Junk: The Podcast with Tommy Pico — Episode 5

Tommy Pico

Listen and subscribe on iTunes here!

Learn more about Junk: The Podcast here!


Wiggly gummy worm what’s up my Junky whatsits! You got thingamabobs? I got plenty. I…want…more? This episode is a bauble if ever I got one—partly a podcast crossover with the clever young fairies from Las Culturistas Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers aaaand one of the sharpest prose writers in the game, Chelsea Hodson! This week it’s all about how Junk feeds our ambition: as a reminder of where we come from, what we pour ourselves into and what feeds us, and what propels our commitment. Followed up with a pyrotechnic spectacle of gassy verse from my long poem Junk. Brought to you as always by Tin House Books.

Follow us on Instagram for a peek into each interviewee’s extra special Junk @junkpodcast.

Bowen Yang, @bowenyang
Matt Rogers, @MattRogersTho
Chelsea Hodson, @ChelseaHodson
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. 

Junk: The Podcast with Tommy Pico — Episode 4

Tommy Pico


Listen and subscribe on iTunes here.

Learn more about Junk: The Podcast here.


Sudsy soda salutations my Junky sussers! This week we’ve got a show recorded variously at the alpha and omega of it all, the Tin House Summer Workshop! Our all-star line-up this week consists of Danez Smith, Jenna Wortham, and Alexander Chee talking all about the world building inherent in our Junk. Sometimes we use Junk to orient ourselves to the world around us, fill our world with reflections of us, and bring our world with us wherever we go. Followed up with a particularly saucy excerpt from Junk the long poem. Brought to you as always by Tin House Books.

Check out our Instagram to see all these lovely ppls *Junk* each week tee hee @junkpodcast.

Danez Smith, @Danez_Smif
Jenna Wortham, @jennydeluxe
Alexander Chee, @alexanderchee
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. 

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Michelle Tea

THSTAFF

Michelle Tea is so many things: award-winning memoirist and novelist, inimitable documenter of the queercore scene, founder of RADAR Productions and the international Sister Spit performance tours, writer we’d most like to join for a road trip, and much more. Her most recent books include Black Wave (Feminist Press, 2016), a fiction-memoir hybrid; Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards (HarperCollins, 2017); and Against Memoir (Feminist Press, 2018), which Maggie Nelson calls “a bracing, heaven-sent tonic for deeply troubled times.”

We invited Michelle Tea to be this month’s Dear Reader author at Ace Hotel New York. While on tour for Against Memoir, she spent a night at Ace and penned a letter to an unknown audience of hotel guests. The letter was kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room—but first we caught up with Michelle to talk unexpected readers, workhorse crystals, and being alone.

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

MICHELLE TEA: Roberta Rohbeson, the protagonist of Lynda Barry’s novel, Cruddy—which, were the world a fair and just place, would be held in the esteem of, like, Catcher in the Rye. Sixteen years old when the work was published in 2001, I would want to know, first of all, if she was alive or dead (perhaps this correspondence happens with the aid of a psychic medium), and I would want to know if indeed it does “Get Better” for put-upon teens such as herself; does she still have her trusty blade, Lil’ Debbie; is she queer or simply one of those very tough women who get mistaken suchly throughout their lives? Finally, I would beg her to go on a road trip with me.

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?

Traditionally I have discovered my path along the way, but as I work more and more on learning the secrets of screenwriting, I find that outlining and plotting is working its way into my once-upon-a-time stream-of-consciousness writing.

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 try not to think of my audience when I write, but I have at points written to impress specific individual authors who I was obsessed with, or have imagined a sort of girl in the world who is essentially a projection of myself, and I write for her. I am surprised on occasion when very young people or very old heterosexual white men have found my work. I’m not surprised that they enjoy it, more that they found their way to it. That is interesting to me!

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

Everything by Ali Liebegott—The Beautifully Worthless, The IHOP Papers, and Cha-Ching! They talk about the deep experience of being an outlier in this world, in Ali’s case via gender and sexuality, income and artistic nature. It is by turns really hilarious and seriously heartbreaking, often both at once, always rendered in a really unique and beautiful fashion.

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

 I can’t really write creatively at home, it’s too distracting. I like to be out in the world somewhere; a loud, busy hum is less distracting to me than silence. I will often bring a crystal with me, one that promotes stamina, creativity, inspiration. I like Calcite, Honey, Orange or Green. They are workhorse crystals. Pieterstine to burst through blocks, Amethyst for inspiration. I used to have more superstitions and then I created a writing retreat that was very close quarters and bare bones and it challenged all I thought I needed to be productive, which is great. All I need to be productive is myself, and for people to leave me alone.


Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.

Photography by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York.

The Secret Habit of Sorrow: An Interview with Victoria Patterson

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

I first fell for Victoria Patterson’s work when I heard her speak about her debut story collection, Drift, onstage for the Story Prize ceremony in 2009. Patterson’s writing took me someplace I knew well—a listless, shifty Southern California of vacant suburbs and humming sprinklers and apartment complexes where neighbors’ lives play like radio through the walls—but also someplace I didn’t. The emotional landscapes of Patterson’s characters are always surprising, uncanny in the truest sense of the word: I am shown something new about the world through them, at the same time within them I see myself. After publishing three novels, Patterson returns to stories with the collection The Secret Habit of Sorrow and takes this examination further still, particularly as she steps close to the workings of family, and the failings and wants and losses that come with it. It was an honor to speak with Patterson about this work.

***

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky:  What’s changed for you between now and the writing of your first book, if anything, in what you hope stories can be or do?

Victoria Patterson: I remain true to my conviction that stories validate life as valuable and mysterious. Frank O’Hara wrote, “Attention equals life.” I love stories that give voice to outsiders, to the so-called “defeated,” stories that honor the tragic, while also providing hope and connection. Stories are compact empathy-conveyors. They’re sneaky, engulfing the reader, rather than telling him or her what to feel or think.

EKH: Writers always get asked what the first books they loved were, but I’m curious: What the first pieces of fiction you wrote were like? Were you a writer already as a kid?

VP: In the second grade, I wrote a story about my classmates and our teacher banding together to save the school from an alien invasion. My teacher loved it. She had me read it aloud to the class.

The seeds of one of my first attempted (and discarded) novels, sprouted years later to become the short story “Half-Truth.” A few other novels remain buried, though pieces of them still pop up unexpectedly.

I’ve been writing in journals since the second grade. It took years for me to find my way from documenting my days/life to fiction and story telling. Though I wanted to be an author, I was messed up. I remember identifying with that scene in The Squid and the Whale where the character plagiarizes Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” for the talent show, and his defense is that it felt like he wrote it. That’s how books, poems, and stories were to me. I felt them so strongly; I wanted to be a part of that conversation somehow. But it took a long time for me to find my way to becoming a fully functional person. Through it all, I kept a journal. I developed my voice, and then it took more time to move to the fictional. Journal writing is essential and writing itself has always been intertwined with my survival.

EKH: That scene in The Squid and the Whale! I love it, too! What are the books you most feel that kind of connection to, that you wish had your name on the cover?

VP: There are so many. When I was young, I remember reading Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and feeling, eerily so, like it was speaking directly to me. I also grew enamored by John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, which I’d discovered in my parents’ sparse library. I was too young to understand, but it struck me nonetheless and somehow cemented that I wanted to perform that kind of magic. Lately it’s more on a sentence level. I’ll underline sentences and think, damn, I wish I’d written that, and it comes from everything, including student work. I often grow obsessed with a writer and read everything by him or her. My last obsessions: Tom Drury and Rachel Cusk.

EKH: What’s your favorite stage of the writing process? Initial drafting? Revision? Are you someone who likes to get a draft down, however rough, and then tinker, or are you meticulous the first time through?

VP: I like knowing I have a novel or a story inside me, and then the whole process of assembling it on the outside, like a consuming, cosmic puzzle. I comb through what I’ve written over and over, usually going back to the beginning, smoothing as I go along, so that it becomes developmentally organic. I read everything aloud multiple times, and I frantically chew gum, so it’s best if I’m alone. Ideally, the only witness is my dog.

EKH: You have the most dexterous touch in calibrating dialogue and scene so that we understand so richly and with such nuance what your characters are feeling without these emotional turns being telegraphed to us. How do you pull this off? How do you know what’s too much, what’s too little?

Thank you! I’d guess that it comes from my copious reading habits and all that journal writing, along with my hypersensitive nature, and also from growing up in a family where for survival, I developed a fine-tuned emotion calibrator. Also editorial help, such as yours–and my writers group.

EKH: Maybe along those same lines, you write phenomenally convincing teenage and child characters, particularly as they confront some of the darkest stuff everyday life has to offer: loss, parents’ divorces, other trauma to their families. I’m thinking especially of AJ in “How to Lose” or Owen in “Half-Truth.” What makes kids such compelling lenses? Why populate your stories with them?

VP: I’m lucky I survived my teenage years, so I often write about teens. Kids are hard to write. They’re sophisticated, guileless truth tellers, and I’m interested in how they navigate the world, and the compromises they make.

I’d like to read more stories about children and parents. It’s such a complex, profound, and fraught relationship. I’m writing what I want to read, what is most meaningful to me, and as the mother of two sons (and as a daughter), it’s what I have to write. Richard Yates said, “The emotions of fiction are autobiographical but the facts never are.” I dedicated this collection to my sons for a reason.

EKH: I’m so interested in what you say about a need for more stories about parents and children—what do you want to see written about in this relationship more than we’re doing presently? What are the questions that circle this relationship that most interest you?

VP: I crave these stories, since these relationships, whether we like it or not, for good and bad and everything in between, are vital, complicated, massively influential. I’ve been working on an essay for some time and realize I’m circling my feelings about both my sons; but particularly, in this essay, my youngest. It’s hard to write about–to define–and to write about it accurately and honestly. The depths of emotion are overwhelming, and it’s always been that way for me as a mother, since their births. But also as a daughter, how I feel about my parents. Literature–more accurately, critical attention–tends to disregard or minimize this deep well.

EKH: If I hadn’t already been a devoted fan, I would’ve become one when you called out Jonathan Franzen for his baffling and infuriating essay about Edith Wharton in the New Yorker a few years back, specifically his essay’s preoccupation with what Wharton looked like. I imagine that an essay like Franzen’s would have a harder time being greenlit today, that at least one editor on staff would have the good sense to object to its misogyny—but I wonder also sometimes how genuinely or how deeply we as a culture have internalized the feminist values we more and more profess. What are your thoughts? What do you make of the feminist moment we’re in?

VP: I’m not sure what to make of it. I hope culture is changing, but I’m skeptical. I feel like we’re in the strangest Twilight Zone-like moment, because of Trump, of course, and it’s like we’re moving in this thick molasses of bullshit.

I’m a vocal feminist. I have plenty of “me too” credentials. My last novel was about rape culture. I am ready to burn the patriarchal house down. And I also want room for conflicting, complex feelings, to make mistakes, to not always be a part of an outrage machine, especially when it seems misdirected, or fear that its wrath might latch onto me if I don’t toe the line, or if I say something stupid.

Life is not simple, nothing is. Rather than projecting something more solidly righteous, moral, and sure-footed, I hope my prose conveys complexity, ambiguity, etc. Literature is messy, otherwise, what?

I also wrote an essay about Dave Eggers’ disingenuous, glowing, one-dimensional portrayal of Abdulrahman Zeitoun in his nonfictional novel Zeitoun. Little complexity or contradictions, a feel good I’m-on-the-right-side depiction, no self-implicating mirror. That, to me, does more of a disservice than, say, prose crackling with misogyny, but also honestly and emotionally grappling with misogyny.

