsky look mild and easy-going. No novel of family life captures the baseline suffocation that’s part of any family, even the happiest family. Her disasters are the real thing and we don’t much want that. We’d much rather have our disasters in slow-motion, carefully assembled toy cars or planes, cities or boats, coming apart in stately CGI. Stead never allows things hitting the fan that faux-regal grace.
Three hours for dispatch to find a company willing and able to tow me, the whole truck whipping back and forth from the force of the 18-wheelers blowing past without getting over. I read the manual cover to cover, then stood in the rain while the young driver used a wrench about the size and shape of a cow’s hind leg to remove the driveshaft.
In the cab, canceling dinner with the woman in his life, he uttered the words I remember him by, “I don’t know what to tell you: I’m not gonna turn down work during the week.”
Back in North Carolina at a soon-to-be-permanently-shuttered company repair barn, I sat in a break room decorated for the holidays: tinsel and Christmas tablecloths, an artificial Charlie Brown tree over the out-of-time terrazzo and brown paneling. The skeleton crew of mechanics put my truck through the wringer. After dark, they let me drive away.
I stayed alone in the hotel I’d departed from that morning in a not quite identical room. Outback Steakhouse handed me someone else’s take-out order so I ate someone else’s meal, chewing stupidly through Rain Man. I slept badly or not at all.
I don’t want to oversell this: near-death or not, that’s not my point: only that for a little while everything meant to go left went right and the confident shape of the world on which all things rely slid almost entirely away. There was no content to it, no message to me, just the simple error of it. Next morning, I drove the truck to Richmond and sat for several more hours while a new alternator was put in. The messages continued, but the truck ran better. Still, I kept waiting for the other shoe, the next dead stick, maybe on a curve with no median, maybe while I was turning. Continue reading
I’ve been wrong about everything this year. All my predictions, all my knowing, self-assured asides, all my cute, contrary prophecies, have turned out to be utter crap. Like everyone, I misread the spirit of 2016 on a grand scale. This time last year I was assuring my friends that Marco Rubio was exactly the kind of bland, blow-dried, poll-driven robot the delegates of the GOP most loved to nominate, and that come November he’d beat the broadly reviled Hillary by three points. Along the way I’ve thought Bernie would pull something off, that Trump would implode, that the email server thing would drag Hillary down, that the Warriors would sweep. I was wrong on every single count.
This is sad on a broad cultural level, but it feels sad for me personally, too. I once prided myself on my powers of political soothsaying. In 2004, I had no question that John Kerry’s weird Brahmin horse face would alienate the general electorate. In 2008, I was the first among my friends to call John McCain as the GOP nominee. Not since 1988—when I ended election night in fits of adolescent tequila-induced sobs over Dukakis—have I succumbed to dumb idealism or wishful thinking. I learned that night that only predictions based on cautious cynicism bore fruit. If I could simply remind myself every season how stupid and self-deceived people are, how fundamentally afraid, I would usually manage to get some fix on the probabilities.
Watching the rise of Trump, however, has been a daily embarrassment. I’ve been jerked around by every news cycle and fallen for all the fake obstacles the media has placed in Trump’s path. Only slowly have I come to realize what’s happening here—namely that people aren’t choosing fear and familiarity this time around, but rage and hate and the itch to burn the house down. 2016 is like 1968 without the peace and love, and all my normal, lowest common denominator metrics are no help. Which is why I’ve come to Cleveland for the GOP convention—to make one last stab at a prediction. I want to place a final bet. Will Trump, this avatar of crude greed and sadism, carry the new era? Or will the neoliberal meritocracy of Hillary Clinton hold the day? I’m already bored to death of this race, but want to get a grip on the new odds. More than the fate of the nation is at stake here; my own pride is on the line.
I arrive in Cleveland for Day One of the convention, and the scene is pretty dead. On the walk from the parking complex to the arena zone, iced coffee in hand, I see the outlying protesters are mostly of the typical crank variety: a guy in a janky, 70s-era RV plastered with horrific fetus posters; a flatbed hauling a billboard for a movie called “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party”; a mangy grandpa in an old pick up collaged with handmade signs adding up to a feral pro-guns/pro-Jesus call to arms. Around passersby’s necks are lanyards bearing placards of differing strength: white for delegates, blue for alternates, green for outer perimeter, brown for press, and a potpourri of others for everything in between. I made no effort to acquire any of them.
For the past week—which is to say in the days since the shootings in Baton Rouge, and two weeks after the horror in Nice—I’ve been fielding worried emails about coming to Cleveland at all, but I’m finding the vibe of the street not so worrisome. That’s maybe because there are more cops on the street than I’ve ever seen in one place in my life, bearing bright arm patches denoting their provenance. There are cops on loan from the California Highway Patrol. Cops from Georgia. Cops from Indiana. They rove in gangs of four or more, sticking to their regional teams. There are cops on horses, cops on bikes, cops in shorts, and cops in tan, belted jumpsuits reminiscent of the Ghostbusters uniform. As the crowd thickens, the cops marble the streets in ever fatter strands. Of course, a terrible event could come out of nowhere, but even if a sniper was specifically aiming for tall, skinny white guys with canvas totes and little note pads, I wouldn’t even be the first target.
East 4th Street is where the main crowd is churning. Lined with bars, the street forms a one block alleyway leading to the gates of the Quicken Loans Arena. MSNBC has kindly set up shop in the alley, broadcasting from a mobile booth crowned by big diamond-vision screens and serious speakers. There’s a fun effect as the reality of the anchorperson is siphoned into the screens above and the actual becomes informational, but anyone whose ever been near a camera can’t be that excited by the slightly hyperreal Doppler effect. I spot Tucker Carlson on the street, who’s shorter and squatter than expected.
I go down the alley and around the mouth of the arena, which is also pretty dead (“Did something just happen here?” a girl wonders aloud. “Or is this, like, it?”), and circle around to Cleveland’s Public Square where I’m told some civil disobedience might be on tap. The scene is dead there, too. On the far edge, a scrum of hillbillies preaches against Islam and homosexuality and espouses extreme love for the word Jesus. Their hats read “Fear God,” and for some reason a few otherwise rational-seeming citizens have taken the bait, getting up in their faces to argue about the fundaments of a good, moral life. Jesus! Tolerance! Jesus! Tolerance! The little knot of discord clings to the edge of the park like a tumor, but everyone outside of the ambit of hatred seems bored. I talk to a reporter from Ireland who confirms this is the extent of the action thus far.
A mild uptick of energy comes when two more aggrieved parties mount soap boxes in the park, and briefly there’s an overlap of amplified angry voices. One speaker is a Jesus guy, and the other is a guy in a suit representing something called Patriotic Millionaires, whose agenda seems to be campaign finance reform. And then the medieval Duck Dynasty guys raise their voices, and their opponents raise theirs, and a phalanx of cops intervenes to give everyone a little more breathing room. The cops move in on bikes and shove the onlookers a few yards back, and briefly we’ve got about 75 people encircling about 10 Islamophobes. The specter of some open-carry maniac with a quick trigger finger flickers, but very soon the hillbillies disperse, led away by their own private cordon, and the crowd, such as it is, disperses as well. It’s late afternoon. Muggy and hot.
Our staff was very sad to learn of the passing of Carolyn See last week. She was, as Karen Karbo knew, “an institution and a great friend to many writers.” Here, a Lost & Found essay from our thirteenth issue in which Karbo praises See’s novel Rhine Maidens, along with a note from Karbo on the sad news.
Carolyn was the matriarch of a school of LA writing that didn’t exist when I first started out. There was Didion, of course, but she possessed a New York haut-literary sheen. Carolyn was all SoCal, with her Hollywood strugglers and stragglers, single moms in the canyons, purple Jacarandas that bloom in the February, her giddy wit. We became friends after she graciously blurbed my first novel. We talked on the phone a few times a year, and had lunch whenever I was in LA. Once she said, apropos the perfect regime, “All you need is a thousand words a day, then you’re free to do whatever the hell you want.” We laughed, I remember — she had a great laugh — and I’ve followed her advice for two decades. Adieu, friend.
–Karen Karbo, July 2016
Carolyn See’s 1981 novel Rhine Maidens is not a Lost and Found, but a Found and Kept. Through two moves—one from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon—and one divorce, it’s been with me always. I left the Norton Anthology of English Literature behind, with all my tiny, laborious marginalia, as well as a number of other books I would, if pressed, list as favorites. I don’t even have a copy of my own first novel.
Rhine Maidens was originally published by Putnam’s in 1981. My copy is a trade paperback from the Penguin Contemporary American Fiction Series, published in 1983. It had been recommended by a friend, but I was in my early twenties then, and broke. I bought it used for $2.95. My name is written in ostentatiously large black script on the inside cover; I remember writing it just before I lent it to someone. I wrote it so big to underscore my point: I want this one back. When I started making more money, I would give books I liked away to friends. I figured I could always buy another copy if I wanted it back. But this one had always been precious. I would be lying if I didn’t say that part of the appeal for me was purely nostalgic.
Carolyn See, the author of nine novels and works of non-fiction, including Golden Days, Making History, The Handyman, and the terrific memoir Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America, writes about California in a way that gets to the heart of a native: what it’s like to drive down Wilshire Boulevard on a foggy midnight. The preternaturally cheerful Brentwood matrons who live to play tennis and have the current PC bumper sticker on their Mercedes station wagon. The God-awful cattle feedlots that skirt I-5 in the hot, dusty dead center of the state. The Jacaranda trees and night-blooming jasmine.
There are more objective reasons See’s second novel remains a great read twenty years after its publication. (Even references to est don’t seem to date it much.) The zippy pacing; the mix of hilarity and poignancy that rivals Lorrie Moore; the timeless family angst writ large on every page. Rhine Maidens is a mother-daughter smackdown, told in kicking-and-spitting double narratives. Grace is the mother, a sixty-three-year-old divorcee and widow living in Coalinga, one of those scorched Central California towns surrounded by oil wells. Tumbleweeds and sand blow against the side of Grace’s shabby rent-controlled apartment, scorpions show up daily in her tub. Grace was beautiful at twenty, and it’s been downhill ever since. Her first husband left her; her second husband was a drunk who up and died. Life hasn’t been fun since sometime in the ’40s, when she used to go dancing at the Ambassador Hotel. Her narrative is addressed to her best friend, Pearl, long dead.
Garnet, Grace’s daughter, escaped the heat of Coalinga and married Ian Evans, a line producer of television shows with hair transplants and suspiciously long hours, even by Hollywood standards. Garnet has a big house in Brentwood, an interior decorator, an overpriced garden, two pre-teenaged children whom she indulges, and who despise her. She envies Candy Spelling’s cutting garden. She swims daily laps in her pool. She says things like, “I know the right caterer for our exact social class, and I’m in touch enough to know about the new Chinese restaurant on North Broadway. (Not what to order. I leave that to my husband.)” Her narrative is in the form of a journal for a creative class at UCLA.
Grace opens her scree with “I never said I was easy to get along with.”
Garnet opens hers with “I am very sorry to have to start this course—and this journal—with an apology.”
It’s a little like reading a female version of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, another book that I never leave behind.
Due to reasons best discovered for yourself, Grace is forced to live with Garnet and her family in Brentwood for several weeks. It’s a disaster. Garnet devotes herself to trying to show her mother a good time; she takes her to the Getty, out to lunch at carefully chosen LA hotspots, to a ladies’s book club at Grace’s beloved Ambassador Hotel. This only fuels Grace’s derision. She cannot stop bitching and moaning. Grace is jealous of her daughter because she has money and a family; Garnet is jealous of her mother because she’s tough and beautiful. Around and around it goes. The voices of these women are nothing less than a pair of howls in the Southern California wilderness.
Despite the current endless cultural yammering about girrrrrl power and aggressive girls, and self-conscious tomes like Elizabeth Wurtzel’s lame-o Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, most writers these days—and by “writers” I suppose I mean women writers—are careful to make their heroines feisty and opinionated, but never flat out bitchy, never plain old cranky for no reason other than life sucks. The secret is not to avoid writing nasty female characters; but to convey the anguish beneath their ongoing bad moods.
I once read a review in the Washington Post of Carolyn See’s work. The reviewer accused her of writing “surfer” prose. I remember laughing; I knew it was supposed to be a slam, but to me it sounded like a compliment. (Maybe it did to See, too; her response was to send the reviewer a book on surfing, with her regards.) See works a sentence and a story like a surfer does a wave: sliding fast down its glassy face, finding surprising little places to cut in and out, playing it out to its perfect end.
Karen Karbo is the author of the novels Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, The Diamond Lane, and Trespassers Welcome Here; the memoir The Stuff Of Life; the best-selling Kick Ass Women series; and three Minerva Clark mystery novels for children. She grew up in Los Angeles and now lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.
The chef said he would make a special dinner for us, the American honeymooners. It was our first night at Lake Pátzcuaro, Mexico, and we were the inn’s first guests and this was the restaurant’s first big meal, the afternoon comida, the gastronomic heart of Mexican life. The chef was enthusiastic.
I envisioned a bubbling stew brimming in an earthenware pot, steam lifting with a woody spiciness that hinted at its forest origins. I wanted to know about that spice’s journey to my table. Had the chef hand-carried the herb, perhaps the umbels of a rare plant that blooms only once, under a full moon, down a mountain around his neck in an alpaca hair pouch? Maybe that was romantic, but all food has a story and I wanted to experience a novel’s worth, translated in my mouth.
