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What We’re Reading

Desiderata

 

AbroadMichelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): Right now I am reading Katie Crouch’s Abroad, which draws from the Amanda Knox case and is thus far pretty intoxicating stuff–a little grimy, a little mysterious, and captivating and exotic. And yet it’s also just about being a student and trying out a new identity, one of the most common stories around. But it’s one of those books I itch to return to when I have to set it down.

Jaws_MovieCoverEmma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): It is a sad, sad thing to have no cable and thus no Shark Week, even though the programming seems like such bad science when it tries to be science at all. (I will say nothing of the megolodon show from last year.) Still, I’ve tried to assuage my feelings of loss and alienation with some shark reading instead. The nonfiction book I’ve been reading on the cultural history of sharks is mediocre to a degree that it seems unkind to name it. I will say, though, that I’ve learned that if your attempts at shark calling fail, it is likely because a woman stepped over your canoe or because you stepped in chicken poop before the voyage out. The more you know. I also recommend sublimating your Shark Week feelings by going to the Imax movie Great White Shark, in which three world-class freedivers who’ve somehow been duped into working as unarmed shark taggers carefully triangulate in the water so the sharks can’t sneak up on them from behind, as they try to do every time. Shark calling from the relative security of a pontoon has never seemed safer.

9780552565974_custom-b8367e7a41f7c527051b3b8024b7924b3e0a113c-s99-c85Jessica Miller (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): I’m reading Wonder by R.J.Palacio. Auggie Pullman has never been to a real school until now. Though he was born with a facial deformity, Auggie’s parents have tried to make his life as normal as possible and decide to send him to public school for the first time ever. Told by Auggie, his older sister Via and kids from Auggie’s school, Palacio tells the story of looking beyond appearances and finding humor in the most unlikely places.

9781555976712_custom-ed6d216f73ed55eb053921dc630688676bb0dbe4-s99-c85Katrin Tschirgi (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Right now, I’m reading The Empathy Exams: Essays, which is the kind of book that makes me want to write nonfiction. It’s the kind of book I’d recommend to strangers on an airplane, my parents, my friends in group text messages with the all-bolded imperative READ THIS NOW. I’ve underlined so many sentences thinking, Yes! This is my life! And there has been an equal number of times where I’ve thought Yes! This is how we should live. Leslie Jamison writes seamlessly about empathy and how it is problematized through systems of injustice, unfathomable loneliness, and tourism. Jamison’s insights are fresh, true, and unnerving.

510jnPKfu5LTalal Achi (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): I’d like to thank the sensible Tin House intern who told me countless times to read Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Wise homie, I’m glad I finally listened. This is dystopian fiction on par with classics like 1984, Brave New World, and White Noise. In Shteyngart’s tetanizing projection of the future of America, you enter a crowded room and your äppärät (super-advanced I-phone) shows you everyone else’s fuckability rating (0-800), among other juicy bits of personal data, like credit rankings (0-????)—that’s assuming you are wealthy enough to own an äppärät, and are not instead sequestered and perhaps ‘dealt with’ by Shteyngart’s thought police analog, a swarm of ungainly mercenaries called the American Restoration Authority. In this degenerate reality, the hero of the story, an ugly, middle-aged, bookish Russian-American Jew named Leonard (Lenny) Abramov (“bookish,” in this context, is a gross understatement. Lenny is one of the last people in America to read books, let alone own a shelf full of them), an employee of a firm that targets High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) to sell them immortality (via “smart blood”), whose dream it is to become rich enough to buy that which he is selling and live forever, falls in love with Eunice Park, a young and stunning Korean-American girl who, despite evidently being a product of her consumer culture (who spends outrageous amounts of time and money browsing Assluxury.com and JuicyPussy.com for best-selling items like Onionskin (see through) jeans and nipple-less bras), turns out to be just as interesting and complicated as Lenny. What else? This is a super sad, masterfully crafted story about a world we contemporary humans might very well be giving birth to.

The-Bone-Clocks_800x1193Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): I’m 400 pages into The Bone Clocks, the new David Mitchell novel, which comes out in September. Much like Cloud Atlas, it jumps narrators and speeds through time, in this one from the 1980s to the future. Realism suffused with bursts of mind-and-body-inhabitation by a mysterious immortalist cult, with sharp political jabs (at the foolishness in Iraq) and much hay made of an ego-mad writer with rapidly declining sales working the international literary festival circuit. I am at the point where there are dozens of threads dangling about and am excited/nervous to see how Mitchell pulls them all together in the last 200 pages.

MatisseJazzHeather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): “When I put a green, it isn’t grass. When I put a blue, it’s not the sky,” said Henri Matisse, and in Jazz, his big book of collages and cut paper images, spiky, bright construction paper stars collide with dancing figures, braying horses and chariots. Jazz has whimsy all over the place—in sweeping shapes and arches and squiggles of the sky. Matisse worked on it when he was in his seventies and his notes about the collages, written in thick brushstrokes, are interspersed with the images. I’ve returned to Jazz over the years a lot and find it particularly delightful to peruse while sipping an icy little glass of something refreshing in late summer as September comes on, like just now.

813zwGuF7NLThomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): One of my favorite things to stumble on at Powell’s is a book I haven’t read by the Swedish writer Torgny Lindgren. I recently picked up a copy of In Praise of Truth, a 1991 novel about art, art forgery, and celebrity. Maybe. Two thirds through, I still couldn’t tell you what it’s about, except to describe the plot to you, and to do that, I’d basically be reading it aloud. Lindgren’s narrator is conversational and either honest to a fault or colossally deceptive, a self-described intellectual who reads Schopenhauer and art history exclusively, the blandest man, bald at thirty-two, obsessed with a lost Nils von Dardel masterpiece he picks up at auction at the cost of his “family inheritance,” a trunkful of cash courtesy three generations of his family’s piano and picture-framing business augmented by the cash his only friend, a child-like pop music megastar called Paula, has on hand in the middle of the night. Lindgren is funny and dark, and though his characters and even his narrator are quick to unload information and augur meaning, his novel is cleverly neutral, presenting the narrative with a sense of dispassionate irreverence.

41iW+EwysLLAdam Segal (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): It feels like I’m brushing up against bookish taboo to admit that I became aware of this book only after I heard through the CNF grapevine that it was being adapted for film. I never took a class from D’Agata while a student at Iowa, but from friendly accounts – and from certain book reviews – he seems to have a reputation as a nonfiction antihero, a literary loose cannon who plays fast and loose with facts in the name of Truth or, anyway, Style. The struggle over the facts in the Believer essay that eventually became About a Mountain was so herculean and intellectually arousing that in 2012 it became its own book, The Lifespan of a Fact—a book that if nothing else is a monument to the quotidian heroics of editorial interns. But if it’s true (heh) that About a Mountain is built on muddled facts, tweaked names, and consolidations of human beings into composite characters, then it’s also true that it works, beautifully. About a Mountain explores, through the story of the since-defunded Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, the excesses, the lack of foresight, and the frailty of modern American existence. Expect the film to contain drawn-out sweeping shots of the mountain and its surrounding landscape, as well as quiet faraway views of Las Vegas itself, suggesting that the city will one way or another be ultimately reclaimed by that iconic dull-orange desert, the same one you see in the morning when your brain is pounding and your money’s all gone.

81mmqzzGRPLSophia Archibald (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): After hearing Wells Tower read an essay at the Writer’s Workshop, I knew that I had to get my hands on some of his fiction. The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned echo through my head in Tower’s voice, with all the wit, dry humor, and overwhelming realness that I remember from his reading. His characters are not heroes. But Tower’s honesty with the inner demons everyone faces, as well as the genuineness with which he captures relationships and human interactions, reminds me of the reality that we’re all made of the same stuff. In these stories (at least the first two), it just takes some quirky old-timers in strange, isolated settings to release the flow of feelings we all experience but rarely talk about.

Posted in Desiderata

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Horror Story at the Lonely Lake

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Excerpted from The Blue Box (out today from Red Hen Press)

It was a red boat and it attacked people at Lonely Lake. People would be swimming in the alcoves of the lake, and the boat would attack. It ran over people anytime it wanted to. If there was a waterskier and he fell down into the water of Lonely Lake or there was a woman waterskier who fell, the red boat would run over them, and its propeller would chop them up until they were hard to look at, and their stories were hard to hear. If there was a fisherman just wading in the shallow parts of Lonely Lake, the boat would attack. It would go by as if just boating and then it would attack the fisherman. It attacked boats sometimes and ran into them and cut them in half, and when the people spilled into the water of Lonely Lake, the red boat would turn in determined circles until it had run over all of the people even if they were screaming for help. If they were calling, the boat still ran over them. It attacked at night or in the daytime. In the evening people listened. It was scary at night on Lonely Lake, but the days were just as dangerous. It attacked canoes and rowboats and it attacked the old scout troop in their inner tubes. The red boat was the worst thing about Lonely Lake. If someone mentioned Lonely Lake, then someone also said red boat.

Once a year the search party went out to try to find the red boat and destroy it so it would stop attacking people in Lonely Lake. It was always a methodical search and went around the whole lake, from the earthen dam at the north end all the way to the swampy sloughs at the south end. They looked into all the boat houses, private ones and the big club boathouse and they looked into the abandoned boathouses and under the old Sycamore Bridge, which is also abandoned. They searched under the great willow shelf on the west side and the sandy beaches on the east side. They always found a lot of lost gear and some dinghies which had floated off and canoes, but they never found the red boat which attacked people on Lonely Lake.

We tried to figure out why it was attacking. We had a town meeting in the lodge at Lonely Lake, and Mr. Blister stood at the blackboard and printed out the reasons.

Mrs. Abletable stood and said, “The boat attacks because it is evil.” In the lighted lodge under the great stuffed moose, this made sense and everyone in the room nodded and agreed, and we made a sound together of agreement.

Mr. Blister wrote “EVIL.”

Mr. Bakertaker raised his hand and said, “Maybe it is the Devil’s Boat.” That really hit a chord of agreement in the room, and we all spoke to each other and said That is so true. I agree, and like that, and Mr. Blister wrote “Devil’s Boat” on the blackboard.

It was the blackboard from the Mercantile which occupies the front of the Lonely Lake Lodge and it usually had the produce specials on it in Mr. Blister’s loopy printing. We all liked his printing. You could trust it.

Then Mrs. Candlewandle said, “I think that boat is out for revenge. It attacks everything because of something that happened a long time ago. That’s the way these things work. Something terrible happened in the long lost history of Lonely Lake, and that red boat continues to seek its revenge.” The logic of this comment made us gasp.

Mr. Blister wrote on the board: “Revenge.”

Mr. Dordlenordle stood up and said, “I think the boat isn’t the Devil’s Boat, but some lesser demon here to terrify Lonely Lake. I think the devil himself is too busy for an old small place like this.” The reasoning here was outstanding, and we all hummed approval.

Mr. Blister wrote down “Demon” on the board. The meeting was just getting started, and there was a sense of accomplishment already. You get a man in the clean well-lighted lodge writing on the blackboard in big letters, and it feels like you’re finally getting somewhere. In an hour the blackboard was full of ideas, good ideas, including some scientific theories which included physics and chemistry.

