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Tucked at the back of every issue of Harper’s Magazine, Findings takes recent scientific discoveries and composes them as a three-paragraph column. Or maybe it’s a three paragraph collage essay. Or a prose poem. As much an act of creation as curation, Findings uses a kind of austere, lyric juxtaposition to turn what’s essentially a compendium of facts into something full of wonder. From February 2013:
Happy adolescents become richer adults. Summer babies are less likely to grow up to be CEOs. Smart children are less likely in adulthood to report chronic widespread pain. Autistic children take longer to learn to be afraid of new things. Many Swedish children who self-harm don’t really mean it. Lying increases the temperature of the nose. A wandering mind shortens one’s telomeres. Fetuses yawn.
As a devoted Findings reader, I always feel simultaneously more sure and less sure about the world we live in by the end of each column. And as a writer, I’m continually impressed with the way straight expository writing can be put to such creative use, evoking such a wild array of emotions within a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence. Findings runs without a byline, but there is a single person behind every month’s column from start to finish, so I sought out that person: Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, a Harper’s contributing editor and at the time its managing editor, who has written Findings from December 2007 through the present. We spoke in August 2012 in a café on the Bowery and later over Skype.
Findings: An Illustrated Collection is out today from Twelve Books.
Dave Madden: Findings is a fairly new feature of a very old magazine. What was the thinking behind its genesis?
Rafil Kroll-Zaidi: Findings was an invention of Roger Hodge, who was the editor of Harper’s from April 2006 until February 2010, and who then edited the Oxford American. Harper’s is very far from having anything like a house style. There are certain forms and certain postures and certain concerns that crop up again and again, but the way that the comma is used or a piece of reportage is structured from one writer to the next may vary enormously. At the time Roger introduced Findings there were three areas of the magazine that helped to form the house voice. There was the Web-only Weekly Review newsletter, which is bylined, but it’s always written in the same deadpan style. It’s always three paragraphs, the same way Findings is. There was the Index, which is not bylined and also very deadpan. It has the same not very veiled irony. And there was the Readings section, which is more curatorial, because it’s all excerpts and the editors just write the introductions. What Roger did with Findings was create a further expansion of this Harper’s voice, where you use discovery and juxtaposition, and where the editorializing tends to consist in the ordering of things and in the choice of what to talk about. But within the sentence itself everything is played quite straight.
DM: Those old columns felt more newsy. There’d be more direct quotation from the study itself, say, and not as much juxtaposition as you do now. Was that a conscious change you made when you took it on?
RK-Z: When you have an inherited form that’s not bylined, you have an institutional responsibility, and you don’t mess around with it that much. It would be interesting to go back and see how a Roger Hodge column from 2006 compares point-by-point to one now. You’d notice small things. The changes in syntax and punctuation. Different kinds of cheap jokes. Different sets of recurring concerns or interests. There were a lot of . . . not missed but deliberately untaken opportunities for funniness—especially in the lesser degree of obscurity and of convolutedness. But the basic, kinetic, punch line–seeking structure of the sentences, to take an example, has been extremely consistent. I’m vaguely recalling not an actual line here but a piece of information from an old column, and I remember it as: “A cat gave birth to a dog in Brazil.” Now, what’s interesting is that a cat gave birth to a dog. “In Brazil” is just dead language sitting at the end of the sentence. You don’t care about it by the time it happens. So if that were my line I’d go: “In Brazil, a cat gave birth to a dog,” so you’ve got the kicker at the end. Or . . .? Better . . .? Can you guess?
RK-Z: “A Brazilian cat gave birth to a dog.”
RK-Z: Because it’s worth getting Brazil in, but it’s not worth having the end of the sentence muffle itself and trail off.
DM: Right, that I get.
RK-Z: At the beginning of the sentence it’s just a necessary adverbial bit of information. But when you shift it to that adjectival mode, then something goes slightly queer about it. Because there are some species where the common name will have a name or placename attached to it. Geoffroy’s cat or a Siamese cat. A Russian wolf hound, a Hungarian sheepdog. So for one thing it starts to generate a little bit of tension because it’s being misused in that way. And then also, if you put that before anything that has to do with the female anatomy, then you have Brazilian, obstetrics, and “pussy” all falling in the same sentence. So there’s a lot that you can do with a little. The greater confusion of that sentence is that this should not be happening. A cat should not be giving birth to a dog. But you can do that further defamiliarization by saying, “Does this cat have a nationality? Is the pertinent fact here that the cat was Brazilian? ” It’s just the idea of being in Brazil is much deader than being . . .
DM: Of Brazil.
RK-Z: Yeah. Being of Brazil is very different than being in Brazil, and being of Brazil in that situation seems to open up a much larger set of possibilities for innuendo, for anthropomorphism, for taxonomic confusion. There’s a lot more play at play when you do that particular line that way. And it turns out, now that I’m looking up that original column, that the line we wound up with here is exactly the line as Roger wrote it.
DM: The older columns were a lot more categorical. There’d be a paragraph about astrophysicists and space stuff. And then one about animals. Whereas now there seems to be a lot more play in moving among topics within paragraphs than there was.
RK-Z: Yeah, part of that is the pleasure of making different kinds of turns. So you start with something that’s about sperm quality and that moves to something that’s about fetal development and then you move to something that’s about premature birth. (I think I may actually be describing an arc that I’ve used.) Then you move to something that’s about childhood development, then you move to something that’s about how child development will diverge depending on the race of the child or on the economic circumstances of the child, then you may move to something about adults of a particular demographic—African American men are more likely to suffer from sleep paralysis, or rich Americans are more likely to sue their doctors—and from there you’ll have further steps, but you can follow a very particular progression where each item’s relationship to the one that preceded it is clear. Or you can have something where there’s a transition that’s just incredibly cheap. Like the Spitzer Space Telescope to prostitution. And then you can put astrophysics before that pairing and you can have sex and relationships after. I think the way that
I actually wrote that one was probably Spitzer– hookers–blow, but I could’ve split a paragraph neatly into two sets of topics with one very cheap trick. Then of course one of the pleasures of the form is the non sequitur, which has a very particular flavor in Findings.
DM: How would you characterize that flavor?
RK-Z: Often there is this expectation that a paragraph will end on something that is a non sequitur, that diverges substantially from the general tone that precedes it. It’s a very classical use of certain devices. You can have a bathetic effect with the non sequitur. So you move from cosmology into scatology, for example. Or you flip it the other way. You can have the most somatic, gross-out sort of sticky human concerns and then the final thing would shift completely out of that realm and be one short sentence about a radio signal from a star 27 light-years distant.
DM: Is that just fun to do, or do you think there’s an overall effect. Findings is going for that that move helps achieve?
RK-Z: The self-consciousness of the form induces in the reader ideally a sort of consciousness of his or her own values. The non sequitur pairing I described is a bit of a memento mori, which is often an effect Findings goes for.
DM: What are the differences as you see them between a Harper’s Finding, a scientific finding, and a fact?
RK-Z: A scientific finding is inherently useful whether or not it involves a definitive result, because it’s part of the grand ongoing project of acquisition and dissemination of knowledge as conducted by humans in the universe. A Findings finding is interesting if it’s interesting, if it’s an encapsulated simplified version of some discovery about or event in the phenomenal world that withstands multiple tests of human boredom. And by human boredom I mean the boredom of a single human, which is me.
DM: But when it comes to the column’s disseminating facts, what’s your responsibility? What kind of fact-checking do you do?
RK-Z: We tend to take at face value the press releases whatever lab or university has issued. Sometimes—either for reasons of lack of clarity about process and data or just sloppy writing or excessive brevity—an article or press release won’t be sufficient and I’ll read the original study, if it’s out, or contact the individual scientists. I think the only time we’ve not been able to do that satisfactorily was with a study about sippycup injuries to toddlers. It was a very comprehensive study. It said that 70 percent of such injuries involve the mouth, 20 percent involve the face, head, or neck, like you would expect. And it said less than 1 percent of injuries involve the leg, the groin, and the kidney area—something like that. Obviously what I want to know is what percentage of injuries are to the groin. At first the study authors were cooperative. We didn’t even ask specifically for the groin data, we just said, “Of the things where the percentages were so small that you didn’t list them separately, you must have specific numbers? Can we just have those actual numbers? ” And they kept waffling and going back and forth, and after three days they came back and said, “We don’t want the data to be misused.” Which really pissed me off because all the other data they had made available.
DM: And how would you misuse them? Incite more sippy-cup violence?
RK-Z: Right. And then sometimes what you want to say requires further calculation. So if 3 percent of U.S. automobile owners suspect their cars might be haunted, then you obviously want the total number of cars that are suspected of being haunted. Then you have the problem of individual persons who own multiple cars or multiple persons who jointly own individual cars. If you can fiddle your way through that, and you can say maybe 210 million automobile owners in the United States, you end up with roughly 6 million haunted cars. For this hypothetical study they probably would not have interviewed enough people for us to apply that to the population as a whole with that kind of confidence, but that’s one of the liberties that would be taken.
DM: I want to push this, what you said about obviously you want the number of haunted cars. Why, exactly? What end purpose does that fact better serve than the percentage of cars?
RK-Z: Would you tend to agree with me?
DM: I think I agree with you. But I can’t figure out why.
RK-Z: With that statistic in particular, what you’re put in mind of with the percentage of car owners is that there’s a number of people who are a little batty and superstitious about certain everyday objects. Whereas if you can get the number of cars that are suspected of being haunted, then you know you’re driving down the highway with ghost cars. One thing is a scientific finding, the other thing is a grave spiritual concern.
DM: You had said something about the ways in which the style of Findings is kind of an imitation and celebration of scientific study.
RK-Z: I didn’t say of scientific study. I said of scientific reporting, which is usually bad.
DM: Bad in what way?
RK-Z: Well, the bad habit that Findings is directly in conversation with is the news-driven—now more specifically, page view–driven—definitive, declarative, pithy statement of research results. The column gently parodies those headline-only articles by imitating them, frequently with a tweak: in the many staccato sentences that constitute a column there’s alternately a lot of passive voice and a lot of actors doing the finding. Someone is always responsible for the experiment or the observation or the reporting, and all those processes involve design and selection and narrowing, which I guess I then do as well. In Findings the immutable statement of isolated fact, especially when it relates to experimental study, is often a counterpoint, punctuation. One of several styles. There’s actually a great deal of caution and weaseling for a form whose presentation is aggressively cavalier!
The headline-ese problem is well known, but it still interests me, particularly the subproblem of the media’s love for confectionary social-science studies that have very small sample sizes. I myself love these. So ten female college students pick from an array the photo of the man whom they find least threatening, and then suddenly it’s like, “Ovulation makes straight women less afraid of masculine men!” Well, that’s a combination of the actual findings plus two or three less supported extrapolations plus an off hand statement the lead author of the study made to a reporter or the university’s press office. Or take experiments in behavioral economics. Those usually involve extraordinarily abstract setups and operate via psychological metaphors that are at multiple removes from reality. This red poker chip is “market price” for that banana, a $5 bill is “being wealthy.” So what such a study produces is this attenuated, 32-bit Amiga simulation of what human beings are like, and from that come some interesting implications, but when the story appears, it’s talking entirely about the implications of the implications. This isn’t to say there aren’t persistent problems in long-form writing about science for educated audiences—there are, and that’s territory I know from the inside—but that’s not what Findings is sort-of-parodying.
DM: Was that parody part of the spirit of it in the beginning?
RK-Z: I think it was.
DM: Because in an early column of yours I think there’s an end-ofparagraph non sequitur that reads, “Men are both smarter and stupider than women.”
RK-Z: That would have been December 2007, the first column I wrote.
DM: And I think of that as a classic Findings line, how it doesn’t say anything about anything, and yet it says a lot about what we believe.
RK-Z: Sometimes what’ll happen with the press release about a study is that there’s almost no way to rephrase it. So everyone who reports on it says the same thing, including me. But very often you get a sense of when very boring studies are going to contain something interesting. I can run through a list. There’s finding counterintuitive to fact. Confirmation of the obvious—there are ways to be incredibly reductive though accurate; there might have even been a study about this, which found that black people tended to agree that George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people, something like that, where it would’ve been a nuanced, carefully worded, rigorously carried out study by an independent polling center or by a major research university, but, you know, five months after Katrina they called up a bunch of people and that is actually the essence of what they found. And then there’s human–animal conflict. Pathetic fallacy is another. That’s similar to anthropomorphism. I used to have a lot more sex in the columns.
DM: I guess there hasn’t been as much lately.
RK-Z: No. There used to always be an entire paragraph about sex, and I think this has changed because of my switching from Google Alerts to RSS feeds.
RK-Z: I was also maybe just getting sick of it, but I think that was the thing. It used to be that I’d get Google Alerts for sex study and behavioral study, and I would get separate alerts for every kind of inherently funny animal. Inherently funny animals are still a favorite subject. They can be funny either because of the name or because of the animal itself. Like a mongoose by any other name would not be so funny, but a platypus by any other name would still be funny. Platypuses are almost cheating, because everyone knows platypuses are funny.
DM: What are some other funny animals?
RK-Z: Macaques, because they’re monkeys and many have red butts. I’ve been actually harassed by macaques on numerous occasions.
DM: Oh, wow.
RK-Z: When I was a child, they’d come into the house and steal bananas, steal my diapers, or things like that. Bears are inherently funny.
DM: Are they?
RK-Z: I think they retain some of their totemic fascination. There’s no way to reconstruct the original Indo-European root for bear from any Germanic languages because to speak the name of the bear was apparently taboo. Words for bears in Indo-European languages are euphemisms, though the euphemisms themselves may go back to an Indo-European word, for “the honey-eater,” “the brown one”—as with bruin, that sort of thing. Even the supposedly original word, *rkthos-, which persisted in languages like Greek and Latin, may be a euphemism: for “the destroyer.” Another one, not funny but innately compelling, is bees. Bees had privileged status in classical antiquity. They stood for an ideal of civilized order. And they’re important for early Christianity because they practice parthenogenesis, or maybe it’s that parthenogenesis is observed among them.
Other common subject matter is just a bias that results from my choices of reading material: for example, so many silly and twee things tend to happen in the U.K. because there are so many funny place-names and there’s this kind of Tolkien-esque quaintness about the proximity of certain cute animals to civilization. There’s not this same stark progression from city to suburbs to countryside there. So you have all this stuff involving hedgehogs and badgers in places that have adorable English or Scottish or Welsh or (Northern) Irish sounds.
DM: Lots of y’s or something?
RK-Z: The Welsh ones are funny because they’re unpronounceable. The English ones are funny because, like, “Hug Me ’Pon-the-Tyne” would be the name of a town. In these places the human-animal interactions are instances of benign concern or symbiosis,whereas in America animal stories are so much more often about a rattlesnake dropping out of an acoustic tile ceiling. And in America this happens in part because of the rapid expansion of exurbs into totally inappropriate places. Los Angeles. Florida. I mean, The Orchid Thief is like a catalogue of how inappropriate it is for modern humans to live in most of Florida.
DM: If Findings were an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
RK-Z: Uh . . . A rara avis?
DM: Nice try.
RK-Z: I mean, is Findings an animal that’s capable of tool use? Is it a raven? Is it a dolphin? I would say that Findings is a dolphin. It’s an animal of tremendous intelligence and versatility that’s constrained within the inarticulate joy and rage of its water-lockedness and its lack of opposable digits.
DM: That’s pretty good.
RK-Z: I wish it weren’t an animal that was so ’90s, but, there you go.
DM: I guess this is a place to ask about process. Do you keep files?
RK-Z: All of it’s done in about a day.
DM: The whole column?
