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Shelter in Place: An Interview with Alexander Maksik

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Natalie Bakopoulos and Alexander Maksik met at a book festival in 2013, after Bakopoulos reviewed Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, for the San Francisco Chronicle. Since then, they have continued a conversation about books and writing. This interview took place over email in September 2016, regarding the publication of Maksik’s third novel, Shelter in Place.



Natalie Bakopoulos: Several years ago in The New York Times, Katie Roiphe noted that the “youngish” generation of male novelists writes sex with a “convoluted, post-feminist second-guessing.” She argued that “the current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.” I am happy that Shelter in Place does not follow that path, but your sex scenes do subvert the paradigm of previous generations (Mailer, Roth, Bellow, and so on). For one, they do not privilege bravado and conquest in the matter to which so many feminist critics have objected. Your work is always focused on the sensual. What is essential—and extraneous—for you in a sex scene? What do you shy away from?

Alexander Maksik: To begin with, I’m not much interested in writing about sex as a form of conquest because I’m not much interested in people who approach sex that way. Or maybe I’m not interested in writing about men who do. And to be honest, that’s not because I’m such an evolved or righteous person. More than anything, it’s because I’m so repelled by certain clichés. And what’s duller than a man whose identity is wrapped up in collecting women? So while I certainly consider myself a feminist, my primary objection to writing about those men is literary. Of course, the two things can’t ever be separated. The idea that men are one thing and women another is as terrible for the world as it is for art.

As for sex scenes in particular, the very notion that writing about sex is somehow separate from any other kind of writing is anathema to good fiction. What is essential in a sex scene is the same as in any other and I want to write every scene well. I do notice, however, that a lot of contemporary fiction seems to treat sex as farcical and/or disastrous. Disastrous sex is particularly popular. Terrible sex. Humiliating sex. Or, worse yet, it’s ignored altogether. Young urbanites embrace in the yellow light of a bodega and the next thing you know someone’s making a very specific blend of coffee in a very specific vessel, and they’re talking about whatever malaise happens to be haunting them that morning.

Personally, I’d prefer less about the origin of the coffee beans and more about the sex. There’s a real prudishness there, an underlying terror of giving offense. A cuddle is a hell of a lot safer than whatever you believe its opposite is and that instinct toward safety is born out of fear. I find all that disconcerting.

Who becomes an artist out of a desire for safety? The aversion to writing about real intimacy is symptomatic of what I see as our growing cultural aversion to sincerity. And far more frightening, is a growing atmosphere of caution. Since when have good writers been cautious? Are we so afraid to offend? To use the wrong language? To run afoul of the professionally outraged? To fall subject to an increasingly popular and powerful ad hominem moral criticism. Those who’ve taken it upon themselves to tell us what we may and may not write? I think the answer, too often, is yes. That fear is ubiquitous and dangerous. It’s a dry rot and it not only affects writers, but editors and prize committees, and critics who are so often terrified of backing the wrong writer, of being caught supporting the wrong book. And this obviously extends far beyond the subject of sex.

I don’t understand it. I have always been drawn to art because it is an utterly lawless world, limited only by a person’s courage and imagination. So what do I shy away from? Cowardice. I revile cowardice in art. I revile the idea that we should be writing benign and careful books.


NB: Rage, particularly female rage, is a key element of the book. And Tess is one of my favorite characters of recent fiction: restless and compassionate, driven by principle and anger, enraged by cowardice, with intense moments of both vulnerability and power. Like all the book’s characters, she resists gender stereotypes. How do you see her as emblematic of the book’s larger preoccupations?

AM: I’ve been struck by how divided readers are when it comes to Tess. There are those who adore her and those who abhor her. People see her as brave and powerful, or careless and cruel. My sense, though, is that if she were a man she’d be a far less polarizing character. We have a vastly greater tolerance for men who possess the characteristics she does. And indeed, what you describe is really a description of the same old male hero we’ve seen repeated in a thousand novels and films. All those tales of restless men, angry and driven by principle, who set out to slay the dragon, solve the crime, seek revenge, fight the good war, who return, bruised and bloodied, along a rose-strewn path while at the end of it waits a patient maiden smiling on the porch, bosom heaving.

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The Drop



Ethan Feuer is an MFA candidate at the University of Virginia. Previously, he has worked as an architect in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature / Okey-Panky, SmokeLong Quarterly, and DIAGRAM. He is presently at work on a novel. On Twitter @hellofold.


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Bull & Finches

Flash Fidelity

In eleven seasons, the bar depicted in the television show Cheers was almost never crowded. Almost never was it besieged by a throng of patrons struggling to get their servers’ attention. And I think I can tell you why: Sam Malone. He doesn’t drink. Not only does he never drink, but on top of this he’s a retired ball player, still an athlete in the bedroom. And that hair. And that tan. And that jaw. He is maleness in full. Who could possibly loosen their burdens and their neckties while drinking in the shadow of a bemused and sober phallus? Well, Norm can. And Cliff can. But they are already saturated with self-loathing and distrust. They are inured, insensate. They leave the bar, and the shadow comes with them.


Ben Reed’s work has previously appeared in Big Fiction, [PANK], and West Branch, among other places. His story “My Neighbor the Pilot” recently won the Texas Observer Shorty Story Contest. Ben teaches writing and literature at Texas State University, and he is the fiction editor at Arcadia Press. He lives in Austin with his family, and online at benjamin-reed.com.

Posted in Flash Fidelity, Nonfiction

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The Three Dreams of Mark Glass


Mark dreams of the desert: every fall his father buys instant oats and canned beans and unrolls the sleeping bags from the crawlspace. His mother fills two-gallon jugs of water and they pack the car and drive south along the river. Mark associates the changing season not with tingeing leaves, but with the bedroom warmth of the station wagon’s backseat crowded with mildewed quilts, the rowers gliding alongside his window in boats as liquid light as bird bones.

The drive takes three days and they always spend the first night outside of Chicago, where Mark’s grandmother lives. She smells of cloves and is called only Boo Boo by everyone. Boo Boo plays a game with him about rowing a boat, only instead of a boat it’s the couch; Mark falls from the cushions and becomes a mischievous fish. He has never been in water deeper than the bathtub, but Boo Boo says it doesn’t matter and casts her line over and over into the carpet, reeling him in from out of the itchy blue depths. Boo Boo tells him he is an incorrigible little salmon who will taste delicious on a bagel.

They always leave Chicago so early that the sun isn’t up, so early that the next thing Mark remembers is his father twisting in the passenger seat to shake him awake, saying, “Maka, it’s Nevada.” His mother rolls down her car window to grasp hands with a smiling woman who says, “Welcome home.”

In the desert Mark is always falling asleep in one place and waking up in another: on his father’s back; in a hammock; curled on the wine-stained passenger seat of a stranger’s camper van, the heat rising off the playa through the windshield and both his parents passed out beside him. There are other children around sometimes, but he rarely plays with them. Instead, he follows his parents through sunbathed wooden rooms where faceless figures wander mystical-naked, sprawling, multi-level cities tattooed across their collarbones in indigo ink. Sometimes Mark chases the water truck between tents, howling with laughter, the water silky on his face as he flies, lifted by his mother and, on the other side, a man who isn’t his father, a friend of his parents who wears a rubber suit and a beard down to Mark’s eye-level. After, his mother combs his hair with her fingers and the man in the rubber suit plays “This Land is Your Land” on the banjo and his father sings and they all eat tomato and melty cheese with toast. Mark wears wool socks at night because at night, the desert is cold.

Also at night, the desert bursts to wheeling, mesmeric architectures. Multi-level cities come to brilliant, psychotic depths on the sand. Mark grips his father’s hand and stumbles back through the cold between campfires. His father, in nothing but a pair of gym shorts and a paisley handkerchief, bends to tuck Mark into a sleeping bag. Only once, their final year in the desert, does Mark manage to stay awake to watch the concluding celebration, a towering nighttime incineration that he nonetheless anticipates every year with certain manic desire.