On the lawn outside our room, a barbecue flamed and hissed into the lakeside air. And behind it, our chef, grilling up what seemed like… Texas-style short ribs, slathered with a ketchup-based barbecue sauce? The aroma reminded me of childhood. An acrid sweetness that had coated most every barbecued rib I’d known. I scanned the chef’s provisions for a bottle of Heinz, as he asked us to not say a word until we’d sampled all his carefully researched dishes, allowing the flavors to first mingle and settle on our tongues.
His research produced for us a bowl of mayo-rich potato salad, spiked with crunchy bites of celery that would make my Kentucky aunts nod in approval. There was corn on the cob, duly dripping streams of salted butter onto flowery hand-painted terracotta plates. (And I had been so hoping to taste Mexico’s traditional dusting of chili powder and crumbles of cotija cheese.) There was even coleslaw worthy of a Fourth of July potluck, shards of orange carrot and purple cabbage strewn throughout like celebratory streamers. (I couldn’t break the chef’s heart to tell him coleslaw was actually a Dutch tradition brought to the States by settlers, but instead confirmed that, yes, Americans do like coleslaw very much.) It was an all-American picnic in the middle of Michoacán. And it was good, but I left that place hungry, still thirsting to understand what tastes excited local chefs, where our palates intersected, where each was likely to provoke and entice the other.
Flash forward to Papeete, Tahiti. It was midnight at the airport. The brother of a friend piled fragrant leis of frangipani around our necks, flower layers building until the petals tickled our ears. We rode through the night in the back of a pickup truck, swaddled in scent, the songs of unfamiliar insects punctuating the darkness, papaya fields blurring past. When we arrived at the family home, deep in the countryside, we learned it had been emptied for the visiting Americans—not only had an auntie and uncle given up their bed, they’d donated their entire house.
The next morning, our host tapped on the screen door. He wanted to treat us to breakfast. His generosity had already humbled us into perpetual gratitude, but we weren’t about to pass up a Polynesian Sunday brunch. Tahiti had similarities in cuisine to my home of Hawaii, but Polynesia also had a long and intimate relationship with France, which meant where Hawaii’s cuisine had combined with influences from Asia, Portugal, the Philippines, Tahiti had slid into bed alongside les Français, whose sensual palates had drifted far across land and sea to infuse the food of these balmy islands. In Hawaii, one of the beloved local mainstays is poke—raw fish, typically ‘ahi tuna, steeped in a basic blend of sesame oil, ground kukui nut, and crunchy strings of seaweed. Here, the raw fish equivalent was a coconut-creamy, lime-marinated French-Tahitian poisson cru. And had I heard that Tahitians stuffed salty French fries in the middle of their baguette sandwiches, their casse-croûtes? Euro-Pacific fusion at its kitschy best. Continue reading
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a new series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. This week, we talk to Mike Gustafson of Literati Bookstore.
Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?
Mike Gustafson: Growing up in a small rural town, I was an outdoorsy kid who loved to play outside; “reading” seemed like something done indoors. So, I initially stayed away. I categorized reading as a “school activity” — a requirement. I didn’t understand that reading could be as fun as getting lost in the woods (which I loved to do), and could open up new, exciting worlds like those I’d discover in the backyard woodsy swamp lands I loved exploring. For example, I wasn’t aware it was possible to invent a new religion. That wasn’t a topic that people discussed in rural Michigan. Which is exactly what Kurt Vonnegut, another midwesterner, did in Cat’s Cradle. When I read that book, handed to me by a friend during formative years, it was such an eye-opening experience. You can invent new religions! You can invent new worlds! You can draw pictures of scandalous body parts and include it in a novel! Reading, for the first time, felt like an adventure, like I was wandering the paths behind my parents’ house just for the sake of wandering. I soaked up the rest of Vonnegut like a sponge, and I was hooked. As a bookstore now located in a college town, we get all kinds of students and younger people into Literati Bookstore who haven’t yet “read for fun” — math majors, engineers, students of various sciences. I love these interactions. “Here,” I say, handing them this new world of printed paper. “Read this. Lose yourself.”
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
MG: I’d take my good friend Hanta — the protagonist I care about and deeply love in Too Loud A Solitude — to see a psychologist. “I’m concerned,” I’d tell him, “You’re muttering to yourself in our bookstore and, quite frankly, steal too many of our ARCs and cram them into your tiny studio apartment, and it simply doesn’t have enough room. I think you don’t realize your literary obsession will kill you, quite literally.” And he’d respond, “I can be by myself because I’m never lonely; I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.” And I’d turn to the psychologist and throw my hands up and say, “See?”
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
MG: Everyone chooses something to worship in life — money, love, lust, beauty, nature — and they spend a lifetime chasing that, even if they don’t know it. Being a bookseller means I am surrounded by people who have chosen to love and worship books. We have hired many former Borders employees, for example. These are people who have spent an entire lifetime around books. I love watching them interact with the books in the same way they interact with friends and people. I love learning why they picked up a particular book. What they love about a story or protagonist. What they love about the physical object of a book itself. Our manager, Jeanne, loves discussing book covers — what attracted her to that particular book, even if she had never heard about it before. Books are more than glued and bound pieces of paper. They take on greater significance for booksellers, and being a bookseller means I am surrounded by people who can see and value this. Being around people who have decided to love books as opposed to money or power, makes me feel good. Like I can absorb that passion, bathe in it.
THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?
MG: Chris McCormick’s Desert Boys makes me better understand my own childhood. Any great book does this; any great book you finish, set down, and enter this blissful, difficult, moving space of reflection. After I read a great book, I probably stare at the ceiling for 30 minutes, or I take a walk around the neighborhood at midnight. I need to be alone and reflect. Sometimes I think about people I once knew. Sometimes I think of my own experiences. When I finished Desert Boys, I thought about my own small town, group of friends, my relationship with shame and guilt and how you become who you become. Little Labors is another wonderful, odd, surprising and hilarious collection of words. This book felt like such a discovery, it’s so different, I love handing it to people — especially new parents with babies — saying, “Enjoy your little puma.”
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
MG: I think people read to have realities either shattered or enhanced. Reading preference, for me, depends on the time of year. During winter — when I’m isolated from the outside world and there’s a polar vortex bursting through my 100-year-old house — I want to shatter my perception of reality. I’m ready for reality-shattering, with covers pulled up and curtains drawn. In the summer, like now, I’m outside a lot; I like to feel part of the world as opposed to feeling removed from it. When the weather is warm, I read to have reality enhanced; I choose books that enhance my relationship with the world like salt and pepper enhances a meal. One book that is wonderful for the enhancement of the natural world is Haunts of a Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero. I love to swim outside, lap swim, immerse in lakes and rivers, and be in the water. There’s not enough great writing about man’s connection and love with swimming and the water, and this book by Charles Sprawson helps enhance my relationship with water and swimming. Another great author for summertime: Keith Taylor’s poetry and prose, I love. He’s an outdoorsman, and he writes in a way that makes me feel more connected to the Earth, our surroundings and our environment. It’s the perfect kind of prose to read on a hammock under a tree in the summer. His collection of prose, Life Science, is one of my favorites, and includes one of my all-time favorite pieces about being a bookseller, and how those fidgety, unruly books end up shifting around on their own during the wee after-hours in a bookshop.
Mike Gustafson opened Literati Bookstore with his wife, Hilary, during the spring of 2013. Literati Bookstore is a 4,000-square foot independent general bookstore located in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor, featuring three floors of books, and hosting 150+ events and author readings a year.He lives with his wife and two cats in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I made the decision to purchase Providence of a Sparrow during a prolonged sit on a public toilet. Powell’s bookstore used to keep book posters in frames in the bathroom of their store on Hawthorne. The poster had been collecting people’s names and little promises of love in Sharpie graffiti for months. The image was the same as the hardbound book cover: a man’s hands protectively cupped around a songbird. It reminded me of my father. When I finished the book, I sent it to him, still in my childhood home in Maryland.
My father used to work in a building with enormous glass windows. Birds rammed into them thinking it was mere air. Aggressive red cardinals in bright mating-plumage concussed themselves attacking their own images. My father would hear a sharp thump!, then go out to investigate. If the bird was still alive, he’d put it in a box and bring it home for recuperation. Our most honored houseguest was a male rose-breasted grosbeak, an uncommon Maryland summertime resident related to a cardinal.
“They’re normally found at a higher altitude,” my father explained. “I guess he’s on his way back from South America. He ran into the window, stunned himself, and was flopping around. Then he flew into the window again and I grabbed him.”
The grosbeak was a little smaller than a robin and had a black tuxedo and a red ascot. He was seldom interested in my encouraging words, and, like all the other wild birds, did not want to be friends. He was one of the lucky survivors. My father released him in the woods surrounding our house.
There’s not much a non-vet can do for an injured adult bird except put it in a dark quiet place and keep it away from predators. We could give it some birdseed and water if it was a seed-eater (the grosbeak was), but it usually wouldn’t eat under such circumstances (the grosbeak did). This is how I learned the body is its own healer, that good intentions have no physiological power, and that patience is the gateway between celebration and mourning.
In Providence of a Sparrow, a sparrow literally falls into author Chris Chester’s life. A tiny “naked blob of flesh” hatchling, like a “testicle with a beak attached” with bulbous closed eyes, tumbles (or was pushed by overwhelmed parents) out of its nest from the eave of Chester’s home in Portland, Oregon, and into a bed of irises in a cold, wet June.
The Audubon Society won’t take the baby bird because it is an invasive English sparrow. Chester and his wife Rebecca keep the bitty thing alive in a small box with a heating pad. On the advice of an expert friend, they raise the hatchling on puppy food delivered at the end of a toothpick. The bird needs feeding every half hour during daytime. They take turns taking the avian infant to work with them. English sparrows mature in two weeks. In that short time “I swear I could see his mind forming,” Chester writes. The sudden arrival of this odd new companion put Chester’s longstanding depression into remission.
They call their adult male B, short for Birdbrain, but B’s little brain is far more sophisticated than anyone knew. In a radio interview Chester described B as a self-aware, “thinking being existing in time.”
When I consider avian intelligence, I think of corvids like observant ravens, persistent crows, and trickster jays. I think of parrots like my family’s peach-faced lovebirds, Rainbow and Crystal, who would let themselves out of any cage door that wasn’t wired shut and overturn plastic flowerpots to ram against each other like ironclad battleships. I think about the tool-creating, wheedling, and lunch-stealing alpine keas I saw while hitchhiking in New Zealand. Or the clever linguist Alex, the famous African Gray. I overlook the common birds in the bushes.
English sparrows are ubiquitous wherever there are humans. They’re the crowd of little tan scavengers hanging around outdoor food courts, snatching up pieces of cold French fries. The males are fairly easy to identify (at least to me) with a ruddy maroon back and half-circle black bib under their necks. To a casual observer, they are opportunistic but not plainly capable of strategic planning and cooperation.
Mammal intelligence is associated with a well-developed cerebral cortex. In comparison, birds have puny cerebral cortexes. Yet Chester clearly regards B as more intelligent than the smartest nonhuman mammal in the house, his cat Marlowe, who is discerning enough to know which belongings are Chester’s and which belong to Rebecca. When Rebecca first moves in, Marlowe collects Rebecca’s smaller objects, like makeup and shoes, and places them next to the door in protest when she first moves in.to protest her moving in. Continue reading
We will be away at our summer writing camp all week, eating red vines and talking about craft. You can keep up with all of our antics by following #thsw on our various social media channels.
And for those of you lucky enough to be in or near Portland this week, please stop by Reed College to catch a lecture or reading. Our schedule can be found here.
It’s dark and this is Ohio and we are alone, you and me and oil-movers and tubs of melt-rock rotating. We’re not going to the same place or we are. You pass tankers and I slip behind you. You leave me enough space always. You’re from Illinois, I’m in limbo. You drive fast when you’re in front but you slow down just in time. I keep your speed and we are never caught. I’m not so bold to speed for you but if I could I would. I wouldn’t let them pass you, ever. We flash light-secrets, red and white. We hold our eyes above gauges bouncing against exposed nerves. How much gas do you have and do I have the same amount. I’m thirsty but if I stop will you stop and do I want you to stop. I don’t think I’m ready for that. Getting a drink now means having to pee later and that’s just more figuring-out, more work. Why not enjoy a good thing. You slow down and I take the front. There are ways to be and ways that we are. I’m not speeding and you’re here. At tolls we use separate lanes. We don’t need each other. I don’t need you. You know that don’t you. This could end at any time. Any of these exits could be the exit. You take the lead again and I fight to keep up. We’ve never gone this fast and your taillights disappear. Is this you letting go or is it me giving up. I slam my foot down, prove it to you. Lightning splits the sky and I remember: there are highs and lows and lows feel like endings.
