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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Welcome to Broadside Thirty, a digital showcase for young poets. Each entry will feature a single poem under thirty lines, written by a poet under thirty years old. This week we feature Lucia Stacey.
That I have to go to the gynecologist
in Brooklyn, because I chose the cheaper
health insurance plan. That I will sit
speculum-sore for ages, waiting for the L.
That there’s no heat in my bedroom
(sexual or otherwise). That I have to go
to Bushwick to admit this to a stranger.
That I can blow smoke upon waking.
That I spent money on Sharon Olds
Anne Sexton, Victoria Redel, and wine
instead of chicken or peaches or beans.
That I did everything
I wasn’t supposed to (but only last Sunday).
That the ceiling fell
into the shower and I stood naked
on the deck to get clean. That no one saw.
That I learned indifference by watching
a mouse hemorrhage internally in glue.
That my laundry man has only one eye
and three teeth. That he said to call him Tony.
That I know what chemical to use
to disintegrate the body
of a pigeon, trapped and died in the wall.
That I held an accidental séance
because of all the candles and incense.
That I’ve considered the $5 psychics
selling fortunes on Canal street.
That I can recognize black mold.
That I recognize faces on the M72.
That I am recognized. That I am not.
Lucia Stacey is a twenty-three year old graduate of Davidson College, where she majored in English and won the Charles E. Lloyd Award for Excellence in the Field of Creative Nonfiction. She has had poetry and flash-fiction published in Out of Our, Columbia Journal’s Catch and Release, Ozone Park, The Atlas Review, and The Chicago Quarterly Review. She is a member of the Poetry Society of New York’s Poetry Brothel. Lucia works in biodefense and lives and writes in the East Village in New York City.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with the category name in the subject line.
Through his two novels, Akhil Sharma has turned the wrenching lives of collapsing families into gripping narratives. An Obedient Father, his 2000 debut, is told largely from the perspective of Ram Karan, an official living in New Dehli in the 1980s. There’s a haplessness to Karan, and his efforts to perpetuate a corrupt lifestyle–but there’s also a far darker aspect to his life, the revelation casts his relationship with his family in a far more complex light. In revealing Karan’s own justifications for horrific acts, Sharma unceasingly dissects his protagonist’s mind.
His latest novel, Family Life, follows the Misha family as they move from India to New Jersey; it follows Ajay, the family’s youngest son, as he must contend with his family’s disasters: an accident that befalls his brother, and his father’s alcoholism. Ajay’s discovery of literature is also one of the most interesting examples of its kind that I’ve encountered in fiction: it’s shown as a kind of saving grace, but it’s also deeply realistic in its depiction of how someone can haphazardly find themselves through creative expression.
In person, Sharma is open, questioning, and incisive. We sat at Veselka in the East Village and discussed his novels, the lengthy process of writing Family Life, and how its title’s evocation of classic literature echoes Sharma’s own taste in books.
Tobias Carroll: I grew up not far from where Family Life is set, and so reading it left me with a significant sense of central New Jersey. To what extent were you relying on your own memories of that area in the 1980s as opposed to doing research on it?
Akhil Sharma: It’s almost completely memory. In fact, there was an apartment complex that’s referred to; in one of the earlier drafts, it had a much bigger role, and because I did not want to do research, I just changed the name of the apartment complex so that it would not be limited by that.
TC: Were there other areas where you didn’t want to be constrained by the specific history of a building or a place?
AS: I’m sure I did. I can’t remember off the top of my head. For me, it isn’t exactly that I don’t want to be constrained, but that when I begin working with nonfiction, I begin to feel this pressure to include things in the novel that I would not feel interested in. To some extent, not checking my memory allows it to be slightly purer.
TC: I was reading the interview you did in Salon, where you talked about the number of drafts that you’d written of the novel. I’m curious: was that all the same narrative, or was it a much more sprawling narrative? Were there pieces from that process that might end up going elsewhere?
AS: I don’t think they will go elsewhere, although there are portions that people have suggested might go elsewhere, that can be excerpted. I don’t have any desire to touch that material, but I think that there are pieces that could be. The other drafts, many of them are in the third person; some of them are from the point of view of the father, some from the point of view of the mother. There are drafts which are much more about alcoholism, and about the father and his interactions with the Indian community, especially with the idea of alcoholism. All of these things which were left out. It was never a grossly large novel, but there were many versions of the novel.
TC: If you wrote a scene from another character’s perspective that didn’t make it into the final version of the novel, did you still find yourself relying on that, that those scenes were informing what was happening in the novel?
AS: I presume that many of the things that didn’t make it into the novel inform what I write. That would be true for everything. The danger, I imagine, is that you change certain viewpoints of the novel and be evident that the change is not in the book. I can imagine that creating a muddiness in the work.
TC: Family Life begins in the present moment and then flashes back, and it ends with the narrator coming to one particular realization. What was the process like in terms of creating that almost dreamlike scene in the opening, where the main characters are in a very different position than any other time we see them in the book?
AS: I’m not totally sure how I generated that scene. The logic of it was that I wanted to figure out a way to allow the language of the eight-year old, the nine-year old be a little more sophisticated. And so by making clear that this was retrospective, it allowed some of that complexity to come through to the younger Ajay. That was the logic of it. I was also very conscious of creating–it’s a bracketed narrative, but the brackets don’t match up. It doesn’t close. There is a dreamlike-ness of it, or an unsettling-ness to it. And that, I wanted.
There isn’t symmetry. Symmetry was something that I had to resist; that’s sort of my default setting. I chose to resist it because, I think, with a work like this, with a situation like this, the repercussions go on and on and on. And so any ending would be false. The book has two beginnings and two endings. The first ending, the scene with the flashlight, I can see as a symmetrical ending.
The art teacher’s wife left him, and their two sons, for another woman two years ago. The art teacher, who taught high school in a suburban area of Miami, thought he was a pretty good dad, except for the one time when he brought the boys to a birthday party with a hired Barbie character and fucked Barbie in the upstairs bathroom.
The morning after Judy left, the art teacher ate Coco Puffs for breakfast. He let his sons open a box of Fruit Loops and a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch—it was a decadent breakfast. The boys chattered excitedly as he stirred the chocolatey milk with his spoon.
Why did Judy leave him? “Well, the answer’s obvious,” the younger son would say. “She was a lesbian.” “Don’t call your mother a lesbian,” the art teacher would say back. Still in love with Judy, the he got angry when people explained her only in terms of her sexuality.
He had met Judy at a girl-band show (retrospectively, he wondered if that had been the first sign that Judy would leave him for a woman). He’d asked her if the previous band was any good. “They played ‘Grease’ from Grease,” she’d said, with a smile.
Before the older son left for college, the two sons saw their mother on three-day weekends—President’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, etc. She made them grilled cheeses and let them watch all the TV they wanted. It took a forty-minute bus ride to see her because the sons were too polite to ask their father to drive.
He never thought that he’d end up in Miami, with children but no wife. In college, he had read Art in Theory cover to cover and thought that he would move to New York to try the starving-artist thing. He ended up in Miami because he followed a girl there. The girl broke up with him soon after the move, but at least Miami had a blossoming art scene and cheaper rent than New York. For five years he tried selling his work, but his work didn’t appeal to gallery owners. He resigned himself to becoming the undiscovered great artist of his century and got a job teaching high school.
Most of the students he found dull. The few kids he liked he asked to his office, encouraging them to keep drawing and recommending them books.
Years after Judy left, he took an extra liking to Angela, one of his seniors. He favored Angela because she was smart. She was also lovely, in a mousy, unaware-of-herself way, though she was no good at art—Angela didn’t have the concentration to render the yellowy and blueish shades of the skull he’d placed at the center of the striped still-life table.
Angela liked the art teacher too. One day, Angela was bold enough to put her hand on his. Their courtship was barely perceptible. In his class, she was a mediocre student who got a B+ out of sheer effort, but when she visited him in office hours they talked and talked. He never told her about Judy. He was the mentor, patiently listening to Angela’s high-school dramas and worries about getting into college. They saw each other often. Angela gave him blowjobs in the parking lot of a funeral parlor. She would gather her hair in a ponytail, tying it with a hair band, and bend over.
He considered marrying Angela—she was only two years younger than his older son. He imagined inviting Judy and her girlfriend to the wedding and his relatives tittering over their plates of cake.
He even visited Angela at the University of Chicago. He was going to propose, but when he saw her—she’d gotten a nose piercing and gained a little weight in her hips—he realized he couldn’t commit himself to someone who wouldn’t stop changing rapidly in the next ten years. “Call me when you’re thirty,” he said.
When he returned from Chicago, his younger son asked him about the Art Educators Conference he had supposedly attended. The art teacher gave his son a weary smile and said that the state of art education was very bad in this country. He told him to become a lawyer or a doctor. “Don’t follow your passions. They lead you to weird, lonely places. Nobody talks about this.”
Anna Mebel is an MFA candidate in poetry at Syracuse University. Her work has appeared in Broke Journal.
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): I have just started reading a novel I’d never heard of by an author I’d never heard of (but you may have heard of it, since it was just short-listed for the National Book Award). Last week, I walked by a book lying in the wrong place at Powell’s. On the front cover of An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine, is a blurb by Rachel Kushner. That was enough for me to pick the book up. On the back cover are blurbs from starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. That was enough for me to open the book. The description was compelling: A seventy-two-year-old woman who lives alone in her Beirut apartment translates one book into Arabic each year, thirty-seven thus far; they have never been read by anyone else. Aaliya narrates her story, reflecting on literature, philosophy, and art, as well as the Lebanese Civil War and how it affected her family and her life. But it was the blurb from Yiyun Li on the front flap that sealed the deal: “There are many ways to break someone’s heart, but Rabih Alameddine is one rare writer who not only breaks our hearts but gives every broken piece a new life.” A book that will break my heart and then give every piece a new life? SOLD!
Jessica Miler (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): I’m reading Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before by Karelia Stetz-Waters, the newest book from Ooligan Press, where I am a staff member. It tells the story of Trinuu Hoffman who’s just entering high school in southern Oregon in the early nineties. As Trinuu comes to the realization about her identity as a lesbian, the battle over Measure 9 heats up. Filled with colorful characters who leap off the page and a dizzingly, lyrical style, Stetz-Waters’ newest (and first) YA novel is one that has stayed with me since the first time I read it in the acquisition phase.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): This is what I’m reading on a bench near the Danube :) Self by Barry Dainton (part of the “Philosophy in Transit” series by Penguin), The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille, New Selected Poems by Eavan Boland. [Matthew sends this note from an indeterminate European location, where we assume he is spending his time sitting on park benches in a respectably tattered cardigan, tossing seed to birds, making funny faces at passing children, and, of course, reading. -Desiderata Editor]
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I’m reading Mike Sacks’s Poking a Dead Frog, which is interviews with and essays from comedy writers. I’m not a comedy writer and have no aspirations to be one, but Sacks’s series on comedy should be a must-read for any writer, even ones who don’t share my Simpsons and early Onion obsessions. (Fools.) There’s so much about structure and craft, the behind-the-scenes thought processes of classic TV shows and movies, and–maybe my favorite aspect but also something I’m just realizing now– a welcome, effective antidote to writerly preciousness.
