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Jerry Stahl has just released OG Dad: Weird Shit Happens When You Don’t Die Young with Rare Bird Books. Lydia Lunch has just released her musical retrospective LP, Retrovirus – Urge to Kill. This conversation was conducted in a manner not appropriate to reveal to the fair readers of Tin House. What you don’t know… well, does it even fucking matter?
Lydia Lunch: You’ve written novels, short stories, screenplays, columns, song lyrics and for TV. Any interest in writing plays?
Jerry Stahl: Actually did one, in the 80s, called Jackie Charge. It was about a Peeping Tom, played by the late Fox Harris (the one eyed man from Repo Man) who becomes a kind of hero, spawning peep cults all over the world. It was supposed to run for two weeks but ended up doing six months at the Gene Dynarski Theater on Sunset Boulevard. Timothy Leary came a couple of times. It became kind of a Thing.
How it happened to even be a play is maybe a better play. My writing partner, the director Stephen Sayadian (AKA Rinse Dream) and I did this X-rated movie called Café Flesh. Café failed miserably as a porn movie – I still remember Japanese tourists running out of the Pussycat Theater screaming, my proudest moment. But then, a year later, it ended up replacing Pink Flamingos at midnight theaters and became a cult smash. After that, there were all kinds offers for movies, and for no reason that I can remember, we didn’t pursue any of them and did a play instead.
Last week I read DeLillo’s The Day Room, which was fantastic, in all the DeLillo-y ways, and it hit me all over again, plays and poetry—much as I admire and envy them—require a kind of math that exposes me for the finger-counter I am.
LL:When we first met, you mentioned you had something like seven unpublished books. I was stunned. In 2015 it’s just as difficult to find a publisher you can trust, that will promote or pay any kind of advance or who will follow through on their initial interest. Will books eventually go the way of 8-track tapes? Why is it still important to have something manifest in the physical form as opposed to online?
JS: Yeah, six or seven. I would always publish the first chapters as short stories, a couple in Playboy, the others some little lit mag or another, and then I’d write the whole fucking book. I guess I was in love with the characters. Who were, no doubt, were some version of whatever weirdo I was at the time. Anyway, since then I’ve had people ask about publishing them. But, you know, I moved around a lot, pretty much lost everything ten times over, and a box of writing can really slow you the fuck down if you’re trying to get of somewhere fast. Especially if there are stairs involved. I pretty much lost everything ten times over. Though I didn’t think of it as losing stuff, I thought of it as moving.
That said, I’ve had books with busloads of promotion, and I’ve had some that come out and it’s like dropping a baby on the steps of a fire station and hoping it doesn’t get eaten by homeless guys. I have no expectations.
Doesn’t matter if it’s indie or corporate—whatever that means any more—at this point every book is like a one-night stand that might turn into something. If it doesn’t, then you hopefully had a good night. (And by good, I mean clawing your own eyes out, mumbling to yourself, and reading the same sentence out loud 9,000 times.) I think it was Mailer who called writing novels sanctioned schizophrenia. Everybody’s good at something.
As to physical pages versus online, it’s not something I sweat. Words are words, however they make their way into your tainted little brainpan. And vinyl’s making a comeback, so who knows?
LL: What’s the last book you read that made an impact on you?
JS: Man, outside of the ones I read over and over—your Celine, your Denis Johnson, your Flannery O’Connor, Selby, and Tosches—there are a ton of writers who have blown me away. The last one that floored me was Jim Givens’s short story collection, Middle Men, which is such a strange brand of tormenting and funny I can’t even describe it, plus every story mentions Del Taco. Continue reading
From our Memory Issue, a poem by Caroline Knox.
When I was about your age,
my great aunt, who was the
librarian of Vassar College,
gave me an old navy-blue book,
The Oxford Book of English Verse.
It was from 1942. Back then,
it was amazing that a girl could
have a major librarian job like
hers, but she did. So I read and read it,
and lots of the book was in very
weird-looking English. About
a third of the way through there is a
poem called “The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
I think you’d like it a lot, because
you’re an experienced cruising sailor,
and you have a great science sense,
and you like challenges. It’s about
a cruise to the South Pole, it’s told
by one of the sailors, to a man he meets;
it’s a ghost story and a nature story.
It’s full of surprises, like this one:
“The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the Sea came he!” Really?
The sun came out of the sea?
Well, no! But it’s a
great way to talk about
the power of the sun.
Anyway, there was an
artist in France, Gustave Doré,
who loved “The Rime,” too, and
he made pictures, engravings,
to show us what he thought
the voyage was like. Please
Google Doré and see what
aaaaaaa Coleridge and Doré
both loved to be scared, and
they loved joy too. They
loved to make fear and joy
in art. Coleridge
would go on walking
tours with his friends
by lakes and mountains.
Another poem in
the OBEV, much shorter,
is “Kubla Khan.”
Kubla was king
in China. He built
a palace called
“a stately pleasure-
dome,” which meant
a regular palace and
a palace of poetry
both at the same
loved to do several
things at once.
this book, The Oxford
Book of English
Verse, used to be
mine, and now it’s
yours; your name
is in it for good.
Caroline Knox’s eighth poetry collection, Flemish, appeared from Wave Books in 2013. Recent work has appeared in A Public Space, Fou, and The Common.
The ostrich has its head in the sand when it hears a high-pitched noise. It looks up to see a large spherical object come in for a landing nearby.
The ostrich watches as it settles to the ground, then wanders over for a closer look.
The object is silver, and very shiny.
It doesn’t smell particularly good.
The ostrich taps on the thing with its beak.
A door opens and an alien looks out.
Yeah, it’s definitely a life-form, it says to a second alien inside.
Well, ask it! says the second. Bring it on in!
The first alien extends a ramp.
Come on up! he says.
He waves for the ostrich.
The ostrich walks up the ramp into the ship.
Welcome, says the alien. We’re hoping you can help us. We’re trying to find the Promised Land.
The ostrich blinks. It stares at the alien.
Do you know where it is? says the other alien.
The ostrich looks around at the saucer’s blinking lights. It reaches out and pecks the steering console.
No! says the second alien. Don’t touch that! Please—those are very important!
Here, says the alien. We have this map.
He spreads it out on the floor.
We’re here, he says. But where’s the Promised Land?
The ostrich turns and looks out the door.
No, here, says the alien.
He taps the map.
The ostrich goes over and looks at it.
Then it turns and runs down the ramp and sticks its head back in the sand.
The aliens stand there, staring down at it.
I’m not sure he’s very intelligent, the second says.
He does seem a little strange, says the first. But perhaps it’s just the language barrier.
The two walk down the ramp and stand by the ostrich.
The ostrich lifts its head out of the sand. It blinks at the aliens, sticks its head back in.
Now come on, the first alien says. We’re strangers here—be a good guide.
Yeah, the second alien says. There’s something wrong—our charts don’t work! We have to find the Promised Land!
The ostrich makes a strange, strangled sound. It lifts its head out of the sand.
It starts running away.
It glances back.
I think it wants us to follow, the alien says.
All right, says the second, and the two take off—on their tentacles, scurrying across the sand.
The ostrich leads them across the desert for miles.
The creature’s legs are very long! the first alien says.
Yeah, says the second, who’s starting to gasp. My tentacles weren’t designed for this!
Mine neither! says the first. And this place is a nightmare—imagine, a whole planet made of dirt!
Just then, up ahead, the ostrich stops.
Both aliens collapse in the sand.
Hey, what’s that? the first alien says.
There’s a strange shape ahead on the horizon.
The two aliens lie there, staring at it.
Is it the Promised Land? the first alien says.
No, says the second, after a minute. No, it isn’t.
It’s their flying saucer.
Shit, says the first alien.
They both look at the ostrich.
The ostrich stares back at them. It blinks.
You’re a stupid animal, the alien says. But I suppose you’re happy with yourself.
I don’t know, says the second. Maybe there’s something more.
Something more? says the first. Like what?
Maybe it’s a parable, the second alien says. Or, you know, like a metaphor.
I don’t get it, says the first.
Yeah, me neither, says the second. But let’s just think on it a bit.
They walk towards the ship.
They stand there a minute.
Then they both look at their feet.
You don’t think . . ? says the first.
The second shakes his head.
I don’t think, but it’s possible, he says. Maybe there was a great big sandstorm or something and the Promised Land got buried beneath?
They look at the ostrich.
The ostrich stares back. It looks from one alien to the other.
Then it looks at the ground.
Then up at the aliens.
Then down at the ground again.
Well, says the first alien. Who’s going first?
I’m not doing this alone, the second says.
Fine, says the first, we’ll do it together.
And together they lower their heads.
The ostrich watches as their heads slide into the sand, and then, abruptly, it lays an egg.
Then it walks up the ramp and into the ship. They don’t even look up as it flies away.
Ben Loory is the author of the collection Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011), and a picture book for children, The Baseball Player and the Walrus (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015). His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, Gargoyle Magazine, Wigleaf, and the Antioch Review, and been featured on NPR’s This American Life and Selected Shorts. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is an Instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Like sands through the hourglass, so are the months of our lives. It is once again time for our staff to heap praises on a few of our favorite books, movies, albums, and TV shows from the last month.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: Sjon’s Blue Fox is everything you’d want from an Icelandic novella of menacing folk magic and fable written by the lyricist for Dancer in the Dark. That is to say, it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever read; it’s buoyant, fabulist, and chilly at once. I was disturbed, for example, when I realized the vixen of the book’s title is being hunted when we meet her. You know what they say about guns in the first act, but that’s just the start. This is a book where a gun shot triggers an avalanche, literally and otherwise. Come for the lush Roderigo Corral cover art, stay for the frosty Scandi-magical realism.
