Many artists have the ability to verbalize their thoughts with great clarity and eloquence—sadly, I’m not one of those. This must be a great source of frustration for my wife Beth, who is an extremely accomplished writer and well versed in the art of verbal communication. But she does not complain; she smiles and lets me babble aimlessly until I get distracted by a squirrel or something. Oh well. As I used to say to my mother when she was yelling at me for something I did (or didn’t do): That’s just the way God made me.
In any case, I should stop rambling and get to the point which is to write a few words about this image. I decided to make a series of drawings that chronicle the pure and unadulterated stupidity perpetrated by the current occupant of the White House. I really didn’t want to spend too much time staring at reference photos of Trump so I picked a character that visually had similar characteristics: bottom-heavy, awkward, graceless, has difficulty drinking water with one hand, etc. And so I landed on a duck, even though I am fully aware that even the dumbest of ducks is far more capable than Trump.
And so I draw and then I print those drawings on t-shirts, and when I sell the t-shirts I donate 20% of the profits to The Lincoln Project, sort of like a bake sale. The material is endless so I plan to continue drawing, perhaps until the duck is finally wearing an orange suit.
—Bill Sulit, September 2020
William Sulit is an award-winning illustrator, ceramicist, and designer. Born in El Salvador, he studied design at North Carolina State and received his Masters of Architecture degree from Yale University. He is the co-founder of Juncture Workshops and frequently collaborates with his wife, the writer Beth Kephart, on book projects.
An Interview with Mike Avery
Author of THE COOPERATING WITNESS
Literary Wanderlust Press
by Andrea Caswell
In Mike Avery’s debut novel, an ambitious law student is determined to find the truth to save an innocent man accused of murder. But the truth is never black-and-white, and the secrets she discovers hit close to home. The Cooperating Witness is a compelling legal thriller in which the moral ambiguities of justice are on trial. Mike Avery mines his fifty-year career as an attorney and law professor to craft a suspenseful story of murder, the mob, and a young woman’s determined idealism. In the following interview, conducted via phone and email, the author discusses his novel, the freedom of writing fiction, and the complex intersection of our legal system and morality.
Andrea Caswell: You have extensive experience in the legal profession. What insights did this give you in writing The Cooperating Witness?
Mike Avery: My legal background was very helpful. I’ve known a lot of people like my characters: burned-out lawyers like Bobby Coughlin and idealistic students like Susan Sorella. I felt I knew how they might think, and how they’d react to situations that presented themselves in scenes. I’m also very familiar with FBI frame-ups, having litigated a well-known case over a period of several years. My goal was to create a story that was true to life, in the sense that it could actually happen in a courtroom, but was also dramatic.
AC: Susan struggles with feeling alienated in the male-dominated world of criminal law, and sexism adds to her challenges. She needs a strong mentor, but finds that mentors are “still few and far between for a young woman interested in criminal defense.” Why do you think that is, and are there solutions on the horizon?
MA: The opportunities for women as criminal trial lawyers have been gradually improving. During most of the time I was active in court, there were very few successful women criminal attorneys on the defense side. There were more women prosecutors, because Government agencies were required to have equal employment opportunities. Women are saddled with the macho notion that the public has, the stereotype that a criminal defense lawyer has to be aggressive and combative. No doubt that influences the choices that clients make when it comes time to retain a lawyer. There is, however, more than one way to be effective in the courtroom.
AC: Your novel explores the complex relationship between the law and justice. Susan discovers that the law isn’t always about right and wrong, and many of us might be surprised by that fact. Is that an inherent contradiction in our justice system?
MA: I think Susan discovers, particularly in terms of the relationships she and her father have with mob boss Frank Romano, that right and wrong as defined by the law do not always take into account moral imperatives. Or to put it another way, as she tries to seek justice, she finds she is confronted by conflicting obligations. In TV shows and police procedural novels, it is a cliché that private detectives or the police have to cut corners to nail the bad guy. I think that concept is overused and probably encourages police lawlessness. In this book we see what happens to the FBI agents who believe that the end justifies the means.
AC: The novel is set in Boston, from its gritty wharves to the elegant Parker House Hotel. One scene takes place in the Rosebud Diner, which was a local dive when I was in college and is still there today. What makes Boston the perfect setting for your novel?
MA: I lived in Boston for almost forty years and practiced criminal law there for nearly thirty of them. I know the culture. There is a rich diversity of characters in the community to draw upon when writing fiction.
AC: We experience the action from multiple characters’ perspectives, including Susan’s boss Bobby, FBI agents, prosecutors, the accused, and even the charismatic mob boss Frank Romano. How did you decide to inhabit those different minds, and what were some of the challenges these POVs presented?
MA: When I started writing fiction, I knew nothing, niente as my murder victim Tony Francini would say, about writing from a given character’s point of view. My first drafts were all over the place as I flitted from one character’s perspective to another in the same scene. So, point of view became an object of study for me, with the assistance of my teacher Stuart Nadler from the Bennington Writing Seminars. One of the things I read, and I’m sorry I can’t recall who wrote this, was that you can’t answer the question, “What does a barn look like?” You can only imagine what the barn looks like to a specific person. In each chapter I tried to imagine what the action looked and felt like to the character whose point of view I was using, and then to describe it in the language that he or she would use.
AC: How difficult was it to write a female protagonist, to give voice to her inner thoughts and feelings?
MA: That was very difficult. Whether I did a good job or not is something readers will decide. I got a lot of help from strong women in my life, including Jill, the woman I live with. In particular I have to thank my daughters Katie and Samantha, who are young, very independent, smart, and feminists. From time to time I’d ask them to read a section of the book to tell me whether I was off-base. To the extent I got things right, I have to give them credit. But to the extent that I made mistakes, I’m afraid I have to take the blame.
AC: The novelist Susan Scarf Merrell has said that “responding to art with art is what artists do.” You reference other art forms, such as Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the movie Casablanca, and a painting by the German expressionist Max Pechstein. How did those works find their way into your novel?
MA: What characters respond to, whether in literature or film or the visual arts, can deepen a reader’s understanding of them. When Susan first goes to the co-defendant’s lawyer’s office, she notices a painting on the wall, a Pechstein that I was fortunate to see at the Brücke Museum in Berlin. As Susan reflects on the exploitation of one of Pechstein’s models, it mirrors her own feeling of being sexualized as a woman in a professional role. The painting captured that sense of vulnerability very well.
AC: Food figures prominently in the book. Susan works at her family’s restaurant in the North End, where we enjoy strolls past Italian grocery stores and cafés. Characters dine on traditional antipasto platters, and homemade pasta with puttanesca sauce. Is it fair to say you’re a foodie?
MA: I love to cook and love Italian food, so I spiced up the story with it. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Bobby Coughlin is attempting to get himself together to try the murder case and prepares chicken marsala as a metaphor for what he has to do to get ready to walk into the courtroom.
AC: The late film scholar Robert Warshow posits in his classic essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” (1948), that gangsters are portrayed as mythological figures who we know we should condemn, yet we can’t help but admire them too. Susan experiences this conflict with Frank Romano, the local mob boss. He’s charismatic, “an elegant criminal,” but ultimately his success will be his downfall; he’s recognizable as a tragic or anti-hero. How did you conceive of Frank Romano?
MA: Romano is a man whose life took an irrevocable turn early. Maybe he could have been someone else, or done something else, but he is a mob boss. At the same time, he is generous, intelligent, highly literate, and capable of tender feelings. No person is all good or bad and Romano shows us that.
AC: You’ve published legal treatises, and more general nonfiction books about law and politics. How different was the experience of writing fiction?
MA: Writing fiction is very different. I love that I can just make things up. When writing about law I have to footnote everything. In law one has to attempt to be logical and have everything make sense. When there are contradictions, one has to explain or resolve them. Usually one is attempting to be persuasive, or to craft an argument. In fiction, things can happen, as they do in life, that are unpredictable and make no sense. One of the things I have to work on as a fiction writer is to let that happen and ignore my legal personality that wants to put everything in order.
AC: Have you started your next project?
MA: I’m writing the sequel now. Susan is practicing law and working with a strong female mentor to defend a new client charged with murder.
AC: You’ve devoted much of your career to civil rights law and social justice reform. Which organizations do you see doing great work in these areas right now, and how best can we support them?
MA: There are many organizations doing excellent work at the moment. I work with the National Police Accountability Project (NPAP), a project of the National Lawyers Guild. We assist lawyers who bring lawsuits against officers and police departments for misconduct by the police. We are expanding our work to assist community organizers who are struggling to hold the police accountable for civil rights violations and to bring about needed changes in how police departments operate. NPAP can be found at https://www.nlg-npap.org/.
To learn more about the author or The Cooperating Witness, visit his website.
Starting as an ACLU staff lawyer during the Black Panther murder trial in New Haven in 1970, Mike Avery enjoyed an exciting career as a civil rights lawyer. He represented victims of police abuse and racial and sexual discrimination and defended people charged with everything from peaceful protesting to murder. In 2007 he obtained the largest judgment ever awarded against the FBI, $101.7 million, for the wrongful conviction of four innocent men for murder. The crime was actually committed by an FBI informant. He has served as the President of the National Lawyers Guild and was one of the founders of the National Police Accountability Project. Avery spent 16 years as a law professor at Suffolk Law School in Boston. He has published several non-fiction books, is a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, and spent a year as an exchange student in the former Soviet Union at the University of Moscow. After retiring as a professor of law, he obtained a Master of Fine Arts from Bennington College.
Andrea Caswell holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is a fiction editor at Cleaver Magazine. Her work has been published by River Teeth, The Normal School, Fifth Wednesday, Columbia Journal, and others. In 2019 she was selected as a fiction participant for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A native of Los Angeles, Andrea now teaches writing in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
An Interview with Sharon Harrigan
Author of the novel HALF
University of Wisconsin Press
by Virginia Pye
Writers have a way of finding each other in Virginia, thanks to several strong literary non-profits. Sharon Harrigan teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville and I used to help run James River Writers in Richmond. We met years ago at the annual JRW Writers Conference. When my first novel came out, Sharon generously reached out and offered to interview me for Fiction Writers Review. I moved to Cambridge several years later, but we continued to keep track of each other’s careers, cheering on each new publication. I’m delighted to interview her now about her debut novel, HALF. In sparse, lyrical prose, it tells the story of identical twins who speak in one voice, until they can’t any longer.
Virginia Pye: It’s a daring idea to write a novel from the perspective of identical twins. I gather that you’re not a twin yourself, which makes me curious why you chose to tell the story this way?
Sharon Harrigan: I didn’t set out to write about twins. What I wanted to do was write about empathy and intimacy, the kind of platonic closeness I had with my older brother growing up. So originally, the characters were singleton siblings, different genders. But then when I took this concept of sibling bonding further—because exaggerating our real-life can distill the experiences and make them clearer—these characters became so close they were indistinguishable. That’s when I realized they had to be twins or my readers (and I!) would get confused.
I’m also using sibling love to say something about all non-romantic love. That when we empathize with someone, we feel their pain—and their joy. It’s as if what happens to them happens to us. That’s something we especially need to be reminded of during these increasingly divisive times.
VP: When the two sisters are children their story is told in vignettes that have an immediacy to them. The scenes and other characters are described in poetic detail, using the senses and focusing on how a child might process the world. How do you think that showing the story through the twins’ eyes in this intimate way helps your reader relate to them?
SH: Children don’t yet know a lot about the bigger world, so they experience things more close up, more focused on what they can immediately perceive with their senses. There’s something magical that we lose once our world enlarges, and as a child, I promised never to forget what it felt like to be small. I’m trying to remember on the page that helpless quality, that sense of awe for people who are bigger, and the credulity, as well as the fluidity between the real and the magical. That’s a lot of what the novel is about: the blurred lines between the actual and the imaginary, the spillover between mythology and mental illness, the lies we tell each other and ourselves so much we believe them, the truth that stares us down but we don’t see it because we’re in denial and the crushing disillusionment that sometimes arrives at the end. Isn’t that an apt description of what it means to grow up?
VP: The twins share the same perceptions and perspectives in their early lives, but as they grow and start to know other people, they begin to become distinct from one another. This transition comes about slowly and leads to a surprising rupture. Can you talk about the way that difference is introduced as a crucial element in your story?
SH: We know at the beginning that the girls can’t speak in one voice forever, and it’s that instability that drives a lot of the dramatic tension. I tried to make their gradual separation feel natural. That’s the way it often is when we drift apart from people—whether it’s our twin, our best friend, or our spouse. Sometimes we don’t see it coming, and it’s a shock when we can no longer deny it. One of my readers described the separation like this: “The narrator dissolves before our eyes.” The whole book is held together by the dual narration, so when that is gone, it’s like the floor falls out from under our feet. At least that how I wanted it to feel.
When my daughter read the novel, on the other hand, she said the twins’ separation felt like a relief. “The twins were never exactly the same,” she said. “Nobody is. But their closeness is so important to them that they hide all their differences, not just from each other, but from themselves. When they finally break apart, they don’t have to cover up anymore.”
People suppress their differences in order to be part of a group all the time. Think about high schoolers and their desire to fit in. They end up dressing the same, talking the same. We also do this when we join a church or a profession or a political party. I had my students do an exercise using the “we” voice and one of them said something I found fascinating. He is in a men’s group, and the facilitator tells people not to use the “we” voice when they are sharing because it is often used to hide from personal feelings or assert unity where there is diversity. The “we” voice allows people to hide. And yes, that is true for my twins.
VP: One crucial way the twins are bonded to one another is through their understanding of their abusive father. And yet his death is what finally separates them. In this way, he has a divisive effect on them in both life and death. Was it difficult to write such a destructive character?
SH: He became more intense in later drafts because I let myself give him mythic proportions. He is, in a way, Zeus. At least some people think he is. And just like a Greek god he can destroy things on a whim. He can also be so powerful and charismatic that he’s irresistible. He’s a hero-monster, like some of the men we see in the news every day. He is also a real man, the kind of real man I’ve read about in memoirs. I read a lot of them, because that’s what I teach. One of my early readers said the father exemplifies a Midwestern type: the tough but truly loving father who is determined to make his children strong by bullying them. And yes, this is how I remember my own father. He truly thought he was doing the right thing.
VP: Without giving away too much, I’d love to hear you say more about the end of your novel when the twins reveal their very different views of the past. The distance between them becomes vast. Can you share more about how memory plays a role in defining who they are and who they aren’t to one another?
SH: That’s a great question. One of the reasons I used the structure I did—one chapter for every year from ages five to twenty-two—is to give readers the sense that they are seeing a life being lived in real time, the way it is for the characters themselves. Then by the end, when the twins are adults and remember that life in two different ways, we can recognize how memory works, how it is not an objective truth but something filtered through an individual’s biases.
VP: Finally, I love to hear about the journey debut novelists have traveled on their way to publication. Can you share yours?
SH: I remember when your first novel was published, and I was so inspired by your success. It made me feel hopeful. Thank you for that!
I’m a late bloomer. I’m 52 and this is my first novel. My first book, a memoir, was published three years ago. It’s funny because I started writing seriously when I was 14 and thought I was getting an early start! I took poetry classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts. My brother and I got special permission to be able to attend because these were adult writing workshops. I gave a reading at the DIA when I was 18. I’m pretty sure I was the youngest person ever to do so. In my early twenties, a small press was going to publish my poetry collection. It was typeset and everything, and then they went bankrupt. (That collection has still not been published, but I now have a press that’s interested, all these years later!) I became a mother too young and then a single mother, working as an editor full time and also freelancing, hustling to make rent in New York City. My writing became something it didn’t feel like I could afford to do. Only many years later, after I remarried, did I get an MFA and start writing prose and restart my stalled writing career.
I love to hear stories about other writers publishing late. Margaret Renkl, who wrote the amazing memoir-in-lyric-essays Late Migrations, one of my favorite books of the past year, published her first book at age 57. And that book has brought her acclaim, including an invitation to become a New York Times columnist. People like her inspire me to think: It’s never too late!
Sharon Harrigan teaches at WriterHouse, a nonprofit literary center in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the author of Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir. Her work has appeared in the New York Times (Modern Love), Narrative, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
Virginia Pye‘s collection, Shelf Life of Happiness, was awarded the 2019 IPPY Gold Medal for Short Fiction. Her debut novel, River of Dust, was an Indie Next Pick and a 2013 Finalist for the Virginia Literary Award. Her second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenis was chosen as a Best Book of 2015 by the Richmond Times Dispatch. Her stories and essays have appeared in Literary Hub, TheNew York Times, TheNorth American Review, TheBaltimore Review, and elsewhere. She’s taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, in high schools, and most recently in Boston at GrubStreet. She can be found on FB, Twitter, Instagram, and at www.virginiapye.com
An Interview with Claire Oleson
Author of THINGS FROM THE CREEK BED WE COULD HAVE BEEN
Newfound Press, 64 pages
by Andrea Caswell
Claire Oleson’s chapbook, Things From the Creek Bed We Could Have Been, is the winner of the Newfound 2019 Prose Prize, awarded annually to a chapbook-length work of exceptional fiction or nonfiction that explores how place shapes identity, imagination, and understanding.
In the following interview, she discusses the work, and how making art can reshape our understanding of what we see in the world.
Andrea Caswell: The stories in this collection are language-driven, intensely intimate, and saturated with beautiful images. Did any of these stories begin as poems or prose poems?
Claire Oleson: I enjoy navigating in the spaces between prose and poetry; in Creek Bed, I hope a poetic dedication to the individual word is visible alongside the breathing space that prose gives to its subjects. I wanted the size, the “living room” of a story, with the minutia and pace that poetry can offer. Also, somewhat in retrospect, I’ve found my writing across genres is often propelled by sight more than distinct action. I wanted image to offer propulsion, like plot can, but I wanted everything I included to belong to sensation, to be incapable of happening anywhere outside of a body.
AC: The artist Corita Kent said, “Art does not come from thinking, but from responding.” To what are you responding with Things From the Creek Bed We Could Have Been?
CO: Alongside this desire for the writing to feel embodied, I also want the readers who come to it to feel like they belong inside its feeling. Here, I don’t mean that they “belong” in the sense that there’s a neat space carved out for an audience-surrogate, but far more that the story isn’t complete until someone is in it, feeling it. Following the quote you provided, I think it’s fair to say that if I wanted to be easy, to be point-blank, and solely focused on convincing, I would have written an extended essay on image, gender, bodies, and ownership. This would have been neater than what I’ve chosen to do: a slew of surreal-adjacent and often absurd stories that take longer to tell you what a thesis could blurt. But I come to you with no footnotes and more mess because I agree with Corita Kent here; this isn’t art until it’s being responded to, occupied, waded in. In that same vein, certainly everything I’ve written can be taken as a form of response. I’d love to say I’ve involved some thought too, but absolutely, the best feelings and needs and evenings I’ve communicated in Creek Bed come from having carried feelings and needs and evenings.
I want these stories to be spaces people come to live in, if only briefly, and to encounter as potential lives or ways of living. —Claire Oleson
AC: Tell us about the title.
CO: I thought about pulling a title from one of the interior stories, but this felt like a missed opportunity to sneak more writing in, and I didn’t feel it would envelope everything included with a flexible but precise name. Things From the Creek Bed We Could Have Been is a stupid title because it’s long, it takes time to write out, type out, google, or tell someone. I sort of love it for being a little bit stupid, but in all earnestness, I made it and picked it because I feel it presents a sense of possibility, calmness, fear, and absurdity in one (labored) breath. I want these stories to be spaces people come to live in, if only briefly, and to encounter as potential lives or ways of living. There’s a lot of water in these pieces and the first piece opens inside a creek, so I feel invoking an immediate sense of setting from the cover that flows right into the first story offers an organic and (forgive me) fluid entrance. Oh also, god, I will confess that I was thinking of the poet C.D. Wright who has a book legitimately titled The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. To me, this is superb. It gushes and it leaves things behind with you. A title like this feels like someone is standing in front of you, continuing to hand you delicate things you can’t possibly carry but also can’t afford to drop. You just have to be overwhelmed. I thought of doing something more stupid and longer than Things From the Creek Bed We Could Have Been, but in the end, I thought C.D. Wright has already done this so well, I might as well be humane to my publisher and cover artist.
AC: Visual arts, such as photography and painting, are integral to many of these stories. How would you describe the role of other art forms in your creative life?
CO: There is a lot of visual art and I put it in to continue to ask people to see as they’re reading. I love knowing that every piece hung/illuminated/shoved/presented in these stories is going to be completely different, reader to reader, despite their semi-static existence in the inked word. Everyone leaves with their own different gallery and there’s no one right, Platonic canvas or neon light. The seeing done by reading makes them, again and again, and it recruits the reader in their making. Because many of my characters are teetering on deciding whether or not what they’re making is “good” or “beautiful” or “ignorant, insufficient, unworthy,” some of that decision gets to come from how the reader decides to hang, frame, and know them. In my life outside of writing, I like to keep up drawing and a pinprick of painting when supplies are handy. I think I know just enough of each to know that I’m a hobbyist (but, with adoration). Having worked at both has taught me the delightful truth that, all day, we are seeing wrong. It’s not until you sit to commit something in front of you to paper or canvas or cardboard that you process what you think a face looks like is entirely wrong, in a series of minute but critical ways. It’s really wonderful to be so incorrect about what we take to be the basics. Seeing, a lot like reading, is often taken as a passive task, something that just inhales. Making art and looking at art is quick and elated to show you that seeing is something you do and can learn to do better but not perfectly. Reading, too, is a work. Reading is deciding to believe in small and nonexistent rooms and move things around in them for a while. Please, if you’re reading this, come into the Creek Bed and mess up the furniture.
AC: Each story in the collection is narrated in the first person. What were some of the narrative decisions you made as you wrote these?
CO: I wanted everyone written to feel like they were speaking for themselves. I wanted every protagonist to have both the freedom and constraint of being steeped in their own thoughts alone. With some free indirect discourse, the reader gets gleams of other characters’ priorities, but the bulk of narration is dedicated to one person at a time. This is, I think, the hardest number of people to be at a time. Amidst the teetering moments of emergency or non-emergency that my stories center on, the feeling of being in one brain can manage to be both the most comforting and most alarming thing. First-person is an allowance to be candid alongside the pressure to be impressive, coherent, and interesting, for both the characters and writer; so I hope my teetering, one-at-a-time people are just that. And if they’re average and incoherent, hopefully they’re at least devastatingly fascinating to make up for it.
AC: Tell us about Newfound. What inspired you to enter their chapbook competition? What have you enjoyed most about working with them?
CO: I’d seen Newfound’s chapbooks prior to submitting and I think the physical books they produce are made with such detail, care, and clear desire to thoughtfully make a fitting physical body for a work of writing. Coming to the end of my undergraduate career, I had begun to amass pieces from workshops that I still liked even after bringing them through everyone’s teeth. I wanted to do something with them that would let them belong to and with one another. I think these contests offer a wonderful gateway into publishing for authors who are looking into the world of books after having appeared in journals. Chapbooks are also so digestible and offer a lot for the short prose or poetry writer while still providing the distinct and individual object that’s dedicated to one author. Working with Newfound has been lovely; they’re responsive, kind, invested, and showed enthusiasm for my work from the time of my initial submission to the binding and distributing of the books.
AC: What are you working on now?
CO: Ooh, surviving. Some writing is happening. I’m mostly invested in finding productive and lucrative-enough work in the current climate. But I’ve made some poems I’m not unfond of, some lavender simple syrup I’m very fond of, and I’m preparing to prepare to cultivate the desire to make a full-length manuscript.
To purchase a copy of Things From the Creek Bed We Could Have Been, click here.
Claire Oleson is a queer writer hailing from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Kenyon College, where she won the Propper Prize for poetry and the Denham Sutcliffe Memorial Award. Her writing has been published by Limestone, Newfound, Bridge Eight Magazine, Sugar House Review, and the Kenyon Review online. She is the senior poetry editor for Cleaver.
Andrea Caswell holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a fiction editor at Cleaver Magazine. Her work has been published by River Teeth, The Normal School, Fifth Wednesday, Columbia Journal, and others. In 2019 she was selected as a fiction participant for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A native of Los Angeles, Andrea now teaches writing in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
CLAIRE RUDY FOSTER MADE YOU A MIX TAPE
author of the story collection Shine of the Ever
Interlude Press, 194 pages
interviewed by KC Mead-Brewer
I got to know Foster’s fiction through their first story collection I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Foster doesn’t disappoint with their new collection, SHINE OF THE EVER, thirteen stories full of humor, beauty, sincerity, and refreshingly nuanced queer and trans characters. Foster’s dedication to challenging mainstream preconceived notions about queerness is well reflected in all their works, from their essays to their flash to their upcoming novel. In SHINE OF THE EVER, they focus their vibrant, energetic style to a deceptively simple task: no sad endings. To learn more, go here.
KMB: I’m so excited about this collection! After your last collection, I’ve Never Done This Before, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to seeing your next big project. How long have you been working on these stories? Did they come together organically, long after you’d written some of them, or did you start out writing these with a book in mind?
CRF: Thank you—I’m excited to share it! The stories in Shine of the Ever run the gamut from very recent to some of the earliest I’ve written. The title piece, a novella, started out as my undergraduate thesis. I finished it in 2006. Since then, it’s changed about as much as I have. Living with, and in, a story is an intense experience. That novella inspired the rest of the collection, which includes a flash fiction piece that is contemporaneous with “Shine” and more recent pieces from last year.
Shine of the Ever is very close to my heart. As I started to come out as both queer and transgender, I struggled to find representations of myself in literary fiction. The stories I wrote reflected a yearning to see my experience and the experiences of the people I loved on paper. My identity came into focus through and with my creation of this book. The process was intimidating at first, but as I looked back, I saw that many of my stories included queer and trans characters. It seems that I’d been working on Shine of the Ever and its themes and people for a lot longer than I thought.
KMB: I love that Shine of the Ever includes both a flash story exploring a bisexual romance and a novella deepening this exploration (albeit in a very different way). How did you decide on the order of the book’s stories? Would you prefer your readers go at the collection from start to finish, or do you mind if they take a hodgepodge approach?
CRF: I associate bisexuality with feeling partly invisible. Bi erasure is common: there’s a sense, for me, of hiding in plain sight. I chose to include two stories about bisexual characters who deal with the ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ in their relationships. They worry about seeming queer enough, or disappearing into heteronormative-looking partnerships. In both stories, there are many layers of intimacy. Platonic attraction can become sexual, or the reverse, or flow into another kind of relationship altogether. The collection can be read in any order; the stories are not linear, just as people are not. Sexuality and gender are complex—my hope is that the reader will appreciate the collection’s diversity of queer identities, loves, and people.
KMB: You let nothing go to waste in these stories; every detail has an echo somewhere, creating a powerful resonance throughout. I was especially taken with the story “Domestic Shorthair,” where the tension between burying “evidence” and unearthing “evidence,” at hiding identities and revealing identities, is wound tighter and tighter in every paragraph. Are these resonant details brought forward during your revision process, or do they rise up naturally during drafting?
CRF: My goal with Shine of the Ever was to collect stories that oppose, mirror, or challenge one another. I also explored tension within each piece, playing with what each character knows, doesn’t know, and isn’t willing to see. Amit came into my imagination complete, a very smart person with a blind spot that’s at odds with their incredible attention to detail. Amit is not ‘out’ in the conventional sense, but to the outside world, it’s obvious who they are. As “Shorthair” unfolds, the things Amit doesn’t see, about themself and their roommate, force them to come to terms with the consequences of staying closeted. As you said, the circle tightens around Amit, and the evidence they can no longer ignore provides a moment of insight that changes their perception of themselves.
The revision on Shine of the Ever was, I’m glad to say, not a brutal one. I think of my writing as music, a mix tape. The tones have to be right. When the collection was put together, it was easier to hear which sections were falling flat.
KMB: What books/stories/authors were you reading as you wrote these stories? How did they affect your writing process?
CRF: The way the stories feel was really important to me with Shine of the Ever. It wasn’t enough just to write about LGBTQ characters. I wanted the stories to feel queer, too. While I was working on this collection, I gravitated toward books and authors who were dreamy, unusual, and smart. Mostly domestic. I read Maile Meloy, Tessa Hadley, and Alexander Chee. I read Brandon Taylor’s tweets, of course, because he never fails to delight and provoke. I watched Personal Shopper over and over, and Certain Women.
In each of these, I was looking for a private moment of self-identification. A moment like this: a trans girl, alone in her kitchen, looks up from making a sandwich and thinks to herself, Damn, I’m super gay right now. And then she goes back to her sandwich. There’s no reveal; no ‘coming out,’ which we put so much emphasis on. The character is just hanging out with herself. Straight characters do this in fiction all the time. I sought to do the same with characters and voices that were like mine instead.
KMB: This collection reads as a celebration of the complexity and humanity of queer and trans women, characters who are simply and exquisitely themselves. I admire how artfully you build on your characters’ flaws instead of magically “curing” them in the end. How do you go about constructing your characters?
CRF: Queer characters are so frequently shown as two dimensional, or as supports for the straight main character. In art as in life, queer people aren’t allowed the same complexity as straight characters—at least, not without paying a terrible price in exchange. Some of the most nuanced images we have of LGBTQ characters are in film, yet they inflict terrible suffering on queer bodies and hearts: Moonlight, Boys Don’t Cry, and Brokeback Mountain. Although there’s been some positive change in representation, I think there’s still a real lack of queer characters who are not good or pure in a way that is a rhetorical device to invite sympathy and who also do not face painful consequences for being ‘imperfect.’
My characters come from my observation of life, other people. I look in the mirror. I listen to how people talk about themselves and others. What’s omitted. I’m especially interested in flaws, the things we struggle with and why. Redemption bores me.
KMB: In many of these stories, but perhaps especially in the titular piece, the question of authenticity is considered from a variety of angles. The energy and empathy with which you tackle this tricky issue is very refreshing. It reminds me a little of what you’ve spoken about in previous interviews regarding your personal struggle with addiction: “When I was in active addiction … I felt powerful, mysterious, complex. Like a real writer, whatever that is. Even as my drug use destroyed my brain and my body, I held onto the idea that I was part of something meaningful.” How has your wrestling with the idea of being a “real” or “authentic” writer informed your characters’ related struggles with authenticity?
CRF: I sometimes struggle with rejection and self-doubt. Who doesn’t? As a nonbinary trans person, in particular, it’s hard to feel invalidated at every turn. I’m not ‘trans enough.’ The language I have to describe myself is imperfect. I’ve lost important relationships because the people I cared about couldn’t ‘see’ me as I wished to seen, or know me as I desired to be known. However, I’ve never not felt like a real writer. The issue, in my creative work and in my gender expression, is finding people who see what I see—who see me the way I see myself. It’s the same for my characters. They don’t seek acceptance, necessarily. They want to be seen. Identity is a powerful thing. It can also be painful, to wear an identity that other people don’t notice or understand how to see.
Funny, I never feel shame in isolation. I am very accepting of myself. I only start to feel insecure or uncomfortable when I’m around people who don’t accept me. Whether it’s my recovery, my identity, my sexuality, or the way I choose to live—I’m good with myself. I struggle when I have to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.
KMB: As a writer, what things do you particularly love to see in a story when you read? What things aggravate you?
CRF: I read a lot, so my tolerance for trends is pretty low. I think there’s so much emphasis on writing something clicky. Clickbait is dull and formulaic. Every week, I see articles about how people don’t read long stories anymore, or how to optimize your reading with flash fiction. Many writing guides have tips about crafting a “hook,” or using other marketing techniques to grab the reader. That drives me crazy. I don’t even engage with those posts or the insipid debates they incite. Let literature be literature. I hate to see aspiring writers breaking their necks trying to stand out of the slush pile with cheap, attention-grabbing hooks or front-loaded stories.
I love to read stories that are compelling, and flirt a little. I like it when a story can be patient with itself, and when the reader is led into its world slowly, one sentence at a time. This is one of the things I loved about Aimee Bender’s fiction when I was younger; I see it less frequently now, as a style in fiction.
KMB: I know you’ve also been working on a novel recently. How does your writing process change as you move from a story collection to a novel?
CRF: Well, the submission process is more grueling. With stories or essays, I can write one in a day, send it to the journals, and get a response in about a month. With novels, there’s no such thing as spontaneity. The idea may come quickly, but the execution takes time. A novel is not a one-night stand. The novel I’m working on is in the rewrite phase, and my time frame is open-ended. I keep digging in, and it keeps giving me new material, so who knows.
I usually know right away if a story is boring or no good, and I can move on to the next thing. Novels are different—a different frame of mind. A project of that scope requires patience. You work, and you wait, and maybe the story comes along.
KMB: Some of Shine of the Ever’s strongest, most practical-minded characters are also those who engage in practices like tarot and crystal healing. Do you see any conflict or contradiction between these things? Do you practice tarot yourself? If so, are there other ways that it’s inspired or affected your writing?
CRF: I don’t see a conflict between those things. Tarot and other magic are invaluable tools for getting new insight, or seeing a problem in a different way. Who doesn’t want to see the future? We dedicate so much energy to scientific methods, mathematical predictions, and other theories that are supposed to tell us how things will be. I think tarot and other practices are incredibly practical. In my stories, it’s also a marker of time and place: witchiness is enjoying a resurgence in popular culture right now. From Lisa Marie Basile to Joanna C. Valente to the Becoming Dangerous anthology, I’m seeing a smart reinterpretation of what these ancient crafts mean to us in a digital world.
