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A Grandmother in Three Tales


(049. The Six Swans)

I took in mending while you were gone.

At first, it was a selfish endeavor: I stitched up both our clothes, repairing holes and frayed hems, so that when you came back we’d look smart enough to deserve our happiness. Then the neighbors took notice, and I began mending shirts and dresses, slacks and jackets that arrived at my door from all over town.

When there’s a war on, you begin to imagine that everything you do ensures some kind of guarantee. If my stitches are straight, if my sleeve lengths match perfectly, then he will return unharmed. If I do not finish before dusk on the final day, he will not return at all.

The woman I wanted to become said child, this is no hard task. This is what your fingers know to do. And it was true, somewhat. I had sewn my whole life, from hand-stitching with needles to the whir of an industrial machine. But never before had such a task been given me. With each button, I saved your life. Somewhere across the ocean, a hand was shot through. Somewhere, a man lost his face. I kept sewing. I did not speak with anyone, and I had no desire to laugh.

On the last day of the last battle, I sat in my sewing corner all afternoon and took stock. My blue dress, your shirts, the patch on Mrs. Johnson’s slacks—all done. I watched the sun set behind the Y two streets over. I waited the next day, and many days after that, watching the sky every night, but you never came home.



(040. The Robber Bridegroom)

When I met Mr. S some years later, I had given myself a new name. Who could call me the same woman? Mr. S liked my new name fine. Short and simple and practical, my new name was. Underneath his thin smile, I had the distinct impression that he thought of me the same way: a short, simple woman. A practical wife.

But he was nothing like you, in any way. Not prone to jokes, he was smart and reserved. My brother, who didn’t care what I liked to call myself, invited him to dinner. We sat in the winged armchairs that never got any use besides, and we watched the brand new television.

He laughed at the girls on Lawrence Welk as they crooned in harmony. What’s so funny, I asked him. Merengues, he said. They look like a rack of pies. It was then that I thought I saw you, looking out through his eyes, keeping me tacked onto the world.

We rented out the Elks Lodge for our wedding dinner. During dessert, a too-moist lemon cake, I looked down at my lap. My wedding ring glinted on my finger: it seemed to belong to a different hand.



(043. Frau Trude)

My granddaughter sits across the room, eating Chinese takeout and complaining to her mother and me about her cousins. They don’t like the same films she does, and this, she says, is a disappointment.

Maybe you’re finally learning that things aren’t always the way you want, I say.

Her face becomes a crumpled cabbage. Mom, her mother says, and puts her hand on my arm. Then I remember something I had forgotten: the girl’s heart, broken in its cage of bone and veins, broken by some boy off at school. Cried for days straight, her mother told me. The first heartbreak, I suppose, and so it will likely be the worst. I look at my granddaughter, who is eating chicken and broccoli. She managed, it appears, to get dressed this morning, even to put on a red silk scarf. She still calls herself by the same name as she did before.

Maybe you already know that, I say, for her mother’s sake.

It’s half-hearted, and we both know it. She knows nothing. She gives off too much of a light.


Cate Fricke’s work has appeared in Slate, Fairy Tale Review, The Sycamore Review, and others. She lives in Poughkeepsie, NY, and blogs at www.grimmproject.wordpress.com.

The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to theopenbar@tinhouse.com with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 2

The Rapture

BG-From-the-Vault-dc1From issue #44, Christopher DeWeese gets all puritan on us.


The Rapture

When they take all the lovers out of this park

only you and I will be left

as well as the flowers.

We won’t be bewildered:

we’ll ransack picnics,

thousands of them

until darkness touches everything at once,

a perfume only poor women wear.

Detlef, friendship will be our helmet.

We’ll commiserate together,

screaming until our bodies swallow

their own echoes.

We’ll remember candles,

the way string hangs a skeleton.

Did I mention it will be Christmas?

That snow will be falling

to reimburse New England

for the Puritans?


Christopher DeWeese is the author of The Black Forest (Octopus Books,). His poems have appeared in Boston ReviewFenceGranta, Tin House and a recent edition of Field. He teaches at Oberlin College.

Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

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Watching the Detectives: An Interview with Matt Burgess

BG-Interview-1Matt Burgess’s second novel Uncle Janice is set in Queens and tells the story of Janice Itwaru, a young undercover drug officer in the NYPD trying to make detective. As with his first book Dogfight, Burgess’s new novel is populated—stuffed, in the best possible way—with cops and drug-dealers, characters trying to get a leg up, to make it through the day intact, and, with luck, a little ahead of things. This is a sharp book about crime and policing, sure, but like all great literary crime books its real concern is the neighborhood, and one of the things I loved most about this book was the way that Matt brought Queens, that irreducible borough, to the page.

Fill disclosure: Matt and I have known each other for years, so you may not believe me when I tell you that it’s one of the best books I’ve read, and particularly timely. But maybe you’d believe Charles Bock, who said:

“Uncle Janice is that mythical sixth season of The Wire for which we have all been pining. Yeah, that good.  The daily trials and tribulations of one Janice Itwaru—undercover drug officer, fallen daughter, all around wrong way gal—make for that rarest of reading experiences: at once comic and enthralling, always surprising, and unexpectedly touching. The eye, ear, voice and heart of this novel are bulletproof. Whoever the hell Matt Burgess is, dude does not sleep for one sentence. Neither will you.”  

Whoever the hell Matt Burgess is! I love that.

Well, I know who he is, and I knew where to find him, and this interview was conducted over email while he was on the road, when neither of us was sleeping (he: worrying over sentences; me: worrying over an 8 month old).


Ethan Rutherford: First off, congratulations on Uncle Janice. I thought it was a terrific book, and though I hesitate to call it timely, to a certain degree, it is: things between the NYPD and the community it’s intended to serve are incredibly tense right now. And here’s a book about a young New York City cop, working undercover narcotics in Queens, under a lot of pressure to make drug-buys and survive long enough to make detective. The story very much belongs to Janice—and if it is interested in the issues of policing, it’s all filtered through her—but the book is set in 2008, in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting, which was another crisis point for the NYPD. Can you talk a little about how you came to set the book in the time/place you did? I’d also be interested in hearing what you think fiction can bring to these issues that, say, other media cannot.

Matt Burgess: Well, the book is set in Queens because I grew up there and I can’t yet seem to get myself to daydream about anywhere else. Stoops, park benches, pool halls, alleyways: they’re these charged spaces for me. I grew up telling and listening to stories, and it’s almost impossible for me to segue to fictional storytelling as a novelist without taking those places with me. When I was last in Queens, a couple weeks ago to promote the book, my friend Timmy was walking down a crowded sidewalk and there’s this woman coming from the opposite direction, talking to herself, and he accidentally makes eye contact with her, and when he does, she punches him in the stomach. She kept walking, everyone around him kept walking, and after a brief moment of confusion he kept walking too. What’s he going to do? Say something to her? Escalate it? Instead, later that night after work, he goes to the bar and tells us about it. That’s what we do. We try to cope with all this craziness by turning it into stories, and that’s what my books are trying to do.

But why 2008? I’m not quite sure. My previous book was set in the recent past as well, and it’s something the Coen Bros. frequently do in their movies (The Big Lebowski, which came out in 1998, takes place during the first gulf war.) I write blindly, in longhand, in black-and-white composition books, without any idea of where I’m going plot-wise; I think setting the book in a precise historical moment at least gives me something to hold onto. I don’t know what the characters are going to do on a particular day, but I do know what tabloid headlines they might be talking about. Plus, 2008 was particularly bananas for New York: the economic crisis, the governor sleeping with hookers, the Sean Bell trial, the Giants winning the Super Bowl. The nice/tragic thing about writing an NYPD novel, though, is that you can set it in any year and you’ll probably be addressing some controversial catastrophe.

9780385536806Specifically what fiction can bring to these issues is nuance. For both writer and readers the novel is an exercise in empathy, something these debates could use a lot more of.

ER: How much research went into this? The rumpus, the housing projects, the streets? How’d you pull these threads together?

MB: I’m going to borrow a line from one of my heroes, the novelist George Pelecanos, and say, “the most valuable research I do comes from just hanging out in the neighborhoods and listening.” I was talking to a friend mine who’s an undercover cop and I asked him what was the scariest part of his job. I’m expecting him to say getting shot at. Instead he tells me he’s constantly worried that his bosses might try to screw him over. Working the streets was less stressful than navigating office politics. That was a revelation for me. It’s hard for a lot of us to relate to police officers, but my friend’s most chronic problems—how do I navigate this massive bureaucracy while retaining some sense of self?—were things almost anyone can relate to, in the same way you don’t have to be a veteran of war to appreciate Catch-22. The germ of Uncle Janice came out of that barroom conversation. From there, the research took me to more hanging out: with dealers, with addicts, walking around the Queensbridge Houses, showing up at the Queens Narcotics Division, getting kicked out of the Queens Narcotics Division, and really just listening, without any sort of agenda.

ER: So how do you know when you’ve got the story? How do you know when to stop?

MB: I don’t know! I’ve got the story when heading to my desk every morning becomes a compulsion. I stop—and I stole this from a Raymond Carver essay—when I’m putting commas back in the same places where I’d taken them out on the previous revision.

ER: Janice is such a great character—full, complicated, funny—and in some ways such an unlikely protagonist. In crime fiction, we’re so used to seeing sort of lone-wolf investigators: men—almost always men—who are on the outs with their family and friends, hard-drinking and brawling loudmouths who cause trouble, who flaunt the law rather than being bound by it, etc. (this is a ridiculously simple take, I know). But Janice is young, and the mistakes she does make come from inexperience, or a very understandable ambition. She’s not jaded; she’s kind-hearted. She’s juggling a lot—taking care of her mother, who has early onset dementia; she’s thinking about her love life—and trying hard to make it through the day. How did she come to you, as a character?

