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“At the risk of sounding parsonic, it seems to me we’ve ceded so much space to the expert and the confident authority that expressions of real doubt or honest ignorance are now regarded, in the demotic mind, as a kind of recreancy, a failure of loyalty, the sign of a faith betrayed.” – Charles D’Ambrosio, “By Way of Preface” (Loitering)
I read this sentence this year, so I can’t claim it as a well-worn favorite. But sometimes you come across sentences that are like cairns, evidence the trail continues, and you are so grateful to have found them. This was one for me. “Our doubt is our passion,” Henry James said of writers. It is a notorious passion to be stricken by, one that insists with equal force to be held and released. How does one keep faith not only among but in uncertainty? I suspect the answer cannot be asserted, but the question can be followed to courageous lengths. This sentence does just that. It treats style as a responsibility to its subject, and that subject is doubt.
“By Way of Preface” is the name of the piece you can find the sentence in. Is it an essay, preface? The work eschews any title or status, apt for a paean to a kind of skepticism and the essay as a form best suited to follow it. As D’ambrosio puts it earlier in the piece, quoting a gloss on Augustine, the essayist is “Seeking faith with doubt, that’s definition enough for me. Or strike faith, if you must, and leave it at seeking with doubt.”
And yet capturing the sinewy movements of doubt is tricky business. Like most things you know close-up, you almost never see it captured. You’ve got to follow its rhythms, involutions, and turns. Qualifiers abound: “it seems to me,” “at the risk of sounding parsonic,” a halting phrase that begins the semantic spin cycle into which the rest of the sentence is swept. Who, after all, might we expect to champion “real doubt” or “honest ignorance” less than a parson? The whole sentence joins this inversion: we’re in a world in which a faith betrayed is a faith kept, where recreancy is a badge of honor (If you had to look up recreancy, you’re not alone). This is the alchemy of the sentence. It repurposes the very tenacity of uncertainty, turning it into a kind of untrammeled dissent, an insistence.
The very style of the sentence fights against the ceding of space it names – and against those to whom it is ceded, the experts. Space, a good word to use.The sentence itself seems to open a physical space, not where this encroachment of the expert is batted back (that would be too active, too certain) but where a kind of aporia, a safe house of doubt, can be preserved, within the defenses of style. The passive voice (“are now regarded”), the modifying clauses, protect the sentence’s meaning, as would a burrow, in which a hunted creature has gone to live, briefly unhounded by the worst of the world.
The ten-dollar words also stand guard. “Parsonic,” “demotic,” “recreancy.” You’ll know or look them up if you care enough, and if you don’t care enough: good, nothing to see here. They’re shibboleths, initiatory. (Later in the paragraph, D’Ambrosio hints at a small community elected by loneliness: “I would wonder, in my uncertainty, where all the other people are who don’t know, who don’t understand. Are we—the hesitant, conflicted—all alone?”) Recreant, from the Old French recreant – “defeated, vanquished, cowardly.” The adjective recurs throughout the collection, a notable repetition for such a brilliant stylist. In its dramatized obscurity, the word itself feels recreant. In its refusal to assert, the whole sentence does. It’s as if it were playing dead, to be ignored by the marauding armies who mistake the prone for the defeated.
Discussing the essays of M.F.K Fisher earlier in the essay, D’Ambrosio writes, “…soon enough it was the language itself, and more specifically, the right she assumed to be exact about her life, that won me over completely.” This is what won me over completely in this sentence, essay, and collection: the exact, which supports the blind reachings of doubt, like a spotter in gymnastics. I will return to this sentence when I need to remember why and with what care one writes.
Jacob Rubin’s first novel, The Poser, is now available from Viking. His writing has appeared in the anthology Best New American Voices, www.newyorker.com, New York magazine, Slate, The New Republic, n+1, and The Cincinnati Review. Times Square, a screenplay he co-wrote, was recently acquired by Focus Features. He lives in New York.
The poems in Jane Hirshfield’s The Beauty take measured steps across a wooden floor. Rolling between the real and the remembered, the interior and the exterior, The Beauty cuts to the heart of our shared existence.While I’ve always been a fan of the tenderness and mystery in Hirshfield’s work, there’s something about these new poems and essays that go even deeper. Released in tandem with a new collection of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Hirshfield’s The Beauty stayed with me like a comforting ghost.
In anticipation for her upcoming book release and reading at Powell’s later this week (7:30 p.m. March 18 at Powell’s City of Books) I had the chance to write to Hirshfield and chat over email about mushroom hunting, secret rooms—and as she puts it, unplugging the landline.
Rebecca Olson: The Beauty is being released at the same time as your new collection of essays. Were you working on these two projects simultaneously? Do you see the two books as speaking to one another, and if so, how?
Jane Hirshfield: The last-written chapters of Ten Windows coincide with the time of writing The Beauty, but I don’t work on poems and essays at once. They walk on different legs, speak with different tongues, draw from different parts of the psyche. Their paces are also different. A poem’s essential discovery can happen at a single sitting. The cascade of discoveries in an essay, or even finding a question worth exploring in one, seems to need roughly the time it takes to plant and harvest a crop of bush beans.
Ten Windows records the desire to understand others’ poems I’ve felt transfixed and transformed by: “What is a good poem doing?” “How is it done?” “Why does it work?” I want to understand the piers of language and music and comprehension that can hold up a building even when what the building houses is an earthquake. This thinking must surely come into the poems I write, but more by osmosis than will… Art-making is learned by immersion. You take in vocabularies of thought and feeling, grammar, diction, gesture, from the poems of others, and emerge with the power to turn language into a lathe for re-shaping, re-knowing your own tongue, heart, and life…
Craft consciousness burnishes the tool, but the tool is already there. Perhaps it sensitizes, or expands the reach. Certainly it sharpens attention. Still, the ability to name poetry’s gestures and rhetorics isn’t required to write or read them, any more than a painter needs to know the physics of color to bring forward a landscape. The eye and hand and ear know what they need to know. Some of us want to know more, because knowing pleases.
A person could take these two books and undertake a kind of checklist comparison. It would feel strange to me to do that myself. I want to preserve a certain unknowing about my own poems—perhaps because unknowing is in itself a useful poetic thirst. To move the perimeter of saying outside my own boundaries is one reason I write.
RO: Speaking of boundaries, houses, rooms, windows, walls, and doors appear throughout The Beauty. Did you concentrate on this architectural imagery intentionally, or did this thread develop on its own?
JH: These things are for me a feeling-provoking vocabulary. Each poet probably has his or her own cupboard of magnets. For some, it is cars; for others, works of art, or certain patterns of form or sound; for others, certain stories or places, Philip Levine’s Detroit, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Chicago, Seamus Heaney’s time-tunneled, familied Ireland. . . It’s not that these things are the whole of what a poet may write, but they recur. Go back to The October Palace, which came out in 1994, and there are poems with windows, doors, the rooms of the gorgeous and vanishing palace that is this ordinary world and ordinary life. Jungian archetype would say the house is a figure for the experienced, experiencing self. Gaston Bachelard described this gorgeously in The Poetics of Space. Houses are fundamental metaphors for self, world, permeability, transition, interiority, exteriority, multiplicity, and the power to move from one state of being to another
A certain amount of housekeeping also goes on in my poems. I wash doorknobs, do dishes, mop floors, patch carpets, cook. But a person could draw a too-easy conclusion about what this may mean, or an overly narrowed one, anyhow. A poem can use anything to talk about anything. The poem in Come, Thief about washing doorknobs also holds war-grief. A poem in The Beauty about mopping the floor holds being brought to my knees for other reasons. A house is a place we live in with others, and like anywhere else, it’s a place connected to the whole of human experience. Someone made the cup that holds my morning coffee; someone picked the coffee. We are tethered to others by power lines in more ways than one. “After every war,” wrote Wislawa Szymborska, “someone has to clean up.” Poems are always interested in what Ivan Illich called ‘shadow work,’ not least because that is no small part of their own way of working.
RO: Your combination of architectural elements with descriptions of the self in poems like “Many-Roofed Building in Moonlight” and “My Life Was The Size of My Life” feels dream-like to me, in what feels very much a Jungian way. What kinds of buildings or structures do you dream about?
JH: One recurring dream, many others have also: you go into a familiar house, discover a door or hallway, and find the house continues into hidden rooms. Sometimes a whole second house is there, a larger and unknown extension of the familiar dwelling. In my own variation of this dream, the newly discovered part of the house is always under construction. Sometimes it’s close to finished, other times it’s torn down to raw studs and plywood. I’m sure this dream somehow underlies the poem “Of Amplitude There Is No Scraping Bottom.” Its closing image is of a door on the outside of a building that can’t be found on the inside. That particular door did in fact exist, in a cabin I stayed in for a month. I never did figure out where it led to, since it was padlocked. I liked the mystery of that.
RO: In the poem “A Cottony Fate” the speaker reflects on a piece of advice they were given long ago to “avoid or.” The poem closes with the line: “Now I too am sixty. There was no other life.” This struck me as both hopeful and hopeless—there is peace in accepting our life the way it is, but also grief for lost opportunities. How did this poem come to be?
JH: The advice was given me by Ted Weiss, who was not only a very fine poet and teacher but as generous a figure as American literature has known. Ted and his wife Renee edited The Quarterly Review of Literature for fifty years, in whose almost uncannily prescient pages they brought forward the early and later work of an entirely extraordinary range of poets, from the not-yet-iconic William Carlos Williams, early on, to Anne Carson’s first (completely forgotten) collection of poems, to a 1982 translation by multiple hands of the then unknown-in-English Szymborska. One of the listed translators was the equally unknown ‘S. Olds.’ I think of Ted’s cautionary rule any time I find the word “or” in a poem, and always test my use of it against his warning.
This poem applies his words to the life, though, not to poetic craft. And you’re not wrong in your understanding. For a young person, a life is filled with possibility and choice. We believe we can do this or do that, that all paths are open. At a certain age, that is no longer so. I will never become a horse trainer, a biologist, a person competent with a hammer. My loves were my loves. Certain doors are closed. And yet, I don’t myself feel this poem as being about either hope or hopelessness, precisely. I feel it as more about thusness, about saying yes to one’s own existence…. Moment by moment, we write in indelible ink. This poem finds its way to assenting to that recognition.
