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Helping

Flash Fridays

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 2

Tin House Reels: Drew Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Videos

Comments: 0

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny-House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marlon James

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

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

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

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

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

MJ: Here’s a totally impure list.

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

ggg

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

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

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

 

Posted in Interviews

Comments: 1

Love and Darkness: Israel By the Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Essays

Comments: 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Interviews, Tin House Books

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Beetle Battle

Flash Fridays

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

“Giraffe?” Ralph asked.

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

“Well ho-ly shit.”

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

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

“No,” Steve said. “No you don’t.”

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

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

Last night was a bit of a shit show.

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

They took the Zebra Route.

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

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

Ed and Todd.

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

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

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

Steve broke the circle and approached Ed’s ball.

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

Todd snickered and dismounted to load up again.

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

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

“Looking strong, buddy,” Ralph cheered.

Tina shot Ralph a look.

Ed began to hyperventilate.

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

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

“Ready to give up?” Todd goaded.

“No way,” Ed said. “You?”

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

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

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

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

“You can crash with me,” Ralph offered.

Ed grunted.

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

Steve turned to leave.

“Not gonna join?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was probably right.

 

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

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

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 1

Murder and Magic Abroad: an Interview with Katie Crouch

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

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

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

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

Tiny-House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy katiecrouch.net

Katie Crouch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Posted in Interviews

Comments: 4

Layover

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

 

LAYOVER

They keep paging Kenneth Koch at the airport.

Someone should let the announcer know

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

that no one is expecting him. Once, I applied

to be a horse. The mirror of night had shed

its clothes, and I needed to be something

that mattered. I needed to scrape my brown

flank against the bark of a ponderosa.

My friends have moved away. They sleep

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

It’s the most miraculous thing. We walk

over counter-weighted bridges in love

with snow tumbling through their lights.

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

I feel we live similar lives, only the time zone

and language different. In the cab,

on the way, I saw what was real and humane

in front of a pub: a bicycle leaning

against a thin trunk, lights strung in trees

reflected in shop windows. I loved the way

they loved out there at dusk. Tables littered

with wallets and phones, hats, a beer divided

between two glasses, someone showing someone

a new shirt, sheltered in the camber of voices.

I thought nothing will ever be easier or better.

We will not rise. It is too late.

The year we write on our checks too high

to ever expect anything to be different.

We will always live here, ancient and new.

These are the people we are. Saint friend,

carry me when I am tired and carry yourself,

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

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

until the holidays. The distance is long,

but it is nothing. Remember when we lived together,

when we kissed, when we talked about fog

on the morning lake and the markings

we wanted on our graves?

The city is lit. I’m up in the air.

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

I want to be paged once a day in an airport

somewhere on this earth, so people

will think I am just running late or lost,

will think I am in transit, sad about the last

embrace, or sad to leave the city of snow

and bridges, or eager to land, to walk

the small wooden streets of my house.

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

An unknown elegy briefly filling the ears

of strangers. I picture my friends dead, nightly,

because I can’t see them, because

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

enough. I want to dress the wound of their absence

enough. I thought I would be the dead one,

stretched out on the coffin of my bed,

the white bull come to mourn one of its disciples,

its head of fourteen stars, but my body

keeps telling me it’s my friends

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Posted in Poetry

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Failure as Muse

BG-Essay-by-Bertino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Essays

Comments: 9

Your Weekly Forecast: Steven Millhauser

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

Posted in General

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I Can Save

Flash Fridays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 1

Tin House Reels: Jonathan Hodgson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Videos

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July Gems

Desiderata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Desiderata

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Texas, Being

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

Tiny-House

Texas, Being

 

where blind catfish cruise

limestone caverns

 

from deeper we drink

while a man sweets tea

 

with his knife stirring

all the way down

 

border fires making

breathing a geography

 

mountain cedar

floating pollen fevers

 

bones in the road

sun-bleached

 

possum grin just missing

the curb where she

 

like all the modern girls

paused to consider

 

her inventory of elsewheres

because we can

 

drive ten hours and some

how still be here

 

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

Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

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Adam Johnson Reads

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

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

Posted in Fiction, General

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Hunt

Flash Fridays

Diana came

To cool the naked beauty she hid from the world.

