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From the time I was very young, I knew I’d be famous. This conviction was different from wanting to be famous, or wanting to be good at something that would make me famous. My impending fame was constitutional. It lodged within me and bided its time as I sat in all the plastic chairs of childhood, static electricity pulling my arm hairs delicately away from my body. My ankles knocked loosely against the chairs’ metal legs, and I waited for the future to float up and meet me.
My patience stood in contrast to my fame-seeking classmates, who devised their personalities as advertisements for their future selves. These spotlight-chasers were my best friends. They saw something in me they couldn’t put their fingers on, and so their hands were always on me. Is it normal to knead a friend’s shoulder so robustly, to intuit endless knots in a best friend’s hair and allow one’s fingers to work their way into the waves to debarb them? Normal wasn’t a viable bridle path for any of us. They loved me and I let them.
When I did become famous, it was for doing something I never thought I’d do. It was the thing that when I was doing it I thought less about my fame than when I was doing any other thing. One of my best friends who was famous for her work with crystals had given me a polished crag of lapis lazuli. She’d told me that lapis activated the higher mind and encouraged honesty of the spirit, so I put it on a windowsill in my workroom because I liked the color. It was the color blue of the earth from space—that warm and distant. I missed it even when it was in front of me. The stone filled me with a hopeful desperation that made me produce the best work of my life. It was only a matter of time before the phone started ringing.
For the first few months I played a game I invented: I picked up a magazine from the stack on my coffee table and allowed my body to foam with surprise when I turned the page to a mention of my name or a photo of my face. In the game, I felt famous to myself. Because I had never felt anonymous, the new attention I got from fans and neighbors didn’t bother me. Because my friends had never befriended me disinterestedly, I wasn’t suspicious of my increased popularity. I became known for always wearing a startling blue.
Q: Do you think being famous is the same as being loved?
A: I think being famous is a form of love. I think wanting love isn’t a way of getting love.
Q: Do you consider fame to be an extra or an essential part of your daily life?
A: Soon after becoming famous, I bought a farm on 100 acres. The real estate agent told me that the barn—my current workroom—has the capacity to hold 40 grand pianos.
Of my dear old friends who are now also famous, I see many of them misplacing aspects of their former selves. They are no longer from Florida, they never did stints as accountants. They never loved women. Sometimes, the women they loved come to me and ask me what they should do: Should they go to the media? Should they try the talkshows? I tell them the sort of fame they’d gain from doing this would likely be unflattering and aggravatingly long-lived. I offer to name them as my former lovers at the next available opportunity, and most of them take me up on it.
My sex life, since you’re wondering, is as fine as it’s ever been. I’m far from lonely. I keep my hair long enough to build up some knots.
Q: Where were you when you first realized that you would be famous?
A: When I was three years old or so, I was out to dinner with my parents in the city where we lived. A woman came up to us and gave my parents a business card. She said that she was a photographer, and that she was making a book of photographs of children in the neighborhood. Some days later, my parents took me to her studio. They sat on a couch to the side and were offered soft drinks while the stylists dropped me on a tall stool, flipped my hair back with gel, clipped on heavy pearl earrings. They dabbed on some makeup. Instead of a shirt they wrapped me in a feather boa that they made to fly around by pointing a fan at it. Most of this I know from photos and from what my parents told me. What I remember most is that the fan blew a hard wind and the feathers of the boa flew around me, like a bird trying to take off, though the photographer had asked me to keep very still.
Sara Jaffe is a fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She coedited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata.
As ever, the Tin House staff spent the end of its summer catching up on new releases, finally reading Scandinavian classics, chilling out with jazz, and—oh, right, visiting the pencil store:
Emma: A New York Times article alerted me to the presence of an all-pencil, all the time shop in my midst: CW Pencil Enterprise, on Forsythe Street in Manhattan. I made a visit, and it’s great. My list of favorite holidays ranks thus, in ascending order: 5.) Plath’s birthday 4.) The Oscars 3.) Valentine’s Day 2.) Halloween 1.) Back To School Shopping Day, so you can imagine my feelings about a store that sells nothing but the best and strangest stationary from around the world. I went home with a Big Dipper, three Bugles, an eraser shaped like a river stone, a Blackwing, an Edelweiss, and a Maharaja wrapped in a pink marbleized paper, plus a Wolverine Boots pencil that fate dealt me via the store’s vending machine. But the real gift of CW Pencil Enterprise that keeps on giving was a podcast recommendation from the store’s owner, Caroline Weaver, which she made while wrapping up my haul. Apparently my Bugles were very on-point having recently been featured in Erasable, a pencil podcast, because there is such a thing, and it is also great. Episodes feature check ins-on what the hosts are drinking and what they’re writing with, cameos by Weaver herself (no introduction necessary, evidently, for those who’d be tuning in), and talk of incendiary plans to crash pen conventions. Highly recommended for the pencil-committed and the casual scribbler alike.
Heather: Jazz, calypso, swing, post-punk—Italian trumpeter, singer and composer Roy Paci has played a lot of just about everything at some point in his long career and with great verve and charisma. He’s worked with countless bands, musicians and DJs including Manu Chao, Gogol Bordello and Shantel. In 2002 he formed his own band, Aretuska, and there’s a fresh sound to his music that is both traditional and super new. His version of “Cantu siciliano” rocks in any and all seasons and his suave “Bonjour Bahia” is excellent. Paci’s tunes are a superfine and smooth way to start September.
Cheston: For as much as I pride myself on being punctual, I’m a persistent latecomer, culture-wise. I often have to be practically girded by recommendations before I’ll give in. And since I finished The Long Ships, I’ve been kicking myself for not having succumbed earlier. This isn’t likely news to anyone but me, but the book’s a faux Nordic saga set in the 10th century, written by the Swedish writer Frans Bengtsson and originally published in two parts in 1941 and 1945. It follows the adventures of a man named Orm, who at the book’s beginning is kidnapped by Vikings and has to win their respect. I don’t want to despoil any of the book’s many pleasures by summarizing them here, so consider yourself goaded.
Tony: I remember that morning at AWP when Cheston—lacrosse shorts hanging off those sturdy thighs, hangover musk wafting from his Air-BnB’d bedroom–clutched a stack of manuscript pages, looked at us terrified, and went on and on about the 10K-word story he’d just read: a story that painted a not-unsympathetic portrait of a child-porn addict. Not surprisingly, I had some doubts. But that piece, “Dark Meadow,” became one of my favorite’s that appeared in Tin House, and my favorite in Adam Johnson’s excellent new collection of similarly long-ass short stories, Fortune Smiles. I don’t think there’s a miss in the book (and it’s particularly fun to read a story that nods at “Dark Meadow”‘s origin), but someone should teach an entire master’s class on one of Dark Meadow’s early sentences—the one that sent shivers down my spine, and I’d wager it was the one that filled Cheston’s sleep-boogered eyes with terror: “But I’ll admit this now, because this is going to be a certain kind of story: the Cub activates.” [We all remember AWP '14 differently, but I recall walking in on Cheston reading "Dark Meadow" at night, alone, and knowing looking at him that he needed a hug he wasn't going to get. The lacrosse shorts thing is accurate, though. —Ed.]
Meanwhile, the interns have had a busy month, too:
Jess: I just saw The End of the Tour, the film adaptation of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which itself is a transcription of a few days–long conversation between Lipsky and David Foster Wallace. Lipsky was interviewing Wallace for a Rolling Stone profile that never ran, and it’s pretty easy to see why the editors decided to chop it; Wallace’s everyday speech (so, excepting, of course, his excellent 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College), circular and complicated and tangential, is nearly impossible to distill to the two- or three-sentence chunks that profiles require. But the material is perfect for a book and even more perfect for a film, as the dialogue comes, literally, straight from the source and his sweat-hiding headband. I really loved the film, and if you’re worried about Jason Segel playing your hero, I understand you, I was you once, but please go see the film anyway and count the ways you are wrong. See it for the Alanis Morrisette talk and for Segel-as-Wallace saying “Mi Pop-Tart es su Pop-Tart.” It’s delightful, but it’s also soul-crushingly sad to be reminded that we’ll never get more brilliant, empathetic work from Wallace.
Nicole: This August there was a lot of youth, but very little beauty. First-up was Ottessa Moshfegh’s much-anticipated debut, Eileen. Moshfegh, known for her intense, dark short stories does not disappoint with her descriptions of the disturbed mind hiding behind young Eileen’s death mask. Next up was Geoff Dyer”s 1980′s dole memoir The Colour of Memory which may have my favourite opening paragraph of all time: “The weather was getting people down. I wasn’t keen on the weather either but what really put a dampener on things was being thrown out of my house and sacked from my job.” Finally, Thomas Morris’s brilliant debut We Don’t Know What We Are Doing, a collection of interlinked short stories set in the Welsh town of Caerphilly. A personal favourite is “Fugue”—the familiar story of a disaffected millennial returning to her hometown becomes something unexpected and twisted.
Cameron: Modest Mouse defines so much of my emotional, spiritual, and existential background that I am inescapably—and at times somewhat pathetically—a “die-hard.” I remember lying in the bed of my family’s RV in the sixth grade imagining my then (twelve-year-old) girlfriend waving her hair seductively on the beach. I was staring at the pocket-sized swim team photo she had given me and listening to “Float On” for my first time.
Twelve revolutions around the sun later and here I am: still in love . . . with a band. In Strangers to Ourselves, lead singer of Modest Mouse, Isaac Brock, pines for our common thread as humans and our relation to the natural world. Known and celebrated for his profound, penetrating, and shrewd lyrics, Isaac’s words have made hairs stand on my back more than once. And once again, their new record is a miracle in intellect: it masks tragedy with exotic drum sections and metaphor; it cradles you in sweet, abstract nostalgia, acknowledging the coyotes that still tiptoe untroubled through the great forests. The record makes me feel as though I’ve returned to my private Catholic middle school: my stiff collared shirt tucked under my green shorts and brown, dress-mesh belt, my converse too big for my feet as I listen dutifully to my sagacious teacher. (I’ll always be twelve when listening to Modest Mouse.) Isaac’s guru advice by the end is to find a fence to lean on, rub your eyeglasses clean, and be brave, because the life you put out will produce the world around you.