At another level, though, poems can craft an eraser—we can’t revise the past, but poems allow us some malleability, an increased freedom of response, comprehension, feeling. Choice, what choices are possible for any given person, is another theme that’s run through my work from the start. So much of our lives depends on accidents of birth, time, and geography. This haunts me. In some lives, few “or”s are possible. The pain of that is behind the second stanza of this poem.
The sous chef has opinions, like frozen shrimp invite the devil in.
He, Chef D, is second in command at the upscale Chinese restaurant where celebrities don’t eat, the one that is unquestionably better than the upscale Chinese restaurant where celebrities do, though it failed to make last year’s LA Times 101 Best. But LA is an undiscoverable, filthy city, and people binge and purge on the filth. Coyotes eat pocket poodles for desayuno. Cats talk up a dust storm in neon, over lit alleys. Snails copulate on sidewalks where sprinkler systems hit. And misguided celebrities, when craving soup dumplings or tempeh bao, flock to Fu’s Blue.
Fu’s Blue stands on the water, and rumor has it they freeze their shrimp. Chef D often imagines a tidal wave pulling Fu’s Blue right off its peg legs and into the ocean.
Rumor engulfs the sous chef, too. Not untrue either; he’s had a rough go. Three years back Chef D gained so much weight, then lost it in thirty days popping ma huang. The ma huang habit, they say he’s yet to lose, and that’s just what got him started. They say these days Chef D won’t turn any upper down.
As a man, Chef D is unpalatable. Last year, the Times might have featured the sous chef’s restaurant instead, but Chef D grew impatient as the food critic looked on with fault hungry eyes.
“You want to know how I make my noodles? You want a pen to write this down?” As he spoke, Chef D wiped sweat beads from his nose. “Flour and water. Leave the food processor out of it.”
At the end of each day, the sous chef goes home to meet his son who rarely meets him there, though home is technically where his son still lives, rent free, because who could kick the boy out? His son has a sweetheart in the valley. Now, father-son bonding occurs when the son and his sweetheart come around to ask Chef D to make them lunch on the house.
“Love this veggie fried farro,” his son says between chews, which is the closest the two come to “love you”. The sous chef will take it.
Chef D’s wife? A four car pileup. Four years ago. She’d been more beautiful than all Hollywood stars combined.
The night of the accident, seconds before the police called their house, Chef D’s son tripped over an end table and shattered a pink Himalayan salt lamp. It was uncanny, the timing. It wasn’t how real life was supposed to unfold.
After the salt lamp, many things broke.
Chef D does think of moving, someplace where change is built into the seasons, but a part of him fears dark nights without the glow that never quits. At least in LA he wakes at two a.m., then three, then four, and it always looks like dawn. It’s a city that can trick you into believing. It gets you to inhale as the smog rolls in.
A thought that keeps Chef D breathing: some day soon the heavens will grow a mouth. A mouth with big, swollen lips like that star who eats at Fu’s Blue, the one who cut off her two prized assets and got better ones with a ten-year shelf life. Chef D believes in the big societal picture, cancer with a capital C. He believes the heavens with its mouth will call everyone in, say ‘come here, I’ve got a secret’, and everyone will come, and that will be it. It will all deservedly go poof. And Chef D will be the only survivor, the one who never gave a damn what those big lips had to say. Might as well stuff a soup dumpling in them.
The thought that keeps Chef D breathing most: can his son stand to lose a mother and father? Can he stand it if his son can?
But some day soon the mouth will open wide. His son will go. His son’s sweetheart will go. Every chef will go at Fu’s Blue. Shrimp, by the bucketful, will freeze over. The heavens will gulp it down.
Until then, Chef D will wake at two, then three, then four, and it’ll always look like dawn. He’ll buy thermal blackout curtains, a padded sleep mask, he’ll paint the walls deep red, then darkest brown. He’ll try, but won’t shut out the light.
Alison McCabe‘s fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, Third Coast, and other journals. She’s currently at work on a novel and becoming a licensed therapist. For more, visit alisonfmccabe.com.
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
Just to prove we have skin (if not submissions) in the game, we asked our staff members to recall a time in their lives when they were dealt a heaping hot slice of rejection pie.
To read more lengthy responses to the prompt, check out our latest issue, which is filled with
sad sack tales stories, essays, and poems dealing in rejection and regret.
We were planning on Raccoon for supper. My boyfriend’s dad, Stewart, had paid a hunter to shoot it, skin it, and bring it—wrapped in a plastic grocery sack—to the Superior Federal Bank he owned in downtown Rogers, Arkansas. The bank was one of the reasons I liked his son. We’d go there to study and sneak Dum Dum suckers from the teller counter and snack on fresh, buttery popcorn from the old-fashioned popper in the lobby.
I’d been invited, last minute, to go camping and though it felt like a father-son type of getaway, Chris assured me his dad wanted me there. Stewart illustrated this by swiftly grabbing a can opener (attached to a keychain, attached to his belt), popping the cap, and handing me a wine cooler the color of pink lemonade. For gentle drinking.
Stewart poured a bottle of beer into the cast-iron pot. The pot was perched directly on the kindling and the fire sizzled from the few stray drops of Michelob Light. We’d stopped at Last Chance Liquor on the way, one mile before the dry county line. The raccoon cooked slowly, the dark purple meat almost camouflaged within the cast iron pot.
When Stewart decided it was ready to eat, we huddled around the fire—the sun just down behind the Ozarks—and ate from paper bowls resting in our laps. The meat was tender and greasy. My first bite felt like a pad of butter in my mouth and I had to resist the urge to spit it out. The second and third bite tasted like oily duck.
As we were cleaning up, a loud bang filled the quiet night. Another boom sounded, followed by the sound of crackling metal. Chris told his dad we were going to walk down the road, deeper into the campground to investigate. Stewart put his hands up; I’m not your keeper.
The hollow tree stood upright, tethered to the ground by four large metal cables. At fifty yards away, it looked like a grand chimney without a house around it. About two-thirds of the way down were large holes drilled into the trunk and hours of firewood circling its base. The fire looked blue-hot: shot flames through the trunk, piping smoke from its top.
One of the men, he looked a teenager, darted from the log yelling something that sounded like Redbug!Redbug! and a few others jumped behind their trucks, waiting. The log whined and hissed, louder and louder till it blew, and shot fire and metal high up into the sky. The boy flung his fists into the air and was soon surrounded, hands smacking his back, others offering a fresh beer.
We started to walk closer, but were stopped by a man sitting on the bed of his truck. The Allman Brothers Band crackled through the speakers in the cab, windows down. The man had a beer can in each hand, drinking from one—spitting chew in another. You looking for somebody?
I asked him what they were doing. It’s called a Blow Log. Its purpose, he told us, was to blow stuff up and destroy the log. They threw in spray paint cans, hairspray, anything under pressure. All the trucks that were parked in a large circle around the log belonged to men in Newton County. He called them neighbors. Only the men who kept drinking could keep throwing. He couldn’t remember the man who had won the blow log last year, but bragging rights are involved.
We moved to get a better look, maybe to try tossing a can or two, but the man leaned and touched my elbow. Sorry, hon, no ladies at the Blow Log.
Later in the tent, I listened to the explosions in the distance. I closed my eyes and saw night stars moving over the tethered log with the fire burned from its top like yellow and orange leaves. The men passed out in trunk beds, hands stuffed into the waistbands of their pants. The last men standing, still drinking, still trying to blow up the log, throwing in last cans of hairspray.
Where did they get it? I wondered. From their girlfriends, their wives? I thought about the poisonous mix of butane, spray paint and hairspray, a mix that probably made the men feel a little bit sick and a little bit good. I tried to picture the women that were not allowed at the blow log. Were they worried about their boyfriends and husbands and sons, out in the cold, drinking and handling explosives? Did they want to be invited or were they sitting warm indoors, glad to have them gone, thankful for the peace and quiet?
Masie Cochran is an editor with Tin House Books and The Open Bar. After working for Inkwell Management, a literary agency in New York City, she now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and son.
Claire Fuller’s standout debut, Our Endless Numbered Days will publish on March 17th. Our Endless Numbered Days has made many most anticipated lists including Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Globe and Mail, and The Guardian. And, now, we are thrilled to offer you a sneak peek!
Highgate, London, November 1985
This morning I found a black-and-white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar. My mother, Ute, had removed the other pictures of him from the albums she kept on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, and shuffled around all the remaining family and baby snapshots to fill in the gaps. The framed picture of their wedding, which used to sit on the mantelpiece, had gone too.
On the back of the photograph, Ute had written James und seine Busenfreunde mit Oliver, 1976 in her steady handwriting. It was the last picture that had been taken of my father. He looked shockingly young and healthy, his face as smooth and white as a river pebble. He would have been twenty-six, nine years older than I am today.
As I peered closer, I saw that the picture included not only my father and his friends but also Ute and a blurred smudge which must have been me. We were in the sitting room, where I stood. Now, the grand piano is at the other end, beside the steel-framed doors which lead to the glasshouse and through to the garden. In the photograph, the piano stood in front of the three large windows overlooking the drive. They were open, their curtains frozen mid-billow in a summer breeze. Seeing my father in our old life made me dizzy, as though the parquet were tipping under my bare feet, and I had to sit down.
After a few moments I went to the piano, and for the first time since I had come home I touched it, running my fingers without resistance across the polished surface. It was much smaller than I remembered, and showed patches of a lighter shade where the sun had bleached it over many years. And I thought that maybe it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Knowing that the sun had shone, and the piano must have been played, and people had lived and breathed while I had been gone, helped steady me.
I looked at the picture in my hand. At the piano my father leaned forward, his left arm stretched out languidly while his right hand tinkered with the keys. I was surprised to see him sitting there. I have no recollection of him ever sitting at the piano or playing it, although of course it was my father who taught me to play. No, the piano was always Ute’s instrument.
“Then what should it sound like?” Eliot asks. The swivel chair hisses as he stands.
“Don’t’ be like this.” Claire shifts to the edge of their burnt orange couch. “Its not as if—”
“You’re stepping out on me?” Eliot is still in hospital scrubs after his thirty-hour shift. He paces across the frayed rug to the mirror crowning the gas fireplace. He tries not to look at her. When the side of her mouth gets that semi-annoyed hook he always feels how his mother made him feel: Oversensitive, and precious because of it.
“Let me finish. Can you do that?”
He nods, glancing at her through the mirror. She’s leaning forward.
“I love you,” she says.
He shakes his head.
“What?” she asks.
“That just sounds like—” but he doesn’t finish. Like you’re making up for something.