Once, that same year, he unzips the flap door of his parents’ tent and finds his parents and the man in the rubber suit, except without the rubber suit, the man grinding his hips on his mother’s, her breath fast, her eyelids fluttering, her mouth open on his father’s. Once, in the blue wash of a cold Nevada dawn, Mark’s mother holds him hard against her skinny chest and says, “We used to share a body.”

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Calling all writers who are obsessed with plot and obsessives who can write a mean story. We want you!


Every Wednesday for five weeks, we will post a prompt from William Wallace Cook’s classic how-to manual Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Use the prompt to write your own 500-word (or less) story before the following Monday at 5:00 PST.

See the prompt for Week One here!



Weekly winners will get to read their stories on OPB’s “State of Wonder,” see them published on tinhouse.com, and receive the brand-new paperback edition of Plotto.

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After five weeks, Grand Prize Judge Paul Collins will crown one winner the Plotto Writer-in-Residence. The Plotto Writer-in-Residence will be awarded a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland, travel expenses paid.



TIN HOUSE JUDGES: Masie Cochran, Thomas Ross, and Sabrina Wise.

GRAND PRIZE JUDGE: Paul Collins—Guggeinheim fellow, author of nine books, and mastermind behind the Introduction to Plotto.


In the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

Hear our Grand Prize Judge talk Plotto on NPR here.

We’ll be back with the first prompt on OCTOBER 19!



Terms and Conditions

Open to U.S. residents aged 18 or over only. One entry per person per week. Entries must be the original work of the entrant and not previously published anywhere else. Entrants will retain copyright in their submitted entries; however, by entering, all entrants license Tin House a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish and use each entry in any and all media (including print, radio, and online) for publicity and news purposes. There is no cash or other alternative to the prize stated and the prize is not transferable and no part or parts of the prize may be substituted for other benefits, items or additions. By entering, any subsequent winners agree to allow the free use of their names and general geographic locations for publicity and news purposes during this and future promotions by Tin House. Completion and submission of a short story will be deemed acceptance of these terms and conditions.


Winners will read their stories on OPB’s State of Wonder, which will require them to sign a material release permission form. The Grand Prize Winner will be notified by phone; the phone call will be recorded for an episode of State of Wonder.  



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My friend asks me why I like her, but I don’t know what this question means, let alone how to answer it. Liking is a fundamentally unstable state with its own laws. There are some people who I agree with in every way and yet I don’t like them at all, while there are others who are in disagreement with everything I think, yet with whom I feel sympathy and even warmth. How can I explain to my friend that the things that to many people make her unlikable are perhaps the things that make me like her most of all?

If I told my friend, I like you because I have a precedent for liking you, and I like you when you’re in certain moods and I’m in certain moods, and when you’re absent I like the memory of you, and I like our shared history, and I like how you might someday become despite the fact that by that time we might no longer like each other—what would she think of that?

I don’t know what liking is but I know it increases in savor with each separation and reunion. I know it’s a satiety, which means it must be preceded by a hunger. Maybe liking is like that judge and his pornography—you know it when you see it. Maybe that is what I should tell my friend—I know it when I see it. I know you when I see you. When I see you, I like.


Emily Dezurick-Badran is a writer, librarian, and roller derby player living in London. She’s currently working on an archive podcast and a detective novel.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Past Midnight



And an icy tower was rising out of the sea. A wingless man was

filling a bag with pickaxes and asking for directions

to our house. The moon was expanding like a balloon and

I was worried it might go pop. I could already

see through it and there was nothing inside, no bibles or yolk of

wedding rings. A wax sedan was melting on the hill

and we were the two lovers in the back seat, the spools of

our hair twisting like wicks. Below us, berries

clustered together like dead stars. And we were both still hungry.


Zack Strait is pursuing his PhD at Florida State University. His poems have recently appeared in Poetry, Slice, and West Branch and are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Common, and Poetry East. 

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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Breaking Tradition


A friend lent me two hundred dollars to see a psychic named Linda Bell, a heavy-set woman wearing a turquoise kaftan, hair blown into a high bouffant. With a dramatic flourish of her arm, she gestured me, a shy seventeen-year-old girl, into her house.

“Welcome, welcome,” she uttered, her voice, pitched to a low, breathy seriousness.

I explained, breaking periodically into tears, why I’d come, and for a few moments she seemed not to breathe, then asked quietly if, instead of a formal session, we could just chat.

“But I need your help,” I said, taken aback.

We went into her small consultation room filled with spider plants and ferns, and sat in two facing chairs. I’d asked her not to close the curtains, and in the bright afternoon light, a series of hanging crystals threw prisms on the floor and walls.

“I’m going to call your father into the room,” she said.

“You don’t have to, he’s here,” I replied as my body began quaking, not from fear exactly but from the overwhelming sense of his presence.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I see him.” She was looking at the wrong part of the room, and I waved my left arm, though I wouldn’t turn to look.

“He’s here,” I said, gesturing behind me.

She told me that suicides sometimes did not realize that they were dead and this was probably why he had been haunting me. “Speak to him. Explain this to him,” she urged.

But I couldn’t. I shook as if my bones would break, bending forward, gasping for breath. When I did speak, I yelled “Daddy!” in staccato bursts.

“I’ve called someone else into the room,” she said, “a dead man, a man your father met in his lifetime.” She said this man, who my father recognized, was going to show him where to go, a place where he would be able to rest and where people would help him. A gentle authority had come into her voice, and aching to believe in her, I felt myself begin to calm.

She told me that my father and the man were leaving together, and still sitting forward, my face streaming with tears and snot, I repeated, “I love you, Daddy,” again and again.

When I sensed him gone, I sat up straight and the trembling grew less intense. Linda Bell looked thoughtful, her eyes wide. “He’s all right now,” she said. I nodded and smiled, telling myself that even if she hadn’t seen him at the beginning, she eventually had, and that my father was now better off.

As I was about to leave, I reached into my bag for the money my friend had loaned me.

“Oh,” Linda Bell said, “You don’t have to pay me.”

Relieved that I’d be able to give it back to my friend, I expressed my gratitude. For some reason, though, I showed her the wad of fives and tens, maybe just to prove that I had intended to pay. Her eyes narrowed as she focused on it, and just as I was about to put it away, she reached out her hand. I gave it to her and it disappeared into a hidden pocket in her kaftan. She colored, and for a split second, neither of us moved, until she raised a heavy arm, bracelets jingling, and in a guiding gesture, led me to the door. “You and I knew each other in several past lives,” she whispered.

I looked at her expectantly, even as a tightness came into my chest.

“You were my mother and I was your daughter in ancient Galilee. We used to walk through the dust to hear the prophet, Jesus.”

At my mother’s insistence my father’s face had been reconstructed so that the wake could be open casket in the Irish Catholic tradition. The face in the casket had only been partially his. Instead of his rounded Irish nose, a pointed one. And the chin was too short, the jaw shaped wrong. My father had shot himself after closing the bar where he worked a second job.

I’d grown up intensely Catholic. Suicide was the one unforgivable sin, worse than mass murder or torture. Horrific acts inflicted on others could be forgiven, but not the act of despair. My father’s funeral Mass had been sanitized of any mention of it, too shameful, too unspeakable for the priest or any of the mourners to acknowledge.

Linda Bell may have been a charlatan, but that day in her consulting room, something important had happened. I imagined for the first time, a different, gentler kind of afterlife, where maybe my father would not have to suffer harsh judgment and eternal torment, but be met with compassion.