Colin Houghton (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): After finishing Charles D’Amrosio’s upcoming book, Loitering: New and Collected Essays, I was in a heated search for a new collection of essays. John Jeremiah Sullivan was hard to miss, his 2011 collection, Pulphead, has garnered praise all over, critics called him the next David Foster Wallace, a title he seemed to modestly shy away from (who wouldn’t). But, real talk, the amazing thing about Sullivan has nothing to do with DFW, or his newfound cult status as essayist of the times, it’s the raw humanity that seems to live in every sentence the man writes. Sullivan shies away from any sort of noticeable condescension in his work, instead he turns his talent onto whatever bizarre corner of the culture he’s investigating, and unpacks all things real and profound that lie in wait. The FSG paperback has a really hip cover your non-reader friends will love, but if you get the chance, buy the audiobook, Sullivan reads his own work with dry and enamoring Southern conviction.
Joey Carmichael (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I managed to remain blind to Saunders’ words until last summer, when I discovered a copy of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline on a bookshelf in my Brooklyn sublet. After that, I picked up its adjacency, In Persuasion Nation. (Thank you, Caity, for your taste in literature.) Last fall, I got my hands on Tenth of December. Last week, I went all in and bought Pastoralia and The Braindead Megaphone on the same night. I’m savoring these stories and essays—most days, drinking them in slow with my morning coffee—but I’m already reminded of what I love about Saunders’ writing. His short stories shed visceral truths in dystopian garb; his essays (thus far) lay bare intellectual truths that remind us of our own false attire. And make you chuckle to yourself in public all the while. I pick each morning’s genre like I pick my outfit—that is to say, with minimal thought, whimsically—but whatever I read is sure to cling to me far longer than whatever three-to-six-year-old 100%-cotton t-shirt I throw on.
Diane Chonette (Art Director): In an effort to hold onto summer for just a wee bit longer, I recently picked up The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. The slim volume is a delicious little slice of Finnish island life through the eyes of a 6 year old girl and her aged grandmother. Light-hearted discussions intermingle with deeper topics as the two companions explore their natural surroundings. The book has given me the last little glow I needed before putting summer to rest.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): My dad was troubled when, several years ago, I asked for a copy of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior for my birthday; surely, I needed no further invitation to fixate on my own or others’ ineptitudes or failures of grace. But with Miss Manners, one comes for the discussion of asparagus and “at home” card etiquette, and stays for the gentle excoriation of the “gentle readers” who make their queries under false pretenses. Miss Manners knows when to call a spade a spade, or a bride-to-be a venture capitalist, or a grandchild a boorish parasite–although of course, she says as much only with the utmost politesse as she turns the tables on her letter writers. Miss Manners is so good, so much more clever than her prey, that it’s almost not sporting. Before the magnanimity of Dear Sugar, before Steve Almond’s compassionate heavy meddling, there was the bite of Miss Manners. Long may it reign.
Talal Achi (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): I’ve just finished reading Ursula LeGuin’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World. Like the other novels of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle, this one is set in a universe where countless worlds are populated by countless humanoid species. Some of these worlds—those technologically and ethically advanced enough—belong to “the League,” an interstellar coalition of which one distant purpose is to resist the return of an ancient galactic evil called simply, “the Enemy;” others, like Rocannon’s world, formerly (before the end of the novel) known as Formalhaut II, are yet too primitive to be admitted into the League, and are instead monitored by such agents as Rocannon, a League ethnologist. Formalhaut II is a world peopled by several distinct humanoid species (tall black men and women with blond hair, the Angyar, who ride windsteeds—flying cats—live lordly, Beowulf style, and are served by a smaller race—white, with dark hair, the quiet Olgyar; the telepathic Fian, slight kindhearted elf-like dwellers of the wood; their sturdy dwarf-like cousin race, the Gdemiar, also telepathic but much more dour; the tall, strange Winged Ones, who look like angels but behave like hive insects; and the minuscule Kiemhir, who resemble rodents), and, when the rest of his ethnological survey team is obliterated by an army come from a mutinous League planet to take over this world and subdue it so as to use it as a base of operations, Rocannon interacts with all of them in his (epic) quest to make contact with the League. Although Rocannon’s World is not quite as clean a work as some of the others of the Hainish Cycle (like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed—the first set on an ice-planet on which everyone is androgynous, the second set on a barren desert moon on which an amazing society has managed to make anarchy work viably and gracefully), it is nevertheless a very well written, very enjoyable book.
Alyssa Persons (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Florida has always struck me as an otherworldly appendage to the US, chock full of things whose existences I have no problem acknowledging (alligators, Disney World, etc.), but that I’d rather not ever experience. I thought I might remain carefully ambivalent towards Florida and its various idiosyncrasies, but it seems none other than Joan Didion found a way to successfully tear me from my self-imposed ignorance. If Didion published a book comprised only of her grocery lists I would probably be reading that at the moment, but for now Miami will have to do. Her sharp social and political commentary navigates between the shiny, glamorous veneer that Miami projects and the corruption and general unease that permeate the city. She casts a portrait of Miami as not so much a typical American city than a kind of liminal meeting point between Washington and Latin America–teeming with politicians, exiles, immigrants, and revolutionaries. I’m not booking a trip to South Beach any time soon, but Didion’s Miami has me mesmerized.
“Suddenly this defeat.
The blues gone gray
And the browns gone gray
A terrible amber.
In the cold streets
Your warm body.
In whatever room
Your warm body.
Among all the people
The people who are always
I have been easy with trees
Too familiar with mountains.
Joy has been a habit.
― Jack Gilbert, “Rain”
When all the other girls in our class were fawning over Justin Timberlake and Nick Carter, we were in love with a crocodile hunter. Not just any crocodile hunter, but The Crocodile Hunter. My twin sister Nikki and I would crowd close to the TV on Saturday mornings, flip to The Discovery Channel, and watch as Steve Irwin fearlessly wrangled rattle snakes, hippos, lizards, and crocs. We were enamored by his sun-toasted skin, his almandine eyes and desert-blond hair, the charming gap between his front teeth. We ran around the house imitating his famous catchphrase in our crude Australian accents, “Crikey, mate!” We went to the Discovery Store in the mall and made Mom buy us toy crocs of our own to wrangle. Nikki even got a Stretchy Steve-O doll, whose arms stretched when you pulled them hard. We would each grab an arm and pull in opposite directions, pulling Steve as hard as we could.
The Halloween of 2003, when we were nine years old, Nikki went as Steve. We dressed her in a short sleeve khaki button down, matching khaki shorts and tan boots with tall white socks. One of Dad’s belts, which was too big for her, we fastened loosely around her waist. We got her a little rubber snake to bring around too.
Nikki and I had a fascination with nature. Mom bought us science kits that would help us identify indigenous leaves and insects. We had a huge book called “The Nature Book,” where there were colorful images of animals and plants in all different ecosystems. My favorite was the Rainforest, and hers, the Ocean.
At first Steve did the show on his own, but then got married to Terri and they took their honeymoon hunting crocs. It was a TV special that Nikki and I wouldn’t miss. Steve and Terri were to us the most perfect couple. They would take turns driving the van or holding the camera, each narrating the scene in perfect calmness and elation. In 1998, Bindi Irwin was born, and would be a regular addition to the show. Steve was now more than a crocodile hunter. He was a husband and a father.
There were plenty of close calls on the show, where Steve would watch a rattlesnake slithering on a branch and then it would suddenly strike. But Steve was always low on his knees. He was a professional that preached safety at all costs.
2006 was our first year of Junior High, and we were excited. Nikki and I always loved school. At recess we would play Marine Biologists and look out through imaginary binoculars to search for dolphins, whales or manatees. We loved science class, where we would be dissecting frogs this year. On September 4th, the last day of summer vacation, I watched the news. Steve Irwin was dead.
We always knew Steve was fearless, but never believed he was mortal. According to the report, Steve was stung by a venomous stingray while filming a documentary about the deadliest sea creatures in the world. I ran up to Nikki’s room with tears in my eyes and told her what had happened to Steve. We sat on her bed. She held Stretchy Steve-O in her hands and we stared at him, crying.
This was our first experience with death and mourning. The loss of our first love. We cried for Terri and Bindi. We saw Bindi speak about her father on TV, at his memorial service. She was eight years old and addressed her audience with such poise, among them, her mother and her younger brother. She said she wanted to serve animals just like her father. And we cried again for our crocodile hunter.
Kaila Allison is a senior at New York University studying Creative Writing and Adolescent Psychology. She has published fiction in the Minetta Review, the Gallatin Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and Potluck Mag.
The futurologist sits alone in his gaping office. It’s the future. It’s been the future for a while. Meanwhile, he falls asleep and asleep and asleep in his chair. He dreams palely of his wife slicing tomatoes in the kitchen.
One day, he’d like his children and his pale wife to see the moon. But vacations are expensive. His job as a mid-level futurologist just doesn’t cut it.
Because he’s already seen them once, most things materialize for the futurologist sans magic. Like how he knew, on the chilly morning of November 26th, a small packed snowball would come sailing through the window from between his daughter’s fingers. This is what keeps him from a promotion. He can only anticipate banalities, those moments in days that are never dwelled upon. He hoards the humdrum. The other futurologists are hard at work on wars, the day the last truck of fossil fuel will gurgle into the distance, the plans for how a cancer-killing drug will be distributed once it’s discovered. He can’t see those things. They loom just outside his cranial cavity like moons in orbit.
Tomorrow morning his children will form balls of dough in the kitchen and make cookies that will flatten in the oven. He won’t tell them this will happen. He will instead, before work, gaze at the roundness of the silence left by his wife on her pillow. There will be a note about a notice she got regarding discounted rockets to the moon, discounted space suits as well. He will throw it away. At work he will organize and reorganize and reorganize the files of lives: the cereal breakfasts, the long black skirts yet to be purchased, the wrong turns that won’t make anyone late for anything.
After a while, one of his colleagues will walk in and tell him what she has seen: tomorrow the futurologist will be laid off. He wasn’t aware this would happen but did, about a week ago, see what will happen just after: how he will procure the white stress ball from his drawer and squeeze it until it pops, tinier spheres scattering across the grey tile.
