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Crab Wood

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My daughter stood on the footpath in Crab Wood, under her blue umbrella. She pointed out sticks for me to pick up. The sticks needed to be long, but not too long; thick, but not too thick; and straight, without leaves. It was August in England, and although we’d had a fine summer, it had been raining all day and the sticks were muddy. I picked them up without complaining. My daughter didn’t speak much, even though the idea that we should recreate the US cover of my novel had been her suggestion. Still, I was happy to be spending time with her, because she is seventeen and I don’t get to do that very often any more.

When I was her age I came home from school one day, and my mother handed me a copy of our local newspaper in which she had circled some rooms and bedsits that were available to rent. She gave me the phone and she told me to start calling. A couple of weeks later, when my A’ level exams were finished, I packed a suitcase, put my spider plant and few books in a box and left home. Of course my mother making me leave didn’t come out of the blue – we hadn’t been getting on for months, in the usual way in which mothers and teenage daughters often don’t get on: I was moody and uncommunicative, and had a boyfriend she didn’t approve of; she was intolerant and unempathetic, and now, looking back, I think she found it hard to be the mother of a teenage daughter.
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I moved to a city I barely knew and into a house shared with strangers. I negotiated my way around the housing benefit system, lived on toast and marmite, learned how launderettes worked, joined the local library and forged my mother’s signature on my university application form, which in those days needed to be signed by the applicant’s legal guardian. And I didn’t see or speak to my mother for the next four years.

They say that only when you have a baby of your own, do you understand the fiercely protective attitude your parents had. It hasn’t been like that for me. Now that I have teenage daughter of my own and a wonderful relationship with my mother, I will never understand how she could have forced me to leave home without knowing where I was living, or even if I was alive. But, what I did come to understand when my daughter hit her mid-teenage years, was how difficult it can be to live with a teenager, and why my mother struggled with me. My daughter is often moody and uncommunicative, and she is suffering from the aftermath of her first relationship, which, it so happens, I didn’t fully approve of. She is almost an adult and I am trying not to repeat history. There is nothing she could do that would make me force her to leave home, but it is painful to recall how we used to get on, the fun we would have together, and how much she used to talk to me. Every day I miss the child she once was.

So when my daughter suggests we do something together, just the two of us, I jump at the chance. Back in Crab Wood my daughter decided we had the right number of sticks. I put them in the back of the car, and we drove along the wet lanes of Farley Mount Country Park, my daughter staring out of the passenger window at the trees flashing past, neither of us speaking. After a while we came to a suitable field: uncut, a gentle grassy slope, no livestock. She climbed the five-bar gate, I passed her the sticks and followed her; the photograph of the book cover in my pocket. The rain stopped and the sun came out and I took a picture of my daughter amongst the tall grasses with the bundle of sticks tucked under her arm and I knew that when she is twenty, or twenty-five or thirty, or any age, I am going to miss my moody, uncommunicative seventeen-year-old.

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Claire Fuller lives in Winchester, England. Our Endless Numbered Days (Tin House, March 2015) is her first novel.

Posted in Essays, Flash Fidelity

Comments: 4

Unfinished Tango Lessons

BG-Aperitif-dc2Tango classes started later in the fall than you might expect, like around now, in November. The dance studio was on the third floor (walk up) of an eighteenth-century building in the northern-most part of Paris, with scarred hard wood floors and tall windows gone dark by the time class started (8:30 p.m.). It was the kind of room that had seen other dances, other evenings. The class was for beginners, like me.

This was five or six years ago and months before the class started, I’d bought tango shoes in anticipation: black leather heels with a single band across the open toe. I wasn’t sure how I was going to navigate any of it: the high heels (strange and unfamiliar after months of sandals and tennis shoes), the pivots and turns, the shift in weight and direction that meant one minute you were sliding backward and the next you were gliding forward.

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I remembered the tango lessons last month when I came across Djuna Barnes’s essay, “The Tingling, Tangling Tango as ‘Tis Tripped at Coney Isle,” originally published in the Brooklyn Eagle on August 31, 1917: “Beneath the glare of the electric lights, under the seductive charm of the band behind the palms, the straight black eyes of Therese glow; the large, red mouth is smiling; the low-coiled hair gives to those eyes the magic that the undertow gives to the swell of the wave.” The piece follows Therese and her unnamed dance partner one late night at a crowded dancehall at Coney Island.

Barnes’s prose is like walking into a dancehall that is splendid and vast and a little shadowy, where you have to get accustomed to a different, darker light. Women are “bright spots among the smoking men;” a plate of seafood has “vivid red splashes of silent sea crab laid out upon its bed of green;” Therese is “a queen in black, with a hat of a thousand feathers;” and for a passing couple on the dance floor, “the man bowed above the little woman held close, like a butterfly pinned to his breast.”

Part pattern, part instinct, full of ardor and appetite, the tango is the driving force of the essay. The effect is disorienting and mesmerizing and Barnes doesn’t lose direction in the essay, or maybe she does. Whatever way the piece is going—forwards or backwards or sideways—the direction is the dance and the reader is right there and it is dazzling. “But never one step did she [Therese] lose of the dancers clinging, gliding, twisting, losing grip, coming together . . .”

With the tango lessons now years ago, I’d had a hard time counting out the steps. It didn’t matter that the numbers didn’t go very high and that the pattern always returned to the number one. It had something to do with the intricate math of the dance that was precise and a little bit improvised at the same time. Maybe it was the undertow of the tango—the pulse of the music pulling one way, my dance partner leaning another and finding some sort of steadiness between it all. Early on in Barnes’s essay, Therese’s unnamed dance partner suggests that they order dinner, “to get out of the uncomfortable position of a person who has been stopped by the excess of a wonderful motion; the catch in the music that makes the feet move.” Maybe sometimes changing directions isn’t so bad.

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Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim
 (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.

Posted in Aperitif

Comments: 1

We are not the Center of the World: An Interview with Assaf Gavron

BG-Interview-1The Hilltop, Assaf Gavron’s fifth novel, opens with the language of Genesis: “In the beginning were the fields.” We soon meet Othniel Assis, who, “so it came to pass,” hiked until his beard grew long and he found the land that would become the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Hermesh C. As the novel unfolds, Gavron’s confident, often playful narrator portrays interpersonal drama with humor and heartbreak as we follow the wide cast of characters who call the settlement home.

I was not surprised when Gavron told me in an email that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom had an impact on the scope and structure of his book (“At least I hope it did,” Gavron wrote). But The Hilltop is also a heavily researched novel. At least as much as any writerly influence, the book feels influenced by life. As he did with his novel Moving, Gavron puts himself in his characters’ shoes. For two years, he traveled weekly to Tekoa Dalet, a real West Bank settlement community, in order to “feel what the characters feel.” Grounded in this intention, even Gavron’s subtle satire adds to the nuanced realism and deeply empathetic account.

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Rebekah Bergman: Your novels reveal the layers of complexity in intensely polarizing issues like terrorism in Almost Dead and now the West Bank settlement in The Hilltop. What fears and doubts do you battle as you show the shades of gray that exist in these situations?

Assaf Gavron: The main fear is that the black/white viewers will not bother to read my books and that they will form their opinions on their preconceived notions and ideas—about me or about these subjects. Another fear is being misjudged, failing to tread the fine line, and being viewed as a mouthpiece for a side or accused of taking part in a political game. That is not what I intend to do with my fiction.

RB: How do you avoid letting your own stance and opinions interfere?

AG: I write about people and not about politics, even if the people I write about are part of a tense political situation. I present the story as I know it and let the readers make their own decision and form their own opinions. There is enough writing that is opinionated. I totally respect that and read it, and sometimes write it. But not in fiction. Fiction for me is about showing a deeper, more complex and nuanced picture of human behaviors.

RB: Much of your work shares the goal of promoting empathy. I’m thinking here not only of your novels but also the videogame you wrote and your work with the story-telling organization Narrative 4. How does fiction relate to these pursuits?

AG: In both Peacemaker and N4, by assuming another character, by stepping into the shoes of someone else, you learn to view life and its obstacles and challenges through their eyes, and ultimately empathize with them. This is also what being a fiction writer, and reader, is about. “Being” in the head of someone else.

indexRB: What do your novels demand of the reader?

AG: To think, I hope. To realize things are not simple. To realize that people, and situations, are multifaceted and that some of these facets can be conflicting to the point of absurdity.

RB: On that note, a lot of the absurdity in The Hilltop begins with bureaucracy. As your character Othniel states, “The right hand has no clue as to what the left one is doing.” While absurd, these moments also resonate with truth. To what extent does bureaucracy present a barrier to progress and change?

AG: Bureaucracy can be frustrating. I’ve experienced it first hand in England, Germany, Israel, and the US–countries I’ve lived in for at least a year. The bureaucracy’s role in The Hilltop is to prevent anarchy, which is a good thing. The problem is, it doesn’t know how to enforce order. Or perhaps the settlers are too smart to get enforced by it. So anarchy prevails. It is a fascinating process, and absurd, and I try to capture that in the novel.

RB: Much of The Hilltop is satirical and funny, yet the novel’s ultimate power rests in its realistic account of life. How do satire, humor, and realism relate?

AG: Humor is inherent in life. It must be. Otherwise we’re doomed. I see humor in every situation, and I find a lot of humor even in the tense, decidedly non-jolly West Bank. Satire is something else. I am not saying there are no satirical parts in The Hilltop, but it is not only satirical. The satire is gentle, I think, and no side is immune to it.

RB: What context would an Israeli reader of The Hilltop have that an American reader might lack? Can the translation ever compensate?

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Posted in Interviews

Comments: 1

Moon Hat

Flash Fridays I was at the hibachi restaurant in the dream. The chef wore a white hat embroidered with moons. He tossed endless shrimp at my father’s mouth but they bounced off his head. I remember thinking my sister’s camera was too big for her body, poor sis, she needs a smaller camera to forever capture dad catching the shrimp. The lights dimmed with every attempt. Shrimp with sad pepper flake eyes sailed slower through the air. He just couldn’t do it. He just couldn’t catch a shrimp in his dad mouth. The chef squirted tequila from a bottle in the shape of a naked baby with a knob hole for a penis across my father’s eyes. He yelled for him to move closer then punched him in the stomach. My mother said tilt your head back, why can’t you do anything right. She said she hated him for every year of their marriage except year seven when she drank rum from soda cans and painted ceramic turtles in the garage. Some people just don’t possess the skill to catch flying food, said the chef. Just look at his face. Everyone in the restaurant looked at dad’s face. See, there’s something wrong with his mouth, it’s deformed and won’t allow him to catch a shrimp from my blade here, to his mouth, there. Pitiful, really. We nodded in agreement. Now you, he said and pointed his knife at me. You have the golden third. The top part of your body was birthed to do nothing in this life but catch flying food. Long neck! Giant jaw! Shelf lips! Move back as far as you can go, it’s show time. Some people abuse the golden third, but not you. You will raise trophies in this life and be alone because of them. Look around, all these people will forget you. Your throat will be remembered by television. I moved back in my chair until I was through the wall and in the parking lot. Tall trees filled with chefs wearing their moon hats sat on the branches. My body was little again. My body was interesting again. As the shrimp flew through the air it expanded and when it grew skin I woke up.

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Shane Jones is the author of three novels, most recently, Crystal Eaters. His work has appeared online in The Paris Review, The Believer, BOMB, Diagram, and VICE, among others. His first novel, Light Boxes, was optioned for film by Spike Jonze, translated into eight languages, and named an NPR Best Book of the Year. He lives in Albany, New York.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 0

Joe Tex

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Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in The Oxford American in 2005

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I grew up indiscriminately loving all the songs that came on the radio, but it was the fact of the radio itself, the little box on the floor by my bed, that brought the music to life and made it a kind of magic for me. The radio was a Zenith back when that brand-name wasn’t ironic and it had a single big knob for steering through all the AM stations. I’d covered the beige case with decals of the sort that used to be included in packs of baseball cards during the era of Curt Flood and Boog Powell. I dialed in my favorite stations as attentively as a safecracker but the radio always sounded rough and out of tune, between frequencies, blaring reedy pop from a hole in the plastic. At night, when the reception was better, I’d drag the radio into bed with me, holding its single speaker to my ear, searching for the sweet spot where the bass was deeper and more resonant, the voices clearer, and the treble of the cymbals sounded less like static. Our family wasn’t particularly musical and my father was an angry man who demanded silence in the house but I had a hunger for just about anything on the radio. We owned a few records—operas, mostly, and some Gregorian Chants, plus the Monkees and the soundtrack to The Sound of Music—and out in the living room we had the sort of hi-fi people who don’t care about music buy, a Magnavox console, the most compelling feature of which, at least for me, was the lamé cloth covering the speakers—whenever my father was away, I would listen for hours, lost in the music, running an idle finger back and forth, tracing out the gold threads as if they’d been sewn into the grille by Ariadne herself. But it was really in my bedroom, alone, with the cheapest, tinniest radio ever made, that I came to understand music, or at least my particular relation to music.