We had refreshments of cool punch and oatmeal cookies and talked until almost ten o’clock. It was the whole town, everybody taking a turn, Mrs. Hindlebindle and Mr. Markennarken and Mr. Stoppermopper and Mrs. Vankerlanker, and I mean everybody with their stupid names and their passionate theories and all of us humming our agreement after every ardent remark until you could see it in every eye in the old room, hatred, and the deep dark hope that the red boat would find Mr. OckleFockle and Mrs. FerdyHerty, any of these people, and chop them into little bloody wicklenickles. Our esteem for the red boat was gigantic.

Finally, Mr. Zarcolnarcol raised his hand. He stood up and said to us all, “I think the red boat is attacking people in Lonely Lake because we need it to. We’ve made up this story about this horrible red boat driven by the devil. . . .”

“Or demons,” Mr. Dordlenordle said.

“Or demons,” Mr. Zarcolnarcol said. “And we have to have this legend or Lonely Lake would dry up and allow Walmart to come in here and put in that Supercenter they’ve been talking about for twenty five years.”

It was hard to tell when he sat down if there was agreement or not, because the entire lodge was silent for the first time in four hours.

He stood up again. “For example,” he went on. “Has anyone seen any of the attacks?”

“I heard there was an attack yesterday at rocky pinion,” someone said.

“I did too,” someone added. “Some kid on a float board was cut all to ribbons. He looked like a pink slinky.”

“And there was blood everywhere,” someone else called out. “All the way to the old bridge.”

People weren’t standing and waiting to be identified now; they were just calling out.

“And it killed sixteen people in that church group of Goomberg,” someone else called. “The red boat cut their houseboat in two and chewed them all up one by one.”

“Presbyterians, someone said.

“The youth group,” someone else added. “And part of the choir. I heard it was a retreat.”

“Did you see it, any of the bodies or the ambulance?” Mr. Zarcolnarcol said.

“I heard they had trouble putting the bodies back together,” someone said. “Legs and arms.”

“It’s the devil’s boat!” Mr. Bakertaker said again, but now he almost screamed.

“There’s no red boat,” Mr. Zarcolnarcol said. “It’s just Lonely Lake. It’s always been Lonely Lake. Sometimes the wind blows from Forlorn Pass, and you can smell the pine forest there and in the evening if the clouds are low, the light turns pink reflected off Mount Lost and Lonely Lake glows too, the water so purple it seems like wine. And in the middle of the summer, like tonight, if you go to gold beach where the sandbar reaches out you can walk into the water so that your ankles tingle. Wade in. You will hear the steady motor of the cicadas. You will feel the memory of winter ice, and you will feel the melting snow of yesteryear, and the blood in your body will go down into your legs almost on a dare to feel the chill, the purple glowing chill of Lonely Lake.”

Ron Carlson is the author of five story collections and five novels, including Return to Oakpine and The Signal. His fiction has ap­peared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Playboy, GQ, Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. His book of poems, Room Service: Poems, Meditations, Outcries, & Remarks, was published by Red Hen Press in 2012. His book on writing, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, is taught widely. He is the director of the writing program at the University of California at Irvine and lives in Huntington Beach, California. 

Posted in Fiction, General

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The Search for Heinrich Schlögel : An Excerpt

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The Naked Eye

Like all living creatures, I had a mother and father; but I never knew them. I know that they met each other last summer; for several days they flew side by side and together sipped from the same flowers. Then for several hours they united. During this union my father pressed the tip of his belly against my mother; it is in this way he was able to slip tiny grains into her body, grains so small no person could see them with his naked eye.

—Animals and Their Families: The Butterfly

 

The sentences that Heinrich loved best were hard as rock candy and lasted. As a child, he did not read with ease but listened and remembered—what was read to him he savored. His favorite books were those that depicted the lives of animals. The person he most admired was his older sister, Inge.

*

In a letter dated October 30, 1980, and postmarked Toronto, a letter central to my archive, Inge addresses a friend, recalling:

Whenever the farmers sprayed the fields, straightaway our maid was sent out with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge to clean off my swing set in the back garden, so that if I went out to play I wouldn’t be poisoned. The day after the tractors left, pulling their tanks of pesticide behind them, I’d slip through the gate, cross the wild area that sloped down from behind our garden to the hops fields, and disappear among the rows of tall, heavy-laden plants. I collected birds from the ground. Those that had only just died lay limp and warm in my hand. I dropped each delicate body into the cloth sack I’d taken from the handle of the kitchen door, the sack my mother filled at the market with vegetables, fruit, sausage, cheese, and bread on market day, which was Tuesday. Every few meters, another corpse lay at my feet. I buried them in the wild area on my way home. But first I sat with them heaped beside me, and examined each one, admiring the colors that came into sudden existence as I twisted a wing so it caught the sun at just the right angle. The hardness of a beak and the softness of an eye—these became mine and could not be taken away. The burial was unceremonious. If, in my eagerness, I’d forgotten to bring a small shovel, I dug up the soil with my fingers.

Our maid was a fat girl, neither pretty nor educated, but hardworking and from a poor family. She was sixteen and I was two years old when my parents hired her to keep an eye on me and to help prepare meals, clean the house, and do our laundry. She remained with us for many years. I must have been about six years old when I started removing dead birds from the fields.

Below the hops fields, in what was called the “little hole,” the Italians lived, and the Turks. They’d come to pick the hops and to build sewers and to perform other arduous and unpleasant tasks we Germans preferred to avoid. My parents forbade me from entering the “little hole.” To ensure my obedience, they warned me that Italians and Turks ate hedgehogs, and might eat me. To get to the castle on the opposite side of the valley, I therefore had to go the long way around, through the streets of the town. In the central square a freshly painted sign announced: A CORDIAL WELCOME TO TETTNANG. A brief history of the town was followed by a promise that the hops grown in the fields surrounding Tettnang were unrivaled in quality in all of Germany and possibly in the entire world:

The finest aroma and a delicate bitterness give the beer an unmistakable character and reflect with every mouthful the unique countryside between the northern Bodensee lakeside and the Allgäu.

It was only because of my refusal to eat most foods put in front of me that I was allowed to attend high school, a privilege generally reserved for boys. Most bourgeois girls in Tettnang who completed middle school in 1973 were sent to the Institute of Domestic Sciences, where they were taught cooking, sewing, and how to run a household. My parents feared that, given my peculiar eating habits, were I to attend cooking classes along with other girls my age, I might become the subject of malicious local gossip. So great was my parents’ fear of gossip that I was spared the Institute of Domestic Sciences and went instead with the boys to the gymnasium, where I earned my baccalaureate or das Abitur, from the Latin abire: to leave.

On very clear days, when everything was bright and hard-edged, as if made of glass, I could see out of Germany and into Switzerland by leaning from my bedroom window. To look beyond Tettnang, beyond Germany, enabled me to breathe better.

I do not know if my brother, Heinrich, felt a similar tightness in his throat and chest whenever he read the sign in the central square: A CORDIAL WELCOME TO TETTNANG, but if he didn’t it was because already, in his imagination, he’d left for Canada. Until recently, I liked to believe that I helped him find his way to Canada, but what has happened now has changed everything. I have no clear idea where he is. Heinrich, my younger brother, had a different temperament from mine, yet we were very close. Should I use the past tense when I speak of him? Will any of us ever see him again? I am choosing the present tense: he has a different temperament from mine, yet we are very close.

*

As a child, Heinrich feared his maternal grandfather.

It was summer and out the back door of his grandparents’ house Heinrich went. Someone had given him a pair of roller skates. Abrupt wooden stairs led down to the garden, where a paved path waited for him. On the top step he sat and began to attach his roller skates to his shoes. As he struggled with the stubby metal tongue that had to enter the tiny, uncompromising hole in the red leather strap, his grandfather’s legs, or rather the sharp pleats that ran the length of his grandfather’s trousers, appeared beside him.

“Wouldn’t you do better to wait, and strap those on at the bottom of the stairs?” a voice inquired from above. The voice was not a voice he knew well. He visited his grandparents infrequently, and years later he would forget entirely the sound of his grandfather’s voice. The perfectly pressed pleats, however, and the impeccable shine of his grandfather’s pointed shoes—these would resist time; they’d persist, totemic, almost legible, the purveyors of Heinrich’s inadequacy. He had not thought of descending the stairs before strapping on his roller skates. He did not belong among those who thought ahead.

Throughout his youth, Heinrich’s reasoning would undulate rather than slice or pierce, and quite often it would sink out of sight, submerged in murky emotion; it would sway back and forth, pulled by currents of anxiety.

His second memory of his grandfather was of a hunched man in a wheelchair, engaged in the act of disappearing. It frightened Heinrich to have to stand and greet this figure whose clothes fit well but whose skin did not, and whose words fell sloppily from his mouth, a man reaching out with his eyes from within his own uneasy departure.

*

“You never knew him,” said Heinrich’s mother, Helene, years after her father’s death, in a tone mildly accusatory, mildly angry. Either she was angry at having lost her father or frustrated with Heinrich for having been born too late. Heinrich rarely knew for certain what his mother felt.

“My father was a man of great wit,” she explained. “He had style and demanded punctuality. If I lingered in bed, he’d come into my room in the morning, open the curtains, throw open the window, and shake my feet.”

Helene stared down at her feet and Heinrich stared at them also. Square, short-toed, they were the only visible part of her that was not beautiful.

*

How did Heinrich feel about his mother’s feet? I too am German (from Munich, to be precise) but this gives me no special insight. I cannot know how he felt about his mother’s feet. My search for Heinrich Schlögel began with a photograph. In the newspaper, suddenly there he was—a young man walking down University Avenue. He was in profile, and so I could not be sure of his expression. Determination mixed with confusion? I noted his vigorous stride. Two passersby, approaching from the left, were turning to stare in his direction.

If I succeed in finding Heinrich Schlögel, do I have the right to ask him any question I like? It is mostly through speculation that we exist for others, and for ourselves. That he was being photographed disturbed him, I imagine. According to the newspaper several people pulled out their iPhones to capture him. My tiny Schlögel archive is bursting. I am collecting as much evidence as possible. My search for the truth about Heinrich Schlögel is far from over.

*

This much I know: throughout his youth, Heinrich’s interest in animals neither grew nor diminished; it carried him from one day to the next. He also learned to ride a bicycle and went exploring. Riding was easier than reading but in bad weather he stayed home, shut his door, and arduously pedaled through landscapes of words. He filled spiral notebooks with quickly scribbled quotations from whatever book on animals he was slowly reading:

Eighty percent of hedgehogs in Germany are born between August and September. Only in the warm Rhine Valley and Saarland are babies born earlier in the year. When hedgehogs are born, their prickly spines lie just below the skin so they don’t cause their mothers pain. They are blind at first; they also have baby teeth, just like humans. Hedgehogs leave their nests when they are four to five weeks old. One out of five dies before leaving the nest.

—Mammals of Germany: A Brief Introduction

“How much pain,” Heinrich wondered, “did I cause my mother during my birth?”

Heinrich’s mother’s beauty preceded and followed her. Whenever she entered a room, a displacement occurred, conversations shifted, people moved over to give her space. People didn’t want to offend, to press up too closely. They confused Heinrich’s mother with her beauty, had no idea that she resented and distrusted her own loveliness. They could feel her withheld eagerness. A small mouth, pretty as a bow; her eyes did all the speaking. Though she tried to conceal her sharp thoughts, these glinted visibly from across the room. She appeared calm as she glided among the guests. “It’s as if she’s wearing a veil,” someone said, perhaps someone who’d drunk too much.

