The Making of an American Feminist: An Interview with Sophia Shalmiyev

Nanci McCloskey

I met Sophia Shalmiyev through my friend (and amazing author) Leni Zumas. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time: I was in the midst of separating from my husband with whom I share two small children. Things were ugly. I was a mess. Leni said, “Sophia can help. She’s an incredible resource.”

I took her advice and shortly after I met Sophia over whiskey (for Sophia) and wine (for me) in a bar in Northwest Portland. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but Leni’s wise words were exactly right: Sophia Shalmiyev is incredible. With just a small amount of information, she is able to extrapolate, understand, and empathize. She listened and consoled. She developed a plan for me. Even so, I confess that I was skeptical my new guardian angel might be too good to be true.

An angel with an art degree and an MFA who can sew and paint, drink and garden? Sophia grew up poor, sometimes desperately so, and mostly motherless, yet she has devoted her life to women: artists and victims of domestic violence. How does a person like this come to be? When I learned she was writing a memoir, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I read it in two sittings, staying up way past my bedtime. And then I started it again from the beginning. Slower the second time, luxuriating in the language.

Mother Winter is the fiercely and urgently told story of the making of an American feminist. We had the following conversation below over Google chat, and I hope it gives you a peek into the mind and spirit of this truly extraordinary thinker and writer.

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Michael Arceneaux

THSTAFF

Michael Arceneaux makes the tightrope walk between vulnerability and hilarity look easy. His debut essay collection I Can’t Date Jesus landed him on the New York Times bestseller list, and his essays, which have published in Essence, Teen Vogue, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The New York Times, and more, tackle tough topics with wit and panache.

In the latest installment of our Dear Reader writing residency with Ace Hotel New York, Tin House invited Michael to spend a night at Ace and, while there, write a letter to an imagined audience. The contents of his letter have been kept secret, but today, it will be placed in each room of the hotel. To celebrate, we caught up with Michael to talk justice for Zora Neale Hurston, morning routines, and the Real Housewives of literary history.


TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?

MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: I would love to write back and forth with Zora Neale Hurston. I tend to read mainly nonfiction, which I know is like “whew chile, the ghetto” to a lot of the more refined writers and what not, but I am a fan of hers, especially a lot of her short fiction as I do enjoy a lot of short story collections. I have always appreciated her use of Black dialect ’cause I’m country. Also, I think the way she used it made for a much better understanding of her characters. The obvious character would be Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, but it’s true of much of her fiction.

However, I know that some were critical of that at the time (along with other matters related to her work), so while I know this may make me sound like the Andy Cohen or Nina Parker of The Real Housewives of The Harlem Renaissance: Reunion, but if I could write, “Sis, Richard Wright needs to have a sip and shut up about this book,” I’d be totally into it. I apologize to the ancestors and living elders in advance if I’m already offending y’all. But seriously, I do value her work and I hated that she died poor. It’s honestly been one of my fears in trying to have a career as a writer that I would die poor and only be truly appreciated until long after I was gone.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

As a working writer, particularly one who writes heavily for various outlets across Al Gore’s internet, a lot of my writing assignments are time sensitive so generally I have an idea of what I want to say when I pitch or am pitched to. When it comes to my book writing, I have a general outline, too, because one, you already sold your book on proposal so the template is already there, and two, I’ve just become wired that way after having done largely digital media work for nearly a decade. I apologize to fans of spontaneity and the rush of unforeseen creative inspirations that transforms prose. However, there were instances on I Can’t Date Jesus in which two chapters ended up a lot differently than I anticipated. One chapter in particular about my father wasn’t trashed per se, but had to be changed after I had a talk with my sister. In learning more about my dad’s relationship with my uncle before he died, I didn’t have to put aside my feelings and experiences, but she added so much more context. So I had to sit with it. I mean really sit with it; not to just react to new intel, but table it, process it, and then go back and pour myself out all over again. It made everything for the better.

I have more recently been making much better use of the Notes app. I like to hand write a lot of things, but I’ve come to realize doing it on the phone is better for me because I can jot down some idea, and while traveling—particularly on that awful MTA in NY—I build little by little on it. A lot of my second book ideas came out from toying with the Notes app and handwriting an outline while eating brunch solo and casually talking to a beautiful bartender that isn’t into men, but what the hell, he’s still cute so I’m going to chat anyway.  

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

My main intentions with my work are to make people laugh and to make people think. I try not to think too heavily about anything else because it can become distracting. Like, I’m aware and conscious of the things I say and how I say them, but I try not to overthink because if I do, God, it’s just going to take me so much longer to get anything done. I want everyone to read me so I do the best I can and hope it reaches as many as possible.

I still think of myself as a bit under the radar (to the boos and hisses of select friends and colleagues), so I am always pleasantly surprised when anyone reads my work, but I am actually never surprised at having a diverse readership. One of my very good friends and former editors once told me “You write for Black people.” What he meant was I don’t focus on the white gaze nor do I concern myself with worries that if I sound too uh, colloquial, that I will alienate non-Black readers. I Can’t Date Jesus is a book I wish I had growing up as a working class, southern Black gay boy. I wrote it from that perspective and knew people like me would be the first to gravitate towards it. I’m so proud of that, but there are also a lot of white people in their 70s reading it. I know because they email me all the time. Others—namely in publishing—felt I would be “niche,” but I write about religion, intimacy, doubt, fear, and learning to love myself and enjoy pleasure. Those are universal themes, so while I may be not surprised the book is connecting with a wide readership, I’m glad they are surprising the people in publishing who often fail to give non-white writers the benefit of the doubt.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

Bitch Is The New Black by Helena Andrews. She is probably tired of me saying this, but I adore her as a writer, I love her book, I love her voice, and I think she was, in hindsight, somewhat ahead of her time because she definitely paved the way for a new generation of Black memoirists and deserves her flowers. This is also just another good way to publicly push and get more books out of her. If I can get a bonus, Bulletproof Diva by Lisa Jones.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?

I shoot up at 6:00 a.m. pretending that I’m going to immediately get to writing, but in reality, I’m just going to turn on Morning Joe because my body literally now wakes up to its schedule. How long I watch depends on how quickly someone on the panel says something that annoys me so then I go freshen up. Next up: my morning jig, a thing I do every morning in which I dance to some song in order to have a little joy before someone tries to ruin it. Eventually, I decide to write a little on my phone because I’m not ready to sit at that desk yet. I’ll have some caffeine – ideally something I already have in the fridge or I’ll convince myself that paying $5 for an oak milk latte will really get me going when I know this is just me wasting time and I have private student loans—meaning I shouldn’t be in that coffee shop anyway. Obviously, hours have passed and then I finally settle down to write after Wendy Williams finishes Hot Topics, of course.

I don’t really get to writing until I end up using the Freedom app to block me from the internet so I can spend hours writing. I don’t recommend this, but in my defense, my discipline has waned because I have yet to take that vacation that’s probably seven years overdue now.

Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York.

The Literature of No: An Interview with Enrique Vila-Matas

Veronica Scott Esposito

The heavyweight champion of paradox, the pioneer of parasitical writing, the disinterrer of lost authors, the crazy godfather of the Spanish avant-garde, the crypto-torchbearer of high modernism, Enrique Vila-Matas has spent over forty years charting out a literary terrain that is all his own. His work is notorious for intensely feeding off of other texts—most notably, those written by European titans like Beckett, Joyce, and Walser—as well as for drawing liberally from his own strange life. Hovering somewhere between plagiarism and homage, autobiography and multiple personality disorder, his books push the personal essay into a novelistic form, all the while taunting us with coincidences, anecdotes, and facts that seem far too good to be true—or are they actually real?

Vila-Matas’s literature is nourished by its own prodigious paranoia and madness, always beginning from ludicrous premises and red herrings, then relentlessly pushing them further and further until they gloriously break down. His books show how literature can be deadly serious by being resolutely playful; his language delights in speaking truth through creative misprision, evasion, and outright deception.

I discovered Vila-Matas in 2007 through the release of his first two English-language translations, Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady. I’ve been a reader ever since, steadily consuming the regular translations of his works (now  nine in total), as well as working my way through his Spanish-language list. I keep coming back because the books themselves are marvelous, and also because I know that whenever I read his work I will come away with a list of new writers to investigate, new ideas to explore, and new stories that I must try to verify the truth of.

For this interview I corresponded with the author over a leisurely few months. Vila-Matas was always a courteous and prompt respondent, and he treated me with the highest respect and seriousness, but I could never quite escape the feeling that much of what he was telling me was made up. Whether that’s the truth of the matter or just the byproduct of conditioning built upon a decade of reading Vila-Matas is a thing I leave to the reader to decide.

—Veronica Scott Esposito

Veronica Scott Esposito: Let’s start with where it all started for me: your 2000 novel, Bartleby & Co., a breakthrough in terms of your fame and prestige, and a very difficult-to-classify work. This novel is couched as a series of footnotes to an “invisible” text, and the common theme is that of writers who inexplicably quit writing. (The title is a reference to Melville’s famous Bartleby: “I prefer not to.”) The book combines a number of elements common to your work: copious anecdotes from literary figures famous and obscure; quotations; paranoia; conspiracy; autobiography; and of course many, many works of literature (many real, but perhaps also many fake?) that you weave into the fabric of your text. It’s a book that makes literature out of the inability to write literature. Have you ever been tempted to disappear from writing, as do many of your protagonists and literary heroes?

Enrique Vila-Matas: I wrote Bartleby & Co. because I was strongly attracted to the drive toward negation and wanted to abandon literature. This was paradoxical because by thoroughly occupying myself with those who had quit writing I was able to succeed in continuing to write. In these denials of culture and literature there is a strong passion for what is denied. Bartleby & Co. goes with Montano’s Malady and Doctor Pasavento to form a trilogy in which negation and disappearance from literature are central, and where I develop my idea of how the avant-garde’s fate to disappear from literature makes it possible that, after the end of literature (the end of the Gutenberg era, as I call it in Dublinesque), I could continue writing. To put it differently: I think that I find myself among those who recently discovered that the only way in which literature isn’t dead is to write being conscious of the fact that it has already died.

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Fatimah Asghar

THSTAFF

If you like good poetry and/or smart entertainment in general, chances are you’ve encountered the work of Fatimah Asghar. Her debut book of poems, If They Come For Us (One World 2018), published this summer to well-deserved raves. Her beloved web series, Brown Girls, was nominated for an Emmy and recently acquired by HBO. She’s a member of the Dark Noise Collective and the creator of a spoken word poetry group in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And as of this month, she’s our latest letter-writer-in-residence.

As part of our Dear Reader series with Ace Hotel New York, we at Tin House invited Fatimah to spend a night at Ace and, while there, pen a letter to an imagined audience. What she wrote has been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Fatimah to talk Toni Morrison, why she makes art, and the power of a good walk.

TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be?  And why?

FATIMAH ASGHAR: Probably Toni Morrison. Her writing has just opened up so much possibility for me, and the world at large. I would love to talk to her. Though I don’t know what else I would say other than “I love you” over and over again.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

I only map out my screenwriting, but usually even then half of the map goes out the window once I get to page. There’s only so much you can plan for until you start writing, I think that the language and the characters definitely take you someplace different from your head once they are active and living on the page. But that’s beautiful, because it’s a process of a discovery. I don’t map out poems. I don’t know anyone who does that. Sometimes I have an idea of where a poem might end or where I am building to, but never a map.

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

I think about my audience a lot! I make my art to feel a little less lonely in the world, so audience is huge. Even then, I’m always surprised by who is drawn to my art.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

Heavy by Kiese Laymon and Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari. Midnight’s Furies is a book about Partition, so much of my book wrestles with Partition. I think his book is written in a way that is really accessible and nuanced and a great account of history. I just finished reading Heavy and feel like it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It made me feel so many feelings I didn’t know were even possible. Everyone should read it.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process? 

I like to meditate and stretch beforehand. If I get stuck, I like to walk or exercise. A good walk does so much for my brain when I’m stuck. It’s just helpful to move when you’re at a desk for so long.

Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York.

Where Your Private Story Could Have a Public Purpose: A Conversation with Meghan O’Gieblyn

Min Li Chan

I first encountered Meghan O’Gieblyn through her 2014 essay Hell, in which she juxtaposes the evolution of hell, as conceived in popular culture and theological doctrine, with her own loss of faith in an evangelical Protestant tradition rooted in the physical and psychic landscape of the Midwest. Hell is as riveting as it is rigorous, drawing from O’Gieblyn’s lived experience and deep engagement with research and critical reflection. Her discerning prose is graced by the provocation, capaciousness of thought, and the intellectual and emotional questing that makes the finest essays so compelling.

This early encounter with Hell was a formative experience for me as an essayist; at the time, I was working in the tech industry in Silicon Valley and writing in my second shift, having moved from Kuala Lumpur to the San Francisco Bay Area several years prior to study electrical engineering in college. Hell and O’Gieblyn’s subsequent work demonstrated how the modes of writing and thinking that I wanted to pursue could exist in the world.