I’ve been thinking about Zadie Smith’s essay on Philip Roth: “At an unusually tender age, he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person. ‘Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest,’ he once said.”

EKH: You write about southern California in a way that always makes me long to be there, in its beauty and in its particular brand of ennui that I think you capture like no one else. Who are your other favorite California writers, and your favorite books about your state?

VP: Dana Johnson, Michelle Huneven, Jim Gavin, Danzy Senna, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Michael Jaime-Becerra, among many others. Immediately I think of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Recently I read Pacific by Tom Drury, which I loved, and which led me to all his amazing books.

Victoria Patterson is the author of the novels The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award, the 2009 Story Prize, and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches at Antioch University’s Master of Fine Arts program.

Something Remarkable, By Your Own Measure: An Interview with Ashleigh Young

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

The essays of Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? are lithe, sure-footed things, some companionable, wild-eyed new species of familiar that leads us to their considerations with tenderness and nerve. In language that is lush without ever compromising its precision, Young’s essays travel through and outward from her native New Zealand in exploration of feelings of smallness—of solitude, of lostness in place, of the humble triumphs and consolations we pin our hopes on—with a generosity of spirit that makes the world feel cradling even as it dwarves our concerns. It was an honor to speak with her about these essays, and the particular balm of the world’s tallest stack of waffles. 

***

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: When did you first start writing the essays in this book? Did this project feel like a movement away from the work you do in other genres, or in some way an extension or reimagining of it?

Ashleigh Young: I started writing these essays in a scrappy way around 2008, which feels like a world ago. I was trying to figure out where I wanted to live and what to do with myself, and I think I had too much choice and not enough courage. With this writing, at least I could say that I definitely wanted to write this book, and it was good to feel certain about one thing.

I can never figure out how much my poems have to do with the other writing I try to do. Maybe it’s that in an essay I’m trying to speed my thoughts up and in a poem I’m trying to slow them down. Someone asked me about this at a festival event recently. ‘How do you know when you’re writing a poem and how do you know it should be an essay?’ and I froze and started blathering that the two forms are entirely different in my mind, that my intention for a poem is always entirely different from my intention for an essay. I thought I should sound definitive in the moment, so that people would think I knew what I was doing. And it’s true that with an essay I start with a more defined idea or a question or problem, and a sense of where I want to dig. With a poem I usually, tragically, start with a feeling that I want to unravel. But the truth is I don’t know! All I can say is that the moment I start writing, I do know. I feel the form there, like it’s looking over my shoulder.

EKH: Did anything change for you as a writer over the course of writing the collection? Did your aspirations for the project evolve at all, or your sense of what the essay could do or what you wanted to use it to do?

AY: Ahhh. So many things changed! A lot of time passed and I grew up a bit. After I finished a first draft of this book in 2009, I had to put it aside. My brothers had some objections to what I’d written – and they were right; I’d written my first draft quite recklessly, telling some things that weren’t truly mine to tell – and I didn’t know how to solve those problems; I didn’t know how to recalibrate the essays and still have them be honest. I felt in the end that it was too hard, and that I wouldn’t try to publish the book. I would focus on a book of poems instead, and on writing new essays, which I did. I made a big move from Wellington to London, and that changed my writing I think. I started writing a blog, and something about the temporal, pencil-sketchy feeling of a blog helped me write more freely, with less agonising about whether it was any worthwhile. It was probably as simple as having a new text box to write into. I think lots of writers are like magpies, only instead of shiny things it’s a new text box that gets them all excited. (At my job – I’m an editor at Victoria University Press, in Wellington – we’re often sent these pristine, blank dummy books from our printers, so we can get an idea of the form of the book we’re about to make. They’re perfect for writing notes in. I love it when a new dummy arrives.)

After a while, I felt bold enough to come back to this book and see if there was still any heat in it. Because time had passed, the events I’d been writing about in my first draft felt less raw. I could think about them without demanding of the reader that they share in my anguish and if they didn’t what was wrong with them?! I had some perspective. I also had some new pieces I wanted to include. And then I could see a better shape for the book. I’m so, so glad for that first obstacle.

EKH: Your essays speak with such dignity and affection both for all manner of creative aspiration, however ultimately humble the results. I suppose I’m thinking particularly of the mailman from “Postie,” who spends his lifetime collecting beautiful white rocks as he perambulates his route in the French countryside, then building various grandiose monuments out of his finds—but I’m also thinking of your dad as he guns his plane across the Cook Strait, racing for a new personal best, or the spirit in which the Washhouse Tapes are recorded. What is it that moves you about these efforts? What made you want to write about them? And what kind of work do they make you want to do as writer?

AY: There’s something in my family that really respects strange feats and traditions. For instance every January my brother JP holds a commemorative swim out to a rock to mark the first (and only) fatal shark attack in Wellington (a young trombonist named John Balmer was killed in January 1852). Similarly, JP’s story of walking one hundred kilometres from one city to another at night with a friend became kind of legendary. And my dad and his friends would stage their own Olympic Games in the backyard, when the real Olympics was on. People just get really into things. My dad is also very proud to have won a plane-landing competition a few years ago and to be featured in the local paper. It’s a funny scene – all these men sitting out in deck chairs in a field, roaring their approval as little planes land. It’s a very NZ-spirited thing – this effort to do something remarkable by our own measure. It’s hard to describe this well but it really moves me when I’m watching someone carry out some small tradition that’s meaningful or joyful to them but not significant to anyone else. I want to write about these things because I don’t want them to disappear. Also – the best and funniest stories in my family always seemed to come from the guys, and part of writing this book was saying (desperate as this sounds) that I feel a part of those stories too.

I guess with the short essay about the French postman Ferdinand Cheval, and with the essay about the Washhouse Tapes, although those people really were aiming earnestly for greatness and posterity, they also believed that their ideas were really interesting, and that being quite geographically isolated had nothing to do with it. I don’t want to over-egg this, but, secretly, I try to work in that same spirit. It still takes me a long time to decide that I might have anything worth saying, though.

I also have this sense that maybe people are turning towards smaller stories – maybe to momentarily shield ourselves from the torrent of massive and awful news stories. I followed a story a few weeks ago about a bunch of people making the world’s tallest stack of waffles. A reporter was spending the day with the waffle-makers and was tweeting about the day as the waffle-building progressed, and it was captivating. They just seemed like the loveliest bunch of people, all standing around this big waffle tower. Another one that got me recently was a story about this Scottish woman who came across a bumble bee that had no wings, and she decided to take care of it, feeding it sugar water and stroking it, until one day the bee died. I get completely pulled in by these stories. I was crying everywhere over that bumble bee. It’s funny, how quickly I can feel like I own a random story from the internet, as if it’s mine and nobody else really understands it like I do – but how it takes much longer to feel that there is worth in the stories I already know.

EKH: Again and again, your essays capture so brilliantly the particular kind of companion pop music is to solitude. In “The Te Kuiti Underground,” you imagine Paul McCartney taking your hand as you walk up a lone country hill; Paul and by proxy his music become intimate companions, sharers in loneliness, and at the same time you say you conjure him up to “make an ordinary place, an ordinary moment, more intense, more like a film, something driven towards meaningful conclusion.” You follow this image with the story of the first pieces of writing you sent off for hopeful publication, all the way back in primary school. What do writing and music have to do with each other for you? Are both about ways of approaching solitude? About articulating your own story?

AY: When I was a kid I used to barricade myself into my room and dance to music, or I would run around naked, bopping away. If a song was on, it meant either ‘celebration time’ or … ‘deep sadness time’. (I would’ve been one of those people in the 1800s in France who went into hypnosis when a neurologist banged a gong or waved a tuning fork in front of me, or something.) I took music very personally. A hidden track on an album felt like a secret between me and the artist; how you could be lying there on the floor after the album proper ended, and after a few minutes of silence, staring into space, some new, mysterious thing would begin. It’s sad to me that hidden tracks are pretty much obsolete now.

It took me a long time to stop taking taste so personally. A workmate in a bookshop once said to me gently, when I’d started sputtering because he said he didn’t really like Quentin Blake’s illustrations, ‘You know, if someone doesn’t like the same things you like, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.’ (And then – my head exploded like a chicken in George’s Marvellous Medicine.)

Growing up, I was desperate for my life to feel like it meant something. Obviously it did mean something, or kind of, but I wanted clear signs that this was the case. I wanted tearful-face-filling-a-movie-screen levels of meaning. Listening to music, writing songs, and writing stories were ways of injecting drama into my situation and imagining myself into another, bigger life. I think all of this is probably really basic – I was just hyper-sensitive, and wanted to be comforted.

But now, the escape is more ordinary. It’s relief. Music and writing both give me a feeling of being on the brink of something, at the same time as being suspended in a given moment.

EKH: Some time ago, I was lucky enough to live in New Zealand for a while, and it took only one trip to the local bookstore for me to sheepishly realize how little I knew about the singular rich and wild and inventive landscape of New Zealand’s literature. Even now, I think many American readers will know only Katherine Mansfield or Janet Frame—what contemporary New Zealand writers should we be reading? What essayists and poets?

AY: This is bad because I know I’m going to forget some important writer or other and next day I’ll bump into them at the supermarket and they’ll give me the stinkeye. Well, most of our books just aren’t in reach of the US radar. You have to seek them out especially. I am very excited about some new young poets here. Sam Duckor-Jones has an incredible – hilarious, clever, beautiful – first book of poems out, and so does Tayi Tibble; her work is full of light and grit and this amazing swagger. A lot of brilliant essayists are writing online. I love Talia Marshall’s essays, Madelaine Chapman’s brilliant hilarious journalism, and Anna Sanderson’s book of essays Brainpark is an old favourite – her book was one of the books that made me think maybe I could try to write this kind of nonfiction too. A more recent love is this breathtaking memoir by Diana Wichtel, Driving to Treblinka.

I always get the feeling that the world is slightly rearranged after reading work by these writers.

The New Zealand poets I read when I first started reading poetry are still huge presences for me. Jenny Bornholdt feels like a homecoming. Bill Manhire feels like he’s either talking out of my bones or from somewhere in the ceiling – he is also an astonishing live reader of his work; if you ever, somehow, have a chance to hear him, do. And James Brown … how to describe James Brown? His poems just feel like old much-loved pets to me. Here’s a short piece I wrote about him a few years back, when we went for a bike ride.

I also think the poet Geoff Cochrane should be world famous. I’d actually recommend you read this review by Pip Adam of one of Geoff’s books, as a way to begin.

As a matter of urgency, you should all be reading Hera Lindsay Bird. Start with this poem but do buy her book, Hera Lindsay Bird.

One of my favourite writers in New Zealand is Pip Adam. Her novel The New Animals just won our national prize for fiction. Pip is fearless as a writer. Her work is full of weird darkness and joy. I am getting so happy all over again remembering that Pip won that big prize.

EKH: How did you approach the sequencing of this book? What kind of reverberations and echoes did you seek to cultivate as you found the order for the essays? It occurs to me that process might even be a little like structuring a poem—but perhaps that’s the false metaphor of a prose writer!

AY: People will read things in any order that they feel like, but I still like to fuss around with the sequence of things to see what effects I can make. After writing a book you just want to fuss around a bit. You can change your mind so many times and not do any real harm.

There were logical things – for instance I wanted to show a few glimpses of each family member before they appeared more fully in an essay. I wanted them to kind of wander through the background first. And I wanted a timeline of sorts to be easy for the reader to get their head around. I also did not want the most personal pieces to be upfront and to parade themselves. I wanted them to be like hidden tracks.

But mostly, I wanted to create a sense of continual unfolding. Not of a plot, exactly; but of a scene that keeps unearthing a little more of itself.