- Ovid’s Metamorphoses, trans. Ted Hughes

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Undress,” he told me.

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

“Undress,” he told me.

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

“Undress,” he told me.

“But I have nothing left.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Sophie Koko Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in General, Videos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Events, Interviews

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Poem for Wine

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

Poem for Wine

 

I don’t drink wine

much anymore

though I love that not

feeling feeling

of not remembering

having pressed

the giant translucent

anxious button

in my chest

that turns

something I don’t

know the name of

off and a pure wise

hilarity vector among

the conversation clusters

I float bestowing

my sometimes speaking

at others just silently

sparkling full of potential

energy presence

and later I remember

I have always been

an exiled prince

who could but has not

chosen yet to return

to govern my fully

adoring people

I’ve also never

taken ecstasy

then sat on a couch

in Peru 14 percent

excited licking

a hot person

dressed like a rabbit

I do remember

analog porn

somehow holding

an inevitable magazine

always feeling

without knowing

how to say it

true ecstasy

would be to stand

above myself protecting

me as I turn

those sudden blessed

horrible corners

 

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

Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

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Your Weekly Forecast: James Russell Lowell

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

                                                                                               ~James Russell Lowell, “Summer Storm,” 1839
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Anthems for a Book Tour

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

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

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

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

Posted in Events, Tin House Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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


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

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“Short Story: A Process of Revision” by Antonya Nelson

Last spring, I taught an undergraduate fiction workshop that differed significantly from any other workshop I’ve taught or taken: I tried to have my students mimic the process I go through when writing a story. In most workshops, students are charged with creating two or three short stories in the course of fifteen weeks. But I myself have never written three short stories in a semester—at least, not since graduate school, when I was in a workshop that demanded it of me. I don’t know many writers for whom three stories in fifteen weeks is a habit, but somehow in workshops it’s become the procedure. The fact that that doesn’t replicate my own process seemed sort of weird after a while.

So I decided I would make an experiment with my students to have them go through the full process of creating a piece, taking the story from inception through stages of revision to its eventual polished ending. I insisted that they undertake the process of writing that I myself undertake. I dictated the stages, it’s true, but I am the teacher, and that’s my prerogative. It proved for an interesting semester, and I’m going to refer to what happened in the class as I present the process here. I’m also going to illustrate the process with a hypothetical story I wrote as I moved through the stages of the exercise with my class. So these are the threads being braided or woven or tied in knots in the course of this essay. I hope it doesn’t get confusing.

On the first day of class, I had my students write a five-hundred-word piece about an event that actually happened to them and that they understood was a story, something they’d tell in a bar or on a plane or to a friend. I had them write it in the first person and I capped it at five hundred words. The thing that I wrote, when we sat down to do this, began, “When I was five, my family was in a tornado,” which is true. That happened to me. My family was inside a car, in Kansas; all of us were there, including my little sister in utero. There are a lot of us, five children and my mom and dad. My little brother and I were three and five, and we were in what is called the “wayback” of the station wagon. We were on our way home from dinner at a restaurant in early September, and we saw lightning strike. We pulled into a parking lot and watched roofs ripped off houses, rain pouring down hard, and the wires from electric poles snapping on the ground. In the parking lot—this was at a strip mall—there was a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlor, and I can still remember the image of all the people behind the plate glass licking their ice-cream cones and looking out at us in our car in the parking lot, a parking lot that was full of cars, yet ours was the only one that had people in it, and ours was also the only one that was lifted up and turned over by the tornado—twice. With us inside it. We all survived.

You can see how this would strike a person who’d gone through it as a story worth telling, right? That’s a story! So there’s my autobiographical event. I had my students write about their own autobiographical event, some nugget of narrative that they intuitively understood had meaning. I wanted the event to be autobiographical because it’s important that writers have an investment in and an attachment to their stories, as well as some authority over them. They need to write what they know, what they care about. The tornado, in my family, was a defining event in our lives. I told that story for years and years and years.