I had the pleasure of meeting O’Gieblyn in person recently in Chicago. We conducted this interview via email from our respective desks in the Midwest, following the release of her debut collection Interior States.

Min Li Chan: The preface to your collection reads like a meta-essay on essays, in that generative tradition of complicating accepted notions about the form and re-energizing our sense for its possibilities. Where the essay’s lineage is often traced to Montaigne, you have connected your practice to the Augustinian tradition of “personal writing” and the communal ritual of giving testimony. How did this understanding of the essay develop for you? And how does it inform what you think is an essayist’s potential roles — or responsibilities, if you will — when thinking on the page and in the public?

Meghan O’Gieblyn: Around the time I was putting these essays together in manuscript form, I was thinking about “confessional writing,” which is a term that’s often used to dismiss personal essays or memoir that are perceived to be self-indulgent or navel-gazing. It’s funny that people rarely talk about the term’s religious connotations, but the idea is that the writer is essentially unburdening herself the way she would to a priest, in order to receive absolution. The term also seems allusive of Augustine’s the Confessions, which is the first instance of introspective autobiography in western literature. But what’s interesting is that the Confessions is actually not formally or tonally similar to the type of writing that today is criticized as “confessional.” Augustine was writing an argument. He was using his life in a very deliberate way to respond to ongoing theological debates, and his story was meant, in part, to refute the charge that he was still a Manichean.

This narrative form is similar to what we would today call conversion narrative—or what we called, when I was growing up in the evangelical church, “giving testimony.” The idea was that your private story could have a public purpose, that your experience could serve as a form of evidence in service of an argument. I wasn’t thinking about testimony on a conscious level when I was writing these essays, but I heard so many stories like these when I was a child, I imagine the form was deep in my DNA, so to speak. I’ve always been interested in making arguments as a writer, and when I began writing essays I suspected that my life could lend authority to the point I was making or might help the reader understand why it was important to me. But it wasn’t until I was putting the collection together that I realized that testimony might be a useful way to think about the kind of writing I do—and the kind of essays I most enjoy reading.

MLC: A thematic unity undergirds your collection, of interrogating the loss of telos when you left the evangelical Protestant faith tradition, and a parallel loss of telos that has beset the industrial towns of the Midwest. You begin with Dispatch from Flyover Country — was there a particular context, chronology, or feeling that you hoped to establish, and what guided your process of building an overall arc in this collection?

MOG: I do feel that that essay introduces a lot of the themes of the collection, which is part of the reason why I wanted it to lead the book. I wrote it during a time when I’d moved back to the small Michigan town where I’d grown up. My husband and I were broke and in debt (we’re both writers) and we had the opportunity to live rent-free in a trailer on the grounds of the Bible Camp I’d grown up attending. I had recently turned thirty, and being back in the place where I’d started forced me to think about the larger trajectory of my life and my loss of faith years earlier. I had grown up with this clear vision of the future (the Christian redemption narrative) and my purpose in that story. But after I left the church, my life felt derailed, or stalled. I noticed a similar loss of direction in my hometown, which had once been known as “The Lumber Queen of the World” and had, like so many Midwestern small towns, fallen into economic decline. The town was trying to revamp itself as a tourist destination and had conjured up a new ad campaign—“We’re just getting started”—which was so sad to me, since their best days were probably behind them. You see this loss of telos all over the Midwest: industrial cities like Detroit were once symbols of progress and innovation, but now that narratives about the future have shifted to globalization and technological disruption—changes that have affected many of these communities for the worse—there’s a wariness, in many of these places, toward the very notion of progress.

That essay is one of the most personal pieces in the collection, and I think writing it helped me uncover what was at stake for me in the other subjects I’ve been drawn to as a writer. All the essays in the collection ultimately return to questions about time, history, and progress. I’m interested in those ideas because my understanding of the future was disrupted in a very dramatic way when I lost my faith.

MLC: In returning to these questions about time, history, and progress in order to understand the future, you are also a keen observer of our relationship with technology. There is a moment in Contemporaries, towards the end of a dinner conversation that you describe, in which you capture with wry acuity that reflexive, yet truly remarkable, ritual that we’ve begun to accept as quotidian: “One man lays down a credit card, and the rest of us send him money invisibly, through our phones.” And in your thrilling essay, Ghost in the Cloud, you explore the parallels between Christian eschatology and transhumanism, as championed by some Silicon Valley technoutopian figures. In what ways is the brisk, dopamine-firing world of tech important for you and the slow work of thinking and writing?

 MOG: When I was putting the collection together, I was surprised by how many of my essays return to questions about science and technology, which was not something I consciously set out to write about. I suppose I’m interested in how our relationships with new technologies often feels like a spiritual experience. Digital technologies have made our experience of the world increasingly intangible and abstract, for example, since many transactions now take place in an invisible realm—the ether, the cloud. As a former Christian, I’m particularly interested in the way in which narratives about technology have their own eschatology. The most extreme examples are the technoutopian narratives that argue that technology will one day allow us to alleviate illnesses and death, perfect the physical world, and merge human consciousness, which strike me as very similar to the biblical redemption narrative. Religious myths are some of the oldest and most familiar stories in our collective memory, so it’s not surprising that we find ourselves reviving them when faced with the new and unfamiliar. I often think of Ernst Haeckel’s phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” and his theory that each new human embryo passes through, in compressed form, all the evolutionary stages of our species. The theory is false, but it’s a useful metaphor for how new technologies often spur us to revisit our earliest myths.

Of course, as someone who left religion behind, I’m naturally skeptical of these narratives—at least in their most insistent forms. And I’m also acutely aware of the way in which digital technologies create rote, addictive brain patterns that are at odds with the headspace required for thinking and writing. I find writing very rewarding, but its rewards are slow and difficult to achieve, whereas the experience of the internet is so much more immediate and constant in its doling out of rewards—likes, updates, etc.  I know a lot of writers find a way to toggle between those two pursuits, but I haven’t been able to do so. I have to nearly disconnect during the weeks when I’m working on a project. Then, when I’m not writing, I immerse myself more fully in the internet.

 MLC: I’m curious about the scope of your writing practice, and particularly admire the range in which you operate; from deep, research-driven investments across numerous historical and contemporary concerns, to the ways in which you weave the understated material of your own life—the textures, subtleties, and seeming non-events—into your essays. (In one instance of the latter, you write about lying in the tunnel of the MRI machine and reverting to a childhood game in your head. I remember feeling an immediate sense of recognition and kinship upon reading that anecdote; an imaginative act under similar circumstances had also incidentally found its way into my work!) How would you describe your writing process?

 MOG: Yes, that’s a good way to describe the two different modes of writing in the collection. Each kind of piece requires its own process. I actually prefer writing small, quiet, personal essays. I love writers like Natalia Ginzburg or Mary Ruefle who draw observations about life from ordinary, seemingly mundane, moments. The writing process for those pieces feels more akin to fiction in that all you need to get started is a situation, a scene, or an observation. The scene you mention about the MRI, in my essay “Contemporaries,” was the starting point for that piece. I didn’t know what the essay was going to be about until I started writing, and all the themes and ideas emerged through the drafting process in a way that felt very intuitive. You just let your subconscious take over. The wonderful thing about small, intimate essays is that they have the capacity to be perfect—even if they never are—because everything is within your control as a writer. They aren’t contingent on research or other sources.

About once or twice a year, I vow that I’m only going to write these kinds of pieces going forward. But then I somehow get the idea for something more ambitious that involves lots of research. I just finished an essay of this sort, about homeschooling, where I consider my experience being educated at home, as a child, in light of the history of the modern homeschooling movement. My strategy with these sorts of essays is to do a lot of research at the outset, before I begin the writing process. But inevitably the really important questions in an essay arise during the writing process, usually as the result of writing about my personal experience. And then I have to go back to researching some other topic and end up revising or cutting a lot of what I’ve already written. It’s a very inefficient process, and these pieces are very exhausting to write. But it is satisfying to learn about a topic in more depth. I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to researched essays is because I’m curious about a certain aspect of my life and want to learn more about the systems and ideologies that informed it.

MLC: You mentioned earlier that testimony might be a useful way to think about the kind of writing you enjoy. Can you talk a little bit about who or what is in the constellation of influences that have fed your work as a thinker and an essayist?

MOG: I read a lot of Russian novels when I was at Bible school, particularly Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I don’t think their influence is legible in my essays, but reading these 19th century novels convinced me that ideas and arguments could be dramatized through situations, through characters. I never figured out how to do that in fiction—I was writing short stories for many years before I converted to nonfiction—but I think that’s essentially why I was drawn to personal essays: it’s a form that explores larger social and cultural debates through the lens of character—though in this case, the character is you, the writer. A lot of my preoccupations as a writer can probably be traced back to Dostoevsky as well, particularly his belief that humans are fundamentally irrational and cannot be improved through utopian scientific projects.

When I started writing essays, I read a lot of Meghan Daum and Zadie Smith, each of whom influenced me in their own way, particularly in terms of developing a voice and a presence on the page. And Joan Didion, of course. I came to her fairly late—I didn’t read her until my late-twenties—but I’m sure her writing about the West inflected my thinking about the Midwest, even if I wasn’t conscious of it at the time. She had such a monomaniacal preoccupation with California, such that it became a metaphor for everything that was happening in the country during those decades: it was the end point of American progress, a place where the myth of the frontier broke down and devolved into chaos. For most of my life, I’d taken very little interest in my surroundings (we Midwesterners are direly lacking in regional consciousness). Reading her caused me to realize that places were essentially ideas, and it was possible to use landscape—particularly the landscape you know best, as a writer—as a lens, or a metaphor, to talk about larger things.

 MLC: It seems to me that many of us who strive to make things — writers, artists, performers, filmmakers, scientists, engineers — have a set of obsessions and enthusiasms that we keep returning to, that anchors our work. These obsessions and enthusiasms seem to be, more often than not, formed quite early on in life, when we are more likely to have a heightened porousness to the world, or a heightened awareness of the ruptures that render discontinuities in our lives. Does this observation ring true to you, and did anything change for you over the course of writing this collection? What do you think is a sustainable way for approaching the continual excavation and anthropology that we perform on ourselves and our subjects of interest?

 MOG: I love how you put it: “the continual excavation and anthropology we perform on ourselves.” That really captures how it feels when writing personal essays: that the self is a raw material that is always in danger of exhaustion. The question of sustainability is one I’m constantly thinking about. My obsessions as a writer were definitely formed in my twenties, and most of this collection grew out of writing about those experiences—being at Bible school, losing my faith, discovering writing, etc. I’m sure that those obsessions will stay with me, but I also feel spurred to move on and write about other things. It’s difficult because as a writer—i.e., someone who spends most of my day in front of a computer—it’s easy to feel as though I’ve stopped accumulating new experiences. My life today is very stable and healthy and therefore boring, and personal essays feed on tension. Maybe this is why I find myself increasingly drawn to criticism and reporting. I imagine that I’ll continue to explore these interests in ways that diverge from my own life, rather than continually revisit it. Or—who knows?—maybe something fantastic and unexpected will happen to me and I’ll get to write about that.

Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of Interior States, which is now available from Anchor Books. Her essays have received two Pushcart Prizes and have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, n+1, The Point, Tin House, Ploughshares, and The Best American Essays 2017.

 Min Li Chan is a writer and technologist whose essays have appeared in Buzzfeed Reader and The Point Magazine. She was a 2018 BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellow, and is currently a University Fellow at Northwestern University’s Litowitz Creative Writing Graduate Program. She can be found at www.minlichan.com.

 

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Jamel Brinkley

THSTAFF

Jamel Brinkley’s extraordinary debut story collection, A Lucky Man (Graywolf), came out this summer to rave reviews. The New Yorker called it “a trenchant exploration of race and class, vividly conveying the tension between social codes of masculinity and the vulnerable, volatile self.” The Root called it “revelatory.” And now we can all call it a National Book Award Finalist.

Jamel is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University but recently made a trip to New York, where he became our latest Dear Reader author. Over the course of a night at Ace Hotel New York, Jamel penned a letter to an imagined audience—a letter that’s been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Jamel to talk James Baldwin, questioning assumptions, and the perfect pen.

TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be?  And why?

JAMEL BRINKLEY: The first person who comes to mind is James Baldwin. His combination of brilliance, insight, warmth, humor, and rhetorical mastery would be incredible to engage with, especially during these trying times.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

I’m definitely the kind of writer who discovers my path as I go, even at the risk of taking the wrong path, having to retrace my steps, and then trying an alternate direction. An unexpected path isn’t necessarily a wrong path, however. Part of what makes writing fun for me is encountering something unexpected, unintended, and wonderful.