It happens pretty fast. It depends on how interesting science is that particular month. Sometimes science is pretty boring. I let my science-news feeds build up over a month. Then I go through and star anything that might be interesting—whether that interest is something that’s obvious from the headline, or whether it’s an article that appears boring but that there could be something ridiculous buried in it or in the study itself. Usually I look at the headline or the summary text for a little over 1,500 articles, and I wind up starring maybe a couple hundred. Then I go through and read the articles and skim the studies, and I start writing the lines in a rough form. Part of the test of whether I keep something is whether the line works at that stage. Or whether they come together. If I start noticing eight different things about penguins, I’ll type the penguin lines near each other. I’ll get a little penguin block. Then I’ll go through and start cutting and organizing. Because it’s such an intensive all-at-once process that very quickly leads to boredom, whether I keep something depends solely on whether looking back at it a few hours later or the next morning it still seems interesting. That process of culling is also a process of matching. So if a line seems to pair well with another line, I’ll move that over. Maybe eight or ten blocks will start to float together as it gets cut down, and by the time I have those blocks it usually gets down close to the word count, which is a little over 500 words.
DM: So all that’s a day.
RK-Z: It’s about 16 hours of work, depending on the state of science. And yeah and then it goes to the factchecker. But again it’s basically a clip job. And citation in the magazine would undermine the column’s confusing charm as a prose poem.
DM: How much of the character of Findings is your character as its author, and how much belongs to the form itself, as you inherited it?
RK-Z: To the extent that it’s about me, it’s about what bores me. Or what I do to stay interested. I’ve gotten into the habit of trying to provoke people with the way that Findings lines are phrased. For example, many young Israelis travel to India after they complete their military service. They go backpacking and get stoned. So the Israeli government issued a travel warning that said there’d been a number of rabies outbreaks in places frequented by Israelis in India. The line that I wrote in Findings was, “The Israeli government feared lest its citizens become rabid.”
Which is the most grotesquely editorializing thing I could do. Surely someone will write in about that, I thought, but nobody did. The only thing to date that got anything approaching a really notable number of complaints was when I said that vegetarianism may cause brain shrinkage.
DM: What? Brain shrinkage?
RK-Z: Yeah. And the vegetarians lost their minds—because of course their brains were shrunken. But really, they lost their minds because the study was actually about how those who don’t eat various sources of animal protein are at high risk for B-12 deficiencies and therefore brain shrinkage. But it was phrased in a very reductive way and those people just went bananas.
DM: So is Findings mostly just a bunch of jokes?
RK-Z: It’s equal parts to inform and to amuse, and these kinds of facts don’t have to be forced very hard to do both. They naturally lend themselves to both. To the chucklesome and to the sublime. So that seems to be something that the form exploited almost from its inception. It’s actually hard to say whether that’s because there’s something deeply funny about these kinds of discoveries, or just that the capacity of them to be funny has been underused. I mean, you take a realm like politics. The humorous potential of the news there has been exploited tremendously. What I’ve been exploiting more and more is the limitless opacity of certain scientific findings. (Many of them don’t meet the standard that grant seekers by and large are terrified about, which is a kind of amorphous vested-interest standard: “I’m a hematologist. Can I get money from the military to study an obscure form of childhood anemia because it’s possible that this would have some application to soldiers on the battlefield and how we might be able to promote clotting in wounds? ”) But there are some things that it might be possible to explain, but it’s actually a lot less fun to explain.
DM: Almost like an art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic but for scientific study and research?
RK-Z: When you have a line in Findings like “U.S. Department of Energy researchers broke Kasha’s Rule,” I’m not going to explain what Kasha’s Rule is. When you say—when I say—that scientists hope to harness the Casimir Force, some people who took some advanced physics class may remember what the Casimir Force is, but I’m also not going to explain that.
DM: Well, what’s your aim in not explaining it? Is it to maintain a kind of strangeness?
RK-Z: It maintains a kind of strangeness and also it’s about the extent to which science can observe things or offer explanations. When you have “The Bruce Effect was documented among wild gelada monkeys,” I don’t bother with who Bruce, the woman, was or what her effect is, but the Bruce Effect might just be something where, you know, grooming tends to be proffered by subordinate males to dominant males rather than demanded of subordinate males by dominant males. I don’t know. Part of this is the process of becoming bored by explaining. It reminds the reader that—actually, a very talented and technically literate writer I’ve worked with, Hamilton Morris, said it well: Much scientific research is fascinating precisely because it is not intended to appeal to a general audience.
I think the people who read this column and understand and appreciate it are over the idea that science takes place for science’s sake, to the extent that this idea both is and isn’t true. Findings celebrates the idea that modern science is a tremendously powerful and productive and beneficial and motivating and clarifying force, but the idea that everything that goes on is part of this heroic, conclusive, triumphal narrative is also silly. You know, the universe defies and denies and startles and confounds us just as our own bodies defy and deny and startle and confound us. Findings’ being funny is partly a corrective to that particular form of triumphalist narrative.
DM: One of the things I like about scientific findings is that they seem to be presented as the end of a story. But in your column, findings become simultaneously the end and the beginning of the story. An example would be the Brazilian cat, or that goose in Arkansas named 50 Cent who survived being shot? Again these things have a resolved feel, and yet all they do is suggest suggest suggest, and you can’t help but think, Wait, so what happened next?
RK-Z: Yes. I’ll do these very discrete or atomic presentations that are antinarrative and that resist the pressure on contemporary science, for reasons of funding, to present itself along those narrative lines. You’ll find that often when it’s a line where the method or the parameters of the experiment are what get discussed but the results or even the hypothesis are left unstated. “Scientists stripped mice of two-thirds of their fur and injected chloroquine in their thoracic spinal cords.” That’s one where the question would normally be, “What are they trying to test, and what did they actually find out? ” But both those things might be more boring than just being reminded of this single event that is equal in value and in form to a goose being shot seven times.
The mouse model is an interesting thing I come back to once in a while. A recent study found that most lab mice are allowed to eat whenever they want, so—among other reasons we already know— it’s a really bad comparison for humans. It’s like if you were doing a clinical trial on humans who were sitting in a Chipotle twenty-four hours a day and had unlimited credit at the counter. You’re bored ’cause you’re sitting there in the absence of rich stimuli and all you can do is, say, read your book and keep ordering gigantic burritos. Are those the people on whom you want to be basing important medical research?
It’s interesting to see these stupid popular overgeneralizations. And also the way that things have to be explained to sell them. Sometimes it’s nice to make science opaque and unsexy, whether that’s by interrogating the method or by including some really obscure part of what was found. Or by the refusal to explain difficult terms, because there’s also this idea that, aside from pure math, anything that anyone does should be explicable, especially to Americans. Clearly that’s not true of everything that goes on in physics and chemistry and genetics.
I mean, some of it is just really dense difficult stuff and it’s just a pain in the ass to make yourself understand it, and even if you understand it, it may not be very interesting, or it may not have large implications. And sometimes it’s fun just to leave those in their radiant opacity.
DM: Where does Findings belong in today’s reading landscape?
RK-Z: It can easily be broken up and turned into many iterations and promotions of itself across different social media platforms. It works well on the Web. It works well for short attention spans. A finding is the length of a tweet or a text message. So that’s one thing that I think will help keep it in place. You learn things from it that are useful to regurgitate in cocktailparty form. It’s excellent toilet reading. Each month may have a different tone, a different set of concerns. You can sometimes tell my emotional state, especially from the last paragraph.
DM: That’s one of the things that works for Findings, is that it’s so clear in the selection of facts and the wording and the tone that it has a more singular personality or authorship than, say, the Index—which seems group-compiled and voiceless. The fact that it is, like you say, a prose poem, that it’s three paragraphs and not a list. Those things alone seem to do so much to add a kind of character to it.
RK-Z: I think an unbylined house voice, or a house voice that could as well be unbylined—it’s hard to get to that point. You find it in interesting places. I mean the Economist, obviously. But then you have places like the New Yorker or Gawker that have a strong enough orientation that in particular kinds of reporting or cultural criticism you could remove the bylines and it would just be a great piece of New Yorker prose or a great, incisive, nasty Gawker post. And it’s hard for institutions to develop those. It takes time and it takes innovation. You have to be the place that perfected it. At its very best, it inspires imitation, it inspires reevaluation.
DM: Can you talk more specifically about this possible influence of Findings’ voice on science writing, or nonfiction in general?
RK-Z: I think Findings is something that in its synthesizing capacity, in its collations and its curations and its ironies, is aware of and is sensitive to the dangers of a certain kind of expository and confessional sincerity in nonfiction writing generally. It’s so intensively and deliberately not about the self. And yet Findings, even as it resists that earnestness and that omphalic gaze, is still a very self-involved thing. It’s a self-involved thing that doesn’t have a byline. Even as it resists the easy triumphalist narratives and the gee-whiz wonderification of any kind of disposable scientific discovery, it occasionally buys into that completely. It buys into it and celebrates it.
And it’s influenced the way I’ve approached other, longer prose projects—that technique of synthesis and deadpan condensation that’s highly editorialized but doesn’t seem that way on the surface. But, again, it shows a kind of nonfiction writing that’s radically different from this explicit privileging of the self for which I think there’s typically too low a bar. I mean nonfiction writing in the therapeutic vein. There are many great practitioners of personal nonfiction and I don’t want to dump on anyone’s projects, but one thing Findings shows is that you can be deeply self-indulgent without being so deeply self. That’s something that I would like to see more of.
I guess a lesson that I’ve learned from writing the column is that you can always say much, much less and still get everything across. Now part of that’s a little fallacious or easy for me to say because it’s such a condensed form, but the thing I mean more broadly is that rigorous juxtapositions and an economy of language, when you’re trying to explain a discovery or a feeling or an irony or a sadness or some sense of joy or absurdity, can convey a lot. If Findings teaches one person to turn in something at 3,000 words and not 4,500 because the main narrative episode is compressed by 50 percent, then that would be a great thing and I would feel that it had a worthy and useful effect on the culture.
Rafil Kroll-Zaidi is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and has been writing the journal’s popular “Findings” column, among other features, since 2007.
Dave Madden is the author of The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy and If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, forthcoming in May from Indiana University Press. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.
This essay, which is featured in our forthcoming Winter issue, was originally given as a lecture during the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop.
It was met with enthusiastic applause.
Until recently I was a professor at a private liberal arts university in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a little town located at the exact point of overlap of a three-part Venn diagram. Draw one in your mind: label circle #1 Amish country, label circle #2 coal country, label circle #3 fracking country.
The towns near Lewisburg have names like Shamokin Dam, Frackville, Minersville, and Coal Township. You might have heard of a place called Centralia, a modern-day ghost town thanks to a vein of coal that has been burning beneath the ground since 1962, belching up smoke and carbon monoxide, forcing people to flee their homes and poisoning those who refuse. That vein, by the way, is expected to continue burning for another 250 years. So if you haven’t visited Centralia, there’s still time. Centralia is about forty miles from my old house, and people from the Buffalo Valley, where I lived, often took day trips there. So basically all you need to know about this particular region of central Pennsylvania is that we went to Centralia—a smoldering village of noxious fumes—on vacation.
The Buffalo Valley smells like pig shit, puppy mills, or burning garbage, depending on which way the wind blows. It is not uncommon, when hiking, to come across a tarry black field where old-growth forest has been recently clear-cut, the ground still soaked with diesel. This all sounds pretty bleak, and it was, even to me, a person with a high tolerance for bleakness and an affection for abused landscapes. Living there, I can admit now that I’ve fled, corroded a part of my soul. Driving to a neighboring town for a prenatal checkup felt like driving through Capote’s In Cold Blood. During the time I lived in central Pennsylvania the adjective I used most to describe the place to faraway friends was “murdersome.”
And yet the little town of Lewisburg, where this expensive private university is located, is actually quite pleasant. The houses are gingerbread Victorians and stately brick colonials, all turrets, stained glass, and sleeping porches. Market Street is lined with parks and bed and breakfasts and small local businesses from another era—a shoe repair shop, a butcher, a vacuum cleaner repairman, a chocolatier, an independent bookstore, a single-screen art deco movie theater where they put real melted butter on the popcorn. The town square boasts a Christmas tree in the winter, scarecrows in the autumn, and alfresco concerts and community theater in the summer. Every street is lit by old-fashioned globe lampposts, the proud town’s icon. It is a place, as residents often insist, that time forgot.
In short, Lewisburg looks almost nothing like its neighbors in coal-Amish-fracking country, which time has remembered all too well. Obviously, this has everything to do with the university—one year spent at this college, located about three hours from New York City, costs $62,368. Generally speaking the campus can be fairly characterized by the setting of Frederick Busch’s wonderful short story “Ralph the Duck,” a “northeastern camp for the overindulged.” Money from the school, its faculty, its students and their parents props up the local economy. Simple enough.
But the true relationship between the town and the university did not occur to me until one of my students, from Youngstown, Ohio, described how much her mother loved coming to Lewisburg, how each time she visited her mother would say, “Look at that adorable chocolate shop, look at those gleaming lampposts. I just love Lewisburg!” My student, sharper than we give Millennials credit for, told her mother, “Of course you love it. It’s for you.”
What she meant, I think, is that Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is a town in coal country the way Disney’s Celebration, Florida, is a suburb of Orlando. Lewisburg, and countless other so-called college towns like it, is Bedford Falls in loco parentis. It’s a country-mouse theme park for young people wanting the illusion of distance, wanting the sense of being away on a journey and all the self-discovery that promises. It’s for them, and it’s for their parents, who will tolerate this distance and this freaky looming self-discovery, so long as it comes with the quaintness of the country, the control of a company town, and all the safety that $62,368 can buy.
All to say that for the past four years, I lived in a landscape of pandering.
Stephen Elliott Comes to Town
Let’s segue into one of my favorite subgenres of literary gossip: writers behaving badly. What writers’ conference would be complete without it?
It is the fall of 2009 and I’m in the final year of my three-year MFA program. The program is hosting a reading by the writer and P. T. Barnum figure Stephen Elliott, who, in addition to being a novelist and memoirist, is editor in chief of the online literary magazine The Rumpus. The university does not provide him accommodations so our program director passes along his request that someone put him up for the night. I volunteer. Kyle Minor, another writer and an alumnus of the program, fetches Stephen from the airport. Stephen, Kyle, and I have lunch, where we talk about Denis Johnson, our works in progress, and our agents. I’d landed a hotshot agent six months earlier, am still freaked out by how, when I Google her, names like Junot Díaz and Jonathan Safran Foer appear. I have a story coming out in Granta, a collection in the homestretch, and I’m eager to talk about all this with writers who’ve been there. After lunch, Stephen takes a nap at my house while I go teach. I come back and take him to his reading, then to a bar with the other grad students, then to get donuts on our way home. Stephen flirts with me all night and back at my apartment he attempts, with what I’ll graciously term considerable persistence, to convince me to let him sleep in my bed rather than on the air mattress I’ve inflated for him in the other room. I decline several times before he relents, doing so only after I tell him I’m seeing someone. He sleeps on the air mattress, and in the morning we have breakfast and then I drive him to the airport.
Later that day, a friend forwards me the Daily Rumpus e-newsletter, which Stephen wrote in the airport and sent to his subscribers, allegedly a few thousand readers, writers, and fans of his site. Its subject line is “Overheard in Columbus.” Of the visit Stephen wrote:
It was really a great time, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why. It might have been the ride from the airport with Kyle Miner [sic] who’s living the post MFA life with a book of stories out, a couple of kids, teaching classes up in Toledo, finishing what sounds like a fantastic novel and contemplating law school. Or it might have been Claire, the student I stayed with. Or the walk for donuts at 10:30 on a Wednesday night, which felt late in that town, especially on the strip.
I tried to get in Claire’s bed. It was a big, comfortable bed. She said no, how would she explain it to the boy she was getting to know. I said there was nothing to explain to the boy, nothing’s going to happen. It’s like sleeping with your gay friend. But she wasn’t so sure. She had been drinking and I don’t drink. I slept on the air mattress in the other room.
Now, I realize I’m not a special snowflake, that every woman who writes has a handbag full of stories like this. There is probably an entire teeming sub-subgenre titled “Stephen Elliott Comes to Town.” I offer this here partly because it was my very first personal run-in with overtly misogynistic behavior from a male writer, and so perhaps my most instructive. I learned a lot from that Daily Rumpus e-mail (which is a sentence that has never before been uttered). I want to stress that I’m not presenting Stephen Elliott as a rogue figure, but as utterly emblematic. I want to show you how, via his compulsive stream-of-consciousness monologue e-mailed to a few thousand readers, I was given a glass-bottom-boat tour of a certain type of male writer’s mind.
