Samuel Beckett famously ended his novel The Unnamable “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Why? How? Is it faith that drives us onward? And if so, faith in what? Writers have struggled with this question since the first hominids started scratching symbols into rocks. Do we put our faith in our survival skills or create a pantheon of deities to guide and protect us? By the Twentieth Century, writers like Beckett put their faith in words. In our time of worldwide upheavals and immanent climate catastrophe, our faith in words is under constant assault. Yet writers do go on. For Joy Williams, a selection of micro-fictions from 99 Stories of God (soon to be published by Tin House Books) grapples with many of the same themes of her nearly fifty years of writing—the divine and the uncanny. Poet Natalie Diaz writes, “I make my faith in my hands.” Alan Lightman puts his faith in the laws of nature, while Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid contemplates the fraught nature of writing in a country named after faith. President Obama’s favorite writer-interview subject, Marilynne Robinson, argues that “faith and religion are neither synonyms nor antonyms.” Mira Ptacin visits Maine in search of the Spiritualists, while Alex Mar examines the life and legacy of Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft. Father-and-son authors Jonathan and Adam Wilson discuss their faith in the family seder, the rituals and food that transcend time and space. In his primer on the history of faith, James Carse makes the case for complexity and how not to define religion. We know that there are no simple answers to questions of faith, but after reading this issue perhaps you will be as Plato said, “twice armed if we fight with faith.” Our hope is that you are fighting the good fight.
Current Issue #67
Fiction:Joy Williams, Jamie Quatro, Caoilinn Hughes, Michael Helm, Ramona Ausubel, Daniel Torday
During a particularly easy period for things unrelated to the complicated business of baby-making, a YouTube series I’d started, called Nate Draws the Internet, took off. We didn’t have happiness, my wife and I, we didn’t have certainty—but we had money for the first time. I walked around with David Byrne’s voice in my head warbling, I’ve got money now, I’ve got money now. The money was simple: it arrived weekly in a PayPal account, then was direct deposited into checking so we could spend it on stuff, or on medical bills like the one coming if we had to terminate the pregnancy. The happiness wasn’t simple, as I say. It wasn’t around yet. It might never find us.
I was teaching a regular slate of classes at a college near our house, where real humans came to sit in real classrooms. I’m a hopeless Luddite and I prohibit technology in my classroom, so whenever it came time for a diatribe on the Internet I had no choice but to draw it. My students and I would find ourselves talking about Facebook. Soon I’d draw a rudimentary box, inside it smaller boxes, and ask, “So what do you have in this space here on your Facebook page?” Then I’d tap my index finger on a box that represented the area where a Facebook user could upload her photograph. Inevitably a student would admit she sometimes put up a picture of Emma Watson or Katy Perry—“All my friends say I look exactly like Katy Perry, and I kinda do I guess,” the Katy Perry doppelgänger would say—and admit that, yes, there was something a little odd about that, but.
We talked about books and occasionally smelled each other’s breath. That’s a thing about being around humans: we sense them, not in some supernatural way, but in an I-can-smell-hear-see/hopefully-not-taste-or-touch-you way. More often than not we didn’t like it—who wants to smell even the wintermintiest breath?—but because we were humans sharing physical space this was an unavoidable fact. Sometimes I would ask someone for a stick of gum. Increasingly what I found myself doing in classrooms was drawing chalkboard drawings of what we just minutes earlier, before we arrived in class, had all been looking at on our computer screens.
Around this time all the colleges were starting to create things they called MOOCs. M-O-O-C stood for “massive open online course.” MOOCs were just video textbooks. These MOOCs would supposedly one day make a lot of money, so people at the college where I taught asked, “Should we make MOOCs?” Everyone said, “No!” The next year instead of asking, “Should we make MOOCs?” someone asked, “Can we afford not to make MOOCs?” The physicists said, “Yes,” and the philosophers said, “Is this a teleological or an epistemological problem?”
Nothing was decided.
So at the prompting of a student who knew how to produce them, I started shooting segments that were posted online, and were open, but weren’t MOOCs; I uploaded them to YouTube: Nate Draws Facebook. Nate Draws Nate Watching an Episode of The Daily Show on Hulu after Suffering through a Long “Advertising Experience.” Nate Draws the Waze Directions from His Recent Zipcar Rental. Not one of these things was writing a poem, which was the thing I wanted most in life to do, but instead of getting back to that work I set up a camera. I stood in front of a chalkboard and Reader, while there are so many screens we look at it on, I turned my back on it all, and with all my heart and meager skill, I drew the Internet.
Soon the number of hits I was receiving suggested I had a thousand viewers, then a hundred thousand, then well into the millions.
Then I looked at my PayPal account.
I got an email from someone at YouTube who said they would like to make me one of a select group of posters who would be put on a special channel, who would receive corporate sponsorship.
I stopped teaching for the year and instead made segments.
Then my wife and I went to look at a different kind of screen, for our twenty-week ultrasound, and our OB said something about the baby maybe didn’t look so good.
· · ·
This was a rough time for Gillian and me in ways that didn’t pertain to my successes drawing the Internet—or to my marked lack of success in my chosen art. For years we’d wanted a baby, but we didn’t have money. In order properly to raise a baby you need to have money to spend on food for the baby, then on its care and education, then expensive sneakers. When I was a kid my father took me to buy a pair of David Robinson’s Reebok Pumps and those Reebok Pumps cost $129.99 back in the early 1990s, so adjusting for inflation, a pair of sneakers now would cost . . . Well, I’m no quant wizard. I’m more of a qual guy (meaning qualification) if that’s a thing (it’s not). But a lot. Shoes would cost a lot. And now we finally had money for shoes—and instead the OB said it was possible, not certain but possible, that something about the baby didn’t look so good.
I should also pause here to say that when I say “we’d wanted a baby” that is not quite a fully accurate depiction of the truth. Being in a married couple is a miraculous experience of symbiosis. But there are still two separate beings, each with his/her own desires. My half of the organism came around slowly to the baby-making. Or the one-day-baby-having, anyway. I’d grown up with a brother who was born blind and mute. I loved him beyond words, but life was difficult for him in obvious ways, ways that had been tangible to me since before I could remember. I saw the strain it put on my parents. I was scared beyond words of having a kid. For years I pushed against the idea, while being regularly engaged in the physical act that might make it a reality. One day Gillian called and said, “I’m pregnant.” The crazy thing? All at once, it was okay. All the Trojans and pullouts and Plan B: vanished. All the anxiety, too.
We were going to have a kid!
Then suddenly maybe we weren’t.
