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I’m seven or eight and I dig my hand into the wet sand in search for clams. The water on Playa Guacuco is cool, with small waves that crash so consistently, you could count time with them. My sister, one year younger than me, is doing the same thing. She’s wearing a bathing suit with Minnie Mouse on it. Whoever gets more clams will win one fuerte, a five-bolivares coin. My dad will cook espagetis con guacuco, using the bag full of clams that Emiliana and I gather.
I’m sixteen and I’m asking my friend Jorge if he’s seen the pineapple juice. In my hands is a big plastic cup with ice, Smirnoff and Blue Curaçao. I need the juice to finish making my drink. The car, a 1994 Toyota Samurai (Land Cruiser in America), is backed up into the sand while speakers blare Bob Marley. My first girlfriend, Corina, wears a flowered sarong on top of her yellow bikini. That night we are both flushed and excited as we awkwardly explore each other’s bodies for the first time. She thinks I have already had sex, but it is a lie told to mask my inexperience.
I’m twenty-two and standing on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. A colony of seagulls are flying so close that I can almost touch them. One of them drops a half eaten snake by my feet. That night we will all laugh at my friend Goza, who has a huge steak in his plate but has hidden it under a mountain of salad. Goza will die two years later under suspicious circumstances and the gathering of young people mourning a close friend is still one of the saddest images I can recall.
I’m twenty-four and my sixteen year old brother, Manuel, has been kidnapped for the first time. My heart is like a war drum, and I can feel my veins throbbing to the beat. Two hours later he comes back in a taxi, the robbers gave him some cab fare so he could get home.
I’m twenty-five and falling in love with a girl. She is intense and confused and cries of rage watching the news. We take part in protests and marches that fill Caracas streets with thousands waving Venezuelan flags. I feel safe in the crowd, but she knows better. She’s been in the front lines before, throwing tear gas canisters back at military police, a vinegar-soaked handkerchief covering her mouth and nose. She knows that tear gas is odorless, but every time she watches the news the pungent smell of vinegar and b.o. comes rushing back. We marry and move to Austin together, we will be back soon, we promise — when things get better.
I’m twenty-seven and separating CD’s in two piles. My ex-wife’s pile is a lot larger. We’ve been to a couple’s therapist twice but we both know we will never go again. I don’t know if the pressure in my chest is mostly due to the sense of failure or the oppressive Austin summer.
I’m twenty-nine and my mom is crying on the phone. My brother is being held hostage by four armed men inside a house. Policemen, who are just as poor as the criminals inside, surround it. Manuel is talking to one of the robbers, asking him to turn himself in; otherwise they might all die in the ensuing firefight. The robber cries and apologizes to my brother for what he has done. After they turn themselves in and my brother is safe, I think about how — if we had been born to the poverty and misery that most in Venezuela are — it could have been us holding the guns.
I’m thirty-two and looking at the Caribbean through an airplane window. I’ve done this trip so many times that when I think of the Caribbean I no longer picture my hand digging for clams. I think of a small blue rectangle 25,000 feet up in the air.
I’m thirty-three and I’m on the phone with my sister. She lives in California. It’s impossible to concentrate on work. My dad is in court, fighting a second lawsuit for being the owner of an opposition newspaper that dares to publish damning information on Venezuela’s Assembly President. My sister is so angry with my father she is no longer speaking to him. She doesn’t understand how he hasn’t left Venezuela yet. That country has gone to shit, she tells me. It’s no use, she says. I don’t understand how she can be so right and so wrong all at the same time.
I’m thirty-four and somewhere in Caracas there’s a long line in front of a supermarket with people trying to buy toilet paper. In Universitario Stadium a nineteen-year-old is having batting practice, scouts say he might be the next Miguel Cabrera. In Petare there’s a fourteen-year-old kid loading a revolver for his older brother. In Juan Griego an old man is mending a fishing net with the help of his nephew. In Miami a young middle class woman, just graduated from law school, is being picked up by her aunt at the airport — she has a job lined up in a coffee shop in Doral. In Maracaibo, a single mom is cleaning the house of an oil executive; tomorrow her son will be the first in their family to graduate from college. On the highway, a group of students wearing masks are burning tires and closing off traffic, a sign reads “release imprisoned students.” This morning my dad is scheduled to go to his weekly mandated court visit as an assurance that he hasn’t left the country while his lawsuit is pending. It’s spring in Austin and there’s a nest with baby birds chirping somewhere in the yard. I can smell the tear gas from across the sea.
Alejandro Puyana grew up in Caracas, Venezuela but lives in Austin, Texas. His work has been published in The Butter and adapted for radio by NPR’s The Texas Standard. He makes a living as a writer for progressive causes and is a sporadic contributor to TheAustin Chronicle. He’s working on a novel about Venezuela.
[ Glyphs ]
I work in the city’s tallest building, so tall its penthouse is completely ensconced in clouds. The man who lives there is a famous recluse, an engineer or a stockbroker who worked his way to the top, but in doing so drove himself mad. He communicates by sending messages through the tubes that connect the city. The messages are innumerable, arriving one after another, written in a language whose words are unknown because the glyphs that might indicate them change with each message. My job is to decipher these glyphs. Some are lazy scribbles, others complex pointillism, but if you analyze them closely enough, a pattern does emerge. It turns out the man is not crazy, nor a recluse. He’s not even rich, he’s just lonely. He says the food up here is bland, the water too minerally. He says he’s disappointed that clouds are just vapor and not the sputum of fat-cheeked angels, as he had once been promised. He says things were better before.
I took pity on him, how could I not? I wrote him consoling messages, constructing special glyphs for the new thoughts and emotions he inspired in me. I told him that things aren’t much better down here, that everything is upside down, that the steam system has been broken for months now, years maybe. I told him about the protests and the complacency that followed. I told him about the dogs, how they all go to the cane fields to die and how no one can explain it. How we too are so very lonely. I told him everything. For a time his messages stopped, and I worried that maybe I had pushed him over the edge. That I had revealed the grass is not greener, but grayer. But then the messages started again, in familiar glyphs more perfect than I could’ve imagined: I work in the city’s tallest building, so tall its penthouse is completely ensconced in clouds.
[ Manifolds ]
I have dedicated much of my time to determining what lies outside the city. The locals are not particularly helpful. They’re always talking about weekend road trips to the lost beaches up the coast, or maybe catching a monorail to the vineyards for a day trip, but when I ask how it was they tell me you had to be there.
Maps are deceptive. Go far enough in any one direction you’ll discover the same streets you’ve already passed: Klein, August, Roman, Tonnetz—names of cartographers who once drew our peninsula as an island, but this is not a mistake. The natives grow restless with themselves. No matter how a gecko thrashes about, there’s always another to mimic it, so that they might tile this bathroom floor.
I board the monorail only to find it is actually a centrifuge, separating our selves from ourselves. The boy sitting next to me is taking his ant farm to school for show and tell, and suddenly it’s obvious why humans can lift so many times their own weight. The monorail keeps accelerating and the ants are now proving the existence of exotic particles that appear to them as wobbling discs. The ants build and raze statues in likeness of the boy, who has since become a manifold.
Even if we did exist in higher dimensions, we wouldn’t. Instead we all share the same memory of a tired woman, crying quietly into her teacup. Her papers stacked under a paperweight—everything in its place, but therein lies the problem. Snow comes to rest on a palm frond, until it doesn’t anymore.
[ Objects ]
Somewhere in the depths of the city is The Object. It’s difficult to say from which epoch The Object originates because it appears in writing from the city’s past, present, and future. Before their languages were subject to the decree of Romanizar, the Xibipiio tribe told the story of qinchibri, a mythical bird whose feathers, when plucked, could draw mountains and forests into being, even animate the spirits of the dead. The conquistadors knew The Object as piña, which they found growing on a bayside beach. It was even sweeter than the cane they would soon cultivate, and it revealed to them, in terrible visions of pestilence and splendor, God’s intentions for mankind. The stockbrokers of our day make pilgrimages to The Object, hoping to read Taurus and not Ursa in its shimmering constellations. Years from now the same men will be stripped of their fortunes and take to the underground. They will trail the musk of sweat and sandalwood through the steam tunnels, rehearsing the speeches they’ll deliver when they do finally find The Object. You took everything from me, they pray as they walk this labyrinth of no entrances or exits.
Is The Object god, some have asked. In a sense, yes—it is whatever we want to see, whatever we need, whether we know it or not. On the nights I follow my yarn into the city’s belly, I find what I’ve been looking for all along. Contained within The Object is a city, so perfect it can only exist in miniature, its glassy surface the same firmament that contains it. Get close enough to this other world and your breath might become its fog, which is to say something whose beauty mustn’t be explained. Remember when you were a child, and you’d spin a globe on its brass axis, let it rotate until you stopped it by placing a finger on the location you were born or where you would die, which are really the same happening, obverse and finely etched as the sides of a coin? That’s when you’ll think to look over your shoulder and there it is, that sad, abstract face in the stars. He’s spinning out of control and there’s nothing to hold onto, no totem, no crystal ball, just the grooves of your own tiny shell.
Nick Greer is writer living in Tucson where he is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. His writing has appeared in Anamesa, Cleaver Magazine, and PLINTH. He has received awards, fellowships, and scholarships from the Academy of American Poets, the University of Arizona, Tin House, and the NYS Summer Writers Workshop.
When I was 16 I discovered subculture and went at it voraciously. I wanted to send away in the mail for every zine. I wanted to buy every 7-inch record of every band I heard and liked on WNYU’s New Afternoon Show, or on Terre T.’s show on WFMU. To find those records, I wanted to hit up every record store mentioned as a sponsor on NYU, and I think I made it to most of them (my favorite was Adult Crash on Avenue A). I wanted to go to every all-ages show I could get away with going to at Maxwell’s in Hoboken and, eventually, at venues in the City like Under Acme, the Cooler, and Dumba.