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Posted in Interviews

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A Portrait of the Writer: An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates

A Portrait banner

It may surprise you, as it did us, to learn that we citizens of the United States have not yet built ourselves a museum to honor our great writers. Luckily, The American Writers Museum aims to do just that in Chicago in 2016. In the meantime, artist Mia Funk is tasked with creating a group portrait of America’s finest authors. In this ongoing series, she presents her preliminary sketches, along with thoughts on, interviews with, and histories of her subjects. This week, she sketches and interviews Joyce Carol Oates.

joyce carol oates mia funk portrait

To be an observer as transparent as a glass of water is a haunting metaphor. It is also, perhaps intentionally, something of a contradiction, considering the person who said it has published over 70 books. Those publishing cycles are those of someone fully comfortable with dipping into her subconscious and sharing what she finds there. The opposite of safe. The opposite of invisible.

In that way, Oates almost resembles Bob Dylan, that other poet of American life whose output astonishes and whose song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was the inspiration for her much anthologized “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” She seems to have embraced the same down-to-earth don’t think twice philosophy about producing work and moving on. Not so much a Mike Tyson (the boxer she has written extensively about) but a literary Manny Pacquiao; a fighter who has moved effortlessly between different weight divisions and is known for his fast combinations and not being afraid to rise up and stretch himself even at the risk of leaving himself wide open. Oates taught James Joyce’s writing at Princeton and also seems to share his intellectual curiosity for things high and low. When people from Dublin visited the Irish writer in Paris, he’s said not to have been interested in talking about literary theory, but quizzing them about all the little changes to his hometown since he’d left it. Oates also has this openness to learning from everything around her; her reputation for listening to students and helping them discover their style; her engagement with Twitter; the multiplicity of voices in her collected works. Joyce once said of Ulysses that he had put in it “so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”

Oates is just such a living puzzle: A funny and soft-spoken writer who often writes about violent extremes. A generous teacher who finds time to be one of our most prolific writers. (She made time for this interview during her transition to Stanford, that’s how giving she is.) Born on a farm in upstate New York, she began her education in a one-room schoolhouse and has now spent over half a century teaching at the highest level. Though some of her books seem designed to shock (Rape, A Love Story indeed contains a love story and not at all the one suggested by the title, and Blonde is not all glamor and Hollywood but an interior portrait of Norma Jean Baker) there is a subtly positive undertow to all this conflict in some of her stories about survivors, which is more evident in her fiction for young adults.

In addition to publishing under her own name, she’s written mystery novels under the names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly, but the person she resembles most, of course, is herself. The most-visible invisible woman. Oates. Teacher. Novelist. Memoirist. Poet. Essayist. Short Story Writer . . . We will be talking about her for generations to come.

—Mia Funk

Mia Funk: If I were to go into your online browsing history, what would I find?

Joyce Carol Oates: A hodgepodge of many things, I’m sure.

MF: It’s said you never have writers block. So what feeds your imagination? What gets you going writing in the morning?

JCO: Though I am never exactly “blocked” I do have difficult periods. I am led by a fascination with material—the challenge of presenting it in an original & engaging way. I have no problem imagining stories, characters, distinctive settings & themes– but the difficulty is choosing a voice & a language in which to present it.

MF: Which books of yours came to you naturally? And why?

JCO: “Naturally”?—none.

MF: Which ones were more of a struggle?

JCO: Blonde, which is my longest novel, was a considerable struggle simply because of its length & complexity. It is a “fictional biography” of  Norma Jeane Baker, who becomes “Marilyn Monroe” encased in a sort of American postmodernist epic.

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Posted in Interviews

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It’s time for another round of Broadside Thirty, our showcase for poems in thirty lines or less by poets thirty or younger. Today, we present a new poem by Zoe Dzunko.




I adopted the voice of somebody

very hungry before a mountain

of choices, and never stepped

out of her. How unfair that it is

on earth I feel loved like this:

the way sunshine requires little

light, like day ignores lampposts.

There it is, in the grey guts

of my disbelief. Each time

you rebuff me I grow a little more

resilient. Today, I bent my own self

over inside the invisible cage

of the shower, it felt

lonely. If I’m permitted to

wear pink can I keep telling you

it’s a mans world. Wait, who are you

buying flowers for this morning?

My only hope is they are for

somebody unable to cut the stems

themselves. Rejecting your own

privilege feels more and more

to me like a privilege in itself.

I don’t want to be anything

with a history; what is the newest

thing that has not yet hurt

anything else.


Zoe Dzunko is the author of All of the Men I Have Never Loved (Dancing Girl Press), Bruise Factory (NAP) and Wet Areas (Maverick Duck Press). She is the Poetry & Short Prose Editor of The Lifted Brow, an Assistant Editor for Coconut Magazine and, with Sarah Jean Grimm, founded Powder Keg, an online poetry quarterly. Her work has recently appeared in Guernica, H_NGM_N, Bodega, The Fanzine, Two Serious Ladies et al. She’s online at: zoedzunko.tumblr.com

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

Comments: 0

Junior Takes It

BG-FF-header-new2Coop leaned against the new quarter-panel and watched out the barn as the light fell onto the still-wet grass. He looked down at Tyler’s legs, sticking out from under the front of the vehicle.

“Dew’s not burnt off yet,” he said.

“What? Say something that makes some sense. Hand me the wrench.”

Coop slid it over with the toe of his boot.

“Je-sus Christ. Pick up the damn tool when I ask you to. Kicking it over here like a child.”

“Just easier to move it with my foot is all.”

“Bullshit. You can’t stand a bit of grease on you.”

Coop lit a cigarette. A car approached the barn.

“They snuck right up on us ’cause of that wetness. No gravel dust. Now you see how it is.”

“Who snuck up?” said Tyler. He squirmed out.

The car pulled up outside the barn and stopped.

“Sneak shit. It’s just that idiot Dahlman come out here to show off that he’s got a wife can make a baby come out of her.”

Coop smoked. Dahlman stepped from his car, tiny and thin, with a too-big cowboy hat on his head. He leaned back into the car and grabbed something and came out again with a crying baby wrapped in a blanket.

“Got the next generation here boys,” he said. “Have yourself a look at the future competition.”

The baby screamed.

“Hush now Junior, hush. Get Junior his medicine, Cheryl!”

A woman came out of the car with a bottle of whiskey.

“You a funny man now all of a sudden?” said Tyler.

The woman opened the bottle and Dahlman stuck his finger in. He pulled his finger out and wiped it on the baby’s lips, on its tongue.

Coop saw the baby cough or breathe out strongly. Then the baby stopped crying.

“See how that works, fellas?” said Dahlman. “Junior’ll be doin’ laps around you on the track and dancin’ around you at the tavern at the end of the night. Gonna be a tough one he is.”

“Hell,” said Tyler. “Kid can’t even take an eyedropper of that cheap weak stuff you buy without passing right out. What makes you think he’ll be any good at anything?”

“He can take more ‘an that,” said Dahlman.

Tyler leaned in close. “He’s practically asleep already. Lookit that. Can’t even keep his eyes open. I reckon he’s had it.”

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Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 1

The Girl Banned from Saying No: On the Death of Shaimaa el-Sabbagh


Like many of you, we here at Tin House have been mourning the death of Egyptian poet Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Ms. Sabbagh, age 31, was shot down by masked riot police while trying to place flowers in Tahrir Square on January 24th. We have asked the Egyptian poet and translator, Maged Zaher, to share some of this poet’s work with you and to celebrate her life.

—Matthew Dickman, Poetry Editor

There is a lot to tell about a poet from two poems. There is nothing to tell about a poet from two poems. In the Egyptian sixties, poets were people with a cause, and it showed in his/her poems. This was especially manifested in vernacular poetry—Ahmed Fouad Negm as the iconic poet—whose delicious rhyme and rhythm are weapons or wings that help the poem travel afar and/or wound the dictator. Shaimaa’s poems are written in the vernacular. They are written without rhyme or rhythm. This renders her as one of a small group of formal revolutionary vernacular poets. A unique position given that the vernacular lends itself to overt forms of word play and rhyme/rhythm. When Shaimaa was killed, poetry lost an authentic, humane, generous and capable voice.

—Maged Zaher, Seattle, Washington February 4th, 2015



I’m the girl banned from attending the Christian religion classes, and Sunday mass

I’m the girl banned from attending the Christian religion classes, and Sunday mass
Although I am a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus in “Egypt train station” square at the height of the morning
Even then, all the windows were open and the blood was racing the cars on the asphalt
The eyes of the girls were running in Heaven and catching the forbidden rocking chair.
I am the girl banned from love in the squares …
I stood in the middle of the street and gathered in my hand the stars of the sky individually
And the sweat of the street vendors.
The voice of beggars
And the people who love God as they damn this moment where the creatures of God approved
To crucifying Jesus naked in the crowded square on the clock arms as it declared one at noon
I am the girl banned from saying no, will never miss the dawn


A Letter to My Purse

I am not sure
Truly, she was nothing more than just a purse
But when lost, there was a problem
How to face the world without her
Because the streets remember us together
The shops know her more than me
Because she is the one who pays
She knows the smell of my sweat and she loves it
She knows the different buses
And has her own relationship with their drivers
She memorizes the ticket price
And always has the exact change
Once I bought a perfume she didn’t like
She spilled all of it and refused to let me use it
By the way
She also loves my family
And she always carried a picture
Of each one she loves
What might she be feeling right now
Maybe scared?
Or disgusted from the sweat of someone she doesn’t know
Annoyed by the new streets?
If she stopped by one of the stores we visited together
Would she like the same items?
Anyway, she has the house keys
And I am waiting for her



Posted in Poetry

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The Tin House Podcast: Kevin Young


Kevin-Young-bwKevin Young drops by our classroom to discuss some of the more notable modern poetry hoaxes, glimpsing into the secret history of the poem as something conceived to tempt or even trick. By understanding the ways the hoax works, Young suggests that we may better know our own assumptions, habits, and hurts, and how to subvert them in our writing. For the hoax poem urges us to write poetry that is not afraid of chaos but confronts it.