I scrolled up and down, reading and rereading, and through that glass-bottom boat saw a world where Kyle Minor was Kyle Minor, a writer “with a book of stories out, a couple of kids, teaching classes up in Toledo, finishing what sounds like a fantastic novel and contemplating law school.” Whereas I was Claire, no last name, “the student,” owner of a big, comfortable bed. Until my friend forwarded that e-mail to me, I’d been under the impression that since I wrote, I was a writer, period. If I wrote bad I was a bad writer, if I wrote good I was a good writer. Simple as that. I was, I knew, every bit as ambitious as Kyle Minor and Stephen Elliott. I loved books just as much as Kyle and Stephen did, read as much as they did, and worked just as hard to get the right words in the right order. But now I was confronted with Google Groups listserv proof that, to Stephen, Kyle was a writer and I was a drunk girl.
But fuck ’em, right? What did Tina Fey say about sexists in the workplace: over, under, and through. The problem with responding to sexism with Sesame Street is that if you read that e-mail as I read that e-mail, as I was being trained to read—that is, carefully and curiously, over and over—you’ll see something more than the story Stephen told himself about me as a writer or, in this case, not a writer. I saw, in the form of paragraphs and sentences, my area of expertise, how it took only a few lines to go from professional dismissal to sexual entitlement to being treated as property to gaslighting.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I tend to think professional sexism via artistic infantilization is a bummer, frustrating, disappointing, but distinct and apart from those violent expressions of misogyny widely agreed upon as horrific: domestic violence, sex slavery, rape. Stephen Elliott did not rape me, did not attempt to rape me. I am not anywhere close to implying that he did. I am saying a sexist negation, a refusal to acknowledge a female writer as a writer, as a peer, as a person, is of a piece with sexual entitlement. No, more than of a piece, it is practically a prerequisite. Humans are wide, open vessels, capable of almost anything—if you read you know this—but you cannot beat the mother of your children, or rape your childhood friend while she’s unconscious, or walk up to a sorority outside Santa Barbara and start shooting without first convincing yourself and allowing our culture to convince you that those women are less than human.
I know that’s an intense analogy. I intend it to be.
Here, Stephen Elliot handily provides a clear illustration of an idea most recently proposed by Rebecca Solnit in her important essay collection Men Explain Things to Me: these things exist on a continuum. Sexist dismissal of women as artists and the assumption of sexual entitlement over them that is necessary to make something like rape okay in our culture—and it very much is okay in our culture—are not separated by vast chasms of principles. Look here, they are two paragraphs of the same story, separated by only a keystroke.
When I said, I’m a writer, Stephen heard, I’m a girl. And, because I was a girl, when I said, No, you cannot sleep in my bed, he heard someone who “wasn’t so sure.” I continued, in his mind, to be unsure, and only the man I was dating—in Stephen’s infantilizing phrase “the boy she was getting to know”—could be sure for me. The story Stephen told himself went: “She had been drinking and I don’t drink.” Because I was not a writer, not a person, I was easily made into a drunk girl unable to tell her own story.
That is, until now.
Watching Boys Do Stuff
But you know all this, even if you haven’t heard it recently, even if you haven’t heard it out loud. I am not interested in why Stephen did what he did. I was a women’s studies minor, I get it. What I’m curious about is what I did with what he did.
For years, I thought this encounter was formative. I described it as I have above, a kind of revelation. These days I think, if only. After all, it’s so much gentler to be presented with an ugliness of which you’d been previously completely and honestly oblivious than one you were trying to pretend didn’t exist. The truth is, the fact that our culture considers male writers more serious than me was not a revelation. I’d been getting the messages of Stephen’s e-mail long before my friend forwarded it to me—all women do. We live in a culture that hates us. We get that. Misogyny is the water we swim in.
As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. I have been trying to give it up recently, since moving away from Bedford Falls, since around the time my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.
I’ve watched boys play the drums, guitar, sing, watched them play football, baseball, soccer, pool, Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. I’ve watched them golf. Just the other day I watched them play a kind of sweaty, book-nerd version of basketball. I’ve watched them work on their trucks and work on their master’s theses. I’ve watched boys build things: half-pipes, bookshelves, screenplays, careers. I’ve watched boys skateboard, snowboard, act, bike, box, paint, fight, and drink. I could probably write my own series of six virtuosic autobiographical novels based solely on the years I spent watching boys play Resident Evil and Tony Hawk’s ProSkater. I watched boys in my leisure time, I watched boys in my love life, and I watched boys in my education. I watched Melville, I watched Salinger, watched Ford, Flaubert, Díaz, Dickens, watched even when I didn’t particularly like what I saw—especially then, because it proved there was something wrong with me, something I wanted to fix. So I watched Nabokov, watched Thomas Hardy, watched Raymond Carver. I read women (some, but not enough) but I didn’t watch them. I didn’t give them megaphones in my mind. The writers with megaphones in my mind were not Mary Austin, or Louise Erdrich, or Joan Didion, or Joy Williams, or Toni Morrison, though all have been as important to me as any of the male writers I mentioned, or more. Still, I watched the boys, watched to learn. I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.
I have been reenacting in my artmaking the undying pastime of my girlhood: watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist.
Speaking of things that are invisible: picture me in New Mexico, where I’ve come to teach for a week. Marijuana’s just been legalized in Colorado and a friend from there gifts me a joint. I approach another writer, this one down from Alaska, who is standing alone beside the glowing hotel pool. I make small talk:
I say, So, how long have you lived in Alaska?
She says, Well, I’m an Eskimo, so . . .
I ask if she wants to share the joint. She looks circumspect, which is puzzling to me. I’ve heard her mention Mary Jane before and I’m pretty sure we’re of the same mind about it.
Right here? she asks.
Yeah, I say, looking around for what’s bothering her. It’s dark, only the pool lights glowing, and we’re the only ones outside. The stars overhead are staggering.
She says, But weed’s not legal here.
I note that it’s legal in Colorado, and that Colorado touches New Mexico.
What if someone calls the cops?
They won’t call the cops! Are you crazy? We’re guests of the hotel.
What if we get arrested?
At this point we’re both super puzzled, not understanding each other at all. I’m thinking, Lighten up. People smoke weed in city parks, at music festivals, on hiking trails. The last time I smoked was at a wedding in Maine.
I say, Come on, they’re not going to arrest us for one tiny joint. We’re professors for fuck’s sake!
Okay, she says finally, lighting up. But if they call the cops you better hide me under your invisible cloak of white privilege.
At moments like this, when my whiteness materializes in front of me and I can see it, I am so embarrassed of it and also so angry at myself for not being always as aware of it as I am there in that awkward, painful, absurd, essential moment. I want to unsee it, make it invisible again, and usually I do, because it feels better. I have that privilege.
I have watched writers go brown right before my eyes. My husband, half Cuban but made much more so on a job interview, is told by a white male scholar specializing in African American literature that his inventing and imagining aspects of Cuba in his novel was “problematic” and that according to this white professor, he got things about Cuba “wrong.”
My best friend, a Basque American, publishes a book set in the Spanish Basque country and Publishers Weekly lauds it “just exotic enough.” My iBooks library categorizes Joshua Cohen as “Literary” and Toni Morrison as “African American.” Think about that for a second: it’s either/or. Meaning, according to iBooks, you cannot be African American and Literary. And it was only two years ago that, over on Wikipedia, American authors whom editors suspected of being in possession of a pussy were removed from the category “American novelists” and relocated to “American women novelists.” These categories—writer or student, writer or girl, woman novelist, Eskimo, Latino, Literary or African American—matter. As Sontag told Mailer, “Words matter, Norman.” They affect the way we live—whether we can smoke a joint beside a hotel pool in New Mexico without fear of being arrested; whether someone will hear no when we say it—and they affect the way we write.
The “little white man deep inside of all of us”
It was Toni Morrison who pointed out that Tolstoy was not writing for her, who said she was writing toward black women. It makes you wonder, Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward?
Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.
But whom do I mean when I say white male literati? Sounds like a conspiracy theory, one of my favorite genres of American storytelling. I mean the people and voices real and imagined in the positions of power (or at least influence) in writing and publishing, but mostly I mean the man in my mind. James Baldwin wrote of the “little white man deep inside of all of us” but mine is tall. He’s a white-haired chain smoker from New Mexico, the short story writer called “Cheever’s true heir.” It is Lee K. Abbot I hear in my mind. This has little to do with Lee himself, a mentor I admire, a writer I adore, whose encouragement has helped land me before you, whose support I treasure. I am not talking about Lee K. Abbott who once turned to me in workshop when I was a first-year MFA with a dead mom, a desert rat without a proper winter coat and in bad need of a thumbs-up, and asked me, because I’d turned in a story he liked, “Claire, who are the great Nevada writers?” And when I sputtered something about Robert Laxalt and Mark Twain he stopped me and said, “No. You are.” I am speaking not of Lee Kitteridge Abbott the man but what he represents. Or rather I am talking about them both, about the representation and the man himself, for didn’t I know he would like that story, about an old prospector who finds a nubile young girl left for dead in the desert?
Glad you like it, Lee. It’s for you.
I am talking about this reading I gave in Montana in the fall when it was so beautiful I almost never went home, where a late-middle-aged white cowboy—let’s call him the Old Sumbitch—waited in my signing line, among the brown-haired girls with glasses, and when he got to me said, “I usually don’t read stuff like this but Tom McGuane said you were all right.” I am talking about being at once grateful for the friendship and encouragement offered me by Tom McGuane but also angry and exhausted by the fact that I need it. The Old Sumbitch would not have read me if Tom hadn’t said I was all right. I am hiding under Tom’s invisible cloak of male privilege. At issue is not Tom McGuane or Lee K. Abbott or Jeffrey Eugenides or Christopher Coake or Chang-Rae Lee, all of whom have offered me guidance and friendship for which I’m tremendously grateful. But why should their voices be louder in my head than that of Karen Russell, a beyond generous certified genius and, with any luck, my future sister-wife? Why should they be louder than Antonya Nelson, who wrote the most illuminating review of Battleborn I’ve ever read? Why should they be louder than Erin McGraw, who read Battleborn in its every incarnation, who taught me how to get a job and keep it, who’s written me about a hundred letters of recommendation and done everything short of hand me this microphone today?
The stunning truth is that I am asking, deep down, as I write, What would Philip Roth think of this? What would Jonathan Franzen think of this? When the answer is probably: nothing. More staggering is the question of why I am trying to prove myself to writers whose work, in many cases, I don’t particularly admire? I recently finished Roth’s Indignation with nothing more lasting than a sincere curiosity as to whether Roth is aware that these days even nice girls give blow jobs.
I am trying to understand a phenomenon that happens in my head, and maybe in yours too, whereby the white supremacist patriarchy determines what I write.
I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!
Here are the lampposts, here is the single-screen movie theater. It’s all an architecture of pandering. It’s for them.
She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.
A fellow on Twitter says:
“A lot of young women (not to mention this WM) loved that book. Should I tell them to disregard their reading experience?”
If you like my book I’m grateful. But I remind you that people at the periphery will travel to accept and even love things not made for or toward them: we have been trained to do so our entire lives. I’m not trying to talk anyone out of their readerly response, only to confess to what went on in my mind when I made the book, to assemble an honest inventory of people I have not been writing toward (though I thought I was): women, young women, people of color, the rural poor, the American West, my dead mother.
This is frightening on its face, but manyfold scarier because I thought I was doing this for myself. I was under the impression that artmaking was apart from all the rottenness of our culture, when in fact it’s not apart from it. It is made of it.
is either an aesthetic/artistic/personal epiphany or my ritualistic prepublication freak-out; perhaps a little of column A, a little of column B. I’ll tell you this: I have not written anything of consequence since my daughter was born. It’s easy to say, You had a baby, you’re busy, it gets better, and I’m really glad to hear from those of you who have said as much. But I wonder if part of the reason I have not been writing is because I have not been seeing. My gaze is no longer an artist’s gaze.
Why would that be? I think it has something to do with the fact that I don’t wander in the desert much anymore. I spend my days with a baby and that, patriarchy says, is not the stuff of art. Once again I am a girl and not a writer. No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gaslighting.
After watching Girls for the first time my friend Annie McGreevy says, “That was my experience, too, but I didn’t know it was okay to make art about it.” And maybe it’s still not okay. After doing an event with Miranda July, Lena Dunham tweets this quote from Lorrie Moore, writing on July in the New York Review of Books, “When one googles ‘Wes Anderson’ and ‘fey’ one gets a lot of pictures of him and Tina Fey.”
About a year ago I had a baby,
and while my life was suddenly more intense, more frightening, more beautiful, more difficult, and more profound than it had ever been, I found myself with nothing to write about.
“Nothing’s happening to me,” I bemoan to Annie. “I need to go shoot an elephant.”
Annie replies, in her late-night Lebowskian cadence, “Dude, you’re a mother. You’ve had a child. You’re struggling to make your marriage work, man. You are trying, against your nature and circumstance, to be decent. That’s your elephant!” Yet when I write some version of this down it seems quaint or worse. I thought I had enough material for a novel but when it came out it was a short story, and one that felt unserious. I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women. Motherhood has softened me. I have a tighter valve on what I’ll read and what I’ll watch. I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.
I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting, in a culture that says your “telepathic heart” (that’s Moore on July) is dumb and delicate and boring and frippery and for girls, I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.
I have built a working miniature replica of the patriarchy in my mind. I would like very much to bust it up or burn it down. But I am afraid I don’t know how. Though I do have some ideas.
Let’s punch up.
Let us not make people at the margins into scouts or spies for the mainstream. Let us stop asking people to speak for the entire cacophonic segment of humanity that shares their pigmentation, genitalia, or turn-ons.
Let us spend more time in those uncomfortable moments when our privilege is showing. Let us reflect there, let us linger, rather than recoil into the status quo.
Let us continue to count, and talk, and think about the numbers.
Let us name those things that are nameless, as Solnit describes, the way “mansplaining” or “rape culture” or “sexual harassment” were nameless before feminists named them. Let those names sing.
Let us hear the stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves. Let us remember that we become the stories we tell. An illustration: I was talking with the writer Elissa Schappell about how much we are both anticipating Carrie Brownstein’s new book. I asked Elissa what she made of this new trend of memoirs by badass women: Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Sally Mann, Amy Poehler. Was this trend the result of Patti Smith winning the National Book Award five years ago? Was the trend indicative of a new wave of feminism? Elissa interrupted me. “You keep using that word,” she said. “Trend. It’s not a trend. We are here now. We’re not going anywhere. We are here now.”
Let us embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us by some white fucks at Oxford.
(I will start us off by spending no more of my living breath apologizing for the fact that no, actually, even though I write about the American West, Cormac McCarthy is not a major influence of mine.)
Let us use our words and our gazes to make the invisible visible. Let us tell the truth.
Let us, each of us, write things that are uncategorizable, rather than something that panders to and condones and codifies those categories.
Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan
An excerpt from Curtis White’s We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data (Melville House)
REALITY ANXIETY DISORDER
My own preferred point of philosophical reference for resolving the supposed incompatibility of reality and artifice is French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s magnificent Time and Narrative, Volume I. It is an imposing work, but its ideas are both lucid and compelling. For Ricoeur, the problem of realism has little to do with either the real or the artificial. The problem has to do with what is familiar and what is unfamiliar; acceptable and unacceptable; consonant and dissonant.
The logic of his position goes like this:
He writes, “Time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative.” An obvious example: we impose the idea that things happen with a beginning, middle, and end on events that would otherwise be formless. Or we read about the deeds of heroes (protagonists), and that teaches us to look for heroes and villains in real events. American foreign policy is, unfortunately, all about labeling people as “friends” or “evildoers,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadie of ISIS being the most recent example.