The weird thing was, though I had been a committed reader since forever, my quest for the best of the indie world did not extend to books. In fact, I remember thinking, until well into college, that it was too bad that there didn’t exist similarly DIY subcultures around the publication of literature, that there were no punk rock presses or bookstores where you could go specifically to find the books not everybody knew about. That’s not to say that I didn’t feel self-satisfiedly obscure in my love for Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or for colored girls who have considered suicide… but what moved me was what was inside of those books, not the objects themselves. There was no underground glamour to their means of production.
The fact that I didn’t realize that cutting-edge, punk-rock small-press publishing existed was even weirder because I actually spent a fair amount of time right in the midst of it, at St. Mark’s Bookshop. I think I’d been taken there first by Phil F., the possibly lecherous older stoner who worked at Pier Platters and had befriended me by saying, the second time I went to the shop, “I was just thinking about you earlier today. How did you like that Grifters record?” Or maybe I went there first with Douglas W., also older but definitely not lecherous, just so enthusiastic about music that he made monthly mixtapes of his favorite music and passed them out to all his friends, or jumped up in the middle of dinner to declare we were going right now to get me a copy of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions… or Can’s Cannibalism because it was actually inconceivable that I should go another day living without having heard them. I wish I could say I remember what either Phil or Douglas had taken me into St. Mark’s to show me, but all I remember is that I went back. It became a regular stop on my circumscribed wanderings through the East Village, before a show or on a weekend afternoon, always done in time to catch the last bus back from the Port Authority.
So what was I doing at St. Mark’s if not soaking up the vitality of the independent literary scene? I think I was looking at magazines. The racks at St. Mark’s were full of music and culture magazines I had never heard of, or had only heard about. And while glossy, non-xeroxed magazines didn’t have the talismanic appeal of the zines I mailordered, they offered testaments that the bands I loved existed, that the queer punk and riot grrrl scenes were made up of actual people who could be interviewed and photographed. At St. Mark’s I bought Chickfactor, Ben is Dead, Raygun. I felt more comfortable standing in front of the magazine racks than I did elsewhere in the store, maybe because elsewhere I didn’t know what else I was supposed to be looking for. St. Mark’s wasn’t a warm, cozy, cats-and-eccentric-salespeople kind of store. It was sleek and austere and very, very cool. I didn’t feel at home there, but at home was the last way I wanted to feel.
Over the years my engagement with literature deepened, and I learned about Soft Skull and Semiotext(e) and the Feminist Press and all the other incredible small presses that I guess I just wasn’t ready to know about in high school, and of course I looked for and found those books at St. Mark’s. It felt like the most perfect serendipity a few years ago when I discovered, in the window of St. Mark’s, a volume of stories by Denton Welch and Jane Bowles, two of my favorite writers, put out by Four Corners Press. When I heard that the shop was about to go under because the rent had been raised a gazillion percent, it seemed, at first, impossible—how could such an institution disappear? Luckily, their community of book lovers who felt the same way rallied, and the shop survived and moved to a new location. I don’t live in New York anymore and I haven’t made it to the new spot yet. I’ll try to go the next time I’m back east. I hope the new shop makes me feel the same way the old one did: a little nervous, out of my element, on the verge of discovery.
Sara Jaffe is a fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She coedited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata. Her first novel, Dryland (Tin House, 2015) published this month.
It can be tempting to believe you’ll increase the tension of your prose if your characters over-emote: cry, weep, wail, explode with joy. But it’s often more effective to convey emotion with a matter-of-fact tone and highly controlled language.
In this craft talk from our 2015 Summer Workshop, Debra Gwartney discusses ways to allow the reader to feel for herself, rather than be instructed by the writer.
Debra Gwartney is the author of Live Through This, a memoir which was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. She has published essays in American Scholar, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Salon, Tampa Review, Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, The New York Times (“Modern Love” column), and others. Debra is currently a member of the nonfiction faculty for Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program.
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Intrepid eating in the Magic Kingdom with Katie Arnold-Ratliff, from Tin House #56: Summer Reading.
We were a family obsessed. Every spring until I was fifteen, my parents minivanned me and my two siblings from the Bay Area to Anaheim, where we would hole up in a motel and visit Disneyland for a solid week. We never went anywhere else on vacation. I could find my way from Splash Mountain to It’s a Small World even if I were in a coma. I know the fragrance of Pirates of the Caribbean (dank cave, with a singed soupçon of wood smoke), the exact intonation of the Matterhorn’s safety message (“Permanecer sentados, por favor”), and the taste of every dish at every restaurant—because I have eaten it all, twice.
The park’s food was as much an attraction for me as any of the rides. I lived for the churros, the mint juleps, the Mickey-shaped pancakes, the massive turkey legs. But above all, I cherished our annual lunch reservation at Blue Bayou café, where I would order the hallowed Monte Cristo sandwich: an overstuffed turkey, ham, and Swiss creation that gets battered, deep-fried, and dusted with powdered sugar. This greasy love child of croque-monsieur and French toast was, to me, the highlight of the trip.
The glory of the park’s food is what brings me to Disneyland today: I am in LA on vacation and have detoured to Disneyland to revisit the dining options that held my preadolescent self in thrall.
This is the day I will learn that memory is a form of self-deceit.
When I arrive at the Mickey and Friends parking structure with my friend Laura—a foodie of similar enthusiasm, sentimentality, and caloric recklessness—attendants direct us to level “Goofy.” We’re nearly thirty, highly caffeinated, and genuinely excited. We can appreciate irony, sure, but neither of us is too cool for sincere delight. The day before, we’d gone to what Laura called “Secret Breakfast,” which turned out to be a diner hidden inside the Los Angeles Police Academy. As rounds were fired in the shooting range out back, we walked through the lush Spanish-style courtyard and then dispatched our eggs while gazing at photos of fresh-faced cadets from the ’30s and ’40s. It was like we were eating in L.A. Confidential. As Laura and I enter Disneyland, I realize we’ve come here for a similar reason: to be transported.
This is Disneyland’s objective, and food is key to its mission. You return to the quaint Main Street of your small-town childhood (whether you had one or not) via an ice-cream sundae; to the Old West by way of a rack of ribs; or to the pastel splendor of Disney’s animated films with a Technicolor Mickey lollipop. Disney understands that a transcendental experience requires absolute consistency. You won’t see a Haunted Mansion cast member in antebellum dress walking through Critter Country on her way to a smoke break. The illusion must be carried through—visually, musically, olfactorily (the urban legend that they pipe in the scent of waffle cones on Main Street is indeed true), and edibly.
“It’s surprising how good the food is here,” I tell Laura. We’re eating churros while in line for Indiana Jones Adventure; it’s 10:30 AM. “The Plaza Inn on Main Street has the best fried chicken, and this place”—I point to nearby Bengal Barbecue—“does awesome meat skewers.”
“Ooh, fried chicken,” she says.
We do the Jungle Cruise, Enchanted Tiki Room, Haunted Mansion, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and then our lunch reservation at Blue Bayou—which is located inside Pirates of the Caribbean—is upon us. We’d gotten coffee and pastries in LA and we ate churros an hour later. We’re full, but forget that. It’s Disneyland. Continue reading
Come join Tin House for a fresh batch of Craft Intensives in our Brooklyn office! The Tin House Craft Intensives are a series of Sunday afternoon classes focused on specific facets of craft, each led by a Tin House editor or writer. Less lecture and more laboratory, the Intensives combine close reading, discussion, and writing exercises to study what makes writing work when it works. You’ll leave with honed writerly chops and a sweet sucker punch of inspiration, ready to write audaciously.
This fall, Helen Phillips will help your flash–and all your fiction–to dazzle; Rob Spillman offers expert advice on establishing authority; Jess Row takes your writing to the next plane with a class on metafiction; and Emma Komlos-Hrobsky leads your work to the frontiers of form. Plus, you’ll take a peek inside our offices,* talk with a Tin House editor, and get a subscription to the magazine.
We want you on board! Applications are rolling, and filling fast, so APPLY HERE A.S.A.P! Final deadline is midnight, September 23rd. Questions? Email Craft Intensives Director, Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, at email@example.com.
*Please note that while we guarantee the intern desk is haunted, cameos by the ghost and the aroma of rose petals are subject to its whims.
During a few years in which I went to bed half-heartedly wishing not to wake up and woke up whole-heartedly hoping to be the person I believed I would someday be, I worked for eight months at the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s Telecommunications Headquarters for the Southwest Chapter, Region 8, calling local business leaders and begging them to be jailed for charity. We were paid $6.75 an hour, not including our state-mandated lunch. We were never to place the phone on its cradle between calls. We had scripts into which we were encouraged to inject our own charm. A rotating cast of twenty-four Outreach Associates sat at long desks lining a warren of rooms connected by riot-proof hallways hung with portraits of Jerry Lewis smiling next to children. Our room sported two tall windows that let us gaze at the office park’s internal courtyard whenever we opened the vinyl mini-blinds, which we were allowed to do but often did not.
My deskmate Raya and I had become friends during training, when we were the only pair who neglected to brainstorm a list of five persuasive interjections for keeping targets on the phone. Raya had the wide-set docile eyes of an herbivore and a cleft in her round chin. A few times each day, as a respite from harassing strangers, we made cheerful scripted conversation with her voicemail. One day at lunch, while we shared Lotaburger fries from a torn-open white paper bag transparent with grease, she told me that she could whistle low in the back of her throat without opening her mouth. She had done so throughout middle school and, she admitted, some years into high school, just to watch her teachers whirl and pace the classroom in frustration. I recognized in her a thing I had suspected about myself, a stubborn, blinking detachment from the splatter of pain, panic, desire, striving, vulnerability, joy, lust, bloodshed, heroism, obsession, grief—something that let her witness without participation the spectacle of human unraveling. I had been thinking a lot about it at the time. I felt I had to monitor this quality the way you watch and wait for swelling to go down.