Two years ago he’d been engaged to a woman. Her business dinners ran late, and later. Her boss. Afterwards, to the other interns, to his mother, to his father—to everyone—he said it’s for the best and better to find out now then after the fact. He made a point to ask out a nurse just a week later to prove to everyone he was fine, which—as his mother and step-mother both pointed out—only proved the opposite.
“I’m not Steph,” she says.
He kisses his teeth and turns around. “Who said you were?” Sure, they’d agreed to never let past relationships dictate the present, but that was like trying to define love. And, anyways, if they were going to talk about Steph, why not talk about how his parents had spent a decade in matrimony before his father went on a business trip and some woman in the hotel bar smiled? Within a week, boxes were stacked on the lawn and the oil stain in the driveway from his father’s pretentious Buick was all that was left of him. Then, when Eliot went to suburban Tucson to visit, his father was tan and his teeth had been whitened and he’d lost a bunch of weight and Eliot couldn’t decide which was worse: that his father left, or that he seemed so fucking healthy now that he was gone.
Shit can change in an instant. You are under before you realize a needle has pricked your arm.
Claire removes her thick-framed glasses and rubs her eyes. “What would you like me to say? It wasn’t sexting.”
“He asked what you were wearing.”
“It was a joke. He’s a perv. But more importantly, he’s no one. Just some guy who lifts while I’m working. I should be offended that you’d even consider him a threat.”
“A perv? That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
“This is my work phone. Work. Phone. And anyways, do you know how many guys hit on me? Why do you think they transferred me to membership sales?”
“Such a team player.” He paces back and forth. If only he had a bigger apartment he could leave. “Just forget it.”
Claire says nothing. He looks over and her eyes are closed. She’s not casual any more. She’s fingering the engagement ring. “I didn’t mean it like this,” she says. “Honestly. He means nothing to me. We were just flirting.”
“Just.” Eliot rubs his forehead. Airbrakes whistle outside their apartment. “Don’t you understand? Put yourself in my shoes.” He sits down in the chair opposite of her.
“I know. I can see that now. I’m sorry.” She pulls her legs up beneath her. “But if you think about it, we both have people who’d try. Who will try. What matters is that you trust me.”
She stares at him. He knows what he should say.
But that word: trust is a tourniquet, something only capable of slowing the bleed. Something that by its very necessity proves the wound’s already too deep to stop on its own.
“Fine. I’ll stop,” she says. “No more flirting. Fuck, I’ll block him.”
“It’s up to you,” he says, as if now he’s the one who’s casual. He knows what he’s doing, hates it, but here he is, latex gloves suckled to his fingers, mask snug around his mouth and nose, scalpel peeled from the sterile packaging.
She leans forward, fingers somewhere near her lips. Pauses. Then she grabs her brown leather purse from the floor. “Look, I’m going for a walk. I’m going to leave my phone here.” She sets it down on the table. “Have at it. And I’m not going to be the one to decide where this goes next. You’ve already asked me, and I’ve already said yes.”
“Later.” He stares her down.
She waits there for a moment, eyes glinting. She grabs her coat from the rack next to the door and leaves.
He gets up from the chair and walks over to her phone on the coffee table. He’s standing above, a surgeon over an open heart.
Ross McMeekin’s stories appear or are forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Redivider, and PANK. He’s a weekly columnist for the Ploughshares blog, where he reviews short stories. He has been awarded fellowships from the Richard Hugo House and Jack Straw Studios.
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to email@example.com with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
Kathleen Ossip’s The Do-Over, her fourth book of poems, is a study in poetic crosshatching as it slashes moments of recollection and longing with that of inquiry and curiosity. The speaker functions as a character within her own life, a character in the life of long-lost relatives, (too old for her to remember), and a character in conversation and contemplation with dead writers like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. The collection brings the reader into Ossip’s life as a mother, pop-culture fan, poet, and as a young 20-something trying to find success in Manhattan. Her poems are as complex in form, as they are in intensity; this is a layered book about the loss of her step mother-in-law, but also about the near-loss of the selfhood of a young woman. Readers familiar with her book, The Cold War, will enjoy a similar narrative and reflection into the many worlds we straddle in a single day.
Leah Umansky: This collection not only weaves between different voices and forms of writing (such as prose poems, formal poems and experimental poems) but also between dreams and visions. How did this book inform your choice of form, as a poet?
Kathleen Ossip: As for the question about form: I’m easily bored. Sameness makes me itch. I’m not a reader who likes to read the same kind of book or poem all the time. As a writer, if I can do many different kinds of things, why wouldn’t I want to?
To be utterly transparent, the shape and texture of this book were inspired by what’s probably my favorite album of all time, Tusk by Fleetwood Mac. It’s this big album of songs by three very different singer/songwriters and I love the way the different kinds of songs (some raucous, some dreamy, some bouncy, some just plain weird, etc.) and the different voices create this epic harmony and polyphony that’s almost novel-like. And the subject of the novel is heterosexual love, and you get all these different facets, narratives, shadings around that subject. I wanted to do something similar around the Grand Subject (of Death) in my book.
I also found, predictably I guess, that some things I wanted to explore in the book could only be achieved by using certain forms. The best example of this is the short story, “After.” The book follows the dying and death of A. At a certain point in that narrative, I realized I would need to confront the idea of an afterlife—really, the desire for an afterlife—and I couldn’t figure out how to do that in a poem, because I wanted to make the afterlife seem and feel real. So I wrote my first and so far only short story.
LU: The Do-Over seems as much an elegy to your step-mother-in-law, Andrea Forster Ossip (referred to simply as A. throughout the book) as it is an elegy to the past.
KO: I think of my previous book, The Cold War, as the one “about” the past. But I guess all elegies are looks back.
LU: I found this book to be very much like a self-help book, in the best way possible. Through addressing and accepting loss, we find understanding and in that understanding, a guide to life. In this book, you have a series of “A. in ____ “ poems, for your late step-mother. In “A. in May,” you say, “…We are still studying. Each of us one cell in a universe of process” Can you elaborate on this process you mention?
KO: No matter how much you think you understand death, death is a bewilderment. But I actually believe I understand very little. I think often of the Wallace Stevens title “How to Live. What to Do.” That’s why I need poetry, as a reader and a writer: to figure out how to live and what to do.
LU: I agree, we need poetry for that exact reason. As a female poet, how much of your writing would you say is “feminist”? Is it something you sought after in your work? After all, this is the age of #readwomen 2015.
KO: At a certain point last summer, there were a great many public debates going on that I just couldn’t fathom. I remember clearly that one of them began when a professional football player was arrested for hitting his small child. And then the debate began: Is it ever OK to hit a child? Athletic organizations weighed in , and religious groups, and the usual talking heads and bloggers. And SMH, as the kids say. I couldn’t believe that this debate was happening. To me, it’s obvious that no, we don’t hit kids (or anyone else).
That’s how I feel about feminism. Of course! It’s a question that shouldn’t have to be asked. What is there to debate? But feminism as a subject doesn’t automatically presents itself to me as fruitful for poems—I’m not saying this is a good thing, just that my head is in that other “no debate necessary” place. Social criticism plays a part in some of my poems and since I move through the social world as a woman, there’s bound to be a feminist stance.
More specifically, some of my poems come out of motherhood, and that kind of assertion is feminist, I think. Also, there’s a Great Man character in some of The Do-Over poems who’s both a patriarchal figure, an agent of death, and someone to be empathized with as completely clueless.
Beyond that, I believe that writing poems is a political act in all sorts of ways (the importance of the individual voice, the utterly free space the best poems inhabit) so since my politic beliefs encompass feminism, the poems do too.
Oliver Jeffers’s The Wall is part of a series that explores the conflict between the drive to understand things beyond our comprehension and the relative ease of blissful ignorance. Jeffers mixes classical styles with modern imagery to articulate a search for knowledge that is frustrating, at times, and, often, absurd. The Wall’s comic image of a man who goes beyond beating his head against a wall to literally forcing his way through it struck us as the perfect cover for our Rejection issue.
The Wall represents just one facet of Jeffers’s vast catalog of art. The Brooklyn-based artist works in a wide range of styles and media, from oil paintings with scientific and mathematical formulas scrawled over them to more conceptual dipped portraits in which a large portion of the canvas is obscured by a solid coating of paint. He is also well known for his picture books, which have been translated into more than thirty languages and have received numerous awards. His first book, How to Catch a Star, was acquired by its publisher the day after the manuscript was submitted.
Jeffers views his many techniques as pieces of a unified practice, using whatever method best complements the concept. On his website, he writes that his “picture books are about storytelling, and [his] art is generally about question asking.” He adds that “both are about . . . trying to make sense of the world.” It’s this sense of investigation and curiosity that makes Jeffers’s work both accessible and provocative.
More can be seen at www.oliverjeffers.com.
As all good fictional characters should, the people of Katherine Heiny’s debut short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow, indulge in a lot of bad behavior. They sleep with their high school teachers and their married boyfriends and their girlfriends on the side. A lot of writers would use this behavior as an occasion for grand moral questioning, and Heiny’s creations tend to be perfectly aware of their failings. But they’re not exactly wringing their hands.
For the truth is, none of those titular adjectives applies in quite the way you expect. It’s more of a funhouse mirror effect. The carefree ones leave a wake of destruction behind them, the mellow ones leave their companions baffled by the remoteness of their ease. Ultimately, Heiny’s stories are less about being the actual human being who is freed from angst and fetters, and more about the effect of such creatures on the people around them. She is an expert on the baffled and titillated frustration of trying to deal with men and women who go through life so thoroughly untouched.
It’s no small trick to write with lightness and humor that nevertheless has an edge of tartness, but in story after story, Heiny does so with aplomb. Her work is sharp and refreshing, a parade of gin and tonics that somehow never get you drunker than that first expansive, thoughtful buzz. I chatted with her recently over email about going one step further, whether pajamas are an aid to the craft of writing, and the undeniable fact that rubbishy reality TV is really all about the relationships.
Michelle Wildgen: What are the subjects that obsess you, and why? What subjects have you deliberately or accidentally avoided, and why?
Katherine Heiny: If it’s about sex and relationships, I’m interested. I can watch the most rubbishy reality program with a laser-like focus because it’s all about interpersonal relations. But when it comes to politics or finance or foreign policy, that focus deserts me. Also I’m such a loser when it comes to writing suspense or action. I love writers who can do that—it’s a gift and I don’t have it.