As he sleeps at his desk, something pulses in his temples. The day before his wife leaves with the children, here’s the future he’ll see: a cloud-choked sky. A note, in his mind slightly blurred, saying something about “seeing the bigger picture.” Tiny half-moon indents in the palms of his hands.
Kristen Steenbeeke is a writer living in Seattle, Washington. Her poetry has appeared in Pacifica; her quasi-fiction on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She is the marketing manager at Hugo House, a nonprofit place for writers.
If a modern film version of Pride and Prejudice were produced today, some of the main characters should be gay, Elizabeth and Darcy should not get married at the end, and Charlotte Lucas should be played by a tabby cat. At least, those were the conclusions made by students in a college course I taught last winter. The course covered film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, from the 1940 Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson version, up through Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’ Diary, (with plenty of time for Colin Firth and Keira Knightley along the way). By the end, each student had to write a twelve-page pitch for a new film, with results ranging from Kung Fu Prejudice and Elizabeth Bennet, Superhero, to a creative mash-up of P&P and The Great Gatsby.
Undergraduates, especially English majors, tend to be very good at applying the lessons of literature to their lives, and Jane Austen’s world of courtship and marriage provides a stark contrast to the hookup culture on today’s college campuses. As one young woman put it: “I wish I had a Mr. Darcy pining for me, but that is not how the real world works, which is depressing at times. I also do not have the opportunity to go to balls and dance with eligible bachelors. Instead I am stuck in fraternity basement parties, with sweaty frat boys grinding against me to sexist rap music.” She didn’t want to live in Austen’s world, but she had no illusions about her own.
I appreciated my students’ openness as they crafted their final papers, but I can’t say that I was equally forthcoming. I didn’t mind sharing my oldest daughter’s impressions of college parties, or the culture my other girls were encountering at our local high school. But I never mentioned the messy truth about my own life—that once a week after class I was driving over to a lawyer’s office to hammer through the last stages of a protracted divorce.
Reading Pride and Prejudice—and watching all those films—is a grim exercise when you’re going through a divorce. You tend to get a little cynical about Elizabeth and Darcy’s prospects for long-term compatibility. Most days I found myself sympathizing with Mr. Bennet, the bookish father who retreats to his library to avoid his flighty spouse’s chatter. That was me—the studious English professor with the happy-go-lucky husband, fretting over family finances while my soon-to-be-ex flew our three daughters down to Florida for a spree of multiple amusement parks.
I met my husband when I was in college, the summer after my sophomore year. He lived in Washington while I was studying in Boston, so we maintained a long distance relationship for two years, then got married one month after my graduation. Only one of my college friends told me directly that she thought I was crazy to get married so young. My students, however, were much more clear—young women who get married in their early twenties, especially right out of college, are nuts.
Early marriages, they insisted, might make sense for couples like Pride and Prejudice’s Jane and Bingley, who are blandly cheerful, traditional and hopelessly naïve. But Elizabeth and Darcy? By the novel’s end they’ve known each other for less than a year, and Elizabeth, as she tells Lady Catherine, is “not yet one and twenty.” In the twenty-first century, Elizabeth and Darcy would be well-educated and ambitious, eager to establish their careers before marrying. They would certainly have sex, see each other steadily, and maybe even live together for a few years. But marriage, according to my class, would have to wait.
I don’t know that the later marriages of career-driven couples have any more chance of success than the early matches of previous generations. My own marriage lasted for twenty-five years. Still, deferring matrimony does give young people, especially women, a chance to develop as individuals, to live on their own, and to understand what they really want from a life partner—questions I had delayed until my late forties.
My class had strong opinions about life partners. For instance, why should we assume that a modern Elizabeth would marry a man? Darcy is a fine name for a woman, and several students who were planning rom-com films imagined Elizabeth and Darcy as a happy lesbian couple.
That made sense to me, given the social life I was experiencing at the time. Getting divorced is an exercise in female bonding. Over the two years of my separation I’d been introduced to a whole new circle of wonderful women—mostly divorced—all wanting to avoid being the singleton at couples’ parties. I’d been to wine tastings with divorced women, concerts with divorced women, cafes in Paris and New York with divorced women. I’d lingered in a Turkish bath in Istanbul with a divorced woman. If we had all been gay or bisexual, the romantic possibilities would have been endless.
Instead we sat around getting mildly drunk while we laughed about bad dates, no dates, and Match.com vs. Eharmony.
I’ve never been on a book tour. Everyone says book tours are rare now anyway and so there’s probably no chance that I’ll ever go on one. And so when I hear that an author is on a book tour and complains about his/her driver and endless nights in drab hotel rooms I can’t help but feel that the author is doing the wrong thing: complaining. Except maybe complaining is part of the glamor of a book tour.
Even though I’ve never been on an actual book tour I do have a fantasy book tour. My fantasy book tour is like a cruise in one of those old movies. I arrive in my quarters and there’s an enormous bucket of flowers waiting and one of those huge fruit baskets wrapped in cellophane. A phone rings and my driver arrives, a nice person who knows where the signing is so I don’t have to get lost on the way or parallel park. We arrive at the signing and people are waiting for my signature and those people are extraordinarily kind…but this account is getting so boring. One of the best parts of my fantasy book tour: I return to my hotel room gratified and don’t spend the night regretting something I did or said. I don’t act like that woman in The Waste Land who mutters, “My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad.” No, I feel more like Walt Whitman wanted us to feel. And there’s a mini-bar in my hotel room. And someone has left something for me: a bowl of fresh raspberries topped with enough whipped cream to suffocate a cow.
I sleep happily and the next morning the driver—who has become a friend for life and also happens to be an importer of marvelous free trade coffee which she/he brings along for me in a thermos—drives me to the next stop on the tour. The next stop is like Paris except it’s only twenty miles away and nobody knows French—and people actually line up to buy one of my books. And that book is meant for each reader in some deeply meaningful way and, once again, people are extraordinarily kind. And I resist drawing a little picture next to my signature, because that can be profoundly irritating and may lower resale value.
I should mention that although I’ve never been on a book tour I have done book signings. In one of my favorite signings I was posted next to an author of erotic literature featuring baseball players. She was warmly welcoming and brought all sorts of swag: sexy magnets, sexy book marks, sexy baseball cards. This was at a Barnes & Noble, and we had been expressly forbidden to bring swag to lure people to our tables. But she wrote about the forbidden, and so the forbidden was her territory. I think I sold one book and gave away two, but it was still one of my favorite signings, because where else would I have met an author of baseball erotica? It was an opportunity to be a writer on whom nothing is lost—like Henry James. Besides, I liked the author, and there were plenty of opportunities to ask questions.
But sometimes signings are miserable. There’s a crowd passing by and you’re like a small zoo animal of no particular interest.
I have given readings that were worse than any of my signings. For one of my readings only two people showed up—a married couple who kept saying, “We thought the place would be packed!” Out of pity they gave me a collection of humorous revisions of that one psalm that begins “Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil.”
At another reading a man in the audience squealed like a pig, but I’ve recounted that story elsewhere and so I won’t go into that. And like probably every writer, I’ve given a reading where an espresso machine expressed regular, sadistically timed indignation.
Then too, I have also been that person in the audience at readings who gives the writer the creeps. I once introduced myself to another writer with great enthusiasm—we had a mutual friend. The writer’s male companion said, “I’m sure you’re a very nice person” and led me away by the elbow.
Worse: something happened when I was an appreciative audience member at a well-known novelist’s reading. After the novelist finished reading, everywhere I looked suddenly turned crisper, brighter. Even the maple trees in the window behind the writer became brilliantly lit—the way things appear illuminated after you’ve concentrated for a very long time on a remarkable painting. I tried to communicate this to the writer. He interrupted and said, “You’ve just told me that while I was reading you couldn’t stop looking at trees.” A few years later I went to another reading by this same novelist. He opened with an anecdote about a woman who insulted him by telling him that during his reading she couldn’t stop looking at trees.
My slim hope: could there have been another woman?
But back to my fantasy book tour. After I finish my book tour I return home, happily refreshed. As it turns out, my book tour has been so inspiring that I immediately write a book. The process is exhilarating and the book practically writes itself. The book is called My Book Tour! and has so much potential to draw readers that my publisher sends me on another book tour. And I whine about the book tour a little bit, to keep things interesting. Whining is just sharing specific information at a high pitch. It’s like, you know, opera. And then, because one good experience leads to another, I write an opera.
Lee Upton’s collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, appeared in May from BOA. She is the author of the essay collection Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy; the novella The Guide to the Flying Island; and the poetry collection Undid in the Land of Undone, among other works.
On Today’s Nooner, newlywed Bianca Stone goes back to the altar as she reads from her collection Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House Books/Octopus).
Bianca Stone grew up in Vermont, graduated from NYU’s Creative Writing Program, is the author of several poetry chapbooks, and a poetry comics series. She is the illustrator of Antigonick, (a collaboration with Anne Carson), and her poems have appeared in such journals as American Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, Best American Poetry 2011. She lives in Brooklyn.
Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report is available now from Tin House Books.
Incident Report 1
The time was 2:15. A young man swaggered into the library. On his shaved head he wore a grey tweed hat. The words Love and Fuck, printed in large, dark letters, decorated the back of his green army jacket. His black boots added weight to his presence. A small, fine-boned man, his eyes were the pale blue of a summer sky. Chains of varying thicknesses and degrees of intricacy, each link handwoven from copper wire, hung from his shoulders and crisscrossed his chest. He settled himself in a chair by the large window, behind the paperback spinners. At 4:15 he came to the desk and asked to borrow, “please, if possible,” a small hand-held vacuum. “I’ve got some shavings I’d like to clean up,” he explained. For the preceding two hours he’d sat, stripping electrical wire with the aid of his pocketknife. I brought him the battery powered Dust Buster from the shelf at the back of our workroom. I could think of nothing in the Rules and Regulations to prohibit me from lending it to him. He thanked me, and, crouching down, cleaned the debris from the carpet surrounding his chair—his territory of responsibility.