EKH: I’m in particular admiration of the conclusions you find for your essays—never on-the-nose, never self-explanatory, but trusting of the reader and of the material itself in its meaning. How do you pull this off? How do you know when a piece has found its end?

I’ve never really known for sure that something is finished, and if not for a deadline, I would gorge myself on revisions. I’m like a dog that needs to have the bowl taken away otherwise I won’t stop eating. The best I can do is judge it by a feeling of having spent everything. But I also think a good ending, in the exact moment that you know you’ve definitely reached it in a book, is already turning into another beginning. It’s started to spin another cocoon before your eyes. All my favourite books suggest that another story is about to happen.

Ashleigh Young is the author of the essay collection Can You Tolerate This? as well as a book of poetry, Magnificent Moon. The recipient of a 2017 Windham Campbell Prize in Nonfiction and an Ockham Award, among other honors, Young is an editor at Victoria University Press in Wellington, New Zealand.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is associate editor at Tin House magazine and Tin House Books.

Junk: The Podcast with Tommy Pico — Episode 2

Tommy Pico

Listen and subscribe on iTunes here.

Learn more about Junk: The Podcast here.


Hello my little Skittles, have I got some vittles for you: this week’s Junk is a special crossover ep with those gay sluts who love to read, Food 4 Thot! That’s right, we’ve got Fran Tirado, Joseph Osmundson, and Dennis Norris II—nobody’s junior—showing us that Junk can pluck us from the brink of sibling estrangement, Junk can remind us to try with the corny optimism of youth, and Junk can reinforce a meaningful link we have to those we’ve lost, sometimes in ways we didn’t know when they were here. Fran Tirado is a writer, editor, queer community maker, and glitter evangelist. Joseph Osmundson is a scientist, non-fiction writer, total crop Top, and the softest bowl of soft-serve you’ll ever meet. Dennis Norris II—nobody’s junior—is a writer, reader, former figure skater, lapsed violist, and all-star around the way girl. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll eat some gummy peaches, and to finish you off I’ll read a particularly Funyun-flavored excerpt from Junk the epic poem. Brought to you by Tin House Books.

Follow our Instagram to see each guest’s *ahem* junk every week @junkpodcast.

Fran Tirado, @fransquishco
Joseph Osmundson, @reluctantlyjoe
Dennis Norris II, @theearldenden
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. 

Ambition, Art, and Late Capitalism: An Interview with Caoilinn Hughes

Taylor Lannamann

Caoilinn Hughes’s debut novel, Orchid & the Wasp, has the fluid gait of something alive. You want to run after Gael—Hughes’s protagonist—as she emerges from a complicated childhood and into a young adulthood marked by quick thinking and interpersonal finesse. At once exuberant and incisive, Hughes’s writing escapes simple characterization while somehow remaining welcoming; you’ll want to luxuriate in the prose, even when Gael’s wit and impressive calculations skyrocket the story to new heights. This is not simply a coming of age tale, nor is it an experiment in narrative philosophy. What is it, then? I’m not sure, other than that it’s something new, and that the best way to describe it is to speak circuitously—which is the case for most things worth talking about.

I first encountered Hughes’s dynamic voice several years ago, when I was in graduate school and interning at Tin House. An early excerpt of Orchid & the Wasp circulated amongst the magazine’s editors, and I remember the thrill I felt when that crackling piece made its way into my hands. Eager to read more, I bought her poetry collection, Gathering Evidence, and was equally floored by her expansive language and searching eye. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting Caoilinn, and have had the honor of publishing her poetry in a journal I co-edit. The following interview evolved through a series of emails while Caoilinn and I languished in separate Brooklyn apartments in the breathless heat of early July.

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TAYLOR LANNAMANN: I’d love to know how you developed Orchid & the Wasp’s fields of interest, because the novel has so many constellations of knowledge and expertise. The narrative is fluent in a number of niche areas—orchestral conducting, economic theory, art dealing. The list goes on. Did you begin with prior knowledge of these subjects, or did Gael’s development as a character prompt unexpected research?

CAOILINN HUGHES: I am a hopeless multitasker and a procrastinator, which means that when I’m writing, I’m writing—slowly, excruciatingly, obsessively and all-consumingly—but I will put off that writing for as long as possible. I await peak self-loathing. A foxed wallpaper of unpaid bills. By the time I sit down to write, I cannot give myself anymore excuses to put it off. So I haven’t to date written a single thing for which I have had to do more than a cursory amount of research. A day here, a day there. (Albeit, you can learn a lot in a day.) But I read a lot and broadly, I am lecherous about other people’s knowledge, and I have had some life experience besides sitting at a desk! I do believe it makes sense to write about what you’re interested in, meaning what you know something about by way of being interested. Also, never underestimate the consolidating power of a good gestation period! I could never finish a story or poem or novel and immediately start another. However useful it would be to be able to do that, I’m not overly concerned that I can’t, as downtime is when I discover new interests and when I observe things freshly and openly. Going from one piece of writing to the next would make a skipping record of me, stuck on the same note.

TL: There’s an indescribable bond between Gael and her brother Guthrie. Their connection feels quite strong, but also delicate and complex, made up of layers of tension and forgiveness. What goes into crafting such real and nuanced relationships? Did Gael and Guthrie’s rapport emerge as a by-product of who they are as individual characters, or did you have to hone the way you wrote about them as a pair?

CH: I have four siblings and, to me, sibling relationships are some of the most beautiful, rich, centring, complex relationships there can be. They can also be the most stagnant, false, judgmental, traumatizing, sickening and tortured relationships, in which individuality is denied. Can the same be said of friendships and collegial relationships? Can the same even be said of romantic relationships? The answer to both of those questions could be ‘yes,’ I don’t know. Perhaps it’s personal. For example, if you learn of one man’s indifference to the tragedies befalling his older brother, to me, that is inherently fascinating. Whereas, in non-familial relationships, one man’s indifference to another could be fascinating, but not necessarily. I think that’s why it’s so hard to pull off a novel with only non-familial relationships—to build an equally complex emotional entanglement. That said, I did want to contrast these relationships to non-familial bonds in Orchid & the Wasp. For at least half of the book, the protagonist is away from familial and intimate relationships. She has intense, complex, caring connections with strangers. She has shallow, judgmental, misleading and meaningless encounters too. This is an intentional disruption of the family saga arc. But with Gael and Guthrie, it’s not only that they have an intense relationship; how their deeds, decisions and ideologies play off one another constitutes one of the book’s central thematic motifs. Some days, they seemed to me like two sides of the same coin. Other days, they seemed irreconcilable. As soon as I got to know them both, I knew I had a novel.

TL: Is it important for an author to know at the outset what questions her novel poses? During your writing process, do you gradually find your way to such concerns, or do you begin with an animating question?

CH: I don’t believe you need to know a book’s concerns from the outset: in fact, I hold that you shouldn’t! My writing process is to write into the dark—I don’t like to know where a novel will go, what it will ask, do, think, say. I had to abandon a new novel recently after four months, with only 1,250 words to show for it (and tiny scars on the backs of my shoulders from where I’d torn my skin in histrionic writerly angst) because I had done in those 1,250 words what I’d imagined would take me several chapters to bring to life; to realize the central concern on the page, in a scene. There was no way I could continue beyond that point. I knew too much. I’d already arrived at a place I thought I wanted to go. I did start Orchid & the Wasp with something, though: with the charge of Gael’s character, and the title. I need to say more about the title before returning to your question…

In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, philosophers Deleuze and Guattari refer to the relationship between a wasp and a rare orchid that resembles a wasp. (Besides mimicking its physiology, the flower emits mock female wasp pheromones. When the wasp tries to mate with it, pollen latches to his head or rear-end. The wasp eventually gives up, aware of his new burden but unable to shake it off. Soon he’s lured by another orchid and so becomes the pollen-bearer.) The philosophers use this relationship to describe the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of each species, proposing that both are transformed without being assimilated. It’s impossible to paraphrase, but suffice it to say that on some level, I took from Deleuze and Guattari the latent rejection of capitalism being written into theories of evolution, and also the possibility of “becoming” … but the character I was hosting in my subconscious kept wriggling out of the philosophers’ ephemeral, reciprocal, intricate, rhizomatic interpretations of the orchid-wasp relationship. She wanted to keep only its simple ecological utility: the wasp gains nothing. It’s rare to have a non-symbiotic system in nature. In society, however, mutualism and commensalism are what’s rare; especially in late stage capitalism, or this vortical Neo Liberalist corporatist corruptist oligarchy-in-the-making epoch.

I also happened to be reading about the Libor scandal at the time (the collusion between major banks to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate, by which banks illegally profited from trades and/or appeared misleadingly creditworthy) and wondered to what extent any individual might have been effected (likely unbeknownst to us/them) via savings, mortgages, pensions, student loans, derivatives, holdings etc. Settlement payments from banks including Barclays, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and HSBC are now in the billions … and yet, the wasp flies from flower to flower, falling for duplicitous interest rates, I mean pheromones. (A quick note here that this makes it a historical novel already, because the public consciousness is vigilant in such a different way now than it was in 2002, in 2008 and in 2011, when the bulk of the book takes place.) The orchid and the wasp became a shorthand for referring to non-mutualism in nature. With it came the question: is it really exploitation if the loser isn’t aware of his loss? On personal, familial, national and societal levels, this question pervaded my thinking. I hadn’t quite articulated this to myself from the outset, but it was close enough to a fully-formed idea to be worrisome. So I decided to put that right upfront in the book, blatantly. So that, even if it was still hovering throughout, there would be no threat that that was all the book would be exploring, a hundred thousand words later. If I put that upfront, the book could become something else. What it becomes, I will leave to the reader.

Intellectualism can ruin good art, so I try not to prove any point or advance any notion or agenda when I write. I try to know as little as possible, and to let the characters and novel reveal to me what I was interested in all along. I only know and see that once I’m in neck-deep, when I have all the perspective of Winnie from Beckett’s Happy Days. In my next novel, I only discovered what the book was about as I wrote the final 300 words. It was an astonishing, devastating discovery.

TL: In terms of not letting intellectualism ruin good art, can you talk more about how you so seamlessly wove the novel’s thematic and symbolic material throughout the narrative?

CH: As I wrote Gael’s character into being (through abandoned scenes), I saw that I was writing a book about a woman in the world. If she had relationships, they wouldn’t be the engine of her narrative. It would be herself—her mind, ambitions, ideology, interests, actions—that would drive the story and the reader’s interest, not in the context of anyone else. So many books that excited me when I was in my early twenties were about individuals out in the world, up against it, exploring it, getting their kicks, doing stuff. Frankenstein. Endurance. Candide. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Things Fall Apart. Steppenwolf. Hamlet. Heart of Darkness. The Places in Between. The Stranger. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Books by men, about men. This might sound like a roundabout answer to your question, but the fact that the book became picaresque—pursuing the protagonist’s deliberations, movements and actions over and above her ties, troubles and community—quite naturally accommodated various thematic interests, because they’re the things with which she was interested or concerned. It wasn’t patching anything together. It was just paying heed to her mind and drives in preference to her love interests and vulnerabilities. Although, the way she was brought up informed the some of the concepts explored, such as risk aversion, the mediocrity principle, negative liberty, negative capability (which isn’t named in the book, but it’s there!) and so on—so some of that is situational. I worked for Google for a while and ran a small business, and the experience and knowledge gleaned during those eye-opening soul-shrivelling years perhaps allowed for the organic inclusion of such ideas, in that they were readily available to me. Life experiences do feed into your writing, ideally in indirect ways, so here’s hoping my next novel won’t have to resort to chapters on the ethics of ‘butter flavoured’ popcorn and whether it’s possible to use a nail file to smooth out a chipped molar. (It’s not.)