But these narratives are not static; in fact, they are inherently unstable, naturally, since they are only stories. Most important, they oscillate between what Ricoeur terms concordance and discordance. In concordance, communities repeat their central myths, the stories that make them a “cult” and give them an identity, in order to provide a sense of social continuity. And so Americans tell themselves their “founding” stories over and over again, even though some of them are quite deranged and self-destructive: how the Founding Fathers were the homogenous embodiment of wisdom (when in fact they hated one another, mostly along Federalist and Republican lines); how these wise fathers created a Christian nation “under God” (when in fact many of them—Jefferson, Paine, Franklin—were Deist skeptics); how the Second Amendment means that we all have the right to carry assault rifles; and how everyone should strive for the American Dream understood as “success,” that “American bitch goddess” (William James), and so on. Deranged though they may be, these stories are comforting for many Americans, and to challenge them is to invite vigorous debate if not a fistfight.
At a more sophisticated level, readers take a similar comfort from the conventions of realism. Realist fiction provides a way of feeling that we know who we are, we know this world, we know this particular way of constructing time, etc. It is reassuring. The consonance of the realist world with what we take to be the world we actually live in provides a way of refiguring, generation after generation, what is known and therefore virtuous. As Ian Watt long ago discovered in his book The Rise of the Novel, the realist novel’s uncomplicated appropriation of both empiricism and middle-class verities has made it the dominant storytelling mode for bourgeois culture.
For American culture, the conventions of the realist novel are an enormous feedback loop. It is as if the reader were saying, “You have taught me to expect these conventions, and I do. In fact, I demand them. If you don’t give them to me, I will complain loudly.” This is, perhaps, a little noticed form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. We expect the world to be in the way we have been told that it is, but we are anxious that it might not be in that way, and so we seek reassurance through repetition. “Weird” novels (as my students always insisted on calling innovative writing) threaten our sense of who we are. Realism is thus no longer merely a literary technique, one among many; it is a way to make everything okay for those of us afflicted with Reality Anxiety Disorder (RAD).
An excerpt from Shann Ray’s American Copper (Unbridled Books).
Tonight the dignitaries of Montana gathered with their wives in the great room, wide-eyed. The men endured with slick hair, part lines clean and straight, faces shaven, black or brown full beaver felt hats in hand, derbies and straights, tapers and cowboy hats. The women wore gloves and fine dresses, beads like gemstones set in silk at shoulder or hip. People milled beneath the electric burn of a Bohemian crystal chandelier shipped from Prague, a many-armed work of art—high, wide, full of light, the room lit to every corner. Alder, pine, and maple at floor and ceiling. Great ponderosa logs stripped of their bark for walls. The tart smell of fresh wood. Throughout, deer and antelope antlers were set in European mounts, clean skull with darkened horns, the death’s-heads like silent touchstones of days he’d ridden out at dawn, returning with the animal lain across the rump of his horse. A comfort to him. A sense of solace. He watched the women, their flowing curls and well-shaped gowns a reminder of the wife he’d lost. His face started to crack, but he steeled himself before he called to his daughter in a loud voice.
“Evelynne, child of my heart.”
She smiled. Blushed.
Too meek, he thought. He went to her at the table and stood before her, holding her hand. He beamed at the people and they applauded even before she began. If only his father were here, he thought, a man he imagined dead of poverty or anguish. They hadn’t spoken since St. Louis. He’d hold his father’s head in his low convalescent bed, mine worker, railroad hand, track layer, fighter crushed by rock. In Josef’s waking dream the old man rose and stood tall, smiling like Josef had never seen. The Governor and his lieutenants, the head of the railway and his henchmen, they were all here now in the public dining room with their women to listen to Josef’s daughter because Josef wanted them to be here and because they knew he was richer and more powerful than the lot of them.
Dark wine in tall glasses. Prime cuts of Montana beefsteak. Tumblers of cognac. Thick cigars. The air perfumed by feminine skin, they dined like royalty as they held their women. The men guffawed and bragged as they tried to pump themselves up in the face of their host’s wealth, his mountain castle so unlike the paper shacks and hillside dugouts he’d known as a boy. Tonight, he thought, his princess was like a small queen, with her crushed-velvet dress and white lace collar, white silk gloves, and her mother’s pearl necklace, the gift of oysters of the Orient tripled around her delicate neck. His face wanted to break again. His wife should be here.
He set his voice like a rail before him.
“I present to you the Queen of Montana!”
He flourished his hand as everyone applauded, hooted, hollered.
Evelynne’s face flushed.
Josef made eye contact, nodded, the aftertaste of buttered steak in his mouth. She lifted her eyes, then proceeded to recite without error ten Shakespearean sonnets, each made with fourteen knotted lines filled with tongue twists and turns, three quatrains and a couplet, one hundred forty lines in all. She delivered with gusto and fire: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate, … And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines.” She raised her hands in a V. “Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, haply I think on thee, and then my state, like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.” The women and the men stood, their eyes alive to her performance. “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.” She punched a fist to her chest. They gasped. A few men chortled uncomfortably but were hushed by those near. “My love is as a fever, longing still for that which longer nurseth the disease, feeding on that which doth preserve the ill, th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please. … For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, who art as black as hell, as dark as night.”
Josef was seen mouthing the words. He thought of his father’s thick accent. The King’s English was the English his children knew. Shakespeare the pinnacle.
When she finished, the people roared their approval. Josef lifted Evelynne from the table and set her on the hardwood floor. She looked at the bodies flowing toward her. She turned to her father and tucked herself to his pant legs, but he bellowed with laughter. She pinched his leg before she ran wildly from the room, his voice booming behind her.
“Well done, Evelynne! Well done!” and quieter, “Come back, child.”
But she stayed away.
When the people left he watched from the door as they walked across the wood of the veranda before receding into the darkness. They made their way mostly to carriages and one or two automobiles. He looked up once and saw the encompassing sky, numberless with stars. But he turned his face down before the beauty could unravel him. Back inside, he found her trembling beneath her bed. He pulled her out by her heel. Holding her to his chest, he lay down with her on the small bed. Touched the palm of his hand, chill, to her warm face. “Kuráž,” he whispered over her. “Courage,” and soon she slept.
Josef’s father had been little respected. Josef and his brother, Leopold, the first generation born in this country, his father had raised them Czech while paying for some small English education. What he knew they’d need for this land. By trade a laborer, he was despised by many. In St. Louis, the last civilized place before the great expanse, he’d taught both sons to give no quarter.
Josef wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand, rose and went to his liquor cabinet and tipped back whiskey until his chest was hot.
He strode through the house, a hunger in him to break the world.
There had been a wildness to his coming west, but now he was numb. He missed his wife terribly. Her worry drove her, her fear of wilderness and wild things, bear, badger, wolf, even Indians. He’d taken her to powwows so she’d see how being subjugated had largely taken their will. The Blackfeet, big and fearsome during the Indian Wars, quiet now in the high northwest corner of Montana on the windswept steppe below the great mountains. The Crow in the far southeast, enemies of the Cheyenne whose lands abutted theirs but lay still farther east and whose society of leadership involved a council of forty-four chiefs Josef thought to be a modern miracle. Four above forty. He’d kept a Cheyenne hand once who’d spoken of the council. Paid the Indian even less than he paid the Chinese, though the hand was uncanny with horses.
Too many voices, Josef thought. Yet they abide, even thrive.
The hand had said the chiefs served not themselves but the people. As for himself, Josef couldn’t countenance subservience.
In America, there was resource and power, power underground and power over, the will to extract metal from rock, to separate flesh from bone. He would be positioned above other men. He would exhaust the storehouses of God. He’d be a king in this land, he thought. He felt sorry for himself. He didn’t want to drink, but he propped himself on his elbow, drinking bourbon from the bottle until he heard the glass butt of it thud on the floor below him. He fell asleep in a stupor, his head tilted over the side of the bed.
In the morning he approached the mirror in his bathroom. His eyes were red and blown out. He struck himself flat-handed in the face. He struck himself again, watching the pink of his skin bloom and spread. His look began to darken. His pupils turned to points of black lead among fields of water. He slapped himself in the face for near a quarter hour. By the end of it his hair was wrung out over his forehead, and his neck glistened with sweat. He needed more wealth, he thought.
He washed his face in the hand basin before he dressed and went out into the great room.
Shann Ray is a professor at Gonzaga University, and a former professional basketball player. His debut novel, American Copper, is set in early 20th century Montana featuring bar fights, forgiveness and love.
Shann will be reading Monday, November 23rd at Powell’s on Hawthorne (7:30pm).
Do I want to hear a drinking joke? Do I seem like the type who would answer that question? A guy walks into a bar, and so what? Maybe he nods at the regular who keeps to the corner or eyes the ragged blonde grabbing a smoke from a guy whose paunch prevents him from seeing the floor at his feet. Then he raises a glass and knocks back another and disappointment moves offshore with a woozy throttle. One look at the spirits lining the counter and he can kiss goodbye the crap that follows him home from work and the carping that begins at the door of his two-bed, two-bath castle.
Bar time runs fast, not slow. I didn’t figure this out until late in the game, though I first stumbled across the idea when drinking meant tearing the paper off the straw that came with the milk on my lunch tray. Each day before I shot the contents of my carton at a forehead or spattered liquid across the floor, I read the capital letters printed on the paper: “WALK DON’T RUN.” In elementary school I made the most of this unpunctuated sentence, scrunching the paper up accordion-like until the letters overlapped like the sedimentary rock layers in a forgotten geology lesson and which with one drop of milk I changed from a caterpillar into a moist, moving snake. Physics came into the picture too, though I couldn’t have explained the fluid mechanics that allowed me to suck up some of the cloudy liquid hovering inside the transparent conveyor like a bubble in a level. But I released my finger just the same and the milk ran across the gray meat on my neighbor’s plate and pooled around his sodden string beans, making the inedible grosser in the kind of overkill you get in the movies. Remember when Bonnie and Clyde get flushed from life after C. W. Moss betrays them? The bullets spray the car and their corpses with the sound of a hard rain clattering down a drain pipe. Only then do the cops crawl out, cautious after all their false starts and fuckups.
WALK DON’T RUN: a joke short enough for the smallest miscreant, a fortune cookie whose fortune never changes. I disregarded that ominous imperative a thousand times while I separated the straw’s skin from its bone until the afternoon when, sprinting between classes at the high school—late but running for the joy of flight—I smacked into the principal, a bald-headed overseer as creepy as any ghoul in a Wes Craven movie. “Walk, don’t run,” the grim man warned without breaking stride.
His words were the ones I had crumpled and stretched through the desert of days of my school life, his sentence the same I had tried to destroy but whose meaning remained intact as I skipped from primary school to junior high toward that day in my ninth-grade year when I heard the admonishment issue in monotone from his unsmiling mouth as if the letters themselves had assembled to command me to WALK DON’T RUN: the very phrase I hated as a boy, but which as I speak this other sentence in my fifty-second year at a counter three thousand miles away from the school desks scarred with hearts and initials and obscenities with their own illustrations really was for my own good; since, whether you walk or run or skip or limp or trot or march into the bar, you need to drag out that drink and savor the sweetness that burns as it crawls down the back of your throat, because the moment will come when the bartender points to the illuminated clock above the flat screens and the three Cutty Sarks you added to just the one Heineken change 11:30 into 1:50 and you hear “hurry up please it’s time”—at which point the flat screens will stop flickering and the Tanqueray fumes will cease rising and the banter of voices elbowing one another into a brawl will be silent and the three Fates assembled today as the fifty-something woman with a run inching up her pantyhose and the man with the too-solid flesh and the regular hunched with mournful grace over his glass will turn to you as you sit half-drunk with your drink half drunk and will nod in fellowship and you will look up to where your reflected hand looms largely across the rounded glass dome of the clock and with a flick! the bar and the people and the Jim Beam in front of you will flare, gutter, and go dark.
Anne Goldman’s recent publications include “The Kingdom of the Medusae” (forthcoming in the Southwest Review) as well as “Travels with Jane Eyre” (The Georgia Review)–named a “notable” in Best American Essays 2015 and Best American Travel Writing 2015–and “Souvenirs of Stone” (Southwest Review), a notable in Best American Essays 2014. She teaches at Sonoma State University and is at work on a novel.
This week, everyone at Tin House magazine and Tin House Books was extremely saddened to hear of the death of writer Josh Goldfaden, about fifty years too soon. Tin House Books published Josh’s story collection, Human Resources, in 2007, and I was lucky to be the editor who worked with Josh on those stories.
I have a distinct memory of sitting at a desk in our former Brooklyn office and answering a phone call from Josh asking if he could send me his manuscript. I’ve always loved that memory, because A) we did so much by email that an actual phone call felt a little weighted and mystical, as if maybe God or Emily Dickinson would be on the line next, and B) who expects a random phone call late one afternoon to herald a book of stories that was so funny, so purely wacked out, and so emotionally naked all at once? Josh may have written stories about twenty-first-century pirates and houseplants and litter specialists and traveling writers colonies, but his stories were never just comic. They were aching and inventive and more than a little desperate. His characters were hilarious because they hewed so closely to a goal or hope that only they could see. His stories felt fresh and vital because he always stayed ahead of the reader—he could sense the response that was only just welling up, then the next line would twist that expectation, complicate it, contradict it, or just double down. He had a gift for mashing up cultures and tropes to tremendous comic effect, and a sense of timing that feels effortless on the page. But in fact he was an exacting and thoughtful writer. For all the inspired silliness of his fictional universe, Josh knew exactly what he was doing.
There’s an odd thing about the phone call I recall so vividly, though: I’m the only one who remembers it that way. Josh remembered his agent sending me the manuscript, and Tin House Books editor Meg Storey remembers an intern reading Josh’s story “Nautical Intervention” in Zyzzyva and suggesting that this was a writer we pursue. Maybe all of these things happened. Maybe I completely invented this memory because I so enjoyed debating with Josh over the use of “that” versus “which” and because individual sentences from his stories still ping around my brain sometimes (no one else has thrown down the word “valise” to better effect). Whatever actually happened, Tin House was clearly going to collide with Josh somehow. It’s to our great benefit that we did.
THE BEST GREEK GOD
a few seconds ago I was watching a video
in which the head of a person. crossing a street was cut
off from the frame to make the viewer wonder. whether it was a man or a woman or a
human – either way I thought – well, isn’t that interesting! Right before noticing that. the
fingers of that person. clutched the rim of the sleeves just like I do and that. the trousers
were familiar. and maybe also the jacket – but the thighs were too thick, aren’t they? So
now I am unable to stop thinking of my ass, how it’s shaking. in that video almost like a
woman’s ass, sorry for the gender bias spreading in my parlance, and probably too fat. for
my own good? Oh dear it feels wrong this whole thing of watching. myself from behind,
flummoxing, indeed – like a corpse or a pet and the saddest thing is. the fact that with my
head they cut the bald spot away. hence it must look even worse, alas!, ay, the whole set.
with my head and my shoes wearing off – from knowing too much of myself and how
genitals work and. how the camera places all kinds of compassion amidst the eyes of us
people. Although how do I know they haven’t registered someone else, someone even
wronger, like Tiresias who comes singing from many miles afar. and teaches for a dime that
“the weak have to stay”, that “we all come from Europe”.
Fernando P. Fernandez (Extremadura, Spain, 1984) graduated in Philosophy at UAM (Madrid) and drop off a few other degrees. Eventually, he enrolled at a Literary Theory PhD program, which he also quit in order to work as a bookseller, editorial assistant and translator at several independent houses. Last February, he published his first fictional administrative poetry book, Cargas familiares (La Isla de Siltola, 2015). Other texts of his have appeared at huesoloco, notthisbody.com, Rima interna, El Pez Globo, and underground fanzines. Taking a rest from his mother tongue, he now writes in English.
They age well, too. Jeff Koehler on the briny pleasures of sardines, from Tin House #39: Appetites.
Few things travel as well as canned sardines. The familiar flat tins end up on shop shelves in every dusty nook and far-flung cranny across the globe, as I discovered as a young, itinerate backpacker in some of Africa’s dustiest and Asia’s furthest-flung spots. During this period of discovery in tastes when food made as big an impact on me as the places and people, I feasted on sardines regularly. They tended to be strong in taste, mealy in texture, and soggy with the oil, tomato sauce, mustard, or seasoned vinegar in which they had been packed. But they were new and exotic to me, cheap, and readily available.