Raya and I began to carpool to work and go for drinks after. Over whiskey sours with extra cherries at Cowlicks we imitated our boss Marlene and the way she said “Receptionists are your friends,” even though they did not seem to be my friends when I called them in the middle of their morning coffees and said “Hello, has your boss committed the crime of having a big heart?” or “How would you like to see your boss behind bars for good?” or “Hasn’t your boss always wanted the chance to meet Jerry Lewis . . . in the slammer?” In line for the bar’s bathroom we said “Oh-kay” the way Marlene did after the lunches at Souper Salad that amped up her iron levels. When driving home a little drunk we patted each other on the bulge of spine where neck became back, the way Marlene did when she was being encouraging, her rings cold on our skin.
If we got to work before Crystal, who had short blonde dreadlocks and a permanent dignity, one of us would toe her phone’s plug from the wall on the way to fill up our water bottles, but we rarely got to work before Crystal. Her name was at the top of the office whiteboard next to a forest of tally marks and a jaunty malformed star that said Shine—for Muscular Dsytrophy. She wore blue blazers with slip dresses and Timberland boots and at lunchtime she sat alone in the courtyard no matter the weather, eating pasta salad studded with red peppers and breathing deeply. Although Crystal was in her early twenties like the rest of us, she had a dandelion-headed daughter named Mavis, who stared back at her each day from a frame covered in plastic jewels and hot pink foam dolphins I assumed Mavis had cut with safety scissors at the after-school program she attended while her mother reminded targets about the limo ride to and from La Quinta Inn, and the hot appetizers from Chili’s, and the keepsake pictures in prison costume.
We made fun of these keepsakes, which Marlene sometimes printed and taped up near the whiteboard for motivation. At biweekly team meetings, when Marlene passed around glossies of gap-toothed kids enjoying the camp we’d helped pay for, Raya and I had to force ourselves to coo before we passed them along. When Denise from down the hall’s mother died of a heart attack while sitting in traffic and Raya and I caught Denise sobbing in the break room with a knot of white lilies twisted and dripping in her hands, Raya told me she worried she wouldn’t cry for her own mother, and I told Raya I worried I might be secretly cruel, two things we said we’d never said to anyone.
By winter Raya had left for another job, a receptionist’s position (“Receptionists are your friends!” we said on her last day), and without her I only lasted a few weeks. I moved on to no great success but no great failure; sometimes I catch sight of myself in store windows and see evidence of some subtle improvement that by the next moment has lifted like mist. When we stopped calling each other, I still liked to think about running into Raya, liked to decide that she had on a whim or out of passion broken up a series of marriages, that she had adopted a yowling houseful of dogs or moved to Nebraska and made a fortune in fracking, that she had begun following some band and leaning forward in the crowd at overseas shows while sweating from devotion, or scattered her mother’s ashes in the grass of her backyard and stared into the night dry-eyed.
Marta Evans teaches fiction writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she recently received her MFA. Her work is forthcoming in Fence.
Sagan is best known for her slim, stunning 1954 novel Bonjour Tristesse, published when she was only eighteen. The book quickly became a succès de scandale and Sagan became a celebrity. In the novel, seventeen-year-old Cécile is vacationing on the Côte d’Azur with her widowed playboy father Raymond and has her first romantic experiences with an older boy who is a law student. Anne, a close friend of her deceased mother, comes to visit and Anne and her father fall in love. Cécile comes up with a plan to ruin the relationship and have things return to the laissez-faire ambiance that reigned in their holiday house before Anne arrived.
One of Sagan’s first luxury cars in the 1950s — most likely after the success of Bonjour Tristesse — was a Jaguar XK 140 (or an XK 120 by some sources — in either case, a mega-fast gorgeous sports car with record acceleration speeds from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 10.0 seconds for the XK 120 and 8.4 seconds for the XK 140). Sagan is credited to have said, “Money may not buy happiness, but I’d rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.”
The Jaguar was just one of numerous sports cars that she had, including an Aston Martin in which she had a serious accident in 1957. Michael Seidman — author of The Imaginary Revolution: Parisian Students and Workers in 1968 — recounts that someone making a speech asked over the loudspeaker, ”Have you come in a Ferrari, Comrade Sagan?” to which Sagan replied, “No, it’s a Maserati.”
Sagan liked speed. A lot. So much so that she dedicated a chapter to it in her 1984 book of reminisces of famous writers and cherished ideas called With Fondest Regards. In her brief chapter entitled “Speeding,” she writes, “Whoever has not thrilled to speed has not thrilled to life — or perhaps has never loved anyone.” (Over the years, she had a tumultuous love life — two husbands and numerous affairs with both men and women.) She writes about speed as pleasure and this seemed to spill out into other areas of her life that she wrote about in With Fondest Regards: “Games of Chance,” “The Theatre,” and “Saint Tropez.”
Sagan died at age 69 in 2004 and left large debts behind. She also left behind a prodigious output of twenty novels, nine plays, three volumes of short stories, two biographies and many non-fiction collections. And she left behind her personal philosophy, summed up in the last line of “Speeding”: “Well, that is everything that I believe to be true — speed is neither signal, nor proof, nor provocation, nor challenge; it is a surge of happiness.”
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.
I had the fortune of meeting Matthew Neill Null at the Jentel Foundation’s residency a couple autumns ago. Looking back, it’s a delight to realize that I was watching him go into his cabin to churn out the pages that would be become this fantastic novel, Honey from the Lion. We couldn’t lure him to movie night. He was as warm as anyone could be, but there was a little blue flame over his head, a spark in his eye. Dude was touched.
Reading it now, you see how the book was a loving and easy commitment. Every page is vital and vivid and rich with history, character, and conflict. A lot of books require the reader’s tacit commitment to the artifice—you push too hard on some and you realize that they are gossamer, that all books might be made of pretty frail stuff. But when you encounter a book like Honey from the Lion, you know you’re knocking on something hard and real.
Which is another way of saying, I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to have this novel pour out of Matt’s head. It’s a beautiful craft. It’s an achieved thing.
Smith Henderson: Some of my admiration surely stems from the overlap of our preoccupations and backgrounds. My father is a logger, so your book is right in my wheelhouse. We’re both from the same kind of calloused-nearly-from-birth stock—yours in West Virginia, mine in Montana. That plaid-collar upbringing makes for a very self-suspicious writer. You always feel like you might be trying to dodge real work with this art crap.
But I’m curious about how your pedigree plays into your work.
Matthew Neill Null: Smith, we get along well because we’re from unloved redneck America, where the best birthday present someone can give you is a chainsaw, followed close behind by a generator. The other day, I saw on the news that a woman from Grafton, West Virginia, shot her husband in the stomach because “she was tired of looking at him.” When the other people in the room got all het up for gun control, I said, “Well, marriage is hard, and marriage in Grafton is even harder. There’s not much to do.”
You’re in Los Angeles, I’m on Cape Cod. In places like Montana and West Virginia, the population loss has been staggering as people have left for cities and suburbs and the military. This is the great story of social change in the last one hundred years of American (and global) life, but it is not discussed. My family has been in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania from the colonies on, and our fortunes have basically shared the boom and bust of extractive industry. We’ve lived in the big shining house, and we’ve been broke. It’s sometimes pointed out that my work wants to comprehend long expanses of time and character, using an omniscience that can go anywhere and see anything, and that comes from a desire to comprehend a longer history than a single human life can provide. A shifting vantage is important to me.
Honey from the Lion takes place circa 1904, when ten million acres of virgin forest were clear-cut in West Virginia in a brutally short span of time, and explores how it challenged and changed the people. The leveling of the old forest upended our social order and created a new political-industrial class. I’m interested in communities, not individual lives. I could never write a Portnoy’s Complaint. I’m allergic to solipsism, my generation’s presiding spirit. I was lucky—in a small place, there’s porosity between classes. I had blue-collar grandparents, but my dad was a small-town lawyer and my mom was a nurse. We socialized with miners and doctors, mechanics and judges, foresters and teachers, old and young, teetotalers and drunks. A great education. The best was the talk. Everyone could hold court. If you stopped at the gas station, it didn’t matter if the line was five customers deep—the clerk wanted to know where you came from, what year you graduated high school, who you’re going to see, etc. In Ireland, I saw the same social dynamic. (Ireland and West Virginia also share the august literary genre of the sheep joke.) The population is thin, and the houses are widely spaced, so when you do meet someone on the road, you share your gossip, news, and jokes in one long gush. Then you move on, still alone.
“Aren’t you glad you don’t live there anymore?” I’m asked from time to time. In some quarters, places like West Virginia are viewed with suspicion, if not contempt, for political and cultural reasons. Personally I’ve found fiction writing to be corrosive to political belief. Ambiguity is the novel’s lifeblood. We have too narrow a conception of what literature should be and how life should be lived. The artist should be a resister of consensus, the last one yelling, “Stop!” Instead, we keep our work between the buoys, offend no one, and choose to be relentlessly middlebrow in our art and palatable in our social lives. “To be everyone’s friend is to be no one’s friend”—one of my characters wonders this before he is killed. Let’s give literature back to the cranks.
When I consider my pedigree, the division between the city and the country comes to mind. Besides a few college towns, the literary culture is New York City, that provinciality on steroids. Anything outside of the I-95 corridor is regionalism, as quaint as grandma’s quilt. Why do we cede American Letters to a handful of corporations that exist on a single concrete patch? In college, I thought I’d be a scholar and write an epic on this urban/rural tension; my touchstones were Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, and Susan Howe’s The Birth-mark. It was meant to be a rock cheerily thrown at our conceptions of land use, power, and control; I’d thread Faulkner and the Army Corps of Engineers, Haussmann and Robert Moses, lending libraries and Methodism, turnpikes and slums, Huey Long and the Huguenots, the New Deal Coalition and LBJ. But then I realized I’d have to give twenty years of my life to it, and that like most academic works it would die unread. If I was going to sink that much time into writing, I might as well do novels and have some fun. (I overestimated the fun involved.)