Incident Report 2
The time was 11:15 AM. A slender woman with unusually dry and pale skin entered the library at an angle. She slipped in sideways. All of a sudden she was there, moving forward, lightly on her feet, as if prepared to elude an attacker. Her restless, almost colourless eyes took in her surroundings. She approached the Reference Desk, where I sat scrolling through the e-mails suspended in my In Box. “Where are your career information sheets?” I indicated two thick black binders. She peered in the direction I was pointing, but made no move to cross the room. “Shall I show you the binders?” I offered. “I see where you’re pointing. I’m not a fool.” Her voice snipped the word “fool” from the air and pasted it on my forehead. I lowered my eyes. The female patron in question set off on her journey. Several minutes later, she returned. “Those binders,” she informed me, “are black.” “Yes,” I agreed, “they are.” “Then why did you say they were purple?” She leaned forward to make it clear that no route of escape was available to me. “Did I?” “You did. You said, ‘those purple binders over there.’ You knew they were black but you lied to me. ‘Those purple binders,’ you said.” I muttered my apology. “I didn’t intend . . .” She cut me off. “You did. You said purple, those purple binders. You knew they were black, but you told me they were purple.” “I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear.” “You were perfectly clear. Purple binders, you said. You lied to me.” I attempted to distract her from the subject of colour by asking, “Were you able to find what you wanted?” She glared at me through her white eyelashes. I repeated my question. “Were you able to find what you wanted?” She held my gaze with her hard little eyes, now the colour of dirty snow, and considered my query. “It’s not my abilities that are in doubt, but yours,” she informed me. “I asked you a simple question, and you lied to me.” The anger in her voice dragged, like a fingernail across a blackboard. I shifted my attention to her collarbone. She spoke her final judgment. “You should be put outside in a cage on the sidewalk.” Again I lowered my eyes to the computer screen in front of me, and read, but the words had become hollow gourds, little seeds of shrivelled meaning rattling inside them.
Incident Report 3
This morning, the first to arrive, I unlocked the back door of the library, shouldered my bicycle, and descended the narrow stairs into the dim basement. The grey metal box fixed to the wall opened easily to reveal two vertical rows of stiff black switches made of a hard plastic. I started at the top and moved down. Each switch, succumbing to the pressure of my thumb, produced a loud “click”—a sound of finality—as it flipped from “Off” to “On.” Throughout the library above me, lights lit up. Nothing irrevocable had occurred. At the end of the day the lights would go off again. And yet for a few seconds I’d experienced certainty and a fleeting sensation of power. Sounds are more convincing than most of reality. My name is Miriam Gordon. I am an employee of the Public Libraries of Toronto. I am thirty-five years old and a “Clerical,” or that is how they referred to me until last month when they changed my title. I am now a “Public Service Assistant.”
Incident Report 4
This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump palm of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her for her gift.
Incident Report 5
In the library workroom, a schedule hangs from two clips. As always, the day has been divided into compartments, as if it were a train about to set out on a well-planned voyage along shining rails. My initials have been pencilled into many of the little boxes that correspond to each hour between 9:00 AM and 8:30 PM. We, the staff, don’t always greet the public with enthusiasm. We don’t feel, every one of us without fail, that we are travelling out, embarked upon an adventure, and yet there we are, inscribed in our little boxes, as if the day were pulled by a solid locomotive. Every morning in the warmth of my bed, as I surface from sleep, fear—small as a cherry stone, it cracks open behind my breastbone. I don’t want the fruit. With each quick breath the fear grows, a rustling of leaves in the cavity of my chest. But soon I’ve washed, dressed, drunk a cup of tea, eaten a piece of toast, and am on my way to work, riding my bicycle in a prescribed direction.
Martha Baillie is the author of four novels and has been published in Canada, Germany, and Hungary. Her poems have appeared frequently in journals such as Descant, Prairie Fire, and the Antigonish Review. Her nonfiction piece “The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach” was published by Brick: a literary journal. Her most recent novel, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, was published in September 2014 by Tin House Books.
I walked halfway across this morning, and it made me feel ordinary. Everyone who crosses the Golden Gate thinks of jumping. Even the kid with his skateboard pissing off the pedestrians imagines their reaction if he’d careen down the cable from the south tower and launch himself toward Fort Point. It always depends on savoring a reaction you won’t be there to witness, not so different from writing a letter like this.
The hedge fund broker thinks of jumping in his velour jog suit. The mother herding her three kids drunk on ice cream. The symphony oboist, the bluegrass picker. The dreamer with her long red scarf, the dreamer in his black Giants jacket … but all of them are dreamers.
Better to drink yourself to death with Chartreuse or Benedictine and be found in the morning in tomato vines like an old monk. Better to hang yourself from a beam in the vestry just to have the word vestry in your obituary. I might plan my death just to invoke certain words from the dictionary: coloratura, Reykjavík, cast-iron, longitude, salt. That would be a work of art. Not the swan dive from the span, the term itself a cliché: swans don’t dive. They flap to earth with extraordinary clumsiness, graceful only in flight. Of course, we’re all graceful in flight. It’s not flight that separates the graceful from the clumsy.
The deck is 250 feet above the water: it takes four seconds to hit. We take certain things for granted: gravity, oxygen and, if we’re lucky, sleep. We take for granted the joy of being here to register our pain. But pain eliminates precisely the gap between itself and the one who registers it.
What I fear most is that, while one of those four seconds might be exhilarating, in the last long, split second before I hit, I would realize my stupidity: a soldier hiding in a cave years after the war is over. To kill myself only to be mocked at my funeral, over multicolored bean casserole, as if I’d made a mistake, like when I was a child in the pageant playing one of the three kings and I’d put on my mother’s hat with the green silk grapes instead of my crown because it was the most beautiful thing I knew.
Sometimes I think my whole life has been an attempt to undo that moment, an attempt that has been successful to a disturbing degree. Sometimes I see men, and women too, stop breathing for a moment when they see me because I’m the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen—my features mean something to them, something real that has nothing to do with me.
What I mean is: I know what Medusa felt like. The snakes of green and white jade intertwined, shining, ecstatic.
Robert Thomas’ latest book, Bridge, is a work of fiction published by BOA Editions, Ltd. His first book, Door to Door, was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa as winner of the Poets Out Loud Prize and published by Fordham University Press, and his second book, Dragging the Lake, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. He has received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and won a Pushcart Prize.
Most of us can remember the exhilaration of being released onto the playground from a stuffy elementary school classroom, the awkwardness of a teenage movie theater make-out session, or the reckless thrill of getting tipsy before a high school dance. These are the transformative experiences and emotions that comprise Timothy Denevi’s captivating nonfiction debut, Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD. But Denevi examines these scenes from his childhood through the lens of ADHD. How did it feel to be a six-year-old on Ritalin, or a teenager watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on Dexedrine? Hyper chronicles Denevi’s journey from initial diagnosis through fifteen years of treatment, providing readers with a window into his unique view of the world with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Supplementing these personal memories is the scientific history of ADHD as a condition. Since the late 19th century, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others—from Sigmund Freud to Alfred Strauss to Michel Foucault to L. Ron Hubbard—have disagreed over the disorder’s causes and symptoms, and the most effective methods of treatment. Denevi weaves this research into his personal narrative to create a book that is not just funny and heartwrenching, but also informative and illuminating—a rare history of ADHD from a patient’s perspective.
Reading Hyper can give you a sense of Denevi’s affable, electric personality—he was voted Biggest Talker in his middle school yearbook, after all. It’s Denevi’s thoughtful, friendly enthusiasm that makes his prose such a delight to consume, and that made this interview such a pleasure to conduct.
LIZ WYCKOFF: Hyper is such a compelling exploration of a psychological condition, including both your own personal narrative and a fascinating social history about ADHD. When did you realize this was a story you wanted to tell?
TIMOTHY DENEVI: That’s an excellent question. When I started graduate school, I had the idea to write a book about the baseball player Barry Bonds—about how the cultural discussion of him in the national media was extreme and, in my opinion, dangerously incorrect—but instead, in my writing workshops, I found myself drawn to moments that resided at the very beginning of memory: images and situations I’d always carried with me but that, when expressed through the artifice of narrative, began to feel defamiliarized and fresh; I wasn’t sure what they meant or why I’d held on to them for so long. The beginning of the project, then, was an attempt to articulate these moments, the series of which came to represent the first chapter of the book.
LW: The narrative is constantly shifting between scene and exposition, memory and scientific research. How did you braid those distinct threads of the piece into one another?
TD: I really believe that a memoir, to be effective—to be more than the sum of its parts—needs to jump beyond the concept of “pain on the page,” as in: the act of expression, while important, can’t be the only thing that matters. Memoir as a form allows you to navigate the space between the present-you and the past-you in the way few other artifices allow. After all, if everything that can happen has happened—which is as good a way as any to describe nonfiction—part of the book’s momentum needs to reside instead in the distance that separates the action and the actual telling.
That being said, part of my goal was to recreate the perspective of the child-me—to keep the camera as close to how I saw the world, then, as possible—and as a result, I found myself struggling on a structural level with the best way to achieve such closeness and also emphasize the perspective of the present-day me. I tried various avenues—playing with tenses, adding a bunch of reflection, even including a present-day thread—but it all felt false; I could feel these devices trying to do the work they were meant to accomplish, as opposed to said work naturally being done. So instead I began to include the historical thread. This way, the reader could get the perspective of the adult-me, along with context on what was going on, in a way that helped to break up the intensely emotional point-of-view that drives the child-me parts.
As for actually braiding these threads together, I tried to see each chapter’s personal narrative in terms of theme and then attach the broader essayistic parts along similar lines. The first chapter, for me, was about causality: the search for the causes of my behavior braided with the history of the search for causes of ADHD; the second, treatment; the third, education; the fourth, perception; the fifth, the disorder through the lifespan; and the sixth, where we’ve arrived at now. The transitions between each thread were often difficult to achieve, but there are so many fantastic examples out there of writers who braid essay and narrative effectively, and I found myself reading them over and over with an eye for their transitions—in this sense, the works of W.G. Sebald and Michael J. Arlen were especially helpful.
TD: Ha! Goodness no. It wasn’t until I had hundreds of pages of narrative and still felt as if the book wasn’t working correctly that I finally planted myself in the University of Maryland library and spent more than a year reading everything I could about the disorder. I’m not sure I would’ve done it if the project itself, in its structure, hadn’t called out for it, so to speak. So in this sense, everything I came across felt surprising, but what really struck me were the perspectives of the doctors I read—how their negative and positive traits seemed at times to shine through the dense academic tones of their articles. One of the things that also surprised me, however, was the fact that it never really seemed to occur to these medical professionals that the work they were doing on ADHD would be judged not just by their colleagues but by the subjects of their actual studies. And in this sense, the act of retelling the history of the disorder from my point of view is part of the argument the book is trying to make—its broader theme.
LW: What books and/or writers served as models for you, in structure or content or even genre, during the writing process?
TD: I tell my students that you should always try and imagine five of your favorite writers in the room with you while you write a scene; how would they express in a completely different manner the very subject you’re trying to address? For this book, I re-read the nonfiction of Tobias Wolff; I was so struck by the fact that, even when he’s replicating a child’s point of view, the reader has such a clear sense of his authorial intelligence. Michael J. Arlen and W.G. Sebald provided excellent examples of transitions. The short stories of Stephanie Vaughn, especially “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” and “Dog Heaven,” were great templates for how to employ effective imagery within first-person narratives. Syntactically, more than a few of my sentences draw on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and the works of Denis Johnson. Each morning, before I start writing, I try and copy out a page or two from what I’m currently reading, and looking back at my notes, it seems that while finishing the book I was reading (and writing out) a good amount of these writers, along with Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Julian Barnes, and James Salter.