Many of these meals—made simply of moments spent drawing the headless and tailless fish from their packed clusters—remain unforgettable: on an empty, dilapidated cargo ship, traveling up the isolate west coast of Madagascar; in Kassala, Sudan, before joining Eritrean refugees on the week-long road to Asmara to vote for the country’s independence from Ethiopia; on a local bus from Phnom Penh to the Vietnam border, hurrying to reach Ho Chi Minh City in time for the Tet celebrations; in a remote northern tribal area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border one brisk early spring.
After four years on the road, I settled into the penurious existence of a London grad student and bought my sardine supply from a Kashmiri corner shop. I ate them for lunch in my cramped residence-hall room with fat purple olives, salty Bulgarian feta, and Iranian flatbread, while studying broken-spined copies of Lorca, Gorky, and Pinter. Sure, I ate them for their low cost, but also because they carried with them the familiar light of the African and Asian roads that, especially during those dusky winter London afternoons, I dearly missed.
But it wasn’t until I impetuously followed a woman from London and settled in Barcelona that I was initiated into the glories of fresh sardines.
Sardines have been popular since antiquity. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all enjoyed them, often preserved in salt. In the King James Bible, the fish that Jesus multiplied to feed the multitude are referred to as “little” (Matthew 15:34) and “small” (Mark 8:7, John 6:9), almost certainly sardines. Preserving sardines was the main industry in Mary Magdalene’s village of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee; the town’s Greek name, Tarichaeae, means “the place where fish are salted.” These days Yonah brand preserves kosher “Sea of Galilee” sardines by packing them in oval tins.
The practice of canning sardines began in Nantes, France, in 1834. By 1860, there was a lively import market for them in the United States. When the Franco-Prussian War (1871-1872) impeded the trade, a savvy New York importer named Julius Wolff went north to scout out a local source. In Eastport, Maine, on Passamaquoddy Bay, he opened the country’s first sardine factory, using the immature herring that swam off the state’s coast. The first American “sardines” were sealed in cans on February 2, 1876, and in a year, sixty thousand cans had been packed and sold. The boom spread quickly. Within five years, factories dotted the coasts of Maine and nearby Canada, and, in 1896, the first factory opened on the West Coast.
Monterey, 120 miles south of San Francisco, was the center of California’s industry. John Steinbeck set his novel Cannery Row among its Depression-era sardine canneries. The beginning of the book draws a lively portrait of the times:
In the morning when the sardine fleet has made a catch, the purse-seiners waddle heavily into the bay blowing their whistles. The deep-laden boats pull in against the coast where the canneries dip their tails into the bay. . .Then cannery whistles scream and all over the town men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row. . .to clean and cut and pack and cook and can the fish. The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the boats rise higher and higher in the water until they are empty. The canneries rumble and rattle and squeak until the last fish is cleaned and cut and cooked and canned and then the whistles scream again and the dripping, smelly, tired. . . men and women straggle out and droop their ways up the hill into the town and Cannery Row becomes itself again—quiet and magical.
Monterey’s production peaked with 234,000 tons of processed sardines in 1944, the same year that Steinbeck wrote his novel. But, whether through over-fishing and exploitation or consecutive years of failed spawning, the industry collapsed as quickly as it rose, and the last Monterey cannery shuttered its doors in 1973. Today, sardines are fished in American waters almost exclusively for fishmeal, cat food, and bait for Japanese tuna or Maine lobster fisheries.
It’s no surprise, then, that while imported canned sardines are easy to buy in the United States, it’s almost impossible to find fresh ones. During a visit this summer, I found tips sprinkled throughout online chatrooms and heard rumors about one place in New Jersey, which imports them once a week from Portugal, another in Rhode Island, and a Korean place in the San Fernando Valley that sometimes carries them.
Such deep searching isn’t necessary around the Mediterranean. These slender, dense packets of nutrients, rich in calcium, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids, and—thanks to being far down on the food chain—low in mercury, are eaten with great gusto not just for their healthfulness but their sublime flavor. Under international trade laws, “sardine” covers almost two dozen species of fish (for U.S. products it exclusively means young herring), though the true sardine, from Portugal, Spain, France, Morocco, and Algeria, refers to the young pilchard (Sardina pilchardus) caught in Mediterranean or Atlantic waters. They have green backs, yellowish sides, silver bellies, and ruddy-brown meat. (Atlantic sardines tend to be larger, with smaller heads and bulkier bodies.) Though commercially fished all year round, they are most abundant in markets from July to November.
I spent much of the past two years traveling around the Mediterranean, researching a new cookbook, and feasted on sardines nearly everywhere: grilled sardine sandwiches heaped with raw onion, tomato, and chopped parsley in Istanbul; liberally dusted with cumin and fried in Cairo; char-grilled and dashed with lemon and salt in Morocco. In Sicily I sampled the island’s famous pasta con le sarde—bucatini with sardines, wild fennel, raisins, and pine nuts—at least half a dozen times, though I preferred sarde imbottite—sardines butterflied, stuffed with breadcrumbs and pine nuts, and baked. Sardines are equally beloved in Algeria. One cookbook I bought in Algiers this winter includes nine different ways of preparing them, from simply baked with bay leaves to prepared in a vinegar and oil marinade called escabeche. Continue reading
Author Julia Elliott talks with bookseller Rachel Kaplan from Avid Bookshop. The Georgia Review and Avid Bookshop will present Julia Elliott in celebration of her new book The New and Improved Romie Futch tomorrow, November 18 from 6:30pm – 7:30pm.
Rachel Kaplan: Like your mutant Hogzilla, The New and Improved Romie Futch is an amalgam of literary genres and themes like science fiction, Southern Gothic, literary theory and taxidermy. Describe your process in threading all of these parts into a cohesive, brilliant whole.
Julia Elliott: Although many people see “sci-fi” and “Southern Gothic” as incompatible genres, combining the two seems natural to me because the contemporary South exists in the same technology-mediated world as other parts of the US, a world in which the internet inundates the mind with diverse forms of information and where the boundaries between science and sci-fi are often blurry. The character Romie Futch helped me synthesize the seemingly inharmonious experiences of growing up in a rural Southern town and spending years immersed in the arcane language of academia. The brain-download trope provided a way for me to evoke my own diction range—colloquial speech, slang, lyrical “poetic” language, and the arcane gibberish of academic theory. Non-Southern readers often picture Southern writers as backwoods prophets who are somehow detached from the complexities of 21st-century existence, and one of my main goals with this novel was to convey the overlapping realities of the New New South—where so-called Southern Gothic elements exist simultaneously with surreal technologies and ecologies.
RK: Speaking of fusion, the novel’s epigraph is a quote from Donna J. Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” Will you expound upon how this relates to themes found in Romie Futch?
JE: A cyborg is any organism that bodily combines biological and technological components. By that definition, a person with a hearing aid is a cyborg, as her capabilities are enhanced by a mechanical device. As our lives become increasingly tech-mediated, and biotechnology becomes more sophisticated, the interplay between the biological and the technological become more complex, the boundaries between the two blurrier. When Romie Futch receives BAIT downloads, or “bioengineered artificial intelligence transmissions,” his gray matter is altered by biotech nanobots formed from revamped brain parasites, and his transimissions come from a computer composed of “bioengineered microorganisms and animal components: leech neurons, strings of bacteria, bat ribosomes, and assorted amino acids.” Not only is Romie himself a biological organism enhanced by technologies, but the technologies themselves deconstruct the technology/biology polarity.
RK: You must have done a lot of research on brain enhancement technology. What was the most disturbing thing you read about futuristic tech?
JE: I did, and there are diverse theories about how brain enhancement through technologies might be accomplished, from nanobots restructuring neurological pathways to electrode-studded brain-computer-interface caps and implantable microchips. Most of the research is in the very early exploratory stages, and not many of the articles address the bioethical issues surrounding these potential technologies. Who is going to test the products? What are the potential side-effects? Will access to instant knowledge intensify or challenge class divisions? These are just a few of the questions that popped into my mind as I read about potential brain-enhancement technologies.
RK: Romie and his cohorts at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience were implanted with knowledge and skill sets of their choosing. If you were a participant in the study, what humanities package would you have downloaded?
JE: I’d like to become proficient in a variety of musical instruments so that I can compete with my multi-instrumentalist husband and also compose more textured songs (currently, I’m limited to singing, keyboards, and glockenspiels).
RK: Your protagonist is a white male, but he acknowledges his white, heterosexual privilege and occasional sexist thoughts. Explain what it was like writing in a male voice, and your process of writing a “masculine” novel from a more diverse sociocultural perspective.
JE: My debut collection features feminist themes and an all-female cast of narrators (with the exception of a transgender robot), and I often joke that Romie Futch is my repressed inner hesher warrior male who just burst out onto the page. But seriously, the so-called male gaze also has something to do with it, as American girls and women are socialized to see the world from a predominantly white male perspective. I was also inspired by Judith Halberstam’s concept of “female masculinity,” the idea that masculinity is not a biological feature so much as a cultural performance that can be enacted by anyone: gay, straight, male, female, trans, intersex. In many ways, the novel is an exploration and expression of my own culturally-inscribed masculinity.
RK: If you were a genetically-modified organism, what kind of mutant would you be?
JE: I would be a quasi-omniscient biological computer—like Minerva in my story “The Love Machine.”
RK: You are often compared to other female authors like Kelly Link and Karen Russell. Which of you would win in a mutant hog hunting mission?
JE: Although I can run my mouth about hog hunting, I’ve never shot a gun and would not be able to keep my cool if faced with a grunting, stinking, murderous tusker. I don’t know why, but I get the feeling that Kelly Link would take the trophy mutant hog in such a contest.
RK: If Romie Futch was made into a movie and you played a cameo, what character would you be?
JE: I’d like to say Pig-Slayer, the Romie fantasy version who resembles like Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., but I’d probably end up playing Marlene, alas.
RK: Being a literary genius must be exhausting. What do you do to unwind?
JE: Bless your heart, what a sweet question. I take long walks and bike rides along the Congaree river, which is about three blocks from my house.
She is currently working on a novel about Hamadryas baboons, a species she has studied as an amateur primatologist. She teaches English and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where she lives with her daughter and husband. She and her spouse, John Dennis, are founding members of the music collective Grey Egg.
Rachel Kaplan is a bookseller at Avid Bookshop.
Welcome to Tin House’s Bookseller Spotlight, a series of interviews with indie booksellers across the country. Up this week is Jess Pane, Greenlight Bookstore.
Tin House Books: What was the first book you read that made you fall in love with reading?
Jess Pane: I was really into Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl, but I think it was Matilda that really sent my head spinning. I remember the librarian putting it in my hands when I was in 5th grade. I was a notorious slow reader, so slow there was one teacher my 8th grade year who wouldn’t call on me when I raised my hand. Then I went to high school and took the creative writing elective. I took it every semester even though you didn’t get credit for it after the first time. We read out loud in that class and I brought in an Alicia Ostriker poem. I can’t tell you which one, but it had a the word fuck in it, and it was thrilling to read. I still have her books and throughout them the words are sounded out: above dynamited is written dine.a.mited. For whatever it was, I fell in love with reading out loud. For me, it’s an intimate moment to read to someone else, read over the phone from favorite parts of books, or just read a loud in an empty room.
THB: If you could spend the day with a character, who would it be and what would you do?
JP: Ari from After Birth by Elisa Albert. Just so we could drive around and listen to Ani Difranco. Molly Bolt from Rubyfruit Jungle. I can pull up most of those scenes. They have stayed with me in the decades since reading it. Or wander the pages of Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson. I imagine I would always be looking around in awe. Or fly in a hot air balloon with a quilted top in Sebastian and the Balloon by Philip C. Stead. Oh, Housekeeping. I want to run along that train bridge with Ruthie and Sylvie. I would spend a lifetime with them.
THB: How has being a bookseller changed your relationship to books?
JP: Working in a bookstore has changed my relationship to myself. I’m a reserved person, but the bookstore provides a space for me to experience all my enthusiasm and that has seeped into the rest of my life. Being enthusiastic about your life and saying yes to yourself brings so much love and friendship.
THB: What’s a recently released book you keep recommending?
JP: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta. I will always put The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson in someone’s hands. This fall is just an overload of awesomeness. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli. The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott. The newly re-released Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. Everyone should read everything by Eileen Myles.
THB: What’s a book you love that not enough people know about?
JP: A book that I hand sell a lot is The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard. That book stops my heart. I have to pound my chest to get it going again.
Jess Pane—Queer fiction writer. Sometimes photographer. Bookseller.
When the prose in a book is ordinary, one falls back on all sorts of other things to praise: the mood, the subject, the “voice.” Elizabeth Tallent’s new short story collection, Mendocino Fire—her first in more than twenty years, following Honey (1993)—crushes the need for such literary niceties. It is driving, furious, erotic, gilded, the sentences flying at you like arrows. A boy looks up from the twisted muscle of a crashed car into a “windshield full of amazed blue sky.” An ex-wife, energized by spite, observes the new wife’s toddler advance “with the lordly shamble of the drunk who finds himself charming.” And a family’s internal stalemate is captured with the phrase “the forlorn mutual incomprehension of delicate signals continually misinterpreted.”
Tallent is a professor at Stanford University, a teacher in the prestigious Stegner program. Her book is a meditation on the state of marriage, in both genteel, upper-class America and working-class America, but specifically the America represented by one town: Mendocino. Here the glow of Tallent’s writing finds its match in a landscape full of redwoods, burbling waves, “diamond afternoons” and poached abalone. But the character found here is not place, as reviewers love to say. It is, thank God, in the characters.
In “Nobody You Know” a perfectionist painter flees her marriage in Mendocino, only to return on a whim and walk straight into her husband’s lover at an ice-cream parlor. In “The Wilderness,” a circumspect English professor surveys her university and her place in it from within a torrent of tweeting and texting students. And In “Eros 101,” two female professors, years apart, embark on a licentious affair. If the situations in these stories sound familiar, they are anything but, because Tallent attacks them with an intensity one might expect from a story about combat or war; the moments of intimacy flare up like bombings of prose. “For strangeness, for fucked-upness—no kiss has ever come close,” Tallent writes at the denouement of “Nobody You Know” and I felt much the same way.
This is, to quote one of the characters, a book of “heartbreak and sex, never enough sex, impatient sex, adoring sex, fear-of-boredom sex” and bodies as “tumult’s instruments” and it welcomes back to the fray an American master.
Karan Mahajan: It’s been twenty years since your last collection. Why the gap—and how do you feel you developed as a writer in the interim?
Elizabeth Tallent: For years my life wasn’t very peaceful and I couldn’t get quiet enough to detect those first intimations of a story. Some source of attunement had vanished. Or—just as likely—been suppressed to save me the pain of the conflict between the desire to pursue a story and the reality that every scrap of psychic energy was needed elsewhere. When I did start writing again it was in fits and starts, and that surprised me—I’d thought that beginning again would be like opening the sluice gates, years of stuff would come pouring through. Effortlessness is such a great dream! In reality the surveilling intolerance of perfectionism was keen as ever. But I was less scared of ferocity. I had the fantastic feeling of having less to lose. After all I’d just gone years without getting anything written—that was the real, and freeing, loss.
KM: You are a perfectionist among perfectionists in the writing world. Can you describe the process of polishing one of these stories?
ET: The backdoor brag of perfectionism lies in its seeming to testify to one’s exquisite sensibility—a dozen mattresses, and one tiny, hinky pea keeps me awake. Really perfectionism is dumbfoundingly callous in its hatred of risk, monotonously censorious. So you’ve got a large part of your brain acting as a lethally efficient negation factory, and you’ve got intuitions and impulses making their first shy appearance, and the problem is how to keep these alive long enough to discover what they can turn into. Emotional aliveness and how to sustain it and how to shape a story from it, those are problems that figured in every one of the stories in this book.
Sometimes when I tell someone that a certain story took years, they’re surprised, and really I get that, because, years—you ought to come out of that with a novel! But I don’t. I get a story that took all the time and love and attention I could spend on it.
KM: Which of these stories is your favorite, and which one was the hardest to write? (Please don’t dodge this with the old saw about loving all of one’s children equally…I have never believed it.)