MW: Your voice employs such a light, comic touch, even when you’re dealing with material that could easily feel dark—extramarital dalliances, the end of love, teacher-student affair in which the teacher seems less in control than the student—it feels tart and swift. What’s essential to the success of an approach like this?
KH: I think it’s really all about going one step further than necessary. I mean, it’s fine and factual to say something like “Her husband ran off with the hairdresser,” but if you add “and the hairdresser missed all her regular Wednesday clients,” then you’ve moved on from the heartbreak to the unexpected detail, and at that point, I’ll follow you anywhere. Humor, to me, is always about the unexpected. Anyone can tell you something shocking or tragic but how many people can add something surprising to it right at the end? Those are the people I want for my friends.
MW: What is your next literary challenge to yourself?
KH: I’m finishing a novel now and it’s so different from writing a short story. Writing a short story is like stopping somewhere unexpectedly for a drink—you’re in, you’re out and if you’re lucky you minimize the damage and hit a few high points along the way. But a novel is a more like some month-long family reunion—God knows what might happen. So much can go wrong.
MW: What is your best and most productive writing habit? Your least?
KH: I always sit down to write in the morning in my pajamas—if I get dressed, I might be tempted to go to the store or out for coffee. It doesn’t stop me from wasting time on Facebook, but it does keep me indoors. My least productive habit is probably getting all excited and making some crazy resolution, like, “I’m going to write 10 pages a day until my novel’s done!” It never works and then I feel guilty.
MW: Can you tell us about a craft problem you have dealt with successfully?
KH: Does getting out of bed in the morning count as a craft problem? Narrative is probably what I struggle with most; I really dislike writing backstory or exposition of any kind. Usually I solve this by dipping into a story once the relationship or conflict is already underway.
MW: When you read, what books or writers inspire you and why? How about non-literary sources of inspiration?
KH: I love Gone With the Wind so much that my oldest child’s middle name is Mitchell. I have read it a hundred times and always find something new to admire—Margaret Mitchell certainly didn’t struggle with narrative. Anne Tyler, Stephen King, Kate Atkinson, Nick Hornby, Daphne du Maurier . . . I’m always inspired by authors who write with such confidence.
Non-literary sources would definitely include my husband—he can do any accent in the world.
Katherine Heiny‘s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, and many other publications. She lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and children. Single, Carefree, Mellow is her first book.
Michelle Wildgen is a writer, editor, and teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to being an executive editor at the literary journal Tin House, Michelle is the author of the novels Bread and Butter: A Novel, But Not For Long, and You’re Not You. You’re Not You has been adapted for film, starring Hilary Swank and Emmy Rossum.
Rejection. Every writer faces it. Sylvia Plath was told, “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.” J. G. Ballard got, “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.” Papa’s minimalist prose and man’s man themes so offended one publisher one editor proclaimed, “In short, your efforts have saddened me, Mr. Hemingway.” Rejection can be a knife in the side of the writer, or it can be a whip that drives him. F. Scott Fitzgerald pinned one hundred and twenty-two rejection letters over his desk while he worked on This Side of Paradise.
But more interesting than the ways writers have been rejected are the ways writers reject. For Paul Beatty, the rejection is of our nation’s shameful legacy of racism. In an excerpt from his fierce satirical novel, The Sellout, Beatty sees his African American hero staring down Justice Clarence Thomas and the rest of the Supreme Court. In “Looking for Suzanne,” Chris Kraus’s rejected narrator tries to put the pieces of his enigmatic ex together, while in Claire Vaye Watkins’s “The Call,” futuristic California seems to have rejected everyone. Translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky refuse to accept that the classic translations of Russian classics are sacred, and have made a career of breathing new life into Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, among many others. And channeling their spirit, perhaps, we embrace the opportunity to publish one of Chekhov’s previously untranslated stories, “Artists’ Wives.” Not to be outdone, even from the grave, Hemingway weighs in with a pugilistic letter, also previously unpublished.
We all know what being rejected feels like. (As a writer I have certainly suffered from the sting of rejection, and as an editor have been the one to inflict it.) So it seemed like a gift to offer a handful of writers, including Mitchell S. Jackson and Leslie Jamison, the opportunity to pen their own rejection letters. James Patterson, one of the best-selling authors of all time, addresses us all, and singles out regular Tin House contributor Stephen King, urging us to reject rejection and rally around the flag of reading. And poet Mary Ruefle has the last word, flat out rejecting Tin House. Ouch.
But you, dear readers, must know we’ll never reject you.
The uniform skirts were heaped in the corner, almost all of them unbuttoned so that they didn’t even really look like skirts anymore but kind of like very large, very ugly party garlands. One skirt stood impossibly up on its own, its pleated frame starched into a kind of sentience.
“I left everything in there,” the girl teen said, clear braces shining, side-pony mussed.
“Okay,” I said back, pulling the thin blue curtain to the side, sizing up the mess in the fitting room.
“Thanks,” she called over her shoulder.
“Thanks,” I called dumbly back.
I stood in the middle of the tiny room, staring at myself in the mirror. I tugged at the ends of my hair, just below my chin. Even shorter next time, I thought.
I picked up one of the skirts and a lizard scurried out from beneath it. I screamed and dropped the skirt. The lizard, small and brown, made its way out of the fitting room and into the hall. Another teen’s face poked around the curtain; this one, a tallish boy.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. There was a little lizard.”
“Oh, shit,” he said, thick eyebrows concernedly pulling together as if I’d just delivered news of an earthquake or a terminal illness. Then, slowly lifting up a pair of khakis, eyebrows returning to their right spots, he asked, “Can I try these pants?”
“What school?” I asked. The teen stood out in the hall on the round, carpeted podium in front of the three-way mirror. I pinned the too-long bottoms of his pants up one inch, then two, then three.
“Cardinal Mora,” he said.
“Oh.” I tried very hard not to prick his hairy ankles with the straight pins at the memory of the packs of navy-blazered Cardinal Mora boys who, just a few years ago, used to follow me home from school; the boys who jumped onto the city bus and sat behind me, spitting into the hoods of my sweatshirts and snapping condoms at the back of my head and calling me juicy and baby and ugly.
“Did you take your SATs?” I asked after a minute or two, to be nice and polite like I was supposed to be when I was at my job. The teen didn’t answer me, and instead he leapt forward off of the podium and shoved his whole left arm up under the sharp bottom of the mirror. He smiled and pulled his arm out and held his fist toward me, and I could see the lizard’s tail sticking out between his ring and pinky fingers, wiggling madly.
“Take it outside,” I said, both hands up under my chin. Pinheads from the tomato-shaped pincushion still fastened to my wrist tickled my neck. I watched the teen think about lunging towards me with the lizard in his fist, to scare me, to make a joke, and then I watched him decide that this would not be a good idea, and then I watched him head for the door, one pant leg dragging.
“You can pick them up Wednesday,” I told him, leaning forward onto the high glass counter at the front of the shop.
“School starts Wednesday,” he said.
“Tuesday, then? At, like, five?”
“Cool, yeah.” The teen scratched at his elbow and frowned. He held it up to look at it, and there was blood. “From the mirror,” he said, not taking his eyes off the scrape.
“Oh, no,” I said, and I got him an extra-large Band-Aid from the first aid kid we kept in a drawer.
“I need the pants embroidered with the thing,” he said, peeling away the Band-Aid wrappers, letting them fall onto the counter. “With the initials on the pocket on the right.”
Some schools made their students do this, I knew. I pointed to a laminated piece of paper taped to the glass. “You can pick the font,” I said, and he told me it didn’t matter, stared at his elbow.
“It’s my last year,” he said. “Wild.”
I told him his total and he handed me a credit card. I ran it through. He got a text, and he read it and smiled. “Hey, uh. Could you do me a favor?”
I said that I could. Because I was being nice and polite and I was in the process of selling him uniform pants.
“Could you put a U between the C and the M? When you embroider the pocket? To be—you know, for. Like, so it says ‘cum.’ You know.” The teen laughed at himself, ran his fingers through his hair. “Yeah, that’d be hilarious.”
“I could do that,” I said, not blushing, not blinking, nodding my head slowly. “It would be hilarious.”
“Okay,” he said, “okay,” but his face was starting to look a little scared. “Okay. But, uh. Yeah, you know what. Don’t.” He looked at the ground, and then back up at me. “Please.” He used his knuckles to push the crumpled Band-Aid wrappers on the countertop towards me, and then he turned to leave, and then he stopped and turned back to look at the wrappers once more, then turned a final turn and left the left the shop, and the little electronic bell at the front door chimed, ding-ding.
Alexandra Tanner lives and writes and works in New York, where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School. Her writing appears in Joyland, Ninth Letter Online, and more.
From the hot-off-the-presses Rejection Issue, here is Mitchell S. Jackson on being rejected by his onetime mentor, Gordon Lish. Jackson will join Rejection Issue-mates Paul Beatty and Ann Hodgman at the New York release party at KGB this Sunday, March 1 at 7:00pm.
You know where we come from: jet trips from Paris and LA, Michigan and Cleveland. Hours long trains from the New York that’s almost Canada and Connecticut and Phila. You know as well who we are: philomaths with framed degrees from Harvard and Columbia; NYU and Brown. Someone else’s superstar with published stories on their CV. Or else an Iowa grad with bylines and a book. Here and there too, the non-vetted with nothing more than a pencil and Moleskin to claim.
And yes, of course, OG, you know why we come: to witness your lore in motu. For a chance to join the list of anointed.
But on the forreals, I came as well for who and what was not on your grand list of scribes: one of me, and you know what I mean. What I told myself was I could be the first—no baby boon. What I said to myself was if I took to your gifts, was able to apply them to my ways of seeing, thinking, being, to the language that felt native to me, I had action at being some grade of seminal, would have the chance to craft a voice that, if not new, would at least be fresh. So there I was in the front row of those semi-circled fold-up chairs, the lone brown face in that class full of hope-to-becomes vying for your report cards and permission and admittance slips.
Awed to the utmost seeing you decked in your famous get up while you scratched on the chalkboard. That first day you eased into talk of E=MC2., which as I understand, is an equation that gifts us an effect greater than the sum of our words. By night’s end (Were you juiced on a Ginseng-B12 cocktail?). I was anxious as everything and went home trying to discover my “wound” and how it might bare a sentence of beautiful truth. Worked on a measly few words for as long previous as I would’ve worked on a whole story and came back to the Lish workshop as crucible off generic nerve. That night I sat rapt through hours of what was no less than sermon. You got around to picking readers and called my name midway through.