Claire: I have nothing but admiration for My Body is a Book of Rules, the shimmering new autobiography by Elissa Washuta: Open, ruthless, and more self-critical than any other non-fiction writer I’ve read recently. The book is both dark and hilarious, sometimes in the same sentence. Even when the events of the narrative seem to repeat themselves, it isn’t an editorial oversight or sloppy writing; the repetitions are signals of what matters, the writer picking them up again, holding them at a different angle, searching for new answers. It feels honest and intimate. Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts: “I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding.” Washuta writes with the same urgency and fiery curiosity. A gift for those who appreciate a good autobiography and fine, precise writing.
Dryland launches today! If you are in Portland, don’t miss Sara Jaffe’s reading at Powell’s tonight. This morning on The Open Bar, Sara talks with her editor about Portland, 1992, swimming, R.E.M, and how writing is hard.
Masie Cochran: Place plays a role in Dryland. Can you talk a little about how you chose where to set the book? Why the 90s?
Sara Jaffe: Both of these choices were, in a way, pragmatic. I chose the 90s in part because it’s when I was growing up, and I felt I understood being a teenager at that time better than I understand that experience today—but what really cemented that decision is that I didn’t want the internet to exist. It would have been too easy for Julie to track down information about her brother and to get in touch with him. I wanted her to have to look for mention of him in print magazines, to have to wait for his call.
And I set the book in Portland in part because I knew that if I set it in 1992 and I set it in northern New Jersey, where I grew up, I wouldn’t be able to get the distance I needed to create this character. Plus, Portland in the 90s was not yet the urban-hipster-semitropolis it is today; Julie would have access to some outside culture, some progressivism, but she’d be less worldly than if she lived outside of, say, New York. I lived in Portland for a minute in the late 90s, and my partner did grow up here, so I think I was able to decently piece together what it would have been like. Also, I should say, I never explicitly call the city Portland—I wanted to be able to play it fast and loose with geography if I needed to.
MC: What do you like most about Julie Winter?
SJ: I like that she’s surly, and that she lies—two things that I never had the guts to be/do. She’s also plenty insecure and awkward, but not really aware of her insecurity and awkwardness, so she’s able to act pretty boldly. That was really interesting for me as a writer—to figure out how to communicate to the reader that she’s more of a mess than she thinks she is. For that reason, though the novel is written in the first person, I don’t exactly think of it as being from Julie’s point of view.
MC: What was your “Country Feedback” as an adolescent? Was it actually “Country Feedback”? Why did you choose that song for Julie?
SJ: It kind of was! I guess REM were sort of my gateway into more underground music, even though I initially got into them because they were popular—“Stand” was probably the first REM song I knew. I liked how their songs were catchy but they felt complicated—in their best songs, like “Country Feedback,” or “Swan Swan H,” another favorite, there’s a sense that words Michael Stipe is singing are inadequate to describe the depth of feeling in his voice—that he’s trying, and maybe failing, to be as specific as possible about something indescribable. And “Country Feedback” is just so rambling and obscure—it was really enjoyable from a writing perspective to transcribe the lyrics onto the page. But also—I think I somehow didn’t know that I could listen to loud, noisy music. Or I didn’t know any noisy music other than hair metal on the radio. Sonic Youth’s “100%” was really a revelation for me—my first loud song. It’s significant that that’s the song Julie chooses at the end of the book.
MC: What interests you most about Julie’s relationship with her brother?
SJ: That’s one of the most difficult things about the book for me to articulate. In part I think it has to do with the fact that it’s pretty common, in adolescence, to feel like you’re searching for something. Julie has decided that her brother is what she’s searching for, or, at least, images of him in magazines—but is that only because he is what’s conveniently absent? Is she subconsciously using her search for him as a way to distract herself from dealing with her own shit? I also wanted to say something about queerness, because I know it’s possible that someone could read the book and think that Julie is only queer because her brother is, and she wants to be more like him. But so what? Identity, attraction, all these things happen for a ton of different reasons, some more conscious than others. And finally, this may seem like an evasion, but part of what interests me most about Julie’s relationship with her brother is that it allows Ben to come onto the scene. He becomes not just a substitute “big brother,” but in a way, an actual one—her chosen family.
Alexandra Kleeman has been getting terrific and much-deserved buzz for her wild, wily debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. We at Tin House are proud to say we knew her when. Here’s her stellar unpacking of The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed, the first book written by a computer, for our 2012 Science Fair issue.
As a child in the early nineties, I discovered a type of computer program that others casually called “chatterbots”: text-based interfaces designed to simulate conversation between the user and a humanlike entity. These programs were entertaining, and they projected an aura of effortless sentience without the heavy-duty, strenuous programming that was then at the core of many other attempts to create artificial intelligence. ELIZA, the computerized Rogerian psychotherapist, was the most popular of the programs. It generated questions or turned each bit of user response into an open-ended statement, outputting phrases such as “I am sorry that you are depressed” or “Why do you think that you are a selfish person?” that encouraged users to say more, to provide more material, in order to further the specter of conversation.
But there was another program, called RACTER (short for “raconteur”), that would “talk” to you at length and at all hours and, unlike ELIZA, RACTER was a bit deranged. It solicited input from the user, and then placed these phrases, Mad-Libs style, into narratives that veered off into the nonsensical and the abstract. While ELIZA’s measured responses felt distinctly mechanical, RACTER’s weird tangents could have been the utterances of an odd bard. A year or two ago, while trying to hunt down a copy of the program, I learned that RACTER had “authored” a book — The Policeman’s Beard Is Half-Constructed: Computer Prose and Poetry by RACTER.
RACTER’s writing is spastic at times, crystalline and concise at others. In its stories, tangles of characters with generic names collide in dinner-party settings in which each character’s relations to the others are disclosed in cluttered detail; in its poems, a bizarrely whimsical lyric voice discourses on topics of love, cosmology, reason, and matter. There are stylistic flaws in the text — the words steak, lettuce, and neutron are conspicuously overused throughout. But the moments when RACTER captivates are those in which the voice surveys aspects of human experience, giving the effect of a speaker looking in on life from an inquisitive, but dissociated, exteriority:
At all events my own essays and dissertations about love
and its endless pain and perpetual pleasure will be
known and understood by all of you who read this and
talk or sing or chant about it to your worried friends
or nervous enemies. Love is the question and the subject
of this essay. We will commence with a question:
does steak love lettuce? This question is implacably
hard and inevitably difficult to answer. Here is
a question: does an electron love a proton,
or does it love a neutron? Here is a question: does
a man love a woman or, to be specific and to be
precise, does Bill love Diane? The interesting
and critical response to this question is: no! He
is obsessed and infatuated with her. He is loony
and crazy about her. That is not the love of
steak and lettuce, of electron and proton and
neutron. This dissertation will show that the
love of a man and a woman is not the love of
steak and lettuce. Love is interesting to me
and fascinating to you but it is painful to
Bill and Diane. That is love! Continue reading
Artist Stephanie Calvert is most known and celebrated for her dazzling, luminous close-up paintings of minerals. When she and I met in painting classes in college, I had a nebulous sense of some secret grit of hers buried beneath her fascination with luster. Recently, I found out just what that secret was: Calvert grew up with hoarder parents in an abandoned schoolhouse in super-rural Colorado, without plumbing or consistent electricity. Two years ago, Calvert’s mother was in a life-threatening bicycle accident that’s left her with permanent brain damage. The accident led Calvert to return home to see her mother–and the schoolhouse where they lived.
Calvert is now making art out of some of the things her parents hoarded as a means of trying to process the strangeness of their family life. It was a privilege to talk to her about her process, the psychology of having too much and not enough, and what she hopes to find through this work.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: I know that this project was born of your return to Thatcher and the schoolhouse in the wake of your mother’s accident. Within the context of that return, was there a particular moment when the idea for this work came to you? What was the first piece you made in the project?
Stephanie Calvert: The idea to return to Thatcher and work through my emotions using art was brewing in the back of my head for a while after going to Colorado right after the accident. What solidified the decision for me was a conversation with a close friend who really pushed me to tell my unique story. That conversation had me get that I was never going to feel “ready” to take this on, but that the time was ripe to start this project. The first finished piece I made is called And Another One. It’s made out of empty Altoids boxes and a wood frame. I found them spilling out of bags in one of the rooms. My mother used to always have Altoids in her purse, and she held onto the containers. I put them together in a piece, and a day later found a whole other box of them, so I took apart the piece and expanded it.
EKH: Have you been living back in the schoolhouse while you’ve been creating this artwork? What has that return been like for you?
SC: Yes, typically I spend a few nights in the schoolhouse alone, working/cleaning/meditating/sorting. Then I take a trip into Trinidad to stay a night at my parent’s house there, to help my dad take care of my mom, shower, connect to the Internet, and pick up food and supplies. It’s been so bizarre to be staying in the building again, especially alone. I’ve never experience space and silence like that. The building has so many memories; it feels like living in a time capsule in a way. And I have come to really enjoy being disconnected, with no distractions from my work. In so many ways, this return feels like a completing of many circles in my life.
EKH: Some of my favorite works in the project play so deftly with ideas of superabundance and chaos, but find something deeply melancholy or futile or still-absent even within that huge volume of stuff; I think of the rolls and rolls of hoarded paper from Page 1, or the assemblage of empty Altoids boxes in the And Another One or the many wood tiles that come together as the scull of Third Life. How do those elements relate in your work: this sense of there being, within this stuff, too much and not enough simultaneously?
SC: In exploring this project, I have the opportunity to explore my mother’s mind in seeing what she held onto, what she deemed as important or useful or interesting. I’ve thought a lot about how she collected useful things to the point of uselessness. Each physical thing you own has a string of energy attached to you, so the space in Thatcher can feel like a chaotic web at times, overwhelming and immobilizing with the sheer abundance. There is also a sense of melancholy for me, in seeing all these things and the building itself fall apart and decay over time with not being used, of half-finished projects and unfulfilled intentions. This is one of the ways I am completely a circle, by finally putting to use these things she thought she would use one day. I get a lot from reordering the stuff out there, finding new value or beauty in it, looking at the things from a perspective of potential and possibility again.