ET: “Briar Switch”—hardest to write, and favorite. When I held the published book in my hands I was surprised to find out it wasn’t very many pages. In my mind it seemed a hundred pages long at least, because I had lived in it so deeply. I also loved writing “Winter.” In Mendocino it snows so rarely that the chance to get a big snowstorm on the page was wonderful.
KM: You grew up in DC, studied in Illinois, lived in New Mexico, published in the New Yorker—but now I think of you as a California writer: someone deeply engaged with the landscape and politics—and literary magazines—of the West Coast. Did you gradually adopt California as you wrote these stories? Or were they an expression of an existing rootedness? When did you first begin to write about Mendocino, where you live?
ET: I was eighteen when I first saw New Mexico and had never felt at home anywhere before, not even close. And then this lightning strike of belonging; New Mexico was where I started writing, it was all I wanted to write about. Because for me the impulse to write was place-bound, I understood that leaving meant I was going to be in trouble as a writer. California offered teaching, it offered a way to make a living while raising my son, but because for whatever reason I don’t experience universities as wholly real places, I was pretty lost. My brilliant idea was to move to Scotland, to the Shetland Islands, with my son, to try to live there cheaply—completely crazy—but then someone said you should see the Mendocino coast, it looks a lot like Scotland but close enough you could keep your job, and when we got to Mendocino at night the town was a string of lights along a dark cliff with the sea slamming into it. I’d been rescued a second time by a place. Continue reading
We weren’t used to our teachers being famous. Instead of an apple, Mr. Garfunkel kept a Grammy on his desk.
Still, every class quickly learns to play its teacher like a Rickenbacker. You hear about the ones who drone on because they love the sound of their own voice, but you don’t usually hear the teachers themselves so readily cop to it. “The Times once called it ‘angelic,’” he’d say, sipping his tea with lemon and honey. “And that’s our paper of record.”
So to defuse the tension of a looming test, we’d learned to rely on the well-timed request. Best case scenario: he’d get so caught up in hitting those heavenly high notes he’d forget to assign us homework.
“‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’! ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’!”
“If ever a song required a certain joie de vivre—”
He read on our faces: Is that a type of piano?
“That first verse, in its delicacy, is the Devil’s business. Can’t just—”
But we’d start shuffling papers, and, like clockwork:
When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I’m on your side . . .
Just belted it out, a cappella, beginning to end. There was a lesson in it, though, he explained: “You’ll go further together than alone. It’s true for Litchfield Prep and it’s true for life. When—if—you’re lucky enough to find your ideal collaborator, never let him go, not for all the critical acclaim or commercial success the world sets at your feet.”
We nodded diligently. We were just trying to make it through fourth period.
Our friends in Ms. Reynolds’ class were jealous we never had to bother with those “A passenger train leaves a train depot two hours before a freight train leaves the same depot” questions. Mr. Garfunkel wrote all his word problems himself—in addition to singing and harmonizing bar none, he could also, he stressed, compose. Yet in a way our friends never could’ve understood, we would’ve gladly traded places come exam time:
1. The Graduate soundtrack reached Number 1 on the Billboard 200 while Paul Simon’s recent solo effort, his first, debuted this week at a disappointing Number 64. How far will it need to fall before he realizes a key ingredient to his success is missing?
a. Below Number 75
b. Out of the Top 100
d. None of the above, his capacity for ignorance ⟶∞
2. A Simon & Garfunkel show was quite a sight! Me, six feet tall, towering over my dear friend of 5’3”, our visual incongruity no match for the beautiful unity of our blended vocal. Be that as it may, how many platinum records will it take my smallstatured friend to bridge those nine devilish inches between us once and for all?
a. Another “Mrs. Robinson”
b. 4 ±2 more should do it
c. The RIAA could certify his next A-side diamond and still he’d be unhappy
d. He’ll come crawling back
e. Both (c) and (d)
Extra Credit: The term “Napoleon complex,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “an acute sense of personal inferiority often resulting either in timidity or through overcompensation in exaggerated aggressiveness” comes from French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte, who himself had a good 3” over Paul, turns out. No solving for any x, you all receive the +2 free points, but isn’t that something!
One day while he lectured on logarithms we asked: “What’s Paul McCartney really like?”
We weren’t sure he’d bite, but he clapped his textbook shut, sipped his tea, ran through a scale, and started to sing a song we’d never heard from him before:
And I don’t know why
You want to try
It’s plain to see you’re on your own
Oh spare your heart
Everything put together
Sooner or later falls apart . . .
A moment of silence elapsed like he was letting the music fade out.
“Funny thing about the backslash and the ampersand,” he said, “they’re equally impermanent adhesives. Learn this early, boys and girls: two is always divisible by one.”
We parroted his words in our notebooks hopelessly, wondering: Will this show up on the unit test? What unit are we even in?
But somehow he’d already moved on to ways math can help you arrange more innovative harmonies. Soon, the blackboard was nearly more chalk than not. The lesson seemed to be: “Don’t always settle for the third.”
Don’t always settle for the third, got it, we thought, jotting it down under our /s and &s, not understanding what even constituted a third—or a first or a fifth—or what these abstract numbers would even look like in the halls after class or at home. Not understanding other, larger of his lessons, too, still content with our untested belief that our own after-school friendships, duos, partners, and pairings would—because they so far had—span endless summers, would remain, like pi, a constant, something we could commit to memory early and whose familiar rhythms we could always fall back on.
Then we noticed the wall clock. All we could think was, Hello, recess, my old friend . . .
We asked Mr. Garfunkel to sing us “The Sound of Silence.” We were saving “Scarborough Fair.” We knew he’d follow it with the story of how it was his duo—and not, despite their many other firsts, Lennon/McCartney—who introduced the Dorian Mode into pop music. We didn’t know what the Dorian Mode was and we didn’t care. All that mattered to us was that we keep the concert going right up until the bell that would reunite us with our full circle of friends, who were probably already outside waiting, wondering, if only a little, why us and not them.
Jeff Albers is from California and is currently a PhD student in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. His work has appeared in print and online at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Neutrons Protons, and elsewhere. He tweets at @jeffralbers.
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction coastal workshops, we have been rolling out a series of posts featuring our stellar faculty.
Today we get close to the heat with Nick Flynn’s poem from our Evil Issue.
more the idea of the flame than the flame,
as in: the flame
of the rose petal, the flame of the thorn
the sun is a flame, the dog’s teeth
to be clear: with the body,
captain, we can do as we wish, we can do
as we wish with the body
but we cannot leave marks—capt’n I’m
trying to get this right
the world’s so small, the sky’s so high
we pray for rain it rains, we pray for sun it suns
we pray on our knees, we move our lips
we pray in our minds, we clap our hands
our hands look tied before us
I remember, capt’n, something, it didn’t happen, not
to me—this guy, I knew him by
face, I don’t remember his
name, one night
he’s walking home from a party, a car it
clipped him, for hours he
wandered, dazed, his family, his
neighbors, with flashlights they
searched, all night, the woods, calling out
here’s the part, capt’n, where I try to tell a story
as if it were a confession: once,
in elementary school, I was hiding out
on damon rock, lighting
matches & letting them drop to the leaves
ups, flash fires—a girl wandered
down the path, she just
stood there, watching the matches fall from my hand—
capt’n, I’m trying to be precise: hot
day, a cage in the sun, a room without
air, the mind-bending heat, the music
metallica hey britney hey airless hey fuse, I
don’t know how it happened, I was perched far
above, I offered her a match
to pull down her pants—one match, her
hairless body, hey
little girl, I dropped it unlit.
I didn’t know what it was I was looking at.
hey capt’n I don’t know if I’m allowed
hey capt’n years ago I’m walking
down a road one drunk night, even now I
wonder—sometimes still I
imagine—was I hit by a bus, am I stumbling am I
dream this confession, hey
little girl is yr daddy home, hey capt’n hey
sir am I making any sense?
the boy stood on the burning deck, stammering
the boy stood in the burning cage, stammering
electrocution, no—the boy stood in the hot-hot room
stammering I did stammering I did stammering I
did stammering I did stammering everything you say I did
hey metallica hey britney hey airless hey fuse
hey phonograph hey hades hey thoughtless hey
capt’n this room is on fire
capt’n this body will not stop burning
capt’n oh my captain this burning has become a body
capt’n oh my captain this child is ash
capt’n oh my captain my hands pass right though her
capt’n oh my captain I don’t know what it is I’m looking at
it’s important to be precise, to say what
the sun is fire, the center of the earth
is fire, yr mother’s cunt is
fire, an airless flame, still, still, I don’t know why
she pushed me out, this cold-cold furnace, we all
were pushed, a rim of light around our heads, she
gave a kick, sent us crawling
out, towards the flame, toward the pit, the flaming
pit, yr lover’s
cunt, the flame her tongue, the flame
every day, capt’n, sir, captain, I was
left, a child, after school, I was alone, I found
a match, under the sink I found a can, a spray
can, ly-sol dis-infectant, it made a
torch, I was careful the flame didn’t
enter the can, I knew it
would explode, somehow I knew, I’m
trying to be clear, sir—the flame
shot across the room, then it was gone.
Nick Flynn is the award-winning author of Some Ether, Blind Huber, The Ticking is the Bomb and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. He is also the author of four acclaimed books of poetry, the latest being My Feelings (Graywolf Press, 2015).
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction coastal workshops, we decided to check in with a few of our winter captains to get their perspective on the workshop experience.
On the deck, our own Lacy M. Johnson, who will be teaching during Session Two.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?
Lacy M. Johnson: Picture me at 19 years old: I’m a tiny little waif of a person wearing a black leather biker jacket, black jeans, black boots. Lots of heavy black makeup. The poems matched: broody love poems, goth sex poems, basically Twilight meets 50 Shade poems. I think I submitted them exclusively to The Paris Review.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in a workshop?
LMJ: You mean besides “stop writing goth sex poems”?
Mark Doty once told me to pretend as though everyone I was writing about was already dead. It’s such good advice, and at that time I really needed it, because when I let go of the anxiety about what other people might feel or think or say (or feeling like I had any influence over that whatsoever), it became a lot easier to focus instead on what I feel and think and want to say, and sometimes as writers we need that kind of fictional permission before we can begin writing our real, actual truth.
TH: Strangest or most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
LMJ: Isn’t every workshop experience a little strange and terrifying? Especially in nonfiction, I think, because so many times we’re writing about our own lives, and if we’ve done that well, it’s raw and pulsing and still a little bloody, and then we’re sharing that with a group of strangers, all of whom are also reeling from their own psychic blood loss. All that vulnerability can make people go a little crazy.
Once I had a student who kept coming to workshop each week as a different personality, and each of them was taking a turn writing her memoir. In another workshop, I witnessed two grown-ass adults end an argument by shooting each other with imaginary guns. People ugly cry and fall on the floor and throw tantrums. That’s just a regular strange day at the office as far as I’m concerned.
TH: One of your favorite quotes on writing?
LMJ: I have to choose only one? I guess today I’m feeling partial to this one by Tennessee Williams: “Time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”
Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based artist, curator, teacher, activist, and is author of The Other Side (Tin House, 2014) and Trespass: A Memoir (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and she is co-creator of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Racial Imaginary, Fourth Genre, Literature: The Human Experience, Creative Nonfiction, Sentence, TriQuarterly, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. The Other Side was recently named a finalist in nonfiction for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction coastal workshops, we have been rolling out a series of posts featuring our stellar faculty.
Today we revisit Dorothy Allison’s contribution to our Anniversary Issue.
Jason is going to be famous, and the best part is that he knows he will be good at it.
He has this real clear picture of himself, of him being interviewed—not of the place or even when it happens, but of the event itself. What he sees is him and the interviewer, a recording so clear and close up, he can see the reflections sparking off his own pupils. It’s hi-def or Blu-ray or something past all that, a rendering that catches the way the soft hairs just forward of his earlobe lift and shine in the light reflecting off his pale cheeks. All he has to do is close his eyes and it begins to play, crisp and crackling with energy as the microphone bumps hollowly against the button on his open collar.
“A lot of it, I can’t tell you,” he says, and the interviewer nods.
Jason is sitting leaning forward. His features gleam in the bright light, his expression is carefully composed, focused on the interviewer. Jason nods his head and his hair swings down over his forehead. One auburn strand just brushes across the edges of his eyebrows. The interviewer is so close their elbows are almost touching. He is an older man with gray in his hair and an expression of watchful readiness—a man Jason has seen do this kind of thing on the news before, someone to be trusted, someone serious.
That is the word. Serious. The word echoes along Jason’s nervous system. He is being taken seriously. Every time he imagines it again, the thought makes him take a deep breath. A little heat flares in his neck as the camera follows his eyes. He looks away from the interviewer, and his face goes still. He looks back and his eyes go dark and sad.
“I’m sorry to have to ask you about something so painful,” the interviewer says to him.
“It’s all right,” Jason says. “I understand.” He keeps his expression a mirror of the other man’s, careful and composed. He can do this. Piece of cake.
Behind the cameraman, there are other people waiting to speak to Jason, others are standing close by to hear what he has to say. Everyone has questions, questions about what happened, of course, about the kidnapping and all the months in captivity. But they also want to ask him what he thinks about other things, about people, and events. In the interview as Jason sees it, he always has answers—surprising and complicated, wonderful answers.
“That boy is extraordinary,” he hears the serious man tell another.
Extraordinary. The heat in his neck moves down into his chest, circles his diaphragm, and filters out to his arms and legs. He hopes it does not show on his face. Better to remain pale and impassive, pretend he does not hear what they say about him. How extraordinary he is, that everyone says so, some kind of genius. He half-smiles and then recomposes his expression. Genius. Jason is not sure what his genius is exactly, but he trusts it. He knows it will be revealed at the right time, in the right circumstances. It is simply that those events have not happened as of yet. But they will.
He opens his eyes. He has stopped at the edge of the road. Dust, white-grey and alkaline, has drifted up from his boots, and he can taste eucalyptus and piney resin. He looks up the road toward the next hill and the curve down into the shade of the redwood stand there. Should have brought a bottle of water, he thinks. Then, extraordinary. How would you know if you were extraordinary? Or a genius? He’s pretty good at math, and music—though nothing that special. If he worked more, put more of himself into the work, no telling what he might not do. His dad told him that, once, when he was still living with them. His teachers have said something of the same thing. All of them though, his dad, teachers, and his mom, they say it like it’s a bad thing—his talents and his waste of them.
“If you worked more. If you worked harder.”
They don’t understand. No one does.
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction coastal workshops, we decided to check in with a few of our winter captains to get their perspective on the workshop experience.
First at the helm, Portland’s finest, Mitchell S. Jackson, who will be teaching during Session One.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?
Mitchell S. Jackson: I can’t really remember who was my first workshop leader, but I want to say it was Mark Poirier. I’m guessing this would have been my first semester at Portland State. What I do remember is feeling nervous because I’d never been in a workshop and because I wasn’t even sure if I had what it took to make it as a writer. Hell, I wasn’t even sure I knew what it took to write a short story. At that time, I hadn’t even written a complete short story in my life (why they hell I was in a grad writing program is still somewhat of a mystery).
I remember being unsure of how to respond to the work of my peers. I was also super nervous about sharing my work. One reason is because it was so autobiographical and I thought I was exposing myself, but the other reason was I wasn’t sure how it would rank in the class. I had like .01 confidence in my writing back then. I was bluffing, bigtime.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in a workshop?
MSJ: One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve been given in a workshop is that the story can’t save you. Gordon Lish told us that in a workshop I had with him back in ’08. I think plenty people think they can create an awesome story and that the language of the story, the delivery system, is almost beside the point. I don’t believe plot can save me, but I think language has the opportunity to do so; therefore I put supreme emphasis on my sentences. Some people might argue against this, but I can’t see another way for me. I want to sing.
TH: Strangest or most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
MSJ: The most terrifying experience I had as a participant was also in that Lish workshop. It was at the end of the first workshop, which really wasn’t a workshop, but a lecture, where he told us all to go home and write one good sentence. The catch was that we were supposed to read them the next class, and if he didn’t like them we wouldn’t get to read a second sentence. What he didn’t tell us was that if he didn’t like the beginning of the first sentence, we wouldn’t even get to read the rest of it. Talk about putting emphasis on the sentence. It don’t get no more emphatic.