What I learned in all those idle hours is that I’m not an aficionado and that my tastes are plain—I like radio stuff. In high school when the kids in my class first began to elaborate a taste for the arcane I felt out of it, unable to forge a similarly deep, urgent narrative from the hodgepodge of songs and styles I liked. In my lonely radio democracy Tommy James and the Beau Brummels had always been the peers of Dylan and The Rolling Stones and so when it came time to draw sharper distinctions—when matters of taste were becoming fatal social moves—it was like I couldn’t quite get with the whole enterprise of hierarchy. Anything that got piped in over the airwaves was okay by me. That’s where the Beatles had come from, and Elvis, and Otis Redding, and I’d leaned my ear to those greats just as eagerly as I had the Lemon Pipers, Del Shannon and Clarence Carter. It was all radio music to me, and that was the only music I cared about. I didn’t know other discussions were going on. I didn’t know you could dig down into other, deeper layers of culture and come back with whole new sounds. Even today the only music I really listen to arrives stamped and approved by some form of consensus, either through popularity or the imprimatur of a trusted friend’s good taste. And while I admire enormously people for whom these things are vital, people who follow out a thread of sensibility until it leads them to some really select or recherché stuff, I can only admire them from a distance, with a tinge of regret, knowing that I’ve missed out on a very important conversation. I never really saw songs as a way to connect, and so, for all the music I listened to, I grew up in silence.

This is a roundabout way of coming to Joe Tex, who of course was somebody I heard on the radio, no doubt mistaking him for Sam Cooke or Hank Ballard. He had a string of pop successes in the sixties and seventies and a final smash hit that lightly mocked disco in 1977. He was born Joseph Arrington Jr. and would change his name twice, first to Joe Tex, the stage name he was known by, and then to Yusef Hazziez, following a decision in the mid-Seventies to bag the music business altogether and join the Nation of Islam. Somewhere along the way he must have said that he entered show biz to make enough money to buy homes for the two women he admired most (his mother and grandmother) because it’s one of the biographical bits that gets sentimentally repeated in everything you read about him. It sounds like hokum, but I hope it’s true. His rise to fame, his journey from Joseph Arrington to Joe Tex, followed a pattern that was probably standard for a black man of his time and place. Song and dance routines to supplement his work shining shoes and delivering papers, singing in school and church choirs, winning a local talent contest (over Johnny Nash and Hubert Laws, no less), where the prize, a week-long trip to New York, gave him a chance to perform at the Apollo in Harlem. After high school, he returned to New York and got his first contract, with King Records, but it wasn’t until he hooked up with Buddy Killen that his music made just the right sound—and by that, I mean the kind of sound that would get airplay, and reach me, a kid in the Northwest who dragged his radio to bed like a pet dog and lay under the covers with an ear pressed against the plastic, listening.

I culled the factual information above from various official sources because, of course, I’m not an aficionado—of southern soul, of balladeers, of Joe Tex. I don’t know this kind of stuff, not off the top of my head, anyway. I don’t really know King records or its role in the world of pop except that Little Willie John also did some fine work with them, and I only know about him because he stabbed a man in Seattle, was sentenced to life in prison, and eventually died in the state pen on McNeil Island. But being knowledgeable hardly matters; I’m not negotiating with anyone. I remember the Joe Tex I loved on the radio, particularly “The Love You Save,” an achingly beautiful lament whose lyrics still kill me, and “Skinny Legs and All,” a funny song that’s half-spoken and comes with its own laughtrack and for all I know may have been recorded live. I loathed his biggest hit, “I Gotcha,” and even today it seems pointless and unpleasant, an ugly novelty, all the more sickening, I have to say, for its continuing popularity. The song struck me as a personal betrayal and it’s success only widened the sense of loss. “You Said A Bad Word” isn’t much better, unfortunately. By the time it was recorded, his voice had grown thin, the sweetness had become grating, and the song’s early-Seventies funk is more of an imitation or shallow put-on than a genuine sound that grabs the soul. The song anticipates Joe Tex’s exit from the business, the whole thing going the way of mockery. But there’s no dignity or sense in remembering a man by his lesser performances. I’d rather hang on these words, as I once did, somewhat desperately, climbing into bed and cradling my radio.

I’ve been taken outside

And I’ve been brutalized

And I had to always be the one

To smile and apologize.

But I aint never in my life before

Seen so many love affairs go wrong

As I do today—So stop, find out what’s wrong.

Get it right, or please leave love alone.

Because the love you save today

May very well be your own.

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Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin HouseThe Paris Review,Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out today and available wherever fine books are sold.

Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

Comments: 0

Downwind of Death: Grandma Moses

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Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in the Portland broadside The Organ. 

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I’m not an art critic, and I’m hopelessly cornyqualifications enough to say a few words about Grandma Moses.  For a while in the fifties her small hard wizened face was as folksy and familiar as Robert Frost’s; but where Frost’s personahis shock of silky white hair and rumpled avuncular suitsburied from sight the darkest lyric poet America’s ever produced, Grandma Moses seems to have painted as she lived, happily and without guile or much bother of any sort. Their lives overlapped, and similar amounts of snow fell through their work, his isolating and anxious and modern, hers more like soapflakes in a glass globe, quaintly falling over a souvenir scene.  But her paintings are too joyously full for the elegiac mood–there’s no lossand occupy instead a genial present that’s just a little idiotic, although it feels carping to say soher stuff’s folk-art, and shares a sturdy narrowness of function and the same lack of ambiguity you’d find in a clay pot or wooden spoon or quilt. If anything, she’s a utopian, and her paintings give us not a look into a vanished past, but a visionary’s idea of the future. There is snow but no cold; there is work but no backache. It sounds like heaven, and, indeed, as hardworking and diligent as her people are meant to be, shoeing horses or tapping maple trees, they float around her chalky snowscapes like the angelic figures in Chagall. In a less pragmatic culture, or in an artist who hadn’t spent her first seventy years scrubbing floors, the energy might have found a more florid outlet, probably in religious icons. With Grandma Moses, though, the religious impulse is confined to duty. It’s all work, but the work itself seems celebratory, prompted by the seasons rather than economic necessity. There’s no voice inside her paintings but the one expressed communallyyou can’t imagine a complaint. There are no individuals, and all the people have those strange folk-art heads, shaped, it seems, by mongolism. I kept trying to imagine myself in her scenes, some mopey fuck, some blurry guy skulking around the distant woods while the good folks in the foreground dip candles or shear woolbut that Frostian thing (“Come In,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Acquainted with the Night,” etc), that strolling poetry of suicide and despair, doesn’t make it into Grandma Moses. Just trying to imagine yourself alone in those frozen woods and hearing, far off, the voices of shared love and duty, voices with that ringing clarity, that timbre that travels so well in the cold, you feel yourself totally bashed by sadness. Perhaps that’s the appeal of her paintings, your shitty self gone, the weight of life lifted, everything dissolved in a conformity, the quaintness of which partly accounts, I think, for the peaking of her popularity in the fifties.  Her work offers a benign version of mass culture, of television as community, of the American Way.  It’s Beaver in the sticks instead of the suburbs, a society whose adhesive stuff, all that impossible goodness, that inhering sense of obligation and purpose, is so idealized you feel it palpably in her paintingand the deep-down soothing emotion is this: that someone once believed it was beyond argument. We’re far enough down the line that her work now digs back into a nostalgia for nostalgia, a longing for an old longing, for the coonskin caps and reproduction flintlocks, for the train sets and toy Winchesters, for all the boyish Xmas booty that, fifty years ago, was already about a certain homesickness. There’s just enough space in here for irony, but her work resists that sort of positioning, certainly a lot better than the nightmarish realism of Norman RockwellRockwell, whose sweet faces are always just a push away from Alfred E. Newman. It’s hard to locate or imagine the ideal world she depicted –Martha Stewart’s hints about how to archaize life borrow from Grandma Moses, leaving out the sinew, the social cohesion arrived at through duty. It’s been a long time: a century ago Grandma Moses was forty-two years old. Late in her career, the limning blurs and a pleasant haze like failing eyesight softens the pictures. The vistas are foreshortened, the horizons drawn in, but the impressionism is most noticeable in the things you’d expect to hold the clearest lines, in the buildings, the civic base of houses and churches and schools that make up her huddled little villages. It wasn’t the past that was dimming, but the future. The time sense in her work, though, is hard to track.  It’s found more in the cycle of seasons, in the round of what used to be known as women’s work, so that the past and future are always held to the present –among the many things that don’t exist in her world (and at times her pictures seem arrived at entirely through blind exclusion) most noticeably absent are birth and death.  But if utopia is, broadly defined, the future without the stink, then I’d say Grandma Moses was a futurist, since we’re all standing stupidly downwind of death and don’t smell it. We know the past is foul, but there’s none of that in her work, and her late popularity was a sign, a recognition, that her vision of the future could be good, it could be alright, but that we weren’t going there.

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Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin HouseThe Paris ReviewZoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out now and available wherever fine books are sold.

Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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Winter Workshop Craft: Whitney Otto

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As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.

Next to the Principal’s office, Whitney Otto.

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Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?

Whitney Otto: During my junior year in college I decided to enroll in a fiction workshop, led by a current MFA student, an awkward young man who seemed surprised to find himself in front of a class. The second thing we read was an excerpt from a novel by a grad student in the sciences. He was a few years older than everyone in the workshop, and was pretty dickish about the age difference. His novel, despite all his supposed “life wisdom that the rest of us lacked,” was cliché, overwrought, and narrated by a hardboiled “hero” who talked tough and spent a lot of time thinking about Jessica. Jessica was sexy and feral and their love was like a feeding frenzy in one of those Wild Country Safari drive-thru theme parks. They “devoured” each other while “drinking each other in.” It was a three-star Zagat kind of thing.  He frequently fingered the long scar on his cheek, left there by Jessica, who cut him with the jagged edge of a broken bottle. I knew nothing about workshop protocol, so when my asked my opinion, I gave it, beginning with my admiration for his working in some sort of satirical, neo-noir vein. I think I used the word “cheesy.” Then I began to laugh. Every time I tried to address a line of dialog, or a description, the whole thing struck me as hilarious all over again. My mirth was beyond my control; I was almost in tears. My teacher looked alarmed. Apparently, there was no satirical, neo-noir aspect. I was horribly embarrassed, but when the writer of the piece—and this I recall clearly—looked as though he wanted to take the jagged edge of a broken bottle to me as he spoke through clenched teeth, his fury barely contained, I found myself laughing harder. It was terrible. I never went back to the class.

TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

WO: On the first day of my MFA workshop, my professor (the founder of the program) said that no writer needs an MFA to be a writer. An MFA simply gives you time and focus and other readers. He said, in terms of writing, that two years in an MFA program is probably equivalent to five years without one. He wasn’t blowing smoke—he really meant it. I mention this because it comes up quite often in writing workshops, sometimes in a combination of desire and panic. Don’t panic. If you write, you’ll be a writer.

THYour strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

WO: When I was teaching an upper division, undergrad fiction workshop at a California university, I had this big, kind of hulking guy in my class. Sometimes he came in in full motorcycle leathers.  He wrote about his “25 friends who had all died,” not all at once, in some cataclysmic event, just, you know, here and there. I asked them to keep a journal of story ideas and he used his to write about how he would commit suicide (jumping off a building will shooting himself, which I wanted to point out was rather excessive, but then this was a guy who had characters “wading through pools of blood”—literally, more blood that is found in a single human being). His stories were poorly written and violent. He came to my office a lot because he thought I “got” him, and he thought all his classmates were phonies. He also talked endlessly about his dyslexia, as if dyslexia was the most debilitating thing that could happen to a person. The class was very patient with him, until, nine weeks into the class, someone said that her brother had dyslexia, whereupon he walked out in the hall and put his fist through a plate glass door. I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid of him, but I wasn’t. Probably because I was too overworked at the time and being scared just seemed like it would be one more thing for my to-do list.

TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?