“She said hold it for safe keep,” I read, and winced.
“Go on, ” you said.
“She said hold it for safe keep and then she took it back,” I said.
“Yes, yes, go on,” you said.
“The rent money from under the mattress.“
“Stop! Jackson. You don’t want anybody’s sympathy. Don’t ever ask for anyone’s sympathy,’ ” you said, and paused. “But I’ll tell you one thing, Jackson, you got an ear.”
You got an ear.If it was news of me winning a Nobel it wouldn’t have felt no better. No lie, there hasn’t been a moment before or since when a comment on my work mattered more. You’re a sage dude, so you know how we each revere you. But what you could not have known, what I might not have known, was how important it was for the new negro in that room to make good for his kind, how much I craved someone as great as you seeing even an inkling of promise in me, how for all that damn graduate school, I had yet to be born into the life I wanted to live.
Once a month, we arbiters of cool at Tin House put our heads together and ramble on about a couple of books, movies, albums, or performances we’ve recently found compelling. Then we let the interns take over with actually relevant cultural criticism. But staff first!
In-house Portland cuddle party and on-again-off-again beardo Tony Perez recently jetted off toward South American jungle for vague reasons, implying heavily that he would not be returning—at least not as the Tony Perez we all know and love. He left the following message regarding desiderata for February:
Tony Perez (Tin House Books editor and Kurtz to my Marlow): Look: I Didn’t write one. But here’s a photo of my vacation reading. Make sure people know I’m watching Empire on the flight, and that I love it.
Our other international correspondent sends a typically jazzy missive from Paris:
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): Lately I’ve been listening to the super fine and syncopated music of Italian trumpeter, flugelhorn jazz player and musical arranger Paolo Fresu. A friend suggested Fresu’s 2013 release Desertico with his Devil Quartet that includes an excellent version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Suite for the Devil” among other gems, and the album is fantastic. And years before the Devil Quartet, Fresu played with his Angel Quartet, with the particularly wonderful 1999 release of Metamorfosi featuring the lush and lyrical eponymous tune. Whether Angel or Devil Quartet or some mix of musicians from both, Fresu’s music makes a superb jazz pairing with spirited late-winter evenings.
Back on US soil, Emma’s covering her usual homeless shelters ‘n’ ballet studios beat:
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): I’ve been reading, finally, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a book I’m going to be thinking about for a long time, both for what it has to say and how it says it. In the memoir, Flynn has been estranged from his alcoholic, delusive father for 25 years when they meet again, Nick as counselor at a homeless shelter and his father as one of the shelter’s guests. I live in strange neighborhood in NYC where the bougiest of all possible grocery stores and a frozen yogurt shop conceal a shelter tucked between them that’s a lot like the one in the book. I hadn’t known the shelter was there until I started talking to one of its residents, Wilbur, a schizophrenic man who told me he’d never had a birthday cake. Every time I pass the shelter now, I think of the Pine Street Inn from Bullshit Night, and of Wilbur and the son whose picture he keeps in his wallet, and who else’s father might be inside.
Meanwhile, on the rarefied end of the cultural spectrum, I cannot recommend the dance documentary Ballet 422 highly enough. The film relies almost exclusively on footage of rehearsals and behind-the-scenes prep–no staged interviews, no voiceover–to follow Justin Peck as he creates New York City Ballet’s 422th production, Paz de la Jolla. The choreography is genuinely visionary, as if he’s somehow peeled a layer off ballet’s traditional vocabulary to find a wilder, more nuanced one hidden inside. Yet it’s almost as exciting watching Peck at work, carrying the enormous weight of masterminding this production more or less on his own. If the movie isn’t screening in your area, check out clips of his other ballets online; Year of the Rabbit from a few years ago is the single greatest dance performance I’ve ever seen.
Don’t think that’s the only documentary we’re recommending this month:
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): In 1957, 20 year-old Linda Riss met Burton Pugach, an older lawyer of the ambulance-chasing ilk and the owner of a successful nightclub. What followed was a mess of accusations, breakdowns, and violence that were overshadowed only by a later turn of events that was both shocking and absurd. Things I knew about Crazy Love before watching it: It came up during a conversation with a childhood friend about strange documentaries (Tabloid, The Imposter . . . ) and that it was about obsession and something resembling love (of the squirm-worthy kind). I’d recommend a similarly innocent approach, for maximum effect. Continue reading
In his acclaimed debut novel God Loves Haiti, Dimitry Elias Léger stitches together history, sociology, religion, politics and a love triangle—all in the shadow of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The story revolves around the spirited artist Natasha Roberts, her husband the President, and the love of her life, Alain Destiné, a youthful savvy businessman who is determined to stay in Haiti. The book follows them before and after the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010.
Lyrical and with a great sense of humor, in God Loves Haiti, Léger has created compassionate characters who navigate a natural disaster with fortitude, sensitivity and wit.
Léger was in Paris earlier this month for a reading at Shakespeare and Company to celebrate the publication of God Loves Haiti and I introduced him on a wintry Monday evening to a full house. The interview that follows was conducted by email after his reading and discussion at Shakespeare and Company.
Heather Hartley: What was the impetus for you to turn from journalism and nonfiction to writing a novel?
Dimitry Elias Léger: Legacy and money. I began thinking seriously about writing books the minute after my first child was born early in 2002. I wanted to leave him a tangible family heirloom, a cool paternal accomplishment to brag, something I wish I had when I was making my way into the world. It had to be my particular perspective on Haiti in book form, because such a novel could influence him in multiple ways. I knew that growing up in other countries he would learn about Haiti through depressing headlines. It would be impossible for him to know the delightful Haiti I knew and still know. I’d known I’d write books about the charms amid the tragedies of Haiti someday since I was 10. His birth gave me urgency. I had to stop putting it off. Finding the right voice for my stories about Haiti would take me most of the subsequent 10 years. I have two kids now. They both will learn about this country, one third of their patriotic identities, though my novel; they will also learn about me, my values, my sense of what is noble, humorous, and craven. Since they were old enough to see the odd hours I had to work to write the book, the stubbornness and persistence it took to ignore publishers’ rejections for many years until the right one came along, and the joy of successful publication and a popular book tour, the book will also forever serve as a message for them to follow their creative dreams and make the most of their talents in whatever fields they may have an aptitude for.
Money became a factor that added urgency to my turn to fiction. I left journalism in 2004 for grad school and a career in international relations abroad. I did it because I wanted to move to Europe and become a humanitarian, and also because I thought no longer doing high end and high-pressure journalism would mentally free me to turn to fiction as a serious hobby. I didn’t see the magazine industry crashing like it did, but it did. Once the Great Recession of ’08 stalled economic growth in Western Europe, where I’ve lived since ’05, and the job market here tightened considerably, leaving little room for non-natives and certainly non-Europeans, I had to look to generate income in a line of work other than writing reports and managing media relations for United Nations agencies in countries far from where my children were growing up. Taking a shot at literary fiction novels seemed as reasonable an option as seeking an advocacy job for a global NGO and corporation. My wife and I knew selling a first novel faced incredibly long odds. Yet I sold and published my first novel before finding a job. Go figure.
HH: What was it like to transform your writing from nonfiction to fiction?
DEL: It was an education. I had to unlearn most of the skills that made me a good nonfiction writer. I had to hunt for the qualities that made me love the novels I loved. Basically I had to find my voice as a musical novelist, and I had to develop a literary sense of humor, as the essential difference between nonfiction and great fiction is that the novelist has the right to be funny and profound while raising more questions than delivering answers. The transformation pretty much took a decade.
HH: The characters in God Loves Haiti come through vividly as they navigate as best they can inner conflict and outer chaos. Was it difficult to not have the earthquake overwhelm the story, and by extension, the individual stories of the characters Natasha, the President and Alain?
DEL: Nah, the disaster was no threat to overwhelm the story. I love war novels, and just about any novel about Haiti is a war novel. In fact the idea that risked overwhelming the novel was the word “Haiti.” It’s a disturbing word to many inside and outside the country. So the novel, as it features a president of Haiti, took on the word’s talismanic power head-on. I thought the questions of faith, the “God” part of the novel’s title, would provoke debate. Even I underestimated how much the brand Haiti can overwhelm conversations.
HH: You were an adviser to the United Nations disaster recovery operations in Haiti after the earthquake. How did this experience filter into God Loves Haiti? Was it hard to balance in your novel?
DEL: My personal experiences were easy to keep out of the novel. The story of the sensitive writer who is overwhelmed by the sight of human suffering on a national scale is a cliché I didn’t want to add to. My experience with the UN did allow me intimate access to the upper-reaches of the Haitian government and the power dynamics with the international community. I was a public affairs officer. My job was to constantly visit and assess how well the UN’s programs were doing and report back to UN brass, colleagues, and the press. Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment, the 2014 National Book Award-winning collection of war stories, had the same job for the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq at the height of those . . . interventions. Our fiction is similarly harrowing, except for the difference that I tell the story mostly from the emotional perspective of locals, and he writes from the perspective of the Americans.
HH: The structure of God Loves Haiti follows the characters as they experience the earthquake at different points and it’s so tied to their stories. How did you go about creating this structure?
DEL: I simply wanted to write about the emotional turmoil of experiencing an earthquake. It’s unlike any other natural disaster. I wanted readers from every walk of life to have their hearts spin as the millions of people who experience earthquakes have.
HH: Stitched into the story of God Loves Haiti are expressions in French, and excerpts from Dante, and the novel begins with Derek Walcott’s stunning poem, “A City’s Death by Fire.” How does poetry influence your work? Is there something that you find in poetry that is expressed more readily or differently than in prose?
DEL: My novel tries to build on the long tradition of writers who wrote about peoples of faith dealing with overwhelming personal circumstances. That meant Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat and José Saramago, but it also ended up meaning lots of poets like Dante, Walcott, and Michael Ondaatje. Poetry, and the humor in much of the great Latin novels, were the fuel for my voice. You are what you read, but you really are what your writing talent says you are. Dry, economical prose was a gene my writing wasn’t born with, even though I love Hemingway and Camus to death.
HH: There’s a great sense of wit in God Loves Haiti. Does humor come naturally to you?
DEL: Thanks, and, um, yes. When I told an old friend that looking for the funny in each situation was making writing a novel more fun than I expected, he said, wait, but you’re not funny. I laughed! He probably was right. But humor came to me naturally while writing fiction. It entertained me and made me want to entertain readers. Humor proved the great difference between fiction and nonfiction writing to me. I do believe a novel has to entertain, no matter the subject matter.