When Heinrich thought of his mother, her beautiful head, severed from her body, would go floating through a room full of people who didn’t dare move, who waited. They waited for his mother to speak, to offer a revelation.

“Heinrich Schlögel, a name sticky as wet paint,” said Inge.

*

Nearly two years ago, on November 24, 2010, I cut Heinrich Schlögel’s photograph from the newspaper. I did so bitten by an intense curiosity, but with little idea of the importance this gesture would have in my life. A week later, I decided to stroll down University Avenue, along the stretch where Heinrich had recently walked. I wandered into the Toronto General Hospital with the vague idea that I might speak with the nurse mentioned in the article that accompanied his picture. Already there was no going back. I have now spent close to two years searching, acquiring clocks, journals, gloves, maps, lamps, and letters, anything that may have belonged to him, that once lay flat in his palm or was flicked open by his fingers.

*

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Posted in Fiction, Tin House Books

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Helping

Flash Fridays

It’s not that I didn’t try to help. When Annemarie flailed, sleeping, I was the one who always shook her until she sat up, sheet-tangled, still half-caught in her dream. I’d kiss her fists, the knuckles damp, electric. What’s wrong? I’d ask, already exhausted, knowing what she’d say: that she’d seen her dead mother again. The woman dug her way out of her grave and materialized at our door, dirt-streaked, alive again—she roped herself on top of her daughter’s body, exhaling months-old rot into Annemarie’s mouth—axe in hand, her mother pushed into our living room, telling Annemarie to cut off her head because, she said, she’d tired of its weight. As her mother lay down on our futon, drawing her hair up off her neck, Annemarie argued with her: she begged, but she’d always been an obedient child. Eventually, she’d give in. She took the axe and decapitated her mother; she moved her mother’s chopped body into the hall and bagged its head. She returned to the futon, lying down in the indentation her mother had left. Minutes later, she heard rustling. She went in the hall. The plastic bag shifted, and when Annemarie pulled the head free, her mother looked at her and asked, without surprise, Can’t you do this one thing right?

After each of these dreams, I rubbed Annemarie’s rigid back until she fell asleep, hands balled under her head. Inevitably, the next morning, she refused to talk about what had happened. Talk? she said, smiling. What about? I think you should talk to someone about your mother, I said. I talk so much, she said. I’m talking to you. Someone with qualifications, I said. What, a therapist? she said. Will, I’m an immigrant. Immigrants don’t believe in therapy. Especially not Koreans. The Koreans I know—most of them would consider needing therapy to be a failure of willpower, or something that only happens to other ethnicities, like being lazy, or unfilial. I think a therapist could help you, I said. To be honest, she said, I’ve never been sure I see the purpose of therapy. For me, that is. I understand other people find it worthwhile, but, okay, let’s assume I feel badly about my mother’s death. Why would that be something I’d want to sit around examining? Kingsley Amis says the three most depressing words in the English language are “Red or white?” but, obviously, he’s wrong. The most depressing words in English are “Last night, I dreamed,” and—

She riffed like this awhile. I suppose I let it happen. Even now, as I recall these nighttime fits of grief, part of me wants to protest that this wasn’t her, not really, and that the Annemarie I knew is the one who, on a childhood trip to Delphi with her mother, leaped on top of the ruins. Though she couldn’t recall much else about the long-ago trip, I’d filled in the details until it seemed I might have been with her, our early lives conjoined: the hot drowsy bus ride from Athens to Delphi, a miniaturized Annemarie dozing on my shoulder, her flushed skin adhering to mine. The bus stopped, and we got out. She stood in her striped dress, squinting against the sunlight. I held her hand. We jumped from stone to ancient stone, raising exuberant brumes of dust.

But months passed, and Annemarie’s dreams about her mother returned so often that, after a while, habituated, I woke up less easily. As Annemarie thrashed in her sleep, her mother found her in a swimming pool and said, Hold my head underwater until I drown. They stood on a rooftop, and her mother told Annemarie to push her off. I can’t do it myself, her mother said. It has to be you. At last, opening my eyes, I’d recognize Annemarie. Still half-asleep, I shook her awake. The next morning, she flashed her smile, a warning. If I tried again, insisting she find help, her smile widened. It lit her up. In a glade of light, she slipped away.

 

R. O. Kwon‘s writing has been published or is forthcoming in NOON, Ploughshares, the Believer, and elsewhere. Named one of Narrative’s “30 Below 30” writers, she’s been awarded fellowships to Yaddo and Ledig House, as well as scholarships to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences.

The Open Bar is always accepting submissions for Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, and all of our other categories. Submissions may be sent to theopenbar@tinhouse.com with the name of the category in the subject line.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Drew Christie

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A cousin to the whimsical adventures of Jean Painlevé, Drew Christie’s The Crab Fisherman’s Daughter is a love poem dedicated to the wonder and beauty of crustaceans.

Christie’s short opens with a familiar shot of a crab scuttling around a rocky shore. What appears at first to be the sort of science film you might have encountered in third period biology class quickly recedes in favor of something out of a European fable as our narrator, who sounds as if he recorded his dialog into a gramophone, recounts the story of a trip to the beach with his daughter. As the hypnotic story unfolds, hand drawn animation is added to the live footage to further illuminate the “beauty in the shapes and forms of the organic armor” of the crab.

Like all good folklore, the genesis of the project came from a visit to grandmother’s house.

“This whole thing came about when I was visiting an old 1930′s cabin owned by my Grandma. Her house is in Skagit County, about an hour and half north of Seattle and bound in between the Indian Reservation and the small fishing village of La Conner. The whole region is very magical and holds many memories for me. To this day, when I go there I walk the beach, up and down, searching the pebbly ground for crabs big and small.”

Those memories congealed to form a timeless portrait of how all of us, in some manner,  will one day return to our natural states.

Drew Christie is an award winning animator and filmmaker who has screened work at festivals across the world including the Sundance Film Festival and the Ann Arbor Film Festival. He regularly contributes to the The New York Times as well as Vanity Fair online. He has been making films and animations since the age of 5 and studied experimental animation at The Evergreen State College.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

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You Can Feel It Like a Demon, Swallowing You Slow: An Interview with Marlon James

BG-Interview-1Marlon James is no longer a promising writer. He’s no longer a writer of enormous potential. That’s because his third novel A Brief History of Seven Killings places him securely among our most vital contemporary voices. An author’s third novel often seems to make or break a writer’s career. Think The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Corrections. Think Gravity’s Rainbow and A Flag for Sunrise, two of my absolute favorite novels, both of which came to mind as I read A Brief History of Seven Killings.

The book, which follows John Crowe’s Devil and The Book of Night Women, is set primarily in Jamaica and demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of international politics, colonial history, and of course reggae. The less I tell you about the plot the better, other than to say that the book features a large cast of characters that make up a Kingston-based diaspora and they take turns having their voices heard loud and proud over several decades. “Jamaica never gets worse or better,” one character tells us, “it just finds new ways to stay the same.” It’s a novel of big ideas and the social conditions that can both empower and undermine those very same ideas. It may very well be the best American novel published this year. It’s hard to believe that another work of fiction will do as much to so clearly expose our flaws and triumphs and evils and all-too-brief moments of mutual understanding.

I met James a few years ago at a reception the night before the Brooklyn Book Festival then saw him the next day, dressed up in a suit, wandering the streets in the rain in desperate search for a hotdog. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch in the usual social-media ways and bumped into each other at the occasional conference (don’t ask him how he feels about the city of Boston).

Marlon James was nice enough to answer a few questions via email at the end of July and beginning of August.

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Andrew Ervin: The structure of A Brief History hits a balance between the traditional linear novel and the story or novella collection. How did it find this particular shape?

Marlon James: I started out trying for a linear novel. In fact I had three false starts writing it that way. The first problem was that I was writing about a contentious event with very few actual facts, so an A to Z narrative had too many holes in it. The second was that linear narratives, when I write them at least, turn into one person’s story and that’s not what I was going for at all. Or rather, that’s what I tried to do but failed three times. It wasn’t until I had dinner with my friend Rachel, and confessed that I have no idea whose story it is, that she asked, “Why is it one person’s story? When last did you read As I Lay Dying?” That was the Eureka moment. It was not and could never be one person’s story. Nor could it be where one voice dominates at any time. The overall story was too big for that. I started to read and re-read novels that play with multiple narrators, particularly in first person, such as As I lay Dying, The Savage Detectives, and My Name Is Red. Novels that tell several stories at once, such as Libra and American Tabloid. Novels that play with narrative extremes, such Wide Sargasso Sea and Mrs. Dalloway. And novels in first and third person, driven by voice. Ensemble cast movies as well, such as Nashville and Amores Perros. It turned out that my three false tries weren’t failures at all, but text in the wrong place and structured in the wrong way—as sustained narratives instead of a sort of William Burroughs cut and paste. Well maybe not a crazy as Burroughs, but as contradictory as Pamuk’s characters set against each other.

41tvvA12O0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_AE: I’d like to know why, like Joyce, you made the decision to use dashes to signify spoken parts instead of traditional dialogue tags.

MJ: I simply hate them. Maybe it’s just a visual standpoint but it just draws lines away from the beauty of text stacked together. This is why poets never do it. Ever since I read Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, I never went back.

AE: The multitude of voices is what excites me the most here, the ability to get fully entrenched in the minds of these fascinating—and flawed, damaged—people. Do you love all of your children equally or do you have a favorite character among this ensemble cast? Who was hardest to write?

MJ: I fell in love with all of them, some far more easily than others.  Falling in love as writer to character, of course, because some of them I loved and some I despised. What I won’t write is someone I’m indifferent to. I don’t know if I put myself into my work but I do sometimes like to give a character my worldview. But writing my last novel taught me how to wallow in complication and contradiction, which to me, more than anything else makes a character interesting and hard to give up on. One of my best friends is so self-centered that he’s literally useless in a conversation that’s not about him. But if I’m drunk and alone on a deserted highway at 2 a.m. he’ll be there before I even get off the phone. And if I get a bad review he’s in total attack dog mode. That complicates things. But still, characters just started appearing at random, with no chronology or sequence whatsoever. Some, like the hit man John-John K arrived fully formed, but had no story. His chapters are the first that I wrote. Others like Nina Burgess started almost as a space filler— I really had no idea where she would go or how she would end up. But literature is a series of discoveries and decisions and in the case of several of my characters, the wrong ones. Then those decisions would have consequences and those consequences would have consequences. But you have to get to know your characters to love them and in the end I started loving even people I wouldn’t be caught dead with. I think when you’re writing a large novel and a huge cast, readers can pick up quickly which characters you have contempt for, and not in a good way.

This was my first time writing American characters and that carried its own set of challenges, including trying to get the accents right. But in many ways the flat characters like politician Peter Nasser were harder because I had to make him compelling though he never really evolves. But then again never evolving is also one of the terrible flaws of his character.

AE: How did you decide when to stick to the historic record and when to invent freely?