Diane Chonette: I have nothing but good things to say about Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It lives up to the quirkiness you would expect from a movie that has been dubbed “the first Iranian vampire Western” but I wasn’t prepared for how rich, gorgeous and powerful the black and white film would be. At its core it is a love story between the unnamed vampire girl and the lovable protagonist Arash (think James Dean) set in a fictitious town called Bad City, but it is so much more than that. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an amazingly fresh and inspired take on the best of noir, spaghetti western and vampire thriller genres, yet it still finds a way to speak of Iranian cultural traditions and gender roles and how they are ripe for reform. And the soundtrack is the delicious icing on the cake.
Thomas Ross: After a little solo vacation time at the end of May, I came back with a good half dozen books knocked off my to-read list. The Argonauts changed me, The Book of Aron wrecked me, Post Exoticism in Ten Lessons: Lesson Eleven sucked me in, but Loving Day was the most fun. It’s funny, irreverent, full of the kind of jokes I’m not sure I’m allowed to laugh at as a 21st century white guy—you can always laugh at a pun, right? even if it’s also cutting racial satire?—but most importantly, it’s as human in its comedy as it is in its drama. “Funny” novels sometimes feel like the author’s excuse to tell some bawdy jokes, but I think the real key to Loving Day is that Johnson writes such unabashedly real prose about love and sex, swinging freely from sappy to cynical sometimes in the same sentence, often in the same word. The novel’s satirical edge is hard and there’s no doubt that it wants to burn you down, but it feels as honest and emotional as the best fiction. Plus a lot of comic book references.
Lance Cleland: I could go with any number of current masterpieces- Jim Shepard’s Book of Aron, A$AP’s Electric Body, or Bartolo Colon’s hitting- but I would like to rewind the clock and remind you of the breathtaking genius that is Meryl Streep’s The River Wild. As somewhat new dog owners, my wife and I have discovered the joys of
grabbing poop through a thin veil of resin early morning walks which lead to Saturday morning films. Lately, we have been going back through some 90′s classics (shout out to Joyride, RIP). Let me tell you, there is no greater combination on earth than good coffee, pancakes, and a ripped Streep threatening to murder a peak weasel era Kevin Bacon. Add some John C. “I didn’t sign up for this ride” Reilly, David “Mr. Emasculated” Strathairn, and a wild river, and you have one hell of a good start to your day.
Jakob Vala: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is the first book that’s ever made me wish I were the type to write fan letters. I want to share it and reread it. But I also want to hold it close and imagine that I’m the only one who knows its secrets.
Meg Storey: Elie Wiesel famously said that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. I wonder if he would have known what to say to Marina Keegan, the Yale grad whose essay “The Opposite of Loneliness” went viral after Keegan was killed in a car accident two weeks after graduating. Keegan writes, “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life.” It’s often the indefinable that most haunts us, and Keegan’s words haunt doubly now. While some of the pieces in the posthumously published collection of her short stories and essays of the same title are clearly the work of a young college student writing (well but predictably) about family dynamics and boyfriends and friendships, there are several that indicate that Keegan already possessed an empathy for, as well as an ability to inhabit, a wide range of perspectives. The story “The Emerald City” is told from the point of view of a Coalition Provisional Authority officer working in Iraq’s Green Zone. “Challenger Deep” is about a group of people trapped in a submarine that has lost its power, learning to navigate by touch in the deep dark and aware of the unlikelihood that they will be rescued. And in the essay “Why We Care about Whales,” Keegan beautifully recounts a day spent trying to save beached whales on Cape Cod and looking into the eyes of a dying whale. Perhaps, unknowingly, Keegan did find a word for the opposite of loneliness: empathy.
Since our first issue, back in 1999, we have prided ourselves on recognizing new voices. It has been a thrill to discover writers such as Victor LaValle, Justin Torres, and Dylan Landis, and then to watch their careers unfold and blossom. It speaks well of the current literary climate that we are continually surprised and excited by previously unknown writers. For this issue, five New Voices caught our eye. Poets Diana M. Chien and Cody Carvel dazzled us with their energy and wit, while Mary Barnett grabbed our attention with her essay about a decades-old trauma and her continuing struggle to heal. We admired the confidence and precision of the prose in the short stories of Sarah Elaine Smith and Matthew Socia—Smith’s “Pink Lotion” following a problematic addiction recovery, Socia’s “American Tramplings” being the tale of a stampede epidemic.
While discovering emerging writers is always a thrill, it is a different excitement reading the work of masters who are in full command of their powers. For readers unfamiliar with the latest Nobel Laureate, Patrick Modiano, his “Page-a-Day” (beautifully translated from the French by Edward Gauvin) is an ideal introduction, wherein the author explores his favorite subject—Paris—and obsesses on time, memory, and the legacy of World War II. In “Forgetting Mississippi,” Lewis Hyde revisits the brutal 1964 murder of two young black men. Hyde, who was a civil rights activist at the time, not only puts the crime in context but also does the seemingly impossible—searches for forgiveness. Kimiko Hahn, the author of seven volumes of poetry and winner of numerous awards, demonstrates in her four poems how she continues to push her art, reminding us that no matter how accomplished, discovery is experienced poem to poem, word to word.
Here’s to renewal and discovery.
Existential Scavenger Hunt
Salt Lake City, I love yr Mormon versions of my favorite gay men,
tailored to make me nostalgic for pussy & God! Both come
in hundreds of flavors—cowboy, purple-haired, crying
at a Sex Pistols concert. I could have loved them all.
The purple-haired one tasted like home. We traveled
to Boston, where she watched a violet-coiffed old woman watch
herself in the windows of the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Now, I buy her a postcard. Photo of the Salt Lake Library.
We went there, once, stood toe to toe
on the roof-bound stairs. The beginning. Upside-down: The end, cemented
like delinquent hands. If I send her this note, have I preserved
my outlawness— how retain it?
When my boyfriend calls I warn him that
it’s one of those days—I want to hump the legs of all the girls
on this plane. He never feels threatened—we even cuddle
while we meditate, & meditation reminds me of him. Even when I sit
alone, several cities away. Even when I pray to be a dyke
who dates men. Back in Boise, half-lotused, my boyfriend
calls me cliché. He says that Buddhism says
identifying with anything is silly, that true Buddhists don’t identify
as Buddhist. He asks me to reconsider.
Megan Williams received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, where she served as poetry co-editor of LUMINA. Her poems have appeared in PANK, Ducts, Tin House, and Mudlark.
The cover of our 2015 Summer Reading issue features Shanon Playford’s Nereid, a painting from her Oh My Gods! series of classical figures depicted through modern imagery. In Greek mythology, the Nereids were the fifty daughters of Doris, a sea nymph, and Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea. They were also companions of Poseidon and patrons of sailors—guiding them through tumultuous seas to safe shores.
Playford positions her art within the Chameleon School of Painting, a fictional movement that encompasses her versatile style and the ways in which she adapts her methods to suit whichever theme she is currently exploring. Working in collections, Playford first selects a concept and then determines the best way to express it. She says that “with every new series, there is usually a new challenge” in the form of a previously untouched subject, style, or medium.
Lately, Playford also aligns with a kind of Poetic Realism. That is, she’s “not interested in painting just what’s before [her], but something more elusive.” She achieves this in a seamless fusion of contemporary aesthetics with “close associations to the rich history of painting.” This richness is nourished through research and a wide range of influences. A self-professed “Vermeer geek,” her inspirations span art history, from the Dutch masters to the etchings of Goya to the para-realism of Lucian Freud.
Playford, a sixth-generation Portlander, is currently working on a series of one hundred views of Oregon. You can see more of her art at www.shanonplayford.com.
“Don’t eat it,” he said. “Don’t eat the pussy.” This from the man who’d shuffled in into the liquor store after me. The counter was walled in plexiglass except for the revolving window at the register, so that he and I were cooped there as though in a terrarium. It was dark out and the store would close in a few minutes. The man was missing his front two teeth, so that I could see an alarming amount of his tongue’s movement as he spoke. He’d told me, “I know two things about life: smoke em when you got em”—I’d traded him two cigarettes, from the pack I just bought, for seventy five cents—“and don’t eat the pussy.” Then he shook a finger at me in a fatherly way.
I was drunk. We were all drunk it seemed. Everyone I knew. We drank until we felt like copies of ourselves, which would vanish, and whatever plans we’d made too, in the morning’s first blue light. I saw the man, and the cashier and the store, which was plastered, ceiling to linoleum, with liquor, beer, cigarette, and cigarillo adverts in bleary swathes of imagery, as through a fogged window polished with your hand. And in the corner near the door, there was a coin-operated candy machine half-full with jellybeans, except where were the children? Where were the mothers who’d dug through their purses and found one last quarter?
“That’s not very gentlemanly,” I managed.
He laughed wildly and slapped my shoulder and raised his head so that I saw into his open mouth—into his gummy-tooth holes. And then, with a terrifying abruptness, he was quiet and bent toward me conspiratorially. “I’ve never known a gentleman. My daddy was a real killer,” he said. “Where’d you come from?” Not from here,” he ventured. “No. Somewhere with pretty girls, huh? Real hygienic girls, huh? Breaks your heart how good they smell.”
I thought about this a moment. “Hygienic. Sure. She was hygienic.”
He squatted down and clasped his thighs and made a deep sniffing noise, as though he could inhale into his gut, and then he straightened up again. “She must have been. Kid, loverboy, I’ll tell you this: these girls aren’t like your girls. These girls taste like sour metal. Are you listening?”