HH: How do you balance the reality and the myth of Haiti in your writing?
DEL: Like I balance being me, the man/father/husband, and being a writer/artist: I don’t. What’s reality to a writer aka mythmaker anyway? What’s the difference who we are in private and who we are when we make eye contact with another human being who we instinctively want to like us? My guess is, the reality and myth of Haiti is my favorite subject, it’s my DNA. Balancing it is not a worry. Balance is the enemy of entertaining art and literature.
HH: What are the ingredients of a good story for you?
DEL: Good humor, good music, gigantic themes i.e. life and death, honor and disgrace and sex risks. The rest is noise.
Dimitry Elias Léger was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Educated at St. John’s University and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, he is a former staff writer at the Miami Herald, Fortune magazine, and the Source magazine, and also a contributor to the New York Times, Newsweek, and The Face magazine in the UK. In 2010 he worked as an adviser to the United Nations’ disaster recovery operations in Haiti after the earthquake. He lives with his family in France and the United States.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.
It’s time for another round of Broadside Thirty, our showcase for poems in thirty lines or less by poets thirty or younger. Today, we present a new poem by Soren Stockman.
She lies across your legs, open to the open window,
and after promising not to ask,
does not. She tells you to stay, and whatever ruin
may or may not be strewn across her apartment
(ruin a made thing now
both yours and hers to keep) breathes. No after-the-fact
text, more personal than you realize or than either of you
expects, in which, again,
splinters of what you feel together,
this time the underneath of it, show through,
can recompose ruin like this.
Remember, when you knelt before me, with what soft thing
I covered your eyes? And how you kept them closed, when it fell?
Thank goodness. Thank whatever you like.
Soren Stockman’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, PEN Poetry Series, H.O.W. Journal, Bellevue Literary Review, The Paris-American, and Narrative Magazine, which awarded him First Place in the 2013 Narrative 30 Below Story and Poetry Contest. He works as Program Coordinator for Summer Literary Seminars, and lives in New York.
Catherine Lacey’s debut novel Nobody Is Ever Missing follows a young woman named Elyria as she hitchhikes through New Zealand after leaving her family in New York without warning. Her past, however, proves to be impossible to escape and much of the novel exists in the fever dream state of Elyria’s rememberings as she thinks back on the unraveling of her marriage and her sister’s suicide.
To say that Lacey’s novel is one of the most entrancing novels I have ever read would be an understatement. It took only a handful of pages to convince me that I would follow Catherine Lacey wherever she led me—there are some writers whose instincts are so clearly on point that one inherently trusts them to make the right choices. Lacey’s prose has an obsessive quality about it that builds with an unstoppable momentum and results in a lyrical and haunting meditation on loss and displacement. Nobody Is Ever Missing is the ellipses on the question of “What if…?” and the work of a talented new voice.
I met Catherine in December at a reading she did for Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco and was impressed by her reflective insights on writing and literature as well as her thoughts on the difficulties and possibilities of making a living as an artist.
Emily Ballaine: You have an MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia. What led you to write a novel instead of a nonfiction piece? Is your approach to writing fiction different from your approach to writing nonfiction?
Catherine Lacey: I made the often-unadvised choice of starting an MFA straight out of undergraduate, during which I had written a short collection of essays for my thesis. I was pretty sure I needed more training to become a better critic and essayist, that it wasn’t the sort of thing I could do alone. I was writing fiction as well, but I was more private about it and I thought any improvement there would only come from solitude and I think that was somewhat true for me. At Columbia I took a fair amount of fiction seminars, which were hugely impactful, more than I even realized at the time because I was so focused on writing nonfiction. I spent about four years working on a book there that just didn’t hang together. Around the same time I realized that book didn’t work, I started writing the series of stories that became Nobody Is Ever Missing.
As far as approach, my fiction seems to come from an untamable, uncooperative place in the brain, while the process of writing nonfiction is more above board and straightforward. I will edit an essay with just about any editor I happen to be working with, but I only share unfinished fiction with a select few.
CL: With nonfiction the goal is so much more specific. I usually have a specific idea I want to get across or a story to tell that has already happened. The idea is either clear or its not. The artistry that goes into turning a piece of writing into something more like a piece of art is still there, but the underlying goal of the piece is there regardless. In fiction I tend to not know what I’m writing about until I’m nearly done and sometimes I still can’t articulate it. I don’t want anyone in on it until I am sure I innately know what direction I’m trying to lead it.
EB: There seems to be an assumption many people jump to that first person novels (especially if they are about women and written by women) must actually be some sort of insidious, undercover form of nonfiction. Did this change the way you approached writing Nobody Is Ever Missing? Does this assumption that you are actually your character make it difficult to write a character who can, at times, be somewhat difficult and unlikeable?
CL: Thankfully this sort of self-awareness didn’t shape the way I was writing, at least not to my knowledge. There was one reporter who seemed intent to conflate me with Elyria and I wrote a rant-y essay about it for Buzzfeed Books, but other than that I think I’ve more or less escaped accusations of autobiography.
That said, I’m starting to discover that my method for building a first person voice is a mix of theater and surrogacy. A new voice generally starts sounding close to my own voice, but as it continues to develop all these foreign parts get mixed in until it feels like something outside of me. At that point I try to inhabit that character as if she or he is a character in a script that I’ve been cast to play. And isn’t it always more fun to play a jerk or freak instead of a basically well-behaved nice person?
EB: Always! Well-behaved people rarely make for particularly interesting stories which is why it surprises me when some people will criticize a book because the character isn’t someone they want to hang out with. I liked what Claire Messud said in an interview a couple years ago: “The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”
CL: Yep. Today someone on Twitter asked me, “How do you live with yourself?” At first I thought he was just being mean, but it turns out he was a fan of the book, he was just generally curious if my brain worked the same way as Elyria’s brain. I wrote a book about a person who would never write a book and non-insane people still think she’s me. No one is safe.
EB: The sentences in Nobody Is Ever Missing have a very lyrical, almost rambling (in the best possible way) quality about them that pulls the reader into Elyria’s head. Did you find that you were writing in a style that felt familiar to you, or did the evolution of the character shape the structure of the story?
CL: She took about a year before her voice became clear to me, then it became a lot easier to write. I think the first time I felt like I had figured out who she was beyond just the basic facts of her life was in one of the chapters where she is speaking directly to her husband and going on rant about penguins and dogs and babies that is both logical and illogical. You know, maybe that’s it. Everyone has their own personal way of being simultaneously logical and illogical. Understanding your characters is a search for those points of illogical logic.
So I landed this gig and I started taking my little dog out to Rancho Mirage for the weekend, for some quality-time weekends, just him and me. And I lavished one-on-one attention on him with food and treats and playing and cuddling in a nice, clean, cool hotel room, and it was his little spa weekend because he deserved it.
I obsessed about the tattoo that I couldn’t bring myself to get. Finally I had the wherewithal to be picky, ask around, interview, look at samples, listen to suggestions, interview and second round of interviews. Possibly I could be coaxed into a refinement of the basic idea which by now seemed both adolescent and essential, dating from the era when I coveted a certain Mesa Engineering product and would go out of my way to walk my dog past the Mesa Engineering storefront. And bring my little dog inside and ask tons of questions.
I let myself be talked into watching the clip—that was my first mistake. I let myself be talked into volunteering to feed the habitat—that was my second mistake.
The basic idea was a portrait on each bicep, Duane on one, Berry on the other, each in the foreground, their rides in the background, Duane’s Sportster, Berry’s Triumph. When I let my arm be guided into the habitat, I at first watched the happy little community go to work, then I reclined and shut my eyes and listened to what I listened to then, long after my obsession with Mesa Engineering.
I wanted to get to know the woman and so I said yes and started having nightmares, not actual nightmares but the kind of vivid waking recollection of a disturbing image or a thought that may as well be a nightmare and you may as well be asleep for all the power you have to ward off the thought or image which actually slows you down as you’re strolling along, with your little dog, with the woman, shopping and being asked by every third person if they can take a photo of your little dog.
The clip played up the flexibility of the mouthparts, the mouthparts, how even a specialist in mouthparts wouldn’t necessarily think of them as flexible, but then how flexible they are when you see them at high magnification and slow motion and inside the skin, probing beneath the flesh: not just the insect’s needle probing, but the mouthparts themselves inserted beneath the flesh and probing, flexing.
The woman took me out for lunch to a restaurant that her mother owned. We sat at a table in the corner while the mother presided over the lunch crowd from a seat in the opposite corner, a seat all by herself. The tables had the kind of bright white tablecloths that have been washed a thousand times. An enormous cockroach climbed up the side of the tablecloth and onto the table. I was impressed by the size of the cockroach. The woman folded her napkin, and the cockroach made an unsuccessful attempt to bolt. The woman folded her napkin and placed it off to the side. I looked over at the mother, but I couldn’t tell if she was smiling at us or the lunch crowd in general.
And not just the flexibility but all the parts of the mouthparts: the needle that pierces your flesh, so I discovered, isn’t just one needle, but a bundle of needles, flexible needles that go rooting around seeking out a blood vessel, mobile searching needles that pump white gunk under your skin (you can see it in the clip) with such force that the blood vessel ruptures, blood settles into a pool, and the needles dip into the pool and more white gunk gets pumped in while one by one, little red corpuscles are drawn up into the needles—that was an image that kept coming back to me.
Meanwhile the woman would bring vials into a side room, and do whatever with them that she was paid to do. Another woman came and went, watching so that I didn’t shortchange the habitat. Those two women were the only human beings I ever saw in the place, the woman who cut my check and the woman who kept me honest.
I’d signed on for a paid stint beyond my volunteering—it was just pocket money, but it put me in close proximity to the woman every other afternoon. I left my little dog with Johan when he wasn’t proofreading for a law office.
We went for long walks out beyond the nondescript building into the high-end shopping neighborhoods, the woman and I and my little dog, out past the building with its habitat, through the high-end residential neighborhoods and into the crowded streets with shoppers from all around the world, the tour buses rolling by and announcing how not a single one of the boutiques along those renowned streets made a profit or ever would, and I bought a shirt that circled my biceps tightly, showed off my biceps in anticipation of the tattoo that I couldn’t bring myself to get.
The clip kept haunting me with the same vividness that had once attached itself to the mirage of that Mesa Engineering product that I coveted so intensely back when I’d taken liberties with my little dog’s name, started hailing him as Leo Kotke.