Kevin Young is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Book of Hours, which was featured on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and editor of eight others. His previous book Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels won a 2012 American Book Award and Jelly Roll: A Blues was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize. His book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and winner of the PEN Open Award. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton (edited with Michael S. Glaser) won a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in poetry. He is currently Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English and curator of Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University in Atlanta.


Posted in Podcasts, Poetry, Writer's Workshop

Comments: 2

First Catch Yourself A Squirrel

BG-Essay-by-Fuller copy

“I can get you a squirrel next week,” my accountant, Julian, said. “I’ll shoot one for you, and put it in the freezer.” Julian owns a very lovely and rather large piece of Wiltshire countryside in the south of England and regards squirrels as pests instead of the cute furry creatures that eat nuts and hop about the trees which is what townies like me think. I wanted a squirrel so I could skin it, cook it and eat it – if I was brave enough – all in the name of novel research.

I grew up in the countryside. Until I was ten I spent most of my spare time outdoors, in the fields and the woods, and my family had chickens, ducks and pigs all of which would vanish and then reappear a while later, browned and tasty on our plates. But since then I’ve had thirty-seven years of comfortable town living, where my food comes already eviscerated, plucked, skinned and packaged. Much of the novel I was writing takes place in the woods and mountains, miles from civilisation, in a place where the characters have to survive on what they can gather or trap. I needed to get back to nature.

While I waited for Julian to provide the squirrel, my husband, Tim and I walked the woods of Hampshire, where we live. He strode ahead while I dallied listening to the sound the wind makes when it moves through the tops of the trees, sticking my nose against rotten logs, and kicking through the fallen leaves. I would have liked to stay in the woods overnight on my own, but when it came down to it, I was too scared.

I telephoned Julian. He hadn’t shot a squirrel yet.

It was early autumn and Tim and I went away for a long weekend to the Lake District. We stayed on a farm that was once owned by Beatrix Potter, and on a warm and sunny Sunday we set out to walk up Wetherlam, the 2500 ft mountain we could see from the farmyard. (I suspect that 2500 ft barely registers as a mountain in the States.) Tim planned our route following clearly marked footpaths on the map he had printed out, and we set off, walking up the steepest track first. As we reached the summit – scrambling up a near-vertical path – we were hit by a cloud of freezing rain. In almost zero visibility we crouched beside a rock while Tim tried to work out the route from the disintegrating map and the icy rain soaked through our jeans. I was shaking with cold. We could barely see our feet, so had no chance of finding the way forward. All I knew was that I couldn’t return using the route we had come – descending backwards down the mountain in thick cloud. We decided to press on, and just as suddenly as we had walked into the cloud we walked out of it, into a beautiful autumn day. Still unable to find the path, we took the direct course back, down the side of the mountain, jumping from one grassy tuft to the next.

When we got home I phoned Julian. He had shot the squirrel and it was waiting for me in his deepfreeze.

The next week Tim and I went on a wild mushroom foray in the New Forest in Hampshire, led by the unlikely-named Andy Overall. Andy took a group of about twenty of us tramping amongst beech, oak and pine looking for winter chanterelles, oyster and horn of plenty, as well as teaching us how to make sure we didn’t die a horrible death from eating poisonous mushrooms.

A week or so later I drove over to Julian’s house for lunch, and he told me the bad news: he had taken my squirrel out of his freezer, but when it defrosted he had found it was foul-smelling and obviously decomposing and he had thrown it away.

Many of the descriptions that made it into my novel came from real-life experiences – hearing the wind in the trees, running down the side of a mountain, collecting wild mushrooms – but I have to admit that gutting, skinning and eating squirrel came straight from Youtube.

Claire Fuller lives in Winchester, England. Our Endless Numbered Days is her first novel.


Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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The Boatmaker: An Interview with John Benditt

BG-Interview-1A fierce and complicated man wakes from a fever dream compelled to build a boat and sail away from the isolated island where he was born. Encountering the wider world for the first time, the reluctant hero falls into a destructive love affair, is swept up into a fanatical religious movement, and finds himself a witness to racial hatred unlike anything he’s ever known. The boatmaker is tempted, beaten, and betrayed: his journey marked by chilling episodes of violence and horror while he struggles to summon the strength to make his own way. 

Out this week from Tin House Books, John Benditt’s The Boatmaker is a fable for our times, a passionate love story, and an odyssey of self-discovery.

We sat down with the author to discuss the inspiration and influences that preceded his novel. 


Tin House: How did this novel begin? What was the impetus for writing it?

John Benditt: The Boatmaker actually grew out of a short story I wrote for a writing workshop I was taking in New York. At the time I thought I was writing a collection of short stories. This one—which was about the boatmaker on Small Island—felt different from and better than the others. The response from the folks in the workshop seemed to confirm that. I was pleased, but I thought that was all there was to it. I put the story in the collection. A little while later I had an idea for another story about the same boatmaker—this one set on Big Island. Then I thought I was really done with him. But he wasn’t done with me: I began envisioning bits and pieces of things that happened to him on the Mainland.

TH: What sorts of works inspired it?

JB: I think one of the important things about The Boatmaker is its tone. That tone comes from some things that influenced me a long time ago. And not all of them are novels. In fact, of the three that come to mind, none of them is a novel. One is the writing of Robert Creeley, whose poetry I loved beyond all others when I was about nineteen or twenty. A few years later, two other works, again neither a novel, had a big influence on me—and I think their tone resurfaced in The Boatmaker. One is an album by Neil Young called After the Gold Rush. The other is the film McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman.

Boatmaker-CS copy

TH: The Boatmaker is an expansive work, covering an array of themes: religion, imperialism, industrialism, self-discovery, cults, love. Is there one theme that you feel defines the core of the book?

JB: In my opinion the one theme that connects all the others is that of becoming who you really are. After all, a drunken carpenter from a little island at the end of the world would seem an unlikely person to have a large and unusual destiny. And probably most worldly and experienced observers would have predicted, if they had seen him before he sailed away from Small Island, that he would wind up right where he was born as a sad old drunk who had once been a wonderful worker in wood. But something in the boatmaker pushes him out into the wider world in search of something. And although he makes some large and very painful mistakes along the way, he never gives up. I think that process is at the core of the book.

TH: You have had a career as a science journalist and editor. How did your science writing influence your fiction writing? Has your background been a significant influence on this book?

JB: Although as an editor I edited stories on a huge range of topics, the two areas I was most interested in personally were biology and social science. I was always interested in how things are interconnected—which is the essence of a society or a species—and in how the present is layered over the past. The field that combines those things in the most concrete way is probably archaeology, and for a time I was the editor at Scientific American who handled all the major, scientist-written articles on archaeology. I loved that. And I think you can see some of that in the novel: the interconnection of apparently disparate things and the way the past still exists, many layers deep, in us as individuals and in our society.

TH: The boatmaker’s story is not set in a specific time or place and yet it is clearly based on the history of European Jews. Did you do much research for the book?

JB: I didn’t do any research in the explicit sense for the book. But I do think that I have always read in a certain way that reflects my upbringing as a Jew, albeit a pretty secular one. For example, I read Proust to some extent as the experience of someone who is privileged and aristocratic, but also aware that he is in some way Jewish and therefore vulnerable. I’m sure Proust would have denied that he was a Jew, but I think he was deeply aware of his mother’s Jewishness in a way that made him both sensitive and vulnerable. In that he was not unlike Jacob and Rachel Lippsted—an aristocratic brother and sister the boatmaker encounters on the Mainland. So I read through Jewish eyes, as it were. At the same time, I have often been drawn to the idea of becoming a priest. Perhaps this is a bit contradictory.

TH: The lack of specific details that would identify a time period and setting gives the book an episodic and fable-like tone. Was it your intention to write the book this way?

JB: Yes and no. On the one hand, as I mentioned, I didn’t know for quite some time that I was writing a novel, so I didn’t have a plan—for the tone, the story or the characters—that would make up the novel in its final form. On the other hand, even in that original short story I mentioned, one of the things I liked was the fact that while things on Small Island were quite concrete—the sea was cold, people were grimy, men got drunk and stabbed each other in the bars in Harbortown and when they did, they bled into the sawdust on the floor—at the same time it wasn’t an identifiable place or time. I liked that and that did remain from the original short story.

TH: What are you working on now?

JB: I’m working on a collection of short stories. They’re connected, but they all stand alone.


John Benditt had a distinguished career as a science journalist. He was an editor at Scientific American and at Science before serving as editor in chief of Technology Review. The Boatmaker is his debut novel.

Posted in Interviews, Tin House Books

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Crime Spree

Flash Fridays

Sometimes his apartment smells of mold, soured milk, dirty socks, the piles of laundry, but really it is the forest-animal musk of a man who has lost some power. I add soy wax candles, my underwear in corners, a wood-handled hairbrush, and dozens of DVDs—Eraserhead, John Waters—things he hates to watch.

We met on the set of a community theater production of the Wizard of Oz. Half of us were on acid, our eyes crazy, wide and dilated. I sewed orange and green Munchkin costumes for the elementary and middle-school choirs. He played the Tin Man.

One day, he came into the prop room, and I measured his inseam. As I went higher, he said, “Oil can. Oil can.”

I smoke and work on a clothing line, drawing and cutting pattern paper. He drinks and paints landscapes where the ground is yellow and the trees red. He paints people gray as ghosts. The main rule of our relationship is this: We sleep together at night, but live in separate apartments, separate spaces to make things. The main rule of our relationship is we both need to breathe.