I think superstition, faith, and magic are important to a lot of people in the queer community. Feeling protected, integrated, and healed, connecting to a world that we don’t necessarily see, believing that there’s a higher purpose, even when life is difficult—people need hope, always.
KMB: Your stories here are so full of hope—something I haven’t often encountered in stories about queer and trans people. What does it mean to you to be writing stories of hope right now?
CRF: Representation is so important for growth: when you see it, you can be it. In Shine of the Ever, the rule is ‘no sad endings.’ That’s it. I didn’t want to sensationalize my characters or replicate the stories I see that focus on the extremes of queer life. It’s not all coming out, and gay bashing, and oppression. I object to packaging and marketing of queer suffering. That’s one of the things I appreciate about Interlude Press: they don’t publish books that fetishize queer pain. Making LGBTQ people into exotic or doomed creatures is just another way of other-ing us. We’re people. At the same time, Shine of the Ever is not inspiration porn. I didn’t want to create characters who were just so brave. I’m so tired of that. The constant overcoming. I wanted to write about everyday life, as I see people like me experiencing it.
I hate that being queer is a liability in our culture. I want that to change. There is so much joy for us, too. It’s my responsibility to show that. We deserve to be happy. We deserve to see ourselves happy. We deserve more.
Claire Rudy Foster is a queer, nonbinary single parent in recovery. Their short story collection, I’ve Never Done This Before, was published to warm acclaim in 2016. With four Pushcart Prize nominations, Foster’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and many other journals. Their nonfiction work has reached millions of readers in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Narratively, among others. Foster lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. (Author photo by Elizabeth Ehrenpreis)
K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Ithaca, NY. Her fiction appears in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Carve Magazine, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Tin House’s 2018 Winter Workshop for Short Fiction and of the 2018 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.
A Conversation with Greg Sestero Author of THE DISASTER ARTIST: MY LIFE INSIDE THE ROOM, THE GREATEST BAD MOVIE EVER MADE
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages
Interview by Brian Burmeister
Perhaps no other film has so improbably risen from obscurity to cultural significance than 2003’s The Room. Grossing just $1800 in its original theatrical run, the film now famously dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” went on to connect with audiences through years of midnight screenings and an insightful, entertaining, and sometimes heartbreaking book about its making.
Greg Sestero, star of The Room, wrote this book in 2013, titling it The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. The memoir was hailed by Patton Oswalt as “A surprising, hilarious, and compelling account of the making of the modern Plan 9 from Outer Space” and by Rob Lowe as “Hilarious, delusional, and weirdly inspirational.” In 2017, Sestero’s book was adapted into the critically acclaimed film The Disaster Artist, starring James Franco, Alison Brie, and Dave Franco (who portrayed Sestero).
Through his twenty-year career, Sestero has acted in a wide range of movies, including the cult horror films Retro Puppet Master and Dude Bro Party Massacre III. More recently, he wrote and starred in the Best F(r)iends films alongside The Room’s enigmatic Tommy Wiseau.
In this interview, Brian Burmeister asks Sestero about his experiences on set, his current projects, and advice he has for fellow writers and actors.
Greg Sestero: Nooo. I thought it was just a movie that was going to be made by Tommy—and it was sort of his accomplishment, and that was going to be it.
BB: There are a lot of inherent challenges for any writer working on an autobiography or memoir. In writing such a personal story, were there parts of your life and your experience that were hard for you to write about? Or concerned you because of what people might think—including those you wrote about?
GS: Yeah, I mean, I made sure to interview everybody from the story. And I thought it was very important to be as honest as possible and as respectful as possible because the story doesn’t work unless you share what you’re also not proud of. I think that’s what sets a lot of the events in motion. And I wanted to make sure to tell as much of the story as needed—and just be honest. I wrote it from the heart, and I think when you do that, you’re probably going to be okay.
BB: There were 15 years between when you worked with Tommy Wiseau on The Room [which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in] and when you worked together on the Best F(r)iendsfilms. In your book, you obviously wrote a lot about your experiences working on The Room. With Best F(r)iends, you took on different roles—this time you wrote the script, and Tommy was no longer in the director’s chair. By contrast to The Room, what was the experience of working on the two volumes of Best F(r)iends like?
GS: I definitely had more experience. I’d grown up a lot. And I knew Tommy could be very captivating in an acting role if it was composed properly. The goal was for us to try to make something new and have him be able to focus as an actor—and not have to burden all the pressure of producing. I really enjoyed making Best F(r)iends. I tried to take everything I’d learned and pour it into it.
BB: Earlier this year, a hilarious, jaw-dropping trailer for Big Shark was released. Any updates on the film’s progress?
GS: I know it’s something Tommy is really passionate to make. He’s on that, and hopefully it’s something special.
BB: What’s next for you? Are you planning to write more films? Focus on acting?
GS: I’m working on a horror film that I’m writing and putting together. So hopefully next year we’ll bring some interesting entertainment.
BB: Is the horror genre where you see yourself focused moving forward long-term?
GS: Yeah, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I think The Room is great and everything that’s come from it has been fascinating. But I hope to go in a kind of different direction and make some new things.
BB: On behalf of everyone who has seen it, thank you for not passing it up. As of right now, you’re on a mini-tour of the country with live readings of The Room’s script. Having just attended one of these readings myself, I can definitively say these events are pure fun and a great opportunity to pick your brain in the Q&A. Can fans expect more opportunities like these to see you in person?
GS: Yeah, I’ve done it a couple times. I think it’s something that’s very interactive and gives people a chance to be part of the film. So, we’ll see. I’ve got these other projects to make, but it’s always fun to get out there, meet fans, and interact.
BB: Final question. One of the major themes in The Disaster Artist is Tommy Wiseau’s one-in-a-million, limitless belief in his own dreams. That’s one of the many qualities that really separates him from most of us. If you were to offer one piece of advice to all the struggling writers and actors out there, what would it be?
GS: Follow the fun. If you’re not having fun, you need to figure out why that is. Creating should be fun. We sometimes put pressure on ourselves—which can be a good thing—but at the end of the day, as creators in that process, there needs to be some enjoyment. So try to drown out the negative voices. Just focus on your story or your music and follow the fun.
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The author wishes to thank Mr. Sestero for generously taking the time to sit down for this interview following his live reading of The Room in Des Moines on 10/25/19.
Brian Burmeister is an author, cat cuddler, and educator living in Iowa. He can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Mosier
Author of EXCAVATING MEMORY: ARCHAEOLOGY AND HOME
from New Rivers Press, 96 Pages Interview by Nathaniel Popkin
Elizabeth Mosier logged one thousand volunteer hours processing colonial-era artifacts at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory to write EXCAVATING MEMORY: ARCHAEOLOGY AND HOME, which uses archaeology as a framework to explore personal material, including her mother’s memory loss, the layering of shared experience in creating family or community narratives, and the role that artifacts play in historical memory. The essay titled “Believers”, a 2015 Best American Essays Notable pick, first appeared in Cleaver.
Novelist and essayist Elizabeth Mosier has twice been named a discipline winner/fellowship finalist by the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, and has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Millay Colony for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her nonfiction has been selected as notable in Best American Essays, and appears most recently in Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She writes the “Intersections” column on alumnae lives for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin. More information at www.ElizabethMosier.com.
Nathaniel Popkin: You write, early in the collection, in regard to your work processing objects from an archeological dig near Independence Hall in Philadelphia, that “digging and processing of primary sources creates a record of life that is both detailed and fragmented, much like memory.” Excavating Memory is a stirring exploration of this idea. Would you say then the book is less a search for truth (about your life) and more a complication, perhaps of what you had perceived to be real?
Elizabeth Mosier: I’m fascinated by how artifacts that form the archaeological record constitute and, in some cases, correct the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we live. Like archaeologists, writers are always looking for artifacts that support or subvert what we think is true.
As a volunteer technician at the Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory, I got to practice looking closely at small things, and looking beneath the surface of the city I knew mostly by its buildings, monuments, and celebrated citizens. Washing, labeling, mending, and cataloguing a colonial neighborhood’s glass fragments and ceramic sherds trained me to see broken, discarded things as material evidence—of social class, consumer patterns, cultural practices, politics, and relationships. I became more conscious of how we construct reality, create history, from pieces we’ve saved by choice or accident.
The most important thing I learned from the archaeologists is that the real treasure isn’t the artifact, but the information gleaned from it. And after 1,000 hours in the lab, I viewed my own material through this new lens. I realized that writing is like repairing a broken bottle from the base up, then taking it apart again to fashion a story from what you’ve found.
NP: This book ought to have an analog map or maps—you’re tracing paths as you go. These are maps that extend from Philadelphia to Phoenix to Indiana. And there are maps within maps and some that only exist in your head or others’ (I’m thinking of your mother’s floor plan map of her farmhouse growing up and E.B. White’s, too). Maps, whether in our heads or on paper or computer, are objects. “I don’t question objects,” your mother says in the essay “Once More to the Barn.” What do you think of this—is there a way in which all the maps are right, even when they obscure, or get details wrong, or leave key things out?
EM: Maps that obscure, obliterate, distort, or falsify details aren’t accurate but, in their inaccuracies, they can reveal what the cartographer values or wants to hide or doesn’t (want to) acknowledge. Despite my mother’s protest, which she made not from a lack of curiosity but from midwestern pragmatism, drawing a floorplan of her childhood home in “Once More to the Barn,” mentally walking through that physical space, prompted a traumatic memory. In “From Scratch,” my father’s hand-drawn map of Lynn, Indiana, circa 1950, accurately depicts the location of the railroad tracks that no longer run through his hometown. But I am able to find him in that landscape because he keyed the map with personal details like his mother’s flower garden and the “X” that marks the spot where he found and pocketed a bat on his way to school.
I agree with memoirist Patricia Hampl, who says we write not about what we know, but to find out what we know. Writing is a way of mapping reality. But if we want to write truthfully, we have to “question objects” and fact-check the maps we’ve plotted against other evidence.
NP: I once was enamored of the idea of the “poetry of history” and I wrote about it in Song of the City—“I walk the same streets as Franklin, Capone, Whitman, and Baldwin…” But reading your essays makes me think this is the opposite of what is really interesting about a street, or a corner, or a building, or a life. Those other people are ghosts, after all, and we are real. What seems to matter to you about a place is the personal, the material (like the bark of the Big Tree), the tracings of your own life. The rest is accidental. Why do these personal tracings matter to you?
EM: The “poetry of history” is what drew me to The President’s House dig, after I heard the head archaeologist, Jed Levin, speak about its stone foundation being “a tangible link to the people who lived in this house, and a link between the enslaved and the free.” I wanted to help memorialize the nine enslaved Africans: Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, and Joe Richardson. But the dig became meaningful to me in other ways, too.
My time at the archaeology lab coincided with my mother’s mental decline, due to Alzheimer’s disease. Her memory loss haunted me, warning me to make something tangible to account for my life. And yet I was too distracted and distraught to write. This book began to take shape as I recorded details and observations about the lab in my journal and in short blog posts. Four years in, I put these brief pieces together in a narrative essay, “The Pit and the Page.”
But also, during that seven-year period, I had to empty four houses full of objects collected by my declining parents and deceased parents-in-law, and so I thought a lot about why we keep what we keep while we let other things go. This “grief cleaning,” as I call it, is an emotional process. For me, the decision is guided by a familiar visceral feeling that serves me in writing, too: this is something I can use.
NP: You began writing these essays about ten years ago, I think, and they piled onto each other like markings on the map. How different is this collection in its final form from what you might have intended? At what point did you realize you were searching for fragments of your own life—or rather trying to piece them together? Is the composition of the fragments—that is, both the essay collection and the memories redrawn on a map—a satisfying picture or are you still searching and tracing lines?
EM: I actually didn’t intend to write about my volunteer work at the lab, but I’m a curious person and a compulsive notetaker. My supervisor, Deborah Miller, generously shared her expertise, teaching me lab procedures and answering my many questions. And as I took notes, I began to find connections between the work archaeologists do and the work writers do: digging, processing, and repairing the artifacts of experience in order to find meaning. This insight suggested a methodology I could adopt, a lens I could apply to a collection of personal artifacts in order to process my personal loss.
As I went on, my literary interest in archaeology expanded to include contemporary objects and their owners, including the college diaries of classical archaeologist Dorothy Burr Thompson, to explore a larger question: What do salvaged or sacrificed objects reveal about how people form identity, or how a community creates its history? That’s a vein I’m still pursuing.
NP: The chapter “From Scratch,” with its repeated invocation, “let there be…” reads and feels different from the rest of the collection. It is prayerful rather than observational, a search for moral courage of some sort. How important was that invocation to you as you set out to excavate these personal, sometimes beautiful and sometimes painful memories? Did you have to say, please, “let there be words for all of this…”?
EM: Mourning, like writing, is labor—putting severed parts together, restoring order from chaos—but its process is internal and its product often invisible. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve coped with sadness by making things. And so I “processed” my grief over my father’s death by making his favorite rhubarb pie, using a recipe from my grandmother’s 1927 Farmer’s Guide Cook Book that I had already studied as an artifact. I was curious: how much of my ancestors’ knowledge had passed down to me? The pie-making was part ritual, part writing prompt.
I’d read all these scholarly articles by anthropologists on recipes as a form of rhetoric—social narratives that encourage and enact dialogue between the giver and the receiver. Intellectually, I was interested in the idea of a recipe as an “unauthorized” text—communal, reproduced, improvised, revised—that requires creative interpretation including modifications, deletions, substitutions, and experiments that enable the cook to reproduce the text in her own way and thereby claim her creative authority.
But really, I just wanted my father back. And so I ditched the narrative essay I’d drafted, and wrote this raw expression of scorched-earth despair. I wanted the invocation to echo its source in Genesis 1:3, and to sound like a daughter naming and grasping for concrete detail, imagining altered pasts and alternative futures to reorient herself as she writes her way out of the void.
In other words, I honored the emotional component in archaeology. This book of essays is an artifact, forming the record of my midlife reconstitution in the wake of loss.
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.
A Conversation with Stephan Salisbury author of BRITT & JIMMY STRIKE OUT Alternative Book Press, 341 Pages Interview by Sue Laizik
Stephan Salisbury has been a cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer for more than three decades. Britt & Jimmy Strike Out, his first novel, is a dystopian, satirical quest story about branding, live streaming, social media, and commercialization of lived experience. Britt and her friend Jimmy set out into a blighted urban landscape to find answers when Britt’s online brand starts to fail, friends start disappearing, and mysterious men show up at her home to intimidate and threaten her for not getting in line with the President’s brand. Ken Kalfus describes it as the “first great novel of the Trump Era.” Stephan Salisbury is also the author of a non-fiction book Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland about the anti-Arab hysteria after 9/11 and its devastating effect on people’s lives.
Stephan and I had many great conversations about books in the 1980s, when I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer as a clerk for the book review. Years later, we reconnected through (of course) social media. This conversation took place via Google Docs over several days. Following our conversation are two excerpts from Britt & Jimmy Strike Out.—SL
Sue: I know you as a very good investigative and cultural journalist (for over thirty years!), so my first question when I learned you had written a novel was, Why fiction?
Stephan: Yes, I’m still a journalist. All writers who take fiction seriously are journalists of a sort. But instead of reporting on woman found dead in concert hall, they report on what they think about woman found dead in concert hall. Some writers, of course, make their reporting explicit. Dreiser comes to mind. Whereas Proust was shining a light into his own head and reporting what was rattling around inside. Journalism, at least as it’s practiced in newspapers today, is formulaically rigid, and that’s where fiction and the novel, remain alluring. It’s the freedom of the form, rather than the freedom of the subject that’s attractive: in fiction, a writer can do the police in different voices (to quote Dickens); the journalist, not so much. Britt & Jimmy is completely driven by voice, largely Britt’s voice (she is the narrator, after all), but also the cacophony of voices that’s swirling everywhere and swooping in on us, like pesky birds. Journalism remains the foundation for everything I do, though. It keeps the digital self-indulgence from floating away, like an overly gassy blimp.
Sue: I want you to talk about Britt—the novel’s protagonist and narrator—and her voice. (She turns into a bit of an investigative reporter herself.) But, first, some context might be helpful: Explain a little bit about the world of the novel, as well as what you call the “cacophony of voices,” including the voice of the President in the prologue.
Stephan: The novel takes place at an indeterminate time, presumably the future, over the course of one night when Britt and her friend Jimmy are forced to flee from her digs through the streets of the collapsing city. Clearly there has been some catastrophic event in the far past, but its effects—crumbling buildings, gaping sinkholes, ash sifting down everywhere, the obliteration of economic and social life—are far more important than the causes. The physical is giving way to the virtual, the material to the immaterial. This is a world in which everything touchable has been debased and every habitable oasis has been depopulated, scattered, re-worked, and remarketed.
The President and the corps, his network of private partners, preside over this territory, leaving ordinary people to scrabble for a few pennies gained via branding and selling themselves and their wares online, where life is robust and good and, not surprisingly, dominated by the President. Who is he? He is the creation of every imagination in his great country. He is the President, the P, the guy with the biggest, most powerful brand of all. Ride with the President and you move with Presidential speed, the fastest of all speeds. The President, who is the focus of the novel’s opening section, is not unlike an oddly thoughtful frog, watching, tongue at the ready to snap out and snare whatever he seeks to snare. He sits in his bed and reviews the overnights, recounts what may or may not be prophetic dreams, watches various livestreams of himself, conducts millions of simultaneous chats, engages in endless self-promotion, and above all, worries that the overnight numbers might suggest a flagging presidential brand. In such times of stress, the President, as all presidents before him, going back and back into the foggy and unknowable past, launches an outside threat. Nothing welds a populace to its leader better than a decent, old-fashioned threat.
Britt and Jimmy flee Britt’s place because they are visited by two mysterious presidential agents who tell them they and their friends are not pulling along with everyone else in this difficult moment. The President has noticed and identified the disappearance of Britt’s good friend Deb as the reason for disruptions in the smoothly flowing system. Deb had become known as the President’s Girl, the hottest of the hot brands. But she took a wrong turn, her brand disintegrated, and now she has vanished. The agents tell Britt and Jimmy to find her. Britt and Jimmy are fleeing the P and his world in search of Pluto, the ruler of the pits, the city dump where everything goes to die.
Sue: Your answer makes me think of several follow-ups. They all have to do with different elements of the novel, so I’ll just put them out there and let you have a go.
“The physical is giving way to the virtual, the material to the immaterial”: that’s a wonderful description. Yet, the physical world—mise-en-scène—is so vividly realized on the page (which is one of several ways irony is employed in the novel). In what ways was Philadelphia an inspiration for the setting?
Britt is a great narrator and character. She reminds me of a younger, more innocent Oedipa Maas (from Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49). Talk about her character and her voice.
And speaking of characters, the President in Britt & Jimmy Strike Out seems eerily familiar in a way that makes the skin crawl, yet you wrote the book before the 2016 elections. How is that possible?
Stephan: The novel was written before Trump announced his candidacy, but what does Trump represent if not the political culture and the wider forces shaping our world? It’s been almost forty years since Reagan, so his genial corruption and corporate spokesmanship have evolved and ripened, if that’s the right way to put it. Add a huge dollop of the internet with its self-branding, its intense commercialization of everything, its drive to entropy, its nastiness, and—voila!—Trump.
I think that I’m more acutely aware of these kinds of cultural shifts because of the severity of the problems facing newspapers. Newspapers back in the day—a few years ago, lol—were really flags of community. You’re walking down the street, see a paper in a box or on a newsstand and you know exactly where you are. Read it, and you’re reading things that your neighbors are reading. So papers are binders, they tie people together in a shared experience. But digitization works differently. No flag of community. No sign of place on the street. No shared experience with neighbors. Life becomes increasingly fragmented and disembodied. All of the things that have become commonplace in the Trump era were latent before—the ubiquitous branding, the lies and deceptions, the self-aggrandizement, the surveillance, the kleptocratic corporate fascism. All of it. That’s what I picked up on.
Listening to the new online producers at the Inquirer gave me Britt’s voice, by the way. I was struck not so much by the naiveté as the disinterest a lot of these people had in the world and people around them. So I paid attention. Britt is someone who evolves from a kind of pure version of self-marketing to a self-awareness geared toward actual understanding. She moves, I guess you could say, from Fake News to real life. I mean, here she is, living her life, livestreaming everything, and her brand falls apart, her friends disappear, she’s visited by weird emissaries of the President who tell her fantastical stories of people going OFF THE TRACKS! Aunt Rita smothered by tsunamis of waste as she livestreams from the pits! Britt is, to put it mildly, unnerved. She wants to find out more. I guess what distinguishes her is that she doesn’t want to double down on the stuff that got her to such a bad place to begin with.
All that said, I’m still sometimes amazed myself, how much in our daily world now was prefigured in Britt & Jimmy—everything from the use of social media to influence behavior in the election to really specific policies like family separations at the border. Eerily Trumpesque. Philadelphia is absolutely in the book, but the city is all jumbled up, kind of falling over itself. The signs and ghost signs, the fires, the dilapidation—all scream Philadelphia. And there are specific places and people described. The Gurney Boy, the leader and singer for the Nighttime Echoes, really used to be at the corner of 15th and Chestnut Streets, late at night, about forty years ago. The city was empty as an old paper bag back then, but I’d run into him most every night about two in the morning. It’s a city, you know.
Sue: I know you have thought a lot about the cultural shifts and the (d)evolving political climate, as is apparent in much of your writing, not just this novel. It’s there in much of your journalism, in your previous (non-fiction) book, Mohamed’s Ghosts, and, hilariously, in your satirical blogCSI: American Carnage, a daily narrative commentary on the current administration and politics. There have been a couple times when your blog has narrated events before they happened, which is impressive given how unpredictable the goings-on in Washington have been. Talk about the blog.
Sue: I notice the CSI: American Carnage “editors” took over your response to that last question midway. Did that shift happen consciously? Between the blog, your journalism, your fiction, and other writings, you have many voices. Talk about yourself as a writer and difficulties you’ve encountered in writing (especially the novel).
Stephan: As I mentioned, voice drives a story. If you have voices, they can overcome even a lackluster story. I learned that as a kid. Look at something like Catcher in the Rye. It really is a weak book—except for Holden’s voice. It keeps younger readers enthralled. Voice is what draws readers to Dickens over and over again. I’m surely not in that league, but the lesson is a good one. Inhabit the voice and you can get into all the fancy restaurants. Actually, writing Britt & Jimmy, the trickiest part was melding the virtual and the actual. Or is it the other way around? There are many scenes in which what is happening online takes on a very real presence. For instance, when B&J stumble upon Briggs’ outpost store on the far edge of the city. The encounter seems to include some kind of missile attack which leaves Britt and Jimmy sprawling in the street. Does it really? Or when they are resting by the side of the road and a parade of gimpy soldiers staggers by, followed by a wave of rodents, which morphs into an actual parade reminiscent of one held in Philadelphia, followed, at last, by a VICTORY parade celebrating the End of the Burning Season! All is narrated on camera by Britt and Jimmy who are, in fact, watching from the side of the road. If I’m successful for readers, it all blends together, seamlessly. Such mashups lead to some of the funniest parts of the book; and we need that kind of laughter.
The parade scene Stephan mentioned in his final comments is a good illustration of the melding of the virtual and the actual along with other aspects of the novel that came up during our conversation. Jimmy and Britt, far along in their journey, are on a deserted, dilapidated street when an incongruous line of wounded soldiers followed by a frightening mass of rats pass by. Britt has used the camera on her pad to stream the procession live with voiceover. Logging on to Britt’s site with their pads, Britt and Jimmy see that Britt’s video is looping (and getting many “hits”). After a disruption, the video starts over yet again on her site. The beginning is the same, but the parade that follows has been transformed into something else entirely. The actual is subsumed by the virtual in this excerpt:
I still have the pad in my hand. My stream opens up again. There is the street we’re on.
Jimmy, the stream is back up on my site.
A rhythmic metallic sound begins faintly and grows louder. There’s the cloud of dust rolling toward us, must be the gimpy soldiers. Do I want to watch this? Do I want to see all that again, the great rodent ocean?
We are beyond the Ville, I hear myself say, just as I said before, that’s my VO! The cam is still focused down the street, in the direction of the sound.
The streets have been empty, I say. But this is happening now. You are seeing this as we do.
Far down the street on the screen I see small figures, sheathed in white, marching along, the gimpy, blood soaked guys with the white headbands? No, no gimpy guys. No band of brothers. They come closer and I see they are little ghosts from a children’s tale, the diminutive white-sheeted dead. The front rows bear enormous banners uplifted on poles:
Triumph Over Occupation!
Then behind it:
Little Caesars Sporting Club
End of the Burning Season
And the last:
I hear myself saying, Here comes the Victory Parade right now.
That is my voice!
We are reporting directly from the WHBS Studios, or I should say, the street, where these events are being beamed to you live. The Caesars have just come into view, right on schedule. Aren’t they darling, James?
Indeed, says Jimmy’s voice. This is one of my favorite moments in the celebration, he says. The Caesars have been presenting their colors for, what? As long as anyone can remember, that’s for sure. And they are always a treat, Brittany. Here they are with their balloons, folks! Let’s watch.
The ghastly little buggers glide by us like oil slicks, their white coverings completely concealing whatever might be inside, if anything. They could be little rat automatons for all we know. Their banners have precise lettering, as though stenciled in laser labs. The Caesars fill the street, a moving rectangle, a wavy white flag of twisted anonymity. The dead.
This passage illustrates the zeitgeist of the novel world. An authority figure uses a cautionary tale to teach about the potentially fatal dangers of going off-message and losing focus on one’s brand. In the end, video images are buried and mourned instead of an actual person.
Finally, one day, I’ll never forget, she’s streaming from down in the pits—actually in the pits!—and one of the Nutri-Waste chutes opens up and masses of plugs come hurtling all around, a load showers down like brackish hail. It overwhelmed her, knocked her silly, and her vidstream gets jumpy and frazzly and then blotchy and then nothing. Dark.
They never found her, he says. Not WRMS, not Sentry, no one. And for what? For what did she do it?
I don’t know, I say. For her site? For her fans? Revs?
Sheesh, Morrie says. Her site? Her revs? Here’s what: she lost her focus, she lost her fans, she even lost her feed, her micros, and she lost her whole self. And we lost Aunt Rita. All we had left was her jerky final stream, which we buried in our own plot, with services and all. Buried images of Auntie Rita buried in a looping shower of digested plugs—that’s all that was left for us. There was upset in the family. Upset for all who followed her. It was a long time before all that subsided, before the perplexities washed away, and there are still questions that come into Central about it. Poor Aunt Rita. And it was all so unnecessary.
Sue Laizik is a reader living on Long Island, NY. In addition to her stint at the PhiladelphiaInquirer, she has worked in publishing, IT, and academic administration. She also attended graduate school in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and taught English at Columbia and Barnard Colleges. She currently tutors high school students studying for the college-entrance exams.
Ada Limón is the author of several poetry books, including the National Book Award finalist Bright Dead Things, which was named one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by the New York Times. This year Limón released her fifth book, The Carrying, to wide acclaim, including being named a Best Book of Fall 2018 by Buzzfeed. Since the release of The Carrying, Limón has been traveling extensively for poetry events but was able to take some time out for Cleaver to discussthe new bookand aspects of craft in her poetry. She lives in Lexington Kentucky. —Grant Clauser
Grant Clauser: All of your books, including the new one, include some mix of past events and present. Does a certain amount of time/space between events and the writing about the events affect your approach to it?
Ada Limón: Sometimes I write right in the white heat of the moment. Sometimes I need to do that just to work through what I’m trying to process. Other times I wait and need significant distance. Usually, the perspective changes with time. Writing about the present moment allows some freedom, however; there’s a familiarity with the moment that doesn’t need to be unearthed so the poem can come from a very authentic place without much need for research or personal mining of a certain event.
GC: When you wrote Bright Dead Things you worked for a media company (I think) in New York City. How did the change in environments from NYC to Kentucky affect the writing of your newer poems?
AL: I was actually already living in Kentucky by the time I wrote Bright Dead things, but I had just left New York. I was the Creative Services Director for Travel + Leisure Magazine. Moving to Kentucky gave me two much-needed things: time and space. My writing changed significantly because I was able to have long moments of silence and breath. I was also surrounded by wild things, green trees, grasses. The landscape gave me a new mode of writing.
GC: In the new book, noticed recurring images of recovery, repair, rebuilding, remaking (such as in “Dandelion Insomnia”). Did that kind of theme-building happen spontaneously or does that come to the surface once you begin sorting poems into a manuscript?
AL: I think you’re right about those themes, and I do think they occur naturally. It’s usually because there is something big that I am going through. I am feeling some overwhelming need or question and the poems reflect it. Even when I’m unaware of what the I’m processing, the poems tell me. When the book starts to come together I look at what it is that I’ve been writing toward, and then I’ll start to give myself prompts so that I can go deeper into those themes—push myself further.
Naming is really important to me because I think when we name things we are more tender to them, we care about them, we understand them better. But I am also very aware of the hubris of naming things.
GC: The Carrying opens with a poem in which Eve is naming animals and ends with you thinking to yourself about the name of a bird. In between, there are other instances of naming or coming to know things. Is naming a kind of understanding or a kind of possessing or does it mean something different in your work?
AL: Naming is really important to me because I think when we name things we are more tender to them, we care about them, we understand them better. But I am also very aware of the hubris of naming things. Who are we to reach out and name something without language? I think that’s why I see the Eve in the poem trying to get the animals to name her, she realizes that they may have more wisdom.
GC: In “The Last Drop” which comes almost at the end of the book, there’s a feeling of resolve–that even the struggles in life are good. Could you talk about that and how it fits in the scope of the book? (one of my favorite poems in the book, by the way)
AL: Thank you! I wanted to get to a place where I was accepting of the mess and whirl of my world. That poem is all true, and I was feeling overwhelmed by everything: the horrid disease of Alzheimer’s, the death of my husband’s ex-girlfriend, her cats we were adopting, all of it was so much. And a month before our wedding, so this prose poem was a way for me to accept and absorb all of that without being too overwhelmed by it, it gave me a place to put it and a way to talk about it. I’m glad you like that poem; it’s one of my favorites too.
GC: This book shows a wide variety of lines lengths and stanza choices. Some are dense and some use a lot of open space, but the single stanza poem and couplets seem to be used most frequently. What attracts you to those forms, and how do they work differently for you?
AL: You know, I am always guided by what the poem wants. The poems that want to be slower have shorter line breaks, and the poems that want to be faster have long lines, the fastest are prose poems. The couplets usually are quieter, and they tend to be dialogues of a sort. I love working with form. My first book has a crown of sonnets. I’m interested in how form can both constrain and free you at the same time. It allows for each poem to operate differently.
GC: In “The Leash” and other poems there’s a kind of snowball effect (more in the single stanza poems than others) where the poem gathers emotional weight as it rolls down the hill. I imagine the hardest part of that kind of poem is how to end it. What are the challenges you go through in that kind of composition?
It’s easy—or rather satisfying—to always make the endings big and really stick the landing, but you need to stay true to the poem and make sure you’re responding to what you’ve already written, not what you had in your mind.
AL: Ah yes, you are not wrong about that, it’s all about the ending with the poems that have a certain kind of momentum or guided unraveling. The biggest challenge I face with poems like “The Leash” or “Bust” or “Dead Boy” is trying to make sure that everything is working together and that any tangent you go on still brings you back to the core of the poem. And then, of course, the ending, it’s easy—or rather satisfying—to always make the endings big and really stick the landing, but you need to stay true to the poem and make sure you’re responding to what you’ve already written, not what you had in your mind. You have to listen to the poem at that point and follow the poem’s instincts and not force an ending that might feel inauthentic.
GC: The poem “Trying” travels an obstacle course of subjects and emotions to get to a kind of resolve. What’s the key to maintaining control in a poem that operates like that? Or is control not even a consideration?
AL: I think it’s less about control there and more about release. “Trying” is a very natural poem, so that it has to feel like it’s effortless—even though of course it’s not—and it has to move in a way that feels like the mind moving. So you have to let go a little, allow the poem just to be and not worry it away. Poems that take place in the world of the now and the world of the body can easily get won over by the mind, so it’s more about releasing them before the mind turns it all into an intellectual project.
Marie Howe once told me that a teacher had told her: don’t listen when they say your work is no good and don’t listen when they say it’s great.
GC: In “American Pharaoh” the line “racing against nothing but himself” seems prescient to other moments in the book—that you can be successful when you measure yourself against yourself, not the judges, not the other horses, not society. That seems like a good lesson for everyone, but could that be especially important for poets who are constantly measuring their success against others?
AL: Oh I think any time we can have a lesson about not measuring ourselves against others, it will be highly beneficial. For the most part, I think the poets I love and admire are always trying to out-do their last poem, they want to get better, to get deeper, smarter, realer at all times. But, of course, when awards get listed or prizes come out, it’s easy for any artist to feel that sting of failure or ache of envy, but none of that tends to serve us. None of that is why we write. We write to connect, we write to figure out the meaning of life, to feel better about our world, our being, we write to make sense of the mess, to question, to rail against something, we write to save ourselves (sometimes from ourselves). So in some ways, you’re very correct in drawing that parallel between poets and the horse, our only enemy is time itself.
When awards get listed or prizes come out, it’s easy for any artist to feel that sting of failure or ache of envy, but none of that tends to serve us. None of that is why we write.
GC: Can you tell us one of the best bits of writing advice you’ve received from a teacher, mentor or friend?