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

I think about my audience to the extent that I want to remember that writing stories is an act meant to be shared, not something just for my own private pleasure. I try to keep in mind, especially during revision, that what I’m doing at every turn is attempting to communicate. When I do imagine the particular readers that might make up my audience, I think of people like me or my family and friends. It seems important for a black writer to think of his or her readership as black or of color. Too often, discussions of readers, or notions of “the reader,” seem to assume that one’s audience is white.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

One book I’ll mention is Oreo by Fran Ross.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process? 

I have to write at home. I can’t work in libraries, cafes, or other public spaces. I compose first drafts on my laptop, but I revise using a printed copy and a pen. My pen of choice is a Pilot Precise V5 (Extra Fine) Rolling Ball pen. Using anything else to revise feels strange.

Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York.

Genevieve Hudson and Leni Zumas in Conversation

Leni Zumas

Genevieve Hudson’s debut fiction collection, Pretend We Live Here, just published by Future Tense Books, maps the lives of outsiders—queer kids, artists, activists, non-native speakers—in visceral, breathtaking sentences. Hudson and I interviewed each other, via email, about writing and reading and gender and race and the Southern Gothic and non-normative spaces and how stories can change your life.

Leni Zumas:  I want to ask you about delight. The stories in Pretend We Live Here are bursting with it: delight in language, sounds, smells, bodies, sex, the strangeness of the human condition. Would you talk about your relationship to delight and how it connects to your art-making?

Genevieve Hudson:  I’m happy that you’re bringing up delight. I hope my writing possesses a kind of levity, that it doesn’t take itself too seriously and that it delights in its strangeness and humor. But while I aspire to delight the reader, I’ve never considered how delight functions in my art-making. The process of writing has never felt “delightful.” Instead, and maybe you relate to this, it’s felt like hard-won work. While trying to write, I’m often staring at the screen feeling exhausted and confused. But I don’t want this effort to be identifiable in the work itself. I’d rather the work have a spontaneity and freedom and joy to it.

I want to find the lightness in the darkness and the laugh inside the horror. This contrast creates propulsion, meaning, and balance. I take pleasure in exposing contradictions. Strange and unusual descriptions can spark delight in readers because it causes them to look from new angles. I want my readers to have fun while reading my work, for the words and pages to consume them.

Your writing is praised for the strange and stunning way you arrange words in a sentence. Your sentences often transcend their role as a load-bearing, plot-moving things. Like these from Red Clocks, for example:

The mouth is open, drenched red. The beaky lower jaw, illogically small for such a huge skull, is sown with teeth. The daughter touches one: a banana of bone.

Has moved amid this world’s foundations.

Those lines are so visual. I wonder what came first, the sentence or the image? Did the sentence arrive from a close look at a mental picture or did a close look at a sentence create an image where there was none? Or was it something else entirely?

LZ:  I usually begin with a word or an image—here, “mouth” was what I started with, the whale’s mouth, a body part I was imagining but not literally looking at. From “mouth,” I began to associate: whale, water, drench, blood, red, mouth, beaky, illogically —> small (for the double L’s) —> skull (more L’s!).  Gary Lutz talks about this phenomenon in his essay “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place”: how one or two letters in a word give rise to another word with some kind of sonic or visual affiliation, allowing the writer to choose by listening and seeing, rather than by plonking along “rationally.” I remember an example he cites from a Christine Schutt story: “Here is the house at night, lit up tall and tallowy.” (I am an L person!) The brilliance here is that “tallowy” carries forward the “tall” while also suggesting candles. A candle in each window.

GH:  While we’re on the topic of language, that makes me think of this line from Red Clocks:

 What does the word “spinster” do that “bachelor” doesn’t do? Why do they carry different associations? These are language acts, people!

I love the term language acts. Can you talk about what a language act is—and the power or lack of power you think language acts wield in society?

LZ:  It seems so obvious, right, that words do things in the world? That their meanings have consequences? I remember more than one boy at my college wearing a Wittgenstein t-shirt that said WORDS ARE DEEDS. Yet much of the time language is dismissed as “only” words, as in “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but…” We currently have a president who is constantly walking back his fucked-up statements by claiming they were “just jokes” or “just locker room talk.” Yet these statements incite actual, terrible harm in the world. They incite violence against actual human bodies and minds.

The Biographer character talks about “language acts” with her high school students because she wants them to stay alert to the ways language shapes us, limits us, traps us. The fact that the term for “umarried man” has a positive, carefree vibe, while the term for “umarried woman” has deeply negative connotations—this difference encodes a whole history of misogyny.

One of the most vital categories of investigation in your book is gender—specifically how unstable it can be. You write about masking, playacting, border-crossing, code-switching. What sorts of texts, histories, and/or personal experiences have informed the way these stories think about, and through, gender?

GH:  The word unstable is key here. I don’t see gender as a fixed thing but, like many others, as a performance. It is a continual enactment that can and often does change as a person grows. My own body and gender expression and the gender performance of my queer and straight friends have informed most of my ideas about gender. I watch how the world responds to a femme cis-woman versus a femme man versus a butch cis-man versus a butch woman. I’m curious about the ways I’ve tried to hide my queerness through codeswitching or modifying my gender expression in certain social situations. Sometimes I have a strong impulse to shave my legs when I visit my family in Alabama. This impulse always intrigues me. Where does that desire come from? Am I trying to mask something? Codeswitch? Placate? Fit in or feel safe?

The characters I write about are often queer, and they engage in conversations and excavate topics that are familiar to me as a queer person. In the story “Bad Dangerous,” the narrator recounts a conversation she had with her best friend, a gay man, where he confesses that he is curious about what it would be like to “experiment” sexually with a woman. This might seem like flipping the script since in mainstream culture sexual experimentation is seen as crossing over from “straight” to “gay.” But that just depends on whose perspective we’re accompanying. I like inverting the expectation like this so that the outside becomes in.

A shortlist of texts, people and histories that have shaped my ideas about gender: Gender Outlaw, Stone Butch Blues, The Argonauts, the work of Dean Spade, Michelle Tea, Wayne Koestenbaum, Eileen Myles, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the illustrated work of Alison Bechdel, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Susan Sontag’s journals, Thomas Page McBee, Danez Smith’s poems, Casey Legler photoshoots, my buddy Cooper Lee Bombardier, the Food 4 Thot podcast, Hello Mr., my group of activist friends in Amsterdam, the drag performances of Miss Pepper Pepper and Stacy Stl Lisa. God, there’s so much. I’m very into the show Pose right now, which just came out and follows a group of queer and trans people in the 1980s New York ball scene.

There’s a section of your website titled Gratitudes. On this page, you’ve collaged the portraits of women—women writers, artists, thinkers, musicians and creators both dead and alive. I love looking at the page. It makes me feel like I’m a part of something. Like those are my foremothers.  Why did you choose to include gratitudes on your website? Why women?

LZ:  The world is loaded with reminders of white men’s contributions to the world, whereas the contributions of people of color and white women have so often been played down, distorted, erased, or never acknowledged in the first place. So the gratitude list is a reminder—to myself and to anyone who stumbles upon my website—that these particular women have written or painted or thought or played things that matter. These women have made my own art possible. None of us creates in a vacuum; all of us inherit tools and materials. To acknowledge this gratefully is more accurate and more ethical, I think, than to perpetuate the myth of the solitary genius who deserves all the credit for his own accomplishments. I use “his” here deliberately: European-American culture has a long and shitty tradition of venerating male artists as lone wolves, self-taught magicians.

GH:  In an interview with David Naimon on his podcast Between the Covers, he asks you about your approach to writing about race, specifically whiteness, as a white person. He also brings up Claudia Rankine and her work on the racial imaginary. Rankine challenges white writers to think about their whiteness while they write—to write whiteness, which is not a neutral, default state, but a color, too. Can you talk more about how you try to bring an awareness to whiteness when writing white characters in a mostly white community?

LZ:  When the Daughter character, Mattie, is stopped at the northern border and accused of trying to enter Canada for an abortion, it begins to dawn on her that because she is white she might be let off with a slap on the wrist, whereas her best friend, Yasmine, who is black, would not have been granted the same indulgence. The white Canadian patrol officer says that Mattie reminds him of his daughters—a seemingly innocent remark that is actually insidious, a symptom of white privilege. What happens if a person does not resemble the family of a law enforcement official? What happens if a person isn’t “famili-ar”?

Genevieve, your fictional worlds are populated by bodies, minds, sexualities, and/or personalities that don’t fit into mainstream society; the so-called normal world’s contours aren’t quite the right shape for them. How does your work construct difference, acceptance, inclusion, and exclusion?

GH:  Strangeness interests me. I’m intrigued by stories about people who are misfit for the world. When the world doesn’t fit you or when you don’t fit the world, you’re forced to imagine a new way of being; ones are inherently more provocative and interesting than the ones fed to us by the power structures above. I wasn’t attempting to comment on or make any specific judgement on the dominant culture in my writing but rather to accurately reproduce the inner lives of people outside of it. By writing from the worldview of a misfit, I hoped to call into question the stabilizing forces in society that we take for granted as normal. What is normal other than something that has been reproduced millions of times until it feels natural? How can understanding different perspectives illuminate how we are all complicit in creating structures that reproduce exclusion?

LZ:  In A Little in Love with Everyone, published earlier this year, you talk about coming of age as a queer person in the American South and not having many—or sometimes any—useful identity-models in popular culture. How is queer identity learned, inherited, practiced in a heteronormative and homophobic culture? Do you see Pretend We Live Here as a text that offers models to your readers?

GH:  Representation can change everything. It models behavior, validates identity, and provides a roadmap to different ways of being. In a society of rigid norms, if there’s no public model for a specific life it can seem like it doesn’t exist. It’s incredibly brave when people carve out and shape new identities. They create something where there was nothing. These people are true catalysts for change. Many of them risk own safety by living their authentic lives. Existing in a homophobic culture means existing in a society bent on disciplining, mainstreaming, and normalizing the body and its desires. Anything outside of the norm gets read as threatening, abhorrent, and a challenge to the system that keeps the powerful in power. Historically queer culture or any marginalized culture gets constructed, shaped and passed down in the shadows—at parties, in poetry collections, in zines, in bedrooms, through music, through gossip and scandal and rumor. This secret archiving of culture and identity helps to preserve stories, legacy, and cultural norms.

I can only hope that Pretend We Live Here offers stories about queer people that are helpful or at least fun to read about for people who are hungry for queer stories. Luckily there are many more queer narratives available in our cultural moment today than there were to me as a young person in Alabama in the 90s. So, this book is adding to a canon that’s already expanded. But I believe it’s important to keep adding new stories and keep widening the aperture of what we can see.

LZ:  Speaking of Alabama: some of these stories, like “God Hospital,” “Cultural Relativism,” and “Scarecrow,” can be read as part of a Southern Gothic tradition. How do you feel about the Southern Gothic label?

GH:  To me, Southern Gothic is a combo of freak literature and the ghost story. It’s an attempt to render the South in all its dark, paranoid, God-obsessed truth and to do it with concern and clarity. Flannery O’Connor said of Southern Gothic literature in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” that “In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” If that is what Southern Gothic literature, at its best, can achieve, then I’m excited to write into its legacy. There are a few queer writers from the South right now that I think are producing brilliant, evocative work. Brandon Taylor and Nick White are two of them. And I’m discovering more all the time. It’s an interesting time to be writing about and from the Deep South.

LZ:  You’ve lived for the past several years in Holland. How has this transnational experience affected your work?

GH:  Living abroad has given me an outsider’s perspective and a distance from the subjects I’m writing about that has been useful. I’ve found that I can write about America more clearly when I’m physically outside of America. I’m forced to imagine the places more viscerally because they are not in front of me. I’m confronted newness all the time—the fashion, the smells, the architecture, the food. It makes the imagination run. I maintain my outsider’s perspective even when writing about Amsterdam or other countries I’m in because though I’m physically in the foreign city, I will never inhabit it the way a person from there will. I will always approach it with distance.

Joan Didion has said: “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.” Leni, I’ve heard you speak about how playing drums in bands informed the way you think about the musicality of writing. I feel this when I read your prose, in the auditory sensations of sentences like these in Red Clocks:

Fat shreds of flesh flap in the wind. “Get it off! Get it off!” yells a boy, pawing at ropes of innards stuck to his chest.

There is a music in these lines, a clean sonic beauty. Can you talk about how sound influences your syntactical choices? Everyone knows that writing has a rhythm but does it, like songs, also have a melody? And if so, what’s yours?

LZ:  The Didion quote reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s maxim: “Style is a very simple matter. It is all rhythm.” Nobody’s ever asked me about melody! I’ve played drums on and off since the age of 20, and I’ve been writing stories since I was seven, so writing came first; but the way I think about music (as a drummer) is connected to my obsession (as a writer) with cadence, interval, and sound. The acoustics of a sentence—the scrape and thump of its syllables, the clatter or slide of its beats—come first.