SC: It’s the most physical, emotional, and mental work I’ve done thus far. Each day is a different journey, with highs and lows. The space and things out there are strong triggers for me; I’ll find myself working on a piece or sorting through stuff and I’ll have a breakdown. Especially when I go through my mother’s things, knowing her condition since the accident, it can be so painful to see remnants and reminders of her life when she was young, vital, and engaged. I’m also often reminded of myself as a little girl when I was so angry, sad, and alone. It’s exactly this process that has me face all these challenging memories and emotions and work on giving love to all of it.
EKH: What’s your process been like with this project? Are you working simultaneously on many pieces? Where’s your studio space?
SC: I’ve cleared out portions of the building to use as workspaces. The inside space is about 100×50 feet and 2 floors of classrooms. At this point, I have workspace in several rooms, and areas where I’ve put materials I’m interested in using for future pieces. A typical day includes working on multiple pieces, searching for inspiration, and spending time meditating or journaling. Having so much space to myself is ideal for this internal and external exploration. I wake up before sunrise and take pictures in the morning light, and then I start on one of the art pieces. If I feel stuck or frustrated with one, I move onto to another one, or I take breaks to explore the building and sort through things mining for more inspiration. By sunset I’ve made some dinner and am usually taking pictures again in the evening light. Nighttime can be scary for me – a lot of the building is dark and there are strange noises, insects, and animals. Without much to do in the limited light, I read and meditate before an early bedtime.
EKH: Elsewhere you’ve described this project as means of understanding your mother, of “explor[ing] questions she can no longer answer in her current mental state.” Are you feeling like you’re finding those answers? What do you most want to know or find via the work of this series?
SC: Because of her brain damage, she confabulates now, meaning she mixes up memories, reality, and dreams. It’s hard to say how grounded in reality she is from one moment to the next, and her mind is so chaotic it’s simply not a reliable source to answer the questions I have about our family’s past. In going through the things out there, I’ve been able to get an insight into who my mother was, why we moved to Thatcher, and what her experience was like. I’ve found a lot of her writing, like essays, old letters, and notes, which explain so much and paint a more complete picture of my family.
Stephanie Calvert is Brooklyn-based artist raised in California and Colorado. Her work has been featured in private shows at The Lounge and My Moon, as well as in group shows including Signs of Life (Corridor Gallery), Default World Dreaming (Gallery 151), and En Masse-Raw Artists (OutPut).
In the dream, I was attending a pizza buffet with my brother when I was invited to a Caribbean pig roast. Hey, I said, you’re not going to believe this but—and he held up a hand. You, he said, were just invited to a Caribbean pig roast. On the drive over, I asked him what made it Caribbean and he said the word pineapple in a calm and confident tone. It turned out my brother had been to multiple Caribbean pig roasts in his lifetime. Am I dressed appropriately? I asked. You can wear anything to a Caribbean pig roast, he said. That’s what makes it so great. We pulled into a long driveway lined with tropical flags. Some of the flags had my face on them and other flags had the face of the pig on them. In the backyard of a house that resembled my childhood house but wasn’t my childhood house I was greeted by my entire extended family, all my co-workers from every job I ever worked, my three ex-wives, and my two daughters. Everyone is here, said my brother, who has ever loved you. My father pointed to the pig and said “except for that guy.” I didn’t laugh because I didn’t feel loved. When I asked my brother what the occasion was, he said no occasion, just a new occasion where everyone in America will once, in their lifetime, experience a surprise Caribbean pig roast with everyone they have ever loved in attendance. Oh, I said. My grandmother yanked the jawbone from the pig and fed her pineapple chunks to my mom’s dog. My mom sat alone in the corner reading a People magazine. Huh, I said, to myself. My brother was praised and applauded for organizing such an event and at one point was hoisted up by everyone in my family, minus me, and thrown several times into the air. Jesus Christ, said my boss, eating some pig dipped in ketchup. At night my ex-wives looked beautiful under the light from the tiki torches. They took turns wearing the pig’s snout and danced to my favorite songs from my childhood. The pig vanished under the moon. My brother told me this would be the highlight of my life, and looking out at everyone who had ever loved me full of pig meat, I felt my body rising and saw my daughters reaching for my feet. But they couldn’t feel me.
Shane Jones is the author of three novels, most recently, Crystal Eaters. His work has appeared online in The Paris Review, The Believer, BOMB, Diagram, and VICE, among others. His first novel, Light Boxes, was optioned for film by Spike Jonze, translated into eight languages, and named an NPR Best Book of the Year. He lives in Albany, New York.
It is highly improbable that another story collection will come along this year that packs a bigger punch than Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, out now from Random House. Don’t let the deceivingly brief table of contents fool you—each of these six stories is a genuine powerhouse, a tour-de-force, an astonishing achievement. [Fun fact: three of the six stories appeared originally in Tin House!]
Johnson’s characters are all, in their own way, seeking something like exoneration—from themselves, from their pasts, from their lovers, and from the world they inhabit. They long for some imprecise asylum, and the way in which Johnson captures that searching is nothing short of masterful. These stories have much to teach—both about what it is to be alive in the world and what it is to try and represent meaningfully that aliveness.
This interview was conducted over the phone with Adam, who was gracious and hilarious and insightful.
Vincent Scarpa: How long have these stories been in your arsenal? Were they all completed after The Orphan Master’s Son, or were some in the works before that?
Adam Johnson: That’s a good question. One story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” I wrote earlier. In the middle of Orphan Master’s Son, I knew that I needed to use a certain kind of third person with a certain kind of distance that I’d never really deployed before, and so I stopped writing that book and I figured, Let me test it out. So I wrote that story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” that was really ratcheted-down and limited in a certain way, as a kind of test run to see if I could do that over a bigger novel. So that story came earlier, but the other five came after I finished the novel. I had just missed stories. I love everything about stories and I’d been just jonesing to write some.
VS: Was there any trepidation on your end, or on the publishing end, in putting out a book of stories—thought of by some these days as a dead-on-arrival endeavor—on the heels of a Pulitzer-winning novel?
AJ: Well, I’m lucky to have a great editor and a great house. I have a sense that the people who read short stories are the ones who want to write short stories, and who are very literary types, and it’s seemed to me always that there’s maybe 10,000 of us out there. But I do believe there has been a resurgence in short stories, and that there are great practitioners—whether it’s Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Karen Russell—doing great work and who are actually finding wider audiences for stories. Random House has been wholeheartedly behind these stories, and they really want to get them in the hands of readers, so I’ve been fortunate.
VS: I usually wouldn’t ask a writer to talk about the process differences between writing stories and writing novels—for a lot of reasons, but primarily because I just don’t find it an interesting or productive question—but I am curious to hear you talk about it, considering that you write some of the longest stories I’ve read at sixty, seventy pages. They’re Alice Munro long! And while each story in the collection feels fully realized and exists in a carefully constructed world all its own, I could easily see any of them being stretched into a full-length novel, especially stories like “Hurricanes Anonymous” and “Fortune Smiles.” They feel entirely complete to me as short stories, but undoubtedly contain so many opportunities for expansion. As a reader, I would’ve been down to follow either much longer. I suppose that’s a roundabout way of asking if these always existed as stories or if you had ever planned or tried to work one out into another novel.
AJ: Well, first of all, my process for writing is the same, regardless of form: I abandon my children, I become a horrible husband, and a half-assed teacher. That’s what it all has in common.
There’s definitely something a little maximal about my writing, just because one of the great joys is building a world out of nothing. That’s the largest pleasure for me, and it takes a lot of page space to do. To make a Stasi prison so that I can see every hall and cell and the looks on people’s faces, to feel the electricity humming through the wires. Or to know every street on a hurricane-ravaged town. Or to see every flashing light in the city of Seoul from the point of view of two defectors. I just have to build that world. I could kind of go on forever. I know these stories are all long, but they are honestly as short as I could get them.
Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller tells the story of Peggy Hillcoat who survives in a remote European forest with her father for nine long and lonely years. The novel won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, has been nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award, and was longlisted for The Guardian’s Not The Booker prize.
Claire has provided the Open Bar with a field guide to some of the flora and fauna which Peggy encounters in the forest. Each picture is captioned by a quote from the novel.
How well do you think you would survive in the wild with only an axe and a knife?
Eastern Grey Squirrel [Sciurus carolinensis]: Up to 20 inches in length. During the winter, they nest in the hollow of trees and in warmer weather they make temporary nests out of leaves and sticks located in tree branches.
Gribble or European Crab Apple: The walnut-sized fruit is as hard as wood, rather sour and unsuitable for human consumption.
Bracken [Pteridium aquilinum]: A large fern commonly found in woodland and heathland. It can tolerate a wide range of conditions and is found all over the world.
Blackbird eggs [Turdus merula]: The normal clutch of eggs is 3 to 5. The female incubates alone, and the chicks hatch 13-14 days later.
Destroying Angel [Amanita virosa]: Caps are 5 to 10cm in diameter, pure white, and without any marginal striations. The cap is initially egg-shaped and then campanulate (bell shaped) or occasionally almost flat but with a broad umbo, and is often tilted on the stipe.
Blackberry [Rubus fruticosus]: Blackberry plants spread aggressively by sending up long canes. As the canes mature, they lie down on the ground outside of the patch. Where the cane touches the soil, new roots grow, creating a new plant. Depending on the species, blackberry canes can grow up to 40 feet long.
Chanterelle [Cantharellus cibarius]: As well as their distinctive yellow colour these mushrooms are also known for their fruity, apricot-like odour.
Brown Trout [Salmo trutta]: Brown trout are one of the most genetically diverse vertebrates known. There is far more genetic variation present across populations of wild brown trout than between any populations in the entire human race.
Claire Fuller lives in Winchester, England. Our Endless Numbered Days is her first novel.