MJ: The problem with this story (or maybe the advantage depending on how you look at it) was that there were so many holes in it. This despite doing tons of research myself and hiring, over the course of four years, four other researchers. Most of the events in the book did happen, and as in Doctorow’s Ragtime, all the people and events capturing national and international attention are real. But this story haunted me precisely because there was very little story. Not much is known about the men who tried to kill Marley, other than what is whispered in ghettos. Much of that survives in oral history, and oral history changes depending on the teller and the circumstances. Some of the novels events came from guesswork. Also most of the characters are living lives on a far smaller scale than musicians and politicians so we have no record of their histories.

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Marlon James

But in the end I wasn’t writing nonfiction, and for the most part it was me using a true event to branch off into a fictional idea, which means to huge extent my novel is more of a what if? than a This is how it happened.

Here’s the thing about Jamaica, which Gabriel Garcia Marquez understood: You’re closer to the truth trusting the what ifs than by following the facts. Several of my characters are based on real people, so much so that it’s a weird relief that quite a few are dead. A few are different only in name change, for all sorts of reasons. Some, like Alex Pierce, are totally fictitious characters that sprung the book’s need for such characters. I’m a big student of history, but I also believe in the novelists right to subvert it.

AE: Why does the Singer go (mostly) unnamed? It’s a spectacular technique.

MJ: The problem with the singer is that he dominates any space he enters. Rock bands eventually stopped booking him to open since he would always steal the show. In the book, taking away his name was all I could do to not let him run away with it. But more than that, he is not so much a character as a symbol. A catalyst that sets the book and the characters in motion, including men like Barry Diflorio who never actually meet him. The bulk of the book takes place after his death, and while the attempt on his life had repercussions for him and his family, it also affected people with very little link to him. That’s the story I was really interested in.

AE: What are the five reggae albums every American should own?

MJ: Here’s a totally impure list.

  1.             Grace Jones – Nightclubbing
  2.             Congos – Heart Of The Congos
  3.             Black Uhuru – Red
  4.             Steel Pulse – True Democracy
  5.             Augustus Pablo – King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown
  6.             Capleton – More Fire

ggg

You know reggae has reached meta-status when we now have experts to tell us what is not reggae.

Marlon James was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1970. He graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in literature. His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. James lives in Kingston.

Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions. His debut novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House will be published next year. He lives in Philadelphia.

 

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Love and Darkness: Israel By the Book

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Five years ago, a stranger with an accent asked for my number. He approached me in a dark, cavernous bar in the West Village, a place known as much for its live jazz as for its cheap beer and pool tables. I had drifted away from my friends to hear the music. The band played in the corner, while listeners sat shoulder-to-shoulder on stained sofas. The stranger spotted me standing nearby.

“Excuse me, what’s your name?” he asked. I learned that Uri was an Israeli saxophonist, that he was trying his luck in New York like I was. Two weeks later, he was calling me hamuda, the Hebrew word for darling.

We traveled to Tel Aviv together the following July—a month when the Middle Eastern sun saps your will to do much besides eat watermelon and count jellyfish washed up from the sea. I had been to the Holy Land before as a tourist, but this time, I wanted to see it through Uri’s eyes.

To help me take in my surroundings, I brought along A Tale of Love and Darkness, the memoir of Israeli novelist Amos Oz.

Oz’s family fled anti-Semitism in Rovno and Vilna (modern-day Ukraine and Lithuania) and immigrated to British-controlled Palestine before he was born. As a young child, he witnessed the Independence War and the early days of the State. He also keenly observed the ways in which Israel the Reality struggled to live up to Israel the Ideal. His own mother committed suicide in part due to her romantic longing for a more cultured, comfortable existence.

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I read Oz’s words while sipping kafe kar at a kiosk on Rothschild Boulevard, as a parade of soldiers, religious families, and fashionable city-dwellers strolled past. And I thought of how all these people—including my boyfriend’s family—experienced the “love and darkness” of this place.

In Israel, ha’matzav, “the situation,” is evident in every scene of quotidian life. You see uniformed young men—some still dealing with adolescent acne—walking around the mall with Uzis and wonder, “Whose child is he?” You hear stories that seem almost too absurd to be real. Like this: During the Gulf War, Uri remembers feeling jealous that some of his elementary school classmates had cooler gas masks than he did. Sometimes, when I heard such tales, I thought, “Is this a way to live?”

During my next visit to Israel the following summer, a fictional character named Ora answered my question. The protagonist of Israeli novelist David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, Ora is a middle-aged mother whose son returns to combat during the Second Lebanon War. Fearing the worst, she heads to the north of country, believing that if she isn’t home to receive bad news she can somehow protect her boy.

Never had I read fiction that penetrates a character’s psyche so deeply. Far from the stoic wartime mother, Ora is fully human, with all the anxieties, prejudices, desires, and conflicted loyalties of a person living in such a volatile region of the world.

Near the end of the novel, she tells her friend Avram, “I always think: this is my country, and I really don’t have anywhere else to go. Where would I go? Tell me, where else could I get so annoyed about everything, and who would want me anyway? But at the same time I also know that it doesn’t really have a chance, this country. It just doesn’t.”

Her sentiment was one Uri’s parents expressed to me as we ate empanadas on their balcony in Kfar Saba. They are Argentinian “olim” (immigrants) who staunchly believe that the Jewish people should live in the Jewish State. At the same time, they are equally convinced of the need for a free Palestine. When we met, Uri’s father was quick to offer me a geography lesson: “This is Israel,” he said after spreading out a map on the kitchen table. “And these are the occupied territories.”

In this way, I began to understand something they hadn’t taught us in Hebrew School: that it is possible both to love Israel and to be critical of it.

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An Interview with Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Other Side

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bk-the-other-side-pgTin House Books: The Suspect is still at large. How did this influence the writing of your memoir?

Lacy M. Johnson: I think the fact that he’s at large precipitated my choice not to use his name or anyone else’s name, though I might have made that choice even if he were in prison. The fact is, this isn’t just a memoir; it’s about my real actual life. And in my real actual life, there is a real actual person living abroad who might harm me or my family if he had the chance. I don’t use his actual name in real life. I don’t say it, and I don’t really like for other people to say it either. To protect the people I love, I tried to keep other people who appear in the memoir as anonymous as possible, while also writing in an accurate way about the relationship I have with those anonymous people.

At the same time, his at-largeness also affected the arc of the book. I think when most people think about a satisfying conclusion to a story like this, they might imagine him being brought to trial and convicted and sent to prison for decades. That isn’t possible in this case, since he’s a Venezuelan citizen and is protected from extradition by the Venezuelan government. He’ll never go to jail for this. He’ll never have to appear in court. He’ll never even be arrested. So that forced me to reimagine this notion of justice, and what it might look like in a story like mine.

THB: There are times you are willing to portray yourself in a less than flattering light and it doesn’t ever feel like you are courting the sympathy of your readers. Was this a conscious choice?

LMJ: I made a very conscious effort to portray events as I remember them: not as I wish they had been, or as they would be if life were made neat and tidy for the purposes of telling a story. Which meant I had to be honest, brutally honest, about who I am and the choices I made. I made some really bad choices, not least of which was the decision to begin a relationship with a man who was my Spanish teacher at the university, and who was twice my age. If I were interested in courting a reader’s sympathy, I could have made the case that he was a predator and I was his victim. It would have been an easy case to make. But the fact is, I had a lot of agency in the matter, and the very worst choice I ever made was to give it all away.

THB: The appendix is unexpectedly moving, as it shows the amount of research and reading you did on trauma before writing this book. Can you talk about how you started reading about trauma, and how that affected your approach to what happened, and how you wrote about it?

LMJ: It’s interesting that you say that, since the appendix as it appears in the book represents only a small fraction of the research I’ve conducted on this subject matter. The research itself began more than a decade ago when I was in graduate school and started teaching a poetry workshop in a shelter for women recovering from substance abuse. My faculty supervisor at the time directed me toward several volumes on recovery writing in an effort to prepare me to respond to the women’s writing in an effective and compassionate way, and this was actually a very instructive place to begin. For one thing, I discovered that I really, strongly objected to all of the rhetoric about how writing about trauma could, in effect, make a person “whole” again. It took years to articulate why this sentiment bothered me, but eventually I realized that it reinforces what I consider to be a flawed notion that after some kind of trauma (be it sexual violence or the death of a family member), that a person is somehow “broken.” After a trauma, a person may feel that some part of them has been shattered—that metaphor certainly describes the emotional state of a traumatized person—but the fact is, every person is already a whole person, has always been a whole person. Even if the trauma has profound psychological effects, a traumatized person is also always a whole person. The thought patterns change, as do behaviors and associations. And perhaps most difficult of all, what changes is the story that person tells about him- or herself, to him- or herself. Of course I didn’t know all of this, or couldn’t articulate all of this when I began the research, but over the years, my research has extended into medical journals and history books, Greek mythology and neuroscience, quantum physics and literature, and I think I can say now, with some degree of certainty, that the story I told myself about myself was what made me feel afraid for so many years. When I set out to write this book, it wasn’t to “fix” myself, or to make myself “whole” again, but to change that story I told myself about who I am, who I was, and who I still could be.

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Beetle Battle

Flash Fridays

Two dung beetles leaned back on their hindquarters atop a napping tortoise, a fine place from which to relish the view of their good luck. On the other side of the riverbed, next to the rock that was ridged and sloped like a hyena’s back, sat a perfectly formed dunghill, still steaming in the sagging African sun.

“Giraffe?” Ralph asked.

Steve sniffed the warm air, then sniffed again. “Nah … Rhino.”

“Well ho-ly shit.”

As Ralph and Steve prepared to dismount and dig in, the tiny hairs on the backs of their legs tingled with the slight quake of the tortoise’s shell. Seconds later, a warthog lumbered past, an inebriated dung beetle barely latched to the back of her bristled, grey mohawk.

“Now that’s something you don’t see everyday,” Ralph said.

“No,” Steve said. “No you don’t.”

“Ed!” Ralph called out to the beetle riding the warthog like a miniature, armored jockey. The warthog took a hard left at Hyena Rock then disappeared back into the thicket.

Ralph called out again, but their buddy never looked back—either he couldn’t hear over the beast’s arthritic snorts, or he was still recovering from last night.

Last night was a bit of a shit show.

The previous evening, Ralph and Steve caught word from a pair of secretary birds that Elephant Herd Six had come across a bad batch of kiwano. Folks were down at the watering hole stuffing themselves like dry season had just let up.

They took the Zebra Route.

By the time they got there, the red sun was sinking under the crispy tips of the high grass, a few muted stars dangled in the sky. Herd Six was gone, but it’d left behind quivering mountains of evidence. The entire colony had turned up. They hadn’t seen this big a crowd since the great buffalo migration of ’99.

Down past the bulk of it, a ring of spectators had formed around two beetles, each standing atop a formidable dung ball.

Ed and Todd.

Ralph and Steve shot each other a look. They knew this was coming. Everyone knew. Ed’s mate Tina had been none too subtle about putting her feelers out for a new mate.

Ralph and Steve pushed their way through the swarm. Ed and Todd were still evenly matched at this point, but Ed already looked spent.

Tina was standing off to the side, her eyes darting between the two males.

Steve broke the circle and approached Ed’s ball.

Ed exhaled and stretched his spurs. “Thought he’d give up by now.”

Todd snickered and dismounted to load up again.

