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Jodi Angel, author of You Only Get Letters from Jail and Matthew Spektor, author of Amerian Dream Machine reading at Powell's Books Monday, July 22, 7:00pm
We know the title would imply that World Book Night is, well, one night, but temperance has never been our specialty. On Monday we threw a party for Alexis Smith, whose debut novel Glaciers was chosen as a World Book Night title. It was a fun night for book lovers (many of which were WBN volunteers) with good music, wonderful readings from Leigh Newman and Alexis, and some tasty birthday cake.
And while the cake may have disappeared (nothing cures a hangover like dessert for breakfast), good literature remains. Please enjoy the opening chapter from Glaciers, a worthy selection for a great event.
Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably never will go.
As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at sea before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt’s with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in—the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafés and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right up out of Elliot Bay, mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees.
She began collecting postcards of other cities: Paris, London, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Barcelona. She borrowed books from the library and watched old movies, just to get a glimpse of these other places. She imagined visiting them, walking the streets, sleeping in creaky beds in hostels, learning a few words of every language.
Isabel finds the postcard of Amsterdam on Thursday evening, at her favorite junk store, across from the food carts on Hawthorne. It is a photograph of tall houses on a canal, each painted a different color, pressed together and tilted slightly, like a line of people, arm in arm, peering tentatively into the water. The picture has a Technicolor glow, the colors hovering over the scene rather than inhabiting it.
She turns the postcard over, expecting nothing—an antique white space never utilized—like others on the rack, bought decades ago on long-forgotten vacations, and never mailed. But Amsterdam had been stamped; Amsterdam had been posted. The postmark is dated 14 Sept 1965 and there is a message, carefully inscribed:
Fell asleep in a park. Started to rain. Woke up with my hat full of leaves. You are all I see when I open or close a book.
Isabel stands before the rotating metal rack for a long time, holding the postcard, rereading the message, imagining the young man (it must have been a young man) whose small, precise handwriting stretches across allotted space perfectly. She imagines the young woman (Miss L. Bertram, 2580 N. Ivanhoe St., Portland, Ore) who received the postcard, and how much she must have read between those few lines, how much she must have longed for him to say more.
Isabel turns back to the image of Amsterdam, wondering if the houses on the canal still stand, or if they have succumbed to time and damp. Amsterdam is one of those low-lying cities, she thinks, remembering a New Yorker article about melting icecaps.
She searches the rack for more of Amsterdam and the correspondence between M and L, but finds none. She buys the postcard and leaves with it tucked deep in her coat pocket.
Walking home, she thinks Amsterdam must be a lot like Portland. A slick fog of a city in the winter, drenched in itself. In the spring and summer: leafy, undulating green, humming with bicycles, breeze-borne seeds whirling by like tiny white galaxies. And in the early glorious days of fall, she thinks, looking around her, chill mist in the mornings, bright sunshine and halos of gold and amber for every tree.
Back in her apartment she pins Amsterdam to the wall above her bed, beneath another old postcard: four brightly painted totem poles and a few muskeg spruce, leaning over a marshy inlet.
Alexis M. Smith grew up in Soldotna, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington. She received an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. She has written for Tarpaulin Sky and powells.com. She has a son and two cats, and they all live together in a little apartment in Portland, Oregon.
Few recent publications have excited us more than James Salter’s All That Is. We all love the man, his sentences, the way he orders Cognac while petting a his pet Corgi who always travels with him to the bar (this might be a slight projection of unknown facts). The point is we have had Salter on the brain, especially after reading Nick Paumgarten’s recent profile of him in The New Yorker.
With this in mind, we roll out Sonya Chang’s essay about her correspondence with the author, which originally ran in our Beauty Issue.
I disembark the train at Bridgehampton on the coldest morning yet this winter. As I make my way down the platform, tote bags full of his books, I spot him, standing at the top of the stairs, hands in pockets, shoulders squared, wearing dark sunglasses. I wave a hand but he remains still. Embarrassed, I fix my eyes on the concrete, hurrying toward him. When I come within a few feet, I see that he’s relaxed his posture, and we each reach out a gloved hand. “Well,” he says, doing a kind of mock grouchy-old-man, “it must be you.”
A year after my first correspondence with James Salter, we are finally meeting. Later that night, when I return to New York City for a faculty holiday party, my colleagues and I will laugh as a few share crushing stories of encounters with elder writers whom they’d admired: venerable poet X grumble-coughing at one young poet after he’d expressed affection for a particular poem; novelist Y drunkenly scolding a (now Pulitzer Prize–winning) essayist for interrupting his intermission at the ballet.
But James Salter is nothing but polite, if a bit subdued, as he drives me the quarter mile from the station to his Hamptons home. Behind the wheel of an old compact Benz that seems as fitting to his person as his wool pants and navy blue parka, he asks me about the train ride and comments on the weather. It occurs to me only later, on the dark ride back to the city, that he may have been as nervous as I was.
The house is a simple, light-drenched cottage that he and his wife, Kay, built in 1985, after renting a few different houses in the area. (These were the early years of his second life, with a second wife twenty-some years his junior.) It is a house in which I feel immediately comfortable—spacious but thoughtfully proportioned, tidy but not immaculate. The walls are lined with bookshelves, but not all of them, and not in the imperious way I’ve seen in other writers’ homes, as if the books preside over the people.
Kay Salter appears, fresh and brisk, and welcomes me with a smile and handshake. She is a warm host, taking my coat, offering tea, asking me about my novel and my teaching. A journalist and playwright, Kay tells me that she is working on her first novel and that she commutes to the city often, as she will this morning, making use of a pied-à-terre as a writing office. “So he can have the solitude here,” she says, and I remember something from an interview about his preferring a completely empty house.
Thanks very much for your essay, which I just read, a bit late—apparently we’re deeper in the woods here than I thought . . .
I agree with the comments about Hemingway always writing about sex, or something to that effect, meaning it was a subtext. He wrote a startlingly sensual English, very male and very sensual, alive to the senses, and sex, as we like to call it, is sensationally alive, both in the flesh and/or in the mind. I don’t like Hemingway, in part because he looms and also I don’t like the man. He’s a type you run into.
Women have more or less tipped the cart over—you probably don’t realize that because you’re, I assume, just a kid—and some confusion is the result. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t have been tipped, there is no should or shouldn’t. I always liked Robert Phelps’s citation—he must have been quoting someone—first the flesh, then the spirit.
Again, with thanks. JS
Growing up, Leigh Newman lived her summers in Alaska, hunting caribou and trekking glaciers with her Great Alaskan Dad. The school year was spent with her silk-blouse-buttoned-up mother in Baltimore. With Dad, she’d gut salmon; with Mom, she’d be dropped off at a private girls’ school to study Latin poetry. To survive in either environment, she learned how to adapt. Constantly braced for massive change, she grew skilled at adjusting on the fly.
Yet the survival skills she developed in childhood did not always serve her well as an adult. Guarded and detached, her defense mechanisms often got in the way of having successful relationships. She runs away, flounders, is aimless, meets a patient man, marries him, then leaves him due to a restlessness she can’t quite name.
How does independence morph into exile? How does surviving—literally—become a way of life? These are the central questions which Newman eventually asks herself and tries to answer in Still Points North, her terrific new memoir. A blend of sharp humor and gorgeous prose, Newman’s journey back home sets itself apart from the flood of books that have recently hit the market by including the reader on the ride.
I recently spoke with her at a Brooklyn café over buttery quiches and hoppy beer.
(You can catch Newman reading this evening at Tin House’s WORLD BOOK NIGHT kick-off party in Portland.)
Aspen Matis: I am always curious about the process a writer goes through transitioning from writing fiction to memoir. Was it a difficult leap for you?
Leigh Newman: I feel like when I was writing fiction, it was harder for me, because I think so much about all the other books I’ve read and whether this sentence was original enough. Or where I was going, or what this was supposed to be like. In many ways, it was crippling for me. But with nonfiction, I didn’t feel like an editor. I felt like I was in a movie. You know, a movie I’d been watching for a very long time, quietly, with nobody else. But now there was a piece of paper with me. So I was writing down the movie.
When I finished, after about two years, and I was due to turn in my whole manuscript – again – I knocked over a cup of coffee, and shorted my computer out. I had woken up early in the morning, and I’d put the cup of coffee here, and I didn’t have one of those tops, and my husband got me this idiotic chair from Staples with wheels, and I pushed it out, and I got up and the chair came back and knocked over the coffee, all over my computer. That was unfortunate, and a dark day. I don’t have any sense of humor about it to this day. But you’re supposed to.
AM: That’s every writer’s worst nightmare. How did you recover from that? Were you able to get the bulk of the manuscript back?
LN: I memorize every sentence I have ever written. I can see even the slightest alteration to them. So if I go back I can go, “Umm. Something happened with that there.” So I could go back and redo it. It was just painstaking, time consuming, exhausting, and it all felt so pitch-dark and futile.
I’m not one of those writers that called up their editor to chat, or like their publicist to see how they’re doing. I never talk to anybody. I would just, like, go, write, write, write, and be like, “Here.”
AM: When did you know you had a real story to tell?
LN: How you tell the story involves basically what you don’t tell. There’s whole angles of stuff that you leave behind. So, what’s the thru-line of what you’re talking about? I wrote a lot that didn’t apply and had to cut it out. I had to cut out a hundred and twenty pages from the center of the book. I was bitter about it. But I also was relieved. The book was sagging. Cutting the middle created two structures. Out of two – one was about the year my parents’ marriage fell apart. And the other one was about the year I met my husband and left him three months later. So it was like two divorces. Next to each other. A divorce buffet.
Then I made the decision I didn’t want to do a lot of explaining. I was just going to lay these two dead fish on the table and let people make their own assumptions about them. But that did not come until I’d already written just about everything that ever happened, ever, and then cut out anything that wasn’t making the book move forward. So that was my one rule. If the reader wasn’t engaged, we’d have to cut and then make it work some other way.