And then it occurred to me that we had left the store together—that we were standing on the street corner.
“I’ve met kids like you, you know. “ He said, “I’ll bet your mamma traded you silver dollars for your baby teeth, didn’t she? I bet she smelled all over just like the palm of her hand. When I lost a tooth, when I put it beneath my pillow, do you know what I found in the morning? I found a tooth. And there was still a bit of blood on it. And it was mine. And I buried it in the yard like a dog.” He laughed madly again, which shook the whole of him and rattled his eyes.
I left him there, laughing and gasping, and hocking loogies into the stormdrain.
Taylor Koekkoek was born and raised in Oregon. He is an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins University. His stories have appeared in Neon Magazine, Fogged Clarity, and elsewhere.
Forrest Gander: The Boatmaker is certainly a book about crossing borders. The protagonist crosses borders in himself, overcoming weaknesses, developing strengths. But he also launches himself from Small Island to Big Island to a Mainland that, at its southern limits, borders Europe, a place of noted culinary and cultural differences. Although the events take place far from America, they seem drawn from the Native American tradition of the vision quest. The boatmaker’s dreams, in fact, are his guides. That seems in keeping with the ambiguity you create about where the novel takes place. Would you say that borders are important to The Boatmaker more as symbols than as markers of particular geographies?
John Benditt: Something that is central to The Boatmaker is that it’s both specific and not specific in its geography. I think of it as being set on a border itself: the border between what is “real” in the ordinary sense and what is “unreal” in the ordinary sense. The Mainland is close to Europe but it’s not in Europe. It seems to hover in between. Symbols, on the other hand, do seem to belong to the world of the unreal.
FG: Both our books relate critical events brought on by anti-Semitism. In The Boatmaker, it is one of the stronger themes and connected to the boatmaker’s name, which we don’t learn until the end of the book. In The Trace, one anti-Semitic incident breaks down the defenses that have protected the main characters, Dale and Hoa, from their respective guilt and grief and blame. Did you think of your protagonist, from the start, as a representative of The Lost Tribe? Does his wandering and his search for his own identity parallel a Jewish story of diaspora and search for homeland?
JB: I was surprised to see anti-Semitism pop up at that crucial moment in The Trace. It has a great deal of force. It shakes your characters. Partly because it seems to come out of nowhere. After all, there aren’t any Jews around. But that’s one of the funny things about anti-Semitism: it persists and reappears in places where there aren’t any actual Jews. For instance, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has always sold well in Japan, despite the fact that the number of Jews in Japan has historically been vanishingly small. The thing has a life of its own.
But I definitely did not think of the boatmaker from the beginning as a representative of the Jewish people. The book began as a short story that took place on Small Island, where there are no practicing Jews. At the beginning, it wasn’t clear to me that the boatmaker is a Jew. And even now, I have mixed feelings. I’m not sure there’s a single clear answer to that question.
FG: Your protagonist is one of the mutest characters I’ve encountered since I read David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, about Ovid in exile. The boatmaker’s intelligence, his very consciousness, is intensely corporeal. He seems to think and feel with his hands. But that muteness increases his intrigue; it is, in part, what draws others to respect him. As you worked on the novel, what particular problems arose from creating a main character of so few words?
JB: It did present challenges in dialog. There are only so many times a character can say nothing in response to something that’s said to him. Only so many times a writer can write: “The boatmaker says nothing.” On the other hand, silence is powerful. It makes people think there is something important dwelling behind the silence; they want to get at that. It allows people to project their own wishes and dreams onto the boatmaker—as some characters do in the book.
Your novel, The Trace, is a wonderful evocation of a healing journey, undertaken by the two main characters, Dale and Hoa. For some reason, both the desert and Mexico seem to stimulate thoughts of this kind of journey. What drew you to these two things—the desert and Mexico—as the setting for your book?
To provide a brief biographical sketch of Luke Goebel would be like putting a campfire in a cardboard box. Luke’s debut novel, Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, plays with novel-as-memoir, the seriousness we attribute to biography, and the self-mythologizing of writers, predominantly white male American writers, from Twain to Hemingway to Kerouac.
The narrator of Fourteen Stories doesn’t quite fit in with earlier American writers scrambling for the pantheon. He is, above all else, earnest. My disposition to the narrator was similar to the Kid’s description of his brother in the following passage from one of the novel’s stories, “Apache”. When we read this novel we see “…a guy who was how he was, hardly a distance from himself and himself, there in front of you, knowing he was every inch, not putting on a show, laughing, owning a pistol he drove with, a giant with a laugh like a holiday.”
I had the chance to meet Luke in Minnesota and hear that laugh in person. The following conversation took place over landlines from our respective bread jobs.
WILL CHANCELLOR: Chronologically, which story in Fourteen Stories came first?
LUKE GOEBEL: Well it started with the ones I threw out. But, of the ones in the book, I think it was “The Minds of Boys,” which was a freer style, which makes sense because I wrote it on the beach in San Francisco. Ocean Beach, is that what it’s called?
WC: Yep. OB. Had some miserable paddleouts there.
LG: There’s also the Ocean Beach in San Diego, which is totally different. I guess there are a lot of Ocean Beaches. I guess I kept going back to that spot in my mind. But I wrote it at UMass Amherst on a typewriter that’s actually right here in my office. It’s a Coronet Super 12. Baby blue electric. And I stole it off Hannah Hudson–
WC: Luke hold off on the typewriter because I want to get back to that.
LG: And the case is right behind me. It’s got a piece of duct tape on it that says, Hudson.
WC: Luke, hold off on this because I want to…
LG: So I stole it off her and I wrote the story, I think I wrote it before I studied with El Capitan Gordo back when I was in the UMass program.
WC: Wait, I don’t know who that is.
LG: Oh. Gordon Lish. The dread pirate Gordon. My sweet friend who people seem to think lots of different things about.
WC: When was this?
LG: I took his class one summer, oh gosh I’m really bad with years. I think it would have been 2009.
WC: So you’re at Amherst…
LG: Yeah I went into the program with a novel, which I finished and then luckily abandoned on the side of a cliff just below the road to a sure death. But it was definitely included in Fourteen Stories. Rather than taking the novel whole hog, you smash it and make a mosaic of the little pieces. Which was great! To be able to let go of your story and then use the little pieces you want. I’m speaking metaphorically, metaphysically, ontologically, numerically.
WC: It’s interesting that “The Minds of Boys” came first because that one struck me as distinct from the central narrative.
LG: That’s definitely an outlier story in the collection. I know why I put it in there and I’m glad I put it in there, but it’s definitely a different style and a different type of story.
WC: Why did it need to be there?
LG: I included it because it’s a disappearing act. And the way you lose somebody and it feels like a trap door opened and they’re suddenly not there anymore. And that one’s obviously about how it feels to lose your only brother, but the narrative there is like a child getting punched in the face…in the book it comes after a good amount of adult reckoning with that loss, but then it hits you again like you just saw a kid get punched in the face…that’s us…kids getting socked open-eyed in the face.
WC: I read it as a biographical allegory with you as Cutlass and your brother as Keiko.
LG: I’d never thought of that. But I do identify a lot with Cutlass. I did cut my hair with a knife while driving in a piece of shit car through the desert in California, so that makes sense. It’s cool you used the word ‘allegory’ because that’s how I describe it when I give a reading or something. I think of the book as one central narrative, but then with these interruptions of stories that work as allegories, which allows us to explore what’s happening in the main narrative through story.
WC: Do you think it influenced you to start with an allegory that foreshadows the loss at the heart of the novel?
LG: Well, you know that’s the thing. It’s all accident with intentions. I didn’t plan to make a novel; I just wrote stories. And when I wrote that story I hadn’t lost my brother. Again, it’s that smashing something into pieces and then putting them together in a way that makes sense both from one’s own life and with the pieces that make the book. I just wrote that story trying to learn how to write. I didn’t really start with allegory. Or it was an allegory then about looking at clouds and not being a kid anymore. If I had to start with which story started the actual narrative, it would be “Insides” which is the first story in the book. That’s the first one I wrote that I thought, This is a decent story, maybe, and it’ll be the first one in the collection.
WC: So these began as stories and then they cohered as a novel? What was that realization like?
LG: It was always a collection of discrete stories–even through its acceptance. It became a ‘linked collection’ when I submitted it to a couple small little presses. I never thought I wouldn’t send it out to major presses. I just sent it to some smaller outfits and got a couple contracts and that was within a week of sending it out. But I forgot that I had submitted it to the Sukenick prize, which is the only place I sent it of any repute or whatever so I was already in a contract when they called me at 8 am and said, “Hey, you won the Sukenick prize!” And I said, “The what?” So then I had to talk to the outfit I was with, Yes Yes Books out of Portland and told them about this deal–and they were great and said, “Take the prize! Take it!” And when it won the prize it was still a collection without the narrative intrusions–the parentheticals and the double parentheticals and the brackets. I signed the contract with FC2 at the University of Alabama and bought that thirty foot RV and took my time on the road just to edit the collection.
WC: Still a collection at this point?
LG: I just thought I was going to clean up a collection. But then I started having these adventures: windstorms and tornadoes above and driving this thirty foot thing with the lights and horn going out and the pistol and just having another adventure. And I didn’t want to let go of the project yet. You know that fear of what’s the next book going to be? I wasn’t ready to look at that and I still felt like man, there’s more that could be done with this thing. Maybe I was just testing the waters of it too quick. Or I just didn’t want to let it go.
We spent ourselves and each other like pocket change, and we spent that, too. We weren’t supposed to be in this city, nevermind with each other. We’d ended up here on a weeklong vacation almost haphazardly, after the mutual friend who had introduced us bailed at the last minute. I said I wanted to go anyway—I was trying to be the sort of person who was spontaneous and loose.
The first evening we stumbled into the dirty yellow motel room and I tore our guidebook into pieces and tossed them about the room. We didn’t need anything to show us the way, because we didn’t know where we were going or even care. At sunrise I awoke with my head like a heartbeat and stared at the vertical lines of sun hitting the still-made extra bed we hadn’t ended up using. The scraps of paper shined in the light, announcing the different places we could go: The Opry Land Hotel, The Frist, The Country Star Wax Museum. I didn’t know where any of those things were or how to get to them. I knew nothing at all about the city except a few bars we’d already been to, and even those we seemed to travel into and out of as if by some magnetic force rather than by directional knowledge.
Very quietly and without touching him, I arose wrapped in the sheet that I must have stolen for myself in the night. I sat on the unused bed and tried to put the pieces of the guidebook back together, but it was useless, as I should’ve known.
Soon we both stood unsteadily in the motel parking lot, shielding our eyes from the morning sun as we swallowed bad coffee and aspirin, waiting for things to come into focus again.
“What should we do today?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I closed my eyes and looked towards the sun so that I could see the colors in my eyelids, orange and red.
We found a free map at the motel’s front desk, but it didn’t tell us anything about where we were, nevermind where we were going.
We faced each other, holding opposite sides of the map. “How about The Country Star Wax Museum?” I said finally. I didn’t know anything about country music. “I think the map is upside down?”
“Let’s just go,” he said finally. “We’ll find it.”
We walked and walked. Roads led to more roads and once to a river. We found ourselves in an art museum, but we just sat on a bench before a painting of some pale, naked, voluptuous saint with long blond hair. Her eyes were kind of rolled up in her head—ecstasy or agony, I couldn’t tell which.
“She looks a little like you,” he said, yawning.
“I think she’s pretty,” he said. He’d closed his eyes and was lying on his back with his feet still on the floor. I wanted to hold his warm, smooth hand. In the dark, his hands had felt like the idea of hands, but now they were here in the light.
There was hardly anyone in the museum but us. I often go to new places and think I see someone from home, but in that museum—in that whole city—I never even saw the mirage of someone I thought I knew from real life.
“Should we go?” I asked.
He shrugged. I guess we had no real place to be.
Outside again, the air smelled like fried chicken. We found some to eat at a corner diner that shined with grease. “Where’s The Country Star Wax Museum?” we asked the waitress, holding out our map.
“You’re a long way gone,” she said. “You can’t walk.” She showed us that depending on how you held the map, the scale changed. One side was an up-close view of the downtown, the other was a far away view of the whole city. We had to take a taxi.
The only real person in the wax museum was the woman who sold us our tickets. Her lips were bright pink and her face looked firm and shiny.
The country stars smiled. Some of their hands had broken off and lay severed on the floor beside their resting guitars. I listened for music, but there was none. We left without taking pictures or buying souvenirs.
Outside again, the sun was already low. What had we done all day? “Hey,” he said, pointing. A neon light winked in the distance, calling to us. I followed him towards it.
We took shots of whiskey and chased them with beer. “Where will we be tomorrow?” I asked, but what I wanted to know was where we’d be when we returned home. It was no use asking. The whiskey began to say what it had to say—it seemed to be the only thing that knew what it was doing.
Maria Adelmann‘s writing and art can be found in national and international literary magazines and in stores across the country. She has an MFA from The University of Virginia and a BA from Cornell University. She is working on a novel and a screenplay. Visit her at mariaink.com.
A businessman blowing an octopus
for the pure taste of the sea.
A glad man eats a writhing fish—
fingernails scrape out a cheek.
Through a cut in the skin, live tiny clams
inserted, sewn in. It’s late—
the small square window warm and loving,
the city and sky dark gray.
Will Butler studied poetry at Northwestern University. He is a member of the band Arcade Fire.
When my book,Our Endless Numbered Days was published I didn’t think I was going to enjoy getting out there and talking to strangers. It was a frightening thought—having to answer questions, explain why I had done something, justify what I had written. The first event I attended as an author was a literature festival and I was terrified at the idea of even getting on stage. But when it was over I was pleased I had managed to talk about my book to an audience who stared back at me with what at least looked like interest. But it was the opportunity I was given to meet these people after the event that I discovered I enjoyed the most. They seemed so excited to be able to talk to an author and I too was excited to meet actual readers.
I’ve since realised that more than anything book related I’ve attended so far, I enjoy interacting with people who like reading. And the best events are book clubs.
As a writer it’s so energising to meet, talk, Skype or email with people who ‘get’ your book; to debate the real nitty-gritty detail of, for example, whether Peggy carved the name Reuben in the cabin herself or if it was already there; to discuss the breadcrumb trails I left and to hear who found them and who didn’t.
And for the readers, they get to hear the story behind the story, they get answers to all those questions that other book clubs wonder about: why did the author end it that way? Why did she include that character? Or even, I wonder what her writing process is?
“Having Claire’s answers to our questions was a real game changer,” says Dawn Landau, who is a member of a book club based in the Bellingham, Washington area, in the Pacific Northwest. “It was exciting to have concrete answers to things we had wondered about as we read the book. Claire gave us insights that really helped us flesh out questions we’d had when reading. Having Claire’s responses to our questions helped us all feel much more connected to the story and its characters. A few of us said we were tempted to read it again, now knowing some of these details.”
Of course, nothing beats going to a book club meeting in person, but since I live in England and many of my readers are in the US, Skype is a good alternative. And if the time difference is too much to deal with I’m happy to answer questions by email.
“Initially, when I contacted Claire, we discussed doing a Skype meet and greet with her,” says Dawn. “However, it quickly became clear that with the enormous time difference (we always meet in the evening, as several book club members work full time), this would be impossible, and Claire offered to answer questions by email instead. Admittedly, our group is not the most organised – our focus is on fun, with books as the thing that brings us together – so we didn’t get the questions to Claire until right before our meeting, but she still answered them all.”
Naturally, not everyone is going to like every book. And of course I’ve come across readers who didn’t get on with Our Endless Numbered Days, but if they can express in a constructive way what didn’t work for them, I’m still interested. It might even spark a bit of debate. Sylvia Conway-Jones is a member of a book club in Winchester, England that I visited recently: “As a group we differed in which aspects touched us and Claire was extremely gracious in allowing us our individual interpretations and opinions.”
And it’s not just the story that can be a source of discussion: “Finding out about the writing and publishing process was fascinating and an added bonus,” says Syliva.
Whether the meeting happens face to face, via Skype or email, a little organisation will help it run smoothly: someone acting as the host (especially important if it is a Skype call or via email); some kind of structure to the evening rather than a free-for-all with questions; and since I won’t be expecting payment, it’s really appreciated if all the members buy and read the book.
If you’re in a book club you’ve got nothing to lose by contacting an author and seeing whether they’ll be interested in answering some questions. Chances are they’ll be just as excited to meet you, as you will be to meet them.
Claire Fuller lives in Winchester, England. Our Endless Numbered Days is her first novel.
In 2010, I attended a rousing, weeklong workshop at the Sarah Lawrence Summer Writing Seminars with the illustrious Charles Baxter. We remained in touch. I sent him a children’s art book about faces I thought he would appreciate; he sent me a link to a hilarious South Park episode that related to my work. Periodically, I updated him regarding progress on my novel. Because he is as kind and generous as everyone says, he always wrote back with empathy and encouragement.
A few weeks ago, I took part in the inaugural craft intensive workshop with Tin House’s spectacular assistant editor Emma Komlos-Hrobsky. The possibility of interviewing Charlie came up in conversation, as the Tin House folk revealed themselves as “great fans” of Mr. Baxter. I contacted Charlie, and he graciously agreed. Our email exchange follows.
Susan Tacent: In Emma’s craft workshop, we talked about the appeal of humor in literary fiction. You do humor gloriously in your writing, like Benny Takemitsu in “Chastity,” imagining how the baby that will result from the young couple in the next apartment would soon provide its own version of their audible “love-yelps.” There are countless examples that range from subtle to laugh out loud. You make the humor look simple and we all know it’s not. Why is writing funny so difficult?
Charles Baxter: Because you can’t labor at it and let the labor show. It has to look easy, light as a feather, effortless. Comic moments are usually great pieces of luck when they arrive, and sometimes they come out of nowhere. Trying to be funny is the death of comedy: Nothing is less funny than the person dressed up in the clown suit honking his air-horn and doing a pratfall while reciting The Gettysburg Address. Wit and humor are famously elusive; it’s a gift that’s easy to lose. Even some of Shakespeare’s comedies have not aged well. For comedy, you have to get the timing exactly right and catch the reader unawares. The character that is being funny should rarely realize that he’s funny; usually he’s terribly serious: monomaniacs are hilarious. Comedy is a product of sudden incongruity, and I just don’t think you can force those moments. But if you’re careful, you can arrange them, using invisible wires.
ST: Another elusive element of fiction is narrative voice. I’ve been trying to think of it as an integument, a container that turns pieces into story. For instance, in “Loyalty”: “Actors can’t duplicate this look. It only happens in real life.” This is Wes, observing his wife Astrid while she tries to make sense of the arrival of his ex-wife Corinne, reappearing after a long absence and in mental disarray. This is the kind of strong assertion I mean, handed to a character but somehow to the story as well. It inspires confidence in the reader. It’s writerly control. How do you do it?
CB: Voice: you could write a book about it, and people have, but like comedy it should arrive naturally and not be forced. Isn’t voice really an outgrowth of a stance and point of view, both of which get transmogrified into a characteristic way of saying something? I don’t think a writer can fashion a voice, just as you can’t fashion your own face. Tony Soprano didn’t work to sound the way he does; he just sounds that way. I never worried about voice that much and instead thought that voice probably wouldn’t be a particularly distinctive part of my fiction, as it is in some other writers. My fiction should slowly creep up on you. It doesn’t announce itself in the first sentence. You try to make the sentences serve the story and the situation and not blast out from the first paragraph. You don’t have to set a Chevrolet on fire in the first sentence, and you don’t have to make an assertion that turns the volume up to eleven, either. I know that some writers think that voice is everything, but that strikes me as a kind of narcissism. Speaking of narcissists, Harold Brodkey wrote great sentences with a high-volume voice, and nobody reads him anymore. Brodkey was supposed to be writing the Great American Novel? Okay: where is it? The Runaway Soul? Guess not. It’s 800 pages of beautiful sentences and a strong voice, and it’s unreadable. By contrast, I like that pale neutrality of Chekhov’s prose.
ST: I facilitate a book club at an assisted living residence near my home; we’ve read four of your stories so far. “Winter Journey,” “Royal Blue,” “Scheherazade,” and “Gryphon.” The women – they are all women, with a collective age somewhere around 900 years – love your writing, and, by extension, you. I told them what a lovely person you are and they said of course he is. But they argued over “Gryphon.” Would they want their children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be in a fourth grade classroom with a substitute teacher like Miss Ferenczi? The Miss Ferenczi-haters wanted to know how she could be a force for good. There was an Aha moment when I pointed out that the narrator of “Gryphon” was speaking from the future. To my mind, this is a story in part about how a child learns to value a certain type of rule-breaking creativity. Still, a few of them remained disgruntled.
CB: Yes. Miss Ferenczi is an ambassador from the land of imagination. In the land of imagination, you think at first that it’ll all be peaches and cream: wonderful oddball facts and images and poetry—a big relief from the usual. But if you’re going to cast your vote for the imagination, you had better be ready for the darkness and craziness, because that’s going to be part of the imagination’s landscape, too. All the visits that Ms. Ferenczi makes to that classroom get progressively darker until finally no one will allow her in the vicinity. I liked her, but I wouldn’t want her in a schoolroom with my granddaughter for more than an hour or so.
I have a recurring dream—a vision maybe—of my breasts removed from my body and hanging in the air. Independent of everything, and of each other. Floating against the backdrop of a brilliant blue sky. They’re beautiful there, and strange, like an art gallery painting, the bright green grass below them, and the brilliant blue behind them—a make-believe. The two perfect breasts, without a lump to speak of, perfect and suspended there in the emptiness. Supple, the round curves full, the nipples pink, cloud-soft, everything still. And though it’s like a painting, it’s not a painting, nor a picture, this vision. It’s rather like a film where the breasts have been directed to hold still. But a breeze moves the grass, and the nipples turn hard, and there’s an almost imperceptible jiggle to the scene. A soft flicker, sexy.
Then, out of nowhere, walking round the smooth green curve of the horizon, come Woody Allen and Phillip Roth, the two old—very old—Jewish men whom I’ve always associated with breasts. Woody Allen because of the movie about sex in which he, dressed as a priest, is chased by an enormous tit, all the while shielding himself with a Catholic cross. Phillip Roth, not because of the Kafkaesque satire in which the character wakes up as a breast, but instead because of a single phrase in his story Goodbye Columbus, in which a bikini top floats away from a young woman underwater and her boobs swim toward the protagonist like “two pink-nosed fish.”
I remember, too, John Updike writing about an A&P cashier’s breasts as two scoops of vanilla ice cream. No. Not the cashier, but the girl in the swimsuit walking barefoot through the grocery store. Beautiful to the narrator—the cashier—but the narrator is always a boy. Or so it seems. And neither they nor the female characters are in my vision. Just my breasts—unattached—and the two old Jewish men walking stiffly over the green horizon, their arms held behind their backs like professors. Prophets, sages, these armless comedians so close to death.
They walk across the green, beneath the brilliant blue, chatting in old man voices that I don’t understand. Dream talk. Both beckoning with their bald heads toward the two breasts hanging in the nothing. Dirty things they’re saying in Dream Yiddish. Or are they? What can be dirty in admiration? In utter devotion? These are worshipers of the bosom tribe, grown old and dressed as the ancient shamans of their sect. The loafers and khaki pants, the checkered shirts wrinkled behind cardigan sweaters. Bald and bespectacled, walking with their arms held behind their backs, shuffling right up to the two breasts. Taking their places behind them, and peering into the hollow concavity, letting their faces fall into the backs of the boobs—until the flesh acts as a suction cup and draws them in. Their wrinkled skin adhered, they wear my breasts as masks.
Both of them pink-nosed or pink-mouthed, or perhaps pink-eyed, each a Cyclops of femininity. The unintelligible chatter silenced. Now rising, the whisper of rustling feathers. I know what will happen, but I wait for it because it’s my favorite part of this dream. The two old men shrug their shoulders, release the hands clasped behind their backs. But instead of hands and arms, they spread magnificent rainbow wings, enormous and flapping in the bright light from the invisible sun.
They run across the green, as if in slow motion, their bony legs lightweight in their khaki pants, their loafers tiptoeing across the grass until free of the earth, then dangling beneath them in front of the blue backdrop as the men flap themselves higher and higher. Beautiful, these Icarus imitators, these old men who helped define beauty, finding the updraft and soaring toward heaven. Flashing red and orange and yellow. Green, blue, indigo, iridescent in the sunlight, the cotton-ball clouds now drifting happily in behind them.
Until an explosion rings out, shattering the silence. Then another, the two soaring birdmen stopped in the sky—still of a sudden as if waiting, as if they already know what I know. Time slows and I try to hold it, try to make the instant last. But it doesn’t slow down enough. So I try to black out the scene—try to make them vanish before it happens. But I can’t, and the breast heads burst—my breasts burst—splattering red the white clouds. Like water balloons filled with food coloring. Popped. The splash so vivid against the white. Bright polka dots with ragged edges.
Plummeting, then, the two men wrapped in their feathers like Joseph in his multi-colored coat, spinning out of the pages of their holy book. Spiraling down, down—headless but dropping head first. Down. Did they find the light before those gunshots sounded? Are they still of the breast-worshiping chosen tribe?
I don’t see them land, but I hear them hit the ground, and the sound is so much worse than seeing it. Two soft plops, lifeless damp thumps, one after the other. The sound of death itself. A shiver running up the knobs of the backbone.
Then I’m looking at the shooter. I’ve turned somehow without turning. The scene has rotated. She looks at me. Looks like me, but is not me, because I’m confident I am myself looking at her. Standing hunched atop a hospital gurney, she holds a shotgun and wears a paper gown. There are two bleeding holes in her chest. Burnt circles in the gown, wide open eyes fringed with red tears. I can see through the holes to the sky on the other side. Blue, brilliant, and beautiful. There’s nothing I can do but stand there—anchored—as she drops the gun and steps off the gurney, into the grass, the breeze blowing tight the gown around her body, blowing the hair in front of her face.
She makes a noise like laughing. Or crying. And it’s more terrible than anything to see her walking toward me with those two gaping holes in her chest, her arms outstretched—always—in an attitude of embrace.
Nathan Dixon lives and works in Durham, NC and is there a MA candidate in English Literature at NC Central University. He serves as assistant editor for the academic journal Renaissance Papers. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Trans Lit Mag, Bop Dead City, and the North Carolina Literary Review.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is an Asian American Writers Workshop Fellow. Her prose has been in NPR’s Selected Shorts, Public Books and TriQuarterly. Her art has appeared / is upcoming in The National Academy Museum, No Tokens Magazine, and The Indiana Review.
For the Murphys, there was always the house and the idea of the house, one relatively more stable than the other. From a distance it appeared camouflaged, a silver-gray box perched on stilts; beyond it the sea. To each side, other sea-weathered boxes, variations, one smaller, another with a single peak. The air smelled of salt, seaweed at low tide, smoke from charcoal grills or summer campfires on the next beach. From the deck and the beach below, one could see the Massachusetts coast stretching out and falling away, and in the space beyond, the sea, a vast openness, Massachusetts Bay merging with the Atlantic, the curving arm of Cape Cod reaching far to the southeast and the distant east, leaving the shoreline unprotected from Atlantic swells. A beautiful rough corner of the coast: a spit of land on which the town’s early residents would never have built, instead choosing the far side of the harbor, or the inland cliffs. But the longer one lived there, the more permanent the house seemed, even as it rocked in the wind. The storms might slam in directly, but there were long stretches of beach to walk, where small stones mixed with sand, and the sea’s blue, the mixed greens and grays, shifted with the light, going violet or sapphire or slate. Out unshuttered front windows, from the weather-beaten deck, from the east- and northeast-facing bedrooms, the sea appeared and reappeared.
Different years, different versions. First, the house had been a ramshackle summer outpost Nora and James had scrimped to buy from James’s uncle, a place of ease despite or because of the off-plumb doorjambs and slanted floors and salt-worn wood. Outside stairs led up from the narrow street to the broad wraparound deck, where in summer they drank cocktails with their friends; a windowed door opened into a large kitchen, drafty or breezy depending on the month. They renovated and winterized; still, the wind was undeniable, and at night the house swayed lightly, enough so that water in a bowl might register the smallest of tides. Grand ill-tempered swans moved between the shelter of the brook-fed pond to the beach, crossing the narrow bridge of land down the road from the house and into the shallows, startlingly white against the sea.
At first, the Murphys spent summers there. Or Nora and the children did. James drove down for weekends and August vacation time. Theo and Katy were in grade school then, the youngest, Molly, still at home. From one year to the next, the scenes of leisure blurred into each other, as if contiguous with the preceding summers, all other seasons forgotten. Cousins and friends arrived for beach days and barbecues and drinks out on the deck. And then, the year James’s promotion came through, they planned a shorter season in Blue Rock, to follow a two-week trip to Italy.
It was a slippery moment in their marriage, a crossroad. They had agreed to move from their small house in Newton to a place with more room, but only that. Where to remained vexed. James pushed for the wealthier cloistered suburbs; Nora missed Cambridge, where they’d once lived. In careful tones, they avoided the straining subtext, and when the Newton house sold, they put the furniture in storage, deferred. James had dreamed of travel; Nora had studied art. Rome would give them perspective. And there would be summer in Blue Rock, which from the vantage point of spring always seemed an endless unspooling of days, July a broad yellow plain with no apparent horizon beyond the brimming gold edges of August. For each of them, there was the pull of summer light over the sea, like something remembered from the deepest dream, a vast fluctuating gem that seemed to alter the rooms of the house, the narrow road, and, with luck, briefly, oneself, into their most vivid incarnations.
In June, just after the school year ended, the family flew from Logan Airport.
Nancy Reisman’s debut novel, The First Desire, was a New York Times Notable Book and a recipient of the Goldberg Award from the Foundation for Jewish Culture. Her story collection, House Fires, won the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Tin House, Glimmer Train, the Yale Review, SubTropics, Michigan Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, Five Points, Narrative, The Best American Short Stories (2001), and The O’Henry Award Stories (2005). Reisman has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Commission on the Arts, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She teaches at Vanderbilt University and lives in Nashville, TN.
Once, as a child, I almost saw a man kill himself. The boys up at the wall looked down at him as he, weeping, put his head on the tracks. I stood back, watching them as they watched him. Or that’s how I remember it, but I also remember his face, so I’m not sure I believe my memory.
The boys were hollering with joy, as I recall, but that seems improbable to me now. What I know about people, even cruel children, is that amusement there, in that grisly context, it isn’t likely. I remember that they averted their eyes at the last second as the train passed, so none of them saw him die, either. But, yeah, we were all there.
Decades later, lying in bed with my girlfriend, I tell her the story and she says, “Jesus.” And I say, “But do you really believe they laughed?”
“I do,” she says, but I guess I already know that.
Later still, I drive over a goose, which walked onto the freeway and just stared at me. I slammed on my breaks, honked at it, but it just stood, staring, and I couldn’t stop, not there, so I drove slowly over it, my back left tire lifting a little. “In the rearview,” I tell my girlfriend on the phone minutes later, “it wasn’t dead yet, I saw one of its wings extend up toward the sky.”
“Oh, don’t tell me that,” she implores. “I don’t want to know.”
“But I didn’t kill it,” I say pulling over onto the shoulder, putting my hazards on. “Someone behind me—”
“Please,” she says.
But I’m not done, I need to tell her about the wing pointing upwards, like it wanted to tell me something. I need her to hear that yes, maybe we’re all dying, but it’s not my fault.
Peter Mountford is the author of the novels The Dismal Science and A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, Best New American Voices 2008, Conjunctions, Salon, Southern Review, Slate, and Boston Review. He’s currently the events curator at Hugo House, Seattle’s writing center, where he also teaches.
In his 2011 Summer Workshop lecture titled “Making The Black Dog Sit,” Tin House poetry editor Matthew Dickman tackled the complicated subject of suicide by examining poems which engaged with the often misunderstood act, illuminating how the shadow of suicide affects both the life of the artist and his or her work.
Using poetry as a mending device, Matthew transforms the taboo into something more like benevolence.
Matthew Dickman is the author of All-American Poem (American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008), 50 American Plays (co-written with his twin brother Michael Dickman, Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and Mayakovsky’s Revolver (W.W. Norton & Co, 2012). He is the recipient of The Honickman First Book Prize, The May Sarton Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Kate Tufts Award from Claremont College, and the 2009 Oregon Book Award from Literary Arts of Oregon. His poems have appeared in McSweeny’s, Ploughshares, The Believer, The London Review of Books, Narrative Magazine, Esquire Magazine and The New Yorker among others. He is a 2015 Guggenheim recipient. He serves as the Poetry Editor of Tin House Magazine. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
It does feel like the work gets harder every day. He had thought that after a few years, after a few millennia, he would be able to scoot through tasks, scoot like a worm through dirt. He thought that way at the beginning, when the work still celestial. The Cartographer of the Universe lives in the basement of his brother’s house; he pays for his cable and does his own laundry. He has begun to wonder if his job is worth the time and energy.
“So quit,” his brother says. His brother, Miles, has a toddler and an infant. Miles is tired all the time, and his wife Fran is tired all the time, and so the Cartographer does not like to complain when he goes upstairs for Sunday brunch. Brunch, last week, was strawberries, bagel pizzas, and seltzer.
The pencils are expensive, too, and are getting more expensive. He tried to chart zodiacal light in a cheaper, more durable graphite, but the mist was too fine. The cashier at Art4Less told him it wouldn’t work.
“The last guy went with the Temper 9,” the cashier said.
He should have listened. The Cartographer gave the graphite to Miles’ almost-three year old, who tried to stab his sister with it. Fran, eyes perpetually closed, interceded with the agility of a cartoon ninja. “No stabbing,” she murmured.
He had wanted to be a sculptor. He did a BFA at a good school. He interned at gallery. He sold a few of his own pieces, and had a show in a parking garage in Astoria. He had thought, maybe I can do this! Beauty, truth, truth, beauty. Urns! Lascaux . . . etcetera.
The Cartographer marks the trajectories of starlight bouncing through the Magellanic Clouds’s dust. He charts them—off a fraction of a degree—and starts over again. He washes out his coffee mug and walks back to his desk. He measures the depths of deltas in the dry basins on twinned planets. When he looks up, the planets have been absorbed into the black mouth of M15. He rubs his jaw. He takes a shower and shaves. “Hey, good-looking,” he says to himself in the mirror.
Some days start well. His back doesn’t hurt, and he’s never really appreciated that little bend of that galaxy before, and it reminds him of a song, which he hums. He bends over his desk, serious and calm, and when the star is born he is there is map it. His map ponders the birth in its heart. The Cartographer leans back and stretches his arms and feels good. Good job, he thinks.
But as he stretches the muscles of his neck, everything is different again. The universe grows and changes faster than he can set his pen to the map. Above and below, the universe rolls and crashes. He can never draw fencelines in the same universe twice.
On Tuesday nights he babysits so that Fran and Miles can shower, go to dinner and Rite-Aid. He and the almost-three year old play on the floor: do a puzzle, build blocks, and do some coloring. They do not complete the puzzle; they destroy the towers. Big Bird is green and purple and black. This takes two hours. Every so often the baby makes a noise and the Cartographer carries her around the living room, bobbing up and down. His back hurts. He lies on the floor and watches the ceiling fan. The almost-three year old climbs on top of him and stares into his face. He tickles the almost-three year old, who laughs. The Cartographer laughs and, hearing laughter, the baby laughs. When Fran comes home, she steps over the mess and says, “Okay! Time for bed. No baths tonight.” Everyone is happy.
Wednesdays are busy days. He fills out his timesheet online and, when it is sent back, calls the office and argues for his overtime. He tries to keep up. His bedroom is filled with scrolls of infinitely wide paper, the loops and legends of the topography of the universe. On the inside of his middle finger, where he holds his Temper 9, he has grown a callus like a golfball.
Upstairs, in the living room, the naked almost-three year old climbs up on the couch and stands beside his dad. “Hi Papa!” he says, and Miles kisses his kid on the belly.
Downstairs, the Cartographer is drawing, labeling, measuring, furiously. Around him and the house and the family, the stars die and suck inward and Miles and Fran and baby and toddler are forced to clasp their hands together as the sheaves of the map are pulled up around them and they are caught inside a paper boat map of the universe.
“You need to tell him to take it easy,” Fran murmurs to Miles. She takes her naked kid and puts socks on him. “Cold floors!” she says.
Downstairs, the Cartographer rests his pencil and flexes his wrist. He squints at a cluster of light in the distance, past the violaceous streaks of blue comets, left of the gasping black holes, two squidges further than the whizzing pink planets spinning themselves dense: three staid yellow stars in a row like ducks.
“Shit,” he says. It is not right. It is close, but it is not right. It is very, very, very rarely right. It is so rarely right that it has become not even exciting when it is right.
“So quit,” his brother says to him upstairs. Miles is looking at his hairline in a mirror.
“I should,” the cartographer sighs. His back hurts. The almost-three year old is dancing to a Youtube video: Bert and Ernie singing a song about tooth-brushing. Fran, from the bedroom, is singing the song. The universe is very big. The universe is very small.
He begins to sketch the wake of two supermassive black holes, light years apart, dancing in galaxy 3L 95.
Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine and is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho, where she won the 2014 Academy of American Poets Prize and the Banks Award in Poetry. She was a 2014 Tin House Summer Conference Scholar, where she studied with Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. Her short fiction has been published in The New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Los Angeles Review, RHINO Poetry, and elsewhere. Her poetry will be forthcoming in Poetry International and Ninth Letter.
April was a great month. We paid our taxes, various people we really like won Pulitzer Prizes, and we found a plastic egg with money in it in the bushes by the office. Here are some other highlights from our staff and interns.