SH: Amen. I think you’re spot on about the narrowing of literature. I always had the sense that I didn’t belong in the world of letters. In retrospect, I was damn lucky that my folks were so working class, but as I was coming up, it sure felt like nothing I had to say was relevant. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve given less and less of a damn.
Speaking of which, we’re also around the same age, and have that same sadness that the world has begun to rapidly disappear. No, I didn’t say “change”—what is here now isn’t the world, but some reduction of it, and I feel the same kind of outrage and astonishment in Honey from the Lion that I know in my bones. That said, the book has a sort of sad inevitability to it, but not resignation. This is all good for art (lucky for us) but you’re a new father, so I wonder about the evolution of your thinking around the deteriorations that will be permanent—if that’s not too depressing to think about.
MNN: My novel is a shout and a warning, but it’s like shouting into a well—will anyone hear it? No. But let’s shout. My characters are culpable; they realize what they’re doing; they will live on in the wake, in that white oblivion of aftermath, but not before trying. Seldomridge the pastor is troubled but brave. Zala sacrifices her own hard-won security. The union men are willing to give up their lives, let the walls catch their blood, be the grease on history’s wheel. It is easy to resign yourself, especially those of us with an ingrained country fatalism, but for my characters, the fever breaks. They try to take the world in hand and bend it like a hoop of iron. Everyone fails in his or her own way, but they have found the will to choose their own destruction. Could you call it a Pyrrhic loss? Better than sad, slow dissolution. Continue reading
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. Up this week is Anmiryam Budner of Main Point Books.
Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?
Anmiryam Budner: Like many avid readers, I learned to read quite young so it’s hard to remember my first loves. Some of the books that became a part of the fabric of my reading life early on and that I still recommend are The All-of-a-Kind Family series, and From the Mixed-Up Filed of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. They are still touchstones for many women I meet; secret decoder rings of the bookish of a certain age.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
AB: Temeraire from Naomi Novik’s series of fantasy novels that read like Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, but in which the the Napoleonic Wars are spiced up with the aerial maneuvering of a corps of dragons and their riders. Temeraire, a rare Chinese Imperial Dragon, is the friend we all wish we had—wise, loyal, compassionate, questioning, curious — with the added bonus of being able to fly. And fly around the UK is exactly what we would do before spending an evening discussing recently read books and a smattering of international politics.
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
AB: It’s intensified the pace of my reading and makes me read with an eye to who else would like a certain book and why. Since I also lead one of the store’s book clubs I’m also reading to discover if a book is “discussible”. I’m also realizing I’ve become more sensitive to the elements within a book that some readers will find disturbing and unpleasant in a way that I don’t when reading for myself.
THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?
AB: Book? A single book? Ha, I usually try to load any unwary questioner with an armful. Some of the recent favorites on my recommendations shelf include: A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell, The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, Re Jane by Patricia Park, The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter, and The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein. I could go on; I have a tendency to colonize other booksellers shelves as well.
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
AB: New book: The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter. At fifteen Jane is minding a five year old who vanishes during an excursion in the woods. Years later she comes face-to-face with the child’s father and tries to understand what happened and how it has affected her life. Interwoven with the present day narrative is the story of another disappearance in the same woods more than a century before. This lyrical tale that unites the present with the past and confronts what it takes to heal from a traumatic event. It’s got a chorus of ghosts, a Victorian mystery and even some lovely connections to the plight of the trapped Chilean miners who were eventually rescued. It’s a quiet book and one that just didn’t make as big a splash as I could have wished for it.
Old Book: Pilgrimage by Zenna Henderson. Classic science fiction that is as wonderful a meditation on belonging and immigration as much literary fiction on the same topic. The stories are beautiful evocations of Henderson’s beloved New Mexico, and confront the combination of community spirit and individual resilience required to survive in a harsh landscape. Her humanoid settlers from another world have special talents — loved the talents when I was eleven, and still do, but now I have fallen for the more human concerns that all her characters confront.
Anmiryam Budner is a reader, writer, knitter, feminist.
From the time I was very young, I knew I’d be famous. This conviction was different from wanting to be famous, or wanting to be good at something that would make me famous. My impending fame was constitutional. It lodged within me and bided its time as I sat in all the plastic chairs of childhood, static electricity pulling my arm hairs delicately away from my body. My ankles knocked loosely against the chairs’ metal legs, and I waited for the future to float up and meet me.
My patience stood in contrast to my fame-seeking classmates, who devised their personalities as advertisements for their future selves. These spotlight-chasers were my best friends. They saw something in me they couldn’t put their fingers on, and so their hands were always on me. Is it normal to knead a friend’s shoulder so robustly, to intuit endless knots in a best friend’s hair and allow one’s fingers to work their way into the waves to debarb them? Normal wasn’t a viable bridle path for any of us. They loved me and I let them.
When I did become famous, it was for doing something I never thought I’d do. It was the thing that when I was doing it I thought less about my fame than when I was doing any other thing. One of my best friends who was famous for her work with crystals had given me a polished crag of lapis lazuli. She’d told me that lapis activated the higher mind and encouraged honesty of the spirit, so I put it on a windowsill in my workroom because I liked the color. It was the color blue of the earth from space—that warm and distant. I missed it even when it was in front of me. The stone filled me with a hopeful desperation that made me produce the best work of my life. It was only a matter of time before the phone started ringing.
For the first few months I played a game I invented: I picked up a magazine from the stack on my coffee table and allowed my body to foam with surprise when I turned the page to a mention of my name or a photo of my face. In the game, I felt famous to myself. Because I had never felt anonymous, the new attention I got from fans and neighbors didn’t bother me. Because my friends had never befriended me disinterestedly, I wasn’t suspicious of my increased popularity. I became known for always wearing a startling blue.
Q: Do you think being famous is the same as being loved?
A: I think being famous is a form of love. I think wanting love isn’t a way of getting love.
Q: Do you consider fame to be an extra or an essential part of your daily life?
A: Soon after becoming famous, I bought a farm on 100 acres. The real estate agent told me that the barn—my current workroom—has the capacity to hold 40 grand pianos.
Of my dear old friends who are now also famous, I see many of them misplacing aspects of their former selves. They are no longer from Florida, they never did stints as accountants. They never loved women. Sometimes, the women they loved come to me and ask me what they should do: Should they go to the media? Should they try the talkshows? I tell them the sort of fame they’d gain from doing this would likely be unflattering and aggravatingly long-lived. I offer to name them as my former lovers at the next available opportunity, and most of them take me up on it.
My sex life, since you’re wondering, is as fine as it’s ever been. I’m far from lonely. I keep my hair long enough to build up some knots.
Q: Where were you when you first realized that you would be famous?
A: When I was three years old or so, I was out to dinner with my parents in the city where we lived. A woman came up to us and gave my parents a business card. She said that she was a photographer, and that she was making a book of photographs of children in the neighborhood. Some days later, my parents took me to her studio. They sat on a couch to the side and were offered soft drinks while the stylists dropped me on a tall stool, flipped my hair back with gel, clipped on heavy pearl earrings. They dabbed on some makeup. Instead of a shirt they wrapped me in a feather boa that they made to fly around by pointing a fan at it. Most of this I know from photos and from what my parents told me. What I remember most is that the fan blew a hard wind and the feathers of the boa flew around me, like a bird trying to take off, though the photographer had asked me to keep very still.
Sara Jaffe is a fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She coedited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata.
As ever, the Tin House staff spent the end of its summer catching up on new releases, finally reading Scandinavian classics, chilling out with jazz, and—oh, right, visiting the pencil store:
Emma: A New York Times article alerted me to the presence of an all-pencil, all the time shop in my midst: CW Pencil Enterprise, on Forsythe Street in Manhattan. I made a visit, and it’s great. My list of favorite holidays ranks thus, in ascending order: 5.) Plath’s birthday 4.) The Oscars 3.) Valentine’s Day 2.) Halloween 1.) Back To School Shopping Day, so you can imagine my feelings about a store that sells nothing but the best and strangest stationary from around the world. I went home with a Big Dipper, three Bugles, an eraser shaped like a river stone, a Blackwing, an Edelweiss, and a Maharaja wrapped in a pink marbleized paper, plus a Wolverine Boots pencil that fate dealt me via the store’s vending machine. But the real gift of CW Pencil Enterprise that keeps on giving was a podcast recommendation from the store’s owner, Caroline Weaver, which she made while wrapping up my haul. Apparently my Bugles were very on-point having recently been featured in Erasable, a pencil podcast, because there is such a thing, and it is also great. Episodes feature check ins-on what the hosts are drinking and what they’re writing with, cameos by Weaver herself (no introduction necessary, evidently, for those who’d be tuning in), and talk of incendiary plans to crash pen conventions. Highly recommended for the pencil-committed and the casual scribbler alike.
Heather: Jazz, calypso, swing, post-punk—Italian trumpeter, singer and composer Roy Paci has played a lot of just about everything at some point in his long career and with great verve and charisma. He’s worked with countless bands, musicians and DJs including Manu Chao, Gogol Bordello and Shantel. In 2002 he formed his own band, Aretuska, and there’s a fresh sound to his music that is both traditional and super new. His version of “Cantu siciliano” rocks in any and all seasons and his suave “Bonjour Bahia” is excellent. Paci’s tunes are a superfine and smooth way to start September.
Cheston: For as much as I pride myself on being punctual, I’m a persistent latecomer, culture-wise. I often have to be practically girded by recommendations before I’ll give in. And since I finished The Long Ships, I’ve been kicking myself for not having succumbed earlier. This isn’t likely news to anyone but me, but the book’s a faux Nordic saga set in the 10th century, written by the Swedish writer Frans Bengtsson and originally published in two parts in 1941 and 1945. It follows the adventures of a man named Orm, who at the book’s beginning is kidnapped by Vikings and has to win their respect. I don’t want to despoil any of the book’s many pleasures by summarizing them here, so consider yourself goaded.