TL: Artistic proprietorship comes under scrutiny in this book. Do you think a person can justify appropriating somebody else’s talent in the interest of ushering beauty into the public eye?

CH: What a question. What trouble I could get myself into! The logic and principles of art and ownership would require a book-length response (I hold some contradictory and contrary opinions on this, being a privacy fiend to the extent that I feel sick when dead artists’ correspondence are published without their instruction to do so, and I’ve had a detailed will since I was 20!) but I can say that my take on what is ethical, prudent and justifiable is very different to Gael’s/that of the narrative voice. I would say that bringing awareness to beauty in the public interest is a generous take on her motivations! The book is concerned with notions of worth, value, merit, due reward and the commodification of any citizen’s output. It considers late stage capitalism’s dilemma—built on the foundational quicksand that is the American dream—in both a philosophical and a pragmatic sense. Gael is convinced of the fallacy of meritocracy, as am I, though Gael is a lot younger and surer than me, and her response is more radical. I’m still a sucker-apprehensive-artist with a just-published book, strategically liking reviewer’s tweets (where’s the merit in that? who but the privileged few have time for that nonsense? and yet—appallingly—there are outcomes), hoping against hope that the novel’s merit will lift it to the front of the bookshelf, to the ink of the newspaper, to O Magazine’s Books column, to Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram feed … but I’m contending with my own cynicism and a lot of industry knowledge about nepotism, networks, privilege, foregone conclusions, and if my book gets more attention than any other worthy book (particularly books by less privileged people) I will try not to delude myself into thinking the book deserved it. It would be lucky, is what it would be. A quantum mechanical royal flush.

Gael’s journey also explores what place there is for ambition, within such a fallacious system; especially if neither power nor money are sought. We should be heading into a post-boring-job utopia of universal basic wage, free education, the eradication of poverty and the re-imagining of value, citizens’ contribution and what makes for a good life. Instead we have a retrogressive farce centre-stage (that is, stage right … far right) in the UK and the US, tugging us farther and farther back into the mire of defunct legislature, seeking out nostalgic notions of inherent superiority, godliness and inalienable rights. When the labour politician and sociologist Michael Young—who coined the term ‘meritocracy’ in a 1958 satirical essay—saw Tony Blair adopting it as the fundamental philosophy of the New Labour project, he wrote in the Guardian: ‘It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.’ And here we are, with ‘winners and losers’ back in the political parlance and the Tories insisting that talent will rise to the top, regardless of background. In her first statement as Prime Minister, Theresa May told ‘ordinary working class families’: ‘I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. … When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. … We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.’

As far as your talents will take you. It is absurd that this satire is still tendered to the patrons and populace for hope and solace, but it is. As the art world is meant to be the one arena where meritocracy has a place, it made sense that the book would go there, though that happened organically. It was unplanned.

TL: In case the world doesn’t already know, you’re also a fantastic poet. What has it been like transitioning to fiction? Have you carried over any practices from writing verse?

CH: Why, thank you! I grew up reading poetry and plays, because that’s what was in the house (all it would take was some character recalled or a cloud’s shadow cast across the kitchen window to prompt my father to quietly recite reams of poetry from memory—that had its impact) and, then, because I’d become accustomed to density and concision, the novel seemed a laborious, intimidating thing. Poetry and plays were slim and had all this blank space around them for you to take up. They were by definition dialogic. Not everything was spelled out or filled in, but everything included was essential. It didn’t matter how much was lost on me—a spoonful of such stuff was sustaining. Yevtushenko. Neruda. Dickinson. Shakespeare. Pinter. Cane. Coward. Lorca. Shaw. Marina Carr. I began to answer back with verses and scenes from an early age. By ten, my primary school was staging my original episode of Father Ted. The production might have launched my career if the script hadn’t been so priggishly censored. How can a budding writer do her best work on a measly quota of ‘fecks’?

Probably because I didn’t read novels, I got a B minus in English at school and I couldn’t get into any college in England or Ireland to study literature. I flung To Kill A Mocking Bird out the window. I made an erasure poem of The Scarlet Letter. I begged my parents to make a trip to Belfast so that I could show a fusty old professor at Queen’s the score of poems I’d had published in magazines. Belfast was the U.K., which meant they counted fewer of your grades, and it was not the done thing to go up North back then, so even though I didn’t have the grades for there either, I thought they might need my demographic. ‘Southerner’ or ‘Irish’, depending on who you asked. One little word here, one little word there, and oh the implications! I remember imploring the Medievalist, whose skin—I later scribbled down—had the hue and texture of Pritt-stick to consider the fact that I had rhymed the word ‘duty’ with ‘beauty’. I got in. However it happened, at university, I finally found some novel that was enough like a poem or play to take me by the hand into the realm of prose. But before long I discovered story and the many joys of fiction intrinsic to the form, as a reader. I still only wrote poems, then.

In terms of writing, the transition to fiction came because I’d moved to New Zealand after my MA, and part of the culture shock was moving from Belfast’s smoky, dark back rooms full of hook-shouldered people conversing sombrely about the sucker punch of a good end-stopped couplet to a place where there were huge bright blue open skies with sunshine and mountain biking and volcanoes and a sea with orcas in it and slightly awkward New Zealanders (highly endearing and endlessly capable) who I didn’t know yet how to talk to, certainly not about gnomic verse. I didn’t know what to do with myself. It didn’t help that this coincided with getting a real adult job and the like. So I let a year or so go by where I wasn’t writing much, and self-loathing and existential angst began to accrue … I had to do something! A loosely connected series of haikus? Anything! A fecking Limerick. Even … Higgs save us … prose.

I had never so much as written a piece of flash fiction. Not a single short story. So the obvious thing to do was start a novel. With no training, no guidebooks, no clue, no writer friends in the hemisphere to drive me home when I’d had too many adverbs. Then I met a writer friend who read a few chapters and told me I should stick to poetry. Upon hearing those words, the volume went up on my inner mission impossible soundtrack and I knocked back a cartridge of fountain pen ink. A few learning-wheel novels later, hey presto, watch me go! steadily accruing #DNFs on Goodreads (Did Not Finish), which I try to apprize for their Beckettian dramatic irony.

TL: Now that Orchid & the Wasp is out in the world—accruing more stars than acronyms—will you return to poetry? Are you working on anything now?

CH: I hope to get another poetry book together next year, but meanwhile, I’ve been writing short stories for the first time, and am editing a new novel, which is a big departure from Orchid, except that it took from Gael that risk aversion is the same as loss aversion and, if the status quo is what you’re protecting, what’s to lose?  

Caoilinn Hughes is an Irish writer whose debut novel, Orchid & the Wasp, is just out (Hogarth, July 10th). Her poetry collection, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet 2014), won the Irish Times Shine/Strong Award and was a finalist for four other prizes. Her work has appeared in Granta, Tin House, POETRY, Poetry Ireland, Best British Poetry, on BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere.

Taylor Lannamann’s fiction has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Literary Review, and Joyland. His essays and reviews have been published by Kenyon Review Online, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Tin House Online. He holds an MFA from The New School and is an editor of Poet’s Country.

Junk: The Podcast with Tommy Pico — Episode 1

Tommy Pico

Listen and subscribe on iTunes here.

Waddup butterbeans! It’s Tommy “Teebs” Pico and we’ve got a great episode of Junk ready and waiting for you. This week we bring you an unlikely band tee worn thin with familial affection, a broken lamp that illuminates far-flung junk economies, and a Prince tambourine that shows us not just our relationship to junk, but how junk can make us look differently at our relationships. Victoria Ruiz is an activist and musician, front person for the band Downtown Boys. Jenny Zhang writes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction—most recently the short story collection Sour Heart. Nichole Perkins co-hosts BuzzFeed’s Thirst Aid Kit and authored the brand spankin’ new poetry collection Lilith, But Dark. Followed up, as always, with a short excerpt from my book Junk. Brought to you by Tin House Books.

Follow our Instagram to see each guest’s *ahem* junk every week! @junkpodcast

Victoria Ruiz, @victoriacosmica
Jenny Zhang, @jennybagel
Nichole Perkins, @tnwhiskeywoman
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. 

Introducing Junk: The Podcast with Tommy Pico

THSTAFF

Tin House is proud to present Junk: The Podcast with Tommy “Teebs” Pico. No one’s better at talking about Junk than Teebs himself—so without further ado, we’re handing over the mic.

Junk: The Podcast takes its cue from a line in my book Junk: “It’s important to value yr Junk bc Junk has the best stories.” In each episode, I interview three literary and cultural luminaries about a keepsake, souvenir, or rando bauble with them in their apartment, sussing out the story of their junk. To close out each show, I read a fizzy, short excerpt from the book.

Our first episode features Victoria Ruiz, lead singer of Downtown Boys; Jenny Zhang of Sour Heart fame, winner of the 2018 PEN America award for debut fiction; and co-host of BuzzFeed‘s Thirst-Aid Kit, Nichole Perkins. Future Junkers include Still Processing co-host Jenna Wortham, comedian Bowen Yang, essayist Chelsea Hodson, poet sam sax, writer and editor Matt Ortile, my Food 4 Thot co-hosts Fran Tirado, Joseph Osmundson, and Dennis Norris II, journalist Harron Walker, literary badass Alexander Chee, and a smattering of other tender morsels.

Episode 1 is out now. Listen here! Subscribe! Rate! Review!

Teebs

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. 

Infinite Regression: A Conversation with Alice Bolin

Elissa Washuta

Of Alice Bolin’s forthcoming essay collection Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, Carmen Maria Machado writes, “I love this book. I want to take it into the middle of a crowded room and hold it up and scream until someone tackles me to the ground; even then, I’d probably keep screaming.”

These essays follow the gaze of the viewer and the imagination of the reader upon the body of the dead girl, found on TV screens, in true crime novels, and in the conjuring of iconic places. Alice’s argument shifts as her lens does, directed sometimes at this corpse-consuming culture that prefers its women dead, sometimes at herself, a participant in the devouring.

I met Alice Bolin six years ago at the edge of a crowded barroom in Missoula, Montana. She remembers that I told her I was writing about gluten; I don’t remember much, that being the time when I was deader than ever, regularly steeped in drunken resignation that I would never not be in peril. By reading her good tweets and octopus-armed essays ever since I’ve been lucky to watch the workings of this cultural critic’s curious mind. We recently spoke via Skype from our homes, Alice’s in Memphis, mine in Columbus, Ohio.

Elissa Washuta: You begin the book by saying: “This is a book about books. To try that again, it is a book about my fatal flaw: that I insist on learning everything from books.” Is it such a flaw? Do you think the learning from books is a pale comparison to learning from experience or however else people learn? I think we both learned a lot about the world from teen magazines when we were growing up in places that the teen magazines didn’t seem to care about. I don’t have any basis for comparison for having an upbringing of learning about the world more experientially than from book learning. But what do you think?

Alice Bolin: I’m glad you asked me about this because it’s something I’ve obviously been thinking about and wrestling with. What is real “experience” versus experiencing the world mediated through art? Part of the point of the book is that the experience of art is just as valid or just as much a part of life as “IRL” conversations or going to work or whatever. Art and media take up a large amount of our time, especially in this era of human existence, and those things have been just as real as other parts of my life. That’s one thing I was trying to do by marrying a critical approach with a memoir approach in the book. But at the same time, I do want to question those myths of place or myths about gender or crime, all of which are themes in the book. If we just look around us, and we look at the people who we know and at our own communities, often we know better than those myths. There were lots of things I knew about Los Angeles when I lived there because I saw them when I stepped outside. I saw the truth about race in Los Angeles, or about its neighborhoods, or what it was like to drive around. I didn’t need to read Joan Didion to learn that – and actually what she taught me was wrong, in some cases. The experience of art is a valid experience. But I think learning solely from art can be a problem.

