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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The uniform skirts were heaped in the corner, almost all of them unbuttoned so that they didn’t even really look like skirts anymore but kind of like very large, very ugly party garlands. One skirt stood impossibly up on its own, its pleated frame starched into a kind of sentience.
“I left everything in there,” the girl teen said, clear braces shining, side-pony mussed.
“Okay,” I said back, pulling the thin blue curtain to the side, sizing up the mess in the fitting room.
“Thanks,” she called over her shoulder.
“Thanks,” I called dumbly back.
I stood in the middle of the tiny room, staring at myself in the mirror. I tugged at the ends of my hair, just below my chin. Even shorter next time, I thought.
I picked up one of the skirts and a lizard scurried out from beneath it. I screamed and dropped the skirt. The lizard, small and brown, made its way out of the fitting room and into the hall. Another teen’s face poked around the curtain; this one, a tallish boy.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. There was a little lizard.”
“Oh, shit,” he said, thick eyebrows concernedly pulling together as if I’d just delivered news of an earthquake or a terminal illness. Then, slowly lifting up a pair of khakis, eyebrows returning to their right spots, he asked, “Can I try these pants?”
“What school?” I asked. The teen stood out in the hall on the round, carpeted podium in front of the three-way mirror. I pinned the too-long bottoms of his pants up one inch, then two, then three.
“Cardinal Mora,” he said.
“Oh.” I tried very hard not to prick his hairy ankles with the straight pins at the memory of the packs of navy-blazered Cardinal Mora boys who, just a few years ago, used to follow me home from school; the boys who jumped onto the city bus and sat behind me, spitting into the hoods of my sweatshirts and snapping condoms at the back of my head and calling me juicy and baby and ugly.
“Did you take your SATs?” I asked after a minute or two, to be nice and polite like I was supposed to be when I was at my job. The teen didn’t answer me, and instead he leapt forward off of the podium and shoved his whole left arm up under the sharp bottom of the mirror. He smiled and pulled his arm out and held his fist toward me, and I could see the lizard’s tail sticking out between his ring and pinky fingers, wiggling madly.
“Take it outside,” I said, both hands up under my chin. Pinheads from the tomato-shaped pincushion still fastened to my wrist tickled my neck. I watched the teen think about lunging towards me with the lizard in his fist, to scare me, to make a joke, and then I watched him decide that this would not be a good idea, and then I watched him head for the door, one pant leg dragging.
“You can pick them up Wednesday,” I told him, leaning forward onto the high glass counter at the front of the shop.
“School starts Wednesday,” he said.
“Tuesday, then? At, like, five?”
“Cool, yeah.” The teen scratched at his elbow and frowned. He held it up to look at it, and there was blood. “From the mirror,” he said, not taking his eyes off the scrape.
“Oh, no,” I said, and I got him an extra-large Band-Aid from the first aid kid we kept in a drawer.
“I need the pants embroidered with the thing,” he said, peeling away the Band-Aid wrappers, letting them fall onto the counter. “With the initials on the pocket on the right.”
Some schools made their students do this, I knew. I pointed to a laminated piece of paper taped to the glass. “You can pick the font,” I said, and he told me it didn’t matter, stared at his elbow.
“It’s my last year,” he said. “Wild.”
I told him his total and he handed me a credit card. I ran it through. He got a text, and he read it and smiled. “Hey, uh. Could you do me a favor?”
I said that I could. Because I was being nice and polite and I was in the process of selling him uniform pants.
“Could you put a U between the C and the M? When you embroider the pocket? To be—you know, for. Like, so it says ‘cum.’ You know.” The teen laughed at himself, ran his fingers through his hair. “Yeah, that’d be hilarious.”
“I could do that,” I said, not blushing, not blinking, nodding my head slowly. “It would be hilarious.”
“Okay,” he said, “okay,” but his face was starting to look a little scared. “Okay. But, uh. Yeah, you know what. Don’t.” He looked at the ground, and then back up at me. “Please.” He used his knuckles to push the crumpled Band-Aid wrappers on the countertop towards me, and then he turned to leave, and then he stopped and turned back to look at the wrappers once more, then turned a final turn and left the left the shop, and the little electronic bell at the front door chimed, ding-ding.
Alexandra Tanner lives and writes and works in New York, where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School. Her writing appears in Joyland, Ninth Letter Online, and more.
From the hot-off-the-presses Rejection Issue, here is Mitchell S. Jackson on being rejected by his onetime mentor, Gordon Lish. Jackson will join Rejection Issue-mates Paul Beatty and Ann Hodgman at the New York release party at KGB this Sunday, March 1 at 7:00pm.
You know where we come from: jet trips from Paris and LA, Michigan and Cleveland. Hours long trains from the New York that’s almost Canada and Connecticut and Phila. You know as well who we are: philomaths with framed degrees from Harvard and Columbia; NYU and Brown. Someone else’s superstar with published stories on their CV. Or else an Iowa grad with bylines and a book. Here and there too, the non-vetted with nothing more than a pencil and Moleskin to claim.
And yes, of course, OG, you know why we come: to witness your lore in motu. For a chance to join the list of anointed.
But on the forreals, I came as well for who and what was not on your grand list of scribes: one of me, and you know what I mean. What I told myself was I could be the first—no baby boon. What I said to myself was if I took to your gifts, was able to apply them to my ways of seeing, thinking, being, to the language that felt native to me, I had action at being some grade of seminal, would have the chance to craft a voice that, if not new, would at least be fresh. So there I was in the front row of those semi-circled fold-up chairs, the lone brown face in that class full of hope-to-becomes vying for your report cards and permission and admittance slips.
Awed to the utmost seeing you decked in your famous get up while you scratched on the chalkboard. That first day you eased into talk of E=MC2., which as I understand, is an equation that gifts us an effect greater than the sum of our words. By night’s end (Were you juiced on a Ginseng-B12 cocktail?). I was anxious as everything and went home trying to discover my “wound” and how it might bare a sentence of beautiful truth. Worked on a measly few words for as long previous as I would’ve worked on a whole story and came back to the Lish workshop as crucible off generic nerve. That night I sat rapt through hours of what was no less than sermon. You got around to picking readers and called my name midway through.
“She said hold it for safe keep,” I read, and winced.
“Go on, ” you said.
“She said hold it for safe keep and then she took it back,” I said.
“Yes, yes, go on,” you said.
“The rent money from under the mattress.“
“Stop! Jackson. You don’t want anybody’s sympathy. Don’t ever ask for anyone’s sympathy,’ ” you said, and paused. “But I’ll tell you one thing, Jackson, you got an ear.”
You got an ear.If it was news of me winning a Nobel it wouldn’t have felt no better. No lie, there hasn’t been a moment before or since when a comment on my work mattered more. You’re a sage dude, so you know how we each revere you. But what you could not have known, what I might not have known, was how important it was for the new negro in that room to make good for his kind, how much I craved someone as great as you seeing even an inkling of promise in me, how for all that damn graduate school, I had yet to be born into the life I wanted to live.
Once a month, we arbiters of cool at Tin House put our heads together and ramble on about a couple of books, movies, albums, or performances we’ve recently found compelling. Then we let the interns take over with actually relevant cultural criticism. But staff first!
In-house Portland cuddle party and on-again-off-again beardo Tony Perez recently jetted off toward South American jungle for vague reasons, implying heavily that he would not be returning—at least not as the Tony Perez we all know and love. He left the following message regarding desiderata for February:
Tony Perez (Tin House Books editor and Kurtz to my Marlow): Look: I Didn’t write one. But here’s a photo of my vacation reading. Make sure people know I’m watching Empire on the flight, and that I love it.
Our other international correspondent sends a typically jazzy missive from Paris:
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): Lately I’ve been listening to the super fine and syncopated music of Italian trumpeter, flugelhorn jazz player and musical arranger Paolo Fresu. A friend suggested Fresu’s 2013 release Desertico with his Devil Quartet that includes an excellent version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Suite for the Devil” among other gems, and the album is fantastic. And years before the Devil Quartet, Fresu played with his Angel Quartet, with the particularly wonderful 1999 release of Metamorfosi featuring the lush and lyrical eponymous tune. Whether Angel or Devil Quartet or some mix of musicians from both, Fresu’s music makes a superb jazz pairing with spirited late-winter evenings.
Back on US soil, Emma’s covering her usual homeless shelters ‘n’ ballet studios beat:
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): I’ve been reading, finally, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a book I’m going to be thinking about for a long time, both for what it has to say and how it says it. In the memoir, Flynn has been estranged from his alcoholic, delusive father for 25 years when they meet again, Nick as counselor at a homeless shelter and his father as one of the shelter’s guests. I live in strange neighborhood in NYC where the bougiest of all possible grocery stores and a frozen yogurt shop conceal a shelter tucked between them that’s a lot like the one in the book. I hadn’t known the shelter was there until I started talking to one of its residents, Wilbur, a schizophrenic man who told me he’d never had a birthday cake. Every time I pass the shelter now, I think of the Pine Street Inn from Bullshit Night, and of Wilbur and the son whose picture he keeps in his wallet, and who else’s father might be inside.
Meanwhile, on the rarefied end of the cultural spectrum, I cannot recommend the dance documentary Ballet 422 highly enough. The film relies almost exclusively on footage of rehearsals and behind-the-scenes prep–no staged interviews, no voiceover–to follow Justin Peck as he creates New York City Ballet’s 422th production, Paz de la Jolla. The choreography is genuinely visionary, as if he’s somehow peeled a layer off ballet’s traditional vocabulary to find a wilder, more nuanced one hidden inside. Yet it’s almost as exciting watching Peck at work, carrying the enormous weight of masterminding this production more or less on his own. If the movie isn’t screening in your area, check out clips of his other ballets online; Year of the Rabbit from a few years ago is the single greatest dance performance I’ve ever seen.
Don’t think that’s the only documentary we’re recommending this month:
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): In 1957, 20 year-old Linda Riss met Burton Pugach, an older lawyer of the ambulance-chasing ilk and the owner of a successful nightclub. What followed was a mess of accusations, breakdowns, and violence that were overshadowed only by a later turn of events that was both shocking and absurd. Things I knew about Crazy Love before watching it: It came up during a conversation with a childhood friend about strange documentaries (Tabloid, The Imposter . . . ) and that it was about obsession and something resembling love (of the squirm-worthy kind). I’d recommend a similarly innocent approach, for maximum effect. Continue reading
In his acclaimed debut novel God Loves Haiti, Dimitry Elias Léger stitches together history, sociology, religion, politics and a love triangle—all in the shadow of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The story revolves around the spirited artist Natasha Roberts, her husband the President, and the love of her life, Alain Destiné, a youthful savvy businessman who is determined to stay in Haiti. The book follows them before and after the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010.
Lyrical and with a great sense of humor, in God Loves Haiti, Léger has created compassionate characters who navigate a natural disaster with fortitude, sensitivity and wit.
Léger was in Paris earlier this month for a reading at Shakespeare and Company to celebrate the publication of God Loves Haiti and I introduced him on a wintry Monday evening to a full house. The interview that follows was conducted by email after his reading and discussion at Shakespeare and Company.
Heather Hartley: What was the impetus for you to turn from journalism and nonfiction to writing a novel?