TH: One of your favorite quotes on writing?
MSJ: I love the Baudelaire quote, “Always be a poet, even in prose.” See my earlier answers as to why.
Mitchell S. Jackson is the author of the e-book Oversoul: Stories and Essays, and the novel The Residue Years, which received The Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. It was also a finalist for the Center For Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First novel prize, the PEN/ Hemingway award for first fiction, The Hurston / Wright Legacy Award for best fiction by a writer of African descent. Jackson has become a well-regarded speaker who was read and/or and lectured at institutions including Brown University, Columbia University, Yale University, Middlebury College, and UMASS; at events including The Brooklyn Book Festival, The Miami Book Festival, and the Sydney Writers’ Festival; at various adult prisons and youth facilities; and for organizations including The Pathfinders of Oregon, The PEN / Faulkner Foundation, and The Volunteers of America. He serves on the faculty of New York University and Columbia University.
“Think of what you were doing at his age,” Andrew said. His fourteen-year-old kid skateboarded a respectful distance ahead, up the dark winding path on the Santa Cruz cliffs, that steep drop into the invisible ocean, so that we could smoke a joint without feeling guilty. We’d all gathered for a friend’s wedding. Andrew was my husband’s best friend, and though I’d been married for seven years, I was just getting to know him. We all lived so far apart.
When we were thirteen, my best friend Jackie first did it. Not it it, but gave a blowjob. She and the boy hid under my Esprit comforter, not on my bed, but on the floor. They lay on the carpet. My mom was rarely home.
My husband, sufficiently stoned, had picked up his pace and gotten ahead of us, up near Andrew’s kid.
“He always walks too fast,” I said to Andrew, who was taking a drag off the joint. “Like he’s so excited.”
“He’s like that. You’re right,” he said and looked down at me as if I was a sage, interpreting the great mysteries of his friend.
He passed the joint to me and watched while I dried my lips and filled my lungs. I didn’t smoke much pot, and he did, so I tried to smoke like a pro.
My scope of perception shrank down to Andrew, me, and a sense of my husband ahead. The boy’s skateboard wheels on the paved path. Andrew’s eyes were green. The ocean was blue. Despite the dark, I remembered their colors.
Even at the time, twelve years old seemed too young for sex. Even though our bodies sent us barreling toward it, it was strange.
It took a long time, well into my marriage, for sex to feel as natural to me as it had seemed to be for Jackie. I hadn’t seen her since high school, but I’d looked Jackie up. The internet. She’d married a preacher and had five girls. Still lived in our hometown. I felt that I’d escaped whatever had trapped her, the dutiful mother and wife, but maybe she was doing fine. I was smoking pot atop the cliffs of Santa Cruz, still a kid on vacation flirting with boys.
I left the path and walked to the edge of the cliff, leaning over to look into the dark. The wind off the ocean felt as if it was sloughing off my skin.
Andrew dropped next to me and watched me watch the ocean, as if he was trying to figure me out. Before marriage, I might have huddled in close to him, let my hip brush his, laughed loudly at his jokes, ended up under a blanket on someone’s floor with my mouth around his dick, excited and terrified by what I could do.
“Come back,” Andrew said. “Away from the edge.” He gave directives, a thing my husband never did. He scooped his long arm around my waist and pulled me into him, back to the path, where his arm dropped away.
My husband and Andrew’s son were waiting. Andrew’s son was telling stories to my husband as if he were a friend.
“I hate it when they’re too young. I was dating this girl once. She texted me, ‘Babe, you know I’m only 12, right?’”
We adults fell into giggles and snorts. Andrew with those eyes, as if he and I had another, separate joke.
My husband came and leaned into me, looking down at me, smiling, thinking of our future children, watching them become themselves. His eyes were blue. I reached to squeeze his elbow, to reassure myself of him.
“Quit laughing at me,” Andrew’s son said. He pulled himself into a ball, sitting on his skateboard.
“You have to understand how it sounds,” I said, but stopped myself from attempting to explain. He felt as Jackie had, as Jackie probably still did: prepared, like a grownup.
We found out the next day that Andrew was getting a divorce. It was the day of our friend’s wedding, a new marriage not yet spoiled by years, high up in the hills. As I put on a dress and heels, I considered Andrew and me. Sometime after dark, we could find a place, drive a car up the road from the wedding or walk into the surrounding forest. I told myself that I imagined these things to keep them from happening. At the wedding, when we crossed paths, Andrew would look away. I would turn my back.
The night was lit by strings of lights. Andrew’s son snuck too many drinks, got too drunk, and told me he thought I was smart. The older couple hosting the event, family friends of the bride, made out in various conspicuous places. I got too stoned. The groom crawled into the hot tub with a bunch of naked women, one of whom was his wife. I burrowed my face into my husband’s shoulder, as if to fight the chill blowing up off the Pacific. With my eyes closed, the glow of the tiny lights bloomed behind my eyelids, and I was on the edge of a cliff, white tips of the ocean waves moving through the dark below.
Laura Lampton Scott‘s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Okey-Panky, No Tokens, and Monkeybicycle. She’s a MacDowell Colony fellow and is working on a novel.
Hello! I have been asked to write a “Literary Field Guide to Portland” in honor of the many literary types who will be visiting our city during the exciting Wordstock weekend. Portland is home to many fine authors, several of whom you have probably heard of (but most likely have never read. Unless it was the one about hiking.)
I believe it’s fair to say that for a city of its size, Portland has more than its share of writers. I just looked up “Writers From Portland, Oregon” on Wikipedia and am now pissed off because I’m not even included in that extensive list of 236. WTF?
Anyway, here’s what I will say for Portland’s literary scene: people will show up for it. You could hold a release party for a small ‘zine on a Tuesday night at a food cart and you’d draw a crowd. To be honest, I’m not really all that hip to the scene, though I do find my way to readings and attend parties when invited. It’s been years since I got really drunk at a literary event. I encourage you all to do something stupid while you are here in Portland. Order too many drinks or take a hit from one of those strange and now legal marijuana oil e-cigarettes everyone’s passing around. Offer to make out with a stranger. This has always been good for literary ambitions.
Let me tell you, Portland is the perfect city in which to make an ass out of yourself. I’ve done it many times and it is for sure the way to go. I have two gorilla/Bigfoot suits I could lend you. One of them is covered in mud from my last outing.
I’ve made children cry wearing those suits.
No one will hold it against you if you heckle a famous author, especially if it’s someone from out of town. Make a huge scene and demand a refund for the books you bought back in the 90’s.
Vomit on the floor somewhere.
Remove your clothing. Especially you men. Everyone in Portland likes it when a sweaty person peels off a few layers. This is the kind of behavior which will endear you to the literary populace of Wordstock.
If you must act civilized then try giving everyone compliments. We are overly supportive of each other here in Portland and you will fit right in if you say “right on” whenever someone tells you what they are up to. You don’t need to try very hard to impress us.
I’m not familiar with the hard drug scene here but I’ve heard heroin and opiate pills can be found pretty easily. I’d stick with the pills if I were you. Find an older person who looks like they have a prescription for something and ask them what they’ve got to share.
Wait, is this a field guide? I’m trying to figure out what types of people you will encounter while roaming the Portland Art Museum and sidewalks of this small sized city. Here’s a list:
Locals who wear cotton sweatshirts in the rain: This is what real Portland people do. They pretend it’s not even raining and walk around in shorts and cotton hoodies during a downpour. For real, this is Portland for you. Try it.
Young folks with glasses: They will be wearing tighter pants than they should and won’t admit to their ambitions. They will know a lot about the internet.
Older folks with glasses: They will be wearing slightly looser clothing than the young folks and be less spry. They won’t know as much about the internet.
Animal trainers, magicians, drunk poets: You’d be surprised how many people fit in these categories
Losers who work for Tin House: JK Tin Housers! You’re winners!
People who are writing books: Dude, they are everywhere in this town. Half of them are here in Powell’s as I type this.
Professionals in sports gear: People is this town don’t get upset about much, but if you are going to bring it on a professional level for god’s sake have your gear dialed in so that you look like a fucking Olympic athlete out there. I don’t care what sport it is, but your gear had better be dialed in.
I’m sure I didn’t cover all the bases there, but you get the idea. This is a mildly diverse town of clown-like people, all looking to embrace you the way you wish everyone had when you were younger and looking for approval. We approve!
I don’t know what to tell you beyond that. There are several other good bookstores here and the coffee shops are awesome. Get some eggs in the morning and drink coffee and read a real book made of paper and watch all the people without umbrellas walking around in the rain. I’m not hip enough to know where you should get your food and coffee, so just follow the crowds. Or hit the carts.
At night there will be some fun parties at the Lit Crawl event and once again you are encouraged to do something asinine while attending these. The more stupid the better. I will be so happy if I hear that visitors to Portland came here and did things they regretted the next day. That’s what this city is all about. Portland, city of regrets. City of no regrets, I mean. Regret nothing!
That’s your literary field guide to Portland.
Arthur Bradford is an O Henry Award winning writer and Emmy-nominated filmmaker. His writing has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, Vice, Men’s Journal, and many other publications. His first book, Dogwalker, was published by Knopf and Vintage paperback in 2002, and has been translated into ten languages. In 2012 McSweeney’s published Benny’s Brigade, a children’s book. Bradford’s latests book, “Turtleface”, was published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in February 2015.
Cheryl Strayed will be speaking with Diana Nyad at Wordstock on November 7th. For now, enjoy her mini-essay from our Memory Issue.
There’s a pair of pants I wore almost every day for the first five years I knew my husband. They were what I like to call sport pants, which differ from all-out sweatpants (or yoga pants, as fancy people now like to call them) in that they were made of a sturdy cotton twill rather than jersey material. Cut comfortably loose, the elastic waistband was the only place where the pants made any contact with my body. Anything could happen inside those pants without detection. I could be fat or less fat or kind of slender. They were extraordinarily utilitarian and patently unsexy. Nuns might opt to wear them. Or park rangers. Or seventy-year-old piano teachers. Or butch lesbians who captained coed Ultimate Frisbee teams. Or me. I wore them so often my husband took to referring to them as my uniform.
I wasn’t always so blasé when it came to my husband and clothes. The first time I slept with him—back when he was essentially a stranger to me, on the second night I knew him—I wore a black lace getup that’s called a baby doll nightie. It was a little handful of a thing I’d purchased at a Goodwill just before I met him, when I was twenty-seven and constantly roaming thrift stores on the hunt for something that would help me project the sexy image of myself I was hoping for. I bought it even though I’ve always been profoundly confused by lingerie. Isn’t sex about something that clothes are the opposite of? I could never quite discern when, in the order of things, I was meant to put lingerie on when the whole point was ripping things off.
These were the questions in my mind on the second night that I knew the man who was not yet my husband, after I excused myself from the bedroom where we’d been ferociously making out and ducked into the bathroom across the hall. As I went, I grabbed the just-purchased nightie from the top drawer of my dresser, a gob of cheap black lace in my hand. Alone, before the mirror, I removed my regular clothes and put on the nightie and studied myself. The nightie had thin shoulder straps, a form-fitting see-through bodice that gently mashed my breasts upward, and a flouncy short-skirted bottom. If the outfit had a title it would be either Slutty Cowgirl or Pretty Pirate. I looked awesome but felt ridiculous. Was I really going to return to the bedroom dressed like this? It seemed desperate and dumb and yet I couldn’t help myself. I wanted him to see me like this, to seem to him to be the kind of woman who nonchalantly ranged around her place in a black lace thingamajig that scarcely covered her rear, so I walked into the bedroom and stood ever so briefly before him as he gazed at me, reclining on my futon on the floor, and then I got into bed with him and he pulled the damn thing off.
I never wore that baby doll nightie or any other piece of lingerie again. My future husband and I became lovers and then we got married and the idea of putting that nightie on became just about the last thing on this earth I would do. I’d bought it for the sole purpose of finding and fostering intimacy but in fact I wore it on the night when we were the least intimate, when I was projecting a slightly fraudulent image of myself to him instead of the actual me. Which, for better or worse, is a woman who wears pants a nun would find appealing.
The cool thing is, my husband finds them appealing too. We fell in love while I wore and wore and wore those pants. The pants inside of which undetectable things can happen.
The black lace nightie disappeared soon after I wore it that one time. I handed it over to the Goodwill, tossing it back into the endless thrift-store stream from which it came, into the hands of another woman with fantastical dreams about herself. The pants lasted and lasted, for five years or more, until one day I understood it was the end of them. They’d served their time. I’d worn them so long and so often they’d become threadbare. The elastic of the waist had given way; the hemline had frayed. Instead of putting them on, I put them in the garbage can.
My husband was out of town at the time, working on a project that kept him away from home for a couple of months. It didn’t seem right that he wasn’t there to witness the end of the pants. My uniform. Our history. So I fished them out of the garbage can and cut out the crotch with a pair of scissors. It was a neat black rectangle of fabric that only two people on the planet would recognize for what it was.
I folded it into an envelope addressed to him. I didn’t include a note. I put it in the mail and sat for a long time thinking about it, imagining him. How he’d laugh when he opened the envelope and realized what he was holding. How he’d press it to his nose and inhale.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the memoir Wild, the novel Torch, and the advice essay collection Tiny Beautiful Things. She lives in Portland, OR.
In celebration of Wordstock Week on the Open Bar, we asked author Benjamin Percy five questions about reading and writing. Percy takes the festival stage for Stranger Than Fiction: Based on a True Story at 1:00 on November 7th; we encourage you to bring and throw peanut butter toast.
Tin House: What’s your best reading memory from your childhood?
Benjamin Percy: Around fourth grade, I became deeply obsessed with the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms fantasy novels. My head was more often in that world than this one, slashing my twin scimitars and calling down my dragons to bring fire to the world.
TH: What’s your favorite book from or about the Pacific Northwest, and why?
BP: Hard one. Geek Love is cheating, right? Katherine Dunn’s novel wanders geographically — it’s about circus freaks after all — but some of it is set in the PNW, and damn, that’s one of my favorite (beautiful ugly) books of all time.
TH: What’s your favorite setting to write, and why?
BP: I married into the Midwest, but I grew up in Oregon. It remains the place I know best — its geography, history, culture, politics, myths — and the stage upon which I set my characters.
TH: What’s the best snack to eat while you write? Any other rituals that facilitate the process?
BP: I’m so often on the road — at bookstores, festivals, conferences, campuses — that I try to make my home life as ordinary and boring and ritualized as possible. Not just for the comparative silence, and not just because I’m an old man at heart, but because routine feeds writing. One example of many: every weekday, at 10 AM, I make toast with peanut butter and marmalade.
TH: What book should we be reading that we don’t know about already?
BP: Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff is one of the best collections you’ll ever read. The title story alone breaks my heart and is worth the price of admission. Anything by Daniel Woodrell. Most know him for his novel Winter’s Bone — which was made into a killer film — but if that’s all you’ve read, seek out Tomato Red, Death of a Sweet Mister, Give Us a Kiss. The rough music of his sentences makes me stomp my feet and reach for the whiskey bottle.
Benjamin Percy is the author of the novels Red Moon and The Wilding, and two short story collections, Refresh, Refresh, and The Language of Elk. His writing has appeared in Esquire, GQ, Time, Tin House and elsewhere. His honors include the Pushcart Prize, an NEA grant, the Plimpton Prize for Fiction, and a Whiting Award. Raised in the high desert of central Oregon, he lives in Minnesota.
“An image is more than what we show our readers–it is story, it is history, it is emotion. When we seek the perfect image, we filter our writing and cut ourselves off from the possibilities of meaning and emotion–the things that make both the writer and the reader feel.”- Natalie Diaz
In this craft talk, given at the far reaches of the 2015 Summer Workshop, Diaz moves through a series of readings and exercises to help you discover what your images really mean to you, and what they can mean to your readers.
Natalie Diaz, a member of the Mojave and Pima Indian tribes, is the author of the poetry collection When My Brother Was an Aztec. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Iowa Review, Crab Orchard Review, among others, and was selected by Natasha Trethewey for Best New Poets. She has receive the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry.