Tony: I remember that morning at AWP when Cheston—lacrosse shorts hanging off those sturdy thighs, hangover musk wafting from his Air-BnB’d bedroom–clutched a stack of manuscript pages, looked at us terrified, and went on and on about the 10K-word story he’d just read: a story that painted a not-unsympathetic portrait of a child-porn addict. Not surprisingly, I had some doubts. But that piece, “Dark Meadow,” became one of my favorite’s that appeared in Tin House, and my favorite in Adam Johnson’s excellent new collection of similarly long-ass short stories, Fortune Smiles. I don’t think there’s a miss in the book (and it’s particularly fun to read a story that nods at “Dark Meadow”‘s origin), but someone should teach an entire master’s class on one of Dark Meadow’s early sentences—the one that sent shivers down my spine, and I’d wager it was the one that filled Cheston’s sleep-boogered eyes with terror: “But I’ll admit this now, because this is going to be a certain kind of story: the Cub activates.” [We all remember AWP ’14 differently, but I recall walking in on Cheston reading “Dark Meadow” at night, alone, and knowing looking at him that he needed a hug he wasn’t going to get. The lacrosse shorts thing is accurate, though. —Ed.]
Meanwhile, the interns have had a busy month, too:
Jess: I just saw The End of the Tour, the film adaptation of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which itself is a transcription of a few days–long conversation between Lipsky and David Foster Wallace. Lipsky was interviewing Wallace for a Rolling Stone profile that never ran, and it’s pretty easy to see why the editors decided to chop it; Wallace’s everyday speech (so, excepting, of course, his excellent 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College), circular and complicated and tangential, is nearly impossible to distill to the two- or three-sentence chunks that profiles require. But the material is perfect for a book and even more perfect for a film, as the dialogue comes, literally, straight from the source and his sweat-hiding headband. I really loved the film, and if you’re worried about Jason Segel playing your hero, I understand you, I was you once, but please go see the film anyway and count the ways you are wrong. See it for the Alanis Morrisette talk and for Segel-as-Wallace saying “Mi Pop-Tart es su Pop-Tart.” It’s delightful, but it’s also soul-crushingly sad to be reminded that we’ll never get more brilliant, empathetic work from Wallace.
Nicole: This August there was a lot of youth, but very little beauty. First-up was Ottessa Moshfegh’s much-anticipated debut, Eileen. Moshfegh, known for her intense, dark short stories does not disappoint with her descriptions of the disturbed mind hiding behind young Eileen’s death mask. Next up was Geoff Dyer”s 1980’s dole memoir The Colour of Memory which may have my favourite opening paragraph of all time: “The weather was getting people down. I wasn’t keen on the weather either but what really put a dampener on things was being thrown out of my house and sacked from my job.” Finally, Thomas Morris’s brilliant debut We Don’t Know What We Are Doing, a collection of interlinked short stories set in the Welsh town of Caerphilly. A personal favourite is “Fugue”—the familiar story of a disaffected millennial returning to her hometown becomes something unexpected and twisted.
Cameron: Modest Mouse defines so much of my emotional, spiritual, and existential background that I am inescapably—and at times somewhat pathetically—a “die-hard.” I remember lying in the bed of my family’s RV in the sixth grade imagining my then (twelve-year-old) girlfriend waving her hair seductively on the beach. I was staring at the pocket-sized swim team photo she had given me and listening to “Float On” for my first time.
Twelve revolutions around the sun later and here I am: still in love . . . with a band. In Strangers to Ourselves, lead singer of Modest Mouse, Isaac Brock, pines for our common thread as humans and our relation to the natural world. Known and celebrated for his profound, penetrating, and shrewd lyrics, Isaac’s words have made hairs stand on my back more than once. And once again, their new record is a miracle in intellect: it masks tragedy with exotic drum sections and metaphor; it cradles you in sweet, abstract nostalgia, acknowledging the coyotes that still tiptoe untroubled through the great forests. The record makes me feel as though I’ve returned to my private Catholic middle school: my stiff collared shirt tucked under my green shorts and brown, dress-mesh belt, my converse too big for my feet as I listen dutifully to my sagacious teacher. (I’ll always be twelve when listening to Modest Mouse.) Isaac’s guru advice by the end is to find a fence to lean on, rub your eyeglasses clean, and be brave, because the life you put out will produce the world around you.
Claire: I have nothing but admiration for My Body is a Book of Rules, the shimmering new autobiography by Elissa Washuta: Open, ruthless, and more self-critical than any other non-fiction writer I’ve read recently. The book is both dark and hilarious, sometimes in the same sentence. Even when the events of the narrative seem to repeat themselves, it isn’t an editorial oversight or sloppy writing; the repetitions are signals of what matters, the writer picking them up again, holding them at a different angle, searching for new answers. It feels honest and intimate. Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts: “I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding.” Washuta writes with the same urgency and fiery curiosity. A gift for those who appreciate a good autobiography and fine, precise writing.
Dryland launches today! If you are in Portland, don’t miss Sara Jaffe’s reading at Powell’s tonight. This morning on The Open Bar, Sara talks with her editor about Portland, 1992, swimming, R.E.M, and how writing is hard.
Masie Cochran: Place plays a role in Dryland. Can you talk a little about how you chose where to set the book? Why the 90s?
Sara Jaffe: Both of these choices were, in a way, pragmatic. I chose the 90s in part because it’s when I was growing up, and I felt I understood being a teenager at that time better than I understand that experience today—but what really cemented that decision is that I didn’t want the internet to exist. It would have been too easy for Julie to track down information about her brother and to get in touch with him. I wanted her to have to look for mention of him in print magazines, to have to wait for his call.
And I set the book in Portland in part because I knew that if I set it in 1992 and I set it in northern New Jersey, where I grew up, I wouldn’t be able to get the distance I needed to create this character. Plus, Portland in the 90s was not yet the urban-hipster-semitropolis it is today; Julie would have access to some outside culture, some progressivism, but she’d be less worldly than if she lived outside of, say, New York. I lived in Portland for a minute in the late 90s, and my partner did grow up here, so I think I was able to decently piece together what it would have been like. Also, I should say, I never explicitly call the city Portland—I wanted to be able to play it fast and loose with geography if I needed to.
MC: What do you like most about Julie Winter?
SJ: I like that she’s surly, and that she lies—two things that I never had the guts to be/do. She’s also plenty insecure and awkward, but not really aware of her insecurity and awkwardness, so she’s able to act pretty boldly. That was really interesting for me as a writer—to figure out how to communicate to the reader that she’s more of a mess than she thinks she is. For that reason, though the novel is written in the first person, I don’t exactly think of it as being from Julie’s point of view.
MC: What was your “Country Feedback” as an adolescent? Was it actually “Country Feedback”? Why did you choose that song for Julie?
SJ: It kind of was! I guess REM were sort of my gateway into more underground music, even though I initially got into them because they were popular—“Stand” was probably the first REM song I knew. I liked how their songs were catchy but they felt complicated—in their best songs, like “Country Feedback,” or “Swan Swan H,” another favorite, there’s a sense that words Michael Stipe is singing are inadequate to describe the depth of feeling in his voice—that he’s trying, and maybe failing, to be as specific as possible about something indescribable. And “Country Feedback” is just so rambling and obscure—it was really enjoyable from a writing perspective to transcribe the lyrics onto the page. But also—I think I somehow didn’t know that I could listen to loud, noisy music. Or I didn’t know any noisy music other than hair metal on the radio. Sonic Youth’s “100%” was really a revelation for me—my first loud song. It’s significant that that’s the song Julie chooses at the end of the book.
MC: What interests you most about Julie’s relationship with her brother?
SJ: That’s one of the most difficult things about the book for me to articulate. In part I think it has to do with the fact that it’s pretty common, in adolescence, to feel like you’re searching for something. Julie has decided that her brother is what she’s searching for, or, at least, images of him in magazines—but is that only because he is what’s conveniently absent? Is she subconsciously using her search for him as a way to distract herself from dealing with her own shit? I also wanted to say something about queerness, because I know it’s possible that someone could read the book and think that Julie is only queer because her brother is, and she wants to be more like him. But so what? Identity, attraction, all these things happen for a ton of different reasons, some more conscious than others. And finally, this may seem like an evasion, but part of what interests me most about Julie’s relationship with her brother is that it allows Ben to come onto the scene. He becomes not just a substitute “big brother,” but in a way, an actual one—her chosen family.
Alexandra Kleeman has been getting terrific and much-deserved buzz for her wild, wily debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine. We at Tin House are proud to say we knew her when. Here’s her stellar unpacking of The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed, the first book written by a computer, for our 2012 Science Fair issue.
As a child in the early nineties, I discovered a type of computer program that others casually called “chatterbots”: text-based interfaces designed to simulate conversation between the user and a humanlike entity. These programs were entertaining, and they projected an aura of effortless sentience without the heavy-duty, strenuous programming that was then at the core of many other attempts to create artificial intelligence. ELIZA, the computerized Rogerian psychotherapist, was the most popular of the programs. It generated questions or turned each bit of user response into an open-ended statement, outputting phrases such as “I am sorry that you are depressed” or “Why do you think that you are a selfish person?” that encouraged users to say more, to provide more material, in order to further the specter of conversation.
But there was another program, called RACTER (short for “raconteur”), that would “talk” to you at length and at all hours and, unlike ELIZA, RACTER was a bit deranged. It solicited input from the user, and then placed these phrases, Mad-Libs style, into narratives that veered off into the nonsensical and the abstract. While ELIZA’s measured responses felt distinctly mechanical, RACTER’s weird tangents could have been the utterances of an odd bard. A year or two ago, while trying to hunt down a copy of the program, I learned that RACTER had “authored” a book — The Policeman’s Beard Is Half-Constructed: Computer Prose and Poetry by RACTER.
