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Lost & Found: Michelle Blake on Sarah Orne Jewett

Lost & Found

Recently my husband and I spent two months on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Alabama, near Mobile, the city where he was born and raised. We met a lot of folks who’d grown up on the island, and almost every one of them asked us, “Where’re you from?”

As usual, the question sparked my own anxious self-examination. Originally? Now? Where have I lived longest? In truth, I’m not sure I’m from anywhere.

I grew up in Texas, but I always had the feeling that the stork had made a bad drop. I never came to recognize the flat, dry land and flat, seasonless passing of days as home. Even as a child I lived with a sense of nostalgia for a country I had never seen, a haunted certainty that the most beautiful place would disappear before I found it.

Plus, Dallas in the 1950s could be brutal for anyone who wasn’t a straight, white, wealthy, football-loving male. I connected the teasing, bullying and flat-out meanness I saw around me with the bleakness of the landscape. Looking back, I see I longed for a kind of ecological utopia, the opposite of my surroundings, where physical beauty and balance begot human kindness and decency.

I read Hawthorne and Cather and fell in love with the group of friends in The Wind in the Willows, especially Ratty, who spent his days boating and helping Mole and Toad. Then, in college I stumbled upon The Country of the Pointed Firs, by Sarah Orne Jewett.

country pointed fir

Jewett was born in South Berwick, Maine in 1849, and though she traveled widely, she always returned home. As a child, she didn’t like school and was often ill, so her father, a country doctor, would take her on his rounds. She credits him with calling to her attention the speech and dress and customs of small town life. “Don’t try to write about people and things,” he told her. “Tell them just as they are.”

Jewett became a loving observer of the landscape and people around her. She frequented the country stores, listening to the gossip and jokes “and Munchausen-like reports of tracts of timber pines ever so many feet through at the butt.” Over time she fashioned herself into a perfect guide, the Beatrice in my utopia.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is a kind of prose hymn to Dunnet Landing, an imagined composite of the small seaport towns along the northern coast of Maine. By contemporary standards, very little happens. We follow the progress of a writer moving deeper and deeper into a world of rough beauty and rugged silence, human kindness and heartbreak.

The writer (we never learn her name) arrives in Dunnet Landing in search of a quiet place to spend the summer and work. The book opens with a brief introduction in the third-person omniscient, which lends the whole tale a timeless, mythical quality. Then that writer becomes our narrator. She takes a downstairs room in the home of Mrs. Todd, an imposing character, a sybilline healer who dispenses herbal remedies and whispered advice through the kitchen window or, for more serious cases, by the front gate. Continue reading

Posted in Lost & Found

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Strawberries for Hemon


Never think of yourself
as someone who did not count —
festival of the souls.
– Matsuo Bashō (trans. Makoto Ueda)


Every article about Aleksandar Hemon repeats his backstory: In 1992, the Bosnian was visiting Chicago when war erupted in his native Sarajevo. Unable to go home, he settled here knowing almost no English, and then, in a supremely rare feat for adult language-learners, became an author of award-winning English-language books. Twenty-four years on, he’s one of the city’s most famous writers.

Chicago is my native city. Because Hemon himself has accurately appraised “the blessed scarcity of celebrities in Chicago, most of whom are overpaid athlete losers,” his workaday presence at a university a few blocks from my house strikes me as mildly otherworldly, almost as though a fictional character had stepped out of a book into real life.


That’s not what makes me love his work, though. It’s how I felt his influence half a planet from here, in a place he’s likely never been, with a woman illiterate in any language. It’s how Hemon’s work contains a few lines that stand out now for how wrong they seem.

♦ ♦ ♦

On the day she survived a massive fire in a garment factory called Tazreen, Sumaya Khatun was 16 years old. Employed since age 11, she was one of Bangladesh’s uneducated working poor, the sort of person most vulnerable to the kind of massive industrial disaster that the Tazreen fire was. The conflagration killed 112 of her coworkers, and Sumaya, a sewing assistant, narrowly missed becoming the 113th. Running through black smoke, she’d tripped over machines, slammed her face into the concrete floor, and managed to escape out a window, half-conscious, only because coworkers helped her.

If that was the sum of Sumaya’s misfortune, there’d be little more to say, and certainly nothing about Hemon. But weeks later, Sumaya began to get wrenching headaches. That winter, her mother, Amiran, slowly hawked everything she owned to get her daughter healthcare. By spring, doctors diagnosed a rare tumor in Sumaya’s brain. The illness was related to the fire, but only through political deception. That spring, labor activists began to help Sumaya access healthcare. In part, they exchanged their support for her participation in legal battles against Tazreen’s owner, which gained ground through scientifically implausible claims that the fire caused her deadly disease.

Their involvement brought me to Sumaya, and Hemon in turn to me. I’d started publishing my writing in Bangladesh while doing Fulbright health research. When the activists told me about Sumaya, I felt an unstoppable urge to understand the entanglement of unethical allegations with the last days of this dying child. But I was making my way into journalism unguided, alone, in one of the world’s least livable cities. In all of my reporting — eight months of following Sumaya, from summer 2013 to her death the next March — I had one only memorable touchstone: Hemon’s “The Aquarium.”

The essay appeared in Hemon’s The Book of My Lives in 2013, the same year Sumaya’s tumors grew. It recounts the death of Hemon’s infant daughter, Isabel, from a rare brain cancer, through her final, miserable days of surgeries, chemo, and intensive care, during which, Hemon writes, “our existence was horribly and irreversibly transformed.” I’d read it before meeting Sumaya, but remembered it only in February 2014, after her tumor had metastasized across her brain and body and even a glance made her terminal status clear.

That Valentine’s Day, I left her hospice ward and stopped in an open-air market nearby. The strawberry harvest had just begun. Although my mind felt glued to Sumaya and her imminent death, I wanted some of the luxurious fruit for another friend.


The market’s sidewalks were dotted with disabled beggars on tattered prayer mats moving their mouths in supplication. But Dhaka is a mega-city of 16 million, a knot of perpetually jostling crowds and nerve-shredding traffic. The market, noisy as an industrial slaughterhouse, drowned out their begging.

More curiously: The street’s overall din seemed muted. I felt quite apart from everything, as though the perfect blue-sky day went on behind panes of glass.

In “The Aquarium,” Hemon describes the same sensation. “One early morning,” he’d written, “I had the intensely physical sensation of being inside an aquarium: I could see outside, the people outside could see me inside (if they somehow chose to pay attention), but we lived and breathed in entirely different environments.” Suddenly, I grasped what he meant. Continue reading

Posted in Essays

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Final Girl



Nights in the dark: a slasher film on TV. I lived for the devil, said the girl
on the screen. You and me: two shadows. We watched the girl on TV.

The body: opened. The blood and the meat. B-actors, shoddy doubles.
Two shadows and a screen. Come closer, you said. Each night

the night that bedeviled me. Your drawer full of pills. Your carpet
with a stain. In the morning, your mother called and told you her dream.


The killer kept calling. You muted the noise. Come closer, you said.
Night was a slasher film on TV. You and me: two dark spots, two ghost

spots side by side. Ghosts of some other people, on opposite sides of time.
The remakes, the sequels. The phone ringing one more time. The call

was coming from the house, from the room. From inside. New girl,
same knife—I couldn’t mute the noise. Every pill was a devil.

They set us alight. In dreams, I kept dying. The call came from inside.
The devil slept sound, dreamless as daylight.


On TV, I was dying. We watched on the screen. You were the devil.
I was the mute with apocalyptic dreams. Or no: we were just guts,

blood—devils moved in and out of us like bees. Time made mutes of us
all in the end. Time was the thing that bedeviled me. Time with its ax,

its cleaver. Its violence once removed. Time, with its complicated
mother issues. The last scene belonged to the final girl, who survived.

Took off down the highway, a storm in the night. She knew:
always you’re the girl or the knife.


I too lived for the devil, crashed holes through the night. I took up
with tornadoes. I wrecked towns and lives. Lost time was gathering

like a storm. TV anchormen gave me names—alphabetical,
like hurricanes. I was all mute, all noise. Tuned to every channel.

I was calling from everywhere: the last scream, the longest shadow,
the final girl I’d be. I rang out like a called name inside me.


Emily Geminder’s short stories, poems, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review Online, Mississippi Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Witness, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award, a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and a fellowship award from the Vermont Studio Center.

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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O. Vulgaris


I hatch. I slip out of my egg cell after tearing through its skin. Slowly, I sink. My arms uncurl. I float. I sink. I float.

Hovering over the sandy floor, I see above me the other eggs strung together. Milky pearls hanging from the scratchy rock like necklaces, like clusters of alien grapes. And there is the other self, ugly and massive, brooding upside down over her drooping white nest. An endless fanning of dark, warted arms.

Others hatch. They sink. Their arms curl and uncurl. They float. We float. We tumble and collide. We gasp. As we breathe, our heads, bulbous, pulse. We are small and translucent. Above, her thick arms sweep and splay, brushing over the remaining eggs. Brushing until what are left are withered petals, not pearls. Condoms torn and discarded.

She will kill herself. Her work is nearly done and her body, each organ, each tissue, will sequentially fail her. And we? We too may soon be killed. So we rise. A cloud of us. Swimming, drifting, amidst plankton, like plankton. Here, we eat and are eaten.

I feast on copepods, larval crabs, larval starfish. I fatten and thicken. With each meal I sink. I outgrow the plankton cloud. I sink.

On the floor, among rocks and coral, I find homes have already been made. I crawl farther. I have no shell to snugly sleep inside, so I vanish. I become the cracked pale surface of coral. I become a rock, hard and speckled. I become the swaying dark leaves of kelp. My skin contracts and expands. I darken and disappear.

A crab crawls by. My arms crack its shell. I hold it close to my mouth. I crawl and find a slant crevice between two rocks on the coral floor. As I crawl, one arm brushes against a shell. Another finds a pebble. I carry crab, shell, and pebble to the rock. The crab I push inside. My arms bring more pebbles and shells. Shells and pebbles are now littered before my home. My arms reach out, grappling, feeling, digging. The pile of debris grows before the opening until what is left is a small mouth, as big as a sucker on my body. I squeeze. I push myself through it, head first. My arms slide in after me. I gorge.

Soon I need a stronger fortress. I crawl, vanishing and appearing. In the distance, a dark fish, long and lean. I wait. The fish swims towards me. I retreat. I back into rocky rubble and my skin, as it settles on the surface, picks up the pattern of light and dark. I vanish. The dark fish swims closer. Its snout twitches. I blanch. I cannot help myself. I fling myself forward. I balloon. All white, save for a spot of brown near my eye. A phantom eye to fool the fish. I form a wide canopy with my body. But the fish is still larger. I spurt. A cloud of ink, and I flee. My head leads the way. My arms become one. One heart stops beating. The other two, the ones at the gills, pump my coppery blood. Dizzy, I falter. I lay myself flat on the sand and wait.

This goes on. I grow. I crawl. I vanish. I hunt.

I am outside my newest home. A burrowed enclave beneath a gnarled rock. I am idle. My arms wag. One arm touches another arm, but not mine. He is smaller. He embraces me with two arms, and a third tickles around my head. I squeeze myself thin, to slip from his grasp. But he hugs me tighter. His third arm, the tip of it, finds behind my head the mantle. Each arm of mine pushes against him. His arm slips inside. I am stunned. His arm slips out, but his body still presses against mine. Again his third arm slides around my head, to the back, again slipping inside to deposit his sperm. I squirm. Our arms are interlocked. He does it again, and again and again and again and again. I lose count. I am red . His head, heavy, leans against mine and I feel his arm sneak around me again. He is slower now. Tired. I seize him. Each arm of mine wraps around his head. Now I watch him blanch. I tighten my grip, he wrestles me. Once it’s over, I drag his body towards the gnarled rock. I push him, squeeze him, into the burrowed hole. I gorge.