AL: Marie Howe once told me that a teacher had told her: don’t listen when they say your work is no good and don’t listen when they say it’s great. Which I think is very true once you’ve reached a certain amount of success. And it makes me keep my head down and do the work. Nikky Finney once told me, at a particularly tumultuous time of my life, “know the elders are there doing what they do and be at great peace.” I think of that often too. These help me a great deal because they are both about trust and surrender, and I know I need that. I need to surrender and I need to trust this work. This work that is such a privilege to get to do in the first place.
Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of four poetry books, Reckless Constellations, The Magician’s Handbook, Necessary Myths and The Trouble with Rivers. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. He works for a New York media company and teaches poetry at random places. Find him @uniambic. Email craft essay queries to [email protected].
A Conversation with Nathaniel Popkin author of EVERYTHING IS BORROWED
published by New Doors Books Interview by Grant Clauser
Nathaniel Popkin, Cleaver Magazine’s fiction reviews editor, published a new novel this year, Everything Is Borrowed (New Door Books). It draws deeply from his love of Philadelphia history and his passion for research, but is also a compelling story about one person’s obsessions and regrets. In addition to the new novel, he’s the editor of a new anthology, Who Will Speak for America, author of the novel Lion and Leopard, and three books of non-fiction, Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, Song of the City, and The Possible City. We recently asked Popkin to talk to us about Everything is Borrowed.—Grant Clauser
Grant Clauser: In your new book, Everything is Borrowed, the city of Philadelphia is as much a character in the book as the people. How is infusing a city with personality different from developing a human character?
Nathaniel Popkin: Novelists struggle to compose characters who are complex but also readable. That is, a character should not be so contradictory that she doesn’t make sense. A city, on the other hand, is intrinsically contradictory and almost impossible to figure. Its personality is some kind of amalgamation of built form, size, scale, and of course the people who animate and imprint themselves on it. The imprinting to me is the way to figure the city as a character. To what extent can a character imprint herself on the city, and how so? What form does it take? Or is it impossible? How does a city reveal these (even minute) imprints, how does it store and reveal memories? Or maybe it doesn’t at all. In my first (non-fiction) book, Song of the City, I worked up an urban concept, that a city, or its parts, exists on a scale between the infinite and the parochial (the infinite city is cold and unimpressionable but also wide open, the parochial city smothering and malleable but also nurturing). I invented the concept after reading the novel The War of the Saints by Jorge Amado, in which Salvador de Bahía through its intensely parochial Carnival grants the main character infinite freedom to be and to express. So one way to figure the city’s personality is using the scale between infinite and parochial.
The city in Everything is Borrowed is figured in the accumulation of layers—in physical form and in mind and memory (the layers forming in the tension between the infinite and the parochial). This accumulation is its most tangible characteristic and it mirrors the mind of the main character.
GC: There are several different storylines running throughout the book, some even on different timelines, yet you weave them in and out through each other. Did they evolve at the same time as you were crafting the story, and how did you decide on their intersection points?
NP: This is the formal experiment of the novel—to present the historical past, the recent past, and the present all in the present tense. This written form is the analog to the city’s mounting layers, which collect and store all of it. The intersections came quite naturally as I wrote the book in one gesture. For this reason, I’ve found it hard to choose passages to read at book events—the main character Nicholas Moscowitz passes through fields of time sometimes all in one paragraph or page. I’ve always worried this would be confusing for a reader confronted with only a small section of text. Yet because the time fields shift naturally (at least I hope) they come to form a dreamscape to mirror the cityscape and Nicholas’s inner life.
GC: Again, thinking about timelines–it seems to me that the mind naturally exists outside of linear time. Our thoughts constantly wonder from the past to present to future. What are the challenges of working that kind of flux in a novel?
NP: The most obvious challenge is that it could be frustrating for the reader: hard to follow, annoying, distracting. Sometimes a writer wants to announce a form—the form becomes the subject of the book; it’s meant to be visible (and sometimes those novels break ground and sometimes they’re insufferable). In some sense this is what’s happening in Everything is Borrowed for all of the reasons described above. But Nicholas is an architect, the kind who believes that the best design is invisible. In a meta sense and as the architect of the novel, I agree. The natural movement among these mental time fields should feel intrinsic to the character’s experience.
There’s danger in a novelist trying to replicate human life too carefully—the result is flat, airless. The best dialog, for example, doesn’t reveal how people really speak. The same for the wandering thoughts.
Another thing: there’s danger in a novelist trying to replicate human life too carefully—the result is flat, airless. The best dialog, for example, doesn’t reveal how people really speak. The same for the wandering thoughts. To replicate that manifestation of a person’s inner life would destroy the text’s capacity to move the reader.
GC: As the novel progresses, Nicholas gets drawn increasingly deeper into the rabbit hole of history, as well as the rabbit hole of his own life. Did you feel their same draw as you were researching for the tale? Is there any danger for a novel (or novelist) that draws so strongly on history that one might get lost in it?
NP: I did much of the research that Nicholas does, but I did so with a different and more distant sense of curiosity. I did it as a novelist searching for serendipitous moments, for ways to move the plot, for ways to deliver the atmosphere the novel needed. I did it to build Nicholas’s world.
On the other hand, a critique I often hear is that the novel goes too deep into history—and maybe that’s because I was blinded by discovery. So in this way, yes, there’s danger—you might lose the storyline. On the other hand, a novel emerges out of some kind of strange obsession.
GC: As Nicholas learns more about the history of that part of Philadelphia, and more about the history of the people, he seems to learn more about himself. The external and internal discoveries parallel each other. Do you think that’s one way the mind works—that focusing on a goal outside ourselves can bring about different ends? Sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting?
NP: Maybe it’s a novelistic trope to have a character learning about himself by seeking something else. But Nicholas is seeking himself, even if he doesn’t know it. He’s pawing at an itch, pawing and pawing. But to answer your question directly, I think the mind is constantly imbibing the world, digesting and adjusting to it—and you never know how something drunk one day will seep in another. It must be a dynamic process.
GC: On one level this is a story about avoiding truths as much as digging them up (or realizing them). Why does avoiding something in front of your face seem to also trigger another discovery? Is it nature that eventually brings a person around full circle?
NP: Oh yes, repression never really works does it? You can’t really erase or avoid or ignore. Whatever’s lurking there will find a way to make itself known—because you need it to. Nicholas needs to deal with his own personal memory, his own sense of shame. But I don’t believe in the full circle. Who knows where it will take him? Maybe not full circle. The novel ends before the end; Eva is returning, that’s all we know. And Nadia? Nicholas comes full circle in terms of some plot developments but emotionally we aren’t sure where all this will lead. I’m not sure there are ever clean resolutions.
GC: Anarchy plays a significant role in this book. How did you come upon the story of the anarchist Moskowitz (I’m assuming he’s real) and why did you choose to build a story around him and that movement?
NP: I came upon the story of the anarchist Moskowitz in the same place Nicholas does—the history book by Harry Boonin. I read the story of Moskowitz carrying out his Yom Kippur protest in a physical place quite well known to me and his subsequent transformation to be president of the Holy Burial Society and I was fascinated (reading the passage was one of the seeds of this book). I put it away until I had the right character, whose own issues found resonance with the anarchist Moskowitz’s.
Moskowitz was an immigrant anarchist at the end of the 19th century and so I had to do quite a lot of research into that time—and the world and ideas of anarchists. This led to a significant thematic exploration of the book, between anarchists who in popular imagination tear down and architects who in popular imagination build up. In the world of this book if not in real life, though, anarchists espouse a philosophy of building organic community without state interference—almost in exact opposition to conventional wisdom—and architects, who all too often are the ones, out of ego or desires of the marketplace, to tear down.
GC: What are the greatest pleasures you get out of writing a novel?
NP: The chance to compose music, to rupture language toward the ineffable, to pose questions.
[Philadelphia] is a remarkable city for an artist because the eyes remained fixed on the ground, with the people, and not in the stars (only Calvino could make real art out of the stars). It is a remarkable city for the triumphs and scars that it bears, for its humanity and humility. And, of course, it’s cheap, relatively speaking, always good for an artist.
GC: What do you like best about Philadelphia? Is it a good city for an artist?
NP: It is a remarkable city for an artist because the eyes remained fixed on the ground, with the people, and not in the stars (only Calvino could make real art out of the stars). It is a remarkable city for the triumphs and scars that it bears, for its humanity and humility. And, of course, it’s cheap, relatively speaking, always good for an artist.
Another thing: it is a dynamic place, more dynamic than I think I would have said previously, and that creates the currents for art and literature.
GC: One of your many roles is as an editor of the website Hidden City Philadelphia. How does that work overlap or influence your literary work?
NP: My experience of the city feeds everything, even in my work for Cleaver as a book review editor. The city is a text to read, and actually to be read in various languages. As a writer, I enjoy playing with subjects and themes. So one subject I wrote about as a journalist and then incorporated into the essay-photo book Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City also appears in a fictional form in Everything is Borrowed. Maybe better to say, for me, everything is related.
GC: In addition to your new novel, You’ve also recently co-edited an anthology called Who Will Speak for America? Can you tell us a little about that?
NP: The multi-genre anthology Who Will Speak for America? confronts the rising nativism and corruption of the Trump era with voices of reason, despair, and hope. With co-editor Stephanie Feldman, we sought to gather a wide range of contemporary America literary voices to answer a question originally posed by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan in her 1976 address to the Democratic National Convention. In the speech, she stated, in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam:
Many may fear the future. Many are distrustful of their leaders, and believe that their voices ar never heard. Many seek only to satisfy their private work—wants; to satisfy their private interests. But this is the great danger America faces—that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual; each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?
The Congresswoman used the question to inspire people to stand up for America’s cherished ideals of liberty and justice for all. A few of our contributors took the question this same way, while others addressed the corruption of those ideals. But to most, Jordan’s question was a call to be heard, as Trump and his allies seek to limit who can call themselves American–targeting refugees, asylees, immigrants, and even naturalized citizens. For many, claiming American identity is an act of bravery. This, after all, is the tradition of American writing: to widen the meaning of “American” by writing our freedoms, challenging their limitations, and defining for ourselves the future.
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.
Poetry craft essays editor Grant Clauser is the author of four poetry books, Necessary Myths (Broadkill River Press 2013) and The Trouble with Rivers (Foothills Publishing 2012), The Magician’s Handbook (PS Books, 2018) and Reckless Constellations (Cider Press Review Books, 2018). In 2010 he was named the Montgomery County Poet Laureate by Robert Bly. In 2014 he was a guest poet at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Gargoyle, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. He also writes about electronics, teaches poetry at random places and chases trout with a stick. His blog is www.uniambic.com. Email craft essay queries to [email protected].
A Conversation with Melissa Sarno author of JUST UNDER THE CLOUDS published by Knopf Books for Young Readers Interview by Kathryn Kulpa
Melissa Sarno reviews children’s and young adult books for Cleaver and has just published her debut middle-grade novel, Just Under the Clouds (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2018). It tells the story of Cora, a middle-school girl trying to find a place to belong. Cora’s father always made her feel safe, but now that he has died, she and her mom and her sister Adare have been moving from place to place, trying to find a stable and secure home they can afford. Cora is also dealing with bullying at school and is sometimes challenged by looking after her sister, who has learning differences. But her life holds some good things, too, like a free-spirited new friend and her father’s tree journal, where he kept notes about the plants he took care of. Cora has kept his book and uses it as a way to record her own observations and feelings as she looks for her own true home in the world.
While many children experience homelessness, it’s a subject that is seldom explored in contemporary children’s fiction, and Melissa Sarno has given these children a voice that speaks from the heart. The Horn Book Magazine called Just Under the Clouds a “thought-provoking debut about the meaning of home and the importance of family,” and Kirkus Reviews praised it as “troubling, affecting, and ultimately uplifting.”
I had the chance to speak with Melissa recently about Just Under the Clouds and her journey as a first-time novelist.—Kathryn Kulpa
Kathryn Kulpa: First, I’d like to congratulate you on the publication of your first novel! I’m sure it’s been a journey of many steps. Can you talk about some of the exciting moments along the way? Did you find an agent first? When did you get the news that Just Under the Clouds was going to be published, and how did you feel?
Melissa Sarno: Thanks so much, Kathryn! It’s been a long journey and I’m thrilled that my debut novel is finally out in the world.
I wrote three novels over the course of eight years before writing Just Under the Clouds; two that never found an agent and one that was submitted to publishers but never sold. Shortly after that experience, my first agent left the business. So, it was a huge and happy moment when I found a new agent who was enthusiastic about this book. She has been the perfect advocate for my work.
I learned that Just Under the Clouds had sold when my agent called to share the offers from the book’s auction. I heard the news while my then two-year-old son was tantrumming in the middle of the parking lot at the playground (imagine one hand holding the phone, the other trying to hold him up while he screamed and went body-limp on the pavement, refusing to leave.) When I finally got home to sit with the news, he napped and I cried (happy tears) all by myself because I had just moved to a new town and I literally knew no one. There was barely even any furniture in my home! Soon after my agent sent me a photo of a little blooming tree. My editor had sent it to her for me because Just Under the Clouds features a tree. I knew it was the beginning of something really lovely in my life. I’ll never forget that moment of knowing things were about to bloom.
KK: On your website, you talk about writing ‘secret stories’ for years, starting as a kid. I can relate! Did any of those stories make it into this novel? Do you have others that you have, or may want to publish?
I wonder how many of us wrote “secret” stories as kids. I wrote a lot as a child and I still have many of those stories in notebooks and binders.
MS: I wonder how many of us wrote “secret” stories as kids. I wrote a lot as a child and I still have many of those stories in notebooks and binders. None of those ideas made it into Just Under the Clouds. But my next book, A Swirl of Ocean, which will be out next summer, actually features a strange neighbor I had as a kid. We called her Turtle Lady, because she kept pet turtles in her backyard. I had a lot of weird interactions with her throughout my life. Truth is always stranger than fiction and I can’t tell you how many times I have written pieces of her story over the years (my first attempt was when I was 14.) I’m happy she has finally found a place in this book.
KK: One of the things that really struck me about Just Under the Clouds was that there isn’t just one way to be homeless. I think many of us tend to think of “the homeless” as a permanent group of people who may be older, mentally ill, and/or substance abusers. But Cora and her family challenge those stereotypes. They’re not actually living on the streets. Maybe you’d characterize them more as “housing insecure.” They have places to stay, but not the safety and stability we usually associate with “home.” Can you talk about how you came to write about Cora? Any research, personal experience, or people you met that inspired these characters?
MS: When I first starting writing Cora’s story, I had intended to write about a city girl who loved to climb trees. As I tried to understand why she gravitated toward trees, I came to understand that I was writing about a girl who was looking for stability and permanence, which led me to write about a child seeking home.
Cora’s story is not based on personal experience or anyone’s experience I know. But I did talk to some friends who experienced homelessness as children and I read Invisible Child by Andrea Elliott in the NYTimes. That powerful and heartbreaking piece about a homeless girl in New York City really opened my eyes to that experience and I learned that I had a lot of misconceptions about homelessness that fit the stereotypes you mention here. Unfortunately, many more families live the way Cora’s family does, moving from place to place struggling to find that safety and security.
KK: I love how Cora keeps her father’s tree notebook and how this keeps her connected to his memory and gives her a way to map her own life. Was the notebook always a part of the story?
MS: Yes, the notebook was always part of the story. I wanted Cora to have a way to connect to her father through his field journal. It becomes a place for Cora to make sense of the world around her, through art and through tracking and surveying trees and plants around Brooklyn.
KK: And speaking of trees, the use of the “tree of heaven” and the urban setting made me think of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Was it a deliberate homage? Was that a book that influenced you as a young writer?
MS: It’s funny, I always felt that Just Under the Clouds was connected to my love of The Secret Garden and the ways we can help one another grow. I was even going to have Cora love that book but I felt it was a little too on the nose.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn must have been rattling around in my subconscious for a long time because I read Betty Smith’s beautiful book when I was a teenager. It wasn’t until my editor said, “isn’t the “tree of heaven” the same tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?” that I even made the connection. I remember running to my bookshelf and frantically re-reading the first few chapters for the first time in two decades. I thought, well, I’ve created an homage whether I meant to or not! Talk about on the nose!
KK: As an adult reader, it was hard not to feel, at times, that Cora’s mother’s determination not to accept help from her friend, Willa (with the subway pass, for example, or Adare’s learning differences) was hurting Cora and Adare or putting them at risk. I sensed she had her own complicated backstory—one Cora wouldn’t know. Would you like to talk a little more about this aspect of the story?
MS: Cora learns a little bit about her mother throughout the story but I do imagine that her mother has a more complex backstory. She has lost her husband and, with that loss, an entire support system. She alludes to the fact that there is no one to lean on where she grew up. And her oldest friend, Willa, doesn’t approve of her life choices (her career as an artist or the man she married) so it’s hard for her to let Willa in. That pride felt important for me to uphold, even if it might lead her to making choices others might not agree with. I hope that readers recognize her fierce love for her children and empathize with her plight.
KK:If a child Cora’s age who is experiencing homelessness reads this book, what would you hope they would take away from it?
MS: I hope it allows all readers to question or redefine their concept of home and see that they are deeply connected to the world around them in different ways. And I hope it helps those who need the mirror of this experience feel less alone.
KK: Who are some children’s or YA authors that have been important to you? Were there some books that really resonated with you as a child or teen?
MS: As I mentioned, I always loved classics like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables. As a kid, my favorite author was Cynthia Voigt, who has written many books for children, including the Tillerman cycle. That series was the first realistic fiction about contemporary life I remember reading. I also love children’s authors Ali Benjamin, Jaqueline Woodson, Kate DiCamillo, Gary D. Schmidt, Rita Williams Garcia, and Rebecca Stead because they show me what’s possible when writing for young readers
KK: I see that you have a new book coming out next year. Is it about the same characters? Can you tell us something about it?
MS:A Swirl of Ocean will be out next summer and it’s a separate standalone novel for young readers. It’s about an adopted girl who swallows the ocean to understand something about who she is and where she came from. It’s all about dreams, and secrets, and the surprising ways we are all connected.
Melissa Sarno is a freelance writer and editor with an MFA in screenwriting. She lives in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York with her family. Just Under the Clouds, her debut novel for middle grade readers, is out now. Read more about her at melissasarno.com.
Author Photo: Katie Burnett
Kathryn Kulpa was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her flash chapbook Girls on Film (Paper Nautilus) and received the First Series Award in Short Fiction for her story collection Pleasant Drugs(Mid-List Press). Her work has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, and Evansville Review, and she serves as flash fiction editor for Cleaver magazine. Kathryn leads writing workshops in public libraries throughout Rhode Island and has been a visiting writer at Wheaton College. She was born in a small state, and she writes short stories.
A Conversation with Janet Benton
author of LILLI DE JONG
published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Interview by Colleen Davis
Janet Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong, has received praise from critics and readers alike. Kirkus Reviews called the book a “monumental accomplishment.” Both National Public Radio (NPR) and Library Journal recognized it as a Best Book of 2017. Lilli de Jong was also a 2017 Goodreads semifinalist for Best Historical Fiction, sharing space on the list with works by Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Chabon and Jennifer Egan. Read Joanne Green’s Cleaver review here.
While this is Benton’s first published novel, she has maintained a presence in metropolitan Philadelphia through years of work as a writer and editor. Her pieces have been published in magazines and newspapers (including the New York Times “Modern Love” column), and she’s taught writing at four universities. She also serves as a mentor and teacher at The Word Studio, a creative center that’s been a talent incubator for local writers. While the triumph of her first novel may look like an overnight success, her achievements are the product of decades of diligent effort. Benton’s mastery of craft elevates the tale of Lilli de Jong to a tour-de-force that harkens back to the great Victorian novels, which continue to transform college students into aspiring writers.—Colleen Davis
Colleen Davis:Thank you for meeting with me today. I’d like to start by saying congratulations. Critics and readers have applauded your wonderful book, Lilli de Jong. I’ve looked at a lot of the reviews, and I’m wondering whether or not you were surprised by any reactions you got back from readers.
Janet Benton: Yes, there has been one surprising reaction. It never occurred to me that the presence of breastfeeding in a book about newborns and wet nursing would seem out of place to some people. I actually find it amusing. If you’ve ever nursed a newborn, you know nursing happens quite often—not to mention that, at times, Lilli was nursing two newborns! I barely mentioned breastfeeding compared to the number of times it would have had to happen. But then other people said the descriptions of breastfeeding were one of the strengths of the book. There aren’t many books that really describe breastfeeding. A lot of mothers have told me how grateful they are for how I highlighted that relationship.
…people said the descriptions of breastfeeding were one of the strengths of the book. There aren’t many books that really describe breastfeeding. A lot of mothers have told me how grateful they are for how I highlighted that relationship.
CD: Did the book find any new audiences that you hadn’t thought about when you were writing it? I’m asking partly because, as a person who has never breastfed a child, I could still really relate to Lilli’s struggle over having to make a decision about caring for her child or entrusting it to someone else. I think many caregivers in our society find themselves faced with similar questions.
JB: Readers who have adopted children told me they felt really moved to consider the situations of mothers who give up a child. And some people who have never had children have written to say that they were grateful to be plunged so viscerally into the experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood. Men have said the same thing, that they were glad to be put in close contact with those physical and emotional experiences. And as you point out, so many of us are giving ongoing care to people we love, in so many circumstances. This work is crucial and irreplaceable, yet it’s the most undervalued work in our society.
CD: The book examines a woman’s experience in great detail. What has been the response from male readers? Do you have a large male audience reading the book as well?
JB: It’s a disturbing, well-known fact that, in general, men read few books written by women, whereas women—particularly while growing up, in English classes—rarely read books not written by male writers. If you look at the books that win prizes, too, there is some sad data showing that books written by men with male protagonists win the majority of prizes every year. I’m a woman, and I wrote a book with a female protagonist. Most of my readers have been women. Yet the men who have read it have been quite affected by it…. and others buy it for women in their lives.
CD: On the heels of your achievement, you were asked to interview the celebrated author Isabel Allende. How did that come about?
JB: I was invited to be a part of the Author Series at the Free Library [of Philadelphia]. After that interview, I was in correspondence with Andy Kahan, who runs the series. I told him that I love interviewing people, and if there was ever an author he needed an interviewer for, I’d be available. He wrote back immediately, asking, “How about Isabel Allende?” I was thrilled.
CD: Wow, impressive! Did any of her observations have special resonance for you?
JB: Yes. She described her writing process in ways I thought were useful and interesting. Once she has an initial, rough idea, she does a lot of research. Then, she said, “I try to tell the story from the belly, not from the brain. Let it be. Let it come. And then the editing, the correcting time comes, and that’s very cerebral . . . .I think that my mind works in circles and spirals, never in a straight line. I just go around and around, and sometimes the circle starts getting smaller and smaller, until finally I sort of get the story.” I love knowing that, after thirty-five years of writing and twenty-three published books, she understands the phases of her process as both linear—research, writing, revising—and nonlinear—a gradual tightening of a circle of ideas.
When I did bring it to the market and tried to find an agent and a publisher, it all happened very quickly, because I had worked extraordinarily hard. I estimate it took about eight thousand hours to research and write the novel.
CD:Could you talk a little bit about your “overnight success” with Lilli de Jong and how long that process took?
JB: I’ve been writing ever since I was able to write. I went to graduate school for fiction writing, and I’ve been writing and editing for others for my entire career. I’d started several novels and never finished one. I was never obsessed enough to spend that many hours, in addition to working and having a family. But this story just meant so much to me that I was willing to give up a lot of other things over the course of many years in order to finish it. When I did bring it to the market and tried to find an agent and a publisher, it all happened very quickly, because I had worked extraordinarily hard. I estimate it took about eight thousand hours to research and write the novel.
CD:Roughly how many years passed between inception and publication of the book?
JB: The very first glimmer of the idea came to me in the summer of 2003. The book was sold in July 2015, and it was published in hardcover twenty-two months later, in May 2017. It’s also out in audio, e-book, and large-print editions.
CD: During that twelve-year period, you went through different phases of story development, including research, drafting, and editing. Can you talk about those phases and which of those was the hardest for you?
JB: The hardest thing for me was getting the whole story out from start to finish. After having the initial idea and writing a pile of paragraphs, I began to research. I started reading about unwed mothers and wet nurses in general. I’m very grateful to the historians who’ve gathered that information and shared their understandings. I read contemporary books about women who had given away children, too. I re-read some of my Victorian favorites, like Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Scarlet Letter. I read Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela and Clarissa.
I also read as many historical documents as I could. I tried to read diaries from the time, but often people’s handwriting was difficult to decipher. I went to a historical society to read some diaries, but I could hardly read the handwriting. Luckily many printed books from the late nineteenth century have been scanned and are available as PDFs, so I was able to download an array of books . . . housekeeping advice, the laws and regulations for the city of Philadelphia, memoirs, lists of charitable institutions, guides for working with the poor, and much more.
CD: What was difficult about drafting the first chapters? Was it creating the plot itself?
JB: No, it was making sure everything was historically accurate: What babies wore, where the characters might be living, how servants might behave, how they would dress, how a charity for unwed mothers might be run and by whom, and on and on. You can’t take anything for granted. Take something as simple as the word backyard: Did they even have backyards? Did that term mean then what it does now? I subscribed to the online Oxford English Dictionary and used it a great deal. For example, if I said that something gave Lilli a jolt, I’d need to check—was that word used prior to the invention of electricity? You have to interrogate every single word, every metaphor. Not to mention every physical object in the book. What foods did they cook? I found recipes and menus. I found a book from the 1880s on hackney carriage fares. All of those things are, as far as I could tell, accurate to the time. I created entirely made-up characters, but I put them in a container that was as accurate as I could make it.
CD: Lilli is a great character. She’s smart and plucky and very persistent. Even when she’s afraid, she plunges forward. Would she have been the same kind of person if she had been born Episcopalian or Catholic? Did her Quaker upbringing make a difference?
JB: Yes, I meant it to. She had been educated equally to boys. She grew up with a strong mother who had high expectations for her. She was given a foundation for finding her own truth, which is the Quaker method of silent waiting. She had faith in herself. The Quakers suffered greatly at the beginning because they were considered highly radical to believe that a human could have direct contact with God. My feeling was that someone raised like that could have great faith in her inner wisdom. She would know she could still be making the right choice even if others felt she was making the wrong choice.
CD: How did you manage being a parent at the same time you were writing a book and working?
JB: I would love it if women’s magazines would stop pretending that there is a way to have a so-called balanced life. I think you’re always failing at one thing or another, if you’re working and trying to raise a family—and add in writing a novel! I tried to ensure that my daughter would not suffer as a result of my writing the book—so I lost a lot of income. I wanted to write the book so badly, and I wanted to finish it. I made many sacrifices.
…when my daughter was about seven or eight years old, I started to go away for a weekend here and there, and I would write for sixteen hours each day. I would write and get up to eat and write more and sleep, do that for one more day, then go home.
CD: Did you set up a rigorous writing schedule every day?
JB: There were times when I could set aside a certain number of hours to write. I’d block them out on my calendar. And when my daughter was about seven or eight years old, I started to go away for a weekend here and there, and I would write for sixteen hours each day. I would write and get up to eat and write more and sleep, do that for one more day, then go home. I would motivate myself with deadlines, and I was in a writing group for a few years, so I had to produce something every month. For one year, I was lucky to have a woman who was a student and a friend with whom I traded five pages a week. I was only able to do that because my great Aunt Ruth died and left me a small inheritance, and my mother also helped us that year. That was the only way I was able to finish a full draft while running my business and raising a family. But even after that year, I still had years of work to do, and I had to make up for the loss of income. Talk about pressure. By several years later, I really wanted to finish it, so I went back into the very low-income phase for about six months. And then it sold.
Once the novel had been sold, I felt like the mirrors in the changing room had become two-way. I got even more self-conscious about every little sentence. Every time I got a set of page proofs, I revised more. Ultimately I felt that my book needed protection from me. It was a relief when it reached the phase when I could do nothing more to it.
CD:All the detail work definitely paid off. Although I’m rarely able to read a book fast, I read yours very quickly because I really wanted to know what would happen to the main character.
JB: That’s gratifying to hear! People often tell me they read it in a white heat.
CD:You’re running a household and you’re working. You’re a mom, a wife, a daughter. What do you do when you get a tremendous blast of inspiration and you suddenly have to solve a really mundane problem?
JB: I have all these piles of scraps, and they go back many years, and they weigh on me heavily. I have all these bursts of things I want to write, and I am horribly behind. I got even more behind by taking so long to write this book. At least I’ve finished a few things over the past years, but I have so much more to do. It’s quite painful. I wish I could write full time.
CD: The book would make a wonderful film. Has anyone expressed interest in film rights?
JB: I would love for there to be a film. Yes, there has been interest in the film rights, but no one has bought them yet.
CD: What are the most special things to emerge from the publishing experience so far?
JB: It’s been very special to see that the book is important to a lot of mothers. It affirms the value of their experience, their work and struggles. A lot of people buy the book for themselves and then buy more copies for women they love. The paperback is coming out this summer, on July 10. I hope lots of book clubs will continue reading it. It’s a good book for discussion. People tell me they talk about women’s opportunities and lives in the nineteenth century and now, the challenges of caring for infants, the choices Lilli had to make and what they might have done in such circumstances. They have very lively evenings. One group dressed in period costumes and invented a special drink they called mother’s milk.
CD: Do you have advice for other writers?
A lot of people will say, “I’ve had this book idea for twenty years. And I’m just waiting until the right time in my life.” And I’m thinking, No, no, no! You just have to start.
JB: My advice for any writer who hasn’t yet given the priority to their work is just to start. Start now. You’ll never have enough time; you’ll never have the right circumstances. Be satisfied with any little scrap you can create in a day or a week. One or two sentences a day or a week adds up to something over time. Once you have something, it’s a lot easier to create more. A lot of people will say, “I’ve had this book idea for twenty years. And I’m just waiting until the right time in my life.” And I’m thinking, No, no, no! You just have to start. My mother, who’s an artist, used to tell me that you have to do what you love “in spite of.”
CD: Your mother is an artist, and you are a writer. Does your daughter show signs of the restless creative impulse?
JB: Yes. She used to like to do tons of writing and reading, but now that she has a phone, she’s showing interest in photography, too. My mom definitely gave me the understanding of what it meant to be a creative person. What I see from her and what I know from my own life is that having a creative pursuit is a way of continually healing yourself. Whatever comes into your life, you can heal yourself if you have a vehicle for letting it out and exploring it in a creative way. Having a creative outlet is good for your emotional health. So I’m very glad my daughter is learning this, too.
A Conversation with Ayelet Waldman
author of A REALLY GOOD DAY Interview by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Over the past five years, rigorously-designed clinical research trials of the drug psilocybin, published in top tier journals such as Neuropsychopharmacology and elsewhere, have steadily pointed the way to the therapeutic potential of hallucinogens in psychiatry—along with National Institute for Mental Health-funded ketamine trials leading to standard outpatient clinics now offering “ketamine infusion” for patients whose depression has not responded to multiple other drugs, and in many cases, not responded to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or even deep brain stimulation (DBS) where electrodes are placed into brain regions in an awake subject resulting in relief from crippling, often suicidal depression.
What could compel someone to be desperate enough to try such treatments? The alternative: the urge to commit suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that nearly 45,000 Americans die from suicide each year; suicide is ranked as the tenth most common cause of death in the U.S. Yet relatively few popular and critically acclaimed novelists have been generous and brave enough to write about their personal struggles with suicidal ideation and ongoing contemplation of the act. Ayelet Waldman, a prolific and visible author whose novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits was made into a searing film directed by Don Roos and starring Natalie Portman, and whose memoir Bad Mother was a New York Times bestseller, is one of these few. Notably, more male novelists (e.g., William Styron, Augusten Burroughs) have ventured into the territory, though Alice Sebold’s stark narrative of her psychological symptoms following her rape also made a significant step forward for disclosure and destigmatization. The particular courage of Waldman’s admission of intense suicidality, however, reflects the profound stigma attached to women with children disclosing any form of mental health issues. In support of the courage of her disclosure, I interviewed her one evening in January over the phone, with follow-ups by email. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.—CB
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: In many essays, as well as the recent memoir, A Really Good Day, in which you describe the symptoms that led to your exploration of micro-doses of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), you are so frank and raw in your discussion of your bipolar II diagnosis. I’m interested in the connection between bipolarity and confidence in one’s own judgment—can you speak about having that confidence, any processes involved in building it? What can you say to people with mental health diagnoses who are seeking to build that confidence in themselves that is durable through episodes of being told their “judgment is off,” that they shouldn’t trust themselves?
Ayelet Waldman: That’s really, really—this applies to so many things. If you suffer from a mental illness, there are times when your judgment can be wrong, times when you are acting from a place of emotion mind rather than a place of wise mind, and you’re so emotionally dysregulating, that you’re not making choices that even you yourself would make under different circumstances. But it’s also true that nobody knows the inside of your head as well as you do. So, there are other times you are the best judge of what works for you. It’s all of life being dialectic. Balancing back and forth on that’s bipolarity. Somewhere in the middle between trusting your own intuition and the feeling that you are acting in wise mind and balancing emotional truth vs. hyperrational truth.