RACTER’s writing is spastic at times, crystalline and concise at others. In its stories, tangles of characters with generic names collide in dinner-party settings in which each character’s relations to the others are disclosed in cluttered detail; in its poems, a bizarrely whimsical lyric voice discourses on topics of love, cosmology, reason, and matter. There are stylistic flaws in the text — the words steak, lettuce, and neutron are conspicuously overused throughout. But the moments when RACTER captivates are those in which the voice surveys aspects of human experience, giving the effect of a speaker looking in on life from an inquisitive, but dissociated, exteriority:
At all events my own essays and dissertations about love
and its endless pain and perpetual pleasure will be
known and understood by all of you who read this and
talk or sing or chant about it to your worried friends
or nervous enemies. Love is the question and the subject
of this essay. We will commence with a question:
does steak love lettuce? This question is implacably
hard and inevitably difficult to answer. Here is
a question: does an electron love a proton,
or does it love a neutron? Here is a question: does
a man love a woman or, to be specific and to be
precise, does Bill love Diane? The interesting
and critical response to this question is: no! He
is obsessed and infatuated with her. He is loony
and crazy about her. That is not the love of
steak and lettuce, of electron and proton and
neutron. This dissertation will show that the
love of a man and a woman is not the love of
steak and lettuce. Love is interesting to me
and fascinating to you but it is painful to
Bill and Diane. That is love! Continue reading
Artist Stephanie Calvert is most known and celebrated for her dazzling, luminous close-up paintings of minerals. When she and I met in painting classes in college, I had a nebulous sense of some secret grit of hers buried beneath her fascination with luster. Recently, I found out just what that secret was: Calvert grew up with hoarder parents in an abandoned schoolhouse in super-rural Colorado, without plumbing or consistent electricity. Two years ago, Calvert’s mother was in a life-threatening bicycle accident that’s left her with permanent brain damage. The accident led Calvert to return home to see her mother–and the schoolhouse where they lived.
Calvert is now making art out of some of the things her parents hoarded as a means of trying to process the strangeness of their family life. It was a privilege to talk to her about her process, the psychology of having too much and not enough, and what she hopes to find through this work.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: I know that this project was born of your return to Thatcher and the schoolhouse in the wake of your mother’s accident. Within the context of that return, was there a particular moment when the idea for this work came to you? What was the first piece you made in the project?
Stephanie Calvert: The idea to return to Thatcher and work through my emotions using art was brewing in the back of my head for a while after going to Colorado right after the accident. What solidified the decision for me was a conversation with a close friend who really pushed me to tell my unique story. That conversation had me get that I was never going to feel “ready” to take this on, but that the time was ripe to start this project. The first finished piece I made is called And Another One. It’s made out of empty Altoids boxes and a wood frame. I found them spilling out of bags in one of the rooms. My mother used to always have Altoids in her purse, and she held onto the containers. I put them together in a piece, and a day later found a whole other box of them, so I took apart the piece and expanded it.
EKH: Have you been living back in the schoolhouse while you’ve been creating this artwork? What has that return been like for you?
SC: Yes, typically I spend a few nights in the schoolhouse alone, working/cleaning/meditating/sorting. Then I take a trip into Trinidad to stay a night at my parent’s house there, to help my dad take care of my mom, shower, connect to the Internet, and pick up food and supplies. It’s been so bizarre to be staying in the building again, especially alone. I’ve never experience space and silence like that. The building has so many memories; it feels like living in a time capsule in a way. And I have come to really enjoy being disconnected, with no distractions from my work. In so many ways, this return feels like a completing of many circles in my life.
EKH: Some of my favorite works in the project play so deftly with ideas of superabundance and chaos, but find something deeply melancholy or futile or still-absent even within that huge volume of stuff; I think of the rolls and rolls of hoarded paper from Page 1, or the assemblage of empty Altoids boxes in the And Another One or the many wood tiles that come together as the scull of Third Life. How do those elements relate in your work: this sense of there being, within this stuff, too much and not enough simultaneously?
SC: In exploring this project, I have the opportunity to explore my mother’s mind in seeing what she held onto, what she deemed as important or useful or interesting. I’ve thought a lot about how she collected useful things to the point of uselessness. Each physical thing you own has a string of energy attached to you, so the space in Thatcher can feel like a chaotic web at times, overwhelming and immobilizing with the sheer abundance. There is also a sense of melancholy for me, in seeing all these things and the building itself fall apart and decay over time with not being used, of half-finished projects and unfulfilled intentions. This is one of the ways I am completely a circle, by finally putting to use these things she thought she would use one day. I get a lot from reordering the stuff out there, finding new value or beauty in it, looking at the things from a perspective of potential and possibility again.
SC: It’s the most physical, emotional, and mental work I’ve done thus far. Each day is a different journey, with highs and lows. The space and things out there are strong triggers for me; I’ll find myself working on a piece or sorting through stuff and I’ll have a breakdown. Especially when I go through my mother’s things, knowing her condition since the accident, it can be so painful to see remnants and reminders of her life when she was young, vital, and engaged. I’m also often reminded of myself as a little girl when I was so angry, sad, and alone. It’s exactly this process that has me face all these challenging memories and emotions and work on giving love to all of it.
EKH: What’s your process been like with this project? Are you working simultaneously on many pieces? Where’s your studio space?
SC: I’ve cleared out portions of the building to use as workspaces. The inside space is about 100×50 feet and 2 floors of classrooms. At this point, I have workspace in several rooms, and areas where I’ve put materials I’m interested in using for future pieces. A typical day includes working on multiple pieces, searching for inspiration, and spending time meditating or journaling. Having so much space to myself is ideal for this internal and external exploration. I wake up before sunrise and take pictures in the morning light, and then I start on one of the art pieces. If I feel stuck or frustrated with one, I move onto to another one, or I take breaks to explore the building and sort through things mining for more inspiration. By sunset I’ve made some dinner and am usually taking pictures again in the evening light. Nighttime can be scary for me – a lot of the building is dark and there are strange noises, insects, and animals. Without much to do in the limited light, I read and meditate before an early bedtime.
EKH: Elsewhere you’ve described this project as means of understanding your mother, of “explor[ing] questions she can no longer answer in her current mental state.” Are you feeling like you’re finding those answers? What do you most want to know or find via the work of this series?
SC: Because of her brain damage, she confabulates now, meaning she mixes up memories, reality, and dreams. It’s hard to say how grounded in reality she is from one moment to the next, and her mind is so chaotic it’s simply not a reliable source to answer the questions I have about our family’s past. In going through the things out there, I’ve been able to get an insight into who my mother was, why we moved to Thatcher, and what her experience was like. I’ve found a lot of her writing, like essays, old letters, and notes, which explain so much and paint a more complete picture of my family.
Stephanie Calvert is Brooklyn-based artist raised in California and Colorado. Her work has been featured in private shows at The Lounge and My Moon, as well as in group shows including Signs of Life (Corridor Gallery), Default World Dreaming (Gallery 151), and En Masse-Raw Artists (OutPut).
In the dream, I was attending a pizza buffet with my brother when I was invited to a Caribbean pig roast. Hey, I said, you’re not going to believe this but—and he held up a hand. You, he said, were just invited to a Caribbean pig roast. On the drive over, I asked him what made it Caribbean and he said the word pineapple in a calm and confident tone. It turned out my brother had been to multiple Caribbean pig roasts in his lifetime. Am I dressed appropriately? I asked. You can wear anything to a Caribbean pig roast, he said. That’s what makes it so great. We pulled into a long driveway lined with tropical flags. Some of the flags had my face on them and other flags had the face of the pig on them. In the backyard of a house that resembled my childhood house but wasn’t my childhood house I was greeted by my entire extended family, all my co-workers from every job I ever worked, my three ex-wives, and my two daughters. Everyone is here, said my brother, who has ever loved you. My father pointed to the pig and said “except for that guy.” I didn’t laugh because I didn’t feel loved. When I asked my brother what the occasion was, he said no occasion, just a new occasion where everyone in America will once, in their lifetime, experience a surprise Caribbean pig roast with everyone they have ever loved in attendance. Oh, I said. My grandmother yanked the jawbone from the pig and fed her pineapple chunks to my mom’s dog. My mom sat alone in the corner reading a People magazine. Huh, I said, to myself. My brother was praised and applauded for organizing such an event and at one point was hoisted up by everyone in my family, minus me, and thrown several times into the air. Jesus Christ, said my boss, eating some pig dipped in ketchup. At night my ex-wives looked beautiful under the light from the tiki torches. They took turns wearing the pig’s snout and danced to my favorite songs from my childhood. The pig vanished under the moon. My brother told me this would be the highlight of my life, and looking out at everyone who had ever loved me full of pig meat, I felt my body rising and saw my daughters reaching for my feet. But they couldn’t feel me.
Shane Jones is the author of three novels, most recently, Crystal Eaters. His work has appeared online in The Paris Review, The Believer, BOMB, Diagram, and VICE, among others. His first novel, Light Boxes, was optioned for film by Spike Jonze, translated into eight languages, and named an NPR Best Book of the Year. He lives in Albany, New York.
It is highly improbable that another story collection will come along this year that packs a bigger punch than Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, out now from Random House. Don’t let the deceivingly brief table of contents fool you—each of these six stories is a genuine powerhouse, a tour-de-force, an astonishing achievement. [Fun fact: three of the six stories appeared originally in Tin House!]
Johnson’s characters are all, in their own way, seeking something like exoneration—from themselves, from their pasts, from their lovers, and from the world they inhabit. They long for some imprecise asylum, and the way in which Johnson captures that searching is nothing short of masterful. These stories have much to teach—both about what it is to be alive in the world and what it is to try and represent meaningfully that aliveness.
This interview was conducted over the phone with Adam, who was gracious and hilarious and insightful.
Vincent Scarpa: How long have these stories been in your arsenal? Were they all completed after The Orphan Master’s Son, or were some in the works before that?