And I daydreamed about what she’d said about our past life together as mother and daughter. What had felt false and jarring when she’d said it, became a source of comfort. While my own mother was growing more and more remote in the wake of my father’s death, only months away from her own suicide, I’d sit with her in silence in the living room and imagine this other mother and daughter joined in a quest for spiritual sustenance.

Hours after seeing Linda Bell, my father had come back. But he did begin to come less often, and when he was there, it wasn’t his terror I sensed so much as his sadness.

Forty-two years later, on the edge of sleep, my guard sometimes falls away. A door inside me blows softly open and I feel my father’s presence. I squeeze my eyes shut and wait for him to go. Sometimes, if I’m more awake than asleep, I whisper to him, “You’re exhausted, Dad. It’s time for you to get some rest.”

Regina McBride is the author of four novels including The Nature of Water and Air and The Land of Women. The recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she lives in New York City.


Banner art from Claire Winter Photography.

Posted in Essays, From Tin House Books, Nonfiction

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Coastal Craft: Melissa Febos


As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops, we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences. 


Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience (as a participant)?

Melissa Febos:I think it was a local workshop, led by one of my old babysitters? All I remember is this line from someone’s in-class writing: “milky belly.” I still love it. Milky belly is my “cellar door.”

TH:What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

MF:This is kind of an implicit piece of advice, but I once heard an anecdote about Flannery O’Connor in a workshop at the Iowa Writers Workshop that has always stuck with me.

Apparently, the class (mostly men, and then O’Connor) was workshopping a truly abysmal story. No one could think of anything to say. The instructor called upon O’Connor, who rarely spoke in class, and she simply said, “The part about the alligator was real nice.” Allegedly, the part about the alligator was the single redeeming moment of the entire piece.

The most helpful feedback I’ve gotten from workshop leaders was of this kind, the kind that says, “Here. Follow this pulse to the rest of your story.” They didn’t always have to say “Ditch the rest,” because I’d figure it out eventually, if I followed that one hot spot.


TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

MF:In my first college creative writing workshop, I wrote a secret admirer letter on the back of someone’s workshop story. I saw her looking right at me as I slid my notes to the bottom of the pile of critiques and knew I was busted.

TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean” album?

MF: Well, I grew up by the ocean, so I associate all my early favorite albums with the ocean. But mostly, the way I listen to music defies geographic influence. That is, my obsessions are like a human centipede of unstoppable song repetition.

Right now, I’m obsessed with Frank Ocean’s new album. Wrong kind of ocean, but still. When I wake up in the morning I almost always listen to dancehall, or a playlist called “Emo Witch.” So I hope that you either have some Beenie Man records, or some sad sack lady singer music, like Jolie Holland or Natalie Merchant or Billie Holiday. I’d also like to submit for the record an official request that we have a dance party.

TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

MF: Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone.


Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart, and the forthcoming essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, New York Times, Dissent, Bitch Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and serves on the Board of Directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. 

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Tin House Galley Club: Ghost Songs


Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read Regina McBride’s Ghost Songs, a searingly beautiful coming-of-age memoir about a girl who begins to see her parents’ ghosts. Her story takes us from New York to the desert of New Mexico to the shores of Ireland, from tragedy to recovery, from grief to hope. We surveyed our galley club members—here’s what they had to say.  










Regina McBride is the author of four novels including The Nature of Water and Air and The Land of Women. The recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she lives in New York City.

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Correspondent’s Course: High School for Adults


High school isn’t just prom dates and team sports and driver’s licenses and acne. It’s more than the fluff dramas we’ve been given on the CW and FOX, as entertaining as those dramas can be. High school is a time of transition, of self-discovery, of heartbreak and searing joy. It’s a time of life that is so easily dismissed, one that contains far more pain and wonder and richness than the stereotyped depictions on television offer.


It’s often assumed that books about high school must be for high school readers, and that adult readers have long left their adolescent years behind. The prevalence of John Green novels and the Twilight series, both valuable in their own right and marketed toward young adult readers, may lead adult readers to dismiss books about high school as nothing but narratives about cheerleaders, jocks, and outcasts. But adolescence contains far more than these stereotypes, and in the hands of a skillful author, its depiction comes alive on the page. The following books don’t trivialize the highs and lows of adolescence. They capture for adult readers the immediacy of high school and coming of age.


A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar

Jarrar’s first novel follows Nidali and her family as they move from Kuwait to Egypt and then to Texas after the 1990 Iraqi invasion. A rebellious and spunky young protagonist, Nidali navigates cultural transition and family struggles with humor and charm. Jarrar’s book is a loving and warm portrait of a family, and a fantastic coming of age novel for adults about a charismatic young woman.


Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

Heim’s first novel, which was later made into the film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, brings together two young men who once shared a Little League team. As a teenager, Brian Lackey suffers nosebleeds, blackouts and nightmares, believing that he was once abducted by aliens. Neil McCormick is a teenage hustler living dangerously. Heim brings these two characters together again across the length of a novel that explores sexual abuse, the faults of memory, and the nature of truth.


The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Jackson’s first novel spans the summer where two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, leave Brooklyn to stay with the grandmother in Barbados. Phaedra, the younger sister, explores Barbados through the prism of her grandmother’s work as a midwife while sixteen-year-old Dionne rebels and wants to return home, discovering her own sexuality and the beginnings of romantic love. Jackson’s novel beautifully addresses themes of family and dislocation in lyrical prose, a gorgeous coming of age story for adult readers.


Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

Wasserman is an accomplished author of young adult novels, and this year’s Girls on Fire is her first novel for adults. The book charts a dangerous triangle of friendship between Hannah, Lacey and Nikki against the backdrop of early-90s grunge music, sex and drugs. Hannah is an awkward, quiet teenager until she’s taken under Lacey’s wing, a reckless teenager obsessed with Kurt Cobain. What follows is the unraveling of secrets both girls keep from one another, told in alternating chapter from each girl’s point of view, and in a non-linear structure that spirals toward the novel’s inevitable and devastating end.


Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Pessl’s first novel is set at an elite boarding school where Blue Van Meer, the book’s brilliant and precocious teenage protagonist, arrives without friends. She’s quickly swept into the world of the Bluebloods, a secret society of eccentric students, and into the aftermath of a murder that keeps them second-guessing one another on a trail of clues. Organized by chapters named after common required high school reading, including Heart of Darkness and Paradise Lost, Pessl’s novel is a compelling, compulsive mystery that delves into the darker side of high school.


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What Becomes Us: An Excerpt


Chapter One

Our parents had failed five months in a row to make a baby, and Father was growing frustrated. He couldn’t figure out what our mother was doing wrong. For his Christmas/Chanukah present she gave him a skiing vacation in Steam Boat Springs, Colorado. She secretly thought it would give her a break from him, but he insisted she join him, so he could continue his spermatazoon campaign.

At first, it was tranquil. They stayed in a cabin in front of a hot springs. Father, the chef-owner of a health food restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, made whole-wheat chapattis on a camping stove the night they arrived. Mother, an elementary school teacher, suggested they take turns describing the highlights and lowlights of their day. The next morning they awoke and went down to the hot springs, where the old man who ran the place floated naked in an inner tube, wielding a ski pole to spear any debris that had fallen into the springs the day before. Our father thought the steaming water might damage his potency, so he did his 250 push-ups on the edge while our mother slipped in. Mother saw a mountain goat scrambling along the cliff above the pool.

But that was the end of the tranquil part of the vacation. Father was an experienced backcountry skier, and Mother began disappointing him on their first day out. He tried to help her. He told her she was leaning too far forward, locking her knees, raising her heels too high, holding her poles too far out.

The conditions were icy, and she fell and skidded on the crusty snow while he made perfect, whirling turns down every slope, then called up complicated directions through clenched teeth.

Have we mentioned what they look like? He: blond curly hair, a gladiator face, Roman nose and cleft chin, and then a wrestler’s body, no neck, all chest, bandy legs. Our mother is skinny, long neck, long arms and fingers, wide flat hips. She’s like a curvaceous paper doll with the curves all on the edges.