If you suffer from a mental illness, there are times when your judgment can be wrong, times when you are acting from a place of emotion mind rather than a place of wise mind, and you’re so emotionally dysregulating, that you’re not making choices that even you yourself would make under different circumstances. But it’s also true that nobody knows the inside of your head as well as you do. So, there are other times you are the best judge of what works for you. It’s all of life being dialectic.
CB: What was it like incorporating a kind of ‘mood diary’ into the book, where you had to in large part be judging whether the micro-dosing was helping you stay stable or not?
AW: What every single patient does—you have to have self-respect— everybody’s medication changes all the time. So it’s good to have a tool that you could use to evaluate the utility of the medication beyond the kind of retrospective necessity that doesn’t take into account all the things you forgot over the course of the month, i.e. there was an earthquake and I woke up, and I had a really shitty night, and understand and evaluate your reactions in a way you can’t if you’re not tracking. One of the ways I assessed whether [the micro-dosing] was working was how many words did I write—how productive was I. How many words I wrote every day. And that was a really effective tool for me. My feeling of mastery of my work life, productivity, sense of usefulness in the word. Was it 96 or 96,000? Flow—if I hadn’t been paying attention to one of the tools I wouldn’t have appreciated that I was in a place of flow so often, astonishing and wonderful place in there. The place of flow is the positive part of bipolarity.
Flow—if I hadn’t been paying attention to one of the tools I wouldn’t have appreciated that I was in a place of flow so often, astonishing and wonderful place in there. The place of flow is the positive part of bipolarity.
CB: Can you also speak to how Love and Other Impossible Pursuits addressed the stigma of postpartum depression, like the character of Emilia, a character I really loved, was suffering from?
AW: I really wrote it to give myself a search for a kind of community. [It illustrated how writing can be put to work] to find your friend, confessor, therapist, to work through issues.
CB: I also thought the character of William, Emilia’s foster son, is an equally important, incredible character. William’s precociousness and vulnerability really come through. When you were writing the book, how did you feel about William? Can you talk about how the character evolved?
AW: I kind of—I saw the book as a love story. Always. Always seemed to me to be a love story. A love story about maternal love. Think Katherine Hepburn—Spencer Tracy. They hate each other and love each other in the end. And I really saw the book in that way. About these two people, stepmother, and stepson and ultimately made for each other, beshert. I always knew that was happening.
CB: You synthesize scientific information so beautifully. Had you read and done that for postpartum depression scientific literature before writing the book? Did you do research for Emilia’s character?
AW: I think it was mostly from just myself and in my dead baby group, a support group for people who had terminated a pregnancy for genetic reasons like I did. It was terrific.
CB: The character of Carolyn is a revelation.
AW: It’s always you and not you. She was way more than an imaginary me. That was how I would react if my husband left me, but then I’m not like a caricature. I based her on a real person. That scene in the classroom where she tore up the picture? That really happened to a friend of mine with the mother of her stepson. But that isn’t the complete story. She is ultimately is a human being. She is also a physician has skills and the sense of a vocation.
CB: Did you worry about Emilia being likable vs. unlikable?
AW: They always say that. People say that she’s an unlikeable character. There was a narrative that she was an unlikable character but that was sort of the point. But I was sort of disappointed by it, it wasn’t that I was surprised by that reaction to her. Women’s characters are expected to be likable.
CB: Can you speak more about the concept of “destined”—beshert as this certainty.
AW: The only thing that matters is the work you do. It’s nice to have a narrative of beshert. It’s useful to have as a model in a long marriage. That kind of can float you through difficult times. Times when you could give in. It is irrelevant to the strengths of your marriage. The only thing that matters is how much you’re willing to prioritize your partner. That is what marriage—all the wonderful ties. Even when you don’t feel like it. The only thing that matters is the work.
The only thing that matters is the work you do. It’s nice to have a narrative of beshert. It’s useful to have as a model in a long marriage. That kind of can float you through difficult times.
CB: What are you working on next??
AW: I have another novel that I’m struggling with. And other television and film projects that haven’t been announced yet.
Ayelet Waldman is the author of A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, the novels Love and Treasure, Red Hook Road, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, and Daughter’s Keeper, as well as of the essay collection Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace and the Mommy-Track Mystery series. She is the editor of Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons and of the forthcoming Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation. She was a Federal public defender and an adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley law school where she developed and taught a course on the legal implications of the War on Drugs. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband, Michael Chabon, and their four children.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Awl, Narrative Northeast, aaduna, Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, Asian American Literary Review, Compose, Redux, The Write Launch, Del Sol Review, Bangalore Review, Blue Lake Review, Nimrod, jellyfish review, and Santa Fe Writers Project. Her fiction has been anthologized in Her Mother’s Ashes 2: Stories by South Asian Women in the US and Canada, and she is a blog contributor to aaduna, as well as Michigan Quarterly Review. Follow her on Twitter @chayab77.
A Conversation with Kim Magowan author of UNDOING from Moon City Press
Winner of the Moon City Short Fiction Award Interview by Yasmina Din Madden
If you’re a fan of short fiction, it’s likely you’ve come across Kim Magowan’s witty and layered stories in one of the many venues her work has appeared in. I met Kim a few years ago, and since then she’s become a go-to writer for feedback on my own work. Additionally, Kim’s innovative flash stories, particularly those that experiment with form and structure, have been an invaluable resource in the flash workshops that I teach. Last month, Kim’s collection, Undoing, winner of the Moon City Short Fiction Award, was published by Moon City Press, and next spring her novel, The Light Source, will be published by 7.13 Books. Magowan’s female characters, who often engage in what many might consider taboo behavior, are complex, intelligent, difficult, and compelling women. Recently we bonded over our mutual admiration of writer Ottessa Moshfegh, whose work often centers on the lives of unconventional female protagonists. At the AWP conference a few weeks ago, between panels and a drink or two, we had the chance to discuss flash fiction, novel writing, and our love of strange, smart, rule-breaking women in literature. —YDM
Yasmina Din Madden: You have a collection of stories and a novel coming out within a year of each other. Could you talk a bit about how your writing approach or writing practice changes depending on the form?
Kim Magowan: It took me forever to realize The Light Source was a novel—for the longest time I thought of it as a set of linked stories, like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I wrote first drafts of the second and third chapters when I was in graduate school. The germ was a story a friend told me about a bride canceling her wedding because she had caught her groom in bed with her maid of honor. That intrigued me: why on earth would someone have sex with their best friend’s fiancé? The explanation I arrived at was the seed for the whole book. So, I wrote what I saw at the time as two “stories” back in the 1990s (when the novel is first set). When I seriously returned to writing, back in 2010, I dusted those stories off, revised them substantially, and wrote two more linked stories. Then in 2012, an agent who had read my story “Version” in the Gettysburg Review got in touch and asked if I was working on a novel. He was not interested in a story collection, which is a common procedure with agents. That was the incentive I needed to realize (duh), my increasingly entangled “stories” were a novel. My family was in New Orleans for five weeks while my partner was researching a project, and I spent that time in a writing fever. Bryan dropped the kids off at camp while I sat in the kitchen, typing madly. By the end of those weeks I had finished a complete draft. That agent ended up passing on it, but I will always be grateful to him for making me realize that this unwieldy monster was a novel, and I had simply been too terrified to see it as such (because who has time to write a novel!?). I continued adding to The Light Source, particularly the Julie chapter, over the next couple of years, and sent a bunch of queries to agents. A few were interested, but they all wanted me to turn it into a more conventional book than the one I had in mind.
During the same time, I was writing short stories. I wrote drafts of several of the stories in my collection when I was in my twenties and thirties. But the vast majority of them are from 2010 on, when I seriously buckled down to writing and turned it into a passion, instead of a sidelined hobby. Especially after I had my novel in satisfactory shape, by 2015, my attention was on short stories, both reading them—I have read well over 100 story collections in the last five years—and writing them. I also became increasingly interested in flash fiction, paring stories down to the bone. Novels permit a lot more leeway than short fiction. You can be digressive, you can plummet into rabbit holes of flashbacks. Short fiction has to be disciplined and crystalline.
YDM: What drew you to the flash fiction form? You’ve written and published a lot of flash in the last few years and I’m wondering what you think the form allows for or allows you to explore in your writing that a conventional short story doesn’t.
KM: There is a practical response to that question and an aesthetic response, and I’ll give you both. The practical response is that I have a full-time job and two kids, and flash fiction is the only writing I can reliably get done when the semester is in progress. I can write a draft of a flash story in a sitting, and revise when I have time. I have to be very efficient as a writer. I reserve my summer and Christmas breaks for writing longer stories (though of course it isn’t always clear to me at inception whether a story will end up being long). When the semester is on, I write flash, or collaborate with Michelle Ross, or revise and edit. So that’s my nuts-and-bolts pragmatic answer.
But I also truly believe that writing flash has made me a better writer. It’s so disciplined. I think of novels as soup and flash fiction as a bouillon cube. There is no waste. Of course, this is generally true of short stories: you have to be compact and precise. You have to work out, if your character is a collector, for instance, exactly what she collects—what item will reveal that essential quality you need to expose about her. But flash is that efficiency, times ten. I could never write poetry—my poems always sounded like bad Eric Clapton lyrics—but flash is as close as prose comes to poetry. The skills that writing it has made me hone are portable. I carry them into my longer work.
I also truly believe that writing flash has made me a better writer. It’s so disciplined. I think of novels as soup and flash fiction as a bouillon cube. There is no waste.
YDM: Your story “Squirrel Beach” was published in this magazine and is part of your collection. The narrator’s detached critical tone, as she contemplates her sister-in-law and her brother, is both funny and brutal. In fact, a lot of your fiction is brutally funny—I’m thinking of “Be Good” for instance, a story written in list- and second-command form that chronicles a husband’s cheating. How do you see humor informing your work?
KM: Thank you! I like “Squirrel Beach” a lot too—that was one of what I think of as my “angry drinking stories” I wrote in 2016. “Brutally funny” is a lovely compliment. I gravitate to funny writers. Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore were revelations for me, that you could be a “serious” writer who was also funny, and that jokes did not have to be one-note. One of my all-time favorite novelists is Jane Austen, who is cruelly hilarious. A recent story collection that makes me laugh out loud is Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow—it’s full of these perfectly turned zingers. The writers I love best are adept at shuttling between funny and sad, even combining the two emotions, like Kazuo Ishiguro does in The Remains of the Day. So I admire humor, and I often wish my stories were funnier: it’s one of my 2018 ambitions, to lighten my writing up. Some of my stories I like best are ones where the humor works (I hope, anyway) to illuminate characters. For instance, the protagonist in “Family Games” connects with people, both her estranged husband Phil and her new friend Angie, through jokes. She and her husband hand each other set-up lines. Their mutual, twisted humor is one of the reasons Phil is hard for Mel to leave, despite all his flaws.
YDM: Is there a story in the collection that came particularly quickly or easily? And what about its evil twin? Was there a story that seemed impossible from beginning to end?
KM: I’m not going to count the flash, because I always write flash quickly, but the story in the collection that was most an unanticipated gift from the sky was “Family Games.” I had to write that story under the gun. I had submitted a story to Sixfold for their contest that got accepted elsewhere, and I had three days to come up with something new—all of my other stories were published or forthcoming. I stayed up all night cranking out “Family Games,” sent it in the morning to my first reader Michelle Ross, revised it the next day, and submitted it. It’s one of my favorites in the collection, and I have never written a story that long so painlessly. Its evil twin, strangely enough, is a story that it shares many affinities with, “Version,” another story about a writer couple who play word games. “Version” was a headache and a half to write!
YDM: Could you talk a bit about the title of your collection? There’s clearly the tension, in many of these stories, of relationships or families unraveling, but undoing is different. I’m curious about how you came to this title, which I love by the way.
KM: Right—undoing is not the same as unraveling. It can be—certainly “undoing” has negative connotations that I wanted to draw from (“he was my undoing”)—but I like the ambiguity of the word. It also can connote undoing a problem, undoing a knot. When we play Four Square with our daughters, they’re always calling “Re-do-sies!” I intend that facet of undoing: the longed-for second chance. So, “Undoing” was the original title for the opening story in the collection, “When in Rome,” and comes from two uses of the word that occur at the end of that story: undoing a memory through a fantasy, and undoing someone’s buttons. I had a hell of a time coming up with a title for the collection. I’m terrible at titles, and I also didn’t want to spotlight any single story by titling the collection after it. Michelle Ross, title queen, suggested I use Undoing, and it immediately clicked. It encapsulated, for me, the self-sabotage thread, but also the nostalgia. So many of the stories feature characters who long to move backward, to recapture some since lost moment of connection and peace: sitting on a stoop licking ice cream cones, the future unmarred.
YDM: You’ve co-authored several stories with writer Michelle Ross. Could you talk about how this process works and what you see as the advantages of co-writing stories?
KM: Michelle and I have been collaborating on stories since July; it’s a blast. One of us will start a story—say, write the opening paragraph—and then lob it at the other person, who writes some more, tosses it back. We decide when it’s done and revise together. There are so many things I love about the process. It’s very freeing for me, to have to incorporate some left turn, some unforeseen element. I used to act, and collaboration reminds me of improvisation. All of a sudden your Improv partner has hands that are melting, or is blind, or has grown antlers, or thinks you are a sandwich, and you just need to adapt and go with it. I can get very finicky and prissy with writing. Collaboration pushes me to be speedy, raw, messy. Plus, Michelle is so damn good, partnering with her is like rallying with an excellent tennis player. She ups my game.
Michelle Ross, Kim Magowan, and Yasmina Din Madden at AWP 2018
YDM: Talk to me about “Version,” a story in the collection that includes elements of metafiction, plays with structure, and centers on writers who are often talking about writing. It’s one of my favorites in the book.
KM: Ha, that is my evil twin story! So, the backstory of that story is that originally it stopped at the end of the first section, once Kate has her reading at the bookstore and David confronts her. I was in a writing workshop with three other writers, including my very talented sister Margot, and Margot asked, “So, what happens next?” And my initial thought was, But Kate’s story is over, and then I realized that the story was over from her POV, but not if I picked up another perspective, David’s. But as soon as I started working on David’s, I realized, well, his story is contingent on what decision he makes, whether he contacts Kate or wimps out, and then that following trajectory depends on whether Kate responds or ignores him, and… and…. Well, suffice to say, that story got very “Choose your own adventure” on me.
“Version” tends to elicit extreme responses. Several people have told me it’s their favorite story in the collection (indeed, one of the collection titles I was kicking around before settling on Undoing was a line from that story, This Version Doesn’t Belong to You). Others don’t like it. It’s very metafictional, as you say, plus many people are ideologically opposed to writing about writing. One of my most well-read friends said, “Make the characters something besides writers. Make them construction workers.” Which, of course, logically made no sense! But I get the bias against writing about writing. I received the same flak from Sixfold readers about “Family Games.” Personally, I think “Version” is one of my best. It’s a little chilly and cerebral, but I like all the games Kate and David play. My favorite bit is the box of staples David slips in Kate’s grocery bag of “staples.” Both of them get a kick out of wordplay.
YDM: I’ve just mentioned one of my favorite stories in the collection, so now it’s your turn. Is there a story or two in your collection that you feel a particular affinity for and why?
KM: Aside from the stories we’ve already mentioned, I like “Chin Chin Chin” a lot. I find it, for all its sharp edges, sweet and romantic—well, romantic for me; that’s as romantic as my writing gets! I also like the linked stories about Laurel (“Eleanor of Aquitaine,” “Warmer, Colder,” “On Air,” and “Pop Goes the Weasel”) and the linked ones about Ben and Miriam (“Brining,” “This Much”). Both of those sets of stories could easily have turned into novels—I know so much more about those characters than made it onto the page. They dug their hooks into my imagination. Except who, as I said before, has time to write a novel?
YDM: Who are the writers who have influenced or inspired you most and is there anyone new you’ve discovered recently whose work you find exciting?
KM: So many! I am a ranker, so you’re asking me a question that I could go on and on about. I’m going to be disciplined and just mention a few recent books that have blown me away. I love Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, how she plays with perspective and time. No current writer is as funny, original, and humane as George Saunders: Tenth of December is an all-time favorite collection, and Lincoln in the Bardo exploded my brain. Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation is the novel I wish I’d written. Reading it was an epiphany: there is an audience for smart books. I love how that novel toggles between the micro (a floundering marriage, molecules, floating passages of text) and the macro (outer space). Edward P. Jones’s The Known World may be the most important American novel of the twenty-first century—every writer needs to read that book. It’s astonishing. Finally, I’m obsessed with a writer you turned me onto: Ottessa Moshfegh. Her story collection Homesick for Another World is even better, I think, than her celebrated novel Eileen. It’s all thorns and prickles; it’s like holding a barbed fruit.
YDM: What are you working on these days?
KM: Two things: a second story collection, which so far is mostly very short fiction—I have about 16,000 words of that; and a collaborative collection I’m working on with Michelle Ross, that is twelve stories and growing. Also, there’s a novel I would love to write about my great-grandmother, who was an amazing character—a total scandal. Her father was a prominent rabbi in Vienna, a member of Parliament. Liza ran off with a Gentile musician when she was seventeen, had two children, returned to Vienna when she was twenty. Her humiliated father married her off to a much older rabbi (my great-grandfather) and packed them out of Austria. She wrote these wonderful, wild, feminist fairytales that were published in The Atlantic and Harper’s. She had two children with the rabbi, a longstanding lesbian relationship, and an affair with another Christian who likely fathered her youngest son. She used to make her husband the rabbi pork stew and tell her kids, “Watch him eat it.” She deserves a novel, if I can figure out a plot worthy of her.
Kim Magowan’s short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming in 2019 from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. www.kimmagowan.com
Yasmina Din Madden lives in Iowa. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in PANK, The Idaho Review, The Masters Review: New Voices, Word Riot, Hobart, CARVE, and other journals. She teaches creative writing and literature at Drake University.
A Conversation with Peter France translator of Gennady Aygi’s TIME OF GRATITUDE Interview by Ryan K. Strader
In 1974, Peter France visited Russia to do research for a new translation of Boris Pasternak. He was invited to meet Gennady Aygi, a Chuvash poet who, as a student in Moscow, had been friends with the much-older Pasternak. France describes that meeting with Aygi as having altered the trajectory of his life, both professionally and personally. For the next forty years, France would translate Aygi’s work, bringing him to a Western audience, a task that has been criticized by those who argue that Aygi’s poetics do not conform to Russian tradition.
France’s most recent publication of Aygi’s work is Time of Gratitude, published by New Directions in December 2017. Based in Edinburgh where he was a professor of French until 2000, France has written widely on French and Russian literature and has published an Anthology of Chuvash Poetry, and translations of Blok, Mayakovsky, and Mandelstam, among others.
I came into contact with France while researching Aygi for Cleaver’s review of Time of Gratitude, and was taken with his warmth and willingness to discuss all things connected with Russian literature, share his photos from his travels to Shaymurzino, Aygi’s native village, and answer questions about the work of translation.
Here I follow up with him regarding Time of Gratitude, his approach to translation, and his decades-long friendship with Aygi, who died in 2006. Images by courtesy of Peter France. —RKS
RKS: You first met Aygi in 1974, when visiting Russia to do some work on a translation of Pasternak. I’m intrigued with the way you describe that meeting as having “changed your life.” Could you expand a little bit on your first meeting with Aygi, and what your first impressions were of each other?
PF: So, it sounds a bit over-dramatic to say that my meeting with Aygi changed my life, but it certainly opened up new worlds for me. For a start, I began to translate his poems, a great challenge, confronting me with a tragic and exciting life experience and a corresponding spiritual vision. This, in turn, led me to translate several other Russian poets, some of them Gennady’s favorites (Lermontov, Annenkov)—I was already translating Pasternak (with Jon Stallworthy) and this was why I went to see Aygi in the first place. Then there was the plunging into Chuvash culture, ancient and modern, translating the Chuvash anthology, and later other poems from folklore and 20th-century literature, and getting to visit and love Chuvashia and to understand something of the many problems of a quite distinct ‘autonomous region’ within the Russian Federation. From our first meeting, he became a point of reference for me, distant but present—as he still is.
When we first met, in September 1974, in a flat on the southwestern edge of Moscow, we seemed to hit it off immediately, talking all day as we wandered in the woods. He talked very eloquently (and I mainly listened and learnt). You couldn’t help being struck by the intensity of his devotion to poetry, culture, and spiritual values. But there was also his simplicity, his humour—he had a great gift for friendship (which shines through his poems too). For him, I must have been a visitor from another world (not the first such visitor by any means), but by the end of a day, we were on familiar terms (Ty, not Vy). We shared a love of poetry of course (though he lived for poetry, and had far more to tell me than I had to tell him). But there was also our love and awareness of the natural world. Trees were a constant theme—and the tree is a sacred being in Chuvash culture.
RKS: In 2013, you did a wonderful interview with Alex Cigale. At the time you stated that, while there was much of Aygi’s work still untranslated, you particularly wanted to gather together his tributes to other writers for publication. The new book, Time of Gratitude, is a collection of these tributes. Out of the material you had, why did you choose to translate these tributes instead of more poetry, or his letters? How do you think Time of Gratitude fits in with Aygi’s other translated work?
PF: I’d already translated some of Aygi’s notes on poetry (see Child-and-Rose and Field-Russia, both with New Directions), but I was keen to publish a volume of his tributes to other writers and artists—and he himself was keen that such a book should appear in English. They belong to a genre characteristic of this poet, called elsewhere “Conversations at a Distance.” It is indeed conversation rather than criticism; as Gennady’s friend, the Chuvash scholar Atner Khuzangay, recently wrote to me in a letter: “In the book/conversation everything flows together in a single stream, poems, essays, memories, impressions… In these conversations there are specific interlocutors, his spiritual companions, he speaks to them, asks them questions, receives from them moral support, advice, an answering word.” That’s what I wanted to present, allowing new readers to enter a conversation that includes prose as well as poems.
Gennady Aygi, 1975. Photo by Igor Makarevich
Thinking of other possible publications, there are many poems by Aygi that have not yet appeared in English. Indeed I have quite a lot of translations that have not been published, or only published in obscure journals. But this seemed to me less urgent than the book/conversation. In the future I think the best way of publishing more translations would be to translate particular books—he grouped his poems like this, though often they haven’t been published this way. Maybe some of the early books, such as Fields-Doubles (1961-3) or Consolation 3/24 (1965-7).
There’s also a great body of Chuvash poetry, virtually unknown outside Chuvashia. It would probably have to be translated via Russian, with help from Chuvash speakers, as was done recently when Aygi’s sister Eva worked with Mikael Nydahl (Sweden), Gunnar Wærness (Norway), and myself.
Then there are the letters. It’s quite true that there is a vast treasure of letters written by Aygi to friends scattered all over the world—so far I don’t think they’ve been gathered up. I included some translated excerpts from letters to me in Field-Russia, but generally, I’d rather wait until there’s been a proper publication of the correspondence in Russian. Will this happen? I don’t know.
RKS: You’ve translated poets like Mandelstam and Pasternak, poets who are “household” names and recognized as “famous Russian writers” even by people who don’t read non-Western literature. How does your commitment to translating Aygi over the years fit into your oeuvre? Was that greatly influenced by your personal relationship with him, or did something else encourage you to keep coming back to his poems?
PF: I began translating Aygi as a result of meeting him. When I first met him it was to talk about Pasternak—I knew nothing of his own poetry and found it pretty hard at first, but discovered it mainly by translating, which I did as a way of continuing our “conversation at a distance.” For much of the time, this was very different from other things I was doing—mostly academic writing about French and comparative literature. But I had begun (in the 1960s) by translating Blok and Pasternak, working together with my great friend, the poet Jon Stallworthy. It was no doubt the experiencing of translating Aygi that give me the impetus, when I retired in 2000, to try translating many other Russian poets. Some were close to Aygi (Mayakovsky, Annensky, Lermontov, perhaps Batyushkov), others less so. And, of course, I’ve gone on translating Aygi, though less intensively than in the early days. I’ve also gone on from the Chuvash Anthology to translate the great poem by Kenstenttin Ivanov, “Narspi,” due to appear (in Chuvashia) later this year (as with the Anthology, I’ve worked from a Russian literal).
Peter France in Chuvashia, in front of a school named for Gennady Aygi
RKS: When I first read Time of Gratitude, I had to “catch on” to how Aygi writes. It certainly is its own genre, and not just stylistically. In an interview with him that is included in Field-Russia, he mentions how he addresses other writers: that he is not addressing their work necessarily, as one would in a critical response, but instead he is attempting “conversation” with the writers themselves “as genuinely living images,” as he put it. It seems to me that part of what makes his work distinct is the spiritual orientation of the writer toward the addressee, where he (the writer) has adopted the addressee as a “spiritual companion” as you described it. To me, this is a profound value of Aygi ’s work—a more mystical connection to writers and poetry. You mention that Aygi wanted to see some of these book/conversations translated into English. What did he want English readers to understand from this genre that was unique to him?
PF: Yes, there’s something special about Aygi’s attitude to many other writers and artists—a kind of mix of friendship/love and reverence. In relation to, say, Pasternak, the two are fairly evenly balanced, but for others whom he didn’t know personally (e.g. Kafka or Malevich) it’s reverence that predominates. His feeling of closeness led him to seek out the places of these figures, notably burial places. I shared this with him for Malevich, the Chuvash poet Mitta, Baudelaire, Nerval, and Robert Burns. When we went, with three Scottish poet-friends, to Burns’ mausoleum, we performed a ceremony—pouring of whisky, laying of roses and Chuvash earth, song and a speech addressed to his ‘brother’ Robert—which reminded me a bit of our visit to the grave of his grandfather, a pagan priest. And I guess it’s this sort of bonding he wanted readers of his tributes to feel, including now the English speakers.
The English-speaking world was more foreign to him than France (he knew French quite well, but no English). But he did visit Britain four times, liked London, felt great affection for Scotland (I remember travelling through the Scottish borders with him, and he dreamed of coming to live here), and loved (in translation) the writing of Burns, Hopkins, and above all Dickens (at the age of six he had read Great Expectations under the title Pip, but only discovered later who wrote it). And for his lovely collection, Veronica’s Book, he wrote a “Foreword to the English-speaking Reader,” which you may have seen. Towards the end of his life we visited America (the land of Emily Dickinson), and again he felt at home, especially traveling through the country between Chicago and Wisconsin. So, yes, he wanted English speakers, too, to be part of this world-wide circle of friends.
RKS: I’m intrigued with your trip to Chuvashia. The pictures that you’ve shared of the countryside there are beautiful. I can see that you went to great pains to become better acquainted with Aygi’s village and his native countryside. You’ve also mentioned other travels to Russia when working on other translations. I’m curious about how critical geographic familiarity is to you in your work. How important was that trip to understanding Aygi, and how important is geographic familiarity to you in general, in a translation project?
PF: It’s good to be able to visit the places of the texts you’re translating, but not essential. I’ve recently been translating some 16th-century French poetry, and while I know France well, I can’t visit the 16th century. Similarly, when I did most of my translation of Aygi and other Chuvash writers, I was able to visit Russia but Chuvashia was still closed to foreigners. I went there for the first time in 1989, by which time my English version of the Anthology of Chuvash Poetry was pretty well complete. Of course, when I went there I understood certain things better. A good example is an ancient text entitled “Parents’ Valediction to the Bride and Bridegroom”; I had translated this and admired it, but during a visit to Chuvashia I participated in a village wedding, and was amazed to see the young couple, having driven round the nearby villages hooting motor horns, returning to the wife’s house, passing through the courtyard where a disco was in full swing, and going in to kneel in front of the elders while the traditional ‘valediction’ I had translated was spoken. Obviously it meant more to me when I’d seen this, but I don’t think the translation was affected.
I guess the essential thing, if you don’t have direct access to the place and the culture, is to have a good source of knowledge. This can be books or pictures, but for me, it was ideal to work with Gennady who helped me understand so much about his own poems and about his native culture (of which I knew nothing before meeting him). While he was alive my translations of Chuvash texts were done from his beautiful literals with comments, reading aloud, etc. Later I got help from other Chuvash friends.
All in all, it was a great piece of luck for me that this great Russian poet was also a Chuvash village boy.
RKS: It seems that for some time Aygi was rejected by Chuvashians for having “switched” to Russian, but then later he was embraced by them. Can you talk a little bit about what the Chuvashian perception of Aygi might have been, and how Aygi felt about being “disowned” by Chuvashia?
PF: I don’t think it’s quite right to think of him as being disowned by the Chuvash for writing in Russian—his Russian poetry, together with his work on the Chuvash Anthology, helped to put Chuvashia on the international literary map. And in any case, he continued to write and translate in Chuvash.
In the Soviet period, he was harassed in Chuvashia for a variety of reasons, all to do with literature rather than politics. At first, he was regarded as a ‘hostile element’ mainly because of his friendship with Boris Pasternak, though his expulsion from the Moscow Literary Institute was also a factor. Together with his poetic credo, it was totally at odds with Socialist Realism. He was arrested in Cheboksary in 1960, accused of ‘vagrancy,’ but managed to escape to Moscow and didn’t return to Chuvashia for fifteen years or so. And then in 1976, he was attacked by the Chuvash authorities for having poems published in the emigre journal Kontinent (in Paris, associated with Sinyavsky). All this was very painful for him. Even when I first went to Chuvashia in 1989, in the dying years of the old regime, there were voices accusing him of “cosmopolitanism.” It took a few years for him to be fully accepted and proclaimed the national poet.
RKS: It’s interesting that you separate literature from politics here, a separation which works a little differently in the American imagination than in the Russian imagination. Can you clarify the distinction as it relates to Aygi?
PF: Clearly the two are not easily distinguished, especially in a Soviet context, when a certain style of writing could be construed as a hostile act. In particular, openness to foreign influences such as Kafka or Kierkegaard could be seen as a kind of treason. What I meant was that Aygi was not a dissident in the normal sense of the word—he didn’t take public stances on such questions as the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn. Of course, his poems were often, a response, direct or indirect, to the evils of the regime (from the invasion of Czechoslovakia to the misuse of psychiatric hospitals), but they weren’t public statements.
RKS: When I was trying to track down critics who had some experience with Aygi, one writer explained to me that Aygi was sometimes seen as a “fraudulent” presence in the Russian canon. Could you comment a little bit on this critical perception of Aygi and his work?
PF: Aygi was not ‘fraudulent’ in the sense of deliberately setting out to pull the wool over people’s eyes; it is quite wrong to see him as trying to bamboozle readers so as to achieve fame. He was totally committed to his poetic work. Undoubtedly some readers and critics and fellow poets didn’t (and don’t) accept what he was doing (not just free verse, but his use of language and his poetic aims). For some readers, his writing was not truly Russian and not poetry as they understood it. At one point, a critic in a London-based Russian-language newspaper stirred up a storm in a tea-cup by arguing that his reputation had been manufactured by foreign Slavists (for their own ends, no doubt). Against this, you could quote many Russians, from Roman Jakobsen to the major contemporary poet Olga Sedakova, for whom he had become “the first Russian-language poet to become a world poet in his lifetime.”
RKS: One of the pictures you shared with us is of Aygi’s funeral in 2006. Can you share how you came to have this picture, and what thoughts it brings to mind?
PF: This is one of a group of black-and-white photos sent me by a Chuvash friend and showing Gennady’s funeral in the wintry spaces of Shaymurzino—extremely moving for someone who knew the poet and his village. He had a state funeral in the Cheboksary, attended by the President of the Republic, then the body was taken to be interred in the village graveyard. One or two of the color photos I sent you show the place in summer. Gennady is much remembered. The village school bears his name, as does a street in Cheboksary, and every year there are gatherings, large and small (often with associated publications), to celebrate his memory.
Funeral of Gennady Aygi, Shaymurzino, in the Chuvash Republic, 2006
RKS: You have commented elsewhere that, because of Kierkegaard, Aygi “came back to his own form of Christianity.” The idea that he had his “own form” of belief is intriguing to me. You mention that he felt a bond with the old pagan beliefs of Chuvashia, but also kinship with more contemporary Christian theologians. Could you comment further on this blended spiritual identity that Aygi seems to have, and how that might help readers to understand Aygi’s poetry?
PF: It’s difficult to speak in a few words of Aygi’s religious views. He was certainly a religious poet, seeing poetry as a kind of “sacred action” which could create communication between people, and also communication of people with the natural world. The old Chuvash ‘pagan’ religion with its rituals and ethical values meant a lot to him (for a description see the Anthology of Chuvash Poetry, now available online via Duration Press), but he didn’t agree with those who want to revive this religion today. Chuvashia had been Christianized over the centuries, and this was often oppressive, but he also saw it as a great enrichment. His own return to Christianity (from an earlier Nietzschean phase) he attributed largely to Kierkegaard, discovered in 1969. Before this he had read Pascal, later he read a lot of the early Orthodox Church Fathers, and of modern theology (when in Daghestan, which he loved, he had a sympathetic interest in Islam too). All of this came together in a religious synthesis. I don’t think he went to church much, but he regarded himself as Orthodox and was buried as such. Let me quote a letter he wrote me which gives an idea of his spiritual vision, sent from a Russian village in 1980: “I write—and with my shoulders I feel-and-know that the hawthorn is flowering now in the mist (the human soul cannot know such tranquil solitude: I am reading here the writings of Russian holy men; behind their sayings there stands their silence…).”
RKS: In Aygi’s obituary that you wrote for The Guardian, you make a comment about Aygi that is very moving, that he “wrote from a deep awareness of the losses and destructions of the 20th century.” Sometimes it seems that we are dangerously removed from understanding men like Aygi and their historical context. What do you hope that readers today learn from Aygi, either from his poetry or from the story of his lived experience? What is the most important takeaway for us, as English readers in 2018?