 

EW: I’ve been thinking about the way you construct place on the page. The first essay in the book established the Dead Girl Show concept. And you open with Twin Peaks, which is set not far from where you grew up. And then in the second essay, you move to Moscow, Idaho, your hometown, and you’re writing about the American West and what you say is the “embodiment of the twin ideals of beauty and terror.” And you move to another place in the West, Los Angeles. There’s such a sharp contrast between living in a place that’s iconic and living in a place that people can’t quite picture. I’m wondering if you felt differences in the crafting of those places on the page for a reader. A place that’s mythic, iconic, one that readers already feel like they know even if they haven’t been there. And then one that you have the opportunity to construct from scratch for most readers.

AB: Los Angeles is a place that is very iconic, but at the same time it’s difficult to conceive of or picture if you’ve never been there. When I went to Hollywood for the first time, I was like what the fuck? It’s kind of quirky and crime-ridden and full of weirdos, and I was like, what? This isn’t Hollywood. Because I was thinking Hollywood was like a red carpet stretched along the street and Cate Blanchett would be standing there or whatever. For me writing about Los Angeles was building it from the ground up, looking around me and being like, this is not what I pictured. In fact, I sort of pictured nothing—I had nothing to picture. All I could think about were these concepts, like show business and celebrity and even the ocean. It all felt very abstract to me.

Writing about Moscow and the Northwest was different because I was trying to describe this landscape that is quite strange – describing these steep rolling hills that exist in northern Idaho and eastern Washington in a way people would be able to picture, or at least might be tempted to Google.

EW: Right now, I’m working on a book chapter that’s largely about where I grew up. I’ve been learning all these new things about my home and the way that it was culturally constructed that I didn’t know. Like I didn’t know until very recently the first Friday the 13th film was filmed very close to where I grew up. It’s a process of researching and then rendering a place that was so familiar to me that I thought it was the center of the universe. In writing the book, did you have any moments when your home became strange to you?

AB: This is so depressing but the main time that happened was when I was researching the two mass shootings that happened in Moscow within five years of each other. The second one was committed by one of my high school classmates. But really what shook me was the one that happened first, in 2006. I read this series of articles done on it by a Boise paper. That’s far away from Moscow and so it had this outsider’s framing of the town. All the landmarks they were talking about, they were places that I knew really well, but they were populated with people who I didn’t quite understand. It gave me a lens on a place where I had never lived as an adult. It felt a little darker or a little weirder.

What you’re saying is really interesting because when I talk to my students, I point to you as a writer who researches herself and edits her own history, who really actively interrogates and pushes against that previous version of herself. I always try to get students to research the places where they’re from, the places they think they know so well.

EW: That’s why I think it’s so great to leave home and go somewhere else for a while, or forever. It’s kind of ridiculous for me when I look back at the things that I thought were just things that were true of everywhere. Like I thought there were fluorescent rocks everywhere. No, there are just fluorescent rocks in Warren and Sussex County, New Jersey. I’m sure they’re—I was going to say they’re everywhere, but there are not fluorescent rocks everywhere. Or iconic diners, that’s a very New Jersey thing. But I have a lot of culturally instilled doubt about how I know what I know, and whether I really know what I know, and whether I really am an authority on even my own experience. I’ve tried to use that. Because I can’t get rid of it. I’m always looking up words in the dictionary that I know very well and use all the time but I’m not sure that I really know them. Instead of just letting that destroy me, I’m trying to actually use it to strengthen my craft.

AB: I’m wondering if that’s something common to women writers. I mean, obviously, it is.

EW: Yeah.

AB: That self-doubt. But I have always thought of it as a strength too because as a critic I always doubt myself. I have the strength of my convictions, I know my opinion, but at the same time, I am terrified of being wrong in material ways or not being convincing enough. So I’m always the person who has their ducks in a row. I will go back and re-watch my favorite movie that I’ve seen 800 times if I’m going to write about it. It’s something actually in the past couple of years I’ve tried to stop myself from doing as much because I feel like it makes it less fun to read when the whole piece is just, “Here’s why I know what I know.” But at the same time, it’s something I try to teach my students, to be rigorous and to follow up, to question even the things you think you know.

EW: It’s interesting that you bring up the fear of being wrong–I want to talk to you about my experience of first reading that essay “A Teen Witch’s Guide to Staying Alive.” You first published that in a different form at Broadly. The essay is about teen witchcraft and literature that informed it for you, and you bring in an examination of my second book Starvation Mode. I loved the way you brought the book into this witchcraft examination, and I was honestly a little freaked out in a good way. I don’t think we had talked outside of Twitter for a while so I don’t think you would have known this, but really around that time I had just started reading my own tarot cards, I was getting into astrology, I had just started casting spells weeks before. But I didn’t feel that I had the right to call myself a witch because that seemed like it was on the other side of this velvet rope, guarded by the personified form of a Geocities website telling me that I couldn’t be a witch without some kind of a coven initiation. So even though Starvation Mode isn’t explicitly about witchcraft at all, I felt like you saw it and you saw me and you saw something in me and in my work that I didn’t even see. So your essay was like this conjuring. It had a real impact on me.

AB: This is very sweet!

EW: It’s true!

AB: When I heard the description of Starvation Mode, which I bought and read immediately when it was published, I was like oh it sounds so witchy. I just had an intuition that it would fit in with some of this stuff that I was reading and writing about, especially thinking about Shirley Jackson and the ways that food is used in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Food, this site of feminine control, is very witchy. Even in the Christian Eucharist, there is this spell that is said over bread, transforming it into a person’s body. I think that My Body Is A Book of Rules is a witchy book too but at the edges. In my mind I cannot remember the exact thing that made me be like, oh yes Starvation Mode will fit in with the teen witch essay. I just knew it immediately, like we were traveling on the same stream.

EW: It’s witch intuition.

AB: This spring I reread My Body Is A Book of Rules and saw all the stuff you wrote about magazines, which is something I’ve been thinking about and writing about, and it’s like oh yes! It all goes together, these ideas about girlhood and all the strange childhood rituals that we just take for granted.

EW: It’s amazing the way that through cultural criticism you’re able to create something, see something the author put there and didn’t realize was there. And you’re able to create a new annex to the work by doing that. And that gets me thinking again about this idea of learning things from books. I wonder whether maybe there are some things that can only be learned from books because that’s where the creation of some knowledge happens.

AB: Right. There’s something there that’s ineffable. I always connect it to the idea of the overtone in choral music, where certain harmonies will create another note that no one is singing. That catalyst, that overtone, is the way that a good essay works. All of these threads are playing in concert and they create something that’s only there in the margins or in the low notes. That’s why as a nonfiction writer I like to write about nonfiction. I feel like Dead Girls is such a book about nonfiction–kind of an infinite regression–but it’s fun for me to draw out those overtones and create something explicit from things that were implicit.

EW: The other day you tweeted something that I was thinking about for days. You wrote about this being “a book about how the constant fear of being murdered by men constrains women’s freedom + about our giddy obsession with real life + fictional murder stories.” Then you tweeted about not being sure about whether the Dead Girl genre is redeemable. And so for days, I was thinking about how much I’m drawn to the Dead Girl genre, and also about how often in my life I’ve been afraid of being murdered by men. There have been times when I’m living my life, going to my job, doing my whatever, and all the while I’m privately terrified of some specific man who I’m afraid my kill me–various men, at various times in my life. No matter how much pain and fear I’m feeling, I can only really tell my closest friends and we talk it out together. It’s easy to feel like there’s nobody to care, nobody to help. For me, this is the appeal of the Dead Girl genre. In real life, there’s no Agent Cooper who’s going to figure this out for me. So in TV and movies, we’ve got either that hero guy figure or if not, at least all of us in the audience are looking at this Dead Girl together, we’re all caring together. That’s sort of reassuring. It’s like I’m being cared for by proxy. So for me, that’s what makes the genre redeemable: a way of finding comfort in a dangerous and generally uncaring world. But I’m wondering what’s behind the question for you? What makes you think it might be redeemable?

AB: Oh I have many thoughts. You’re totally right about that hero figure. That it is such cold consolation to think that the only thing we can really hope for is someone to care if we are killed.

EW: Yeah!

AB: We can’t even wish to not be killed.

EW: Right.

AB: That’s the thing that does make it feel like, should we even try to subvert the genre? I think that women want to be confronted with some kind of reality. We are always facing this fear of violence, so things in the media that show us that violence makes us feel like, OK I’m not crazy, this could happen to me, these threats are out there. But at the same time, those stories in the media are also warnings to us. They are ways to police women by saying, “Don’t be like her.” Because ultimately it isn’t like, “Let’s stop men from acting that way,” it’s like, “Let’s protect the women” or “Let’s solve their cases.” So I have to think about the impact that being able to identify with victims on screen has for women with this other effect that it maintains us in this state of absolute terror.

But I think about My Body is a Book of Rules a lot when it comes to this question because it’s a book that’s hard to read and it is intense and it does talk a lot about violence, but it also really forces the reader to reckon with a woman who is going to tell them her experience and who is not going to back away and is not going to die,  who is going to be there through the whole thing. That to me is the opposite of the Dead Girl Show. You use stuff like Law & Order SVU or other Dead Girl icons, even saints in the Catholic church, to amplify your own voice. That’s when I think, if we can allow women’s imaginations to play with these stories, then maybe there is a redemptive effect. But it takes a leap that I see mostly in literature at this point and less in other kinds of media.

EW: I’m thinking again of that idea of the book as the site of experience. In the book that’s the only place where I’m able to have that experience, or that’s the place where I’m freest to have the experience of telling someone about my fear and my pain. That’s not a real-life experience I have that often. The book is a site of freedom where, at least in drafting and revising, I’m not constrained by anybody else.

AB: That was true for me too in writing my book. Even as I say we should be careful of learning everything from books, I think you’re right that that moment of confrontation that can happen with another person and that moment of freedom is unique to literature, for right now anyway. Maybe because of the time it takes to read a book, and because it’s silent and individual, and because at this point writing is not really that lucrative.

 

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, a collection of essays forthcoming from Morrow/HarperCollins on June 26, 2018. Preorder here.

Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a writer of personal essays and memoir. She is the author of two books, Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Exquisite Vessel: Shapes of Native Nonfiction, forthcoming from University of Washington Press. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Elissa is an assistant professor of English at the Ohio State University.

DEAR READER: A Q&A with Rosalie Knecht

THSTAFF

It’s been a busy month/year/life for Rosalie Knecht, whose much-anticipated novel Who Is Vera Kelly? (Tin House 2018) hit shelves this week. Already, the New York Times Book Review is calling it “gripping, subtle, magnificently written.” (“Knecht is the real deal,” the review goes on to note.) A social worker by day, Knecht is also Literary Hub‘s Book Therapist, author of Relief Map (Tin House 2016), and translator of César Airas’ The Seamstress and the Wind (New Directions 2011).

This month, Knecht took 24 hours to catch her breath at Ace Hotel New York. As the latest author to participate in the Dear Reader series, she spent a night at Ace and penned a letter to an imagined audience. What she wrote has been a mystery until today, when it’s being placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Rosalie to talk letters, the perfect reader, and resisting the urge to map.

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

ROSALIE KNECHT: I would have loved to get Raymond Chandler’s letters. He was hilarious, and much easier to take through the mail than in person.

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?