AM: Was there a great deal of back and worth with your editor about what to keep in and take out. Was there a fear of her cutting your voice out of the manuscript?
LN: No. She recognized it. There was no giant earthquake. I didn’t become addicted to drugs and neither did anybody else. I don’t think you need to have roman candles of tragedy going off for a memoir. But when I was talking to the editors and we were selling the book, there were like four editors I was talking to on the phone, they recognized this was going to be a tone-poem based on voice. Jen Smith is my editor and a humongous, giant horseshoe of golden gravy was poured on my head when I got connected with her.
AM: I was amazed at how quickly you immersed us in the world of Alaska. I loved your descriptions of the landscape. The foothills across the shore from your house are “sheathed in fireweed purples and alder greens,” and you describe a section of the wilderness you deemed your secret spot as “almost tropical, overgrown with lush, jewel-green alders and small, wet patches of darker green moss. The water is slow and deep, the silence total, except for the occasional ripple or splash of jumping fish…” How did you capture your childhood so vividly? Did you study old photos?
LN: No, we didn’t have any photos of that time. My mom was a big picture taker, and she compulsively photographed everything, which is a weird kind of addiction. She was ahead of the curve on that one. But at the time it was weird, back then. My dad wasn’t going around taking pictures of our depressing lives. Usually you take photographs when things are going well. But how did I remember without pictures? You spend so much time not remembering that it’s exhausting. I don’t even think you realize that you’re being exhausted by it.
No, I didn’t look at anything. This is my native habitat. When you’re a child and you grow up in a natural environment, that natural environment impresses itself. Your presence is very flush against that past.
AM: Where does the cover photo come from?
LN: This was taken in the yard that I describe of the house where the roof – where the railroad ties are falling in. That was our yard, the extent of our yard. Because we bought that property before we he had a house. It’s just a mudslide that we bought. The plane was not discussed in the book actually. I have memories of vomiting in that plane. That dog was named Jasmine. That was not a typical dog, and it is a weird dog that is in this picture. It was wrong for the world. It was not meant to live in Alaska.
AM: Do you have a favorite story from your childhood?
LN: My dad and I were flying home, and we got picked up by this air current which is called an updraft, and we got carried up twenty thousand feet. You can’t survive in that level of oxygen. An unpressurized airplane isn’t even supposed to be able to fly up there. It’s supposed to fall out of the sky. I’m not sure exactly why it didn’t. And my dad’s solution was to take the plane and point it straight down towards the earth, hoping that we’d start crashing toward the earth, but that didn’t happen either. Instead, the same wind that took us up took us down really slowly. Though we were pointed directly at the earth, we didn’t go straight down. Because when you reach that point there was only one thing you can do which was hope that we’d crash to the earth. But we didn’t. We went down very slowly.
The interesting thing to me about that was that, even as that was happening, I wasn’t fully aware of the danger because A) I was oxygen deprived and giggling and laughing with my dad the whole time and nothing made any sense and my lips were blue and my hands were blue. And, B) I really had such faith in my father that, even though he was saying, “We’re in a bad situation,” which I don’t think he’d ever said to me before, he was like, “We’re in a bad situation.” It was like, you know, comedy hour. But, um, I trusted him so implicitly – and there is that level of trust that happens when you grow up in that survival climate with the people that are expected to keep you alive.
AM: Have you taken your kids flying?
LN: Yes, I do take my kids flying. I went to Alaska; I took my kids into the bush. It was intense because the younger one was only eighteen months. My dad no longer flies because he has a serious heart condition and had to give up his license. We went up with friends. And that friend had some hearing troubles. I didn’t realize. So the plane ride was a little hairier than I would have liked. I was scared out there, it was exhausting.
AM: Your dad took you on frightening excursions, putting you in situations where you both could have died. What did your dad think of the book? Was he amazed to read how perceptive you were as a kid?
LN: No, I think he was horrified. I think he was upset and really horrified.
AM: But he does seem sweet and loving, too. Like when he pretends the lumpy fish you’ve caught is a state record, and you write, “I smile. It isn’t a real lie that we’re telling each other. It’s a fairytale lie, a fish-tale lie, the kind Great Old Alaskans tell each other…”
LN: I was writing in the tradition of Alaskan storytellers. People get around, have a drink, or a coffee or whatever, and all they do is tell stories. Like around the campfire, in the car. Almost always these stories are about somebody almost dying or in fact dying. So it’s like, “Oh, did ya hear about him. He ran into a moose. He got trampled, yeah?” Or, “Did you hear about Bob?” I’m telling a true one. “He was driving his three-wheeler down the mud and he got stuck and the tide rolled in, and that was the end of Bob.” You know. So that’s what people do. They usually have elaborate, crowd-pleasing stories with lots of details. So I was just writing in the voice that I’d heard all these years.
AM: I have to ask about the fish. Your descriptions of them are some of the funniest passages in the book. Like, “a humpy, the lowest species of salmon in the salmon family, a fish mocked statewide for its swamp-creature looks and lack of intelligence.” The idea that a fish would be mocked, that people would care so much about a fish to mock it, it’s foreign to most of us.
LN: I’m a terrible snob about fish. I got kicked out of a fish shop in Brooklyn. I went in and I said, it was like twenty-five dollars for organic salmon and I said, “Can I smell it?” And the guy’s like, “All of our fish is fridge-fresh,” and I was like, “I would really like to smell it.” He asked me to leave. You should know, Aspen, if someone doesn’t let you smell their fish that means their fish is old. And by the way it’s on Court Street.
AM: Can you speak a little about your publishing company, Black Balloon Books? I know from the “About Us” page that you “believe in: good manners, vintage whiskey, and human names for dogs.”
LN: I founded Black Balloon with my friend Elizabeth Koch as I was writing my book. She does most of the operations now. She’s the publisher, and we now have a managing editor who works there full-time. We founded the company because we wanted to publish books that we felt were interesting. We wanted to publish books that fall between the genre lines. The memoir Louise: Amended was about a girl who lost the use of her body, and one chapter would be from her perspective, and the other one would be a fictionalized imagining from the perspective of people looking at her, like her mother watching her put on makeup. Then we’d go back to what was going on in her head, and it would be, like, her boyfriend trying to have sex with her. We just did Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality, that book did well, got in The New York Times Book Review. That’s a book I spent two years editing. It’s by a young guy named Bill Peters who invented his own language of jokes.
AM: Finally, do you have any advice for people who are writing their first book?
LN: Quit your job man, and go work in a café, work in a restaurant. You have to make that writing time for yourself and it can’t be after a ten-hour day at work. You have to organize your life so that you are given a two-hour period each day where you are not exhausted. Clear the time. Arrange it so that you do carpentry, something that you like so you have a livable wage. Go somewhere more affordable, Portland, Baltimore. My cousin lives in Portland, now. Move to St. Louis. Can’t lives on Won’t Street.
Leigh Newman’s memoir Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home came out with Dial Press in March 2013. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in One Story, Tin House, The New York Times, Fiction, New York Tyrant, and Vogue. She currently serves as Deputy Editor of Oprah.com and as an editor-at-large for the indie press Black Balloon Publishing.
Aspen Matis is a Riggio Honors student at The New School in Greenwich Village, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Tin House, Psychology Today, and elsewhere. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir Knapsacked: A Life Redirected North.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): First published in 1972, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing explores how we look at art and by extension how we see—literally and figuratively. A rich mix of art history and cultural theory, three out of the seven essays consist solely of images—classical paintings like Rembrandt or Velasquez, early 70s advertisements and pop images of women or food. As Berger writes, “Seeing comes before words.” A thin pocket-sized book in black and white, it’s perfect to slip into your purse or backpack for long afternoons in coffee shops or short subway rides. I’m also reading the stunning sonnets of Gaspara Stampa, an Italian female poet of the Renaissance with an extremely modern sensibility who turned and returned to the sonnet form with more than 300 examples for the paramour who spurned her. “Let all the minds and tongues on earth come forth / With every style of prose as well as verse . . .”
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Like all readers, I stockpile recommendations. Every unread book on my shelf—and it often feels like hundreds—has a peculiar and distinct lineage. Time to time, in a mood pointedly sappy or stoned, I like to imagine the sprawling kinship map of my library, all the rambling and vivifying and argumentative and, yes, often stoned conversations I’ve had that led me to buy these books. Anyway, several years ago, during one of our summer workshops, Susan Bell told me about this overlooked Victorian masterpiece called New Grub Street, by George Gissing. I picked up a nice, cheap Modern Library hard cover copy and placed it on my shelf, right between my trapped Gass and my clip-winged Hawkes. As often happens with these things, though, more people recommended the book to me and I recently reached a breaking point while proofing our summer issue, which contains a fine Lost & Found by Pamela Erens, whose novel, The Virgins, Tin House Books will publish in August. I liked her essay so much that I pulled the book from my shelf and started reading. I liked it so much, in fact, that I started reading her book as well. Neither has been a disappointment: not the book I’d intended to read for so long and hadn’t or the book I wouldn’t have read so soon without it.
Rob Spillman (Editor of Tin House): The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Believe the hype. Kushner can flat-out write. From the Bonneville Salt Flats to the pits of Italian politics, covering what it means to love and what it means to make art, this is a serious and deeply engaging novel. “I was in an acute case of the present tense. Nothing mattered but the milliseconds of life at that speed.”
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): Many years ago, when I still worked in a bookstore, a woman I’d never seen before walked in with a crumbling box of books. After I explained that we didn’t buy used books, she pulled a slim paperback from the pile. “Have you read Travels with Charley?” she asked, “I think you’d like it.” I told her that no, I hadn’t read it, but that I’d always wanted to (this was mostly a lie—a standard practice among booksellers). Leaning over the counter, she inscribed the first page, “To Jacob [sic] from Brigette. Now you have it!” And then she walked out of my life forever.
Travels with Charley has lived in the bottom left corner of my bookshelf, untouched, for about eight years. I cracked it open last night while experiencing a bit of wanderlust. Brigette was right. I do like it.