As I look back on the process, a passage that really stuck with me during the book’s composition comes from the ending to Calvino’s “Aquatic Uncle”: in this narrative, the main character Qfwfq, who’s been alive since the beginning of the universe and is now telling the story of his life to an audience that, naturally, is much younger than him (Italian fabulism!), recounts the moment in evolution when life transitioned from the ocean to the land, which also happens to be the first time he fell in love—and was subsequently dumped for not being savvy enough:
“It was a hard blow for me. But, after all, what could I do about it? I went on my way, in the midst of the world’s transformations, being transformed myself. Every now and then, among the many forms of living beings, I encountered one who ‘was somebody’ more than I was: one who announced the future, the duckbilled platypus who nurses its young, just hatched from the egg; or I might encounter another who bore witness to a past beyond all return, a dinosaur who had survived to the Cenozoic, or else—a crocodile—part of the past that had discovered a way to remain immobile through the centuries. They all had something, I know, that made them superior to me, sublime, something that made me, compared to them, mediocre. And yet I wouldn’t have traded places with any of them.”
LW: Some of the book’s most poignant moments focus on your inability to perceive your behavior the way onlookers do. As you describe it, “the other students and the teacher were far away until suddenly their world surged across mine.” Could you talk a little bit more about the process of writing from the perspective of your younger self? What were some of the challenges of attempting to describe events the way you experienced them decades ago?
TD: It made for awkward transitions back into the real world, that’s for sure; I remember, while working on the section about middle school, looking up from the coffee shop in which I was writing and seeing everyone there in the way I once had, as a pre-teen: out of all these people, who would be plotting against me and who would be on my side—who made up the in crowd here? I shook it off in a few seconds and returned to my present perspective—I didn’t know anyone in the café to begin with, of course—but the sense of entering so deeply into the craziness of the past was at times haunting. Which is part of the goal of the book, of course.
I remember a story the writer Jo Ann Beard once told, in a workshop, about trying to re-create the teenage perspective for the book she was working on; she went to see one of the Twilight movies at a local theater and found herself wanting to yell at Kristen Stewart’s character “You stupid girl—he’s gonna leave you the first chance he gets!” But that’s the adult perspective; as a writer, she had to shrug that off and see the sexy boy-vampire in the way the other teenagers in the theater did—in the way she herself once would have. It’s a more difficult move than you’d think, one that can at times feel like writing fiction: you’re re-creating a point-of-view that no longer exists, despite the fact that you once lived it.
First we filled the holes, each only nine or so millimeters wide. The maintenance staff had tools on hand. A bit of spackle, smoothed and sanded did the job. A touch of fresh paint.
Except now there were spots where the paint seemed different, glossy squares a foot across that (in the right light) showed exactly where the holes had been. The squares weren’t as noticeable as the holes themselves, but we couldn’t quite ignore them. So we had the walls painted, top to bottom, giving a uniformity to the sheen. Everyone was pleased with the result. Those classrooms now looked bright and open.
Except that, when moving from room to room, we could immediately tell which were different, which had been recently redone, and it reminded us, made us look more closely for the places we’d spackled. So we contracted a group of men in white suits and cloth booties to spray the whole school down, wall by wall, two even coats. And when they were done, it looked so new and clean that we could no longer tell, not really, which rooms had been the rooms with holes.
The place practically shone.
It looked so good in fact that we decided to do the floors as well—not cover them over with a layer of linoleum as we’d done in the last renovation, but pull them up and replace them altogether, because now those floors were the oldest part, the clearest reminder. We moved out all the desks and the shelves and the furniture in the lounge and the sports equipment caged in the gym. We moved out the pencils and books, and the globes that no longer seemed to spin the same and put it all in storage in temporary containers parked out behind the school—stacked it and stuffed it and locked it away. The workers worked, first ripping out the layers of old floor, filling dumpsters with debris, then installing the new. And when the floors were done, it really was a different place altogether. We almost didn’t recognize it. The whole place smelled of fresh paint and polyurethane.
Paint and polyurethane and something else. Was it cordite? Or tiny particles of burnt black powder still moving through duct systems, never fully filtered? The smell grew day by day, taking over, outbrighting even the newly painted walls and newly sealed floors. We couldn’t bring ourselves to empty the storage containers. All of the books and maps and audiovisual equipment seemed better off where they were. We opened the windows and it faded a bit, but not as much as we’d hoped. We tried to ignore it, but the smell was real and present and would not go away.
Then we realized we could change the filters in the air intake system, an easy fix—like filling a hole.
Except it was too easy, wasn’t it? Opening a window, changing a filter. The filters filtered the smell so we could no longer smell it, but that didn’t stop the smell from existing. It was still there, somewhere, unsmelled, moving through the ducts and vents. And we could change the filters again, sure, so that less of the smell remained, but less wasn’t good enough. Even if we changed the filters five hundred times, even if we left the windows wide open day and night, would the air ever be fully filtered? Could it? We found ourselves in a Xeno’s paradox of air particles, which got ever smaller but wouldn’t quite go away. So we took a vote and decided unanimously to replace the system itself, even though it couldn’t have been six years old. We had it all pulled out, not just the machine in the utility room that pumped air, but the ducts as well. This meant ripping open the newly painted walls and some of the ceiling, but it had to be done.
And of course, we had to paint again, once the new ducts were installed (ducts that had never held that invisible smell (whatever it was), or the outgassing of construction paper and dried paste, or the breath of our children). So the painters painted, covering the walls with a few more coats—a few more layers between past and present. And with the furniture moved out, and the new air and new paint, it was almost as if it had worked, as if everything could go back to normal at last.
But when the time came, we couldn’t bring ourselves to empty the storage containers. Opening them at all seemed dangerous. Some of us felt as if we no longer knew what was inside. There were detailed lists of what we’d put where, but when packing all those things, had we really noticed the details? Perhaps that phantom smell had permeated not just the building, but its furnishings as well. Or maybe there was something more in there that we had not yet conceived of—some other worse surprise—a stain or a stray hole we’d missed, so focused were we on the walls. Many felt they could not see another hole and survive it. Others admitted that the little desks themselves, with or without holes, would be too much to bear. Others wished we hadn’t tried to fix anything in the first place, that we’d just taken the whole thing down, brick by brick, and done away with the holes that way, permanently, forever.
In any case, we could all see now that it was far too soon to empty the containers or send children back. For one, just look at those windows–so glaringly dated now that everything around them has been redone. And the roof? That roof is a tragedy. And how had we not noticed the grass? Both in front of and behind the school? No one with a conscience could leave it as it is. No one with a heart could stop short of digging up every last blade of it.
Mika Taylor lives in Willimantic, Connecticut (a.k.a. Romantic Willimantic, a.k.a. Heroin Town USA, a.k.a. Thread City, a.k.a. Vulture Town) with her writer husband, PR Griffis, and Petunia von Scampers their crime-solving dog. Her writing most recently appears in The Kenyon Review Online, The Collagist, and Guernica.
A series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry.
Laila Lalami is a talented novelist and a discerning critic, a voice of reason and empathy online, and an old friend. Her third novel, The Moor’s Account, offers a new point of entry into a true story — the Castilian conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez’s would-be conquest of the Americas. The narrator, Mustafa al-Zamori, is Moroccan, a former merchant and now a slave whom the Spaniards have renamed Estebanico. An enslaved man called by this name actually was reported to be one of only four survivors of the ill-fated Narváez excursion, but his story hasn’t been told until now. The Moor’s Account is fiction of the lushest, most psychologically satisfying kind, a tale of freedom and slavery, of the homes and families and choices we’re born with and the ones we make for ourselves.
Maud Newton: In a Lives piece for the New York Times Magazine, you write that your mom was left in a French orphanage in Fez in 1941, and that, over the years, you had many theories and stories about how she might have ended up there. Your thirst for the truth eventually led you to take a genetic test, but in the end, science couldn’t give you the kind of answers you were seeking. “Only stories could,” you said. Do you think the mystery of your mother’s origins is part of the reason you’re a writer?
Laila Lalami: I think it certainly played a part. When I was growing up, I could never shake the feeling that there was something different about my family. All my friends had maternal aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, whereas my extended family consisted solely of relatives on my father’s side. We also did certain things differently at home, like sing French lullabies instead of Arabic ones, or eat pain perdu with mint tea—habits my mother brought with her from the French orphanage. Being different meant that I became more sensitive to detail, more attuned to all the ways in which a person belongs to or is held apart from a group.
For me, the desire to write came from my love of books and my need to tell stories. But I think there’s a connection between feeling like you’re different and wanting to tell a story. When you write you can, at least temporarily, tame that feeling of difference.
MN: You and I have talked a lot about the privacy issues that the vast DNA databases like 23andme’s raise. How do you feel about revelations that the Department of Defense is funding research into DNA-based mugshots?
LL: Terrified! I find it frightening that the government would have access to databases of DNA evidence on people who have committed no crimes at all. There is a very real risk of error and abuse. But more than government, I’m also concerned about how such data might be used or sold by the corporations that have it. Will insurance companies have access to it? Will our employers?
MN: Mustafa, the narrator of The Moor’s Account, has been taken from his homeland, stripped of his name, enslaved, and carried along on Narváez’s 1527 expedition to La Florida. On his journey, and when he is captured at his destination, he sustains himself in part on memories of the stories that his mother told him as a boy. His own memoirs are in a sense a continuation of that tradition. “What each of us wants, in the end,” he writes, “whether he is black or white, master or slave, rich or poor, man or woman, is to be remembered after his death. I am no different.” It’s such a wonderful, nuanced novel, and one that underscores the arbitrariness of whose stories are preserved to time and whose are forgotten.
LL: Although I didn’t realize it at the time I started working on the novel, I think one of the things that interested me most was exploring the ways in which some stories are celebrated, propagated, and even canonized, while others are passed over or forgotten.
In history, the stories that prevail aren’t necessarily the best or truest; they’re the ones told by the most powerful people. The beauty of fiction is that it does not obey that pattern. A writer can choose whichever perspective she deems to be the best for the story.
MN: I’m interested in repetition in families, in echoes or the lack thereof down through the generations. Do you think about shared traits or tendencies when you look at your own family?
LL: Yes. Because I know so little about my mother’s ancestry, I often find myself wondering whether certain traits are inherited from my father or my mother. And I do this with my daughter, too. For instance, no one in my family (or my husband’s family) is a musician, but our daughter has always had an aptitude for it. So I always wonder if it’s not because of a distant relative on my mother’s side.