If I have ever loved anyone it isn’t him. But I know this man, know of his dead father, his distant mother. I know his smooth brow, his tender ways, know the big fingers that wrap themselves into a cup so he can drink water from the shower-head.

We drink Coors Light in the dark, in his car. We listen to jazz and Memphis blues and soul, throw streaking cigarette butts, smash beer bottles on curbs like dissonant percussion. We drive miles between the dark holes left by neighborhood streetlights.

He calls me Bonnie, but I never call him Clyde.

One day, he drives us out of the suburbs, into the hilly country where hills twist into grassy plateaus and back again. We watch the sun set and the sky grow amber.

About forty miles down Highway 30, he takes one turn after another until we come across some land where we can see a mountain in the distance, a field wide around us.

He parks on the narrow gravel shoulder, the nose of his car almost in the ditch.

We spread the quilt he keeps in the back of his car, out in the middle of some man’s field, and he sketches in a book with his expensive colored pencils while I roll joints.

The light turns from amber to purple. I light one joint, hand it to him. Then I light another for myself. We sit together on the quilt, our shoulders touching, and we look at the mountain, turning purple, dead silent other than the deer and voles, the rabbits and squirrels and birds, the possibility of a lone bear.

We drive home n the dark. In bed the next morning I ask him what he believes: Are we different every day, every day different people, or are each of us just the same person over and over again? The same plodding, selfish person?

We lay like that for a long while, thinking our private thoughts.

His back is turned toward me, and I study the back of his head as the sun rises pink, and I wait. I do not love his seashell ears, his rounded shoulders, the wild untamed hairs on the nape of his neck. Each second we lie there, I wait to hear him say, stay.


Shaun Turner writes in West Virginia, where he is a 2nd year MFA student at West Virginia University, and fiction editor for Cheat River Review. His work can or will be found in the Southwest Review, Night Train, Gravel Magazine, and Hobart, among others.
Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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January Gems


January is the month we rest up, recharge, and make big decisions. We list goals for the next 365 days and cross our fingers. For some of us, the top spot goes to “Learn a new language” or “Finally watch The Wire” or “Drink less beer/more gin.” Sometimes we meet those goals, sometimes we don’t. One we always find a way to meet is “Read more.” Or like, you know, “Watch more TV.” We’re trying our best, okay? Here’s how we’re doing so far:


Jakob Vala (Resolution: Move to a New Home): To be honest, I’ve mostly been binging on Friends, while constructing a fort of moving boxes in my apartment. Favorite Episode: “The One with the Fertility Test,” wherein Joey memorizes the contents of The Met (not The Mets) to impress his girlfriend, but takes a wrong turn and recites the information in the wrong order. It might also be the saddest episode.

I also read the final book in Charles Burns’ X-ed Out trilogy, which is bizarre and brilliant, though perhaps more bizarre and less brilliant than his earlier opus, Black Hole, which is a masterpiece.

Gran Hotel

Lance Cleland (Resolution: Learn Spanish): I don’t know about you, but I like my evening soap operas like I like my soup: muy caliente. And let me tell you, it doesn’t get much hotter (plot wise) than Gran Hotel, an addictive-as-they-come drama from Spain now streaming on Netflix. While Downton Abbey might take five episodes to even suggest a murder/pregnancy/blackmail/fake pregnancy/serial killer/underground, bare knuckle fight syndicate where you trade blows for information, Gran Hotel doesn’t let archaic notions of character development or plot pacing stand in the way of what you want at 10pm on a Tuesday night- Fast action, sexual tension, and an exuberant amount of extortion. Like those telenovelas you watched in your high school Spanish class, Gran Hotel offers the chance to learn a language while also discovering various ways to poison a maid.


Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Resolution: Make a Judgment Call): I cannot decide quite what I think of Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, but I seem to be the only one that feels this way. The reader reviews I’ve read online are some of the most vitriolic I’ve seen outside of vampire franchise hatemail, and I get it. With its anodyne, punk-lite Angelenos, its zookeeper-turned-indie rocker, and characters named things like Fancher Autumnbreast, the book’s a sort of amalgam of Nick Hornby and Thomas Pynchon, maybe not always in a good way. But I like Nick Hornby and Thomas Pynchon and Los Angeles, and who’s going to root against a piebald kangaroo named Shelf and the zookeeper-turned-indie-rocker who kidnaps her? Right, fine, as we’ve established, plenty of people. Again, I get it. I loathe myself for feeling at all for ol’ Shelf in the same moment in which I find myself pitying the kangaroo. In spite of myself, I’m having a really good time reading this book. What troubles me more is the way the book has evidently been re-branded since its early print runs. The slick photography of the first covers has been replaced with yellow and purple stripes and a tweeny line drawing of a girl rocker, with hand-drawn hearts ringing the jacket copy; what was once positioned as uber-hip now seems desperately recast as chick lit, having missed its original, desired mark. A funny fate for a Lethem book, and telling of who is presumed to read what and whose attention we prioritize and take seriously.


Cheston Knapp (Resolution: Finally Quote Favorite Songwriter Publicly): It’s a temporal anomaly of a sort—the best books I read in January do not come out until February. Fiction-wise there’s Arthur Bradford’s new book of stories, Turtleface and Beyond, about which I both can’t say enough and have trouble finding anything to say at all. Arthur’s stories are deeply weird and, wait for the professorial do-si-do, weirdly deep. They’ve got a fable, phantasmagoric quality that’s both charming and disturbing. They seem to’ve been written entirely with the gut/heart, and the result is refreshing and delightful and unlike almost anything you read nowadays. But let us not neglect our heads. To nonfiction!


I was lucky enough to be schooled by Clancy Martin’s Love and Lies. Like a lot of folks, I was dazzled by Martin’s novel, How to Sell, which came out a few years back, and was surprised to discover that he was also a philosopher, not a lay philosopher of the Paolo-Coelho-cum-crystals-and-exotic-tea sort, but one who’d translated the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. This book is a product of his ongoing fascination with deception and concerns itself with all the way we lie in our love relationships, both to our loved ones and ourselves. Among other things, it aims to give the lie to the notion that love, particularly lasting love, is founded on absolute honesty. As the poet croons, “Would you face me? / Make me listen to the truth even if it breaks me? / You can judge me, love me / If you’re hating me, do it honestly.” Himself twice divorce and trebly married, Martin plays something of a battle-scarred Beatrice, guiding us through broader notions of relational complexity by using his own copious experiences as examples. The result is part memoir and part crash course in philosophy and incredibly, surprisingly readable.


Thomas Ross (Connect with Youth Culture): I’ve been feeling a little out of touch recently—rereading Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and finally watching The Wire—but I’ve found that the easiest way for me to absorb something new is pop music. So January has been the month I finally get totally, horrifically hooked on Charli XCX. The British singer was virtually raised at London raves, and the music feels more authentically energetic than other pop acts her age. Where Miley’s brand of overwrought sexual rebellion feels like a kneejerk reaction to her Hannah Montana days, Charli chanting “Fuck you, sucker!” feels like the inevitable obscenity-happy mantra from the delirious sunrise end of an MDMA-fueled dance party. And frankly, there’s something reassuring about a 20-something British pop singer who still thinks of John F. Kennedy as the quintessential American. I’ve been alternating between that album and an old favorite, Muscles’ Guns Babes Lemonade, and my lame-ass commute to my cooped-up desk job has never been more fun.

Posted in Desiderata

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A Portait of the Writer with Mia Funk: a Preview


A Portrait banner

Earlier today, we featured an interview with Dr. Malcolm E. O’Hagan, President of the American Writers Museum. In anticipation of the 2016 launch of that institution, artist Mia Funk has been tasked with creating a group portrait of great American writers. Starting next week on The Open Bar, Mia will share her sketches and inspirations with us in a new column, Portrait of the Writer.

The series will start February 10th with Mia’s portrait of and interview with Joyce Carol Oates. We talked with Mia via email about the process of creating portraits of these literary giants.


Tin House: How did the Portrait of the Writer idea come about?

Mia Funk: Since last year I’ve been talking with Dr. Malcolm O’Hagan about doing the group portraits for the American Writers Museum. I have just sent in an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, which will help determine the scale and the number of writers we may include in the eventual portraits.

In the meantime, I wanted to do something which felt more personal. It goes back to things Malcolm was saying about foregrounding and selecting writers from such a vast pool. It’s difficult to narrow the list and I thought sharing my sketchbooks with readers of Tin House would be a way to feature individual writers and explore themes in their work before approaching the final painting.

I still wasn’t sure what to call this series of sketches. I’d thought about Do You See What I’m Hearing? in reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Finally, I decided on Portrait of the Writer.


TH: In a lot of the sketches, you seem to be working from quotes. Is there something about the specificity of language that gets you closer to these writers than you can via biographical details?

MF: Specificity is a good word because an artwork is not dissimilar to a poem or story or other short forms. I began to think about metaphors themselves, how they’re used to tap into our collective unconscious and also awaken our capacity to remember, create and dream. How sometimes language weighs more on our lives than the real world.

It’s not possible to cram in all the biographical details so you have to make choices. I try to give a short understanding of something essential and for that I look to a writer’s own words. I feel that gets you closer. Opens a door on their perception. You don’t need to draw the four corners to feel you have been in a room.

While there’s lots of interesting quotes, they don’t all spark imagery. So I spend a long time searching for a line which captures something essential about a writer’s life and work. I’m looking for quotes which evoke an image, but also set up a curiosity and mystery and leads you back to their writing.

TH: It’s easy to forget that metaphor is such a basic building block for us. In the way we talk, write, and even see, we often start out with an image, and then through metaphor, we start to describe it and define it. Do you feel like painting these portraits is the opposite of that, or just another step in the same direction?

MF: Language. Image. Music . . . it’s all a kind of storytelling. For me the different art forms don’t oppose each other, but run on parallel tracks. I feel originality happens in the synesthetic moments when different senses converge.