When I talked back, my father used to make me stand in the front yard holding milk jugs. It was a good punishment—I was built for it and wanted more than anything not to be. I would stare at the sunset, then the moon, and eventually the stars would quake in my gaze. By dark, he’d be eyeing the stopwatch, grinning, shivering in nothing but a flannel shirt and jeans. “This girl,” he would say, running a hand over his head, glancing around like someone else was going to walk up and be as amazed.
After, he would slap me on the back and I would sneer and pass the rest of the night in the bedroom. My sister, a wispy blond who hid from boys and still had them knocking on our window, would quietly tap on the door, pace and whisper about homework. I’d hide her schoolbooks and lock her out until she curled up in the hallway and fell asleep.
In middle school, my father pushed me to join karate, wrestling, rugby.
“You could be the only girl on the football team,” he said.
But I didn’t like the way he watched me, how he drew everyone’s attention. I’d heard enough about my boxy torso, flat chest, shot-putter’s ass. I crushed him and didn’t join anything, opted to eat sweets in bed every day from the end of school until dusk. My sister filled out sweaters beautifully and stuck to the kitchen, canned vegetables with our mother and learned to talk. She is a preacher now, or an artist, I can’t remember which.
In a program for troubled kids, after I’d put on enough weight to end up in the counselor’s office, the instructors defined physical, sexual and emotional abuse. I raised my hand and asked about the milk jugs. They licked their lips and didn’t let it go. I knew it was something different, some other parent-child relation between frustration and admiration and even love, but I also knew it was not making me into the sort of girl I wanted to be.
Given the choice of snapping green beans with Mom or chopping down trees with Dad, I always chose the trees. Mom said he and I were too much alike. I grew up and tried out dresses, leggings, glitter, but found I was still the girl who could bench press her weight. I think back to the jugs, how what I really wanted was to drop them and lose myself in my father’s flannel. How I stood there still as a pillar, thinking I was strong.
Originally from New Mexico, Kim Henderson now lives with her husband and dogs on a mountain in Southern California, where she teaches at Idyllwild Arts Academy. Her work has appeared in Cutbank, H_NGM_N, River Styx, New South, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. Her debut chapbook, The Kind of Girl, won the seventh annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest and is forthcoming this summer.
*Tin House is now accepting flash fiction (under 1,000 words) for FLASH FRIDAYS. Please send to firstname.lastname@example.org with FLASH FRIDAY as your subject line.
We hope you’ve enjoyed the Tin House Seminar: Maggie Nelson thus far. For those of you just discovering this, please follow the link for a full description of the project.
Last week, the seminar delved into Bluets. There was an amazing amount of user generated supplementary material added to the forum, well worth a look for those of you who have read the book or are just catching up. This week, we get our first writing assignment!
Exercise #1: Ghost Book Narrative
Many of my books have a kind of “ghost book,” a book that secretly—or not so secretly, as the case may be—stands behind my book, not just as its muse, but often as its literal stylistic and/or structural model. … In the case of Philosophical Investigations and Bluets, the leaning against not only entailed working from Wittgenstein’s ideas qua ideas but also involved lifting concrete sentence constructions, locutions, and so on. But there are insurmountable differences between us, which made the lifting productive. —Maggie Nelson, “A Sort of Leaning Against,” Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House, p. 94
Using as your ghost book a text selected from The Public Domain Review—or, if you like, another text entirely—write a 2-3 page piece that “leans against” the ghost book in whatever way(s) you choose. Make sure to check out the Maggie Nelson Seminar Blog for updates and discussions regarding exercise #1 (and all things Maggie Nelson!).
Is that true? Are we all—all of us writers—fans? Fan-like, do we not passionately—sometimes even obsessively—engage with our subjects? Do we not write in order to gain access and understanding? To be able to become part of the greater whole? But what about the freighted and fraught side of fandom? When our desire for access and intimacy creates a debit or comes at some other cost?
I put the question, as it were, to a variety of authors whom I admire and consider myself a fan. I asked them to describe their best or most interesting or most transformative experiences as fans. As the answers came back, I discovered another distinct and weirdly interesting pleasure: that of being a fan listening to fans talking about being fans.
Jim Krusoe (Parsifal): Before I ever experienced the obsessive delights of Raymond Roussel, the microfictions of Robert Walser, the skull-lifting novels of Flann O’Brien, or the doll-worlds of Guy Davenport, there was Kenward Elmslie. Because it was his book, Orchid Stories, that first allowed me to imagine my own possibilities as a narrative writer. True, I’d read Djuna Barnes and Beckett, so I should have gotten the message, but somehow hadn’t, maybe because back in 1974, I was still writing poetry (I did that for a long time), and was mostly focused on an extended argument with myself over irony and earnestness.
But Elmslie’s stories ignored all such questions, and the paragraph that follows, from a story called “Streetcar” marks the exact spot where, on a day nearly forty years ago, I actually felt an internal switch flip on:
Whole days passed when I rarely left my room. Friday night, I could barely sleep so involved was I in my Saturday excursion to see Dog Roots. I rehearsed getting in the streetcar in my mind’s eye—the steps, reaching in my coat pocket for the three pennies, saying hi to the uniformed traffic watcher. In point of fact, a new traffic watcher was sitting in the green booth beside the curtained conductor. A bunch of loud women got on, wearing minks and orchids. A bony girl in her teens with steel-rimmed spectacles and braces on her teeth accompanied them. In one hand, she held a pink noisemaker, and on the lapel of her white velvet break-away coat, a blue-and-gray orchid was pinned. I stared at it so relentlessly, she tossed it to me, with studied nonchalance. Her party got off at the next stop, opposite the Health Museum.
What was it about this single passage that changed my world, even though I didn’t know it at the time? Could it have been the vision of a movie called Dog Roots? The mysterious encounter with the teen? All those orchids? The looming presence of the Health Museum? To this day, I have no idea, but I remember at that moment I felt giddy, maybe to see a story that was unfettered both from “natural” details and “artfulness”. What was that particular story about? What were any of the stories in that collection about? Even looking at them now, I can’t say, although if pressed, I guess I would answer that their true subject was play.
And maybe that isn’t surprising, because Kenward, who I came to know later, turned out not to be a storywriter at all, but primarily a poet, librettist, and graphic-novel precursor, collaborating with, among others, Joe Brainard and Donna Dennis. And what made The Orchid Stories so freeing, I think, was that unlike Beckett or Barnes, what was missing from Elmslie’s fiction was a sense of intentionality, or supposed purpose. It just happened and was interesting in and of itself, without needing to dominate a reader. Of course, that modesty of presence may also explain why his book isn’t more widely read, but for me, opening those pages was like the morning when, still a kid, I arrived from the pinched and greasy Midwest to see the Pacific Ocean for the very first time, shimmering and boundless, then waded in and, without any place at all to go to, swam.
There are two subjects that pose near-insurmountable difficulties to any novelist who wishes to write about them with accuracy or grace: sex and God. The former is a widely recognized trap for writers, so much so that the British magazine Literary Review has, in every year since 1993, doled out an annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. And lest we assume that this is a trap more likely to ensnare inexperienced writers, it’s worth noting that the list of award winners includes names like Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer (although perhaps it is instructive to note that seventeen out of the twenty winners have been men). John Updike received from the Review a Lifetime Achievement Award for his efforts.
But even the perils of writing from the bedroom pale in comparison with those that plague our attempts to write about what happens in houses of worship. Fiction that deals in faith may be mocked less by the literary community than fiction that features particularly breathy sex scenes, but perhaps this is only because the former is so much rarer than the latter. I’ve tried, and failed, to compile a list of recent, noteworthy fiction that deals in spiritual quandary or fulfillment—Darcey Steinke’s 2005 novel Milk comes to mind, a book in which sexual appetite is often confused with (or fused with) spiritual longings, but little else does. On the other hand, sex—the act itself, the desire for it, the ubiquity or lack of it—is an essential part of modern fiction. A recent piece in the New York Times wondered, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?” and bemoaned the absence of would-be successors to writers like Flannery O’Connor.
The modern name that comes most easily to mind, I think, must be Marilynne Robinson, whose Gilead explored the inner life of an elderly preacher in Iowa who struggled to delineate his experiences and his theology for the young son he would not live to raise. And it is no mistake that Robinson’s is the name mentioned in the blurbs on the paperback edition of All the Living, a debut novel by C.E. Morgan first published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2009. To say that the book was ignored at the time of its publication would not be entirely fair; it was chosen as a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and Morgan (a woman, and a former student of theological studies at Harvard Divinity School) was named one of the 5 Best Writers Under 35 by the National Book Foundation. But the attention paid, to my mind, has not been nearly enough for this extraordinary book. Morgan writes near-perfect prose, whether she’s describing the mountains of Kentucky or sex or the acute longing for consolation that brings impoverished farmers together at church each Sunday. If we can all agree that it’s a struggle to write well about sex, or about God, then we’d all do well to spend some time with C.E. Morgan’s novel, one of the most astonishing fiction debuts of recent years.
The comparison to Robinson comes to mind, no doubt, in part due to the book’s homespun setting. Aloma, an orphan, first encounters Orren Fenton when he visits the Kentucky missionary school where she has lived for nearly a decade, first as a student and then as the piano teacher. He begins visiting each evening, driving her around in his truck until nightfall, and one thing of course leads to another: “when he pushed up inside her for the first time, she was unable to move for the surprise of it, not because it was unexpected—she had anticipated it in the unthinking way the body has of presuming its physical destiny—but because it brought the fact of Orren into a proximity she had not previously imagined…it moved her in a way that had nothing to do with pleasure.” When his mother and brother are killed in a car accident, Orren moves back home to try to save his family’s tobacco farm, and Aloma joins him there. They live together, sleep together, but do not marry. And that, at the most basic level, is all that happens.