In Loot Bag, the cover of Tin House #65: Theft, Martin Wittfooth concerns himself with “the disquieting human habit of wanton materialism and the wastefulness that results from it.” Our avian cover model hoards a trove of stolen treasure in its beak: disposables such as plastic toys, aluminum cans, and fast food. Taking cues from Caravaggio, Wittfooth uses chiaroscuro to frame a dramatic intersection of portraiture and still life.
Wittfooth’s style is grounded in classic technique. He draws inspiration from the compositions and themes of artists such as Velázquez and Rembrandt. He also cites the dark pastoral paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, specifically his depictions of the Tower of Babel, as an influence. While Wittfooth’s practice is rooted in tradition, his concepts are contemporary. His work has a dystopian feel—industrial at times. Underlying themes of destruction and martyrdom run throughout. Anthropomorphized animals exist in the ruins of humankind as both victims and aggressors. They are a natural evolution of our wild nature.
But the Brooklyn-based artist doesn’t limit himself to the exploration of modern-day problems. He is also influenced by “the vast hopes and celebrations of being alive at this time.” He writes that “we are faced with . . . the greatest departure, disconnection, and confusion with the natural world [while] having the tools at our disposal to begin pointing the rudder toward reconnection.” It is within these dualities of destruction and evolution, classic and contemporary, that Wittfooth is able to render the human condition through wildlife-populated allegories.
You can see more of his art at www.martinwittfooth.com or on Instagram as @marsproject.
Like any good open bar, we’ve always seen the Tin House blog and the work it features as a great way to meet new people, forge new creative relationships, and encounter unfamiliar ideas. Be it fiction, nonfiction, comics, poetry, interviews, or reading recommendations, when you belly up to our bar, we want to put in front of you exactly what you need, whether you knew you needed it or not.
Recently, that’s been somewhat difficult. Until now, our submission process has been hovering somewhere between confusingly unorganized and functionally nonexistent. Starting today, The Open Bar at Tin House will begin accepting submissions via Submittable, at theopenbar.submittable.com.
We’re looking forward to being able to streamline the process with the help of our friends at Submittable, which has been an absolute godsend to the publishing industry. We’ll accept submissions to our favorite series—Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, Broadside Thirty, Carte du Jour, The Art of the Sentence, Correspondent’s Course, and Lost & Found—but we’ll always be glad to see work that doesn’t fit those categories.
Now get to work!
The Open Bar at Tin House
On the cover of Swimmers’ World was a swimming guy’s face obscured by splashes. On Swimming Monthly a coach in a rose garden. The smell of cigars stuffed the air at Rich’s News, and beneath it, a note of stale trading-card gum. On the wall, a sign said No Reading. Rich, if it was Rich, unpacked cigars behind the counter, ignoring me. My monthly or so spot-check of swimming magazines consisted of a practiced skimming: contents, capsules, photos. The cover of Poolside had a blond diver toweling off. If Rich took my skimming as reading and called me out, it would be easy to say I’d been looking for something, and if Rich said, For what? Rich wouldn’t.
Next to me, a guy was working. He was pulling magazines off the rack, tearing off their covers, and throwing the magazines and the covers into two piles on the floor. I’d gotten through Swimming Monthly and had just picked up Poolside. The guy said, Poolside, right on. You’re a swimmer?
I’d never seen him before. One of the things about coming to Rich’s was that nobody who knew me went there. Being at Rich’s was like being nowhere. I said, I’m not.
He said, You look like you could be.
I didn’t look like anything—my jeans and my raincoat and my flannel and my henley. I said, I’m not.
He said, Right on.
I said, Are you?
He laughed. He touched a bead on a cord around his neck. He had skaterish hair and he was older than me, my brother’s age, maybe. He said, Not me. He said, Sorry to interrupt your reading. He smiled like he knew me.
I said, I’m not reading.
He laughed. He said, That sign’s just there for the guys who come in to read porn. He made quotes with his fingers when he said read.
The back wall was all magazines in plastic with their titles popping out above blank sheets of paper. A few men stood in front of them. Should someone who didn’t know me be talking to me about pornos? Should he be talking like he knew me and making quotes with his fingers? The men at the back wall shouldn’t, it seemed, be doing what they were doing in public—scoping pornos behind plastic, hard-ons squirming in their pants.
My finger marked Poolside’s centerfold. The guy was still standing right there, as if he had something else to say to me. I turned the pages as fast as I could, barely looking, defeating my purpose. Goggled eyes, ripped abs, smashed boobs flashed by. Swimmers stroked down lanes and water splashed up and hid their faces. The guy ripped off a cover and tossed it in a pile. Any minute he could ask me what I was looking for.
Sara Jaffe is a fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She coedited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata.
Bob Dylan said hearing Elvis Presley for the first time was like breaking out of jail. Walking into Sue Shapiro’s New School class was a little like that. She was passionate, effusive, and within minutes had extracted dark embarrassing moments from my past for her infamous first assignment: write about your most humiliating secret. I felt lucky to be one of the 15,000 students to study with her, in both my undergraduate and graduate programs, where she practically ensured that we all get published. Reading her new autobiographical novel What’s Never Said, is a captivating take on how we communicate, or miscommunicate, and how the words unspoken can imprison us.
What’s Never Said is about her own school days as an MFA student in New York and the romantic relationship with a professor who was her mentor that—she freely admits—haunted her for three decades. It’s the story she says she couldn’t write until now, and it seems a perfect time for this outrageously honest story.
Susan Marque: What was your motivation for this novel?
Susan Shapiro: I always tell my students to write about their obsessions. And a female mentor of mine told me “You write best about people you love,” which inspired my first book “Five Men Who Broke My Heart.” Because that was a memoir, I was limited in scope. I hoped writing a novel about passion gone wrong would be as fun and entertaining, but that fictionalizing would allow me to go deeper and crazier. I always say I’m a raging feminist who loves men and marriage. Being in therapy has really helped me be happy in work and in love, for almost 25 years now. Students have pointed out that a lot of my shrink’s wisdom is laced throughout the book. Daniel tells Lila that poetry is about what’s left out, what never gets said. I guess what intrigued me most was how two heroes, Lila and Daniel, never tell their spouses the truth of what happened between them, and they spend their life obsessed with words but completely miscommunicate everything.
SM: Like your character Lila, you have your MFA from New York University. So is What’s Never Said a love letter to your past?
SS: In some ways, yes. I love poetry, studied and wrote it for years. But I was a failed poet. I really did have a mentor who told me “You have too many words, not enough music.” He loved my memoirs and said “there’s more poetry in your prose than in your poems.” I liked the idea of a memoirist writing fiction about poetry.
SM: Central to What’s Never Said is a secret relationship with a professor that you had. With your experience now, as a college professor, how do you feel about student-teacher relationships that take place outside of the classroom?
SS: By the time I started teaching in my thirties, I was already with my husband, so I never dated a student. Romantic relationships are hard enough without having a power imbalance. Through teaching on the graduate level and adult education, I have lots of work connections and friendships outside of the classroom with former students. I actually think it helps.
They say you should write the book you want to read and teach the class you want to take. I did—I wrote a book called “Only As Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons From my Favorite Literary Gurus” about my evolution, learning how to make a living as a writer. And I call my classes the “instant gratification takes too long” method—where the goal is to publish a great piece by the end of the class. I try to be a liaison in the real world, introducing my students to editors and agents who could help them get out there. My favorite teachers and mentors helped me navigate the real world outside of the classroom. Luckily I have great role models to emulate.
SM: The chapters in your book switch from past to present. How did you decide about time and what effect does that have on the experience of the story?
SS:They have a clear chronological sequence. Originally it started and ended in 2010 and the rest told the story—in order—in the 1980′s. But then a book editor my age told me she missed Lila’s older voice for 250 pages. So I added two older chapters in the middle. In my last coauthored book, “The Bosnia List,” we switched back and forth in time every chapter. So I thought that was an interesting way to add drama/conflict/tension.
We wonder if those fatal river rocks appeared to you as they appear to us—like molars from the mouths of giants. Your first name is Meredith, and your last name is something German-sounding that we quickly forgot. From the banks near Paradise Lodge, some of us spot the dull lampglow of your life jacket under the green and white-beaten water. Through binoculars, we watch your pale fingers curl against the current, inviting us all down to share your watery grotto and hear about what all you saw on the river that afternoon—an osprey, maybe, cutting helices under the crackling June sun, just before your kayak nosed into the rocks, tilting you and your wide-waisted crewmate into the drink.
Your friend was too rattled to linger at the lodge. We never caught her name, but rumor has it that you were helping her escape the rocks, and well, you know the rest. A tired irony, if it’s true. Who are you really, Meredith? Do you regret that selfless gesture? Is it embarrassing, having surrendered to water so shallow that sunbeams dazzle the glittery green polish on your toenails? Maybe you’re feeling good and mellow down there, watching flow patterns warp the surface, buoyant summer clouds riding egglike overhead. There must’ve been final words, but they belong to the river. Maybe you bubbled out something stoic, like, Here’s a fitting place to die, or maybe something more citric, like, Truly no good deed goes unpunished, you selfish fuckers. We wonder about these things, Meredith. You mean something down there under all that water. A protest to the obstinance of stone.
Rescue teams have tried to reach you from the rocks, the water, and the air, but it’s no use. Gorged with snowmelt, the Rogue runs too fiercely, and those rocks won’t let go. The Coast Guard say they’ll only recover live victims, and the sheriff says it’s a narrow canyon, not the kind of place to bring a helicopter. He says we have to let nature take its course.
Some of the youngsters at Paradise Lodge are still crying, but the older children haven’t cried at all, they’ve just gone quiet, matured by the gurgling river, and what it has taken from you. They’ve seen you loitering down there, our lady of the water, hair ink-loose in the current. Could’ve been one of us. In a way, it’s sort of beautiful how your body contains some small measure of the same water that contains you. Bodies within bodies, one swallowing the other. You’ve upset our lives, Meredith, or at least our weekend.
Know that you’re not alone, though the knowing won’t keep you warm. We’re told that earlier this month, a man from Coos Bay drowned along that same snarl of rocks. He sulked down there for a couple of days before the bloating worked him loose. You’ll inflate in much the same way, then you’ll bob to the surface, your belly a pale balloon. After you’re gone, the river will find a fresh pair of lungs to fill, and folks at Paradise Lodge will have another name to forget.