“Don’t worry about him,” Steve said. “You’re looking good.”

Ed was not looking good. Between the extra weight he’d put on around his abdomen, the unrepaired chip in his horn, and the thick crust of dung he’d let accumulate on his plates, Ed had really let himself go. His rapid descent into middle age was unspooling before the colony. Ed wheezed as he made his way to the mound where one elephant had really let it fly. He broke a small piece loose and rolled it back to his ball with his hind legs.

“Looking strong, buddy,” Ralph cheered.

Tina shot Ralph a look.

Ed began to hyperventilate.

Todd, on the other hand, was just getting started. His dung ball steadily eclipsed Ed’s as he skipped back and forth to the pile.

This went on for some time. The moon had risen and most folks had gone home.

“Ready to give up?” Todd goaded.

“No way,” Ed said. “You?”

Todd smirked. Ed was more than ready to give up.

Steve turned to Tina. “Why don’t you just call it?”

Ed looked at his mate like a spanked lion cub. Tina held his gaze, then slowly shook her head. “No.”

When it was all over, Tina trailed Todd as he rolled his winning ball away. Ed climbed down and the three friends started home.

“You can crash with me,” Ralph offered.

Ed grunted.

Halfway home, they came across a piece of rotting kiwano left behind by Herd Six. Ed sniffed the fermented fruit. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said and took a bite.

Steve turned to leave.

“Not gonna join?”

“It’s late.” Steve thought of his mate Mia and his warm nest and just wanted to get back.

“Just had my ass handed to me,” Ed said. “My girl’s gone.”

“You’ll find someone …” He was about to say better, but left it at that.

“Come on, man,” Ed said, his mouth full. “Just stay for a little while.”

“All right,” Steve said. “But not too late.”

Ed took another bite. Melon juice dripped from his mandible. “I’m too old for this shit.”

He was probably right.

 

A former ghost writer for politicians, Lara Prescott writes fiction as her penance. Her work is published or forthcoming from Cheap Pop, Day One, Buzzfeed Books, and The 2014 Twitter Fiction Festival. She lives in New Orleans.

The Open Bar is always accepting submissions for Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, and all of our other categories. Submissions may be sent to theopenbar@tinhouse.com with the name of the category in the subject line.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Murder and Magic Abroad: an Interview with Katie Crouch

BG-Interview-1In April 2014 I was working on a piece about the treatment of Amanda Knox, who was, along with Raffaele Sollecito and Rudy Guede, arrested and convicted of the murder of Meredith Kercher in 2007. Knox and her boyfriend were then acquitted and later re-convicted. The case read like a witch hunt, and intrigued me with its social and legal complications. I had written two pieces for the Huffington Post about the case when Katie Crouch’s Abroad (Sarah Crichton Books), found its way to my desk at my former publishing job. I was immediately struck; the book magnificently approaches a fictionalized retelling of the Meredith Kercher murder while also being an incredible story in its own right. Abroad is the story of what strange darknesses might happen when young women travel far away from everything they know.

Crouch’s characters shimmer, at times lost and naive and at times espoused with nuanced, worldly wisdom. The narrator is the deceased, telling her story from grave, or from some other-land comprised of ancient Etruscan wisdom; our narrator joins the ranks of women who were murdered, unseen and unheard in the unsettled land of Grifonia (Perugia).

While many fictionalized accounts of true crime cases fail by depending on obvious tropes or lazy recasting, Abroad reigns; Crouch deftly gives her characters autonomy from the real story and the prose is poetic and arresting. There’s a real sense of magic and gore and youthful glory, and it left me fascinated, not only as a reader but as a writer about the Kercher case.

I spoke with Crouch over email, where she openly shared her thoughts on the book and case.

Tiny-House

AbroadLisa Marie Basile: Abroad deftly deals with the inner mechanisms of female relationships, the search for identity and the dark dimensions of desire. You manage to do all of this without gratuitous sentimentality, and the characters are nuanced, gritty and almost intolerable. Even your narrator is naive and weak at times. I found it very hard to relate to her, but felt deeply connected with her life and death anyway. What was your modus operandi when writing these young women?

Katie Crouch: My main purpose as a writer is to create characters who are real to me. If characters are too perfect, or charming, or witty, or loveable, I instantly become bored, whether I’m reading them or writing them. That’s just not the side of humanity I’m interested in. I mean, we don’t love Emma Bovary for her good manners.

Real people are screwed up. They might hide it, but as I writer I’m not interested in artifice. Real characters make mistakes and say horrible things and hurt the people they love. Even humans with the very best intentions do that. As I surf around the flotsam of my real life, I don’t look for perfection in people. I look for flaws. That’s what makes me like them. So I guess I just create characters I like. They always behave badly.

LMB: What inspired you to write Abroad from the perspective of the deceased, and were you ever worried people would call the book “that story about Amanda Knox?”

KC: I didn’t worry about that latter question, because there are so many nonfiction books about Amanda Knox I found it kind of a moot point. There was also another excellent novel about Knox rushed to publication to pre-empt mine. So by the time my book came out, I wasn’t worried about Ms. Knox knocking on my door saying, what the hell? It was well-tread ground.

That said, my book is actually very different. The main focus wasn’t Knox at all. It was the victim. I was in Italy when I decided to write this, and all anyone could talk about was “Angel Face”, the beautiful American. And very few people could remember Meredith Kercher’s name. I found that fascinating, and alarming. Because as I started researching and interviewing people about the case, I found the most relevant answers to what happened always led back to her. She was the only one who knew the truth, but she couldn’t relay it. Which was a terrific place for fiction to begin.

LMB: You weave the mythos of the Etruscan society throughout the book, which gives it all this lush, ancestral hum. I went on to research Etruscology after reading it, and a prominent scholar, Massimo Pallottino, said something that very deeply rang true for the case of Kercher’s death and for the mystery of the Etruscans: “I don’t think there is any other field of human knowledge in which there is such a daft cleavage between what has been scientifically ascertained and the unshakeable beliefs of the public.” What was it about Etruscan history that spoke to you most, and do you still feel haunted?

KC: I was originally in Perugia studying Etruscan history. What I wanted to write a novel about an Etruscan woman, which totally wasn’t working. But I loved the idea. Perugia is an absolutely fascinating city, with thousands of years of intense history. And the stories are quite sensationalist. Here is where a woman was sacrificed to the Sun God, I would read in my guidebook while walking around the city. Here is where a woman was flayed alive. Meredith Kercher became one of these stories.

But these deaths were more than stories, all of them. They were real people with real, beautiful existences cut short by needless violence. As a fiction writer, I felt it important to explore that. And it felt like a dangerous topic, which is what I’m interested in a writer. I don’t write sweet books with happy endings, much to my mother’s chagrin. To me, the most interesting questions in life lie in the shadows.

LMB: I felt I hadn’t read a book that dealt fairly with youth and femininity. It’s either too soft or too over-extended. Abroad was neither. For you, what takes a book from good to great? What makes you want to stay inside a story?

KC: It’s pretty basic. I read on a prose level. I love a good story, but if the prose is lazy, I have to put it down. This just happened with a big literary thriller I was really excited about. I love smart, well written mysteries, and I SO wanted to like this one. But everyone’s heart kept “racing”. And beating, and fluttering, and bursting. I know hearts are hard to write about, but if it sounds like Sweet Valley High, I’ve got to put it down.

That said, I’m a really forgiving reader. I read bestsellers, and things Oprah likes. I’m down with that. My partner is really snobby. He’s always like, “Why are you reading that?” and thrusting Mavis Gallant or Stendahl into my hands. I adore Mavis Gallant. Read every book. Yes, I should be spending the precious hours of my life dissecting her sentences. But sometimes I just want a well-written page-turner, you know? I’m a mother. I’m tired.

Image courtesy katiecrouch.net

Katie Crouch

LMB: You manage very well to balance poetic, luscious prose with conversational, youth-speak. Did you find it difficult to go back and forth between inhabiting the magic of Grifonia, your fictional, strange Italian city and the superficiality of some of your main characters? I felt your transitions were seamless.

KC: Thanks for that. It can be dangerous to write young. Young people are incredibly serious, but they don’t always sound that way. I sat around listening to students for days in Italy. There were repeated motives: Booze. Sex. Seeing the coolest thing. Young people abroad are really afraid to miss out on anything.

But dialogue doesn’t do justice to the depth of a person. I say so much stupid crap. But I like to think that I am more substantial than the words that come out of my mouth. It was important to portray that easy language of youth, but when it would get too thin I would cut away to Taz’s inner thoughts, which were much more mature and meaty. I sort of cheated, because she’s dead, meaning she knows more than anyone else on earth. So she can exist among the mortals, but then step back and say these mind-blowing things that give the book a different tilt.

LMB: There was a point in the book when you suggest your narrator, Tabitha, felt she was in love with Claire, her roommate. While the story shows a fluid dance of desire, hatred, admiration and obsession between many of the female characters, I was caught delightfully off-guard with this line. What was your intention here?

KC: There are few relationships in life as passionate and searing as those between young women. I’m not speaking of sexual attraction, though certainly that comes into it sometimes. I’m speaking of the period between sixteen and twenty-five when our minds and bodies are as strong as they’ll ever be. We have feelings and abilities that are inhumanly intense. And women in particular have an ability to love that is almost mythological in its enormity.

Yet our ability to control emotions comes later. It’s very unfair, how nothing balances out at the right time. I wish I could combine my passion at twenty with my ability to reason at forty. But we can’t, and it makes for excellent fictional exploration. Friendship, as the characters in my book come to realize, its not all fuzzy kittens and daisies. If you truly love a friend, there is an edge of despair and jealousy. There is intense fear at losing your touchstone. And sometimes, if things go wrong, violence can follow.

LMB: Did you ever consider an alternate storyline for Abroad? And if so, can you spill the secret?

KC: I wrote a whole other version of Abroad, in which Taz, the narrator, is the killer. I thought it would be interesting to turn the story on its head. After all, we could all be killers, if put into the correct situation. But it turned into a novel of ideas, which is never great. So I went back to what I started with.

LMB: Your last line, “Maybe the wanting is yours” left me feeling like you really instilled the narrator – in death – with a peace, wisdom and freedom she never really knew she had. Did you always know how you would end the book and her life? Did you always want to put the reader in this position – of having to decide why they cared so much?

KC: I don’t ever know what my last line will be until I write it. I had several versions. In one I told the reader to go find a nameless statue in the Etruscan Museum and Rome and to stare her in the face. I liked that too, but as I re-wrote, the book became about all aspects of female desire. Not just sexual desire, but the hunger a young woman feels for something she can’t name. I feel very strongly that this hunger has fueled the enormous frenzy around this case. There is something primal about it. The air is thick with our wanting. I felt that nailed the book. But I also wanted to turn it on the reader, as we are the voyeurs. I’m basically challenging the reader to think about why he or she is so interested in this story. Perhaps the wanting is yours. It’s a call-out.

 

 

Katie Crouch is the New York Times bestselling author of Girls in Trucks. Her other novels include Men and Dogs, two young adult novels, and Abroad, a literary thriller set in Italy. Julia Glass wrote of Abroad: With uncanny psychological precision and a dark, dead-on wit, Katie Crouch explores how the casual follies of youth all too quickly turn tragic” Katie covered the Amanda Knox appeal for Slate magazine, and has also written for The Guardian, the New York Times, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Salon, and she has a regular column on The Rumpus called “Missed.” A MacDowell fellow, Crouch teaches at San Francisco State University and lives in Bolinas, California with Peter Orner and their daughter Phoebe.