PF: Although Aygi writes a great deal about flowers, snow, fields—nature, as we say—his poems are full of the awareness of the often terrible things that happened in his lifetime, both personally (hardship, political harassment, the sufferings of friends) and more publicly (the Holocaust and war, the oppressions of the Soviet regime). He’s a tragic poet for the tragic 20th century. But at the same time, he insists on the positive nature of poetry, bringing warmth to a cold world, as he puts it somewhere. He said in an interview (printed in the volume Field-Russia, published by New Directions) that his impression of much contemporary poetry was that it was written as if its vocation was to “curse the world.” He wanted to do the opposite, to search out and celebrate life in the face of death. I think this was what he so loved in Pasternak. In the same interview, he remembers a starling in a Moscow suburb on a dank spring day with wet snow falling. “The world was like a curse,” he says, but the starling was whistling and bubbling, “it must be bursting with gratitude—even for a day like this.”
Ryan Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.
A Conversation with David J. Peterson author of THE ART OF LANGUAGE INVENTION Penguin Random House
Interview by Brian Burmeister
If you love fantasy and science fiction films and television programs, chances are you’re familiar with the work of David J. Peterson, the masterful conlanger, inventor of languages. While best known for inventing the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for HBO’s popular series Game of Thrones, the University of California San Diego graduate has created more than forty languages in his film and television career. You can find Peterson’s original languages in such Marvel Studios films as Thor: The Dark World and Doctor Strange, as well as over half-a-dozen television shows, including the critically acclaimed Penny Dreadful.
In this interview, Brian Burmeister asks David J. Peterson about what led him to language creation, what his process looks like, and what advice he has for novice language creators.—Nathaniel Popkin, ed.
BB: Your degrees are centered in linguistics, but what led you from the study of language to choosing to create new ones?
David J. Peterson
DP: Ultimately, it was the study of languages in general. Learning as many languages as I could—just for fun. I was doing that at the university. I had taken Arabic and Russian, and it was advertised in my dorm for a student-taught class on Esperanto. So I took that, and that was the first time I had ever heard of a person inventing a language. The semester after that I took my first linguistics course, and it was in that class I really put everything together, and I thought it would be really interesting if there was a language that combined certain morphological systems and marking systems. That was when I thought I could make a language—and I did. But rather than having it be for international communication because I thought Esperanto had pretty much won the day for that, I thought, what if I just created it for myself? Just for fun. So as soon as I had that idea, I was off. I thought I was the first person ever to do so. When I met other language creators online, finally, I discovered there were many others who had done so. Not only that, but they had been doing it for longer. And they were better. At that point there was a lot of learning. And I kept at it, just because I loved it.
BB: That first language you created, was that something you would speak with your friends?
DP: I think, in the beginning, I had the idea that my girlfriend and I would speak it. I think that was more of an excuse, something to justify the exercise. I did show it to her eventually, but she wasn’t interested in speaking it. But I kept with it just because I enjoyed doing it.
BB: In terms of language creation in general, what are some of the most difficult issues that you face?
DP: Definitely creating a verbal system. Especially if you’re creating a naturalistic language. It’s very, very challenging. The naturalistic languages I create, they evolve over time—the evolution is simulated. With nominal systems, it’s fairly easy. They’re fairly static. Honestly, verbal systems change with every single generation. People thirty years apart don’t use verbs exactly the same way. Consequently, on a macro level, the systems change radically every hundred or so years—which is nuts compared to nouns that are kind of like trees compared to rivers. To create something like a verbal system when you know it’s not going to stick around for a long time, everything you’re creating is going to be the product of something new, so it’s hard to get it just right, and create the entire full system, to have all these changes embedded with them, and not to get lost—that’s the hardest thing for a language creator. It’s like, all right, you created a system and this is your time X, and now you have time X minus 100, X minus 200 and so on. With the verbs, it’s like, wait a minute, are they still doing that? Or has this progressive suddenly become the regular present? Has this future become a subjunctive? That’s the hardest part.
BB: Of the dozens of languages you’ve created for TV, movies, and video games, do you have a personal favorite?
DP: Definitely the Irathient language I created for Defiance. I love everything about it. I love the grammar I set up for it, even though it’s a bear to use. I love the writing system. I love the sound of it—I absolutely love the sound of it. And I also like how words are created. It’s one of my favorite methods of word creation, the use of really large noun classes. It just hit so many notes that I really respond well to. It’s my absolute favorite.
BB: What does the process of creating your languages look like? Are your time and efforts consumed by a particular language for several weeks? Or is it a longer process than that?
DP: It’s kind of like thirty-five percent of the work happens in a very short amount of time. After that, the rest of the work takes place over the course of your entire life. The most intensive part is setting up the grammar. Making sure that it works. Making sure that it sounds good, and that everything tests right. And that takes a lot of work in the beginning. After that, it’s just vocabulary creation. That’s the type of thing that’s very occasional, either whenever you need it or whenever you want to. And literally, it’s going to take the rest of your entire life because you’ll never create as many words in a created language as there are in the natural languages of our world.
BB: You have fans who are very passionate about the languages that you create. What are some of the most creative or memorable uses of those languages that you’ve seen or heard about?
DP: I love when fans get tattoos. I’m a big fan of tattoos, but I would never get one myself, so it means a lot to me when they get a tattoo of something I created—you know, permanently etched on their body. I find it to be absolutely extraordinary. Just extraordinary. And there have been some really good ones.
BB: For those looking to learn more about language creation, can you give us a preview of what awaits your future readers in your book The Art of Language Invention?
DP: In The Art of Language Invention, I initially set out to teach everything you would need to know about language creation. Then my editor told me how long they wanted the book to be—or how short, in my opinion. (Laughs.) It’s not that. But at the very least, it will give you the basics. Assuming a spoken, naturalistic language. Although it does have some information if you’re doing something for aliens or if you’re doing a sign language, for example. It’s a very good place to start out, to figure out what the rules are, to get something that has a naturalistic result, that looks like the languages we have here on Earth. Also, in the beginning, it gives you a short history of the modern conlanging community, which was important to me, because that’s where I came out of. The conlanging community that was born, really, on the Internet in the 90s. Especially at that time, there was nobody who was famous, there were no books on this subject. And it was just an email listserv where anybody could send email messages, so everybody was pretty much equal on there. It was a wonderful way to learn, and I made a lot of friends along the way. That’s where I learned to do everything that I’m doing now, and why I am the language creator that I am today. Joining that community changed my life entirely.
BB: What would you recommend to the person who might not have very much experience, but has the enthusiasm to give language creation a try themselves?
DP: First of all, that listserv is still there, and I’m still on it. It’s been there since 1991—so 2021, coming up, it’s going to be 30 years, it’s crazy. I was a newcomer when I joined. So you can always do that. That was the first conlang community, but there’s tons of conlang communities now. There’s tons everywhere. On every different platform. A nice place to go is the Language Creation Society’s website, conglang.org, because that’s going to point you in a bunch of different directions. You can collect all information about anything you need to know about conlanging, so if you start there you can get to a bunch of different places.
Brian Burmeister teaches communication at Iowa State University. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.
A Conversation with Ros Schwartz translator of TRANSLATION AS TRANHUMANCE
by Mireille Gansel
from Feminist Press at CUNY
Interview by Rachel R. Taube
Ros Schwartz has been a literary translator for 36 years and has been an active participant in the evolution of the profession. She has translated over 70 books from French to English by writers as diverse as Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun and French crime writer Dominique Manotti, as well as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. She has presided as vice-chair of the Translators Association, as chair of the European Council of Literary Translators Association and as chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation program. Most recently Schwartz translated Translation as Transhumance, which was reviewed by Cleaver.
In this interview, Ros Schwartz discusses the process of translating a book about translation, including her work with Gansel, her theory of translation, and translation as activism.
Rachel R. Taube: In another interview, you said Translation as Transhumance is a unique project for you because you championed the book and found a publisher for it. What about the original made you decide that you needed to translate this book?
Ros Schwartz: My response to reading the French original was visceral, like falling in love. I was awed, first of all by Gansel’s exquisite style, which combines simplicity, lyricism and elegance, and then by the integrity and coherence in the way she has lived her life, making her translation work the concrete expression of her profound humanity. She has devoted herself to translating the voices of the persecuted, the poets who have been silenced, even to the extent of learning Vietnamese during the Vietnam War so as to translate the work of the poets. She gives herself body and soul, literally, to all that she does, and my admiration for her is boundless.
I also experienced a sense of recognition: my background has some similarities with hers. I too am Jewish—second generation born in Britain—and my grandparents spoke only Yiddish, so although different from Gansel’s experience, I share that multilingual background common to families descended from exiles. Gansel interweaves her memoir with reflections on the art of translation, constantly interrogating and refining her practice. Her ethos chimes with mine and her approach to translation helped me better articulate my own. Translation is the deepest form of reading. By translating the book and being inhabited by it for many months, I was able to engage with Gansel’s ideas in a way that you just don’t as a casual reader.
RRT: Mireille Gansel, as much as possible, attempts to immerse herself in the world of the poet she is translating. I was especially struck by the image of her visiting Reiner Kunze in East Germany to listen to him read his work aloud in his “tiny blue kitchen.” How do you prepare yourself to translate a new author? If the author you’re translating is living, do you interact with them? To what extent did you get to know Gansel and her life?
RS: I work in the same way as Gansel when translating a living author. Capturing the author’s voice is the key that is the essence of translation. It’s not about translating individual words, or phrases or even paragraphs, but conveying the voice beneath them, the spirit of the work. At an early stage of the translation, I invited Gansel to join me at a translation workshop in Cambridge where we worked on an excerpt from the book. There, I heard her read, and spent time getting to know her a little. Six months later, I then visited her home, in Lyon, where we discussed some of the thornier passages and I gained a sense of her world. I also met her friend, Jean-Claude Duclos, director of the Musée Dauphinois, alongside whom she campaigns to protect the culture of the Camargue shepherds, which is fundamental to her book and to her concept of translation as transhumance. All this helped me grasp her voice, her spirit.
I was very nervous about translating Gansel and had planned to send her my translation and spend a couple of weeks going over it with her, to ensure she was happy with it. But after attending my workshop and seeing my approach, she generously told me that she trusted me absolutely and that the book was now ‘mine’ so to speak. She relinquished all control, which is the hardest thing for an author to do and the greatest gift for a translator. Of course, I was able to ask her for clarification and discuss any issues that arose, but she was adamant that she did not need to go over the translation with a fine-tooth comb. When my translation was published, she said: ‘I can feel that you’ve translated this with your Jewish soul.’ Which is a wonderful way of describing empathy. And empathy is the pre-condition for any translation. There needs to be a particular chemistry for a translation to gel and capture the author’s voice.
RRT: I’m curious about the particular challenges of translating a book about translation. This book is full of poems that Gansel translated from German or Vietnamese into French, which now appear in English. She spends pages describing the process of translating a single word. How did you translate these poems and the conversation around them?
RS: For the poems that exist in an English translation, I cited these (with appropriate credits). This was the case for most of the Nelly Sachs poems. For the Vietnamese and other poems that don’t exist in English, I translated from Gansel’s French and worked with her to ensure that my translations accurately reflected the originals. It is made clear in the notes which poems are my translations from Gansel’s French, and which are existing translations.
RRT: Gansel’s focus, in her translation work, is on the meaning or effect of the language, rather than its literal fidelity. She says she risks “going beyond the literal meanings of the words, in order to access their deeper meanings,” and refers to an interior or soul language, which she hears in “the silences between the lines.” How closely does this idea align with your own theory of translation, and how did you apply that theory to translating this book in particular? Did you ever find yourself swayed by Gansel’s theory as you worked with her words?
RS: Gansel eloquently articulates everything that I believe, which is one of the reasons the book resonated so powerfully for me. Translation is a holistic process, it’s not about the words on the page. It’s a complex balance between meaning and music. There are translations that are accurate yet clunky. That happens when a translator focuses solely on meaning but forgets that language is also music and rhythm. So sometimes you need to move away from the literal meaning to privilege music. With every translation, I weigh up where that balance lies. Gansel’s French is exquisite, precise, elegant and poetic. After drafting the translation with the focus on sense, I then reworked it many times concentrating on style and musicality. If I had to sum up the aim of a translation, it is to create the same response in the reader of the translation as that elicited by the source text in its readers. But to do that, you need to work within your own language and draw fully on the rich range of linguistic resources it offers, and those will be different from those of the original language. You may need to play with punctuation, or on the opposition between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon root words, the use (or not) of contractions. All these elements contribute to the texture of the writing. In a way, translation’s like ventriloquism: you try to find the voice you feel the writer would have had if they’d written in English. But that doesn’t mean making them sound English – you need to preserve their individuality and otherness. An almost impossible paradox.
RRT: One theme of this book is the colonization of language, and in particular the way in which German is colonized. Are there ways in which French is a colonized language? English?
RS: I would turn that question around and say rather that French and English are the colonizers. Gansel writes about how the German language was tainted by Nazism, and how writers have had to salvage it. Whereas English and French are dominant languages. The challenge for translators is to not allow our translations to be colonized by copy editors. For example, I translate a lot of Francophone North African writers who often keep Arabic words in the French. Because of France’s colonial history, the French reader will be more familiar with these terms than the English reader. I always fight to keep those words and cultural references in my translation and provide a glossary at the back of the book, since footnotes are not used in fiction. Salman Rushdie put it succinctly when he wrote: “To unlock a culture you need to understand its untranslatable words.” He keeps many Urdu words in his writing, at the same time making them perfectly understandable to the English-speaking reader within the context. That has been my guiding principle in my approach to translation.
Many African authors write in French or English rather than in any of the African languages because it’s the only way they can get published. The Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo, having previously written in English, chose to write Matigari ma Njiruungi in his native Gikuyu (1986) as well as his later Mũrogi wa Kagogo (2004) precisely to emphasize this point. The same is true of Indian authors. Little work is translated from the many languages of the subcontinent.
RT: You’ve described Gansel’s work as “translation as activism.” Gansel translated East German writers during the Cold War, and during the Vietnam War, she worked on a book of poetry to protest threats of American intervention. What is the role of the translator as activist? Do you see yourself as an activist, or particular projects you’ve done as activism?
RS: The translator has a huge role to play in challenging the gatekeepers. We can bring writers to the attention of publishers by championing their works, as Gansel has done, as I and other translators do. This is especially important when it comes to languages that publishers don’t generally read. One exemplary translator-activist is Deborah Smith, who translates from Korean and won the first Man Booker International prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Shocked that no one was publishing books from languages such as Bangladeshi, Thai, Uzbek or Korean, Smith set out to redress this single-handedly by establishing a publishing house, Tilted Axis, which is ‘on a mission to shake up contemporary international literature’. (See the Cleaver review of Han Kang’s Human Acts, in Deborah Smith’s translation, and the New Yorker interview with Kang about the act of translation.)
The very first book I translated, I Didn’t Say Goodbye by Claudine Vegh, was an activist project for me. Comprising interviews with Holocaust survivors whose parents managed to save their children but not themselves, I knew the minute I read it that I had to translate it and see it published in English. Translation as Transhumance too is an activist mission for me. I took on this book as a personal passion project and actively worked to place it with a publisher in the UK and the USA, and have been tirelessly promoting it since.
More generally, I’ve been involved in English PEN’s Writers in Translation program (of which I am currently co-chair) since its beginnings. This programme is designed to support outstanding works in translation and help them reach readers and build new audiences. It is vital for translators to actively seek out works in the languages they translate from and champion them. It is also important for translators to work with organizations supporting exiled writers, take part in book festivals and public events and be part of the conversation.
It was translators who instigated the Women in Translation month, which a number of us from around the world took part in, to draw attention to the disproportionately few works by women writers that are translated. Similarly, it was translators who were the movers and shakers behind the first Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, launched earlier this year.
I also consider myself an activist in translator training (I co-founded a literary translation summer school in London and give regular workshops), and in campaigning for improved working conditions and rates for translators. These things are all interconnected: better training means better quality translations, and better translations means that more publishers will be prepared to take on international titles. Good conditions for translators foster better quality translations because translators are then able to devote the necessary time to each project.
Rachel R. Taube is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UNC Wilmington. She has been an Electric Literature-Catapult Scholarship recipient and a Tent Creative Writing Fellow, and she holds a masters in Creative Writing and Gender Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. You can find her fiction in Storychord and Apiary Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @racheltaube.
Congratulations to Marc Labriola on winning the 2017 Ken Klonsky Award for Dying Behaviour of Cats, along with publication of the novella by Quattro Books. You can read Marc’s first two published short stories, “Cutman” and “Self-Portrait with Broken Nose,” in Issues 7 and 9 of Cleaver Magazine. In Marc’s latest work, we follow Theo, a man shut inside the home of his father after a hurricane. There is a leopard perched above him, on the roof. Theo watches the news reporting his story on television, where they split the screen: on one side, Theo, and on the other, the leopard; as the crowd across the street looks on, Theo views himself as half man, half beast.
Michelle Fost: The leopard on the roof! InDying Behaviour of Cats,Theo’s rich inner life seems to have become externalized. I wondered if there are writers who were models for you for what you set out to do here. Writers you admire? Can you talk a little about influences?
Marc Labriola: Yes, let’s begin with influences. A lot of my writing begins under it. Writing Dying Behaviour of Cats, it wasn’t “writers” who were influential so much as “books.” I’ll tell you what I mean by that. Theo’s a shut-in, so he becomes an expert on killing time. In one chapter he re-imagines the objects in his house for the purposes of entertainment. He figures out that if he blows into a baritone mouthpiece it sounds like starting a car. Or if he opens the latch of his sax case, he hears a gun cocking. Killing time, he realizes that everything doubles for something else. The most important thing he has though, are books, in particular, abandoned books; books left by his wife Catalina when she ran out on him. The Poetic Edda. Solomon and Saturn. Oedipus Rex. Odi et Amo, and others.
When I was writing the novella, I started reading the books that Theo would be reading, so they end up bleeding into the narrative. I read a lot of Catullus, this ancient Roman poet, who is Catalina’s favorite. Catullus is crazy. He goes from erotic love poem to obscene rant. That’s kind of a good way to describe Dying Behaviour of Cats. This happened to me with music too. I wrote most of this book under the influence of John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space album.
But if you’re looking to place this book in terms of writing style, it’s kind of like Gabriel Garcia Marquez trying to out drink Charles Bukowski.
MF: Cleaver published two of your stories, “Cutman” and “Self-Portrait with Broken Nose.” I wondered how you would compare writing the novella with writing short stories.
ML: Writing a novella is different from writing short stories because it ruins your life for longer. It’s as if everything in your real life has to answer to the fictional world you’ve created. Sometimes I’m chasing a word or an idea and I’m waiting for the city to somehow leave it in a place for me to trip over. On a street corner or subway car or back alley. It’s like I’m waiting for things to remind me of myself. And then when the city answers back, it’s like finding a man on the street that looks like you. You recognize yourself in strange things. Even simple things you encounter— a cat climbing the fire escape to the roof, a wedding ring beside the tub, a house key lying on the street, an open bathroom mirror, makes you aware that you are touching these amulets of everyday life. When I’m writing, everything has this symbolic weight.
Writing a novella is different from writing short stories because it ruins your life for longer. It’s as if everything in your real life has to answer to the fictional world you’ve created.
MF: Anything that stands out for you about the process of writing or revising the novella?
ML: I didn’t really start the book until I thought I was done. That’s when the real writing happened. The first time I read the manuscript from start to finish was in the middle of the night. And intersections between characters and ideas, that I’d never originally intended, started to emerge. And I cultivated those moments. So you will see strange symbols that unite the book—the colour red, eggs, the crab constellation, Saturn, the saxophone, and of course, cats. The test for truth is the collision of ideas, as if every moment in a story is just a return to what’s true. If that doesn’t happen, you can keep pounding on its chest, but the story won’t come to life.
MF: Are there things you accomplished in the novella that you’re especially pleased with? Any surprises during the writing?
ML: I made a discovery when I decided to eliminate dialogue. Don’t get me wrong, many characters speak throughout the book. But when they speak, their lines are embedded inside the words of the narrator. But then I took it a step further. When the story takes you towards the innermost thoughts of Theo, for example, the narrator too, becomes bewitched by the character and takes on the language of that character. Then when we are exposed to the thoughts of Catalina, the narrator adopts the “language” of Catalina. When you read the book, it forces you to read in this way, constantly moving in and out of the lexis of each character. The best way I can describe my narrative voice in Dying Behaviour of Cats is “demonic possession.”
MF: Reading and thinking about your stories and nowDying Behaviour of Cats,I was struck by a continued fascination with a cluster of themes—violence, masculinity, awareness of the body—and with a surprising lyricism that can develop out of a gritty, often crude surface. Theo from the novella and Andrea and Ben from the stories in Cleaver might be neighbors. Is their world one we can expect you to continue to write about in your next work? What’s next?
ML: It’s very interesting that you say that Andrea, Ben, and Theo, these three ruined men, could be neighbours, because my original conception was for a short story collection where all the characters lived in the same run-down apartment building. But, like a lot of conception, there are happy accidents. Dying Behaviour of Cats is one of those. This small story of a leopard on a man’s roof ended up uncoiling into a novella.
But, let’s talk about violence. You’re right about this cluster of themes. You know the first day I met my editor, he asked me to meet him in a café on the bottom floor of the building where the publishing house is. I knew what he looked like from the photos of him on the backs of his books, but he didn’t know me from Adam. So, I walk in to our first meeting, shoes polished, wearing this light grey Italian suit. And I see him right away. I go up to him and say, “Hi, Luciano?” He turns to me and says, “Holy shit, Marc? Are you Marc Labriola?” From reading my work, he thought I would show up with a split lip. Maybe a black eye. Or with a bottle of bourbon in a brown paper bag. Anyway, I’m telling you this because, yes, the novel focuses on the body, but it doesn’t end with the body.
The first day I met my editor… he turns to me and says, “Holy shit, Marc? Are you Marc Labriola?” From reading my work, he thought I would show up with a split lip. Maybe a black eye. Or with a bottle of bourbon in a brown paper bag. Anyway, I’m telling you this because, yes, the novel focuses on the body, but it doesn’t end with the body.
At one point, Theo tries to see how long he can go without eating, without sleeping, then without speaking. He is trying to break through the boundaries of his own body. The parts of the book that are most focused on the body are all about attempts to transcend it. At one point, after Theo has tried to hurt himself, he realizes that through trying to die, he feels as though he is slowly becoming immortal. That he has been building up a tolerance to death. And I think that’s very true of suffering. The same is true with your comment about masculinity. When you think it is most about the “masculine,” you find Theo searching for the mother who abandoned him, the wife who ran off. Hunting femininity and divinity.
In terms of what’s next, I’m currently writing a novel. It begins when an internationally renowned author dies at 90 years old, and surprises his family by requesting in his will that his body be buried in the little town in Mexico that was the setting for his most famous book. When his body is sent, and the world realizes the true location of his famous novel, journalists descend on the town, intent on discovering if the now cult characters actually exist in real life.
MF: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions, and congratulations on the Ken Klonsky Prize and the publication. Best way to order a copy of Dying Behaviour of Cats?
ML: In Canada the book is available at Indigo, Chapters, Book City, and online retailers. In the US, the book is available online through Barnes and Noble and Amazon.
Michelle Fost is a writer living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in Geist Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She is a book review and fiction editor at Cleaver.
A Conversation with Heather Derr-Smith, author of Thrust, from Persea Books (2017)
Interview by Brian Burmeister
Heather Derr-Smith is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and author of four collections of poetry. Her newest book, Thrust, was the winner of the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize. Thrust has been praised by many fellow poets, including Kaveh Akbar, who called the book, “An important, ambitious new collection.”
Derr-Smith is also an activist and advocate who has volunteered with several nonprofit organizations, including Everytown for Gun Safety. She recently founded Čuvaj se, which focuses on supporting writers in war-torn regions.
In this interview, Brian Burmeister asks Heather Derr-Smith about her poetry, the role of poets in the world, and her advice for fellow writers.
Brian Burmeister : Your new poetry collection, Thrust, explores a lot of powerful themes—love, desire, violence, and the search for personal identity. What do you hope your readers will think and feel as a result of these poems?
Heather Derr-Smith: I would like people to feel their own strength and resilience. I hope that people can tap into the possibility of facing suffering and pain honestly, not pushing it away or denying its existence or impact or effect. But also, that each and every one of us is strong and gifted with a right to fight back and say NO to malevolence, wherever it comes from. This is a delicate message I’m trying so hard to communicate. The hurt is real, the pain is real, suffering is right here all around us and don’t turn away from it. Your trauma is important and real. So is your power. You may not win or overcome, but just in standing firm you have done an incredibly powerful thing. I think I want them to feel that power of resistance.
BB: What was the writing process like for you as you wrote Thrust?
HDS: I have a strange process, or at least, I’ve learned that it is strange when I compare myself to what other writers say they do. I do not write every day. I tend to cycle through seasons of listening, being present to the world, watching, reading, just absorbing things quietly. I’ve learned to trust that my mind is doing the work it needs for when it is time to write.
Then I start to take notes in a notebook. I usually read the dictionary and find words I like and I make sentences out of those words or images or lines for poems. I also find words in other books I’m reading or phrases I overhear in real life or in movies. I collect all these sentences, words, and lines in a notebook. Usually, it comes to be that I see patterns emerging of things I am interested in—like for Thrust I was reading a lot of books and essays on boxing, so I was taking notes on boxing terms. I started boxing myself and binge-watching old, old clips of fights. I took notes on all these things, images, descriptions etc. I was also reading all about Nabokov’s butterflies so I took a lot of notes on that. At some point I see common themes emerging and patterns and connections being made between such disparate parts as Boxing and Butterflies, which leads to this wonder of poetry and metaphor.
In my personal life I was wrestling with questions about my own past and my own trauma from both childhood and as a survivor of rape. I was in therapy and I finally got brave enough to return to my hometown, Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I grew up and hadn’t spent much time in for a number of years. I had been estranged from my family to protect myself emotionally and psychologically, but I felt like I had gotten to a point where I was strong enough to re-engage and make some discoveries on my own terms. So I visited all my old haunts, the old homeplace, my old friends, and places where I had lived as a teenage runaway. I was able to make some peace in those places and place often plays a huge role in my poems. So I started taking notes on what that all felt like and also the flora and fauna of those places. When I was a kid I wouldn’t have cared to name such things, which is perfectly fine for a child to be free from the need, just so immersed in the moment, but in writing I do care very much about naming. I love how it roots the self in the world in this way that I missed growing up, having such a fractured sense of identity from years of trauma.
So when I get to that place I feel a surge of energy and I plunge in and start writing a whole book all at once. I don’t work on poems so much as poetry. I start to see where there are poems in all the notes and I divide them up into manageable chunks and move lines and images around fitting them into pages where I see—oh, here is a poem forming about loss and this word fits and that image fits and let me tie it all together and strengthen that theme or add this contradiction or surprise. Pretty soon I have about fifty pages and the poems emerge stronger and stronger. I often think of it like I’m on a Ouija board and spirits are getting pulled out of the page/board into this world to speak.
BB: You’ve made multiple trips to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and your first book of poetry, Each End of the World, reflects upon life there during and after the Bosnian War. Recently, you created the literary and human rights organization, Čuvaj se, dedicated to the support of writers and scholars in communities affected by war. What led you to the creation of this organization? And what are your hopes or goals for the work done by this organization?
HDS: Yes! I am so excited to start this nonprofit and see where it leads. BiH has become like a second home to me, and I do think eventually I will live there a good part of the year. I made a commitment during the war to show up and be present with the people who were resisting authoritarianism and nationalism and I want that to be a lifelong commitment to that particular place. But as we know full well, these forces are on the march all over the world and never seem to really abate for long. This nonprofit is just a small gesture I can make that I hope will lead to something useful. I would like all of my income—which is very slight at this point but could become more significant as I teach more and become more established—any money from my books to go toward others. I have a lot of privilege as a white American woman. I’ve benefitted enormously from my access to resources like therapy to help me overcome PTSD, like networks of support to keep me out of poverty, education, literary networks, so even with a history of abuse and violence and adverse childhood experiences, I have benefitted from my place in the world and in society. I want to give back and lift up others.
I will have to start small with this nonprofit, small projects that are easy to accomplish, because for one thing, I’ve never run a non-profit before. I’ve been doing these workshops for years all over the world with refugees from Iraq and Palestine in Syria, Syrian refugees in Europe, Burmese refugees in the United States, and of course with the Bosnian diaspora, a community so profoundly affected by a brutal war and genocide. I want to keep doing that. In November and December I will be doing poetry workshops in partnership with the US Embassy in Estonia, and in Eastern Ukraine with IDP’s (internally displaced people) from the war in Donetsk and in Czech Republic and Bosnia. All of these communities are struggling through a resurgence of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism. I serve two populations mostly. The first is university age students, often from the LGBT community in these countries, often advanced writers themselves who are interested in connecting with the broader poetry community. And the second group is very different, usually survivors of trauma, usually older, not university educated, not poets, but often people who just love poetry and may be there to practice English skills and/or are processing trauma. So the former is more academic and the latter is more therapeutic. I’ve developed relationships over the years and would like very much to partner with organizations already working in their respective countries. For instance, I’ve been involved in workshops in Sarajevo with TPO Foundation, already doing fantastic work with women activists and in the schools with teachers. They are in the process of trying to put together a summer camp for kids that would include poetry workshops and I could apply to grants to help run those in partnership with them. I’m looking at small-scale projects like that and we’ll just see where it leads. I will have a booth and brochures at AWP 2018 so hopefully by then I will have a specific project in mind!
BB: What civic or societal responsibilities do you believe poets in the world today should possess?
HDS: Building community at home and abroad. Being authentic and generous in the world with one another, neighbors and strangers. I think the days of poets as elitists in ivory towers should be over. I think the idea of poets as above others and privileged and milking their privilege for fame or immortality should be dismantled. We are all flawed, of course; no one is perfect and we all are learning and growing—or should be, so I hope poets will be real about who they are and strive for that kind of authenticity. I hope MFA programs, which I love, become more and more places of community and less and less places of unhealthy competition and unhealthy, even abusive, power dynamics. I believe we can strengthen one another’s work far better through caring for one another and positive critique—as in we all have muscles to build in our work, sure—let’s encourage one another to write stronger and harder but there are so many better ways of doing that than tearing each other down. I hate “negative” reviews and think they are worthless for making poetry better. This doesn’t mean we just praise one another all the time and we don’t care about craft. Poetry is a craft and we work hard to get better, and yes, it’s okay to differentiate between work that is mature and work that is not—but let’s also leave room for work that is maturing and leave room for possibility for our fellow writers.
I still believe American poets are too insulated from the rest of the world. This is a problem for Americans in general but for poets as well. Many countries do not have access to the networks we have, and we are leaving people behind, silencing a lot of incredible work, just because they can’t access our American networks or communities of writers. I would like to see us do a better job of being trans-national. Often poets in Ukraine, Estonia, Bosnia, or many, many other countries, perhaps in Iraq, Syria, name anywhere in the world, and so many great poets are disconnected simply because they are ignored when they do try to reach out. There is still the frenzy of popularity and celebrity and coolness within the American lit community, where certain names become cool—and, of course, their work is deserving of praise, but word spreads and they tend to dominate. It’s funny, in Western Europe and in many countries with a rich literary tradition, elitism comes in the form of a certain male-dominated intellectualism. In America there is elitism in American Coolness. You see it all the way back in the Beats; it’s the NY School; it’s just so much a part of our culture. It’s like no matter how marginalized or anti-elitist a movement starts out, it can still become exclusionary, which I think we should constantly be working to undo.
BB: Many of Cleaver Magazine’s readers are aspiring poets. As a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, what is one piece of advice you were given during your time there that you would want to pass along to other writers?
HDS: The best things I took from the Writer’s Workshop came by example, not really advice. There was lots of good advice that I would echo. I mean I learned from reading a lot of poetry. I learned from imitating. I learned from writing a lot. But what meant the most to me were teachers and peers who demonstrated a generosity and authentic humanity. I believe this is what makes the best work and work that will last. Mark Doty taught me to be generous to others and to have empathy. He was kind. We had workshops around tables of food at one another’s homes. Sharing meals like that creates community. The way he talked about other poets was with the tone of friendship or awe. He didn’t need to show off by tearing things apart. He asked a lot of questions, and that modeled for me a way of being. Marvin Bell was the same, always excited about something, always wanting to show us something neat. It was just a genuine love of art and literature and being alive, too. Charles Wright was a master craftsman. He worked us hard. But he had a sense of humor and a lack of pretense. Just be real, be imperfect, be uncool, be curious, and be open to one another.
Brian Burmeister teaches communication at Iowa State University. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.
Everything Has to Come Through You A Conversation with poet Jericho Brown
Author of PLEASE and THE NEW TESTAMENT
Interview by Grant Clauser
Jericho Brown, author of the prize-winning poetry collections Please and The New Testament, visited Bucks County Community College in September to give a reading. This interview was conducted at a picnic table outside the school’s auditorium building prior to the reading.
Brown, who teaches creative writing at Emory University, has received numerous awards for his poetry including the Whiting Writers Award and the American Book Award. He’s received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was recently named poetry editor of The Believer. His poems are widely published in journals such as The American Poetry Review, The Nation and The New Yorker.