Nickalus Rupert holds an MFA from the University of Central Florida. Currently, he is a first-year PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in PANK, The Pinch, Night Train, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere.
From our Memory Issue, two poems by Patricia Smith.
Baby of the Mistaken Hue
Baby of the mistaken hue, child of the wrong nose
with its measure unleashed, baby of the nappy knot,
I am your mother. Mad at your whole damned face,
I swear to the task of torching the regrettable Delta
from your disobeying braids. I pinch your breathing
shut to reteach the bone, smear guaranteed cream
on your pimpled forehead, chin, and cheeks. I am
the corrector. Soaking a kitchen towel with the blaze
of holy water, I consider just what you are naked,
recoil at the insistent patches of midnight blanketing
your skin and I scrub, scrub, push the hard heel
of my hand deep into the dark, coax cleansing
threads of blood to the stinging surface, nod gently
in the direction of your Mama, don’t! I command
you to bend, to turn, to twist in the wobbly dinette
chair and reveal what hides from me, those places
on you that still insist on saying Negro out loud.
Remember how the nonbelievers screeched their
nonbelief at Jesus even as He laid His giving hands
upon them? One day you will comprehend the torch
I am. You will be burned smaller, lighter, ever closer
to the whiteness of my God, who loves you as you are.
It Creeps Back In
And before I can focus, before I can remember
my exercises, I’m gulping gin and warm water,
I’m standing in front of an open Frigidaire spraying
butter into my mouth. In the bathroom, I brush
dead hair into the sink, stare hard at blackheads
and bleeding gums. I thought this had been healed
every Tuesday: And are you still sleeping all day?
Taking your pills on schedule? The blue ones?
They say depression can’t be ignored, so I nurture
the drunkenness, say hello to pink rituals of throat.
Wiggling a finger inside myself, I’m wooed by the ghost
of current. September whispers I still need you.
It lies in the voice of a mother.
Patricia Smith is the author of five books of poetry, including Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award, and Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series selection. Her work has appeared in Poetry, the Paris Review and TriQuarterly, among other publications, and she has received a Pushcart Prize.
Meg Storey: Place plays a huge role in The Scamp. Can you talk a little about how you chose where to set the book?
Jennifer Pashley: Well, like Rayelle, I grew up somewhat on the road. My family road tripped a lot, often in the country, always staying at roadside motels. So the feel of the rural South is very real to me. It’s stark and beautiful, even in its poverty and disrepair. Trailer parks and cemeteries have always spoken the loudest to me. There are stories there.
MS: Were there any books or movies that influenced the work?
JP: There was definitely music that influenced me while writing it, and that’s usually the case for me. The Scamp grew out of some crazy combination of Tori Amos and Miranda Lambert, which is the kind of thing I was more tempted to say when describing it to people than to compare it to other books or authors. And I mean those two pretty equally. There’s a cross section in this book of both:
Bring them all here
Hard to hide a hundred girls in your hair
__________—Tori Amos, “Cloud on My Tongue”
I’m goin’ home, gonna load my shotgun
Wait by the door and light a cigarette
If he wants a fight well now he’s got one
And he ain’t seen me crazy yet
_________—Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder and Lead”
MS: It’s rare to have a female serial killer in a work of fiction. What kind of research did you do to inhabit Khaki’s mind?
JP: I read some psychological studies of psychopaths. I was curious about how the psychopathic mind works, its lack of empathy. I also read (more than once, actually) Ann Rule’s book The Stranger Beside Me, about Ted Bundy, because it’s a fantastic account of both psychopathy and extreme violence. It’s also a beautiful narrative. It’s a great book.
MS: Who are some of your favorite fictional serial killers?
JP: Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, for his abject psychopathy, and his beauty regimen. The Vampire Lestat, for completely different reasons. Because Lestat is, I think, one of the most sympathetic villains ever. He’s right up there with Humbert Humbert.
MS: The Scamp touches on issues of class, domestic violence and abuse, incest, and motherhood. What do you most want readers to get from the book?
JP: This is a really difficult question. I think there’s a feeling of transcendence that I hope readers get. The idea that you can transcend a relationship that harms you. That you can love someone who has the potential to kill you. That those things aren’t mutually exclusive. These relationships are more complicated than a black-and-white abuser/abused. There’s complicity on both sides.
MS: You’ve published two story collections. Did The Scamp grow out of a short story?
JP: No, it didn’t. It has always been a novel, since the very beginning.
MS: What are you working on now?
JP: I’m always working on something. Right now, a novel is speaking to me. I’m trying to listen.
Raised in Syracuse, New York, by an accordion virtuoso and a casket maker, Jennifer Pashley is the author of two short story collections, States and The Conjurer. Her stories have appeared widely, in journals like Mississippi Review, PANK, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has been awarded the Red Hen Prize for Fiction, the Mississippi Review Prize for fiction, and the Carve Magazine Esoteric Award for LGBT Fiction.
As millions of you eagerly await the September rollout of our 2015 Summer Writers’ Workshop Lectures, we thought it the perfect hour to revisit the ghosts of workshops past with Christopher R. Beha’s “Making Sense of the Sentence.”
First given during our 2012 Summer Workshop, and later anthologized in The Writer’s Notebook II (as “Do Something”), Beha “looks into the work that the best type of sentences do, examining how they play within their paragraphs, and how that interplay influences the story as a whole.”
Christopher R Beha is a deputy editor at Harper’s Magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The Believer, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is the author of two novels, Arts & Entertainments and What Happened to Sophie Wilder, and a memoir, The Whole Five Feet. He is also the co-editor, with Joyce Carol Oates, of the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
“Talent borrows, genius steals” is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde, and occasionally Pablo Picasso. There is, however, no record of either one actually saying or writing this. T. S. Eliot, on the other hand, wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Theft and appropriation have always been artistic engines. In this issue, Kevin Young—poet, essayist, and anthologist—looks at how thievery is done well (Bob Dylan) and not so well (Jonah Lehrer). Mary Ruefle and Erika Meitner demonstrate the art of erasure, turning extant texts into ready-made poetry. Thievery of property and the ultimate transgression, the theft of a life, have spurred the great ones from Homer to Shakespeare to Fitzgerald. Here, Victor LaValle remembers the time he played at being a teen runaway in Times Square. Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson returns to our pages, and to Korea, with his story “Fortune Smiles,” in which North Korean expat grifters try to navigate the laws and mores of Seoul.
We sent out a call for short essays about memorable thefts, and it is an honor to have the call answered by the doyen of crime writers, Mary Higgins Clark, alongside Alissa Nutting, George Singleton, and Laura Lippman. Clark reminds us that, in Shakespeare’s words, “The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief.” Enjoy.
The Human Heart in Conflict with a Terrifying Mutated Version of Itself: An Interview with Lincoln Michel
Writers who came to mind while reading stories in Lincoln Michel’s debut collection Upright Beasts included Kit Reed (“Our Education”) and William Gay (“Little Girls by the Side of the Pool”) and Franz Kafka’s “Letter to His Father” (too many to neatly fit between these parentheses). That said, there are literary and extraliterary sensibilities here that defy these superficial comparisons. The book is terribly funny and terribly sad, often simultaneously. I particularly enjoyed the way the collection works as a whole, like a great album you can put on start to finish.
Michel is founding editor of the journal Gigantic and co-editor of the anthology Gigantic Worlds. He’s also the online editor for Electric Literature. I’ve never met him, but I’ve admired his work for quite a while and published one of his stories when I was an editor at Monkeybicycle. He answered these questions via e-mail in early August.
Andrew Ervin: You have some truly spectacular opening lines here. “The children erect a gallows out of desks, cardboard, and ribbon.” “Or take the day my father handed me his glass of lemonade and reached for the rifle.” Is that how you begin writing a new story? Walk me through the process.
Lincoln Michel: First off, thank you. There are definitely times when a story spools out from a single sentence. In fact, the story in my collection that you published, “Routine,” is a good example. I had the opening sentence (“This morning I murder your mother, but then I always murder your mother”) lodged in my head before I even knew it would be a zombie story. I just kept thinking of that sentence until a story came. That said, I’m surprised when writers say they have a set routine for writing a story, because mine come to me in different and unpredictable ways. Sometimes it is a sentence, sometimes a concept, sometimes a structure, sometimes a voice. The story might be almost entirely formed in my head before I write, or it might radically change during the writing.
I am always interested in sentences though, and strongly distrust writers and readers who talk about how the sentences don’t matter only the characters or plot or ideas do. They say caring about sentences makes you some elitist literary snob. No, sentences and words are the building blocks of fiction. That’s what fiction is made of. So I think writers need to pay attention to sentences just like a director pays attention to shots or a painter pays attention to colors. The opening couple sentences in particular set the tone for the reader, and for me, at least, they set the tone for my writing. So most of the time, no matter how a story starts, I work on the opening sentences until I’ve figured out what the tone and style will be.
AE: How do you know when a story is finished?
LM: I wish I had something smart to say about that, but I think I just work on them until they feel right. There seems to be two common poles here. The first is the “fiction is never finished, only abandoned” camp (variations of that quote are attributed to Valéry on poetry and da Vinci on paintings) that believes you can work on something forever and it is finished only when you more or less arbitrarily decide to move on. Then there is the idea that a work can be made perfect, or near perfect, at least to the artist’s tastes and abilities. I remember reading someone say that you know a story is finished when you go through and remove all the punctuation, then do another draft and put all the punctuation back in the exact same place. When you can’t even think of an edit to make. Of those poles, I’m closer to the former, especially if the story is longer than a page or two, and I’m always thinking about different paths that a story could take. And I will say that I think there is a real danger to giving young artists the idea that everything should be “perfect” and “polished” in a story. I want some messiness in my art, some chaos in the style and roughness in the sentences. Overly polished work tends to feel inert on the page, and I think we all want our fiction to be weird and alive.
AE: In an interview, Richard Powers once said:
“I have always tried to write my personal landmarks directly into my books in some way, if not in an acknowledgments page, then by some quotation or homage or identifiable theft that brands the book’s indebtedness. So all those allusions or references: those are the people I’d like somehow to pay back.”