The “innards” example is from a scene where a dead sperm whale has exploded upon being cut open. I wanted the language to produce the jagged, jarring feel of what was happening on the beach. The sentence “Fat shreds of flesh flap in the wind” has awkward angles; you can’t say it quickly; the repeated “sh” and “fl” are visual and sonic obstacles. In this case my melody is—serrated?

GH:  Do you listen to music when you write?

LZ:  Often, yes. When I was drafting the later stories in Farewell Navigator, I listened to loud, fast, short songs. During The Listeners, I had the Phillip Glass Dracula soundtrack on repeat. But I wrote Red Clocks without music. I couldn’t tell you why.

Gen, many of your characters experience deprivation around food, whether or not self-imposed—including a woman who’s just had throat surgery, a pretend fruitarian on a vegan activist bus, and a girl with rotting teeth. In what ways is hunger important in your work?

GH:  Hunger fascinates me as an aesthetic impulse and a physical symptom. In graduate school, I took a seminar on hunger and became very interested in the literary representations of and engagement with food and anorexia, especially in relationship to deprivation and control.  I’m intrigued by the way hunger shows up in people’s lives, and how it gets manipulated and restrained. Hunger is so animal. It’s a craving that can be unwieldy and ugly and expose our deepest appetites. It’s a place where people try to exert power and control. Hunger is a stand-in for desire and need. In Buddhist thought, desire is seen as the root of suffering. But to desire is one of our most human impulses. The hunger many of my characters possess can be read as a kind of outsized desire they struggle to gain authority over. The deprivation, especially when it is self-imposed, is their attempt to exert control over a life that has left them feeling powerless. This is especially true for the pretend fruitarian on the vegan activist bus. She began her fruit fast to punish herself for a sexual affair she had with her sister’s husband. Her hunger for transgressive sex, in this case, was met with the forced deprivation of another desire.

I found myself annoyed while listening to a recent radio interview with you where your interviewer asked you to defend a phrase you used in Red Clocks. The phrase in question was “the clump,” which is how the pregnant teenage character Maddie refers to her embryo. The male interviewer asked you, essentially, if you could understand how the phrase “the clump” could offend or alienate readers of your book. I thought you answered this question with a lot of integrity, but I was struck by two things. First, that he was applying the same kind of paternalistic disciplining structures to your writing that you are challenging in Red Clocks. Second, that he was folding Maddie’s perspective into your perspective as the author, making them one. Do you remember this moment? If so, did it annoy you, too?

LZ:  Oh, yeah, I remember it. During the taping, I was so nervous (it was my first time ever on NPR) that I didn’t fully register the problem; but later, listening to the show, I couldn’t believe he had asked me that. Twice, in fact—he pressed me. The question itself, as you say, was condescending: “But can you understand how a couple longing for a baby, who just saw something move on the ultrasound screen, wouldn’t call it ‘the clump’?” Sure I can understand it, but what does that have to do with a pregnant 15-year-old character using the word “clump”? Moreover, I don’t control who gets offended or alienated by what I write; if I tried to, I wouldn’t be writing fiction: I’d be writing a campaign speech.

GH:  While talking with The Guardian about her new book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive, writer Kristin J Sollee says, “Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy.” Later she adds, “To me, the primal impulse behind each of these contested identities is self-sovereignty … witches, sluts, and feminists embody the potential for self-directed feminine power, and sexual and intellectual freedom.”

This perspective reminded me so much of Red Clocks—which, I think, contains all three of these subversive roles: witches, sluts and feminists. Does that resonate with you? What was it like to write about witches, sluts and feminists?

LZ:  The self-sovereignty issue is everything. The most urgent issues in our national conversation these days are about bodily autonomy: reproductive rights, #MeToo, incarceration, state-sponsored violence against people of color. Workplace harassment isn’t equivalent to rape, and rape isn’t equivalent to barring access to birth control or passing a “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection” bill. All of them, however, raise the same question: Is a person free to decide what happens to her body? To shout “Yes”—to assert control over the territory of oneself—threatens the patriarchy, as Sollee points out.

Some of the characters in Red Clocks dwell in this question. The Daughter, for instance, can’t understand why a bunch of old walruses on Capitol Hill care what she does with the cluster of cells growing in her uterus. The Biographer is enraged that a medical procedure (in vitro fertilization) is denied to her on the basis of politicians’ fundamentalist religious beliefs.

GH:  Who do you wish would read your book?  

LZ:  First: anyone and everyone! Second: Mike Pence, though it’s safe to say he never will. A friend of mine mailed copies of Red Clocks to Republican senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski; it would be great if they read it before voting on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation. But I’m not holding my breath.

Who do you wish would read yours?

GH:  Of course, I want as many people as possible to read my book, but I especially hope it finds those who need it. That might sound a little vague or woo-woo, but there have been times in my life where the right book has appeared at the right time and the result was nothing short of magic. If my book could be that for someone, the right book at the right time, a book that stirs and transforms someone, that would be the highest honor I can imagine.

Genevieve Hudson is the author of A Little in Love with Everyone, a book on Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (Fiction Advocate, 2018); and the story collection Pretend We Live Here (Future Tense Books, 2018). She received an MFA in creative writing from Portland State University, where she occasionally teaches fiction and gender studies courses. She lives in Amsterdam. Find her at genevievehudsonwriter.com.

Leni Zumas is the author of Red Clocks (Little, Brown, 2018), The Listeners (Tin House, 2012), and Farewell Navigator: Stories (Open City, 2008). She directs the MFA program at Portland State University. Find her at lenizumas.com.

Buried Secrets: An Interview with Jeff Jackson

Cari Luna

In Jeff Jackson’s immersive new novel, Destroy All Monsters, musicians and audiences are terrorized by an epidemic of murder at music clubs. Here the intense emotional connection we find through music when we’re young meets our very real national nightmare of mass shootings. In his excellent debut novel, Mira Corpora, Jackson gave his readers a dreamy punk-rock dystopia through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator. In this new work, he goes deeper and even darker, looking at the way violence can spread like a virus through a community, and asking what meaning music can possibly hold in an era when everything is performance.

Jackson and I recently talked about Destroy All Monsters, music, and the problem of an increasingly surreal reality.

Cari Luna: Destroy All Monsters explores the place of music in our lives, the meaning we assign to it and the identity we draw from it. What role does music—both listening to it, and making it—play in your life, and how does it influence your fiction?

Jeff Jackson: I’ve always been obsessed with music and was lucky to grow up within range of WFMU, the legendary free form radio station that played everything from hardcore punk to Yiddish crooners to Japanese free jazz. That alone was an ear-widening education. A shared love of music has been the foundation of numerous friendships and sometimes served as a sort of emotional shorthand. There are concerts I count among the greatest experiences of my life. For a while, I worked as a freelance critic to support my music habit and co-founded a successful jazz blog that got written up in The New York Times and Wired. Music remains a constant in my life and I’m still eagerly seeking out new bands and sounds, though I have slowed down a bit.

When I’m writing fiction, sometimes I think in terms of music. I wanted my first novel, Mira Corpora, to have the rush of a great rock song – say, something by Sleater-Kinney. I like art that happens faster than you can process it, that delivers a visceral and emotional kick that’s hard to capture with words. For Destroy All Monsters, I imagined the opening of Side B (Kill City) as a sort of speed metal overture, something with a relentless rhythm and enveloping noise.

I also think about the musicality of my writing—the sound of the sentences, the tempo created moving between sections, the overall rhythm of the plot. And music has served as subject material for both my novels. In some ways, DAM was my naïve attempt to put my thoughts about music into one book so I could move past it.

As far as making music, that’s something I unexpectedly fell into after I finished DAM. I suspect it will be like my playwriting, a parallel creative stream whose influence on my fiction percolates at the subconscious level. The fact that I can write words which my bandmates and I transform into actual songs feels surreal—like a form of sorcery.

CL: I’ve wondered how your playwriting and fiction writing interact. You say that the playwriting influences the fiction on a subconscious level, and I imagine that your fiction likewise influences your playwriting. Do you find there’s significant overlap in themes and obsessions between your novels and plays? Do they come at the same universe from different angles? Or is it more a matter of different tools to solve different problems?

JJ: There’s definitely thematic overlap with the plays: The Last Party was inspired by Don DeLillo’s rock and roll novel Great Jones StreetDream of the Red Chamber explored dream states and was performed for a sleeping audience, and Vine of the Dead focused on the power of ritual and possibility of contacting the dead. But those pieces feel like they take place in difference universes than my fiction. Their spaces could only exist in the theater—they’re partly created through video installations and intense lighting, sound, and set design, as well as the presence of the actors.

The plays have also explored subjects that are important to me which haven’t been part of my fiction: Buster Keaton’s films, Henry Darger’s paintings, Laure’s writings, Terry Fox’s sculptural installations, research into plant sentience. The plays often involve shared obsessions with my collaborators, what we find ourselves drawn to as a group.

Although I’m using different tools for fiction, my theater experiences have shown me how many different ways there are to dramatize a scene and structure a story. That’s something I’ve tried to carry over into the novels.

CL: In Destroy All Monsters, the reader is confronted with a nationwide epidemic of murders: musicians are being killed onstage. One character notes that the victims are all mediocre musicians, and that perhaps the murderous fans are acting in defense of music itself. I found this to be, among other things, a compelling reflection on the artist-audience relationship: the complicity and connection inherent in art, and in particular in music, which is such an immediate form. There are also, of course, unsettling echoes of our own current epidemic of mass shootings. Can you talk about what questions or preoccupations led you to link murder and live music?

JJ: One of my preoccupations was how music has lost the ability to move the cultural needle the way it did in previous decades. Even albums by huge mainstream artists get quickly swallowed in the endless noise of the internet – and it’s much worse for less popular acts. There’s still great music being made, but it doesn’t mean what it used to.

I recently saw Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy) talk and he said that he’s writing new songs but has no plans to record them. He feels streaming has transformed people’s habits so radically that they don’t listen with the same attention and he worries the contract between artist and listener may be broken.

But I think music fans also yearn for music to mean something more. Our digital culture has flattened everything so there’s no cultural spark that helps to ignite the powerful sense of community and identity that can form around certain musicians.

That’s one of the frustrations that powers some of the characters in DAM. How can music become meaningful again? There’s the punk idea of wiping the cultural slate clean, but that doesn’t seem possible again. Then there’s the extreme Khmer Rouge idea of achieving Year Zero through a violent culling. That’s obviously a horrifying proposition, but some characters in the novel feel it might be why the epidemic of violence is erupting in music clubs.

In terms of the current epidemic of mass shootings, my notes for DAM go back over a decade. When images of killings in rock clubs initially flashed through my mind, the idea seemed positively surreal. The U.S. has been a violent country for a long time and the book is engaging that, but the speed with which reality has caught up to certain heightened aspects of my story has been alarming.

Photo Credit: Lydia Bittner-Baird

CL: This book as a physical object is compelling, with a novel on one side, and then you flip the book over and there’s a companion novella on the other side. How did the ingenious A-side/B-side format come about? And which came first in the process of writing the book—the A side or the B side?

JJ: The A Side definitely came first. Originally, I thought that was the entire novel. During the extended period when I was looking for an agent and publisher for it, I began to wonder if there might be more to explore. I kept picturing the book as the A Side of a vinyl single—which led me to start imagining a possible flipside. It felt important that the B Side offered something new and didn’t just retell the main story from a different perspective.

Honestly, it was a bit of a crazy undertaking. Several friends warned me that I was taking a project that was already unusual and making it twice as hard to sell. But I couldn’t shake the idea.

As I was writing Side B (Kill City), I thought it might be a companion novella that could be published separately. It took some time to realize both sides belonged together—that they comprised the total book. As it happened, FSG bought Side A without reading the flip side. I was very lucky they later agreed to publish them both under a single title.

CL: I love the moment where two of your main characters, Xenie and Shaun, are talking about B-sides, and Shaun says, “I’m always trying to write A-sides, but when I’m listening, I prefer the B-sides. They’re the tunes where the bands bury their secrets.”

Would that be a fair reflection of your own A- and B-sides in this book and the way they function together?

JJ: I’m glad that moment stuck out for you. While I generally agree with Xenie and Shaun about the musical nature of A-sides and B-sides, my take on the two sides of the novel is more complicated. For instance, I buried more secrets in the A-side My Dark Ages. And I don’t prefer one side to the other.

For me, the two sides feel integral to each other because they activate repetitions and echoes that might have remained dormant. Taken together, they simultaneously underline, erase, and rewrite each other—while still adding up to a new whole. Maybe it’s something like an immersive drone, suggesting a larger narrative that you can’t quite picture but whose shivering shape you can feel in the base of your spine.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, visual artist, and songwriter. His second novel Destroy All Monsters was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in Fall 2018. It received advanced praise from Don DeLillo, Janet Fitch, Dana Spiotta, Ben Marcus, and Dennis Cooper. His novella Novi Sad was published as a limited edition art book and selected for “Best of 2016” lists in Vice, Lit Reactor, and Entropy. His first novel Mira Corpora, published in 2013, was a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and featured on numerous “Best of the Year” lists, including Slate, Salon, The New Statesman, and Flavorwire. His short fiction has appeared in Guernica, Vice, New York Tyrant, and The Collagist and been performed in New York and Los Angeles by New River Dramatists.