· · ·
At the end of the week Gillian and I both took off work. We drove along the river to the hospital where we would have another ultrasound. This was four days after the initial one. We were already into Week 21. We didn’t say much. Gillian looked out the window at the glittering silver tinsel atop the river to our left, the corners of her mouth drawn down. When she looked back, where once she would have looked at me, instead she swiped the screen on her phone, tapped the four digits of her PIN, touched things with her fingertips. I imagined myself drawing her on a chalkboard: Nate Draws a Woman Looking at an iPhone on a Potentially Life-Altering Car Ride. Not exactly the source material for YouTube clickbait.
“What are you looking at?” I asked. I knew the answer: The Ultrasound. But I asked anyway.
“Nothing,” Gillian said. By which she meant: The Ultrasound.
“You know we could talk about it, about how you’re feeling,” I said.
“I think we should talk about nothing at all right now, Nate. Once we hear what we hear, then there will be something to talk about.” She was about to look back down at her screen when she stopped and looked instead at me. “Sorry. It’s just so awful, this waiting. I mean, I feel like it would almost be okay if I just knew we needed to terminate. We could do it and start trying again. But this waiting. This waiting.”
Then she did look back down at her screen.
The OB’s office was on the fourth floor of a building on Market Street, where on every corner an upstart university had planted its flags. This upstart university had existed for a very long time before the advent of the Internet without putting up flags, but they’d put all their eggs in the basket of technology. Good choice of basket. They had hundreds of millions of dollars and more MOOCs than you could count. They’d turned those dollars into the ownership of parcels of land right in the middle of the city. Gillian worked as the editor of the psychology research journal said flag-posting university produced. She got good health benefits, and Fridays to herself.
We waited in an anteroom and then a post-anteroom and then a pre-waiting room, each of which had flat-screen TVs fixed to their walls, blaring the same midday talk show. The OB’s medical assistant took Gillian’s blood pressure. Then we waited in the waiting room. Then we were finally taken into an examination room. Then the OB came in.
“Well let’s get you up there and see what we can see,” Dr. Singh said. She pulled up Gillian’s T-shirt to reveal the small bump that had arisen there, as though Gillian’s stomach was pushing out after too much sushi. She spread clear goop all around and then ran the paddle over and over and over it. I held Gillian’s hand and she held mine, but she didn’t look at me. One fact about being in a room with actual humans is that in addition to smelling their breath—Gillian’s is minty, always fresh, though I’ve never seen her chew gum—you can hold eye contact or not. Your whole mood might change based on subtle shifts in how long it is held. Gillian didn’t hold mine long. On a screen in front of us was the ultrasound, a muddy hash of unreadable lines that Dr. Singh was attempting to read. It looked like trying to tell what spices were in a marinara sauce by sliding a spoon through the cooking murk.
“My son is a big fan,” Dr. Singh said.
“Of what?” Gillian said.
Dr. Singh looked over at me. I couldn’t help but smile. Then I saw that Gillian still didn’t know what we were talking about.
“He wanted me to tell you that you should do Nate Draws Twenty-four Insane Justin Bieber Fans. Thinks that one would be funny.” Gillian looked up at Dr. Singh with a scowl, then over at the screen. “And telling,” Dr. Singh said. “Funny and telling.”
Gillian looked at me, then back at her doctor again.
“That stupid show,” she said.
Dr. Singh looked into the ultrasound’s screen and pushed the paddle over and over my wife’s stomach. Her face showed no emotion. What she had to say next was the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I won’t do you the pain of repeating it here. Later that night we sat on our couch and tried to watch television, until at some point Gillian simply stood up and turned it off and said, “We need to at least say goodbye.”
So we did. We sat on the couch together and we each put our hands on her stomach, and we said goodbye.
· · ·
In the period after the procedure I would have liked to sit down to write a poem about it, to imagine my way into a life with a little bundle of sweet rabbit in our house—sleeplessness punctuated by that calm of entering the home fresh with baby. It’s a feeling we’d come to know well. We were in our late thirties, after all. All our friends were baby-making, talking about that sweet fresh smell on their babies’ mouths. By dint of present-giving I knew the difference between a BOB jogging stroller and a Bugaboo pram. I knew of the genius of having the happiest baby on the block after reading The Happiest Baby on the Block. We’d entered countless homes full of gifted lasagna and bowls the size of bowler hats full of quinoa salads teeming with feta and chocolate heirloom grape tomato goodness.
We wanted that.
We lived instead now in this other space, the space between, the space before or never, where tranquility was something we could taste and hear and somehow feel, but after which we came home to our house to binge watch episodes of Friends.
Instead of looking back over a sestina I was working on, I went into the recording studio. Today we were recording an episode of Nate Draws Last Night’s SportsCenter’s Web Gems. I picked up the chalk. I did my best to draw the Kansas City Royals’ center fielder outstretched, then tucked like a roly-poly bug after hitting the green field, catching a baseball that should have eluded his grasp. Only this time while I was drawing—and it was on, my chalk skills were becoming something my ability to make a simile had never been—the door opened. Gillian was standing there.
“Am I interrupting?” she said. Her face was white as a frog’s belly. Her hand was on the bump at the middle of her body. It had been a week since the procedure. I said of course not.
We went out to lunch at a nearby pho place. I ordered a killer fried pork banh mi and Gillian sat with a bowl the size of her head full of brothy liquid.
“I had to proofread an awful case history for the journal today,” Gillian said. “It was about the mother of a kid who was severely injured. He fell out of a tree. Compound fractures to both arms. For some reason seeing it set the mother off into catatonia. Brought up some past trauma. All I could think was, I wish we had a kid who had fallen out of a tree.”
“You don’t wish that,” I said. Gillian looked up at me. She held the big plastic spoon in her hand, thick white sprouts and mint leaves suspended in thin liquid.
“You know what I mean,” she said.
“I know what you mean.”
“Are we there now, Nate? Are you ready to try again? Because I’m ready to try again. ASAP.”
I told her her body wasn’t ready yet.
“I know,” she said. “I’m not talking about bodies.”
There was a thin white to her skin that made it so you could tell she hadn’t slept the night before. The thing about her face, about the real Gillian face on the real Gillian before me, was that there was this subtle pink glow that throbbed and emitted light just beneath the surface. This is what happens if you look at a real person: there are three dimensions, sure. There’s also another thing. Light fell across Gillian’s face from the picture windows behind us, the sunlight on the street. But light came from inside her face, too. It’s not a thing you think about every day, it’s not a thing you notice if you’re not looking hard, but it’s a thing. A patina. Human.
It was something that drawing the Internet, or the Internet, or a video on the Internet, would never bring. It was love. It was also something far simpler, the experience of there-being.
“I want to have a kid,” I said.
“I do, too,” she said, and for the first time I felt it—that it would happen, that it would take time but that we would try and try until we had done it. Whatever it took.
The tears that fell down into her pho were of the exact consistency and color of the pho broth. The tears that fell on my fried pork banh mi just made the white-bread roll the slightest bit soggy.