You have a character here named Lispector. To whom else are you indebted?
Lesley Gore has a good voice, my grandpa said. Shame about her face, though.
Where did I get the idea that things were better back then? Probably from my Pappy. The joke about old people goes that they don’t know how to program the VCR and can’t ever learn but Pappy loved videos, video stores, rewinding credits to see who played Lana Gondolier or who did her makeup. Who cares, that’s what I think. One time we watched a movie and it didn’t even have credits, that’s how long ago it was made.
Our video store rented regular movies but also TV shows, Christmas pageants, bootleg concerts, and porno. A lot of times we’d watch the shows my grandpa watched in the 40s and 50s, a lot of times he’d say they were crap. Shows about small-town, freckle-faced boys but nothing you’ve ever even heard of, not like Lassie. Not the Andy Griffith Show either. Shows whose names reminded you of expired candy, like Okey Dokey. And when we finished he’d look at the tape sadly and say, I used to love this piece of shit show.
One time we rented a concert movie from the ‘60s: early black-and-white ‘60s not Woodstock ‘60s. I always worried Pappy would say something racist but all he said was how long it takes black women to do their hair, and how all the black guys started playing music in prison. Which, for Pappy, is pretty good: he didn’t say anything about Smokey Robinson being mixed race, which surprised me. In fact he liked the movie okay, and you can tell because he’ll tell you everything about it, down to the aspect ratio. Then he complained how no one plays guitar that well anymore, how no one sings that well, and sometimes I thought he might be right. He was right maybe half the time, the other half the time he was racist or mad.
After Marvin Gaye came Lesley Gore, who sings, “It’s My Party.” Pappy said, she must be pretty good to follow Marvin Gaye. Then he pointed out that Lesley Gore is not conventionally attractive. First, she is overweight, maybe fatter than me. Second, her clothes do not flatter her. Third, she has a square face and a too-big nose. Then he told me about how the Greeks had golden ratios for women just like they had for buildings. And if Lesley Gore was a building, she’d fall down. She’d be condemned and boarded up and then demolished.
But she was only seventeen. She’s also the only white person on the show who sings with so much soul it’s almost like anger. Is that what confidence is, I wondered, the sound of a saxophone at the same time? I’d like to make a musical where I sang that way to everyone who’d ever been unkind to me. I’d invite all my teachers to the premiere and my sister would be front row, very important person. That’s all I am, is spiteful. Lesley Gore is good at thanking the audience and smiling, like she’s happy to be there and not the ringleader of some schadenfreude circus. The way she’s done her eyes, with white eyeliner and black mascara, the only word I know for it is mesmerizing, especially when she lowers her lids and sings, “You Don’t Own Me.”
Did you know she turned out queer? Pappy said. I mean she was already pretty butch back then, but you would have thought she’d marry one of the Beach Boys or something.
Then he didn’t say anything and I didn’t either. We shared an inevitable silence, tense with follow-up questions neither of us wanted to ask. What’s butch and what age does someone turn out queer. Whenever Pappy described someone as queer it was like they’d failed a grade and been kept back. I knew he thought I must be gay, in fact the thing neither of us would admit was that I looked a lot like Lesley Gore, except of course my hair. My hair only flipped like that when I used a curling iron.
We watched Lesley Gore, the singing lesbian, and meditated on her big hair, not saying any of this out loud. I wondered if Lesley Gore ever met another lesbian backstage, or was she just sandwiched between Diana Ross and Darlene Love, feeling strange and overlarge. And how complicated her heartbreak must have been, when she got dumped, at her birthday party or at the movies. How alone she must have felt, and all the time. She didn’t sing sad and lonely, but I felt that way, watching her.
She had a good voice, my grandpa said. Shame about her face, though.
Flannery Cashill is an artist and writer who lives and works in Kansas City, MO.
From Issue 54, speculative fiction’s blast from the past.
On Julian May’s Saga of the Pliocene Exile Tetralogy
In the origin story of my favorite science fiction novels, Julian May attended a party in 1976 at a science fiction convention in Los Angeles, dressed in a jewel-encrusted space suit she’d made herself. At the time, she was a forty-five-year-old professional writer from West Linn, Oregon, just outside Portland, the author of thousands of science encyclopedia entries and two hundred and fifty nonfiction books for adults and children. But she had also written and published two science fiction short stories early in her career, her first when she was nineteen, as well as a few Buck Rogers comics, and she hadn’t let go of science fiction just yet.
I keep spinning this image of her in the suit in my mind—as, apparently, did she. The space suit turned out to be cosplay for a series she had yet to write. After the convention, she returned home to West Linn and plotted the four novels that became the Pliocene Exile Tetralogy.
I found the tetralogy twenty-five years later, at a used-book store in Iowa City.
I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop looking for a thrill. The book I found first was The Golden Torc, the second in the Saga. At the time, the series had been out of print for years, and so all of my copies of her novels have “3.00” penciled onto the first page and all were purchased there. I remember it impressed me that May had used, for an epigraph, “The Threshold,” a poem by my favorite philosopher, Simone Weil. This surprised and intrigued me, as I hadn’t known that Weil wrote poems. I’d met a new writer and a new favorite writer both, in one page.
The story born from May’s jeweled suit begins on September 21, 2013, when Earth is saved from the edge of nuclear holocaust and environmental catastrophe by a coalition of the universe’s five dominant alien races, called “The Galactic Milieu.” The Milieu first fosters humanity’s latent psychic gifts—these being the passport to this congress—and then provides new technology that allows an overcrowded Earth population to colonize seven hundred nearby planets. By 2021, when a French physicist discovers a one-way time tunnel 6,000,000 years into Earth’s past—anything that tries to return ages 6,000,000 years on the trip—those alienated by the new intergalactic utopia see it as a perfect underground railroad into the Pliocene.
May draws her characters from two groups that pass through and find their dreamed-of, alien-free Pliocene paradise in the hands of human-type alien exotics, exiles from another galaxy, a race divided into two ethnic types living in a recognizably medieval style and permanently at war in a battle religion that ritualizes their hatred. Half of them, the Tanu, look remarkably like elves; the other half, the Firvulag, like dwarves. Both sides possess the paranormal abilities common to the Milieu our human refugees fled. On top of all this, the Tanu are becoming infertile and increasingly need the arriving human females in order to breed. All of them wear armor born from May’s science fiction convention outfit.
This was the most confident reinvention of the known world and its cultures I’d encountered in years, an alternate history/science-fiction masterpiece with a fantasy novel coating, stocked somehow with everything, ever: magic, spaceships, alien colonies, elves, dwarves, knights, time travel, psychic powers, castles—and love in headdresses, to boot. May had plunked it all into the particle accelerator of her mind and out came psychic powers organized into guilds with their own gang colors and territories and political squabbles; living spaceships with spouse pilots; elves and dwarves from across the galaxy; rebel humans plotting to return to the Earth of the future and take it back from the aliens, but perhaps only after doing it in the past first; and half-human hybrids, their future uncertain as the ethnic purists eye their growing numbers.
I quickly read The Golden Torc, then found and devoured the first book of the tetralogy, The Many-Colored Land, and the third and fourth, The Nonborn King and The Adversary, and then the rest of May’s work, including the six prequel-sequel novels to these four. By now, I wasn’t just addicted to the world she’d created; I was in awe of her narrative powers: she was the only writer I knew who could put fifteen or so characters down on a landscape and move among them, compellingly. She had queer characters—and central ones, for that matter—something I didn’t often see in science fiction. May was not only writing about the future but also, ahead of her time, like Ursula K. Le Guin, creating complex characters of mixed race, sometimes many genders, and complex sexual and affectional tendencies.
More impressively, across these ten books, May builds an intricate virtuosic narrative payoff, and when the singular penny drops on what she’s done, it’s indescribable. I can think of no sustained fictional effort like it—and certainly not one that extends for nearly five thousand pages. When I reached the end of the other six novels, I was ready to return to the first four, and did. I’ve since reread them all at least four times.
Over the years, I’ve met only a few fellow fans of hers—the writers Chris Adrian and Jon Michaud are actually the only ones I know of—and yet I know we are out there, and are about to expand our numbers: It’s now 2012, the year before the Galactic Intervention May imagined that started it all off, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has brought the Pliocene Exile tetralogy back to readers in e-book format (complete with the original 1980s artwork). The series has been optioned for film and is in active development.
I sometimes hope that the books are all true, dictated to her from the future, and that next year aliens will intervene and save us from ourselves, and in 2021, a French physicist will discover the time tunnel. Perhaps. One way or another, her era begins now.
Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February of 2016. He is a recipient of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, NPR and Out, among others. He has taught writing at Wesleyan University, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Texas – Austin. He was the Visiting Writer at Amherst College from 2006-2010 and the Picador Professor at The University of Leipzig in 2012. He lives in New York City.
one : Rayelle
One of the twins has his mouth sewn shut. He drinks gin from a rocks glass through a skinny cocktail straw. His brother, beer from the tap. There are only four people in the bar and most of them are related—cousins, brothers, twins. Everyone, except me, and the bartender.
Behind the bar, a string of Christmas lights, multicolored and blinking, still hanging in June, above the top shelf of bottles. I watch the pattern, waiting for the regularity of a heartbeat, an even space between on and off, but it’s erratic. The door is open to the parking lot and a low evening sun, leaving a hot stripe on the black floor. I had driven out of the trailer park in a huff, windows down, radio blasting, fifty, sixty miles, almost to West Virginia. I stopped when I saw the rural Quonset hut bar, two cars and a dust devil in the parking lot. Dead on a Monday night.
A big woman who looks under thirty at the opposite end of the bar tells me about the twins’ accident. How they slid in the rain and the car launched into a field. One had to kick out the windshield to save the other. Out here, the roads slick with pebbles, raining down the mountain onto the road in a storm. It’s like driving on marbles.
He’d written their names in blood on the inside of the driver’s side window, in case they couldn’t get out. Brady and Jamie Wilkes. Like a premature headstone.
They might have been identical, but they weren’t anymore. Brady’s jaw was wired. Jamie’s wrist was broken.