Tony: Leave it to Jim Shepard to take the challenge of writing about something like the Holocaust in 2015—the fact that we’ve read so much, seen so much, had so many nightmares about it before—and turn it into one of his novel’s strengths. The Book of Aron is claustrophobic in the very best of ways. From the opening line (“My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking”), we’re deep in the head of our narrator. And while we readers are very-much aware of the broad swath of atrocities taking place and about to take place, the narrow perspective (the discursions and misdirection, personal affronts and jokes) through which we see the Warsaw ghetto creates an uncanny tension and lets us feel the horror in a way that feels fresh and freshly devastating. There’s something in how he weights or refuses to weight his sentences, how brutalities materialize without the expected windup, that allows Shepard to build a world between what Aron sees and what we know, until finally, tragically, that divide collapses. Normally if you say something feels longer than its page count, you mean it’s a slog; but The Book of Aron doesn’t let you put it down, doesn’t let you stop reading until you get to the end, and still, after just 272 pages, you’ve lived a lifetime with Aron—for better and for worse, you’ve done what he’s done and thought what he’s thinking.
Michelle: So I have to admit that my first response when I heard about Meghan Daum’s anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids was the tiniest bit of outrage. Not at the anthology itself, which is excellent, but at the idea that there is still apparently any need to justify this decision at all. Well, it’s nice to think we’ve evolved past the days when any childless adult was considered stunted, but really the topic is still fraught. What’s fascinating about this particular moment in this particular culture is that it’s no longer taken for granted you’ll rear children—which means what was once a fait accompli is now a decision, and it’s a baffling one at that. There is no comparison a prospective parent can make to know if she should go for it. There’s nothing to do but consider and guess. That’s a process these writers explore in a variety of ways, with special props to Laura Kipnis and Lionel Shriver for placing this whole childrearing thing in historical and biological context. But nearly all of the essays are captivating as they tell the writers’ story of near misses, slow dawnings, and lifelong convictions.
Meg: As much as I love to read, I often feel that music (and, as its frequent side effect, dancing) is the art form that affects me the most, that gets me out of my head and taps into me in a purely emotional way. I was walking home one night in April when I got a text from a friend: Hey! Wanna be my date to Belle and Sebastian tomorrow night? I hadn’t even known they were coming to town, and I’d never seen them live, but my reply was immediate: YES. My soul needs that. And my soul was not let down. Their renditions of “Judy and the Dream of Horses” and “Sleep the Clock Around” filled the house with light, but I think this was my favorite song of the show. Don’t worry about seeing it coming. Dance. You know you want to surrender. Plus, this might just be the prettiest video ever.
Claire: This month I’ve been revisiting Richard Siken’s Crush, and diving into his newly released, long-awaited second collection, War of the Foxes. The two books are staggeringly different; in the foreword to Crush, Louise Gluck writes, “This is a book about panic.” And it is, it’s a book about frantic longing, love, desire, loss, if they can be so named. But if Crush is about panic, War of the Foxes is about control: here Siken demonstrates an exacting and analytic style. These new poems are more concerned with the naming and placement of objects and people (as opposed to the erotically-charged Crush). Siken is a literal artist here, painting a series of beautiful, albeit boundary-troubling, discreet scenes. War of the Foxes is debatably a more evolved, mature approach to many of the themes that Crush hinges upon, but after flipping back and forth between the two, I keep coming back to the confused, passionate, desperateness of the first. I guess I like my poets a little unhinged.
Marie: I recently caught a bartender friend reading a book called Art & Lies after her shift. With a blunt-yet-seductive title (ART! LIES!) I couldn’t resist pummeling her with questions about it. She said it was taking her psyche by storm and the following week she bought me a copy.
The novel is written in a poetic prose and the plot (if you want to call it that) follows three characters named Handel, Picasso and Sappho—except they’re not the people that you think they are. Picasso is a painter, yes, but also a teenage girl. Handel is a Catholic priest-cum-breast surgeon, and Sappho is part Sappho, part married lady of the twentieth century. The experience of reading its meditative, surreal chapters feels like the experience of reading a great poem: impenetrable and divine, gathering momentum through association and suggestion. There are vanishing cities, mythical libraries, and paints that leak through dreams to implicate their dreamers:
“As I painted, intent on umber and verdigris, cinnabar and chrome, the colours, let out from their tight tubes, escaped under the studio door and up and down the public staircase to the black and white family rooms. My mother broke from her flannelette sleep to cry out the name of a man she hadn’t seen for twenty years. She reared up from her matrimonial sheets, infidelity colouring her cheeks. My father slept in purple.”
It’s a book you want to read slowly in order to savor the sounds of its language, then read again to take in the wisdom it carries.
In his groundbreaking book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley tells the story of Kunta Kinte, a young man from Gambia sold into slavery in America in the 18th century. The book—published in 1976 and adapted into a popular television series in 1977—is largely based on true events and real people, as Haley claimed to have traced his own lineage all the way back to Gambia, back to the Mandinka tribe, back to Kinte himself.
As a slave on a Virginia farm, Kunta Kinte—who is given the name “Toby” by his slave master—makes multiple escape attempts, and is thwarted each time. After his fourth and final attempt and apprehension, the slave catchers give Kinte his choice of punishment: being castrated or having his right foot cut off with an axe. Kinte chooses his foot, thereby preserving his remaining sense of manhood.
As a crippled, though still prideful slave, Kinte remains not only distrustful of whites, but to the other blacks on the farm, who have been living in slavery longer than Kinte, and who try to convince Kinte to acclimate and become a dutiful slave. Following his last escape attempt, and after losing his right foot to the slave catchers’ axe, Kinte is lectured by an older man, of a lighter brown complexion than Kinte, known only as “the Fiddler.”
“Give it up,” the Fiddler tells Kinte. “You ain’t goin’nowheres, so you might’s well face facts an’start fittin’in, Toby, you hear?”
Kunta Kinte has once again made his way, somewhat obliquely, into popular culture, with the appearance of “King Kunta,” the first single off Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, To Pimp A Butterfly. “I got a bone to pick,”Lamar begins. “I don’t want you monkey mouth motherfuckers sittin’in my throne again,”he continues, effectively declaring himself the once and present ruler of hiphop. Who these “monkey mouth motherfuckers”are, however, is more ambiguous. Lamar could be making reference to the familiar stereotype of black people resembling monkeys—leveling the most hurtful of racist insults against those who would dare challenge his lyrical supremacy—or he could be dismissing his rivals’ talent by claiming their lyricism is no better than the chattering of monkeys.
After this introduction, Lamar proceeds directly into the song’s hook, which begins, “Bitch, where were you when I was walkin’? / Now I run the game, got the whole word talkin’/ King Kunta.” In these lines, Lamar addresses those who dismissed him when he was still an unknown, still trying to make himself heard in a highly competitive culture. But, where once he was “walkin’,” or making small steps, Lamar now runs—the industry, his own creative output—and his talent has made him world famous.
“Everybody wanna cut the leg off him /Kunta,”the hook continues, “Black man taking no losses.”
Even as a successful artist, a black man living in America, including Lamar, still faces routine discrimination and opposition, by whites as well as other black artists, contending for the same level of success. Lamar not only addresses himself as “Kunta,” in homage to Kinte, who defiantly refused to acknowledge his slave name, but by adding the honorific “King,” Lamar accomplishes two goals: he recalls when black men in Africa were once kings and queens, before being decimated by the Atlantic slave trade and the exploitation of the continent; and he proclaims himself superior to his peers. King Kunta, then, is a man of royalty in a land of slaves.
During the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, following the acquittal of LAPD officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, one man, during a taped interview, offered his opinion on the wider implications of the verdict: “That’s what they told us today, in other words, you still a slave (the quote was later sampled in Dr. Dre’s “The Day the Niggaz Took Over”). “No matter how much money you got, you still ain’t shit.” To be a King in America, it would seem, can carry many different meanings.
To be a successful entertainer in America is the dream of many young black men and women, with its promises of wealth and fame. With limited resources and few education opportunities, one of the highest levels of achievement a boy or girl born in the inner city can hope for is to be either a professional athlete or a recording artist. The record industry, much like the sports industry, capitalizes on black talent, while offering the illusion of independence and self-determination. Mainstream hiphop artists, from Lil’Wayne to Jay-Z, frequently namedrop their record label and claim ownership of their music. Kendrick Lamar claims to “run the game,” in “King Kunta.” But most of the biggest hiphop labels, including Cash Money, Def Jam, Aftermath, Roc-A-Fella, GOOD Music, G-Unit Records, Disturbing Tha Peace, Top Dawg, and Bad Boy, are subsidiaries of Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company (To Pimp A Butterfly is under the UMG umbrella). Many people are making money from the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of young black men and the glorification of inner city crime, but—as UMG posted a revenue of five billion dollars in 2014—it’s clear that some are making more money than others.
After the violent amputation of Kunta Kinte’s foot in Roots, the Fiddler offers Kinte guidance that could be applied to America in general and the American entertainment industry in particular:
“Niggas here say Massa William a good master,” the Fiddler says to Kinte, “an I seen worse. But ain’t none of ‘em no good. Dey all lives off us niggers. Niggers is the biggest thing dey got.”
Santi Elijah Holley’s short stories and nonfiction have been published in VICE, Monkeybicycle, Straylight, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other periodicals. He is an arts and music writer for The Portland Mercury, and he works in the Publicity department at Powell’s Books.