Cari Luna is the author of The Revolution of Every Day, which won the Oregon Book Award for Fiction. A fellow of Yaddo and Ragdale, her writing has appeared in Guernica, Salon, Jacobin, Electric Literature, Catapult, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

 

The 27th Letter of the Alphabet: A Conversation With Kim Adrian

Michelle Wildgen

A number of years ago, Kim Adrian wrote an essay for Tin House about red currants and Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” Her task was to write about food in literature and food in her own life, and in the course of exploring the two she told a story about the only time her grandmother served her sweetened currants with biscuits and cream.

I have spent years thinking about that dessert. Perhaps it is because Adrian describes not just the sensory experience of eating but the lingering associations we have with meals that matter to us, the occasional wave of sensation that feels too sudden and engulfing to be mere emotion. Or because the dish of currants is not one of many sweet grandmotherly moments but perhaps the only one. Or perhaps it is because Adrian makes such painterly work of it all: that skimpy bucket of fruit against the peeling paint of a ramshackle house, the misty gray sky and wet green grass, the bright scarlet currants half-hidden in the bushes. I can see the vivid red stain of the fruit and the biscuit, the soft white cream, so clearly that some part of me is convinced I have made and eaten this dish too. But I haven’t. I just read about it and never forgot it. I haven’t been able to muster much interest in uncomplicated food stories since.

Her new memoir, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, is not really about food, but it is about family, and Adrian’s writing remains hypnotic on every subject, a consuming plunge into each and every moment. Recently I interviewed her about her new book over email.

Michelle Wildgen: One of the things I love about your writing is how you use food, often as one point of beauty against a hard backdrop.  Can you talk a bit about how you think about food as a writer, as a reader? As an eater and a maker?

Kim Adrian: In my family, when I was a kid, food was exactly as you describe—“one point of beauty against a hard backdrop.” I’ve never understood exactly why, but as troubled as we were, my family often found a measure of harmony around the dinner table. Food was a Good Fairy in our house. It put a spell over us. Later on, as a young adult, I started cooking with James, my college boyfriend and the man I’d eventually marry. For the two of us, food has always been pure fun, pure play. After college, James worked as a cook at a couple of fancy restaurants, and I worked for a while at a bakery. We really got into it. Every meal was a mini-event. These days, I tend to think about food more philosophically. Partly this came out of working on a blog I created several years called “Food Culture Index” which looks at depictions of food in the arts. Around the same time, I started practicing yoga seriously, and both of these things—the blog and the yoga—led me to think about food in a deeper, more reflective way. Food, of course, is essentially an energy source that allows living things to grow and to sustain life. But it’s also suffering. Even if you don’t eat meat, you’re required to eat something that’s been alive if you want to stay alive yourself. Life sustains life, in other words, but only through death. There’s no way around that equation. To me, that’s an endlessly fascinating idea. One I’ve barely touched as a writer, but I think about it all the time.

MW: The portrait of your mother that emerges in here is obviously complicated and reflects years of slow change in what you knew of her and saw of her. How did you start writing about someone about whom you might have really layered feelings? Did you need to understand your own feelings to some extent in order to write about her, or did you have to write your way into self knowledge and the knowledge of how you see your family?

KA: Definitely I did a lot of personal work—a lot of therapy—along the way, and that helped in the sense that it allowed me to get some distance and perspective on some extremely painful memories and realities, and you need those things—perspective and distance—in order to write about your life in a way that has any chance of being meaningful to other people. But in terms of writing myself into some sort of knowledge…I’m not so sure. I do know this: I spent years trying to write this story, but feeling like I just couldn’t touch it in any real way. Recently I was sorting through a bunch of old files and storage boxes full of stuff I’d saved over the years, including a lot of old work—little vignettes and mini-essays about my family, in particular about my mother and her childhood, her mental illness, her family of origin. It was chilling to find things I wrote so long ago, in college and even in high school, and to see that I was dealing with exactly the same material I explored in The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, only I was writing in this very thin or maybe numb way. I wrote variations on the same themes, the same material for decades. It was frankly obsessive. Very circular and painful. It was only after I’d truly committed myself to writing this memoir that I realized I had to do something seriously different. I had to write differently—more honestly, more plainly. So, in a way you could say I wrote my way into that knowledge. But it felt more like I wrote myself into a corner and then wrote myself out of it.

MW: I don’t think I fully understood how central a nonfiction writer’s self examination can be until I began teaching nonfiction and was so often asking my students to delve into why a story mattered to them, why they think they did this or that, patterns we saw and they did not, what they thought then and what they think now. What’s your experience with this part of writing? Was there any thing, any question, you had to keep re-engaging with?

KA: Honestly, that line of inquiry never opened up anything really significant for me in terms of the work itself. Actually, I think I did too much self-examination in regard to this project. I just maintained this very psychological, very analytical position that if I examined my own motives closely enough, if I parsed the components of the story carefully enough, then the whole thing would reveal its shape to me, like magic, and everything would flow from there. But in the end the only thing that truly helped me get the story down on the page was to leave behind that critical, analysis-oriented mindset, and instead start tackling, much more directly, whatever fragments of the story I could grab onto. Basically, I started paying super close attention to specifics, especially sensory details. Only then did the story actually start showing up on the page. Details like the itchy feeling of a shag rug under my knees, or the way tissues of ice crackled under my feet when I went walking in the woods with my grandfather, or the sound of a baseball bat slicing through the air at the back of my neck… The story was hiding inside details like these. It was a tremendous relief to realize that.

MW: The tone in here is very even–for me it managed not to be castigating whether describing the merely frustrating or the truly abusive–and yet I also never feel you are holding back. Were there pieces of the story that had a big effect on the overall tone, pieces you maybe put in or took out that really shifted things?

KA: Before I realized I needed to write in a more raw way, I wrote a couple of drafts of this memoir that were pretty restricted feeling. I worked extremely hard on those drafts, but my efforts were focused on the sentence- and paragraph-level of things. Finding the right tone was key for me to be able to loosen up and tell the story as a whole. To write in this more expansive way meant taking more risks in terms of being more natural, more real, on the page. Early on, I was afraid this would also mean being personally unlikeable as a narrator. I suspect this is something female writers struggle with more than male writers, generally speaking. This may sound funny, but the tone I wound up with reminds me a little of wearing no make-up. When my sentences were, individually, very pretty, when I tried so hard to make each paragraph “beautiful,” it was as if I’d botoxed my prose. There was no traction. The story simply didn’t advance. It was static. Being willing to work without make-up (so to speak) made an enormous difference. Using a less self-conscious, more unadorned voice was scary, but it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that it was also incredibly liberating. It allowed me to write a lot of scenes I’d previously avoided. And those scenes opened huge windows onto the story. Scenes like the “booger board” in the laundry room, for instance. Once I understood the freedom this more straightforward approach allowed, it seemed only common sense to retain that tone for the entire book because I’ve never been interested in manipulating this story through things like tone, as you might do in a novel, for instance, or in a more plot-driven type of memoir.

MW: I’m thinking of hard it is to take the stew of associations we have about our families and make them into a story for a reader who lacks all the layers of backstory the writer knows. Did it you run into the issue of you thinking you clearly said something to your reader, who thought you were saying something different?

KA: Absolutely. In the early stages, I was often terrified that readers would misinterpret what I was saying, especially in the beginning sections of the book. This is partly why those early drafts were static. It’s why I revised individual paragraphs as if my life depended on it. Without realizing it, I was trying to get the whole backstory out at once, which, of course, is impossible when you’re using words. We write as we speak, word by word by word, and we read that way, too. It takes time to progress through a story. It’s not like a painting, for which you can get at least a rough overall impression at a single glance. But I kept trying to make paragraphs that functioned like paintings by cramming as much information into one spot as I could, like, “Oh, my mother’s crazy, but she’s also charming, she’s cunning and tricky, but also funny, she’s cruel, but also super intelligent, she’s degraded, but also beautiful.” Writing like this is homogenizing. It resists the natural linearity of prose, and leaves very little work for the reader to do. Eventually, I understood that I had to trust my readers to grasp the nuances of the story on their own steam, and that that process might take a long time. It might take the entire length of the book. Even now, when I flip through the first several chapters of this memoir, I feel anxious, because I know that only part of the story is there, and there are a lot of bits early on that seem very ugly, very harsh. Readers who stick with the story will eventually understand those same sections in more layered and complex way. But it will take time. That’s just the way stories work. They’re embedded in time, entangled with it.

MW: What were the biggest surprises for you in writing and publishing this book?

KA: The biggest surprise by far was how I felt when I realized I’d finished it. It was as if an enormous room had opened up inside my brain. There was suddenly so much space, where before there had been this story and the struggle to tell it. I still have that feeling of spaciousness.

MW: What do you kind of wish you would be asked about, and what would you gladly never answer again?

 KA: The kinds of questions we think up ourselves are the kinds of questions we don’t have the answers to, so anything I can think of as a question for myself would probably be pretty annoying for me to actually try to answer. On the second score, I’d gladly never again answer the question of what the “takeaway” of my memoir is. I know that’s important information for someone who’s trying to figure out whether or not they want to read a book, but I think the author is the wrong person to ask. A writer’s whole task is expansion. Writing a book is expanding an idea, or a range of ideas. Stating a book’s takeaway is exactly the opposite.

Kim Adrian’s first book, Sock, is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series. Her essays and short stories have appeared in O Magazine, Tin House, Agni, the Gettysburg Review, and many other places. She is the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, and she is currently at work on a novel based on the life and writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann. 

Michelle Wildgen is an executive editor at Tin House Magazine and the author of three novels, most recently Bread and Butter. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and New York Times Book Review, O, the Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Best Food Writing, and various journals and anthologies. 

About the Cover, Issue 77:
Pablo Gerardo Camacho’s SSDOS

Jakob Vala

Our cover artist, Pablo Gerardo Camacho, thinks his fascination with snakes may have started with his mother’s phobia of them. He believes beauty is something to be feared and honored and he sees snakes as representations of this sentiment. He says, “All beauty should and must be [treated] with respect and love” or it “could kill you.”

Unreliable Narrators, Unreliable Realities: An Interview with Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Tara Isabel Zambrano

The stories in Chaya Bhuvaneswar‘s debut story collection White Dancing Elephants probe the space created by betrayal, disappointment, and rage in the most intimate of human relationships. Perhaps the most striking quality of this collection is the quiet assurance, the matter-of-fact boldness and authority of Chaya’s voice, which is able to create distinct worlds that spotlight women of color in their many forms and address larger topics of sexual assault and racial discrimination.

In anticipation of her reading at Mother Foucault’s (Portland, OR) on September 29th, where she will be joined by fellow Tin House Workshop alumni, Genevieve Hudson, Chaya and I exchanged a series of emails where we discussed politics, religion, and how the two influence her writing process.

Tara Isabel Zambrano: Was there a particular story that you felt in some way “triggered” the writing of the entire book? And can you comment on the phenomenon of “linked stories” vs. a more disparate “collection” and where you see each type of story collection going, in the future?

Chaya Bhuvaneswar: I like the idea of a single story ‘sparking’ other stories, and in my next collection, which looks to be a set of linked stories about a couple in an interracial marriage, I would definitely say one story triggered others in a literal sense. Examining one event can trigger a story about another, in a set of connected characters’ lives, and this was what I loved about one of my favorite “linked collections” in recent memory, ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’, by Jennifer Egan. What is neat, though, about a more disparate collection, where themes rather than characters recur — in my case, themes of violence perpetrated against women and people of color, but also perpetrated by us, against each other — is how writing one story can sort of empower you to write another. Once I wrote ‘Talinda’ it was easier, somehow, to finish the draft of ‘A Shaker Chair,’ a story that had sat in my “drafts file” for years, as if encased in amber.

In this, I’m also inspired by Maile Meloy, who’s written both linked story collections and really disparate but wonderful stories piled together, like in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. I love the idea of stories being linked not in a literal sense, by representing different moments in time in a few characters’ lives, but rather being linked by an emotional resonance. And if there’s one theme that drove me to put my stories together in White Dancing Elephants it’s really the impulse to look deeply into “survivorship”, to resist simplifications or “noble” stories about what that looks like. To respect how stunningly calculating, cruel, rapacious and needy women, queer women, people of color can be toward ourselves and each other when we’re allowed to be honest. Just like white people – we’ve got the full range of human emotions and motivations. Sadly, even in 2018, that needs to be said.