But the autobiographical event needs to be given some freedom to become art, so the next step is to allow that story fictional leeway, because art is best if it’s not hampered by the constraints of factual anecdote. The next step for my students was to occupy the point of view of a third-person character related to the event and not the person they were in relationship to the event. They had to posit another character to oversee the story. In this way, the material is approached from a new angle, opening up the possibility for fiction.

In my own case, I didn’t want to be stuck in the point of view of a five-year-old. My pressing concern in 1966—when I was that age and in that tornado—was that I not wet myself. It was deeply important to me that I not pee my pants while we were in the ambulance. That’s a five-year-old’s concern.

And so, for my story, I would occupy the point of view of my father, or the father, he, him, the third-person character who was driving the car on the night the tornado happened and who was, oddly enough, the same age then as I am now, which puts me in the curious position of having intimacy with that point of view. I’m more likely to be the driver of a car full of people these days than I was then, obviously, and now I understand what it must have been like for my father to be the parent driving a car that’s then tossed into a tornado.

When I began occupying the point of view of the character who was my father, I realized that I didn’t want to set the story in 1966 because I don’t know what it was like to be an adult in 1966. I would set the story in the now, so that I could write from the point of view of an adult now. Would I place it in New Mexico or Colorado, where I live? No, because we don’t have very many tornadoes in the places where I live. I would keep the story in Kansas. So I’m combining the fictional, in that I inhabit the story from the point of view of a third-person character who isn’t me, with the factual, putting the story in a place where the event that I wish to write about actually happened. This merging of what is personal and what is fictional, what is factual and what is made up, starts happening for me in the process of writing a story.

That was a thousand-word draft. Every time my students went through a revision, I upped the word count by five hundred. It was an arbitrary, but manageable, number. By creating multiple drafts (by my insisting that each revision was its own draft and had only to attend to the requirements laid out for that draft), students revised with a single objective each time. The clarity of writing with a single objective seemed helpful. All the stages were accompanied by literature that provided examples, so we could talk about the stories they were reading, the writers they were modeling. And with every draft, they workshopped the pieces in small groups that changed with each revision so that they had new eyes on their material at each stage.

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

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“The Only Solution to the Soul Is the Senses: A Meditation on Bill Murray and Myself” by David Shields

I’m in a swoon over Bill Murray because he takes “my issues”— gloom, rage, self-consciousness, world-weariness—and offers ways out, solutions of sorts, all of which amount to a delicate embrace of the real, a fragile lyricism of the unfolding moment. He thus flatters me that under all my protective layers of irony I, too, might have depth of feeling as well. I admire his slouching insouciance but don’t possess it, admire it precisely because I don’t possess it. I realize, of course, that a certain redemptive posture is the unique property of movies and movie stars, but Murray’s grace is manifest at least as often outside his movies as in them. The first line of his book, Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf, is “The light seems to come from everywhere.”

In the last decade there have been a few exceptions—primarily Groundhog Day and Rushmore—but Murray has been so good in so many bad movies that it’s as if he makes bad movies on purpose as a way to demonstrate the truth of Denis Leary’s dictum (to which I subscribe), “Life sucks; get a fuckin’ helmet.” Murray’s movies, in general, suck; he’s the fuckin’ helmet. In a self-interview in which he asked himself to explain why so few of his films have succeeded, he replied, mock-solemnly, “I’ve had lots of good premises.” The Razor’s Edge being, again, an interesting exception, Murray seems to believe that, given the horror show of the universe, the supreme act of bad faith would be to appear in a pretentious work of art aspiring to be beautiful, whereas my impulse has always been to try to find in art my only refuge from the storm.

Murray’s metaphor for the Sisyphean struggle is: “In life, you never have to completely quit. There’s some futile paddling toward some shore of relief, and that’s what gets people through. Only the really lucky get a tailwind that takes them to the shore. So many get the headwind that they fight and, then, tip over and drown.” Life is futile; failure is a sign of grace; Murray is fuck-up as existential fool. His loserdom is the exact opposite, though, of, say, Woody Allen’s, who seems intolerably sniffly by comparison. I’m much, much more like Allen than I am like Murray, which is why I admire Murray (Jewish adoration of un-Jewish stoicism). Asked to name people he finds funny, Murray mentions Bob Hope, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Eddie Izzard—WASPy wise guys, goyish slackers, no whiners allowed.