I had a new idea, just two numbers, “10” for Duane, “11” for Berry. It would have meaning for me (or anyone who knew) and I wouldn’t be saddled with two portraits whose significance had faded at the same time as the concept of a tattoo, any tattoo, had become so fraught with meaning. I heard good things about a studio that had just moved up from Long Beach, and I began to imagine what it would be like to walk in the door and how the very first thing I would need to do is explain about my arm.
Fortunato Salazar‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Wigleaf, SmokeLong, Hobart, Spork, Mississippi Review, Los Angeles Review and elsewhere. Other stuff is in McSweeney’s, Nerve, Vice, Guernica and elsewhere.
From our Science Fair issue, Donna Hunt dons an identity crisis.
In this dimension you
are not in love with me
anymore. I wish it were
another. In infinite
dimensions you are not
in love with me. Those donnas
handle it better. Other donnas accept
the cycles of relationships.
Some donnas dye their hair, finally
learn guitar. Another
donna travels, basks
on a rock, burns it out.
Some donnas sleep
it off. Take two
in the morning. Several
other donnas are already
dating that other guy. He’s tall.
Many donnas catharsis,
bake, shop, redecorate.
Three donnas bash you
over drinks, and then call
your mother. It’s better than this. donna, in this
world, is thrown. Has forgotten
her address. No longer recognizes her own handwriting.
Donna Hunt’s chapbook, The Coastline of Antarctica, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared in DIAGRAM, and the Cleveland Review, among other journals.
We drove through Oakland, a desultory meander along the estuary in the warehouse district where the Port boom cranes line up in a string of white horses and the big freighters hug the shore waiting to be relieved of their cargo so they can turn around and get more on the other side of the ocean that stretched, glinting white and blue under the sun’s attack and it was when I was just about to give up that Helen said, “There, that one,” and pointed to a large factory along the rail lines leading into the western terminus of the Southern Pacific Railroad and I knew immediately, looking at the cement monolith punctuated by window banks soaring thirteen feet or more, that she was right so I said, “Pull over,” so we could walk the perimeter, sneak into the lobby, climb to the roof, look out on the Bay Bridge backed by the silhouette of San Francisco banking the orange bullseye of the setting sun and I could say Yes to this day, this morning with my old life growing smaller in the rearview mirror and my new life crashing through the windshield as we barreled up 880 behind the moving van to a neighborhood crisscrossed by every known method of transportation—from road to rail to shipping lanes to flight corridors—to our Petite Marseilles home to sailors and prostitutes, murderers and pimps, pianists and photographers, the chefs, brewers, drag queens, and tent cities that are my new neighbors, whose lives I now share in the effort to hold down this corner of West Oakland where I had simply seen the sun bounce off the water to call me home to an iron works factory that found a second life as lofts for those willing to take a chance on a city in a place everyone ran from in fear, where people wouldn’t get out of their cars until I stopped under the fabricated, wrought iron marquee that said Phoenix Lofts which, loosely translated meant “Welcome home;” welcome to the 1700 square foot concrete box in need of rugs and art work and people I didn’t know but would get to know, laughing and drinking cold beer, eating potato salad and blaring our music from our radios on our roof that I share with my Cuban, Jamaican, Israeli, faggot and dyke settlers under the freeway that is routinely accented by rounds of live ammo and helicopters circle in the clear blue sky.
Rebecca Chekouras has appeared in Narrative Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, Curve Magazine, and the online zine Pure Slush. Her work has been anthologized by The University of Wisconsin Press and Pure Slush books. She is a 2013 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow and was short listed for the Astraea Foundation Lesbian Writers Fund fiction prize. In 2014, Chekouras helped launch The Basement Series with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She was invited to the Tin House Writer’s Winter Workshop in 2015. Chekouras lives in the Port of Oakland.
This essay is the offspring of a writing prompt given by Whitney Otto during our 2015 Winter Fiction Workshop.
After releasing two widely-acclaimed collections of stories—What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us in 2009 and The Isle of Youth in 2013—Laura van den Berg is releasing her first novel, Find Me, this month, to much anticipation and advanced praise.
The novel tracks a fatal, memory-erasing epidemic that plagues the country, and the sinister hospital where—so it is being promised—a cure is in development. We follow Joy, Van den Berg’s protagonist, through this uncanny landscape, and a reader couldn’t ask for a better, more compelling guide: she is equal parts frightened and confident, jaded and hopeful, resigned and mutinous. And this is Laura van den Berg’s great strength: capturing with envy-inducing precision the fraught and fragile duality of human experience and connection. Her characters—like so many of us, like maybe all of us—often find themselves caught in Chinese finger traps, often of their own making, and it is something special on the page to watch as Laura van den Berg examines the ways in which they pull at the warp and weft.
This interview was conducted over email with Laura, whose brain should be studied.
Vincent Scarpa: You are—whether or not modesty prevents you from copping to it—a master of craft when it comes to the short story. This is an opinion shared by most everyone I talk to who has read the stories in Isle of Youth and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. I genuinely have yet to find a single detractor.I came to know your work—and then came to know you, after sending an embarrassing fan letter in high school—through your story “Where We Must Be,”and have remained utterly dropped-jaw ever since when I read you. I bring up that story in particular because it seems the best example of something you do so well in the short story, and something that’s incredibly difficult to pull off, which is striking the exact right balance between the A-story and the B-story, and making that juxtaposition a deeply resonant one for the reader. “Where We Must Be”is just one of many of your stories that function structurally in this way, but this is also a sweet spot that seems primarily reserved for the short form—the limits the form imposes are conducive to that kind of meaningful juggling. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the transition then from working with twenty-five pages or so of space into writing a novel like Find Me. What impulses that you may have felt in working on short fiction did you find yourself having to work against here? What literary muscles needed to be retrained, what tricks or methods abandoned?
Laura van den Berg: I’m not going to lie: it was a tough transition. I wrote the first draft of the novel in 2008 and approached it in exactly the same way I would when drafting a short story: wrote it all the way through, in a big rush, said yes to everything, no matter how ill-advised, jumped off every cliff, totaled every car, etc. In years past, did Find Me contain A. a subplot about a drug-dealing televangelist, B. a subplot about teleportation conspiracy theories, C. subplot about mind control, or D. all of the above?
All of the above, Vincent. All of the above.
As it turned out, having a 300-page disaster on your hands was very different than a 25-page disaster. Not long after I finished the first draft of Find Me, I had my first collection of stories come out and moved to rural Pennsylvania and was trying to negotiate a difficult period in my family life and my first full-time teaching job and relationships that mattered to me—you know, living. That slowed my progress for a while and then it took me a while longer to face my hideously messy draft, to understand what I’d done and how I might break from it, and then there was an even longer cycle of re-writing and starting over, re-writing and starting over. It was very hard to not be finishing anything for long stretches, that constant state of suspension, which was part of the reason why I started writing stories along the way and ended up with Isle.
Process-wise, the biggest thing I had to move away from was the incremental approach. If I am really into a story I’m working on, I could write a scene while holed up in the bathroom of a raging party—in fact, I have done just that. I could write another scene in the morning with coffee, another in my office at school, and so on, and all those little bits of time can actually add up to something worthwhile. With my novel, I found that ultimately I couldn’t work incrementally, in the midst of daily life, or else I was just going to keep repainting a house that needed to be set on fire and bulldozed. A novel wants your life, in a way—at the risk of sounding melodramatic—and so consequently a lot of the most important work was done at residences, when it could have my life for a set period of time, or during stretches at home where I could lock myself in a room for many hours.
So it was hard, but I don’t mean to make it sound like drudgery—it wasn’t at all. I’m not inclined toward drudgery, so if it was a slog, I would have given up on the book years ago, for I am not a very good slogger. The hard part was mainly psychological: how to keep the faith, how to not let doubt erode the project, how to ask the right questions, how to see with greater depth and clarity. To come through the other side of that, to get to have a lengthy and intense relationship with a project, is richly rewarding and…kind of addictive? In the midst of the toughest patches, there were times when I thought, Goddamn, I’ll never write another novel again, and now what am I working on? Yep.
(049. The Six Swans)
I took in mending while you were gone.
At first, it was a selfish endeavor: I stitched up both our clothes, repairing holes and frayed hems, so that when you came back we’d look smart enough to deserve our happiness. Then the neighbors took notice, and I began mending shirts and dresses, slacks and jackets that arrived at my door from all over town.
When there’s a war on, you begin to imagine that everything you do ensures some kind of guarantee. If my stitches are straight, if my sleeve lengths match perfectly, then he will return unharmed. If I do not finish before dusk on the final day, he will not return at all.
The woman I wanted to become said child, this is no hard task. This is what your fingers know to do. And it was true, somewhat. I had sewn my whole life, from hand-stitching with needles to the whir of an industrial machine. But never before had such a task been given me. With each button, I saved your life. Somewhere across the ocean, a hand was shot through. Somewhere, a man lost his face. I kept sewing. I did not speak with anyone, and I had no desire to laugh.
On the last day of the last battle, I sat in my sewing corner all afternoon and took stock. My blue dress, your shirts, the patch on Mrs. Johnson’s slacks—all done. I watched the sun set behind the Y two streets over. I waited the next day, and many days after that, watching the sky every night, but you never came home.
(040. The Robber Bridegroom)
When I met Mr. S some years later, I had given myself a new name. Who could call me the same woman? Mr. S liked my new name fine. Short and simple and practical, my new name was. Underneath his thin smile, I had the distinct impression that he thought of me the same way: a short, simple woman. A practical wife.
But he was nothing like you, in any way. Not prone to jokes, he was smart and reserved. My brother, who didn’t care what I liked to call myself, invited him to dinner. We sat in the winged armchairs that never got any use besides, and we watched the brand new television.
He laughed at the girls on Lawrence Welk as they crooned in harmony. What’s so funny, I asked him. Merengues, he said. They look like a rack of pies. It was then that I thought I saw you, looking out through his eyes, keeping me tacked onto the world.
We rented out the Elks Lodge for our wedding dinner. During dessert, a too-moist lemon cake, I looked down at my lap. My wedding ring glinted on my finger: it seemed to belong to a different hand.
(043. Frau Trude)
My granddaughter sits across the room, eating Chinese takeout and complaining to her mother and me about her cousins. They don’t like the same films she does, and this, she says, is a disappointment.