A few times I’ve gotten all excited and mapped out a book all the way through, or half of the way through, and it feels amazing and productive and is much easier than just spending that time on writing scenes, but in the end, I’ve never written a project the way it was outlined. If an outline is too detailed, or it extends too far ahead of where I am in the writing, it completely deadens the work. I just lose interest in writing it. So I’ve learned that I can only sketch out the general shape of things, or it will take all of the fun out of it.

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 don’t really think about audience. I think about an abstract, single reader, who enjoys exactly the things I enjoy and hates exactly the things I hate. I look forward to being surprised by people being drawn to my work in the future.

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

I Served the King of England, by Bohumil Hrabal. A picaresque about a boy working in hotels, while the twentieth century happens around him. It’s just really beautiful and funny, and brutal at the end.

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

Just that it has to be the first thing I do that day. All right, that’s a lie. I can maybe wash a few dishes, straighten the kitchen, look at Twitter for fifteen minutes, but if I get really absorbed in anything else before writing, it’s a thousand times harder to get started. Ideally I get up, the kitchen is clean, the cats have already been fed, and all I have to do is make coffee and sit down at my desk.

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.

Photography by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York.

Sick: An Interview with Porochista Khakpour

Jane Ratcliffe

Porochista Khakpour’s staggeringly beautiful memoir Sick is a travelogue of sorts. As it moves from Tehran to New York to Santa Fe to Los Angeles, each destination exquisitely rendered, the roads it travels—some pot-holed, some dirt, some shiny and quick—are Porochista’s traumas and redemptions. An addiction to benzos. Being hit by a truck. Broken love affairs. A family in distress. Sexual assault. And at the center lies a grim compass, an unbearable illness, one that, especially in the beginning, doctors refuse to believe is real: Lyme disease. Porochista lays all this bare in an effort to discover the roots of her illness.

I met Porochista on a Facebook thread posted by an established writer who argued against sharing contacts with new writers. A long chain of writers agreed. Porochista was the sole dissenter, which tells you what she’s like: generous. She’ll take you under her wing. She’ll help you through the hard stuff. And this gorgeous generosity carries over onto the pages of her memoir. Porochista writes with gentle honesty and precision, even when the memories are scorchingly painful. Yet somehow through this, Porochista begins to awaken to herself.

Featured on every Most Anticipated Books of 2018 list that matters, Sick unflinchingly examines the challenges of living with chronic illness yet lands us where you might least expect it: hope.

I was lucky enough to communicate over email with Porochista just before Sick was released.

◆◆◆

Jane Ratcliffe: “I’ve never felt comfortable in my own body,” you write. Yet you go on to say that through chronic illness you began to feel more at home there. It’s easy to imagine the opposite might be true. Can you talk about how that came to be?

Porochista Khakpour: So, I’ve had multiple identifiers that are “marginal.” (I actually hate that term because I feel like it’s like “minority” and in America all of us who are pushed to those identifiers are actually the majority.) They all pose a lot of problems. There was this feeling I had at one point where chronic illness and disability was finally a home where I could be understood—it was not a good feeling, by the way, but one I’d call a dead-end one. I’ve had many of those in my life.  None of my other identifiers seemed acceptable to people around me but illness/disability was a language most people understood, even if they didn’t understand my particular illness or even believe in it. So, my body felt like a settling point. Of course, that settling is temporary, always, but it doesn’t erase that it’s a valid feeling. I am deep in illness all over again now and I do see my body as a home, but a dark cold damp miserable one. I want out of my body all the time, but I am trapped in it, so, well, it’s my unhappy home and I have to make of it what I will.

JR: Countless doctors were dismissive of your symptoms, emphasizing (sometimes cruelly) that they thought it was all in your head. You write, “Women simply aren’t allowed to be physically sick until they are mentally sick, too, and then it is by some miracle or accident that the two can be separated for proper diagnosis.” How did it feel to not be believed by the very people who were supposed to be helping you? What sort of toll do you think it took on your psyche and healing?

PK: It took a huge toll and continues to take a toll. I have so much trauma around this. I have many forms of PTSD with different origins—all sorts of health PTSD, but this is one of the worst. You go through years of this—I have literally been in tears begging and pleading with doctors for years and years. It destroys you to have to do this again and again and it bleeds—pun intended!—into other aspects of your life too. It’s hard for me to have “normal” conversations around illness, whatever that is. I am always somehow defensive. I am always ready to think the worst which has been interesting because lately more and more people seem to actually recognize Lyme and other forms of chronic illness, so sometimes I am ready for battle in a battlefieldless zone.

JR: You’re quite engaged on social media often sharing your experience as an Iranian American woman in today’s America. I’ve learned a lot from you, as I’m sure have others. In your acknowledgements you mention that you stripped the book of cultural criticism, yet I’m curious to know what impact you feel the health of a society has on the mental and physical health of its individuals.

PK: I felt I had to be really careful not to make my book appear like it represents the experience of all chronically ill or disabled America. I mean, the reason I felt I had to write it was because I did not find a lot of stories like mine out there. In that sense I also felt if I paraded around Audre Lorde’s experience with cancer or even Amy Tan’s with Lyme, I would be creating a sort of wonky narrative dilemma: a sort of forced dependency, a connecting of dots, and for what? For whom? For metaphor? To justify my story? To say others were also sick? To teach you facts?

I am a fiction writer first and foremost and I came to journalism and later essays with an interest in their function as service at best. It comes from another impulse altogether. I wanted to be able to tell my story directly to someone without couching it in theory, history, the sociological. I mean, I have loved research and reading all my life. But why pretend I am worth more in some context? Why can’t I just tell my story? I can’t speak for society—I understand the concept of society less and less as I get older, and America in particular seems more and more confusing to me with each month these days. All I am worth is my truth and hopefully that can inspire others to tell their truths too. That to me is a lot. And that to me is what my social media presence is about—I can’t footnote/endnote my experience to make it more acceptable. It’s maybe not even art what I did with this book, just as I don’t think of my social media as “art.” Oh well—is that bad? Maybe not everything has to be capital-A art. Anyway, I drove myself crazy thinking of these questions when I was drafting and redrafting this small but difficult book.

JR: More and more, it seems, people toss around this notion that things happen for a reason. Or that god/the universe doesn’t give us more than we can handle. In terms of your health, how does that sit with you?

PK: I believe in God and I believe in the good of the universe and I can honestly say. . . yeah, I don’t know if things happen for a reason or if we are given just what we can handle. All my relatives think that way and they look for lessons and morals in all things. But there is a danger to that. Was it my karma to suffer physically? Did my relatives who were tortured in Iranian prisons deserve that? I mean, we can go on and on with this all. People think I have had such bad luck. But I find that mostly laughable because I think I have had the best luck: I lived through that and I survived. Nine lives? I’ve had ninety at least. So it just depends on your appetite for optimism and pessimism.  I just don’t think the God I believe in is into punishing people—I don’t think any god is that petty, you know? God and nature have bigger concerns, more ambitious schemes, like the balance and harmony and preservation of this planet from its many citizens that seem so intent on abusing it. Anyway, that’s a wild guess, because like everyone I know I have a pretty one-sided relationship with God.

JR: I was so moved by the passage where you imagine a future life in which you are healthy and effortlessly engaged in the world. How easy is it for you to conjure that up? How likely does a healthy future feel to you?

PK: It is not often easy, but it is all I have. I try to live in the moment, as they say, but most of my moments have been uncomfortable so projecting into the future is a way to survive. I can only think of a few periods in my life where things were easy or blissful, where I was free from physical or psychic pain, so I always looked ahead. Often even I achieved my dreams. I have a pretty strong brain. Recently, I have had setbacks and have felt very depressed, to be honest. It has been rough. My body has disappointed me in many ways lately. Still, I hope—it is very hard to kill my hope. It is maybe my strongest muscle. My will to live is pretty strong. I try to dream a way out—or a way in, more likely!—and sometimes it comes. Maybe I’ve been lucky so far.

JR: You write, “To be seen, to be heard, to exist wholly, whether in beauty or ugliness, by a parent often felt like another big step to wellness. I experienced it rarely, but when I did, I felt something light in me that I had long thought had burnt out.” Why do you think it’s so important for family members to truly see and acknowledge what we’re living through?

PK: Well, it is not always necessary but it is a gift to have this. Sadly I know few chronically ill people who have been gifted this. Most people barely have anyone who understands, much less their own family. But when you have these moments when people who share blood with you get it—and it has happened several times with my mother in particular—it really elevates the struggle into something a bit more ethereal and cosmic circle-of-life-y, to put it crassly! It is really hard to get through any failing of the body without some support. Family doesn’t have to be blood, of course—my friends have often been my real family. So has my dog! You just need support and love and honestly it can come from a plant. You just have to be connected to something larger than yourself that you somehow feel a bond with—this is why prayer “works” in a sense. Nothing I feel is more deadly than the isolation we especially experience in the West. I truly believe we are pack animals and we need each other, much more than we want to admit.

JR: A reoccurring theme in your memoir is the loss of identity that can accompany chronic illness. During one of your myriad hospital visits, a young nurse is particularly kind to you and wonders what happened for you to be in such a state. You, in turn, ponder your value. All these many years later, after even more ups and downs, how would you describe your value today?

PK: A great question I am bad at answering. I am working on this issue. It takes a lot of therapy. For much of my life I saw myself as worth nothing more than my work. I didn’t feel appreciated or understood in any other way. I would like to change this idea, starting from myself. I just turned 40 so maybe now is a good time to reconsider this. I’ve thought of myself as a writer for 36 years, and I first published at age 19 (a small article in The Village Voice). My first novel came out in 2007. That’s not the shortest career. I joke about retiring but really I just want to work a bit less. Or more sanely. So I can be reminded that I can be loved by just existing, that I deserve that even. It’s a hard lesson when you’ve seldom been rewarded for it. So anyway, this is my work now, just like writing books and articles, this work of working on myself at last. I haven’t had a second to do it my life. Now I’m starting to. It is hard, it is wonderful, it is impossible. But I feel lucky to be able to ask these questions and receive these answers.

Porochista Khakpour is the author of the memoir Sick (HarperPerennial, forthcoming 2018), as well as the novels The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove, 2007). Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, Bookforum, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, Salon, Spin, Elle, and many other publications.

Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in New England Review, The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, O, The Oprah Magazine, Vogue, The Huffington Post, Vh-1, Interview, Guernica, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, Tricycle, The Detroit News, Teen People and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. Her novel, The Free Fall (Henry Holt) was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the most notable books of the year. Jane holds an MFA from Columbia University.

 

Novel Improv: A Conversation with Bradley Bazzle

Ryan Teitman

An editor once called one of Bradley Bazzle’s short stories “a delightful, alchemical mixture of realism and complete bullshit,” which is probably the highest compliment I can think of for a piece of fiction. No matter how absurd the premise—the tyrannical behavior of Magellan on his voyage around the world, or a mysterious Christmas company called Santa Direct—Bazzle’s fiction finds the anxieties and insecurities that are burrowed deep inside all of us.

 His first novel, Trash Mountain, was published by Red Hen Press on May 1. It’s a slyly funny coming-of-age story about a boy trying to blow up an enormous pile of garbage, but it’s also a portrait of class and racial struggles in working-class America. The two towns under the shadow of Trash Mountain could easily be plopped down in Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, or anywhere that people are struggling.

 Before shifting his focus to fiction, Bradley spent many years writing and performing comedy. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia, with his wife and daughter. We spoke by email about the origins of his novel, the creeping specter of authoritarianism, and his thoughts on humor and contemporary fiction.

Ryan Teitman: Ben Shippers, the narrator of your novel, spends his teenage years trying to infiltrate and destroy Trash Mountain, the gargantuan pile of garbage that looms over his town. The book opens with his bumbling effort to set it ablaze with Molotov cocktails. Why is Ben so invested in destroying Trash Mountain?