Adam Johnson: That’s a good question. One story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” I wrote earlier. In the middle of Orphan Master’s Son, I knew that I needed to use a certain kind of third person with a certain kind of distance that I’d never really deployed before, and so I stopped writing that book and I figured, Let me test it out. So I wrote that story, “Hurricanes Anonymous,” that was really ratcheted-down and limited in a certain way, as a kind of test run to see if I could do that over a bigger novel. So that story came earlier, but the other five came after I finished the novel. I had just missed stories. I love everything about stories and I’d been just jonesing to write some.
VS: Was there any trepidation on your end, or on the publishing end, in putting out a book of stories—thought of by some these days as a dead-on-arrival endeavor—on the heels of a Pulitzer-winning novel?
AJ: Well, I’m lucky to have a great editor and a great house. I have a sense that the people who read short stories are the ones who want to write short stories, and who are very literary types, and it’s seemed to me always that there’s maybe 10,000 of us out there. But I do believe there has been a resurgence in short stories, and that there are great practitioners—whether it’s Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Karen Russell—doing great work and who are actually finding wider audiences for stories. Random House has been wholeheartedly behind these stories, and they really want to get them in the hands of readers, so I’ve been fortunate.
VS: I usually wouldn’t ask a writer to talk about the process differences between writing stories and writing novels—for a lot of reasons, but primarily because I just don’t find it an interesting or productive question—but I am curious to hear you talk about it, considering that you write some of the longest stories I’ve read at sixty, seventy pages. They’re Alice Munro long! And while each story in the collection feels fully realized and exists in a carefully constructed world all its own, I could easily see any of them being stretched into a full-length novel, especially stories like “Hurricanes Anonymous” and “Fortune Smiles.” They feel entirely complete to me as short stories, but undoubtedly contain so many opportunities for expansion. As a reader, I would’ve been down to follow either much longer. I suppose that’s a roundabout way of asking if these always existed as stories or if you had ever planned or tried to work one out into another novel.
AJ: Well, first of all, my process for writing is the same, regardless of form: I abandon my children, I become a horrible husband, and a half-assed teacher. That’s what it all has in common.
There’s definitely something a little maximal about my writing, just because one of the great joys is building a world out of nothing. That’s the largest pleasure for me, and it takes a lot of page space to do. To make a Stasi prison so that I can see every hall and cell and the looks on people’s faces, to feel the electricity humming through the wires. Or to know every street on a hurricane-ravaged town. Or to see every flashing light in the city of Seoul from the point of view of two defectors. I just have to build that world. I could kind of go on forever. I know these stories are all long, but they are honestly as short as I could get them.
Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller tells the story of Peggy Hillcoat who survives in a remote European forest with her father for nine long and lonely years. The novel won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, has been nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award, and was longlisted for The Guardian’s Not The Booker prize.
Claire has provided the Open Bar with a field guide to some of the flora and fauna which Peggy encounters in the forest. Each picture is captioned by a quote from the novel.
How well do you think you would survive in the wild with only an axe and a knife?
Eastern Grey Squirrel [Sciurus carolinensis]: Up to 20 inches in length. During the winter, they nest in the hollow of trees and in warmer weather they make temporary nests out of leaves and sticks located in tree branches.
Gribble or European Crab Apple: The walnut-sized fruit is as hard as wood, rather sour and unsuitable for human consumption.
Bracken [Pteridium aquilinum]: A large fern commonly found in woodland and heathland. It can tolerate a wide range of conditions and is found all over the world.
Blackbird eggs [Turdus merula]: The normal clutch of eggs is 3 to 5. The female incubates alone, and the chicks hatch 13-14 days later.
Destroying Angel [Amanita virosa]: Caps are 5 to 10cm in diameter, pure white, and without any marginal striations. The cap is initially egg-shaped and then campanulate (bell shaped) or occasionally almost flat but with a broad umbo, and is often tilted on the stipe.
Blackberry [Rubus fruticosus]: Blackberry plants spread aggressively by sending up long canes. As the canes mature, they lie down on the ground outside of the patch. Where the cane touches the soil, new roots grow, creating a new plant. Depending on the species, blackberry canes can grow up to 40 feet long.
Chanterelle [Cantharellus cibarius]: As well as their distinctive yellow colour these mushrooms are also known for their fruity, apricot-like odour.
Brown Trout [Salmo trutta]: Brown trout are one of the most genetically diverse vertebrates known. There is far more genetic variation present across populations of wild brown trout than between any populations in the entire human race.
Claire Fuller lives in Winchester, England. Our Endless Numbered Days is her first novel.
In Loot Bag, the cover of Tin House #65: Theft, Martin Wittfooth concerns himself with “the disquieting human habit of wanton materialism and the wastefulness that results from it.” Our avian cover model hoards a trove of stolen treasure in its beak: disposables such as plastic toys, aluminum cans, and fast food. Taking cues from Caravaggio, Wittfooth uses chiaroscuro to frame a dramatic intersection of portraiture and still life.
Wittfooth’s style is grounded in classic technique. He draws inspiration from the compositions and themes of artists such as Velázquez and Rembrandt. He also cites the dark pastoral paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, specifically his depictions of the Tower of Babel, as an influence. While Wittfooth’s practice is rooted in tradition, his concepts are contemporary. His work has a dystopian feel—industrial at times. Underlying themes of destruction and martyrdom run throughout. Anthropomorphized animals exist in the ruins of humankind as both victims and aggressors. They are a natural evolution of our wild nature.
But the Brooklyn-based artist doesn’t limit himself to the exploration of modern-day problems. He is also influenced by “the vast hopes and celebrations of being alive at this time.” He writes that “we are faced with . . . the greatest departure, disconnection, and confusion with the natural world [while] having the tools at our disposal to begin pointing the rudder toward reconnection.” It is within these dualities of destruction and evolution, classic and contemporary, that Wittfooth is able to render the human condition through wildlife-populated allegories.
You can see more of his art at www.martinwittfooth.com or on Instagram as @marsproject.
Like any good open bar, we’ve always seen the Tin House blog and the work it features as a great way to meet new people, forge new creative relationships, and encounter unfamiliar ideas. Be it fiction, nonfiction, comics, poetry, interviews, or reading recommendations, when you belly up to our bar, we want to put in front of you exactly what you need, whether you knew you needed it or not.
Recently, that’s been somewhat difficult. Until now, our submission process has been hovering somewhere between confusingly unorganized and functionally nonexistent. Starting today, The Open Bar at Tin House will begin accepting submissions via Submittable, at theopenbar.submittable.com.
We’re looking forward to being able to streamline the process with the help of our friends at Submittable, which has been an absolute godsend to the publishing industry. We’ll accept submissions to our favorite series—Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, Broadside Thirty, Carte du Jour, The Art of the Sentence, Correspondent’s Course, and Lost & Found—but we’ll always be glad to see work that doesn’t fit those categories.
Now get to work!
The Open Bar at Tin House
On the cover of Swimmers’ World was a swimming guy’s face obscured by splashes. On Swimming Monthly a coach in a rose garden. The smell of cigars stuffed the air at Rich’s News, and beneath it, a note of stale trading-card gum. On the wall, a sign said No Reading. Rich, if it was Rich, unpacked cigars behind the counter, ignoring me. My monthly or so spot-check of swimming magazines consisted of a practiced skimming: contents, capsules, photos. The cover of Poolside had a blond diver toweling off. If Rich took my skimming as reading and called me out, it would be easy to say I’d been looking for something, and if Rich said, For what? Rich wouldn’t.
Next to me, a guy was working. He was pulling magazines off the rack, tearing off their covers, and throwing the magazines and the covers into two piles on the floor. I’d gotten through Swimming Monthly and had just picked up Poolside. The guy said, Poolside, right on. You’re a swimmer?
I’d never seen him before. One of the things about coming to Rich’s was that nobody who knew me went there. Being at Rich’s was like being nowhere. I said, I’m not.
He said, You look like you could be.
I didn’t look like anything—my jeans and my raincoat and my flannel and my henley. I said, I’m not.
He said, Right on.
I said, Are you?
He laughed. He touched a bead on a cord around his neck. He had skaterish hair and he was older than me, my brother’s age, maybe. He said, Not me. He said, Sorry to interrupt your reading. He smiled like he knew me.
I said, I’m not reading.
He laughed. He said, That sign’s just there for the guys who come in to read porn. He made quotes with his fingers when he said read.
The back wall was all magazines in plastic with their titles popping out above blank sheets of paper. A few men stood in front of them. Should someone who didn’t know me be talking to me about pornos? Should he be talking like he knew me and making quotes with his fingers? The men at the back wall shouldn’t, it seemed, be doing what they were doing in public—scoping pornos behind plastic, hard-ons squirming in their pants.
My finger marked Poolside’s centerfold. The guy was still standing right there, as if he had something else to say to me. I turned the pages as fast as I could, barely looking, defeating my purpose. Goggled eyes, ripped abs, smashed boobs flashed by. Swimmers stroked down lanes and water splashed up and hid their faces. The guy ripped off a cover and tossed it in a pile. Any minute he could ask me what I was looking for.
Sara Jaffe is a fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her short fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She coedited The Art of Touring (Yeti, 2009), an anthology of writing and visual art by musicians drawing on her experience as guitarist for post-punk band Erase Errata.
Bob Dylan said hearing Elvis Presley for the first time was like breaking out of jail. Walking into Sue Shapiro’s New School class was a little like that. She was passionate, effusive, and within minutes had extracted dark embarrassing moments from my past for her infamous first assignment: write about your most humiliating secret. I felt lucky to be one of the 15,000 students to study with her, in both my undergraduate and graduate programs, where she practically ensured that we all get published. Reading her new autobiographical novel What’s Never Said, is a captivating take on how we communicate, or miscommunicate, and how the words unspoken can imprison us.
What’s Never Said is about her own school days as an MFA student in New York and the romantic relationship with a professor who was her mentor that—she freely admits—haunted her for three decades. It’s the story she says she couldn’t write until now, and it seems a perfect time for this outrageously honest story.