Because she was ovulating, at night they continued their sexual exertions. She lay there while he performed his quick, efficient operation. She felt like she was the mortar and he the pestle.

On the fourth day, they woke in the morning to a pretty blanket of powder over everything. Our father was elated. The old man floating in the tube said the new conditions were dangerous, but father said the old geezer didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.

In early afternoon they came to a slope that was more like a cliff. She was exhausted, on the verge of tears, her face cold and wind burned. Her legs were shaking and her arms ached. She said she’d wait at the top for him.

Father said, “You’re hysterical. Irrational. Just follow my directions.” He told her she needed to grow a spine, “Man up,” he said. He continued his pep talk.

Finally, she said, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it.”

He wiped her nose with his sleeve and tapped his fingers twice on her forehead. “Think, buddy, think,” he said. “Keep those knobby knees tucked, pivot on the pole.”

She looked down the smooth white drop. She allowed herself to slip over the edge. She fell head first on her second turn, her poles clattered away, one ski came off. Her left cheek was scraped raw from going through the ice just underneath the snow.

She sat up.

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Brown Dog and Gee


She wasn’t going to the hospital again, no way. It smelled like pee there and her mother always yelled at her to stop kicking her foot against the leg of the chair while they waited for the doctor. She didn’t like the hospital, despite what her dad said: “Well, for not liking it, you sure do end up there, a lot, Gee.” Gee was her nickname, the one Pap gave her. It was the only thing she answered to that summer.

She didn’t eat the peach seed because she wanted to go the hospital. She was bored. She was sitting on the back porch and thinking about running out into the pasture to play Under the Ocean, her new favorite game. Brown Dog could be the shark—he was good at it, he nipped at her heels. She would be a mermaid, the fireflies were tiny, glowing fish, and the grass was coral that swayed gently in the ocean current.

But she knew the dew would already have started to form on the grass. It would get her favorite red slip-on shoes all wet. If she went barefoot, her feet would wrinkle and prune and then the touch of anything against them would be too much.

“Brown dog, don’t!” she yelled. He lifted his head and wagged his tail. He wasn’t doing anything bad. She just wanted to hear her own voice against the muffled sound of the TV inside.

She stared at the peach seed in the palm of her hand. It looked like an almond. A tiny bite was missing. She lay her hand across her stomach, feeling for something that might be happening inside.

She wouldn’t have taken a bite of the peach seed if she had a swimming pool. If she had a pool, she could really play Under the Ocean. She could get one of those masks the people on the nature shows wore. Brown Dog couldn’t play then, but that was okay. If she had a pool, she wouldn’t have climbed the barbed-wire fence and got the cut on the inside of her thigh that needed stitches. She wouldn’t have broken her wrist jumping out of the treehouse. She wouldn’t have taken a bite of the peach seed that she was now certain was poisonous.

If her parents yelled for her, she’d tell them. She’d wrap the peach seed tight in her hand and walk into the living room. “I took a bite of this,” she would say. “A really tiny one. And I spit most of it out.” She would stand in the middle of the living room floor, like being on stage for her piano recital all alone. All the attention would be on her. Her dad would turn the TV off at last. “It’s too late to go to the hospital,” she would tell them. “But I’m pretty sure I’m going to die.”

“Brown Dog,” she whispered. He beat his tail once against the wood of the deck and then rolled over onto his back, waiting for her to rub his belly. “Brown Dog, you’ll have to get by without me,” she said. She ran her hand along his soft underside. “Will you miss me, Brown Dog?”


Robyn Ryle started life in one small town in Kentucky and ended up in another just down the river in southern Indiana. She has a chapbook, The Face of Baseball, as well as stories in CALYX Journal, Midwestern Gothic, Paper Darts, and WhiskeyPaper, among others.  You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays, General

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Days of Never Before


The assignment I gave myself was to do something I’ve never done before, every day, for approximately one hundred days. And to write it down. I tried to be brief and true to myself. As the days added up an amusing and often unsettling self-portrait emerged. –Robert Leaver


November 30, 2014
I brush my teeth before bed facing the corner of our bathroom. Jammed in tight—nose a few inches from the corner. Hoping my wife will walk in and catch me. I want her to see that I am not always the same man, doing the same things, in the same way every day. But she is already in bed.

December 1
I push the elevator button with my forehead. My only child, a ten year old son, is confused.

“What the heck, Dad?”

The button is cool and round and I feel my forehead push it in and I feel the ding sound vibrate my skull.

December 2
I walk down to the north end of my subway platform. The number one train at 157th Street. I take a few steps off the platform and into the tunnel. I stand there for a little while in the dark until I can see the light of the next train coming down.

December 3
At Fairway supermarket just off the west side highway I shoplift a can of cheap sardines. Afterwards in the rain across the street I try to feed the sardines to seagulls. No takers.


December 4
On train I see the “We Can’t Breathe” headline on the cover of The Daily News . Cops got off after choking a man to death. I hold my breath in the dead man’s honor from 137th Street to 125th Street.

December 5
I run to pick up my son, from school, two miles along Hudson riverside path. I think I’m moving along okay. A woman runs by me, twice as fast, pushing a toddler in stroller.

December 7
I stand on the corner of Houston and Clinton at night and let the raindrops fall into my open eyes.

December 8
Alone in the apartment near sunset making soup. I wander down the hall into my son’s room. Purple dusky light. Batman posters and Lego. I lay down on his bed and weep.

December 9
In Guatemala visiting my mother. At a bar called Café No Se I drink homemade Mezcal shots with a young man I just met named Matt. His two shoulders were dislocated the night before during the annual Satan burning ritual.

“They burned the devil next to the gas station,” he says.

“How did your shoulders get dislocated?”

“No idea, man. None whatsoever.”

December 10
After midnight on a desolate Guatemalan street I get down on my hands and knees and crawl the last few steps to my mother’s door.

December 11
I whisper a memorized Robert Frost poem into my mother’s ear during the intermission of an outdoor Guatemalan version of Handel’s “Messiah.”

December 12
Open a bottle of Gallo, Guatemalan beer, with an ice cream scoop.

December 13
Help a Guatemalan man stack a cord of Guatemalan oak behind my mother’s house.

December 14
I tell my mother she looks beautiful.

December 15
Back in NYC after dinner I drink wine and fold laundry, alone, wearing my wife’s panties on my head.

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1968 – 1971: A Humiliated Student


From the memoir Cockroaches, out next week from our friends at Archipelago Books.


Arriving at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux with the little card-board suitcase once used by my brother André, and then by Alexia, I was filled with hope and apprehension at the same time. My apprehensions were more than justified, but I never lost hope.

I’d seen violent and even deadly persecution in Nyamata, but the solidarity of the ghetto gave us the strength to endure it. At school, I would know the solitude of humiliation and rejection.


I hadn’t shed my Tutsi status when I crossed the Nyabarongo – anything but. And in any case, there was no way to hide it. Every student was issued an ID card marked with their so-called ethnic group, like a brand on a cow. When I was forced to show it to one of the sisters, her look and her attitude changed immediately: wariness, disdain, or hatred? I didn’t want to know. They also discovered that I came from Nyamata. I wasn’t only a Tutsi: I was an Inyenzi, one of those cockroaches they’d expelled from the livable part of Rwanda, and perhaps from the human race. Among my schoolmates, too, I soon came to feel different. Or rather, it was they who made that dif-ference cruelly clear to me. They made me ashamed of the color of my skin (not dark enough for their tastes), of my nose (too straight, they said), and of my hair (too much of it). It was my hair that caused me the most trouble. Evidently it was Ethiopian hair, irende, the sup-posed mark of the Inyenzi. I spent my time putting water on that Inyenzi hair so it would shrink down to a little ball, tight as a sponge. Most often, I resigned myself to shaving it off. That hurt me: in spite of the mockery, I was fond of my hair.