You ever heard of such a thing? she asks me.
I have and I haven’t. Freak accidents happen all the time. A car off the road, a rock slide, a drowning. I ask the bartender for a whiskey sour. Two cherries. No orange.
He’s over fifty, looks ex-military in his haircut, his straight spine and precise movements, and his arms are sleeved with dense, colored tattoos. He makes the drink in a highball glass and lays it on a black napkin, then goes back to buffing beer glasses.
I sip and hand it back to him. Stronger, I say.
I guess you do what you have to, the woman says, for your siblings. She’s wearing a tank top, her shoulders padded and fleshy, her skin loose above the elbow.
I don’t have any siblings, I say.
Or your kids, she adds.
Or kids, I say.
I left because it was my birthday, and my mother asked me if I wanted a pool party. I think she thought it was funny, thought maybe now was the time to laugh about it and get over it. But I was turning twenty-three by myself, without a husband or a baby when I’d been well on the way to having both. I wanted her to shut up.
When I showed my license to the bartender, he said, Well, happy birthday to you, sweetheart.
I nearly put my head down and cried.
The one twin waves to the bartender for another gin. The TV plays a black-and-white movie with a lot of scenes with a man and a woman driving a car. The man, in a hat. The woman, blonde, and polished. The scenery behind them, trees, a long road in the country.
Earlier, I’d thought about careening off the road. About my Escort, with its rotting floorboards and bald tires. I wouldn’t have kicked my way out of a car that went flying. I wouldn’t have kicked my way out of anything. Instead, I imagine lying there still, broken. The breathing of a cornfield around me.
The woman at the other end says, Don’t drink ’til you puke, Brady, and laughs. That won’t be fun.
He shakes his head, slow. I wonder how much it hurts.
She hoists herself off the stool and rubs each of the twins’ shoulders as she goes past. I gotta get my kids, she says. Good night, Gil, she says to the bartender, and leans forward, pushing her boobs together, to kiss his cheek. On her legs, light capris that are tight below the knee, her calves blossoming out below.
You had dinner? Gil asks me.
I ask him to hold the sour and just give me a double bourbon. Two cherries.
No, I say. You got anything?
Not tonight, he says. He leans back on the register, a mirror behind shows his crew cut, thick all the way through, wiry and gray. Above the mirror, a pair of deer antlers with bright turquoise panties hanging on them. Where you from? he asks.
The twins play a miniature-sized game of checkers, the mute one stacking up his black king.
South Lake, I say.
That’s quite a ways, he says. He takes a glass out of a steaming tub under the bar and works at it with two towels, one in, one out. You got family out here? he asks.
I think about my mother, in South Lake, sitting at the end of a bar called the Coop, waving on another gin and tonic. No one would be there either. Just the bartender and my mother, baseball on TV, but muted.
And Chuck, stomping through the trailer, picking up the mail, a newspaper, the empties we left behind.
No, I say.
I met the writer Jill Talbot in the spring of 2013 in upstate New York, at a university where she was teaching and I was the visiting writer. I felt an immediate kinship. She was smart, lucid, and warm. (Far as I know, that estimation still stands.) We ate at a corner café with a few of her adoring students and talked about the writing life, our affinity for hybrid narratives, shared anxieties, and the joy of teaching. Her short blonde hair was radiant in the dim light and the waitress knew her name and order by heart. It was a brief but invigorating meeting.
We did not talk about Kenny, an enigmatic character in her new memoir, The Way We Weren’t, and the absent father of her teenage daughter, Indie. We did not talk about her life on the road, the many academic jobs she’s held, or the time and distance between these jobs. We did not talk about regret. We did not talk about wine, loss, or sadness. (Though we may have discussed our brothers’ addictions — and her empathy, as I recall, floored me.) The creative memory did not come up, nor did money. We didn’t discuss single parenthood or loneliness or that particularly troublesome itch to flee, though we shared certain aesthetic obsessions that drive each of us to the page. I recall leaving that first meeting feeling better about the world knowing she was in it: paying attention and taking notes.
Thankfully, what we didn’t discuss that night is covered in depth in The Way We Weren’t, a kaleidoscopic memoir-in-essays about a life spent in transition and the elusiveness of “home.” Talbot is a haunting narrator and a haunted woman — doing her best to parent her child alone. Formally inventive, the book points directly at its own artifice, which raises implicit questions about the nature of memory, truth, and narrative authority.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Talbot some questions I didn’t ask during our first meeting: questions provoked by her new book.
Jessica Hendry Nelson: The Way We Weren’t is structured as a series of self-contained personal essays that together form the whole. What does this form allow that a “straight memoir” does not? Is there something intrinsic to your story that lends itself to this form? (I have my own theories, but I’d like to hear your take on it!)
Jill Talbot: A straight memoir relies on a story, on what happened. You can apply Freytag’s Triangle to its narrative — the exposition/rising action/climax/resolution we all learned in school. A memoir-in-essays relies on the gaps in the story. Instead of what happened, it’s about what’s unknown about what happened. It frees the writer from having to follow such a clear line. In The Way We Weren’t, I’m questioning what happened and complicating the idea that there’s one version of the story. The memoir-in-essays also allows me to muddle through memory and return to certain places and moments, even as the chronology moves forward. So while my daughter, Indie, and I are moving from place to place around the country, my mind keeps going back to those early years with Kenny or a day he showed up in our apartment weeks after he had abandoned us. I write in one of those essays, “What we leave won’t leave us, it seems. Kenny won’t leave me, even though he did long ago. I can run from room to room for the rest of my life. It won’t stop him from coming back.” So there’s this tension between the forward movement of our lives and the recesses of my memory. In another essay, I write, “Memory forms, piece by piece. Some of them go missing, others interlock, firm. We fill in the missing pieces with what we imagine or just leave the gap, admit the blank.” The memoir is built of these pieces and gaps and blanks that would work against a traditional memoir. When I read your question, I thought of your beautiful memoir, If Only You People Could Follow Directions — also a memoir-in-essays. It also circles back to certain moments even as you move forward in your life. For example, you write, in different ways and with varying information, the moment of your father’s death four times in the memoir. And, I suspect, the reason that moment comes in more than any other is that you weren’t there for it, so you have to imagine, invent, wonder, and recreate from the details you have. That’s what I love about the memoir-in-essays, because I can go back to the basement apartment where Kenny and I lived more than once and look at it differently for various purposes because I still need to try to figure out what happened there and how those memories still linger.
JHN: Yes. Your response calls to mind this quote from Christian Wiman’s stunning essay, “The Limit”:
I don’t believe in ‘laying to rest’ the past. There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive.
My understanding or experience of time feels more akin to the movement of the Earth, spinning through its endless laps around the sun, than a straight line. Is your experience or understanding of time related to your experience of memory? Because while your book moves forward chronologically, more or less, it also allows for the recursions of time and memory. You employ past or present tense, depending on the essay. You switch the point of view from first to third. It is a collage-like structure, even while we march ever forward in time. Could you walk us through some of the choices you made? For example, in a section of the book subtitled “Cedar City, Utah: 2003-2006″ each essay has a different point of view and is in either past or present tense.
JT: Beyond the current music I listen to when Indie is in the car, the only music I listen to is 70s music — the “Firefall” station on Pandora or the Sirius 70s station, so daily I’m inundated with memories attached to those songs, which are integral to my life and my memoir. I live in a time warp — always hearing the same songs over and over and going back to the moments they bring back. Kenny once told me that Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” “felt” like me, it always made him think of me. Every time I hear it, I wonder where he is, if he turns the station when it comes on, and I think of the kitchen in that blue basement where he first told me that. Memory, for me, is a continuous loop — a cassette or CD set to ‘Repeat.’
The essays in that section trace the dissolution of my self. For those who haven’t read the memoir, Cedar City, Utah, is where Indie and I moved after Kenny left us, when I got a job teaching at a university there. It was a difficult time because he was still calling, and I couldn’t move on.
The 1st person of the first essay in that section dissolves into third person in the next one because I was disappearing in the wine. That first essay is a segmented essay about drinking to a black-out level one night and making a pleading phone call to Kenny I don’t remember making — so I had to piece together the evening and the next morning. Segments. The second essay, a flash essay, is about a night I threw a full glass of Chardonnay against the brick wall of my house in the middle of the night, and I chose the flash because it was a fleeting moment, but one that lingers (as a flash essay should do). The final essay returns to 1st person because it’s about my stint in rehab, when I had some difficult reckonings with myself. That essay is segmented because it’s about the various people I met in rehab, so I devote a segment to each person and there are some people who get one stand-alone line because we were all so separate in our struggle, even while we were together. I just remembered this, but three segments of that essay, “Autobiographies,” were initially written as stand-alone flash essays. I submitted them to Brevity and Dinty W. Moore, the editor, wrote back to say they seemed part of a larger whole, and he was right, but I hadn’t written anything around them yet. A fellow writer read the flashes (about the bartender, the woman who had worked at one of the first casinos in Las Vegas, and a railroad worker) and asked, “Why are you writing about them?” I thought a long time about that. Ultimately, I realized I was hiding behind their autobiographies (we were all required to write one in rehab) when what I needed to do was write my own. So the Cedar City section works as a slow dissolve of self — the switch from 1st to 3rd person allows me that movement, and the segmentation serves that disconnected feeling. Hopefully.
JHN: You often utilize “experimental” forms and structures. One essay, “The Professor of Longing,” is structured like a syllabus. In the second edition of their textbook, Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paolo call this approach a “hermit crab” essay:
[An essay that] appropriates existing forms as an outer covering, to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace — material that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.
“The Professor of Longing” is a complicated, discursive essay that indeed contains tender material. Often, the assigned readings in your faux-syllabus serve as foils against which the personal material is reflected and recast. How did you settle on this form for this particular content? I try to teach my students that the form must serve the content and vice versa — the two must work together to create meaning. This is a beautiful example. The form, rather than constraining the content, seems to free it up. You are able to move wildly across time and space, from idea to idea, because the calendar structure and assigned readings keep the narrative tethered to a central thread. What else do “hermit crab” essays offer a writer? What do you see as the dangers and rewards? How do you know when you’ve found the right carapace?
In my sister’s taxonomy, our father is a squirrel. She’s eight, I’m five, and we both agree on this, although if we didn’t, she’d have the final word. Our father: Limpid squirrel eyes, a narrow squirrel face, prominent squirrel teeth. He scampers and leaps and takes small nibbles of everything, even apples.
“Pure squirrel,” she says, and I nod wordlessly.
We classify our family. Our timid rabbit cousins, aunts with hyena laughs, red-faced macaque uncles. Our mother is a no-mercy tiger. Grounded! she doesn’t hesitate to hiss when she catches us in the basement, cutting our boxed baby clothes into cat costumes. We roar back at her when she flashes her claws.
In secret, we divide our friends: the bird children, grabby and rude; the rodents, twitchy, curious; the reptiles, silent.
“What am I?” I ask my sister.
She studies me with scientific scrutiny. “Mouse,” she says.
After the divorce, we catalog all the men our mother dates: Gazelle (too weak for her), rhino (too indifferent), turtle (too inert.) My sister leads the effort, making long lists of all the potential animals, hypothesizing what would fit our mother best. She’s eleven, and says it’s a way to organize the world so it makes more sense. Eat or be eaten, she says. The good men are things like elk or horses; the bad ones are wolverines, skunks, or mountain lions.
In our own play, we argue over who gets to be the big cats. My sister says there can be only one: the most worthy—most fierce.
“I’m the lioness; you’re the cub,” she says. “Since I’d win in a fight.”
“Teach me!” I yowl. “I want to be a lioness too!”
When our mother works late, we wage war with brooms and chairs, hoisting them over our heads, making a spectacle of our viciousness. My sister claims the living room and barricades me out with stacked chairs and book towers. She is both opponent and mentor, sometimes pausing breathlessly mid-siege to shout some big-cat secret at me: Softer when you leap! Louder roar! Hiss like you mean it!
When we’re birds, my sister is a quetzal-hawk, a hybrid, she says. She’s thirteen, slicking mascara over long feathered lashes. She wears our mother’s peacock print shawl veiled over her hair.
“What am I?” I ask.
“A crow,” she says. “They’re smart; you never see them as road kill.”
Time changes our taxonomies.
In high school, our men are half animal, half human. Bear claws jut from long fingers; talons sprout fromt their toes; they flash wolf-fanged smiles. My sister drapes herself over them in the halls, a slouchy leonine casualness to all her encounters. I watch the ones I like from afar: They are beautiful mutants, strange and alien, battle-ready and angry.
In college, my sister chooses predators. Anything that could stalk you, she says. I choose sea turtles and anglerfish, platyupus and chameleons, although the labels don’t feel quite right.
“Why can’t they just be human?” I say.
My sister snickers and says, “Don’t be boring.”
When she visits, she generously classifies mine for me, whispering in my ear their respective genera minutes after she meets them.
When our father moves cross-country, I follow. Perhaps I need a reason to break away, define myself on my own terms. The west coast feels like acceptance, a warm bath of sun over my icy fur. When I see my sister, she wears sequined shirts and takes me to play pool in fuliginous lounges. She talks quickly about her job in journalism and the men who stalk her. They are all different types of prowlers, with a sleekness and stealth that mine lack. She is twenty seven. Her first husband was a leopard; her second, a lion.
“You’re sure he’s not something else?” I ask.
“Of course not,” she says, and laughs, as though there are things I’m incapable of knowing about her species. “We’re both lions.”
Sometimes, we talk about the past: Between us, our taxonomies span innumerable phyla. The elephant boys we eyed as children; the Harris hawks and springbok and wolf spiders in high school; the feline men my sister married, the ruminant one she predicts I will. When our family comes together, in one big welter of claws and snarls and howling laughter, my sister mostly forgets our game. We chew and sleep and grumble as the same species, and I’m grateful. Our tiger mother has tamed into a cat who licks her paws and purrs and flaunts her German shepherd boyfriend. Only once more at a family gathering, when I bring along my fiancé, does my sister whisper to me quietly, in the bathroom of a restaurant, our whole riotous clan waiting outside: “Goat, right? I knew it.”
I shrug, no longer interested. “Maybe,” I say.
She waits for my agreement, but I change the subject.
“Don’t you think he is?” she says again.
“Not really,” I say, nonchalant.
“Well, what animal then?”
“Haven’t thought about it.”
Outside, she casts wounded looks at me, like I’ve trashed something sacred, but I smile and pretend not to see. It’s the end of a tradition between us, something that my sister will never quite grasp I’m able to shed
That evening, we gather at my mother’s house—a twice-a-year kind of closeness—and sit around the deck, watching bats swoop and dive in the half-light.
“Look,” my sister says, pointing: A pair of bats flits and darts in tight rings around each other, circling higher and higher over the dark screen of sky. My fiance squeezes my hand, and I lean into the ursine warmth of his shoulder and watch the bats until they wheel apart. My sister and I slink our eyes around each other, yet the confused look resurfaces in the most delicate twitches of her face, and I know she is struggling, with all her poise, to reassert her old dominance, to win back her pride.
Joy Baglio lives, writes, and teaches in NYC, where she earned her MFA from The New School. She is currently at work on her first novel.
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. Up this week, Michael Keefe of Portland’s Annie Bloom’s Books.
Michael Keefe: As a child, whenever I read Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, I shared the protagonist’s experience of being ferried into a vivid and absorbing alternate reality. In my imagination, the story and images in that book were world-sized.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
MK: I would love to spend the day of June 16, 1904 in Dublin, Ireland, looking over the shoulder of Leopold Bloom, hoping to experience some small fraction of what he sees and smells and touches during the course of those twenty-four hours.
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
MK: My fifteen years as a bookseller began as a part-time job, meant to fill a gap between careers. Before that, I was a steady reader, but far from fervent. I have since become completely immersed in the world of books. Literature was once a place I visited; now it’s the land I live in.
MK: Now that I no longer need to keep recommending All the Light We Cannot See, my go-to staff favorite is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, a character-driven and sprawling (yet page-turning!) novel about murder, prostitution, race, politics, and gold, set in nineteenth-century New Zealand.
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
MK: Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever is among my favorite books that far too few people have read. A stylistic triumph, this short novel is structured as hundreds of brief, episodic chapters. At first, the protagonist’s observations seems incidental. But her bone-dry humor, and Robison’s pitch-perfect writing, will keep you engaged, as her fragmented portrait of a fragmented family grows more and more compelling.
From our recent Tribes issue, Thomas Sayers Ellis slams “the muzzled blank verse of symmetrical whiskers.”
How to Tell If You Are a Literary Dick Disguised as a Pee You Ess Ess Why
After you’ve feasted on Christians and caesuras,
“Style,” is what you call your cage, “Style,”
as if, structurally, a new species were evolving and swimming,
in-print, toward a glowing coral reef of small presses,
finger-plucked one non-political time too many
like the front glass of your ghazal-shaped tank.
In Fan Srancosis, your litter box got beach-like, clumped with rhyme.
Content tried, tried not to lie, but not even content could cease
your wade into a worn, electronic current of hooked schools
—talking about all the personas in your called-so Crew,
waxing and Slamming the muzzled blank verse of symmetrical whiskers.
Self-trained, in the Madame mode, to regurgitate rejection,
is there a canon of truth to the Romantic rumor
that you willingly refer to boring lovers as “Old Possum?”
Your collar. His leash. Your master. Her tools.
All blown whistles for learned submission.
Poet-pet, Pet-poet, if you are White there is nothing
you can do about it. You are it, curbed. If you are Black,
the nothing you can do about it Bites, bitter
and chained to a classroom-kennel where,
mostly, curled in the period of origins, sleep edits you,
surrendering to the paginated saliva of dust-jacket and bar code, spaded.
Nuanced purr, bio-bred, and as attentive as claws.
Like a bowl of milk scanned best by beginning at the end
of a quatrain down on all fours, your warm bark
caters to the taxidermy of anthologies,
even as, thumb-like, a scaly green head backs into a shell
or is it a soft rim of suffering,
tree-lined sonnets or a cave of chiropractic-twelves,
catalogued, naked and committed to blonde,
blonde wooden shelves, sinister and as tame as meter.
Ego like a domesticated login-marsupial swigging from a simile.
Dude, you act like Ted Hughes is your muse,
leaving Iowa, damn, when Jorie left Iowa, damn!
A preference for hard, first edition, dry food from a bag
over wet, soft cover, pate from a can.
No heroic couplet crowns the poop you post.
No form of linear progression reviews
the tail you can’t abuse into a fashionable ampersand.
If there is a hole, an air hole, still on your shiny gray head?
If so, I know a canto that can help you recite it
with the spiritual buzzwords of, of, of porn-hieroglyphics,
so you can be the “B” you were born to be, Biatch,
un-punned and ruined by “fetch” and Mr. Berryman’s Bones.
Under Gestures and an Assumed Name, fake femme-fatale fur
lures the suicidal mouse in your reading voice to a high window.
Anaphora, a testicle you lick . . . like the long, sung lines
of mangled rodents you leave in the grass near a tennis court.
Poems, like paw-pads, so dangerously soft,
they call to mind—well manicured golf greens,
carefully crafted wedding wishes, and cheerful death notices.
The male-you sprays the female-you for fleas.
The female proofs the male for mange.
Strays, editor-reared, sniff spines.
Thomas Sayers Ellis co-founded The Dark Room Collective (in Cambridge, Massachusetts); and received his M.F.A. from Brown University. He is the author of The Maverick Room (2005), which won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award, and a recipient of a Mrs. Giles Whiting Writers’ Award. His poems and photographs have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Callaloo, Best American Poetry (1997, 2001 and 2010), Grand Street, The Baffler, Jubilat, Tin House, Poetry, and the Nation. He is also an Assistant Professor of Writing at Sarah Lawrence College, a faculty member of the Lesley University low-residency M.F.A Program and a Cave Canem faculty member. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and is currently working on The Go-Go Book: People in the Pocket in Washington, D.C. A new collection of poetry, Skin, Inc., was published by Graywolf Press in 2010.