All the Living—the title is taken from scripture, from a verse of Ecclesiastes that assures us that “whoever is joined with all the living has hope”—follows the couple through their first summer together, a drought summer that threatens Orren’s farm and so his livelihood. Aloma is forced to acknowledge that sex has brought her no closer to understanding the man she’s followed, however powerfully she feels herself drawn to him. And she finds herself increasingly drawn to another man: Bell Johnson, the soft-spoken local preacher who hires her to play piano at his church.
If you’re in the Bay Area tonight, go see Matthew Specktor in conversation with Glen David Gold at the Lone Palm. 7:00 pm, hosted by LitQuake.
Tin House Books: American Dream Machine is set strongly in Los Angeles. It portrays the city in a way that’s incredibly vivid–it looks like LA, it feels like LA, a city that is famously hostile to writers. What role does place play in your writing?
Matthew Specktor: LA seems to have suffered over the years as the object of satire, derision, and hostility. In fact, with the possible exception of Chandler, it’s hard to think of a great writer who’s treated Los Angeles without pronounced ambivalence. Less Than Zero, The Day of the Locust, Play it As It Lays, The Player, What Makes Sammy Run. These books all organize themselves around a pretty jaundiced view of LA, or certainly of Hollywood. That’s fair: they’re all great books, and I think literature isn’t where you go for false optimism. At the same time, I wanted to treat Los Angeles very differently. I grew up here, and I wanted to shower as much thoughtful affection upon it as I could, the way that Philip Roth did upon Newark or Saul Bellow did upon Chicago, etc. I wanted to paint a more comprehensive picture of this place in its warmer, and more human, dimensions. To address not just glamor and disillusion, but also the more homely aspects of the movie business, which in so many respects isn’t much different from any other.
THB: The book is about a talent agency, and the movies. To what extent did the movies influence the book?
MS: I went to the movies a lot when I was a kid. I went to screenings and saw films when they weren’t especially appropriate, for instance I remember a Woody Allen double bill of Bananas and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex taken in when I was seven or eight years old, and I think I saw A Clockwork Orange when I was eleven. I grew up on, in, and around the Los Angeles of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. There was always a sense of intimate relation, because of my parents’ work, the people who made the movies were always around. I worked in the mailroom of Creative Artists Agency when I was thirteen (I was the second person to join what would become a tradition—the “Summer Campers”), and I did coverage for their story department when I was in high school. The industry infiltrated me from a very young age. And as it is for any writer, I think, the challenge was what to do with it, with what was ultimately a very ordinary experience—the regular human stuff of adolescence. Feeling awkward and overmatched within the adult world. Feeling bored. The intermittent apparitions of glamor that appeared—coming back from a movie theater where I’d snuck off to see Risky Business and immediately stepping into an elevator with Rebecca DeMornay—didn’t really change any of that. It was still just . . . teenage life, with its standard distresses.
THB: Is Beau Rosenwald, your protagonist, based on anyone in particular? He’s someone who might strike readers as not necessarily “likeable,” even though—for them as for so many characters inside the book—he might also prove weirdly irresistible.
MS: I’m not sure that’s a paradox. I think literature is good for this: for generating a strong bond between the reader and personalities he or she might resist in real life. I also think Beau is a special case. I was interested in creating someone who was . . . ample, who might encompass the very best as well as the worst things in human nature. He’s not really based on anybody. Like all the major characters in the book he’s something of a composite: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. But he’s also his own man. I found him pretty lovable, as I worked on him. Most of the memorable figures in books aren’t “likeable,” from Achilles and Hamlet on down. Cormac McCarthy fills his books with people who are terrifying, even when they’re not repugnant. (Contemporary television reflects this too, incidentally: Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Sopranos. Whatever turns us on these days, it ain’t conventional charm.) We love our monsters. Beau belongs to a tradition.
THB: Speaking of traditions, this seems to be a very masculine book. While there are strong female characters, the dominant voices in the book are male. Were you conscious of that?
MS: Somewhat. When I wrote the book, I was aware of telling a story about fathers and sons. A story that ties very deliberately to feelings I have about my own father, even if those feelings are exaggerated or distorted and the character is invented. (Beau is certainly not my father.) I was also conscious that a female perspective gets louder as the story progresses. Beau becomes a dinosaur in a world that’s largely led by women. In part, this was me being historically accurate. The Hollywood of the 1970s was a very masculine place, and the agency business was too. A great agent like Sue Mengers of ICM really stood out. But it was also a chance to draw the veil a little bit, with both generations of men in the book. To represent what men can be like when they’re alone.
THB: You’ve referred to Beau as a “singularly American character.” He does seem to be. But I wonder if or how you conceived him as such?
MS: I think of Beau as indeed representing something that’s very American, or at least, something that was. He’s what used to be called a “self-made man,” although one never hears that expression anymore. He’s not educated. He’s not particularly talented or gifted, but he’s driven. He’s absolutely relentless in pursuit of what he wants. In a sense, this is the most American idea there is, going back through Willy Loman and Horatio Alger. One succeeds simply through determination and hard work. (I’m not sure anyone believes this nowadays, nor am I sure anyone should.) But Beau’s story in effect is what happens when this sort of person, the embodiment of American individualism, runs up against the advancing tide of global corporate capitalism, which is largely the negation of that idea. It’s a drama that’s played out in different spheres over the last half century or so. The movie business is just one arena in which that’s taken place.
This poem was first published in issue 7.
Congratulations to all of the winners.
On the Hearth of the Broken Home
by Sharon Olds
Slowly fitting my pinky-tip down
into the wild eggshell fallen
from inside the chimney, I feel as if I’m like
a teenage boy in love, allowed
into the beloved’s body, like my father
with the girl he loved, who loved him. If he
had married her… I lift it up
close to my eyes, the coracle dome
hung with ashes, rivered with flicks
of chint, robes of the unkown—only
a sojourner, in our home, where love
was sparrow-netted to make its own
cage, jessed with its jesses, limed
with its radiant lime. And above the tiny
tossed-off cloak of the swift, in the deep
reaches of the old dutch oven, on a bed
of sprung traps, the mince in them
long gone to meltdown, and to maggotmeal,
and wet dust, and dry dust,
there lies another topped shell, smaller,
next to it its doffed skull
tressed with spinneret sludge, speckled with
flue-mash flecks, or the morse of a species,
when I lift it up, its yolk drops out, hard
amber, light coming through it, fringed
in a tonsure of mold and soot. If I ever
dreamed, as a child, of everlasting
love, these were its shoes: one dew-licked
kicked-off slipper of a being now flying, one
sunrise-milk-green boot of the dead,
which I wore, as I dreamed.
Sharon Olds has published several volumes of poetry, including, Stag’s Leap , which won the Pulitzer Prize, and The Dead and the Living, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984. She was the New York State Poet Laureate from 1998 to 2000.
“Murder your darlings,” is a popular piece of writing advice that is often attributed to William Faulkner, but which can actually be traced back to the English writer and surname collector Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Of course, this expression is not meant to suggest that literally killing the people you care about will make you a better writer. If that were the case, the novels of William Burroughs wouldn’t be complete gibberish. Rather, it is a metaphor for how you should behave toward your writing while you are revising it. The idea is to proceed objectively and without sentiment. Just like you would if you were to kill a loved one.
For example, let’s say you wrote a poem that is supposed to be about a sunset. Throughout you use words like “yellow” and “orange” so that nobody could ever look at your poem and say that it isn’t describing an absolute barnstormer of a sunset. However, once you turn your critical eye to the newly finished work, you notice that in the middle of your sunset epic there is an elaborate description of a moon landing that has nothing to do with the rest of the poem. To complicate matters further, the moon landing is your favorite part. It stretches on for pages in hard-won verse that took you several months to tease out of your tortured soul. The way you describe the astronaut’s helmet alone is enough to make a thousand coma victims spring from their hospital beds and all just start grinding on one another.
Nevertheless, this is where that old maxim comes into play. You must murder your moon landing description. If it helps, picture yourself as a powerful king. The queen (your brain) has just given birth to a child (moon landing description). You are waiting outside her chamber deep in thought when the queen’s servants (neurons, I guess) carry the swaddled moon landing description out to you. It looks up at you sweetly and says, “Da-da?” But even in this touching moment, it is crucial to the integrity of your poem about a sunset that you stand firm. You must order your guards to seize the moon landing description, throw it into a ravine, and take turns shooting poison arrows at it. Then you can sit on your throne drinking port and stroking your humongous beard while up in her chamber your brain queen wails bitterly and curses the day that you ever signed up for that creative writing workshop at the community center.
This can be difficult advice to follow. Even brilliant writers occasionally have trouble murdering their darlings. A famous example from contemporary literature is Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy, which suffers greatly under the weight of McCarthy’s constant classic rock references. Those otherwise flawless books are interrupted again and again by anachronistic asides about how the band Deep Purple, “totally rules.” Likewise, if you were to remove all the digressions about professional wrestling from the work of Edith Pearlman, most of her stories would only be a few paragraphs long.
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): I read Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report in two sittings. Told in one-to-three-page chapters, Baillie’s novel is the best kind of quick read: a quick shot to the heart. Miriam, the librarian-narrator, reports her interactions with the regular (and often slightly disturbed and nutty) library patrons alongside her own story of grief over her father’s death and her slow willingness to fall in love with a man she meets on a park bench. She also keeps finding notes tucked in various places throughout the library; the notes are written by someone who believes he is Rigoletto, from Verdi’s opera, and that Miriam is his daughter, whom he must protect. Despite its seemingly straightforward approach and distant narrator, The Incident Report is a nuanced chronicle of grief, love, and the tensions between our private and public selves.
Diane Chonette (Art Director of Tin House): A short while after my son was born last year I was listening to Radiolab on NPR. In the episode titled, “Voices in Your Head”, Jad Abumrad talked to psychologist and novelist, Charles Fernyhough, about the connection between thought and the voice in your head. Fernyhough talked about his book, A Thousand Days of Wonder: A Scientist’s Chronicle of His Daughter’s Developing Mind, and I immediately knew I had to get it. It’s been a year since I purchased it, but I am finally digging in to his wonderfully intimate study of memory and cognitive development. In a way, it may be too soon for me to begin the analysis of what is known and remains unknown about the tiny but complex brains of our babies, but it is reminding me to pay attention to and cherish as many of the extraordinary moments of awakening as I can as my little one defines himself. He won’t remember these days but I will.
Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): I am reading Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany edited by Jay Jennings. I’m partial to Portis, party because he’s from Arkansas, earning his journalism degree in my hometown of Fayetteville. The title of the collection comes from my favorite Portis novel, Dog of the South: “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”
Portis’ newspaper reporting and writing has been, so far, the biggest treat. He covers the death of Elvis Presley’s mother, a hospital’s antismoking program, and a Klan Rally in Birmingham in 1963. It’s reportage, but it’s also Portis with killer lines like when Elvis ruminates outside his mother’s hospital room, “Leaning on a windowsill in the hallway yesterday, he reflected moodily on the family’s pre-Cadillac days: ‘I like to do what I can for my folks. We didn’t have nothin’ before, nothin’ but a hard way to go.’”
Grandmother asks me to test her coffin for durability and overall quality.
“You gotta try everything before you spend the bucks,” she says. “My big box is no sedan, sweetheart. This one’s for keeps, so get inside.”
She likes to find an upscale bargain. She likes to use the word sustainable. She likes to taste the flavors of fro-yo twice before sticking her spoon in any particular scoop. She says she tried out a few other grandchildren before settling on me. She brought a housewarming plant to my apartment, sealing the deal. “I think you have potential,” she says, “even though you live alone.” We grab a cup of chocolate and a cone of pistachio before heading to make her final purchase.
The wholesale casket warehouse is chilled with dry dust, and I look at Grandmother to make sure she’s serious. “With haste, missy,” she says. “Get in, I haven’t got all day. Just ask my doctors.”
I shrug at the salesman and sort of shake my head to diffuse things.
“Grandmothers, am I right?” I laugh. His ponytail is tied long and low. Maybe he’ll climb inside the box with me, show me the bonus features. Maybe we’ll buy the box for ourselves, take it for a spin, flip the top back, wake-style. I lean on the coffin and pop my hip. The store phone rings and he goes to answer it.
“Take a look around, whatever you need, you know,” he says.
In the warehouse, there’s some saxophone tunes playing at a low volume. This must be what music sounds like underground, I think. I am still leaning on the coffin, and Grandmother nudges my lower back with her famed depression-era muscles. I lose my balance and tumble in.
“How are the acoustics?” she asks.
“Not bad,” I say. I sort of nestle my face in the foamy padding, wondering if it’s hypoallergenic. “It’s so soft!” I say.
“What’s that now?”
“It’s really quite soft.”
“Here, you want your purse in there?” she asks.
“Sure.” My purse lands on my feet. I think about sitting up to grab my phone, but it’s truly a comfortable box, and I stay where I am.
“Now try it with the lid closed,” Grandmother says, and I oblige.
Should I work on my taxes tonight? I think. It seems like a far away chore, like a germ trapped in a jar, and I can look at it without getting anxious or squirmy. It’s nice! The box keeps me in my own skin. I have that feeling when I know I’m about to take a nap, and I don’t try and stop it.
I was twelve years old when I saw a man nearly die. At the time I lived in downtown Reno, on a city block near a porn theater, pawnshops, boarding houses, and casino lights. When I wasn’t visiting my mother in the downtown jail—where she worked—I stayed close to home, exploring and inventing and wondering, and claiming that concrete isle as my own. Everything beyond this immediate zone was foreign, suspicious.
An only child, I sought out things to do. There was the time I fashioned a string-pulley system in my bedroom. Whenever I opened the door, the string pulled taut, and the bulb turned on. Later, I spray painted cryptic messages on the walls in the hidden attic, my ad hoc stronghold, accessed by crawling through a closet. Late one dull summer night, my friend Ralph called. Ralph liked to listen to his stepfather’s police-radio scanner. Something was happening a few blocks away, he told me. After discussing the situation, we finally decided to venture farther into town. On the roof of the eighteen-story Sundowner Hotel and Casino stood a man, his arms waving. The man sat on the ledge, stood, sat again, threatening to leap. Even though I led a somewhat secretive life away from my mother, I knew I shouldn’t be there. This was a new kind of danger, an unfiltered glimpse into the adult world. I decided to stay anyway, and watch.
Ten years later, when I came across The Wasp Factory, I immediately connected with Iain Banks’s world of unsupervised boyhood. I understood its untamed protagonist, the motherless Frank Cauldhame. Frank watches over an isolated island in northernScotland, which connects to the mainland via bridge. Where others might find serenity amid dunes and mist and seaside views, sixteen-year-old Frank has fashioned the place into his own bizarre kingdom. He’s developed rituals, terminology, even a quasi-religion: “I slowly made myself unchallenged lord of the island and the lands about it.”
In Frank-land, juvenile notions of masculinity run wild. Frank builds dams and erects toy model towns, only to then flood the towns by blowing up the dams with pipe bombs. His weaponry stash is impressive: slingshots, knives, an air rifle, a trowel. As warnings to outsiders, he plants “Sacrifice Poles” around the island, on one “a rat head with two dragonflies, the other a seagull and two mice.”
Reading about Frank’s exploits, I saw flashes on an earlier me. Frank runs his territory with soldierly precision, like I did on my old block; but he does me one better by crafting his own lingo and island map, zooming about stealthily, from “Silent Running” to “Emergency Speed.” While I never captured animals for sacrifice, my friends and I did wreak havoc on lizards with fireworks and BB guns. I, too, had a weapons obsession. I, too, hid boy-items around my neighborhood: toy guns, nunchucks, et cetera. I once convinced my mother to buy me a Japanese throwing star, which I carried for protection, even though I didn’t really know how to use it.
Though I felt odd as the child of a single mother, my oddness didn’t hold a candle to Frank’s gothic childhood and adolescence. For one, he shares a home with his gimpy and ineffectual father, a chemist and bona fide liar. Father and son are mysteries to each other. Frank keeps his secret—the Wasp Factory—stored in the loft while his father guards a locked study. Homeschooled, Frank is literally cut off from the world and has learned to “live without other people,” but with his “unfortunate disability”—mutilated genitals.
Frank creates his own system of symbols to cope with his loneliness and disfigurement. Central to his beliefs is the Factory, which is really “the face of the old clock which used to hang over the door of the Royal Bank of Scotland in Porteneil.” Scrounged from the town dump, the boy has transformed the clock into an oracle and torture chamber. Frank releases wasps inside it. At each numeral “the wasp can enter one of the twelve corridors through little wasp-sized doors” and “sooner or later they all choose…and their fate is sealed.” Judging by the names attributed to each trapdoor, these twelve fates aren’t happy ones: Boiling Pond, Spider’s Parlor, Antery, Acid Pit, et cetera. Each door is a portent, especially Fiery Lake, the corridor one wasp enters when Frank consults the Factory about his half brother, Eric.
At 184 pages, the novel is short and thin on plot. It’s primarily the tale of why Frank is Frank. But his half brother, who escapes from a mental institution at the beginning, helps move everything along. Eric taunts Frank by suggesting, via phone calls, that he’s coming home for some terrible purpose. Eric sets dogs on fire, among other nasty things—not that Frank is much better. Did I mention that Frank describes how he once killed people, two cousins and a brother? Reading Frank’s confession might feel shocking if his methods of execution weren’t so humorously over-the-top, so deliciously macabre, and if he weren’t himself so mischievously self-aware. Frank goads his youngest brother into repeatedly smacking an old beached German bomb; he renames that section of the island the “Bomb Circle.” And the moniker he assigns the spot where he once slid a poisonous adder inside his cousin’s prosthetic leg? “Snake Park,” naturally. But those shenanigans are all in the past. “It was just a phase I was going through,” he explains. Continue reading
Normally Tommy would wager in the low to mid-teens. On this night he bet 48. It was an unreasonably high number for any night, let alone during the Afghan rainy season, when an almost permanent wall of thunderstorms pounded the eastern half of the country with an angry mix of lightning, sleet, and hail. Although there was little chance anything would happen, aircraft were launched to support the possibility that something might happen, which meant that Tommy and I had to man the radios at our respective outposts in Jalalabad and Sharana, while Cory manned the radios at task force headquarters in Bagram.
Our game was simple. Tommy and I placed bets on how many times Cory would transmit the phrase, “X-ray Papa copies all, over,” during the course of the night. We played according to the Price is Right’s showcase showdown rules. Whoever’s wager was closest to the actual number of XPCAO’s that Cory transmitted, without going over, won. The prize, to be awarded at the end of deployment, was a six pack of beer.
Prior to placing my bet, I’d stand outside long enough to get a feel for the night. On the night in question, with Tommy betting so high, odds were I could’ve wagered “1” and been victorious. But the way the low clouds had raced over Sharana, crackling with St. Elmo’s fire on their way up the Hindu Kush, made me want to ignore the odds. In the IM window that Tommy and I shared I typed “49”, and hit return.
In effect we were counting on Cory screwing up. In Cory’s defense, he couldn’t help himself. Though he meant well, he was incompetent. I’d witnessed this firsthand while Cory was assigned as our supply clerk in Sharana. He’d ordered a shitload of 2x6s, when he should’ve ordered 2x4s, which, though not his worst mistake, turned out to be the last straw for his boss. On my way to bed one morning (we were nocturnal) I’d observed Cory’s ass chewing. “What the fuck are we going to do with these!?” Cory’s boss asked him, kicking the stack of 2×6’s. The metal strips banding the lumber together separated, spilling boards out at Cory’s feet. Exasperated, his boss walked away, leaving Cory to stand there, red-faced and huffing like a kindergartener.
I woke that evening to find that Cory had built these magnificent Adirondak chairs out of the 2x6s. The chairs were too big to sit in, but since no one wanted to further hurt Cory’s feelings we sat in them anyway. However, as soon as Cory was reassigned to HQ, we stacked the Adirondak chairs in a far corner of the compound, where a few days later they suffered a direct hit from a Taliban mortar.