I thought there was potential to find added beauty in certain things a writer said by translating it back into image. When Joyce Carol Oates said she sometimes feels as transparent as a glass of water. I thought, what a lovely image. I will paint her as a glass of water. For me there is a real satisfaction in attempting to turn a metaphor into something more concrete.

We all speak imagistically, only sometimes we are so bombarded by images and language that we forget. We become blinded by sensory overload. I think that’s the point of all art: to take something we are all familiar with and make us look, hear, feel it again as though for the first time.

TH: Why did you decide to make these portraits of the writers, rather than, say, illustrations of the quotes you’ve chosen or their bodies of work?

MF: All faces tell stories, but the faces of writers who spend long periods alone and looking inwards, are particularly interesting and challenging to paint. And that’s what the American Writers Museum were interested in. I will be trying to put echoes of their work within the group portraits. Along the bottom of this watercolor of Maya Angelou you can see flying debris from a dark hurricane which funnels up into a storm of blue butterflies. Just the memory of a cage. I hope this captures something of the spirit of resilience readers find in her writing; out of all the pain and experiences comes something of beauty.

One of the challenges of capturing a writer’s personality is, of course, that they don’t have just one. Also, many writers aren’t terribly interested in what they wear. It’s not about the outward appearance but making a continual journey inwards. Traditional portraiture involves external symbolism, jewellery and other accessories which point towards the subject’s standing in life, and clothing allows artists an opportunity to show off their skills in reproducing details, but to focus on the external somehow seemed wrong when portraying writers, who aren’t just the faces they represent to the world, but a collection of all the characters they’ve realized and all the stories they’ve told.

Joyce Carol Oates said it more succinctly in her interview, “We all inhabit interior landscapes and these are mediated to us through language.”

Kierkegaard via Milch

TH: You recently mentioned to me a Kierkegaard quote you’d discovered via the American writer David Milch: “The self rests transparently in the spirit that gave it rise.” In a lot of your work, both for The American Writers Museum and otherwise, there’s a very affecting sense of transparency, layers of underpainting that leave the feeling of hazy memory or a partially obscured timeline. Is there a relationship there to narrative, to the obscuring and excavating work writers do?

MF: Yes, well, I’m very interested in those themes that occupy writers: childhood, memory, looking back and the search for lost time. I like to think of my paintings as stories that aren’t quite complete but complete in the mind of the viewer. The quality of the best stories is that they do not leave everything resolved, but suggest a scene which is about to take place but we never see.

TH: So how big will this group portrait be? The hardest part must just be narrowing down the writers who will appear.

MF: That is one of the things still being decided. One idea is that it may need to be a triptych. Of course, it is not possible to contain the richness of American literary history in a single painting. For that, you really need to go back to the individual books, but what I hope to do is hint at its immensity. If a painting could be part of young reader’s first introduction to Faulkner or Hemingway, James Baldwin or Flannery O’Connor or Mark Twain, pointing them to read their works, that would be wonderful.

I am delighted to be doing these paintings for the American Writers Museum and to be involved in such an educational endeavor. And I’m really excited to be doing this series of interviews and artworks for Tin House which allows me to approach portraiture in a new way.


Mia Funk is an artist and writer who teaches at the École de Dessin Technique et Artistique, Paris. Her work has received many awards & nominations, including a Prix de Peinture (Salon d’Automne de Paris), Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize, Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, KWS Hilary Mantel Short Story Prize, Doris Gooderson Prize, Momaya Prize & Celeste Prize. Her paintings have been shown at the Grand Palais and are held in several public collections, including the Dublin Writers Museum. She is currently completing a novel and a collection of linked short stories. Catch her on Twitter: @miafunk.

Posted in Interviews

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A Museum of One’s Own: The American Writers Museum


It may come as a surprise to you—it certainly did to us—but there is as yet no museum dedicated to writers in the United States. If all goes according to the plan of the board of The American Writers Museum, that will change by late 2016. In advance of the AWM opening in Chicago, artist Mia Funk has been tasked to create a group portrait of great American writers. In a new feature on The Open Bar, Mia will showcase her sketches of American writers young and old. Our interview with Mia about that process will appear later today.

In the meantime, Mia spoke with the President of the American Writers Museum, Malcolm O’Hagan, about the inspiration for the museum.


Mia Funk: Where did the idea for the American Writers Museum come from? How did your journey begin?

Dr. Malcolm E. O’Hagan: After visiting the Dublin Writers Museum I sought out the American counterpart and was surprised to learn that there is no national institution that celebrates the lives of the great American writers. The journey began after I discussed the concept of an American Writers Museum with a number of influential people in the literary community and received enthusiastic and unanimous encouragement to pursue the idea.

MF: How long has it been in the planning?

MO: The American Writers Museum Foundation was incorporated in 2010. Planning in earnest began late in 2010.

MF: Why an American Writers Museum? What do you feel makes this project so vitally important?

MO: Writers have a profound impact on our thinking. They influence our history, our culture, our daily lives. They reveal to us who we are. They educate and entertain us. Their works are the keystone of our cultural heritage. It is vitally important for young people to understand the role writers play in society. It is particularly so at a time when reading and writing are being so impacted by technology. I would love to see a day when people have the same reverence for great writers as they do for sports heroes and film stars.

Pages from AWM-Design-Plan

MF: I noticed you titled the layout for the museum your First Edition Concept Plan. That’s interesting. It suggests that creating and laying out the different exhibitions resembles the process of planning a novel. So, how many different drafts did you go through?

MO: We are on our third draft of the Museum Concept. The First Draft envisions the ultimate museum as a large institution comparable to an art museum housed in an iconic building. The Second Draft, and the Third one that we are currently working on, focus on the first phase of the museum which will be housed in a building in Downtown Chicago. This is what we refer to as the “First Edition”. At the outset we received prudent advice to develop the museum in stages, as has been typical for many cultural institutions.

MF: Have there been many difficult decisions in terms of choosing one writer’s works over another?

MO: Choices are always difficult. The authors featured in the concept plans are strictly illustrative. We now have several curatorial teams at work deciding which authors and works to feature in the various galleries in the First Edition. A key feature of the American Writers Museum will be its ability to feature many authors and works through changing exhibits. The museum will be theme based, and the exhibits will be designed in a way that will allow us to show how different authors addressed these themes over time.

MF: But what’s wonderful about the museum is that it will be a never-ending story that evolves over time. I like the whole interactive principal and the central museum tables which will allow visitors to ask questions and post quotes. I think it really reflects the way we read today. It’s not a passive experience.

MO: I am glad that we are developing the museum now and not 30 years ago. The whole concept of what a museum should offer to visitors has changed, and the technology is now available to engage visitors in totally new interactive ways. The ability to “do” something as opposed to just “looking” greatly enriches the visitor experience. And the new technology makes it easy to change content, to pose new questions, to feature different works, to tell different stories.

MF: Anyone I’ve mentioned the museum to has said what a wonderful idea it is and are sort of puzzled why a museum like this doesn’t already exist. It does seem absurd that America has so many museums devoted to fine art–an activity which really doesn’t touch a lot of people’s lives–but in a country composed of so many immigrants and children of immigrants, where stories have played such a part in remembering our pasts and unifying us, that it has taken us so long to honor our writers collectively.

MO: I was amazed too when I found that we do not have a museum dedicated to American Literature. But happily that is about to change. We have so many wonderful stories to tell. We are a species of story tellers.

MF: I can only imagine to get the ball rolling on this project––with your background in manufacturing and engineering*––you must have realised what a massive undertaking it was. What kind of surprises have you met along the way?

MO: When I embarked upon this mission I made a ten year commitment. Nothing worth doing is easy if you want to do it right. I am experienced enough to know that things generally take much longer than we would like, and that the task is more difficult than anticipated.

MF: Can you tell us a little about the key permanent exhibits?

MO: The structure and themes of the museum will be fixed, but much of the content will change in order to allow us to feature a wide range of authors and writings. The Main Hall will serve as a “Hall of Fame”. As you would expect, it will feature the canonical and award winning writers. Shaping America will feature the writings that have molded our history and culture and continue to do so. Creating an American Literature will feature writers who broke with European literary traditions to create an “American” voice. We Will Be Heard will feature minority and immigrant writers who had to fight to get their story heard. Of course there will be areas where the different themes converge and build on each other. The other galleries are self evident. I would like to emphasize the American Writers Museum will be “Story Telling” institution where artifacts will play a much smaller role than in a traditional museum.


MF: Presently, what are the museum’s current goals? For example, do you have a dream exhibit?

MO: The whole museum is a dream.

MF: In terms of upcoming acquisitions, which archives or manuscripts is the museum seeking to acquire?

MO: At the outset we set a policy that the AWM will not duplicate what others are already doing effectively. Nor do we want to compete unnecessarily with other literary institutions. Consequently we do not envision the AWM as a research institution, as an archival institution, as a collections based institution or as an award making institution since all of these functions are already being performed admirably by others. The AWM will be the “Presentation” arm of the literary community.

MF: Can you describe some of the programs/exhibitions you’ll have for young people?

MO: One of the galleries is the Children’s Room which will be fun and engaging. While the AWM will sponsor extensive programming, the details have not yet been developed. We have a small exhibit featuring four Chicago authors – Brooks, Hansberry, Terkel and Wright – traveling to many neighborhoods throughout Chicago.

MF: I see your Power of the Word online exhibition has reached out to readers, political leaders and writers asking them about their favorite books.

It’s particularly interesting the question you asked authors: “Which works by American writers should world leaders read to help them gain a better understanding of America?” Which works would you yourself recommend? And which works received the most recommendations?

MO: One book I would recommend to foreign leaders (and to everyone for that matter) is Lincoln at Gettysburg – The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills. This book tells us what America is all about.