· · ·
There are a lot of facts: a number of weeks. A list of states in which the number of weeks we were into the pregnancy would have made it illegal to do what we did. A number of pieces of legislation proposed in Congress to make that time frame ever smaller. Chromosomes pairing off into gametes through the process of meiosis. Things we said to each other that were kind and things that were hurtful but grimaced at, not taken in, understood to be the product of undigested grief.
Those things are the Internet.
All these words are a drawing of the Internet.
· · ·
The next day I had another installment to shoot. Most of my installments for the YouTube videos had been straightforward: things people did on the Internet already, only I was drawing me doing them. The plan for today was to do a session called Nate Draws a Google Maps Search of His Block. I would do two drawings next to each other: On the left, the whole US, so far from where we stood, a perspective so distant it was just an outline and some shading. But then on the right, fingers pinch tight on the screen, bringing us up to our neighborhood in West Philly—lines running vertical and diagonal, street names, landmarks. Maybe I’d even draw our house through Street View. Recognizable. Fixed in time.
But when I got to work, I walked into the production studio and stood in front of the chalkboard and found myself drawing something different. I’d never before drawn a screen that wasn’t the Internet, but screens are screens are screens are screens. My crew was there—when I say crew I really just mean a sophomore named Brittany who knows more about DV production at nineteen than entire retirement homes full of teeming senescence, and our technical director, Farah, whose job is to turn the lights on in the classroom. They were set up and ready for me to draw me searching Google Maps.
“This is a different kind of screen,” I said. “It’s mostly just brown, and you can’t really make anything out.”
Brittany laughed. Then she could see I wasn’t laughing and she stopped.
We shot the rest of the segment though we knew, all of us, from the moment I started drawing—from the moment Farah flipped the light switch—we wouldn’t upload it. YouTube has its limits. And what would you draw, anyway? So much of the time the ultrasound screen was just a muddle of brown haze, Google Maps finger-spread so far out you almost couldn’t see landmasses. No one wants to watch a man deal with the very personal pain of attempting to depict an ultrasound on a chalkboard drawing. It was hard enough to write down words on a page. Maybe I would go back to writing after all. Maybe Gillian and I would have baby after baby, she could quit her job at the journal and we would populate our own private nursery—a whole city block—with babies who would wake up all night for indecipherable reasons and we would never sleep again, room after infinite room full of the quiet tranquility of infant care, and one day all those infinite babies would grow up to be infinitely loving infinitely caring brothers and sisters.
A friend said the experience of having his second son was the experience, all at once, of seeing his own death and accepting mortality all in one move—I’d just look at my sons, the guy said, and I’d think, One day they’ll be fifty-five, hanging out together at a vacation rental in Cape May or Rehoboth or Shelter Island, and I’ll be dead, and it makes me honestly truly happy to think of it, to have given up my fear of my own mortality because these two kids, they just make me feel so happy, knowing it—
But for now it was just Nate Gertzman drawing a box on a screen, shading it in with a piece of chalk, recognizing it was a mess, erasing it and doing it again and again until maybe it looks like you can just make out in the mess of chalk a hand, some fingers, the gentle arc of a skull every now and again but really it’s just a smear of chalk being smeared and erased over and over and over, etc., ad infinitum, the end.
Poetry:Anne Carson, Alicia Jo Rabins, Chuang-Tzu, Sarah V. Schweig, Maureen N. McLane, James Gendron, Nate Klug, Marcus Slease
WE LEARN TO BE HUMAN
THE VAGINA HEALER
AGAINST THE PROMISE OF A VIEW
AUGUSTINE ON TIME
Features:James Carse, Mira Ptacin, Alex Mar, Alexis Knapp, Joshua Cohen
Nachman of Breslov, born in Medzhybizh, present-day Ukraine, in 1772, was the founder of Breslov Hasidism and despite his death, in Uman in 1810, remains the movement’s leader. This is why Breslovers have been called, have called themselves, the “Dead Hasidim.” Fittingly, their essential principle is what Rebbe Nachman referred to as hitbodedut: “self-seclusion,” “auto-isolation”—a lone contemplative state to be sought not in a sanctuary but in nature, for the purpose of inspiring spontaneous personal prayer, not necessarily in Hebrew, but in one’s most fluent tongue. Breslov, then, can be considered a sect only inasmuch as it’s considered a sect of individuals, each of whom pursues a direct and utterly private dialogue with God. The Rebbe’s chosen setting for hitbodedut was in the woods or fields. His chosen time was in the middle of the night—the time of dreaming. Psychoanalysis defined dream as wish fulfillment, and so allied it with prayer. If it follows that a collective prayer can express a collective dream, then the Breslovers’ rejection of community worship might express an unfulfilled wish for extinction: their own, or their people’s, the world’s.
In 2014, due to a variety of factors too traumatic and banal to recount, I found myself suffering from insomnia and immobilized by depression, and sought psychiatric treatment. I would go to school and deliver my lectures in the mornings, then have two hours to kill—to thought-murder—before my afternoon appointments. I had no appetite for lunch, home was too far. I considered joining a minyan, I considered suicide. Instead, I wound up sitting on a bench in Bryant Park in Manhattan and reading and translating Hasidic texts, which led to my reading and translating texts from elsewhere and earlier in the Jewish tradition (the languages were Hebrew, Yiddish, German, and Aramaic). The following selections are from two of the spiralbounds I was spiraling through at the time—call them wishful dream journals, unfulfilled prayer books: solaces for sleepless yearning.
· · ·
Once, in 1802, in the woods outside Breslov, a young Hasid was troubled—about an upcoming marriage? or his sister’s infirmity?—and wandered among the trees mumbling a prayer. Another young Hasid was also troubled—perhaps he too had a marriage? or sister?—and, at the same time, was doing the same, wandering and mumbling. Though they were unable to see each other, due to the density of greenery, it is said that they were able to hear each other, and, indeed, not only were their practices the same, their prayers were the same as well. Their individual spontaneous prayers were identical, verbatim.
Chayey Moharan, the book’s title, means Life of the Rebbe. “Moharan” is an acronym: “Morenu, HaRav Nachman,” “Our Teacher, Rebbe Nachman.” It was compiled, or written, by a disciple called Reb Noson, and contains, amid homiletics and practical advice, numerous accounts of the Rebbe’s dreaming. The Rebbe himself features in many of his dreams, and in not a few he importunes another dream-character—to demand an explanation, to demand an interpretation.
Rabbinic opinion differs as to how to interpret the interpretation of a dream that’s presented in a dream, but it’s significant that even the Rebbe’s oneiric interlocutors seem to doubt the endeavor—to doubt the Rebbe’s capacities, or intentions. After a particularly wild dream (#83), about twin palaces and swords with multiple blades (one that brings death, one that brings penury, one that brings physical afflictions, etc.), and disciples who swallow sparks that seed strange creatures in their guts, the Rebbe begs “an old man” for his thoughts, and the old man grabs his beard and says, “My beard is the explanation.”
Another time, in 1868, a goy merchant from Kiev (or Lvov), was in Lvov (or Kiev), and strolling past a bank, from which an ornament, or the scaffold for the workers installing an ornament, fell—fell on his head—and knocked him into a coma. The goy merchant was kept in hospital, where he babbled in a language suspiciously Hebraic. Brought to interpret was Reb Nachman Chazan, or, in other tellings, one or both of the Lubarsky brothers (Reb Moshe and/or Reb Zanvil). The merchant, despite never being a Jew, was pronouncing a perfect rendition of Ma Tovu, a common Jewish prayer that, when he emerged from his coma, he was unable to remember or even recognize.
Another of the Rebbe’s dreams (#85) seems too explicitly didactic. In it, a man is flying one moment, and home the next—he’s in a valley, and home again—he’s atop a mountain, and home—he’s picking golden vessels from a golden tree, home. Is this possible? How is this possible? These are the questions the Rebbe’s somniloquous surrogate—“the host”—asks a man, who turns out to be an angel—“the guest.” The angel’s answer is—like the dream itself—too long, and too intricate with references and puns, but basically he says: “You’ve been reading.”
· · ·
The Rebbe had a dream: I was sitting in my room [he said]. No one was around. I got up, went to the other room. No one was around. I went into the house of study, went into the shul, but no one was anywhere. I went outside. People stood around whispering. One laughed at me, another provoked me. Arrogant stares all around. Even my own followers had turned against me. Insolent stares. Whispers around.
I called to one of my followers: What’s going on? He replied: How could you have done such a thing?
I had no idea what he meant and asked him to explain, but he left me. So I traveled to another country, but when I got there, people stood around whispering. Even there, my sin was known. Everyone knew my sin but me. So I went to live with the trees. They became my followers.
We lived together, and whenever I required food, or water, or a book, one of my trees would uproot itself and go scampering into the city to fetch it. When the tree would return, I’d ask: Has the commotion died down? to which the tree would reply: No, the rumor is stronger than ever.
—Chayey Moharan, Reb Noson, AKA Nathan Sternhartz (1780–44)
Once there was a turkey that dwelled beneath a table, pecking at flecks and bones. The king quit, the doctors and nurses quit, the Rebbe was called for, came. The Rebbe took off his robes, sat under the table, pecked at flecks and bones. The turkey asked: What are you doing here? The Rebbe asked: What are YOU doing here? The turkey replied: I’m a turkey, the Rebbe replied: So I’m a turkey too.
They sat together through many meals, the king feasting his queens, orgies of doctors and nurses. Then the Rebbe gave the signal for his shirt, which was tossed to him. He said to the turkey: What—a turkey can’t wear a shirt? So another shirt was tossed, and both their breasts were covered. Many meals, orgies, and so on. Then the Rebbe gave the signal for his pants. He said to the turkey: What—a turkey can’t wear pants? And so on, until both were dressed from top to bottom and human foodstuffs—delicacies not yet partaken of above—were hurled.
One can eat what humans eat and still be a turkey, I assure you, said the Rebbe, and what’s more—one can rise to sit as humans sit, not under the table, but at the table, in the laps of the feet around us, more commonly referred to as chairs.
And so they rose, and so they chaired. (The turkey once again became a prince.)
—Kochavey Or, Reb Abraham Chazan (1849–17)
A king once told his vizier: The stars tell me that he who will eat from this year’s grain harvest will go insane—what is to be done?
The vizier said: We must set aside a stock of foreign grain, for ourselves, so as to not become tainted.
But the king objected: We do not have enough foreign grain for everyone in the kingdom, and if we set aside a foreign stock for just us two, we will be the only ones in the kingdom with intact minds. Everyone else will be insane and yet will come to regard US as insane.
It is better, then, for us two to eat from this year’s grain harvest, but we will each put a cut on our foreheads, so I will look at your forehead, and you will look at my forehead, and when we see the cuts, at least we will be reminded of our insanities.
—Sipurim Neflaim, Reb Shmuel Horowitz (1903–73)
One Sabbath a man came to the Rebbe and said, I am lonely, and the Rebbe gave him counsel: Take a wife.
The man did as instructed, but returned the next Sabbath and said, Even with a wife I am lonely. The Rebbe said, Have children.
The man did as instructed, but months—even years—later, his complaint remained: Even with children I am lonely.
The Rebbe said, Sleep.
What does this mean?
It means that one is never lonely in a dream.
—Maamarim Yekarim, Reb Yisroel Dov Ber Odesser (ca. 1888–94)
· · ·
This world compares to the next world as sleeping does to wakefulness. In a dream you are never ashamed. For if you were ashamed, you would never dream of sleeping with a woman—sex would never occur to you. You would never commit acts in your dreams that you would be ashamed of committing awake. The reason for this is that dreams at night stem from the daytime’s imaginings.
Once a certain Hasid, who commanded his son not to enjoy this world more than necessary, and not to let more than thirty days pass without a fast, died. But then it transpired that rivals had his corpse disinterred, and flogged, which grieved all his adepts deeply. He appeared to one of his adepts in a dream and said, This befell me because I used to live among tattered books with their leaves all shredded and I took no initiative to reassemble and protect them.
· · ·
in which three things require God’s mercy
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav, “Three are the things that require God’s mercy: a good king, a good year, a good dream.”
in which sufficiency is its own interpretation
Rav Hisda said: “Any dream but that of a fast.” R. Hisda also: “A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” R. Hisda also: “Neither a good dream nor a bad dream is ever completely fulfilled.” R. Hisda also: “A bad dream is better than a good dream.” R. Hisda also: “The sadness of a bad dream is sufficient [in lieu of interpretation] and the happiness of a good dream sufficient too [in lieu of interpretation].” R. Yosef: “For me, even the happiness of a good dream nullifies.”
in which sense is derived from grain
What does chaff have to do with wheat? wondered the Lord—or, better, what’s the connection between chaff/wheat and dreaming? “No wheat without chaff,” said R. Yochanan in the name of R. Shimon bar Yochai, “just like no dream without nonsense.”
in which something might come to be
R. Berechyah said, “A dream that seems to tell the future: even though some of it might come to be, not all of it will come to be.” How do we know this? From Joseph. As it’s written in Torah, Joseph dreamed that the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing to him, and the sun and moon were to be understood as his parents, and the eleven stars were to be understood as his eleven brothers—yet at the time that Joseph dreamed this, his mother was dead, and the dead do not bow.
in which is stressed the importance of counting
R. Levi said: “A man should await the fulfillment of a good dream for as much as twenty-two years—we know this from where? From Joseph. As it’s written in Torah: ‘These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph being seventeen years old,’ and as it’s further written in Torah, ‘And Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh.’ How many years is it from seventeen to thirty? Thirteen. Add to that the seven years of plenty and the two years of famine, for a sum total of twenty-two.”
in which everybody or nobody gets what he deserves
R. Huna said, “A good dream is not shown to a good man, an evil dream is not shown to an evil man.”
in which memory lasts not a week
Though he does not see an evil dream, others see one around him. Is this not seeing evil to be considered an advantage? Hasn’t R. Zeira said: “If a man goes seven days without a dream he’s called evil, since it says, ‘He shall abide satisfied, he shall not be visited by evil?’—Read not save’a [satisfied] but sheva [seven].” What he means is: A righteous man can see evil in his sleep, but won’t remember what he’s seen.
in which it is recommended to combat sadness with rereading
R. Huna b. Ammi said in the name of R. Pedath who had it from R. Yochanan: If you have a dream that saddens you, you should go and have it interpreted thrice. Hasn’t R. Hisda said: A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread?
in which a prayer is formulated, the right nostril neglected, and a contradiction is itself contradicted
Amemar, Mar Zutra, and R. Ashi once sat. They said: “Let each of us say a thing that the others haven’t heard.” One began: “If one has seen a dream and does not remember what he saw, let him stand before the priests at the time when they spread their hands, and repeat after me: ‘Lord my God, I am Thine and my dreams are Thine. I have dreamt a dream incomprehensible. Whether I have dreamt about myself or my companions have dreamt about me, or whether I have dreamt about others, regardless, only if the dreams are good, confirm them like the dreams of Joseph were confirmed, and if they require a remedy, heal them, as the waters of Marah were purified by Moses, as Miriam was cured of her rash and Hezekiah of his boils, as the waters of Jericho were, by Elisha, repristinated. As Thou didst turn the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so turn all my dreams to good.’ He should conclude his prayer along with the priests, so that the congregation may answer, ‘Amen.’ If he cannot manage this, he should say: ‘Thou Who art majestic on high, Who abidest in might, Thou art peace and Thy name is peace—May it be Thy will to bestow peace on us.’” The second commenced: “If a man on venturing into a city is afraid of the evil eye, let him take the thumb of his right hand in his left and the thumb of his left hand in his right, and say: ‘I, INSERT NAME, am of the seed of Joseph over which the evil eye has no power, as Torah says: Joseph is a fruitful vine by a fountain.’ [. . .] Though if he is afraid of his own evil eye, he must examine his left nostril.” The third commenced: “If a man falls infirm, the first day he should not tell anyone, so that he should not have bad luck, but after that he may tell anyone. When Raba fell infirm, on the first day he did not tell, but after that he said to his attendant: ‘Go and tell that Raba is wasting. Whoever loves him, let him pray, and whoever hates him, let him rejoice’ [. . .]. When Samuel had a bad dream, he said, ‘Dreams speak falsely.’ When he had a good dream, he said, ‘Do dreams speak falsely?’ as it’s written in Torah, ‘I [God] speak with him in a dream?’ It was Raba who pointed out the contradiction. Torah says both ‘I [God] speak with him in a dream’ and ‘dreams speak falsely.’ But there isn’t any contradiction—in the one case it was communicated through an angel, in the other through a demon.”
in which psychoanalysis is invented
R. Bizna b. Zabda said in the name of R. Akiva who had it from R. Panda who had it from R. Nahum, who had it from R. Biryam reporting a certain elder—and who was this? R. Banaah: “There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. Once I dreamt a dream and I went round to all of them and they all gave different interpretations and all were fulfilled, thus confirming that which is said: ‘All dreams follow the mouth.’” Is this statement supported by Torah? Yes, according to R. Eleazar. For R. Eleazar said: “From where do we know this, that all dreams follow the mouth? From where Torah says, ‘And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was.’” Raba said: “This is only if the interpretation corresponds to the content of the dream: for it says, ‘To each man according to his dream Joseph did interpret.’ The verse continues, ‘When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good’—but how did he know it was good?” R. Eleazar says: “This verse tells us that each of Pharaoh’s stewards—the chief baker, the chief cupbearer—was shown not only his own personal dream but also the interpretation of the other’s dream.”
in which your dream of a friend goes unmentioned
R. Yochanan: “If one rises early and a Torah verse rises to the lips, this is minor prophecy.” R. Yochanan also: “Three kinds of dreams are fulfilled: a predawn dream, a friend’s dream of you, and a dream interpreted in the midst of a dream.” Some add also, “A recurring dream,” as Torah says, “And for that the dream was doubled unto Pharaoh.”
in which an elephant serves as a camel
R. Samuel b. Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: “A man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts, as Torah says, ‘As for thee, O King, thy thoughts came into thy mind upon thy bed.’ Or if you like, I can derive it from this verse: ‘That thou mayest know the thoughts of the heart.’” Raba said: “This is proved by the fact that a man is never shown in a dream a date palm of gold, or an elephant passing through the eye of a needle.”
—Talmud, Berachos 55a-b
· · ·
A legend is told (because the chronology does not fit), of Der Heiliger Ruzhiner, “The Vaunt of Ruzhin,” Israel Friedman. He, who knew all, is said to have asked toward his old age for a refreshment of the laws of inheritance. It was thought that he was considering the succession of his schools, but, truly, after bathing clean in his children’s murkiest commentaries, he shocked them by dismissing them and inquiring for a secular expert, to relate to him everything of the new sciences of the passage from body, and of the passage from mind.
An evolutionist called at court and spoke and his speech was translated, as so: “What you are, in your characteristics, you transfer to your progeny, Rabbi: not necessarily the exactitudes of your height and weight, or even of your coloration, but only what has allowed you to survive will survive, what is transferred is exactly what is necessary for existence.”
Then a psychoanalyst called at court and spoke and his speech was translated, likewise: “What you are, in your characteristics, you transmit to your progeny, Rabbi: both your wisdom and your wickedness, your disappointment and your hope, but in the transmission they will become confused, and your progeny will spend their lives striving after the original definitions.”
The Vaunt of Ruzhin, Israel Friedman, nodded.
Only when the scientists were dismissed did he deliver his verdict:
“For such laws not even a fool can be credited: What the evolutionist said, I knew already from my sons. What the psychoanalyst said, I knew already from my daughters.”
The legend has been told alternately as having been revealed to the Vaunt of Ruzhin’s children—all ten given to him by his first wife, Sarah, daughter of Reb Moshe Ha-Levi Efrati of Berdichev—in a common dream. That very same night, the eve of Passover, the two children of the Vaunt of Ruzhin’s second wife, Malka—the boy and girl she had by her first husband, Reb Tzvi Hirsch of Rimanov—also had dreams, but individually.
The boy dreamt that a certain type of cart, a droshky, which normally had four wheels, had been outfitted with twelve, and was being dragged through the market square of Zhitomir by an ancient gray dray horse with a single leg, whose hoof was a human fist. The girl dreamt also of the market square of Zhitomir, but where a goy merchant accosted her, pressed her against a bank, and unbuttoned his coat, though all that was exposed was a samovar, with, instead of a navel, a rusty spigot. The goy forced her hand to turn it, but when nothing flowed, he laughed. She woke up clutching a ruble.
Limits of Faith:Mohsin Hamid, Aimee Bender, Alan Lightman, Natalie Diaz, Marilynne Robinsons, Christian Wiman
Lost & Found:Cheston Knapp, Leigh Newman, Justin Nobel, Pauls Toutonghi, Darcey Steinke
Fourteen years ago, I bought my copy of Sweethearts in a used-books store in Massachusetts, not because I knew anything about the author or had read the hypnotic first line (“Day of the slaughter they were all of them / the men tensed up”) but because I loved the cover. I still love it. The design is simple: a beige background, the title and Jayne Anne Phillips’s name in a 1970s-era font that evokes the Allman Brothers more than disco. Even then, in that luxurious split second in which I realized I was about to plunk down money for something I knew nothing of, I felt I understood this book, as if I had seen it before, as if I had studied it the way I’d done with my parents’ album covers, listening to the music unspool in the living room.
And yet, at the center of that same cover, outlined in black, is a photograph that so clearly dates back to another time, the late 1940s. A young postwar couple stands in their wedding finery—glove, suits, padded shoulders—in front of a stark Protestant cross. Easter lilies flare behind them on the altar like heavy white stars. The wife holds a bouquet you can just barely make out. The husband wears a tie clip, a corsage, his shiny new ring. Both look off to the right, his face tired, strained, hers unreadable save for a flash-blinded smile.
Nowhere does it say that the photo is of Phillips’s parents on their wedding day (though the second piece in the collection, “Wedding Picture,” makes you believe it must be). Nowhere does it define the collection as a book of flash fiction, poetry, or plain old fiction or nonfiction. Inside, there is no table of contents and there are no page numbers. Each piece is two pages or shorter. The publishing house that put it out—Truck Press in Minneapolis—originally printed four hundred copies of the book in 1976, then six hundred more in 1978, when it cost a reader a cool $3.95. I paid fifteen bucks for it, which, at the time, felt steep. Now it feels as though I cheated somebody in an almost biblical way, so great is the debt I owe the bookseller who let me have it.
About a year after my purchase, Phillips came to my grad school to do a reading. I stood in line—having not yet read Black Tickets or Machine Dreams, unlike the far better prepared students ahead of me, but entirely versant in Sweethearts. Phillips sat at the table in a cool, velvety tunic. When I presented her the book, she sighed. “I haven’t seen this for a long, long time,” she said and gave it a pat, as if putting it to bed.
I think I’d expected more. That more included something akin to her declaring: “You found my long lost work of genius!” The two of us would sweep off to a café to celebrate her spot-on choice of titles for the book’s two sections—Sweethearts and Slaves—and debate the inclusion of “Swimming” in the latter, a one-paragraph-long story about a girl’s shame-tinged fascination with her best friend, Jancey.
I will admit that it was a lonely time in my life. I was separated from my husband; I was living in a garage. I spent more time than was healthy thinking along to the words on the pages of the books I read instead of reading. Most of my thoughts were about my own failures as a person, which clotted up with my failures as a writer.
Sweethearts blitzed right through that commentary. My intellect could not keep up and neither could the rest of me. Each story has an almost spooky authority that sweeps aside anything other than the rules of its own world—rules I didn’t know and rules I couldn’t predict, but rules I was going to follow without thought or question because I believed from the first word.
Reading it, at times, was like watching a slideshow in a neighbor’s dark basement—not just the images changing with a click of the carousel, but also the voice of the narrator changing, the shape of her or his or its shadow at the back of the room changing. Sometimes what stood there was what Phillips calls a “monstruro,” sometimes it was a stripper working a jukebox.
My least favorite pieces stunned me with my most favorite lines (“My sugar is a panic that melts on your tongue and leaves a tiny hole in what you taste.”) and my most favorite pieces contained whole passages and progressions I couldn’t understand, except in some joyful animal way, like a dog rolling with glee in deer shit. “Toads” is the best example of this, a story about some kids who find a toad on their enclosed porch: “Twigs tapped in a pattern . . . he danced for us. Someone slipped and the creature bled from its sheltered belly.” The way the story is told you swerve from the perspective of the we of the kids to the toad to that we again to the I of a girl who digs up the dead toad to its golden eyes. Somewhere in between all that you run into these two gorgeous sentences: “The funeral took place on a sandpile. Topping the mound with a blue bucket, my cousin exclaimed I gave it a sky!”
Years later, I read Black Tickets. Eight of the Sweethearts pieces also appear in that later, now classic, collection of stories—either incorporated into longer, more traditionally structured stories or sliced in between them. “Toads” didn’t make it. “Cheers”—the story of a seamstress who sews cheerleading outfits for all you girls who are “bout the same’”—did. I used to wonder if Black Tickets had been the goal, if the writing of Sweethearts was like the drawings old masters made before painting the masterpiece.
Or did the transfer happen the way most things happen with creative people: Phillips made something, then used it to make something else? The Sweethearts pieces serve as a contrast, a link to the newer stories. The two talk to each other. “The Wedding Picture” (Sweethearts), in which her mother’s “heart makes a sound that no one hears,” is followed by a story called “Home” (Black Tickets), in which an adult daughter goes home to live with her divorced mother. That latter story is also interesting when I think about the 1970s look of the cover of Sweethearts with its 1940s photo: the characters are a postwar mother, who divorced despite her traditional values, and a Vietnam-Watergate-era daughter who sleeps with her lover, a vet, in her childhood bedroom.
I recently saw in the back of Sweethearts that Phillips, along with Bull City Studios and Truck Press, is credited with the layout and design of the book. In “Home,” the daughter takes her lover to the Rainbow, “a bar and grill on Main Street,” where they “hold hands, play country songs on the jukebox and drink a lot of salted beer.” In Sweethearts, there’s another photograph that appears after the title page, printed in white and royal blue, so it looks almost like an illustration. The photograph is of a small-town street. The cars are fishtailed beauties; the signs advertise a bank, a fire and auto insurance agency, something called Monongahela Power. Two men talk to each other, one in a straw business hat, the other a farmer, under a sign that reads Rainbow Restaurant.
That said, I have zero interest in finding out what these overlaps have to do with the facts of Phillips’s own life. I just like how the world of one book bleeds over into the next. I like how Sweethearts is not discrete. I get to keep going. I get to go back. I don’t really have to wake up at the end of the book. “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning,” writes Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners, “but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” That is true for the fiction reader too, especially while inside the kinds of stories in which, as Phillips describes her process in the front matter of Black Tickets, the characters and voices that “began in what is real . . . became, in fact, dreams.”