WO: I like Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. She’s a bit of a curmudgeon, and I don’t agree with everything, but it’s one of my favorite craft books just the same. For example, she writes “It’s always wrong to say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that in fiction. You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten way with much.” She also says that one cannot “teach the spark.” (How many craft books are even willing to acknowledge that indefinable something in art?) And, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene.” I would also say the best craft books in the world are the books you love, the ones that got you wanting to write in the first place. Reading deep, I guess you would call it, is the best teacher.

Tiny-House

Whitney Otto is the author of five novels: How To Make an American Quilt, which was a New York Times Best Seller (as well as other bestseller lists) and NY Times Notable Book; nominated for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award, and adapted into a feature film produced by Steven Spielberg. Now You See Her was nominated for an Oregon Book Award, and optioned for film. The Passion Dream Book was a Los Angeles Times bestseller, optioned for a film, and an Oregonian Book Club selection. A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity was a Multnomah County Library selection.  Here latest novel, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, was published by Scribner in 2012.

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Summer of ’42

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Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in The New Yorker in 2007.

As a kid, I rarely went to the movies. My one memory of a summer movie is of a movie about somebody else’s summer, a nostalgic look back—way back!—to the “Summer of ’42.” I believe the movie is famous for a funny scene about buying condoms, but perhaps all summer movies feature some amusing scene with condoms. I wouldn’t know.

I grew up one of seven children in a family where making plans took up about as much time as executing those plans, and even the most meticulously arranged and carefully orchestrated day failed to satisfy everyone. One person’s idea of a good time always bored somebody else. The older kids were jaded about what the younger ones were just beginning to experience. A piano lesson would be scotched because a trip to the dentist couldn’t wait. Over time, invisible strings slowly tethered one child to the next, and those two hooked up with a third, and so on and so on, so that movement by one led to a lot of jerking of the others, and freedom, if not impossible, was always a tangled mess.

That we all managed to eat together every night and squeeze into a church pew on Sundays was exhausting enough. My general sense was that summer movies, like summer itself, belonged to other people. When friends talked of movies they’d seen—or hiking or fishing trips they’d taken—it sounded to me like bragging. My vacations were vacant, an emptiness filled with feral joys, but still I felt vaguely gypped and carried some resentment at missing out on a part of the year that seemed to have been invented just for kids.

Once in a while, though, I’d be invited along with one of my friends. Most of my official summer fun happened in the presence of other people’s kind parents, but even then I would worry, in a child’s intuitive way, about the aspect of charity these outings involved. I could never quite lose the helpless and bewildering sense that I was merely being tolerated. I’m sure that this sensitivity is fairly common in children, simply because they are so attuned to the dynamics of power, being without it themselves.

My father always made sure that I had money. At the back door, he drilled me on manners, concerned about propriety and appearance in the wary way of men of his generation, men whose parents were immigrants and had a roughness that no amount of time in the New World would ever smooth over. It was like living with a protocol officer, and I learned my lessons, perhaps too well, delivering on these occasions an imitation of a boy, a twelve-year-old martinet. I was hoping to come off as earnest and polite, of course, but I can see now that the effect was probably comic, like watching a monkey bake a cake.

The trip to see “Summer of ’42” involved, to my horror, a casual dinner with my friend’s parents beforehand. I had trouble chewing or swallowing in front of other people and was convinced that I’d choke or else blow milk through my nose. But my friend and his parents ate and talked in a light, relaxed way, with an inflection that was largely modulated by all the food in their mouths. The easy bantering flow of conversation baffled me. It moved too fast. Typically at our house, during dinner, you arranged a syntactically perfect yet cumbersome sentence in your mouth and then gently, slowly, set it in its proper place in the topic at hand. A trowelful of silence worked like mortar; you patted a scoop of it between every sentence to keep the course true. But with my friend’s parents the conversation moved so fluently I could hardly get my thoughts into it, and when I did they seemed outdated and had this orotund speechy quality that made a stupid thud, exactly as if I’d heaved a brick on the table.

On the drive to the theatre—the old Neptune, in Seattle—I sulled up, silent in the back seat, watching out the window as the familiar streets reeled by. The marquee was a brilliant slab of white in the dusk. My friend’s mother wore a batik skirt that flowed softly from her hips like light through a lampshade. She was lovely and sophisticated, and I was infatuated. Questions tumbled through my mind at a frightening pace. I had always used my manners to hide my real feelings, and I blurted out a desire to buy popcorn for everyone, but my friend’s father told me to put my money away. I had been holding a wad of crushed dollars in my fist as proof. By the time the red velvet curtains swept aside and the lights went down, I was glad to be in the dark.

Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin HouseThe Paris Review,Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out today and available wherever fine books are sold.

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The Pleasures of Difficulty

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An excerpt from Peter Turchi’s A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic.

For more information about the book and its author, be sure to click over to Fiction Writers Review for an interview between Peter and Robert Boswell.

Tiny-House

My wife has a fantasy, a desire she often expresses, which I feel certain she would be delighted to have me share with you.

“Let’s just float in the pool and drink gin and tonics,” she’ll say. “Let’s bake like lizards.”

We live in Arizona, where we have a pool, and where gin is sold in every grocery store, and where it is no challenge at all to bake like a lizard.

From this you might understandably presume that my wife is an aspiring alcoholic, or an idle and frivolous person. But in fact the -holic my wife is closest to becoming is a worka-; and as I am writing this, at eleven o’clock at night, she is standing in her study, playing her viola. She’ll do this for an hour, maybe longer; she does it virtually every night. My wife is not a professional musician. While she’s played violin or viola since she was eight years old, and she has played in any number of quartets and chamber groups and orchestras, the vast majority of her playing is not for other people to hear. For a while, when we lived in Asheville, North Carolina, she was a regular on the wedding circuit, making pocket money playing, as she cheerfully put it, “the same damned tunes. Pachelbel’s Canon, Handel’s Water Music, and the Mendelssohn. Most of the time people wouldn’t know if it was us playing or a radio.” She stopped playing weddings not because we became independently wealthy, not because she didn’t enjoy the other musicians, not, she assures me, because she’s become cynical about marriage, and not because “playing” had become work—but because the work had become tedious.

In contrast, the other night she drove to a church where, with about sixty other musicians she had never met, she sight-read Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. They played it beginning to end, without a break, without an audience. She came home exhausted. “That was glorious,” she said. “It’s so complicated.”

“Complicated,” I said, trying to look sympathetic in a knowing way, when in fact I am a heathen. I can sing along with “Morning, Noon and Night” and “Chug-a-lug,” but I can tell you nothing about Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I can’t even tell you with complete confidence that Mahler had previously written four other symphonies. I asked my wife, “But you had a good time?”

“Glorious,” she said again. Then, shaking her head: “It was terrifying.”

I would have given her a hard time about the apparent contradiction except for the fact that I am currently learning how to ride a bike. I exaggerate only a little; I never rode much as a child, I have virtually no sense of balance, and my feet are attached to my legs nearly perpendicular to the desired angle for feet, so situating myself on a potentially fast-moving, foot-powered object requiring some combination of balance and dexterity never seemed like a good idea. A month or so ago, though, my doctor suggested I take up swimming or biking.

#2My wife would not look kindly on my splashing and making a lot of commotion in the pool; it dilutes the gin. So for the past week I’ve been riding out to a desert park in 104 degree heat, then turning around and riding back. Most of the last mile is uphill, part of it fairly steep, and I have not yet been able to make it to the top without pausing. There are many other places I could bike, flat places; but I ride out to the park every day now, then turn around and try to climb that hill.

“Did you have fun?” my wife says from her blue pool float, glass in hand. “You look like you’re going to have a heart attack.”

“Nah, it’s great,” I tell her before going under. “Damn it.”

I don’t think my wife and I are unusual in this: most of us lie to ourselves. We say we want the good life, we say we want to live on Easy Street, but we suspect it’s true that heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, and it sounds pretty dull. So while we might lounge in the sun for a while or have a drink, before long we dry off and make trouble for ourselves.

Not everyone is like this, but most writers (and other artists) are. Most of us are, at least for periods, unsatisfied with our current degree of fluency. Sometimes—maybe often—we find writing frustrating, even aggravating. Absolutely no one is telling us to do it. The financial rewards are, for nearly all of us, modest. And yet we continue, trying to do a difficult thing well.

To argue for the pleasures of difficulty is not to promote the products of laziness, self-absorption, or hostility—that is, work that is intentionally vague, obscure, or encoded to prevent accessibility, work that doesn’t intend to communicate with readers but which instead exists as a fortress without doors. This is the sort of writing some of us produced as teenagers in a misguided display of (we thought) superiority that was, in fact, a fear of being understood, and so revealed to be not unlike other people. (Tom Wolfe argued against that kind of elitism years ago in The Painted Word.) I am not arguing here for fiction or poetry that only certain trained readers can hope to understand and admire. While we may say that we read to be entertained or enlightened, often we find that the books we return to, the books we find most valuable, are the books that disturb or elude us, defy us in some way, even as they appeal to us.

I first read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as an undergraduate English major. Over the years I’ve reread it many times; I’ve read and reread The Annotated Lolita; and I’ve taught the novel to undergraduates and graduates. I’ve referred to the novel enough that one student, only partly kidding, said she wondered if I could teach an entire course without mentioning it. “You must love that book,” more than one person has said to me. But “love” is a word I would never use to describe my feelings toward it. “You really understand that book,” one or two people have said to me, but I strongly doubt my understanding of the novel—which is to say, I have an understanding of the novel, but that understanding has certainly changed over time, and is very much open to interrogation; I feel challenged every time I return to it. Poet C. Dale Young described a similar—though superficially opposite—experience reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.

Within a sentence, diction can be used to clarify or to strategically obscure. The first sentence of Antonya Nelson’s short story “Strike Anywhere” is, “This was the next time after what was supposed to be the last time.”

There’s nothing about that language or its arrangement that is hard to comprehend; the difficulty comes from the fact that we have signifiers, but no specific content. What is “this”? we think. The next time for what? The last time for what? All we know for sure is that “this” is an occasion, and it’s significant because it wasn’t supposed to happen. The sentence appears to be telling us something, and we understand the logic of its grammatical construction, but we need to know more—a deliberate mystery pushes us forward.

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Out of Disorder, Into Pink Vinyl

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Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in The New York Times in 2006. 

I haven’t had much success with home, as a child or an adult. I’ve lived in strange places without feeling their strangeness. I suppose I never learned to want anything better.

For a while I lived in a place my friends called the shoe box, a tiny room in Seattle with a sink and a toilet and a hot plate for cooking. I didn’t have a telephone, so I used the pay phone in the parking lot next door.

This was O.K. for making calls, but receiving them was an athletic event. I lived all year with my window open, and my friends understood that when they called they had to let the phone ring long enough for me to run out the door, crawl through a hole in the laurel hedge, jump down the rockery, race across the lot and pick up the receiver. They also knew that half the time random weirdos would answer.

Before the shoe box I lived in a furniture warehouse in a derelict section of Chicago, a cavernous place with no shower or stove or refrigerator, none of the stuff that makes up the vital, innermost heart of a home. I slept on sofas that were wrapped in plastic, ate off tables marked for discount sales the next day.

I didn’t have to pay rent, but I was expected to set out glue traps after the store closed and check and dispose of them in the morning before we opened.

The worst part of the deal was when a rat stepped into a trap late at night. It wasn’t easy to locate a crying rat in the dark of that vast warehouse, but I always got up, making my rounds by flashlight. Otherwise it would drive me batty, listening all night, because a trapped rat, believe it or not, makes a horrible high-pitched cry like a very faraway, very tiny lost baby.

During these years, no matter where I lived, I spent a lot of time walking through good neighborhoods, wondering how people managed. I peeped in so many windows that I came to believe that inside was an end to suffering. I knew otherwise, of course, but such is the nature of longing that one will go right on believing the most ridiculous things just because one’s heart says to.

None of my strange living was done for the artsy romance of it, although, not surprisingly, the characters in my fiction share a similarly complex, troubled idea of home. Taking a quick census of the people who populate my recent stories, I count a kid in an orphanage, two men in mental hospitals, a father on the verge of shipping his schizophrenic son to a halfway house, a Salvadoran exile sleeping on a beach, a couple of dodgy drifters who manage to insinuate themselves into the idyllic life of an elderly farmer in Iowa and the scion of a wealthy family who finds his journey coming to an end on an Indian reservation in the remote northwest corner of Washington State. Hardly anyone in my fictional world has a real house, and even those who do discover soon enough that home too is a fiercely disputed territory.