That those chairs survived the mortar strike intact, only to present themselves as targets once again, pretty much summed up Cory’s relationship to the war.
As for Tommy and I, once we’d placed our bets, the night could proceed. I put my headset on and settled into my busted chair. A few nights before, its pneumatic piston had ruptured, resulting in a low ride. Now the U-joint that allowed for simultaneous rotation and tilt threatened to spontaneously decouple. Still, it was the best chair in the TOC, where there was no such thing as an un-busted chair.
Spring delivers many a splendid thing (flowers, baseball, Don Draper), but for those us working on Thurman street, the change in season brings with it a new neighbor.
Collaborating with our good friends at Portland State University’s graduate program in Creative Writing, we are pleased to welcome Joanna Klink as the 2013 Tin House Writer-in-Residence at PSU. Joanna is the author of three books of poetry, They Are Sleeping, Circadian, and Raptus. She has been on the faculty of the University of Montana’s MFA Program since 2001, and recently served as the Briggs-Copeland Poet at Harvard.
The aim of this ongoing partnership is to bring national caliber writers to Portland for in-depth teaching opportunities in PSU’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing, as well as providing them an opportunity to generate new work in a creatively stimulating environment.
One of the perks (or some would argue, hazards) of receiving the Writer-In Residence is you get to live in a lovely apartment situated between the Tin House Books and Magazine offices.
During her stay, Joanna will be providing the occasional dispatch about poetry, her time here in Portland, and what it’s like to live near such a
drunken wonderful editorial staff.
For those lucky enough to call Portland home, Joanna will be reading at 6:30pm next Friday (April 19th) at The Little Church.
It exists in the most sacred and most profane corners of our lives, from the illuminated spiritual texts that have created our planet’s moral codes to corny couplets tucked neatly into Hallmark cards. Poetry is read aloud at weddings and funerals, at christenings and wakes, under the covers and over bottles of wine. All of us, whether we know it or not, speak in poetry. We use metaphors and similes and images to explain our lives to others. Poetry is the humanizing and empathetic body of our language. In some countries whole soccer stadiums fill with citizens to hear a single poet and in some a small gathering of twenty people will sit in a café to hear a human voice sing. For all our differences, poetry is a constant art form that connects our different languages. It’s a seer and a healer, an instigator and a diplomat.
Last October, I wrote a Call to Arms to advocate for poetry, and now, during National Poetry Month, I would like to raise the flag, raise the fist once more! Tin House and Coffee House, along with YesYes Books, Sarabande Books, Archipelago, BOA, Red Hen, Milkweed, and Copper Canyon Press, invite you to join in an experiment to share poetry with loved ones and strangers who normally do not read poems. For every book of poetry you purchase in the month of April, another book will be sent to you or to the person of your choice for free. The idea is to share poetry, to advocate for an art form that creates empathy and connection in a world complicated by cynicism. Join us and you join a love movement!
Matthew Specktor’s new novel, American Dream Machine, is out today. If you’re fortunate enough to live in sunny Los Angeles, you can see Specktor read from the novel tonight at Skylight Books. For the rest of you, here’s a sneak preview:
They closed down the Hamlet on Sunset last night. That old plush palace, place where Dean Martin drank himself to death on Tuesdays, where my father and his friends once had lunch every weekend and the maître d’ was quick to kiss my old man’s hand. Like the one they called “the other Hamlet” in Beverly Hills, and “the regular other Hamlet” in Century City . . . all of these places now long gone. Hollywood is like that. Its forever institutions, so quick to disappear. The Hamburger Hamlet, the one on Sunset, was in a class by itself. Red leather upholstery, dark booths, the carpets patterned with a radical and problematic intaglio. Big windows flung sun in front, but farther in the interior was dim, swampy. Waitresses patrolled the tables, the recessed depths where my father’s clients, men like Stacy Keach and Arthur Hill, sat away from human scrutiny. Most often their hair was mussed and they were weeping. Or they were exultant, flashing lavish smiles and gold watches, their bands’ mesh grain muted by the ruinous lighting, those overhead bulbs that shone down just far enough to make the waitresses’ faces look like they were melting under heat lamps. And yet the things that were consummated there: divorces, deals! I saw George Clooney puking in one of the ficuses back by the men’s room, one time when I was in.
Unless it was somebody else. The one thing I’ve learned, growing up in Los Angeles: it’s always someone else. Even if it is the person you thought it was the first time. I helped him up. I laid my hand on the back of George Clooney’s collar. He was wearing a blue jacket with a deeper velveteen lapel, like an expensive wedding singer. This, and white bucks.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah.” He spat. “They make the Manhattans here really strong.”
We were near the kitchen, too, and could smell bacon, frying meat, other delicacies—like Welsh rarebit—I would describe if they still had any meaning, if they existed any longer.
“I’ll buy you one and you can check it out.”
I helped him back to his table. I remember his touch was feathery. He clutched my arm like a shy bride. Clooney wasn’t Clooney yet, but I, unfortunately, was myself.’91? ’92? The evening wound on, and on and on and on: Little Peter’s, the Havoc House. Eventually, Clooney and I ended up back at someone’s place in the Bird Streets, above Doheny.
“Why are you dressed like that?” I said.
“Like what?” In my mind, the smile is Clooney’s exactly, but at the time all he’d said was that he was an actor named Sam or Dave or (in fact I think he actually did say) George, but I’ll never know. “Why am I dressed like what?”
“Like a fucking prom date from the retro future. Like an Italian singer who stumbled into a golf shop.” I pointed. “What the hell is with those shoes?”
“Hey,” he said. “Check the stitching. Hand-soled.”
We were out back of this house, whosever it was, drinking tequila. Cantilevered up above the city, lolling in director’s chairs. Those houses sell for a bajillion dollars nowadays, but then it was just some crappy rental where a friend of a friend was chasing a girl around a roomful of mix-and-match furniture, listening to the Afghan Whigs or the Horny Horns or the Beach Boys—my favorite band of all time, by the way—or else a bunch of people were crowded around a TV watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on videocassette. It didn’t matter. Mr. Not-Quite-or-Not-Yet-Clooney and I were outside watching the sun come up, and we were either two guys who would someday be famous or two rudderless fuck-ups in our midtwenties. He was staring out at the holy panorama of Los Angeles at dawn, and I couldn’t get my eyes off his shoes.
“Why am I dressed like this?” My new friend wrung his hands together limply. I ought to sell that fact to a tabloid, to prove Clooney is gay. “I was at a function,” he said.
“What kind of function? A convention of Tony Bennett fans? A mob wedding?”
I don’t remember what he said next. I think he said, I was in Vegas, and I asked him how much he’d lost. I probably gave him a sloppy kiss. I knew it was you, Fredo! There was an empty swimming pool nearby. It must’ve been February. Italian cypresses rose up in inviting cones, the scalloped houses dropped off in stages beneath us, and eventually the whole hill flattened out into that ash-colored plane, that grand and gray infinity that is Los Angeles from up above: God’s palm, checkered with twinkling lights and crossed with hot wind.
“I can never remember the words to this one . . . ”
“What,” I said. “It’s mostly moaning.”
“They’re all mostly moaning.”
George and I went digging into the old soul music catalog, to prove our masculine bona fides. None of those Motown lite, Big Chill-type classics that turdscaped so many of my father’s late eighties productions. We went for the nonsense numbers, the real obscurities. We sang “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” “The Whap Whap Song,” “Oogum Boogum,” “Lobster Betty.” A couple of those might not have been real, but we did ’em anyway.
“Thanks,” he said. “I was up for The Doors but I never got a callback.”
We spent the rest of the night drinking and singing. People blame Los Angeles for so many things, but my own view is tender, forgiving. I love LA with all of my heart. This story I have to tell doesn’t have much to do with me, but it isn’t about some bored actress and her existential crises, a troubled screenwriter who comes to his senses and hightails it back to Illinois. It’s not about the vacuous horror of the California dream. It’s something that could’ve happened anywhere else in the world, but instead settled, inexplicably, here. This city, with its unfortunate rap. It deserves warmer witness than dear old Joan Didion.
“Don’t do that, man.” My voice echoed. I clapped my friend on the shoulder. “Don’t do the pleading-and-testifying thing. You’ll hurt your knees!”
“I’m all right.”
By the time we were done, we were deep into the duos, those freaky-deaky pairs from Texas or Mississippi: Mel & Tim; Maurice & Mac; Eddie & Ernie. Those gap-toothed couples who’d managed to eke out a single regional hit before fading back into their hard-won obscurity. My new friend seemed to know them all, and by the time we were finished I didn’t know which of us was Mel and which Tim, which of us had died in a boarding house and which, the lucky one I presume, still gigged around Jacksonville. Him, probably. He was dressed for it.
“I should get going,” he said, at last.
“Right.” Not like either of us had anywhere to be at this hour, but he needed to go off and get famous and I needed to find my jacket and a mattress. A man shouldn’t postpone destiny. “Later.”
We embraced, and I believe he groped my groin. After that I never saw him again, not if he was not, as I am now forced to consider, George Clooney. I just watched him climb the steps out of the swimming pool, into which we’d descended in order to get the correct echo, the right degree of reverb on our voices. This was what it was like inside a vocal booth at Stax, or when the Beach Boys recorded “Good Vibrations” at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. So we told one another, and perhaps we were right. For a moment I remained in this sunken hole in the ground that was like a grave slathered with toothpaste—it was that perfect bland turquoise color—and sang that song about the dark end of the street, how it’s where we’ll always meet. But I stopped, finally. Who wants to sing alone?
This is what I remember, when I think of the Hamlet on Sunset. This, and a few dozen afternoons with my dad and half brother, the adolescent crucible in which I felt so uncomfortable, baffled by my paternity and a thousand other things. Clooney’s cuffs; the faint flare of his baby-blue trousers; the mirrored aviator shades, like a cop’s, he slipped on before he left. It was ten thirty in the morning. I held a bottle of blanco by its neck and looked over at the pine needles, the brittle coniferous pieces that had gathered around the drain. Clooney’s bucks had thick rubber soles and made a fricative sound as he crossed the patio, then went through the house and out. I heard the purr of his Honda Civic, its fading drone as he wound down the hill and left me behind with my thoughts.
Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a book of film criticism. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Believer, Tin House, Black Clock, and other publications. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Friday, April 5, 2013:
I’m parked in the University of Houston’s chancellor’s office, on the red-and-gold carpeted floor, participating in a sit-in organized by the graduate students. I’ve been here less than two hours, and yet I have no sensation whatsoever below my navel. Occasionally there’s a tingling in the toes of one foot—I’m not sure which one. I will need a forklift to get out of here. The students have good reason to protest. They are creative writing graduate students in one of the best programs in the country, but those who teach are among the hardest worked (2 classes per semester, 27 students per class) and they are absolutely the poorest paid teaching fellows anywhere.
For being fully responsible for the teaching of four classes of composition per year, the MFA students take home roughly $7800 per year (salary minus $1600 in fees charged by the U and taken out of their paychecks). The creative writing PhD students make a couple thousand more than that, which still puts them in the cellar nationally. TF salaries have not been raised at the University of Houston in twenty years. They make less than I did in the early 80′s when I was getting my MFA at the University of Arizona.
If this sit-in is a fair example, then protests have become a lot more hygienic and polite than my days as an undergraduate protesting the Vietnam War. And the participants are a lot better dressed. I definitely remember the smell of sweaty bodies, along with many rude, crude, and unkind comments voiced loudly. Well-dressed was not an issue, though fully dressed might have been.
Here, students and faculty line the walls but leave plenty of room for people to walk by comfortably. They have freshman essays with them to grade, and they have their laptops open (as do I) writing their lit papers and maybe their stories (presumably about revolt and revolution) for workshop. The administration is none too happy about these campers, but they seem especially worried about the social media sites that are covering the sit-in, including the grad students’ Facebook page: UH English TFs Unite. The page hasn’t been up long and the number of “Likes” is multiplying daily.
The protests back in the day were long before Facebook or email or cellphones. Communication, in fact, was often the most difficult issue in organizing and maintaining the desired tone—poor communication led to nonviolent protests turning violent, for example, and for a focused protest becoming unfocused and chaotic.
Those days are over.
Everyone involved in the sit-in signs up online. Protesters are advised to wear dress attire appropriate for teaching, to leave in time to teach their classes, and to take work along to permit quiet, friendly cohabitation with the president’s staff—a wonderfully friendly group. “I worry about y’all sitting there all day,” one said during my first day of the sit-in. She was concerned for our physical comfort. “Do you need anything?”
Q: How successful is this mannerly sit-in?
A: The faculty has tried all semester to get a meeting with the provost over this matter without any success; the students parked themselves on the president’s carpet and got a meeting with the provost in 90 minutes. Now the provost wants to meet with the
Power to the cordial, brothers and sisters.
To support the sit-in, like the following Facebook page: UH English TFs Unite.
Robert Boswell is the author of eleven books, most recently The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards and The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction. His novels include Century’s Son, American Owned Love, and Mystery Ride. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, Best Stories from the South, Esquire, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He shares the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston with his wife, Antonya Nelson
Matt Bell’s visionary debut novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and Woods is one of the most singularly strange and beautiful and wondrous books to come along in a long time. I picked it up one afternoon just to read the opening paragraph—
“Before our first encounter with the bear I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.”
—and finished the book before going to sleep that night. It took over my life for any number of hours and it’s one I continue to go back to from time to time, surfing the pages for the many passages I underlined. I drew checkmarks and more checkmarks in the margins. Consider yourself warned: do not pick up this novel if you have other commitments that day.
In the House is impossible to categorize. It’s impossible that anyone else could have written such a thing. It’s a novel that—as Borges wrote of Kafka—invents its own precursors. Of course, there’s a tremendous amount of fabulist fiction in our midst these days; in fact, there’s so much of it right now that fabulism is beginning to taste a bit like the flavor of the month, a fad resulting from a natural and reasonable distrust of realism and a desire to return to pre-commercial methods of telling stories. But what Bell accomplishes here is something that doesn’t happen very often: he has invented an entirely new rhetoric of fiction and marked unique territory of his own.
No plot summary can do this novel justice, so please let it suffice to say that a man and woman build a remote house where they plan to raise a family. Their efforts are complicated by a series of biological occurrences that make even the noisiest scenes in Eraserhead feel like an episode of Sesame Street. There’s also a bear that talks, sort of, and something menacing in the lake. You just have to read it.
Bell is the also the author of a novella and a collection of stories. We met a few years ago at the Winter Wheat Literary Festival in Bowling Green, Ohio, where we were late to an event because we stopped in a dive bar for a drink with Kyle Minor. I ran into Bell again a year or so later outside of a hotel room during the MLA conference, where we were both applying for the same job. Neither of us got it. I’ve followed his career with awe and jealousy and more jealousy—he’s an amazing writer—and absolute respect. He answered these questions via email in March.
Andrew Ervin: What impresses me the most about In the House is the immersive experience you’ve created. The first-person voice carries a mythic or timeless quality, and it’s sustained beautifully for hundreds of pages. Tell me how you found that and how you pulled it off so well.
Matt Bell: There’s a glib answer possible here, where I just say, “Slowly,” and then leave it at that—but of course I’ll go on. I suppose it really did take a long time to flesh it all out, but I had a kind of sketch of the voice early on—I can’t usually get very far into a story without having the story’s way of speaking at least partially in hand. Before I was finished, a lot of other influences had been mixed in: there’s a little bit of King James Version, some Greek myth, a little bit of Old Norwegian, a smattering of unusual words lifted from nineteenth-century dictionaries, some Cormac McCarthy and Brian Evenson and Hiromi Itō and Christine Schutt, all these writers who work so well at the sentence level, who write so wonderfully about the body. I’m sure there are plenty of other influences on the voice, ways of speaking I’d never be able to untangle from the novel’s, some of them there for the beginning, some folded in later.
One thing that I’m sure helped me: I was constantly reading aloud from the book, from the first day of drafting to the last day of revision, years later. I’ve read the book out loud cover to cover multiple times, at the end of every major draft, and there was never a day when I worked on the book in silence.
I think that there was also some want on my part to prove wrong a truism I’d heard too often in grad school and in other places: When I was in school, it seemed to be a given that an intense focus on language and acoustics couldn’t be carried over an entire novel, that this kind of voice was the province of the story, the poem, that it was too difficult for the writer, too exhausting for the reader. From the first time I heard someone say that, I didn’t believe it—there are plenty of books out there that prove otherwise—and I think I wanted to find out for myself what I could do at this length, with the kind of voices I’m drawn to.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I really wish I had read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead in time to give the book to my nonfiction students last fall. It’s not just that he’s extremely funny on subjects like a Christian rock festival or MTV’s Real World complex, though he is. For three days now I have been laughing at the line, “I’d assumed that my days at Creation would be fairly lonely and end with my ritual murder,” but Sullivan reaches well beyond obvious music fest targets and into something more expansive when he meets up with a crew of very devout, maybe crazy, but mostly kind and welcoming guys. An essay on his brother’s recovery from accidental electrocution feels haunting, strange and funny, but I think my favorite writing in here is on pop culture. Sullivan is particualrly wonderful at considering figures like Michael Jackson or Axl Rose, and hitting upon what it was like to see experience their iconic performances and the oddities into which they devolved. He manages to encompass it all: the physical presence of a performer, the emotional states they evoked and out of which they seemed to spring, and he makes the moments that stick in our collective cultural head feel both new and familiar. It makes me want to randomly assign him subjects just to see what he’ll do with them. “Specialty foods shows! Arthur Murray’s Dance Academy! Software development! Go!”
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor): Jacques Réda’s The Ruins of Paris guides the reader through the city’s neighborhoods and suburbs–from beautiful to gritty, noble to popular, spirited to silent. A true flâneur (stroller or walker or loafer), Réda moves from Montmartre to Belleville to St. Germain des Prés to everywhere in between. His love of jazz music is evident in his syncopated, lyrical and at times disjointed prose. “A courtyard, no, an impasse that is illuminated by a solitary tree–I stop. But it’s not out of curiosity that I keep walking past the dark wood . . .”
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): Seeing Maggie Nelson read with Wayne Koestenbaum at St. Mark’s a few weeks ago inspired me to dip back into some (relatively) vintage Nelson, her collection Something Bright, Then Holes. This book holds a particular charge for me in its second section, where Nelson writes about a trauma in the life of someone I happen to know. At St. Mark’s, Nelson was asked whether her willingness to bring her readers so close to fraught personal material has lead them to tell her that they ‘feel like they know her.’ I understand exactly the reading experience behind that question. Yet even more astonishing to me is the closeness and care and perceptivity with which she attends to the emotional life of the world on beyond herself. Nelson is so deeply smart and fearless that it’s easy to look past how deeply kind her writing is, too, and there’s maybe no better reminder of that than this book.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): What if Robert Oppenheimer’s famous declaration, “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” was not just a reflection on the creation of the atomic bomb, but a warning of intergalactic proportions? In The Manhattan Projects, a comic series by Jonathan Hickman, the Project serves as a front for more mysterious experiments. The solid cast of characters (Einstein, Feynman, Fermi, Von Braun) is made stronger by Hickman’s knowledge of real history and by his addition of fictional complexities (Hint: Oppenheimer is not what he seems).
Artist Nick Pitarra has a style that complements this disturbing alternate history in a way that is both gritty and refined. His use of color, especially his technique of changing palettes to tell parallel stories, is effective and striking. And, I will admit that my initial interest in the series was based entirely on Pitarra’s gorgeous minimalist covers.
I just finished the first trade edition (issues 1-5) and can’t wait to see where this story of the world’s most elite and insane scientists takes me.