Once it’s over, I feel heavy. I crawl out and am struck by light and warmth. I crawl until I can crawl no longer. On a reef, on its hills and valleys, I rest. I heave. Like vomit, I expel in one force below me white pellets. Miniscule and many. Little pellets caught in the current, floating away from me. My arms grab towards them, pull them back. It is an impossible game. I hold them in place. Then I weave them. It takes a long time. I sway water over them. I clean them. I sit forever, heavy and weak.

Then they hatch. Out they tumble, miniscule. I sway water over them and watch as they skip and spin. From my siphon I issue a jet of water. They are caught in its current and I watch them, little pulsing selves, rise far above me. I will watch that shimmering cloud for as long as I can. But then. Here I sit. For forever I lie on top of them. And now? More hunting and crawling and feeding? No. Here, now, I sit on the torn white tissues of their eggs. I will sit on this litter now. Not vanishing, not hunting, not crawling. Here I will sit now. I will sit until whatever keeps me—my skin, my arms, my hearts—alive, stops.


Zehra Nabi holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins University, where she works for The Hopkins Review and teaches creative writing. She previously worked as a journalist in Karachi, Pakistan.      

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Eleven Extraordinary Hours: An Interview with Pamela Erens


With an illustration of a pregnant woman on the cover of Pamela Erens’s provocative new novel, Eleven Hours, the book’s subject isn’t exactly a mystery. But who is the book for? I exchanged emails with the author, whose work I’ve admired for some time, to get to the bottom of that very question. Over the course of several days we talked about pain, tattooing, childbirth, nursing and other “big human events.”


Jim Ruland: Before we get into whom the book is for, I’d like to talk about what the book is about. Ostensibly, it’s about a difficult birth, but for me the book is about trauma. Would you agree with this characterization?

Pamela Erens: Interesting. I did not have that word or idea in my head as I wrote this book. That may be because of the way I define “trauma.” It’s a scary word to me, with the connotation of a psychological injury that one doesn’t survive, that maims one permanently. You could certainly make an argument that the protagonists, Lore and Franckline, have been traumatized. But that wasn’t really how I approached the material. I wanted to show a woman going through the particular trial of childbirth and show what she brought to it, how she rearranged herself to handle it. And in addition, what both characters have done to bear the losses in their lives. I see the novel as more about what we bring to pain—good or bad—than about what pain does to us. But that may be semantics.


JR: I like that concept of “what we bring to pain.” Obviously I’ve never given birth but as a heavily tattooed person, I have a relationship with pain, an intimacy with how my body responds to the wound that is tattooing. But I’m fairly certain this knowledge would leave me woefully unprepared for the freight train of pain that is childbirth. There’s just no comparison right?

PE: I’ve never been tattooed, so it would be really hard for me to compare. I imagine that the pain of tattooing is very sharp and localized. The pain of childbirth is more expansive, and it’s deep inside, which makes it hard to describe. And unless tattoos routinely take twelve to twenty-four hours, the pain of childbirth lasts longer!

JR: Definitely not. I’m good for about three hours under the needle and then I need to tap out!

PE: It’s hard to compare pain generally. A hundred women who go through childbirth are going to experience the pain in completely different ways, partly depending on the vagaries of that particular birth, partly depending on their constitution—apparently some people really are more physiologically sensitive to pain—and partly depending on what’s going on around them. I had two very positive birth experiences, overall, which you might not guess from reading the novel. I had a doula both times. I can’t overstate the importance of having someone around who is experienced in births and can keep you (and your partner, if you have one) from panicking because she knows just what is happening at each stage. That was our wonderful doula. My husband was also incredibly involved and caring. If you feel loved and supported, pain is different—less like something you’re lost with. Being alone with pain magnifies it greatly. In the novel, of course, that’s Lore’s situation. Although her nurse, Franckline, steps into the breach as best she can.

JR: No pun intended! When I’m experiencing pain, I want to be left alone. I often read while getting tattooed so that people won’t talk to me. In your book, pain isn’t a thing that happens but a thing unto itself with its own catalog of expressions. How did you arrive at pain as a subject?

PE: I was a small, skinny, unathletic kid who was terrified of physical pain. At my annual checkups I literally used to run from the doctor when it was time for a shot—I had to be chased and cornered. As I got older I had the idea that I was someone who couldn’t tolerate serious pain, that it would break me if I ever encountered it. “Break me” seemed to mean becoming some sort of gibbering idiot, my mental organization unraveling. I don’t know why I had this extreme vision. Maybe precisely because I’d been so protected; I’d encountered pain so rarely. But in any case I was terrified of childbirth. It almost surprises me that I was willing to become pregnant, given the level of my fear. As a result of the terror, I read up on every single thing that could happen during a birth. I prepared myself to the utmost.

JR: Not to oversimplify things, it feels as if desire + knowledge > fear.

PE: Exactly. The whole process was a Very Big Deal to me, and getting through it made me feel very powerful. I didn’t fall apart. I didn’t go insane. I discovered I had strengths to bring to the process. Afterward, I felt such a respect for what women go through in labor; I felt as if we do this truly honorable and heroic thing. All this just burrowed away in my consciousness until I was ready to write about it. The trigger was reading the fine novel Tinkers and thinking, “If Paul Harding can write a book all about someone dying in bed, maybe I can write one that’s all about someone birthing a baby.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 9.37.19 AM

JR: I think it’s mistake to consider the title and think that the book is about eleven hours of labor when it’s more accurate to view those eleven hours as a narrative constraint. Would you agree with that?

PE: I think you could argue it both ways. It’s really and truly about those eleven hours: a granular view of childbirth. But it’s also about everything that has happened to Lore and Franckline to make them experience those hours the way that they do. It’s about how our psychological histories collide with biological fact. And it’s about how childbirth is a metaphysical event as well as a physical one.

JR: Did you collect stories of painful childbirth for the purposes of the book or was there an incident that you built the book around?

PE: I had enough stories in my head simply from my own two experiences and those I’d heard about from friends and family. One member of my family had had a very difficult first birth and after speaking to her to get more of the details I used her story, with some alterations, for the book.

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Posted in Interviews, Tin House Books

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A Favor


It is night, and my mother and I return to an empty home.

On my childhood bed I lay my clothes out: T-shirts, underwear, shorts for the hot weather. A black tie and a black suit I had hoped not to wear.

I am unpacking after a restless thirteen-hour flight from San Francisco. After fifteen hours by my father’s side in the hospital and then in billing and then the morgue. After three hours in traffic, behind the metal rattle of jeepneys, going home to the provinces from Manila. I need to change my clothes. I need to lie down.

I look at my bed and see myself as a boy, my skinny limbs clutching a pillow, feet not yet dangling over the foot of the bed.

I don’t really want to be here. My brother is at the funeral home, making important decisions about the coffin and flowers. I want to be somewhere where I can be of use, get things done.

I hear my mother calling me from their bedroom, asking me to do something. A favor. It’s late and I’m exhausted and I want to protest, but I go anyway.

She’s getting her clothes ready for tomorrow’s wake, laid out on her bed, one by one: a white blouse, a checkered scarf, dark slacks.

She says, I own nothing in black.

She never wears black. Malungkot na kulay, she always called it. A sad color. No clothes the color of her hair, dyed in a black too dark to match her eight decades.

You need to get some rest, I tell her.

You need to help me first, she tells me, pointing to my father’s clothes in the closet.

I shake my head. I tell her we don’t need to do this now, that there are more important things to do tomorrow. Visitors to feed. Papers to sign. All that.

But she insists. Just come look now, she says, walking to the closet.

I look at her bed and imagine her in her faded nightgown, lying sleepless, a thin arm outstretched to my father’s bed alongside her.

I look at his bed and see his pillows smoothed and propped up, his sheets tucked tight, his blanket folded at the foot.

So I follow my mother to the closet. My father had been bedridden for a year, and wore only pajamas and hospital gowns. I look closer at the shirts, a row of starched empty sleeves, and see dust sprinkled on the shoulders.

She says, Take them all with you. What will I do with them, she asks.

They won’t fit, I say, and I don’t wear those colors.

My father was partly color-blind. Sometimes he wanted a second opinion. What color is this flower, he’d ask. The second opinions never quite matched his.

So my father owned clothes of, well, unusual hues. Colors absent from both my vocabulary and my wardrobe.

My mother shows me a rain jacket. Waterproof, she points out. He loved this jacket, she says. He would have wanted you to have it.

It looks too big. It’s also a combination of two shades of gray and yellow. The latter is an awful cross between a highlighter and a canary.

I say no.

She shows me his shirts, their patterns and loud colors an affront.

She has a story for each: Your brother gave him this for his 80th birthday. We bought this at an outlet store. He wore this at the church anniversary. He couldn’t decide between these two so I got them both and he was really happy.

She shows them to me, wanting an answer for each, one by one.

I say no, again and again.

Just try them on, she says.

I am tired. I am so, so tired, and so must be my mother. But I sigh and give in.

To my surprise, my Dad’s shirts fit me perfectly. His arms are my arms. I look in the mirror and I see my father, and I see myself.

I didn’t need a second opinion. I brought home half a dozen shirts, and the rain jacket. It still looks like nothing I would ever wear, but I will.

And I want the sky to crack open above me, I want the clouds to let go, I want the rain to fall and fall and fall.


Benito Vergara is the author of two academic monographs, Displaying Filipinos: Photography and Colonialism in Early 20th-Century Philippines and Pinoy Capital: The Filipino Nation in Daly City. His work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Entropy, and the anthology Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 7, and he has received a fellowship at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley summer writing workshop. Follow him at @thewilyfilipino.

Posted in Flash Fidelity, General

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The Eagle at the Lake

BG-Non-Fiction 2016

In college, just as I was starting to think of myself as a writer—also known as my “insufferable” phase—I felt a vague anthropological obligation to interview the elderly people on my mother’s side of the family. I figured I only had a couple of years, tops, before they all died. My uncle’s parents, for instance, had been born just after the genocide in 1915 and, though they’d been living in California for most of my life, couldn’t speak a word of english. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted from the interviews, but I assumed they’d grant me access to harrowing stories of Evil, Survival, Redemption, and other capitalized morsels that whet the appetites of the insufferable. Besides: I didn’t feel the need to explain—or understand—my motives. As far as I was concerned, my only responsibilities were to the twin gods of History and Posterity. So I logged on to Tele-BEARS and—as nobly as possible on a service named like a cartoon about sentient fruit snacks—enrolled in Introductory Armenian.

Once the righteousness faded, I was left with a searing anxiety and a profound sense of regret. Somehow—maybe because I’d seen so many ads for language-learning software you could use alone in your underwear—what I’d forgotten about classes was that you had to take them with other people. This worried me because unlike the Spanish I’d taken in high school, or the French David Sedaris takes in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” Armenian was a language only others Armenians learned. I was a halfie, but I had a few strikes against me: I didn’t know more than a handful of Armenian words, I looked white, and I was going into the whole thing the way a beginning writer would, to learn something more than just the language—you know: insufferably.

The anxiety led to a kind of bitterness against my mom, who could have passed the language on, I thought, and saved me all this trouble. But the bitterness quickly passed, because the truth was I had no one to blame but myself.

My mom immigrated from Armenia in the 70s, but she retained a unique take on english cliches. “Simple as that” was dented into “Simple is like that,” and “Am I right or am I right?” into “Did I say it good or did I say it good?” She did not say it good, my younger self thought. She did not say it good at all.

Who did say it good—said everything well, I thought—was my father. Unlike Mom, he was an American by birth, and when he spoke—in an english that wasn’t just his first language, but his only language—his speech seemed graced with a kind of purity, a word you can’t use without winking unless you’re a kid or an idiot. When he spoke, I listened differently. I tended to listen to my mom just enough to parse out the information she was giving me. But when my dad spoke, I listened the way a writer reads, paying close attention to the choices that, deployed with such incredible confidence, didn’t appear to be choices at all. That I looked more like him than I did my mom seemed less important to me than that I sounded more like him. I decided to learn as little Armenian as possible.

Now I was enrolled in Armenian 1A, which met in a classroom the size of a kitchen, by far the smallest I’d seen on campus. Still, because there were only ten of us, the room felt as endless as Learning itself. Or maybe it only felt that way to me, since I took a seat at the back corner, as far as possible from the central cluster of students, who, without exception, were dark-haired and olive-skinned and already—through the Armenian Student Association—close friends.