As I was writing the last of these stories, my wife announced that we were going to buy a house, our first. My immediate reaction was to lose my mind and accuse her of being crazy. I said, Are you nuts? I said, Impossible! I said, What about the money!

In truth, I was worried about finishing my book and rather patronizingly promised her that we could look for a house just as soon as the last word was written. I wanted peace and quiet in the meantime. So naturally my wife immediately drew up a list of the documents I would need, and made an appointment with a mortgage broker.

Next my wife told me that we had to find and buy a house within two months, because her brother would be moving in with us. She also informed me that the house had to have a good-size garage so that their band, Eux Autres, would have a practice space. Ever since high school I’ve wanted a girlfriend who sang, and my wife does, in fact, sing, but I guess I imagined that this girl would be a mellow and sensitive songstress like Emmylou Harris, strumming a guitar quietly. My wife plays the drums.

As it turned out, my wife and I bought a house right on schedule—a house with pink vinyl siding in a neighborhood so lacking in distinction that I’m not sure it has a name. When people ask where in Portland I live—ask that way, when they’re trying to figure out who you are—I tell them I don’t know.

Now I drive up to the house some nights and think to myself, with relief: how square, how sensible, how very believable. The loss or fear or woundedness I’ve carried around for years fueled in me not a wish for grandeur or riches but a desire for the reasonable and the sensible, for things that I can trust because I know their limits. Things that are common, that aim for sameness and easily strike the wide mark of community. At this point I understand our pink house and its pleasures the same way I, as a writer, understand suffering, which is through the eyes of others: I can see that my wife loves the house, and so, through her, do I.

In setting up the garage, my wife bought rugs to cover the concrete floor, and she hung red paper swag lanterns from the rafters. We’ve got all that equipment, her sparkling blue drum kit, her brother’s guitars and his Silvertone amp, microphones, black cables snaking around and squares of eggshell foam over the windows that darken the place and dampen the sound, lest we disturb our neighbors.

The band is just my wife and her brother, so there’s a sibling intensity out in the garage. When they fight it’s awful, inarticulate, aggrieved, and when they’re in high spirits they’re in their own world, like children again, with their own language and a lifetime of history and lore to draw on.

I’m excluded, but I don’t mind. When they practice I often go outside, just to listen. Kids on bikes skid to a stop in the drive and tell me how much they like our band, as if the house itself had its own sound.

And now the house has two bands. My wife and three other women recently started an all-girl Bee Gees cover band, the Shee Bee Gees. Music is taking over: our house is crazy with chanteuses, more than I ever dreamed of. With the girls, the energy is hard to characterize. It’s unleashed, it’s high and loopy and loose; it’s like boys, with no boys around.

I try to stay out of the way, try not to listen too intently, as if I might break the spell by leaking creepy male vibes. Instead, I cook for them. I cook up spaghetti Bolognese and leave the kitchen door open a crack, listening. These girls can spend hours tweaking the four-part harmonies, writing new melodic lines, finding the music, just to make the most beautiful thing—this lovely, consonant sound in our house.

And so we’ve begun to live in our pink house—we’re inside—and even though it’s not a story I would naturally think to tell, it feels as if it all happened once upon a time.

Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin HouseThe Paris ReviewZoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out this week.

Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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Picnic, Lightning

Flash Fridays

After the concert, when the band had left the stage, and the lawn was littered with paper plates and beer cans, the rains came. But we had no umbrellas. Charlie said, “I should have checked the forecast,” but planning has never been his strong suit. Down the hill, the crowd clogged the gate. Everyone was rushing, trying to get out of the park. “Fuck,” I said, because my sandals were filling with water and the ground was dissolving to mud. Galoshes, I thought, and wished I were wearing them. How quickly the evening’s mood had shifted, from the magic of twilight picnicking—watermelon cubes, baguettes torn by hand—to downpour-fueled panic. I squeezed my tote bag against my chest—trying to keep my phone from getting wet and trying to stay close to Charlie. Jabbing from strange elbows as we all pushed toward the exit. Kindness evaporated; the storm had made people tense. Lovers were quarreling—“I told you we should have left before the encore!” My shoes kept sliding and squishing in the muck. No one was prepared for that crack of thunder or that sky-shattering bolt; a storm so close, it seemed to surround us. “Owen!” I heard, alarming in pitch. Police sirens before I understood what had happened. Quickening pulses. Ravenous fear, we were all swallowed up. Sky looming black, screams coming loose. “The lightning—I saw it strike,” someone said. Under a tree, a boy, fallen still. “Vital signs,” someone said, but there weren’t any. “Where’s the ambulance?” we cried. “Xavier, stay away from that tree!” a mother wailed. “You’re not supposed to stand under trees during thunderstorms,” she said, but wasn’t it too soon for a teaching moment, when that other boy, a boy who looked about twelve or thirteen, a boy who still had acne on his chin, a boy who would never go to prom, or to college, was being carried away under a sheet? Zealous caution, I’ve learned, can’t always save us.

Tiny-House

Elliott Holts first novel, You Are One of Them, was published by the Penguin Press in 2013. Her short fiction has appeared in various publications, including The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology).

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Tomato Pie

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All of us at Tin House were thrilled to hear the news that Ann Hood’s essay “Tomato Pie” was included in the 2014 Best Food Writing collection. First appearing in our Memory issue, the essay concludes with a wonderful recipe that most of our staff indulged in over the summer. This includes Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgen, who introduces the essay below.

I share Ann Hood’s love for the work of Laurie Colwin, except that somehow I had never tried Colwin’s famous recipe for tomato pie–a decadent, semi-insane, thoroughly American concoction of biscuit crust, cheese, and tomato and basil, with just enough mayo to make it feel like the 1950s– whereas Ann has wisely made a lifestyle of it. But what makes her essay on tomato pie so much more than a reminiscence is its undercurrent of grief and loss, her humane understanding of how people are always surprised by these inevitable sorrows. And maybe we simply have to be, or else how could we enjoy anything? She does not do anything as facile as tell us to be comforted by food. It’s more that in this essay she sees the cycle of it all: the seasons, the people, the hopes sprouted and dwindled, and the rituals we return to, for changing reasons, again and again.

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It is that time in summer when the basil starts taking over my yard and local tomatoes are finally ripe, red and misshapen and so juicy that after I cut into one I need to wipe down the counter. In other words, it’s the perfect confluence of ingredients for tomato pie. And not just any tomato pie, but Laurie Colwin’s tomato pie, a feast of tomatoes and cheese and basil baked into a double-biscuit crust.

I first discovered this recipe back in the nineties, in a long-ago Gourmet magazine. I ripped it out and took it with me for a week with my parents and assorted relatives in a rented house at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett, Rhode Island. There, in the hot, outdated, Formica-linoleum-avocado-green 1970s kitchen, I made loads of tomato pies, maybe even dozens. The recipe got splattered with tomato guts and mayonnaise—yes, mayonnaise is an ingredient, too, but only one-third of a cup—the words smearing in spots. But it didn’t matter, because by the end of the week I knew the recipe by heart: You place a layer of biscuit crust in a pie pan, cover it with sliced fresh tomatoes, sprinkle with chopped basil, and top with shredded cheddar cheese. You then pour a mixture of mayonnaise and lemon juice over the filling, cover it all with the second crust, and bake until it’s browned and bubbly. The smells of that pie on a hot summer day make you feel dizzy, so intoxicating are they.

No one in my family knew just how important that tomato pie was to me. Not just because it used the freshest ingredients at their prime deliciousness. Not just because eating tomato pie is something akin to reaching nirvana. Not even because it made me popular and look incredibly talented. No, this tomato pie was important to me because it wasn’t just anybody’s recipe.

Can there be people out there who do not know Laurie Colwin’s writing? Yes, she wrote a Gourmet magazine column in the nineties, but she also wrote eight books of fiction, both short stories and novels. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, when I was working as a TWA flight attendant and dreaming of becoming a writer, Colwin was one of my heroines. This was before she began doing food writing, when her stories would appear like little jewels in the New Yorker. When I would read lines like these from “Mr. Parker”: “He was very thin . . . but he was calm and cheery, in the way you expect plump people to be.” Or: “As a girl she’d had bright red hair that was now the color of old leaves.” I would smile at just how apt her descriptions were, and at how perfectly she captured real people. “‘I don’t work. I’m lazy. I don’t do anything very important . . . I just live day to day enjoying myself,’” a character tells us in Colwin’s 1978 novel, Happy All the Time.

To me then—and now—Colwin was a kind of Manhattan Jane Austen. Her novels and stories examine ordinary people and ordinary lives, the very kind of writing I wanted to do. Even though she tackles themes like marital love and familial love, themes that might be construed as sentimental, Colwin appreciates and plumbs the ambiguities of relationships with a sharp eye. In Happy All the Time, at a dinner party with her new husband, her character Misty thinks: “How wonderful everything tasted . . . Everything had a sheen on it. Was that what love did, or was it merely the wine? She decided that it was love.” But just when Colwin appears to be veering perhaps too near sentimentality, she throws a dead-on observation at us. Misty says to her husband: “‘You believe in happy endings. I don’t. You think everything is going to work out fine. I don’t. You think everything is ducky. I don’t.’” She then goes on to explain: “‘I come from a family that fled the Czar’s army, got their heads broken on picket lines, and has never slept peacefully anywhere.’” Colwin does this again and again in her fiction. In A Big Storm Knocked It Over, her posthumously published 1994 novel, the character Jane Louise observes of other women: “Their pinkness, their blondness, their carefully streaked hair, nail polish, eyelash curlers, mascara, the heap of things . . . that Jane Louise never used made her feel they were women in a way that she was not.” She is generous to her characters. And funny. And honest.

The first time I saw her was in the eighties, long before I baked a tomato pie. I was writing what I thought were interconnected short stories (they later become my first novel). Colwin and Deborah Eisenberg were reading at Three Lives bookstore, not far from my Bleecker Street apartment. In those days, the New Yorker ran two short stories a week, and sometimes the writers read together at Three Lives. I remember it as a January or February night, cold with an icy sleet falling as I made my way to the reading. I arrived late, or maybe just on time: they had not yet begun to read but a hush had already fallen over the packed store.

For a moment, I paused in the doorway and stared at the two women sitting together at the front of the crowd: Eisenberg, skinny and dark-haired, her legs folded up like origami; Colwin curly-haired and plump and grinning at the audience. She looked up and, I swear, in that moment, I thought she was grinning at me. I thought—and this sounds crazy, I know—but I thought she was beckoning me in, not just to the little bookstore, but into the world of words and writers. A woman, annoyed, in charge, began waving her arms at me to come and sit. And then the irritated woman pointed at the only place left to sit, which happened to be right at the feet of Laurie Colwin.

Although my family did not flee the Czar’s army or get our heads broken on picket lines, we were—like many in Colwin’s fiction—a waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop family. There was an aunt dead during a wisdom-teeth extraction. An uncle dead on a dance floor on Valentine’s night. But also like Colwin’s characters, who find “the experience of having a baby exactly like falling madly in love,” as Billy does in Another Marvelous Thing, we love fiercely. And those weeks in those rented beach houses in the early nineties could have, in many ways, stepped right out of Happy All the Time: “We’re all together. We’re a family and we’re friends. I think that’s the best thing in the world.”

We have always been a public beach kind of family—no pool clubs or private cabanas for us. Growing up, I spent most of my summers sweating in our backyard or watching game shows on TV, sitting in front of a fan and eating root-beer popsicles. My mother worked at a candy factory, stuffing plastic Christmas stockings with cheap toys and candy all summer. But she got Fridays off, and she and my aunt would load us kids into one of their station wagons and drive down to Scarborough Beach, where my cousin Gloria-Jean and I sat on a separate blanket and pretended not to know the rest of the family. We had plans, big plans. To leave Rhode Island and our blue-collar, immigrant Italian roots behind. Even at the beach, we toted Dickens or Austen, big fat books that helped the hot, humid summer pass.

I did escape. Continue reading

Posted in Essays, From The Vault

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The Family Tree: Celeste Ng

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A series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry.

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng’s intimate, prickly, and elegantly coiled first novel, is a psychologically layered mystery with a disappearance right out of Twin Peaks — if Twin Peaks were a small Ohio community in the 1970s and Laura Palmer and her siblings were the only mixed-race kids in town. Ng and I share an agent and editor, so I expected to enjoy the book. I didn’t expect it to be a story that reckoned so tenaciously and beautifully — from four distinct points of view! — with so many things I’ve been thinking about, myself.