Susan Marque: What was your motivation for this novel?
Susan Shapiro: I always tell my students to write about their obsessions. And a female mentor of mine told me “You write best about people you love,” which inspired my first book “Five Men Who Broke My Heart.” Because that was a memoir, I was limited in scope. I hoped writing a novel about passion gone wrong would be as fun and entertaining, but that fictionalizing would allow me to go deeper and crazier. I always say I’m a raging feminist who loves men and marriage. Being in therapy has really helped me be happy in work and in love, for almost 25 years now. Students have pointed out that a lot of my shrink’s wisdom is laced throughout the book. Daniel tells Lila that poetry is about what’s left out, what never gets said. I guess what intrigued me most was how two heroes, Lila and Daniel, never tell their spouses the truth of what happened between them, and they spend their life obsessed with words but completely miscommunicate everything.
SM: Like your character Lila, you have your MFA from New York University. So is What’s Never Said a love letter to your past?
SS: In some ways, yes. I love poetry, studied and wrote it for years. But I was a failed poet. I really did have a mentor who told me “You have too many words, not enough music.” He loved my memoirs and said “there’s more poetry in your prose than in your poems.” I liked the idea of a memoirist writing fiction about poetry.
SM: Central to What’s Never Said is a secret relationship with a professor that you had. With your experience now, as a college professor, how do you feel about student-teacher relationships that take place outside of the classroom?
SS: By the time I started teaching in my thirties, I was already with my husband, so I never dated a student. Romantic relationships are hard enough without having a power imbalance. Through teaching on the graduate level and adult education, I have lots of work connections and friendships outside of the classroom with former students. I actually think it helps.
They say you should write the book you want to read and teach the class you want to take. I did—I wrote a book called “Only As Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons From my Favorite Literary Gurus” about my evolution, learning how to make a living as a writer. And I call my classes the “instant gratification takes too long” method—where the goal is to publish a great piece by the end of the class. I try to be a liaison in the real world, introducing my students to editors and agents who could help them get out there. My favorite teachers and mentors helped me navigate the real world outside of the classroom. Luckily I have great role models to emulate.
SM: The chapters in your book switch from past to present. How did you decide about time and what effect does that have on the experience of the story?
SS:They have a clear chronological sequence. Originally it started and ended in 2010 and the rest told the story—in order—in the 1980’s. But then a book editor my age told me she missed Lila’s older voice for 250 pages. So I added two older chapters in the middle. In my last coauthored book, “The Bosnia List,” we switched back and forth in time every chapter. So I thought that was an interesting way to add drama/conflict/tension.
We wonder if those fatal river rocks appeared to you as they appear to us—like molars from the mouths of giants. Your first name is Meredith, and your last name is something German-sounding that we quickly forgot. From the banks near Paradise Lodge, some of us spot the dull lampglow of your life jacket under the green and white-beaten water. Through binoculars, we watch your pale fingers curl against the current, inviting us all down to share your watery grotto and hear about what all you saw on the river that afternoon—an osprey, maybe, cutting helices under the crackling June sun, just before your kayak nosed into the rocks, tilting you and your wide-waisted crewmate into the drink.
Your friend was too rattled to linger at the lodge. We never caught her name, but rumor has it that you were helping her escape the rocks, and well, you know the rest. A tired irony, if it’s true. Who are you really, Meredith? Do you regret that selfless gesture? Is it embarrassing, having surrendered to water so shallow that sunbeams dazzle the glittery green polish on your toenails? Maybe you’re feeling good and mellow down there, watching flow patterns warp the surface, buoyant summer clouds riding egglike overhead. There must’ve been final words, but they belong to the river. Maybe you bubbled out something stoic, like, Here’s a fitting place to die, or maybe something more citric, like, Truly no good deed goes unpunished, you selfish fuckers. We wonder about these things, Meredith. You mean something down there under all that water. A protest to the obstinance of stone.
Rescue teams have tried to reach you from the rocks, the water, and the air, but it’s no use. Gorged with snowmelt, the Rogue runs too fiercely, and those rocks won’t let go. The Coast Guard say they’ll only recover live victims, and the sheriff says it’s a narrow canyon, not the kind of place to bring a helicopter. He says we have to let nature take its course.
Some of the youngsters at Paradise Lodge are still crying, but the older children haven’t cried at all, they’ve just gone quiet, matured by the gurgling river, and what it has taken from you. They’ve seen you loitering down there, our lady of the water, hair ink-loose in the current. Could’ve been one of us. In a way, it’s sort of beautiful how your body contains some small measure of the same water that contains you. Bodies within bodies, one swallowing the other. You’ve upset our lives, Meredith, or at least our weekend.
Know that you’re not alone, though the knowing won’t keep you warm. We’re told that earlier this month, a man from Coos Bay drowned along that same snarl of rocks. He sulked down there for a couple of days before the bloating worked him loose. You’ll inflate in much the same way, then you’ll bob to the surface, your belly a pale balloon. After you’re gone, the river will find a fresh pair of lungs to fill, and folks at Paradise Lodge will have another name to forget.
Nickalus Rupert holds an MFA from the University of Central Florida. Currently, he is a first-year PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in PANK, The Pinch, Night Train, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere.
From our Memory Issue, two poems by Patricia Smith.
Baby of the Mistaken Hue
Baby of the mistaken hue, child of the wrong nose
with its measure unleashed, baby of the nappy knot,
I am your mother. Mad at your whole damned face,
I swear to the task of torching the regrettable Delta
from your disobeying braids. I pinch your breathing
shut to reteach the bone, smear guaranteed cream
on your pimpled forehead, chin, and cheeks. I am
the corrector. Soaking a kitchen towel with the blaze
of holy water, I consider just what you are naked,
recoil at the insistent patches of midnight blanketing
your skin and I scrub, scrub, push the hard heel
of my hand deep into the dark, coax cleansing
threads of blood to the stinging surface, nod gently
in the direction of your Mama, don’t! I command
you to bend, to turn, to twist in the wobbly dinette
chair and reveal what hides from me, those places
on you that still insist on saying Negro out loud.
Remember how the nonbelievers screeched their
nonbelief at Jesus even as He laid His giving hands
upon them? One day you will comprehend the torch
I am. You will be burned smaller, lighter, ever closer
to the whiteness of my God, who loves you as you are.
It Creeps Back In
And before I can focus, before I can remember
my exercises, I’m gulping gin and warm water,
I’m standing in front of an open Frigidaire spraying
butter into my mouth. In the bathroom, I brush
dead hair into the sink, stare hard at blackheads
and bleeding gums. I thought this had been healed
every Tuesday: And are you still sleeping all day?
Taking your pills on schedule? The blue ones?
They say depression can’t be ignored, so I nurture
the drunkenness, say hello to pink rituals of throat.
Wiggling a finger inside myself, I’m wooed by the ghost
of current. September whispers I still need you.
It lies in the voice of a mother.
Patricia Smith is the author of five books of poetry, including Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award, and Teahouse of the Almighty, a National Poetry Series selection. Her work has appeared in Poetry, the Paris Review and TriQuarterly, among other publications, and she has received a Pushcart Prize.
Meg Storey: Place plays a huge role in The Scamp. Can you talk a little about how you chose where to set the book?
Jennifer Pashley: Well, like Rayelle, I grew up somewhat on the road. My family road tripped a lot, often in the country, always staying at roadside motels. So the feel of the rural South is very real to me. It’s stark and beautiful, even in its poverty and disrepair. Trailer parks and cemeteries have always spoken the loudest to me. There are stories there.
MS: Were there any books or movies that influenced the work?
JP: There was definitely music that influenced me while writing it, and that’s usually the case for me. The Scamp grew out of some crazy combination of Tori Amos and Miranda Lambert, which is the kind of thing I was more tempted to say when describing it to people than to compare it to other books or authors. And I mean those two pretty equally. There’s a cross section in this book of both:
Bring them all here
Hard to hide a hundred girls in your hair
__________—Tori Amos, “Cloud on My Tongue”
I’m goin’ home, gonna load my shotgun
Wait by the door and light a cigarette
If he wants a fight well now he’s got one
And he ain’t seen me crazy yet
_________—Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder and Lead”
MS: It’s rare to have a female serial killer in a work of fiction. What kind of research did you do to inhabit Khaki’s mind?
JP: I read some psychological studies of psychopaths. I was curious about how the psychopathic mind works, its lack of empathy. I also read (more than once, actually) Ann Rule’s book The Stranger Beside Me, about Ted Bundy, because it’s a fantastic account of both psychopathy and extreme violence. It’s also a beautiful narrative. It’s a great book.
MS: Who are some of your favorite fictional serial killers?
JP: Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, for his abject psychopathy, and his beauty regimen. The Vampire Lestat, for completely different reasons. Because Lestat is, I think, one of the most sympathetic villains ever. He’s right up there with Humbert Humbert.
MS: The Scamp touches on issues of class, domestic violence and abuse, incest, and motherhood. What do you most want readers to get from the book?
JP: This is a really difficult question. I think there’s a feeling of transcendence that I hope readers get. The idea that you can transcend a relationship that harms you. That you can love someone who has the potential to kill you. That those things aren’t mutually exclusive. These relationships are more complicated than a black-and-white abuser/abused. There’s complicity on both sides.
MS: You’ve published two story collections. Did The Scamp grow out of a short story?
JP: No, it didn’t. It has always been a novel, since the very beginning.
MS: What are you working on now?
JP: I’m always working on something. Right now, a novel is speaking to me. I’m trying to listen.
Raised in Syracuse, New York, by an accordion virtuoso and a casket maker, Jennifer Pashley is the author of two short story collections, States and The Conjurer. Her stories have appeared widely, in journals like Mississippi Review, PANK, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has been awarded the Red Hen Prize for Fiction, the Mississippi Review Prize for fiction, and the Carve Magazine Esoteric Award for LGBT Fiction.