TIZ: Can you speak to the problems or opportunities posed by writing fiction about fraught topics such as sexual assault and racial discrimination? Do you think fiction offers something that other modes of writing, like journalism or memoir, don’t and if so, what?

CB: I appreciate the framing of this question to allow me to give a shout out to some important, I think overlooked memoirs and journalistic pieces about the experiences of harassment.

I think it is really interesting that journalists like Ronan Farrow, a white male, have been valorized so much in the #MeToo movement, while women of color like Tarana Burke, whose role was obscured for so long though she started this movement decades before white allies like Farrow, Alyssa Milano, and others raised their voices in support. Another amazing woman of color who’s written about various forms of violence she experienced and survived is Gabrielle Union.

These are important examples of how journalism and memoir can tell certain aspects of these stories of violence and survival. I’d also recommend The Scalpel and the Silver Bear for a perspective specific to women of color in medicine and the enormous discrimination overcome, at least in part, by the first-ever Native American woman surgeon. It’s a “wow” read personally meaningful to me because 1) I went to the same med school she did and 2) some of the residents she trained, including white men, were by that time, over two decades later, very senior supervisors in the surgery rotation I did and they were really good to me, truly nurturing, and they talked about Lori Alviso Alvord of the Navajo Nation with real respect. They had known her up close and experienced her as a human being with a humanity fully equal to and as immediate as theirs.

And that’s what I believe is essential to fiction. That we have a way to make someone’s subjectivity immediate, transparent, real. It no longer becomes theoretical or a matter for “argument” that someone feels pain. We feel what the other person, the character, feels. I know I don’t consciously “try” for that in my fiction, only that I try to see a given character as clearly as I can, in the hope that others see that character too. I think when this works, the reader comes away with a different feeling about abstract concepts of “discrimination” and the whole thing becomes a lot more visceral and gripping. Like that moment in Celeste Ng’s beautiful novel, Everything I Never Told You, when the two children of an interracial marriage, out with their parents at a grocery store, minding their business, trying to have an ordinary day, are suddenly subjected to the violence of an elderly white woman accosting them with a racial slur. That is what our lives are like. That’s what aggression feels like. If we as writers can make it so readers don’t forget that, so readers actually flinch on behalf of “the Other”, those children – things can change.

TIZ: I was in 7th grade in Ujjain (191 kilometers from Bhopal), India when the Gas tragedy struck. The hospitals in my town were filled with ailing and dying families. You have captured the commotion and horror of that night so well in your story “Neela: Bhopal, 1984.” Can you tell me more about the writing of that story?

CB: I thank you for that perspective since you were “there”, and I feel so grateful that that story somehow avoided the potential voyeurism and exploitation of talking about a remote experience of suffering — and just became a story of a little-known fact. That child laborers and other people living in Bhopal without shelter were among the most severely-affected victims of the gas leak and resulting tragedy.

Homelessness is something that’s always gripped me, as a topic. I had all sorts of conflicts with my parents – cross-cultural, intergenerational, and perhaps the most subtle one that I’m only appreciating now – of class. Dorothy Allison has talked about her family’s ambivalence about her academic success. I think my father’s opposition to my becoming a doctor had a similar lineage – pride but also fear. A complex mix toward which I am so much more sympathetic to now that I’ve become a psychiatrist as well as a parent. But in the frequent storms of my growing up, I found a real refuge in my room. It was my hideout. I didn’t do that much with posters except for the James Dean ones that, for whatever reason, classmates who worried I wasn’t interested enough in boys yet (!) decided to give me. I didn’t have a computer either. But I had shelves where I stashed library books, and I had notebooks and pens, and I was set. I had safety, a home. I was my home.

One time, during an especially terrible argument, I ran out of the house barefoot, escaping all the way down a whole block. But then I came back, and I knew I could come back. I knew I wouldn’t be vulnerable to the elements. And after that, I often imagined what it would be like to be homeless, and became committed to trying to do something to help. In college, I organized an art show of a homeless artist’s work, Millind Paranjape, a brilliant immigrant who’d had the onset of symptoms of schizophrenia after he came to the US. I became part of a network of activists, health care providers, volunteers doing things like running soup kitchens, supporting the New Haven Legal Aid’s housing unit, and, during my medical training, working actively with Health Care for the Homeless.

In Bhopal, as in most Indian manufacturing centers, there is a population of millions of bonded child laborers, age 5-14, who are working without wages to pay off debts incurred by their parents. They work 12-14 hours a day instead of going to school. While more progressive laws have made child bonded labor illegal (dating back to the 1970s), it’s an abhorrent practice that continues in modern India — alongside the shiny, happy Indian Bollywood industry that has given us lovely consumable stars like Priyanka Chopra, who couldn’t be more modern or progressive, right?

But make no mistake about it — the millions of children working under conditions like those described in my story, with the same vulnerability to current environmental and corporate conditions that could make another Bhopal tragedy entirely possible – these children are still being exploited. By recent estimates, there were at least 25 million bonded child laborers, most of whom live and sleep outdoors given that they earn practically no wages and are “working off” a debt.

It was already terrible. Imagine, now, how it will be with even minimal environmental safeguards removed or loosened by the current administrations’ refusal to support global awareness and initiatives, and backing out of the Paris accord.

TIZ: This is a book that beams in Indian culture, Renaissance Portugal, and postcolonial landscapes. You have the most skillful touch in calibrating scene and dialogue, rich prose and sharp humor, complexity within characters.  Can you talk about your approach to craft? Did that approach, or process, change through the course of putting together and revising this story collection?

CB:  The one thing that changed in the course of writing the stories in the collection has been my ability to trust in a process. I definitely went through a phase, about ten years ago, where I lost faith in myself as a writer. I just felt like it was unrealistic to try to do clinical work, be a parent, be a decent partner, be any kind of friend – and write. I also felt kind of intimidated by a weird pressure to not only succeed at all these things but not experience any doubt, sense of setbacks, adversity, pain, etc. Like not only to succeed but also never have growing pains in the process of trying to create something, including creating a life.

That pressure, to not only make things “look” effortless, but actually experience life as “effortless” is what has changed, and made life a whole lot easier. It’s supposed to be hard sometimes. A lot of the time. It’s supposed to take effort. It’s OK on some level to be working all the time as long as there are delineated times when I’m not working but spending time with my loved ones. It’s OK to be working late hours, after the kids go to bed, to make sure I finish my medical notes, and also OK to wake up some mornings at 4 or 5 to write the beginning of a story and then not finish till weeks later or maybe finish it that night. It’s OK not to know how it is all possible. It’s part of the fun of it. Same with not knowing how a story will progress or how you’ll finish it. It’s Ok not to know.  To just find out.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Lit, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review and elsewhere. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. Her debut collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS will be released on Oct 9 2018, by Dzanc Books and is available for pre-order now. She has received a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Sewanee Writers Conference scholarship and Henfield award for her writing. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 for upcoming readings and events.

Tara Isabel Zambrano works as a semiconductor chip designer in a startup. Her work has been published in Tin House Online, The Cincinnati Review, Slice, Bat City Review, Yemassee, The Minnesota Review and others. She is Assistant Flash Fiction Editor at Newfound.org and reads prose for The Common. Tara moved from India to the United States two decades ago and holds an instrument rating for single engine aircraft. She lives in Texas.

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Tayari Jones

THSTAFF

Tayari Jones may have rocketed to new heights of fame with her latest novel, An American Marriage, but she’s long been recognized as one of the most important storytellers of our time. In addition to An American Marriage, which is a New York Times bestseller and an Oprah’s Book Club pick, she’s the author of Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow. Tayari has been honored with a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, an NEA Fellowship, and many more.

If you’ve read An American Marriage, then you know what Tayari Jones can do within the format of a letter, how much power and poignancy she packs into a single missive. So of course, we invited her to be this month’s letter-writer-in-residence at Ace Hotel New York. As part of our Dear Reader micro-residency, we invited Tayari to spend a night at Ace and, while there, pen a letter to an unknown audience. What she wrote has been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each hotel room. We caught up with Tayari to talk the breathless anticipation of writing, the joy of manual typewriters, and why she wants to correspond with Harper Lee.

TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be?  And why?

TAYARI JONES: I’d love to correspond with Harper Lee. After reading Go Set a Watchman, I understood why she never published another novel after To Kill A Mockingbird. She must have felt horribly misunderstood to be famous for a book that lionized Atticus Finch. From everything I’ve read, she was haunted by her own father’s descent into racism and hate and tried to sort it out on the page. The editors didn’t like the ugly stuff and instead urged her to publish only the part that represented her wide-eyed childish love of her idealistic father. And then that sentimental view became her identity. I think I would like to have been her pen pal so we could talk about other things, so she could get out from under the weight of her own complicated success.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

I like to feel the same breathless anticipation writing a book as I feel reading it. I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience for myself by mapping out the characters’ trajectories and then following a clearly marked road. Good novels don’t come with google maps or GPS. I write to explore and I am often stunned by my destination.

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

When I am writing I don’t think about audience—I need to be intimate with my characters, much in the way that a marriage is between lovers, with no studio audience. However, I do think of audience when I am revising because revision, for me, is all about legibility.

I am not often surprised by who is drawn to my work, but I am frequently saddened by people who confess to have loved my writing despite our surface differences. I’m glad the novels connect across lines of race/gender/sexuality etc., but it breaks my heart that this connection comes as such a surprise.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

The Darkest Child by Dolores Phillips.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process? 

I like to compose on manual typewriters. There is something so satisfying about making such a joyous ruckus as I put the words onto the page. Also, my Smith Corona is not connected to the internet.

Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York.

To Thicken and Complicate through Linear Time: A Conversation with Laura van den Berg

Kyle Minor

One thing I’ve long admired about Laura van den Berg is her careful attention to the complications of near-inarticulable meaning that begin to be made at the level of surfaces. Throughout her career these choices have been exercised through sentence-making, word choice, constellations of texture and color, all the sensory and syntactical registers that add up to the inflecting feeling we call tone.

 So it should have been no surprise that when I emailed her my questions in Cambria (clearly the wrong lettering scheme for a discussion like ours), although she did not rebuke my choice of font in her reply, she did quietly re-set everything in Garamond (just right.)

 The subject of our interview is The Third Hotel, which is already being regarded as her breakthrough novel only a few weeks into its release. It reads like an ungodly marriage of the prose sensibilities of Javier Marias and Pitch Dark-era Renata Adler, plus a little Guillermo del Toro making trouble in the nearby dimness.

 At my house, there is a shelf of New York Review Books Classics. Many of these books have a special quality that seems outside of time, and when this happens, it takes the reader a few hours to reorient himself in the ordinary world. That’s the way I felt finishing The Third Hotel, too, and it made me wonder how it’s possible that a writer who can do this can also be a person of my generation, breathing the same air, drinking the same water. When I was younger, I used to believe that literature was some kind of miracle, and for a couple of hours, reading Laura’s novel, I briefly believed again.

Kyle Minor: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “Research Notes and Acknowledgments” section quite like the one at the end of The Third Hotel. It is an extraordinary catalog of debts to literary and film sources, including Alejandro Brugués’s Juan de los Muertos, which you say is the inspiration for your own Revolución Zombi, not to mention all varieties of Cuban and Latin American and gender and genre cinema studies books, Zora Neale Hurston, John Berger, Mark Kurlansky, and most of all Jean Echenoz’s novel Piano and Cortazar’s story “Blow Up,” which itself has a long history of informing other works of narrative art. I was thinking about other books-made-of-books, such as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which don’t do this. I wondered about your choice, which seems at least a political choice and at most a moral reckoning with what it is novelists do.

Laura van den Berg: This is the longest research note I’ve ever written for a book, partly because The Third Hotel required more expansive research and partly because influence came from so many different and varied directions—other literary works; scholarly texts; films; lectures. I was seeking some of this material out, so I was tracking the accumulation of influence a little more consciously than I might otherwise. In some instances—with Juan de los Muertos or Carol Clover’s scholarship on horror films, say—the work of others left a visible handprint on my own pages. Which is to say that anyone who has seen Juan de los Muertos or read Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws is likely recognize the influence of that source material. As such, it would have felt strange, dishonest even, to not cite those more visible influences openly. Also, research notes for other writers’ novels have pushed me to seek out work I might not have otherwise—and I hope that might prove true for some readers of TTH. I love receiving and, in turn, offering reading/watching lists.