They were raucous, too, reconnecting after the summer the same way my cousins talked—teasing and feigning offense and laughing all in single-breath bursts of Armenglish. The teacher hadn’t arrived yet, and I was starting to feel as conspicuous as a silent white guy in the corner of a loud classroom. Finally one of the group, a stubbly upperclassman with political stickers on his laptop, invited me to sit closer.

“Didn’t expect to see a white person,” he said, cheerfully. He seemed genuinely surprised, and I decided to take his honesty as a sign of kindness.

“Well,” I said, “I’m actually Armenian, too. Other than my dad, I don’t know my white side at all. My only cultural context for family, really, is Armenian. My mom immigrated from—”

“In this country,” he interrupted, somehow maintaining a tone of generosity, “you are what you look like.”

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Posted in Essays, General

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Claire Tobin, Literati Bookstore


Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. This week we stopped in with Claire Tobin at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?

Claire Tobin: To be honest, the books that filled my nerdy middle school years all kind of blend together in a mixture of hormones and memories of reading in the corner at slumber parties. But if I were to pinpoint one book in particular that has traveled with me past those years, it would probably be Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. I think it was the first time that I realized a story didn’t have to clean or beautiful to be good and that (what!?) a female character could in fact be stronger and cooler than her male counterparts. Girl power, for real.


If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?

CT: I’m going to go back to my cliched roots and say that I would really love a day with Hermione Granger. Book browsing, butterbeer drinking, and bad-guy-dueling.

THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?

CT: I started slingin’ books when I was sixteen and now it’s almost six years later and I still can’t quite understand how my love for books continues to grow at such an exponential rate. I’m also in my third year as an English major so I spend what feels like my entire life reading. I went abroad last summer and when I came back and started working again, I realized how much I had missed. I had missed all of these books that were released without my knowing it and I felt a profound sadness. I can feel myself growing along with these books and being away from them that summer, I felt like I was a million miles away from a best friend. Getting to be around these books, ones full of opportunity and beauty and whole worlds–it feels like the luckiest gift. Being a bookseller has taught me to appreciate that these objects we recommend and sell are nothing less than pieces of art. We should always feel like we are in the midst of greatness when we are in a bookstore.

THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?

CT: Ok, I have a couple! I run the Feminist Book Club at Literati and we recently read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland. I was struck by Jefferson’s unapologetic honesty, something we in the book club highly appreciate, especially among women writers. It’s truly a beautiful, enlightening book. I also got really into Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. It’s the best and creepiest character study I’ve ever read. I started listening to the audiobook at 3 a.m. one very early morning when I had a long drive to make. It turned out to be the perfect time and place. If you ever get the chance to do a middle-of-the-night roadtrip, listen to Eileen.


What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?

CT: One book that I love to recommend is Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. It’s insane. I think a lot of people are turned off by the subject matter (pedophilic and sociopathic behavior, duh) and they immediately put the book back down once they’ve read the back cover. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever been more engrossed in a story than I have been in Tampa. It’s repulsive, cringe-worthy, and utterly magnetic. Some of the best writing I’ve encountered in recent years.

Claire Tobin is in her third year at the University of Michigan, studying English Literature and the History of Art. She has been book-slinging in Ann Arbor for five years and counting.
Posted in Bookseller Spotlight

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Mireille Enos Owns Malta, Montana


One day Quetzalcoatl would pay tribute to Mireille Enos. Quetzalcoatl ran the fabled motel and had grown up at the motel. More recently, he’d given testimony. Now it was up to her PA, Mireille Enos’s PA, to arrange a suitable occasion to pay tribute.

After sprinkling a dozen small curses—hazelnut laid side by side—Mireille Enos would need to put her money on the big gun: the golden dropout color pain charm.

Where was her PA? The hot springs of Malta ran smooth as silk, travelers sagged under the weight of their bedazzled topknots, guardians of Malta’s legendary pebbled rabbits prowled the pens with axes…all was well in Malta, except that Mireille Enos’s PA wasn’t responding to behests.

Her PA who was nothing but aggravation . . . regenerating aggravation . . . becoming more and more aggravating as she grew older. She’d been with Mireille Enos a whole six months and every cell in her body had died. And been dug up and replaced with aggravation.

In sheer distracted aggravation, Mireille Enos found herself braiding together twigs, remnants of the unsuccessful hazelnut—and the look that Quetzalcoatl gave her told her that she was onto something bigger than twigs each by its lonesome—a totally different dropout pain charm, the daunting gold of braided hazelnut, priceless access to a legion of demons—Quetzalcoatl’s somber expression spoke of darkness and a giant eyeball—not an actual eyeball, but an eyeball-shaped scar.

Hazelnut, the haymaker. She’d erranded her PA to loot kelp in a woods composed of iron pillars. Her PA wandered those woods in cowardly loyalty while Mireille Enos drafted a statement postponing the tribute. She would draft the statement herself while her PA totally blanked on iron pillars. Blanking on iron pillars was a tune her PA would soon be singing. Mireille Enos with an iron pillar in one hand would accompany her PA, silently.

No, wait. Quetzalcoatl would draft the statement. Mireille Enos would lock Quetzalcoatl in the revenue-producing room that had been his childhood dungeon.

Meanwhile Mireille Enos would adopt an attitude of “fuck the kelp” and go looking for the Belgian pralines for which Malta is world renowned.

She would rev herself up and in a miracle of accelerated herbivorous turnover would convert every cell of her body, overnight, into some variety of hazelnut!

Or no, weariness thwarted that ambition. She would content herself with one variety of hazelnut, her cells channeled into teaching a lesson to one runaway.

But maybe while she was waiting to teach the lesson she would rough up a box of pralines, not Belgian pralines but yesterday’s pralines, from yesterday’s gift basket.

Yesterday had been hell, wall-to-wall pralines, subpar pralines along the Hi-Line, an ante-Malta lifetime of fog and nightmare and vandalized hazelnut, abused hazelnut, hazelnut bark stripped from iron pillars and woven into lopsided gift baskets, gift baskets that projected ineptness and even sadness, the sadness of a skill acquired way too late in life, a late awakening into wasted weaving, forlorn and off-putting gift baskets exuding a fixation with hazelnut, the awkward baskets brimming with pralines and nothing but pralines, musty faux pralines from the desolate gully bakeries that had once been flourishing granaries, inedible French pralines, poseurs.

Under the overflowing sun of Malta, Mireille Enos would be reborn—would hold the jellyfish to account for the unanswered behests—would breathe hazelnut—would summon Quetzalcoatl and while aloofly dispensing doom would explain to Quetzalcoatl all the reasons why breathing hazelnut was fair and just.

Quetzalcoatl would take her side and would mentor her in the nuances of breathing hazelnut. The carefree jellyfish would finally learn responsibility, would slink off to a dark place. No—they would not allow her to slink. They’d send her on a second mission, the same mission, jellyfish vs. iron pillars, looting, only this time she would know the consequences of slacking and deceit. Scarred by iron pillars she would be thrown headfirst into iron pillars.

Behesting—problem solved—she would shove away her phone and watch her PA tap dance while Quetzalcoatl administered a form of punishment that she could never hope to master—too nuanced even for Quetzalcoatl to sign on as mentor—a bauble from the hidden menu in his repertoire—meanwhile needle icicles would plunge into the hearts of innocent pralines, which knew better than to dawdle beneath icicles but were uncharacteristically careless because they wanted to make themselves available to Mireille Enos.

Braving the respiratory toxins from the mausoleum, Mireille Enos would convey nothing but love while ransacking a numbered row of empty lairs in search of pralines.

Enlightenment, revival, virtue. Aggravation short-circuited the mantra. Fuck. She was armed with a mantra that gave off sparks, in lodgings that were nothing but kindling.

A splinter! Hazelnut had entered her. And vice versa. A gate through which she’d been admitted passage slammed shut. Having braided, she was now protected.

She filled her ice bucket and went looking for a gauntlet so as to avoid splinters.

• • •

Dear townspeople of Malta. We are sorry for the delay, but you’ll be glad to know that the bloodthirsty employee has been removed to a detention facility. And for comfort was provided with a horsehair blanket. Here at the till of Mireille Enos Enterprises, North Central Montana Division we spare no expense in protecting our own from themselves. Slacker or not, that employee won’t be roping herself any time soon with a lariat of her own making. Or wait, we should probably go and check to make sure. We do check but the ingenuity of our hires often surprises even us.


Fortunato Salazar‘s most recent fiction and translation appears at The Offing, Joyland, 7×7.la, and The Brooklyn Rail.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Eleven Hours: An Excerpt


No, the girl says, she will not wear the fetal monitoring belt. Her birth plan says no to fetal monitoring.

These girls with their birth plans, thinks Franckline, as if much of anything about a birth can be planned. She thinks girl although she has read on the intake form that Lore Tannenbaum is thirty-one years old, a year older than Franckline herself. Caucasian, born July something, employed by the New York City Department of Education. Franckline pronounced the girl’s name wrong at first, said “Lorie,” and the girl corrected her, said there was only one syllable. Lore. Why a girl and not a woman? She arrived here all alone shortly before 9:00 AM, lugging her duffel bag, her tall body pitched to one side with the weight, no man with her, no mother, no friend (and yet a ring on the ring finger of her left hand: a silver band). No one at all, which is almost unheard of: even the homeless addicts sometimes have a man or a friend; even the prostitutes have friends who bring them in. But Lore Tannenbaum does not appear to be an addict or a prostitute. She is wearing clean sweatpants and a clean button-down shirt; her walk, once she set down the duffel, was steady, even graceful; and at the desk she produced an insurance card.

The birth plan, emerging from the packed duffel, is several pages long, many sections, the points single-spaced. There is some sort of long prologue. Lore hands it to Franckline already turned to the correct passage on page 2: I do not wish to wear a fetal monitor. The monitor will restrict her to the area near the bed and she wants to be able to move about freely.

“And no IV,” Lore Tannenbaum adds. They are the same height, the two women: one ample and softly built, the other more slender and taut, and pregnant as well, but not showing yet, not speaking of it—her anxious secret alone.

Well, you see, explains Franckline, the hospital requires fetal monitoring, could get sued for not using the monitor . . . However, she goes through the play-acting of leaving the labor room to consult with the charge nurse, Marina. Marina returns with her, insists absolutely: legalities, state regulations, etc.

“But Dr. Elspeth-Chang . . .”

Dr. Elspeth-Chang was mistaken, says Marina. Most likely the doctor meant to say that Lore did not have to wear the monitoring belt continuously. But she has to wear it now, because she has just arrived, and then for at least fifteen minutes on the hour after that. State law.

“But no IV,” agrees Franckline, once Marina is gone, resisting the temptation—the responsibility?—to offer the arguments in favor of it: in an emergency, precious time could be wasted inserting the IV; if Lore changes her mind later (perhaps she will ask for an epidural, even though page 3 of her birth plan says I do not wish to have an epidural)—if she changes her mind, dehydration may make the IV difficult to insert. Something about Lore—standing eye to eye with her, her hand on her belly, tremblingly upright (unlike most patients, she does not hunch with pain and anxiety)—silences Franckline. For Lore knows these facts already, she can see, has researched them all before producing her multipage, many-bulleted document.

It is twenty minutes into her hospital stay, thinks Lore, and already she is being thwarted, already opposed and harassed, by these people who want pliancy and regularity, want you to do what is easiest for them rather than what is most sensible and natural. They make you sign forms (I agree to surrender all control and absolve everyone of blame) before they will even give you a room and the privacy of your pain. She’d known that once she left her apartment she would be putting herself in the hands of strangers, others whose interests might not coincide with her own. But she did not expect to be so immediately brought down and disheartened. The two nurses, both Caribbean and with hair in braids, good cop and bad cop, one (the charge nurse) blunt, unyielding; the other quiet-voiced, smiling, trying to win her over, make her feel already tired, already beaten. She twists at the ring she wears, grown very tight over these last weeks. The charge nurse had scowled, saying Lore really ought to be going to the triage room, she didn’t seem so far along. But Dr. Elspeth-Chang, who had listened to Lore on the phone, had called ahead and said Lore should be admitted, and so Lore simply stood and waited for the charge nurse to finish her grumbling.

“Let’s get you comfortable,” says the quiet-voiced nurse, Franckline—her accent is of the French-speaking islands, Haiti, maybe, or Guadeloupe—as she helps her onto the hospital bed. A cross swings from a chain around her neck. “You’re lucky,” she told Lore as soon as she was checked in. “It’s very slow on the ward this morning. We can give you one of the private rooms—room 7. There’s a large window looking out onto Sixth Avenue.” On the deep window ledge, set back, is a potted hibiscus, its leaves a delicate pink with a deeper flame at the center. Would Lore like the bed angled this way or this way? the nurse asks. Up a bit or down?

“Down,” says Lore.

In the taxi Lore had held her phone in her palm and flipped the cover up and down, up and down. Not calling Diana or Marjorie, who had promised to get her to the hospital when the time came, to stay with her through the entire thing. Her bag had long been packed; it took her only minutes to leave once she decided to go. She flipped up the phone cover, dialed four digits, pressed END. The cab drove too quickly through the streets, the cabbie’s radio too loud with some sort of shrill, sinuous music. Lore dialed a different number—her old number, which was Julia and Asa’s now—dialed even as she knew she would not let the call ring through. A heat rose in her chest; her finger moved through the familiar sequence. It was shortly after eight. Asa, large and sloppy in the narrow pass-through kitchen, would be eating his cereal standing up; Julia would be still in bed, trying to coax herself out of her morning torpor. Imagine: Asa picking up the phone, inquiring “Hello?” in his rich voice, and Lore believing that he could hear in her silence the pains moving through her body, could hear it was time.

She did not want him to come. Never, never. But that he should be rising for his day, comfortable, while she would soon be twisting in pain on a hospital bed . . . that Julia should yawn and stretch and doze again . . .

Imagine: Julia in the bedroom, listening, suspecting, knowing that what she’d set in motion had reached its end point in this child.

There’s someone I need you to meet, she’d said to Lore.

Lore stopped dialing, stared out the window at the streets racing by: people with takeout coffee in gloved hands, murky morning light against the canopies of apartment buildings. Green wreaths with red baubles in storefronts, the holiday coming soon. The radio, last night, had said something about snow. Lore began picking out Diana’s number once more. Then, interrupting herself, leaning forward toward the cabbie—it was more like sliding her whole body sideways across the seat and then pitching herself in his direction—she told him to slow down or she would have the baby right there in the back. The taxi slowed for a minute or two, then picked up speed again. The music shrilled and shrilled until Lore said, in a voice not to be argued with, “Turn the damn radio off.”

Why should she call Diana, why should Diana or Marjorie come? She did not know either of them that well. Diana, who taught third grade, and Marjorie, one of the kindergarten aides, had swooped in when Lore announced her pregnancy, very late, at twenty-one weeks, when the visible signs became unmistakable and arrangements had to be made for her leave. She had always been cordial with all of her colleagues but close to none. Her life, for years, had been Asa and Julia. Diana and Marjorie: their outrage on her behalf, their advice, their kale, their jargon (“heroic,” “survivor”). How Lore paced her apartment after their visits, guiltily stamping out their condescension and their pity.

“Would you like some water?” asks Franckline.

Lore shakes her head. A girl, yes, a girl, thinks Franckline, but there is something elderly about her as well, something weary. Not the usual weariness Franckline sees, that of a woman who has been up all night and is shaky and frightened, perhaps even her second or third time, but something deeper, something etched into the face—into the young skin that is just beginning to get creases around the eyes and lips—something that goes back a long time. A story I will never fully hear, Franckline thinks, even if she offers bits of it to me. For we only have a matter of hours, and it’s the body that concerns us here today, what it needs, what it has no choice but to do. Will Lore want to be touched or not touched, will she want kindness or to be ordered about? Will she let me help her or will she turn her face away as she does now? Will she spend all her time turning away?

The line on the monitor jumps and jags, the speaker reveals the rapid lub-lub-lub of the baby’s heartbeat. How startling it is to Franckline, still, after all this time: these machines at her disposal, machines that listen to the difference between life and death, that measure and probe and drip chemicals, and save, time and again, souls that can so easily flee the body and disperse. She has watched that flight and that dispersal, not here, not in America, never once (the other nurses say she carries luck with her; each of them has seen tragedies), but back in Ayiti. Babies that got wedged crosswise inside the mother, died there kicking against the womb, or were born already too malnourished to survive. The mothers often enough, too, infected or bleeding or too sick to endure a difficult labor. And the wailing of the burials after, families asking what they had done to displease Danto or Papa Ghede, promising penance, promising gifts, that they will never fail the spirits, the lwa, again.

(Franckline moves the monitor toward the patient and turns up the sound so she can hear. Lub-lub-lub-lub-lub. The reassuring babble her own child makes as well. A song to which she sings silently in return: hallelujah. But there is no smile, no apparent reaction, from Lore. The girl worries the silver ring on her finger.)

The baby’s heart beats like the heart of a runner; the baby is a runner, crouched on the starting mark, straining, desperate to begin. Lore has heard the sound twice before but this time she is not moved, only frightened for the baby, its heart frantic with the desire to emerge, to be done with this thing, this birth. The first time, Dr. Elspeth-Chang pointed out the heart on the sonogram machine in her office, but Lore could not see it. The sound the doctor told her was the heartbeat was merely static to her; she wondered for a moment if she’d misunderstood. Then the doctor pointed the sonogram probe at the screen—“There, you see? There”—but to Lore it looked like mist. “I don’t see it,” she repeated, and the doctor pushed the probe again at the screen and indicated with her finger—all smoke. If Asa had been there he would have seen, or would have convinced himself that he saw. Because Asa. If the sky were covered with gray-black clouds, if you could feel the dampness coalesce thickly and the air sweep upward in threatening gusts, he would say there was a little corner of sunlight in the sky over there—the weather was going to turn for the better.

But of course he was not there. Just weeks before, she had sent him away—or, more precisely, sent herself away, not wanting to remain in their apartment, which contained so many false memories. And the idea of something live beating within that smudge, that smoke, all at once unbalanced her. It was real, the child—and she had chosen. Although of course it was not too late to change her mind. She was only seven weeks along, she could still tell the doctor that she wanted an abortion. She could confess that Asa was not really on a work trip at all. But something inside her knit together and settled and she made her decision anew. She reached out and put her hand on Dr. Elspeth-Chang’s arm to stop the motion of the wand. “Oh, well,” she said. “Maybe next time.”


Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in publications such as Virginia Quarterly Review, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions. Her third novel, Eleven Hours, is out now.

Posted in Fiction, Tin House Books

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Lost & Found: Cheryl Pappas on Colette

Lost & Found

Behind the half-closed shutters the dining room smelled as usual of slightly acid fruit and a well-polished confessional. A ray of sunlight fell across the table, lighting up their hands as they held the dishes and broke up the bread. Alice thought her husband looked frivolous, with his raised little finger, while Michael watched the movements of Alice’s long nimble hands, the long-fingered hand which had written to Ambrogio, which had opened to Ambrogio a door whose hinges made no sound . . .

When I first read Colette’s novel Duo, it was Eastertime in 2007. I was living in a 350-square-foot studio in Brooklyn. When I wasn’t proofreading or reading and writing stories for my graduate program, I was walking to get some air. I had passed the phase of being thrilled to live in New York and had settled into a domesticity with my neighborhood. The baristas knew my coffee order; I had neighbors who were good friends, with kids; I had my choice coffee shop where I’d write and flirt with a Hungarian waiter. It was domestic and comfortable, and yet, when I went by the flea market at PS 321, I rarely bothered to sort through the funky frames or knickknacks or beaten up furniture. It wasn’t that kind of domestic. The neighborhood, though full of single writers like myself, was overrun, as I used to put it, with families, with homes, strollers, routines. On Saturday mornings, I felt grateful not to be one of those families getting out of their apartments to begin their day of duties, yet I would walk past that flea market with my skin tingling, happy to accept even pollen landing on me, just for a sense of being touched.

My writing teacher had put Duo on my reading list for the month. I should first explain that Duo is one novel of a pair, the second being Le Toutounier, a sequel Colette wrote six years after the first. While I did read and like the second, it was Duo that set me reeling.


The novel covers a momentous few days in the life of Alice and Michel, who have been married for ten years. It is early spring, just past Easter, and we see them at their country home, in the village of Cransac in southern France. Though they are on vacation, their days are punctuated with routine; the rather stern servant Maria announces each mealtime with a bell, and Ambrogio, the manager of Michel’s theater, calls from Paris daily with updates on how things are going (in general, not very well). Alice and Michel spend most of their time in the closed-off “library dining room,” with bookcases that reach the ceiling, a sofa with a well-worn blanket, and other loved, familiar objects. It is within this contained space that Michel discovers, quite by accident, a love letter from Ambrogio to Alice in a blotter. The rest of the novel traces, nearly moment by moment, in evocative and precise detail, their marriage falling apart; at the same time it reveals their undeniable love for one another.

I became immersed in just a few pages. Colette makes writing seem so easy—slow down the moment, capture every sensual nuance and every turn of the mind, show light, show dark, show characters masked in dialogue and unmasked in italicized thought. Show how and what two lovers know and notice about each other.

And yet, as anyone who writes knows, such writing is ridiculously difficult. I kept asking myself: How does she do it? How is it that her sentences are so light on their feet and yet penetrating? Continue reading

Posted in Lost & Found

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A Public Space

BG Banner A Public Space 

Bookstores are not a dependable resource in the suburbs. When my husband and I moved to Maplewood, New Jersey, nineteen years ago, one of its attractions was a tiny independent store called The Book Stop. It had a long and beloved history in town, but its owner was in her early eighties, and shortly after we arrived she moved out of state to live with her children. A couple of other bookstores followed, each in a space too small to support readings but at least providing a welcome place to browse, buy, and run into other enthusiastic readers.

In 2008, something new happened. Jonah and Ellen Zimiles, a couple who live blocks from my house, bought out the most recent owner and decided to re-open as Words Bookstore in a space three times the size of the old location. Their mission was not originally books so much as the special-needs community. The Zimileses’ younger child, then thirteen, has autism, and Jonah, a former lawyer who had recently gotten his business degree, was looking to create a vocational training program for young people with autism who were aging out of full-time schooling. There were—and still are—very few such programs. The Zimileses particularly wanted to provide opportunities for those with more severe forms of autism. The new store had an extensive basement that was soon turned over to training those between 18 and 21 (and sometimes younger or older) in such tasks as applying store logo stickers to shopping bags and breaking down book boxes. Students are bussed in from area schools a couple of hours a day and remain in training for six months to a year. About 75 young adults have gone through the program since its opening. Higher-functioning students learn to scan in recent purchases and shelve and label books, and the Zimileses have two special needs employees on payroll, one in purchasing and sales, and one who does deliveries and deals with the store’s robust recycling needs.


The Zimileses’ involvement in disability issues is also deeply in evidence upstairs, in the retail space. The store, which carries 11,000 titles at any given time, has what Jonah believes to be the largest collection of special-needs books in the country. People come from a distance to check out the offerings, and Jonah is perfectly happy to have them browse and educate themselves without buying. “There are school teachers who can’t afford to buy the books but they can learn from them and bring that back to their schools,” he says. The store also runs a series called Second Sundays in which, once a month, the store sponsors free classes in subjects such as dance, acting, sewing, and karate for those with special needs aged 3 to 21. April of each year has traditionally been given over to autism awareness events such as panels and presentations by prominent experts in the field.

At the same time, the literary culture of the store thrives. Over time, Jonah has built a readings schedule that is astonishing for a store not in an urban center. He brings in about 100 authors a year; among them have been Andrew Solomon, Anne Lamott, Garrison Keillor, Jeff Kinney, and Harlan Coben. In 2013, Words won a nationwide competition to host Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini by mounting what was voted by Penguin Press and Facebook users to be the best window display for Hosseini’s new novel, And the Mountains Echoed. Over 600 people showed up to hear him; the event had to be moved to our town’s middle school auditorium. When Jonah got wind of David Boies and Ted Olsen’s upcoming book about arguing the Supreme Court case that established marriage equality for gays in the U.S., he knew they would be perfect for Maplewood’s liberal and inclusive community, and he lobbied hard to get on their schedule. He succeeded and they too spoke to a large off-site crowd.



Walking into Words, at the center of Maplewood’s three-block town center, I find what I always seek in a bookstore: space, light, and company. The ceilings are high and the walls are painted in soothing, cheerful colors. There is a large children’s area where kids are always sprawled reading and chatting, and a cozy adjacent alcove where parents read to lap children. Words’s selection of literary fiction and serious nonfiction is deep and excellent. I usually see someone I’ve known for years either browsing or working the register or the aisles. Many of the staffers are local mothers whom I originally met because they were the parents of so-and-so in one of my kids’ kindergarten classes; as our children got older they took on jobs here while I started writing the books that Jonah keeps front and center for months past pub date. Another employee I like to schmooze with is Seamus, who is 26 and gravitates to some of the same kinds of obscure, offbeat books I do. He’s one of the few people I know who has read a favorite of mine, Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies. I learned this because, this past year, Seamus took on Two Serious Ladies as a personal mission. He’d discovered the novel on Words’ shelves and, “blown away by how weird and funny and poignant it is,” decided it deserved far more attention. He made it his staff pick and determined to hand-sell it to as many people as he could. Since last May, he’s moved 135 copies. One day, O magazine’s Books Editor, Leigh Haber, came into the store and Seamus talked her into a copy. Two Serious Ladies ended up in the magazine as one of “16 Books to Start 2016 Right.”

In this age where supposedly no one reads, no matter what time I visit Words I always find it hopping. And it keeps long hours: open seven days a week and until 9 p.m. for over half of the year (with late-evening hours three days a week during the slower months of January through April). The later hours aren’t just about sales; in part they are a public service. Jonah, a big believer in Main Street, says he would keep the store open 24/7 if he could. “It’s important for people to have public spaces to hang out. People who may not have other places to go, or who need somewhere to bring their kids. I think of my son’s life when he’s an adult and would want there to be places like this open for him to visit if he doesn’t have friends and family there for him.”

One of Jonah’s goals is that big national chain stores (think Barnes & Noble but also, say, Walgreen’s) might eventually look to Words as a template for providing employment for special-needs adults on a much larger scale. “I’d like to go to Barnes & Noble and say, `Tell me what you need in your stores, and I’ll change my operations to mimic yours.’ I’d set up my program to train people with special-needs to work there. It could be done. It’s still my hope to do it.”


Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in publications such as Virginia Quarterly Review, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions. Her third novel, Eleven Hours, is out now.

Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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Tin House Galley Club: Eleven Hours


Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read Eleven Hours by critically-acclaimed author Pamela Erens.  An intimate exploration of the physical and mental challenges of childbirth, told with unremitting suspense, Erens does not relegate the messy business of labor to a few sanitized sentences. Here, childbirth is tackled directly, giving a frank and honest voice—finally—to a profound human experience too long ignored in literature. The clock of the story runs from the moment Lore—one of two main characters—arrives at the hospital, alone, in labor. It ends very shortly after the baby is delivered. The perspective fluidly alternates between Lore and her maternity nurse, Franckline—a recent immigrant from Haiti, also pregnant (though she’s yet to tell her husband).

We surveyed our galley club members—here’s what they thought.  



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Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in publications such as Virginia Quarterly Review, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions. Her third novel, Eleven Hours, is out now.

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The 5 Best Childbirth Scenes in Contemporary Literature

So little fiction has been written about one of the most common of human experiences: childbirth. Most women go through it, and today, most men witness it. Yet extended scenes of labor and birth are extremely hard to find. Here are some of the few good ones I’m aware of in contemporary fiction:


The Women’s Room, Marilyn French. This 1977 novel, so influential in its depiction of the lives of ordinary women struggling for dignity and self-definition, contains the first description of childbirth I ever read. I was fifteen, and it nearly scared me off from having children for good. Mira, in labor, is forced to have an enema, is treated contemptuously by nurses, and listens to the desperate shrieking (ignored) of her fellow patients. Luckily this was not my experience when I finally got around to having kids, but let’s not fool ourselves: many women still confront versions of the same.


My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Naturally Knausgaard would get around to childbirth at some point in his magnum opus. In a leisurely passage in Volume Two, he captures the slow onset of his wife’s first labor, her attempts at pain management, their mutual irritation and bewilderment, and Knausgaard’s recognition, as the suffering intensifies, that his wife ”was completely on her own with it.”


Fire in Beulah, Rilla Askew. This novel culminating in the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 opens with a childbirth scene with supernatural overtones. A pregnant woman is kicked in the belly by a calf and delivers a deformed child who turns out to be an incarnation of evil. The protracted, agonizing labor is seen from the point of view of the attending part-black, part-white, part-Native American midwife, and is almost unbearable to read—yet impossible to tear oneself away from.


Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon. A pair of midwives in Berkeley circa 2004 attend at a comically New Age home birth (Buddha statue, laboring woman doing downward dog, the mother’s other child in attendance). The down-to-earth midwives’ view of the proceedings provides a witty edge, but the followup–after the delivery, the mother starts bleeding heavily and has to be rushed to a hospital–reveals a serious issue: the traditional medical establishment’s disrespect of midwives.


The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s novel projects the power issues surrounding childbirth–so aptly captured by French and Chabon–into the future to give us a society in which reproduction is completely controlled by a male elite. A graphic scene in which a “Martha” (this society’s term for an indentured servant kept to breed children) must give birth in public and then relinquish the child to her master’s wife, is shocking.


Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in publications such as Virginia Quarterly Review, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions. Her third novel, Eleven Hours, is out now.

Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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Two Weeks Since


Walks up back road, holding on to hat, what he calls a skimmer, sees first one horse then another. Walks on. Climbs gate, jumps, lands wonky. Heart is huge. The lake captivates a loosening rain cloud.

Thinks of twilight, privet hedges and a bookcase falling forward. Wishes for something. Raises hem out of the muck. Frayed lining drops, gets caught on a thorn, tears. Rain cloud pours down into the lake.

Walks down back road, holding on to hat, what she calls a boater, sees the second horse first. White. A white horse standing, looks this way, then turns. Gave birth in the meantime. Blood fresh all the way down hind legs, cord hangs. A black foal slides about nearby, tiny forehead opening a warm pale star. Heart lengthens; cord swings.

Removes hat and whispers something. Whispers something again. Looks back, envies the deluge, moves into the long grass. Lets a van pass by.


Claire-Louise Bennett’s short fiction and essays have been published in The Moth, The Irish Times, and other publications. She was awarded the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize in 2013. Pond is her first book. Bennett lives in Galway, Ireland.

From POND by Claire-Louise Bennett, to be published on July 12th, 2016 by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Claire-Louise Bennett.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Lost & Found: Kenneth R. Rosen on J. R. Moehringer

Lost & Found

A True Mirror’s reflection depicts a person as they are seen by others. It’s a curious novelty. Stand in front of one and you see yourself, your true self, staring back. Too worried about what it would reveal, I myself have never viewed one.

The closest I have come to having this experience, to accepting that my image is unoriginal, that my struggles are a common denominator for many people I may never meet, was when I first read The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer. It thrilled me to see someone succeed at what I longed to do, but it haunted me knowing it had all been done before.


To realize we are not wholly alone is in part why many of us read. We feel closer to the author and closer to ourselves. But compare yourself too much to someone and you run the risk of feeling envious, perhaps jealous and defeated. Caught between warring anxieties as I waited to hear back about a job at the New York Times, a premature and unfounded sense of failure inhabited me. This was about the same time I started reading Moehringer’s 2006 memoir. The book might as well have been a roadmap for what would soon be my career. He was a young man (I was 23) from a broken Long Island home (Manhattan) who attended Yale (art school, then Columbia) and later gets a job as a News Assistant (√) at the Times (√).

On top of it all, I’ve for many years found myself running to bars for comfort, much like Moehringer did at my age. Friends were found amidst poor faces checked with the bristles of a five o’clock shadow. Relief flowed unimpeded by time or worry from bottles and cold taps. Nothing outside the curvature of the bar existed beyond faulty memory, a drinker’s haze. The bar itself was not an addiction so much as it was a prescriptive measure. Time repaired itself, and gone with it whatever pain. In this way I connected with Moehringer, and to a book that could have been an unauthorized biography of me, which soothed me like the worn stools of a tired bar.

In 1972, eighteen years before I was born, Moehringer was seven and living in a Cape Cod with a sagging roof and eleven family members. This was his grandpa’s house at 646 Plandome Road, in Manhasset. His father manifested as “The Voice” on the radio, a broadcaster in Manhattan, a short train ride from where young Moehringer was raised. Moehringer had his mother, who faced financial woes and did all she could to raise him on a tight budget in a blue collar town. And he had the bar. At the center of his memoir is Dickens (later Publicans), a bar like many across America: a haunt where we go when we need something but aren’t sure what that is, or, when we get lost, to find our way.


Histrionics born from a youth of drinking aside, he wanted an ordered life. He writes, “I loved how the Times made life appear containable. It satisfied my mania for order, for a world separated into black and white. It slotted all the madness into seventy pages of six skinny columns.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

When I got the job offer for the Times, not long after finishing the book, I hugged my mother tighter than I had before, feeling proud to have made her proud. The hug announced my own ascendance into adulthood, as did Moehringer’s own employment at the Times, if ever there existed a hierarchy of wisdom attached to age like mileage.

Later, I found my way to Columbia for graduate studies. It must have worked, this reading about the lives of great men. Still at both institutions I found myself wondering one thing, a sentiment Moehringer echoed throughout his memoir: Did I deserve a spot in either hallowed institution?

Self-consciousness made me ask the wrong questions. What I needed to ask, and where no one was available to guide me, was whether I found myself in a place right for me, not for my imagined heroes. My resume and career trajectory—salad days to ivory tower to ivy hall—seemed to trump my intuition. And my intuition begged me to follow against the grain. Except I didn’t listen. The Voice inside me was not my own.

There is an inherent comfort in learning about the path others trod towards their own dreams. Feelings of inadequacy through comparison could have, and perhaps did sometimes, become nightmarish. Hope remained in the small victories—the one article published, the M.F.A. acceptance letter, the query response from a literary agent. But the more I read about other writers making their way through youth—Pete Hamill, David Vann, Jay McInerney—, including Moehringer, the more I came to understand there was no way to predict what path or promises lay ahead. That loss of control was devastating. I wish I’d stuck with just this one book, and not explored the stories of others who I wished to emulate. It would have made things simpler. I would not have clung to them as buoys through the storm of my early twenties, believing in these men and their journeys. I even reached out to them. But like the young Moehringer, I could not find a masculine world of which to be a part. I even once wrote to Moehringer, and still I await his response.

Still, for a while Moehringer’s book and the bars we both love offered respite in which I sought answers. And perhaps some day he’ll write me. I imagine him saying, There is no answer. But the pursuit of one is sublime.


Kenneth R. Rosen works and writes for the New York Times. Twitter: @kenneth_rosen

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The Carnival of Kid Baseball


It’s springtime in Georgia, which means the hot pink azaleas are blooming, all gorgeous and tacky. The temperature hovers in the mid-70s, with no humidity yet, and a thin blanket of pollen turns everything kind of yellow. Youth baseball, which slows down a bit in the colder months, is in full swing by the time the calendar declares it’s April. Scores of baseball fields across Cobb County, where we live, get even busier; boys in clean white pants get dirtier, their coaches get louder, parents lean into the fence. For my son, whose young life seems organized by the rhythms of three distinct, overlapping sports seasons, this is his favorite—and the one that claims most of our time and money. From February through July, he’ll play in a baseball tournament almost every weekend. We’ll travel to Georgian towns with names like Ball Ground or Euharlee or Locust Grove. Like thousands of other baseball families, we’ll begin the season huddled under thick stadium blankets, welcome spring and then summer at a ballpark amid acres of green fescue and red clay, hemmed in by miles of chain-link fence. With a cheap folding camp chair and hours to kill, I’ll read books or grade essays or score my son’s games on an iPhone app. We’ll eat family meals out of a Igloo cooler or from a snack bar staffed by bored teenagers.


As I stroll around the ballpark on a big tournament Saturday, past rows of tents piled with t-shirts, baseball cards, fake Oakley sunglasses, and the arm sleeves all the boys seem to be wearing this year, I think about my own overlapping lives—teacher, writer, mother, baseball fan—and how they converge in this rowdy, familiar space. Something in the scene takes me back to a half-forgotten college lecture on literary theory. Picture it sort of like this: a fool dressed in motley steps out from the throngs of players and spectators, waves back the smoke from a concession stand barrel grill, and, with a flourish, presents me with a fancy word that perfectly describes the scene: carnivalesque.

As it turns out, the source of the word carnivalesque is Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, and his ideas connect the sights and sounds of this modern version of the carnival to its medieval antecedents, to the rowdier, frolicking affairs that served a more important social function than their latter-day suburban successors. Carnivals took up, in total, as much as three months of a year in a large medieval city and were—here’s the best part—accepted subversions of authority (crown or church). In medieval carnivals, hierarchies were dismantled, second, parallel lives were lived, and all manner of creative debauchery reigned. The carnivalesque, as literary mode, signifies “a world inside out,” where fools are wise men and wise men are fools, where low culture and high culture swap masks, where class, gender, and economic distinctions fall away.

Looking around the ballpark, I’d say most of that seems about right.

medieval baseball

A big tournament can take up most of a weekend—from the 7 a.m. call time for warm-ups in the batting cages to the stretch of hours between an 8 a.m. game and a 2 p.m. game–so there’s plenty of time to watch the minor spectacles of this particular carnival, to look around at the crowd of Georgians in this makeshift village that we create every weekend. Remove the business suits or tracksuits or steel-toed boots, put all the villagers in team spirit-wear and flip-flops, and you have the workaday world turned inside out, a scene with its own time-honored rituals that borrow from folk culture (chants and songs and oft-repeated baseball cheers) and high church baseball (what goes on at any major league ballpark).

When I listen for it, the ballpark is a feast of noise: the steady hum of spectator chatter, the brief bursts of applause, the ebb of sound as the pitcher goes into the wind-up, the swell of screams that follows the sharp plink of a ball colliding with an aluminum bat, the shouts of “HEADS UP!” when a ball rockets skyward and plummets foul, the grunts of umpires calling strikes, the louder, longer grunts of umpires calling strikeouts, the pulse of music from distant boom-boxes—Ozzy Osbourne’s “ay, ay, ay” or Taio Cruz’s “dance, dance, dance” or DJ Khaled’s “win, win, win,” the scrape of wheels on concrete as some kid’s little sister spins boredom into the spirals of a Razor scooter.

Closer to the dugout, I hear the noisy ritualistic chanting that marks one stage in the boys’ passage through the life cycle of baseball. At nine, my son and his teammates are still pretty attached to the chants that most of them learned when they were five or six. Smart coaches lead the littlest ballplayers in cheers as a way to teach them the game and keep them focused during its dull bits, like when nine or ten other kids get to bat while you sit on the bench and wait. And wait some more. (“We need a single, just a little single/ We need a double, just a little double…”). As they play other teams, the boys pick up new chants; they spread like playground rhymes (or taunts), from one player to the next, from older boy to younger boy. In a decade or two, the chants will still be around—learned, passed on, left behind for the next age to learn, pass on, and leave behind. By the time the boys are ten or eleven the chanting fades out, but by then they’re used to the slower rhythms of the game, and coaches need fewer tricks to keep them focused.

On my son’s team, the first baseman takes on the role of caller in these call and response performances. He has a loud, high-pitched voice, and when he decides it’s time to rally the boys, they join in automatically. Kids may be rummaging in bat bags, or pounding fists into gloves, or just hanging on the chain-link fence chewing sunflower seeds, but when First starts in, loud and fast, with the first line of the call, “MynameisJoeandyouknowwhatIgot?” the boys around him respond reflexively: “Whattayagot?”

FIRST BASE: I got a team that’s hotter than hot!

TEAM: How hot is hot?

FIRST BASE: Grand slams and home-runs, too!

TEAM: Let’s see what [insert name of kid at bat] can do!

For these kids, chanting is still as much a part of playing baseball as the pre-game stretch or the mandatory jog from the field back to the dugout or the catcher’s call of “coming down,” which echoes from the infield to the outfield, as he practices the throw to second. For me, the chants are as familiar and predictable as the coach’s shouts to “back up” or “creep in” or “swing the bat”—any of the necessary, useless things coaches must say. I’ll admit that, at times, the boys’ chants get badly on my nerves. I hear them when I am miles from a ballpark. I hear them when I lie in bed at night. I hear them when I’m trying to score a game and remember the pinball-like-route of the baseball or how many errors it took to score the two runs that just appeared on the scoreboard in left field. Sometimes, when the boys are losing badly, I find myself muttering my own answers to First Base’s call.

Whattayagot? I got a team with collective batting average of .230.

Whattayagot? I got a team whose hits and errors are inversely proportional to the hits and errors of the teams they lose to.

Whattayagot? I got a team whose coach may or may not come unglued when a kid gets picked off, drops a popup, or strikes out looking.

There are dozens of chants, many probably borrowed from girls’ softball (they are the real masters of the dugout chant), but these boys have their favorites. When I listen closely, I sometimes hear bits of the history of their sport, its current of competitiveness crafted into nonchalance or sneering or menace. I hear pop music and the blues and Madison Avenue and Alan Lomax recordings. I hear poetry. Or at least stuff that rhymes. Continue reading

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We All Must Live by the Rules


Literature, read on the sly, gave the author her first taste of the strange world of that mysterious being, the adult. 

From Issue 63, Rejection. 


What I remember is a park in Boise, a summer picnic in the late 1960s, and my father lurching to a stop on the sidewalk to let a girl pass. She was a tall girl and as she walked by I saw what he saw: her hair like a slide, the twisting slick slide at the deep end of a pool, plunging you into the water when you were thinking maybe you didn’t want to go in, that you couldn’t go in because you’d forgotten how to breathe. That hair swung on her back, her sandals slapping against the pavement, and my father, who was carrying our cooler with paper plates and plastic forks stacked on top, said to no one, “I’ll bet she’s a vixen.”

My father said the word vixen right when the colored lights in the fountain shot on for the evening, purple and red, as if the girl had commanded it. She drifted down the path, and I stood there with spray on my skin like an extra layer of goose bumps wondering, How?

A few weeks later, I entered Mrs. Mudd’s fifth-grade class. The start of school, with me hauling an ache stirred by my father’s reaction to the girl—a hunger slack on his face as if he could hardly prevent himself from leaving us to follow her. Except that’s not quite true. I’d been in a vague state of desire for some time. For what, I wasn’t sure. My malaise was elusive, like my teacher, amorphous as her name. Mrs. Mudd ticked off the hours to her pension, drifting through her final school days studying the bent sky out the window, floating papers with a few scratches from her pen back to our desks, while I, in row three/seat four, throbbed only with a desire to please her.

One Friday in October, I got up with my classmates to fish a workbook from a box at the back of the room. As she did most mornings, Mrs. Mudd had told us to spend the first hour on SRA, a reading program that kept us quiet so she could lump in her chair, thighs spread like mayonnaise. I’d spent the whole of September hurrying through the SRA booklets, acing quizzes that allowed me to move to the next level. Now I folded the last book, rimmed in gold, under my arm, and veered around Lindsey Turner’s desk. Lindsey could be best at tetherball and at an astounding number of birthday party invitations for a single Saturday afternoon and for shoes that never seemed to get scuffed. I wanted only one thing: to astonish Mrs. Mudd by being best at SRA.

I marked the gold book test while imagining myself already enveloped in my teacher’s hug. I’d seen her give it to others; now I’d get it too. She’d put out a jiggling arm, hook my waist, and shove me into her round breast, where I’d breathe into her dress until the cloth, dampened by the cave of my mouth, fluttered against my face. Neither of my parents was a hugger, so I was uncertain about the angle a body takes to accept such an embrace. I tipped forward in my chair, rehearsing the fall toward Mrs. Mudd’s pillows of flesh.

I’d turned eleven that summer, a blandness set in me like pudding. When my father heard that a neighborhood boy had chased me down the street—a boy with garlic hair and dirty fingernails—he said, “You’d better learn to take what you get,” and my family laughed at his joke over dinner. At night I pulled a nightgown over narrow shoulders and studied the spin-art painting I’d made at the Idaho State Fair in August. I’d hung the spray of color above my bed, a kaleidoscope of greens and blues. Ordinary dots of paint, flung wild.

Back on those fair nights, the final hurrah of summer, my sister Cindy and I were released from our parents to wander the carnival. We always headed first to the spin-art booth. For a buck apiece we got to squeeze paint onto a square of paper. We stretched in to flip switches, rotating the wheels and the clamped-on paper into a blur, the paint fumes dragging into our noses until we drifted higher than the Ferris wheel, above our parents, above their squabbling, above the disappointment that ebbed from them—or so I believed—over their ordinary oldest daughter. Never mind the headaches that would swoop in like bats later that night, Cindy and I sucked in the paint smell and soared over spilled beer and roasted corn, the chorizo fallen in the gravel, our brother and sister, who would whine all the way home.

But now the fair was over, autumn shimmering in place, and I closed the gold book. I alone had finished SRA. I made my way to Mrs. Mudd’s desk to tell her, holding out the booklet as proof, but she only looked annoyed at my news. SRA was to last the whole year. “You’ll have to read them again,” she said, and I returned to my desk with the book whose spine I’d cracked, having been the first to open it, wishing I could crack it again and keep cracking. I laid it open on the desk and saw the story for what it was, wiseacre boys and obsequious girls. How had I gotten this wrong? Another botched attempt at being the child adults wanted me to be. I squinted to make the letters on the page slide and tried to find a spin-art sizzle in my throat, that metallic smell that filled me with—what was it?—possibility for all things, for even myself. I watched the clock above the Q and the R on Mrs. Mudd’s garland of cursive letters above the chalkboard. Sixteen minutes had passed. I spent the next forty-four in a pool of torpor.


That afternoon, deprived of my success, I was alone on the school playground as usual, a solitude I preferred and yet didn’t. Inexplicably, a girl from my class walked over and began to talk to me, an event so surprising I realized only later that she had invited me into a sanctum of secrets. She whispered a rumor about Mrs. Mudd’s son: Did I know he was a famous newscaster? I fidgeted until she moved off and then I shuffled to the door to wait for the recess bell, wondering again if there was a way to get out of being me.

I might have explained to the girl that I was bored by the TV news. Vietnam dead, churches burned in the South, McDonald’s restaurants erected (millions of hamburgers sold). What did these numbers have to do with living in the outpost of Idaho at a time when I wished for a sign that I’d someday be welcomed? Welcomed where, I wasn’t sure, by whom, I didn’t know, though I often had a vision of myself on a staircase, admired by those at the bottom watching me descend.

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Posted in Essays, From the Magazine, From The Vault, General

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In Bowling Class, I Think of Dad Taking Things Three Months at a Time



…And when [Pilate] had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.

I wake to go bowling.
We’re graded on attitude and attendance.
Everyone laughs. No one cares
about winning. Everyone cares
about winning. First line.
To the left, a woman from the hospital bowls
a strike. She claps and cheers and my heart
beams a little. To the right, a football athlete
plays in headphones–world
between his ears. In Olympia, my father
to whom I will not speak,
whose face heavies with the shrinking
ledger of days,
plants azaleas after surgery, the grooves
in his fingers filling with soil
and mercy. Neurology says 95 percent expire
in one year. Everyone thought it would be the smoking
that did it. Expire, as in
toothpaste, milk, bread. Second line:
approach, backswing, follow-through,
95 percent, one year, maybe I’ll get a spare
but memory sprinkles its gray
powder over the moment: silhouette
of Julian Norwich praying for the wound
of compassion and the present
is God’s private sacrament. 


BG National Poetry Month Banner

Michael J. Schmidt is from Olympia, WA, and is now an MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University. He will soon defend his thesis. He has no idea what will happen after that. You might find other poems of his in Stirring, The Cresset, or Ruminate.

Posted in Broadside Thirty, General, Poetry

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Marie-Helene Bertino Buys a Bookshelf


For reaching a human milestone, I am given five credit card gift certificates, imprinted with numbers, each containing a different amount of money. Sensing improved finances, my bookshelf surrenders against the weight it’s been expected to carry, sending books tizzying across the floor. I ask everyone, where should I buy a new one? Shelf Barn, everyone says.

I find a good looking model on Shelf Barn’s website and add it to my virtual shopping cart. I check out. The credit card gift certificates are stacked by my elbow: five festively plumed birds. When it’s time to employ, however, the payment field will only allow one.

I call Shelf Barn and reach Alex, a customer service rep whose voice contains a pleasant sizzle. She says she wants to help and I believe her. Alex, can you input the five cards from your official desk on what I imagine is a giant shelf that perches above another shelf where another service rep sits, over another, and so on, down a never-ending barn wall, poised above a main floor where shelves on dollies zoom gaily by?

No dice. The payment field will only accept one card, Alex says. It’s a one-card kind of field, monogamous.

Where do you find that kind of loyalty these days? I say.

Alex doesn’t know but has an idea! She instructs me to buy five separate Shelf Barn gift cards using the five credit card gift certificates, then apply them to the bookshelf. The gift card field has a more progressive idea of commitment and accepts multiple entries.

It’s a brilliant work around. Even Alex seems stunned by it. I imagine a sun beam bursting through the barn ceiling and lighting her at her desk.

The line breaks. Marie-Helene? She says.

I’m here, I say.

Alex wants to know if there’s anything else I need. I say no, and she wishes me a good day. I wish her the same. She thanks me, I thank her. A few more go arounds of gratitude and we hang up, feeling incredible.

I return to Shelf Barn’s website and purchase five Shelf Barn gift cards using the five credit card gift certificates in five separate transactions in my name.

Within minutes, email acknowledgements begin. This is to notify you that the gift card you bought yourself is being created. Congratulations, you! You’ve received a gift from yourself! The gift cards arrive—five much touted courtiers in a parade of pomp and virtual circumstance. Containing five replications of letters sliding out of five replications of envelopes addressed from me to myself. I open one and immediately receive a new email. Dear you, you are currently viewing your gift. I buy the bookshelf using the enlightened gift card field. Emails collect like flotsam in a shallow inlet. My vision swims. Alex and her simple fixes seem very far away. A new email: Everything is in process! I hurl a stone into a lake I’ve walked to without realizing. My image fractures into an endless array of shelves, I mean, selves. Paused halfway down a tree a squirrel meets and holds my gaze for 3 to 5 business minutes. Marie-Helene? it says, multi-voiced. Are you there? I return home to an email from my shelf: I am on my way. But am I giver or receiver? On the transitional firmament post-purchase but pre-delivery I build a home with two souls. I stare into the vast expanse. Hours pass. Sleepless, I fear I’ll miss my shelf and be forced to leave a note for every failed attempt at delivery: Sorry I missed me. Sorry I missed me. Sorry I missed me. Who do I think I am? Business days pass into business weeks. I keep waiting by the door for myself to arrive but if I do, how can I ever accept?


Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novel 2 A.M. At The Cat’s Pajamas and Safe as Houses. She teaches at NYU and in the low-residency MFA program at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts). For more information, please visit www.mariehelenebertino.com.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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A Cinema of the Mind: An Interview With Dana Spiotta

BG-Interview-1My experience first reading Dana Spiotta was similar to my experience first reading many of the writers I now think of as my heroes—I read one novel, and then I immediately purchased everything the writer had written and consumed the books rapaciously.

In the case of Dana Spiotta, that first novel was Eat the Document, a book that floored me on the sentence level and the story level, a rare feat. (I have a signed, well-worn copy on my bookshelf that I’d never lend out.) I immediately bought her other two novels, Stone Arabia and Lightning Field, and found them both equally remarkable and awe-inspiring. But I think that with Innocents and Others, Spiotta’s fourth novel, she has somehow managed to outdo herself—which is also to say: outdo all of us—by writing a book so inventive, so intelligent, so rich with emotion and insight.

Spiotta perhaps unwittingly gives a concise summary of what Innocents and Others is interested in at its core when a character bemoans “the failure of the actual to meet the contours of the imaginary,” a phrase and idea so loaded as to be of more than enough substance to fill a novel, for what is writing but a space to test out such curiosities, such failures of the real and the imaginary to congeal? And I can think of no one better—no one with a sharper pen nor equivalent reservoirs of empathy and curiosity—to have at the intersection of the real and the imagined, reporting back from that place—in language that will positively stun—for the reader’s edification. I was lucky enough to speak with Dana Spiotta over email the last few weeks as she’s been doing press for the release of Innocents and Others.

Ed. Note- We are once again honored to have Dana joining us for our summer workshop this July. The deadline to apply is April 29th.


 Vincent Scarpa: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this novel was a relatively long time in the making, yes? I remember hearing you read from it at Tin House a few years ago and feeling so frustrated that I couldn’t buy the book then and there. Can you tell me the origin story, how Innocents and Others came to be? What was the initial spark? What was the writing process like?

 Dana Spiotta: It seems that each of my books takes four-five years to write, even if each time I imagine I will be more efficient. With Innocents and Others, I had that opening section first. I played around with it for a while before I wrote more. I had this voice, this character, this tone. And she was not telling the whole truth, but she was telling a kind of truth, a lie-truth. Initially, I imagined that Meadow would be the one that called quasi-famous men on the phone. (I was inspired in this by internet catfishing and by Miranda, an infamous 1980s phone personality). I imagined she was a filmmaker, but she did this thing in her private life with phone calls. As I wrote it, I realized that it worked better as two characters, and I wrote Jelly. I really have no idea where I am going or what shape it will be for the first year. I mean, I am trying to figure it out, but it always changes in the writing.

VS: Did you know from the outset that you were writing a polyphonic—polyformic, even— novel? What do you see as the possibilities for this kind of modality of novel writing? And furthermore, did you know that you’d wait a significant amount of time in the text to show us how these two discrete narratives connect? It isn’t until page 179 that we get that glimmer, and it’s so exciting. I found it a remarkably confident decision—it asks that the reader accept and trust the writer will satisfy a natural curiosity about how the pieces fit, but she will do it on her timeframe.

DS: I didn’t know how polyformic it would be, but my novels have been getting more and more flexible in form. When I wrote Stone Arabia, I really wanted it to be an intimate novel of two characters. I wanted the insularity of a family, the hermetic qualities. And it was that, but the characters themselves could not be rendered with simple/straight/invisible narrative alone. The constructed chronicle of Nik’s life dictated some of the different modes: obituary, letter, articles. But organizing principles emerged. Those fragments, or clips, are always seen through Denise, his sister. They don’t exist outside her consciousness engaging them. So Denise’s mind, her urgent need, drove what we would see. In Innocents and Others, I knew pretty early on that there would be imaginary films. So one technical issue was how to treat the films. I imagined they would all be treated in the same way, filtered through a character’s consciousness as she is watching the film. But as I wrote it, I discovered that each instance of a film required a rendering specific to its content and placement and purpose. So sometimes we see a film as it is being made, almost live. Another time we see it as a straight, unnarrated, uninflected transcript, like a teleplay. Another time we see it as it is edited. And a number of times we see films through a mind watching, highly inflected and shaped by memory and personal perspective. For the film at the center of the book, Inward Operator, we watch it twice: once from Carrie’s point of view and once from Jelly’s.


As for withholding the connection between Meadow/Carrie’s story and Jelly/Jack/Oz’s story, you are right, it is a long time. I knew their narratives would connect, and I knew the reader would be looking for that. But I hope it works since there are many connections between them long before those storylines cross. I wrote them in the order you see in the novel, so the juxtapositions, the language, the feelings, and the concrete details of the various threads are meant to engage, reflect, and interact before the storylines do. At some point I had this image of billiard balls that would move separately, crash into one another, and then separate again, instead of two storylines meeting and then staying entwined, which is usually how that kind of structure works. After a time, I realized why that structure worked for the story. We get the story of one of Meadow’s subjects beyond the film Meadow makes about her, but we get her whole adult life. We get her before and after her filmed moments. That seemed crucial to me, for the book not to treat her the way Meadow treats her. At the end, we get another version of that with Sarah. I am compelled by how structure makes meaning in a novel. Innocents is divided into four very unequal parts. It functions like a thread novel in places, but each strand has sub strands braided in. Sometimes we get Meadow’s point of view, sometimes Carrie’s. In Jelly’s strand, we get the ongoing present with Jack, but we also get the past with Oz interspersed for a while. In Part Three we get an essay to match the opening essay—an orienting symmetry that came to me deep into writing the book. I thought, can I really do that? Yes, why not? So much of the book is asymmetrical, so a little structural repetition helped make it cohere. In Part Four, we get quick beats that push to the end, one after the other, which I wanted to build in a way that was very different from what came before, but still made of similar stuff. An escalation.

VS: How did you come across this concept of phone-phreaking? As a person who knows almost nothing about technology, and hasn’t the faintest idea about what the fuck a phone is even doing when I’m talking on it—do we fail to think too much about how such phenomena occur, precisely because they don’t feel like phenomena anymore?—the concept feels so richly rendered here, completely believable and factual, and I felt the research behind the narrative in the very best way—I knew that some research work had to have been undertaken in order to communicate the nuances of this practice, but I never felt from you, the writer, anything like an authorial intrusiveness, a desire to demonstrate all you’d learned about the subject.

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Ghosts of Bergen County: An excerpt



Set in New York City and New Jersey on the cusp of the financial crisis, Ghosts of Bergen County is a literary mystery with supernatural elements. It is a tautly paced and intricately plotted story in which collective burdens manifest into hauntings.



There were no witnesses except the woman who’d been up all night, had consumed two beers and three vodka tonics before switching to (and sharing) the playwright’s Scotch, and she (the witness) could remember the morning only in snatches, like the digital stills and clips that cycled through her computer’s screen saver. There was the club where she’d met the playwright. There were her friends leaving the club. There was the playwright tucking his loose curls behind his ear. There was the playwright in the stairwell of his building. There were the vents, condensers, and fans, the mechanical infrastructure on the roof, looming like the lunar module on the surface of the moon. There was the sun coming up over Chelsea. There was the playwright on the pavement below. And one other image, which came to her in the early afternoon, when she woke in her bed, naked, her dress and underwear bunched on the floor: the playwright, leaping from the gravel rooftop to the parapet that framed it, gilded and smooth and almost shining in the morning light, leaping the way an acrobat leaps from one tightrope to a higher tightrope, arms spread, for balance not flight. And it was this last image she trusted least, because it was the clearest and sharpest, as though it had never actually happened, as though she remembered it only from the dream she’d just dreamed.

Chapter Three

It was still light when Ferko arrived home. The house was quiet, the mail strewn on the dining table. “Hello,” he said, under his breath, to no one. There were catalogs and cheap envelopes with cheap printing, windows through which his name was misspelled, glossy postcards from realtors and remodeling contractors. He placed it all in the recycling bin that held paper. The bin was full, so he took it out the front door to the barrel beside the porch, half hidden by the hemlock.