Maybe you’re finally learning that things aren’t always the way you want, I say.
Her face becomes a crumpled cabbage. Mom, her mother says, and puts her hand on my arm. Then I remember something I had forgotten: the girl’s heart, broken in its cage of bone and veins, broken by some boy off at school. Cried for days straight, her mother told me. The first heartbreak, I suppose, and so it will likely be the worst. I look at my granddaughter, who is eating chicken and broccoli. She managed, it appears, to get dressed this morning, even to put on a red silk scarf. She still calls herself by the same name as she did before.
Maybe you already know that, I say, for her mother’s sake.
It’s half-hearted, and we both know it. She knows nothing. She gives off too much of a light.
Cate Fricke’s work has appeared in Slate, Fairy Tale Review, The Sycamore Review, and others. She lives in Poughkeepsie, NY, and blogs at www.grimmproject.wordpress.com
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
From issue #44, Christopher DeWeese gets all puritan on us.
When they take all the lovers out of this park
only you and I will be left
as well as the flowers.
We won’t be bewildered:
we’ll ransack picnics,
thousands of them
until darkness touches everything at once,
a perfume only poor women wear.
Detlef, friendship will be our helmet.
We’ll commiserate together,
screaming until our bodies swallow
their own echoes.
We’ll remember candles,
the way string hangs a skeleton.
Did I mention it will be Christmas?
That snow will be falling
to reimburse New England
for the Puritans?
Christopher DeWeese is the author of The Black Forest (Octopus Books,). His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Fence, Granta, Tin House and a recent edition of Field. He teaches at Oberlin College.
Matt Burgess’s second novel Uncle Janice is set in Queens and tells the story of Janice Itwaru, a young undercover drug officer in the NYPD trying to make detective. As with his first book Dogfight, Burgess’s new novel is populated—stuffed, in the best possible way—with cops and drug-dealers, characters trying to get a leg up, to make it through the day intact, and, with luck, a little ahead of things. This is a sharp book about crime and policing, sure, but like all great literary crime books its real concern is the neighborhood, and one of the things I loved most about this book was the way that Matt brought Queens, that irreducible borough, to the page.
Fill disclosure: Matt and I have known each other for years, so you may not believe me when I tell you that it’s one of the best books I’ve read, and particularly timely. But maybe you’d believe Charles Bock, who said:
“Uncle Janice is that mythical sixth season of The Wire for which we have all been pining. Yeah, that good. The daily trials and tribulations of one Janice Itwaru—undercover drug officer, fallen daughter, all around wrong way gal—make for that rarest of reading experiences: at once comic and enthralling, always surprising, and unexpectedly touching. The eye, ear, voice and heart of this novel are bulletproof. Whoever the hell Matt Burgess is, dude does not sleep for one sentence. Neither will you.”
Whoever the hell Matt Burgess is! I love that.
Well, I know who he is, and I knew where to find him, and this interview was conducted over email while he was on the road, when neither of us was sleeping (he: worrying over sentences; me: worrying over an 8 month old).
Ethan Rutherford: First off, congratulations on Uncle Janice. I thought it was a terrific book, and though I hesitate to call it timely, to a certain degree, it is: things between the NYPD and the community it’s intended to serve are incredibly tense right now. And here’s a book about a young New York City cop, working undercover narcotics in Queens, under a lot of pressure to make drug-buys and survive long enough to make detective. The story very much belongs to Janice—and if it is interested in the issues of policing, it’s all filtered through her—but the book is set in 2008, in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting, which was another crisis point for the NYPD. Can you talk a little about how you came to set the book in the time/place you did? I’d also be interested in hearing what you think fiction can bring to these issues that, say, other media cannot.
Matt Burgess: Well, the book is set in Queens because I grew up there and I can’t yet seem to get myself to daydream about anywhere else. Stoops, park benches, pool halls, alleyways: they’re these charged spaces for me. I grew up telling and listening to stories, and it’s almost impossible for me to segue to fictional storytelling as a novelist without taking those places with me. When I was last in Queens, a couple weeks ago to promote the book, my friend Timmy was walking down a crowded sidewalk and there’s this woman coming from the opposite direction, talking to herself, and he accidentally makes eye contact with her, and when he does, she punches him in the stomach. She kept walking, everyone around him kept walking, and after a brief moment of confusion he kept walking too. What’s he going to do? Say something to her? Escalate it? Instead, later that night after work, he goes to the bar and tells us about it. That’s what we do. We try to cope with all this craziness by turning it into stories, and that’s what my books are trying to do.
But why 2008? I’m not quite sure. My previous book was set in the recent past as well, and it’s something the Coen Bros. frequently do in their movies (The Big Lebowski, which came out in 1998, takes place during the first gulf war.) I write blindly, in longhand, in black-and-white composition books, without any idea of where I’m going plot-wise; I think setting the book in a precise historical moment at least gives me something to hold onto. I don’t know what the characters are going to do on a particular day, but I do know what tabloid headlines they might be talking about. Plus, 2008 was particularly bananas for New York: the economic crisis, the governor sleeping with hookers, the Sean Bell trial, the Giants winning the Super Bowl. The nice/tragic thing about writing an NYPD novel, though, is that you can set it in any year and you’ll probably be addressing some controversial catastrophe.
ER: How much research went into this? The rumpus, the housing projects, the streets? How’d you pull these threads together?
MB: I’m going to borrow a line from one of my heroes, the novelist George Pelecanos, and say, “the most valuable research I do comes from just hanging out in the neighborhoods and listening.” I was talking to a friend mine who’s an undercover cop and I asked him what was the scariest part of his job. I’m expecting him to say getting shot at. Instead he tells me he’s constantly worried that his bosses might try to screw him over. Working the streets was less stressful than navigating office politics. That was a revelation for me. It’s hard for a lot of us to relate to police officers, but my friend’s most chronic problems—how do I navigate this massive bureaucracy while retaining some sense of self?—were things almost anyone can relate to, in the same way you don’t have to be a veteran of war to appreciate Catch-22. The germ of Uncle Janice came out of that barroom conversation. From there, the research took me to more hanging out: with dealers, with addicts, walking around the Queensbridge Houses, showing up at the Queens Narcotics Division, getting kicked out of the Queens Narcotics Division, and really just listening, without any sort of agenda.
ER: So how do you know when you’ve got the story? How do you know when to stop?
MB: I don’t know! I’ve got the story when heading to my desk every morning becomes a compulsion. I stop—and I stole this from a Raymond Carver essay—when I’m putting commas back in the same places where I’d taken them out on the previous revision.
ER: Janice is such a great character—full, complicated, funny—and in some ways such an unlikely protagonist. In crime fiction, we’re so used to seeing sort of lone-wolf investigators: men—almost always men—who are on the outs with their family and friends, hard-drinking and brawling loudmouths who cause trouble, who flaunt the law rather than being bound by it, etc. (this is a ridiculously simple take, I know). But Janice is young, and the mistakes she does make come from inexperience, or a very understandable ambition. She’s not jaded; she’s kind-hearted. She’s juggling a lot—taking care of her mother, who has early onset dementia; she’s thinking about her love life—and trying hard to make it through the day. How did she come to you, as a character?
It may surprise you, as it did us, to learn that we citizens of the United States have not yet built ourselves a museum to honor our great writers. Luckily, The American Writers Museum aims to do just that in Chicago in 2016. In the meantime, artist Mia Funk is tasked with creating a group portrait of America’s finest authors. In this ongoing series, she presents her preliminary sketches, along with thoughts on, interviews with, and histories of her subjects. This week, she sketches and interviews Joyce Carol Oates.
To be an observer as transparent as a glass of water is a haunting metaphor. It is also, perhaps intentionally, something of a contradiction, considering the person who said it has published over 70 books. Those publishing cycles are those of someone fully comfortable with dipping into her subconscious and sharing what she finds there. The opposite of safe. The opposite of invisible.
In that way, Oates almost resembles Bob Dylan, that other poet of American life whose output astonishes and whose song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was the inspiration for her much anthologized “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” She seems to have embraced the same down-to-earth don’t think twice philosophy about producing work and moving on. Not so much a Mike Tyson (the boxer she has written extensively about) but a literary Manny Pacquiao; a fighter who has moved effortlessly between different weight divisions and is known for his fast combinations and not being afraid to rise up and stretch himself even at the risk of leaving himself wide open. Oates taught James Joyce’s writing at Princeton and also seems to share his intellectual curiosity for things high and low. When people from Dublin visited the Irish writer in Paris, he’s said not to have been interested in talking about literary theory, but quizzing them about all the little changes to his hometown since he’d left it. Oates also has this openness to learning from everything around her; her reputation for listening to students and helping them discover their style; her engagement with Twitter; the multiplicity of voices in her collected works. Joyce once said of Ulysses that he had put in it “so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”
Oates is just such a living puzzle: A funny and soft-spoken writer who often writes about violent extremes. A generous teacher who finds time to be one of our most prolific writers. (She made time for this interview during her transition to Stanford, that’s how giving she is.) Born on a farm in upstate New York, she began her education in a one-room schoolhouse and has now spent over half a century teaching at the highest level. Though some of her books seem designed to shock (Rape, A Love Story indeed contains a love story and not at all the one suggested by the title, and Blonde is not all glamor and Hollywood but an interior portrait of Norma Jean Baker) there is a subtly positive undertow to all this conflict in some of her stories about survivors, which is more evident in her fiction for young adults.
In addition to publishing under her own name, she’s written mystery novels under the names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly, but the person she resembles most, of course, is herself. The most-visible invisible woman. Oates. Teacher. Novelist. Memoirist. Poet. Essayist. Short Story Writer . . . We will be talking about her for generations to come.
Mia Funk: If I were to go into your online browsing history, what would I find?
Joyce Carol Oates: A hodgepodge of many things, I’m sure.
MF: It’s said you never have writers block. So what feeds your imagination? What gets you going writing in the morning?
JCO: Though I am never exactly “blocked” I do have difficult periods. I am led by a fascination with material—the challenge of presenting it in an original & engaging way. I have no problem imagining stories, characters, distinctive settings & themes– but the difficulty is choosing a voice & a language in which to present it.
MF: Which books of yours came to you naturally? And why?
MF: Which ones were more of a struggle?
JCO: Blonde, which is my longest novel, was a considerable struggle simply because of its length & complexity. It is a “fictional biography” of Norma Jeane Baker, who becomes “Marilyn Monroe” encased in a sort of American postmodernist epic.