Few if any writers can claim a body of work as capacious and as universally good as Louise Erdrich’s. Her tremendous oeuvre sweeps from poetry to children’s literature to short stories and novels. She has been awarded the National Book Award (The Round House) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (Love Medicine) and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (The Plague of Doves). This September she received the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, an honor and obligation she, with typical humility, neglected to mention when I contacted her to arrange this conversation. (When I wrote to her that I felt as if I were chucking a rock up onto Mount Olympus whenever I bothered her with a query, Erdrich reported back that Mount Olympus looks a lot like a sliding wall of white papers.)
Across her thirty-year career, crowned this May by her fifteenth book, LaRose, Erdrich’s writing has always been as humane as it is deft, incisive, sharp. She describes herself as a perfectionist. Her drive and rigor translate to the most perfectly honed sentences, and to the ever-unfurling tessellation of families that populates her fiction. A dip into this world feels a bit like teleportation. The cans of grape Shasta in the cooler at Whitey’s gas station, the glint of the gold tooth of the woman waiting outside, seem to exist inevitably, ours to peek in on as Erdrich chooses to lift the veil. She is the kind of storyteller you’d want riding with you on long nights on the road, keeping your mind spinning, your heart’s door ajar, her characters all but real in the seats behind you.
Erdrich’s own childhood religious experience was inflected by both Ojibwe tradition and Catholic faith. Both threads run through almost all of her work. Still, her eye is always on the mortal rather than the divine. Erdrich’s fiction fulfills the essential promise of storytelling to show us to ourselves, and what she finds in that examination can be bleak, to say the least. Her latest novels circle incidents of racial and sexual aggression, injustice, murder, and revenge. Yet despite the anguish Erdrich sees in the world, she seems to believe in it even so.
At the extraordinary ending of The Round House, perhaps Erdrich’s masterwork to date, thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts takes it upon himself to realign his family’s cosmos, disordered by the violent rape of his mother, after all other measures have failed. Except that Joe does not in fact take this burden on alone. A friend is there in secret, literally watching Joe’s back. When I first read this scene, I was moved to tears with delighted surprise—but I should’ve always known that he would be there. This is quintessential Erdrich. Her vision of the designs of our hearts is as clear-eyed as it is generous. It is her trust in her characters to do good that makes her mythic North Dakota, for all its darkness, a world in which I want to dwell. There is perhaps no authorial voice that is more of a comfort, and a compass, to me. It was an honor to speak with her about her writing, and the ways humanity might be its own salvation.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: You grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and were raised around the Catholic Church. What was your experience of religion as a child? Would you have described yourself as Catholic?
Louise Erdrich: I was baptized, raised, and confirmed in the Catholic Church. So yes, I was a Catholic. This led to playing the pipe organ at Mass, a fascination with painted blood on the plaster crucifix, memories of the mothball-and-sweat smell of the black woolen clothing nuns and priests wore in those days, the swoony sopranos of Carmelite nuns singing behind a screen, the need that I still have to make shrines to the Blessed Virgin in my house—the iconography still marks me.
My mother’s family, from the Turtle Mountains, are mission Catholics but my grandfather practiced his Ojibwe religion along with going to Mass. The Benedictine priests who served there at the time were ecumenical. When I understood more about traditional Ojibwe religion I adopted some practices because I like them—most are about being outside or about appreciating the wild world.
My religion, if I’ve got one, is being outside, near water if possible. I had an outside childhood. Outdoors was where we played and lived out our thoughts. As my children grew up, I tried to get outside with them as much as possible and on Sunday mornings we went on hikes for a religious experience. Church was the woods.
EKH: What stories were important to you growing up?
LE: Old Testament stories were important to me because they were about magic. I wanted to experience a stick turning into a snake, or a burning, talking bush. As I grew older and nothing of the sort occurred around me, I felt that I’d been hoodwinked. So I turned to the usual—I adored fairy tales—and then my parents saved Green Stamps. We drove to Fargo to redeem the stamps, and they got a record player. They belonged to a record club, and bought King Lear. I had a bedroom all to myself in the basement of our house, and I played King Lear over and over. We bought a television in a pink-and-tan plastic case. We were hardly allowed to watch it, but we did tune in for The Age of Kings (Shakespeare’s history plays), which enthralled me. I’ve still got the public television paperback edition of the plays; it must have come with a donation or subscription.
Both sides of my family were storytellers, not in a formal sense where they retold traditional tales, but they were natural storytellers. They would make sense of experience by making things that happened into stories. The best ones had an edge of sad humor. My father’s stories of his childhood have a mythic quality, an enlarged sense of fate. His mother died when he was quite young. His wonder is always laced with sorrow, with irony.
EKH: Faith and justice seem so bound up in each other in the world of your writing. What’s the relationship you see between the two?
LE: No relationship. If God were just, then George W. Bush would be hitchhiking through Syria this afternoon. As for faith, it seems to me that spiritual faith is about longing. We all want to find out who or what made us and why. People have a need to find meaning in a God who fits their version of the divine. Beyond that, faith is commonplace. Everyone has faith in something, even if it is not God, even if it is not good, it may even be faith in something reprehensible. Faith is how we move from day to day.
Justice has to do with attempting to make sure that people don’t follow their worst inclinations. Justice is the necessary underpinning of society; it is all about being human. Justice should never be dictated by religious faith, obviously. But this happens constantly—people brutalize those who don’t keep the “right” religious laws. There is today a terrifying rise in the fanatical notion that one’s beliefs give one the right to dispense justice. But that is false justice. It is a way to justify blood violence.
EKH: The most horrific things can happen within the worlds of your books, and you write without any sentiment, and yet there’s a often a redeeming sweetness, even a tenderness, in the way your characters treat each other when faced with the worst. Do you see this as true beyond the bounds of your writing? Do we as a species tip, on the whole, toward human kindness?
LE: We have to believe in kindness, goodness, and mercy, because the alternative is to believe in hatefulness, evil, and cruelty. It isn’t that hard to write dark stories that just get darker and meaner until everybody slides away in a slick of grease. Humor in the midst of despair—that’s difficult. Or to make an act of kindness or bravery as shocking as an act of violence. I don’t often get to that point in my work—and redemption isn’t my thing. I avoid redemption—it’s very difficult to write into a book without becoming trite or sentimental. I am always fighting my maternal instincts. I try not to redeem my characters, unless it happens in a fit of irony. Moreover, redemption is too often the stamp we put on violence so that it can be sold as a palatable commodity.
What is redemption, real redemption? It is sometimes ordinary. It is my parents saving Green Stamps so that their daughter, raised in a little North Dakota town, can listen to King Lear every night as she falls asleep.