MF: It’s interesting that a part of the museum will be devoted to political writing.

MO: We are a nation founded on political documents.

MF: You were born in Sligo, “Yeats Country”. And Ireland is also well known as a country of great writers. Was reading/storytelling a big part of your life growing up?

MO: Unfortunately I did not get to engage with literature until I went to college, and then to a very limited extent as I was an engineering student.

MF: Which books would you say most affected your thinking about the world?

MO: My thinking constantly evolves as I read new books. Isn’t that an important function of books!

MF: What do you feel books can do that no other medium can?

MO: For me books are a medium that allows me to concentrate and contemplate. I value the content and not the container, and I find a book to be a very friendly container.

MF: As consciousness evolves through our increasing dependence on devices, it seems now more than ever that novels, poetry, playwriting can provide a transcendent experience as counterpoint to all our daily distractions.

MO: I believe this to be true as it has been in the past.

MF: With more people being involved with video and blogging, there seems to be a rise in direct, less stylized forms of storytelling. Will there be exhibits in the museum devoted to oral storytelling? Screenwriting? Will the museum have exhibits addressing 21st century developments in narrative?

MO: Absolutely on all accounts. The museum has to be relevant and must stay so. I am happy to see the resurgence in oral story telling through recorded books which I listen to all the time. As a young lad I was enchanted by stories and plays on the radio. I would much prefer to hear a poet recite than to read the poem to myself. The AWM docents will be called “Story Tellers”.

MF: So what you’ve created seems to be much more than a museum. It’s actually a space geared to engage visitors’ creativity and imaginations.

For a long time people, including prominent writers like Philip Roth, have been predicting the end of the novel. What are your thoughts on that?

MO: How many times have we heard predictions of the end of the world!


Dr. Malcolm E. O’Hagan is retired from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association where he served as President and CEO from 1991 to 2006. He served on the Board of the National Association of Manufacturers and was Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Council of Manufacturing Associations. He is a past President of the Washington Industrial Roundtable. Malcolm served in the Carter and Reagan administrations as Executive Director of the U.S. Metric Board. Earlier in his career he held management positions at Bendix Corporation and the position of Senior Scientific Officer at the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards in Ireland. Malcolm was born in Ireland and raised in “Yeats Country” in County Sligo. He holds a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from The National University of Ireland. He obtained his D.Sc. from The George Washington University in Washington D.C. which honored him with its Distinguished Alumni Award.

Mia Funk is an artist and writer who teaches at the École de Dessin Technique et Artistique, Paris. Her work has received many awards & nominations, including a Prix de Peinture (Salon d’Automne de Paris), Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize, Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, KWS Hilary Mantel Short Story Prize, Doris Gooderson Prize, Momaya Prize & Celeste Prize. Her paintings have been shown at the Grand Palais and are held in several public collections, including the Dublin Writers Museum. She is currently completing a novel and a collection of linked short stories. Catch her on Twitter: @miafunk.


Posted in Interviews

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Message in a Bottle / a Religious Alternative


When I was six, I developed a spiritual disorder. I started believing that someday, I would find a message in a bottle. Over the years, the condition mutated from the gnostic persuasion of a 6-year-old into a belief system more commonly found in those who have seen Jesus in their toast.

The conviction broke out on the one warm holiday our family ever took, in a beach town called Le Lavandou, in the South of France. It was 1987: the summer of palm trees. There were palm trees on my new short-sleeve Mickey Mouse button-up shirt, and there was a palm tree on my head with a trunk made of scrunchies. The palm trees that cordoned off the beach parking lot were boxed in gleaming white planters.

That week, I stepped on my first ever yellow jacket and ordered a different shade of sorbet each day. I posed next to a bronze statue and thought maybe we were rich. The beaches were crowded, topless, and full of smokers, and perhaps for those reasons, we spent future summers up North, catching colds in the Atlantic and using WWII bunkers as windbreaks.

The gift shops in Le Lavandou sold green plastic flasks with screw caps and a rolled-up wish-you-were-here note inside. They were pre-stamped and designed to fit through a mail slot. Out loud, I voted them repellent, but secretly, I wanted one.

At the end of the week, I conceded defeat to bad taste, and asked my parents for ten francs to buy a souvenir message-in-a-bottle. I remember my dad saying, “Just wait until you find a real one,” but I can’t be sure I didn’t make that up.

It would be just like my heathen father to force another faith on me. I attended a Catholic school because it was a convenient drop-off next to his office.

It took all of six years for me to find a message in a bottle. Six years, in which I combed every beach from Plozévet to Douarnenez, and spelunked inside sinking blockhouses, even as my faith enfeebled.

On the afternoon I found the bottle, I was patrolling the mile-long beach with a small army of much younger, influenceable relatives, all of whom I had educated in my mission. (I sometimes think of what would have happened if one of them had found the bottle. I fear it could have ruined life for me).

The beach had a name but we called it our beach. It was one of those hostile northwestern French beaches with sticky sand and jutting rocks that slice open your feet. There were tar stains on the pink sea lichen from a 1979 oil spill, and the tide sent dead medusas towards our towels like a coin pusher.

The receding tide exposed a fraying barnacled rope. At the end, said my dad, was the Flying Dutchman and a crew of zombie-sailors, perhaps fossilized. We’d found syringes on the soft pebbles before, and the seaglass there was never quite blunt enough to be safe.

The bottle had washed up on the stones, and was stopped with a cork. It had a seaweed skirt and George Washington’s face was peering through the green glass. I had seen the air and sun disintegrate ancient frescoes in Fellini’s Roma, so I took the miracle home, for a more controlled autopsy.

From what I can tell, no one has taken a serious crack at estimating the odds of what happened to me. Equally unquantifiable are religious apparitions and other miracles. The closest thing I found to a statistic hinged on fiction, in a website that compared happening upon a message in a bottle to finding a golden ticket inside a chocolate bar. By this measure of faith, the equations place the odds at 1 in 7.32 million.

The particulars are less than reliable, but one thing that was precise was the latitude and longitude scribbled on the note, which placed the point of the toss a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida.

Look at Florida on a map. Now find the Pointe-du-Raz, France’s westernmost tip. (You won’t see it on the map, but there is a windswept virgin there, dangling the son of God over a cliff.) Trace with your finger a line from one to the other, and add in whales, ocean storms, the abyssal plain, and assorted monsters of the pelagic zone. Hell —look at the last thirty feet of the journey, with its granite obstacle course and deadly current, and tell me your existential compass comes out unscathed.

In the end, the biggest coincidence of my life was also the most deliberate. It compromised years of Catholic education, shifting my personal accountability to chance, rather than to God. The bottle turned every accident thereafter into prophecy, every nightmare into augury, every whim into prognostication. For some reason, it also gave me an uncontrollable fear of deep water.

There was a Florida address on the note, and a message. “In our country, we elect idiots to high office. What do you do?” I wrote to the address, and soon got a reply from a retired couple. They told me they had thrown the bottle out at sea during a pleasure cruise on the Atlantic. They told me they liked to go on cruises, and holiday in warm places.

I get really nervous around wishbones. I crack open fortune cookies like my life depends on it. I avoid looking at my tea leaves and wish carefully when I blow out birthday candles.

I am trapped in a one-person cult of fortuity, with a god I found on the beach. It is a faith without ethics, and with no sustainability. There is no conversion, no communion —only a drunken, sea-fearing trust in practical miracles with no practical application.


Sarah Françoise is a translator/writer who lives in New York and sometimes in Maine. Her writing has recently appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Hobart. She recently wrote the screenplay for Vacationland, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Boonies International Film Festival, and a children’s play called The Line.

The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to theopenbar@tinhouse.com with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.

Posted in Essays, Flash Fidelity

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Literary Insults!

Literaryinsults copy



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


Posted in General

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Lost & Found: Nick Obourn on Jack Black

BG-From-the-Vault-dc1From our Hope/Dread issue, a look at the autobiography of a career hobo who lied, cheated, and stole his way across America.


For one year, I was the only employee of a small, quiet shop in Portland, Oregon, that specialized in rare and academic books. The job had many perks: a world of esoteric information within arm’s reach, conversation with a slew of erudite and quirky book lovers, and long moments—lots of them—to sit and ponder the greater mysteries of the universe.

The customers were the most enjoyable part of the job. They were devotees of the book as treasured object, a dwindling breed for whom the bookstore was a welcoming refuge from a harried and digitally dominated world. And I, stationed behind the front desk, was their audience of one, which meant I was subject to frequent and fervent book recommendations alongside the occasional dramatic reading. (I particularly remember frighteningly relevant passages from The Prince—the Bush administration was still in power, and Machiavelli really riled them up.)


However, in their love of books, and especially their love of recommending them, the customers were not alone. The owner of the bookstore—a man of his own particularities who had spent decades navigating the byways of the antiquarian book business—worshipped books, and he recommended at least one a day to me. It was in this way I discovered You Can’t Win, the autobiography of a man named Jack Black, a self-proclaimed career hobo, who rail hopped, smoked opium, lied, cheated, and stole his way across the untamed landscape of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century western America.

The book intrigued me immediately. William Burroughs, whose Junkie was greatly influenced by You Can’t Win, contributed the foreword. The back cover and opening page feature quotes from the eclectic line-up of Edward Weston, Carl Sandburg, and Clarence Darrow, an unlikely trinity to lend their names to the work of a professional hobo and criminal. But they saw what becomes clear while reading You Can’t Win: Jack Black was no ordinary petty thief, no common vagabond. Black was the underground traveling criminal in the early twentieth century, a man whose life oscillated between cushy periods flush with cash from a recent heist to moments of broken despair recovering from opium addiction or gruesome prison floggings. He was also an intelligent man and a literary soul who encountered America at a time of great opportunistic shift, and, luckily for the reader, he had the talent and perception to translate that experience into a frank and rewarding autobiography.