They divided us up into teams, and we took turns doing the dishes, cleaning the refectory or the dormitories. The team leader was always a third-year girl. My leader was named Pascasie. I was the only Tutsi on the team. Pascasie and the rest took an immediate dislike to me. The hardest chores always fell to me. In fact, I soon realized it wasn’t my place to wait for orders. I always volunteered. As the mayor of Nyamata had said, the Tutsis had lost the right to be proud.


The teams all ate at the same table. Mealtimes were the hardest part of the day for me. A thousand times, I wished I didn’t have to eat. My throat went tight with terror whenever a meal was near. We walked into the refectory in silence. We prayed, and then sat down in silence. A bell signaled that it was time to begin eating, and we had permission to talk. The room filled with the sound of conversation, but no one ever spoke to me. I could feel them staring at me, telling me I wasn’t supposed to be there, that my presence disgusted them, that it wasn’t by choice that they were living – and, even worse, eat-ing – with an Inyenzi, a cockroach. I grew used to serving myself after all the others. When there were bananas or sweet potatoes, there was nothing left in the dish by the time it came to me, and I had to make do with the maggot-ridden beans no one would touch. And I grew used to peeling the sweet potatoes in the others’ place, doing the dishes, cleaning the toilets. I never rebelled, even if I wept when no one was looking. I found all this almost normal. A strange curse hung over me. I was a Tutsi. Worse yet, I was from Nyamata, I was an Inyenzi. I wasn’t supposed to be there at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux. It was a mistake, an oversight on the part of those who’d expelled us from the Rwandan community, the people of the majority. For that reason, I made myself a paragon of zeal. I was always on the front bench at Mass, I was first in line for confession. I wanted to be beyond reproach. I was convinced that good grades alone could protect me.


Sometimes I think I never slept in all those three years at the school. At home the nights were short, but at school there was no such thing as night. The few other Tutsi students knew as well as I did that they had to be among the best, and so they worked night and day, particularly night. When dinner was done, a bell rang. We headed off to the dormitories. We washed our feet as we entered, then took our places by the bunk beds. A bell rang. We knelt. We prayed. A bell rang. We turned back our bedspreads. We got into bed. I slipped very carefully under the covers, letting no one see that I had only one sheet. The monitor made a few more rounds to silence the chatter, and then the lights were turned out.

But we Tutsis were waiting for our moment. We waited until everyone was sound asleep, until no one was getting up to go to the bathroom, until the sisters had gone off for the night. Then Agnès, who was in her third year, shook the piece of green canvas that was our standard-issue bedspread: this was the signal. We quietly got out of bed, wrapped ourselves in our bedspreads to ward off the nighttime cold, and followed after Agnès. She was a tiny girl, and her bedspread dragged behind her on the ground: we called her Monseigneur. The silent parade ended in the bathroom, the only place where a nightlight stayed on all through the night. We gen-tly closed the door, and one of us sat down with her back pressed against it, in case someone came along. We had our study room for the night. Often we studied our lessons and did our homework until morning. Everything I learned at Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux I learned in the toilet.


The teachers seemed to be completely faithful to the regime and the system. Most of them were Belgian, except the French teacher, who was French, and the English teacher, who was English. The only Rwandan was the Kinyarwanda teacher, Victoria, a Tutsi. In any case, we had to beware of the teachers. The older girls had warned us of that as soon as we got there by telling us the story of Sylvia. Sylvia was from Nyamata. In a composition – I never found out what the subject was – she made the mistake of alluding to the displaced people of Nyamata and calling for fairer treatment. They said the paper was immediately sent on to the Mother Superior, Sister Béatrice. And Sylvia was expelled. You were supposed to say that Rwanda was a country blessed by God, as the priests claimed. That Kayibanda had created a little paradise in the heart of Africa. A waiting room for heaven. Before he came along, there was only dark-ness and barbarity. I memorized the islands and the cities of Japan: Hokkaido, Nagasaki, Yokohama . . . It sounded like Kinyarwanda.


• • •

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Coastal Craft: Matthew Zapruder


As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops, we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences. 


Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop?

Matthew Zapruder: My senior year in college I took a poetry workshop taught by a grumpy visiting Polish poet who was justifiably appalled by our late 80’s ignorance about poetry, or really anything except U2 lyrics and crumbly weed.

I still remember the only line I wrote that he liked, “short sharp pink perspiring houses,” which is a. terrible and b. stolen from John Cougar Mellencamp.

TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in a workshop?

MZ: Well, I don’t know if this counts as advice, but I remember bringing a poem into workshop with James Tate, and having him just look at me after I read it, and with exaggerated delicacy turning the paper over and putting it back down on the table and saying just one word: “No.” And realizing he was totally right.

I walked down to my freezing, shitty little Honda Civic in the parking lot, and put my head on the steering wheel, reviewing my wintry mistake of a life. Then I resolved to start getting up at 5 in the morning and writing for several hours each day, which is when I started writing the poems in my first book.


TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

MZ: See above.

The scariest thing I ever did as a workshop instructor was, early on in my teaching life, when a very talented student brought in a terrific poem, and I praised it so wildly that she was terrified to bring in any more poems for the rest of the semester, for fear of disappointing me. Nothing I could say or do could change that. I realized that praise is as dangerous as criticism, as is allowing oneself to allow the students to fetishize your authority.

TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean” album?

MZ: Argybargy, Squeeze

Bryter Later, Nick Drake

Tassili, Tinariwen

Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Desire, Bob Dylan


TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

MZ: A bit depressing, but I love this from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus … I remember having my mind blown by “among these winters there is one winter so endlessly winter/ that only by wintering through it can our hearts survive.”

February by James Schuyler makes me think of also this great poem by Ted Berrigan, also about February in New York, which probably seems romantic only to someone living on the west coast, in mild exile.


Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, including “Come On All You Ghosts,” a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2011, and “Sun Bear,” published in 2014. “Why Poetry,” a book of prose, will be published by Ecco Press in the spring of 2017. An associate professor in the English department and the director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College of California, Zapruder is also editor at large at Wave Books, and The New York Times Magazine’s poetry column editor. He lives in Oakland, California.

Posted in Craft, Poetry

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Preemptive Elegy




Metaphor frustrates me. It has no limbs or limits,

and I have no idea where it came from. I’ve learned


the way for me to tell my father I love him is a game

of HORSE, but the hardest way to love him


is to witness his shooting percentage decline year

after year—today he missed three free throws and a scowl


with each, his gelatinous arms aching in effigy.

I wonder if everything has an ache to be something


more than what it is? If this is the basis of metaphor.

But now is not the time, Father. The poem is yours.


I want you to know that I have found the principle

of mean reversion as useful to me as all


the birds and the baselines and the little critiques

you give me tenderly about my jump shot.


What haunts me is not the end of our games

soon approaching, or the pain I’ll suffer when


you’re gone. Or even the fact that I’ll get over it

and revert to myself more or less. Wide-eyed,


knock-kneed, cow-licked—banished to my

seven-year-old sense of self—there is no


metaphor for how I feel. My mind, a blunt

instrument, bangs away at the universe we were,


and are, and will become. I cannot dent it.


John Fenlon Hogan lives in Virginia. His poems have appeared or will soon appear in 32 Poems, Boston Review, Cincinnati Review, and West Branch, among other journals.

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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Lost & Found: Ann Hood on Pat Barker

Lost & Found

I grew up wedged between two wars. Behind me: World War II. In front of me: Vietnam.