EKH: In The Round House, Joe is conscious of the way his reputation for being a good kid gives him a certain leverage with adults. By the end of the book he’s acted in ways that compromise that reputation. Perhaps more to the point, though, it seems to me that he’s grown into a more complicated relationship with what it might mean to be just or do the right thing, and that maybe this is the very nature of his growing up. Does this resonate at all with your own experience? Has your own sense of what it might mean to be good shifted over time?
LE: Joe gets pushed into a corner because there is no justice that can keep his mother safe. He sees his parents as annoying mortals whom he desperately loves even as they become real—weak, striving, sometimes heroic—but unable to lift the curse of violence. He should not have to resort to violence himself in order to protect his mother, but because of racist laws, he does.
Everyone’s experience of what it means to be good shifts over time. Perhaps at one time I thought it was good to try to change people. Now I think that leaving them alone is better. Perhaps at one time I thought animals should be left alone. Now I think they need help in order to survive this peopled world. I never did think that being good was a matter of following rules. That, at least, I learned through enduring infuriating religious dicta.
To me there is only one true law and it seems simple—love—but of course to love well—whomever or whatever you love—isn’t easy over time and often requires not only a sense of humor but also heroic self-discipline. I have seen this in my own parents, married over sixty years, and in the efforts of my brothers and sisters and my children who work in Native education and in the Indian Health Service. They are all truly devoted and excellent people. For a writer this is devastating—they are much too good to make interesting characters. I hang around them all the time, hoping they will reveal fiction-ready flaws. But they never do. I get no material whatsoever and have to resort to making things up.
EKH: You’ve said that you “hate religious rules. They are usually about controlling women.” Do you think this is a universal problem with religion or a particularly Western or Catholic or Christian one?
LE: Universal. There seems no end to the viciousness of fundamentalism when it comes to women.
EKH: You write some of my favorite female characters, women I love precisely because they are so self-possessed, so exclusively in control of themselves. I come back often to the scene in Love Medicine when June finds herself trapped in the front seat of a truck, stuck under the weight of a sleeping man. Without waking him, June manages to pop out from the truck, straighten herself, and set off down however many miles of dark, snowy road—truck door still ajar, heat blasting, man, I imagine, drooling. I admire her so much for this. I imagine you must, too? What do you make of the women of your work?
LE: Well, June did walk off into a lethal blizzard. Yet the female characters I’ve written have often been strong, ferocious, and in some ways they have come to my rescue. For a time I needed to learn to command my own strength (Fleur). At another time I needed to learn to live in disguise (Agnes/Father Damian) or to be a roving acrobat (Delphine) or to stop living on the edge of things (Antelope Woman). All are aspects of being a mother.
EKH: The operating rules of The Round House allow for characters’ direct engagement with the otherworldly; it’s not just that we’re in a reality where magical or mystical things might happen, but we might be a part of them. In one scene in the book, Joe spots a ghost watching him from the bushes of his family’s backyard. The ghost may be there to bear some kind of warning. Joe is spooked—as he says to his dad, “The last thing I want to know is something that a ghost wants to tell me”—but there’s also something terrific to me in Joe’s sense that its presence is negotiable. I love when Joe realizes, “Dad, it’s just a ghost. We can get rid of it.” Is this capacity to engage with the superhuman something that you think exists in the everyday?
LE: People often absorb confounding experiences into their lives, including contact with supernatural entities. Or animals. For instance, there is a rescue by dolphins cited in The Round House. I was in a group and mentioned this, and two people in the group had family members who were rescued at sea by dolphins. I have asked people sitting around a table whether they experienced prophetic dreams or ghosts. Nearly everyone spoke of an experience.
EKH: Your novels are so intricately built. Perhaps this makes too much of what’s really a coincidence, but I noticed that in The Round House, the turning point of the book falls exactly at the middle of the book’s pages. What’s the planning process like for your novels? How do you think about their structuring?
LE: I usually plan them out thoroughly, and even draw their shapes, but there are always surprises in the actual writing. Scenes with dialogue, especially, may shift or reveal something I didn’t count on in the structure.
EKH: It’s heartening to know how much you revise even published work. I like the way this suggests a story as one rendering of a squirming, changing thing, rather than a singular, definitive expression. It also reassures me as someone who can’t imagine ever completely liking something I’ve written. That said, I wonder what the moments are in your body of work, big or small, where you feel like you’ve satisfied your ambitions? And I wonder, too, given how interconnected your writings are, how the effects of this revising then ripples out through the rest of your work?
LE: This makes me laugh because I’ve just finished copy editing my next novel, LaRose, which will be published in May 2016. As always I was a wreck. Even now I’m very upset about leaving some lines in the book that I will excise at the last moment, in page proofs. No amount of tinkering is ever enough—so the answer is no. I am not satisfied with anything that I have written. Only exhaustion keeps me from rewriting.
EKH: What does it take to build and write about such a complex constellation of families? How do you organize yourself? How extensively have you worked out the shape of this community and its life beyond what we get to see on the page?
LE: I have my friend and tormentor, my copy editor Trent Duffy, to thank for keeping that world logically coherent. Once I write the book, he tells me whether the times, places, descriptions, habits, and so forth work with the other books. Sometimes I have long dossiers on the characters, sometimes very little. Often I have a stack of objects and clippings, books and even a pair of shoes or a hat that I think would belong to a character. I keep these things near in a little pile while writing that person.
EKH: What are the texts that are touchstones for your own life? Is there a Star Trek: The Next Generation to your Cappy and Angus and Joe?
LE: The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness and Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert’s the Dune trilogy, and Mockingbird by Walter Tevis are a few old favorites. My favorite contemporary work of speculative fiction is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
EKH: Has what motivates you to write changed over the arc of your career? Has that impulse, or what you hope to make through following it, altered at all?
LE: Nothing has changed except the need for more coffee. I have the same obsession.
EKH: It’s so personal that I almost hate to ask it, but what are the things or ideas or people in which you’d say you place faith?
LE: My family, of course, my friends. Also, perhaps obviously, books.
EKH: I hear that your bookstore, Birchbark Books, has a salvaged confessional now living and working as a forgiveness booth. The rumor is that you’ve collaged the interior with images of your sins and that the booth dispenses “random absolution.” Anything particularly juicy you want to fess to? Is your own feeling that absolution is dispensed randomly? And why the move from confessing to forgiving?
LE: Crouching in a little closet and whispering made-up sins to a deeply bored priest—what could be more hilarious? It was unbearable. I never told my real sins to the priest, of course, and still resent the veil of shame that the church tried eagerly to lower upon girls. Especially girls. Impure thoughts! Perhaps I kept them bottled up and put them into my books. Anyway, I decided that the confessional should have a second life as a pleasantly impersonal forgiveness booth. Being forgiven by another human is awkward and doesn’t help because it means you’re guilty, and the other person is soooo good, but being forgiven by an old beaten-up carved confessional might feel all right.