Bradley Bazzle: The occasion of the novel is Ben’s decision to destroy Trash Mountain, but I hoped to give the impression that he and his big sister, Ruthanne, have long been fixated on Trash Mountain. That type of youthful fixation really interests me. Because kids aren’t as self-conscious as we are, their obsessions can be more outlandish and intense.

A story I always come back to is Dan Chaon’s “Big Me,” in which the child narrator becomes fixated on the new teacher who moves in down the block. The kid starts spying on the teacher and decides the guy might be an adult version of himself sent from the future to warn him not to become a lonely, hairy alcoholic. A more recent example is the preteen girl in J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River, who spends her time sleuthing online about the couple who were killed in their house in upstate New York. The girl’s mother is just as obsessed, but as an adult, she takes less action. The girl really goes for it.

So the question, to me, is what weaponizes Ben’s obsession: what makes him want to destroy Trash Mountain as opposed to staring at it, chart its height, etc.? It’s tempting to call the mountain a symbol of the crappiness of his surroundings and home-life, but that crappiness is fundamental to Ben’s frame of reference; it isn’t something he questions until later. The thing that’s changing for Ben, when the novel opens, is that Ruthanne is outgrowing him. They used to obsess about Trash Mountain together, but now she spends all her time reading sleazy romance novels, and, worse, trying to do well at school. She’s growing up, and Ben is left more alone than ever. This estrangement from Ruthanne is also, in part, what leads him to the delinquent boys at school and the homeless trash pickers at the landfill, and then, finally, to Whitey Connors.

RT: Speaking of Ben’s “crappy frame of reference,” can you talk about setting of the novel, the two towns that surround Trash Mountain? They’re racially segregated—the residents of Komer are mostly white, and the residents of Haislip are mostly black—but they’re both working-class towns without much opportunity. Why set the novel in these two towns rather than making Trash Mountain the defining feature of a single place?

BB: I grew up in a segregated city, Dallas, and live in one now, Athens, that’s less overtly segregated but offers a very different experience to its natives (many of whom are black) than it does to its students and young professionals (most of whom are white). For years I lived in a part of town that’s still mostly black, patches of which didn’t have electricity until the seventies. Whenever it rained, the area behind my and my neighbor’s houses would flood, floating trash into our backyards. The scummy forest behind our houses had been a dumping ground for many years, I learned. My neighbor, a black woman about my mom’s age, told me not to bother complaining to the city. I never complained, so I can’t say for sure that my neighbor’s attitude wasn’t outdated and that the city wouldn’t have done anything, but at the very least she grew up in a place that didn’t care about her complaints.

Anyway, by splitting the town in two, into the imaginary towns of Komer and Haislip, I hoped to heighten the potential us-versus-them dynamic. Ben and his delinquent friends are the type of people we might imagine being susceptible to authoritarian fantasies and fearmongering, and one of the ways that works down the line, after you realize the authoritarian leader isn’t actually going to do anything to make your life better, is by convincing you that you’re part of the in-group and that the out-group has it way worse. I’m paraphrasing Timothy Snyder here. His latest, The Road to Unfreedom, is riveting and harrowing, and essential right now.

RT: Even though Ben has an ongoing obsession with destroying Trash Mountain, in the rest of his life he gets caught up in the gravity of whatever group he’s around, whether it’s the delinquent boys at his school, the trash-pickers at the dump, or Whitey Connors. Is that a function of his limited opportunities in Komer or something about Ben’s personality?

BB: Honestly, I never questioned the degree to which Ben immerses himself in the work of those around him. That may say more about me than about Ben. I used to do a lot of improv comedy, and one of the instincts you develop, doing that, is not to wring your hands over whether or not to do something. You just do it, and you go all the way with it.

When I’m writing, particularly in the first person, there’s an element of performance that seems to kindle those same instincts. I may go too far, though. One of the criticisms I got from Steve Almond, who judged the Red Hen contest, was that Ben rarely took a step back to reflect on what he was doing. I made a major revision based on that criticism and others, but Ben is still a little reckless, and recklessly trusting.

What I can’t decide is if that element of Ben’s character is simply an outgrowth of my writing process or if it’s a small part of my own character, easily exploited for artistic purposes.

RT: As I was reading, Ben’s movement from one group to another felt like a very accurate portrayal of growing up (sans Molotov cocktail attacks, at least for me): you leave some friends behind, make others, then do it all again, most of the time with no big falling out or event as a catalyst. You get older, and you just drift into new things.

BB: I suppose that’s true. Growing up (even next to a landfill), there’s always the promise of new friends and adventures. And then the brutal, Clarissa-Dalloway-style stripping away begins. Adulthood!

RT: Trash Mountain began as a short story. What was it like expanding it into a novel?

BB: I enjoyed writing the story, and found Ben’s voice came easily, so writing the novel was a matter of re-inhabiting Ben’s voice and directing it towards what I hoped would be an escalating action based on causally linked events: the firebombing fails, so he needs better equipment; to get better equipment, he needs a job that pays money; he can’t get real job, so he gets a sketchy one; and on and on. The results were pretty rambling and weird, so revision involved a lot of cutting.

For instance, there used to be a chapter where Bob Bilger, the mountain climber and Haislip native, speaks at Ben’s school, and Ben gets so pumped that he sneaks out to the VFW that night to see Bilger again and ask some hardball questions. The chapter was funny (to me, at least), but Bob Bilger didn’t tell Ben anything that he didn’t figure out on his own over the course of the novel. Something I discovered as I wrote and revised was that Ben’s voice, the impetus for the novel, was changing (maturing?) as I wrote.

RT: You use humor regularly in your fiction. When I hear humor discussed regarding fiction, it tends to be an indicator for a genre: “comic fiction.” But it seems to me that humor is more like a tool of craft–being good at jokes the way you would be good at plot or dialogue. How do you view it? Or is creating that kind of distinction missing a larger point?

BB: When I first started writing short stories, my stories tended to be very short and based on escalating jokes, not unlike the comedy sketches and one-act plays I wrote in college and the years after when I was performing. The shift away from that was gradual—and incomplete, as of this writing. I like to think that my pacing is better now, and that my characters are more sincere and believable, and not all teetering on the brink of madness. But at some point, I stopped trying to resist those instincts. So much of human interaction is joking. It’s part of how we make sense of things, and writing is nothing if not a sense-making project.

RT: Now that Trash Mountain has been published, what are you working on now?

BB: Three other novels. That may sound like a lot, but the way I’ve been working in recent years is to rotate among projects. I’ll finish a draft of one novel, then move to another for a few months. The breaks help me see the novels anew, and revise more drastically.

The furthest along takes place in a near-future America dominated by pharmaceutical conglomerates, where some people discover, and experiment with, a drug that allows them to enter the worlds of movies and TV shows. The newest is about a race of mutant seductors in Atlanta who hibernate in shallow graves. Both of those are written in a split third POV and involve sci-fi elements. Somewhere in between is a shorter, first-person novel about a homemaker in Dallas who decides his brother-in-law is a wizard, only for the true wizard to turn out to be their neighbor: former Eagles frontman Don Henley.

Bradley Bazzle’s first novel, Trash Mountain, won the 2016 Red Hen Press Fiction Award, judged by Steve Almond. His short stories have won awards from The Iowa Review, New Ohio Review, and Third Coast. They also appear in New England Review, Epoch, Copper Nickel, Web Conjunctions, and other literary journals. Bradley grew up in Dallas, Texas, and has degrees from Yale, Indiana University, and the University of Georgia, where he taught writing. He remains in Athens, Georgia, with his wife and daughter.

Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012). His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, New England Review, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He lives in Philadelphia. 

DEAR READER: A Q&A with Naomi Jackson

THSTAFF

Naomi Jackson burst onto the scene with her acclaimed debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press, 2015). The brilliantly observed story of three generations of Caribbean women torn between Brooklyn and Barbados, it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, the NAACP Image Award, and more. Naomi’s work has appeared in Tin House, Poets & Writers, brilliant corners, Obsidian, The Caribbean Writer, and—today!—the rooms of Ace Hotel New York.

As this month’s Dear Reader writer-in-residence, Naomi was invited by Tin House to stay at Ace Hotel in Manhattan, where she penned a letter to an audience of strangers. Her letter has been kept secret until now, when it will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Naomi to talk freedom, letting your characters win, and putting away the phone.

Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

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

NAOMI JACKSON: I’d correspond with Sula from Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name, Antoinette from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, and Lucy from Jamaica Kincaid’s novel of the same name. My correspondence would be about liberty and freedom—what it takes to be a free black or Creole woman, whether liberty is something that’s possible, and if not, what you do with the bits of freedom which you can access.

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 work in a variety of ways. Usually I begin a novel by trying to find my way into the story, which means letting my characters talk and lead me where they want me to go. Then I inevitably hit a wall where the initial thrill of a new project peters out and I use mapping and outlining to help guide the next phase. The work often goes in directions that I never expected. Characters say and do things that surprise me, and then my job as a writer is to respond in an intelligent way; usually I let the characters win, but not always.

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 almost never think about my audience when I write, so in a way, Dear Reader is a perfect exercise for me, as it’s about writing to a stranger, which is so often what my work feels like. When I’m editing, I do think about audience—there’s a flip that switches from thinking about what pleases me most as a writer to considering how the book might be received; in particular, I find myself thinking about how the work will be received by Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora communities. But allowing the audience into the room during the writing process leads to censorship, which is a sure and sudden death for creativity. I don’t find myself too surprised by who is drawn to my work as I think that there are openings in it for a wide variety of audiences.

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

I wish that more people knew about Shay Youngblood’s Soul Kiss and Bebe Moore Campbell’s 72 Hour Hold. Both of these books were so important to my early formation as a writer and a person, and I don’t think that they are read or celebrated nearly enough.

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

I usually pray before I write to open myself to the best writing possible. I put my phone away in a drawer that I’d be too embarrassed to open before my writing time is up.

Photo by Seze Devres for Ace Hotel New York

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.

Hover Above the Body: An Interview with Rita Bullwinkel

Rebekah Bergman

Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up (out May 8 from A Strange Object) has earned high praise from Jeff VanderMeer, Lorrie Moore, and Deb Olin Unferth, among many others. The stories in this debut immerse you in the fragility and neediness of your human body. I had the great luck of meeting Rita in college; the first time I saw heras I recall itshe was standing at the center of a cramped dorm room telling a captivating story to a group of fellow freshman. Ritas humor, eye for odd detail, and ear for language shine in Belly Up. Her deep capacity for empathy, which makes her a brilliant conversationalist and mostgenerous friend, is on full display as she channels the voices of teenage girls, middleaged men, widows, the dying, and the dead.

In a series of emails, Rita and I discussed Belly Up, early childhood injuries, heretical religious texts, and strange dying wishes.

Rebekah Bergman: In many stories, we see the rituals people develop in the wake of death and the physical reality of what death does to the body. I know you have an academic background in religious studies. Can you talk a little about that? How do you draw from religious texts in your writing, and where else do you draw from?

Rita Bullwinkel: When I was twenty-two I did have a near-miss at becoming a religious studies academic. I seriously considered, and was encouraged by professors, to continue my undergraduate religious studies research and pursue a PhD. I was researching 4th century heretical Christian and Jewish texts that championed ideas of prayer through sex; god as inherently hermaphroditic, or genderless; and the notion that in the story of Adam and Eve it is the snake that is the true god, because it is the snake that leads Eve to knowledge, and it is knowledge that is divine, not stupidity. There is one text that I made the mistake of falling in love with for its beauty. This text is called Thunder, Perfect Mind. It is structured like a riddle. It presents dualities of what god might be, or isn’t, or what god might contain. I found myself memorizing it, and I confessed this my thesis advisor, who was concerned. Beauty has no place in the academic study of religion, which has fought for a near century to become un-cleaved from the misty grips of the church.