The book opens by revealing the first of many secrets: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Her family has called the police because Lydia is missing, but no one apart from the reader knows her fate this early-on. Unbeknownst to her parents, Lydia’s schoolmates and their neighbors by and large view the family as a kind of dubious experiment to be watched from afar. As her mom, dad, brother, and sister contemplate Lydia’s disappearance and her death, and all the ways it seems she misled them, they keep coming up against their own secrets that have prevented them all from fully knowing her and each other.

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Maud Newton: In Everything I Never Told You, as in life, every character has secrets— worries or ambitions or misdeeds no one else knows, mostly because no one is paying the right kind of attention. Only the reader knows exactly why Lydia ended up drowning in the lake. Did you intend from the outset for this to be a book about secrets in families?

Celeste Ng: Yes—they fascinate me.  We tend to think of family secrets as big, earth-shattering things: a child out of wedlock, finding out your father isn’t really your father, etc.  How can you not be fascinated with those?  A few years ago, I learned that my grandmother had a sister who was kidnapped by bandits. She was never heard from again, though there were rumors that she was alive and living with the bandits.  But she was seldom mentioned in the family after she was taken. Those memories were just too painful, so those things stayed secret by default.

But there are small secrets too, things that aren’t intentionally kept private but just never end up being shared. When I was about ten, I took a trip to China with my parents, and we visited the house in rural Canton where my father was born and spent his childhood. It had been uninhabited for years, but as we walked through, my father told me little tidbits about his life there: how his father used to catch fish in the nearby river for the family to eat, how he and his brothers would jump down through the hatch in the kitchen ceiling to scare their mother.

Everything I Never Told You - Celeste NgWere these stories important, life-changing family secrets? No. But they helped shape my perception of my father, and where my family had come from—maybe even more than the “big” secrets. He hadn’t kept them from me on purpose; he’d just never had an occasion to remember them, let alone tell them to me. Often, things go unsaid and get lost because there’s no occasion to jog our memory or nudge us to reveal them. So I’m fascinated by the big secrets, yes, but I’m just as intrigued by what information gets transmitted—and what information gets lost—as stories get handed down over generations.

MN: Marilyn reacts against her mother’s home-ec, MRS-degree world by planning to be a doctor. When that doesn’t work out, she projects her own ambitions onto Lydia without seeing that, in her own fashion, she’s repeating history. Do you think all parents, however loving, however accepting and well-meaning, are likely to do this in some way?

CN: I do. Parenting is inherently rather arrogant: you believe your genes are worth passing on and (at least fleetingly) believe that you’re qualified to raise another human being. There’s often a godlike desire to create in your own image—you want your kids to be just like you in all the ways that you like, and to one-up you by avoiding all of your own shortcomings and mistakes. If we like who we are, we encourage our kids to emulate us or surpass us, from very early on. This is one of the reasons we have things like toy Dyson vacuums and toy chainsaws (note the copy: “Just like Dad’s!”). And it only goes on from there.

All this comes from a good place: the desire to help your children lead a better life. But that of course assumes you know what “better” means and how to get your children there—and that your experience can be mapped onto theirs, which often isn’t true. Parenting is this potent combination of projection and wish-fulfillment. I feel it myself every day, and try to resist it, but I’m not sure it’s always possible.

MN: James thinks Lydia, whom Alexander Chee describes in his admiring review as “a blue-eyed Amerasian Susan Dey, the most white-looking of her siblings in her mixed-race Chinese and white family,” fits right in. It’s only when he reads a newspaper article after her death that he “finally starts to see his family as the town does: a living exhibit on the question of whether an Asian man and a white woman should marry.” Was it easy or difficult for you to imagine the kinds of things people might have projected on this family in the 1970s in a small Midwestern American town?

CN: I grew up in a Chinese-American family in a small town in the early 1980s—not too very long after the events of the book—so I had a fairly good sense of what it might be like to be the only Asians in a mostly white area.  I’ve said this elsewhere, but all the instances of racial tension except one were things that happened to me or to people I know. For example, an Asian friend told me how her (white) husband’s (white) mother was curious if they planned to have children, because—as she put it—“The children won’t be white.”  Those kind of things happen way more often than many people realize.

I don’t want to pretend that this book speaks for everyone, by any means. But a lot of readers have written to me to tell me that this book spoke to or even captured some of their experience, and I’m so grateful for that.  After his review came out, Alexander Chee and I were chatting on Twitter. When I said some readers found the racial tension hard to believe for the 1970s, he said, “Having lived through the 70s as a mixed Asian kid I’ll tell anyone, yes, it was like that.” That meant a lot to me as well.

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Tin House Nooner: Mat Johnson

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On today’s Nooner, you get sneak peak listen as Mat Johnson reads from his forthcoming novel Loving Day.

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Recorder live at our 2014 Summer Workshop, the reading centers on Warren Duffy who has returned to America for all the wrong reasons; his marriage to a beautiful Welsh woman has come apart; his comic shop in Cardiff has failed; and his Irish-American father has died, bequeathing to Warren his last possession, a roofless, half-renovated mansion in the heart of Philadelphia.

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Mat Johnson was born and raised in Philadelphia, and has lived most of his life elsewhere. He is the author of several novels and graphic novels including Pym, Drop, Hunting in Harlem, and Incognegro. Johnson is a faculty member at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program and lives in Texas with his wife and children. 

 

 

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The War Came As If a Dream

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Welcome to the second installment of Broadside Thirty, our new feature for young poets. Each digital broadside will feature one poem under thirty lines by a poet under thirty years old. Today we feature a poem by Michael Prior.

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The War Came As If a Dream


Our children volunteered our eyes, for they

had seen more through them than us. Iron-clad,

sulfur-borne, we lived a field of camphor

that embalmed our every step. It’s true:


we shot a man and stole his home to sleep.

Later, like wind-up birds, we sang our way

to ruin, passed cities gutted and aflame.

Lanterns shattered glassy nights on rooftops,


the papers good for naught but kindling.

Our dreams grew greater than we could explain,

while our prayers chose clarity over colour,


colour over light. I fear we will remember

everything in a single shade. Eternity

opened up but once. Our answer was a gun.

 

 

Michael Prior is currently a student in the University of Toronto’s MA in Creative Writing Program. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Collagist, Geist, Lemon Hound, and The Malahat Review. The winner of The Walrus’ 2014 Poetry Prize and Grain’s 2014 Short Grain Contest, his first chapbook will be published in 2014 by Frog Hollow Press and his first full-length collection will be published by Véhicule Press’ Signal Editions in 2016.

Submissions to Broadside Thirty (poets under thirty years old may submit up to three poems, each under thirty lines) or any other categories on The Open Bar may be sent to theopenbar@tinhouse.com with the category name in the subject line.

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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How to Spend $2.5 K on Joan Didion!

Joan’s sunglasses sold for the price of 8% of a corvette in support of the Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary of her life and work. So far the project has raised $168,709, exceeding its $80,000 goal with 23 days to go. Visit filmmaker Griffin Dunne‘s Kickstarter page to learn more!

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Rowan Hisayo Buchanan‘s work has appeared on NPR’s Selected Shorts, and in TriQuarterlyPublic Books, and No Tokens Journal. She owns only one pair of sunglasses, and they are snapped.

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Winter Workshop Craft: Debra Gwartney

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As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.

Next up to the chalkboard, Debra Gwartney.

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Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?

Debra Gwartney: Not my first workshop—I can’t quite remember the first—but one early one has to do with Karen Karbo at the UO where she was the workshop leader, teacher, facilitator. She wrote at the bottom of the pages of memoir I’d turned in—having submitted said piece with trepidation, sure that every line failed—”This is a gem. Send it out.” Only that. I felt for the first time like a Real Writer. And I went home thinking, maybe I can do this.

TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

DG: “This is a gem. Send it out.”

THYour strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

DG: Long ago, I led a workshop that was way too large. Maybe 24 people. Ridiculous. We were shoved in a tiny and airless room, a night class in a dreary building. That was bad enough. Then a young woman—who very much wanted to learn to write and was determined to do so, and I’m all for that—came in late. She was in a wheelchair, pushed by an aide, and the aide also pulled in a respirator that allowed the young woman to breathe. In the small, airless room, the respirator sounded like Darth Vader times ten. And every 15 minutes, the aide had to vacuum it out. Alien squishing its way out of the thoracic cavity noises, a bit distracting. At the break, when I’m thinking, what the fuck am I supposed to do here?, another student told me she was nearly deaf, and that the respirator sounds made it impossible to hear. Student #2 called disability services and the next time the class met, I found two women on either side of my chair, there to sign everything that was said. Two signers, one DV machine, a small airless room, twenty-four students. The woman with hearing troubles dropped the class a week later, and away went the signers with her, but the first student with the respirator stayed, and it was one hell of a long ten weeks.

TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?

DG: The Situation and the Story, of course. Why? Because it’s brilliant and wise, and also because I have huge swaths of it memorized and I am too old and tired to memorize another.

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Debra Gwartney is the author of Live Through This, a memoir published in 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Debra is also co-editor, along with her husband Barry Lopez, of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, published by Trinity University Press in 2006. She has published essays in many magazines, newspapers, and literary journals, including American Scholar, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Salon, Tampa Review, Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, The New York Times (“Modern Love” column), and others. Debra is currently a member of the nonfiction faculty for Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. She lives in Western Oregon with her husband.

Posted in Interviews, Writer's Workshop

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The Art of the Sentence: Jane Smiley

BG-Art-of-Sentence-dc2“I remember feeling a desire for Dana when she first appeared, when she paused in the doorway that second day of class and cast her eyes about the room, that was hard and pure, that contained me and could not be contained, and I remember making that bargain that people always make—anything for this thing.” — Jane Smiley, Age of Grief[1]

Out of all the sentences in the universe, it was not easy to pick one to write about. I was torn between lush Proustian, Woolfian, Ondaatjean sentences and something less ostentatious, maybe Charlotte Brontë: “Reader, I married him.” I think I get the best of both worlds in this sentence from Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief. I can’t deny that my choice was also influenced by the fact that over twenty-five years after it was written, The Age of Grief is still probably the book more than any other that makes me want to stop strangers on the street like a gray-bearded loon, hold them with my glittering eye, and tell them they have to stop whatever they’re doing and read this story.

The quality of any sentence depends on its context, or if it does not—if it’s a great sentence on its own—we may suspect that it’s self-indulgent, exhibitionistic, and not so great after all. This sentence is on the last page of the novella; it had to be earned by the previous 75 pages. Also, it can’t really be separated from the sentence that follows: “No doubt it was the same bargain that Dana was making right then, at one in the morning, somewhere else in town.”

The most immediately striking phrase in the sentence—that one that most needs to be earned—is “that bargain that people always make,” that shift to a grand statement about “people.” Initially it would seem so much more credible to say, “I remember feeling that I would give anything to have her,” or “I would have given anything to have her.” The generalization dares the reader to challenge it, and surely many readers do challenge it and think to themselves: “No, actually I’d never make a bargain like that; I’d never sacrifice my marriage, my children, and all of our happiness for the sake of an affair.”

1736865And yet the sentence convinces us: yes, this is what it means to be human—to make “that bargain that people always make.” How does it convince us? One way is how it circles around its subject. It starts from the point of view of an observer observing himself: not “I wanted Dana from the first time I saw her,” but the more distant “I remember feeling a desire…” Part of what he desires is her detachment and control, the way she “paused . . . and cast her eyes about the room,” which hearkens back to the very beginning of the novella, where Dave, the narrator, first describes Dana: “When she came into the lecture hall every day she would pause and look around the room, at all the guys, daring them to dismiss her, daring them, in fact, to have any thoughts about her at all.” He was attracted to her because she was not looking around to see what guy she wanted, but because she was passionate about becoming a dentist.

Of course the whole novella risks this great leap into generalization: not simply grief but “the age of grief”: “I am thirty-five years old, and it seems to me that I have arrived at the age of grief. Others arrive there sooner. Almost no one arrives much later.” Smiley risks an immense statement about what it means to be a human being, at least in our time, perhaps in any time: “Almost no one arrives much later,” meaning that absolutely no one fails to arrive sometime at the age of grief. Again, “that bargain that people always make.” The story challenges the reader to make the leap: Maybe not everyone makes this bargain, reader, but if you don’t, it’s not because you are morally superior. It’s because you are less than human.