Grant Clauser: One thing I feel in your poems is a constant sense of motion—how they shift and pivot, like they’re running an obstacle course to get to something. I see that in the poems “Football Season” and others. Is that movement effect a conscious technique aim for or a expression of how you work through the poem on the page?
Jericho Brown: I think it’s a good idea to always be interested in creating what you wish was there, so what I try to do as a poet is make the poems I wish I were reading. It’s a matter of creating a need for something the reader may not have known he or she had a need for. And I think that’s how I want to live my life. When I’m teaching a class I try to do it how I would have wanted it done if I were the student. I want my poems to be like snapshots or a series of snapshots no matter how long the poems are. I want it to feel full, as is the case in a dream, but I also want it to have a certain kind of series of leaps that make sense, like in dream. So that’s part of what those pivots are about.
Talking about them consciously isn’t something I would really be capable of doing because it’s something I think that you practice to the point that it becomes second nature. So for instance when you’re writing a really formal poem you know you’re good at it when you’re not counting numbers on your fingers. Iambic pentameter is not about how do I get to ten, it’s about knowing it second hand because you’ve been practicing. And because you know that, you’re able to make the sonnet without thinking “now I’m going to write a sonnet.” The poem is moving toward sonnet. I think that way about form, but I also think that way about certain things that I do in poems, like what you call pivot—I always think of hinge, something that allows me to leap into something else, it opens a door and suddenly you’re in another world. That you can have both of those worlds in a single poem has always fascinated me.
I’ve always been really interested in trying to write life, and in writing a poem that is an organism, that is as complicated and complex as people are. I want my poems to be like me. I feel I’m a person in the world who upon being seen gets pinned down, and I hate that because it’s not true. I’m not one thing. I’m many things, and I’m that thing that people think I am. And I can be several things in a matter of five minutes. I can pray and love the Lord and get in my car and hit traffic and start cussing.
GC: How much do you think about the reader when you’re writing, and if you do, at what point does the reader enter into your process or in what way?
JB: I don’t think about the reader, but I do think about myself outside of myself. When I’m writing a poem I think about myself when I was nineteen or I think about myself given a feeling I had after seeing a piece of art or after having read a poem I love. How do I satisfy that reader in that moment? How do I satisfy the person I was the first time I heard Juvenile’s Back That Thang Up cause I was a happy and excited person who thought something new and wonderful was happening? It’s sort of a weird thing that when people ask about the reader, I think they mean someone other than me, but I can read, so I can just use myself. If I can get to the point that I like my poems, then that’s good.
I also think it’s important to have friends. Poets are clannish beings and I haven’t gotten to that point where I’m so solitary that don’t show poems to people. I want to see my friends’ poems and tell them that they’re bad, and for my friends to see my poems and tell me that they’re bad, or see my friends’ poems and say, “hey, I think this would be a better word here,” and I want them to do the same thing for me. In that way there’s a reader because there’s someone who can tell me when something is or is not working, but I don’t anticipate my friends when I’m writing. Mostly when I’m writing I just need to get everything down. As long as there are words on the page, as long as there’s text to work with, I’ll always be able to ask the poems questions that help me revise the poem. I just have to hold onto it long enough for it to answer those questions. Sometimes it can be a literal mess of words that don’t make any sense, but you can still say, “who is your speaker?” or “what is your occasion?” and sometimes that mess or words will begin to tell you, to translate itself.
GC: As a teacher of poetry-writing, what are the most important ideas you want to get across to your students, and what are the hardest ones for them to learn?
JB: I think with beginning poets there’s always a bit of wanting to write the feeling rather than the image or the experience or even just the music that would get us to that feeling. Ultimately what I teach is strategy. More than teach them to write, I think I teach them to read without reading for explication or interpretation. To read in a way that leads them to wonder why they’re turned on by something. The reason you’re turned on by something is not what it means, and we know this because everyone has a tree, and we’ll sit there and love that tree, but we don’t explicate a tree. We say, “oh, there’s a tree, it’s beautiful.” And then we might say the reason the tree is beautiful is because as I’m looking at it from this vantage point it is an interesting color against the blue sky that makes the green look different. And it’s not so much that the tree is beautiful, it’s that the blue sky is beautiful.
GC: One of the things that’s both necessary in poems yet impossible to teach is passion or intensity. Your poems have that. So my question is how does one cultivate that, how do you make sure it’s there and available to the reader?
JB: Passion comes from subject matter, which is something we shouldn’t think about when we’re writing. The important thing about writing is that you ask yourself poetics questions. How do I end in an abstraction? How does one make use of a contraction? Is it possible for me to have a direct address? Asking those kinds of questions leads to poems. What those poems are about should be second hand, should be what comes out of your language in trying to answer those poetics questions. And you’ll find out what you’re interested in through trying to answer those questions. As a poet who’s sitting around trying to write about injustice or love, if you start that way, saying I’m going to write about hatred or I’m going to write about God, then you are also going to write a bad poem. Whereas if you try to answer questions with poetics you will find yourself writing about God in order to answer these poetics questions and you will realize, oh, I really care about God.
The thing I notice in my students’ work is that at first in the intro class in their first poems they all have either birds and or trees, and they really don’t give a shit about birds, because they’re always just birds. They really haven’t ever noticed a bird in their lives, but they have this idea that they’re writing a poem so they need a bird. Instead of believing in the things that obsess them, and letting those things come out in the poem as opposed to writing about them in the poem. Then you’ll have that intensity and passion you’re talking about, because it hasn’t been prepped. You’re not trying to organize it. It is making it’s own way into the writing.
GC: In another interview you mention shame, as in poets feeling ashamed to be poets, to let people know that’s what they are? Whereas football players aren’t ashamed of being football players. Can you explain that? What motivates it?
JB: Poets are really subversive people and they’ve got a problem with everything, and that’s what I like about them. I like that when you show a poet something they immediately say, “well, that’s not what that is, I’m skeptical.” I’m the guy, who when I watch Game of Thrones, the entire time I’m wondering at which point they have body doubles. That’s why I watch it, so I can catch the body doubles. I think that poets are naturally that way, and I think that’s a good thing, but I think sometimes we’re that way about one another and ourselves in a way that is not useful to us in the long run.
We do have some things we love. We love poetry, and we’re not helpful to it when we are ashamed of it. Nobody wants to tell anybody they’re a poet. I say let’s make people afraid of you. Let’s let people go through whatever they go through when you tell them you’re a poet. Given the cultural impact that we make over time, we have to begin to be proud of the work that we do. The poet is always there. Even when we’re dead we’re always there. And we have to begin to herald and shout that out. The thing that we actually do is complain that nobody’s reading poetry. But who would? They’re ashamed of themselves. You know what I mean? You can’t have both.
GC: Related to that—we have a section on Cleaver called Life in Activism to encourage artists to express themselves politically. What do you think of the role of the poet as a voice in the world, as an activist?
JB: Right now, considering that we’re in the middle of a political crisis, I wish people would just understand. First of all, stop saying you’re surprised, whoever you are. Stop saying that because it’s insulting. It makes people like Gwendolyn Brooks and Allen Ginsberg and (for heaven’s sake, “the world is too much with us”) it makes Wordsworth and all turn over in their graves. If you’re a reading poet, or a cultural thinker or intellectual of any kind and you’re surprised about a fucking election than that means that you weren’t listening and that also means that you sat around calling black people liars, because every black poet that I’ve ever known has been telling you. Gwendolyn Brooks, in an interview, literally said Donald Trump will be president if we go the way we’re going, so when you say you’re surprised, you’re really insulting a bunch of people. So everybody who’s saying that needs to stop saying that—or be embarrassed about feeling that way.
Instead, it would be a good idea to assume that we are now living in the apocalypse, and so if you don’t want to live in the apocalypse you need to act as crazy as a person would act in order to get out of the apocalypse…because what you were doing before clearly did not work. So this idea of whether the poet is a political being, when everything about the history of poets tell us that it’s all the poet ever was, is just some American bullshit. And I don’t know why Americans need bullshit, but they clearly need it the way they need mayonnaise, and it’s shit. It’s going to get in your arteries and kill you. It’s going to get crazy people elected. So that’s sort of number one.
At the same time I do not think that the poet can think about any of those things while he or she is writing poems. When I’m writing poems I need to allow my obsessions to come through without pushing them. The question though, is, have I really opened my mind, to everything that could possibly obsess me. So my issue is never reading a poem and feeling that the poem isn’t political enough. But reading a poet over a period of sixty years and all they can write about for that sixty years is that same damn dog that they’ve been writing about since their first book. That seems strange to me. It seems odd to me that every one of us at this point has literally seen an unarmed black man murdered by a police officer for no reason. Whether we saw it on Twitter, Facebook, television, we’ve literally seen it happen. So it seems to me that if you’ve seen a human being shot by another human being for no reason, that you have an experience, because you’re a human being. You have an empathetic and sympathetic experience. You’re world is rocked. You see this thing, you lose you’re mind. I’m not saying anyone has to write anything, but I think it’s reasonable to question why they only see one side of life. I think it’s important for poets to begin to question whether or not they are living fully.
Whether or not they are experiencing all of life about them. It may not be that it is your responsibility as a poet to write as an activist or to write politically, but it is your responsibility as a poet to live fully. You are a repository. Everything has to come through you. And so I need to see what happens when we have so-called political moments come through the poets. And I think we need that. I think it’s important. So I’m not saying we need all poets to start writing about feminism or race or the fact that we’re absolutely dastardly to Muslim people in this country. That would be a waste of time. But I do think it’s important for poets to observe what they’re observing. Pay attention to what’s around you, and stop pretending it’s not there, instead of writing about that same damn flower.
How is it possible that other things have not found their way into your poems? And I know the answer. It’s possible because you refuse to see anything other than your garden, and you’ve built a life that allows you to not see anything but your garden. You have to build that life at this point. We’re more connected now than ever before. People are willfully not knowing. If you’re a poet, that seems to me odd, considering what we know about negative capability, what we know about tradition and individual talent.
GC: What are you working on now? Will the next book have anything in common with the last one, or will it take a different path?
JB: Today, I am at work on A Little Evil, a third collection of poetry written in the voices of personae and in the mode of meditations on literature, visual art, and film. I am asking myself new questions about how to allow poetry and other forms of art I love to influence my writing. In these poems, speakers address characters like Rufus from James Baldwin’s novel Another Country and High John from Daniel Minter’s painting High John the Conqueror. According to the poet Wanda Coleman, “Art feeds art,” and this manuscript is my way of proving that dictum. Some of the poems question our national obsession with horror films and investigate our love for celebrities with lines like “…I’m alone in the dark. I’ve paid for myself/To see Sandra Bullock try and hate/A handsome man…” Critics have said that this theatrical darkness is a kind of consciousness in which we allow an actor to perform an aspect of ourselves, so that watching the film is both private and public at once.
Because I am now more fully aware of my obsessions my subject matter, I want A Little Evil to question whether there is such a thing as “universal” and whether experiences that are not universal can be rendered as the so-called sublime. I am using personae to more fully understand whether or not the body is at different levels of risk when it is raced, gendered, or disabled.
Many of the poems in A Little Evil see the body as a repository for history. Its speakers turn toward other genres and forms because they want to believe that art can facilitate healing. In a few of the poems, the body attempts to split itself from its history, creating speakers who sound maniacal or surreal. A gravedigger sings love songs while burying the tortured and murdered in the poem “Shovel.” A football player guesses at the outcome of his very short career with, “That’s the dream, how we die” at the end of “Success Story.” Can the body wracked by history be reclaimed without suffering insanity? These poems are not so sure. If I had to sum the book’s poetics with a few of its lines, I might choose these from “Before Dawn”: “How long must I/Claim beauty where there is/Only truth.”
A Little Evil is a book about the malnourished and persecuted body. I explore how even that body learns to thrive despite the stories grafted upon it, experiences that mean to degrade and devalue it. What I have written leads me to a hypothesis: in several of these poems, speakers learn—through touch of their own and other bodies—to love themselves rather than wish for death.
Grant Clauser is the author of four poetry books, most recently The Magician’s Handbook (PS Books, 2017) and Reckless Constellations (Cider Press Review, 2018). His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Journal, The Literary Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Tar River Poetry and others. Follow him at @uniambic
A Conversation with Benjamin Percy
Author of THE DARK NET
from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages
Interview by Brian Burmeister
Benjamin Percy has a fascinating and wide-ranging career as a writer. His short story “Refresh, Refresh” was selected as one of the Best American Short Stories 2006 and was further anthologized as one of only 40 stories included in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. He has written four novels, a book of craft essays on writing, and has contributed works to such publications as Esquire, GQ, and Men’s Journal. In addition, Percy currently writes for DC Comics’ Green Arrow and Teen Titans, and for Dynamite Entertainment’s James Bond. He newest novel, The Dark Net, released in August 2017, explores many of the dangers of our current digital age.
In this exclusive interview, Cleaver interviewer, Brian Burmeister, asks Benjamin Percy about the things that scare him, the books that shaped him, and the advice he has for fellow writers.
BB: The great post-modern writer Donald Barthelme famously encouraged writers to “Write about what you’re afraid of.” With The Dark Net, you paint a very harrowing picture of the vulnerabilities of the Internet’s infrastructure and our personal information. Are those possible dangers something that you’re deeply concerned with as we move through the next few years?
BP: Right now—with every swipe of a screen, every click of a mouse—you’re feeding information into an algorithm. Right now—when you post a photo or tag a location on social media—you’re willingly giving up vulnerable data.
Right now, you’re reaching for your phone, your fingers always twitching distractedly for it, because it’s digital cocaine, a prosthetic cerebrum.
Right now, private cameras—on phones, on laptops—are being auctioned off by pirates online, so that someone might be watching you right now without your knowledge. Right now, Siri or Alexa is listening to everything you say. Right now, malware can be stored in human DNA.
Yeah, I’m concerned.
BB: In one of my favorite passages of The Dark Net you wrote, “Books are like batteries…you grow a little stronger by reading them, surrounding yourself with them.” Whether in your preparation for writing The Dark Net, or in your general development as a writer over many years, which books do you feel have made the most profound impact on you?
BP: Too many to list. But for The Dark Net, William Gibson’s Neuromancer was essential. He’s the godfather of cyber-punk, and an excerpt from his groundbreaking novel is included as the epigraph. I also owe a debt to William Blatty’s The Exorcist and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman for their respective treatment of the demonic and occultism.
BB: As an author, you have come to find yourself in a fairly unique position as someone who has very much come out of the literary tradition to now blur the lines between literary and genre writing. What lessons do you think exist for literary writers to take away from genre works? And vice versa?
BP: The differences between so-called genre and literary fiction are mostly irrelevant, so long as the writing is strong, the characterization believable. Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy could be stocked in horror, western, crime, science fiction and fantasy or Literature (with a capital L). Bookstores should be broken down into two sections: books that suck and books that don’t suck.
What sucks about the worst of literary fiction? Nothing happens. What sucks about the worst of genre fiction? The prose is pedestrian and the characters are types. One extreme errs on the side of artsy-fartsyness while failing to address that most essential question, “What happens next?” The other extreme errs on the side of full-bore momentum with little acknowledgement of language’s power and the emotional well you need to fill up.
BB: One of the standout traits of your writing in The Dark Net is the vividness with which you describe each location, each character, each action. Over the past several years, you have written many comic books for DC Comics and now Dynamite Entertainment as well. Do you feel as though your work for comics has changed the way you visualize the worlds within your prose?
BP: I’ve always been a visual writer, as influenced by novels and poems as I am by movies, TV, and comics. But I have been writing for DC Comics the past three years, and that’s definitely carried over to my novel writing. Especially with structure and plotting. You have 20 pages and five to seven scenes. The end of every scene should be a tantalizing question mark that carries the reader forward. That’s how every chapter works in a novel. Also consider this: every issue of Green Arrow has an A, B, C, and D plot. The B plot becomes the A plot of the next issue. The C plot becomes the B plot. And so on. Something very similar is going on in a novel, when it comes to the rotation and progression of mysteries. I could nerd on about this for some time. That’s the short version.
BB: You were a long-time creative writing professor and last year published Thrill Me, a book of essays on the craft of writing. As many of Cleaver Magazine’s readers are also writers, what is one piece of advice you would offer to any fledgling or struggling writers out there?
BP: Read your brains out and write your brains out. Don’t listen to the word, “No,” (or at least don’t let it bother you, because you’re going to hear it a lot). And re-read. There’s a lot to be learned from re-reading and re-reading and re-reading a story you admire and then breaking it down into its component parts and trying to figure out the techniques and design that made it so powerful.
Brian Burmeister teaches communication at Iowa State University. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. He can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.
A Conversation with Andrea Jarrell Author of I’M THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY from She Writes Press, 176 Pages
Interview by Elizabeth Mosier
Haunted by her father’s absence and riveted by her single mother’s cautionary tales, Cleaver contributor Andrea Jarrell longed for the “stuff of ordinary families,” even as she was drawn to the drama of her parents’ larger-than-life relationship. In her new memoir, I’M THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY (She Writes Press), Jarrell revisits family stories starring wolves in cowboy clothing and lambs led astray by charming savior-saboteurs, to recount how she escaped a narrative she’d learned by heart.
Jarrell’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Narrative Magazine, and Lit Hub, among others. A Los Angeles native, she currently lives in suburban Washington, D.C., and works as a communications strategist for educational institutions. Read Andrea Jarrell’s craft essay “Becoming an Outlaw: How My Short Fiction Became a Memoir,” published last year on Cleaver.
Cleaver interviewer Elizabeth Mosier asked her about the long road to writing her own story.
EM: You’re the one who got away. What does “getting away” mean for you?
AJ: The book’s title speaks to the getaway at the heart of the book—my mother leaving my [violent alcoholic] father when she was pregnant with me—but it also speaks to my feeling that I have escaped my family’s dynamics. I went to college, I got out of a bad relationship, I married a good man and created a family. For so long, I didn’t realize that my mother’s life choices were driving so many of mine. When I could see the bright lines of my story, that’s when I was no longer writing her view of the world.
EM: Your mother’s “Nick” is your “Wes.” He’s the son of one of your early writing teachers, “Isabel,” who praised your talent but then sabotaged your work by fixing you up with her brilliant but binge-drinking son.
AJ: Leaving “Wes” was such a pivot in my own life, and I think it’s a natural pivot in the story. People who read the book are so mad at “Isabel,” and I was, too! As somebody who has a lot of relatives with addictions, I understand her impulse to look for a good thing and hope it would change things for her son. It felt like I was the chosen one, and then it felt like it was all just a big trick. You’re very vulnerable in any writing program, as an artist and as a person, because you’re putting out this work that you care so much about. I’ve had some hard knocks with that, and also some good luck with very helpful mentors. But as the artist, you have to do the heavy lifting. Even though I wanted to be published in my twenties, I don’t know that I could have stood it. I needed all this recovery to gain confidence and authority, to be able to stand on my own two feet and not get knocked over.
EM: You first started to explore this material as fiction, while pursuing an MFA at Bennington in your late thirties.
AJ: It was so helpful to start as a fiction writer. What I learned at Bennington is that it’s easier to write lovely sentences than it is to tell a good story. I grew up hearing stories—my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother all had a talent for choosing the telling detail. But it took me so long to construct something, to figure out what details fit into something bigger, or what details could make the story grow. A line of remembered dialogue might be a jumping-off place, or an aperture that I can open up. Even if it’s my starting place, it might not end up being where the story ultimately starts. It might be a window in. The more I revise, the more I learn to trust that there’s more there to find.
EM: What were the biggest challenges you faced when you began working with this material in nonfiction form?
AJ: I loathe the idea of being overly explanatory or melodramatic. I didn’t want to turn my story into an Al-Anon meeting. Yet editors would say, “It’s okay to dwell here.” There were certain points where I needed to be more direct—more telling, not just showing. The marketing writing I do for work has taught me how to hook people’s attention, but there are hazards to that kind of writing, too. In art, the writing can’t be too neatly packaged.
The hardest part [in developing this memoir] was figuring out a structure that worked to develop the central themes of desire, an unusual mother-daughter bond and its impact on sexuality, and recovery.
I resisted arranging the chapters chronologically, because that’s not as interesting to me. In the end, though, the story is told mostly in chronological order. Still, I couldn’t bear to start in childhood. For one thing, I thought it would be easier to engage the reader in an adult’s life than in a child’s. Also, in the chapters where I am a child, there’s an imbalance of power. It’s more my mother’s story than mine.
Finally, I realized that the trigger for the book was the murder of a woman, my neighbor when I was living in Maine with my husband and children. It happened during my time in the MFA program at Bennington, and I immediately wanted to write about it, though I didn’t understand why it was such a powerful experience. Once I decided to begin with this story, a lot of narrative problems were solved. I could start as an adult and make natural connections between my life and my mother’s.
EM: As you write, that story was “A path that paved the way, inevitably, back to my mother.” You return to childhood to answer the question that opening chapter asks: How did you avoid becoming that woman you feared, whose sexuality seemed to put her in peril? You found your way to a happy life, which, for you, means a lasting marriage, motherhood, and a creative career. And yet, between the lines of your memoir there lurks a fear that you don’t really deserve what you have, that you’re “getting away” with something.
AJ: I haven’t experienced true tragedy, but I’ve had bad things happen that felt tragic to me. Having escaped that, part of me waits for the other shoe to drop. But the message in my memoir is to keep choosing life. I never want to just give up—to say that this is all I get, that this is my fate. I want to keep believing that I can evolve, that I can have new experiences, and that I can grow.
EM: Perhaps one of the things you learned from your mother is to have confidence in your ability to navigate the unknown. You make clear in the memoir that your mother has healed, is healing, and is making plans for her future, too. And yet you felt nervous about the way you depicted her, and sought her blessing to tell this story.
AJ: In order to tell my own story, I had to tell some of my mother’s. I feel a sense of responsibility about that. I don’t actually know what I would have done if my mom objected to the book—if she weren’t who she is. My father is the villain in the story, though I do try to show his better nature. I’m always surprised when people say, “There’s so much love in the book.” Even when it comes to my dad.
EM: Your memoir’s publication coincides with National Recovery Month. Is this a recovery book?
AJ: Certainly not in ways one might expect. It’s not about recovery from any specific addiction. I think that, as humans, we’ve all got a void within us that we’re trying to fill. Figuring out how to do that in a positive rather than self-destructive way is part of what the book is about. I think about what Vivian Gornick has said of memoir, “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
I’m the One Who Got Away isn’t trying to tell anyone how to recover. But I do think it wants to make sense of the healing we are all trying to do.
Elizabeth Mosier is a novelist and essayist. Her reviews have appeared most recently in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Cleaver. Her essay “Believers” was named a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2015, Read more at www.ElizabethMosier.com.
A Conversation with Sonya Huber
Author of PAIN WOMAN TAKES YOUR KEYS AND OTHER ESSAYS FROM A NERVOUS SYSTEM by Lisa Romeo
I was first introduced to Sonya Huber’s writing through her prescient 2010 book, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, about the elusive hunt for affordable care, which I was assigned to review. This writer stayed on my radar, and her newest nonfiction book is a satisfying reward. In Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System (University of Nebraska Press 2017), Huber takes her readers inside for a multifaceted view of her experiences with chronic pain, and how that changes a 30-something woman.
LR: I’ll ask the chicken-or-egg question first: what came first, writing and publishing several essays on the topic, then realizing it might make a collection? Or did you set out to produce an essay collection about pain?
SH: I started writing these essays as a kind of journaling, and for a long time I was not optimistic about even making one essay out of my phrases and sentences. The opportunity to publish one essay on the topic gradually emboldened me to try another, and then whenever I was in particularly bad pain, I would shift from my other writing project into writing pain. It was sort of like an escape hatch or relief, a way to use my bad present experience as research.
When I was starting to accumulate essays, I noticed that the finished essays were much easier to place than anything else I’d written. That was a singular experience, and then the comments from readers and editors was another clue that I needed to continue, and emboldened me to go further. Only then did I think about shaping a book. I saw what topics I had covered and asked myself, “What other hard things are missing?” and then gave myself assignments to start gradually shaping those missing essays. So this book feels very crowd-sourced and shaped with the help of a writing, reading, and disability/illness community.
LR: What about ordering the pieces? Writing bridge pieces? That whole process of turning individual essays into a book flummoxes many nonfiction writers.
SH: It is interesting that a few readers have commented that this reads like a memoir, because I didn’t arrange the essays that way on a conscious level. I can see how it would read that way, though. My most important concern in was variation in tone, style, and subject matter.
Since the topic is pain—often an entrapping and suffocating experience—I did not want to make readers experience that element of pain. Other writers have done that work very well, but I didn’t think I could do it. My priority was to allow for as many breaths and entry and exit points as possible. It’s an intense subject, so I wanted readers to feel they could pick it up and put it down, and some pieces are definitely meant as lighter “breathers.”
I chose an experimental piece for the beginning to let people know that some weird stuff would follow in the book, and that the rule for reading was that there would be few rules, and as a signal to be open-minded. Then came two “overview” pieces as a kind of introduction. Then I grouped the pieces by theme, another layer of internal organization.
After grouping by theme, I had the question of how to order these thematic chunks. There’s some warmer or easier stuff—about love and cooking and sex and relationships—and I decided that should go at the heart of the book, because that’s a reward, I think, to continue reading. (Also I would simply not get through this without my husband, my family, and friends.) Pain is a community problem that has social solutions. I wanted to push back against the stereotype of illness as being an isolated and self-centered subject, because I don’t think it ever is. Finally, because the ending pieces are a point of stress, a lens through which a reader looks back and sees the whole work, I wanted pieces in that spot that I saw as strong and complicated, with the final note as the possibility of seeing and understanding pain, as a kind of hope.
As far as advice, I think I would say that form follows function. I know there are many principles for putting together an essay collection, but I think your subject matter, voice, and tone have to inform the ordering. Ultimately the ordering is a kind of story itself.
LR: You write that you are “…not going to talk about the physical sensation” of pain. I thought, yes, because it’s too easy to go on about what it feels like. I also wondered if you were demanding of yourself—and readers—to think of what’s happening to our bodies as starting point rather than the end. Am I in the ballpark?
SH: Yes, you are so exactly in the ballpark! My own physical experiences meant things to me emotionally and intellectually and socially. I wanted to trace the nerves and implications outward. I think this insight comes partly from the pain community I am a part of; we feel pain on a collective level because some of the pain is influenced by weather. That led me to think of us as embedded in many systems and experiences and common challenges.
Like many people in the United States, I’ve been on a collective healthcare horror show for my entire adult life. Very few people (most of them in Congress) have found respite from the terrible anxiety of finding care; the rest of us have severe healthcare access anxiety. All of the social inequalities are also embedded in our bodies through uneven access to healthcare. African-Americans, for example, die much earlier as a group, and that’s due to individual health conditions but also due to the collective strain of poverty on bodies in all its detailed and sometimes invisible impacts. Healthcare and all its parts really are collective and social issues.
LR: In “The Alphabet of Pain” you write, “Pain has hardened me into a different version of myself—me as if I were a desert, as if I were a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright.” I love the visual and tactile images conjuring an uncompromising landscape and harsh taskmaster, and yet—both can be beautiful. What was it like to write about something that has so many variations, degrees, and can feel different at different times?
SH: I loved writing about pain! It was a huge release for me to see pain as not the enemy or real cause of my suffering. That might sound terrible or delusional, but the cause of my particular pain is a disease, the inner workings and causes of which are still unknown. Pain is the effect; it’s my response. In a weird way I wanted to honor and humanize myself and everyone else who has pain. We are not aberrations; pain is a universal for humankind. I let myself find any conceivable metaphor for pain, to explore it, to honor the pain experience as normal, as structured according to logical cause and effect, and as intimately human as a thumbprint.
There is massive and crushing stigma about chronic pain and chronic illness, and it is very easy with our judgmental Puritan backgrounds to see aberrant bodies as wrong, as evil. But we are as beautiful, intrinsic, and fantastic as any other manifestation of life in the world. I wanted to proliferate those images because pain experience is not simple. Pain is a mystery, multifaceted and holy as any other element of life; stressing the infinite and proliferating manifestations of it helped me underline the fact that it is complex and that people in pain are worth listening to. We assume we know pain, but I don’t think we do.
LR: I have (less severe) chronic pain problems too, and like you get sincere but ill-informed advice. In “The Cough Drop and the Puzzle of Modernity,” you consider how challenging it is to be “…someone who will not get well, an unsolvable puzzle,” and that “We must chart new understanding based upon the body’s lived experience, yet we still long for neat, easy solutions.” I admire how you made this essay not about misinformed advice-givers, but about a larger phenomenon—the goal of every essayist: begin with the personal, find the universal. Can you talk about the process of getting to that point, of considering a personal experience, and writing through to what makes it not-only-about-you?
SH: Getting beyond my own resentment was therapeutic for me. I needed to find larger meaning and research to understand my own experience. So I was driven by self-interest to find those universals. I’m pretty much a ranter inside my own head. Every single essay—or many of them—start in rant mode. That’s great for a paragraph, or for fuel to begin writing, but then I would come back to those paragraphs and see how dull they were to read.
On revision I knew I had to unfold those strong emotions to make them real for the reader. I have learned to do that mainly by reading essays by other writers; doing a lot of that gets the “essay mode” inside one’s head. Every time I’m at a dead end of frustration with a personal experience, the essayist voice—which is developed through that repetition and training—asks, “But what else might that mean?” and then takes the topic at hand from a 46 degree angle.
Lee Martin, who I was lucky to study with in graduate school at Ohio State, has a great blog post about the “Felt Sense” of revision, that gut feeling that something might be missing. As Lee advises, I read drafts and then check with my gut, asking whether there’s an emotional range in each piece. Often when I’ve gone on for too long in one vein, something else in me gets agitated and wants to explore the flipside. So it’s a lot of gut-checking and turning things around, and I think that naturally leads one outward.
LR: The essay, “From Inside the Egg” looks like poetry on the page, reads like a lyric essay, and morphs back to prose at the end in appearance and form. Can you take us through how you arrived at the final structure? What went on as this piece began and evolved?
SH: That was one of the last I wrote, and it came from a persistent dilemma. Many disability activists stress that they do not need to be fixed; they are perfectly whole and fine human beings who should be accepted as they are. We are all fighting against this strange idea of “normal,” which easily becomes an ideal, with outliers to be shunned or put to death or, in our present era, to be merely denied care so that they die quietly. Finding the disability activism community was central to my survival, my adaptation, and learning to not be at war with my life. I learn from the writing of disability activists every day.
At the same time, my chronic illness is progressive and not understood, and the talk within my treatment community is the dream of a cure. Other portions of the disability community have wrestled with this, such as the d/Deaf community and the supposed “cure” of deafness in the form of cochlear implants, which many saw as the potential destruction of Deaf culture. This raises the question of how rheumatoid disease is an illness and a disability; but many activists fight to have disabilities not be seen as illnesses in need of cures. It’s complicated.
Although I am getting comfortable with pain, I would also happily have it completely extracted from my life. The medications I take are an attempt to quiet down the disease process and the symptoms. So I was trying to explore these two frameworks—cure versus acceptance—and to make them both true. I can’t pick one framework. Trying to express the two opposing goals was challenging for me, so I reverted to typography and layout to express how disjointed these two frameworks are for me.
LR: Some of your essays are styled after existing forms. I loved the the list essay “Vital Sign 5” where you cite empirical statistics about pain and pain treatments, comingled with your personal pain stats. What do you like about these borrowed (or so-called “hermit crab”) forms?
SH: I loved using these forms as essay containers because each form asks a different kind of question and allowed me to interrogate pain in a different way. “Vital Sign 5” allowed me to wedge in some research that wasn’t fitting in elsewhere but that I felt was important to have as part of the book. Also, numbers are the realm of science and empiricism, and it was satisfying to write a form that looked like a lab test. (Ahhhh, a lab test! I should have done one of those as an essay!! Pain Woman returns for more). Also, I think each form has a different voice, and seeing an issue through a new voice and question always unlocks something hidden for me.
LR: What are you working on now?
SH: I have a memoir finished and am in the early stages of shopping around; that was the book I was writing when the pain essays came together. I would take “recess” when I was stuck on that book and write pain essays. I’m also in the middle of a book about socioeconomic inequality in Fairfield County, Connecticut, where I live, and that feels like it’s going to take a decade.
LR: Might sound like a dumb question given the topic, but: did you enjoy/ have fun writing these essays, assembling them into the book? Was it satisfying in ways beyond creative impulses?
SH: Oh gosh, yes! As I mentioned, writing this book felt like play. It was a joy to bust out of one narrative voice and try on several different voices like a costume party—and to know there were more and more voices that would help explore a hard topic. I think it will take me a while to understand all the reasons why this book was so fun. I have spent a good part of my life treating myself as a mind that produces things, so it was fun to come back to my own body and ask it questions. And the book comes out of love for the pain and disability communities, which have provided so much support.
Also—this is a tangent but connects: this was my most fun book because a lot changed in my life and I could relax. My material life conditions changed, and even though it’s about pain, the book clearly comes from a position of privilege, as pain can destroy one’s ability to work or function to varying degrees, and I am not in that place now. I have health insurance. I got out of a stressful situation and re-married. I got tenure at the institution where I teach, after a long period of precarious finances, which meant I no longer felt like I had to prove my intelligence or my seriousness. Tenure and other forms of economic security make a huge difference for writers and artists and everyone, and we need to expand those protections and other safety nets. People make amazing things without that security, but I can see the difference in my own work when things got easier for me personally. I guess I have always been wound really tight. The rule I set for myself with this book was to be as weird as possible, and a little bit of life security allowed me to loosen up.