My older brother and his friends played not Cowboys and Indians but Nazis versus Allies. I can still remember a song they used to sing, their toy guns and swords raised, that began: Hitler, he only had one ball, Goering had two, but very, very small . . . Even stronger than my memories of that game are my memories of the World War II veterans who formed a backdrop to my childhood. Like my Uncle Chuckie, sent home from France destroyed by what he saw there. Even now, at eighty-six, he weaves tales of his experiences. He liberated Auschwitz. He stormed the beach at Normandy. He fought in the Pacific. None of us know the truth, except the basic one, which is that his duty was brief and ruined him forever. Frenchie, a friend of my family’s, lost his arm at Iwo Jima, and the empty space beneath his shirtsleeve provided hours of grotesque pleasure for all of us children. In my small Rhode Island town, the veterans marched in parades and we were told to put our hands over our hearts when they passed.

I watched the Vietnam War unfold on the six o’clock news every night. One of my clearest early memories is sitting in front of our Zenith television and sharing a pan of Jiffy Pop with my brother, the scorched popcorn with its metallic taste bitter in my mouth while soldiers in Vietnam moved across the screen.


I believe that everyone has a war that speaks to her. But by the serendipity of a late Saturday afternoon when I was eleven or twelve, my war is neither of the ones that bracketed my childhood. Instead, I claimed World War I as mine. I was a precocious and voracious reader who vacillated between trashy books by the likes of Harold Robbins and sophisticated Russian and French novels. On that long-ago day at the library, my finger landed on the broken spine of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

I was enthralled from its first page, but it was the novel’s epigraph that struck me most, so much so that I copied it into the purple notebook I carried everywhere in those days: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” How could I know at such a young age that this idea of a being destroyed by invisible wounds would haunt me for most of my life? Continue reading

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Gone Collecting


This variety of spider is born dead, Noll told us. Stiff packets of chitin and darkness. Teensy tiny organs rattling like dried beans if we listened with the right tools (which Noll had). Out-of-state scientist come with his white van and silver knives to explain to us what our forest held. Only when someone warmed these spiders, he said, provided a violent friction from the mashing of flesh (like their mommies) or the point of a needle (like Noll) did they wriggle to life.

• • •

Noll asked could he pick us up at midnight and we said, Okay. Yawning the word as if our maiden chests didn’t hum under threadbare dresses. Okay. Whenever. Midnight was when the spiders grew active and stirred from spider dreams. We lapsed into dreams of our own while waiting, tangled into a many-legged organism of sisterhood breathing with one sticky breath. Our lids grew heavy. We yawned, rubbed gunk that crumbled from our lashes like tiny eggs.

The world flared red and a thousand thin legs danced in the veins of our shut eyes. Noll’s van swinging up the drive. Shoot, we said, shielding our faces. Cut your lights. His sweaty hands helped us in. We sucked the sweets he fed us and grew heavy, stretched out to sleep across the plastic tubs laid in the back. Each one just long enough for each of us. Felt him touch us then like a husband in the dark, his knife parting our clothes. We smiled at the tickle. Two hours later woke up as Noll poured our clacking bones into the forest.

• • •

We went along because he’d asked so nice. A pretty blue fire he built us, that night he proposed our forest trip. I want to know what’s in there, he teased as he tapped our heads, and we giggled.

Used to be that marriageable girls went collecting for wedding trousseaus in these parts. When these were mountains and not nubs, when there were husbands to be had. When we had tongues we rolled the word around: Trousseau. Imagining ancestral mothers and aunts garlanded with flowers, animal pelts scribbled on their nether sides with ropy veins. Strictly superstition, frowned the scientists. Now open wide and say AH! Same way they always spoke of the centuries before they kept a record, before their cameras arrived bobbing along our misty roads. Planted beside our sag-mouthed scarecrows. Hoping to spy the secret of our long mountain lives. We chain-smoked, stared into the blinking red eyes. Inconclusive, the scientists sighed and back they went. Except for Noll. Different, him. A hunger to prod and rip and taste and know everything we showed. He even ate possum, tearing the meat bare-handed with no mind for its bloody drips. Fixing us all the while with his pretty green eyes.

So we spread our knees at his chemical flame, warming. Eying him sideways and long-lashed, in the manner of deer observing the hunter from behind a blind of trees: hard-horned but shy.

• • •

Sure enough we tumbled out the van at the hour of spiders. Lay studying their shiny mandibles, their characteristic bristle pattern. As Noll had instructed. Hours passed, then years, before we remembered to yawn. Time moves funny in our forest. The scientists who siphoned and magnified our blood declared us inbred, deviants, but it wasn’t on purpose like they said. How were we to avoid our own great-great-grandaunts and cousins wandering out of the forest with lace collars flapping on their high breasts, a mess of kids raised before realizing: oops. You’d need keen eyes to tell that style of collar hadn’t been seen since eighteen and ninety-two when the machines unhooked our mountain and left it a laceless, coalless scar. Real keen eyes and us half-blind from the acid fog. Anyhow, we implore you to think on what scientists know and don’t—they who “discovered” extinct fish swimming cool as you please in our caves. Time moved funny. Trees molted, mold grew, animals died and turned to mush then bog then peat then coal and all of this happened again and again every second. We yawned and remembered our original purpose. Gone collecting. By the time we rose, shaking off years of dirt, we’d acquired skeins of spider silk. Egg sacs bumping on our ribs like dark jewels. A worthy trousseau.

• • •

No one had to tell us marriage is the end of the fairy tale. Noll’s no prince. We saw his flaws a while back. Under his beard, his weak chin. Under his carpet, bloodstains. Still. Make a meal of what you got, our mother and great-great-grandaunt said. She’d managed to raise us before anyone realized she was dead, and even after that she soldiered on, dropping fingerbones into bread dough and clattering advice from her jaw: That price is a joke. Rain coming heavy this year. We’d even dug her up to ask about Noll before we went collecting. Her verdict: Mean but whip-smart. The right women can make him into something. We accepted that he was work. So when we turned up on Noll’s doorstep some years later (walking slow without muscles) and found the green bleached from his eyes, we accepted this, and when he crossed his liver-spotted hands and opened his gums to scream, we accepted this, and when he stomped the spiders we’d carried so thoughtfully between our ribs we were a little angry, sure, but we had centuries to learn each other’s ways and looking at him we remembered our wedding night in the van, him bearing down in the dark so dear and skinny and hungry, silver tools penetrating us down to joy and bone. The way he peeled off dresses, skins, muscles. Most of all the way he cradled our brains so tenderly in his tubs. Studying us as if we were the precious things. Us! We would have blushed if we could. The spiders’ legs went pitter-patter among our ribs. Hi, honey, we said.


C Pam Zhang is an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University. Her work appears or is imminent in Day One and The Moth. She’s been recognized by The Masters Review contest and the Summer Literary Seminars contest. In recent years she’s lived in Nashville, Bangkok, San Francisco, and on Twitter as @cpamzhang.

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Coastal Craft: Lidia Yuknavitch


As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops, we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences. 


Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop?

Lidia Yuknavitch: My very first workshop experience was as an infiltrator, which pretty much describes most of my life as well…heh.

I was not in the MFA program but I snuck into classes and tried to look like I was. First at Harvard, where I had a job right near Harvard square at a clothing store. I got kicked out of that one pretty quickly.

Later at the University of Texas in Austin where I was a receptionist at a personal injury law firm. I lasted a little longer in that workshop because the teacher liked my brazenness. He directed me to a course I could actually afford to take at Austin Community College.

It was the beginning of something for me. I could feel my bones vibrating but I didn’t yet understand why.

TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in a workshop?

LY: Never surrender. Ken Kesey. University of Oregon (where by the way, I was again an infiltrator–only undergraduate in a graduate MFA class. He let me stay.)


TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

LY: Well, I don’t often experience terror as a participant or instructor in writing workshops — it’s the world that terrifies me — whereas writing workshops and painting studios were always “safe spaces” for me…but I was fairly shit-your-pants scared my first day in Ken Kesey’s workshop. Because duh, Ken Kesey. But we bonded quite quickly when he walked over and whispered into my ear, “I know what happened to your daughter. Death’s a motherfucker.”

It was the death of a son/daughter that we bonded over. So from there, writing was a real place I could meet him without fear. On the page, inside language and imagination, there is no hierarchy.

TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean” album?

LY: You mean besides the ocean? I’d likely pick either Portishead / Dummy, This Mortal Coil / It’ll End In Tears, David Bowie / Blackstar, or John Coltrane / A Love Supreme.

TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

LY: The novel Snow by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, and the poetry collection Trilogy by H.D. (because of these lines which have haunted me for life:  I go where I love and where I am loved/into the snow/I go to the things I love/with no thought of duty or pity).


Lidia Yuknavitch is the acclaimed author of seven books, including The Small Backs of Children (Harpers) and The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books), and a TED Talk titled The Beauty of Being a Misfit. Her next book The Book of Joan is due from Harpers April 18th. She is a seasoned teacher of writing & literature, and has crafted her body-centered art-making philosophy into a groundbreaking workshop practice—Corporeal Writing. She is the recipient of the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction for the Oregon Book Awards, as well as two Reader’s Choice awards, a PNBA award, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pen Center creative nonfiction award. 

Lidia will be teaching at our CNF Winter Workshop. 

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Flash Fidelity


At three years old, I saw a man in a mask climb over the balcony of our apartment. He stood by the pots of forget-me-nots and looked through the sliding glass door, and I was on the other side looking back. Terrified, I ran to wake my parents and tell them what I had seen. They went with me to investigate; there was no longer any man. They told me I’d had a nightmare. To this day, I have an image of that man, frozen in place, staring at me through the sliding glass door, and I cannot tell you if he was real or not.

Does it matter if the memory is real?

I do not carry the past like a backpack. I cannot point to a physical object when you ask where I hurt. I only know that the past shadows me. I still flinch when a man raises his voice and gets too close. Even if the last time a boy clenched his fist around my throat was 15 years ago.



You wrote to me years after we’d both graduated from high school. By then, you were in Iraq, fighting yourself, knowing the enemy was inside and not out there in that desert that took your sleep, too many of your friends. Those were your words. Also your words: that you’d had a lot of time to think and needed to apologize. You said my father beat my mom when she was pregnant with me, she almost lost me, I was born with anger in my veins.

You said you understood then why you had hurt me. That I had seemed so much better than you and you needed to bring me down to your level, so you wouldn’t lose me. An act of love. And here I was thinking I’d always been nothing, less than nothing even.

I’m packing for graduate school. I find the notes we wrote each other in those hazy first-love high school days. I read about things you did to me that I don’t even remember. I read about your ridiculous ambush with balloons and roses on Valentine’s Day and how special I felt when they were delivered to my homeroom. I read about my humiliation when you punched the glass window on the door of my photography class when I hadn’t done your homework, how it shattered and your knuckles bled, how the security guard who walked you out when you were suspended turned to me and said, “Honey, he’ll do the same thing to your face, you know?” I did know.

And I didn’t answer your letter from Iraq. But if I had, maybe I would have said something like: I remember running my fingers over the scars that never left your knuckles, the same arm that bore a tattoo of my name. And the truth is that I want that type of scar, too, that kind of visible blood-letting I can point to and say, now you can feel, see, taste that it’s real.



As adults, some still say we’re making things up, that such heavy memory doesn’t square with childhood. Best to bury it with the rusty swing sets and broken dolls. Best to file with memories of Santa Claus, Tooth Fairies. Everything as Magic.

Some will say a 15-year-old girl is really a woman, some will say our parents are at fault, some will ask where were the adults with a shake of their heads, some will say they’re sorry young girls suffer from a lack of self-esteem, we need to do something about these girls. As in the same thing they said to us, as in what we always feared was true: we grew the roots of our own pain. We laid the match to each other; we watched our innocence burn and—we were children—must have called it a path to love.

Some will say, simply: Get over it.



I couldn’t go back to sleep when I was sure a man in the shadows was coming to hunt me. I’m 31, and I still can’t.


Gabriela Garcia is an MFA candidate in fiction at Purdue University and Fiction Editor of Sycamore Review. She tweets @gabimgarcia. 

Posted in Flash Fidelity, Nonfiction

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A Tribe Looking for Home: An Interview with Elissa Altman

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Elissa Altman can write you an appetizing culinary scene, but she’d really rather not. While it’s true she wrote about the glories of home cooking in her James Beard Award-winning blog and first book, Poor Man’s Feast, her new memoir finds her more interested in the sensation of wrongness: the clothes that aren’t you, the culture that doesn’t welcome you, the country that pushed you out or the one that only reluctantly lets you in, and—the most visceral  of all these examples—the food you shouldn’t have eaten. Altman covers all this ground with humor, verve, and compassion, but it would be a mistake to think Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw is a story about refusal and regret. It is not. Treyf is about the seeking that never really abates.—Michelle Wildgen


Michelle Wildgen: One of my favorite recurring descriptions in here is of your fashion choices, or maybe I should say, the fashion choices made for you. Can you talk a bit about this, and the role clothes play in telling this story?

Elissa Altman: Fashion was a tool in Treyf. My parents had a natural affinity for fashion and polar opposite senses of style. To my father the conservative traditions of Brooks Brothers and J Press represented Cheever-esque safety, formality, and an American, WASPY tradition that he was not born to but grasped for. My mother, on the other hand, possessed — and still possesses; she’s almost 81 now and only stopped modeling twelve or so years ago — a rebellious, edgy fashion sensibility: she has always paired very high style together with low and pulled it off. Yet my father loved to dress her as the idyllic, cool Katherine Hepburn he was desperate for her to be. Ultimately, it didn’t stick: for her, fashion is all about attention and sex, not Harris tweed.


When their marriage started to fail, my parents wielded clothes against each other via me: deposited in my father’s care on Saturdays in the 1970s while my mother worked as a model, I was hauled around to places like the original Abercrombie & Fitch, the boy’s department at Brooks’ Brothers, and Kaufman’s riding shop. By the time we picked my mother up, I looked like I was going yachting or fox hunting. My father almost always preferred dressing me in boys’ clothes — he said they were better made — which, of course, infuriated my hyper-heterosexual mother, who responded by putting me in elastic tube tops and see-through voile blouses just as I was beginning to go through a particularly sulky, spotty, busty puberty. I felt like I was in drag, although I had no words for it. To this day, my mother is sure that I am a lesbian because my father made me wear boy’s clothes; I always have to remind her that at eight, I was in love with Susan Dey, and not David Cassidy. It had nothing to do with Brooks’ Brothers. Although I do like a good suit and wingtips.

MW: There is also a lot of, shall we say, physical discomfort in here—people eating things and regretting it. Was it ever hard to write about food in such an uncomfortable way, that maybe rebels against expectations for a completely delicious culinary memoir rather than something more complex?

EA: Writing about food is not that different than writing about any other sense experience, like sex, and always depicting it as yummy sanitizes, homogenizes, and de-humanizes it. I’m interested in the things that leave a strange taste, that make me squirm, that force me to think about what sustenance really is.

Everyone knows what good food and good food experience looks like; I want to talk about the mistakes, the faux pas, the cultural and practical blunders. I distinctly remember my maternal grandmother cutting herself when she sliced potatoes into the Hungarian goulash she knew I loved; her soul, and her blood, were in what she cooked for me. I thought about taking that section out of the story, but it would have been a mistake: it was representative of the sheer ferocity with which she nurtured me, queasy-making or not.