Desiree Andrews (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): This week I read A Room with a View for the first time. Victorian literature sure knows where a girl’s heart lies, which is to say that men who are emotionally unavailable, vaguely troubled, and certainly unattainable, are attractive, even when they don’t get much time in scene. This book cashes in on the romantic imprint that forbidden love/radical freethinking is sexy and conventional thinking is not; it does it in a pretty brilliant way and I ate it up like candy.
The honey bee licks her forelegs and combs the pollen from her head. She stretches down the length of her thorax. What was once taut and hirsute now resembles the plundered stamen of a speedwell. She has been lost for six days. Her wings ache; an abnormal spasm pinches her bowels. She can hardly clock the sun as it passes across the sky. She senses a portent of cold in the air. She is nearly three weeks old and knows that winter is fast approaching.
Her life has not been marked by any great serendipity. Her birth did not come during an interregnum nor did gender grant her the chance for a proud mating death. She sustained the ancestral course: nourishing the young, extending the hive, performing housework. When her royal jelly had dried and her beeswax was spent, she was taught to fly great distances and sent out with the other spinsters to forage pollen and nectar.
Pressing the pollen into a ball with her hind legs, she affixes the golden nugget to a single hair on her corbicula. She has excelled at collecting foodstuffs from the start, searching faster than her peers, farther, but now it weighs on her like a fading talent. She has no use for so much food, let alone the stacks of nuggets she has abandoned along the way. Her hunger has waned with age. These daily rounds sate an instinct as immutable as the setting sun, but in her solitude, serve no greater purpose than relief.
She knows she will never again enjoy the thrill of a hunt with her comrades. She will never savor the proffering of a meal or the joy of welcoming a newborn child, and when the frosts inevitably come, she will not share in the warmth of the swarms shivering corporation. She knows this like she knows dark. She sails a sympathetic zephyr toward the blue horizon thinking of her first flight. The smell of nectar, green at her feet; she stepping off into the blue void, her body weightless, flying beyond the sounds of the hive buzzing somewhere behind to a place that only existed in the dreams of dead bees.
Sam Katz was born in Korea and came to the US at the age of 2. His fiction has appeared or will soon in The Good Men Project, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Per Contra, and Southern Humanities Review.
The Tin House Seminar is the product of a partnership between Tin House and the MFA Program at Portland State University. It offers a term-long intensive study of an author’s body of work, culminating in a public reading and staged interview with the author. The 2012 seminar, taught by Charles D’Ambrosio, focused on the work of the award-winning fiction writer Anthony Doerr.
The 2013 Tin House seminar, taught by Leni Zumas, will focus on the work of Maggie Nelson, a writer whose intellectual ferocity and wildly divergent work is tailor made for sustained study and discussion.
This year, for the first time, we are excited to offer readers of The Open Bar the ability to participate in the 10-week graduate seminar being taught at PSU. We encourage our readers to follow the syllabus, read the texts, and post your thoughts/comments/questions to the Maggie Nelson Seminar Blog, where Leni and students taking the course will engage with the community on the work. Towards the end of the term, Maggie, who will give a reading and interview at The Little Church in Portland on May 31, 2013, will be answering some of the questions posted to the site.
Most supplementary materials—reviews, interviews, essays, audio clips, etc.—will be accessible via the seminar website. Course members will help fill out the body of the website, adding content to the site in the form of links, images, PDFs, and/or posts related to that week’s texts.
Class begins on April 4th (today!) with an examination of Maggie Nelson’s “A Sort of Leaning Against,” an essay taken from The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House.
This is a fabulous opportunity to read (or reread) Maggie Nelson’s work—Bluets, Jane: A Murder, Shiner, Something Bright, Then Holes, The Art of Cruelty, The Latest Winter, The Red Parts: A Memoir, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions—and engage with the material in a unique and exciting way.
We hope to see you in class!
Hey Tin House Hoopsters, picture this as we enter the final week of March Madness!
Your bracket is nearly entirely busted, but for a team or two hanging by a thread.
Your favorite team is out.
You won’t win the office pool, but you may still claim victory in the last game of smack talk with your neighbor whose team lost in the round before yours.
Nothing left now but to go back to the daily grind.
Nothing left but the old-fashioned joy of the game.
But in basketball, as in life, you ask yourself: how much joy is there?
Depression sets in, and as a matter of fact even here so near spring, Nature turns a cold eye on you and it begins to snow. You do a double-take out the window.
Snow, of all things, falling in heavy sheets that cloak the land in white. You need to get right with the game again, you say, shaking your head.
Get your heart right. But why is one team better than another? What makes a team great? How do we rise and how do we fall? Will it be Louisville, Michigan, Wichita State or Syracuse? Your mind spins as you stare at the keyboard, the pencil, the pen. When does prose or poetry enter the mythical Final Four? You wonder if you’ll ever write what you were meant to write. You click something obscure into the search engine, something about the definition of great writing. Fools gold, you think, but you come across William Giraldi, words that strike with the blunt force of a forging hammer.
Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s impossible to prove how one book is better than another. The difference between a major poet and a minor one is that the major poet writes into the density of language while the minor one merely floats on top of it, and the same holds for prose writers. “[Gerard Manley] Hopkins,” (Geoffrey) Hill said, “enters language as a bird takes off into the air,” and that’s exactly what you feel when reading Nabokov and Bellow at their most vibrant. You know when you’re holding a novel whose language betrays a staggering lack of register, every noun and verb the available jargon, every adjective limply obvious, a morass of cliché without vigor or revelation, abrupt sentences that have arrived on the page without a commitment to the dynamism and dimensions of language. What’s the chief defect that makes Tom Clancy vastly inferior to Nadine Gordimer? The lame inevitability of his language, flogged sentences that disclose a mind incapable of activating self-knowledge or delighting in analogues, and a pandering to the simplistic and reductive, which is precisely how propaganda works.
Serious smack talk, right there in the online ether.
In the war between man and the natural world, it would appear, judging from Brin Levinson’s unpeopled, postapocalyptic cityscapes, nature has won. Levinson’s worlds—washed in dour grays, ochre, and sepia brown—suggest the landscape before us is already becoming a relic. The brightest colors, the occasional burst of blue sky that breaks out from behind cloud-crowded sky, the flash of red graffiti on a rhino, pop off the canvas.
Our own Elisaa Schappell talked with Brin via email to discuss a graffitied walrus, our latest cover (for which he supplied the image), and the use of humor in his work.
Elissa Schappell: Your recent paintings have a very post-apocalyptic feel. It would seem a global environmental catastrophe, or war has, as far as we can see, wiped humankind from the planet. Either because of man, or in the wake of man, wild animals roam an industrial landscape. The rhino on our cover, tagged with graffiti, appears to have both suffered at the hands of man, and survived him. Do you foresee a future that looks like the one you capture? Are the paintings visions of that future or warnings against it?
Brin Levinson: I don’t necessarily foresee a future that looks like my paintings. This theme has evolved into them over the last few years, but I’m careful about it. There are many possibilities for what the future world will look like. Maybe my images are of a specific extraordinary circumstance. If cities do become ghost towns without human maintenance, the plants and animals will surely come back. However, at the point where humans are on the decline, I’m sure most large animals will already be extinct. I painted “Empire Builder” (on the cover) around the time that the Western Black Rhino was declared extinct. We are currently living and participating in the Holocene extinction event in which species are dying faster than the dinosaurs did. So, by painting animals taking over our abandoned cities, I’m painting a very optimistic idea. That’s why I think my paintings have a hopeful tone. This is the moment of calm after the storm when nature has a chance to come back.
ES: In one of your paintings fish swim down a city street completely underwater–you might imagine that this is the aftermath of a flood or some other natural disaster. After Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy it seems rather prescient.
BL: “Deep Streets” is a painting I did after visiting Venice Italy last summer. As we know, Venice is sinking. It floods every year and you can see the high water line on the bricks. At night, the city has a greenish glow and a sort of watery feel as though it’s getting prepared for going under. Our modern coastal cities are going under too but they’re not ready for it. They still have an all-powerful arrogance even in the wake of rising oceans and hurricanes. But maybe that’s starting to change with more disasters being so devastating.
ES: For as dark as some of the work is—the graffitied walrus in the switching yard made me terribly sad—the work is quite often slyly funny—witness the graffitied walrus in the switching yard. How important is that humor to the success of the work?
BL: I like to have a certain amount of absurdity in my work because it’s interesting. If someone thinks an image is funny and another thinks it’s troubling, that’s great. If it’s the same person that has both reactions, that’s probably even better. A painting can be like a story with high points and low points, drama and humor. If it all works together, then it’s really successful. Some people see nightmares while others see beauty in the same piece. That’s really interesting to me and it’s great to hear different reactions. My main focus is on making images that are interesting and beautiful.
ES: Are there any particular artists, musicians, writers who have shaped your artistic vision?
BL: Yes, there are many and inspiration comes from pretty much everywhere. Currently, many of my favorites are contemporary painters and surrealists. Any good piece of art or music or photo is inspiring no matter who made it or what the medium is. I have a studio at the Falcon art community, which is filled with great painters, and it’s very inspiring.
ES: One of Portland’s nicknames is the City of Bridges. Quite of the few of the nicest ones are represented in your work. What is it about the bridges that appeal to you? Do you have a favorite?
BL: One of my main focuses is to make structures feel especially large. I really like the dynamic of scale. The bridges are huge amazing sculptures that are icons of Portland. Nostalgia is a feeling I try to create in my work so the older bridges are perfect to me. I love the Steel Bridge because it’s a 100-year-old artifact and has an awesome presence in the middle of the city. It’s like a grandfather clock. All the cables, weights and wheels that make it lift are exposed so you can see how it works.
On top of this incredible cover, we’re also thrilled to announce that we’re now able to fulfill digital subscriptions to the magazine. Every new print subscription comes with access to the digital version, which you can enjoy alone for $19.95. This has been a long time coming and we hope you’ll continue to enjoy the magazine in whatever format you prefer.