The house was new, a Cape, wood-framed, with cement siding and a porch with gray planks and white columns and a wood swing that hung from chains, affixed to the beadboard ceiling with hooks like small anchors. Mary Beth had loved the porch the moment they’d first parked at the curb on a May afternoon, in front of the lone remaining tall oak from the woods Woodberry Road had replaced. She’d wanted an older house—pre–World War II—but this one did the trick. She sat on the swing and made room for him, and he joined her and swung, their feet drawn up off the floor, while their agent fiddled with the lockbox and then with the key.

Now the bench was empty. He sat on it, then regretted doing so. He should be inside, saying a proper hello. The porch was his after dark, after Mary Beth had gone to sleep. He’d sit in the shadows, with the porch lights out and two bottles of beer in a bucket of ice. He’d sip the beers over the course of an hour, while the evening bugs sang and the occasional car coasted past, its radio muffled, while dogs walked up and down the sidewalks on leashes, their masters mostly silent, though sometimes coaxing, the way a parent might coax a child.

He was comfortable by himself, drawn to the quiet. So was she. It was a bad recipe, they’d joked when they first got together and recognized how alike they were. They’d met through mutual friends—party folk, a core group of extroverts who’d gone to Yale and functioned, in those days, in New York City in Y2K, like a star, throwing off heat, pulling others into their orbit. Neither Ferko nor Mary Beth were extroverts or had gone to Yale, yet here they were, attending the same rooftop party in the West Village. Later they adjourned to a corner bar, where Ferko, feeling magnanimous and tipsy, bought a round for the denizens, a couple dozen or so at that wee hour, including the complete strangers who happened to be there, and this discreet bit of generosity—buying a round for the bar—pulled these strangers, in that moment and for the next hour or two, into their orbit as well. Truth be told, Ferko had always wanted to stand beside a bar and announce loudly that the next round was on him, to receive the backslaps and the glasses clinking against his own, and he’d done a quick estimate, before committing, of the numbers in the narrow room and figured this was as good a time as any. He hadn’t yet spoken with Mary Beth at this point, but he’d noticed her, a new face, and if Mary Beth hadn’t yet noticed Ferko, she did so now. She told him weeks later, when they were alone together for the first time, shoulders touching in the back of a cab between one party and the next, his gesture was generous. She was impressed.

It was a risk, they both knew, given their introspective natures; they needed others. When their others moved to different cities and suburbs, Mary Beth and Ferko moved here, to start a family, a new star, a new orbit.

He stood and steadied the porch swing and went to see if she was asleep or awake.

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In the Massif Central


From the Faith issue, an excerpt from Michael Helm’s forthcoming novel After James, out from Tin House Books in September 2016.


Since the summer Celia turned twelve her father had taken her on expeditions. He led teams of interchangeable members, opening plague pits in London, coring ice in Siberia, hose-blasting permafrost in the far north to find perfectly intact, extinct creatures, while some grad student who’d pulled the duty to look after her demonstrated the care involved in brushing and screening soil for the tiny bones of long-gone lizards and birds. Three Junes ago they revived the practice for the first time since she left for university. Now he was summering in France, living alone in the Cévennes. A team had come and gone. Once a week he visited friends in a lab ninety minutes away in Montpellier, but most days he spent in the mountains, on foot.

She’d been fifteen hours in transit from Vancouver, had slept maybe two. In final approach she looked down at morning in Paris, bright city, oddly flat. The Eiffel Tower, so small in person, like a male movie star. The high-rises of La Défense seemed like just the beginning of a vision, dream interrupted, sketched out and half realized at a safe distance to the west of the old realities, the beautiful districts, proportioned, ornate, storied in the richer sense.

On the TGV she fell asleep at three hundred kilometers an hour. He met her at the train station in Montpellier. The smile, a little bow, the avid blue eyes. He was lit with a kind of chemiluminescence. Something just below the skin held differently. “You look good, Dad. Great pigmentation.” He said he had something exciting to tell her. They drove through a landscape of hard plains, rock outcroppings, sudden sheer faces. His hands cupped the steering wheel, left wrist curled at eleven o’clock, right at three, then to the stick shift and back. As he spoke he glanced at her repeatedly. His long jaw worked the lines. He said he had a map of the unexplored cliffs and he’d been investigating as he could. The hikes were physically hard—was she in shape?—but his joints liked the climate. He could still balance on a foothold, still scramble on loose ground. Several days ago for three hours he’d cut a path across the least accessible of the promising rock faces and emerged above a tree line. After a minute along a barely navigable ledge, he came to a deep, uncrossable crevice, and there on the other side, a cave mouth.

“There seems to be no research on this cave. And it’s perfectly protected. If it opens up, if it doesn’t just run to a full stop in the dark, there could be thousands of years of artifacts inside. Tens of thousands. Neanderthals and humans lived around here at the same time. I’ve been waiting for you. Tomorrow we’ll climb with a ladder.”

He looked at her and the car drifted to the shoulder, corrected.

“Okay, sure. Exciting.”

Her body thought it was still in Vancouver. She used to trust her body, its distant early warnings and blunt reminders, but lately it had struck its own secret agenda and lost its sense of humor. It would arrive properly rested in a day or two. Until then she’d have to float around on her own, a hovering face, talking and smiling, waiting to close its eyes.

“They died off very suddenly, the Neanderthals. Twenty-five thousand years ago, in Gibraltar, staring at the sea. They weren’t crossers of oceans. Leaps of faith didn’t occur to them. Whereas Homo sapiens, well, here we are.”

Here they were. She’d imagined her arrival, an embrace, an almost wordless greeting, and a slow gathering of the moment. Now she was here and there’d been no arrival. He might have waited to tell her about the cave. Maybe he was afraid of recognizing her, or of failing to—she was aging, changing, about to enter important years for a childless single woman with a career—and so he’d put something between them that they’d have to pass back and forth. Now she’d wait a day before getting around to life updates, a brief romance come and gone, a health scare come and gone. She supposed she wouldn’t tell him about an unwanted pregnancy come and gone. Or at least a surprise pregnancy, and given the precautions a bit of a mystery one. It seemed to have come and gone on its own, as if it had nothing to do with her, or as if she had failed a test of grace. Not that she believed in grace or even really understood what it pretended to be.

The next day after breakfast they tied an aluminum ladder to the roof of his Suzuki Swift and set off into the mountains. She followed their route on a map covered with his printed additions and notes as they drove on the edge of La Vallée du Terrieu. He’d marked the names of each peak—Montagne d’Hortus, Pic Saint-Loup—each perched chateau, but as they climbed on ever narrower roads the names fell off until finally the doubtful path disappeared from the map and became only a track through a field that ended in trees. Above them the forest climbed steeply to the base of an immense, white vertical rock face. He studied the approach routes. From the trunk he took their supplies, shrugged into a small backpack. He gave her a coil of rope. He untied the ladder, put it over his shoulder, and led the way into the trees. There was little underbrush but the climb was steep, improvised, awkward, and soon they were too spent to speak, though they had said very little that morning anyway, and before long Celia was sweating in her unbreathing layers. Four times at intervals of thirty or forty minutes they stopped to rest. At one point, bent over with her hands on her knees, she looked up to find him resting the ladder vertically, taking her in through the rungs. Continue reading

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Six Ghost Stories


In a crucial scene about two-thirds of the way through my novel, Ghosts of Bergen County, the protagonist, Gil Ferko, confronted with the ghost that lives in his house, wonders what she wants. He then dismisses this thought: “She played a role. That was all.”

Ghosts in literature are often treated like hybrid elements: part character, part plot device, part setting. It must be this way, it seems, because literature, in almost all cases, is about people—living people—who are trying to carry on. In a ghost story, the living typically try to carry on with the help of (or in spite of) ghosts. These ghosts are sometimes the product of past wrongs, which often have some bearing on the story and the characters that populate it.

Below are six examples, representing some of my favorite ghost stories.



Beloved (novel), Toni Morrison: “124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom.” Extreme trauma and the brutal legacy of slavery produce a frightening, angry spirit


The Graveyard Book (novel), Neil Gaiman: Set in a city graveyard and its surrounding neighborhood, this novel for young people—one I read with my kids when they were little—features benevolent spirits and malevolent mortals.


The Shining (novel), Stephen King: This list would feel incomplete without King, and The Shining is his scariest ghost story. An empty, secluded hotel, a spooky child, and a flawed, wounded protagonist are the ingredients for the horror that ensues.


“Stone Animals,” (short story), Kelly Link: Setting again is prominently featured when a family moves from city to exurb to find they’re out of their element on a property teeming with wild rabbits, surrounding a house that may be haunted.


“Ghost Story,” (short story), Margo Rabb: Here’s a ghost story without the supernatural, where spirits inhabit the ineffable void left when loved ones die.


The Sixth Sense, (film), M. Night Shyamalan: Though there are better movies about ghosts—Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others comes to mind—you can’t beat The Sixth Sense for its exploration of the demands that ghosts make upon the living.





Dana Cann was born in Santa Barbara, California, and raised in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. He’s worked in commercial banking, corporate finance, and restructuring. His short stories have been published in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Florida Review, and Blackbird, among other journals. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Dana earned his M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland with his wife and their two teenage children. Dana teaches fiction workshops at The Writer’s Center. Ghosts of Bergen County is his debut novel.

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Ghosts of Bergen County: An Interview with Dana Cann


Set in New York City and New Jersey on the cusp of the financial crisis, Ghosts of Bergen County is a literary mystery with supernatural elements. It is a tautly paced and intricately plotted story in which collective burdens manifest into hauntings. Here, Dana Cann chats with his editor Meg Storey about his debut, self-doubt, writing with empathy, and haunting his characters. 


Meg Storey: What was the initial impetus for writing Ghosts of Bergen County?

Dana Cann: The idea for this novel began, as many of my works begin, as a dream: a friend and I take heroin, shoplift in a mall, and are chased by store security. It felt important, this dream. After a couple of false starts, I discovered Ferko, a private-equity misfit whose daughter was killed in a hit-and-run. The scene based on my dream occurs about a quarter of the way through the novel.


MS: You write about heroin addiction in a very empathetic way. How did you approach writing about drugs and addiction?

DC: One of the fundamental requirements for a writer, I think, is to have empathy for the people he or she writes about. Unfortunately, empathy is hard to find in a lot of media. All one needs to do is turn on the television or go on the Internet—any channel or site with talking heads, sound bites, or memes—to find a lack of empathy. It’s why books are more important than ever, even as these same media sources tell us that books are less and less relevant.

Ferko’s decision to use heroin is an impulsive one, which makes it interesting. As I was writing I knew I had to get to that scene early in the novel, yet I dreaded writing it, afraid I’d get it wrong or couldn’t pull it off. My self-doubt as a writer dovetails nicely with Ferko’s self-doubts.

When I first set out to write a novel about characters who use heroin, I had a difficult time getting past the junkie stereotype. Then I read Ann Marlowe’s memoir, How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z, where I found fully functioning people who happened to use heroin. This revelation helped immensely.

MS: In the novel, ghosts haunt places rather than people. Is there a reason you chose to set the story in the places you did?


DC: Ghosts is set during the summer of 2007, just before the financial crisis, in Manhattan and the New Jersey suburbs, in about equal parts. Manhattan, of course, is a fantastic place. I’ve never lived there but I’m convinced I did in a past life. The city has always felt manageable to me, and I’m always surprised, given its size and surface chaos, how ordered everything is, how everyone has a role to play and plays it well. At least that’s my impression as someone who’s visited a couple times a month over many years.

I’m a product of the suburbs, and many of my stories are set there. Most of the suburban scenes in Ghosts take place in one of the few undeveloped spaces that suburbs offer—a small stand of trees that buffers one developed area from another. There’s a riff that runs through the novel about silence and negative space. These remaining stands of trees, it seems to me, are the suburban equivalent of negative space in a visual composition, and it’s no coincidence that the ghost, Amanda, and Mary Beth are drawn to such a place.

MS: Do you believe in ghosts?

DC: I’m a spiritual person, though not in an organized religion kind of way. I believe in a higher being, and I believe we’re all connected in ways we don’t, or perhaps can’t, fully understand. I believe that that connectedness extends in infinite directions, including between past and present.

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