These religious texts that I studied do, at times, appear in my writing. Sometimes I am not able to recognize that they have appeared until I reread a story I have written for the fourth or fifth time. Perhaps most obviously, I stole bits of the Gnostic story of Norea for some of the stories that Ainsley and Mary tell each other in “Arms Overhead.”

I’m not sure where else I draw from. It’s so hard to tell, isn’t it? The soup of my unconscious, and how things get in there, and then appear in my writing, has never been clear to me.

Bergman: Each of your titles works beautifully and in its own way. “Phylum,” for instance, is a clinical, cold word for what becomes a very intimate, human story. When, during your writing process, do you come up with a title? How did you decide on Belly Up as the title for the book?

Bullwinkel: I find I come to titles differently with different stories. Some stories are born out of titles and some stories live title-less until they are finished. “Decor” did not have a title until very late. “Harp” had its title from the very beginning.

“Belly Up” was the title of a story I wrote that I chose not to include in the collection. It was a story about how, when a family member dies, you have to sit at the morgue and flip through a binder of caskets that are all very expensive and pick one out for the dead to live in, and also how, at a funeral, you have to worry about feeding all the people who are still alive. It was a wonky-shaped, ugly story that I decided I didn’t like. But I did like the title, so I kept it. My friend, the Swedish painter Linnéa Gad, had my favorite thing to say about the title. When I told her the title was Belly Up she said that it’s like when a dog rolls on its back. It gives itself up to you, and lets you pet the most vulnerable part of its body, its soft, susceptible stomach. In that moment, you could hurt the dog if you wanted to. But dogs are almost always right about who wants to hurt them and who doesn’t.

And, I couldn’t talk about titles without acknowledging that you, Rebekah Bergman, gifted me the title for “Mouth Full of Fish.” I have no idea what it was called before you read it, and pulled that beautiful title out of sky. I think we are both very sensitive to titles because of the time we’ve spent working for NOON and working with Diane Williams. Diane is a truly brilliant title-ist.

Bergman: What are some titles that particularly speak to you?

Bullwinkel: I like titles that imply movement. I also like titles that sound good in the mouth, if you know what I mean. All of the below titles do both of these things.

You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

It Was Like My Trying to Have a TenderHearted Nature by Diane Williams

Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao

My Private Property by Mary Ruefle

Pee on Water by Rachel B. Glaser

The Bend, The Lip, The Kid by Jaimy Gordon

The Father Costume by Ben Marcus

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

Bergman: Belly Up features several works of what might be called “flash,” and I’m curious how you see the shorter pieces and longer works playing off one another. Do you see a distinction between a work of flash and a longer work?

Bullwinkel: I think, ultimately, a story is beautiful, or it is not beautiful. It is either meaningful, or it is not meaningful. Length has almost no bearing on whether or not these things are true. I do think that the experience of reading a short work of fiction alongside a much longer work of fiction elicits a unique and delightful reading experience where a reader has the chance to take a breath of air in a short narrative, and have some white space between stories, before going back under water into the head of a writer for a very long time. This structure manufactures pacing in a way that delights me. From the beginning I knew that I wanted Belly Up to emulate this form and contain both long and very short pieces.

Bergman: Many widows populate the worlds of Belly Up. To speak, in particular, to “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am,” where did Franny’s interior voice come from?

Bullwinkel: Franny bears some biographic similarities with my grandmother, Ann Bullwinkel, to whom Belly Up claims, on its dedication page, that it is partly circling.

But I feel Franny is, in many ways, just me. As you know, although I’m not married, I’ve been loving the same person for a very long time now. I think most of Franny’s voice came from imagining what I would feel if my partner died, and puzzling through the strangeness of being coupled with someone for so long. It’s a strange thing, to share a life with someone, isn’t it? We’re so fundamentally alone in so many ways. In my lived experience, coupling has been about love but also just about just witnessing the other person’s life and holding that witnessing all together in one mind. Without a doubt, my long-time lover knows me better than anyone on the planet. And I find that so incredibly strange because we are so completely different. People remark on our different-ness frequently. I think Franny finds loving someone strange in the same ways that I do, and that that is where her voice found its energy.

Bergman: We see many widows also in “Burn.” In that story, food becomes very closely connected to grief. It sounds like “Belly Up”—the story—also examined that connection. How do you see the link between consumption and death?

Bullwinkel: We require so much and, in the end, there is so very little left of us.

Bergman: Yes, let’s talk about bodies. Your writing reminds me of the strangeness of having one. The ways a body can atrophy and be ruined are largely irreversible in your stories. In “Black Tongue,” I was surprised to find out that the narrator’s injured tongue heals. Why, in this story, does the injury heal? What can a body recover from? What can’t it?

Bullwinkel: I think it is remarkable what our bodies can recover from, though I have little understanding of what one can recover from and what one cannot.

I have a very vivid memory of having my head split open as a child. I was five, and a friend’s older brother hit me with a golf club because I refused to share a ball. I remember being outside and seeing the club coming for my face and then waking up and being totally alone. I was sticky and covered in blood. I got up and went in to the house where there was a large mirror across from the front door and I saw myself then with my head split open and thought, this is it. My body looks so completely and totally broken and split open. All this stuff from my inside is gushing to the outside so that the boundary where my body starts and ends is no longer clear.

But then, miraculously, I was stitched up and healed, and I have a scar on my face, yes, but there is really very little of that violent act that anyone can still see.

I think, also, as a former athlete, I was conditioned to separate from my body from a young age. One cannot push oneself to swim six miles a day if one stays in their body. One must hover above the body to do such a thing. It’s the only effective way to keep one’s body moving.

Bergman: Do you think that learning to dissociate from yourself in that way has served your writing?

Bullwinkel: I do think there is a connection between my past as a competitive athlete and my writing, though it’s not clear to me what exactly that connection might be. I think both acts require obsessive behavior and the recognition that the acts themselves will most likely result in failure.

Bergman: What, if anything, do you think can move beyond or between bodies? Can pain and trauma? I’m thinking again of your many widows, also of the pain and trauma in “Mouth Full of Fish” and “Decor.”

Bullwinkel: I often think about how people are bonded by the trauma they have experienced together, and how trauma can, often, hold two people together closer than they otherwise would be. I think this is the primary bond that binds families. A group of people loves the same person (their mother) and then the mother dies and the group of people (the siblings), despite their many differences and the fact that their souls were randomly chosen for their bodies, feel much closer, because they are experiencing grief together, and have a shared memory of loving a person and then watching that person (the mother) die.

Bergman: A last question related to death and consumption: I recently learned that a friend’s aunt has requested that when she (the aunt) dies, she (my friend) drink some of her ashes mixed in a liquid (I assume water, but maybe wine). Upon hearing this, I had a very strong sense that I’d read about this exact situation in one of your stories. But I don’t think I have. Have I?

Bullwinkel: This is not something I have ever written about, but I would love if someone did this with my dead body. If I die, Rebekah, will you please drink my ashes? Mix them with wine and throw a very big dinner party? And then, maybe, make everybody dance so I could be dancing inside everyone’s body at exactly the same time?

Bergman: Yes, and then you will have a story about this after all.

Rita Bullwinkel is the author of the story collection Belly Up (forthcoming from A Strange Object on May 8th, 2018). Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s,Tin House, Conjunctions, BOMB, Vice, NOON, and Guernica. She is a recipient of grants and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Brown University, Vanderbilt University, Hawthornden Castle, and The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. Both her fiction and her translation have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Francisco. Read more about her at ritabullwinkel.com. 

Rebekah Bergman’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Cosmonaut’s Avenue, Hobart, Joyland, Passages North, The Nashville Review, Necessary Fiction and Conium Review, among other journals and magazines. She holds a BA in literary arts from Brown University and an MFA in Fiction from The New School. She lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a novel.

DEAR READER: A Q&A with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

THSTAFF

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is author of the award-winning Harmless Like You (W. W. Norton, 2017), heralded by Alexander Chee as “the kind of novel our century deserves.” She’s also editor of the new anthology Go Home! (Feminist Press, 2018), in which Asian diasporic writers tackle urgent questions of belonging, displacement, and identity. Rowan is based in the UK, but lucky for us, her tour for Go Home! brought her to Manhattan, where she was writer-in-residence at Ace Hotel New York.

As this month’s Dear Reader author, Rowan spent her night at Ace penning a letter to an imagined audience of strangers. Her letter has been carefully guarded until today, when it will appear in each hotel room. We caught up with Rowan to talk about writing as logic puzzle, makeshift rituals, and why it helps to imagine “a guy wearing a plaid shirt, sipping an IPA, and asking why I’m wasting his time.”


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

ROWAN HISAYO BUCHANAN: I’ve been reading Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West’s letters. The flirtation is so intense; at one point Virginia writes to Vita that she imagines her stamping out the hops, “stark naked, brown as a satyr, and very beautiful.” In another letter she calls her, “my dear Creature.” Can you imagine being called my dear Creature by Virginia Woolf, especially with that capital C? Vita goes abroad and writes to Virginia of “lion-coloured rocks.”

Reading such letters should, I suppose, prompt me to run to pen and paper. But I think I’m a little intimidated by it. Letter writing is in some way a collaboration. You have to draw out and be drawn out, and it seems a bit impertinent to think I could do that with any of my literary heroes.

So perhaps instead, I’d like to write to Sylvia Plath’s best friend or Vladimir Nabokov’s next-door neighbor. I’d survive on nibbles of gossip and hearsay.

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 begin with a question that I know the story must answer.

In the case of my novel Harmless Like You, the question was: Why would a mother leave her child?

I set up conditions, almost like you would in a logic puzzle.

  1. The mother is not evil. 2. She loves her child. 3. She still leaves.

New questions spurted up around that first question. What sort of man will that child grow up to be? Where does she go? Why?

And by the time I’d answered all those questions I had a novel draft.

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?

Usually with the very first draft it’s just me, the characters, and a mug of tea going cold. As I edit I begin to imagine readers. Usually, the audience I imagine is half some small vulnerable version of myself and a guy wearing a plaid shirt, sipping an IPA, and asking why I’m wasting his time.

And yes, I have been surprised. The lovely side of social media is that strangers can reach out to you from across the void. My novel is about a Japanese artist living in New York and her mixed-race son. I was delighted to hear from some Asian Americans and mixed race people that it spoke to their own experiences in one way or another. But I’ve also had a middle aged Scottish man tell me that he was deeply moved. He made his wife and daughter read it afterwards! I was delighted.

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

The Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. They’re linked short stories about a young teacher. She herself barely feels like a grown-up and yet she is in charge of children. The stories are both absurd and tender. And, as a former high school teacher, I can confirm deeply true.

Oh—and also the work of Anita Brookner. She was writing in the 80’s and 90’s. Her novels are a quiet, snarky, and deeply invested in the private lives of women. I only just started reading her work, and I wish someone had told me about her years ago.

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

My rituals are makeshift and change as needed. There are days like today with no space for ritual. There are days when I drift to the keyboard after chugging a can of Diet Coke. And there are days when I light a candle or listen to music. I’m a big believer in doing whatever works and avoiding wasting energy beating yourself up about it.

Today, I’m composing my answers to your questions while on a plane because I’m touring an anthology I edited. (It’s called Go Home!) In the seat in front of me a baby is being rocked up and down, his little head appearing in the aisle to my left. Although cute, his fluctuating presence is not my writing ideal. Nevertheless, it’s time to dig into the draft of my next novel.

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog

Photography by Seze Devres.