Lisa Marie Basile is the author of APOCRYPHAL, which was ranked a Top-10 bestselling poetry release on Amazon.com. Her work can be seen in the Best American Poetry, PANK Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Johns Hopkin’s The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and PANK, among other publications. A recipient of an MFA from The New School in New York City, she edits Luna Luna Magazine and works as a teacher and writer. Her writing on the Amanda Knox case can be found here on the Huffington Post.

Posted in Interviews

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Layover

We are thrilled to run “Layover” from Carl Adamshick’s latest poetry collection, Saint Friend (McSweeney’s Poetry Series / August 5), winner of the 2010 Walt Whitman Award. “In Saint Friend, Adamshick explores the nature of relationships, from friends and family, to travel and distance. Adamshick’s introspective poems are about leaving your family and beginning your own. They are about cities and how we spend our time in them; how we interact in person, online, and by phone—and how those modes of communication relate to intimacy. Saint Friend explores our elusive closeness to the people in our lives and the reasons we separate.”

 

LAYOVER

They keep paging Kenneth Koch at the airport.

Someone should let the announcer know

he is dead, that there is no city he can go to,

that no one is expecting him. Once, I applied

to be a horse. The mirror of night had shed

its clothes, and I needed to be something

that mattered. I needed to scrape my brown

flank against the bark of a ponderosa.

My friends have moved away. They sleep

in places I’ve never been. And here we are.

It’s the most miraculous thing. We walk

over counter-weighted bridges in love

with snow tumbling through their lights.

The terminal’s long glass walls dark at this hour.

I feel we live similar lives, only the time zone

and language different. In the cab,

on the way, I saw what was real and humane

in front of a pub: a bicycle leaning

against a thin trunk, lights strung in trees

reflected in shop windows. I loved the way

they loved out there at dusk. Tables littered

with wallets and phones, hats, a beer divided

between two glasses, someone showing someone

a new shirt, sheltered in the camber of voices.

I thought nothing will ever be easier or better.

We will not rise. It is too late.

The year we write on our checks too high

to ever expect anything to be different.

We will always live here, ancient and new.

These are the people we are. Saint friend,

carry me when I am tired and carry yourself,

let’s keep singing the songs we don’t live by.

Let’s meet tomorrow. We don’t have to wait

until the holidays. The distance is long,

but it is nothing. Remember when we lived together,

when we kissed, when we talked about fog

on the morning lake and the markings

we wanted on our graves?

The city is lit. I’m up in the air.

It is yes until I die. And when I die,

I want to be paged once a day in an airport

somewhere on this earth, so people

will think I am just running late or lost,

will think I am in transit, sad about the last

embrace, or sad to leave the city of snow

and bridges, or eager to land, to walk

the small wooden streets of my house.

One city, once a day. I wish that for everyone.

An unknown elegy briefly filling the ears

of strangers. I picture my friends dead, nightly,

because I can’t see them, because

I can’t hear them. I want to love them

enough. I want to dress the wound of their absence

enough. I thought I would be the dead one,

stretched out on the coffin of my bed,

the white bull come to mourn one of its disciples,

its head of fourteen stars, but my body

keeps telling me it’s my friends

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Failure as Muse

BG-Essay-by-Bertino

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

I was ten when I submitted my first poem to The New Yorker.

Dear The New Yorker, I typed, enclosed please find the only copy of my poem, “Bunnies On My Grandmother’s Lawn.” Thank you in advance for publishing my work. Signed, Marie Bertino, grade six.

A few weeks later a slim envelope arrived from New York. Inside rested an ecru-colored paper, smaller than a regular sheet, a size I’ve never seen anywhere else. It was embossed with the magazine’s ombudsmen, that jaunty gentleman eternally spying through his magnifying glass. The letter was to the point (the point was no thanks) and signed: The Editors. It probably took an intern five seconds to mail, but for me, it was my precious indoctrination as a girl of letters. My very first rejection.

I pulled out my trusty Olympia and typed another letter, enclosed another poem, and sent it right back. A writer, above all else, has to cultivate a stubborn, impenetrable tenacity that listens to no earthly reason.

At age thirteen I read Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s poem “Recuerdo” and went bananas. I decided I would go to New York University, wear turbans and ride the ferry back and forth with poets, like she had. I applied to NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts as soon as was humanly possible. To satisfy guidance counselors WHO DID NOT GET IT, I also applied to six other schools, though there was no doubt in my mind that come September, I would be in Greenwich Village, which I still pronounced like it was a type of sandwich. The day the full-sized acceptance letter arrived I felt important mechanisms in my life clicking together in a divine way.

Only then did I let my mother in on the turbans and poets plan. My mother: single, raising three children on the salary of a health care worker. Our deal was: she would put food on the table, I would do my homework and get good grades. She hadn’t, like other parents, ferried me up and down the eastern seaboard visiting colleges and buying sweatshirts at each school store. She had a vague sense I was applying to colleges but when she sat down and calculated how much NYU would cost, I was informed there was no way on creamy earth I was going. I was naïve enough to be stunned. What about Carnegie Melon, I said? Fordham, for chrissake? No and no.

The only school we could afford was Villanova, a school with no creative writing program. Regarding that homework I was supposed to be doing, I had done exactly none on those other schools. How could I, when I was too busy sketching pictures of me gently waving off J.D. Salinger’s offer of another macaroon?

After studying Irish poetry for four years, I was determined that grad school would be my redemption.  I applied to the five best schools in the world for poetry, including my beloved NYU. In May, the envelopes began to arrive. Their return addresses were different, but their messages were the same. In September we will begin the school year—please don’t join us! Not to brag, but I’ve been rejected by the five best Poetry MFA programs in the world.

I was living in San Francisco at the time. I drove to the ocean and allowed myself to feel as sorry as I wanted. Poetry had led me this far, but now it was showing me the door. On the cliffs of The Pacific Ocean I made a decision: if I couldn’t be a poet, I would at least move to where poets hung out.

The next year, I moved to New York and found a writer’s group on Craigslist. They were fine with me writing poetry while they wrote fiction. Only, I couldn’t write poetry anymore. There was a sound I had ceased to hear. I had wanted to be a writer since age four so I had to write something. Essays? Brochures? Fiction was out because I thought to be good at fiction you had to be good at math. The stories of Hemingway and O’Conner were beautiful, but to me they read like equations.

When I told my writer’s group my fiction writer-as-mathematician theory, they politely managed not to laugh. They introduced me to George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Amanda Davis and Haruki Murakami. Upon reading these writers, a bell rang. Hold the phone, I thought. You’re allowed to be funny? And weird? And original? I realized I had a place at the table. When I took my tentative steps into writing fiction I was hooked. I began to write stories and eventually, send them out. That’s when the real rejection began.

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Posted in General

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Your Weekly Forecast: Steven Millhauser

BG-Your-Weekly-Forecast“After all, we were young. We were fourteen and fifteen, scornful of childhood, remote from the world of stern and ludicrous adults. We were bored, we were restless, we longed to be seized by any whim or passion and follow it to the farthest reaches of our natures. We wanted to live – to die – to burst into flame – to be transformed into angels or explosions. Only the mundane offended us, as if we secretly feared it was our destiny . By late afternoon our muscles ached, our eyelids grew heavy with obscure desires. And so we dreamed and did nothing, for what was there to do, played ping-pong and went to the beach, loafed in backyards, slept late into the morning – and always we craved adventures so extreme we could never imagine them. In the long dusks of summer we walked the suburban streets through scents of maple and cut grass, waiting for something to happen.”  ― Steven Millhauser, Dangerous Laughter

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I Can Save

Flash Fridays

Baby turtles are hatching in my house. Their eggs are all over the living room: on the bookcase, stacked in a pyramid on the ottoman, balanced between black keys of the baby grand. The living room is not just the front of the house, but the front of the world. The ocean is at my doorstep. It swallowed the beach. The mother turtles had nowhere else to go, so I opened my door.

Now the house’s foundations buckle from the water. The front wall has split from the floor, leaving a narrow opening, and the surf comes right in. Waves spill clear over hardwood. I hope the varnish can stand the salt.

The turtles hatch, wiggling out of their shells. They are black and wet like caviar. The ocean shouts like someone banging the hood of a car. The babies tremble with excitement at the sound. They scramble to get outside, but they’re too big to fit through the crack in the house. I gather them in my arms, take them out the front door and deposit them in the shallow sea. This requires several trips. I wade in and out. My leg hair tangles with wet sand.

Just as I finish, I hear the wings. I remember watching the Discovery Channel when I was growing up in the city. It was the closest I got to nature. The ocean was an implication: palm trees shot up from the skyline, but I never saw where they started.

I now recognize hunger, predator, the meaning of a chain. Outside, I defend the hatchlings from circling gulls. The birds dive like kamikazes. They punch my skin with their beaks. Protected, the turtles tumble in froth like chestnuts in boiling water. They are gaining their bearings. If they cannot learn to swim, they will not survive.

All of the turtles make it. Every single one pulls through. The airborne cries subside.

The ocean surface resumes its pattern. I rest inside the house, inside myself. Tragedy cannot land as long as I am here. I can save turtles. I can rescue baby seals from being clubbed. I spread my body wide, a yurt above the newly born, a kite shield. I am a house without doors or windows. Try to strike me; I will absorb it all.

 

Daniel Enjay Wong lives in Los Angeles. He recently graduated from Stanford University and is currently applying to medical school. His fiction is published or forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, PANK, Metazen, JMWW, and Pinball.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 1

Tin House Reels: Jonathan Hodgson

BG-Tin-House-Reels-v1 (1)

Using a combination of personal surveillance footage, stop motion and hand-drawn animation, Jonathan Hodgson’s Forest Murmurs takes us deep into London folklore, exploring the murky and violent history of Epping Forrest, a large wooded area which straddles the border between northeast London and Essex. The forest has been home to both writers (Lord Tennyson, Mary Wollstonecraft) and criminals (Jack the Ripper, highwayman Dick Turpin), with the latter being the primary fascination for Hodgson, who returns to the park again and again in the hopes of finding some dark truth.

The first portion of the film has many stylistic layers, a sort of “pyschogeograpic college of Epping Forest,” which includes animated historical anecdotes about the various crimes that have been committed there mixed with conversational snippets that Hodgson recorded while spending numerous weekends in the park.

This method of personal interjection, which was influenced by English documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, is what gives the second half of the film its sinister tone. “My own anxiety marks the last portion of the film,” Hodgson told us. “I was increasingly anxious as people began to recognize me coming back to the forest week after week, wondering what I was doing there. The watcher became the watched. The hunter became the hunted. So much so, that I was convinced I was doing something bad myself.”

Although Hodgson never discovers anything inherently sinister about the forest, the fact that his own artistic obsession (and in some sense, failure) becomes the central question of the film is both a testament to his talents and an intriguing interrogation of what makes us choose to follow the stories we do.