In other instances, the influences are more oblique—i.e. the idea of a camera lens revealing what is not visible to the naked eye, a plot point central to “Blow Up.” In its earliest stages, TTH was written as a call-and-response to Piano, which is in three parts, as is TTH, and concerns a French pianist who is killed in the first part; spends the second part in various stages of limbo; and then, in the third part, is repatriated by the higher-ups of the afterlife back to Paris. He has been made unrecognizable, so his sister passes right by him on the street, but there is exactly one person from his former life who does recognize him—which upsets the order of things terribly. I got the idea to write a related premise, but from the opposite point-of-view, from that of the living person who recognized the dead. In time, TTH evolved in radically different directions, took on a life of its own. I don’t even think readers familiar with Piano would detect trace elements of Echenoz’s book, which is to say that I didn’t feel I was under an ethical obligation to cite Piano. Nevertheless, it was partly because of Piano that I got the idea for TTH in the first place and that’s another role that acknowledgements and research notes can play—not just a citation of source material, but an opportunity to thank the artists, most of whom I will likely never meet, who helped me along the way.

KM: At the beginning of the book, we get an important line the protagonist does not say, which is: “I am experiencing a dislocation of reality.” (This might well be an ars poetica for the collected works of Laura van den Berg.) In context, it initiates a kind of double-vision the novel undertakes for book-length. The protagonist has come to Havana as a proxy for a dead film professor husband, so the dislocation begins in time and space and existential separation, but as the novel moves along, it deepens in ways that mirror what the works of art in the book are doing. How do you think about a project like this, at the outset, and as you move through it? Do you have a theory of this kind of book which precedes its making, or is this a kind of weirdness you have to write your way into?

LvdB: I go in with ideas, such as writing a call-and-response to Piano, but those starting points almost always turn out to be scaffolding. They help the initial structure get built, but then it’s critical that the scaffolding be demolished. This book went through so many different incarnations and evolutions, like a snake shedding its skin, so virtually all the material that remains now I wrote my way into, discovered mid-journey or even-late journey. There were many instances where I was just as surprised by a turn in plot as Clare.

In practical terms, when I’m working on a novel I try and keep up as consistent a practice as possible—working every day ideally, though I take “working” to also mean thinking and making notes and reading connected material (or watching horror films!). I think it is critical to stay in close contact with the project, so I am putting new words down, progressing in that way, and also so that the subconscious stays activated, as the most important material, I find, rises from that more mysterious and submerged realm. There are whole sequences in the book that I dreamed, for example, but that’s a level of engagement that can’t be willed and  my mind won’t go there if I spend too much time away, disconnected from the fictive world.

There is also always material I am avoiding, but I don’t know that going in. The subplot concerning Clare’s father would be one such example. The father was like a grain of sand in the corner of my eye for a long time—I tried to ignore it until I couldn’t.

KM:  Did you visit Havana, or international film festivals?

LvdB: Yes. I went to Havana three times while working on the book. One of those trips was to attend the Festival of New Latin American Cinema, the same festival that Clare travels to in the novel. I watched four or five movies a day and lurked around press events trying to look like I had a reason to be there. Tried to be a bit like Clare, in other words, though I have yet to lick a mural. Havana is a uniquely complicated city, and holds so many complicated histories, and I knew it would be a monumental challenge to set much of the story there—especially since I’ve never been anything else but a visitor, and consequently my perspective was always going to be incomplete and comprised. Much humility was in order, in short. In the end, my strategy was to focus on several small ecosystems within the larger landscape of Havana, places where I felt I had a point of entry—the film festival, the world of hotels. Also, I had never been to a film festival before, international or otherwise, and realized at a certain point that I had little idea of how to describe one. Many (if not most) of the descriptive details of the festival and the city itself came from things I saw or did or overheard during those three trips.

KM: In a book like this, surfaces and metaphor have a strange relationship. Necessarily, they intermingle. The reader is made to think, from very early on, about the appearance of the husband in the white linen suit, to the wife only five weeks bereaved, so that right away the book is working on us intellectually (look at what she’s doing with loss, love, and memory!) at the same time as we’re giving ourselves over to the convergences of the real and the surreal. There are even passages where the book explicitly engages some of these questions, as when the protagonist is reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January, which unsettles her because of “the hidden things she sensed quivering under the surface. Subtext, she supposed this was called, and she did not care for it.”

LvdB: The “the hidden things quivering under the surface” are central to the novel’s structure and movement, in a couple of different ways—there are certain realities Clare does not confront until late in the book, realities she has been avoiding strenuously. I was thinking too about surfaces in respect to both horror films and travel. Speaking generally, the way things appear to be versus the terrifying reality lying in wait just beneath the surface is often foundational to horror. And with travel, there is a chapter early in the novel that recounts Clare’s travels as a sales rep for elevator technologies. Many of the tactile details were pulled from my own travels—I was on the road a lot when I drafted that section—including finding a (fake) fingernail in a hotel room drawer, sitting pretty on top of a bible (!). Transient spaces like hotels and airplanes ask us to make a pact with surfaces, I think, to believe in the lie of them (the bedspread is clean; those “homey” touches actually feel something like home). Yet there are moments, such as the fingernail moment, where the surface falters and a whole little world of strange opens up.

KM: Along these lines, I was also thinking about how much the reading (and film watching) life informs the point of view of this book. This isn’t a thing we see as much in novels as I believe probably happens in the lives of people who read and write novels. I was thinking of the South African novelist Zoë Wicomb, who sometimes constructs the points of view of all her characters out of their reading habits, or of the Richard Powers story “To the Measures Fall,” in which a book changes over the course of a lifetime not because the book has changed, but rather because life has rung such changes on the reader.

LvdB: In my most powerful reading and viewing experiences, I felt like I was being consumed by the page or screen, that my own self was collapsing into that of the book or film, that I was outside of time. I love Yoko Tawada’s work and The Naked Eye is my favorite of her books. In that novel, the narrator travels to Germany for a youth conference, and is promptly kidnapped and held in captivity by a German man. In the aftermath, she becomes obsessed with Catherine Deneuve films; eventually, the stories unfolding on the screen and the narrator’s inner reality collapse into one. The corporal fades and the fictional takes over. I find that movement so compelling in The Naked Eye and had that novel in mind as I worked on The Third Hotel. There is the film Clare travels to the festival to see; there is the film reel of memory; there are several films being made in secret. I was interested in what might happen if the real-real bled into these various “screens.” And horror tends to be a very self-referential genre (even the title of Juan de los Muertos is rich with reference to other zombie films), so in that spirit it was fun to imbed references to certain films and books that were influential.

 KM: I was thinking about the mysterious qualities that attach to numbers. I don’t know anything about hotels in Havana, or if there is a Third Hotel in Havana. But the name itself, and the way it manifests in the title, already presents a power akin to what Graham Greene offered with The Third Man, or to Room 237 in The Shining.

LvdB: Yes! I was definitely thinking about the uncanny power of numbers in horror films, and of The Third Hotel as both a literal place and also as a state of mind. Clare refers to TTH as such because she gets lost and asks for directions at two other hotels before she finds her intended destination, so her serpentine path to reach the hotel is, to my mind, an early marker of her bewilderment and of the unexpected twists and turns her journey will take, both externally and internally. I based the descriptions of the TTH on a casa (a privately owned home or bed & breakfast) that I stayed in the first time I went to Havana. The casa was at the top of a street right by the University; if you climbed up to the roof you could see straight down to the sea.

KM: The novel has a very interesting relationship with time. There is a chronologically linear throughline, but there is also great freedom with memory time, film time, something akin to dreamtime. Over the course of the novel, this thicket of time and memory seems to grow more dense, and the substance of the density increasingly seems to be the stuff of the marriage.

LvdB: In Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter makes a case for how drama in fiction does not rise from the event itself, but from the material surrounding the event. In respect to time, my ambition was to hold the novel to a tight clock in the immediate, and then to allow that “surrounding material” to thicken and complicate as Clare moved through linear time. Also, time can become very dense and winding when one is traveling alone. Whether I’m out of the country solo or just on a bus or a train for a few hours, thoughts tend to float up to the surface that simply would not have had the space to emerge had I been in the company of others. Your usual defenses are more porous, and so feeling unmoored, like you really can’t find your bearings, can be a little more unsettling.

KM: There is an implicit geographical-historical layer to the novel that is made explicit late in the book, with the news delivered off-hand that “in the 1700s the British had traded Havana to the Spanish, who had lost control of the capital during the Seven Years’ War, in exchange for Florida—an entire state for a single city.”

LvdB: TTH is set in 2015, at a time where Havana was freshly popular with American tourist markets, and that got me thinking about circularity, given that Havana has been popular with American tourists at a number of different moments in history, as far back as the early 1900s (a trend connected to the US occupation). So the way patterns repeat—for international relations, for countries, for individuals, for art forms—was definitely on the brain.

KM: I wanted to ask you about the novel’s last line, which is among the most striking last lines I’ve ever read: “That night the moon looked like it was going to kill them all.”

LvdB: I knew early on that line would be the closer (it came to me while I was staring up at a giant crimson moon that appeared to be getting bigger and bigger the longer I looked at it) but I had no idea why or how or anything. I told a few people that would be my last line and they asked How do you figure? and I could not make a “logical” case for the line at all. No one could have talked me out of it, either. I just had a feeling. Actually this gets at one of the hardest things about teaching, I think, encouraging students to hone and honor their intuition, even while knowing that their intuition will mislead them at times. But sometimes you really do just know. With writing, I find moments of blazing certainty to be so exceedingly rare that when they do happen I don’t ask too many questions, I just hang on.

Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk.

Writing the Disappearing World: A Conversation with Abby Geni

Liz von Klemperer

Abby Geni’s The Wildlands begins when a category five tornado hits the small town of Mercy, Oklahoma. The plot only accelerates from there. The book swept me into the disjointed psychology of a child convinced to perpetrate acts of eco-terrorism, a culture in which ideology is taken to the extreme. Real urgency animates these pages, as Geni tackles head on the devastating effects of climate change and the realities of living in the anthropocene. Her characters are vibrant and emotionally raw as they navigate a world that is disappearing, its future uncertain for both human and animals alike. Geni and I talked via email about the unique capacity of humans to destroy, the amorality of childhood, and, somehow, finding a sliver of hope for the future.

***

LvK: Your first two books, The Last Animal and The Lightkeepers, involve the classic dichotomy of human versus nature: humans navigating natural environments and the creatures that populate them. What draws you to this theme? What about this concern has sustained you through so many projects?

AG: To a certain extent, I think it’s hardwired. We can’t choose our passions; they choose us. I’ve always been fascinated by the natural world, and the more I learn, the more I can see that there is to learn. Nature is like a fractal that way—infinitely complex and filled with patterns that recur in microcosms and macrocosms. There’s always more to discover.

I do think that most authors, in one way or another, write about what it is to be human. We all want to understand and explore what we are. Some writers look at humanity through the lens of love or war or socioeconomics or humor or religion. For me, the natural world is the lens that makes the most sense. I tend to see humans as a part of a greater ecosystem, and I’m interested in the ways we are like and unlike the rest of the animal kingdom: our instincts, our sentience, our use of language, our technology, our capacity for memory. In many ways, we are unique, and our uniqueness is causing exponential change for our species and our planet.

LvK: The Trump administration has not been good for the environment. Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has cut funding for climate change research and clean energy programs. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has even removed references to “climate change” from its strategic plan, despite the fact that 2017 was one of the most expensive hurricane years in modern U.S. history. How have these realities influenced your writing, if at all? Has your approach to writing about the environment changed since Trump was elected?

AG: Climate change is always on my mind. Part of what drives me to write about the natural world is the fact that it’s disappearing before our eyes. In my first two books, I found this issue too hard to write about directly. It’s a dark thing to focus on, so I tried to talk about it obliquely by celebrating nature in my work and shining a light on how nature and humanity are inextricably interconnected.

In The Wildlands, though, I’m writing explicitly about what’s happening to the environment. It’s more urgent than ever. The changes are coming faster than scientists predicted, and the government’s lack of response is terrifying. The Wildlands talks in no uncertain terms about the fact that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction on our planet. During the previous mass extinctions on Earth—caused by meteors or volcanoes or natural disasters—up to 90% of all life on earth perished. It’s happening again right now, and this time we’re the cause.

LvK: Tucker is engaged in what he would describe as vigilante justice, and what the outside world would categorize as eco-terrorism. We mostly see Tucker through his kid sister Cora’s POV, and her still evolving sense of right from wrong invites the reader to entertain Tucker’s worldview in which he is justified, for example, in killing the owner of a factory farm. I loved engaging with the amorality of Cora’s child perspective. How did you mine and developed this voice?

AG: I’m delighted to hear that! I love Cora so much. The fact that she’s young enough to be swayed by Tucker’s extremism makes the whole situation more dangerous—she’s not just participating in his violence, she’s also converting to his cause. In writing Cora, I went back to my own vaguely amoral childhood. All kids have a ruthless streak. It takes a while for most of us to develop an ethical framework. And I have a five-year-old son, so as I was writing The Wildlands I was also marveling at the bluntness and curiosity and openness of my young child.

Charismatic, manipulative people like Tucker are difficult for most adults to hold their own against. Kids don’t stand a chance against the force of that kind of personality. In Tucker, I wanted to write a character who is right in his beliefs but wrong in his actions. He has the facts, he’s fighting for animal rights, and he talks about justice and saving the world. How could Cora not fall under his spell? How could she discern what’s right about his cause but wrong about his choices? Honestly, I agree with Tucker sometimes myself. I’m not on board with his methodology or his violence, but his sense of urgency is something I share.

LvK: There are so many scenes in The Wildlands in which your characters come face to face with animals at various places on the domestication spectrum. Darlene encounters rats escaped from Jolly Cosmetics in the supermarket, Cora hears a rattlesnake near the trailer, and Tucker is comes face to face with a polar bear he released from the zoo. Have you had striking experiences with animals, wild or domesticated, that informed the writing of these encounters? Have you ever had an experience with somewhere like The Wildlands, a place that is unclaimed, uninhabited, untouched by humans? What is the closest you’ve gotten?

AG: Oh, that’s a great question. And this is exactly why it’s so wonderful to be a fiction writer. I don’t like to travel, and most of my adventures come from reading and research. I like to write at my own desk in my own home looking out my own window into my own garden. The landscape of my imagination is entirely different from the landscape of my personal life. In my writing, I’m always traveling to wild places, completely off the map, having incredible adventures. In real life, I’m a homebody.

Oddly enough, the closest I’ve gotten to wild beasts and untamed places is in my dreams. I once read that children under the age of six often dream about animals. It’s something most people outgrow as they age. Apparently, I never did. I dream almost every night about walking the savannah among lions, flying with albatrosses, or swimming with giant squid.

LvK: The tornado is devastating to the McCloud family on a personal level, but it also signals a massive change to a particular culture. Your characters are deeply rooted in the area and its history, as Darlene feels a kinship with her ancestors the Sooners, the first white settlers to occupy Oklahoma in 1889. What is your connection to Oklahoma? How did you delve into the landscape?

AG: My husband is an Okie, and he has a wonderful extended family who have welcomed me into their homeland. I love visiting with them, and I’m often struck by how their day-to-day experience is different from mine. I was raised by liberal hippies in a suburban haven, with no tornadoes or dust bowls or rattlesnakes or Republicans anywhere. Whenever I travel down to Oklahoma, I am struck all over again by the parched terrain, the dryness of the air, the cuisine, the slang and drawl, the road signs, the tornado warnings, the oil derricks, the endless parade of pickup trucks, and the deep, complicated history of the place.

Some people say “Write what you know,” but I would much rather write what I learn. The more I learned about Oklahoma, the more I wanted to capture it on the page.

LvK: The epilogue ends the novel on an optimistic note, and the Wildlands become a reality in the form of a nature preserve overseen by Cora. Why was it important for the book to end on this hopeful note, where creatures of varied levels of domestication and human influence can live in harmony?

AG: We need hope. We need to look at the problems of the world with an optimistic, analytical mindset, trying to solve these issues, rather than be crushed by the weight of them. It’s too easy in this day and age to become paralyzed by panic and sorrow. If we’re going to make the changes we need, we have to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

This is where my particular worldview is helpful for me. Again, I tend to think of human beings in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom, and what I see brings me comfort. As a species, we are unique in our capacity to destroy, but also in our ability to innovate and adapt. There’s still time for us to right the ship. I wanted to end The Wildlands on a hopeful note because I have to believe there is still hope. I want my son to grow up in a good world.

Abby Geni is the Chicago-based author of the forthcoming novel The Wildlands (September 2018), The Lightkeepers, winner of the 2016 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Fiction and the Chicago Review of Books Awards for Best Fiction, and The Last Animal, an Indies Introduce Debut Writers Selection and finalist for the Orion Book Award. Geni is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Iowa Fellowship. Her website is www.abbygeni.com.

Liz von Klemperer is a writer, and acts as the online fiction editor for the Columbia Journal. Her reviews and interviews have been featured in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Lambda Literary, and Full Stop. Visit her at lizvk.com.

That Garden of Certainty: A Conversation with R.O. Kwon

Kyle Minor

R.O. Kwon has been around a long time, publishing beautiful work in literary magazines and showing herself in settings public and private to be a formidable reader and thinker. So the enormous and not-overnight success this summer of her debut novel, The Incendiaries, is no surprise.

Some writers might be jealous of Kwon’s willingness to play the long game, to wait to publish her first book until she had already achieved what seems to many readers to be a mastery of the form. Other writers might be jealous of the pristine sentences, the elegant short chapters, the Faulknerian control of the many voices.

 These writerly jealousies quickly give way to readerly pleasure. The Incendiaries,  for all its timeliness of subject and contemporariness of its form, is also an old-fashioned novel of the sort that fulfills John Gardner’s prescription that the writer create for the reader “a vivid and continuous dream.”

 One more thing: As a person raised in a fundamentalist Christian milieu, I’m spending my adulthood trying to understand the distance between the harsh magical vision of the world I was taught and received, and what I have to do now to be a citizen of a more complicated temporal world, and to understand and inhabit a new set of ideas about how to think, speak, and be. Very rarely have I encountered in contemporary American fiction anything that rings true to this sort of experience.

 R.O. Kwon’s novel—in playing a not-dissimilar world not for laughs, but for keeps, out of the difficulties and generosities the intentionally empathetic stance requires of writer and reader—threads the needle, avoiding false redemption and false hope while trying, and succeeding, to chase something like understanding. I was happy to get the chance to ask her about a few of these things.

 

Kyle Minor: Reading The Incendiaries, I was thinking about how this historical moment is more than a little like the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Certainly there are echoes, in the book and in our time, of Jim Jones, the Weather Underground, the Fighters for Free Croatia, all varieties of ostensibly righteous causes gone wrong, turned to violence. I was also thinking about the fundamentalist Christian world I think we both fled, with its purity tests and demands to orthodoxy and power cults of personality, and how afraid it sometimes makes me to see some of these same kinds of urgencies manifesting in the progressive community to which I’d hoped to flee. I was thinking about the seductive nature of being right, or of belonging to the people who are right.

R.O. Kwon: For a short while, I did a lot of research. I read every nonfiction book I could find about domestic terrorists, radical causes, and cults. But then, I put them aside, and I tried to wipe away what I’d learned. Which wasn’t possible, of course! I did, though, want this to be my novel’s cult, one only my made-up cult leader, John Leal, could have founded.

Belonging to people who are right—I think about that a lot. Since leaving the faith, I feel averse to certainty, afraid of it, so much so that I’m not even certain I’m right to be be wary of certainty. Do you miss that kind of belonging?

KM: Yes. Very much.

I’m also interested in the formal choices. All the first person voices, which are reminiscent of various evangelical testimony traditions, but which are also in echo of novels that proceed in a series of dramatic monologues, such as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or Graham Swift’s Last Orders. I was also thinking, while reading, of all that the limitations of first person can make possible, rhetorically. Here we have plenty of room for not-knowing, for speculation, for thinking, for tentative meaning-making. And we also have, for example, the ability to render John Leal in third person, for a practical reason you may or may not want to discuss, although I’m interested in hearing your version of why.

ROK: In its first two years, The Incendiaries was told entirely by one character, Phoebe Lin. But after that, I realized I wanted the novel to have a little more distance from Phoebe. She’s going through a lot, and I wanted an entryway point of view. I kept thinking about Nick Carraway telling Gatsby’s story, how that can crack open some narrative space.

So, Will Kendall, who loves Phoebe, started doing all the talking. Then, I found I really missed Phoebe: there wasn’t enough of her, not with just Will’s perspective. So, I added her voice back in; a short while after that, I discovered that John Leal had more to say.

This wasn’t an efficient way of going about it all! Which is part of why it took ten years.

KM: This is a book that knows a lot about the North Korean missionary scene, with its Chinese border crossings, its gulag mythologies and their uses, its connections to South Korean culture, including pop culture. I’ve known a few people who have been involved in this world, but I’ve never seen it before in a book. How did you get access to this world, and what did it require of you as a novelist to get it right? (And these aren’t the only subcultural masteries the book requires. We also have the high-end piano and conservatory world, more than one kind of college, and more than one ecstatic brand of American evangelical expression.)

ROK: As with cults and terrorists, there was a point a when I was reading a lot of nonfiction books and short pieces about North Korea, everything I could find. At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking about North Korea showing up in my novel—it was just that parts of my family have long-ago roots in what’s now North Korea, and it was a way for me to try to calm an ache, to learn what I could about the lives of distant family members I’ll never meet.

But so little information makes it out. Eventually, in The Incendiaries, John Leal began taking on a North Korean past. I never hoped to get it right—there’s no getting it right, not in depicting a country with the most closed borders in the world. Especially given the paucity of information about North Korea, I can’t pretend to responsibly or accurately represent the place. Instead, with my novel, I hoped to illuminate that lack of knowledge. To show the unknowing itself.

For those who want to read anglophone books by people who have more direct knowledge of North Korea and North Korean refugees, I’d recommend, for instance, Suki Kim’s Without You, There is No Us or Krys Lee’s How I Became a North Korean.The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Chol-hwan Kang. The Accusation by Bandi.

KM: Because this book is built the way it is, the seams don’t show, plot-wise, the way they do in many other novels. This made me interested, as a writer, in the invisible process that got you to that point. Were there earlier versions of the book that worked in different ways? What kinds of work did you have to do to work out the threads of the story and keep them straight with regard to pacing and proportion and most of all time?

ROK: Thank you for saying that, Kyle. There were so many earlier versions of the book. I honestly have no idea how many full drafts I wrote before getting to the final version. 25? 50? No fucking idea, and I don’t want to know, because I can’t let myself get too discouraged about what it’ll take to finish my next novel.

A couple of the book’s alternative lives: for the first couple of years, The Incendiaries was a meditative novel about a grieving, lonely woman wandering around, reflecting on the nature of an absent God. There were also 100 pages from Phoebe’s father’s point of view that didn’t fit in the book, and which I cut.

I don’t, though, give a lot of overt thought to story threads or pacing. I’m obsessed with language on the level of the sentence, so that’s where I most love to hang out: inside the syllables. With the music.

KM: I was thinking about the place Phoebe occupies in the world of immigrant families—parents and children who don’t share a single common cultural identity, the question of money and the privilege it brings, the incomprehensibility of it, the way others try to make use of it.

ROK: I wouldn’t say that parents and children in immigrant families universally don’t share a cultural identity. It’s not how I felt, growing up. In the novel, Phoebe and her mother are very close throughout most of Phoebe’s childhood; Phoebe’s mother is the one person who knows her best. Part of this is because Phoebe is so focused on playing the piano. It’s a demimonde her mother also knows and values, and loves. And so, of course, it’s all the more cataclysmic when Phoebe’s mother dies.

KM: The book has no small interest in the relationship between pain and pleasure, a thing that ecstatic religious expressions can simultaneously submerge and foreground.

ROK: There’s a part in The Incendiariesin which John Leal’s quoted as saying that Christianity recognizes the potential effect of pain, how it can make people available to previously excluded possibilities. John Leal—like other cult leaders, as well as recruiters for terrorist groups—is on the lookout for people who are in pain. Who might, as a result, be more willing to listen to him.

KM: I wanted to ask you about a remarkable piece of language near the end of the book: “He hears the church bells sing, but not to him.”

ROK: Every day, I miss God. I miss the faith I lost, I miss that garden of certainty. I’m just starting to understand that this will never stop: I’ll grieve until I die. Often, if I hear church bells ring, that’s how they sound to me.

Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk.

Junk: The Podcast with Tommy Pico — Episode 6

Tommy Pico


Listen and subscribe on iTunes here.

Learn more about Junk: The Podcast here.

Hootie hoo and a nelly nacho howdy-do to you! It’s a poet’s feast this week as we’ve got Angel Nafis, sam sax, and Max Steele on the show with some extremely comely Junk. And being poets of course they talk about Junky love: Junking toward the future of romantic love, Junk as a reminder of the love for your art practice, and Junk as memory for a beloved pet. To finish us off, I’ve got a Cactus Candy-like teensy piece of my long poem Junk wrapped up and ready for ya! Brought to you, as always, by Tin House Books.

Follow us on Instagram to get a sneaky peek at our poets’ Junk this week @junkpodcast.

Angel Nafis: @AngelNafis
sam sax: @samsax1
Max Steele: @billycheer
Tommy Pico, host @heyteebs
Alexandra DiPalma, producer @LSDiPalma
Kenya Anderson, production assistant @kenya_digg_it

Tommy “Teebs” Pico is the Whiting Award-winning author of three books of poetry: Junk, Nature Poem, and IRL, winner of the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize. He was a Queer/Art/Mentors inaugural Fellow, Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry, and NYSCA/NYFA Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Originally from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay nation, he now lives in Brooklyn where he co-curates the reading series Poets With Attitude (PWA) with Morgan Parker, is a contributing editor at Literary Hub, and co-hosts the podcast Food 4 Thot. Food 4 Thot has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, HuffPost, OUT, and more.