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Posted in Essays, From The Vault

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Sleepy Mom

Flash Fridays

My mom has narcolepsy so she bought a student driver car with a steering wheel in the passenger side seat.  Whenever she drives anywhere, I ride shotgun.  If she falls asleep while she’s driving I’m supposed to elbow her awake.  Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes when she nods off instead of hitting the brakes I press down on my gas pedal and drive over to the strip mall where my ex-girlfriend Sadie works.

Sadie just got her license, but I’ve got six months to go.  Sadie works at Elaine’s Boutique, a crappy jewelry store that sells shitty silver pendants and fake gold chains.  No one goes to Elaine’s so most days Sadie’s new boyfriend, Eric, stops by to keep her company.  Sometimes Sadie and Eric do their geometry homework, but mostly they snort Sadie’s Ritalin and kiss long and hard like their tongues are the geometry problem.

“Quit going there,” my friend Jason tells me. “Remove yourself from the equation.”

I adjust the focus on my binoculars, watch Eric snake his hand up Sadie’s shirt.  My mom gently snores in the seat beside me, drool welling in the corner of her mouth.

“But that used to be me,” I tell Jason.
My dad used to drive us everywhere, but he bolted three months ago.  He sends us a letter every few weeks.  His last letter said he was working on a fishing boat in Alaska.  The postmark on the last letter was stamped “Cleveland”, so we don’t know what to believe.

“Cleveland or Alaska,” my mom says.  “The only thing that matters is he’s gone.”
This morning my mom and I drive to the grocery store.  She makes it three blocks before her eyes slide shut.  I drive the rest of the way.  As I angle the car into a parking spot, Jason calls.

“Party at Clare Lowalke’s tonight,” he says.  “Can you get the car?”

I look over at my mom, fast asleep, her face mashed against the driver’s side window, her mouth wide open.

“No problem,” I tell Jason.

I ask my mom if she wants to go to the Valley-Hi.  It’s a shithole drive-in outside town that’s somehow hanging on.
“Wow,” my mom says, “that would be lovely.”

My mom takes a bath before we go. I stand outside the bathroom door listening to her sing.  If she stops singing it means she’s drowning.  If she stops singing, I need to rush in and pull her out of the tub.  She’s only stopped singing in the bathtub once.  I ran in and pulled her out of the tub right before her face slid under the water.

“We should do this kind of thing more often,” she yells to me through the bathroom door.
“Absolutely we should,” I say.


On the way to the movie, my mom zonks out.  I drive over to Jason’s and pick him up.

“This is insane,” he says. “What if she wakes up?”

“She won’t,” I tell him.

We wander into Clare Lowalke’s backyard; buy cups for the keg.  Everyone here is older than us, juniors and seniors, but they all know who I am.

“You’re the kid with the sleepy mom, right?” one guy asks. “Does she smoke a lot of weed?  Is that why she can’t stay awake?”

I know Sadie’s around here somewhere.  I ditch Jason and wander around the party.  I find her in one of the back bedrooms, passed out in Eric’s arms.  I brought another note explaining how special we were together and how special we could be again.  When I set the note down next to her on the bed, her eyes snap open.

“What in the fuck?” she says.

“I thought maybe we could talk things over,” I say. “I miss you.”

“Maybe you’ll understand this,” Sadie says, curling up in Eric’s arms and closing her eyes.
After I drop Jason off, I poke my mom awake.
“You slept through the movie,” I say.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asks.

“You looked so peaceful,” I tell her. “You look like you needed the sleep.”
I want to say something about Sadie, about how I’m going crazy over this breakup, but I don’t.  I keep my mouth shut, my hands at ten and two.
“How was the movie?” she asks.

“Really sad,” I tell her.
The next day my mom and I take the car to get the oil changed.  She falls asleep and I drive over to the strip mall one last time.  While I’m sitting in the parking lot watching Sadie a young mother brings in her baby into Elaine’s Boutique to get her ears pierced.  The kid’s maybe a year old.  I watch through my binoculars as Sadie props the baby up in the piercing chair.  The baby’s face is so damn happy, smiling and giggling, but then the piercing gun rifles through her ear and the baby’s face is transformed into an angry red ball.

Sadie’s a pro.  While the baby screeches, she holds out a mirror in front of the baby’s face.  She whispers, shh, shh, look, look, little one, look how pretty.  Soon the baby stops, sees the jewels in her ears, and smiles and the tears slide away.  I find a sad song on the radio and put the car in drive.  I scream out the lyrics as I speed off.  My mom doesn’t stir at all.


John Jodzio is a winner of the Loft-McKnight Fellowship and the author of the short story collections, Get In If You Want To Live (Paper Darts Press) and If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home (Replacement Press).  His work has been featured in a variety of places including This American Life, McSweeney’s, and One Story. He lives in Minneapolis.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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The Melting Process


It’s time for another round of Broadside Thirty, our showcase for poems in thirty lines or less by poets thirty or younger. Today, we present a new poem by Molly Dickinson.


The Melting Process

The scarabs are molting tonight. I am told it’s melting, but no,
I only see the molting shells like chicken feathers fallen away
at the end of the season. A new shell for a new weather. A new
shell for a new temperature. From now it’ll be cold, and these
bugs require reinforcement, these bugs require not to
hibernate, these bugs in fact say no, no long sleep, no long
hideaway. These bugs knocked on my door and asked for
blankets. These bugs knocked on my door and asked for socks.
These bugs will come to you, and you. When you open the
door you’ll feel my sorrow. Make them warm, please. These
are my sorrow bugs, these are my mournings.


 Molly Dickinson grew up in Northern California and earned her B.A. in English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She continues to live and work in Portland, where she is the Director of the Writing Center at a local public high school. 

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

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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Revisiting The Other Side


In light of the announcement that Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side was selected as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, we decided to revisit an interview we conducted with her last year.

You can read an excerpt from her memoir here.


Tin House: The Suspect is still at large. How did this influence the writing of your memoir?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Interviews, Tin House Books

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The Tin House Nooner: Dinaw Mengestu


Dinaw-MengestuOn today’s Nooner, Dinaw Mengestu reads from his novel All Our Names.

Named as one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2014, the novel looks at the relationship between a Midwestern social worker and an Ethiopian exile trying to reconcile with the forces that brought him to America.

You can follow all of our podcasts via iTunes.


Dinaw Mengestu is the award-winning author of two novels, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007) and How to Read the Air (2010). He is a graduate of Georgetown University and of Columbia University’s M.F.A. program in fiction and the recipient of a 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation and a 20 Under 40 award from The New Yorker. He is a recipient of a 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant and currently lives in New York City. His latest novel, All Our Names, was published in last year.

Posted in Podcasts, Writer's Workshop

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Cheers to Lacy M. Johnson


We were thrilled with yesterday’s announcement that Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side was selected as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. To celebrate the news, we thought it fitting to rerun an excerpt from her memoir that first appeared in our Memory issue. Check back tomorrow for an interview with Lacy.


Tell me everything, he says. Start at the beginning. He does not mean the playground at the preschool with the rainbow bridge. Or the kitten tongue like sandpaper on my cheek. Or the potpourri simmering in the tiny Crock-Pot on the counter next to the jar of pennies in the kitchen. Though any of these could have been a beginning to the story I tell him. I want to see it, his little notepad, but he leaves the room to make some calls. No, I can’t call my family. No, not any of my friends. Nothing to do but to look at my feet, which are suddenly very, very absurd. Someone should cover them with shoes and socks.

He returns to lead me down a dark hallway, where every office is a room with a closed door, through a kitchen, where coffee brews and burns, out a heavy steel door to a parking lot, an unmarked car. A detective’s car. He gestures, as if to say, After you.


While waiting in the unmarked car on an unlit street in the dark shadow of an oak tree I realize that real cops are not at all like movie cops. Real cops are slow and fat. Their bellies, in various states of roundness, hang over their waistbands, cinched tight with braided leather belts. They do not converge on buildings with sirens blaring. They do not flash their lights or stand behind the open doors of their squad cars and aim their guns at criminals. These cops, my cops, do not wear uniforms. From the car, where I am sitting alone in the shadow of an oak tree, they look like fat men who have happened to meet on the street, who are walking together around the side of the fourplex toward the gravel parking lot, where they will find a discarded car tarp, a screen door flapping, all the lights but one turned off.

Just inside the door, they will find a dog collar, construction supplies, and a soundproofed room. I have told them what to expect. Meanwhile, waiting alone in the car under the dark shadow of an oak tree I start seeing things: no shadow is just a shadow of an oak tree. I press the heels of my palms hard into my eye sockets, sink lower into the seat. My thoughts grow smaller and race in circles. The adrenaline shakes become convulsions, become seizures, become shock. When The Detective returns, he finds me knotted into thirds on the floorboard: hardly like a woman at all.


At the hospital, The Detective leads me through a set of automatic sliding glass doors, not the main ones that lead to the emergency room, but another set, down the way a bit, special, for people like me. He leads me down a fluorescent-lit hallway, directly to an exam room where the overhead lights are turned off. A female officer meets me there, and a social worker who looks like she might be somebody’s grandmother. The Female Officer and The Social Worker team up with a nurse; The Detective disappears without a word. The Female Officer, The Social Worker, and The Nurse ask me to take off my clothes. They unscrew the U-bolt from my wrist. The Female Officer puts these things into a Ziploc bag named EVIDENCE.

Nice to meet you, Evidence.

The Female Officer takes pictures of my wrists and ankles. She speaks in two-syllable sentences: Oh, dear. Rape kit.