Jonathan Hodgson is an internationally renowned, BAFTA winning animation director based in London. He studied animation at Liverpool Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art. In 2011 he directed the animation for Wonderland: The Trouble with Love and Sex, the first full length animated documentary on British TV.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

 

Posted in Videos

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July Gems

Desiderata

Suck CityJakob Vala (Graphic Designer): I learned a few truths at the Writer’s Workshop this year: Lacy Johnson is a baby whisperer, Nick Flynn is a softie and My Feelings really is the title of his next book, and the purple-on-purple of Anthony Doerr’s author photo outfit wasn’t just a fluke. I also finally started reading Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, after letting it ripen on my shelf for three years. I’ve barely broken into it, but so far I’m enjoying it as much as everyone said I would.

ParisHeather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): It’s almost August and in France that means that a lot of people are getting ready to go on vacation—and maybe not just the neighbor or the young couple down the street, but a good portion of the country is packing up to go hit the beach or hike a mountain or a scale the heights of a cool café terrace. In August, parts of Paris empty out, the metro is less busy and it could mean that you have to walk a little bit further in the morning for a fresh, buttery croissant, as the local boulangerie might be on vacation for the month. “Paris au mois d’août” (“Paris in the month of August”) is more than just an expression in French; it is also a 1964 novel by René Fallet about an August love affair between a Frenchman and a young English woman that was adapted into an eponymous film in 1966 starring Charles Aznavour who wrote a wistful and dreamy (and very popular) song of the same name. The idea of Paris in August is in some ways a tradition, and wherever you may be spending this August, the last two lines of Aznavour’s song can be savored with a little glass of something refreshing: “Pour que tout recommence /
A Paris au mois d’août, So that everything may start again
 / In Paris, in the month of August.”

Uncle BuckThomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): I spent a few days after the Writer’s Workshop slowly falling into the cracks between my couch cushions, letting my roommates control the TV. In this way, I watched most of Uncle Buck in twenty-minute blocks. John Candy is of course hilarious, but without the energy even to laugh, I found myself focusing on his pathos. When Buck picks up a piece of nice china, we know he’s going to drop it. When he does and it doesn’t break, he’s as surprised as us, though maybe not as relieved: “Huh. Unbreakable,” he says, giving it a test knock against the piano, at which point the plate shatters. Here, where the surprise actually comes, Buck isn’t surprised, which explains his lack of relief earlier: he’s not surprised—he’s not even sad. He’s just a fuckup. Ultimately, I learned nothing from Uncle Buck, and that’s okay.

Damn Dirty ApesLance Cleland (Workshop Director): Look, if you think I spent the week after another amazing Tin House Summer workshop watching Béla Tarr films and drinking Swarovski Alizé, you just don’t get how an exhausted cruise director unwinds. I took Mary Ruefle’s craft lecture to heart and went and cleansed my imagination with a showing of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The criticisms levied against the film are valid. There is way too much hammering home of the man is beast/beast is man, guns are bad, the environment is precious metaphor, while the human acting is as gooey as it is lumbering. But come on, how can you not get behind Ape political intrigue? Especially when it arrives with them riding on horses and driving tanks and fighting bears and reading comic books (okay, only the Orangutan does that). Plus, I am pretty sure they cast Leonard Nimoy as the wife of the Super Ape. Throw in the fact that we can drink Sacramento Treats in the theaters here in Portland and you have the makings for a perfect summer evening. Team Caesar!

SeeingTony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): As if she hasn’t given me enough already, last time I saw Darcey Steinke, she gave me a copy of Lawrence Weschler’s book on Robert Irwin: Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. I knew Irwin’s work, but was by no means an aficionado; I don’t know how Darcey knew it would, but this book absolutely captivated me. Weschler is succinct but almost chatty as he takes us through Irwin’s early life and the post-war west coast art-scene, and as he walks us through each step of Irwin’s move from abstract expressionism to his minimal instillations experimenting with light and perspective. Irwin patiently and painstakingly pushed his project forward, leaving each success behind him just as the public, and even the art world, was catching up. I haven’t stopped thinking about the book—Irwin’s process and his worldview (I also learned that Carlsberg Elephant Beer tastes best when drunk within the aural context of a 650 Hz tone).

EvaMeg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): Several years ago, I was standing in the Tin House magazine office holding a book. The managing editor at the time saw the title and said, “That book smote me.” The book was Margot Livesey’s Eva Moves the Furniture and I remember thinking at the time that “smote” was the perfect word to describe the work’s effect on its reader. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a young woman named Eva whose mother died shortly after giving birth to her. Eva is visited throughout her life by two “companions”—a woman and a girl—ghosts who have the ability to manipulate and direct the course of events in her life, sometimes to her delight and sometimes to her dismay. Set in Scotland in the years leading up to and during World War II, the book has an old-fashioned, quiet restraint and a haunting beauty. This summer, I decided to reread it because I wanted to see if it would affect me in the same way, all these years later. I am happy to report that, once again, I was smote.

PymMichelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): One of my favorite reads this month was Mat Johnson’s Pym, in which a recently fired professor gathers an all-black crew to head to Antarctica in search of Edgar Allan Poe’s maybe-not-so-fictional island. You know, that old story. There were several major shifts in this novel that made my jaw drop–it makes you realize the pleasures of a writer willing to really do plot, not solely plot on, say, an emotional level. (I say this as a writer of the emotional-level plot, so I’m not denigrating.) I loved the way this novel could pivot between high brow analysis and the most hilarious observations, the way I never had the slightest idea where it was headed.

SalingerOne of my other favorite reads was almost completely the opposite: Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, which is a memoir of being newly out of school and into life, a moment in her early twenties that Rakoff ends up spending within the time-warped and computer-free halls of JD Salinger’s literary agency. Your friends are moving in other directions, that inappropriate boyfriend is indeed inappropriate but for completely different reasons than you first thought, and your first office job brings you into close contact with a truth we all have to live with: humans are crazy. Except that Rakoff handles all of this with graceful empathy and insight.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): There is a moment in Running Wild with Bear Grylls in which Zac Efron throws up in his mouth when confronted with eating the decaying carcass of a woodchuck. For this alone, I give this new series my benediction; the staged moment when Bear and Zac talk about Zac’s time in rehab while reclining in a cave is just icing on the cake. [Couldn't find either of these videos, so I grabbed the most shirtless one. -Editor]

 

Posted in Desiderata

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Texas, Being

BG-From-the-Vault-dc1The Texas poet Jenny Browne read with our own Lacy M. Johnson (author of The Other Side) at the Twig Bookshop in San Antonio on Sunday. The event has those of us in Portland thinking admiringly about the literary scene in Texas, where it seems even the crowds at bookstore events are—we have to admit—bigger. Here, from Issue 48, is a poem of Jenny’s about Texas. (Look for new poems from Jenny Browne in our upcoming Fall release, the Tribes Issue.)

Tiny-House

Texas, Being

 

where blind catfish cruise

limestone caverns

 

from deeper we drink

while a man sweets tea

 

with his knife stirring

all the way down

 

border fires making

breathing a geography

 

mountain cedar

floating pollen fevers

 

bones in the road

sun-bleached

 

possum grin just missing

the curb where she

 

like all the modern girls

paused to consider

 

her inventory of elsewheres

because we can

 

drive ten hours and some

how still be here

 

Jenny Browne is the author of three collections of poems: Dear Stranger, The Second Reason, and At Once, all from the University of Tampa Press.  Her poems and essays have appeared widely, including  American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, The New York Times, Tin House, and Threepenny Review.  A former James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin, she has received grants from the San Antonio Artist Foundation, the Texas Writers League, and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Currently she is an Associate Professor of English at Trinity University and lives with her husband and daughters Lyda and Harriet in downtown San Antonio.

Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

Comments: 1

Adam Johnson Reads

That summer rain outside your window isn’t always a gentle summer shower. Sometimes it’s a storm. This is what Adam Johnson does in his artful and disturbing short story, “Dark Meadow.”

In the simplest terms, the story is about child pornography. Yet Johnson, who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, moves beyond the sensationalism of the conceit and into the deeper realm of empathy and pathos, which is the stuff of true art. I am proud that we were able to publish it in our current issue.

Posted in Fiction, General

Comments: 1

Hunt

Flash Fridays

Diana came

To cool the naked beauty she hid from the world.

- Ovid’s Metamorphoses, trans. Ted Hughes

 

I hunt and kill and butcher with arrow and sword, hound and falcon, ear and arm. I sight and take aim. I shudder when the blood leaves your body and I weep as I pull off your skin. Your flesh is delicious in my mouth. I want you with me forever. When you disappear into me I am disconsolate.

My animal nature and my human nature. They fight each other.

I woke early and climbed the hill until the mist was so thick that I could no longer see my hands. I walked until I saw only the distant sea, not the ground, not the flowers, not rabbits or snakes or birds. I wanted to become more mist than woman. To lose myself. My body was a suit of meat. I wanted to be a spirit riding a bone bicycle. I wanted to want nothing.

When I reached the top of the hill I recognized the yearling buck’s antlers silhouetted against the bluing fog. I believed that I had killed him. I moved through the clouds to where he stood at the entrance of a deep lapis cave, waiting for him to flee. Instead he came to me and inclined his head. I took his antler in my hand. He pulled me into the cave.

Down we went. Shimmering corridors and gold-flecked tunnels. Districts of buried light. My birthdate written in stars on the cobalt wall. The buck’s body was warm beside me, his white clouds of breath uncoiling in the air before us, his fur soft under my trembling hands. He led me to the last chamber. The place I had changed him. Before us lay his lovely man’s body, sleeping out of time.

The buck drew me to his man’s body. We knelt. He looked at me with eyes of loam. I held out my left palm. He bowed his head and rent it with the tip of his antler. Blood left me, purple in the blue cave, and went to the man’s body. I felt no pain, only flow and fall. When I looked back at the buck, his eyes had changed from dirt to gold. I drank him with my eyes until there was no buck anymore. In his place stood a man with fire in his hands and golden loam eyes and deer fur for his hair

“Undress,” he told me.

I gave him my javelin. My quiver, my arrows, my unstrung bow. My cord and staff. My dagger and sheath. My slingshot and small stones. My broadsword and my axe. When his arms were full of weapons, the man pivoted on his narrow hips. I waited to die. He leaned my killing tools against the far wall and turned back to me.

“Undress,” he told me.

I gave him my buffalo cape. My leather boots and my cotton socks. My deerskin leggings and my deerskin doublet. My nymph-woven shift of moonbeams and fog. I stood naked before him and waited again to die. He folded my clothing and laid it beside my weapons. Hand on his pointed hipbone, he cocked his head and put his hand to his chest.

“Undress,” he told me.

“But I have nothing left.”

The man came to me and took my head in his hands and I waited for a third time to die. He undid my hair and combed it with his strong fingers. “You will not be able to untangle the knots,” I warned him. He smiled at me and closed his hand in my hair and tore each knot from my head. The pain was bright and alive. Half of my hair lay at our feet and the bare side of my head was slick with blood. I waited to die.

He took me in his arms and held my rent hand against the side of my head, pushing the blood from my scalp back into my wound. We kissed and I bit him. In the taste of his blood I found his last sight before his thousand-year sleep in the lapis cave: the faces of his beloved dogs, half-wolf Nape and ivory Leuca and starred Harpalus, as they ate him.