MN: Helen Oyeyemi’s most recent novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, draws on the myth of Snow White to interrogate the conceptions of beauty implicit in the practice of “passing.” Have you ever felt burdened by the kinds of assumptions people make about you or about your ancestry based on your appearance?
LL: I have curly hair, but when I blow it straight I’m often assumed to be white or Hispanic. And that has led to some interesting experiences. For example, with straight hair, I’m never pulled aside for that “random” screening at the airport. Or if I’m at a party and someone starts talking about the Middle East, I hear offensive things that would not necessarily be said to my face if my ancestry were known. But if my hair is natural, then I get a whole set of other experiences. Once, a flight attendant grabbed a strand of my hair as she was walking down the aisle and asked me if it was natural. Why do people think it’s okay to touch a stranger’s hair without asking permission first? Another time, a gate agent forced me to check my carry-on, while the blonde woman ahead of me had three bags and a pillow. I was grading papers once on a flight, and a woman asked me if I taught grade school. I said no. “Oh, high school?” she asked. “No,” I replied. There was a pause. “College?!” she said, with astonishment in her voice. Anyway, it’s endless.
MN: Those of us who attempt to trace our ancestry: what do you think we’re seeking?
Laila Lalami was born and raised in Morocco. She attended Université Mohammed-V in Rabat, University College in London, and the University of Southern California, where she earned a Ph.D. in linguistics. She is the author of the short story collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award, and the novel Secret Son, which was on the Orange Prize longlist. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, the Guardian, the New York Times, and in numerous anthologies. Her work has been translated into ten languages. She is the recipient of a British Council Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. Her new novel, The Moor’s Account, was published by Pantheon.
Maud Newton is writing a book about the science and superstition of ancestry.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): The world of Visual Arts is crazy and keeps expanding like a bowl of Strega Nona’s pasta. But one of my favorite authors who has constantly showed up with her fork and spoon, Chris Kraus, wrote an amazing guide of recent movements in her book Where Art Belongs which Semiotext(e) published through their Intervention Series back in 2011. It’s a bright orange book, a blast to read, and will make you want to do some cool shit.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): For inimitable prose style, Proust and Nabokov (among lots of others) come to mind, and as far as soccer style goes, Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti’s The Italian Job: A Journey to the Heart of Two Great Footballing Cultures is pretty terrific. Vialli, former striker for superstar teams Juventus and Chelsea and previous manager-player for the latter, writes about Italian and English soccer with wit, depth and a sharp eye as to how these two pitch mega-powers play, strategize and manage—both literally and metaphorically—their teams. From calcio cameos by José Mourinho to Marcello Lippi to Sir Alex Ferguson to excerpts from Sun Tzu’streatise The Art of War that Vialli and Marcotti (a journalist for Corriere dello Sport) include in their discussion about how ancient warfare tactics (circa 544–496 BC) can successfully be applied to modern soccer strategies, this is a book that has something for most any footballer fan, professional or amateur. Despite a title that seems to be rooting for the tricolor flag of green, white and red, The Italian Job takes both countries into serious soccer consideration with insight and brio. Bonus prize: Come here for all you need to know about “The Tactical Dogma: Stuck on 4-4-2.”
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): As an Ethan Hawke true believer, I was predisposed to like Boyhood. That said, gentle reader, I can’t think of a recent movie that’s moved me more. There are times when the seams show in the actors’ performances, especially of the kid, and yet I’d feel mean faulting them there, because to me it’s almost not what the movie is about. Maybe particularly because I saw the movie at a moment of personal flux, watching however many years’ worth of moments accrue in the life of Boyhood’s boy made me almost sappy-grateful for the progression of time, for the fact that things keep on happening–at least, until they don’t. In the midst of a couple of disorienting weeks, I kept telling myself, “Just think of Boyhood,” of that fact that there’s more life waiting for me beyond what I can see, that the movie keeps going, and that in itself is worth watching.
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): The year after I graduated college I lived with two friends in a split-level house in Charlottesville, VA. About five months into our year lease, we were joined by a third friend. I think he was initially supposed to stay a month or so, but he ended up living out the lease on the basement couch. As I recall, he was unemployed for the better part of those months. This was the mid-aughts and he spent his bounteous free time downloading whole libraries of music and movies from torrent sites that were as obscure to me then as they are now. The show I remember most is The Trailer Park Boys, a Canadian sitcom about three dope-smoking friends who live in, duh, a trailer park called Sunnyvale. There were four seasons out then and a Christmas special and, God, so many of my fondest memories of that year involve watching or quoting that show. The quality dropped well off after Season 5, so it was out of nostalgia, mostly, that I started watching Season 8, that Netflix just released. And, as they say, holy fuck boys, is it good. An absolute return to form. The episodes and jokes have the pop and ridiculousness of their best work and the season is sustained by a strong narrative backbone I won’t spoil for you by explaining here. Back to The Third Friend: I’m not sure he ever paid rent and he contributed to bills sporadically at best and he drank our booze and freely partook of our other stupefacients, but he used to claim that he was contributing to the house by way of all the awesome media he was introducing us to. There was a monetary value to this kind of exposure that we were overlooking. I thought this was just the steamiest load of horseshit I’d ever heard and told him as much. I was working two and at one point three jobs to make ends meet. But now, almost ten years on, as much pleasure as the show’s given me, I’m inclined to agree. So, Third Friend, consider whatever debt remains forgiven once and for all. At this point, who knows, I may even owe you.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): My best cousin (read: whichever cousin I last drank beers with) sent me a book in the mail the other day. It was Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. She said on a sticky note: “Her brother is Colin Meloy and her dad is an attorney who handles most of the Democratic Party’s work in Montana, but she’s still my favorite Meloy.” The stories feel like bas-relief panels carved out of real life—immutable, inevitable narratives written in athletic, singular sentences. I read this book in bars and coffee shops and waiting rooms and in basically every moment I wasn’t behind the wheel of a car, because I couldn’t just put it down and forget about it. It finally came unglued from my hands and I put it down, sticky note stuck safely to the title page, and made room around it on the shelf for the rest of Maile Meloy’s books.
Lance Cleland (Winter Workshop Guru): Taking part in the inaugural screening of Portland’s “Red Vines, Nutter Butter, Film Jamz” series, I recently re-watched 1993′s football-noir classic The Program. While many people rightfully remember it as the forebear to the vampire-on-campus craze that would come a decade later, what impressed me most about the film is its ahead of the curve take on many of the most controversial social issues of the day. For instance, take this sensitive depiction of a star college athlete who can’t afford to call a tow truck because the university he makes millions for won’t give him a justly deserved stipend.
Like all truly powerful films, The Program has many layers. Some of which can be found on Halle Berry.
The bakery was hot, stifling, but Melba shivered again. Before morning, it was night, thought Melba, but what kind of night? She tried to remember the night. She had heard a long, lonely hoot outside her window, and finally, unable to sleep, she had gone downstairs to cook a tiny pancake. Meanwhile, Bev Hat had died and Ned Hat had become an old man. Grady Help had crept into her house and crouched beneath her kitchen sink, and maybe Dr. Buck too, and Hal Conard had made his rounds through the streets of Dan.
Nothing can really be known about the morning or the night, thought Melba. I suppose that’s why we have dates. The numbers make tiny equations and we can learn the numbers and feel like we’ve settled something. Melba, not for the first time, marveled at the strangeness of morning and night sharing a date when they were so palpably distinct.
If Melba were mayor of Dan, she would see that this was changed. It would be her first initiative. Day and night would be divided, no longer lumped together by the chuckleheaded mandate of the calendar. The change was bound to be popular; it was reasonable, and it would serve to speed things up—dates flying past, two or maybe even four dates in a twenty-four hour period—so one no longer had to drag along from midnight to midnight, forced to consider an experience so protracted and yet so disjunctive as a single unit.
But when before did I ever hanker for a political voice? Melba touched her throat gently, then pinched and wiggled her windpipe, rather roughly.
I’m so tired of thinking, she thought. The only distraction is small bodily manipulations and I’m tired of those too. She looked with hope at the bakery door. The bakery door banged open. In walked Don Pond.
Thank—, thought Melba.
Don Pond was the bakery’s first customer every day, but he never boasted.
“It’s luck, Melba,” Don Pond had told her, long ago, back when they were still assessing one another’s prospects as people. Melba had just handed him his bags of garlic sticks and psyllium husk brownies and listened politely.
“I don’t move faster than other men,” Don Pond had said, “and I don’t wake up any earlier. I can’t say I’m more deserving than they are, either. In fact, many would say I’m less deserving.” Continue reading
Kristen Radtke is the marketing and publicity director for Sarabande Books and received her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. She writes and illustrates in New York, where she is at work on a graphic memoir.
Julia Elliott’s debut collection The Wilds will be published by Tin House books in October.
The Wild family moved into the house behind ours. For two years the split-level had been dead, open to prowling neighborhood children; its sunken den had become a nest of slugs and millipedes, its attic a froth of bats. Now eight brothers flung their restless bodies around the property. The largest Wild, a bearded boy of seventeen, shut himself up in the basement den. The littlest Wild, a tangle-haired half-naked thing, rumored to be a biter, lurked around in the shrubbery. The Wilds kept cats, lizards, and ferrets. Rabbits, hamsters, turtles, and snakes. A bubble of musky, ammoniac air enveloped their home like a force field, and the second you dared step through it you felt dizzy; a hundred arrows whistled around your ears. Their mother was frequently seen hauling in bags of supplies, and when she climbed from the battered shell of her station wagon, the boys would jump her like a band of hunger-crazed outlaws, snatching cookies and chips and tiny shrink-wrapped cakes. They’d scuttle up into the trees. They kept quiet up there, waiting out their mother’s fits. She was a lumpy, old-fashioned lady, forever in a rumpled dress and panty hose, with a pouf of hair as golden and crunchy as a pork rind. She’d tear her hairdo into wilted clumps and shake her fists at the trees. “I’m having a nervous breakdown,” she’d say, sometimes falling to her knees.
Mama said she felt sorry for Mrs. Wild. Dressed in tight jeans and heels, Mama would invite the hunched lady to have coffee in our spotless living room. She made fun of Mrs. Wild’s dresses when the poor woman left, but sometimes she was sad, and I knew she was thinking about my little brother, who’d weighed three pounds when he was born and died in a humid tank of oxygen.
Mr. Wild always rolled in after dark, in a black Chrysler New Yorker, appearing briefly in streetlight, always shrouded in a suit. He worked in the secret depths of a nuclear plant, thirty miles away, a glowing futuristic fortress surrounded by high walls. The family was from way up north, somewhere between Pennsylvania and the North Pole, where the world froze into a solid block of ice for months on end and people lived half their lives indoors. But now, in the teeming Southern air, the transplanted boys were growing, faster and faster, so fast their mother reputedly had to keep two industrial freezers in the garage, one for milk, the other for meat—hot dogs, chickens, turkeys, and hams; pork chops, baloney, and liver; a thousand cuts of beef and strange bloody meats seldom eaten in our part of the world.
Too often, when writers try to write an essay, they stumble on common pitfalls like cramming too much information into too small a space, giving too much back story, or trying to write an essay for a particular column rather than writing an emotionally true one. We all have read memoirs that take our breath away, but how does a writer manage to produce that effect in under 3,000 words?
In this lecture from our 2014 Summer Writer’s Workshop, (Tin House bestie) Ann Hood offers up ten steps to help you write a kick-ass essay.
Ann Hood is the author of six works of fiction, including the bestseller The Knitting Circle and, most recently, An Italian Wife, as well as a memoir, Comfort. She is also the editor of Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting. The winner of two Pushcart prizes as well as Best American Food Writing, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Spiritual Writing awards, she lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
My novel Fat Man and Little Boy is a story about the atom bombs the United States dropped on Japan. It imagines that after they exploded, the bombs were reincarnated as brothers: a fat man, a little boy. The brothers travel from Japan to France and later to America, haunted by all that they have been and done. In the world of literary fiction, where my novel more or less resides, this may be a weird premise, though I would argue it is only a little bit stranger than the original act of naming the bombs as if they were people.
Genre fiction is different. There are many stories about weapons who are people (mostly these are robots) and perhaps still more about people who are weapons (superheroes, spies with a license to kill, expert swordsmen, masters of hand-to-hand combat). Nor is it uncommon for these stories to explore the moral and emotional implications of life as a weapon, though most such explorations–subsisting as they do on the violence they claim to deplore–usually feel disingenuous at best.
What I mean to say is that no matter how unusual a book may sound, there is always a tradition behind it. The following is a short, eclectic list of stories about people who are also weapons.
Roy Kesey is one of my favorite writers working today, and even given his formidable reputation, he may still also be one of the most underappreciated. A nightmarish inversion of a certain kind of thrilling story of adventure and survival sometimes written for young boys, Kesey’s stunning novella is the story of a damaged Croatian schoolboy and soldier, Joško, who discovers an unexpected facility for sniping. He is briefly a hero. Then disaster strikes, Joško is badly injured, and he spends the rest of the book wandering the countryside, destroying lives and desperately struggling to keep his own as he follows the ghostly song of the girl who will be his true love.
The first printing of Nothing in the World quickly sold out, and the second edition was one of Dzanc’s earlier books; as such, it is a minor aesthetic disaster. You need to read it anyway; if nothing else, get the ebook.
In the U.S., Nausicaä is probably best known as one of Hayao Miyazaki’s lesser films. Said film was adapted from a manga of the same name before most of the manga had even been written, when Miyazaki himself was completely unaware of some of the most interesting turns his story would take. The original comic begins as a relatively straightforward postapocalyptic adventure story with an antiwar tilt, as Princess Nausicaä and her subjects are conscripted to assist one of two surviving empires in a pointless, wasteful war. Like many Miyazaki protagonists, the princess is a determined, independent young girl; unlike most, she is also prideful, capable of fearsome violence, and often at risk of being consumed by her own holy rage.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is simultaneously bleak and hopeful, frightening and sentimental in a way that I have never seen replicated, excepting certain highlights of Miyazaki’s excellent later film Princess Mononoke.
Patrick deWitt’s prize-winning western is a masterful black comedy about a pair of notorious hired guns: Eli and Charlie Sisters. Eli, the narrator, doesn’t want to kill anymore, or in any case he would like to kill much less, but sometimes he just can’t control himself, and his brother Charlie rarely even seems to try. Among other things, The Sisters Brothers is about the fear of accidentally hurting other people, the fear of doing it on purpose, and the fear of justice finally catching up–that is, the fear of getting what you’re owed.
If you end up loving The Sisters Brothers as much as I did, your next stop should be Charles Portis. True Grit, his most famous work, is another excellent book in the same vein.
While Watchmen is usually sold as a gritty deconstruction of superhero comics, its paranoid, doom-laden atmosphere owes far more to the nuclear anxieties of the Cold War’s bleakest moments than it does to any four-color comics. The book’s central figure, Doctor Manhattan, is a
physicist who, in a gory rehearsal of one of the genre’s hoariest tropes, appears to die horribly when an experiment gone wrong disassembles his body. Of course, rather than vanish forever, he instead gains godlike super powers. Doctor Manhattan wins the Vietnam war on behalf of the United States, transforms the world’s technology overnight, and then, by the simple act of continuing to exist, proceeds to constantly, quietly terrorize every living person on Earth. This might bother him more if he weren’t quickly losing touch with what remains of his humanity.
If you haven’t read Watchmen yet because you think it’s about superheroes, what you’re really missing out on is a great story about fear and desire in the shadow of nuclear apocalypse as embodied by one strange, lonely man.
Just a look at the sweet young boy on the cover of this wrenching nonfiction book is enough to begin the process of curing your idea of who and what the kamikaze pilots were. Though the term “kamikaze” has become perhaps irreversibly associated in the West with images of wild-eyed fanatics eager to die in the service of their emperor, Ohnuki-Tierney uses excerpts from the journals of actual pilots to paint portraits of curious, intellectual, passionate, frightened student soldiers coerced (to varying degrees) by social pressure and brutal violence. The kamikaze are ultimately revealed as an especially troubling case of the oldest story in war: the way older men shape young men (and now, increasingly, women) into weapons.
Fat Man and Little Boy owes a great debt to this book, and I am so glad I read it.
Saikano, a thirteen-episode anime series, has real structural problems, and its middle act gets bogged down in unfortunate subplots, but the core arc–the story of a young girl who is transformed into an increasingly grotesque weapon of mass destruction that ultimately ends the world, killing everyone but her boyfriend–is as affecting as it is melodramatic. Saikano’s cocktail of teenage romance, miserable eroticism, and shocking violence makes for a troubling reflection on what it means to be a sexual, social body in a nation that is also a military power.
Of course, the premise of a person who is also a weapon is perhaps less unique in Japanese cinema than in any other sphere of popular culture; for a truly hallucinatory, deeply unpleasant experience, I refer you also to Tetsuo: The Iron Man and its sequels.
Mike Meginnis is the author of the novel Fat Man and Little Boy, just out from Black Balloon Publishing. He has published stories in Best American Short Stories 2012, The Collagist, PANK, and many others. He contributes regularly to HTML Giant and Kill Screen, and plays collaborative text adventures at Exits Are. Meginnis earned his MFA at New Mexico State University, where he served as a managing editor of Puerto del Sol. He now lives and works in Iowa City, where he operates Uncanny Valley Press with his wife, Tracy Rae Bowling. He has never seen the ocean and he loves to get email.
When people ask me something, I’ve a principle: always say yes. Makes things easier and much more fun. I used to say no. Back then I was a pain-in-the-ass, my own family said so. Took years to realize all anyone wants to hear is yes.
Do you think I’m a good lover?
Do you like being with me?
Can you fly a plane? Have you a license to practice? Life’s more interesting when the answer is yes.
Even at my age, people approach me.
Are you an actor?
Have I seen anything you’ve done?
A beautiful woman will come up to me. ‘Didn’t I see you in Dangerous Liaisons?’ I can’t resist.
I’m just open. Girlfriends don’t understand. Sasha–the one I would’ve married–was furious. Told me to leave. Packed my bags in silence, a face full of unfinished sentences, too stupid to see all she wanted was an apology.
Since then I’ve never slept in my own bed.
This Texan I met, Hank, told me Americans have an expression for this: Couch Surfing.They’ve slogans for everything . . . marketing has invaded every corner of their life, even love: A Diamond is Forever. Even suffering: Dumpster Diving . . . a million ways to make the shittiness of life sound fun and cool.
I imagined a flotilla of sofas and mattresses with women on them being born back to the shore, grabbing onto the nearest one, taking a short ride on it, letting go when another one came along. Doing this several times, getting a knack for grabbing and letting go. Not caring whose bed it was, as long as it’s comfortable, eventually not being picky about that either. Or what the woman was like.
“Secret’s not to care.” Hank knew what he was talking about. He’d been surviving in France on his wits for five years. Didn’t speak a word of French.
Never said there’d be times when there’s no mattresses. You’re just drifting out there in the freezing water, getting older, calling out–nobody hears you. When the one thing you desperately want is to say yes and grab onto the nearest pretty young girl, but to be honest, now, even an old one would do–”Don’t you remember me in Dangerous Liaisons?”… Times when you begin believing your own bullshit . . . “Later, I played parts I’m not proud of, just for money. I was a star!”
Water’s gone quiet. Nobody sees you waving your arms. You’ve drifted too far. Nobody mistakes you for an actor anymore. Bide your time. Wait for the next mattress to come along.
I sneak into Hotel Martinez. Slick a comb through my mustache, making like Fernando Rey: cane, smart suit. Steal a copy of the Herald. Notice a stain on my trousers. Doesn’t matter. This summer light, people won’t see. What’s important is a certain elegance–living in the moment.
Smuggling myself onto a bus with a flock of grannies in wide-brimmed hats, I take a free ride down the Croisette. Tilting my face to the sun, convincing myself I’m living an expensive life, no different than these Russians spilling out of Bulgari or my widows, keeping the facade of their past beauty, although everything behind has begun to sag.
A widow gives me a gamy look.
Five days at most, I could squeeze out of her. Staying on her sofa, maybe she’d want me in her bed. Some women are strange, let you sleep with them, but not next to them. Some that’s all they want––to sleep in someone’s arms. A man to tell them lies, make them feel young again…Her children will come home for Sunday dinner or give one of their weekly guilt-calls from Paris so they seem like good children looking out for her when they couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Who’s the creep on the couch? they’ll whisper in the kitchen. What does he do?
I’ll play a role to make them happy. A dentist? One thing you can bet on, nobody wants to quiz you about teeth. It’s all about confidence. Just feed people a few keywords, they’ll believe you know more about their profession than they do.
Some women buy me clothes. One bought me a suit but I could only wear it when I was with her. Made me leave it in her closet. When I came back I’d wear it. Her kids turned me out in the end. It’s always the kids. If it were up to the widows I could stay forever.
Used to spend winters in Paris. Last time was to see the specialist. He said–
There is . . .
Wanted to perform tests, but I’m not putting myself through that again. There’s no sea up there. Can’t sit on the beach, sun on my skin. Freedom. Listen to waves pulling away and returning as I lay on my back and burn.
This is life,
even if I am dying.