Sonya Huber is an associate professor at Fairfield University, teaching in the English department and in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program. She’s the author of five nonfiction books, and many essays and articles that have appeared in The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Washington Post Magazine, and other places. Her work has been listed under Notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015. Connect at her blog, or on Twitter. You can order Pain Woman Takes Your Keys on Indiebound. .
Lisa Romeo is on the faculty of the Bay Path University MFA Program, and works as an independent editor. Her work has been published in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Brevity, Hippocampus, Under the Sun, and is listed in Notables in Best American Essays 2016. Her memoir, about reconnecting with her deceased father during the grief journey, is due out in 2018 from University of Nevada Press. Connect via her blog and on Twitter.
BEAUTIFUL IN ITS SLOWNESS: An Interview with Rachel Slotnick by Millicent Borges Accardi
edited by Carlo Matos
Originally from Los Altos, California, author, muralist and hybrid artist Rachel Slotnick has work in the permanent display at the Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Recently, she has completed murals for the 35th, 39th, 46th, and 47th wards in the Windy City. Slotnick currently is full-time faculty at the City Colleges of Chicago and an adjunct at the Illinois Art Institute and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her literary publications include Mad Hatter’s Review, Thrice Fiction, and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. Slotnick was the winner of Rhino Poetry’s Founder’s Prize. Her debut book of poetry/art entitled, In Lieu of Flowers is available from Tortoise Books. To view the full scope of her work, both visual and literary, check out her webpage: rachelslotnick.com.
Millicent Borges Accardi: How did you decide to combine artwork and poetry? Which came first? I mean did you have the illustrations and write ekphrastic poems about the art or did you write the poems and select art to accompany the written words?
Rachel Slotnick: Everyone kept telling me that I was writing and painting in a way that inhabited the same space and when my publisher decided to link these two worlds, at first, I was ambivalent. It was not something I thought possible. I was always working in both realms, often reimagining stories as portraits, and vice versa. I knew I was tapping into the same world, though there was a different sort of energy depending upon my point of entry. No matter how tired I was or how much my head ached, painting always made me feel better. I walked away energized, enthused, even daresay, upbeat. But writing was much more morbid. After writing, I felt drained and would often collapse into bed. It took something from me whereas painting gave me something back. I think by performing both behaviors I achieved stasis.
It’s hard to say which came first, the poems or the art, because the relationship wasn’t as direct as that. I have a whole mailing rolodex of characters who recur in stories and poems, most of whom are directly gleaned from my memories, spiced up with a bit of drama and salted with magic. I don’t intend to “illustrate” my poems, or to write ekphrastic poetry, but I sort of can’t avoid it. For me, writing is like daydreaming. I can’t control the destination, but my mind follows eerily familiar paths through the woods.
MBA: How does being an artist mesh with being a writer?
RS: It’s difficult. I waste a lot of brain energy worrying that I’m spreading myself too thin. What if I spend all those hours writing instead of painting? But that is dangerous thinking because if I begin to count up my hours, I can start to question everything. It’s like sleeping and dreaming. For me, it was never an option. It’s a tapestry of brushstrokes by which I navigate a confusing and multi-dimensional world.
For me, poetry is a lot like love. It’s often over-romanticized; publications and readings are the Hallmark equivalent of Valentine’s day chocolates and long-stem roses. There are times I want to throw it all away and call it quits. My poetry nags me when I’m trying to relax or enjoy myself. It makes me think the worst about myself. But then, there are moments when I look at a painting, or I follow the twists and turns of a sentence through to a secluded fruition, and I feel something physical. It gives me a reason to persist. I’m not saying that when I write a poem the world around me blurs, or Louis Armstrong sings just for me, or anything so sentimental. My love for art isn’t movie love. It’s much slower than that. In fact, it’s beautiful in its slowness.
MBA: What made you decide to create a mixed genre hybrid?
RS: I actually didn’t set out to write this book! I was working on a nonfiction project about my grandparents during WWII, and sent a query to Tortoise Books. I’m still developing that project. It has evolved tremendously since then and continues to grow with a cast of characters encompassing Godzilla and Frankenstein as metaphors for the crises of an entire generation. But at the time, I only had an inkling of the idea for that project. What I sent to Tortoise was just a germ of the larger narrative and very incomplete. Jerry Brennan at Tortoise Books was the first person to suggest that there was cohesive narrative already existent in my poetry. He asked to see more. I knew my characters were connected, but I had never tried to map them out before. He challenged me to navigate the spider web of stories in which I was already ensnared.
MBA: Are your goals for art different than your goals for writing? Do you want to reach different audiences?
RS: I don’t know about a different audience, but one thing I have come to terms with is that I do have a want for readership. I used to think this was a bad thing. I used to think my art needed to be good enough or strong enough on its own. Look at Henry Darger or James Harold Jennings. These hermetic, reclusive artists made their work because they were in love with it not because there was a hope of being seen or fame or glory at the end of the line, but I found myself struggling to make work when I left school and didn’t have assignments. I had to revisit my process. I realized that graduate school offered me a built-in writing community of people who cared about my work. I took it for granted at the time, but that was absolutely a gift and not at all a reality of the real world. And I found myself time and again rearing up against a want for communication. Because as much as I love poetry that untangles denotations and connotations, and struggles to say anything at all, at the end of the day, writing is about communication. And in order to communicate, I need people to listen.
I think this is why I began to develop murals and public projects. There is something so therapeutic about writing words on a wall, especially memorial messages. If I have a gallery show, maybe 30 people will see it and most of them will be people who already know me. And that’s wonderful in its own way. But there’s something magical about communicating with strangers. I’m sending words out into the void of the city. My sentences linger beside blinking traffic lights and become a part of the evolving skyline. Once again, I identify my own self-worth through language and paint.
MBA: What societal rules about identity inform your poetry?
RS: I am definitely exploring identity. Feminism and Judaism are major themes in my work. One of my biggest struggles in my current project is how to write the horrific history of the atomic bomb when I wasn’t there. I didn’t live it. I never had to deal with the after-effects of the radiation. I can research it and read horrific accounts and look at pictures that feel like nightmares, but I can’t ever truly walk in those shoes. I hesitate to publish this book because I can’t ever really know for certain. But then I am reminded that to me, writing is about empathy. If I don’t try I’ll be much further from understanding what it means to live through such a tragedy than if I do. I suppose my writing is very much about that risk. And a large part of that novel encompasses domesticity. I cherish my grandmother’s letters and stories. I admire her strength. But I’m mad at her too. I’m angry with my grandparents for contributing to the massacre. I’m frustrated that they never spoke to me about it. But then, I can’t ever fully understand because I wasn’t there, so, by writing, I’m trying to be there.
MBA: Your poems have been called surreal—do they originate from dreams?
RS: Not usually. I definitely have kept dream logs on and off, and occasionally the writing about the musician finds its way into my dreams. But the writing I do upon waking doesn’t usually find its way into the poetry. Perhaps it’s a check point en route to a poem. It’s certainly a move in the right direction, so, ironically, no, my poems aren’t derived from my dreams, but my dreams are certainly derived from my poems! As I have continued to research my grandparents and WWII, I have found myself dreaming about my late grandparents almost every night. I’m getting to know them in a new way, as they were when they were young, and as I am now that I am getting old. That’s a very special thing, and it is a very special sort of magic that writing and dreaming exercise.
MBA: As writer Kathleen Rooney pointed out, In Lieu of Flowers features letters, like “private to-do lists of someone you don’t know, but would like very much to meet.” What made you select epistolary prose or lists as a medium to communicate?
RS: I think I knew back in graduate school that I was writing letters to my father. But somewhere along the way, I forgot that. They became something a little different, a little strange. Once the book came out, and people started saying they were letters, it was like a lightning bolt—I’m writing letters in bottles and throwing them out to sea, literally my father’s sea, and hoping someone reads them on the other end. Except, the intended recipients won’t ever receive them. So, they’re secrets, waiting in the deep.
There’s an artist I admire named Jason DeCaires Taylor who started a movement in underwater sculpture, casting whole lost cities underwater, where museum goers have to scuba dive to see them. Something about that intrigues me so. On the one hand, they’re secret. On the other hand, as the fish and coral move into the porous molds, as the algae plunges through them, they take on a life of their own. By burying them, Taylor sets them free. I suppose I’m looking to do the same thing, by writing letters without a destination.
MBA: How did you come up with the title? What was the inspiration?
RS: The title was actually derived from a sculpture project I did for the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation. They asked local artists to paint life-size horse sculptures in memory of specific police officers who had lost their lives in the line of duty. Then they put the horses on parade all over downtown Chicago. I painted two, one for Officer John C. Knight, and one for Detective Nicholas Connelly. As I completed the first one for Officer Knight, and penned his name on the saddle pad, I realized I was gelling flowers to the horse just like I do on my canvases because to me, flowers speak of memorial.
Keats said that lilies represent the return of the soul to innocence at death. I’m fascinated by the roles flowers play in our rituals—that we designate some flowers for funerals and others for weddings. And I think it’s very interesting that there’s some overlap. Some flowers have their roots in two worlds, and I relate to that as someone who is a little confused. Most of my work is about memorial, and I suppose I’m planting words like flowers to make peace with my memories.
MBA: What has poetry taught you about life?
RS: I had to pause at this question because it was just so enormous. I don’t know exactly what it has taught me about life, but I feel that I owe my life to poetry. It helps me cope. I teach creative writing and composition in a community college where I am responsible for helping students analyze resources and distinguish between facts and fiction, and the more I try to teach it, the more confused I become. I’m very wary of numbers, and I suppose that’s what my poor mathematician character suffers from so. He keeps trying to explain a world that makes no sense. Logic fails and poetry is the best means I know for making sense of the senseless.
MBA: Can you share a line or passage from a favorite poem and why it is memorable?
RS: Maya Angelou once said, “Love is a condition so powerful, it may be that which holds the stars in the firmament. It may be that which pushes and pulls the blood in the veins.”
This resonated with me so much that I used it in my wedding vows. I really mean what I said earlier, that poetry and love are related for me. For me, poetry is utterly, utterly personal. In this book, and my next book, those are my family members on the pages. This is my grandfather’s alphabet. The consonants are my father: a little harder, a little tougher. The vowels are me: a little softer, a little more easily manipulated by accents and tongues. And the blank spaces between us? Maybe that’s where the world is. Or maybe it’s just a bunch of empty space. Only time will tell.
But Maya Angelou invests in love. It’s not the gaseous galaxy that holds the stars in place. It’s not my own pumping heart that pushes blood through my veins. It’s a faith in love. But rather than a faith in an unknowable deity that I can’t buy into, I’m choosing to believe in the people around me.
MBA: Do you think there are subjects poets and artists should be addressing in the 21st century? What are they?
RS: “Should” is a tricky word. I’m not really one to say that anyone else “should” or “should not” write about anything. I think there are topics that need to be brought to light, but I don’t think that everyone needs to be writing about those topics either. Each writer needs to follow his or her own personal northern star. If we start assigning duties and ethics to literature, we start dangling on a dangerous tightrope of the role of words in society. I do think that as we plunge forward into an increasingly polarized political space, and a dramatically xenophobic society, it is our job to help translate empathy into stories that titillate. If we can make people want to read, if we can lure them in with the trappings of aesthetics and pathos, then we can surprise readers into empathizing with other human beings.
I also think as authors our job is to help people remember. We are record keepers. We write down the world. And we are a part of an amnesic society. How quickly we forget fifty, sixty years ago. I do feel that writers need to remember to look back as we look forward when we address the contemporary landscape. Everything we need to know is contained in our past. There are so many books and accounts waiting to be read and remembered. It is so easy to believe that everything we want to hope for is waiting for us in the future, on the snowy expanse of the next page. We tend to keep turning pages instead of flipping back to the beginning to see how it all started. And each time we revisit the beginning it reads a little bit differently because of what we now know.
Imagine what we will know tomorrow.
Millicent Borges Accardi is a Portuguese-American poet who lives in California. She has received literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Barbara Deming Foundation, and Formby Special Collections at Texas Tech University for research on the writer/activist Key Boyle. Her most recent full-length poetry collection is Only More So, (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), Injuring Eternity and Practical Love Poems (forthcoming) are with World Nouveau. She also has a chapbook, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, with Finishing Line Press. Read paulA neves’ review of Only More So on Cleaver:
A CONVERSATION WITH CLAIRE RUDY FOSTER author of I’ve Never Done This Before The KLEN+SOBR Interventions, 78 pages interviewed by KC Mead-Brewer
Claire Rudy Foster’s short story collection I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE made its official debut just this week from KLĒN+SŌBR Interventions. It’s a tight collection with six stories’ worth of addiction, struggle, pain, and grit. Foster’s critically acclaimed short fiction has been nominated for an AWP award, a Pushcart Prize, and a Best of the Web award. Foster will be giving her first public reading from the collection at The Alano Club of Portland this upcoming October 22nd.
KMB: I love the title of your collection, all the different ways it applies (and perhaps sometimes doesn’t, perhaps only as a lie or a trick or a wish) to your various characters. How did you go about deciding on the “I Never” premise of these stories—was it like playing a much grittier, more intense version of that old childhood game “I Never,” or did the connection between these stories arise of its own accord? Something else altogether?
CRF: The title is a line from [a story in the collection] “Runaway.” In many ways, the main character of that story walks a narrow line. Is she guilty? Innocent? To what degree is she participating in her own exploitation? When she says, “I’ve never done this before,” it’s a transparently untrue statement, and one that she’s used throughout the story to disguise herself as a victim. Elsewhere in the collection, my characters experience their own firsts, or revisit choices that they lived to regret.
For people with alcoholism or addiction, it’s said that there are a lot of “yets.” I haven’t done that—yet. In active addiction, bad decisions and trouble are always around the corner. Someone may say, I’m not a thief, I don’t tell lies, I would never sell myself. But in reality, it’s really just a matter of time. My characters inhabit that space, the “yet,” and I think the title of the collection speaks to the condition of being in limbo, waiting for the next big wave to hit.
KMB: In “Fidelity,” your protagonist has these tremendous lists of things she is and isn’t interested in—being a widow, acting out her grief, getting a cat, etc. Do you create these kinds of lists and details for all of your protagonists, regardless of whether or not we readers ever get to know them?
CRF: As a writer, my practice is to be so intimate with my characters that I feel like I could zip myself into their skins. I don’t believe in writing “relatable” or “likeable” characters—there’s a lot of pressure to do that, but the results are bland, as though the character was a Frankenstein created by some kind of focus group. Instead, I look closely at my character and try to imagine what he or she would do or say. In “Fidelity,” the protagonist is profoundly lonely. Her husband’s overdose has stranded her on the island of their marriage, all alone. She struggles to relate to new people, and when she finally meets someone who speaks her language, it becomes apparent how isolated she’s been.
I don’t create lists and details, but it’s easy for me to see my characters in my mind’s eye. I want to know everything about them—from what kinds of shoes they’re wearing, to why their parents gave them such a silly middle name. Just as with acting, even if these details occur offstage, they’re still critical to the development of the character.
KMB: You write very bravely in your introduction (as well as in your stories) about your struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, in particular how it made you feel as though you were “part of a long, sodden [literary] tradition.” In my own writing, I often find myself meeting characters who struggle with severe depression, yet I am constantly concerned about romanticizing this disease, knowing all the ways it has insinuated itself into various artistic traditions over the years. How do you approach this conflict in your own work?
CRF: Sickness is in the eye of the beholder. When I was in active addiction, drinking and getting loaded, of course I romanticized that. It kept me from loathing myself: I felt powerful, mysterious, complex. Like a real writer, whatever that is. Even as my drug use destroyed my brain and my body, I held onto the idea that I was part of something meaningful. I put my pain on a pedestal and worshipped it.
When I got sober in 2007, my perception towards addiction started to change. I saw that what I’d done was harmful to me, and had damaged the people around me, too. For me, there is no conflict in that. A reader or writer who has faced issues like addiction, depression, loss—she knows the reality of it. I try to represent my characters’ truths, and leave the reader to decide how honest they’re being with themselves.
KMB: Your story “Runaway” has a truly fascinating protagonist, a woman known to others as “Zombie Girl,” a woman with a “small black thing…crouched, waiting” inside of her, a woman who—even in her prettiest fantasy of being a girl who’s loved by her father, whose father would pamper her by letting her fly first-class—would compare herself to “a princess in a coffin that flies [to her love] over a blackened sea.” How did you approach a character like Zombie Girl? What was it like tackling a character like her, someone others would call “brain dead,” from first person point-of-view?
CRF: Here’s a joke. What do you get when you sober up a horse thief? A sober horse thief.
In the addiction and recovery genre, the trope of transformation—how working the 12 Steps or getting into treatment changes a filthy, wicked addict into a good, moral, sober person—is very popular. I’m sure it’s a reality for some people, but for me, and many other people, it is not. When I got sober, I became more myself, and I learned to make friends with that person. In “Runaway,” I’ve got a protagonist who is a criminal, through and through. I loved writing from Zombie Girl’s perspective because she is impenitent. She acts without regret, without second-guessing herself. If anything, being sober makes her more dangerous, because she’s able to think clearly again. Her mind is gorgeous and twisted. I will be revisiting this character in my next novel, Two Graves.
KMB: In your introduction, you talk about growing up immersed in a wide array of voices, from Alice Munro to Stephen King. What writers have been of particular influence on your work? Your process? Is there any particular author or book that you turn to whenever you find yourself stuck?
CRF: I’m a habitual re-reader of books: a familiar book is a good friend. I have a personal canon of about 20 books that I have read dozens of times. Every new year, my resolution is to read books I’ve never read before, and every year I’m moderately successful. Currently, I’m reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, as well as a poetry collection by P.E. Garcia.
KMB: I was particularly struck by the story “Bereaved”—all those different ways to drown. I found myself wondering if the refrain of Danny’s constant phone calls was working as a sort of beacon or lifeboat for Angela, or as just another current dragging her under. Do you go into a story knowing what refrain you’re going to use (if any), or do you find that refrains are something that usually arise naturally, in their own time and space?
CRF: For Angela, Danny is a lifeline that tethers her to the shore. His presence in her life normalizes her: look, I have a boyfriend, we’re getting married, everything is fine. However, anyone could be in that role for her, and “The Bereaved” explores the relationships we have with people who are both interchangeable and irreplaceable.
My writing has been called lyrical. Protean. I’ve always been a language-driven writer, and played around with different sound patterns and sentence structures. Wordplay is really attractive to me, but I’ve also learned that it needs to be tempered with solid content. A plot, for example. The prose should be ornamental, not an obstacle to the reader’s pleasure. If I fall in love with a particular line, I listen to its music. I’ll let it hang in the air for a few paragraphs until its echo fades. Refrains work well in “The Bereaved” because my protagonist is going in circles, repeating the same choices. She’s the only one who doesn’t hear herself saying the same thing over and over again.
KMB: You wrote a (wonderfully honest and useful) article for The Review Review reflecting back on your choice to attain an MFA degree. Even with your ambivalence about the degree itself, did you find that there were some specific trick(s) or piece(s) of advice that you looked back to when working on this collection?
CRF: Benjamin Percy, who I met at this program, always told me “Keep hammering.” That’s really the best advice I got, or could give. Read a lot, write a lot, and keep hammering. As much as I regret going for a graduate degree in Creative Writing, the choice to make time for my writing was a big one. I wanted to get serious about my writing, and I did: I learned that a writer is someone who shows up to write, no matter what.
KMB: In your interview with SmokeLong Quarterly, you said that for you, “‘church’ is any place, emotional or physical, that we visit consistently because it feeds the sacred part of us.” Is writing a form of church for you?
CRF: Absolutely. A friend of mine says, “The end of your rope is a holy place, because that’s where you let go.” I feel that way about writing. To be immersed in words, whether I’m writing or reading, is total bliss for me. It connects me to my humanity by helping me forget myself. Everyone has a story—telling mine, or hearing yours, brings me closer to that holy place.
KMB: Superstition Review often asks their authors this question and I love it, so here, I’ve decided to steal it: What does your writing space look like? Do you find yourself generating new material in a different space than you edit in?
CRF: I’ve written in all kinds of places, with varying degrees of privacy. On some level, it doesn’t really matter to me—once I’m into the story, I’m gone. At this moment, my writing space looks like the bed my partner makes in the morning, with its flowered cover and dejected-looking pillows. It looks like a stack of books with a half-full water glass on top of it, a chocolate bar, and a window that looks out on my apartment’s parking lot. This is not a glamorous space, or a quiet one, but it’s mine. When you read “I’ve Never Done This Before,” my hope is that you feel enfolded, as though in bed, with each character whispering their secrets to you across the pillow that you share.
Claire Rudy Foster lives in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her critically recognized short fiction has appeared in various respected journals and she has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. Her short story collection I’ve Never Done This Before was published in 2016 by The KLEN+SOBR Interventions. She is currently at work on a novel. .
K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Carve Magazine, Strange Horizons, Hobart, and elsewhere. As a reader, she loves everything weird—surrealism, sci-fi, horror, all the good stuff that shows change is not only possible, but inevitable. For more information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.
Dennis Potter is an artist whose work spans an interesting period of thirty-plus years. We sat down with him to talk about his journey as a contemporary artist now working in a traditional craft medium.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from?
I grew up in the Deep South—in Huntsville, northern Alabama—and then lived in San Francisco after earning an MFA in painting at UC Berkeley in 1983. Along the way, I’ve also lived and traveled in Asia, where for ten years I taught art and studied Asian art before returning to the Bay Area in 2012. And just this year I moved back to Huntsville.
So you’ve come full circle?
In more ways than one. It’s certainly been a journey. After thirty years of figurative painting and printmaking I realized I wanted something more, something different. I wanted a new context for making art, and for being an artist. Although I’ve shown my work extensively in San Francisco, Boston, and New York, and have pieces in several public collections, the gallery art world is very contentious and difficult, really frustrating. I was very unsatisfied. I’d been teaching art to support myself and had total freedom in my own work, but it was a trade-off situation. Long story short, I wanted to go beyond myself, get away from my background and training as a painter and printmaker. I had a strong foundation in modernism with expressionist qualities, and I had gotten pretty sick of making figures and narratives, even in abstract formats.
What did you do to get outside of yourself and the art world you had been working in?
Ever since high school, I’ve been fascinated by Buddhism. At a certain point in my life, feelings of emptiness, groundlessness, and detachment began to influence my thinking—I blame the 90s, when I felt overwhelmed by the commercial art market. So I began to seriously study Buddhist art history, and I was surprised to encounter fresh new concepts, mainly about “art” as I knew it as a Westerner. For the Buddhist in Asia, art is not something peculiar in our lives, but integrated with our everyday existence. Asian art forms are highly traditional and familiar, marked by each maker’s particular approach. Individual expression is not the exalted purpose, but rather the development of an exalted form.
This is very much like how it is with the traditional Japanese raku teabowl, a form which began in the 16th century and is still being made, with contemporary variations, even by the same Raku family fifteen generations later.
Yes. Very much so. Objects and forms integrated with everyday life. The word “raku” comes from the place where it began — Juraku, near Kyoto. Juraku was the name for the special clay used to make the teabowls, and the word “raku” has been passed down through the generations as both a family name and a ceramic style. Just think of that: a place, a style, a family name, a patch of clay—one and the same!
What was it like, this new path you took—of seeing art as something woven in with everyday life, of perhaps even seeing your life as a kind of work of art itself?
To me it meant a relief from the dead-end emptiness of self expression, from an insistence on the primacy of the individual ego and the singular self. It meant embracing new depths of being, and being part of a whole, the whole of human awareness. My purpose became one of achieving greater consciousness, and to share that with other sentient beings. For me, this is a finer and more lasting purpose than self expression, though it’s impossible to entirely separate the two sides of that false dichotomy! I am after all a Western man with an art education steeped in the self and its expression. A non-joiner, a dropout, yes—but with such a strong background in modernist process that I must use that practice, not deny it.
That must have been tricky, to throw out the bathwater, but not the baby. How did you go about continuing to make art that was “not art”?
I wanted to at least shift my purpose and practice. Since I was living in Taiwan and studying Asian art, I started by painting images of kimonos, of figures wearing kimonos; I took photos of models in kimonos, wearing geisha or kabuki makeup. These exercises soon seemed appropriated and hollow and I realized I needed to be making objects themselves, that I was no longer interested in the pictorial representations of things. At the same time, I wanted to create things that were abstractions, that is, non-objective. Does that make sense? I wanted to be creating things where the process and materials were more important and evident than their subjective “objectness” or narrative. I wanted, ultimately, to create something not representing something, but actually being something, as physically as possible.
My breakthrough came when I encountered the pilgrim’s robe (called henro hakui) while studying the Shikoku Island Pilgrimage in southern Japan. The Shikoku Pilgrimage (henro) is a very popular and traditional pilgrimage, and involves visiting the island’s eighty-eight temples. The hakui worn during these pilgrimages are simple, over-sized kimonos of handwoven cotton or hemp, and what I noticed right away was how beautifully worn and weathered they were. I saw the hakui as a kind of skin, expressing the pilgrimage experience, tattooed with wood-block printed stamps identifying each temple visited and inscribed with sutras by the temple monks in Sanskrit or Chinese. The hakui I saw were stained and faded because many pilgrims wear the same hakui for years on repeated pilgrimages. When a hakui bears all eighty-eight temple stamps, it is mounted and framed and proudly hung on your wall at home. Also, traditionally, if you die while on the trail, your hakui becomes your burial shroud.
Pilgrimage garment variations, a progression in paper and fabric
All of this was a revelation for me: here was an object that was also a living canvas, whose ultimate meanings were fluid and lasting, real and abstract, everyday and otherworldly. I wanted to do something with these fascinating relationships, and I went to work, happily obsessed.
And so your own art pilgrimage began?
Haha–yes! Although initially, as I copied the hakui form and borrowed Chinese and Sanskrit characters, the work was not fulfilling. So I began using Western style imagery along with English text, transfers prints, collage. Then I began making the hakui in paper, which was better. The shift in material separated my objects from the original, and my hakui became something new. It wasn’t long before I began making the paper myself in order to construct more abstracted hakui and garments relating to the pilgrimage.
When looking at your body of work, we see, over and over, a kind of continuous construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction process going on. For example, in your weavings, it can begin as a way to make a solid piece of fabric, but then it loosens up to become a grid with tiny spaces, which then open up into holes, which then get reintegrated as drawn or torn circles on a solid fabric again. And sometimes the linear grids and weaves in your pieces can suggest a loom, itself a constructed object from which weavings originate, and once again we come full circle, from material to object to material.
Yes, this way of working is like making multiple pilgrimages, like circling an island eighty-eight times. It’s the same journey, over and over, but each time it’s new. In the beginning, I was searching for a universal form with historic, time-tested meaning that could stand on its own, as both Western abstraction and Eastern philosophy, and once I started to tap that vein, I found my way. First was the hakui or pilgrimage kimono, a worn, bruised but beautiful skin of actual pilgrim experience. Then I went deeper and found the mandala, a cosmic map of the universe, depicted in the form of circles within squares. The gridded, embedded squares embody secure belief, while the circles imply constancy of change. A mandala shows “the way,” how to detach from earthly experience to achieve enlightenment.
Circles within squares within circles: embedded mandalas in paper and fabric
The very structure of a mandala seems to be embedded in your weavings and constructions, layerings of linear grids and circular holes.
That’s true. I find this approach endlessly fascinating and useable if you remove the absurd paranoia about cultural appropriation. Did you know that even ancient pagodas are mandalas, circles inside repeated squares, with a central pole—the “Tree of Life”—physically detached from the structure but holding it stable even in earthquakes? Pagodas are very early versions of today’s quake-proof buildings. Anyway, I later discovered the kesa, a Buddhist priest robe that developed in the Edo period as a way for temple goers to give costly gifts to monks who were forbidden to acquire wealth of any kind. In an oddly Japanese approach, they would work gorgeous fabrics into simple robes, pieced like quilts, and therefore considered without value. This lack of value, even in something gorgeously constructed, became another useful model for me. I had collected quilts for thirty years but never considered my fabric constructions as quilts until I made kesa and—voila, I saw I was making quilts, in another context. Later on, I began to dye my own found fabric scraps and turned to making thangka, devotional images, sometimes as paintings, sometimes as pieced fabric. Thangkas are usually hung on walls—a bit unusual for Asian art objects but probably the object most like Western art in form and use. Thangkas are seen as living gods, and always employ the mandala as a central structure.
It seems as though your work keeps getting “reborn”—or finding its way—by following these archetypal forms and structures.
I’m really trying to structure materials in an honest, rough, handmade process. I’m trying to get to a truthful, fundamental way of creating objects that can be universally read, visually, beyond their context. Along the way I find materials in nature—or even man-made, salvaged materials like orange plastic snow fencing or mattress webbing—and process them in a minimal, primitive way for my own use. The result is sometimes ancient in appearance, sometimes more Pop, almost. And while my work may have an Asian look, it’s no more Asian than modernist minimalism. If there’s a thought or a meditation there, I want it to arise out of the object itself, regardless of style or form.
It’s interesting how you put together materials that become everyday objects, and in turn you also use everyday objects that become your material.
This is the heart of the matter; how to make something that arrives at being purely itself, not a mere container for “something else.” It’s a paradoxical kind of emptiness, a journey or process of becoming wholly, singularly oneself and yet connected—materially, spiritually—to everything else. The simplest description of this kind of emptiness in Buddhist teachings is this passage:
This is because that is. A flower cannot exist by itself alone. To be can only mean to inter-be. To be by oneself alone is impossible. Everything else is present in the flower; the only thing the flower is empty of is itself.
In other words, the thing is itself, nothing more or less. I always hope that the simple accretion of materials in a woven or sewn process suggests that’s all there is, in some evocative way that might lead to growing awareness.
And where are you now, on your “pilgrimage”?
I consider the most important part of my work is to bring together a philosophy of being with physical materials and processes. I also like that my work can be appreciated as a crossover from craft to art or art to craft.
While living in San Francisco all those years ago, I escaped the violence of growing up gay in Alabama and found freedom of identity. It was glorious—though dangerous and scary as AIDS entered the picture—and I loved it deeply. It is gone now, that San Francisco, and I’ve retired to a more affordable, easier life. Huntsville is an odd place, sophisticated if conservative, with high levels of education, art appreciation, and quirky genius mixed with the gritty reality of the South. A hybrid place, as I am a hybrid, reconstructed creature. As we all are.
These days, I don’t consider myself a fiber artist per se, though I value and love the explosion of fiber works which have become an important part of the art world’s mix of media in recent years. It’s an explosion, a freedom, but it can also be a liability, giving birth to a kind of pointless, commercialized diversity in the current art market.
Being a male who works in fiber—I don’t think about it. I’m not a joiner, never have been, I just search for good artists who get it, who understand what I do and what I am as they are searching. I’ve always done things women do, I’m a feminist, a kitchen artist, finding materials at home and in grocery stores, hardware stores, junk stores.
My recent paper and fabric constructions came after a ten-year hiatus from any showing at all, after a period of almost “making it” in the commercial and competitive gallery world of the 90s that turned me off. Now I’m making and showing again as I please—at local venues, in national juried shows, and within the big circle of my hometown of Huntsville, which, personally, is the most satisfying. Soon I will have a studio at Lowe Mill, a huge historic factory building that is now a major arts center. You might look it up. It’s wonderful.
Dennis Potter has been a painter, printmaker, and fiber artist for more than forty years. He grew up in the deep South and has lived in the Bay Area since earning an MFA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1983. His work has been shown extensively in San Francisco, Boston, and New York. For the past ten years his work has been focused on a Buddhist conceptual model, and in 2016 Lowe Mill presented “Holes,” an extensive showing of his work. Lowe Mill is a historic mill building which has been redeveloped into artist studios, galleries, and performance venues, and is now the largest privately owned arts facility in the United States.
1. Measure. Painted and woven, sewn web straps, fabric, ribbon. 46 x 54″ (2016)
2. Indigo Weave. Dyed, woven and sewn straps, leather, paper, interfacing. 42 x 52″ (2016)
3. Enzo Thangka. Painted and woven, sewn web straps, ribbon, fabric. 40 x 34″ (2016)
4. Indigo Thangka. Antique and vintage Japanese indigo Boro, pieced, sewn, layered, pierced. 40 x 34″ (2016)
5. Cha Wan Thangka. Pieced and sewn found fabrics, ribbon, screen, net. 40 x 36″ (2014)
6. Black Enzo. Painted and woven, sewn web straps, belts, ribbon, braid, fabric. 42 x 36″ (2016)
7. Inked Kimo. Inked and woven, sewn web straps, ribbon, fabric. 60 x 48″ (2016)
8. Black Mendicant Kimo. Woven, sewn web straps, belts, braid, fabric. 54 x 48″ (2016)
9. Oni Camo Hoody. Woven and sewn web straps, braid, ribbon, fabric. 74 x 50″ (2016)
10. Cold Mountain Hakui. Ink-painted sewn and woven paper strips. 74 x 38″ (2016)
11. Hole Thangka. Woven, sewn web straps, ribbon, lace, cord, fabrics, screen. 54 x 48″ (2016)
A CONVERSATION WITH KATHRYN KULPA author of Girls on Film
Paper Nautilus Press, 2015 Vella Chapbook Winner interviewed by Michelle Fost
I had the chance to catch up with fellow Cleaver editor Kathryn Kulpa about her chapbook, Girls on Film. It is just out from Paper Nautilus and was a winner of the press’s Vella Chapbook Contest. An intriguing part of the prize is that the writer receives a hundred copies of the beautifully designed chapbook to distribute as she likes. Kathryn will be selling signed copies through her Etsy shop, BookishGirlGoods, and she’ll also have them available at readings, writing workshops, and other events. Paper Nautilus will also have the book on sale. For more about the Vella Chapbook contest and Paper Nautilus Press, have a look at the press’s website.—M.F.