The sentence goes from the relative detachment of “I remember feeling a desire …,” a phrase that can almost delude the reader into suspecting that Dave’s desire for his wife is all in the past, to a further level of abstraction with desire “that contained me and could not be contained,” describing an immense desire in terms that do not seem to express desire as much as they express a philosophical observation about desire that is reminiscent of the definition of God as a circle that has no circumference.

And then everything changes. More than anything, I think, it’s the rhythm of the last four words of the sentence—“anything for this thing”—that establishes their authority. Four strong beats, the final three unbroken: ANYthing FOR THIS THING. The tone is feral. The sentence that began with an almost meditative tone, as if it had all the time in the world to reflect on itself, ends with a drumbeat of urgency.

The tone is feral, but it might be called a feral empathy. As Dave imagines (accurately) his wife betraying him “at one in the morning, somewhere else in town,” what he remembers is how he would have done the same thing—betrayed anyone, anything—for her, and still would. Think of the perfection of that sentence, which stands on its own as a separate paragraph: “No doubt it was the same bargain that Dana was making right then, at one in the morning, somewhere else in town.” Without the “No doubt” it would be insufferably knowing. The “no doubt” means there is doubt, and so much of the pain is in the doubt. Dave knows the time, “one in the morning,” but not the place, “somewhere else in town.” There is so much he doesn’t know.

It would have been tempting to end that sentence with something more specific than “somewhere else in town,” but how could Smiley have done that? She could have said, “At one in the morning, at some Courtyard Inn with a watercolor above the desk.” She could have said any number of things, but any description at all would have sounded bitter and sarcastic, no matter how understated it was.

One of the great effects Smiley achieves throughout The Age of Grief is that the narrator never devalues his wife’s affair. Both Smiley and the narrator give it its due, and one of the ways Smiley does that is to keep the affair almost ethereal. All we know—all he knows—about the man his wife is in love with is that “maybe it was the musical director” of her choir, and when the family goes to see the performance of Verdi’s Nabucco, “there were certain notes that should not have ended, that should be eternal sounds in the universe.” That’s the despicable “other man”: someone who creates music that “should be eternal sounds in the universe.” In fact one thing Dave and Dana share, even in the midst of Dana’s affair, is their love of this music, their utter inability to resist its beauty any more than Dave could resist Dana or Dana can resist her choir director.

I’m still shocked every time I read the sentence, and I’ve been reading it for a couple decades. It has that quality that’s what we crave from great literature—it reveals the undercurrents of truth and passion that we didn’t know were there until it revealed them, or, rather, we knew they were there but we’d convinced ourselves we’d imagined them because no one else saw them or heard them—and suddenly there they are, and the voice of the narrator seems to fall a couple octaves and become the deep, compassionate, furious voice of grief itself: “that bargain that people always make—anything for this thing.”

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Robert Thomas’ latest book, Bridge, is a work of fiction published by BOA Editions, Ltd. His first book, Door to Door, was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa as winner of the Poets Out Loud Prize and published by Fordham University Press, and his second book, Dragging the Lake, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. He has received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and won a Pushcart Prize.

[1] I have put the title of the novella in italics rather than quotation marks as a small act of rebellion, insisting that The Age of Grief demands to be read as a complete work of art, not simply a “piece” in a larger book.

 

Posted in Art of the Sentence

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The Thing About Sophia

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The Open Bar is thrilled to publish an exclusive short story from Shelly Oria’s debut collection New York 1, Tel Aviv 0

To dive further into Shelly Oria’s world be sure to click over to Fiction Writers Review for an interview between the author and Laura van den Berg.

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Saturday

Saturdays we’d have brunch at Curly’s. Sophia said Definitely Curly’s, no brunch in the city better than Curly’s and no neighborhood better than the East Village on a Saturday morning. She said morning but really she meant afternoon.

At Curly’s they serve brunch till four p.m. on Satur­days. Anything you want done vegan you can get, and if you asked Sophia that’s just the way the world should be. We always got too much food, but too much food on purpose is different from too much food by mistake; when there’s no miscalculation involved, too much food is simply called supper, or sometimes indoor- brunch for Sunday. Also at Curly’s, they give you a brunch drink for free with every brunch entrée ordered. Also tea. If you say you don’t like tea and can you please get two drinks instead, sometimes they say yes, sometimes no.

One of the things about Sophia: she asks questions, the world says yes. Two of the waitresses became her friends, a third fell in love. So Saturdays at Curly’s, usually we got buzzed, and fake bacon never tasted better.

What happens when you get buzzed but you’re already a little bit buzzed from the night before is that you feel free. So Saturdays at Curly’s was the time of the week when I would say things to Sophia like I love you so much, You are the best roommate anyone could ask for, and the worst: I hope we’ll be like this forever. Kir in hand, Sophia would laugh every time, finger my cheekbones (both sides, slowly), and say, Booney-Boo, you know there’s no such thing as forever.

Sunday

Even though microwave-heated Curly’s huevos rancheros is nothing like the original, brunching with Sophia on our living- room floor (we only got a coffee table two weeks be­fore I moved out) was my favorite Sunday activity. I’d get the blue-yellow blanket from the bedroom and we’d call it Indoor Picnic.

But not every Sunday was Indoor Picnic Sunday. Some Sundays Sophia would wake up in the morning and, after brushing her teeth and before getting coffee, say, I  can’t be domesticated today. I knew better than to show disappoint­ment, because show Sophia that you’re disappointed and you can count on being alone for a week. So I’d say, Cool, what’d you have in mind? because that was my way of saying maybe we can do something undomesticated together. But when Sophia wanted to feel undomesticated it usually meant she needed time away from me, so she’d say, Oh, you know I can’t think before my first cup of coff ee.

A good time to explain about the bedroom: when I first moved in, the two rooms  were both called bedrooms, and the rest of the apartment was a space we shared. Then one Sunday morning Sophia said, Let’s make the small room a recording studio. Sophia was buying another guitar then and all kinds of expensive equipment, and I was mostly sleeping in her room anyway, so it seemed sensible. She said, If I have a studio I’ll have to get serious. I thought she was already plenty serious about her music, but Sophia was always looking for ways to get serious about things, and if you said anything back that sounded like advice, all of a sud­den you  were her enemy. Then you needed to make it up to her, and that wasn’t always easy, so the best way was to say, That’s a great idea, I said, That’s a great idea and that’s how Sophia’s bedroom became our bedroom and my room be­came her studio.

Another thing that sometimes happened on Sundays was End of Weekend Blues. That was especially common on Indoor Picnic Sundays: when Sophia looked outside and the window said evening, she would all of a sudden get antsy, like she was waiting for someone to arrive. I had to be care­ful, because when she got like that saying the wrong thing was something that could creep up on you. One minute there would be peacefulness, the next you  were fighting with Sophia and you felt like she hated you, because Sophia doesn’t know how to fight with the future in mind. Sophia fights like Sophia cooks like Sophia makes love like So­phia plays the guitar: as though possibly it’s the last thing she’ll ever do. Her eyes get so red there is no green left in them. Her lips get tight and lose their heart shape com­pletely. She screams without stopping for air, and even if it’s a day before a show, she forgets she is supposed to watch her voice. I know the reason: this is also a show, and it is no less important to her than any other. But when someone is throwing loud, hurtful words at you, your heart  doesn’t care about reasons. Sometimes she throws things, too.

newyork1telaviv0Monday

Monday was Sophia’s Errands Day. Sophia’s definition for errands is Anything you hate to do, and her theory is it should all be compressed to one day or you end up believing your life sucks. So, for example, grocery shopping is not an errand, but calling her aunt Zelda is. If Sophia has a toothache and the receptionist says Thursday one week from today, Sophia will say Give me the next available Monday, because going to the dentist is an errand, and errands are done on Mon­days. And if you tell her it doesn’t make sense to suff er tooth pain longer than you have to, she’ll make a face like she just swallowed something sour and say, Clearly, you don’t know much about artists.

It was a Monday before Sophia meant anything to me, five, maybe six p.m., and I was standing at the door with the suitcases and everything. A while later, when I learned about Sophia’s week, I realized I must have been one of her er­rands that Monday. Interview Lydia’s cousin. The thing about Sophia, she opens the door, you see right away how beauti­ful she is; you see right away it’s the kind of beauty every­one wants to share. I was funny to her then—first thing she did was laugh. I laughed too, because her laughter made me happy, even though I knew it was directed at me and didn’t know why, which is usually unpleasant. Finally she said, Lydia couldn’t have been more right. Lydia is a relative of mine, second-cousin-once-removed sort of relative, and she was the one to say, You go ahead and move to the city and you’ll see things will just work out. She gave me Sophia’s number, and on the phone Sophia gave me the address and said, See you then, so I assumed I was moving in. I didn’t know then that in New York people interview other people to be roommates; I thought you usually went on interviews when you wanted other people to hire you, pay you, not when you wanted to pay them. I packed everything I had—which wasn’t much, because the man I was leaving was the kind who sues if you take stuff— in two suitcases and one huge handbag. I took a cab from Penn Station and told myself the stuff  was simply too heavy, but really I was just afraid of the subway. Then: Sophia, laughing, and I knew right away, though it still took some time to figure out.

Tuesday

Tuesdays Sophia usually spent the day auditioning people for her band. If she liked someone (usually a drummer), that person would be auditioning other people with her the fol­lowing Tuesday, but often by the Tuesday after that they’d be gone; it rarely took Sophia more than a week to discover Disparities in Artistic Visions.

Sophia loved those Tuesdays, and the more people showed up, the happier she was. Really, when you think about it, Sophia was auditioning all the time, not just on Tuesdays; some auditions  were simply more official than others. Sophia ran auditions for friends, for lovers, for people who might cook for her or tell her things she didn’t know. And people just kept showing up, trying their hardest, because that’s the thing about Sophia: she makes you feel like her approval is the one ingredient you’re missing.

Let me explain about the finances, though my knowledge is limited. I shared a bed with Sophia for over a year, and in that year more often than not we appeared to the world as two halves of a thing, but still: what Sophia doesn’t want to discuss she won’t, and good luck to you if you think What’s the harm in just raising the question. So  here’s what I do know: Sophia doesn’t have to work. There is no lavish­ness about her, but she fi rmly believes that needs should be met. If a certain need means money, then money will be spent; but mostly Sophia thinks about money the way most people think of socks—sometimes essential, at other times unnecessary, but either way not an interesting topic for con­versation or thought.

Over time I’ve heard more than one theory about Sophia’s finances, because people think if someone who has money isn’t interested in money there must be something they don’t know, and when people think there’s something they don’t know, they talk. Lydia said a trust fund, and Lydia has known Sophia for years, so possibly that’s right. In fact, that was one of the first things she told me when we talked about my leaving that jerk and moving to New York. She said A friend of mine, said We go way back, and said She’s living off a trust fund that would last her great-grandkids if she ever has any, and she’s pretty generous, so maybe you won’t have to worry about money for a while.

Of course I always worry about money, and living with Sophia didn’t change that at all.

One night, at a party we were throwing, a very tall girl who seemed to know a lot about Sophia said, Babe, I’d be dreading Monday so bad if it weren’t for you, and touched Sophia’s arm, and Sophia smiled and went to the kitchen to get more beer. What’s Monday? I asked the tall girl, because that was before I learned that Sophia’s people often judged you by how much you really knew about Sophia. The tall girl snorted and said, The shoot; once a year she still has to do it or there’ll be no money for pretty girls like you to live off her. I don’t live off her, I said all deadpan, and got up to go help Sophia with the beer; but really I felt happy that she said I was pretty. So that was the second theory I heard.

Then, once, Sophia said, An old friend will be staying with us a couple of nights, and when the old friend arrived she was young and beautiful and Sophia’s ex. Her name was Anna but Sophia called her Honeydew. Sophia rarely called anyone by their given name. For a  whole evening it was Honeydew remember this and Honeydew remember that, and Of course, Sophie, how could I ever forget. I felt unnec­essary, but we were drinking a lot and gradually it got bet­ter. At some point I looked out the window, and even though I squinted I still  couldn’t tell if it was dark or bright, and I couldn’t remember in which room we kept the clock, and I heard Anna giggle and say, Is he still sending you that much every month? and You should really see that stock person I told you about, Sophie, you’re being irresponsible. So that was the third theory I heard about Sophia’s money, except I had no idea what I heard.

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BOO!

Best Halloween Movie  E V E R

Halloween is a favorite holiday around the Tin House offices, which is kind of surprising, because we still have to come into work and it typically isn’t considered one of the Five Great Drinking Holidays—4th of July, Labor Day, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and the NBA Draft. Regardless, here are our staff’s recommendations for how to spend your Friday night.

Tiny-House

clutterMichelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): Oh, spookiness. Let’s see. I once flipped through a copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho in a bookstore and was haunted by that for quite some time. I don’t really like talking about it now, as a matter of fact. But the book that really freaked me out and still does is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which as I imagine every reader of this blog knows is about the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Kansas–the most unsettling part of all is that it was all based on misinformation: the killers thought there’d be money in the house when in fact the Clutters were known to eschew cash as much as possible. After I read that book I looked around my little efficiency apartment and found it genuinely scary for the first time. The book has also ruined farmhouses for me. Whenever we drive past some lovely old house set amid the rolling hills and my husband says, “Oh, wouldn’t that be nice?” and I say, “No. Absolutely not. Nonnegotiable.” The idea of a house, out there in the emptiness, grips me with dread. I admit it’s not really logical that I think it is safer to be surrounded by more humans, given that they’re the perpetrators of pretty much all that’s awful in the world (Come to think of it, maybe the most terrifying costume of all would be just a person standing around with a sign that says, “Human Being.”), but it helps. I thought In Cold Blood was an excellent book, but I don’t ever want to read it again.

diaboliquesHeather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): If there were ever a good time to work on your zombie film French, right around now would be it. “Les clés dans la piscine, le mari à la morgue!, The keys in the pool, the husband in the morgue!” says le Commissaire Alfred Fichet in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 classic, the chilling psychological thriller Les Diaboliques starring Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot. Between the original title of Georges Franju’s 1960 international sensation adapted from Jean Redon’s novel, Les Yeux sans visage and its title in English, The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, (premiering in 1962 in the US), you’ve got a pretty good idea of some of the major grisly themes to look out for in any language. La Rose de fer, The Iron Rose, Jean Rollin’s 1973 hallucinatory horror film about a young couple who, for their first (and last) date, wander through a cemetery late at night and hang out in a crypt never to leave again, allows you to enjoy a scary movie and at the same time sharpen your language skills for the next time you come face to face with the living dead in your local bar/grocery store/gas station. All clowning around aside, there’s a wide and rich selection of very fine and ghoulish French horror films out there from classic to camp—all perfectly spooky for this Halloween, and all perfectly accentuated.

karloffEmma Komlos-Hrobsky (Associate Editor, Tin House Magazine): There is nothing I love more than Halloween. Truly, nothing. Maybe my family, that’s it. I mean, what’s not to like? The chance to surreptitiously peek inside your neighbors’ houses while trick-or-treating? Fun-sized candy, the funnest candies of them all?  The cultural mandate to make a costume? The excuse to watch horror movie after horror movie while encamped in a pile of feathers and silver ductwork tubing and hot glue sticks while making said costume? I am such a horror movie wimp and yet absolutely live to have the bejesus scared out of me in new and upsetting ways. Oh, the misty, watercolored memories: a screening of The Shining in my college film series during which the film reel melted mid-viewing, to the abject terror or everyone in the audience; or the time my high school friend and I let ourselves into his grandmother’s house late at night to watch the Korean thriller Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance on her big-screen TV and screamed in abject terror when she snuck up on us from behind, half-dressed, wailing in French; seeing The Sixth Sense in middle school in a theatre where the heat wasn’t working and hyperventilating in abject terror when the projectionist walked down the theatre aisle, his breath visible in the beam of his flashlight, just as it gets cold when the ghosts come for Hayley Joel Osment. But my all-time favorite horror movie remains the original version of The Mummy with Boris Karloff–the slow awakening in the sarcophagus! the ring that sucks our your soul! the world’s creepiest fez! My best horror memory is of watching it with my cool older cousin, then wrapping my dad in toilet paper and sending him to wake said cousin in the night. No abject terror, but definitely worth the shot.

BROODTony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Somehow I’d slept on Cronenberg’s first couple features, but as the Criterion Collection recently put a couple of them up on HuluPlus, I found my way to to his 1979 horror film The Brood. Just to be clear: I love Cronenberg. Love him. With a few exceptions, I think he’s one of our very best. And this movie’s got all the stuff we count on him for: the mood, the psychosexual bodily obsession, that weird-ass violence, the high camp. But Jesus. Pair this movie with Gone Girl and you’ve got an instructive double-feature on the dangers of “unhinged, hysterical women.” In this case, all those unruly female emotions are literally made flesh-and-blood, and they exact murderous revenge on anyone that inconveniences the ex-wife of our hero. Normally, I don’t think it’s fair or particularly interesting to read biographical material into fiction, but I happened to be looking up the creepy cult-leader fella on IMDB (Oliver Reed!), and happened upon this morsel: “David Cronenberg wrote the film following the tumultuous divorce and child-custody battle he waged against Margaret Hindson. Cronenberg also said that Samantha Eggar’s character, Nola Carveth, possessed some of the characteristics of his ex-wife.” It’s an interesting failure to be sure, and I’ll long have nightmares about those navel-less, snowsuited trolls, but if blatant misogyny gets your blood boiling, you might do better to scroll past this one and watch Scanners instead.

consumedThomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): Like Tony, I love David Cronenberg. Like Tony, I’m going to half-heartedly recommend a piece of Cronenberginalia that I don’t really believe in. On a recent interstate road trip, I made a first foray into the world of audiobooks. The book would be Cronenberg’s debut novel Consumed, read by the actor Cronenberg directed to a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in less than ten minutes of screen time, William Hurt. I couldn’t pass up the prospect of Hurt whispering descriptions of Cronenbergian sex and violence (and sexual violence) to me as I drove over lonely mountains in the dark. Delightfully, Hurt ends up reading in a hilarious range of accents, from American to French to Canadian-Jewish to French-German to Vietnamese, Japanese, and Dutch-born-French. Fully two chapters of the novel are a monologue from the drippingly sensual French sex cannibal Aristide Arosteguy, during which I completely forgot William Hurt existed, and the smears of fog and rain on the windshield began to take strange, unsettling shapes. Though the novel on the whole was somewhat disappointing, Cronenberg’s signature grotesquery—sexual cannibalism, 3D printed deformed penis replicas, experimental breast cancer treatments, Kim Jong-Un—all in the uncomfortably sexy whisper of William Hurt, is the strangest, most terrible company while trying to fall asleep at midnight at a rest area in Eastern Oregon.

halloweenJakob Vala (King of Halloween): In high school, my best friend and I watched the entire Halloween series over a weekend (excluding Resurrection, which hadn’t been released and is only worth watching if you’re a completist). Candy-fueled horror binges weren’t unusual for us, but that particular weekend remains our most ambitious and most memorable. While we still view October as an excuse to gorge on all things spooky, grown-up responsibilities and geographical distances mean that most movie watching is done apart.

Last weekend, I limited myself to the first Halloween and it’s second half, Halloween II. It’s all downhill from there anyway. Halloween wasn’t the first slasher flick, but it set a distinct tone and brought the genre into the mainstream (though it owes its existence to the vastly underrated Black Christmas, which I obviously save for December). I love everything about Halloween, from a dorky Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut to director John Carpenter’s brilliant and eerie score. Innovative camera work and moody framing build tension without feeling contrived. The dialogue is dated, but still authentic and charming. Carpenter stayed on to write and produce Halloween II, leaving the role of director in less capable hands.* Regardless, the atmosphere of the original is preserved and a satisfying conclusion reached.**

Other October standbys include: Tucker & Dale vs EvilMiseryTrick ‘r TreatLake PlacidJoshua (2007), GrabbersSlither and the Scream series.

*Rick Rosenthal, who also directed Halloween Resurrection, starring Tyra Banks and Busta Rhymes …

**Originally, Halloween II marked the true death of Michael Myers and the series was intended to continue on anthology-style, with a different All Hallow’s Eve-related storyline for each film. However, Halloween III: Season of the Witch was truly terrible and fans were disappointed, leading to Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers and its many sequels.

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Winter Workshop Craft: Jodi Angel

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As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.

Next up to the podium, Jodi Angel.

Tiny-House

Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?

Jodi Angel: When it comes to writing, my first experience in the “real” workshop environment was in graduate school, because that was the first time I actually felt like a writer—I was officially enrolled in school to be a writer, and I had taken ownership of that title. So it’s my first workshop, and it’s my first time having my manuscript critiqued by all of these other writers I was in the class with—writers who, like me, were defining themselves as such for the first time—and I’m nervous and excited and pretty sure my story is caught somewhere in the borderland between amazing and mind-blowing, and the workshop starts and the class is pretty tentative and there’s a lot of vague and generous feedback, and I’m feeling pretty accomplished, and then the professor takes her turn with my story. Let’s just say that she may not have seen my brilliance in the same way I did. She gutted the manuscript—said there was no plot, nothing happening, nothing at stake—no PLOT! Seriously?! And then she went so far as to rubber stamp WHERE IS THE STORY? on page three of the manuscript, and I sort of felt like Fred Flintstone when Mr. Slate goes on one of those tirades and you see Fred shrinking down smaller and smaller as the lecture goes on. By the time workshop was over, I was about 6 inches tall, carrying my gutted manuscript, limping down the hallway, realizing I know nothing. I know nothing. There is a happy ending to the story, but I can’t write it.

TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

JA: The best piece of advice I have ever been given in a workshop is that the hardest decision you will ever have to make is how to get your characters from the taxi outside at the curb to the apartment on the 5th floor—do you write out the details of them walking into the building, and all the description of setting and action, or do you simply skip to them in the elevator, or heading up the stairs, or standing in front of their door with keys in hand—or do you cut right to them in the apartment and forget the walk up? What that piece of advice means is that you have to make deliberate choices when you’re writing—and every choice is for a reason. If you don’t know the reason you’re making the choice, then you don’t truly know the story you are writing.

TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?

JA: I always find myself going back to Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House because it’s an engaging read, and while it isn’t exactly a book on craft, it is a book on the technical aspects of writing. I liked a few things that Stephen King had to say in his book On Writing, and I suppose what I like best about that book is his voice—King makes the reader feel like we’re all in this writing thing together, and if you do this and that, and then maybe this again, you can make a story happen. I like that approach. I think that books on craft can be valuable, but I also think they can be overwhelming, and you really only need to own two in your entire life. The only way to really learn to become a writer is by writing.

Tiny-House

Jodi Angel is the author of two collections of short stories. Her first collection, The History of Vegas, was published in 2005 and was named a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2005 as well as a Los Angeles Times Book Review Discovery. Her second collection, You Only Get Letters from Jail, (2013), was named as a Best Book of 2013 by Esquire. Her work has appeared in Esquire, Tin House, One Story, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Byliner, among other publications and anthologies. Her story, “A Good Deuce,” was named as a “Distinguished Story” in The Best American Short Stories 2012, and her short story, “Snuff,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2014. She grew up in Northern California—in a family of girls.

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In the Eye of the Storm: An Interview with René Steinke

BG-Interview-1We meet the eponymous small Texas town of René Steinke’s Friendswood in the wake of a hurricane. The sun has come out for the first time in days and still Friendswood is agitated and unsettled, unwell. Containers of biohazardous chemicals buried by a local oil refinery have been unearthed by storm, and along with them, the insidious secret history of the medical catastrophe they’ve wrecked on the town. As Steinke opens Friendswood here, she begins a story not simply of disaster but of reckoning, asking if and how a community can recover from the ways it has poisoned itself.

As with her books Holy Skirts and The Fires, Steinke writes Friendswood with equal parts precision, lyricism, and compassion. (Only she could make me root for the hapless Bible-thumping real estate agent, Hal.) Aside from its many pleasures at a sentence and character level, Friendswood is also one of the best portraits I’ve read of life in the Bush-era West, where personalities may be outsized but social nicety is a delicate scrim laid over all manner of discontent–at least until it isn’t.  It was a pleasure to talk with Steinke about her phenomenal book and writing in the eye of the storm. 

Tiny-House

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: Two main storylines draw us through Friendswood. Lee, whose daughter Jess has been poisoned by toxic oil byproducts leeching from the town’s soil, crusades to stop a literal cover-up and redevelopment of a Superfund site; teenage Willa, raped by members of her high school football team, sets her community reeling with news of what’s happened to her and begins seeing signs of the apocalypse. What made you want to place these two threads—eco-disaster and sexual assault—side by side? How do you see them illuminating each other?

Steinke author pic.sizedRené Steinke: Although the two events are separated by time, they’re related thematically. When I began the book, I was fascinated by ideas of the Rapture, the popularity of all those Left Behind novels, and a certain feeling in parts of the country that the end of the world is upon us. Is that a wish for the world to end or is it a way for people to locate their fears about the present state of things? I’m not sure. But it seems linked to another kind of anxiety about the environment, the material future of the land, water, and sky. Willa’s visions of the beasts, which she thinks might be signs of the apocalypse, manifest her terrors, but sometimes she seems to be wishing for the apocalypse, as a way to escape the trauma of the assault. Lee, on the other hand, spends nearly every waking moment trying to preserve this particular space on earth, where she and her family once lived. In her own small way, she’s trying to prevent a different kind of apocalypse.

Finally, the novel tells the story of how this town failed to protect these two teenaged girls, Jess and Willa.

EKH: One of the emotional and intellectual thrills of reading Friendswood for me is getting to see multiple perspectives on a single event. As your narrative moves between the vantages of four different characters, there are these electric moments in which I see characters setting themselves on inadvertent collision courses or keeping secrets or feeling pain which is hidden to the others. The idea that there are two sides to every story may be an old saw, but it’s one I take with new heart here. How did you decide to write the book this way? And why using these four, particular characters out of all the ones in the book?

RS: Thanks, yes, I very much wanted the book to have that effect. The novel had that structure from the beginning—it intuitively seemed the best way to write about the ways that trauma plays out in a community, and it’s also a means to represent morally complex ideas. I think the structure also has a lot to do with my choosing to write about Texas, where an atheist lives alongside a Fundamentalist Christian, an environmentalist lives next to someone who doesn’t believe in climate change, etc. That’s partly why small-town Texas makes for good drama—it’s a version of America in a microcosm.

Also, I’m always most interested in writing about interior life, so I don’t like to write from the omniscient perspective— I don’t like to feel that distance between my narrator and the characters. So this is a way to have some of the sweep of a larger scale narrative, without giving up intimacy with the characters.

In the beginning, there were two other characters, aside from these four, but their stories began to feel too tangential to the story, so I cut those parts of the draft. I’m not entirely sure why these four characters in particular came to me. Lee and Willa, I suppose, have some of the same DNA as my previous female characters, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in Holy Skirts, and Ella in The Fires. I think Dex and Hal were probably born from all the eavesdropping I’ve done in Texas—and it was thrilling to write for the first time from a male perspective. I think I settled on these four, partly for the balance between males and females, teenagers and parents.

EKH: I should ask, too, about the one time when you slip out of rotation between the perspectives of your four main characters to insert a chapter told from the point of view of Willa’s assailant, Cully. Why this disruption in structure, and why place it so late in the book?

RS: That’s the breaking point, really, in terms of tension, and I felt there needed to be some opening up of the structure, partly to complicate the questions that the story asks. Also, I wanted Cully to be kind of a rogue, chaotic element, not a monster (which I think would make his part in the rape easier to dismiss), so I needed to make sure he was fully realized as a character before he gets injured. Otherwise, what happens to him might be merely a punishment.

EKH: I loved the character of Willa and the idea of her visions. She seems to me to be drawn from a long and venerable line of young women who see too much or too far beyond the mortal coil– Joan of Arcs, Cassandras. What made you want to write about Willa? What makes her and her kinsfolk such potent characters?

RS: I’ve always been fascinated by mystics, and the women you mention, and also more contemporary women, who went to extreme lengths to pursue their spiritual calling, like Dorothy Day and Simone Weil. And the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the Dada artist and poet at the center of my last novel, is also squarely in this camp. These women are great characters because there’s an inherent conflict between what they see and what everyone else sees. Which vision of the world is more perceptive? In Willa’s case, I was trying to figure out whether or not the visions, as horrible as they are, also help her to get through the trauma. Do the visions serve a purpose only to the person who sees them, or do they reveal something more?  Continue reading

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Animati

BG-From-the-Vault-dc1 From our 2010 Summer issue (#44), Paul Griner’s “Animati.”

Tiny-House

We were going to surprise him from the closet. He was going to be surprised when we jumped out, there was no doubt about that. He was just a temporary extension of us, and besides, we’d told him we couldn’t come. It was dark, and our shoulders bumped, and we had to be careful not to hit the hangers. At first we had giggled, knowing he wouldn’t be there for a while, but the longer we stayed in and the more likely it was that he’d soon arrive, the more we quieted. At last it was only our breathing. Our breathing and the scent of deodorant. Of sweat. Of minty breath and whiskey breath. There were so many of us, stretching away behind me, rank after rank. I began to wonder. How many were there? I was glad  m-th44-sk_1I was in the front, that I’d get the chance to be first. There was so much I was going to tell him. What do you intend, he was going to say. To surprise you, I’d tell him, clutching him to my chest so he’d feel my heart. All those years it had been beating, and now I wanted him to touch it. Palm under my blouse, warm flesh to cooling flesh, wrinkled fingers sinking into my skin. He was so old! But I was old, too. Our hearts would beat the same. Then it would be his turn to be in front, to decide who we were waiting for next. I was yet to go forward but I could feel myself slipping back into the embrace of those fanning out behind me. Did the back ranks even know who we were waiting for, or were they turned in another direction, awaiting something else?

Hurry please, please, please hurry. I want to know

Paul Griner is the author of the acclaimed novels Collectors and The German Woman and the story collection Follow Me, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick. He teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville, and his story collection Hurry Please I Want To Know will be released by Sarabande in May 2015.

 

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Winter Workshop Craft Buoy: Karen Karbo

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As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.

First up to the podium, Karen Karbo.

Tiny-House

Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?

Karen Karbo: I graduated with my MA in Cinema and had never taken a creative writing workshop. In this one, with Joyce Thompson, taught through Northwest Something Something Something and held at an upstairs room somewhere in downtown Portland, we were expected to write and workshop one short story. I racked my brain for something that I hoped was exotic and entertaining, and wrote about a Russian emigre I’d known while working as a secretary at the Slavic Department at USC, where I’d gone to grad school. After I read the story, Joyce said, “I feel as if every character in this piece could have his OWN story.” Because I had no better ideas, I wrote their stories, and then I wrote the stories of the minor characters in those stories, and eventually I had ten stories told more or less chronologically in ten different voices. It became my first “novel” (really, linked stories), Trespassers Welcome Here, published by Putnam’s in 1990.

TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

KK: The first draft is for YOU, the writer; the second and subsequent drafts are for the reader. Trying to do both things at once — figuring out what we want to say, while also fashioning it for another human being to read — is the cause of writer’s block.

TH: Your strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

KK: As an instructor: I had to explain to the lone dude in the class why all the women wanted to kill him for writing “She was very intelligent, even though she had large breasts.” His rational was that it was TRUE. I thought I was going to have to call campus security.

TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?

KK: The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick. Because no matter how experienced you are, it’s always tough to discern between a great set-up, and a great story.

Karen Karbo is the author of the best-selling kick ass women trilogy, including The Gospel According to Coco Chanel and How Georgia Became O’Keefee. Her memoir,The Stuff of Life, was a New York Times Notable Book and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Tin House, the New York Times, Esquire, Elle, Vogue and salon.com. Hawthorne Books has just reissued her novel The Diamond Lane.

 

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Prayer for an Eel

Flash Fridays

The Bishop leaned toward the vanity, tweezers poised, and considered two uncomfortable truths. The first was that he rather liked the vanity, a piece of furniture named in sin, and second, more alarming, was that he believed eels to have souls. Both, perhaps, distractions from the third realization: his eyebrows were exploding. They were whiter and more unruly by the day, a worry he usually dismissed; but today, given the breakfast company on the way, he dwelt.

He’d dropped the tweezers when the BBC announced that the world’s oldest eel had died. It’d expired in a well in Sweden, where mourners now gathered, piling flowers. It reminded the Bishop of the week flower piles had competed and then merged for Lady Di and Mother Teresa.

His excess eyebrows snowed onto the oak vanity, a piece of furniture that reminded him of the one commandment he couldn’t care less about, and more generally, his Biblical cherry-picking of late. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain, he’d tell his potty-mouthed grandson dutifully, cringing at each admonishing. He was grooming for that child this very morning, preparing to preside at the boy’s confirmation service. That’s what he told himself. That’s why he was perched at the vanity, a guest of the Archbishop in London, removed from his usual Sunday routine at Winchester Cathedral. Today: pluck eyebrows at Lambeth Palace, deliver sermon at Westminster Abbey, breakfast in between.

He’d been up late into the night, sitting cross-legged on the second story landing, a spot he doubted any Archbishop had paused, and drifted between rereading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and listening to the world go to shit on the radio: Gaza, Ukraine, some racist town across the pond in Missouri, and this ISIS thing, which supposedly made al-Qaeda child’s play. How to welcome his grandson into this world? The boy’s mother had done that years before at Royal London Hospital, but in the morning, the boy would become part of the world of the church.

This morning, the eel’s death punctuated the global updates, and suddenly the Bishop was adjusting the volume on both his iPhone and hearing aid. ISIS beheads an American journalist in Syria, and the world’s oldest eel dies at one-hundred-fifty-five. After the second story, the Bishop muted his hearing device, tuning out the world for a moment, and lowered his eyes to prayer, praying first for the eel’s mate, one-hundred-ten, now alone in the well. And then for the deceased creature itself. Lord have mercy on his soul. Eyebrows ready, he followed the prayer with a text message: “Sermon finished. Do come over for breakfast.”

Tea was laid before the two gentlemen at a green-marble table where the Bishop supposed Archbishops wrote their Westminster sermons. The Bishop ate Cheerios, while his guest dined on bacon.

“Diarmaid, I’m losing it,” the Bishop said. “This morning, I prayed for an eel. A dead eel. The eel’s soul, which I’ve spent my whole life understanding not to exist. When a fox ate Pip’s dalmatian puppy, I explained the dog wasn’t in heaven. But now.”

The theologian chuckled. “Cecil, oh Cecil. War would have done you well,” he said.

“And you’re one to talk,” the Bishop said.

“There’s perhaps no regret greater than failing to join the Royal Air Force,” the theologian said.

“I beg to differ,” said the Bishop.

“Your afterlife argument notwithstanding,” the theologian said.

The Bishop refilled the theologian’s tea. “Pip joins the church in two hours,” he said.

“Shall I edit your sermon?” the theologian asked. “Check for traces of the eel?”

“It’s bizarre to think that Pip will live to see what the church turns into,” the Bishop said.

“And you won’t be watching from heaven?” the theologian asked.

“I find myself believing less and less in a place you claim will be absent your company.”

“You old sap.” The theologian stood and rumpled the Bishop’s white hair. “Good luck this morning. I’ll be thinking of the eel and hoping you don’t embarrass Pip from the pulpit.” The theologian still attended the Bishop’s services in Hampshire, sometimes, but not on a morning like this, in London, a family affair, the day the last of his progeny joined the church.

The theologian nodded his quiet goodbye from the doorway and the Bishop felt better, but simultaneously worse, seeing that Diarmaid’s hair was likewise whitening. He couldn’t imagine a place without the man’s company. In fact, it was easier to imagine nothing at all: the void, the abyss, the nothing, those words that clamored to do the best they could, as the theologian put it. The theologian had believed once, had even been in line to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, and still the Bishop prayed nightly for his soul. He also prayed that the Lord would forgive the rush of joy he’d felt in learning that the theologian would need his help reconnecting with the Lord.

At the pulpit, the Bishop glanced down at the boys’ choir, trying to decide which child would introduce his grandson to cigarettes. Through their hymns, high-pitched and tiresome, his mind wandered back to the eel and its lonely mate. To have both World Wars pass, trapped in a well, that was one thing. But to face another half century of confinement alone?

The boys took turns leading prayer, and the Bishop smiled as Pip’s voice filled the Abbey. His eyes met his daughter’s, and his wife’s, all too proud to regard the moment as prayer. And then, behind them, he saw the thinning hair he knew so well. The theologian’s lips were tight, and for the first time, their eyes met during prayer. When Pip sat down, and the next boy took the lectern, the Bishop again bowed his head. He tapped at his iPhone: Kayak, Expedia. British Airways had a flight to Sweden this evening. By morning, that lonely eel would know the North Sea.

 

Patrice Hutton is the director of Writers in Baltimore Schools. She’s currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her writing appears in The HairpinPrime Number MagazineMount Hope MagazineOutside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and Public Books. She tweets at @patricey.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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