Can you believe me when I say that I did not know that his hounds would kill him? I did not want his death. I thought the change a lesson only, not such a bad one: to become a deer, my most favored creature, the one I honored with blood. How many times I had wished the same for myself! For all my power I cannot change my form. I am elemental as stars and lapis. Bone and mist.

I made love to the man I had killed. When it was over I watched him walk out of the cave, his body as beautiful as any buck I had taken. For one sentimental moment I wished I had never taken life. I lay on the floor of the cave, the lapis gold burning down at me, until my breath was my own again. Then I stood and stepped out of my skin and left it with my other tools. And I ambled back out into the hills a bear. Twenty razor claws on foot and hind. My jaw can break quartz. My hide is silver.

 

Lisa Locascio’s writing has appeared in n+1, The Believer, Santa Monica Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and elsewhere. She gratefully acknowledges the Djerassi Resident Artists Program for the residency that facilitated the writing of this story. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and has recently completed a novel, Jutland Gothic.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Sophie Koko Gate

This week, Tin House Reels is excited to feature the work of Sophie Koko Gate, whose films have a unique erotic tension and the good timing of dark comedy.

Gate often uses real spoken conversations to drop her characters into a world of the hyper-real, noting that translating real-life conversations into animated video involves a sympathy that lives inside the body: “When a character is talking on screen, I find it almost impossible to animate them without acting the motions out myself,” Gate said. “In a way, animation can be a variant of live action. You control the ‘actors’ by the smallest of movements: an eye twitch or a slow pupil can make all the difference to the personality of a character, and give the dialogue more depth and meaning.”

Her characters, often naked and sketched with a raw edge reminiscent of Ralph Steadman, feel exposed in both mind and body. “The handmade aesthetic is naturally appealing to people and can cover up bad animation or error. I’m interested in bridging the gap between short animated films, which often tend to be made for the eyes of like minded people, and animated sitcoms, which cater for the masses but with less artistic integrity. I aim to build a set of characters and slowly release short films like Marcy’s Tenderloin that will introduce relationships and develop pre-existing plots.”

Alongside Marcy’s Tenderloin, we are featuring Gate’s shorter film Lip Sync, a prime example of her sense of the hyper-real.

Sophie Koko Gate graduated in Graphic Design from Central St Martins in 2011 and is currently studying Animation at the Royal College of Art. She worked at Blacklist in New York and now freelances and lives in London.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

Posted in General, Videos

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Alphas & Omegas, Fathers & Sons: A Conversation with Scott Cheshire

I first became familiar with Scott Cheshire’s writing through a very funny essay he’d written called “The Good, the Bad and Bumping Uglys” the tagline for which read: “Some thoughts on masturbation, Norman Mailer, and the Good Book.” Everything you ever wanted to know about Scott but were afraid to ask might well be contained in it. Which is to say that I was somewhat familiar with the basics of Scott’s biography—being raised in a Jehovah’s Witness household, his time spent giving sermons as an adolescent—when his galley arrived last fall. Unlike that essay, however,  the novel seemed so serious, dark and full of apocalyptic wonder—just consider the cover itself, the flames!—a contrast to what I’d read earlier. And I slowly came to realize that this is one Scott’s strengths as writer, and as a person: the balancing act between the light and the dark.

Beneath all the eschatology of High as the Horses’ Bridles, there is an honest attempt to capture the human condition using language that is both assured and original, in a way I had not seen done in quite so vulnerable a way. This vulnerability shines through on almost every page.

More importantly, that same sense of humor I’d previously glimpsed was present throughout as well. This is a funny book, though it’s not necessarily always fun. It’s sad and mournful, incredibly tender, particularly in the interactions between a father and son. This is a story about love, first and foremost. One of my favorite and most memorable lines affirm this: “I’m not so sure faith is a thing that can ever be lost. Like every love we have, there’s always remnants deep inside us, in our cells.”  For anyone has struggled with their own faith, or with love, you’ll realize how true this is.

Scott brings this struggle to the surface in a personal way while dealing with cosmic themes like time, life and death, the end of the world. This was an exciting book for me to read, primarily because I’d never read anything quite like it. And for that reason alone, I am very grateful to him for writing it.

I was asked to interview Scott in person at McNally Jackson on July 9. What follows are highlights from that conversation. But what’s missing is Scott’s real-time thoughtful delivery of his answers, not to mention his signature entertaining style of making words and scripture and pop culture come alive through a kind of spoken word that feels like a performance.

Paul W. Morris:  For me, High as the Horses’ Bridles is a love story. And like the best love stories, it’s heartbreaking, full of tenderness and loss. It’s all about endings, the end of days, the end of relationships, the end of lives, which sometimes end very suddenly, sometimes mysteriously. It’s cosmic in scale, but also intimate, incredibly relevant to the present day. And so I’m wondering about beginnings. Can you talk about the genesis of the novel (pun not necessarily intended)?

Scott Cheshire: The genesis of the novel comes from my own time as a kid preacher, which I should say is not at all exotic within that culture. And that was a long time ago. But a few years ago I had a dream, and it was the dream of a vast and decorative ceiling, and on that ceiling was painted stars, the sun, moon, and heavens. I woke up wondering why. That day, I started writing what eventually became the book. And its working title was always “The Ends,” which served as something of a beacon for me while writing. I knew that no matter what the book was about “ends” in themselves; and so hopefully no matter how discursive the book might seem, it’s actually quite focused. Only it’s less plot-focused than it is consciousness-focused. It’s a book about, among other things, our human urge to frame time, to give it narrative shape. And we all do this, every day, in our own lives. At some point “The Ends” became the title of the middle section of the book (there are three sections).

As far as you calling this a love story, I say hurrah because for me it’s about love in every way. And not simply the love and loss between Josie and his ex-wife, or the love between Josie and his Dad, but about the root love at the core of religion or philosophy at their best. Love of knowledge, love for God—or maybe a better way to put it: God is love, which also means, of course, love is God.

PM: The writing is powerful, the language dark, mystical, and motivating. There is a performative aspect to preaching, which you capture so well on the page. I’m curious about how that translates when you’re alone, writing without an audience, as opposed to speaking to an assembly. How much of your own experience giving sermons informed the story?

SC: Well, thank you for saying so. For one, I want a story to feel as if it comes from a human mouth and so I read aloud everything I write to get that feeling. I pace back and forth in my apartment and read and re-read aloud trying to get a distinct feeling. In the case of Josie’s voice, I wanted it to read like spoken thoughtful language. As far as the opening section, I wanted it to have the cadence of a sermon, which is similar in some ways to the cadence of fast-paced plot. It’s about keeping a listener or reader enrapt. My own time on the stage was not nearly as exciting as Josie’s. But I remember the preparation, the fear, a little bit of the power. I wanted the reader to feel all of that, but I also wanted to deliver as much of a religious feeling within the reader as I could. To lift them up high and let them drop.

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Posted in Events, Interviews

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Poem for Wine

We’re all emerging from whatever reclusive hole we burrowed into after the end of our Writer’s Workshop, facing the light of day with bleary eyes, wondering who these strangers are who walk the streets. When we close our eyes, though, we still see visions of debauchery and beauty in equal measure. We’ll let workshop faculty member Matthew Zapruder explain it, with his poem “Poem for Wine” from Issue 49, The Ecstatic.

Poem for Wine

 

I don’t drink wine

much anymore

though I love that not

feeling feeling

of not remembering

having pressed

the giant translucent

anxious button

in my chest

that turns

something I don’t

know the name of

off and a pure wise

hilarity vector among

the conversation clusters

I float bestowing

my sometimes speaking

at others just silently

sparkling full of potential

energy presence

and later I remember

I have always been

an exiled prince

who could but has not

chosen yet to return

to govern my fully

adoring people

I’ve also never

taken ecstasy

then sat on a couch

in Peru 14 percent

excited licking

a hot person

dressed like a rabbit

I do remember

analog porn

somehow holding

an inevitable magazine

always feeling

without knowing

how to say it

true ecstasy

would be to stand

above myself protecting

me as I turn

those sudden blessed

horrible corners

 

Matthew Zapruder is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014). His poems, essays and translations have appeared in many publications, including Bomb, Slate, Poetry, Paris Review, and The Believer. Currently he works as an editor for Wave Books, and teaches as a member of the core faculty of UCR-Palm Desert’s Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing.

Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

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Your Weekly Forecast: James Russell Lowell

Now on the hills I hear the thunder mutter,
The wind is gathering in the west;
The upturned leaves first whiten and flutter,
Then droop to a fitful rest;
Up from the stream with sluggish flap
Struggles the gull and floats away;
Nearer and nearer rolls the thunder-clap,—
We shall not see the sun go down to-day:
Now leaps the wind on the sleepy marsh,
And tramples the grass with terrified feet,
The startled river turns leaden and harsh,
You can hear the quick heart of the tempest beat

                                                                                               ~James Russell Lowell, “Summer Storm,” 1839
Posted in General

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Anthems for a Book Tour

Tonight  I’ll be standing in a room of people and, for all I know, the only thing they’ll know about me is that I’m the woman wrote that one book, the one about getting kidnapped and raped by a man I used to love. I’ll stand in lots of rooms like this over the next few weeks — months, if I’m lucky — talking about the one story that has defined much of my adult life. I’ll be honest: at my weakest moments, I feel completely terrified of exposing myself in this very public way — by which I mean not only talking about such a personal experience to complete and total strangers, but also appearing in specific advertised places, at specific advertised times. Anyone could find me. Anyone. 

The songs on this playlist have one thing in common: they remind me to be brave. They’re songs about strength, and righteousness, and self-determination, and even as I listen right now, these songs remind me who I am today. I am a woman who speaks up, who fights back, who doesn’t take shit from anyone. Yes, I’m also a woman who is — every day of my life — waging a battle against my own fear. These songs remind me that I’m winning.

Lacy Johnson will be in conversation with Nick Flynn tonight at Powell’s City of Books at 7:30 pm.

Lacy M. Johnson  is the author of The Other Side and Trespasses: A Memoir, and she is co-artistic director of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. She lives in Houston with her husband and children.

Posted in Events, Tin House Books

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Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook

In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook took to heart “Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict” in his how-to manual, Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. The compilation includes 1,462 extensively diagrammed plots. Here are a few gems to get your Friday off to a productive start:

A pretends that a wax figure, X, is his wife

B pretends to be wealthy and merely masquerading as a shop girl

A, whenever he attempts to have X, a certain object of mystery, explained to him, meets with misfortune

B is convinced that several eligible men are in love with her

A finds himself under a weird psychic spell because of a birthmark on the face of his wife, B

B, out in a storm on a pitch-dark night, receives a proposal of marriage. Unable to see her lover, and scarcely able to hear him, she nevertheless accepts—and meets with a disagreeable surprise

A is married to an unknown woman by an insane clergyman at the point of a gun

 

 

William Wallace Cook was born in Marshall, Michigan, in 1867. He was the author of a memoir, The Fiction Factory, as well as dozens of Westerns and science-fiction novels, many of which were adapted into films. He was nicknamed “the man who deforested Canada” for the volume of stories he fed into the pulp-magazine mill. He spent five years composing Plotto before finally publishing it in 1928. Cook died in his hometown of Marshall in 1933.


Posted in Essays, Events, Tin House Books, Writer's Workshop

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