The Social Worker wants to hold my hand. No thank you, ma’am. She is, after all, not my grandmother. Her skin is loose and clammy. She asks what kind of poetry I write as The Nurse rips out fingerfuls of my pubic hair, spreads my legs, and digs inside me with a long, stiff Q-tip. Another Q-tip in my mouth for saliva. She scrapes under my fingernails with a wooden skewer and puts the scum in a plastic vial.

The Social Worker invites me to stay at her house. Or it is not her house, exactly, but a half-house for half-women like me. After the exam, The Social Worker gives me a green sweat suit in a brown paper bag. I’m supposed to dress in the bathroom. The clothes are entirely too large: a too-large hunter-green sweatshirt, a pair of too-large hunter-green sweatpants, a pair of too-large beige underwear. Like my mother wears.

The Female Officer doesn’t acknowledge that I look ridiculous when I emerge from the bathroom. She doesn’t acknowledge me at all. I know to follow her out the door, to the parking lot, her squad car. I know to hang my head; it’s the price for a ticket to the station.


The phone call wakes my parents out of bed. Mom answers; her voice is thick, confused. She says nothing for a long time. In the background, Dad gets dressed. Yesterday’s change jingles in his pockets. His voice buckles: Say we’re on the way.


The Detective follows me to my new apartment in the unmarked car. He offers to come inside, to stand guard at the door, but I don’t want him to see that I have no furniture, no food in the fridge, nothing in the pantry, or the linen closet, or on the walls. I ask him to wait outside. I call my boss at the literary magazine where I am an intern and leave a message on the office voice mail: Hi there. I was kidnapped and raped last night. I won’t be coming in today. I call My Good Friend’s cell phone. I call My Older Sister’s cell phone.

While I’m in the shower, the apartment phone rings and callers leave messages on the machine: My Good Friend will stay with her boyfriend; she’s delaying her move-in date. Of course she hates to do this, but she’s just too scared to live here, with me, right now. You should find somewhere to go, she says. My Handsome Friend’s message says he heard the news from My Good Friend. He’s leaving town and doesn’t think it’s safe to tell me where to find him. The message My Older Sister leaves says she wants me to come stay at her place, which sounds better than sleeping alone in this apartment on the floor.

I pull back the curtains and see my parents standing in the parking lot talking to The Detective. My father shakes The Detective’s outstretched hand. My mother covers her chest with her arms, one hand over her mouth, a large beige purse hanging from her shoulder. She’s brought me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a snack-size bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. I’m not hungry, but the thought of wasting her effort makes my stomach turn.

I nibble the chips in the backseat of their car while they take me to buy a cell phone. They want to do something, to take action. With the fluorescent lights of the store, all the papers I must fill out and sign, and the windows wide open behind us, I feel dizzy enough to fall.


Driving to My Older Sister’s apartment, I watch the road extending behind me in the rearview mirror and try not to fall asleep. The boulevard becomes deserted intersection, becomes on-ramp, and interstate. The clusters of redbrick buildings give way to strip malls, to warehouses and truck stops, to XXX bookstores, to cultivated pastures growing in every direction: wheat-stalk brown, tree-bark brown, and corn-silk green.

My Older Sister meets me in the parking lot with tears in her eyes. Her hug is both desperate and safe. As she carries my bag up the stairs she says, You look like shit. Under any other circumstances, I’d tell her to fuck off. Today it’s a comfort. I do look exactly as I feel.

She isn’t able to get off work tonight, so she shows me how to use the cable remote, loads her handgun, puts it in my hand. It’s heavier than I would have imagined. She’ll work late tonight, but if I need anything, her next-door neighbor, The Sheriff, knows what happened. He might come by to check on me. Please try not to shoot him.

The whole time she’s gone, I watch the closed-circuit channel showing the front gate of her apartment complex. I sit in the dark with the gun in my hand and watch cars drive through the gate. I don’t know what I’m watching for, but I keep watching. A gray conversion van looks suspicious. I peer through a crack in the blinds.

I don’t eat. I don’t sleep. Even after My Older Sister comes home, offers me a beer, falls asleep with her arm around my body in the bed, I fix my eyes on the dark and wait.

And wait.

And wait.

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Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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On Sequencing

BG-Flash-FidelityHere’s the tradeoff if you’re a male bee. The female honeybee does not need a partner to reproduce. She can lay an unfertilized egg, and it will hatch male. If she lays a fertilized egg, it will hatch female. Thus every male bee has one parent and every female bee, two. The male bee never has a father and never has a son. He can have friends, if he wants.

His reward is to anchor a delicate webbing. Tracing a male bee’s ancestry reveals a pattern of cracked glass: He has one parent, two grandparents, three great-grandparents, five great-great grandparents, eight great-great-great grandparents, and so on. Every male bee is the start of Fibonacci’s sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, et cetera. Every number the sum of the two numbers before it. What Fibonacci said of rabbits, we can see in bees.

Fibonacci first posed it this way: If a newborn pair of rabbits is placed in a field to mate when they are one month old, and a new pair of rabbits repeats the sequence every month after, how many pairs will there be after a year? I don’t know the answer, but I like how he specified the rabbits have to be in a field. Writing a book meant to convince the public of the superiority of Hindu-Arabic mathematics, Fibonacci takes a moment to set the scene. What made him think it was important to put the rabbits in a field? Was it a memory from school? Some long-ago emphasis a favorite teacher placed on setting? Or was it the feeling, however latent, that these patterns respond to nature as it is, as much as they dictate how it will be?

Scott Latta‘s work has been published in Oregon Quarterly, Birmingham Arts Journal, and last year he was shortlisted for publication in the Master’s Review New Voices anthology. He is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at Oregon State University and lives in Corvallis, Oregon.


The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to theopenbar@tinhouse.com with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.

Posted in Flash Fidelity

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The Pleasant Trajectory of Your Existence

Flash FridaysThere are men all over this town carrying piccolo cases and french horn cases. They grip the handles tight. They are white-knuckled, sweaty men with very little to lose, and inside their instrument cases reside all manner of absurdly illegal contraband.

These are not delivery men.

They travel in pairs on steel frame bicycles and are often mistaken––on account of their attire––as Mormons. They lock their bicycles to swaddling beech trees and staked baby evergreens, move on foot through farmers markets and the parking lots of coliseums. They have studied the various meanings of screams. When standing inside a forest, they will point at the next tree limb to come down in high wind, and should you wait there with them for high wind to arrive, you will know I am telling God’s truth.

But likely you don’t believe in God’s truth.

You want only to know what is inside the piccolo cases and french horn cases. I will tell you. Inside the cases are frog hearts and jackrabbit kidneys and whichever small game parts get deemed least edible in a given week, and each tiny organ is incised, and protruding from each incision is a slip of paper the size and shape and constitution of a common fortune cookie fortune. Three tiny organs, three fortunes.

When you ascertain that you are looking at relatively freshly-harvested inside parts, and you draw back in horror or hesitate or gasp, one of the two men will say to you, “Point to the one you looked at first.” You’ll hesitate further. He’ll say, “Don’t lie,” and “In a jam, go with your gut.” You’ll point, and the silent man will draw out the halved slip of paper sans touch of a single finger, and it will unfold itself while floating before your face, opening like a miniature greeting card, and you’ll read there the secret you’d always kept most locked at your core, the secret that, once revealed, will forever alter the pleasant trajectory of your existence.

You’ll ask the men, “How could you know this about me?”

And the one who speaks will answer: “Every camera was accessible to us. Every glass lens an eye through which we saw. As you sat for hours at your computer, we watched you watching. We knew. We recognized facial contortions and we categorized behaviors. Your masturbatory patterns, once sickening to us, became nothing more than an algorithm flowing as a stream that joins a river, as a tributary that forks to an estuary, flowing into millions of other algorithms, and from this confluence emerged an energy more powerful than the stoutest of hydroelectric dams.” Here, the man will smile ever-so-faintly before he farts and then continues. “But every block of cast concrete will crack, just as every secret will be found out, just as every sun is a star, forever exploding, forever consuming its own heart.”

You’ll pause. “Alright,” you’ll say. Then you’ll ask the men what their game is and they will not understand the question, so you’ll try different words, like angle, punchline, what’s the catch. Eventually, you’ll ask them, “What do you want?”

And at this, the men will smile an unabashedly tender smile, the kind we offer to babies and the very old who have forgotten everything but their own clenched hands.

And in the smile, in the wrinkles formed at the edge of their eyes, you’ll understand that what they feel for you is pity, for you are the most useless of all animals, and your dissection reveals nothing.

The one who had remained silent will speak two words. “You failed.”

Watch the little halved paper burn before you. Watch the frog heart drop to the red felt lining of the instrument case and there turn to ash before the men close the lid and snap the latches and walk away from you, humming the melody of the song that played on a delivery room boombox the night you were born, the same tune the embalmer hums in his basement as he fills you up with preservation juice.

Hum along. It’s high time you orchestrated your life.


Glenn Taylor is the author of the novels The Marrowbone Marble Company and The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia, and he now lives with his wife and three sons in Morgantown, where he teaches at West Virginia University. His new novel, A Hanging at Cinder Bottom, will be published by Tin House Book in July.


The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to theopenbar@tinhouse.com with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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The Tin House Podcast: Matthew Zapruder


We kickoff 2015 with “The Furniture Appears to be Dreaming,” Matthew Zapruder’s attempt to spectacularly fail, for once and for all, to define poetry.

ZapruderIn this lecture, first given at last summer’s workshop, Matthew tackled metaphor, so-called “poetic” language, and explored the differences between poetry and prose.

Other topics covered included Keats, chimney sweepers, Bishop, line breaks, and blue antelope.

In other words, all the essentials.

Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014). His poems, essays and translations have appeared in many publications, including Bomb, Slate, Poetry, Paris Review, and The Believer. An Assistant Professor in the St. Mary’s College of California MFA program and English Department, he is also Editor-at-Large at Wave Books.

Posted in Podcasts, Writer's Workshop

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