Andrew Ervin’s debut novel (Ed. Note-Out Today!), Burning Down George Orwell’s House, follows his critically lauded trio of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions. We chatted the old-fashioned way, by email rather than by Skype, and I’ve excluded the part of the conversation about the possibility of staging a revival of our sock-puppet theatre production of Sartre’s No Exit mashed up with Rocky IV and the butter scene from Last Tango in Paris, which was canceled after only one performance in Bowling Green, Ohio, in 2011. Three audience members were in attendance, and only two stayed until the end of the show. But I digress.
Kyle Minor: I was struck immediately by the difference in material and approach between Burning Down George Orwell’s House and your first book, Extraordinary Renditions. I was wondering: What happened in your creative life in the period between the two books, and how did you get started with this one?
Andrew Ervin: I finished Extraordinary Renditions while I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was also when and where I began writing Burning Down George Orwell’s House. The tonal difference between the two books derives from my personal exhaustion at that time. My first book was so full of rage and self-righteousness that living in that world for so long made me want to write something lighter. I’m not sure if that happened, though.
Burning Down George Orwell’s House began as an independent study project with Richard Powers. I think it’s fair to say that he stands as of one of our truly great American literary voices. At its best—Gain and The Gold Bug Variations and The Time of Our Singing—his fiction both explains the times in which we live and offers profound new possibilities for where we’re headed. That he’s also one of the most genuinely giving and warmhearted people I’ve ever met made the genesis of this novel all the more rewarding.
For our project, he assigned me some books to read and we spent the semester—the fall of 2006—talking about them and about novel writing in general. I didn’t do any actual drafting of the book during that time. In the semester that followed he taught the graduate fiction workshop and I began writing the Chicago sections. I had some ideas Walden-esque ideas about Welter’s escape to Scotland, but didn’t get many of them on the page until much later.
After grad school, I accepted a two-year position at The Southern Review down in Louisiana. A number of different factors made that a tremendously difficult—even traumatic—time for me despite the fact that I sold Extraordinary Renditions then. My wife Elivi stayed behind in Illinois for a one-semester visiting professor job, which ended up being fortunate. Hurricane Gustav blew through town shortly after I arrived in Baton Rouge. An uprooted oak tree came a few feet away from crushing my house with me inside it. It also knocked out my electricity. If you’ve spent any time in the Deep South in summertime, you have some idea of what the heat is like. The humidity. After three days without air-conditioning, most of my romantic notions about life off the grid went out those open windows. After a week, I was cursing the name of Henry Thoreau.
Around then, I began to focus more on the subtle similarities between the wired world of Chicago and the pastoral expanses of the Scottish isles than on the obvious differences. That might not have happened were it not for the difficult experiences. Welter went from being a sexist jerk (I donated those traits to his boss) to someone more nuanced and complicated. He remains a damaged man in many ways and his obsession with Nineteen Eighty-Four may or may not be especially healthy.
KM: The novel seems to invite the reader to consider the uses of George Orwell. I was thinking about how the CIA secretly financed the 1954 animated version of Animal Farm, or how the right-wing English teacher at my religious high school taught Nineteen Eighty-Four as though it was meant to be a completely uncomplicated allegory of the then-contemporary “far left” (as they estimated it) takeover of American politics by the Clinton administration.
AE: George Orwell has become the patron saint of paranoia, which is understandable given the utter prescience and genius of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That there exists a reality TV show called Big Brother about people being watched around the clock is both grotesque and perfect. I can’t open the newspaper—and I still get one delivered every day—without reading at least one superficial reference to thoughtcrimes or memory holes or Newspeak. What’s missing from the Orwell-this and Orwell-that commentary is the fact the he wrote things other than Nineteen Eighty-Four. The term “Orwellian” refers to one aspect of one novel, albeit a profoundly great and important one.
Eric Blair did his best writing in his essays and personal correspondence. His generosity of spirit, his unwillingness to brook lazy thinking, his pristine clarity of expression—those are the things we should consider “Orwellian.” I hope readers of my novel will be moved to pick up Keep the Aspidistra Flying or The Road to Wigan Pier or Down and Out in Paris and London or, especially, the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Those books contain many of the best sentences ever written in English.
Everyone should feel free to skip the Diaries that got published a few years ago, though. They were tedious.
I was crying when I first met Maggie Nelson. I’d spent the night before reading Bluets in one sitting, and then reading it again, and then again, until it was morning and I was out of tears and out of cigarettes and the sun had crawled back up to the sky, a giant bright lid over Portland. This was at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop a few years ago. It was a period in my life characterized by a fair amount of ineffable pain and imprecise longing. I was prone to hysterics and I was unmedicated. I cried a lot. Every day I danced a passive ballet around what I knew was an impending breakdown. I felt consistently unmoored from myself and from others. Then Bluets found me, and at the risk of sounding overly hyperbolic, nothing was ever the same. I was simply gutted by Nelson’s prose, the way she’d wrangled her heart and her mind onto the page. I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I had never encountered a writer so lionhearted, so exact. Never had my own pain felt so—not necessarily manageable, but located. Not healed, but given language. So, that morning when I saw Maggie in the cafeteria, I approached her with all the charm of a sleepless open wound and said who knows what through my tears. I think she advised me to get some coffee. I know she hugged me. She was so gracious then, and continues to be in the years that have followed.
Her work, for me, has been and will always be a harbor I value more than I could ever say. The Argonauts, her latest, out now from Graywolf, is no exception. Maggie was kind enough to talk with me about it by email.
Vincent Scarpa: Being, as you are, completely disconnected from all things social media, I’m wondering if you had any sense of the feverish anticipation surrounding The Argonauts? It seemed—and for very good reason—that no one had ever been quicker to boast (myself chief among them) about getting their hands on an advanced copy. You say, in the book, “I don’t want to represent anything,” but you must have at least some understanding of just how important your work is to so many writers and readers, and that both it and you do represent something brand-new for so many people: this wonderfully lawless, deeply personal, and ferociously intelligent space for writing which ricochets and reticulates from the heart to the mind; writing which inspires, teaches, indicts, moves.
Maggie Nelson: Wow, I have no idea if any of the things you say are true! Especially because not thinking about audience has been and still is almost a condition of possibility for me to write. But I would be very glad if my writing has been important to writers and readers in the ways you describe. There’s a kind of sacred alchemy around the issue of reception that I sometimes worry will get fucked up if I think too hard about it, or get egoic about it. So I try not to.
But I am always happy to hear that my work gave someone a sense of permission; that seems like an incredibly important, even life-sustaining gift. (As Eve Sedgwick says in Fat Art, Thin Art, “In every language the loveliest question/ is, You can say that?”) Over the years I’ve noticed that whenever I say to myself while writing—go ahead and write it, you don’t have to publish it, no one besides you ever has to read this—that’s often the stuff that ends up meaning the most to other readers.
Artist Moyra Davey is fond of quoting Fassbinder on this account: “the more ‘honestly’ you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.” (That may sound like writing program drivel, but remember, it’s Fassbinder—and remember also, what “putting yourself honestly into the story”means is completely wide open, and may apply to criticism and fiction as much as to autobiography, etc.)
VS: I think the fandom you inspire probably has a great deal to do with something you spoke about briefly at AWP, where you identified yourself as being “post-shame.”(Of course there’s a great deal of gender-specific politics around what John and Jane Q. Public even identify as something about which to be ashamed in the first place, but that’s another conversation.) Regardless, your writing does not limit or censor the immensity of human experience—pain or pleasure—nor what ways we get there, and I think that’s something that magnetizes a lot of readers. Were/are their writers whose work affects you in the same way?
MN: My first writing teacher Annie Dillard always told her students to leave it all on the floor, every time. Or as she put it: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” I believed in this then and I believe in it now, with something akin to religious fervor.
There are so many writers who have given me this same sense of permission, without which no magnetizing or probing writing would be even remotely possible. How could I ever forget my first encounter with the Marquis de Sade in a friend’s bathroom when I was 17? How could I ever forget reading David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives when I was 19, a book which meant everything to me then and still does? Then there are my literal teachers, Eileen Myles and Wayne Koestenbaum . . . there’s everyone from James Baldwin to Antonin Artaud to Angela Davis . . . I could go on and on. I tried to pay homage to many of these folks in The Argonauts.
VS: Tell me a bit about how you landed on the term “autotheory.”What do you see it as signifying, beyond it being a way to shirk the inherently limiting and reductive categories of so-called genre? How does a piece of autotheory function? At AWP, you described it as “the self as guinea pig for trying out thought”—is that about the size of it? Is it a concept you came to while writing the book or a way to speak of it after it was completed?
MN: Autotheory is just lifted from Beatriz, now Paul, Preciado’s Testo Junkie. So is the guinea pig line: “As a body—and this is the only important thing about being a subject-body, a techno-living system—I’m the platform that makes possible the materialization of political imagination. I am my own guinea pig for an experiment on the effects of intentionally increasing the level of testosterone in the body of a bio-female.” This sentiment resonates with Herve Guibert’s amazing line (which Preciado actually uses as an epigraph): “I am, as always in writing, both the scientist and the rat split open for his research.”
I think what I was getting at, on that panel, was that instead of the boring exposure/concealment spectrum, what if we talked instead about the relation between being a subject-body and the materialization of political imagination; what if we talked about ourselves as scientists and slit rats. Maybe I’ve already lost you. But this genealogy feels more native to me.
VS: I’d love to know what your research-gathering process is like. The Argonauts is textured with so many different voices, from so many different spaces—from Judith Butler to X-Men: First Class and so much in between. I have the suspicion that there’s probably nothing you in your mastery could not bend to fit into the book perfectly, so how do you go about deciding what feels most essential, most resonant to include? How much of the research surrounding the project was left on the cutting room floor? Can we get a deleted scene?