In Meatballs, Murray is counselor at a summer camp for losers. When they’re getting demolished in a basketball game against a much tonier camp, Murray instructs his charges to run around pantsing their opponents. Forget the score; fuck the rules; do fun things; give yourselves things to remember. Camp director Morty takes himself and the camp way too seriously (so many blocking figures in Murray movies are officious Jews; what’s that about—Hollywood’s knee-jerk self-hatred?) and so Murray leads all the other kids in always calling him “Mickey,” turning him into a mouse. The great crime in any Bill Murray movie is self-seriousness, because as Murray’s fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde said, “Life is too important to take seriously.” Wilde also said, “The only solution to the soul is the senses,” which is a key to Murray’s appeal: he’s in touch with his animal self and teaches the kids to be in touch with theirs. We’re all meatballs; we’re all just bodies. If I were a girl or gay, I’d have a searing crush on him in this movie, because just the way he carries his body seems to say Here is fun. I’m where fun happens. When he (crucially: unsuccessfully) courts another counselor, he does so without an ounce of earnestness. Losers are winners; they get that life is an unmitigated disaster. At one point he leads the campers in a chant, “It just doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t matter, it just doesn’t matter.” My problem is that even though I know on an intellectual level that “it just doesn’t matter,” on a daily level I treat everything as if it does.

Murray’s shtick—anti-star Star, anti-hero Hero, ordinary-guy Icon—is built in part upon the fact of his unglamorous appearance. In sketches on Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner would often call him “Pizza Face,” and it’s obvious he’s never done anything to improve his deeply mottled skin. (Seemingly half my adolescence was spent in a dermatologist’s office.) Murray’s absence of vanity allows him to get to emotional truths in a scene, as opposed to, say, T. Cruise, whom you can tell is always only concentrating on one question: How do I look? I was cute enough as a little kid to appear in an advertisement for a toy store; my father took the photographs, and here I am in the family album, riding a plastic pony and brandishing a pistol with crypto-cowboy charm. Although now I’m certainly not handsome, I don’t think I’ve ever quite outgrown that early narcissism. Murray’s not fat, but he has a serious paunch; as opposed to some middle-aged buffster like Harrison Ford, Murray’s fifty and looks all of it. Bless him for that: it’s a gift back to us; he makes us all feel less shitty. He posed for a New York Times Magazine profile wearing a drooping undershirt and with uncombed, thinning, gray hair. It’s a comparison Murray would surely loathe for its la-di-da-ness, but the photograph reminds me of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits: a famous man who understands his own mortal ordinariness and is willing to show you the irredeemable sadness of his eyes in which that knowledge registers.

Murray’s sadness is not other movie stars’ pseudo-seriousness; he seems genuinely forlorn—always a plus in my book. Speaking to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Murray said, “Movies don’t usually show the failure of relationships; they want to give the audience a final, happy resolution. In Rushmore, I play a guy who’s aware that his life is not working, but he’s still holding on, hoping something will happen, and that’s what’s most interesting.” Gross, stunned that Murray would identify so strongly with someone as bitter and remorseful as Herman Blume, tried to pull Murray up off the floor by saying, “I mean, you’ve found work that is meaningful for you, though, haven’t you?” Murray explained that Blume is drawn to the energetic teenager Max Fischer, who is the founder and president of virtually every club at Rushmore Academy, but “sometimes it makes you sadder to see someone that’s really happy, really engaged in life when you have detached.” He said this as if he knew exactly what he was talking about.

The Razor’s Edge—a film which he had desperately been wanting to do for years and which he co-wrote—is his ur-story. The first part of the Maugham novel is set in Chicago, but Murray moved the first part of the film to Lake Forest, next door to Wilmette, the North Shore suburb in which he grew up. The bulk of the book and film are set in Paris, where Murray spent a year, studying French and Gurdjieff and fleeing from post-Ghostbusters fame.

Surrounded by cripples and sybarites, amoralists and materialists, Murray’s character in The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell, travels to China, Burma, and India searching for meaning, and the best he can come up with is: “You don’t get it. It doesn’t matter.” It just doesn’t matter. Such is the highest wisdom a Murray character can hope to achieve: a sort of semi-Zen detachment, which only deepens his dread (sounds familiar to me).

Angst translates easily to anger. Discussing megalomaniacal celebrities, Murray said, “Whenever I hear someone say, ‘My fans,’ I go right for the shotgun.” In Kingpin, Murray plays an impossibly arrogant bowler who, in one scene, says hello to the two women sitting at the next table. The less attractive woman responds by saying, “Hi,” and Murray says, “Not you [nodding to the less attractive woman]. You [nodding to the more attractive woman].” Murray can access his own cruelty—he ad-libbed these lines—but isn’t defined by it. He simply doesn’t radiate malevolence, as, say, James Woods used to do, but neither is he cuddlesome-cute, à la Tom Hanks; this mixture keeps me productively off balance, makes me unsure whether to embrace him or be slightly afraid of him.

He seizes the regenerative power of behaving badly, being disrespectful toward condescending assholes. In his self-interview, in which he pretended to be discoursing with Santa Claus, he said, “I was at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards one year. They called me up when somebody canceled two days before the thing, and asked me to present some awards. So I went, and one of the funniest film moments I’ve ever had was when they introduced the New York film critics. They all stood up; ‘motley’ isn’t the word for that group. Everybody had some sort of vision problem, some sort of damage. I had to bury myself in my napkin. As they kept going, it just got funnier and funnier looking. By the time they were all up, it was like, ‘You have been selected as the people who have been poisoned; you were the unfortunate people who were not in the control group that didn’t receive the medication.’” This is a little amazing, even shocking to me; I fancy myself something of a literary troublemaker, but I can’t imagine being quite this publicly dismissive toward the powers-that-be in the book world (privately, of course, I’m acid itself—what bravery). I suppose his career is less dependent than mine is upon good reviews, i.e., he’s actually popular; still, he has what Hemingway said was the “most essential gift for a good writer: a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.”

Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park is about twenty miles southwest of Murray’s hometown of Wilmette; both men have or had a gimlet-eyed view of the disguises the world wears. It’s more broadly midwestern, though, than only Hemingwayesque, I think. Dave Eggers, who grew up in Lake Forest, has it. Johnny Carson, who was raised in Nebraska, and David Letterman, who was raised in Indiana, also have it—this quality of detachment, which is a way of not getting sucked in by all the shit sent your way, of holding on to some tiny piece of yourself which is immune to publicity, of wearing indifference as a mask. I strive for the same mystery in my own persona but fail miserably, since it’s so evident how much neediness trumps coolness.

Murray is, in other words, ironic. He’s alert to and mortified by the distance between how things appear to be and how they are. In Michael Jordan to the Max, a grotesquely worshipful IMAX film-paean, Murray, as a fan in the stands, says, “It’s like out of all the fifty thousand top athletes since, you know, prehistoric times—brontosaurus and pterodactyls included—he [Jordan]’s right there.” This is a modest example, but it betrays Murray’s impulse: to unhype the hype, to replace force-fed feeling with something less triumphal, more plausible and human and humble. In Stripes, Murray delivers a rousing speech to his fellow soldiers to encourage them to learn overnight what they haven’t learned during all of boot camp—how to march. “We’re Americans,” he says, “we’re all dogfaces, but we have within us something American that knows how to do this.” Murray saves the speech from sentimentality by mocking the sentimentality. I’m not really in this situation, Murray’s character seems to be thinking; I’m not really in this movie, Murray seems to be thinking. That reminds us, or at least me, of our own detachment and puts us in the scene, thereby making the moment credible and, ironically, moving. Here, as in so many other Murray movies, he somehow manages to install a level or two of Plexiglas between himself and the rest of the movie. At its most dire, Murray’s persona is simply anti-feeling; at its most fierce it’s anti-faux-feeling. This is what gives his persona such an edge: it’s unclear whether his self-mockery is saving grace or Nowhere Man melancholia. It’s both, obviously, to which I can attest or hope to attest. Maybe detachment is a way to get to real feeling; maybe it’s a dead end from which no feeling arises.

Murray’s characteristic manner of delivering dialogue is to add invisible, ironic quotes around nearly every word he says, as if he weren’t quite convinced he should go along with the program that is the script, as if he were just trying out the dialogue on himself first rather than really saying it to someone else in a movie that millions of people are going to see, as if he were still seeing how it sounds. The effect is to undermine every assertion at the moment it’s asserted. As a stutterer and writer, I’m a sucker for Murray’s push-pull relationship to language; it’s undoubtedly one of the main sources of the deep psychic identification I’ve always felt toward him. In Tootsie, as Dustin Hoffman’s roommate who’s a playwright/waiter, Murray says about his work-in-progress, “I think it’s going to change theatre as we know it.” Murray says the line in a way that no one else could, simultaneously embodying and emptying out cliché. We’re aware that he’s full of shit, but we’re also aware that he’s aware he’s full of shit. For which we adore him, because he reminds us how full of shit we are every hour of every day. He’s also a welcome relief from Dustin Hoffman’s earnestness.

His pet technique for underlining his self-consciousness is knocking, loudly, on the fourth wall. Serving as guest broadcaster for a Chicago Cubs baseball game, which Murray once said is the single best performance of his life, he answered the phone in the adjoining booth, stuck out his tongue at the camera, called down to the players on the field. At pro-am tournaments, Murray wears goofy outfits, jokes with the crowd, hits wacky shots—in an effort to tear a hole in the sanctimonious veil surrounding the game of golf. At a Carnegie Hall benefit concert with a Sinatra theme, Murray, backed by a full orchestra, sang “My Way”; Murray told an interviewer, “I basically rewrote the lyrics and changed them around to suit my own mood. I started getting laughs with it, and then I was off the click track. I mean, there’s a full orchestra playing to its own charts, so they just keep playing, you know. And the fact I’m off the lyric and talking and doing things—it doesn’t matter to them. They don’t keep vamping; it’s not like a piano bar. They just keep going to the end. So I said let’s see if this big band is going to stay with me here, and they didn’t. They just kept barreling right ahead. But I managed to catch them at the pass. I headed them off at the pass and turned it around and got out of it again.” It’s crucial to Murray’s comedy that the orchestra is there, playing away, serious as society—the formal straitjacket he wriggles out of.

By far my favorite joke I’ve heard recently goes:

Knock-knock.

Who’s there?

Interrupting Cow.

Interrupt—

Moo.

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“Place” by Dorothy Allison

 

What do you notice when you first enter a story? Who is talking? Who are they talking to? Where are they standing? What’s going on in the background? Is there a background?

There are two primary reasons why people read: boredom, which is my disease, and the need for reliable information, which is my constant motivation. I want to know everything. And I do, indeed, pick up books just to get the information that, in my upbringing, I missed. But I cannot tell you how many stories I pick up, and two people are having a conversation about their sex lives—which is a great place to begin, sex is always a good place to begin—but I don’t know who they are, and I don’t know where they are. It makes me crazy to step into a story and not know where I am. It makes me crazy when characters are arguing about sex, and I don’t know what sex means for them. The story seems to take place in no place.

Most Americans no longer have the history of growing up in a town where their parents grew up and their grandparents grew up and handed down stories about what came before. We no longer necessarily know the story of nobody goes down that road at night because the colonel killed a bunch of people out there and the ghosts walk the roads. Used to be that story was told for generations. No more. If you’re American, you’ve probably moved at least three times in the last decade. You probably do not live where you were born. Almost surely, you do not live close to your parents. Almost surely, you have to invent the place that you are writing -about.

And you’re jealous of people you think come from a place that is generally recognizable—Southerners, who all have porches and pickup trucks and grandmothers (never mind that bunches of Southerners come from Atlanta); Bostonians, who can remember that last great blizzard that shut down the city; people from the Chicago projects; Jews from Staten Island or Queens or the Lower East Side, who eat pickles and go to the Second Avenue Deli and also have a grandmother. Everybody knows these places and the people in these places are all assumed to share the same food and the same language. Their place is a given.

But if you’re from a place that no one knows, you have to invent it on the page.

I grew up among truck drivers and waitresses, and, for me, the place where most stories take place is the place that is no place for most other people. The truck stop: no place. The diner: no place. The grocery store: an empty landscape that you do not ascribe as being a real place. But for me those places are real places, with a population I recognize and can describe, a people I love even if they do not always love me.

I can give you detail. I can describe for you the tile they use in most truck stops because truckers have a horrible tendency to puke after having drunk great quantities of beer on top of chili. I know the colors of those tiles. I know, in fact, why 7-Elevens are designed the way they are. I’ve worked there. I recognize why diners are they way they are—why, in fact, I’ll make more money waiting on a booth than on the counter. Those places are real places for me. You probably read my stories to learn more about diners. And waitresses. And truck drivers. And I read to learn about the Jews in Brooklyn, the fishermen of Maine, and the combine drivers in Iowa. I’m lusting after those people I know little about: Bostonians who run along the Charles River in shorts even on snowy gray mornings, South Americans who live halfway up a hillside and speak Portuguese, Amish who somehow wound up in Hawaii and live out near Hilo and grow mangoes and passion fruit. All of these people are profoundly exotic to me, and I ache to know their secrets—especially their secret places.

Place is often something you don’t see because you’re so familiar with it that you devalue it or dismiss it or ignore it. But in fact it is the information your reader most wants to know.

When I went to college, I would sneak into other people’s dorms and look in their rooms. I wasn’t out to rob anyone but to learn about who they were and what they had. That, too, is place. All the stuff you’ve got that you don’t see is place—and me, I am your reader, and I want to know all about it. Your reader comes into your narrative to steal knowledge—who you are and what is all around you, what you use, or don’t use, what you need, or fear, or want—all that sweet reverberating detail. It is just like me going into those dorm rooms and taking a good solid look around. Your stuff provides telling details from which I can derive all kinds of information about you. I can imagine your self-consciousness, your prejudices, your need to be in control, and maybe even what you are willing to risk or share or not risk or not share. I am making you up in my mind, deriving you from clues you provide, you and your story.

So let’s review what place is.

Place is visual detail: manicured grass or scrubby weeds, broken concrete or pristine tarmac glistening with morning dew. Place is conditions: weather, atmosphere. Are the roads crowded or are they empty? When you step outside your house in the morning and you hit that clean, cool sidewalk, are there people walking around? Are they looking at you or are they looking away? Are you lonely? Are you nervous?

Place requires context. Is it responsive? Does it notice me? Or is it porcelain, pristine, and just ignoring my passage through? Are there people on the street who flinch when I smile at them? Is there a reason they do that? Place is where the “I” goes. Place is what that “I” looks at, what it doesn’t look at. Is it happy? Is it sad? Is it afraid? Is it curious?

What I am trying to say is that place is not just landscape—a list of flora and fauna and street names. That’s not place, that’s not even decent research. Which brings me to my other point.

I cannot abide a story told to me by a numb, empty voice that never responds to anything that’s happening, that doesn’t express some feelings in response to what it sees. Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get to somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page—articulates with deliberate purpose. If you keep giving me these eyes that note all the details—if you tell me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious—then I’m a little bit frustrated with you. I want a story that’ll pull me in. I want a story that makes me drunk. I want a story that feeds me glory. And most of all, I want a story I can trust. I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.

So I’m going to say some unscrupulous, terrible, horrible things that are absolutely true in my mind, if not in yours:

 

Central Florida is despair.

New York City is sex.

California is smug.

Boston has never gotten over Henry James.

Seattle and Portland lie about their weather.

Iowa City is one hotel room and a chlorine stink away from the suburbs of hell.

I keep a list. I keep track of the places I have been and what I have decided about those places from stories I have experienced or read or heard or dreamed. It’s a writer’s game, but also a game for anyone who grew up with a sense of not knowing much and trying to figure out what everyone else knows or thinks they know.

Now I’ll tell you the place I don’t want.

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