Treyf is the story of a tribe yearning for home; it’s about three generations on the outside looking in. There’s a certain bitterness that comes along with that sense of constant displacement, and in my life, it was expressed at the table. When I was eleven my paternal grandmother tried to feed me a boiled calf’s brain — plain, on a plate, like we were in a laboratory — the day after I saw Young Frankenstein. Borscht tastes to me like mud, like death, like the sorrow that enveloped us at my grandparents’ apartment when everyone switched languages so I couldn’t understand them, but I knew they were talking about the family who stayed behind and were murdered in the Holocaust. To this day, I can’t be in the same room with it; it’s the food of doom.

MW: Your first memoir, Poor Man’s Feast, deals with (among other things) love and food. This one seems to delve into tougher territory— familial stresses, belonging or the lack thereof, in particular. Can you talk about moving from one subject or tone to the other? How did the processes compare for you as a writer, as a person delving into your past?

EA: In Poor Man’s Feast, food and love were catalysts; one transformed the other, and that was the primary thread running through what was essentially a very linear story. But Treyf is more cyclical; it’s about appearances, the tug of the past on the present, about religion and sex and violation, and the human compulsion to find sustenance and acceptance in a world to which one has only been tentatively invited.

The narrative in Poor Man’s Feast was generated by food — the actual cooking of it as opposed to the eating of it. There was a very clear beginning, middle, and end from the outset, and I always had a strong sense of how it was going to unfold on the page. At the time I wrote it, my wife and I had been together for twelve years, my mother-in-law was still alive, my father, who figures heavily in that book as a food mentor, had passed ten years earlier; I was still very connected to his family.

Between the time I was starting Treyf, my extended family structure was in utter chaos; my connection to the people who had been my anchors had vaporized. I dealt with the grief the only way I knew how — by writing my way through it. Where there is sorrow and loss there is a natural hunger for nurturing and safety. And that is what the book is about at its core.

The lightness that pervaded Poor Man’s Feast was no longer there, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate or authentic. Which is not to say that there aren’t moments of humor in it, but Treyf is a much more complicated story, written from a very different place and at a time when I was feeling like I’d just stepped off a ship — wobbly, a little nauseous. It was only when I finished the first draft that I realized that I, like every person in the book, was searching for my place in the world, and for a tribe that I had lost. Continue reading

Posted in Interviews

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Look at the photo
I’m holding
an Art Forum magazine
My head
is cropped off
It says Manhattan
in the painting
behind me
but it isn’t Manhattan
at all
It’s just impressionistic
gold leaves
in the countryside
with no city in sight


Zoe Brezsny is a writer from Oakland, California who is now based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds a BA from California College of the Arts and an MFA from Columbia University. She is the author of two chapbooks, POV andPolyorchid.    

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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Half Warrior and Weeping Woman



There’s a girl, Cherise, pronounced sure-EEZ, in my yoga class that meets in the church every Tuesday night at eight. She used to come to class with her boyfriend, a tall guy with a beaky nose and they would stand with their arms around each other, smiling. Or he would lie on his mat, and she would lie at a ninety-degree angle to him with her head on his stomach. I avoid people who are touching. In a yoga class, boundaries are loose. You might wonder why I’m in this class: it’s a test I’m giving myself.

A while ago, the beaky guy stopped coming, but Cherise didn’t. The second Tuesday that she came without him, I left class during Half Warrior because I had to pee. When I came back, she was in the hallway, crying. At first I thought: She’s doing a pose. Her back was straight and she leaned at a seventy-degree angle with her forehead to the wall. Then I noticed her breathing, which was quick intakes and big, shaky exhales.

I dislike touching. The dampness of skin is something I find very disgusting, but the hallway was narrow, especially with one person leaning. I didn’t know what to do. Then I had the idea to put my hand on her hair, so I did. Maybe it was another test.

I pretended to be Graham, our instructor, checking her form, except that I just stayed there holding her head, like it was one of the singing bowls Graham always bongs at the start of class. His bowls are stupid but I am disappointed when he forgets them, which is about every other week. Graham weighs ninety pounds and wears his hair in a French braid but has a girlfriend, which I don’t understand.

Cherise kept crying so I said, “I’m sorry” and she breathed out like she’d been holding the air and my words helped her release it and she felt slightly better. Maybe ten degrees better than the moment before. I don’t usually know what people feel, even if they angrily ask me why not, so this was new.

She didn’t talk to me after class and I didn’t help her when she couldn’t get her mat into her bag. I just let her struggle by herself. I think that’s what you have to do with people and their problems. It’s a test they’re doing. It’s not for me to fix.


Kris Willcox lives in Arlington, MA with her husband and two boisterous children. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Fiction Journal, Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, and Cleaver Magazine among other publications and she is regular contributor to UU Worldmagazine.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Flash Fidelity

I was following a path in the woods when the toe of my boot nearly crushed an ant. I withdrew the boot. There, paddling an inch one direction before reversing course and paddling in another, was an ordinary carpenter ant. It was plain black. It looked like the minute droppings of a slightly larger critter, except for its moving around. I was prepared to bypass the ant and continue down the path when the little monster bristled wings from its shoulders and set them whirring at light speed and rose into the air.

I deduced very rapidly that this was a flying ant. It wasn’t unusual to encounter flying ants in those parts, nor I suppose in any parts. The flying ant, in fact, is one of the most successful dry flies that a fisherman can tie onto his tippet, from Montana to Vermont to Argentina to New Zealand, so it can’t be that rare. Plus, I’m given to understand that flying ants aren’t even actually a species unto themselves. They’re simply a larval stage or whatever of ordinary ants. Like a portion of the ant eggs get smothered in nutrient-rich jelly or some other such nonsense and out come the wings.

But the commonness of wingèd ants notwithstanding, it was as if, when this small fucker flew out from under my boot, I’d never before laid eyes on such a thing. And, strangely, I was indignant about its existence. “Now what is that?” I wanted to shout at the ant as it sailed away through the forest. “How is that appropriate?”

You see, it oughtn’t happen that one organism, alike his fellows in every discernible respect, should be awarded, exclusively, a tool so miraculous as wings. It isn’t how evolution is supposed to work. The way I understand evolution, an individual of a given species is supposed to be born with some trifling aberration, glossy eyelids or something along those lines—perhaps longer feet, a narrower tongue—that in the near term provides no pronounced advantage. Only over the course of a thousand generations is the freak characteristic supposed to leverage its slight—I repeat slight—advantage, and breed its way through the species. In this way, Nature keeps her subjects feeling positive about themselves. We’re all about the same, you and I of this genus-phylum.

Not so when it comes to fucking wings that enable a creature to fly off of the ground into the sky. When that happens, it’s no longer possible for the more, shall we say, pedestrian members of the species to value themselves. I mean, just hypothetically, take coyotes. Say we’re all coyotes. We’re sniffing around for rabbits, we’re yipping at the moon. Except wait: now some of us have chainsaws for paws. Do you see what I’m saying? You wouldn’t want to be the coyote who didn’t get the chainsaw paws. You wouldn’t feel like a full coyote.

Or I don’t know, maybe this is exactly how things work. Maybe one day you’re a young man with uncountable decades stretching ahead of you, and a day later you find yourself surrounded by other young men, the truly young men. They’ve sprouted wondrous appendages, it seems, and are enjoying the use of them in a sunlight that’d once fallen on your shoulders. They’ve flown into the sky and intercepted that sunlight. You’re several years their elder, and in that sense are traveling ahead of them, but it’s as if these nimble youngsters have sailed past you, and are vanishing in the trees.


Ben Nickol’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Redivider, Boulevard, Fugue, CutBank, Hotel Amerika and elsewhere, and he’s the author of two books: Where the Wind Can Find It (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2015) and Adherence (Outpost19, 2016).  His work has been honored by the Arkansas Arts Council and Best American Sports Writing, among other organizations.  For more, visit www.bennickol.com.

Posted in Flash Fidelity, Nonfiction

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