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It’s Wordstock Week on the Open Bar! We’re celebrating Portland’s own, newly-revamped literary festival with essays, stories, and more from Tin House authors who’ll be part of the festivities. We kick things off with this essay from the grande dame of fantasy, Ursula K. Le Guin, originally given as a talk in 2000 in the Literary Arts lecture series and included in our book, The World Split Open.
“Where do you get your ideas from?” is the question people in my line of work—fiction writers—get asked most often. We never know how to answer. In self-defense, most of us develop a sound-bite answer. Harlan Ellison’s is the best; he says he gets his ideas from a mail-order house in Schenectady.
When people ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” what some of them really want to know is the address of that mail-order company.
That is, they want to write, or more likely what they want is to be a writer, because they know writers are rich and famous; and they know that there are secrets that writers know, like that address in Schenectady; and they know that if they can just learn those secrets, those mystical post-office box numbers, they will be Stephen King.
Alas. Writers don’t have secrets. Except maybe the well-kept secret that about 99 percent of writers are neither rich nor famous. Writers talk. Writers are wordy people. They talk, blab, whine all the time to each other about what they’re writing; they teach writing workshops and write writing books and yadder on talk shows. Writers tell all. If they could tell beginning writers where to get ideas, they would. In fact they do, all the time. Some of them actually get rich and famous by doing it.
What do the how-to-write writers say about getting ideas? They say stuff like: “Listen to conversations, note down interesting things you hear or read about, keep a journal, describe a character, imagine a dresser drawer and describe what’s in it”—yeah, yeah, but that’s all work. Anybody can do work. I wanna be a writer. What’s the PO box number?
Well, the secret to writing is writing. Writing is how you be a writer. It’s only a secret to people who really don’t want to hear it.
So why do I want to try to answer this foolish question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Because underneath the foolish aspect of it, the question is a real one that people really want to know the answer to, even though it is ultimately unanswerable; and unanswerable questions are just what fiction writers like to answer.
It’s a big question—where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music? It’s bound to have a big answer. Or a whole lot of them.
One of my favorite answers is this: Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said, “The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.”
Now that is not a secret. But it is a sweet mystery.
And a true one. For a fiction writer—a storyteller—the world is full of stories, and when a story is there, it’s there; you just reach up and pick it.
Then you have to be able to let it tell itself.
First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Wait in silence and listen. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, “The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.”
Readiness—not grabbiness, not greed—readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately—to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that’s what practice is for. Because being ready doesn’t mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that’s what writers mostly do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience and readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, and a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, “craft.”
With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the “idea”—the tune, the vision, the story—come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.
This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words. It’s what I like best to do in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it. But I’m trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the “idea,” comes from. So:
The air is full of tunes.
A piece of rock is full of statues.
The earth is full of visions.
The world is full of stories.
As an artist, you trust that. You trust that that is so. You know it is so. You know that whatever your experience, it will give you the material, the “ideas,” for your work. Continue reading
Yes, it’s that time of year again. Feeding candy to Goblins and Ghouls and Kardashians at your doorstep, altering your walk so your kid doesn’t have to see the tastelessly violent decorations in your neighbor’s yard, trying to figure out how to make your Walt Whitman costume authentic but also kind of sexy, and indulging the fear centers in your brain with carefully calculated visions of horror. From the visual arts to artless trolls, here’s what we’re into this spooky season.
Emma (Scream Queen of Brooklyn): I highly recommend creeping yourself out with Phillip Glass’s score for the original Bela Lugosi Dracula. When it premiered in 1931, the movie was shown both as a talkie and a silent film, but had no score at all. Glass’s intervention, composed in the nineties and recorded by the Kronos Quartet, is so good that when you listen to it, the need for the film itself falls away. A couple falls ago, I decided to read Dracula and started taking the book to bed with me after putting on Glass’s score. The combination proved too potent; I could only handle Stoker’s descriptions of the vampire scuttling reptile-like up the side of the castle or Glass’s fractalizing violins one at a time. Please, forgo the Monster Mash and freak yourself out right.
Diane (Art Die-rector): I recently stumbled upon the work of London-based painter Candice Tripp. Her dark sense of humor has led her to create beautifully detailed and stirring depictions of forests with children in masks and skeletons engaging in activities with a slant towards the macabre. Each illustration has a clever and witty title that takes the edge off the terror long enough for you to review the scene and let go a nervous chuckle. (The painting above is called “Jane thinks about the worst things she has ever said and peels off her skin.”) She’s also created a series called Horror Houses—paintings of the houses from all your favorite scary movies. If Tin House ever decides to publish a horror issue, I’ve got a few favorites from her work to try for cover art. [Great minds think alike—here she is on the cover of the new Black Warrior Review. —Ed.]
Jakob (Senior Graphic Violence Designer): This month, for better and (much) worse, I sat through the entire Friday the 13th series. With twelve movies, they can’t all be the best, but they can all be the best at something. Spoilers, ahead. With The Best Final Girl Fake-Out, Part I introduces us to Annie, the adorable camp cook-to-be. She’s so charming and perky, surely she’ll survive? Annie doesn’t even live to see Kevin Bacon in his speedo. In Part II, a tiny dog ruins what may be the most suspenseful moment and, in what is The Best Betrayal by a Dog Named Muffin, neglects to squeak a warning yap as danger approaches. The Best Title Sequence belongs to Part III, which retains the amazing 3D block type of the first two movies and adds campy, spooky theme music (actually filmed in 3D, too). If you’re up for disappointment, you can continue with The Final Chapter (IV) and the character of Tommy—The Best Tribute to Tom Savini by a Corey (Feldman). Tommy’s love of creepy masks is a fine homage to the mastermind behind Jason’s look. Next, the series attempts A New Beginning in Part V, replacing Jason with a lame copycat killer who interrupts The Best Bathroom Duet. Viewers are also treated to The Best Awkward Moment with a Character Named Jake, that offers an uncomfortable glimpse into my romantic life. Jason Lives on in Part VI, where a lingering camera provides The Best Product Placement: a victim lies in a pool of water, her Amex card floating lifelessly beside her. The watery carnage continues in The New Blood (VII) when a telekinetic girl carelessly reanimates Jason instead of the abusive father she accidentally killed years before. This installment, with The Best Misplaced Daddy Issues, was released in 1988 so it also has The Best Hair. A year later, when Jason Takes Manhattan (VIII), he massacres a group of high schoolers on their senior trip and gives The Best Reason to Never Board a Party Boat. Watch it for the heavy guitar solo and The Best Attempt to Get Out of a Biology Assignment. Speaking of Hell, the deceivingly titled Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday is The Best Time to Take a Nap if you’re wishing you’d chosen a better series to binge on. You’ll need your energy for The Best Plot Based on a MADtv Sketch. In 1995, MADtv aired a parody called Apollo the 13th: Jason Takes NASA. In 2001, Jason X—the 90-minute rip-off—hit theaters. Jason is cryogenically frozen (it’s David Cronenberg’s fault) and revived in a future where knitwear is oddly popular. The Best at Being the Worst. Surprisingly, Freddy vs. Jason keeps the series from ending on a completely awful note by being The Best Crossover. Let’s face it, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a much better series. Watch that instead. Finally, Friday the 13th, the 2009 remake, is nothing special, but the modern Jason is calculating and fearsome. Gone is the plodding psycho of old: The Best Jason runs.
Heather (Catacombes Editor): There’s a lot of superfine, eerie music to listen to this time of year and one tune that puts a certain spooky spin on this Halloween is “I Put A Spell On You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. First recorded in 1955 and originally supposed to be a love song, it has been covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Creedence Clearwater Revival to, most recently, Annie Lenox. [Jakob will throw a fit if we don’t include The Divine Miss M. —Ed.] Hawkins was said to have explained that before this song, he was a blue singer. And after? Listening to “I Put A Spell On You” may reveal some sort of haunting hint.
Thomas (Dead-itorial Assistant): Yesterday, Lance brought up Tales From The Crypt, and I was reminded of a knockoff version of that show’s host that used to haunt my dreams—The Gatekeeper. He was the star of a DVD board game, based on a VHS board game, called Atmosfear. He’s sort of the “host” of the game, which brings together horror traditions from around the world, uniting them under the banner of low budget and deeply sad in-home entertainment. Most of the game is spent just playing a board game and watching a timer count down on the TV, with infrequent interruptions from the Gatekeeper. Played with an unsettling enthusiasm by Wenanty Nosul, who you might remember from the 1997 show Spellbinder: Land of the Dragon Lord (just kidding, if you remember Spellbinder, it’s because you are/were weirdly into Ryan Kwanten, and who can blame you?), the Gatekeeper is “scary” mostly through directly abusive behavior, speaking directly to you, the players, through your television screen. Like he actually just repeatedly calls the players stupid. When he gives you a command, you’re supposed to say “Yes, my Gatekeeper.” The most terrifying thing about the game is that even though you know he’s a recording on a DVD, you still say it every time. I don’t know if kids are supposed to play this game or not. I actually don’t know if anyone is supposed to play it—in fact, the overwhelming feeling is that Atmosfear plays you. (For unfathomable reasons, the game appears to cost upwards of $60 on ebay, but because this is 2015 and literally everything is online, you can actually watch a whole game’s worth of the Gatekeeper here.)
Lance (Crypt Keeper): As holiday movies are one of my favorite genres, Halloween provides any number of terrific avenues to go down for a curated night in the basement. You can get creepy and off the demon-from-hell train with Jakcob’s Ladder, The Beguiled (Man eager girls!), and Kill List. Or go the route of overlooked modern gems with Session 9, The Mothman Prophecies, and In the Mouth of Madness. But for a truly change of pace, I recommend a little trick-or-treat comedy night, as October 31st gets a bad cinematic rap for being all brooding and blood. Monster Squad and Body Parts are both full of ghouls and chuckles, while The Addams Family is much better than you remember. I mean, who doesn’t want to Mamushka for their candy?
Speaking of people we made do the Mamushka for their candy this year, let’s hear from our army of undead interns. We were pretty sure they were too old for trick-or-treating, but they said otherwise. (The legal department says we should add that we do not make our interns dance for candy. In fact, at the insistence of Masie Cochran and Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, one of the perks of our internships is unlimited free candy.)
Cameron: The new American Horror Story: Hotel is probably the scariest cinematic experience I have had since Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist. While I like to watch these kinds of films with people who think they are actually funny, and while I myself like to think I think they are funny, I am a Class A weenie when it comes to any movie with the slightest sense of trepidation. I even keep a pillow on hand to use as a screen over my eyes; I peek my way past the scary scenes. Still, for a guy who uses a pillow screen, my personal canon continues to impress me. American Horror Story: Hotel is a myriad of fear for the characters that are hotel guests: there are half-decayed, half-sewn-up-in-the-bed dead people trying to pull them in and eat them, this one convulsive bald guy without any ears covered in scars and white plaster, and Lady Gaga as a promiscuous vampire. In this T.V. series, even the sex scenes scare me. The show is graphic in a brutally original way and honestly a little grueling at times. But, if you are looking for a genuinely scary show this Halloween season, I would recommend it—but keep your pillow screen on hand.
Katlynn: This month I decided to give myself a literary challenge and read as many mystery novels as I could. The genre has fallen to the back of my list recently, with summer reads and fall breakouts taking over much of my free reading. I decided October was the perfect season to catch up. Out of all the mysteries I’ve read this month (a total of 12-I had hoped for more, but alas) the one that struck me the most was Tana French’s debut novel In the Woods. The raw, emotional turmoil the main character experiences was more tangible than many mysteries I have read in the past and the ending (no I won’t spoil it, I promise) didn’t tie things into a neat bow, but left it as experiences are often left in life: without closure. I highly recommend picking up In the Woods next time you’re in a spine-chilling mood. It’s been two weeks and I still can’t go hiking alone.
Claire: Every October (call me a traditionalist), I like to re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For those of you out there who’ve never picked up this magic text, do it now—there’s no better time than fall. Just reading Shelley’s introduction, a kind of origin story for the text, you won’t be able to put it down: “The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else.”* She sucks you in, brings you face to face with monstrosity, and then leaves you floating on an icy sea, totally unhinged. The goosebumps I get from reading it aren’t because of the “monster” or his hideously sublime appearance, but rather the myths of parenthood, language, and knowledge that Shelley plays with and exposes in their true frightening form. Even if you did read it in high school, there’s myriad reasons to pick it up again (the text as feminist revision, the text as a re-writing of Paradise Lost, the list goes on), the least of which is to give yourself the chills on this All Hallows’ Eve.
Mattie: Even if you’re not particularly into the indie horror game scene, you’ve probably at least heard of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Frictional Games’ first person horror/survival game which has become a sort of classic to the genre. This month I played Frictional’s newest game released only a month ago titled SOMA, which takes place in Pathos II, an underwater sci-fi facility where things have, as all things must in the realm of horror, gone very, very wrong. Though not part of the Amnesia franchise, there are many familiar elements to how the game is played –that is, plenty of sneaking around hallways while solving puzzles and running semi-blindly through corridors to escape imminent death via mauling by whatever monster happens to be patrolling the area. What SOMA does with its story, however, is the main reason why I so strongly recommend the game. SOMA innovatively conveys some pretty heavy themes in a way that’s quite unique to the world of video games, allowing the player to tackle moral problems that end up being haunting long after the game has been shut off. So while SOMA is no doubt a game that appeals to lovers of all things scary, I am sure people looking to play a thoughtful, albeit dark and mildly heart-attack inducing, game would similarly enjoy it!
And finally, a word from Cheston Knapp, Puritanical Grinch of Halloween.
Cheston (Man-eating Editor): Halloween’s never really been my jam. Goes back to first grade, when like all good Christian boys I opted out of whatever seasonal arts & crafts my teacher had on the docket because the holiday was Satanic. The devil wasn’t something to kid about. The devil is real. So the scariest thing I’ve seen is this:
First-born, a girl, but anyway his first-born so he brought me to watch when he touched the other woman.
He started his fingers at her lips. And the woman bracing her hips off the car seat, wanting him lower, where she was swollen.
She interrupted herself with clipped breaths. “How—how old are you?”
At home I was old enough to take turns holding my new sister. The baby grasping, leaving spittle. While at the window my mother burned holes through the screen with her cigarette.
But here in the parking lot? In the back seat? I looked down.
Father, hand lower, said, “Old enough to be responsible.”
Between my legs were four sets of noodles in ballooned bags, the broth hot on my thighs. I squeezed and released my knees, timed my breathing with the woman’s.
When she left the car he called me into the front: “First-born, it’s your responsibility to know. She’s pregnant. You’ll have a brother finally.”
“Half-brother,” I said.
“That,” he said, “is why I put you in charge.”
I told him that responsibility is knowing when you’re too drunk to drive. I cranked down the window. “I can wake you in thirty-minutes.”
So he fell asleep with his hand twined through the steering wheel. I turned on the cabin light to look at him. His skin was red. I took the whisky bottle and dipped my finger into it, ran the hot liquor down the middle of my tongue. I dipped again. By the dashboard clock I counted thirty and gouged the leather seat with the car key for every time Father had called her his ‘girl.’
At home I kicked the sisters awake as Father laid out bowls.
“Number one,” he said, hands coming gently down on my shoulders. He touched his daughters only at the round table, assigning seats.
“Number two, what will it be?” My sisters nodding, sleeping still. Father worked the revolving table. “Pork broth? Fish? Three sit here. All the way from Khlong Toey,” he gloated. “I want you to eat while it’s fresh.”
And my noosed mother didn’t ask why Khlong Toey, why nighttime. She looked at me with drawn eyes and handed over the baby.
“Can you keep a secret?” I whispered. I slipped my whisky finger into her mouth, scratched her tongue with it. The burn reached her cheeks and she began to cry.
“Brother. Boy. First-born,” I said. “First-born boy. Now you know.” And I pushed my finger deep into her throat.
Mai Nardone was raised in Bangkok, Thailand, by an American father and a Thai mother. He has received scholarships from the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. His recent fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Slice. He lives in Bangkok, and on Twitter: @MaiNardone.