We ride it out and scan through stations. We settle on slow songs and slide below sixty. We imagine roads with no exits and our skins dot and rise. I am next to you for how much time. We share the center lane held tight between tankers. I’m in the lead, warm in your headlights. I want to see you in mine. The trucks fade ahead and I slow down but you don’t pass me, please take the lead. We take our own lanes then fall into blind spots, losing headlight and tail. There are hills, I think, except this is Ohio and there are no hills in photos of Ohio. Of course it’s dark and I don’t know what I see. At night hills could be tree-lines or power plants, uneven pavement or sourgut. I remember: lows feel like endings. Our gauges bounce and Ohio is long like it is dark. We need gas don’t we. There’s gas at the next exit, go. I won’t follow. I’ll drive slowly, you’ll catch up. Can you hear me this is important you missed the exit and if this is you trying to be generous please flash twice. Your taillights shrink and the radio is static. I think it’s getting light outside, the engine stutters. Will you wait for me or do you want Ohio to end.
Nikki Levine lives and writes in Portland, OR. Her work appears in Joyland, Words Apart, and the anthology Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class. She has an MFA from Portland State University.
When Wolf Böwig, a German photographer I’ve known for a few years, asked me if I’d like to write something inspired by his new project, Borders and Beyond, I hesitated. Wolf had been spending a lot of time in eastern Europe documenting the movements of people trying to reach central Europe. During his travels he would often send me emails with his photo collages and excerpts of his visual diaries. The images moved me in ways I couldn’t immediately define. I wasn’t sure how I could add anything, first of all, because I hadn’t been there. Wolf, being determined as he is, insisted: Borders are everywhere. This was about the issue, the ideas, this was about going beyond the media agenda. So, I started thinking and imagining and I realized I was already writing.
To escape: a verb that brings to mind action, movement, speed, breathlessness. Yet, a great part of escaping is waiting, and perhaps it is this long stretch of waiting which is too unbearable on the body.
Escape also brings to mind night and the protection of darkness. But here they are in daylight; all too visible.
Life, noisily, goes on. Mothers breastfeed their babies to stop them from crying, children find ways to laugh in the minutiae of the earth, a stone, a snail, a tree to play hide and seek with; men and women chatter, argue, go silent, then sing: a song from their childhood, a tune that makes them feel like they know who they really are. At nightfall, timid fires lend the sky a comforting glow and summon the thought of lost bright cities. People kiss their loved ones and make promises to their children; they say goodnight with an unspoken hope for tomorrow.
Think of landscape. Think of how elements come to be attached to one another, how it’s impossible to separate the road from the field, the field from the tree, the tree from the water, the water from the sky. We cannot attribute natural features to the lines we design just as we cannot attribute natural causes to those dying as they try to cross them.
Every person has a story. Not just a story, but a beautiful, moving, intelligible story. A story with potential to be added to a universal canon. There is no one story that is better than another. The fault lies with the ones telling it, nurturing its way into the world. The task of the storyteller before a crowd – a crowd desperate to be heard – is impossible. One is bound to fail, like a doctor who gives up on one to save another.
A man waves – for example that one man, there, with the sulking child beside him – and we can’t know if he is calling for attention or if, on the contrary, he is tired of looking for attention and would like to be able to choose silence.
Think again of landscape and think of the togetherness of crowds. That swell of people, with its seemingly incomprehensible organic rules, is impressive but not unfamiliar. The collectiveness of fear, of survival, and the most acceptable inertia, is only too familiar. We’ve seen before how people can be horded and the ones who break from the horde, irretrievably lost.
Soon, what we see daily – the new, the news – will be a memory. It won’t stop hurting because it’s a memory, not for the ones who lived it. For us, watchers, it will be history, told in a certain way, with the forgiving distance of generations.
Movies will be made, actors, directors, eloquent public figures will make speeches about how civilization won’t let violence, despair or pure indifference happen again. We’ll be driven again by the unshakable intuition that our children will be better than we are.
I observe my hands closely, thinking of how so many other women are, at this precise moment, observing their own hands. I observe them closely for signs of aging, spots, marks, rough bits of skin – I look for proof of a loss of strength. (I have always failed to observe what remains the same – the lines of the palm – since, for very private reasons, I’ve always been skeptical about what our bodies predispose us to.)
Every woman who closely observes her hands knows that everything she does – every job well done, every child born, every man loved, every person cared for, every bag carried filled with essential belongings, every gesture made – will show in her hands.
It has been said that, even to cross to the other side of life – that is, death – you must pay. It has been said that not even hell is entirely free. Someone will collect something from you, if not a fee, maybe a word or a sign. Maybe a sacrifice.
A newspaper report says 64 refugees from two war-torn countries arrived this morning. They arrived just before dawn, when light smooths out the sharp borders of things and people alike. The pictures show tired faces, but their expressions have not been emptied – on the contrary, they seem full of meaning, they seem to talk. They also seem to look, at least as much as they are looked at. They arrived at a discreet airport and were transferred to other means of transport that would take them to several parts of the country.
“Future” is a borderless word. Everyone knows that. I know that. “Future” is a word by nature open to interpretation, its existence depends on imagination. But once you are at risk and are trapped in uncontrollable events, the future becomes a clear, well-defined objective. It’s very much alive then.
I could tell you a personal history: of how I am the child of refugees, of how, in a different time, a different context, with a different language and different codes, my mother and father, my grandparents, my uncles, my cousins, fled a war and various difficulties. I could tell you how sure they were that they still had a future and that this is why I’m here, where I am now, writing in a shielded, bright cafe, which is warm and has a view. Only the sound of the wind through the cafe’s glass-paneled walls, and the sight of the sand swirling over the beach into a large cloud of mysterious shapes, remind me of what my parents taught me: that nothing can be taken for granted, that anything can change at any moment. That tomorrow I might need you. Or you. Or you.
Susana Moreira Marques is a writer and journalist living in Lisbon, Portugal. She is the author of Now and at the Hour of our Death, recently published in the US by And Other Stories.
Wolf Böwig is a photographer based in Hannover, Germany. He has photographed in many conflict zones and his work has appeared in die Weltwoche, NZZ, Le Monde, Liberation, Internationale, El Pais, The Independent, Guardian, Stern, NY Times, amongst other publications.
It’s a bad habit of mine, passing quick judgment on strangers and friends—readerly and writerly friends—who haven’t read someone whose work was been so essential for me. I can know that we all have our blind spots, that it’s not as if books expire, and so on, while simultaneously finding myself deeply frustrated, because how has the person in front of me failed to read or seek out the work of this writer I love, this wonderful writer whose work I think of as impossible not to fall for, to fall into?
Rivka Galchen is one of those writers for me—though, justly, I find that in the time I’ve been reading Rivka, I’m met more and more with knowing nods and shared exuberance when her name comes up in conversation. I’ve been a superfan of Rivka’s since 2008, when her debut novel Atmospheric Disturbances came out and completely blew me away with its innovativeness—the strange and devastating and lovely way it’s built and moves—and the magic occurring on the sentence level. (Galchen’s ear for rhythm and syntax is like Didion’s ear—the sentences sing, never losing their music even when they’re a paragraph long, and feel perfected without ever feeling tweaked or overworked.) I doubled-down on thinking Galchen was one of our best contemporary writers a few years ago when I read an advance of American Innovations, a story collection I treasure and have forced on many friends who come back converted.
So consider it a triple-down when it comes to Little Labors, Galchen’s first book of nonfiction, a fragmented compendium of ricocheting observations and reportage about motherhood—or perhaps through motherhood is more apt. It is a work of stunning intersections between curiosity and scrutiny, between wandering and wondering, and to follow Galchen’s mind as it moves through everything she’s gathered to look at is a gift. Reading it, one feels the enlargement of one’s heart and mind, which is the work of literature.
It was a thrill to speak with Rivka by email about the book, out now from New Directions.
Vincent Scarpa: I’d love to know the origin story of how Little Labors came into being. Were you consciously aware that you were putting this book together, or did that reveal itself as you kept writing?
Rivka Galchen: My original plan was to write an appealingly dry and detailed piece of literary criticism—that was the aspiration. Michael Barron, who was at New Directions, had invited me to come up with an idea for their Pearl series—very slim books, usually stories—and I had for a long time thought that I’d like to try to write something about Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, and I thought maybe this could be the form for such a thing. Shonagon and Shikibu were contemporaries, and somehow they both wrote books that lasted a millennium. And they had done this writing in the ‘minor’ language of Japanese; at the time, anything considered serious in Japanese culture was written in Chinese. Anyhow, that was what I intended to write, and it was going to be due the November that happened to follow the August of my child’s birth. I turned that book in nearly two years late, and that book ended up being this book.
VS: I’m curious about the process by which you decided to tackle—to include, to analyze, to juxtapose—any given element of the book, to create this patchwork that includes autobiographical writing but also your analytical orbit around everything from Frankenstein to an epistemological inquiry into the color orange to your evolving relationship to women writers. Was there something inherent in each thing you gathered in that felt unifying or necessary to fit the form of the book? Because, as your reader, I got the sense that you could’ve pulled anything into the text and alchemized it to make meaning, and yet it felt as though you chose the exact right things.
RG: I took it on faith that the way I was experiencing the world and thinking at that time was in some way like switching from a species that sees in the familiar ROYGBIV spectrum to seeing instead like a bee, or a goldfish. Not a better or worse vision, but a different vision (for me), and differently useful. And so I figured I could include whatever caught my attention, because the book wouldn’t be precisely ‘about’ whatever I was looking at so much as it would be about what the visible spectrum was of the species that I was, for a window of time. I knew I wouldn’t see like that forever, so I hoped to write the book baby-drunk, in a sense.
VS: Perhaps this is something of a pedestrian question, but I’m genuinely interested, because this is your first book of nonfiction, how the writing process and practice of Little Labors differed from, say, your story collection or your novel. Had you done much autobiographical writing before this project? Because Little Labors seems to me exemplary of my favorite kind of creative nonfiction: the kind where the realizations or observations made by the writer feel completely undetermined; they are happening on the level of language, on the level of the line.
RG: I’m told that people who work seriously with puppets don’t like the term puppeteer, or the idea that the puppeteer is determining what the puppet does—the puppet has a natural destiny, has its own things to express, and the puppeteer’s job is just to help the puppet be what it’s meant to be. I recognize how sappy-automatic-writing that sounds, but I believe in that idea! It’s like, Swedish chef has to be Swedish chef, Beaker has to be Beaker; you can’t coerce them into being other than themselves and still call it art (or the Muppets.) We see this also in puppet theater we’re more accustomed to calling art, like Bunraku, or the Gigantes in Guatemala. Long way around of saying: you’re definitely right to intuit that in this book the words had a strong say in what words or thoughts followed them; they were trains equipped to lay down their own next piece of track. And that’s a familiar experience for me, similar to fiction writing; that there’s a need to lower the level of control for anything interesting to happen. But writing this book was an unfamiliar experience in the sense that I usually find that it requires a real effort for me to turn off my drive to captain everything—here I didn’t have that problem. Instead, I had to beg the captain to come intervene. My frontal cortex was so dimmed out by fatigue and love that the ship was just a floating party, going nowhere. It was like there was just a lump of felt, no puppet constraint. I don’t know why I feel moved to go by land and by sea both in these mixed metaphors, but I’m trying to say that usually when I write I’m trying to dismiss the captain, and in this book it was more like I kept sending out message-in-a-bottles, hoping the captain would return, if only for just long enough to teach me how to use the sextant.
VS: Having read it twice, I think what I admire most about Little Labors is that it seems equally interested in a kind of self-anthropology and outward-seeking analysis as it is interested in being processed by a reader. That is to say the text is confident in what it declares—even confident regarding that about which it is unsure—but makes a generous space for your reader to move through as we watch you being both the scientist and the split rat. You even write, “…because firsthand knowledge is an obstacle to insight,” which seemed to me a sort of invitation to the reader. I’m not sure what the question is here. Perhaps: was that sort of phenomenological mode of relation between writer and reader something you were aiming for, or just a happy accident? (And if I’ve totally gotten this wrong, I will cite you back to you one of my favorite lines: “The theory may not quite hold water, but has at least a dense enough weave to keep in place a few oversized bouncy balls.”)
RG: I love your take on it. I wasn’t thinking in any conscious way about anything like that. But I do feel like in a way this book turned out to be my most ‘private’ work. Which isn’t to say that it discloses much at all about me in the straightforward sense, but that I was in touch again with the kind of writing that just has to please one person. That sounds like a bad idea—to only please one person, and for that person to be one’s self—and yet, I love that feeling. It’s like when you’re a kid and find a crunched-up note, one not written to you. It’s somehow great to read something written to someone, but not written to you.
VS: I’d love to hear you talk about the process of arrangement. I was surprised, receiving the final copy, to see its differences (in organization and in formatting) from the galley itself, and I guess that’s what prompted me to wonder how you went about ordering in the first place. Was the process of the old print-everything-out-and-arrange-it-on-the-kitchen-table variety, or was there something more calculated, some kind of tempering or balance you felt it was necessary to strike for the book to succeed?
RG: It was mostly intuitive, but I didn’t have the chance to really sit properly with the sections before the ARC went out; it’s sort of painful to me now to think that I let the book out into the world, at least provisionally, before it was really done! But that’s how it goes. I feel like the ordering process grows out of really sitting and spending time with the words once they’ve become foreign enough—no longer the fresh progeny—that you can see them in a way that more closely resembles how other people might see them. And, of course, there’s the regular old questions of how to make the most of variations in length and tone, of lightness and dark.
VS: The section that struck me most is one of the shortest. Titled, “New Variety of Depression,” it reads in its entirety, “It’s true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” That one knocked me flat on my ass. It’s so, so concise, and yet holds within it a feeling so unbelievably complicated and nuanced. It’s an example of something I think you do enviably, maddeningly well, here and in your fiction—of locating the exact right language through which you can force the most knotty emotions, sensations, perceptions. You find language that can bear weight without buckling, and I think that’s what we’re all trying to do. I’m wondering, then, about the instinct toward compression of that language, and if/how that might differ from instincts you’ve felt as a fiction writer—especially as a novelist, whose task is in so many ways to grow out.
RG: I’m not going to say anything, because that question was so nice, I don’t want to muss it up. (I do think though that I like what you’re pointing to, about how sometimes a kind of prolixity and going on and on can become its own kind of compression. A long novel like Don Quixote feels like it acquires density, rather than dispenses with it. It’s almost like novels are the inside of poems.)
Rivka Galchen is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances. In 2010, The New Yorker selected her as one of its notable “20 Under 40” writers. She lives in New York City.
From our current Summer Reading issue, “Body Electric” by Malerie Willens.
This person’s got a name, but let’s call her “you.” You pop into Butterwell Bakeshop after work, to huff the vapors of a thousand mille-feuilles. You eat a complimentary stub of zucchini bread from the basket on the counter while pretending to survey the case, despite the fact that you know its contents by heart and could probably evoke them in the middle of the night, a memory exercise to help you sleep. From left to right: chocolate chip pretzels, organic Irish soda bread, hot-crossed prosciutto buns, blue velvet cupcakes, and on and on. You’ve considered the sensual possibilities of lying naked, lengthwise, along that case, the literal “feeling” of cookies and rolls and brain-sized scones adding a tactile, calorie-free fillip to an already tumultuously hot lust.
You wrap up your charade as a moderate, everyday customer who just casually happened in, and you leave Butterwell with two big bags. The greasy, dense weight of the pastries begins immediately weeping through the wax paper.
You walk up Ninth Avenue, past the pastiche of prix fixe enthusiasts and Hell’s Kitchen derelicts—the ones that still bray and howl and forget to wear pants despite the fact that their neighborhood’s now got more brunching ad execs on Vespas than urine-soaked klepto-crackheads. You start fingering your stash of starch but you do not remove anything because you must never, ever unearth the food in public. Walk instead with hand in bag, pinching off pieces of object. Doesn’t matter if object is wet, viscous, cheesy, sloppy, or frosting-covered. This bag, this object cover-upper, must never be peeled back to reveal contents to you or to passersby.
Collapsibility is key when walking with vessels of objects. Consolidate everything into one bag quickly. You want mobility: no balls, no chains. You will eat the cake once you’re on the subway. You’ll be sitting and you can keep the cake in the bag and dip into it with the fork. That way, train companions might assume you’re eating dinner—some salad or hummus or other acceptable takeout—not the second massive slice of lemon mousseline cake you’ve consumed in ten minutes.
You have perfected the public eat-weave, the sidewalk sojourn with objects in tow. Pinch/eat/pinch/eat. If you walk fast enough, no oncoming walkers will catch more than one cycle of pinch/eat. Your sequence is a matter of personal preference, and depends upon that session’s objects. Not crazy about the tomato-feta brioche? Just eat it. Pumpkin strudel’s drier than you’d hoped? No matter! Down the hatch! This is about consumption—not discernment, not discrimination. You made the decision a half an hour before you left work and now there’s no turning back.
You decided as the workday ended. It had been this kind of Tuesday: You walked to your morning train and already your outfit was twisting and pulling, unflattering, too tight in the armpits. By the time you got to work, you were sweating between your breasts and at the small of your back. At work you were bound to your seat. You drank too little water, peed only once, ate a lunch that was unhealthy, unsatisfying, and left a greasy patina of onion on your fingertips, despite washing them repeatedly. You sat there, hunched and tense, writing things that made bad people sound good, made stale ideas seem pioneering, while your coworkers left midday for sample sales and returned in a jasmine-scented mist of giggles and shopping bags. You knew they knew you hadn’t left your desk all day. You knew they knew you sat there squinting, shifting, furrowing your brow, which, unlike theirs, was not slathered with an age-defying cream mined recently from the Andes. And when you finally finished writing your paean to something that will only make the world worse, your boss had already left for a meeting at Cipriani that wasn’t really a meeting at all but was in fact a lovely little prosecco and smoked fish tête-à-tête with a man who found her attractive, despite her resemblance to a bosomy Peter Lorre.
Imagine the sensation of having just eaten a mountainous Thanksgiving dinner, except for the fact that you’re not surrounded by similarly engorged family members who love you. There is no Ultrasuede® sectional into which you can sink, no televised sporting event or dog show to watch, no The Twilight Zone marathon, no kitty to stroke, and no assurance that this is a nationally sanctioned once-a-year occurrence, and one of the few moments you feel American. No. Instead you are underneath Port Authority, waiting for your train while a wild-eyed Korean man plays hymns on what appears to be, but isn’t, a flute. His open-closed eyes have settled at half-mast, as eyes tend to for the rapturous and exhausted. Your coworkers—the girls—take cabs to and from work, but none of them live deep in the outer boroughs. You lean against a dirty pillar and scan the tracks for rats, the bulging Butterwell bag in hand. Express train approaches, doors open. You’re seated, moving, grateful to be at the mercy of a machine, to cuddle up between the cogs and just let things happen. Continue reading
On vacation, I meet a man with awful bleachy hair. I am the kind of drunk that means I suck his dick while he brushes his teeth in the hotel room. He is the kind of drunk that means he grabs my tit for just a second before he passes out, mouth open, throat wet . His snoring irritates me and it makes me want to put something inside him. I remove my pinky ring and slide it gently between his moist lips. I have never heard a sound like that gurgle. I remove my left earring and I pop it in, more quickly this time. I search the table next to the bed: pen cap, watch, slip of paper covered in phone numbers. All of them inside. He moans in his sleep. Five-cent coin, travel floss, hand sanitizer, yellow plastic giraffe. I imagine I have x-ray vision, I’m watching all these objects line up in the man’s esophagus, dance together as they slide down his slick interior, as they fizzle in his sloshing acids. I just keep going. It’s all very calm and methodical, until he wakes up coughing, choking, sputtering, clutching desperately at his throat. I once performed the Heimlich on a mannequin, so I know more or less what to do. I throw my arms around him and thrust upward. It is just as I remember. His rubbery body resists until it doesn’t. He is stiff and hairless, proportioned a little strangely, heavier than I expect.
Reem Abu-Baker lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she is the fiction editor for Black Warrior Review. Her stories can be found in Ninth Letter, NANO Fiction, Day One, and other journals.
A work of art within a work of art is never just a work of art. If the imaginary art is bad, which it often is, it becomes a target for satire and something of a defense mechanism – a way of anticipating criticism of one’s own work and neutralizing it: You know I know what bad art is, so what you’re holding in your hands cannot be bad art. But it’s also how writers work their own artistic obsessions and preoccupations into narrative. And it’s fun. At least, I had a good time coming up with the imaginary songs, albums, books, and one sculptural installation that figure into my first novel. At their most compelling, though, fictional works of art within fiction go far beyond the jokes. They work against solipsism and toward expansiveness, engagement. Their inclusion in narrative makes for fiction that is part of a larger, ongoing conversation about representation, identity, invention and self-invention – without getting all tripped up in it, announcing it, or apologizing for it. It’s not easy to narrow down the long list of novels that do this well, but these are five that especially resonated with me as I was trying to invent my own true fakes.
Children of Light by Robert Stone
In his fourth novel, published in 1986, Stone places us in a world of glamorous dissolution and excess: a destructive romance set within a Hollywood film production. The imaginary movie, being shot in Baja California, Mexico, is an adaptation of The Awakening, Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel. Chopin’s story of Edna Pontellier, a well-to-do wife and mother in late 19th– century New Orleans struggling against the social conventions of her time, is a favorite of troubled actress Lu Anne Bourgeois. Years earlier, during a tumultuous affair with screen writer and actor Gordon Walker, Lu Ann introduced him to the book, he wrote the script with her mind, and now that The Awakening has been revived as a feminist text, a movie is finally being made. It’s going to be “prestigious, timely, and cheap.”
Lu Anne and Gordon are no longer “young and fearless,” and by implication, no longer so resilient. Walker is living at the Chateau Marmont, after finishing a run as King Lear. His wife has left him and his “inner resources” are failing him. He looks “like a man in his forties who drank” (and who will also, over the course of the story, do a whole lot of cocaine). Lu Anne, who goes by the stage name Lee Verger, hasn’t fulfilled the promise of her early work and her “subsequent career, like Walker’s, had been disappointing.” She’s gone off her medication, her schizophrenic hallucinations have returned, and her husband and children have departed the shoot. When Gordon leaves L.A. and heads to Mexico to join her, we know they’re doomed; we just don’t know how badly it will end.
Stone uses the fictional movie to create yet another level in a multi-layered work. The parallels between Edna and Louisiana-born Lu Anne are obvious and the novel is freighted with allusions (to the Bible, to Shakespeare) that are rendered, by the characters themselves, with such intelligence and feeling that even at its most heavy-handed and overwrought, it’s a wonder. Stone gets to have it both ways. Operatic emotion and events that are shot through with a mocking yet soulful irony: “Half purely romantic, half higher bullshit.” And while his writing isn’t typically described as laugh-out-loud funny, so many of his lines make me do just that. (Irony being contextual, though, they lose their humor when I try to isolate them here.) Satire doesn’t seem to be the ultimate goal here, though Stone’s so good at it: In addition to the fake movie cast and crew, he gives us Dongan Lowndes, author of a single well-regarded novel – Naming of Parts – who now writes “well and bitterly” for magazines. He’s there on assignment and everyone loathes him.
The movie-within-the-book is meant to be a failure, compromised in several ways, but I so wish I could watch Lu Anne on screen. See her depth, her “dark blue saintly eyes and a smile that quivered between high drollery and madness,” bringing to life the script that Walker wrote for her.
The Wicked Pavilion by Dawn Powell
Powell’s novel takes place in New York City in the late 1940s, centering on the fictional Café Julien and the Greenwich village bohemians, party girls, and wealthy art patrons who plot, gossip, dream and fall in love there. It’s never quite clear who is working whom. Unless you count Powell, skewering everyone’s pieties with her exceptionally cutting wit.
The invented art at the heart of the book involves the talented but under-recognized painters Dalzell Sloane and Ben Forrester, who decide to cash in on the posthumous fame of their dead friend Marius, whose work now commands a high price. “The greatest favor Marius, the man, had ever done for Marius, the artist, was to die at exactly the right moment.” Dalzell and Ben create counterfeit Marius canvases and pass them off as undiscovered originals. Dalzell rationalizes it this way: “If his integrity, morals and whole spirit were to be corrupted, why then let it be by Success for a change.”
Powell fills the book with near-epigrammatic observations and life lessons. If anyone ever tells you something like “I’m a perfectly frank person so let’s be honest with each other,” know “that the one thing a perfectly frank person cannot take is frankness.” There are echoes, in subject matter and in tone, to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Powell also admired Henry James and she has his keen understanding of human nature, though her characters are more broadly and farcically drawn than his. (While so much of Powell feels fresh, there are some tossed-off characterizations that make this book decidedly of its time; it was published in 1954.)
Powell’s focus here is not so much on the art as the bubble around it – dealers, buyers, critics, party-throwers, party-goers, and hangers-on. To the extent that Powell suggests this can’t be divorced from some more authentic or innocent experience of the work, her writing is deeply cynical. But it’s warm-blooded. She can take apart just about anybody, but she does it, ultimately, in the service of poignancy. You sense she’s suffered hurts and humiliations both outright and subtle (for the curious reader, her journals reveal it all in painful detail) and that’s where she’s writing from. Here’s Sloane, on the aging heiress – playing bohemian in a “Tyrolean peasant outfit” – he’d been in love with twenty years earlier: “[S]eeing through her made him feel the more bound to her, as if her transparency was precious and must be protected. He wanted to have her go on thinking she was powerful, beautiful, and that all men were in love with her, because that was the Cynthia around which his youth had revolved; for the capricious vanity that was Cynthia’s to be shattered meant the end of hope for him, too.” Even the self-interest, mixed with empathy, is tender.
Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
The imaginary art in Spiotta’s 2011 novel involves the Chronicles of Nik Kranis, aka Nik Worth. It begins as a scrapbook of actual events and ephemera from the late 1970s when Nik, then in his twenties in L.A., was in a band, The Fakes (what else?). When a record deal almost materializes and then disappears, so does Nik’s real-world ambition and the Chronicles begin in earnest, a 30-odd year invented “history of his music, his bands, his albums, his reviews, his interviews.” The sprawling compendium includes write-ups by his so-called nemesis (who got his start at Creem and now writes for the Los Angeles Times) and liner notes by one “Mickey Murray,” a New School-tenured “Greil Marcus Professor of Underground, Alternative, and Unloved Music.”
There’s something pathological about Nik’s obsession – his father gives him a guitar on his 11th birthday and from then on, “it took him over like a disease.” But there’s also something celebratory and freeing. In the Chronicles “all his loves ran without restraint, unfettered and unashamed.” He blurs the line between real and imaginary in his archive: “When Nik’s dog died in real life, his dog died in the Chronicles. But in the Chronicles he got a big funeral and a tribute album. Fans sent thousands of condolence cards.” Nik actually does write and record the music on the tribute album. It exists, if only for an audience of one – his sister Denise, who narrates most of the book. “I knew how to listen to him,” she notes. Eventually, Denise’s twentysomething daughter Ada, an aspiring documentarian who puts all of her work and life online, decides to make a film about her uncle, whom she sees as “a devoted, unrepentant eccentric.” Nik agrees to the project with sardonic self-awareness: “Hell, I’ll be the next Henry Darger.”
Spiotta’s parodies of rock/pop conventions and the music press are spot-on. There’s The Fakes’ album Take Me Home and Make Me Fake It, Lozenge (“Nik’s short-lived one-man electro-boogie band”), a 1980 album called Sylvan Shine, released by Nik’s side project, a British electric folk trio. Then there are the independent/niche record labels: Mountebank Industries, Cold Slice, Pause Collective. All of this is supremely clever, and if it risks becoming, as Denise puts it, an “overly elaborated joke,” it never does. Instead, it builds into something larger, more disturbing, and more heartfelt about creativity, preservation, memory, longing, and love.
There is another imaginary work of art, though not really an intentional one, in this book. It’s a cake Denise’s mother made years ago for her daughter’s birthday. Denise has all but forgotten about it until her mother, whose mind is disintegrating, pulls the memory out of the past. It was “a beautiful Bowie birthday cake,” circa Aladdin Sane, “with the frosting lightning bolt across his face.” Denise only recalls it as a photograph now, but I can’t shake the image of her as a girl, in their white stucco bungalow in Hollywood, a couple of blocks off the freeway, with this cake, and all of her dreams and desires.
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
Warner’s 1995 novel opens with Morvern – a twenty-one year old working a dead-end job at a supermarket in a Scottish port town – finding her boyfriend’s body on the kitchen floor. It’s Christmas and he’s killed himself, leaving a note and a completed novel on the computer. So Morvern replaces his name with hers on the cover sheet, prints it out, and sends it off to a publishing house. Out of grief, entitlement, a grim sense of humor? It’s not clear what exactly motivates her, but then, this is not a novel of psychological analysis. It’s one of observation and atmosphere, told from Morvern’s first-person, ever-observant perspective, in language that doesn’t call attention to itself but is precise, evocative, transporting.
Morvern takes us from a chilly winter in the Scottish highlands to the warmth and color of coastal Spain, as she spends her book money on travel, drugs and dancing. Which might sound like a lot of affectless detachment, if she weren’t so finely attuned to details. There’s the “goldish lighter” she uses for all of her Silk Cut cigarettes, the “Dusky Cherry” polish she paints on her nails, her description of getting dressed to go to a party with her friend: “Lanna brought out the little black number, shoes and the stockings, then as I twisted and tugged the dress on, Lanna’s hair touched my eyelashes while she leaned across tightening the bits on the suspenders. There was a tiny hole in the dress high up on the right shoulder… Lanna took a black felt-tip from her bag and, biting her lip, she colored in my skin under the hole.” Later, out swimming in the country, Morvern sits smoking and watching “Lanna’s pale body appear through birch trees and mellow shadows up by the jutting rock. Her freckles seemed to match the frills of bright sun being let through the leaves behind her. The ginger hair that turned blackish when wet was slapped in a rope over behind her back.”
There is often a soundtrack going and Warner gets specific with the (real) music, not to score points but in a way that feels integral to Morvern’s character. Coming through her Walkman: Can, Miles Davis, Lee Perry, PM Dawn, Kraftwerk. Mornings on a hotel balcony are for “Cucumber Slumber” by the Weather Report or Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets.” Her “sunbathing” mix makes me want to find a beach.
So we get fake-real music playlists and a whole fake novel, though we never get to read any of it. We only know, from the comments of a couple of publishing people, that it’s “really, really heavy.” While we can guess what kind of writer her boyfriend is, we come to know exactly what kind Morvern is. Her narrative becomes the real work of art.
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
Kushner’s 2013 novel is loaded with imaginary art: bad art, great art, not quite art, even never-made art. (“It didn’t matter that it was never made. That it was unmakeable was its brilliance.”) Kushner uses all of it to connect the New York art world of the mid-to-late seventies to the radical movement and violent, political upheaval in Italy of that time, through a young woman we know only as “Reno.”
She is 21 years old when she arrives in New York, wanting her life to happen, outwardly cool though hardly invulnerable: “It may go without saying that I was the type of person who would call a disconnected number more than once.” She falls in love with Sandro Valera, an artist 14 years her senior, whose family happens to own an Italian empire built on rubber tires and motorcycles. Reno’s loves are drawing and speed – motorcycles, downhill skiing – and though she studied art and film at the University of Nevada, it hasn’t prepared her for the sophisticated codes and shorthand of downtown Manhattan in 1975, much less those of upper-class Lake Como society. So she’s watchful as she encounters a host of indelible characters.
There’s Ronnie Fontaine, Sandro’s friend and fellow artist, who trades in irony and dissimulation. His monologues are just one of the many masterpieces in this book, as are the titles he invents for his fake autobiography (Table for Two for One: An Autobiography; Married but Looking: My Story; You’re Soaking in It: My Secrets). There’s the older art couple Gloria and Stanley Kastle. Says Gloria, at one point, to her sobbing husband: “You really devalue the tear when you do this.” Then there Sandro’s mother, Signora Valera, a petty, judgmental woman who retires to her room in her enormous villa to watch dubbed episodes of Sanford and Son at a loud volume.
Kushner doesn’t merely spoof the pretentions and absurdity, the heightened artifice of this world, but finds the significance in it; that its language and cues may be confusing and exclusive, but they have meaning, they’re worth deciphering. As Sandro says of Ronnie: “You have to listen closely. He’ll say something perfectly true and it’s meaningless. Then he makes something up, but it has value. He’s telling you something.”
Reno wants to distinguish between truth and lies, but complicating it all is the notion, and action, of performance, performing yourself. For Reno, it may be less about an opposition between true and false than a tension between calculation and chance. At the end of a long, fraught night, Reno watches Barbara Loden’s 1970 film Wanda, in which the title character leaves her husband and kids and drifts, eventually into a botched bank robbery. Reno thinks: “The point of the film was not the stark life in a coal-mining town, although that was how Sandro had read it… It was about being a woman, about caring and not caring what happens to you. It was about not really caring.” Leaving things to chance may look like passivity but isn’t really that.
There is so much dazzling reflection and refraction in this book, that in reading it, I often feel like Reno, made aware of all the macro and micro connections between machinery, industry, violence, exploitation, and art, but unable to articulate what it means. Early on in the book, Reno gets what she thinks she’s been waiting for, finding herself “in the current” of things, sitting on Ronnie Fontaine’s lap in a big black Cadillac with a Southern derelict-gentleman photographer and his mysterious girlfriend. They’ve left a bar on 14th street and seem to be driving and driving, only to end up a few blocks uptown at what Reno learns is the Chelsea Hotel. They’ve been driving in circles, but Reno’s along for the ride, discovering, decoding, arriving at a place not all that far away but new and alluring.
Deborah Shapiro is a writer in Chicago. Her first novel, The Sun in Your Eyes, will be published this June by William Morrow/HarperCollins.
When we went to see the trailer we’d rented, officially Uhauling, it was clear immediately: our books weren’t going to fit. I had eighteen boxes. She had eighteen boxes. The shipping would cost over a grand and so we reconsidered. We were moving the cheapest way possible, to a new state where neither of us had jobs but we had leads on things and people to email and books to write. Eventually we found a sixteen-foot Penske truck, huge but budget friendly, and I drove it packed with thirty-six boxes of books plus a couch across Texas into a storm in New Mexico that sent tumbleweeds skidding fifty miles an hour. When I hit one it sounded like a gunshot. The two orange cats drowsed on homeopathic drops in the cab with me, the little gray cat in my partner’s 4Runner, which pulled my Civic. A true lesbian caravan.
Everything else came out of boxes first because it was immediately necessary—as though the books weren’t—but eventually we were left with a mountain in the half of the former tapestry studio we were renting from a woman named Jan, who told us she worked on Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party but also told us everything at least three times, short term memory loss. Almost-identical voicemails. The cats loved the box mountain, sat on its cliffs to look out at the yard and the storms that hit every afternoon. We needed to work, we needed to carve out workspaces, we needed to unpack the books but how. One of the early dreams I’d talked about with Chelsea when imagining our move mere months after we started dating was a lesbian library. Because what would that look like? Eileen Myles: “I mean—if you were told you could live that way—in a house entirely torn open, gutted. Something that doesn’t so much rule the world, but generates it— well, what would you do?” New Mexico has this long history of lesbians, artists especially, moving out here to join communities that embrace queer lifestyles (Agnes Martin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Harmony Hammond). Of course it’s a largely invisible history, as lesbian histories tend to be, so what if we could follow this path while also making it public? Piece together the stories of these women and their lovers and their art, and eventually make a library for them, for us, for people to come visit and browse and do research. Folding these histories and this project and our own projects into our daily lives was part of the whole experiment, one of the goals of the move itself.
So maybe we could start at home; we had enough books between us. So we started with genre. It seemed right. Logical. A stack for novels, a stack for short fiction, a stack for essays and nonfiction, a stack for theory, a stack for memoir, a stack for poetry. But wait. What about Anne Carson? Her essays slash poetry slash what even? What about Claudia Rankine? Roland Barthes? The nonfiction pile quickly overflowed into four piles, because it’s kind of everything. The art writing pile was enormous, unwieldy, encroaching on our narrow walkways, closing us in. We got stuck.
Some things—kind of a lot—had to go, because quite simply an author or a book or its characters or usually all of the above were flat out homophobic and/or misogynist, and a lesbian library doesn’t really have room for that shit, at least not ours. The revelation came at a breaking point, my partner looking up from the stack of books she’d just pulled from a box, crestfallen, saying, “Maybe we just get rid of Hemingway.” And so we did. So went Kerouac, Burroughs, most of the Beats but not all. Shoot your wife, get lost. Curation is crucial.
We were still lost in our stacks, and the cats were starting to knock them over. We were losing the thread. Why genre? “What’s genre?” I said, out loud. I polled my friends over text, how do you merge books? My blond friend recommended putting the entire collection, both our collections, in alphabetical order by author’s last name. For a second this project appealed to me, a former bookseller, and my girlfriend, a trained archivist, but then I wondered what if we just came up with our own system? I remembered the time I visited the Prelinger Library in San Francisco, essentially a warehouse organized by subjects that bleed into one another: Critical Histories of Suburbia to Homebuilding How-To to Art How-To, which recalibrated my whole understanding of geography.
The next day we started with Lesbians. That had been the whole plan, right? It turned out we had way more than we thought. When you start being honest about it, I mean, Virginia Woolf and Jane Bowles and Carson McCullers all count, Djuna Barnes no matter what she said, Susan Sontag, and that’s before the out-and-outs—Monique Wittig, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Sappho—and the contemporaries—Natalie Diaz, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Dorothy Allison, Etel Adnan, Eileen. We could have called it Queer Women, or incorporated it into a Queer or LGBTQ shelf, but it was more important that we call it Lesbians. A time for labels. From there grew piles for Friendship and Community, Letters and Interviews. And then books about Places, then Architecture and Design, which led into Environment and Natural Phenomena and Animals and then Mythical Creatures: ghosts, monsters, mermaids. A larger stack than expected! Everyday Life, Objects, Archives. Soon I had a stack of Grief and Heartbreak that merged with a section on Family, which opened up to Feelings and the Body and Self Help. America was a huge problem. We ended up with a section on Fucked Up America (Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison), a section on Americans Fucking Shit Up Abroad, and a funny little section of Americana, classics we didn’t hate.
In a funny way we got to know each other all over again through our boxes, too. To appreciate the other’s history, thought process. Personal tangents. Obsessions. To laugh at overlaps. At our minds made manifest. At the uncategorizable parts of us—Dude Poets? And the strangely categorizable—Non-Apocalyptic Near Futures. Haunted Love Stories.
Eventually, when we still had stacks and half-filled shelves that face our would-be offices and somehow unopened boxes, I started to get forlorn. I started to slow down on purpose, to work on other things. Curtains! Kitchen! Clothes! I wanted to pause. Because eventually all the chaos, all the piles and mess—the possibility—would come to an end. The physical evidence of transition would disappear. Everything would just be . . . shelved. Would solidify into placement, location. Would find itself defined. Until reorganization, perhaps, or another move. Unfathomable.
Jenn Shapland is a nonfiction writer living in New Mexico. Her work has appeared in Tin House, The Lifted Brow, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She’s currently writing a book-length manuscript called The Autobiography of Carson McCullers. She has a PhD in English from UT Austin.
9:30 a.m. The children have breakfasted and nursed, been toileted and diapered, medicined and vitamined, swept off and wiped. The baby is down for her nap. The three-year-old is playing with his train tracks on the floor. I sit down on the rocking chair, sneak out an essay that I’ve been writing and rewriting for five years, and uncap a pen.
“Mommy, I want a hug.” Gripping Percy, the cheeky green engine, my son trots over and climbs onto my lap. Ten minutes later, I ask if he’s ready to play with his tracks again. “No.” He runs Percy up and down my arm. “I just hugging now.” In no time flat it’s time to get the baby up and make lunch.
Bear with me.
In the early 1900s Elinore Pruitt, a widowed washerwoman with a tiny child in tow, took herself and her daughter to the Wyoming frontier. She’d accepted a job as a housekeeper for a rancher there, but her true aim was to realize her own dream of proving up on a homestead. “I wanted to do every bit of it myself,” she wrote to a friend and former employer. And she did. While housekeeping for the rancher—whom she soon married, becoming Elinore Pruitt Stewart—she cooked, cleaned, mowed hay, put up jam, milked cows, frequently took her little daughter into the mountains and woods to camp and fish and explore, and later bore several more babies, burying two of them. Her letters depict a woman who observed nature as keenly as Henry David Thoreau did, but, unlike Thoreau, there was nobody else washing Stewart’s laundry and dropping off dinner. Thoreau talked a good line in independence; Stewart lived it, and despite the fact that she’d had little formal education, she left writings about her life that are immediate and engaging and sharp.
Collected in Letters of a Woman Homesteader, her epistolary stories are alive with hard-pressed neighbors, experiments in potato planting, and the treks she takes for days at a time, fishing in the mountains to feed herself and her daughter. Put her next to Thoreau’s Walden and she is more self-sufficient, more adventurous, braver, and, frankly, more fun to read.
Despite the fact that Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s letters were eventually published by The Atlantic Monthly and in 1914 were then collected into a successful and widely-read book, today almost nobody has heard of her. And I have to wonder: What if Stewart had written Thoreau’s book, and he hers? Would Thoreau have been praised for his detailed observations, and for removing himself from the narrative, as Stewart often did? Would Stewart have been criticized for introspection and self-absorption?
Why is work like Thoreau’s lauded and the writings of Stewart hardly known? Compared to Thoreau, Stewart’s independence was both more progressive and more radical, even discounting the daughter she raised on the frontier. Yet it is his books that are taught in school while her existence remains obscure. Has Letters of a Woman Homesteader been relegated to forgotten history simply because Stewart was a woman, a mother like me? Will my work be blotted out for the same reasons?
What was your reaction when you read the opening scene of this piece: a woman struggling to create against the chaos of children and home? Did your heart drop a little, anticipating perhaps a syrupy mommy blog post? Do you think a woman can make nothing vital out of the experiences of her life as a mother? “Bear with me,” I asked, because I know how easily we dismiss the woman-at-home story as mundane, as if a mother’s experience invariably reduces to insipid uniformity. As if there is nothing in this life, my life, worth writing about.
When my first child was still a baby and I began shaping my experiences of motherhood into narrative, I kept coming up against my pioneer ancestors and the knowledge of their tremendous competence: my great-great-grandmother and her relatives, who came out to Montana in the late 1800s and early 1900s, raising vegetables and wheat and cattle and children on soil that wasn’t nearly as hospitable as it had first appeared. They had hard lives and spines of steel, that much I know from my mother and grandfather. But they didn’t write much down, which meant the stories they left are scant and sketched out only in tiny, vivid details passed orally to their descendants.
These stories were of women who could do things. They fixed machinery, gardened, canned, taught children to read and do arithmetic, cooked huge meals on woodstoves in tiny kitchens, herded cattle and so much more. Since they kept no diaries or journals, I relied on my mother’s memories of her childhood on the ranch to help me imagine their lives.
When I tried to expand my knowledge by seeking out the stories of other pioneer women whose lives may have been similar—Pioneer Girl, the much more true-to-life autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (edited by Pamela Smith Hill) that strips down the glossy romanticism of the Little House books, had not yet been published—I ran into a vast emptiness. A void of stories that implied there’d been no women at all on the frontier, much less mothers. As with the other erased voices of the settlement of the American West—although involving, obviously, less overt violence—their absence changes the myths of our collective history. We have the intrepid male pioneer, the strong and silent male cowboy, the mountain man. In the pioneer narrative of the years following the Homestead Act, we hardly ever, heaven forbid, have mothers of any kind, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fictionalized Ma notwithstanding. We have only prostitutes or “farmer’s wives,” or women burying their dead babies beside the wagon train as they headed west, dimensionless characters with no voices of their own. In my research, I relied heavily on the efforts of little university presses, rare memoirs like Mary Clearman Blew’s All But the Waltz, and small volunteer-run historical societies that collected personal pioneer narratives. That was where I found vignettes full of dirt and detail, where you can smell the Chinook winds off the page and hear the creak of the plow, the crackle of the woodstove fires. And where mothers are real, vibrant, powerful people.
The absence of mothers still penetrates literature, even today when the call to listen to and publish diverse voices is making its first dents in the traditional canon. Writing by mothers can be easy to dismiss, especially if the writer happens to be writing about the experience of motherhood itself—a subject treated so derisively that it spawned the term “mommy blogger.” A scornful way to turn our backs on women’s efforts to make some sense of this visceral, maddening, joyful, terrifying experience. A high-minded dismissal of mothers’ attempts to find some connection and community, places where we can share stories of motherhood’s various challenges and the ways in which they burrow deep into every individual mother, permanently changing her sense of self.
We are shocked, as a country, as a people, every time a headline crashes into the day with another mother who has killed her children. It seems the act most unnatural to us; a mother’s love should surmount everything. But when a mother writes of the dark forces that parenting stirs within her, the fears and the rages and sheer helplessness in the face of dependent people whom we love with an absolute, clawing passion, but who have the unwitting ability to literally drive us mad, we at best give it space in the “Parenting” column and pay it scant attention. Is it any wonder many mothers, especially mothers whose darkness threatens to swallow them and their children together, feel so alone?
There are two billion mothers in the world. The way that these mothers raise their children to be eventual adults has an impact on everyone around them. Yet we still behave as if those mothers’ stories—our stories—are somehow lesser. Or as if a writer with a child at her side must necessarily face a career flattened due to lack of subject matter. Even Claire Vaye Watkins, at the end of her powerful essay “On Pandering,” said that attempting to write about her own experience of motherhood felt “quaint” and “domestic.” “I found myself with nothing to write about,” she wrote. It’s no wonder mommies started blogging; almost the entire literary world treats the subject of motherhood like a child itself: pats it on the head and sends it out to play so the real grownups can get back to their important conversations.
As a writer, I’m often told implicitly—sometimes even explicitly—that being a mother doesn’t matter, that it in fact castrates my career if I mention my mother-ness in an essay. We find the exceptions only in a few publications dedicated to the idea that mothering is in fact a complex literary subject worth exploring.
The lack of acceptance by the wider literary world is partly why I fell in love with Letters of a Woman Homesteader so hard and so fast. It’s not a perfect book—Stewart’s rare notes about African Americans are at best reflective of her time, although she comes across as more conscious than I would have expected—but her stories finally made sense of the whole spectrum of experience that made up my strong female ancestors’ lives. And in her writings, Stewart did not separate her domestic tasks from her more adventurous stories. “I kissed my baby’s little downy head and went to sleep,” she slips in among a rather thrilling story about camping with cowboys amidst a chase for horse thieves. This line comes only a half-page after “The firing had ceased save for a few sharp reports from the revolvers, like a coyote’s spiteful snapping.” The next thing we know, the cowboys’ German cook is rousing the camp for a breakfast of “cackle-berries und antelope steak.”
For her these events, the bundling of her baby to sleep and listening for sounds of the horse-thief chase, followed by breakfast over a campfire and her discovery that “cackle-berries” were simply eggs, were warp and woof, as they should be for all of us, each part of it necessary to complete the rich, wild thing we call life. In Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s book, we finally have a pioneer woman’s story, a pioneer mother’s story, told simply and beautifully as if being a mother and having something necessary to contribute to literature were not incompatible.
Elinore Pruitt Stewart had no doubts about the abilities of women. She did not question whether a woman, married or single, or with a child hanging on her apron, should strike out for the frontier to achieve independence. Assuming a person was not “afraid of coyotes and work and loneliness,” she wrote, there was no reason they couldn’t make it work just as she had. “I am very enthusiastic about women homesteading. . . . [A]ny woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the washtub, will certainly succeed.”
Stewart’s story shifts the pioneer narrative from being solely male-centered to the strength of the female. And her writings throw into relief how completely we accept the absence of the “domestic” stories that actually make up the fabric of our daily lives. Motherhood exposes us to our raw animal instincts; the domestic life keeps us bound to the rhythms of the planet and the passing of our numbered days. Are we so afraid to admit that these subjects are just as worthy of our attention and accolades as any other narrative?
In a recent essay for Vela magazine, titled “In Defense of Motherhood as Art,” Sarah Menkedick ends her examination of the mother-writer by envisioning a new era of literature awaiting her daughter, one in which motherhood-as-literature and mothers-as-writers are released from their cotton candy cages spun over the last several decades: “I hope she grows up seeing mothers not as passive compromised figures but as the writers of the future, the weavers of new worlds,” she writes.
I hope so, too. Because there is substance in the way my son carried Percy the cheeky green engine around, in the way I anxiously hoped my baby daughter’s nap would be a few minutes longer each day. There is texture in the fact that, as I was finishing edits on this essay, the children whose presence opened it, and who are no longer babies, were trying to get my attention by stealing my papers and hiding them in the blanket fort they’d built in the living room. How we assess the value of this the chewiest, densest area of our lives taints how we perceive a woman’s literary treatment of anything at all. Women won’t get published equitably until this kind of work, this daily living, is held to be as truly valuable and individual as the rest of society’s experiences. There is fat and bone in the way we raise children, clean house, and strive to keep ourselves whole. Just as there is fiber and sinew in the way women fall in love, pursue astronomy, research World War II, trek through Patagonia, experience heartbreak and betrayal. There’s meat there, if we would only taste it.
Antonia Malchik‘s essays have appeared in Aeon, Orion, The Atlantic, and many other publications. She is the managing editor of STIR Journal and is working on a nonfiction book about walking.
Annie DeWitt’s debut novel, White Nights in Split Town City (due out August 9th from Tyrant Books), is as spectacularly seductive as they come. I am not alone in my opinion – Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Laura van den Berg and many others have been heaping fully justified praise on this slender storm of a novel. Annie began writing White Nights seven years ago, and she works with uncommon precision – every sentence here counts. What’s even better news is that the generosity of emotion and sweep of narrative are set at equal value to disciplined sentences of meticulous, almost muscular beauty. It was my complete pleasure to find time these past two weeks to engage with Annie in a conversation about a novel that began in the Upper West Side in a seven-foot-wide utility studio and is now on the cusp of gracefully opening up in our readerly hands.
Darley Stewart: Something that I find very intriguing about White Nights is the way in which it reads aloud. I often found myself reading passages aloud to sink into the music of the prose, as so much of it felt beyond the usual methods of contributing to elements of the narrative. To what degree does music play a role in how you craft, revise, and envision your prose?
Annie DeWitt: The only thing I know about “How To” write a novel is that it begins with voice. That’s not all there is to it. But, it begins there. My first understanding of voice came in 1990. Those nights my parents went out when I was a child, I stood in the large room at the front of our split level on the slight step-up where our baby grand piano sat and I sang. The room was oblong and ended in a large stone fireplace. My mother had recently painted the walls in Benjamin Moore’s White Linen. The floor was lined with a white rug. The whiteness of this room had a special glow to it in the evening hours, which made it feel rather grand to my ten-year-old self. To see what was left of the light from the day refracted at various angles. I stood at the edge of the stair overlooking the railing next to the piano, took a deep breath, and tried to fill the whole house with sound. Given that I was a shy child, I only did this when no one was home.
This experience repeated itself when I was in high school. I took voice lessons at my choral director’s house in the evenings one night a week. These evenings represented everything of freedom to me at the time. This was one of the first outings in which I was allowed to drive alone at night after I’d first gotten my license. I took my mother’s white Chrysler minivan out on Route 9, rolled down the window and could not have felt more alive. I smoked cigarettes too, then. That may have been part of it.
My choral director, Dave, lived in a small Cape in Framingham in a suburban neighborhood just off a major drag with the strip malls and the Dunkin Donuts and tanning salons and the Wendy’s and the sporting goods stores. His wife Lauren would greet meet and show me to the basement where Dave was already fiddling at the piano. I made my way down the unfinished pine stairs into the small sebaceous room and stood behind his back practicing my scales. No matter the season, Dave was always sweating. He was a tremendously talented composer and musician. He had a small upright piano against the near wall. Somehow the acoustics of the room worked despite every impediment. I remember the carpet as a 70s vermillion shag. I think perhaps there was a small woodstove.
It was in front of his modest pine upright that I first practiced my chords and learned how to use my mouth like a chamber – I learned the word soft palette and to understand how the space worked. The way, Dave said, to produce the correct sound, is to always think above the note. To land on it. And then open your throat and raise your soft palette to create as much space as you can at the roof of your mouth.
I think of crafting sentences in much the same way. It is these slight sonic and spatial adjustments which allow a note to go flat or sharp, to sound nasal or clear.
DS: I love this idea of crafting sentences in such a way, and although I think the manner in which you achieve this in White Nights is completely your own, I have been reminded of the musicality of prose through workshops with writers such as Christine Schutt. It is pretty mind-blowing and demanding, and I have seen very few writers pull it off in the long form as you have in White Nights.
AD: The other thing is, you need to support all of this with the breath—which in the case of writing I always think of as what Lish would call “consecution”—the act of letting one word discharge into another so that in the end you’ve created a “family of language.” Or, as Gary Lutz would say, “let the words rub off on each other, feel each other up.” Continue reading
The child wanted to name the rabbit Actually, and could not be dissuaded from this.
It was the first time one of our pets was named after an adverb.
It made us uncomfortable. We thought it to be bad luck.
But no ill befell any of us nor did any ill befall the people who visited our home.
Everything proceeded beautifully, in fact, until Actually died.
• • •
His grandmother was reading to him a story by Hans Christian Andersen, the other gloomy Dane. Her memory had become spotty. She really couldn’t remember the tales very well.
It was bedtime, his mother was off doing heaven knows what with her husband. It was only the grandmother who strove to maintain the standards of what had once been their station. The child understood there was what was called a trust, which the grandmother described as “not being grand enough to corrupt you but sufficient to keep you from being entirely at the mercy of your worthless father’s salary.”
The grandmother didn’t read “The Bog King’s Daughter” or “The Ice Maiden,” for they were too long. She read “The Shirt Collar,” for it was short, then “The Jumping Competition,” for it was shorter. Still he wanted another, for at bedtime he never wanted to go to bed and his thirst for stories seemed unquenchable.
She commenced reading “The Storks,” which concerned how it came to pass that storks delivered babies to families.
“There is a pond,” Hans Christian Andersen wrote, “where all the little children lie until the stork comes and gets them for delivery to their parents. There they lie dreaming far more pleasantly than they ever will later in their lives. All parents love and desire such sweet little babes and all children want a little sister or brother. Now we will fly to that pond and bring all the good children who didn’t sing the ugly song a little brother or sister but the bad ones shan’t ever get any.”
Apparently, some awful child had sung some ugly hurtful song about the young storks. The grandmother was so exhausted after all the reading, she scarcely recalled that part.
“But the one who started it all, that ugly horrible little boy,” screamed all the young storks, “what shall we do with him?” Hans Christian Andersen wrote.
“In the pond there is a dead child,” the mother stork said. “He has dreamed himself to death. We will bring that baby to the boy and he will cry because we have brought him a dead little brother.”
The boy and his grandmother looked at one another in horror. As fate would have it, the mother was with child by the father, but several months later the infant arrived stillborn. Of course, it was not the little boy’s fault. He had never sung a cruel and hurtful song about young storks.
His grandmother, his best and most faithful friend and advocate, lost her mind shortly thereafter, whereas he grew up to be a formidable jurist, quite ruthless and exact in his opinions, none of which in his long career was ever overturned.
• • •
The Lord was in line at the pharmacy counter waiting to get His shingles shot.
When His turn came, the pharmacist didn’t want to give it to Him.
This is not right, the pharmacist said.
In what way? the Lord inquired.
In so many ways, the pharmacist said. I scarcely know where to begin.
Just give it to him, a woman behind the Lord said. My ice cream’s melting.
It only works 60 to 70 percent of the time anyway, the pharmacist said.
Do you want to ask me some questions? the Lord said.
You’re not afraid of shingles, are you? It’s not so bad.
I am not afraid, the Lord said.
Just give Him the shot for Pete’s sake, the woman said.
Have you ever had chicken pox?
Of course, the Lord said.
How did you hear about us? the pharmacist said.
Joy Williams is the author of four novels, four previous story collections, and the book of essays Ill Nature. She’s been nominated for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent book is 99 Stories of God. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, and Laramie, Wyoming.
Tourists, we think, are responsible for stealing our street sign once a summer, sometimes more often. The sign, with its precious name, almost begs to be taken: Little Memory Lane. Our town, located in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, probably invites sentimentalism as well. Our population is 408. Our houses, most overlooking the lake, nestle in the woods. Our gas station is the Mule Express, complete with a painted, polished wooden sign of a braying mule, where a group of gray-haired men talk over Styrofoam cups of coffee each morning.
Little Memory Lane, though, isn’t meant to make memory diminutive. Rather, our street and our collection of houses, called Little Mountain Acres, are both named for a man named Joe Little, who was raised on the land and lived on the land until he died. My neighbor is the one who tells me about Joe Little – he’s shared stories about him for over ten years, so many iterations that I can no longer separate what is myth from what is remembered, what is truth from what is wishfully imposed on the past. Most recently, my neighbor said that Joe used to sled with his brother down the steep, nearly half-mile hillside that is closest to my family’s portion of the land. Not too many years later, Joe was drafted for the Korean War. He trained at Fort Leonard Wood, got shipped off to war, and was hit by mortar. The story goes that Joe, after the initial impact of the explosion, imagined that he was in a snowy, silent place. He pictured himself on the hillside where he used to sled. He said he saw a few red cardinals dotting the snow in front of him, just out of reach. My neighbor says that the cardinals protected Joe for a few minutes from the knowledge that he was bleeding heavily. The land was his way out of the pain.
Joe is now deceased, but the oral history of Joe’s connection with the land is reminiscent of lines within Robert Duncan’s poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow:”
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos
This poem serves as the epigraph to James Galvin’s The Meadow, a book that was recommended to me by a dear professor in college. Though I’d moved every one or two years my entire life, it seemed I was homesick for the first time; my family has owned our portion of Joe Little’s land for over ten years now, which is the longest I’ve known any place. I bought the book and read one of its one- to two- page sections a night. Each made me ache for my own land in a fierce, almost visceral way.
In Galvin’s book, the land is not only a physical place. It is also an escape, a “property of the mind,” a character, and a palimpsest on which people over time have written their stories and seen them dissolve. Though the meadow is the book’s central subject, Galvin’s authorial gaze lingers on one of its residents, Lyle. Lyle “lived a life from which everything was taken from him but a place. He lived so close to the real world it almost let him in.” Galvin describes Lyle almost as being of the land, with “thinning hair…the color of last year’s grass next spring, fresh from under the long snow.” He has lived in a home within the meadow for over fifty years. Despite this, he still doesn’t see the land as his. He comments, “If you want to know who really owns the land, don’t pay the taxes for a while. Then if you want to know who owns it even more, just look out the window in a blizzard. That’s the landlord’s face looking in, snooping.”
Galvin deftly maneuvers between realms of memory, dream, and reality, and through the nuances of loss and pleasure that the meadow brings. To craft Lyle’s story, for example, Galvin weaves together several dreams that he has about Lyle, some of Lyle’s diary entries (“Worked in shop trueing up grindstone. Cold and windy.”), sections of what might be deemed oral history, and narration of Galvin’s own interactions with Lyle. Other secondary characters depict the ways that the meadow both nurtures and erodes. This collection of individuals – Clara, App, Raymond, Oscar, and others – bale hay in the snow, kill a beaver out of necessity, drink too much, build homes on their own from logs hewn by hand, nearly die of hypothermia, construct a mausoleum for a dead hummingbird, die of cancer, and find one of their father’s bullets in the heart of a tree. Continue reading
I wanted him to tell me that he loved me. I wanted him to say it more effusively. I wanted to hear something such as that without me he would perish. I was not telling him I wanted that. Instead, I was lamenting a failing of his – I can’t remember which.
He wanted things from me, as well, but I couldn’t hear his things until I believed he’d heard my things. This was on a sidewalk in Oaxaca, a weekend midnight. We jumped back when the motorcycle sped past, hadn’t even exhaled before it smacked the yellow taxi in the intersection. The motorcycle’s rear rider – I hadn’t had time to register two men so for a terrifying moment I thought one had split in half – went sailing over the taxi and landed in a pool of street light.
The motorcycle’s driver stood right away. Blood streamed from under his eyebrow ring as he walked in circles, groaning.
While we waited for the ambulance, I sat on the black street and cradled the rear rider’s head on my lap. His breathing sounded like pain. I forgot my Spanish for a solid minute, but when I remembered, I told him: “You’ll be okay.”
He told me: “No.”
An actress from Our American Cousin climbed the stairs to President Lincoln and cradled his broken head on her lap. Her health and career were wilting. She wanted a place in history. She believed that she could take someone else’s pain and suffer no consequences.
Conspiracy theorists speculate about her role in the assassination.
Soon after that night, she cut her bloody skirt into pieces and gave them away.
I was deeply depressed and researching a park ranger named Roy Sullivan who had survived seven lightning strikes. In my Google searches, I stumbled upon a lightning strike survivor convention that was scheduled for that weekend in Virginia. It felt like a sign – of what, I can’t say. I charged a plane ticket to my credit card and told no one I was going.
At the convention one man had no arms. A woman had so much skin grafting she looked like fishnet. A man who had fought in Vietnam told a story about waking up in the morgue.
“What happened to you?” they kept asking.
I mumbled something about a friend getting struck by lightning. I kept thinking about Roy Sullivan who, as an old man, shot himself over unrequited love. My bones ached from depression. From longing for something my tongue couldn’t give shape to.
The survivors had brain injuries that had left them psychic. They told stories about predicting weather, weddings, catastrophes. They told me: “You’ll feel better if you talk about it.”
Some New York City train conductors have been forced to assist suicides. By the time they see the jumper, it’s too late to brake. Many report the same experience: As the train approaches, the jumper waves, smiling, as if he’s caught sight of his lover in a crowd. Then he takes a well-timed step and falls to his death.
One winter, I was driving a rental because my car was in the shop. I was madly in love for the first time. He didn’t love me back in equal measure because we were at that age where men couldn’t love the way women could. No man can adequately serve a devotee of Sarah McLachlan. My roommate was riding shotgun. I guess I was distraught. I guess I was disoriented. I drove into the side of the house that contained our apartment. I heard something go crunch. My roommate started to laugh. I backed up, panicked, and drove into the side of the house again. There was quiet. Our breaths were visible. Viewing my breath is always disarming; I’d rather not see what’s inside me.
The next day I took the car back to the shop and played dumb.
“There’s a pretty big fucking dent,” the mechanic said.
“Where?” I said.
In college one night we were having a party and I hid Eric’s keys. He became angry the way drunk people do when you hide their keys. But we were all laughing. I’d never met anyone who had actually died of drunk driving. It was a game – our skinny friend Eric with the wire-rimmed glasses and the stringy ponytail stomping around our apartment, in search of something he’d never find. I was wearing a halter top. I did a shot by sucking vodka from a tampon. It was a good party. Everyone made out with someone, except Eric who passed out on our couch and slept through the fun part.
Four months later, he got day-drunk with friends on Easter Sunday, hopped on a motorcycle, drove into oncoming traffic, and never saw his twenty-first birthday, which, when you’re twenty, is all you want to see.
One theory about life that I find pretentious is that it’s just a dream we can learn to control; we can learn to lucid-dream our lives. If that’s true, then every accident is no accident and every death is a suicide.
One of those New York City train jumpers changed her mind: As soon as she went over the platform edge, her survival instinct leapt up like a cobra. She flattened herself between the rails. Once the train passed, she sat up.
I was driving to Wyoming to move in with my boyfriend. Everything I owned was packed into my car. I couldn’t see out the back. I skid on ice and remembered what my father had taught me: Steer into the skid. It won’t feel natural. You’ll want to fight. But don’t fight.
My car somersaulted front over back, front over back, front over back down a hill. I heard myself scream. I heard these words so loudly, I wondered who’d spoken them: This. Is. It.
I landed upside-down. I remember the song that was playing: “Time After Time.” I didn’t yet know that my face was bloody, that my right hand didn’t work, that a shard of glass was stabbing my arm. I didn’t yet know that it was 30 below out. In my t-shirt I didn’t shiver. I saw upside-down cows. My metal watch stuck to the roof. I didn’t want to move in with him. I didn’t want to live in Wyoming with the man I would one day leave. I unbuckled my seatbelt, which had done what it had always promised to do. I saw the window emptied of glass and climbed out.
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who by Fire and Skinny, of the New York Times column Going Off, and of a forthcoming nonfiction book based on that column. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review Daily, GQ, Esquire, New York, Glimmer Train Stories, and elsewhere. She teaches writing for Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio and for The Wounded Warrior Project. She tweets from @dianaspechler.
It’s hard not to be impressed by Emma Cline. Forget the two million dollar, three-book deal and the hype surrounding this, her debut novel. She can write. Very well. With The Girls (Random House), her language shines in amid the darkness of a coming-of-age tale based on the notorious 1969 Charles Manson orchestrated Tate-LaBianca murders. Cline’s story is rendered through 14-year-old Evie Boyd, a middle class girl, living a listless, confused life with her divorced mother the summer before heading to boarding school, and through a middle aged Evie, adrift and alone as she reflects on her younger misadventures and the tragedy that followed.
Cline, 27, succeeds in capturing the vibe of late sixties California, its chaotic tapestry of peace, love, drugs, sex and mysticism that veered into something frightening. Taking on the Manson role is the godlike Russell, a master manipulator of those in his sordid commune. Evie’s confidante and big sister figure, Suzanne, seems obviously modeled on Manson devotee Susan Atkins.
No surprise that Cline herself is from California and flirted on the periphery of show business as a child actress. She was first published in Tin House at 16. Later, she wrote a Salon essay entitled, “Am I Ready to be a Stepmother at 21?” which detailed her relationship with an older man who had a daughter. A graduate of Columbia’s MFA program (she still lives in Brooklyn) Cline won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize honoring new fiction in March 2014. She commemorated the award by writing a piece about her weird pen pal relationship as a 13 year old with Rodney Bingenheimer, a former music business exec, who spotted her walking past his table at a restaurant in her hometown. It’s not a stretch to see things that have happened in Cline’s own life, reflected and exaggerated in her novel.
Jeff Vasishta: I was told you had your first clip published with Tin House many years ago. How old were you at the time? What do you remember about that?
Emma Cline: It was a very short story that I wrote when I was sixteen. My high school English teacher was very helpful in terms of letting me know that there even were such things as literary magazines, and I sent the short piece into Tin House. My parents might still believe that it’s a magazine called Teen House that only publishes the work of teenagers.
JV: Did that early recognition give you the confidence to try and make a career as a writer? Was that ever the plan or did a career just fall into place?
EC: I was an art major in college. I think studying art was a way to learn a lot of the same things I might have learned in writing class, but sideways—by having to literalize an idea into a discrete object or performance or video or something, I was forced to think about representation, how best to engage with what I think about the world in order to make it accessible to others. Writing is the same way. It’s comforting to me that a lot of the art I was making back then deals with a lot of the same concepts that this novel does—alternative narratives of girlhood, how we experience and are often held hostage by the past.
I didn’t get serious about writing until grad school, but when I got there, I was really focused on trying to produce as much work as I could.
JV: In the novel, would you say it’s fair to say Evie’s relationship or lack of one with her father seems to influence much of her life and Suzanne becomes like a surrogate mother or big sister? What inspired Evie’s character?
EC: Do I think people do the things they do for recognizable reasons, like you can trace the forensics of their psychology? Sometimes. And that kind of narrative can be a pleasure to read. Evie’s lack of relationship with her father is a part of why she does what she does. But I try to keep in mind what it feels like to be in the world—we don’t really do things for such easily identifiable reasons. People act out of selfishness and a desire to avoid pain, but sometimes they act in ways that are mysterious to themselves. That mystery was an important part of this book, for me—making sure that the book didn’t have a tidy moral or sense of closure. That doesn’t align with how I experience life. Terrible things happen and nobody learns anything. I wanted to move away from notions of what a character has to earn or realize, and aim for some kind of truth that has more to do with life as I know it.
In terms of what inspired Evie’s character, I remember reading a post on one of these Manson blogs by someone who had been peripherally involved with the group. And I thought, why is this person actively making this a part of their identity, even these many decades later? What do they get by identifying with this long-ago crime? I started imagining a woman whose perception of herself is based on being a bystander to history, and what that person’s life might look like.
JV: Russell and Mitch are monsters. How much of their characters were researched, amalgams of other people?
EC: There are probably some biographical details of both characters that came out of research, but men like that are familiar to me as someone who’s been a girl in the world. I don’t know if I would call them monsters—monsters are mythologized, seen as less than human, and I think what is often most frightening about people who do harm is their essential humanness. Like Charles Manson being insecure about his height or Anders Breivik being proud of his polo shirts. I wanted to push against that mythologizing a bit, to let Mitch and Russell reveal themselves as basically weak people.
I remember once reading in Patti Boyd’s memoir that the members of the Beatles were afraid of needles, and that they hired other people to get their vaccinations for them. There are these somewhat pathetic realities that are often ignored—it’s more exciting to imagine people as monsters or untouchable icons or whatever.
JV: Much of this novel seems to be like a handbook on how not to raise children. Have you discussed this with your own parents or others? What has been the early reaction from those closest to you who have read it?
EC: I understand the impulse to want to know how people close to me react to work that is dark or unsparing, but I don’t think that this is a question that gets asked very often of men. I believe that partly we ask women these questions because we see women in relation to those around them, as daughters or partners or mothers, and not as autonomous artists. Asking what my parents think of my work is a way of reminding me of my social and emotional obligations as woman.
JV: Mitch and Russell remind me of the manipulative music exec in A Visit From The Goon Squad which was also set in California in the 1970s. It’s a great era and time to set a novel because so much crazy stuff went down in the hippie and post-hippie era.
EC: I’m interested in the best and worst of human impulse, and am drawn to the sixties as a fictional backdrop for the way it engendered such extreme manifestations of those two poles. Communes interest me for the same reason, the way they exaggerate the good and bad elements of the world they are trying to leave behind.
California, too, seems to provoke these extremes in people. So many people go to California to become someone else. I loved the title of Claire Vaye Watkins’s last book, Gold Fame Citrus—it says so much about the mythology of California and its lure. It’s a place where people go in search of something. If you’re seeking something outside of yourself, that’s automatically a somewhat vulnerable position. So it’s a state with a shaky spiritual foundation and a literally unstable landscape.
JV: How was it for you transitioning to life on the East Coast?
EC: In Northern California, you can have these lovely Lotus Eater days, almost hyper-sensual, but the years pass without a lot of forward movement. In New York, the quality of the days is sacrificed to the years, or in service of that kind of long-term ambition. I feel much more capable in California, and my life there feels a lot more like life, but I work better in New York. I miss driving and the landscape and I miss California weirdos. I will always be susceptible to a certain kind of mood and late afternoon light that I think of as particular to the West Coast.
EC: I didn’t think of them as overlapping in terms of plot, but more in terms of tone. That’s something I did learn while writing this book—often juxtaposition can do the work of intricate plotting, and can be more useful than trying to account for every cause-and-effect or trying to babysit the reading experience. The reader is intelligent, and if I place two narrative threads side by side, I can trust that their brain will understand it was on purpose, and that there are connections to be drawn.
JV: The thread of young women being taken advantage of by men in positions of power is probably more poignant today than ever, especially with some of the topics being discussed in the election. How much research did you do into the women involved with Charles Manson?
EC: I definitely read a lot about the women who intersected with Manson and Jonestown, as well as less infamous groups that didn’t end in culturally recognized violence. It’s interesting to me how even counterculture movements or groups that desire radical change still have these blind spots around gender.
JV: How long had a tale based on the Manson killings been percolating in your brain and why? What was the attraction?
EC: I grew up pretty steeped in the cultural leftovers of this era—in Northern California, 1969 isn’t so far in the past. Those stories and remnants were always fascinating to hear about: the Manson crimes were a defining moment for my parents, both California teenagers at the time. As I grew older, I felt there were large parts of this story that were missing for me. Something already so well-digested by the culture was hard to engage with in a new way. Writing a novel let me access a different understanding of something like the Manson family, and pursue what I was really interested in, which were the girls involved. A novel gets to exist separately from the expected reality, adjacent to the recognizable world but not subject to its laws. Which is to say, this is not a Manson novel.
JV: The beating heart of the novel is the friendship between Evie and Suzanne, which is fascinating, dense and complicated. What was the inspiration behind that?
EC: I wanted to write a book where the love story at the center wasn’t traditional. I’m interested in friendship as an unchartered realm—we have so much language and cultural coding around other types of relationships, like marriages or families, and friendship is free of a lot of those societal pressures. It’s undefined, which allows for the ambiguities and murky power dynamics that are most exciting to me as a writer.
Jeff Vasishta started his writing career as a music journalist interviewing legends such as Prince, Beyonce, Dr. Dre and Herbie Hancock for publications such as Billboard, Yahoo.com and The Daily Telegraph. He’s recently written for Rolling Stone, Interview, The Amazon Book Review and, of course, The Open Bar.
Emma Cline is from California. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House and The Paris Review, and she was the recipient of the 2014 Paris Review Plimpton Prize.
from our current Summer Issue, Michael Dickman’s essay “John Clare: Mud Man Punk Rocker”
apologies to M.O.
These are the bands
(listened to by me):
We’re just a Minor Threat!
We’re just a Minor Threat!
We’re just a Minor Threat!
These are the bands
(listened to by him):
The morning wind
Crows in spring
A summer shower
Hedgehogs! Foxes! Badgers!
• • •
Did it rain all the time? Not all the time. Some sunlight here and there. Trees everywhere. Heroin everywhere. Gus Van Sant’s Portland. Skaters vs Rockers. Straight Edge vs Skinheads. Fuck the Skins! Fuck the Southside White Pride! Punks vs Everybody. I was a skater. Graduated from Mrs. A’s to Cal Skates to Cal’s Pharmacy to Rebel Skates. I could ollie down a flight of stairs. Nollie. No Comply. Not sick but not a poser. Once a friend flubbed a railslide slammed hard into the handrail. His crotch was bleeding through his jeans. He used duct tape to repair his balls. Turn up the Circle Jerks! I couldn’t grow my hair long enough to be a rocker. You could get a pretty good Mohawk to stand up with enough egg whites and Aquanet. My mother said she liked the Suicidal Tendencies even though she couldn’t understand what they were saying and their name made her nervous. Hypodermic needles made me nervous. I stayed clean because I was a coward. Stacy Peralta for President, said the bumper sticker on our family car. All I ever did was skate and listen to music in my room with the door closed. When I took a bath I would set my new skate deck on the toilet so I could stare at it. I had never even read a poem. I didn’t know what a poem was.
Fuck the Skins!
Fuck the Southside White Pride!
Once a year the Ancient Ham crawls out of the sewer to sit on a curb and answer questions. People line up down the block. Before the Ancient Ham will answer, they have to poke it: they bring offerings—small sewing needles decorated with beads or feathers or floss. When the Ancient Ham reaches needle capacity, it rolls back into the sewer, sweating and shimmering.
Most questions are about health, wealth, or love. They must be yes or no questions. The Ancient Ham answers by bobbing left or right. Left is no, right is yes. When the Ancient Ham answers, people scream. They faint. They squeeze their eyes shut. They piss their pants. They dip their fingers into the ham juice that collects on the pavement, then suck their fingers and retch. Some people throw up. The air around the Ancient Ham swells with sweet breath. This makes the Ancient Ham teeter with delight. Get it real delighted, it will vibrate. Women clutch their hips, men flex their thighs.
This year, the line is extra long. The Ancient Ham answers then spins quickly to deter extra needles, extra questions. One question per person. The Ancient Ham predicts that a young woman will get a job promotion and she falls to the ground and grinds her butt into the juices. The next man in line kicks her lightly with his loafer. She gets up and hurries away, throwing up into her hands. The man asks the Ancient Ham if he should move to Australia like he has always dreamed. The Ancient Ham answers no. The man runs his hand down the front of his face, folding his nose onto his top lip. A small girl holding her mother’s hand slides a twinkling needle into the cold, wet meat, then asks the Ancient Ham if it is stupid and hateful. The Ancient Ham answers yes and then no. The girl looks up at her mother, confused. “Stupid,” the mother says, “but not hateful.” The girl squats down on the ground and dips her pinky into the juices. “Just like me,” the girl says. She rubs the juices onto her lips. “Just like you,” the mother says. The girl looks up, lips glistening. “Aren’t you beautiful,” the mother says. The Ancient Ham goes against its own rules and bobs right, right, right.
Meredith Alling is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her debut collection of short stories, SING THE SONG, will be out November 2016 on Future Tense Books. Her website is meredithalling.com.
I AM ABOUT TO BE HAPPY
Can you feel it?
You are art and you are not art
Yesterday I thought it was good to be dead
I babbled, a wildwoman boiling your pelt
I wore you as my t-shirt and mouth
I said it was good for you to be art
Save me from death, let me rise from the dead
Today I bury your body
I came into the world a young man
Then I broke me off
Still the sea and clouds are pegasus colors
My heart is pegasus colors but to get there I must go back
Back to the time before I was a woman
Before I broke me off to make a flattened lap
And placed therein a young man
Where I myself could have dangled
And how I begged him enter there
My broken young man parts
And how I let the mystery collapse
With rugged young man puncture
And how I begged him turn me pegasus colors
And please to put a sunset there
And gone forever was my feeling snake
And its place dark letters
And me the softest of all
And me so skinless I could no longer be naked
And me I had to debanshee
And me I dressed myself
I made a poison suit
I darned it out of myths
Some of the myths were beautiful
Some turned ugly in the making
The myth of the slender girl
The myth of the fat one
The myth of rescue
The myth of young men
The myth of the hair in their eyes
The myth of how beauty would save them
The myth of me and who I must become
The myth of what I am not
And the horses who are no myth
How they do not need to turn pegasus
They are winged in their unmyth
They holy up the ground
I must holy up the ground
I sanctify the ground and say fuck it
I say fuck it in a way that does not invite death
I say fuck it and fall down no new holes
And I ride an unwinged horse
And I unbecome myself
And I strip my poison suit
And wear my crown of fuck its
MY OWN NOTHING
I went under my skin
Which was my old skin
And under the skin of my soul
Which was an old soul
Though new to me
There was so much silence
I was surprised to like it
I saw that all my wounds were only dust
And when I turned to dust they would be vanished
And saw that I would have to be the mother
I have to be the tit and friend and child
And stroke my hairs and say peace
The hairs on my head and the hairs on my soul
They are bulbing in the rain
They look like crops and I am scared of them
Because one day they will be dust
And silence knows they will be dust
But what will become of silence
When everything else dusts
I have to know the silence will hold on to me
Know it not by head or by reflection
But touch it in the emptiness beneath my dust
Already returning me to light
Melissa Broder is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Last Sext. She is also the author of the essay collection So Sad Today. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, the Iowa Review, Tin House, Guernica, Fence, the Missouri Review, and the Awl among others. Broder holds a BA from Tufts University and an MFA from City College of New York. She lives in Venice, California.