Now a girl stumbles up to me . . . Sasha was pregnant when I left. Her choice. Knew I wasn’t interested in kids. I like them to talk to, sure. They’re freer than adults, that’s how they trap you into raising them. You grow old worrying so they can be young . . . With her pail, plastic shovel, little kid’s waddle–”Can I bury you?”
Give me fifteen minutes.
She smiles, covering my feet with sand…
I tell her stories that sound like fantasies, but they’re just my life. People don’t understand how a man can go from having money and adventures; not care about losing it. Normal people hoard. Don’t put their necks out to begin with.
I never wanted to plan anything.
“Don’t let people make up your mind for you…don’t lose your innocence.”
Suddenly, her mother looks up from her book.
“What are you doing?!”
“We’re only playing.”
“Leave that man alone.”
And she does.
Mia Funk is an artist and writer who teaches at L’École de Dessin Technique et Artistique, Paris. She won a Prix de Peinture from the Salon d’Automne de Paris, has shown at the Grand Palais (Official Selection of Salon des Artistes Français), was selected for the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, Celeste Prize, and won a Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize. Her paintings are held in several public collections, including the Dublin Writers Museum, and have been highlighted on television and numerous publications. Her fiction was shortlisted for the Momaya Prize. She is currently completing work on a pscyhological thriller and a collection of linked short stories and saying ‘Yes’ to as many things as possible, some of which can be seen on: www.miafunk.com
We could have stood there for days on the shore waiting for one of us to speak: the fisherwoman full of purpose with sharp, dark eyes fixed on the top of her fishing pole, flashing silver in the sun, and just beyond the jewel-green sea, waiting for the tug of the pole whose sudden bend and tautness would absorb all of her attention, and, pulling back on the rod, out would come, slick as a cut of a knife through the air, different types of sea bream with flecks of red or white and grey mullet whose names in Italian sounded like little pools of sea water—occhiata, cefalo, sarago—fish no bigger than the size of her hand—that she unhooked with an expertise that was economic in its movements and expansive in its knowledge and placed in her sky blue bucket.
From where the fisherwoman stood, the Mediterranean Sea swoops out from the bay, with soft slopes of pine trees in the distance on low hills. It was early September and my boyfriend and I were in a little beach town about an hour south of Napoli. It was really hot, the kind of heat that at first feels like the hottest day of the summer (in southern Italy that means mid-August with its feverish flood of humidity) but that in those early September days, had cold behind it, a sudden chill on the heels of the heat, of fall and of the coming winter: it was right there.
I’d never spoke to the fisherwoman, not because I didn’t want to, but because it would have been in Italian and my language skills were pretty unreliable—I knew some greetings and could stitch together some simple, hodgepodge phrases, nothing that would last too long in a conversation. The fisherwoman left a few days after we’d arrived and on the last morning that she was there, you could count twenty, maybe twenty-five people on the little stretch of beach, with a few children out swimming in the calm sea, ellipsis points in between waves.
I sat at what I hoped was a respectful distance from her on a big beach blanket in my oversized, crooked straw hat, trying not to look over too much in her direction. A couple times I pawed through a pile of books I’d stuffed in my beach bag, too hard to resist earlier that morning, but in the wake of the spectacle of the fisherwoman and her abundance of fish, the pressing intensity to read something right now faded and the morning burned more and more towards the high heat of midday, her sky blue bucket gone dark with fish by noontime.
She never once looked over at me. Why would she? I had nothing to offer her besides some high-protection sunscreen, a leaky pen and my yellow, ancient flip flops with decorative Italian flags sewn on them, that, with their fossilized aspect, could have walked straight out of the 1861 Unification of Italy, not stopping until they arrived at the foot of my beach towel.
Sometimes you really want to believe that something will protect you and you buy it/drive it/drink it in the hope that, even though it could be a long shot or illogical or impossible, this item/vehicle/beverage could save you in some way. The sunscreen was like that for me: SPF will save the day. This crooked straw hat: shelter. Even the flip flops: shield from hot sand. Protection has to come from somewhere; you can’t do it all alone all the time. The sunscreen bottle said: Apply liberally. Renew.
Tin House is now accepting applications for our 2015 Winter Writer’s Workshops. These unique retreats combine the rugged beauty of the Oregon Coast with a weekend immersed in all things literary. Led by editors from Tin House magazine and Tin House Books and their guests, prominent writers of fiction and nonfiction, the program consists of morning workshops and afternoon craft seminars. Evenings are reserved for literary and career discussions and (karaoke) revelry.
The Winter Workshops are held at the beautiful, literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel. Located in the Nye Beach district of Newport, OR, the property sits on a 45-foot bluff overlooking the Pacific, with coastal panoramas that include the famed Yaquina Head Lighthouse. A true hotel for book lovers, the Sylvia Beach Hotel offers 21 individually decorated rooms based on some of the world’s most famous authors.
Workshops will be take place at the Sylvia Beach Hotel and Tin House’s Hemingway House, a beach house dedicated to Papa himself.
Session I (Fiction) will take place January 30th-February 2nd.
Session II (Creative Nonfiction) will take place February 6th-February 9th.
Space is extremely limited (only 18 participants will be admitted per session), so we suggest you apply ASAP.
From: Dan & Jan [editor@------mag.org]
Sent: 18 June 2014
To: K— J—— [k---@----lit.com]
Subject: RE: Bryan Hurt
We enjoyed Bryan’s story, but we are looking for something more true, something that explores deeper human emotions. Bryan’s stories do not have as much emotional depth as I think we are looking for. Might he have something else that is more along these lines?
Hope all is well!
Jan says that my stories aren’t real enough. She and Dan like them, she says, but they want something that’s more true. Even the true stories I send them, stories about stuff that really happened, aren’t true enough. They want true true. The kind of truth that builds a nest in your heart, lays eggs, and two weeks later little baby truth birds hatch out. That’s the kind of truth she’s talking about. “Truth birds?” I say. “Or bombs,” says Dan. “The kind of story where you read it and—” He makes a kaboom gesture with his hands like a bomb blowing up.
“So you want a story with birds or bombs in it?” I say. I’m hunched over my notebook taking notes.
“No!” they say. Birds and bombs are just metaphors. They want stories about real things, stuff with real emotional depth.
“Got it,” I say. “No birds, no bombs.” I scratch both off my list.
“And no ghosts,” says Jan. “No zombies, no spaceships, no time travel, no fairy tales. None of that funny stuff.” They want straight-up, regular stories about real life, emotional things. “We believe in you,” says Dan. “We know you can do it.”
Me, I’m not so sure. I like Jan and Dan a lot and want them to like me back. But the way they’re talking about my stories makes me feel like I’m a psychopath. Like I deliberately put a heavy lid over my feelings or that the tap to my emotions is completely shut off. But the tap to my emotions is not shut off. I look down at the floor so they can’t see that I’m hurt. While my eyes are down there, I notice that Dan’s sneakers are a limited edition. I’ve never seen them back home in L.A. “Thanks,” says Dan. He sips his drink, gets mustache in his beer. “They are a limited edition. They only sell them here in Williamsburg. You have to be from Brooklyn to buy them. They make you show an I.D. and everything before you pay.” Compared to his shoes my sneakers are nothing. The black parts are brown, the white parts are black, and there’s dog poop dried to one of the soles.
“We didn’t come here to talk about shoes,” says Jan. “We’re here to talk about stories. What do you say? Do you have the kind of story we’re looking for?” I look at the list that I jotted down on the airplane, but after Jan’s tirade almost all of my ideas are crossed out:
“What about pirates?” I say. Of course I know what they’ll say pretty much immediately. But I’m not very good at making things up on the spot. Jan lifts her glasses, pinches the bridge of her nose. Dan blinks. A silence, tight as piano wire, stretches across the bar. “Sad pirates,” I say. Someone coughs apologetically.
“Well,” says Dan. “I like the sad part. The feels true to me. Sadness is real.” Jan sighs. “Look,” she says. “We’re not saying we need a story right away. Think about it. Maybe send us an email when you get home.”
When I get home I’m still shivering from the plane ride. I paid twelve dollars for a chicken sandwich that tasted like a lab. Everyone was too big for their seats. My wife is on the couch, underneath an Indian blanket, reading the Sunday magazine in The New York Times. “How’d it go?” she asks. I uncork the wine, pour myself a glass. Upstairs the neighbor’s big dog starts scratching. The building is old and everything is thin — the walls, the ceiling. Our ceiling lamp shakes.
“We should move,” I say.
“Can’t,” says my wife. This is true. We could barely afford our place when we moved in three years ago, and we can barely afford it now. But it’s rent controlled. Since the recession, we can’t afford anything else.
I’m feeling anxious from the plane ride. I down the wine in two drinks, but still the need to do something is like a rash. “Want to fool around?” I say.
My wife looks at the clock. It’s inching towards ten o’clock. “I would,” she says. “But I should be in bed already. Need to get up early for a conference call with the East Coast.” She yawns. “Tomorrow? Pencil it in?”
I throw myself on the couch, switch on the TV, and flip between channels for a while before settling on a show about science. A famous scientist is talking about global warming, mankind’s eventual doom. When I wake it’s from a bad dream I don’t remember. The TV’s off and my wife has gone to bed. I lay there for a while trying to remember the dream and feeling my heart beat. The more I try to remember the dream—the more I can’t—the faster my heart beats. It takes a few minutes to realize that I’m having a full-blown panic attack.
I stumble to the kitchen, splash water on my face, pour myself a glass. The apartment might be crappy but you can’t complain about the location. Out the window there’s a clear view of the ocean. Tonight the moon’s big over the water, fog rolling in. To the north a foghorn’s blowing. I drain another glass and focus on my swallowing, like focusing on my swallowing will slow down my pounding heart. When did I start having panic attacks? I’m not that old, live by the ocean, have a beautiful wife. What do I have to panic about?
The toilet flushes and my wife walks into the hallway. “Still awake?” she says.
“Can’t sleep.” All of the sudden my heart moves into my throat. I feel like I’m going to cry.
“Sit with me on the couch,” she says. We sit and she holds my hand. “It’s going to be okay,” she says. She shushes me and wipes a tear off my cheek. “It’s going to be okay.”
But the more she says it the less I know for certain. I don’t even know what it is. What’s going to be okay? Are we going to make more money? Be less stuck? Be less tired? Will we have more sex again like we did when we were in our twenties? Back when it seemed like we were more in love.
I want a story that answers yes to all of these questions. A story that’s definitely not a real story because it tells me that things will get better. Maybe everything will be okay. A story slips past the truth like a pirate at midnight. The story that my wife is telling me while she’s patting my hand and smuggling me lies.
Bryan Hurt’s first book, Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, is the winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and will be published in fall 2015. He teaches at Colorado College.