Dimitry Elias Léger: Legacy and money. I began thinking seriously about writing books the minute after my first child was born early in 2002. I wanted to leave him a tangible family heirloom, a cool paternal accomplishment to brag, something I wish I had when I was making my way into the world. It had to be my particular perspective on Haiti in book form, because such a novel could influence him in multiple ways. I knew that growing up in other countries he would learn about Haiti through depressing headlines. It would be impossible for him to know the delightful Haiti I knew and still know. I’d known I’d write books about the charms amid the tragedies of Haiti someday since I was 10. His birth gave me urgency. I had to stop putting it off. Finding the right voice for my stories about Haiti would take me most of the subsequent 10 years. I have two kids now. They both will learn about this country, one third of their patriotic identities, though my novel; they will also learn about me, my values, my sense of what is noble, humorous, and craven. Since they were old enough to see the odd hours I had to work to write the book, the stubbornness and persistence it took to ignore publishers’ rejections for many years until the right one came along, and the joy of successful publication and a popular book tour, the book will also forever serve as a message for them to follow their creative dreams and make the most of their talents in whatever fields they may have an aptitude for.
Money became a factor that added urgency to my turn to fiction. I left journalism in 2004 for grad school and a career in international relations abroad. I did it because I wanted to move to Europe and become a humanitarian, and also because I thought no longer doing high end and high-pressure journalism would mentally free me to turn to fiction as a serious hobby. I didn’t see the magazine industry crashing like it did, but it did. Once the Great Recession of ’08 stalled economic growth in Western Europe, where I’ve lived since ’05, and the job market here tightened considerably, leaving little room for non-natives and certainly non-Europeans, I had to look to generate income in a line of work other than writing reports and managing media relations for United Nations agencies in countries far from where my children were growing up. Taking a shot at literary fiction novels seemed as reasonable an option as seeking an advocacy job for a global NGO and corporation. My wife and I knew selling a first novel faced incredibly long odds. Yet I sold and published my first novel before finding a job. Go figure.
HH: What was it like to transform your writing from nonfiction to fiction?
DEL: It was an education. I had to unlearn most of the skills that made me a good nonfiction writer. I had to hunt for the qualities that made me love the novels I loved. Basically I had to find my voice as a musical novelist, and I had to develop a literary sense of humor, as the essential difference between nonfiction and great fiction is that the novelist has the right to be funny and profound while raising more questions than delivering answers. The transformation pretty much took a decade.
HH: The characters in God Loves Haiti come through vividly as they navigate as best they can inner conflict and outer chaos. Was it difficult to not have the earthquake overwhelm the story, and by extension, the individual stories of the characters Natasha, the President and Alain?
DEL: Nah, the disaster was no threat to overwhelm the story. I love war novels, and just about any novel about Haiti is a war novel. In fact the idea that risked overwhelming the novel was the word “Haiti.” It’s a disturbing word to many inside and outside the country. So the novel, as it features a president of Haiti, took on the word’s talismanic power head-on. I thought the questions of faith, the “God” part of the novel’s title, would provoke debate. Even I underestimated how much the brand Haiti can overwhelm conversations.
HH: You were an adviser to the United Nations disaster recovery operations in Haiti after the earthquake. How did this experience filter into God Loves Haiti? Was it hard to balance in your novel?
DEL: My personal experiences were easy to keep out of the novel. The story of the sensitive writer who is overwhelmed by the sight of human suffering on a national scale is a cliché I didn’t want to add to. My experience with the UN did allow me intimate access to the upper-reaches of the Haitian government and the power dynamics with the international community. I was a public affairs officer. My job was to constantly visit and assess how well the UN’s programs were doing and report back to UN brass, colleagues, and the press. Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment, the 2014 National Book Award-winning collection of war stories, had the same job for the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq at the height of those . . . interventions. Our fiction is similarly harrowing, except for the difference that I tell the story mostly from the emotional perspective of locals, and he writes from the perspective of the Americans.
HH: The structure of God Loves Haiti follows the characters as they experience the earthquake at different points and it’s so tied to their stories. How did you go about creating this structure?
DEL: I simply wanted to write about the emotional turmoil of experiencing an earthquake. It’s unlike any other natural disaster. I wanted readers from every walk of life to have their hearts spin as the millions of people who experience earthquakes have.
HH: Stitched into the story of God Loves Haiti are expressions in French, and excerpts from Dante, and the novel begins with Derek Walcott’s stunning poem, “A City’s Death by Fire.” How does poetry influence your work? Is there something that you find in poetry that is expressed more readily or differently than in prose?
DEL: My novel tries to build on the long tradition of writers who wrote about peoples of faith dealing with overwhelming personal circumstances. That meant Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat and José Saramago, but it also ended up meaning lots of poets like Dante, Walcott, and Michael Ondaatje. Poetry, and the humor in much of the great Latin novels, were the fuel for my voice. You are what you read, but you really are what your writing talent says you are. Dry, economical prose was a gene my writing wasn’t born with, even though I love Hemingway and Camus to death.
HH: There’s a great sense of wit in God Loves Haiti. Does humor come naturally to you?
DEL: Thanks, and, um, yes. When I told an old friend that looking for the funny in each situation was making writing a novel more fun than I expected, he said, wait, but you’re not funny. I laughed! He probably was right. But humor came to me naturally while writing fiction. It entertained me and made me want to entertain readers. Humor proved the great difference between fiction and nonfiction writing to me. I do believe a novel has to entertain, no matter the subject matter.
HH: How do you balance the reality and the myth of Haiti in your writing?
DEL: Like I balance being me, the man/father/husband, and being a writer/artist: I don’t. What’s reality to a writer aka mythmaker anyway? What’s the difference who we are in private and who we are when we make eye contact with another human being who we instinctively want to like us? My guess is, the reality and myth of Haiti is my favorite subject, it’s my DNA. Balancing it is not a worry. Balance is the enemy of entertaining art and literature.
HH: What are the ingredients of a good story for you?
DEL: Good humor, good music, gigantic themes i.e. life and death, honor and disgrace and sex risks. The rest is noise.
Dimitry Elias Léger was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Educated at St. John’s University and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, he is a former staff writer at the Miami Herald, Fortune magazine, and the Source magazine, and also a contributor to the New York Times, Newsweek, and The Face magazine in the UK. In 2010 he worked as an adviser to the United Nations’ disaster recovery operations in Haiti after the earthquake. He lives with his family in France and the United States.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.
It’s time for another round of Broadside Thirty, our showcase for poems in thirty lines or less by poets thirty or younger. Today, we present a new poem by Soren Stockman.
She lies across your legs, open to the open window,
and after promising not to ask,
does not. She tells you to stay, and whatever ruin
may or may not be strewn across her apartment
(ruin a made thing now
both yours and hers to keep) breathes. No after-the-fact
text, more personal than you realize or than either of you
expects, in which, again,
splinters of what you feel together,
this time the underneath of it, show through,
can recompose ruin like this.
Remember, when you knelt before me, with what soft thing
I covered your eyes? And how you kept them closed, when it fell?
Thank goodness. Thank whatever you like.
Soren Stockman’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, PEN Poetry Series, H.O.W. Journal, Bellevue Literary Review, The Paris-American, and Narrative Magazine, which awarded him First Place in the 2013 Narrative 30 Below Story and Poetry Contest. He works as Program Coordinator for Summer Literary Seminars, and lives in New York.
Catherine Lacey’s debut novel Nobody Is Ever Missing follows a young woman named Elyria as she hitchhikes through New Zealand after leaving her family in New York without warning. Her past, however, proves to be impossible to escape and much of the novel exists in the fever dream state of Elyria’s rememberings as she thinks back on the unraveling of her marriage and her sister’s suicide.
To say that Lacey’s novel is one of the most entrancing novels I have ever read would be an understatement. It took only a handful of pages to convince me that I would follow Catherine Lacey wherever she led me—there are some writers whose instincts are so clearly on point that one inherently trusts them to make the right choices. Lacey’s prose has an obsessive quality about it that builds with an unstoppable momentum and results in a lyrical and haunting meditation on loss and displacement. Nobody Is Ever Missing is the ellipses on the question of “What if…?” and the work of a talented new voice.
I met Catherine in December at a reading she did for Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco and was impressed by her reflective insights on writing and literature as well as her thoughts on the difficulties and possibilities of making a living as an artist.
Emily Ballaine: You have an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia. What led you to write a novel instead of a nonfiction piece? Is your approach to writing fiction different from your approach to writing nonfiction?
Catherine Lacey: I made the often-unadvised choice of starting an MFA straight out of undergraduate, during which I had written a short collection of essays for my thesis. I was pretty sure I needed more training to become a better critic and essayist, that it wasn’t the sort of thing I could do alone. I was writing fiction as well, but I was more private about it and I thought any improvement there would only come from solitude and I think that was somewhat true for me. At Columbia I took a fair amount of fiction seminars, which were hugely impactful, more than I even realized at the time because I was so focused on writing nonfiction. I spent about four years working on a book there that just didn’t hang together. Around the same time I realized that book didn’t work, I started writing the series of stories that became Nobody Is Ever Missing.
As far as approach, my fiction seems to come from an untamable, uncooperative place in the brain, while the process of writing nonfiction is more above board and straightforward. I will edit an essay with just about any editor I happen to be working with, but I only share unfinished fiction with a select few.
CL: With nonfiction the goal is so much more specific. I usually have a specific idea I want to get across or a story to tell that has already happened. The idea is either clear or its not. The artistry that goes into turning a piece of writing into something more like a piece of art is still there, but the underlying goal of the piece is there regardless. In fiction I tend to not know what I’m writing about until I’m nearly done and sometimes I still can’t articulate it. I don’t want anyone in on it until I am sure I innately know what direction I’m trying to lead it.
EB: There seems to be an assumption many people jump to that first person novels (especially if they are about women and written by women) must actually be some sort of insidious, undercover form of nonfiction. Did this change the way you approached writing Nobody Is Ever Missing? Does this assumption that you are actually your character make it difficult to write a character who can, at times, be somewhat difficult and unlikeable?
CL: Thankfully this sort of self-awareness didn’t shape the way I was writing, at least not to my knowledge. There was one reporter who seemed intent to conflate me with Elyria and I wrote a rant-y essay about it for Buzzfeed Books, but other than that I think I’ve more or less escaped accusations of autobiography.
That said, I’m starting to discover that my method for building a first person voice is a mix of theater and surrogacy. A new voice generally starts sounding close to my own voice, but as it continues to develop all these foreign parts get mixed in until it feels like something outside of me. At that point I try to inhabit that character as if she or he is a character in a script that I’ve been cast to play. And isn’t it always more fun to play a jerk or freak instead of a basically well-behaved nice person?
EB: Always! Well-behaved people rarely make for particularly interesting stories which is why it surprises me when some people will criticize a book because the character isn’t someone they want to hang out with. I liked what Claire Messud said in an interview a couple years ago: “The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”
CL: Yep. Today someone on Twitter asked me, “How do you live with yourself?” At first I thought he was just being mean, but it turns out he was a fan of the book, he was just generally curious if my brain worked the same way as Elyria’s brain. I wrote a book about a person who would never write a book and non-insane people still think she’s me. No one is safe.
EB: The sentences in Nobody Is Ever Missing have a very lyrical, almost rambling (in the best possible way) quality about them that pulls the reader into Elyria’s head. Did you find that you were writing in a style that felt familiar to you, or did the evolution of the character shape the structure of the story?
CL: She took about a year before her voice became clear to me, then it became a lot easier to write. I think the first time I felt like I had figured out who she was beyond just the basic facts of her life was in one of the chapters where she is speaking directly to her husband and going on rant about penguins and dogs and babies that is both logical and illogical. You know, maybe that’s it. Everyone has their own personal way of being simultaneously logical and illogical. Understanding your characters is a search for those points of illogical logic.
So I landed this gig and I started taking my little dog out to Rancho Mirage for the weekend, for some quality-time weekends, just him and me. And I lavished one-on-one attention on him with food and treats and playing and cuddling in a nice, clean, cool hotel room, and it was his little spa weekend because he deserved it.
I obsessed about the tattoo that I couldn’t bring myself to get. Finally I had the wherewithal to be picky, ask around, interview, look at samples, listen to suggestions, interview and second round of interviews. Possibly I could be coaxed into a refinement of the basic idea which by now seemed both adolescent and essential, dating from the era when I coveted a certain Mesa Engineering product and would go out of my way to walk my dog past the Mesa Engineering storefront. And bring my little dog inside and ask tons of questions.
I let myself be talked into watching the clip—that was my first mistake. I let myself be talked into volunteering to feed the habitat—that was my second mistake.
The basic idea was a portrait on each bicep, Duane on one, Berry on the other, each in the foreground, their rides in the background, Duane’s Sportster, Berry’s Triumph. When I let my arm be guided into the habitat, I at first watched the happy little community go to work, then I reclined and shut my eyes and listened to what I listened to then, long after my obsession with Mesa Engineering.
I wanted to get to know the woman and so I said yes and started having nightmares, not actual nightmares but the kind of vivid waking recollection of a disturbing image or a thought that may as well be a nightmare and you may as well be asleep for all the power you have to ward off the thought or image which actually slows you down as you’re strolling along, with your little dog, with the woman, shopping and being asked by every third person if they can take a photo of your little dog.
The clip played up the flexibility of the mouthparts, the mouthparts, how even a specialist in mouthparts wouldn’t necessarily think of them as flexible, but then how flexible they are when you see them at high magnification and slow motion and inside the skin, probing beneath the flesh: not just the insect’s needle probing, but the mouthparts themselves inserted beneath the flesh and probing, flexing.
The woman took me out for lunch to a restaurant that her mother owned. We sat at a table in the corner while the mother presided over the lunch crowd from a seat in the opposite corner, a seat all by herself. The tables had the kind of bright white tablecloths that have been washed a thousand times. An enormous cockroach climbed up the side of the tablecloth and onto the table. I was impressed by the size of the cockroach. The woman folded her napkin, and the cockroach made an unsuccessful attempt to bolt. The woman folded her napkin and placed it off to the side. I looked over at the mother, but I couldn’t tell if she was smiling at us or the lunch crowd in general.
And not just the flexibility but all the parts of the mouthparts: the needle that pierces your flesh, so I discovered, isn’t just one needle, but a bundle of needles, flexible needles that go rooting around seeking out a blood vessel, mobile searching needles that pump white gunk under your skin (you can see it in the clip) with such force that the blood vessel ruptures, blood settles into a pool, and the needles dip into the pool and more white gunk gets pumped in while one by one, little red corpuscles are drawn up into the needles—that was an image that kept coming back to me.
Meanwhile the woman would bring vials into a side room, and do whatever with them that she was paid to do. Another woman came and went, watching so that I didn’t shortchange the habitat. Those two women were the only human beings I ever saw in the place, the woman who cut my check and the woman who kept me honest.
I’d signed on for a paid stint beyond my volunteering—it was just pocket money, but it put me in close proximity to the woman every other afternoon. I left my little dog with Johan when he wasn’t proofreading for a law office.
We went for long walks out beyond the nondescript building into the high-end shopping neighborhoods, the woman and I and my little dog, out past the building with its habitat, through the high-end residential neighborhoods and into the crowded streets with shoppers from all around the world, the tour buses rolling by and announcing how not a single one of the boutiques along those renowned streets made a profit or ever would, and I bought a shirt that circled my biceps tightly, showed off my biceps in anticipation of the tattoo that I couldn’t bring myself to get.
The clip kept haunting me with the same vividness that had once attached itself to the mirage of that Mesa Engineering product that I coveted so intensely back when I’d taken liberties with my little dog’s name, started hailing him as Leo Kotke.
I had a new idea, just two numbers, “10” for Duane, “11” for Berry. It would have meaning for me (or anyone who knew) and I wouldn’t be saddled with two portraits whose significance had faded at the same time as the concept of a tattoo, any tattoo, had become so fraught with meaning. I heard good things about a studio that had just moved up from Long Beach, and I began to imagine what it would be like to walk in the door and how the very first thing I would need to do is explain about my arm.
Fortunato Salazar‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Wigleaf, SmokeLong, Hobart, Spork, Mississippi Review, Los Angeles Review and elsewhere. Other stuff is in McSweeney’s, Nerve, Vice, Guernica and elsewhere.
From our Science Fair issue, Donna Hunt dons an identity crisis.
In this dimension you
are not in love with me
anymore. I wish it were
another. In infinite
dimensions you are not
in love with me. Those donnas
handle it better. Other donnas accept
the cycles of relationships.
Some donnas dye their hair, finally
learn guitar. Another
donna travels, basks
on a rock, burns it out.
Some donnas sleep
it off. Take two
in the morning. Several
other donnas are already
dating that other guy. He’s tall.
Many donnas catharsis,
bake, shop, redecorate.
Three donnas bash you
over drinks, and then call
your mother. It’s better than this. donna, in this
world, is thrown. Has forgotten
her address. No longer recognizes her own handwriting.
Donna Hunt’s chapbook, The Coastline of Antarctica, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in DIAGRAM, and the Cleveland Review, among other journals.
We drove through Oakland, a desultory meander along the estuary in the warehouse district where the Port boom cranes line up in a string of white horses and the big freighters hug the shore waiting to be relieved of their cargo so they can turn around and get more on the other side of the ocean that stretched, glinting white and blue under the sun’s attack and it was when I was just about to give up that Helen said, “There, that one,” and pointed to a large factory along the rail lines leading into the western terminus of the Southern Pacific Railroad and I knew immediately, looking at the cement monolith punctuated by window banks soaring thirteen feet or more, that she was right so I said, “Pull over,” so we could walk the perimeter, sneak into the lobby, climb to the roof, look out on the Bay Bridge backed by the silhouette of San Francisco banking the orange bullseye of the setting sun and I could say Yes to this day, this morning with my old life growing smaller in the rearview mirror and my new life crashing through the windshield as we barreled up 880 behind the moving van to a neighborhood crisscrossed by every known method of transportation—from road to rail to shipping lanes to flight corridors—to our Petite Marseilles home to sailors and prostitutes, murderers and pimps, pianists and photographers, the chefs, brewers, drag queens, and tent cities that are my new neighbors, whose lives I now share in the effort to hold down this corner of West Oakland where I had simply seen the sun bounce off the water to call me home to an iron works factory that found a second life as lofts for those willing to take a chance on a city in a place everyone ran from in fear, where people wouldn’t get out of their cars until I stopped under the fabricated, wrought iron marquee that said Phoenix Lofts which, loosely translated meant “Welcome home;” welcome to the 1700 square foot concrete box in need of rugs and art work and people I didn’t know but would get to know, laughing and drinking cold beer, eating potato salad and blaring our music from our radios on our roof that I share with my Cuban, Jamaican, Israeli, faggot and dyke settlers under the freeway that is routinely accented by rounds of live ammo and helicopters circle in the clear blue sky.
Rebecca Chekouras has appeared in Narrative Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, Curve Magazine, and the online zine Pure Slush. Her work has been anthologized by The University of Wisconsin Press and Pure Slush books. She is a 2013 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow and was short listed for the Astraea Foundation Lesbian Writers Fund fiction prize. In 2014, Chekouras helped launch The Basement Series with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She was invited to the Tin House Writer’s Winter Workshop in 2015. Chekouras lives in the Port of Oakland.
This essay is the offspring of a writing prompt given by Whitney Otto during our 2015 Winter Fiction Workshop.
After releasing two widely-acclaimed collections of stories—What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us in 2009 and The Isle of Youth in 2013—Laura van den Berg is releasing her first novel, Find Me, this month, to much anticipation and advanced praise.
The novel tracks a fatal, memory-erasing epidemic that plagues the country, and the sinister hospital where—so it is being promised—a cure is in development. We follow Joy, Van den Berg’s protagonist, through this uncanny landscape, and a reader couldn’t ask for a better, more compelling guide: she is equal parts frightened and confident, jaded and hopeful, resigned and mutinous. And this is Laura van den Berg’s great strength: capturing with envy-inducing precision the fraught and fragile duality of human experience and connection. Her characters—like so many of us, like maybe all of us—often find themselves caught in Chinese finger traps, often of their own making, and it is something special on the page to watch as Laura van den Berg examines the ways in which they pull at the warp and weft.
This interview was conducted over email with Laura, whose brain should be studied.
Vincent Scarpa: You are—whether or not modesty prevents you from copping to it—a master of craft when it comes to the short story. This is an opinion shared by most everyone I talk to who has read the stories in Isle of Youth and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. I genuinely have yet to find a single detractor.I came to know your work—and then came to know you, after sending an embarrassing fan letter in high school—through your story “Where We Must Be,”and have remained utterly dropped-jaw ever since when I read you. I bring up that story in particular because it seems the best example of something you do so well in the short story, and something that’s incredibly difficult to pull off, which is striking the exact right balance between the A-story and the B-story, and making that juxtaposition a deeply resonant one for the reader. “Where We Must Be”is just one of many of your stories that function structurally in this way, but this is also a sweet spot that seems primarily reserved for the short form—the limits the form imposes are conducive to that kind of meaningful juggling. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the transition then from working with twenty-five pages or so of space into writing a novel like Find Me. What impulses that you may have felt in working on short fiction did you find yourself having to work against here? What literary muscles needed to be retrained, what tricks or methods abandoned?
Laura van den Berg: I’m not going to lie: it was a tough transition. I wrote the first draft of the novel in 2008 and approached it in exactly the same way I would when drafting a short story: wrote it all the way through, in a big rush, said yes to everything, no matter how ill-advised, jumped off every cliff, totaled every car, etc. In years past, did Find Me contain A. a subplot about a drug-dealing televangelist, B. a subplot about teleportation conspiracy theories, C. subplot about mind control, or D. all of the above?
All of the above, Vincent. All of the above.
As it turned out, having a 300-page disaster on your hands was very different than a 25-page disaster. Not long after I finished the first draft of Find Me, I had my first collection of stories come out and moved to rural Pennsylvania and was trying to negotiate a difficult period in my family life and my first full-time teaching job and relationships that mattered to me—you know, living. That slowed my progress for a while and then it took me a while longer to face my hideously messy draft, to understand what I’d done and how I might break from it, and then there was an even longer cycle of re-writing and starting over, re-writing and starting over. It was very hard to not be finishing anything for long stretches, that constant state of suspension, which was part of the reason why I started writing stories along the way and ended up with Isle.
Process-wise, the biggest thing I had to move away from was the incremental approach. If I am really into a story I’m working on, I could write a scene while holed up in the bathroom of a raging party—in fact, I have done just that. I could write another scene in the morning with coffee, another in my office at school, and so on, and all those little bits of time can actually add up to something worthwhile. With my novel, I found that ultimately I couldn’t work incrementally, in the midst of daily life, or else I was just going to keep repainting a house that needed to be set on fire and bulldozed. A novel wants your life, in a way—at the risk of sounding melodramatic—and so consequently a lot of the most important work was done at residences, when it could have my life for a set period of time, or during stretches at home where I could lock myself in a room for many hours.
So it was hard, but I don’t mean to make it sound like drudgery—it wasn’t at all. I’m not inclined toward drudgery, so if it was a slog, I would have given up on the book years ago, for I am not a very good slogger. The hard part was mainly psychological: how to keep the faith, how to not let doubt erode the project, how to ask the right questions, how to see with greater depth and clarity. To come through the other side of that, to get to have a lengthy and intense relationship with a project, is richly rewarding and…kind of addictive? In the midst of the toughest patches, there were times when I thought, Goddamn, I’ll never write another novel again, and now what am I working on? Yep.
(049. The Six Swans)
I took in mending while you were gone.
At first, it was a selfish endeavor: I stitched up both our clothes, repairing holes and frayed hems, so that when you came back we’d look smart enough to deserve our happiness. Then the neighbors took notice, and I began mending shirts and dresses, slacks and jackets that arrived at my door from all over town.
When there’s a war on, you begin to imagine that everything you do ensures some kind of guarantee. If my stitches are straight, if my sleeve lengths match perfectly, then he will return unharmed. If I do not finish before dusk on the final day, he will not return at all.
The woman I wanted to become said child, this is no hard task. This is what your fingers know to do. And it was true, somewhat. I had sewn my whole life, from hand-stitching with needles to the whir of an industrial machine. But never before had such a task been given me. With each button, I saved your life. Somewhere across the ocean, a hand was shot through. Somewhere, a man lost his face. I kept sewing. I did not speak with anyone, and I had no desire to laugh.
On the last day of the last battle, I sat in my sewing corner all afternoon and took stock. My blue dress, your shirts, the patch on Mrs. Johnson’s slacks—all done. I watched the sun set behind the Y two streets over. I waited the next day, and many days after that, watching the sky every night, but you never came home.
(040. The Robber Bridegroom)
When I met Mr. S some years later, I had given myself a new name. Who could call me the same woman? Mr. S liked my new name fine. Short and simple and practical, my new name was. Underneath his thin smile, I had the distinct impression that he thought of me the same way: a short, simple woman. A practical wife.
But he was nothing like you, in any way. Not prone to jokes, he was smart and reserved. My brother, who didn’t care what I liked to call myself, invited him to dinner. We sat in the winged armchairs that never got any use besides, and we watched the brand new television.
He laughed at the girls on Lawrence Welk as they crooned in harmony. What’s so funny, I asked him. Merengues, he said. They look like a rack of pies. It was then that I thought I saw you, looking out through his eyes, keeping me tacked onto the world.
We rented out the Elks Lodge for our wedding dinner. During dessert, a too-moist lemon cake, I looked down at my lap. My wedding ring glinted on my finger: it seemed to belong to a different hand.
(043. Frau Trude)
My granddaughter sits across the room, eating Chinese takeout and complaining to her mother and me about her cousins. They don’t like the same films she does, and this, she says, is a disappointment.
Maybe you’re finally learning that things aren’t always the way you want, I say.
Her face becomes a crumpled cabbage. Mom, her mother says, and puts her hand on my arm. Then I remember something I had forgotten: the girl’s heart, broken in its cage of bone and veins, broken by some boy off at school. Cried for days straight, her mother told me. The first heartbreak, I suppose, and so it will likely be the worst. I look at my granddaughter, who is eating chicken and broccoli. She managed, it appears, to get dressed this morning, even to put on a red silk scarf. She still calls herself by the same name as she did before.
Maybe you already know that, I say, for her mother’s sake.
It’s half-hearted, and we both know it. She knows nothing. She gives off too much of a light.
Cate Fricke’s work has appeared in Slate, Fairy Tale Review, The Sycamore Review, and others. She lives in Poughkeepsie, NY, and blogs at www.grimmproject.wordpress.com
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to email@example.com with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
From issue #44, Christopher DeWeese gets all puritan on us.
When they take all the lovers out of this park
only you and I will be left
as well as the flowers.
We won’t be bewildered:
we’ll ransack picnics,
thousands of them
until darkness touches everything at once,
a perfume only poor women wear.
Detlef, friendship will be our helmet.
We’ll commiserate together,
screaming until our bodies swallow
their own echoes.
We’ll remember candles,
the way string hangs a skeleton.
Did I mention it will be Christmas?
That snow will be falling
to reimburse New England
for the Puritans?
Christopher DeWeese is the author of The Black Forest (Octopus Books,). His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Fence, Granta, Tin House and a recent edition of Field. He teaches at Oberlin College.
Matt Burgess’s second novel Uncle Janice is set in Queens and tells the story of Janice Itwaru, a young undercover drug officer in the NYPD trying to make detective. As with his first book Dogfight, Burgess’s new novel is populated—stuffed, in the best possible way—with cops and drug-dealers, characters trying to get a leg up, to make it through the day intact, and, with luck, a little ahead of things. This is a sharp book about crime and policing, sure, but like all great literary crime books its real concern is the neighborhood, and one of the things I loved most about this book was the way that Matt brought Queens, that irreducible borough, to the page.
Fill disclosure: Matt and I have known each other for years, so you may not believe me when I tell you that it’s one of the best books I’ve read, and particularly timely. But maybe you’d believe Charles Bock, who said:
“Uncle Janice is that mythical sixth season of The Wire for which we have all been pining. Yeah, that good. The daily trials and tribulations of one Janice Itwaru—undercover drug officer, fallen daughter, all around wrong way gal—make for that rarest of reading experiences: at once comic and enthralling, always surprising, and unexpectedly touching. The eye, ear, voice and heart of this novel are bulletproof. Whoever the hell Matt Burgess is, dude does not sleep for one sentence. Neither will you.”
Whoever the hell Matt Burgess is! I love that.
Well, I know who he is, and I knew where to find him, and this interview was conducted over email while he was on the road, when neither of us was sleeping (he: worrying over sentences; me: worrying over an 8 month old).
Ethan Rutherford: First off, congratulations on Uncle Janice. I thought it was a terrific book, and though I hesitate to call it timely, to a certain degree, it is: things between the NYPD and the community it’s intended to serve are incredibly tense right now. And here’s a book about a young New York City cop, working undercover narcotics in Queens, under a lot of pressure to make drug-buys and survive long enough to make detective. The story very much belongs to Janice—and if it is interested in the issues of policing, it’s all filtered through her—but the book is set in 2008, in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting, which was another crisis point for the NYPD. Can you talk a little about how you came to set the book in the time/place you did? I’d also be interested in hearing what you think fiction can bring to these issues that, say, other media cannot.
Matt Burgess: Well, the book is set in Queens because I grew up there and I can’t yet seem to get myself to daydream about anywhere else. Stoops, park benches, pool halls, alleyways: they’re these charged spaces for me. I grew up telling and listening to stories, and it’s almost impossible for me to segue to fictional storytelling as a novelist without taking those places with me. When I was last in Queens, a couple weeks ago to promote the book, my friend Timmy was walking down a crowded sidewalk and there’s this woman coming from the opposite direction, talking to herself, and he accidentally makes eye contact with her, and when he does, she punches him in the stomach. She kept walking, everyone around him kept walking, and after a brief moment of confusion he kept walking too. What’s he going to do? Say something to her? Escalate it? Instead, later that night after work, he goes to the bar and tells us about it. That’s what we do. We try to cope with all this craziness by turning it into stories, and that’s what my books are trying to do.
But why 2008? I’m not quite sure. My previous book was set in the recent past as well, and it’s something the Coen Bros. frequently do in their movies (The Big Lebowski, which came out in 1998, takes place during the first gulf war.) I write blindly, in longhand, in black-and-white composition books, without any idea of where I’m going plot-wise; I think setting the book in a precise historical moment at least gives me something to hold onto. I don’t know what the characters are going to do on a particular day, but I do know what tabloid headlines they might be talking about. Plus, 2008 was particularly bananas for New York: the economic crisis, the governor sleeping with hookers, the Sean Bell trial, the Giants winning the Super Bowl. The nice/tragic thing about writing an NYPD novel, though, is that you can set it in any year and you’ll probably be addressing some controversial catastrophe.
ER: How much research went into this? The rumpus, the housing projects, the streets? How’d you pull these threads together?
MB: I’m going to borrow a line from one of my heroes, the novelist George Pelecanos, and say, “the most valuable research I do comes from just hanging out in the neighborhoods and listening.” I was talking to a friend mine who’s an undercover cop and I asked him what was the scariest part of his job. I’m expecting him to say getting shot at. Instead he tells me he’s constantly worried that his bosses might try to screw him over. Working the streets was less stressful than navigating office politics. That was a revelation for me. It’s hard for a lot of us to relate to police officers, but my friend’s most chronic problems—how do I navigate this massive bureaucracy while retaining some sense of self?—were things almost anyone can relate to, in the same way you don’t have to be a veteran of war to appreciate Catch-22. The germ of Uncle Janice came out of that barroom conversation. From there, the research took me to more hanging out: with dealers, with addicts, walking around the Queensbridge Houses, showing up at the Queens Narcotics Division, getting kicked out of the Queens Narcotics Division, and really just listening, without any sort of agenda.
ER: So how do you know when you’ve got the story? How do you know when to stop?
MB: I don’t know! I’ve got the story when heading to my desk every morning becomes a compulsion. I stop—and I stole this from a Raymond Carver essay—when I’m putting commas back in the same places where I’d taken them out on the previous revision.
ER: Janice is such a great character—full, complicated, funny—and in some ways such an unlikely protagonist. In crime fiction, we’re so used to seeing sort of lone-wolf investigators: men—almost always men—who are on the outs with their family and friends, hard-drinking and brawling loudmouths who cause trouble, who flaunt the law rather than being bound by it, etc. (this is a ridiculously simple take, I know). But Janice is young, and the mistakes she does make come from inexperience, or a very understandable ambition. She’s not jaded; she’s kind-hearted. She’s juggling a lot—taking care of her mother, who has early onset dementia; she’s thinking about her love life—and trying hard to make it through the day. How did she come to you, as a character?
It may surprise you, as it did us, to learn that we citizens of the United States have not yet built ourselves a museum to honor our great writers. Luckily, The American Writers Museum aims to do just that in Chicago in 2016. In the meantime, artist Mia Funk is tasked with creating a group portrait of America’s finest authors. In this ongoing series, she presents her preliminary sketches, along with thoughts on, interviews with, and histories of her subjects. This week, she sketches and interviews Joyce Carol Oates.
To be an observer as transparent as a glass of water is a haunting metaphor. It is also, perhaps intentionally, something of a contradiction, considering the person who said it has published over 70 books. Those publishing cycles are those of someone fully comfortable with dipping into her subconscious and sharing what she finds there. The opposite of safe. The opposite of invisible.
In that way, Oates almost resembles Bob Dylan, that other poet of American life whose output astonishes and whose song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was the inspiration for her much anthologized “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” She seems to have embraced the same down-to-earth don’t think twice philosophy about producing work and moving on. Not so much a Mike Tyson (the boxer she has written extensively about) but a literary Manny Pacquiao; a fighter who has moved effortlessly between different weight divisions and is known for his fast combinations and not being afraid to rise up and stretch himself even at the risk of leaving himself wide open. Oates taught James Joyce’s writing at Princeton and also seems to share his intellectual curiosity for things high and low. When people from Dublin visited the Irish writer in Paris, he’s said not to have been interested in talking about literary theory, but quizzing them about all the little changes to his hometown since he’d left it. Oates also has this openness to learning from everything around her; her reputation for listening to students and helping them discover their style; her engagement with Twitter; the multiplicity of voices in her collected works. Joyce once said of Ulysses that he had put in it “so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”
Oates is just such a living puzzle: A funny and soft-spoken writer who often writes about violent extremes. A generous teacher who finds time to be one of our most prolific writers. (She made time for this interview during her transition to Stanford, that’s how giving she is.) Born on a farm in upstate New York, she began her education in a one-room schoolhouse and has now spent over half a century teaching at the highest level. Though some of her books seem designed to shock (Rape, A Love Story indeed contains a love story and not at all the one suggested by the title, and Blonde is not all glamor and Hollywood but an interior portrait of Norma Jean Baker) there is a subtly positive undertow to all this conflict in some of her stories about survivors, which is more evident in her fiction for young adults.
In addition to publishing under her own name, she’s written mystery novels under the names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly, but the person she resembles most, of course, is herself. The most-visible invisible woman. Oates. Teacher. Novelist. Memoirist. Poet. Essayist. Short Story Writer . . . We will be talking about her for generations to come.
Mia Funk: If I were to go into your online browsing history, what would I find?
Joyce Carol Oates: A hodgepodge of many things, I’m sure.
MF: It’s said you never have writers block. So what feeds your imagination? What gets you going writing in the morning?
JCO: Though I am never exactly “blocked” I do have difficult periods. I am led by a fascination with material—the challenge of presenting it in an original & engaging way. I have no problem imagining stories, characters, distinctive settings & themes– but the difficulty is choosing a voice & a language in which to present it.
MF: Which books of yours came to you naturally? And why?
MF: Which ones were more of a struggle?
JCO: Blonde, which is my longest novel, was a considerable struggle simply because of its length & complexity. It is a “fictional biography” of Norma Jeane Baker, who becomes “Marilyn Monroe” encased in a sort of American postmodernist epic.
It’s time for another round of Broadside Thirty, our showcase for poems in thirty lines or less by poets thirty or younger. Today, we present a new poem by Zoe Dzunko.
I adopted the voice of somebody
very hungry before a mountain
of choices, and never stepped
out of her. How unfair that it is
on earth I feel loved like this:
the way sunshine requires little
light, like day ignores lampposts.
There it is, in the grey guts
of my disbelief. Each time
you rebuff me I grow a little more
resilient. Today, I bent my own self
over inside the invisible cage
of the shower, it felt
lonely. If I’m permitted to
wear pink can I keep telling you
it’s a mans world. Wait, who are you
buying flowers for this morning?
My only hope is they are for
somebody unable to cut the stems
themselves. Rejecting your own
privilege feels more and more
to me like a privilege in itself.
I don’t want to be anything
with a history; what is the newest
thing that has not yet hurt
Zoe Dzunko is the author of All of the Men I Have Never Loved (Dancing Girl Press), Bruise Factory (NAP) and Wet Areas (Maverick Duck Press). She is the Poetry & Short Prose Editor of The Lifted Brow, an Assistant Editor for Coconut Magazine and, with Sarah Jean Grimm, founded Powder Keg, an online poetry quarterly. Her work has recently appeared in Guernica, H_NGM_N, Bodega, The Fanzine, Two Serious Ladies et al. She’s online at: zoedzunko.tumblr.com
“Dew’s not burnt off yet,” he said.
“What? Say something that makes some sense. Hand me the wrench.”
Coop slid it over with the toe of his boot.
“Je-sus Christ. Pick up the damn tool when I ask you to. Kicking it over here like a child.”
“Just easier to move it with my foot is all.”
“Bullshit. You can’t stand a bit of grease on you.”
Coop lit a cigarette. A car approached the barn.
“They snuck right up on us ’cause of that wetness. No gravel dust. Now you see how it is.”
“Who snuck up?” said Tyler. He squirmed out.
The car pulled up outside the barn and stopped.
“Sneak shit. It’s just that idiot Dahlman come out here to show off that he’s got a wife can make a baby come out of her.”
Coop smoked. Dahlman stepped from his car, tiny and thin, with a too-big cowboy hat on his head. He leaned back into the car and grabbed something and came out again with a crying baby wrapped in a blanket.
“Got the next generation here boys,” he said. “Have yourself a look at the future competition.”
The baby screamed.
“Hush now Junior, hush. Get Junior his medicine, Cheryl!”
A woman came out of the car with a bottle of whiskey.
“You a funny man now all of a sudden?” said Tyler.
The woman opened the bottle and Dahlman stuck his finger in. He pulled his finger out and wiped it on the baby’s lips, on its tongue.
Coop saw the baby cough or breathe out strongly. Then the baby stopped crying.
“See how that works, fellas?” said Dahlman. “Junior’ll be doin’ laps around you on the track and dancin’ around you at the tavern at the end of the night. Gonna be a tough one he is.”
“Hell,” said Tyler. “Kid can’t even take an eyedropper of that cheap weak stuff you buy without passing right out. What makes you think he’ll be any good at anything?”
“He can take more ‘an that,” said Dahlman.
Tyler leaned in close. “He’s practically asleep already. Lookit that. Can’t even keep his eyes open. I reckon he’s had it.”
Like many of you, we here at Tin House have been mourning the death of Egyptian poet Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Ms. Sabbagh, age 31, was shot down by masked riot police while trying to place flowers in Tahrir Square on January 24th. We have asked the Egyptian poet and translator, Maged Zaher, to share some of this poet’s work with you and to celebrate her life.
—Matthew Dickman, Poetry Editor
There is a lot to tell about a poet from two poems. There is nothing to tell about a poet from two poems. In the Egyptian sixties, poets were people with a cause, and it showed in his/her poems. This was especially manifested in vernacular poetry—Ahmed Fouad Negm as the iconic poet—whose delicious rhyme and rhythm are weapons or wings that help the poem travel afar and/or wound the dictator. Shaimaa’s poems are written in the vernacular. They are written without rhyme or rhythm. This renders her as one of a small group of formal revolutionary vernacular poets. A unique position given that the vernacular lends itself to overt forms of word play and rhyme/rhythm. When Shaimaa was killed, poetry lost an authentic, humane, generous and capable voice.
—Maged Zaher, Seattle, Washington February 4th, 2015
TWO POEMS BY SHAIMAA EL-SABBAGH
I’m the girl banned from attending the Christian religion classes, and Sunday mass
I’m the girl banned from attending the Christian religion classes, and Sunday mass
Although I am a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus in “Egypt train station” square at the height of the morning
Even then, all the windows were open and the blood was racing the cars on the asphalt
The eyes of the girls were running in Heaven and catching the forbidden rocking chair.
I am the girl banned from love in the squares …
I stood in the middle of the street and gathered in my hand the stars of the sky individually
And the sweat of the street vendors.
The voice of beggars
And the people who love God as they damn this moment where the creatures of God approved
To crucifying Jesus naked in the crowded square on the clock arms as it declared one at noon
I am the girl banned from saying no, will never miss the dawn
A Letter to My Purse
I am not sure
Truly, she was nothing more than just a purse
But when lost, there was a problem
How to face the world without her
Because the streets remember us together
The shops know her more than me
Because she is the one who pays
She knows the smell of my sweat and she loves it
She knows the different buses
And has her own relationship with their drivers
She memorizes the ticket price
And always has the exact change
Once I bought a perfume she didn’t like
She spilled all of it and refused to let me use it
By the way
She also loves my family
And she always carried a picture
Of each one she loves
What might she be feeling right now
Or disgusted from the sweat of someone she doesn’t know
Annoyed by the new streets?
If she stopped by one of the stores we visited together
Would she like the same items?
Anyway, she has the house keys
And I am waiting for her
Kevin Young drops by our classroom to discuss some of the more notable modern poetry hoaxes, glimpsing into the secret history of the poem as something conceived to tempt or even trick. By understanding the ways the hoax works, Young suggests that we may better know our own assumptions, habits, and hurts, and how to subvert them in our writing. For the hoax poem urges us to write poetry that is not afraid of chaos but confronts it.
Kevin Young is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Book of Hours, which was featured on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and editor of eight others. His previous book Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels won a 2012 American Book Award and Jelly Roll: A Blues was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize. His book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and winner of the PEN Open Award. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton (edited with Michael S. Glaser) won a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in poetry. He is currently Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English and curator of Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University in Atlanta.
“I can get you a squirrel next week,” my accountant, Julian, said. “I’ll shoot one for you, and put it in the freezer.” Julian owns a very lovely and rather large piece of Wiltshire countryside in the south of England and regards squirrels as pests instead of the cute furry creatures that eat nuts and hop about the trees which is what townies like me think. I wanted a squirrel so I could skin it, cook it and eat it – if I was brave enough – all in the name of novel research.
I grew up in the countryside. Until I was ten I spent most of my spare time outdoors, in the fields and the woods, and my family had chickens, ducks and pigs all of which would vanish and then reappear a while later, browned and tasty on our plates. But since then I’ve had thirty-seven years of comfortable town living, where my food comes already eviscerated, plucked, skinned and packaged. Much of the novel I was writing takes place in the woods and mountains, miles from civilisation, in a place where the characters have to survive on what they can gather or trap. I needed to get back to nature.
While I waited for Julian to provide the squirrel, my husband, Tim and I walked the woods of Hampshire, where we live. He strode ahead while I dallied listening to the sound the wind makes when it moves through the tops of the trees, sticking my nose against rotten logs, and kicking through the fallen leaves. I would have liked to stay in the woods overnight on my own, but when it came down to it, I was too scared.
I telephoned Julian. He hadn’t shot a squirrel yet.
It was early autumn and Tim and I went away for a long weekend to the Lake District. We stayed on a farm that was once owned by Beatrix Potter, and on a warm and sunny Sunday we set out to walk up Wetherlam, the 2500 ft mountain we could see from the farmyard. (I suspect that 2500 ft barely registers as a mountain in the States.) Tim planned our route following clearly marked footpaths on the map he had printed out, and we set off, walking up the steepest track first. As we reached the summit – scrambling up a near-vertical path – we were hit by a cloud of freezing rain. In almost zero visibility we crouched beside a rock while Tim tried to work out the route from the disintegrating map and the icy rain soaked through our jeans. I was shaking with cold. We could barely see our feet, so had no chance of finding the way forward. All I knew was that I couldn’t return using the route we had come – descending backwards down the mountain in thick cloud. We decided to press on, and just as suddenly as we had walked into the cloud we walked out of it, into a beautiful autumn day. Still unable to find the path, we took the direct course back, down the side of the mountain, jumping from one grassy tuft to the next.
When we got home I phoned Julian. He had shot the squirrel and it was waiting for me in his deepfreeze.
The next week Tim and I went on a wild mushroom foray in the New Forest in Hampshire, led by the unlikely-named Andy Overall. Andy took a group of about twenty of us tramping amongst beech, oak and pine looking for winter chanterelles, oyster and horn of plenty, as well as teaching us how to make sure we didn’t die a horrible death from eating poisonous mushrooms.
A week or so later I drove over to Julian’s house for lunch, and he told me the bad news: he had taken my squirrel out of his freezer, but when it defrosted he had found it was foul-smelling and obviously decomposing and he had thrown it away.
Many of the descriptions that made it into my novel came from real-life experiences – hearing the wind in the trees, running down the side of a mountain, collecting wild mushrooms – but I have to admit that gutting, skinning and eating squirrel came straight from Youtube.
Claire Fuller lives in Winchester, England. Our Endless Numbered Days is her first novel.
A fierce and complicated man wakes from a fever dream compelled to build a boat and sail away from the isolated island where he was born. Encountering the wider world for the first time, the reluctant hero falls into a destructive love affair, is swept up into a fanatical religious movement, and finds himself a witness to racial hatred unlike anything he’s ever known. The boatmaker is tempted, beaten, and betrayed: his journey marked by chilling episodes of violence and horror while he struggles to summon the strength to make his own way.
Out this week from Tin House Books, John Benditt’s The Boatmaker is a fable for our times, a passionate love story, and an odyssey of self-discovery.
We sat down with the author to discuss the inspiration and influences that preceded his novel.
Tin House: How did this novel begin? What was the impetus for writing it?
John Benditt: The Boatmaker actually grew out of a short story I wrote for a writing workshop I was taking in New York. At the time I thought I was writing a collection of short stories. This one—which was about the boatmaker on Small Island—felt different from and better than the others. The response from the folks in the workshop seemed to confirm that. I was pleased, but I thought that was all there was to it. I put the story in the collection. A little while later I had an idea for another story about the same boatmaker—this one set on Big Island. Then I thought I was really done with him. But he wasn’t done with me: I began envisioning bits and pieces of things that happened to him on the Mainland.
TH: What sorts of works inspired it?
JB: I think one of the important things about The Boatmaker is its tone. That tone comes from some things that influenced me a long time ago. And not all of them are novels. In fact, of the three that come to mind, none of them is a novel. One is the writing of Robert Creeley, whose poetry I loved beyond all others when I was about nineteen or twenty. A few years later, two other works, again neither a novel, had a big influence on me—and I think their tone resurfaced in The Boatmaker. One is an album by Neil Young called After the Gold Rush. The other is the film McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman.
TH: The Boatmaker is an expansive work, covering an array of themes: religion, imperialism, industrialism, self-discovery, cults, love. Is there one theme that you feel defines the core of the book?
JB: In my opinion the one theme that connects all the others is that of becoming who you really are. After all, a drunken carpenter from a little island at the end of the world would seem an unlikely person to have a large and unusual destiny. And probably most worldly and experienced observers would have predicted, if they had seen him before he sailed away from Small Island, that he would wind up right where he was born as a sad old drunk who had once been a wonderful worker in wood. But something in the boatmaker pushes him out into the wider world in search of something. And although he makes some large and very painful mistakes along the way, he never gives up. I think that process is at the core of the book.
TH: You have had a career as a science journalist and editor. How did your science writing influence your fiction writing? Has your background been a significant influence on this book?
JB: Although as an editor I edited stories on a huge range of topics, the two areas I was most interested in personally were biology and social science. I was always interested in how things are interconnected—which is the essence of a society or a species—and in how the present is layered over the past. The field that combines those things in the most concrete way is probably archaeology, and for a time I was the editor at Scientific American who handled all the major, scientist-written articles on archaeology. I loved that. And I think you can see some of that in the novel: the interconnection of apparently disparate things and the way the past still exists, many layers deep, in us as individuals and in our society.
TH: The boatmaker’s story is not set in a specific time or place and yet it is clearly based on the history of European Jews. Did you do much research for the book?
JB: I didn’t do any research in the explicit sense for the book. But I do think that I have always read in a certain way that reflects my upbringing as a Jew, albeit a pretty secular one. For example, I read Proust to some extent as the experience of someone who is privileged and aristocratic, but also aware that he is in some way Jewish and therefore vulnerable. I’m sure Proust would have denied that he was a Jew, but I think he was deeply aware of his mother’s Jewishness in a way that made him both sensitive and vulnerable. In that he was not unlike Jacob and Rachel Lippsted—an aristocratic brother and sister the boatmaker encounters on the Mainland. So I read through Jewish eyes, as it were. At the same time, I have often been drawn to the idea of becoming a priest. Perhaps this is a bit contradictory.
TH: The lack of specific details that would identify a time period and setting gives the book an episodic and fable-like tone. Was it your intention to write the book this way?
JB: Yes and no. On the one hand, as I mentioned, I didn’t know for quite some time that I was writing a novel, so I didn’t have a plan—for the tone, the story or the characters—that would make up the novel in its final form. On the other hand, even in that original short story I mentioned, one of the things I liked was the fact that while things on Small Island were quite concrete—the sea was cold, people were grimy, men got drunk and stabbed each other in the bars in Harbortown and when they did, they bled into the sawdust on the floor—at the same time it wasn’t an identifiable place or time. I liked that and that did remain from the original short story.
TH: What are you working on now?
JB: I’m working on a collection of short stories. They’re connected, but they all stand alone.
John Benditt had a distinguished career as a science journalist. He was an editor at Scientific American and at Science before serving as editor in chief of Technology Review. The Boatmaker is his debut novel.
Sometimes his apartment smells of mold, soured milk, dirty socks, the piles of laundry, but really it is the forest-animal musk of a man who has lost some power. I add soy wax candles, my underwear in corners, a wood-handled hairbrush, and dozens of DVDs—Eraserhead, John Waters—things he hates to watch.
We met on the set of a community theater production of the Wizard of Oz. Half of us were on acid, our eyes crazy, wide and dilated. I sewed orange and green Munchkin costumes for the elementary and middle-school choirs. He played the Tin Man.
One day, he came into the prop room, and I measured his inseam. As I went higher, he said, “Oil can. Oil can.”
I smoke and work on a clothing line, drawing and cutting pattern paper. He drinks and paints landscapes where the ground is yellow and the trees red. He paints people gray as ghosts. The main rule of our relationship is this: We sleep together at night, but live in separate apartments, separate spaces to make things. The main rule of our relationship is we both need to breathe.
If I have ever loved anyone it isn’t him. But I know this man, know of his dead father, his distant mother. I know his smooth brow, his tender ways, know the big fingers that wrap themselves into a cup so he can drink water from the shower-head.
We drink Coors Light in the dark, in his car. We listen to jazz and Memphis blues and soul, throw streaking cigarette butts, smash beer bottles on curbs like dissonant percussion. We drive miles between the dark holes left by neighborhood streetlights.
He calls me Bonnie, but I never call him Clyde.
One day, he drives us out of the suburbs, into the hilly country where hills twist into grassy plateaus and back again. We watch the sun set and the sky grow amber.
About forty miles down Highway 30, he takes one turn after another until we come across some land where we can see a mountain in the distance, a field wide around us.
He parks on the narrow gravel shoulder, the nose of his car almost in the ditch.
We spread the quilt he keeps in the back of his car, out in the middle of some man’s field, and he sketches in a book with his expensive colored pencils while I roll joints.
The light turns from amber to purple. I light one joint, hand it to him. Then I light another for myself. We sit together on the quilt, our shoulders touching, and we look at the mountain, turning purple, dead silent other than the deer and voles, the rabbits and squirrels and birds, the possibility of a lone bear.
We drive home n the dark. In bed the next morning I ask him what he believes: Are we different every day, every day different people, or are each of us just the same person over and over again? The same plodding, selfish person?
We lay like that for a long while, thinking our private thoughts.
His back is turned toward me, and I study the back of his head as the sun rises pink, and I wait. I do not love his seashell ears, his rounded shoulders, the wild untamed hairs on the nape of his neck. Each second we lie there, I wait to hear him say, stay.
Shaun Turner writes in West Virginia, where he is a 2nd year MFA student at West Virginia University, and fiction editor for Cheat River Review. His work can or will be found in the Southwest Review, Night Train, Gravel Magazine, and Hobart, among others.
January is the month we rest up, recharge, and make big decisions. We list goals for the next 365 days and cross our fingers. For some of us, the top spot goes to “Learn a new language” or “Finally watch The Wire” or “Drink less beer/more gin.” Sometimes we meet those goals, sometimes we don’t. One we always find a way to meet is “Read more.” Or like, you know, “Watch more TV.” We’re trying our best, okay? Here’s how we’re doing so far:
Jakob Vala (Resolution: Move to a New Home): To be honest, I’ve mostly been binging on Friends, while constructing a fort of moving boxes in my apartment. Favorite Episode: “The One with the Fertility Test,” wherein Joey memorizes the contents of The Met (not The Mets) to impress his girlfriend, but takes a wrong turn and recites the information in the wrong order. It might also be the saddest episode.
I also read the final book in Charles Burns’ X-ed Out trilogy, which is bizarre and brilliant, though perhaps more bizarre and less brilliant than his earlier opus, Black Hole, which is a masterpiece.
Lance Cleland (Resolution: Learn Spanish): I don’t know about you, but I like my evening soap operas like I like my soup: muy caliente. And let me tell you, it doesn’t get much hotter (plot wise) than Gran Hotel, an addictive-as-they-come drama from Spain now streaming on Netflix. While Downton Abbey might take five episodes to even suggest a murder/pregnancy/blackmail/fake pregnancy/serial killer/underground, bare knuckle fight syndicate where you trade blows for information, Gran Hotel doesn’t let archaic notions of character development or plot pacing stand in the way of what you want at 10pm on a Tuesday night- Fast action, sexual tension, and an exuberant amount of extortion. Like those telenovelas you watched in your high school Spanish class, Gran Hotel offers the chance to learn a language while also discovering various ways to poison a maid.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Resolution: Make a Judgment Call): I cannot decide quite what I think of Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, but I seem to be the only one that feels this way. The reader reviews I’ve read online are some of the most vitriolic I’ve seen outside of vampire franchise hatemail, and I get it. With its anodyne, punk-lite Angelenos, its zookeeper-turned-indie rocker, and characters named things like Fancher Autumnbreast, the book’s a sort of amalgam of Nick Hornby and Thomas Pynchon, maybe not always in a good way. But I like Nick Hornby and Thomas Pynchon and Los Angeles, and who’s going to root against a piebald kangaroo named Shelf and the zookeeper-turned-indie-rocker who kidnaps her? Right, fine, as we’ve established, plenty of people. Again, I get it. I loathe myself for feeling at all for ol’ Shelf in the same moment in which I find myself pitying the kangaroo. In spite of myself, I’m having a really good time reading this book. What troubles me more is the way the book has evidently been re-branded since its early print runs. The slick photography of the first covers has been replaced with yellow and purple stripes and a tweeny line drawing of a girl rocker, with hand-drawn hearts ringing the jacket copy; what was once positioned as uber-hip now seems desperately recast as chick lit, having missed its original, desired mark. A funny fate for a Lethem book, and telling of who is presumed to read what and whose attention we prioritize and take seriously.
Cheston Knapp (Resolution: Finally Quote Favorite Songwriter Publicly): It’s a temporal anomaly of a sort—the best books I read in January do not come out until February. Fiction-wise there’s Arthur Bradford’s new book of stories, Turtleface and Beyond, about which I both can’t say enough and have trouble finding anything to say at all. Arthur’s stories are deeply weird and, wait for the professorial do-si-do, weirdly deep. They’ve got a fable, phantasmagoric quality that’s both charming and disturbing. They seem to’ve been written entirely with the gut/heart, and the result is refreshing and delightful and unlike almost anything you read nowadays. But let us not neglect our heads. To nonfiction!
I was lucky enough to be schooled by Clancy Martin’s Love and Lies. Like a lot of folks, I was dazzled by Martin’s novel, How to Sell, which came out a few years back, and was surprised to discover that he was also a philosopher, not a lay philosopher of the Paolo-Coelho-cum-crystals-and-exotic-tea sort, but one who’d translated the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. This book is a product of his ongoing fascination with deception and concerns itself with all the way we lie in our love relationships, both to our loved ones and ourselves. Among other things, it aims to give the lie to the notion that love, particularly lasting love, is founded on absolute honesty. As the poet croons, “Would you face me? / Make me listen to the truth even if it breaks me? / You can judge me, love me / If you’re hating me, do it honestly.” Himself twice divorce and trebly married, Martin plays something of a battle-scarred Beatrice, guiding us through broader notions of relational complexity by using his own copious experiences as examples. The result is part memoir and part crash course in philosophy and incredibly, surprisingly readable.
Thomas Ross (Connect with Youth Culture): I’ve been feeling a little out of touch recently—rereading Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and finally watching The Wire—but I’ve found that the easiest way for me to absorb something new is pop music. So January has been the month I finally get totally, horrifically hooked on Charli XCX. The British singer was virtually raised at London raves, and the music feels more authentically energetic than other pop acts her age. Where Miley’s brand of overwrought sexual rebellion feels like a kneejerk reaction to her Hannah Montana days, Charli chanting “Fuck you, sucker!” feels like the inevitable obscenity-happy mantra from the delirious sunrise end of an MDMA-fueled dance party. And frankly, there’s something reassuring about a 20-something British pop singer who still thinks of John F. Kennedy as the quintessential American. I’ve been alternating between that album and an old favorite, Muscles’ Guns Babes Lemonade, and my lame-ass commute to my cooped-up desk job has never been more fun.
Earlier today, we featured an interview with Dr. Malcolm E. O’Hagan, President of the American Writers Museum. In anticipation of the 2016 launch of that institution, artist Mia Funk has been tasked with creating a group portrait of great American writers. Starting next week on The Open Bar, Mia will share her sketches and inspirations with us in a new column, Portrait of the Writer.
The series will start February 10th with Mia’s portrait of and interview with Joyce Carol Oates. We talked with Mia via email about the process of creating portraits of these literary giants.
Tin House: How did the Portrait of the Writer idea come about?
Mia Funk: Since last year I’ve been talking with Dr. Malcolm O’Hagan about doing the group portraits for the American Writers Museum. I have just sent in an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, which will help determine the scale and the number of writers we may include in the eventual portraits.
In the meantime, I wanted to do something which felt more personal. It goes back to things Malcolm was saying about foregrounding and selecting writers from such a vast pool. It’s difficult to narrow the list and I thought sharing my sketchbooks with readers of Tin House would be a way to feature individual writers and explore themes in their work before approaching the final painting.
I still wasn’t sure what to call this series of sketches. I’d thought about Do You See What I’m Hearing? in reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Finally, I decided on Portrait of the Writer.
TH: In a lot of the sketches, you seem to be working from quotes. Is there something about the specificity of language that gets you closer to these writers than you can via biographical details?
MF: Specificity is a good word because an artwork is not dissimilar to a poem or story or other short forms. I began to think about metaphors themselves, how they’re used to tap into our collective unconscious and also awaken our capacity to remember, create and dream. How sometimes language weighs more on our lives than the real world.
It’s not possible to cram in all the biographical details so you have to make choices. I try to give a short understanding of something essential and for that I look to a writer’s own words. I feel that gets you closer. Opens a door on their perception. You don’t need to draw the four corners to feel you have been in a room.
While there’s lots of interesting quotes, they don’t all spark imagery. So I spend a long time searching for a line which captures something essential about a writer’s life and work. I’m looking for quotes which evoke an image, but also set up a curiosity and mystery and leads you back to their writing.
TH: It’s easy to forget that metaphor is such a basic building block for us. In the way we talk, write, and even see, we often start out with an image, and then through metaphor, we start to describe it and define it. Do you feel like painting these portraits is the opposite of that, or just another step in the same direction?
MF: Language. Image. Music . . . it’s all a kind of storytelling. For me the different art forms don’t oppose each other, but run on parallel tracks. I feel originality happens in the synesthetic moments when different senses converge.
I thought there was potential to find added beauty in certain things a writer said by translating it back into image. When Joyce Carol Oates said she sometimes feels as transparent as a glass of water. I thought, what a lovely image. I will paint her as a glass of water. For me there is a real satisfaction in attempting to turn a metaphor into something more concrete.
We all speak imagistically, only sometimes we are so bombarded by images and language that we forget. We become blinded by sensory overload. I think that’s the point of all art: to take something we are all familiar with and make us look, hear, feel it again as though for the first time.
TH: Why did you decide to make these portraits of the writers, rather than, say, illustrations of the quotes you’ve chosen or their bodies of work?
MF: All faces tell stories, but the faces of writers who spend long periods alone and looking inwards, are particularly interesting and challenging to paint. And that’s what the American Writers Museum were interested in. I will be trying to put echoes of their work within the group portraits. Along the bottom of this watercolor of Maya Angelou you can see flying debris from a dark hurricane which funnels up into a storm of blue butterflies. Just the memory of a cage. I hope this captures something of the spirit of resilience readers find in her writing; out of all the pain and experiences comes something of beauty.
One of the challenges of capturing a writer’s personality is, of course, that they don’t have just one. Also, many writers aren’t terribly interested in what they wear. It’s not about the outward appearance but making a continual journey inwards. Traditional portraiture involves external symbolism, jewellery and other accessories which point towards the subject’s standing in life, and clothing allows artists an opportunity to show off their skills in reproducing details, but to focus on the external somehow seemed wrong when portraying writers, who aren’t just the faces they represent to the world, but a collection of all the characters they’ve realized and all the stories they’ve told.
Joyce Carol Oates said it more succinctly in her interview, “We all inhabit interior landscapes and these are mediated to us through language.”
TH: You recently mentioned to me a Kierkegaard quote you’d discovered via the American writer David Milch: “The self rests transparently in the spirit that gave it rise.” In a lot of your work, both for The American Writers Museum and otherwise, there’s a very affecting sense of transparency, layers of underpainting that leave the feeling of hazy memory or a partially obscured timeline. Is there a relationship there to narrative, to the obscuring and excavating work writers do?
MF: Yes, well, I’m very interested in those themes that occupy writers: childhood, memory, looking back and the search for lost time. I like to think of my paintings as stories that aren’t quite complete but complete in the mind of the viewer. The quality of the best stories is that they do not leave everything resolved, but suggest a scene which is about to take place but we never see.
TH: So how big will this group portrait be? The hardest part must just be narrowing down the writers who will appear.
MF: That is one of the things still being decided. One idea is that it may need to be a triptych. Of course, it is not possible to contain the richness of American literary history in a single painting. For that, you really need to go back to the individual books, but what I hope to do is hint at its immensity. If a painting could be part of young reader’s first introduction to Faulkner or Hemingway, James Baldwin or Flannery O’Connor or Mark Twain, pointing them to read their works, that would be wonderful.
I am delighted to be doing these paintings for the American Writers Museum and to be involved in such an educational endeavor. And I’m really excited to be doing this series of interviews and artworks for Tin House which allows me to approach portraiture in a new way.
Mia Funk is an artist and writer who teaches at the École de Dessin Technique et Artistique, Paris. Her work has received many awards & nominations, including a Prix de Peinture (Salon d’Automne de Paris), Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize, Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, KWS Hilary Mantel Short Story Prize, Doris Gooderson Prize, Momaya Prize & Celeste Prize. Her paintings have been shown at the Grand Palais and are held in several public collections, including the Dublin Writers Museum. She is currently completing a novel and a collection of linked short stories. Catch her on Twitter: @miafunk.
It may come as a surprise to you—it certainly did to us—but there is as yet no museum dedicated to writers in the United States. If all goes according to the plan of the board of The American Writers Museum, that will change by late 2016. In advance of the AWM opening in Chicago, artist Mia Funk has been tasked to create a group portrait of great American writers. In a new feature on The Open Bar, Mia will showcase her sketches of American writers young and old. Our interview with Mia about that process will appear later today.
In the meantime, Mia spoke with the President of the American Writers Museum, Malcolm O’Hagan, about the inspiration for the museum.
Mia Funk: Where did the idea for the American Writers Museum come from? How did your journey begin?
Dr. Malcolm E. O’Hagan: After visiting the Dublin Writers Museum I sought out the American counterpart and was surprised to learn that there is no national institution that celebrates the lives of the great American writers. The journey began after I discussed the concept of an American Writers Museum with a number of influential people in the literary community and received enthusiastic and unanimous encouragement to pursue the idea.
MF: How long has it been in the planning?
MO: The American Writers Museum Foundation was incorporated in 2010. Planning in earnest began late in 2010.
MF: Why an American Writers Museum? What do you feel makes this project so vitally important?
MO: Writers have a profound impact on our thinking. They influence our history, our culture, our daily lives. They reveal to us who we are. They educate and entertain us. Their works are the keystone of our cultural heritage. It is vitally important for young people to understand the role writers play in society. It is particularly so at a time when reading and writing are being so impacted by technology. I would love to see a day when people have the same reverence for great writers as they do for sports heroes and film stars.
MF: I noticed you titled the layout for the museum your First Edition Concept Plan. That’s interesting. It suggests that creating and laying out the different exhibitions resembles the process of planning a novel. So, how many different drafts did you go through?
MO: We are on our third draft of the Museum Concept. The First Draft envisions the ultimate museum as a large institution comparable to an art museum housed in an iconic building. The Second Draft, and the Third one that we are currently working on, focus on the first phase of the museum which will be housed in a building in Downtown Chicago. This is what we refer to as the “First Edition”. At the outset we received prudent advice to develop the museum in stages, as has been typical for many cultural institutions.
MF: Have there been many difficult decisions in terms of choosing one writer’s works over another?
MO: Choices are always difficult. The authors featured in the concept plans are strictly illustrative. We now have several curatorial teams at work deciding which authors and works to feature in the various galleries in the First Edition. A key feature of the American Writers Museum will be its ability to feature many authors and works through changing exhibits. The museum will be theme based, and the exhibits will be designed in a way that will allow us to show how different authors addressed these themes over time.
MF: But what’s wonderful about the museum is that it will be a never-ending story that evolves over time. I like the whole interactive principal and the central museum tables which will allow visitors to ask questions and post quotes. I think it really reflects the way we read today. It’s not a passive experience.
MO: I am glad that we are developing the museum now and not 30 years ago. The whole concept of what a museum should offer to visitors has changed, and the technology is now available to engage visitors in totally new interactive ways. The ability to “do” something as opposed to just “looking” greatly enriches the visitor experience. And the new technology makes it easy to change content, to pose new questions, to feature different works, to tell different stories.
MF: Anyone I’ve mentioned the museum to has said what a wonderful idea it is and are sort of puzzled why a museum like this doesn’t already exist. It does seem absurd that America has so many museums devoted to fine art–an activity which really doesn’t touch a lot of people’s lives–but in a country composed of so many immigrants and children of immigrants, where stories have played such a part in remembering our pasts and unifying us, that it has taken us so long to honor our writers collectively.
MO: I was amazed too when I found that we do not have a museum dedicated to American Literature. But happily that is about to change. We have so many wonderful stories to tell. We are a species of story tellers.
MF: I can only imagine to get the ball rolling on this project––with your background in manufacturing and engineering*––you must have realised what a massive undertaking it was. What kind of surprises have you met along the way?
MO: When I embarked upon this mission I made a ten year commitment. Nothing worth doing is easy if you want to do it right. I am experienced enough to know that things generally take much longer than we would like, and that the task is more difficult than anticipated.
MF: Can you tell us a little about the key permanent exhibits?
MO: The structure and themes of the museum will be fixed, but much of the content will change in order to allow us to feature a wide range of authors and writings. The Main Hall will serve as a “Hall of Fame”. As you would expect, it will feature the canonical and award winning writers. Shaping America will feature the writings that have molded our history and culture and continue to do so. Creating an American Literature will feature writers who broke with European literary traditions to create an “American” voice. We Will Be Heard will feature minority and immigrant writers who had to fight to get their story heard. Of course there will be areas where the different themes converge and build on each other. The other galleries are self evident. I would like to emphasize the American Writers Museum will be “Story Telling” institution where artifacts will play a much smaller role than in a traditional museum.
MF: Presently, what are the museum’s current goals? For example, do you have a dream exhibit?
MO: The whole museum is a dream.
MF: In terms of upcoming acquisitions, which archives or manuscripts is the museum seeking to acquire?
MO: At the outset we set a policy that the AWM will not duplicate what others are already doing effectively. Nor do we want to compete unnecessarily with other literary institutions. Consequently we do not envision the AWM as a research institution, as an archival institution, as a collections based institution or as an award making institution since all of these functions are already being performed admirably by others. The AWM will be the “Presentation” arm of the literary community.
MF: Can you describe some of the programs/exhibitions you’ll have for young people?
MO: One of the galleries is the Children’s Room which will be fun and engaging. While the AWM will sponsor extensive programming, the details have not yet been developed. We have a small exhibit featuring four Chicago authors – Brooks, Hansberry, Terkel and Wright – traveling to many neighborhoods throughout Chicago.
MF: I see your Power of the Word online exhibition has reached out to readers, political leaders and writers asking them about their favorite books.
It’s particularly interesting the question you asked authors: “Which works by American writers should world leaders read to help them gain a better understanding of America?” Which works would you yourself recommend? And which works received the most recommendations?
MO: One book I would recommend to foreign leaders (and to everyone for that matter) is Lincoln at Gettysburg – The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills. This book tells us what America is all about.
MF: It’s interesting that a part of the museum will be devoted to political writing.
MO: We are a nation founded on political documents.
MF: You were born in Sligo, “Yeats Country”. And Ireland is also well known as a country of great writers. Was reading/storytelling a big part of your life growing up?
MO: Unfortunately I did not get to engage with literature until I went to college, and then to a very limited extent as I was an engineering student.
MF: Which books would you say most affected your thinking about the world?
MO: My thinking constantly evolves as I read new books. Isn’t that an important function of books!
MF: What do you feel books can do that no other medium can?
MO: For me books are a medium that allows me to concentrate and contemplate. I value the content and not the container, and I find a book to be a very friendly container.
MF: As consciousness evolves through our increasing dependence on devices, it seems now more than ever that novels, poetry, playwriting can provide a transcendent experience as counterpoint to all our daily distractions.
MO: I believe this to be true as it has been in the past.
MF: With more people being involved with video and blogging, there seems to be a rise in direct, less stylized forms of storytelling. Will there be exhibits in the museum devoted to oral storytelling? Screenwriting? Will the museum have exhibits addressing 21st century developments in narrative?
MO: Absolutely on all accounts. The museum has to be relevant and must stay so. I am happy to see the resurgence in oral story telling through recorded books which I listen to all the time. As a young lad I was enchanted by stories and plays on the radio. I would much prefer to hear a poet recite than to read the poem to myself. The AWM docents will be called “Story Tellers”.
MF: So what you’ve created seems to be much more than a museum. It’s actually a space geared to engage visitors’ creativity and imaginations.
For a long time people, including prominent writers like Philip Roth, have been predicting the end of the novel. What are your thoughts on that?
MO: How many times have we heard predictions of the end of the world!
Dr. Malcolm E. O’Hagan is retired from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association where he served as President and CEO from 1991 to 2006. He served on the Board of the National Association of Manufacturers and was Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Council of Manufacturing Associations. He is a past President of the Washington Industrial Roundtable. Malcolm served in the Carter and Reagan administrations as Executive Director of the U.S. Metric Board. Earlier in his career he held management positions at Bendix Corporation and the position of Senior Scientific Officer at the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards in Ireland. Malcolm was born in Ireland and raised in “Yeats Country” in County Sligo. He holds a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from The National University of Ireland. He obtained his D.Sc. from The George Washington University in Washington D.C. which honored him with its Distinguished Alumni Award.
Mia Funk is an artist and writer who teaches at the École de Dessin Technique et Artistique, Paris. Her work has received many awards & nominations, including a Prix de Peinture (Salon d’Automne de Paris), Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize, Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, KWS Hilary Mantel Short Story Prize, Doris Gooderson Prize, Momaya Prize & Celeste Prize. Her paintings have been shown at the Grand Palais and are held in several public collections, including the Dublin Writers Museum. She is currently completing a novel and a collection of linked short stories. Catch her on Twitter: @miafunk.
When I was six, I developed a spiritual disorder. I started believing that someday, I would find a message in a bottle. Over the years, the condition mutated from the gnostic persuasion of a 6-year-old into a belief system more commonly found in those who have seen Jesus in their toast.
The conviction broke out on the one warm holiday our family ever took, in a beach town called Le Lavandou, in the South of France. It was 1987: the summer of palm trees. There were palm trees on my new short-sleeve Mickey Mouse button-up shirt, and there was a palm tree on my head with a trunk made of scrunchies. The palm trees that cordoned off the beach parking lot were boxed in gleaming white planters.
That week, I stepped on my first ever yellow jacket and ordered a different shade of sorbet each day. I posed next to a bronze statue and thought maybe we were rich. The beaches were crowded, topless, and full of smokers, and perhaps for those reasons, we spent future summers up North, catching colds in the Atlantic and using WWII bunkers as windbreaks.
The gift shops in Le Lavandou sold green plastic flasks with screw caps and a rolled-up wish-you-were-here note inside. They were pre-stamped and designed to fit through a mail slot. Out loud, I voted them repellent, but secretly, I wanted one.
At the end of the week, I conceded defeat to bad taste, and asked my parents for ten francs to buy a souvenir message-in-a-bottle. I remember my dad saying, “Just wait until you find a real one,” but I can’t be sure I didn’t make that up.
It would be just like my heathen father to force another faith on me. I attended a Catholic school because it was a convenient drop-off next to his office.
It took all of six years for me to find a message in a bottle. Six years, in which I combed every beach from Plozévet to Douarnenez, and spelunked inside sinking blockhouses, even as my faith enfeebled.
On the afternoon I found the bottle, I was patrolling the mile-long beach with a small army of much younger, influenceable relatives, all of whom I had educated in my mission. (I sometimes think of what would have happened if one of them had found the bottle. I fear it could have ruined life for me).
The beach had a name but we called it our beach. It was one of those hostile northwestern French beaches with sticky sand and jutting rocks that slice open your feet. There were tar stains on the pink sea lichen from a 1979 oil spill, and the tide sent dead medusas towards our towels like a coin pusher.
The receding tide exposed a fraying barnacled rope. At the end, said my dad, was the Flying Dutchman and a crew of zombie-sailors, perhaps fossilized. We’d found syringes on the soft pebbles before, and the seaglass there was never quite blunt enough to be safe.
The bottle had washed up on the stones, and was stopped with a cork. It had a seaweed skirt and George Washington’s face was peering through the green glass. I had seen the air and sun disintegrate ancient frescoes in Fellini’s Roma, so I took the miracle home, for a more controlled autopsy.
From what I can tell, no one has taken a serious crack at estimating the odds of what happened to me. Equally unquantifiable are religious apparitions and other miracles. The closest thing I found to a statistic hinged on fiction, in a website that compared happening upon a message in a bottle to finding a golden ticket inside a chocolate bar. By this measure of faith, the equations place the odds at 1 in 7.32 million.
The particulars are less than reliable, but one thing that was precise was the latitude and longitude scribbled on the note, which placed the point of the toss a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida.
Look at Florida on a map. Now find the Pointe-du-Raz, France’s westernmost tip. (You won’t see it on the map, but there is a windswept virgin there, dangling the son of God over a cliff.) Trace with your finger a line from one to the other, and add in whales, ocean storms, the abyssal plain, and assorted monsters of the pelagic zone. Hell —look at the last thirty feet of the journey, with its granite obstacle course and deadly current, and tell me your existential compass comes out unscathed.
In the end, the biggest coincidence of my life was also the most deliberate. It compromised years of Catholic education, shifting my personal accountability to chance, rather than to God. The bottle turned every accident thereafter into prophecy, every nightmare into augury, every whim into prognostication. For some reason, it also gave me an uncontrollable fear of deep water.
There was a Florida address on the note, and a message. “In our country, we elect idiots to high office. What do you do?” I wrote to the address, and soon got a reply from a retired couple. They told me they had thrown the bottle out at sea during a pleasure cruise on the Atlantic. They told me they liked to go on cruises, and holiday in warm places.
I get really nervous around wishbones. I crack open fortune cookies like my life depends on it. I avoid looking at my tea leaves and wish carefully when I blow out birthday candles.
I am trapped in a one-person cult of fortuity, with a god I found on the beach. It is a faith without ethics, and with no sustainability. There is no conversion, no communion —only a drunken, sea-fearing trust in practical miracles with no practical application.
Sarah Françoise is a translator/writer who lives in New York and sometimes in Maine. Her writing has recently appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Hobart. She recently wrote the screenplay for Vacationland, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Boonies International Film Festival, and a children’s play called The Line.
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.