MF: Congratulations on winning Paper Nautilus’s Vella Chapbook Contest, and the publication of Girls on Film. I wondered if you might talk a little about the process of writing the chapbook.
KK: All the pieces in the chapbook were already written, and most of them had been published by the time I put it together, so it was more a process of selecting and matching complementary stories to create a cohesive chapbook. Some of the stories, like the “Child Star” series (“Wendy in Rehab,” “Child Star,” and “Wendy and Brian on the Last Night of the World”) were written about the same characters. I wrote “Wendy in Rehab” first, and the characters stayed with me, so I kept returning to them. Since I knew those three went together, it was a good starting place, and then I looked at other stories that fit thematically. The contest had a limit of twenty-five pages, so I had to cut some stories I really liked, but that didn’t work with the others. It’s a good way to evaluate your work and see the recurring themes that thread through different stories.
MF: I was interested in the way children’s literature had a place in this work. Can you talk a little about that? You seemed to create a little Narnia in a swimming pool.
KK: Yes, exactly! I’ve always been a ridiculously passionate reader—the kind of person who’ll read cereal boxes if there’s no other reading material handy—and so many of my own childhood memories are tied in with books I was reading and the fantasy play that grew up around them. I’m often inspired by fairy tales and their more modern equivalents—comic books, movies, children’s and young adult literature—and the enduring myths they create. I actually have a newer piece that didn’t make it into the book, but that touches on the same theme, where I ask: “Who’d choose the man-village over the jungle? Who’d give up being kings and queens in Narnia to be solicitors and vicars’ wives in Wolverhampton? Who’d choose Kansas over Oz?” Not me—I’d choose Oz, or Narnia, or Hogwarts, in a heartbeat.
MF: You write of “hours of glorious neglect.” Wendy and Brian may have an exaggerated experience of a certain kind of parenting, but it feels true to the culture of the time, pre-helicopter parenting. I feel like you manage to show us nostalgia as a positive force, and I wondered if you would talk a little about the theme of nostalgia in your work.
KK: It’s become kind of a cliche now—oh, kids of the 70s and 80s got to ride their bikes without helmets and stay outside all day without parents—and we did, but there was a dark side to that, for some kids more than others. So I have a true nostalgia for the freedom of that era, the unstructured, unscheduled time that, for some of us, opened the imagination. At the same time, I want to avoid romanticizing it, because there were a lot of Wendys and Brians, kids whose parents were just too self-involved or messed up to be there for them, and you don’t come out of that without some kind of damage.
MF: From black Maybelline eyeliner to yellow sunglasses, your use of color creates a visual progression through the pieces. Is visual art important to your writing? What are some of the themes and artistic elements that you find yourself returning to in newer work?
KK: Visual imagery is very important to me, and I’ve been told my work is cinematic—appropriate for this collection, of course. I have taken part in some ekphrastic poetry and art exhibits in Rhode Island, where writers were matched with visual artists and we created works inspired by their art, or they created art inspired by our writing. It was such a rich interplay. When I teach writing workshops, I often use old photos, postcards, or even found objects as writing prompts, and many of my own stories have grown out of those exercises. The yellow sunglasses image came from a teen writing workshop exercise where I asked students to freewrite images based on the color of a crayon they picked from a box of crayons. (I always do my own writing exercises with my students—it feels like cheating not to.) As far as recurring themes, I often find myself returning to the idea of coming of age, passages, doorways, bodies of water, things that are lost, the separateness of the self, connections and disconnections, orphans, and secret worlds that coexist with our own—which could be literal places or states of consciousness.
MF: Are there writers out there who are particularly important to what you’re up to?
KK: This is the kind of question I agonize about for weeks on end, so I’ll try to avoid listing every author who’s ever influenced me, which would be impossible, and just focus on a few books I’ve found a strong connection to lately. Short story collections I wish I’d written: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin and 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad. I just read a wonderful flash fiction collection by Joy Williams, Ninety-Nine Stories of God—she is not a writer I associate with flash fiction, so it was a joy (no pun) to discover this—all the pieces feel so fresh and effortless. Also, the novels Find Me by Laura van den Berg and Green Girl by Kate Zambreno: those are stories that let me fall into them like a wardrobe; I remember staying up all night to finish Green Girl and then wanting to stay up and write. Finally, what I’m reading right now: Kiss/Hierarchy, by Alexandra Van De Kamp—it’s a collection of poetry and prose poetry, some pieces that hover right on the edge of poetry and flash, and there’s a strong cinematic influence in many of them: poems about film noir or about the actress Jean Seberg. Alex has Rhode Island connections, and we met up there recently and noticed all these parallels in our work.
MF: I’d love to hear a little about the press, Paper Nautilus. How did you learn about them? And I’d love to hear a little about the look and feel of the chapbook.
KK: I saw the contest announcement online in a few writers’ forums, and I liked the name of the press—that caught my eye—and their aesthetic, and I just decided to try them. I was a finalist in 2014, and then I entered again in 2015 with two different chapbooks, and one was a finalist and Girls on Film was a winner. The editor, Lisa Mangini, is very respectful of writers, and she gave me a lot of freedom as to the design of the book. I had an idea of the look and feel I wanted for the cover, and I asked a friend, Gigi Thibodeau, who is a writer and photographer, to take some photos that would capture the kind of dreamy, vintage mood I wanted, and she did an incredible job. The mirror, the picture of the 1940s film star, the vintage perfume bottles and jewelry—I didn’t tell her to use those elements specifically, but when I saw those images, I knew they were right for the collection. I also had in mind a kind of DIY look, like 80s mix tapes and early zines, and Lisa found a label maker font that fit that aesthetic perfectly.
MF: Any thoughts about the importance of places like Cleaver and Paper Nautilus for writers?
KK: They’re huge. Small presses, lit mags, online journals—they are everything. When I was a kid and first started trying to be “a writer,” I would send my stories to The New Yorker and The Atlantic and even Ladies Home Journal, because those were the only magazines I knew of—the ones I saw in the magazine racks at CVS. Now there’s such a diversity of lit journals, and it’s so easy to find them online—not only online journals, but even print journals usually have some kind of online presence, so you can read examples of what they publish and learn about their style. It’s much easier for new writers to find a home for their work.
At the same time, the book publishing world has shrunk. There are fewer major publishers, and it feels like the ones that are left have become more conservative, more “brand” oriented, less willing to nurture new talent. But I think small presses are really coming into their own. There are more of them, and they’re publishing strong, exciting voices. Some of my writing friends have published work recently with Engine Books, Rain Mountain Press, and Jolly Fish Press, and I also have work in anthologies from Spider Road Press and Hyacinth Girl Press. That world is opening out, and I think it can only contribute to the diversity and vitality of contemporary literature.
Kathryn Kulpa is the author of Pleasant Drugs, a short story collection, and Who’s the Skirt?, a microfiction chapbook. She is the flash fiction editor at Cleaver and has published work recently in Smokelong Quarterly, The Flexible Persona, Carbon Culture Review, and Litro.
Michelle Fost is a writer living in Toronto. Her fiction has appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly and her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Boston Phoenix Literary Section. She is a book review and fiction editor at Cleaver.
For many years, my husband, William Sulit, and I have collaborated on projects for corporate America—annual reports, commemorative books, employee magazines. When corporate America changed—when the cultures shifted, the ideals, the relationships—we began to explore a new idea, a company we could create and manage as our own, a company through which we could define the quality of the product and the nature of the conversation. We have called that company Juncture Workshops. Through it we offer memoir retreats, a monthly newsletter, and video essays that showcase the work of memoir masters and offer ideas and prompts.
As with most things, of course, it all sounds easier than it has been. Here we provide a behind-the-scenes look at our memoir-steeped lives, post video production.
STORY: They would need a teleprompter. They would need a script. They would need umbrella lights, an iPhone mic, a steady camera, an army of tripods. They would call this thing that they had made their Juncture memoir shorts (and here those things are: www.udemy.com/the-stories-of-our-lives/learn/v4/overview). Lessons on writer’s block. Lessons on illness. Lessons on time, or nature writing, or the kitchen. They would twine Mary-Louise Parker and James Baldwin, Abigail Thomas and Sarah Manguso, MFK Fisher and Chang-Rae Lee, Annie Dillard and Angela Palm, Sallie Tisdale and Alison Bechdel, and she (the content producer, the talent) would try not to stutter or lisp while he (the director, the perfectionist) would try not to groan. They would hope to get along.
You start a business and it goes like this: You dream. You plan. You risk. You eat ice-cream sandwiches at the edge of night and rise at the hour of the fox.
Later, after the thing was done, after the memoir shorts were released, after they’d checked out of recovery, after they were themselves again, they would (civility!) reminisce.
She: I think it was your idea.
He: Might have been yours.
She: You were the location scout, you did the research, you filled the room with light. You clapped your hands to synch the audio. You galloped up the stairs. The words scrolled down the teleprompter glass. I was alone with myself.
He: Your point?
She: That was a form of torture. I would have not come up with that.
He: I was giving you privacy.
She: I was scared to death.
He: Scared of being alone with yourself?
She: There was a camera recording my every shaking breath. My slurry vowels. My botched consonants.
He: [Suggests.] I had thought it would all be easier than it was. Those were your own words we were recording, your own memoir essays, your own thoughts on your own memoir heroes, your own lessons and prompts. I thought you would have sped straight through. One take. Maybe two. How long have you been doing this?
She: There’s a reason they pay Lester Holt the big bucks.
He: You teach. You speak. Memoir is your language. You needed….how many takes?
She: Please don’t ask.
He: Eight? Ten? More than that? Eight or ten for every segment?
She: It would have been easier if you’d lowered your standards.
He: You were talking like a robot.
She: I was not.
He: Or a wind-up doll winding down.
She: I was trying to be clear.
He: You were being way too clear. Normal people don’t talk like that.
She: I was trying not to rush.
He: Then you had the bright idea to put your glasses on.
She: I’m nearly blind! I could not see! I had to squint to see the prompt.
He: Every time you moved your head the light shone in your lens.
She: I did my best.
He: How many takes?
She: Have we come back to that? What if we talked about the cruelty afterwards, exposed it? What if we talked about what happened after we agreed that I would never tape again (for now)?
He: What cruelty?
She: When you made me watch myself. When you said I had to watch every single second of every single video to make sure I could live with the results. The enunciation.of.every.word. I can’t be you. You can’t be me. But memoir can be our bridge. I had to listen, a dozen times, to that. All memoirists, at one point, are affronted by beginnings. All memoirists need a place to start. That, too. Fifteen times, easy, I watched me saying that. Plus you played the video huge. You made my screen self bigger than my real self. That’s cruel.
He: You are who you are!
He: This isn’t a beauty contest. This is memoir! This is content!
She: Well, thanks so much for that.
He: What do you want? I thought we were teaching the truth. I thought that was the point of this. It’s not like you’re selling lessons on make-up and hair.
She: There are truths and there are truths.
She: I think they turned out okay, in the end. I mean, don’t you?
He: I do.
She: I think that people who really care about this stuff will care about these writers, these braids, these themes, this kind of memoir.
She: Are you just being nice because you once were so cruel?
He: I’m not.
He: I believe in the widget.
She: The widget?
He: You’re the widget, Beth.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 21 books, including HANDLING THE TRUTH: ON THE WRITING OF MEMOIR, a teacher of memoir at the University of Pennsylvania, and a partner, with her husband, in Juncture Workshops. She writes about the intersection of memory and place for the Philadelphia Inquirer and about literature for the Chicago Tribune.
William Sulit, an award-winning ceramicist, designer, and architect, is a partner in Juncture Workshops, where he scouts the sites, creates the brand, teaches the photography, does the math, and generally puts up with the content creator. His ceramics work is currently on display at Show of Hands in Philadelphia.
NP: You’ve traveled to El Salvador, the subject of Revulsion. Did you know about the author Castellanos Moya?
LK: In 1995 I traveled by land from Austin, Texas (where I lived at the time) to Costa Rica and spent about a week in El Salvador en route south. I visited the beach at La Libertad described in the book and experienced San Salvador but I don’t remember seeing any book other than the one I was somewhat inappropriately reading at the time (Cheever’s big red collection of short stories). I hadn’t read Bernhard at that point. I hadn’t even heard of him. But six years later I became exposed to the Bernhard virus and started reading him like mad, hunting down copies (Vintage hadn’t re-issued new editions yet and the University of Chicago editions weren’t so easy to find, not even in NYC; in Iowa City, circa 2002 or ‘03, I found a first-edition hard cover of Gathering Evidence but not a single other Bernhard book in any of the town’s many bookstores, which, at the time, may have excessively disheartened me about humanity, as though I needed Bernhard to raise my spirits during the first G.W. Bush administration).
The first Moya I read was Senselessness in 2009 or 2010, attracted by Bernhard comparisons in reviews, but I didn’t really become aware of and, more so, driven to acquire a copy of El asco: Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador until 2011 when I read Roberto Bolaño’s mini-review in Between Parentheses, the great/amazing/unpredictable Bolaño miscellany that came out that year. [Of El asco, Bolaño wrote, in Natasha Wimmer’s translation: “Its acid humor, like a Buster Keaton movie or a time bomb, threatens the hormonal stability of the idiots who, upon reading it, feel and irresistible urge to string the author up in the town square. Truly, I know of no great honor for a real writer.”]
It was definitely the Bernhard bit in the title that drew me to it. Bolaño also called Revulsion possibly Moya’s darkest and best. I wanted to read the fucker. I was surprised that no English version existed. So I ordered the original Spanish edition. But once I started reading, probably after a few pages, I wound up translating as I read, really enjoying the process of simultaneous reading and writing. When I mentioned this to friends, they expressed interest in reading whatever I produced in English, so I committed to translating the complete book—and once they read it they encouraged me to find a publisher. At first, it hadn’t really occurred to me to try to publish it. At first, I really only translated it for fun and for friends who are Moya and Bernhard fans.
NP: The success of this book was an accident, it seems. For Moya, creating a novel in Bernhard’s voice was a kind of fun diversion (but also a way to speak some truth about the condition of El Salvador). It’s an accident of fate that this book, for which he never expected to get any attention, is, in El Salvador, at least, exactly why he is famous, or infamous. This is confounding, I assume frustrating for him (he calls it a “stigma”). People have asked him to write versions for their own countries and cities, as if all that matters is the form. But I wonder to what degree that’s not the case, to what degree it’s a genuine condemnation of El Salvador, of an essential poverty of culture?
LK: I can’t really speak for the author. It’s probably half-joking/half-genuine condemnation and an attempt at writing like Bernhard, which everyone does after reading him for a while. The repetitive phrases infect your thought patterns. Phrases composed in emails while reading Bernhard start to seem distinctly Bernhardian. It’s one of the most virulent/infectious prose styles. Otherwise, anyone who has ever released a stream of bile over beers with friends knows it can be fun, therapeutic, truthful. Exaggeration is also an essential part of it. Bernhard, in the guise of his narrator in his masterpiece Extinction, proclaims himself to be “a great artist of exaggeration.” Everything is the worst thing ever. Everything obliterates the narrator’s sense of wellbeing, etc. Extreme statements are funny and often truthful in a way magnanimity can’t quite muster. In 2007, I wrote a screed called “Thomas Bernhard and the Necessity of Complaint,” about my first year in Philadelphia (2006), comparing the city to NYC, ranting about cheesesteaks and the general not-so-cultured vibe picked up on by my seriously anhedonic sensibility at the time. There’s definitely something “fun” about writing in this mode. It’s a liberating constraint. I think Joyce called it “jocoserious”—seriously joking—or at least it’s a term associated with Joyce. And lord knows the United States merits a serious “Revulsion” right now—an an epic rant about gun control in the style of Thomas Bernhard, taking aim in part at Trump and the larger situation (economic, political, psychological, spiritual) that makes him appealing to some people.
NP: In some regard it’s easy to write in this form, to attack obvious cultural tics—bad food and beer, the hordes majoring in business administration (in Nicaragua I met these people, from El Salvador)—is simplistic. The attack is base and distinctively under-nuanced; as in Bernhard, it aims at middle class mediocrity. This kind of writing isn’t supposed to be good, according to rules of fiction that eschew the broad brush. Yet it’s delicious, funny, and a bit addictive. So what is it about Bernhard, or Moya here, that works? Is it the self-parody? Why are you drawn to it?
LK: I’m not sure I agree that it’s simplistic, base, under-nuanced, or eschews brushes of a certain width. The word “nuance” derives from clouds. But a good rant is a laser that disperses (or, to use a better Bernhardian word, annihilates) whatsoever shades the sun. It’s easy to write a few pages in this mode but difficult to write 100+ pages of paragraphlessness that someone would be willing to read. A lot of the nuance/subtlety involves seeing around the narrator, that is, getting an idea of the sort of guy the narrator might be, why he’s ranting, why he’s so disturbed by cheap greasy food devoured like celestial manna (as Philly residents, we can probably relate to the obsessively devoted consumption of grease more than most). The repetition and ranting also supply lots of opportunities for humor—again, I’d say the narrator’s bile is a bit self-consciously overboard. Also, there’s nuance in that the narrator in this and in the best of Bernhard is not against everything: he’s in favor of the bartender, he’s in favor of the whiskey he drinks, he’s in favor of the classical music the bartender lets him play at the bar, and also, importantly, he suggests that he’s very much in favor of the absolute inverse of everything he rips. He’s ultimately a super-sensitive idealist, not a blowhard negatron, and this is essential to an appreciation of Revulsion or Bernhard. Similarly, once I started realizing that all the complaining people in Philly who seem to always say awcummawn all the time were tender flowers I started to come around on the city some more. Contempt and compassion are two sides of the same coin.
NP: I have to say this is an awfully smooth read (aside from the jarring “pleasure of the diatribe”). Moya’s prose, never mind in the voice of Bernhard, can race along, mounting in clauses and intensity. That may not be so easy to render in English. But you have done it—and I would say with more finesse than previous Moya translations—and this is your first book length translation. I suspect you found specific ways to do this with punctuation and word choice. Care to elaborate?
LK: Thanks, man, although I’m totally revolted by your sense of jarringnesshood: “with the pleasure of diatribe and mimicry” is a damn fine phrase! “Finesse” means intricate and refined delicacy, subtlety. I very much enjoyed reading Katherine Silver’s translations and admired them although I didn’t specifically compare her versions with the original Spanish texts to see what she was doing. They definitely seem to preserve the general sense of Moya’s quick and conversational yet sometimes thorny Spanish prose. I’m not well versed in translation theory in general but as a reader and a writer I tried to maintain dual loyalty to the original Spanish text in front of me and to unseen readers of the English version. At first the loyalty was more to the original but in the end, once everything was rendered in English, I switched into full-on English editorial mode, concerned with aerodynamic language, etc., creating an English version that read as smoothly as the original one did. The final edits with Declan Spring (the fantastically kind, clear, and expert New Directions editor) and Moya were interesting in that Declan pointed out spots where I may have been too loyal to the original, where the phrasing still seemed to have a foot in the Spanish, and Horacio pointed out where I may have been too loyal to the translated English, where I had veered somewhat from the original sense.
NP: This is a book of semblances, I suppose. There is the narrator, Vega, who, the reader is warned, is based on a real person of that name, and who, like the character Vega has moved to Canada and changed his name. There is the semblance of Bernhard all together, San Salvador for Salzburg, the character Moya’s hope to create a semblance of a European, or even Mexican, literary life in El Salvador. So I wonder if when translating you had at hand not only Moya’s Spanish text but also the work of Bernhard, the voice of Bernhard (as translated into English I gather unless you read German) to draw on. How did Bernhard factor into your process?
LK: “Semblances” is a 2666 word. In the Ansky section (Part V) of that novel, the word is repeated over the course of a paragraph almost in Bernhardian rant style: “when the fearful soothed their fears with semblances.” I love it. Such a cool word. Like a monarch butterfly camouflaging itself to look less like prey than a predator, in Revulsion’s case, someone who’s very much too sensitive for existence in El Salvador or maybe really anywhere other than abstract realms of art, music, literature, and whiskey, takes on the semblance of Thomas Bernhard, to the humorously exaggerated point of changing his name, to become more like a predator. It’s like dressing tough as self-defense but this narrator’s self-defense against spiritual degradation is to appropriate a ranting prose style—as a concept, that’s pretty funny. Vega, the narrator in Revulsion, might also be soothing his fear with semblances. Appropriating Bernhard’s style when feeling down and gone to seed or assaulted by spiritually degrading bullshit might not be the best thing for you but it helps, sort of the way a downtrodden populace might support extremists who seem to convey to them a sense of power. I’ve read nearly all of Bernhard and have celebrated his books by positioning them on the central shelf of my primary bookcase, literally and figuratively. Bernhard’s prose style is central to my literary intuition. “Semblances” is also central to translation, which at best is maybe like a monarch butterfly trying to disguise itself as another monarch butterfly. They’re not the same entities but ideally the second one seems a lot like the first.
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.
Ranen: I love all the epigraphs you begin your new book with but especially the one by Grace Paley, which is such a great way to think about the art of her narrative: “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Perhaps it is also a kind of prophecy of the radical forms of becoming that so many female Jewish artists seem to be so passionately exploring in our time in visual art, from Jill Solloway’s Transparent all the way through the seven wonderful figures you explore in How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses. In discovering the complicated ways these women explore the relation between self and ethnicity or collective identity, have you learned something about yourself? Does invention figure in your own life as an academic or otherwise?
Tahneer: Oh, absolutely! I was a creative writing major in college, and for a long time I thought that the only way to pursue my dream of becoming a writer was to write novels. It took some time for me to realize that there’s creativity involved in all different kinds of writing and also that you don’t need to write novels to be a “real” writer.
It can be scary to traverse a variety of less popular modes of expression, not only because of the fear that people might not take you seriously but also because you feel like you’re not mastering something, your focus is scattered. Grace Paley’s oeuvre, and her life story more generally, showed me that that was okay. She wrote stories, poems, essays, and speeches; she wrote what she needed to write, not what she thought she should write.
Eventually, I chose an academic path but I’ve tried to continually commit myself to the subjects and projects that interest me. That openness has led me to comics, and women, and memoir, and the question of secular Jewishness. It has led me to write not just academic pieces but also book reviews and interviews and short personal essays. There’s a risk of exposure there—of jumping in before you’ve fully prepared yourself for a new idea or mode—but that vulnerability and playfulness is exciting to me. It’s like with teaching: the richest classes are the ones that end up going in unexpected directions.
R: You recently wrote in Lilith about the paradox of writing a book about “a Jewish topic” when that might subsequently “pigeonhole” you exclusively as a “Jewish writer” even though you and your family have no formal synagogue affiliation and so on. That apprehension immediately resonated with me because when I moved not long ago to Louisville, I was told by quite a few people that in this town the notion of a “free-floating” Jew is an anomaly; every self-identified Jew is invariably identified with one of the five synagogues in the community. I continue to resist that pressure and was thus heartened by what you say about the fulfillment that scholarship seems to give you even where that formal sense of community falls short. Like you, I think that I write “Jewish books” to reclaim something that otherwise does not fully seem to accommodate who I am. In the Introduction, you describe the paradigm of “dis-affiliation” which you say is not a “negation” but rather a “complex negotiation.” It becomes your wonderful overarching premise in the ensuing chapters so that you achieve both disjuncture and coherence where each is required. Did the narratives of these seven very different artists deepen your own sense of ambivalence? Are you more confused now than when you began this project or did their works help you reach a greater sense of identity? And who among these, if any, do you feel closest with in terms of their framing of the community and selfhood?
T: Your description of the impossibility of being a “free-floating” Jew in Louisville is interesting to me. My husband grew up in Syracuse, and we’ve often talked about the difference between growing up in a Jewish environment versus a place where Jews, and Jewish sensibilities, are, let’s say, a distinct minority. He has always felt a strong pride in his Jewish identity, and I often attribute that pride to his having had to explain the Jewish holidays and customs to friends in school. In a sense, he had to justify their existence. Even when I was in public school, I didn’t have to explain anything; everyone just understood what it meant to be Jewish, even if there was a clear variety of different kinds of Jews hanging around. I think my comfort in being “free-floating,” in dis-affiliating, largely stems from having grown up in an environment where I could generally take my Jewish identity, at least in its broadest sense, for granted.
Writing this book, and especially talking to these various artists, did help me see that I wasn’t as exceptional as I had originally thought. I grew up going to an Orthodox Jewish day school but also hiding the fact that my family was not nearly as religious as those around us. At school, I wore skirts and prayed and basically fit in by mimicking the Jewish gestures exercised by those around me. At home, I wore jeans, read Judy Blume, and dreamed of being like the “regular” teens in 80s sitcoms. The disjunction wore me out. It was only years later that I found out how many of us, even in that school, were pretending. Talking to these cartoonists, and writing about them, I realized that although the details of our personal histories were all very different (for the most part), we all ended with a similar sense of ambivalence about our Jewish identities.
R: This book also tells an important generational story; Kominsky Crumb seems such a vital antecedent for thinking about the others in your study. In your conversations with them and/or readings of their interviews and reflections, did you sense that she was equally crucial to their own sense of vocation? Aside from Vanessa Davis, were the others generally enthusiastic about her early work? Do some of them exhibit the same resistance to her work as those who championed Robert Crumb but disparaged her own visual caricature portrayals of the body?
T: In Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic narrative, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Minnie, an aspiring cartoonist, writes a fan letter to Aline Kominsky. She references Kominsky Crumb, along with Robert Crumb, Diane Noomin, and Justin Green, as her favorite artists. The film version of the book really plays up the character’s connection to Kominsky Crumb in particular. In several scenes, Minnie has whole conversations with her hero and muse.
I think for women cartoonists especially, Kominsky Crumb has been such an important figure. It’s not that men can’t mentor women, or be role models for them, but it’s so important, and particularly for young women starting out, to have other women to look up to. And it’s not just about seeing a woman in the vocation of cartoonist; I think it’s even more about seeing topics that are important to women explored on the page. It’s about watching women grapple with sexuality, and their relationships to their bodies, and their fears and desires about work and friendship and family and love.
Most of the cartoonists I spoke with mentioned Kominsky Crumb as an important influence. It wasn’t just her work but also the Twisted Sisters anthology she put out with Diane Noomin. While on the one hand it can be exhausting and somewhat infuriating to be pigeonholed as a “woman” cartoonist, ripe mainly to be published in “women’s” anthologies, on the other hand we still need those spaces, even now. Without them, we might take for granted that certain sensibilities are often presumed to be central, fundamental: certain genres, certain ways of drawing, certain kinds of art and writing. In order to view the whole spectrum of possibility out there—to be open to all kinds of creation and invention—it’s important to create these safe spaces. Kominsky Crumb was a visionary in that way when it comes to the world of comics.
R: I thought it was very astute of you to conclude, perhaps counter-intuitively, with Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief (given that it is based on the advice column that ran in the Yiddish The Forverts for immigrant Jews fresh off the boat that was created in 1906 by the paper’s legendary editor Abraham Cahan) to suggest the myriad “ways that the present informs the past even while that past continually and forcefully imposes on the present.”
For instance, there is an early moment in Kushner’s Angels in America where an ancient rabbi expounds at the funeral for a deceased matriarch: “She was…not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania—and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak Shtetl, your air the air of the steppes—because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.” I like the fascinating shift in tenses and the promising sense of interpenetrating temporalities. But in the subsequent drama, the point seems utterly lost on all the other characters. Do you think this is a preoccupation of Jewish women artists in recent years or does something analogous happen in the works of male artists (graphic and otherwise)?
T: This is a really interesting question. Certainly, I didn’t intend to suggest in the book that it is only women (and only Jewish women, at that) who are thinking about and exploring identity in these interesting, formally experimental ways. The model I present is really meant as a starting point, a kind of suggestive approach. Maybe even a prelude.
And yet, I can’t help but think that there may be something of a more direct or easy access to particular kinds of truths for artists who have been marginalized, or felt themselves as outsiders in some deep way. Soloway’s show powerfully does what I found Finck’s work to do: it meaningfully brings the past into the present, without burying the present or depriving it of its energy, its, well, currency. Similarly, the cartoonist Leela Corman has this incredible piece called “Yahrzeit,” published online in Tablet in 2013, in which she connects her grandfather’s experiences in World War II, his losses, with her experience of mourning her first child. That piece so expertly bridges the weight of both events, reflecting how those losses never really have an ending point. They just continue, on and on, merging with future losses.
As the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, living in a world where we will soon lose access to all our live witnesses of this event, this kind of temporal inventiveness is not just compelling to me; it’s urgent.
R: You often seemed to develop very illuminating personal conversations or email exchanges between your subjects. Did you find that most of these artists were eager to discuss their works or were some reticent about speaking on behalf of their work and/or revisiting sometimes difficult or even traumatic pasts for any reason?
T: To me, one of the most fun aspects of writing about artists who are still living is that I get to talk to them. It’s also, as you might imagine, incredibly intimidating. I want to be honest and critically astute about the work, as much as possible, but many of these artists have become people I consider friends.
I try to write, as much as possible, without the artist in mind as an audience. Once I have an argument set down on paper, that’s generally when I start formulating questions for the creator. These generally fall into two categories: questions I have that I think will help illuminate what I’ve already written about, and questions I have that I think might potentially transform or even weaken my points. It’s often a surprise, in the end, which leads to which.
All of the artists that I’ve approached have been generous with their time and eager to discuss their work. I think it can be useful to have an outsider to talk to; it can help the artist see what’s coming through in her works. I’m very careful to speak about the characters in these autobiographical works as characters, as personas. I think this also makes it a bit easier for the artists to open up. I’m not, after all, talking exactly about them, even if I am talking about their lives.
R: I love the artful ways you quite often pause to place these works in compelling conversation with more traditional Jewish memoirs as well as novels. In your ideal course would you adopt a hybrid approach and include both narrative forms or do you think it is important to focus on visual narratives exclusively? Have you taught an entire course on graphic narratives?
T: This is something I think about a lot, and I hope to engage with more closely in my next project. I named and explored some Jewish literature in the introduction of the book in order to situate the comics that I wrote about as part of this broader literary genealogy. I think it’s important to recognize connections that go beyond particular genres and mediums. This, again, helps us broaden the ways we approach various so-called canons.
In terms of teaching, I think the approach depends a lot on the objective of the course. A few years back, I taught an upper-level English class at Rutgers that was focused on both fictional and non-fictional contemporary American comics. I tried to offer students a glimpse of all that was out there, but of course I had to make many unscientific choices in terms of readings in order to maintain a manageable course load. What was most valuable for students who took that course—to my mind, at least—was that they learned about the formal possibilities of the medium, and were able to think broadly of how and why we categorize different forms of communication, of art.
In my current job at Marymount, I mostly teach writing courses, so my course objectives are very different. But I do often end up pairing a work of comics alongside a work of literary prose. This semester, for example, I am teaching a writing course called “Writing the Visible,” and one of the central questions we’re engaging with is what it means to read images as opposed to words, and vice versa. We’ve started off by reading Lucy Grealy’s memoir, Autobiography of a Face, and students have had multiple opportunities to engage with the text visually, from writing about the different covers of the book to thinking about what it means to create a portrait of a person, whether visual or verbal. Later in the course we’re going to be reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and I think the juxtaposition of those two kinds of texts will trigger some compelling discussions about memory, images, and autobiography. Most crucially, I think it’s important not to turn such conversations into basic comparisons; we’re not reading comics versus prose, but comics alongside prose. I’ve been playing with the term “expansive reading” to describe this kind of interaction.
R: Finally, I want to offer you a compliment: there are many people who like to write about comix and graphic narratives but only a very few who truly have the savvy to rigorously analyze their visual dynamics as well as the textual aspects. You manage that so well; really helping to shape and guide my perceptions as a reader and alert me to the significance of things I might have otherwise passed over. Did this come easily to you? You seem so attuned to the form,
T: This certainly wasn’t always easy for me to do, especially as someone trained in reading and writing about literary prose. I think my “aha!” moment came some years back, when I was on an academic panel with several people discussing comics. One of the panelists had a background in art history. Hearing her talk about comics using the visuals as a starting point, rather than an accessory, made me much more attuned to how I might better engage with such texts. I actually went home and order a bunch of art history readers, just to get a better sense of some of the central ideas and questions that visual critics think about when approaching texts. It was not unfamiliar, but the emphasis hadn’t always been there for me.
I will say, I love the added challenge of writing about image-texts. While I grew up as someone who loved immersing myself in prose—we’re talking long novel after long novel—and while I still largely think of myself as a lover of prose, I have a lot more fun writing about comics and other visual texts (like memoirs that incorporate photography) than I do about texts composed only in prose. It feels like there’s more to negotiate, like there’s more space for the unpredictable.
Tahneer Oksman is the Graphic Narrative Reviews Editor for Cleaver Magazine. She is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College, and she recently published her first book, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs.