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.


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


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!


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


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


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


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.

Ask a Librarian: What’s the Strangest Thing You’ve Found in a Library Book?


In Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, Ingrid writes letters to Gil about the truth of their marriage, then hides them in used books from their library. Carefully collected over the years, these books are filled with “left-behind photographs, postcards, and letters; bail slips, receipts, handwritten recipes, and drawings; valentines and tickets, sympathy cards, excuse notes to teachers—bits of paper with which he could piece together other people’s lives, other people who had read the same books he held and who had marked their place.”

Inspired by Swimming Lessons, we went to the experts in unexpected ephemera and well-loved books—librarians—and asked them to tell us the most interesting thing they’d found in a library book. Their answers delighted, disgusted, and exceeded our wildest expectations. It was hard to pick our favorites, but here they are.

A few takeaways: novels pair well with bologna, don’t even try to get a secret code past a librarian, and our books tell more stories than perhaps any of us realize.


What’s the most interesting, memorable, or just plain weird thing you’ve found in a library book?


A taco, perfectly preserved and pressed like a flower in the middle of a book. It was so slim you wouldn’t know it was there until you opened the book. —Amanda Monson, Bartow County Library System

I am a first generation immigrant from Russia. My senior year of college, at least the last semester of it, I had to write a senior thesis. I had gotten permission to write a historical fiction, a creative piece but one that would demonstrate my impressive researching skills. So, I chose to write about Soviet era Russia, primarily the political and religious oppression that existed. I was very familiar with this topic, having arrived in the U.S. as refugees due to the fact that our family was persecuted for our religious beliefs. I scoured the internet for books on the topic; I had to dedicate an entire bookshelf to those books. One little book called “Konshaubi: A True Story of Persecuted Christians in the Soviet Union” by Georgi Vins. Georgi Vins was a big name in our community. He was expelled from Russia, along with a few other dissidents, in 1979 in exchange for 2 Soviet spies. As I flipped through this very humble book, I landed on a page of photos. On one of them, I noticed three familiar faces. My grandfather, grandmother, and uncle’s. My grandfather served four 3-year sentences (total of 12 years) in the Soviet prisons for his involvement in the Baptist church. My uncle served 3 years. My uncle had just died that February. It was so shocking to see his face and the faces of my grandparents. I showed my mom, and she cried when she saw her parents and brother. It was, and still is, the most memorable and interesting find in a book. —Violetta Nikitina, Union County Public Library

A letter in a sealed, stamped envelope that had never been sent. I decided to mail it. —Christina Thurairatnam, Holmes County District Public Library


Sonogram pictures of a developing baby. —Chantal Walvoord, Rockwall County Library

A piece of bologna! It was in a children’s picture book, so I think someone was snacking while reading. —Joy Scott, Steele Creek Library

Bologna. —Helen Silver, Spanish River Library

Bologna. —Kate Troutman, Calvert Library

A patron found a handwritten note which he took to be a threat on the life of then Vice-President Al Gore, reported it to the FBI and members of the Secret Service showed up at my office. —Teresa Newton, Lawrence County Public Library

Divorce papers. —Sarah Lilly, Robbins Library

A pseudo playing card of 5 1/2 hearts.—Hebah Amin-Headley, Mid-Continent Public Library

A pop tart, used as a bookmark. —Julie Gosner, Largo Public Library

French fries. —Nancy Martinez, Joliet Public Library

A laminated marijuana leaf used as a bookmark. —Masyn Phoenix, Tillamook Bay Community College Library

An uncooked piece of bacon. —Caroline Barnett, First Regional Library

A piece of raw bacon. —Laura Foltin, Bucks County Free Library

$30. It was in a book given as a gift to a teen. I suppose if the teen never acknowledged the money then the sender knew they never opened the book! —Susan Ray, Simsbury Public Library

$100. When I called the most recent patron, she wasn’t home, but her husband took the call. Respecting privacy, I simply said, “We have something at the front desk that she may have left in a book.” His response, “Has she been using cash as a bookmark again?” ­­—Amy Gillespie, Hill Top Prep Library

$1000 in a book donated to the library. —Shameka Key, Blackwater Regional Library

A paycheck. —Jackie Schumacher, Stayton Public Library

A paycheck. —Jamie LaGasse, Shelter Island Public Library

A used, lottery ticket inside A Spender’s Guide to Debt-Free Living. —Lisa Crisman, West End Branch Library

Childhood pictures of a grad school classmate a couple of years ahead of me. —Spencer Keralis, University of North Texas Library

A note that said, “It’s Hard Interrupting a Donkey. They Hit Everything. My Only Neighbor Excludes Yall. Never Open Water With Heat Around Torches? Same code as always…I’m counting on you! Write me back in the book Reusing Old Graves, by Douglas Davies.” I figured out that it stood for – I HID THE MONEY. NOW WHAT? Our library did not own the book mentioned, nor did anyone in our county system so the trail went cold. —Karen Nootbaar, Northland Public Library

Visitor Registration form for the county jail. —Martha Amerson, Forsyth County Public Library

Kraft Single used as a bookmark (still wrapped, probably still edible). —Julia Welzen, Hamilton East Public Library

Pickle slices. —Kathleen Green, Harris County Public Library

I found a play ticket in a book from a play in Toronto 20 years earlier. —Julie Najjar, St. Mark Library

A whole cooked shrimp. —Emily Calkins, King County Library System

Wine label used as a bookmark. I went out and bought the wine. Delicious! —CarolAnn Tack, Merrick Library

Used pregnancy test. —Marika Zemke, Commerce Township Community Library

A patron’s social security card. —LaVonne Tucker, Montgomery County Memorial Library System

A photo of someone I know. —Patty Franz, Pamunkey Regional Library

A small cleaver, for cheese maybe? —Lisa Fladung, Jefferson County Public Library

Handmade affirmation bookmark that said they WILL get better at reading. —Mollie Goodell, Sugar Land Branch Library

A version of this piece was posted on the Tin House blog in February 2017. We’re happy to be bringing it back for the 60th anniversary of National Library Week.

A Sense of Marvel and Astonishment: An Interview with Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Eric Farwell

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s new collection, Oceanic, is a generous, romantic, and ambitious look at the different stages of life, and how we experience the love and wonder that lead us to become more fully realized and compassionate as we grow each decade. The collection, Nezhukumatathil’s fifth, threads the thoughtful consideration of one’s relationship to nature and myth found in Lucky Fish, with the personal and playful relationship poems that provided the spine for At the Drive-In Volcano. This amalgamation allows Nezhukumatathil to engage with new aspects of her poems, inviting deep sensuality, a grounded sense of personal politicization, and even wry humor-as-cultural-commentary into the work. All of these elements make Oceanic Nezhukumatathil’s most cohesive collection to date, as she takes her prior preoccupations and dissects them in new ways that invite, as all of her work does, a sense of marvel and astonishment.

 In the midst of AWP and end-of-semester work, we were able to speak about the new elements and cohesiveness of Oceanic via email. Relentlessly positive, Nezhukumatathil responded with answers that always linked back to a central idea of doing work that’s “not scared of facing the darker places but still believing in good.” Even though it was electronic, Nezhukumatathil’s answers left me feeling inspired, positive, and genuinely impressed by her ability to see light in every aspect of life.

Eric Farwell: This is the first collection of yours that’s overtly autobiographical. The book has a lot of poems that deal with things indirectly through metaphor and stand-ins from nature, but it’s anchored by you brokering your past with where you currently are in life. How did having these two areas to bridge inform your approach to the manuscript?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Perhaps this collection feels like it pulls from autobiography more than my previous ones do because of the intimacy and intensity created with some of these poems, but I don’t see any more personal experience here overall than in previous books. It is the connection to nature and intimacy created by that connection that might give the illusion that I’m revealing more about my life than I have before. But that’s the beauty and power of writing about nature –how that can strengthen our connections to this planet, but ultimately to each other who share a small bit of space on this planet.

EF: One kind of poem that appears throughout the book is a celebration of your marriage. Each covers a different aspect of that relationship, and each seems to get more and more intimate. Some of that intimacy, like in “Love in the Time of Swine Flu” and “Starfish and Coffee” is directly sexual, which is a bit of a new element in your work. Did this emerge naturally in the poems, or is it a result of working on poems that are more directly revealing and personal?

AN: This new direction/boldness as you call it in the question below–I think there were many factors to help and encourage me to write with a more direct sensuality–one is that the rise of the uglier/loudest characteristics of those in charge of our government doesn’t really celebrate brown bodies. And in pop culture–we’ve come a long way from what I saw in the 70s and 80s growing up, but to depict brown, female bodies in a joyful, praise-like manner is still overall pretty rare. And I think this country has internalized this glaring absence of an Asian American woman/mother/friend who dares be audacious to express joy & sensuality & desire also worries, sometimes all at once–well, I’m hoping to just add my voice to a bigger chorus of poets who are allowed to contain multitudes of selves.

EF: This boldness also lends edge in more surprising ways. In “In Praise of My Manicure,” you turn the mundane act of getting your nails done into a statement of empowerment, of reckoning. Again, did this emerge naturally, or is it something you had to work at? Do you think this aspect would have developed as confidently if you hadn’t taken seven years between collections?

AN: Poems like “In Praise of My Manicure,” were written in response to the fear and disdain and de-valuing of brown skin. It’s tempting to say of course this is in response to governmental leadership, but the ugly truth is that this feeling of not being able to live up to mainstream (white) beauty standards is something I faced since adolescence. And that is due in part to a sheer lack of representation of girls and women who looked anything vaguely like me once I stopped watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood–I mean, I’m talking about magazines, books, movies, tv shows, pop stars–I never saw an Asian girl being the object of a crush, or even as anything else besides some sort of a math whiz or some other cliche. My teachers certainly never encouraged me to read any books that had Asian girls as main characters. Again, this shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone, but it’s something I wanted to address as a woman in my 40s.

EF: I was hoping you could speak to how the play in your work has changed between Lucky Fish and Oceanic. In the new book, you have two found poems that consist of one-star review snippets of the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal. There’s a lot of comedy in how wrong-headed and oblivious the reviews seem to be, but they also seem to be making a larger comment about the divide between historical value and modern significance.

AN: Seven years in some ways feels like a long time between collections and to others, it’s too quick for a collection–all I know is that I was writing and visiting schools as a visiting writer through all those years, perhaps slower than I’m used to, but I’m used to writing pretty fast so this was a welcome slowing down and being present for my family and close friends. I travel a lot, and I’m interested in what lasts and what feels transient and am drawn to what lasts and what isn’t forgotten in a blink.

EF: In your past work, your poems incorporated a lot of nature and mythology to end up at a place of astonishment. Here, those elements are more grounded in biography, and I’m curious if that was a difficult transition to make, since those aspects of bringing wonder into the work via these elements was such a part of your voice early on.

AN: I’m always going to be drawn to wonder and joy when I write because I never know “what” I’m writing until I get a draft (or five) down first. But I also believe there was a deliberateness to not shy away from darkness and past heartbreaks even as push and fight for love and tenderness in my revision. I’m acutely aware that my sons both can read now (that’s the first time I can say that with any of my books) and though there is much I still shield from them, there is an opening of some dark doors I need to open for them so that they are better able to process grief that their beloved ocean creatures are dying, there are kids all over the planet who are in dire need of basic care and help. I don’t at all imagine my poems will prepare them for this darkness entirely, and certainly I imagine there will be several questions I’ll need to field from them, but if showing some dark moments– alongside joy and love– helps them to keep their hearts tender and have empathy for others, then I’ll be beyond glad.

EF: The other major aspect of the collection is an exploration of how you define yourself at this stage of your life. Self-portrait poems are woven throughout the collection, showing you as a mother, an Indian girl, a private person beginning to open up, and as a partner. Do you feel that these poems were necessary to help you define yourself as a poet in her forties, who is remarkably happy and settled, or were they written in some way to help you make peace with these definitions of yourself?

AN: Oh, don’t get me wrong–I have my many moods and temper flares, but I think I found as I was writing deeper towards the natural world, there was a deeper reach into what it meant to be a woman who contains multitudes and who still visits schools where a high schooler can tell me in 2018, I didn’t know an Asian American woman can be a poet! We have made lots of headway, but there is still a long way to go for high schoolers to not feel like writing poetry isn’t “for them.” I’m not interested in defining myself as much as I am sharing tenderness and vulnerability in a poem, an encouragement in a world that insists on the quick and disposable. I want readers to really sit, really think about words and beauty and what brings you joy and wonder and how you can also reflect on past hurts but use that as a strength in facing the future, especially when there are little ones like my son who are looking to me and my husband and others for how to interact in this wild and disappointing and confusing and buoyant world.

EF: There are three poems that re-imagine the myth of Psyche and Cupid, with Cupid disobeying Aphrodite but ultimately abandoning Psyche as a partner. What inspired these specific poems, and how do they fit into your own experience? I can tell you I read them as comments on the intangibility of true love, whether it can ever really be relied on to stay, but I’m not sure that’s correct.

AN: This reimagining is a nod to re-make myth to fit my own experience, and why not? I think so much of myth is that it inscribes absolutes–you disobey, there is a punishment, and even the “rewards” are not always rewards in the long run, especially for women. So while I will always fight for love and goodness and justice, there are many grey areas–and that is a much more accurate representation of life experience, I think. Cupid and Psyche has always been my favorite and scariest myth–but the way I reworked it is to also serve as a warning –and I hope this doesn’t sound too cheesy, but here it is–to be your own golden love, be it being too invested in your job that doesn’t value you back, a relationship where you have to ‘earn’ affection and basic kindness and respect, cutting ties with toxic people/situations in your life, etc.

EF: While the collection has all of these new elements, it still ends on two optimistic poems. One deals with your astonishment at growing to love Mississippi as a home, and the final poem, “Bengal Tiger,” suggests a connection between you and the animal, with each experience and memory living as a stripe within you, reaffirming yourself as a person of wonder, fables, and multitudes. Has the intrinsic value of having optimism in your work changed for you at all? As an element, do you see its use or value shifting both personally and in terms of application?

AN: So much of what we see on the news is beyond depressing. It’s also often full of hate and rage and material not fit for my seven-year-old to hear, which is in itself embarrassing and depressing, because both him and his older brother love learning about other people and cultures around the world and have such curious and searchings mind. And though I keep an eye on the news to know what is going on in the world, and to stay informed, it is heavy to bear for a person who is normally an optimist. And when that optimist has two children who are even MORE optimist than herself and who naturally believe in people’s goodness, I feel like I want to make something that ultimately mimics my outlook–not scared of facing the darker places but still believing in good. And yes, as someone who moved six different places before she left for college, HOME has always been elusive–but am so happy to find a velvet space for my family and my family’s art here in Oxford. It has a complicated history to say the least, but I’ve never been more valued and seen and heard than in this beautiful state. And I’m here to fight and push for light and love so that my half-Asian kids also feel like this is a place to feel safe in and to be joyful in–a place to call home for all of us.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. Her newest collection of poems, OCEANIC, is out with Copper Canyon Press. She is also the author of the forthcoming book of illustrated nature essays, WORLD OF WONDER (2019, Milkweed), and three previous poetry collections: LUCKY FISH (2011), AT THE DRIVE-IN VOLCANO (2007), and MIRACLE FRUIT (2003)–all from Tupelo Press.  Her most recent chapbook is LACE & PYRITE, a collaboration of nature poems with the poet Ross Gay. She is the poetry editor of Orion magazine and her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and Tin House. Honors include a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pushcart Prize.

Eric Farwell has written for the physical or digital arms of Brooklyn Rail (forthcoming), The Paris Review (forthcoming), The Village Voice, GuernicaThe Los Angeles Review of BooksSalon, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Vice, The Believer, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and GQ. He teaches English Composition at Monmouth University in New Jersey. 

DEAR READER: A Q&A with Joshua Jelly-Schapiro


Joshua Jelly-Schapiro—acclaimed geographer, writer, and adventurer—is the author of Island People: The Caribbean and the World (Knopf, 2016) and co-editor, with Rebecca Solnit, of Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (University of California Press, 2016). His essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, The Believer, and many others. Lucky for us, his latest travels brought him to the nonstop metropolis itself, and he slowed down just long enough to write a letter.

Joshua is the latest author to participate in Dear Reader, our collaboration with Ace Hotel New York. As this month’s writer-in-residence, he spent one night at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, where he penned a letter to an imagined audience of strangers. What he wrote has been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Joshua to talk great letters from the Caribbean, turning off the internet, and remaking the map.

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

JOSHUA JELLY-SCHAPIRO: The writer whose letters I read and re-read as I was writing my book on the Caribbean was C.L.R. James. James was a remarkable figure—born in Trinidad, he was a historian and a novelist and political radical who also loved radio serials and cricket tests and film noir. He was a powerful, early celebrant of how the Caribbean islands have shaped modern culture everywhere. He wrote what’s still both our best book about the Haitian Revolution and maybe our best book about sports—and thousands of marvelous letters, too (many of them to his American wife Constance Webb). I’ve probably spent more time reading James’ letters than anyone else’s save for Patrick Leigh Fermor. Leigh Fermor was a very different figure from James. He was this great British travel writer, a kind of wandering bon viveur—but as erudite and pleasing an observer and exegete of place, and of human scenes, as I know (and a great lover of the Caribbean, too, in his outmoded way). And he, like James, was everything you could hope for in a correspondent: erudite, energetic, surprising, funny. Those two, along with Jamaica Kincaid, were probably the writers whose work I dwelled on most while writing Island People. Would that I rocked up once by the quayside in say, Martinique, to find a letter from James or Paddy telling me I was on the right track—or getting it all wrong. But alas.

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 studied geography in school and I love maps to an unreasonable degree, so maps are always on my mind. I think any effective piece of prose, whether an essay or novel or short story, implies a good map; all good maps, by the same coin, tell stories. But I don’t think I’ve ever been able to fully map out anything I’m working on before I’ve written something first. As soon as I have some stuff down—a glimpse of the landscape—I will often draw up an outline, a shape for the piece, that I can then fill in. But I think that one of the really exciting and terrifying things about writing is that you don’t really know the territory, or what you want you want to say about it, until you get it down. You’ve always got to be open to remaking the map as you go.

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?

 While I’m working on something, I often imagine how certain people will read it—my editor, a certain friend or peer, my mom. I find it quite impossible, though, to think of “audience” in the abstract. Which is to say: I am always surprised by people who’ve read my work. The healthiest way to publish anything is to let it go—to not worry unduly, once it’s left your hands, about its “reception,” or reviews or anything else. Of course having your work recognized or praised is nice; of course it can sting when people you respect point out its failings. But everything you write, once you’ve made it as good as you can, will have a life you can’t control. All you can reasonably hope for, I think, is that it will find some people—whether 100 of them, or 100,000—who connect with what you were trying to do. Anytime you’re lucky enough to encounter one of them, well: joy.

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

One book that I’ve given to friends again and again as a gift, which I suppose suggests I’d like more people to know about it, is Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. It’s a strange and kind of unclassifiable book, in the way many of the best ones are—an essayistic memoir (memoiristic essay?) that Hardwick published as a novel. I love it for the shape of her sentences, her mind’s oblique sharpness, the evocation of place: it remains one of the best books I know about living in a city, and about New York.

In 2018, though, I suspect the book I’ll be pressing on more people than any other is a book by my friend Suketu Mehta, which I just a read a chunk of in manuscript, and which comes out in the fall. It’s called This Land is Their Land and it’s basically about how migration makes the world go ‘round—and about how immigrants, far from “stealing our jobs,” are this country’s best hope. Suketu is one of our great narrative journalists—his book Maximum City is another masterpiece about urban life—but this new book is less about chronicling individuals’ complex stories than it is about a larger issue facing us all. It’s a book, given some of the evil idiocies to which we’re being subjected these days, that’s as necessary as it is timely. And Suketu writes like a titan. Look for it.

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

Coffee is a hell of a drug. So is turning off the internet. When I’m starting to work on something, I do so anywhere—on the subway, in bed, buying a toothbrush at Walgreen’s. But when it comes time to actually finish up, to turn the scribbling into something with an aim and a shape that might, if you’re lucky, grow bigger than yourself—well, at that point, as someone said: you’ve got to be alone with the work.

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.

Heteronormativity Is the Ultimate Karaoke: An Interview with Chelsey Johnson

Leni Zumas

When a lesbian from small-town Nebraska moves to Oregon for college, in the late ’90s, she finds her own queer paradise in Portland. After a bad breakup, she has a fling with the guy who cuts her ex-girlfriend’s hair—and he accidentally gets her pregnant. This is the premise of Chelsey Johnson’s hotly anticipated debut, Stray City, out on March 20. It’s a propulsive, compassionate, hilarious novel about coming of age at the fraught intersections of Midwestern family norms, punk rock community, and LGBTQ politics.

I had the following conversation with Johnson over email. What ended up on the cutting room floor (for space considerations) were some of the questions she asked me about writing, music, and motherhood. It’s rare for an interview subject to be so generous with her interviewer, but it doesn’t surprise me that Johnson was: her deep empathy and curiosity about other people are manifest on every page of Stray City.

Leni Zumas: It feels fitting that karaoke is a recurring pastime in this book, as karaoke is both authentic and fake. The singer uses her own voice, yet she depends on prerecorded music and a script. Your protagonist, Andrea, wrestles with the question of how to inhabit her true identity, if such a thing exists in the first place. Could you talk about how split selves and imposture function in the book?

Chelsey Johnson: This is such a good question. The typical queer person develops that split self early on—you have an outward-facing self which is the one the family, the community, the school expects, and you wear that like a protective carapace while you develop the true self underneath until it’s strong enough to withstand attack or resistance. In Andrea’s life, this is embodied in her two sets of journals: she starts writing an innocuous decoy journal of her daily life, and records her real thoughts in a secret hidden one. When she’s able to merge the two she can become her own. Then, of course, she splits again when she deviates from pure gay—but now her terror is that she’ll be taken for an imposter when she’s not.

I think mainstream heteronormativity is the ultimate karaoke. To pair up, marry, and reproduce—sure, everyone performs it in their own voice, but most of the time, the music’s been recorded long ago and in another room. Doesn’t mean it’s not a great song for you to sing. But imagine if you never listened to anything outside the karaoke book.

One thing I adored about Red Clocks is that not a single one of those women is in a situation that matches up to a prescribed ideal of what “womanhood” or childbearing is supposed to be. Even though most of the characters are straight, they’re pushing back against the social strictures of who they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to want. The book churns with rebellion.

LZ: Even as the “pair up, marry, and reproduce” tune plays on an endless (and earsplitting) loop, there are plenty of other paths to take, of course. I tried to enact this abundance in Red Clocks. I also wanted to show a person getting the things that were supposed to make her happy, and not being happy.

 CJ: That’s one of the things I found most gratifying about Red Clocks, that no path is a straight arrow to fulfillment, even the one you thought would be.

LZ: Why did you decide to make sex with a man so central to the story of a lesbian character?

CJ: I actually didn’t mean to! Originally the story was Ryan’s, if you can believe it. I’d stranded this guy in Bemidji, Minnesota with a cat and a van and a girlfriend he’d ditched. Then I realized I was boring myself with this story of a straight white guy fucking up. Like, that’s what I’m going to try to contribute to literature? Is there not enough? So I started thinking about his girlfriend, and I thought, What if she’s a lesbian? Then I got interested. I thought, well, how did that happen?

This also let me indulge my contrarian urge to counter the canonical coming-out story. I wanted to flip the script and render a world where queer was the norm and heterosexuality was seen as repulsive and deviant. Which is the world of many people, but not one I get to read much in fiction.

LZ: You flip the script so beautifully! There’s a great moment where Andrea experiences straight privilege for the first time. Being with Ryan gives her a tourist visa into a world “sodden with” straightness; and it’s weirder than the queer world.

 CJ: Straightness feels unnatural to her. Sexual disorientation!

LZ: Stray City is about different kinds of reproduction—biological, cultural, artistic. I think of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and its lens on queer family-making, as well as Lee Edelman’s critique of reproductive futurism. How do tensions between gay identity and (pro)creation play out in the novel?

CJ: Edelman definitely crossed my mind. I think parental disappointment in queerness is rooted in a sense of reproductive failure—not just the kid’s failure to procreate and make grandchildren, but to the failure to reproduce the family, which feels like a rebuke. Maybe this is changing now that so many gays marry and have children—but that also creates another tension, because now the queers are subject to the same overbearing pressures to marry and have kids that straight people have always endured. I’m glad it’s legal now, but I’m so relieved that I got to spend my twenties without marriage as an option. While my straight brothers got earfuls at every holiday, no one in my family pestered me about marrying and settling down. I just got to be on my own inscrutable path.

For Andrea, procreation is complicated because the pregnancy turns out to be something she wants despite herself, despite her cash-strapped situation, despite being part of a community where this simply is not happening and where it also signifies, very visibly and bodily, her transgression. Half the lesbians in Portland are pregnant now, but [in the ’90s] it was highly unusual. For her, it offers a chance to create family in a new way, one that encompasses queerness. I had just wrapped up this part of the novel when The Argonauts came out and I’ve never been so grateful for the timing of a book’s arrival; that is a book I’ve literally clutched to my chest.

LZ: Stray City skewers the narrowness of the hetero nuclear model, but we also get a glimpse of the so-called Lesbian Mafia: “It seemed in our urgency to redefine ourselves against the norm, we’d formed a church of our own, as doctrinaire as any, and we too abhorred a heretic.” Can you tell us a bit about this Mafia?

CJ: It’s not an official thing, but it is sort of real! For the sake of the story, I codified a set of beliefs and sense of solidarity I experienced coming up in the queer community, especially Portland’s, which is huge and vibrant but can be suffocatingly insular too. You know how it goes, every subculture polices its members in some way or another, and part of the reason I set the book back in the late ’90s is that identity politics around gender and sexual orientation were much more rigid then. I think part of that militancy was rooted in the AIDS crisis—not only had people been struggling with the age-old familial and societal damage, queer culture had been entrenched in this devastating life-or-death battle, and queer survival was a hard-won thing. Biphobia was way more intense and overt then.

 LZ: One of my favorite sentences in the book taps a dissonance between cultural messaging and lived experience: “She was not a parent but a mom, a species held in somber, near-spiritual regard while being for all practical purposes steadily crushed by the forces of public policy, like the American bison.” How did you arrive at Andrea’s particular experience of motherhood?

CJ: As a female human, I feel like all my life I’ve been steeped in motherhood, or haunted by the specter of motherhood, both when I wanted it and when I didn’t. I just paid close attention to what motherhood is made out to be and how people in my life actually experience it. There’s such dissonance between the political veneration of motherhood and the reality of a sexist and capitalist system that makes it grindingly difficult. And there’s dissonance between the emotional expectations people have, or are prescribed to have, about mothering versus the bewildering reality of it.

 LZ: I love how you foreground the gender fault lines in ’90s rock culture—“I was a girl in a record store, the ignorable class.” Painfully recognizable to me as a woman who played music in that era! Did you, or do you, play in a band? How does your own relationship to music inform the novel?


CJ: Record-shopping could be such a crushing experience then, right? I’ve played enthusiastically and poorly in many short-lived basement bands, and when I lived in Portland I experienced an amusing surprise renaissance as a session flutist, but I’m not much of a musician. Instead I’ve always hung out with people who played music, I’ve gone on tour with bands to sell merch, I volunteered for years at the rock camp for girls. I love hanging out with musicians. They have that scrappy, resourceful drive, and they’re often innately contrary in interesting ways. Plus music scenes, more than any other art, create a really accessible culture—music creates a gathering place. It’s always been an integral part of many of my communities, both queer and not, but especially in Portland. I couldn’t write a Portland story, or a queer story, without it.

But you actually do play music! I even saw your band The Red Scare play a million years ago, before we ever met. Do you still play?

 LZ: I can’t believe you saw a Red Scare show. I’m equal parts delighted and embarrassed. I still have my drums, but they’re covered in dust. Stray City makes its fair share of rock references—names of actual songs, bands, record labels, etc. What happens if a reader doesn’t get the references? Does it matter to you, for instance, if someone doesn’t know who “Elliott” is?

 CJ: I tell my writing students to geek out all the way on their obsessions—that it’s all about hitting that sweet spot where those who know exactly what you’re talking about will get the pleasure of recognition, and those who don’t will still be able to follow what you’re talking about and feel like they’re pulled into this world, like they’re being treated as an insider too. I didn’t want to name-drop in a way that shut anyone out, I hate that kind of record-store-dude esoterica preening, but I also didn’t want to over-explain and risk patronizing the reader. So, for example, Elliott—I knew many readers would instantly realize that was Elliott Smith, but if you didn’t, it wouldn’t really matter or change the content of that sentence or scene. And for the character to just call him “Elliott” conveyed the shorthand of the Portland music scene, whether or not you had any idea what the actual reference was.

 LZ: The novel is based on your own Portland days, in all their ragged analog glory. How did you handle the sticky wicket of drawing from real-life friends, lovers, acquaintances, etc. for your characters?

CJ: Well, I fictionalized any real people or events like crazy. But when I set out writing the Portland part, there was like a running Facebook comment war in my head on what I was doing. Imaginary Portlanders would rail against my inaccurate portrayal of the time period or the community or themselves, and imaginary academics would level lacerating queer-theory critiques of the whole premise. It made for some truly tortured early chapters. I think what solved it was when I switched to first person for Andrea (originally she was in close third). Her voice took over and she got to be personally accountable for the perceptions and descriptions.

LZ: What’s next for you, writing-wise?

CJ: Right now I’m working in a mini-writers’ room on a television show for Hulu. The pilot is going to start shooting soon, and we’ll find out in a couple of months if it will go to series, but meanwhile it’s been incredibly fun and stimulating to learn an entirely new way of writing. I’m also researching in the ONE Archives and hanging out with a gay elder here in Los Angeles for a nonfiction project about the gay liberation movement of the early 1970s. And I’ve started what I think will turn out to be the next novel. It has wolves in it.

Chelsey Johnson received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, NPR’s Selected Shorts, and elsewhere. A native of Minnesota, she is now an assistant professor of English at the College of William & Mary.

Leni Zumas’s novel Red Clocks was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a Publishers Weekly Top 10 Fiction selection. She is also the author of the story collection Farewell Navigator and the novel The Listeners, which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She teaches in the MFA program at Portland State University.


Zero Day: A Conversation with Ezekiel Boone

Matthue Roth

Reading through Alexi Zentner’s initial oeuvre, from Touch to Zero Day, is a little like taking your elderly grandmother to the movies and realizing too late that Reservoir Dogs isn’t a tender story about animal rescues. His work is alternately tender and brutal, cruel and kind. He writes about the Canadian equivalent of flyby states and flyby people and the small beautiful parts of their lives that often get decimated by harsh family tragedies and merciless natural phenomena.

Zentner’s third novel, The Hatching, arrived in July 2016, although it wasn’t immediately recognizable as such. The book appeared under a pen name, Ezekiel Boone. The author photo was an edgier version of Zentner: scruff, dark-rimmed eyeglasses, the bucolic coast in the background of the first novels replaced by a brutal black shirt.

The Hatching’s focus was broader than his previous work. Instead of frontier courtship or sibling rivalry, the novel established a vast cast of characters, following a good dozen stories placed strategically in different locations across the world, switching from one installment to the next with the breathlessness and in-medias-res delivery of Lost.

When Zero Day, the conclusion of the Hatching trilogy, this will become more than an experiment. There will be more Ezekiel Boone thrillers in existence than Alexi Zentner novels, although elements of his more “literary” side can be still be found.  Zero Day, for all its bombastic explosions, still has the moments of quiet devastation and unexpected catharsis that was a hallmark of the Zentner’s early work 

I spoke with Ezekiel Boone by email from his house in northern New York.

Matthue Roth: Both your literary novels and your—what should I call them, your populist thrillers?—they’re all about the struggle between people and nature. There’s a moment early in Touch where a father tries to rescue his daughter from an ice pond and ends up frozen inside with her, and the town has to wait till spring to thaw them and bury them. In the Hatching trilogy, we get giant spiders. Is there something about non-human natural disasters that make for useful antagonists, or do you just hate nature?

Ezekiel Boone: I always joke that the only way I can tell what I’m writing about is when a smart reader tells me. I guess I hadn’t thought about the books being connected that way. One of my first publications was a short story version of the first chapter of Touch (published in Tin House), centering on that scene, of the father watching his daughter fall through the ice and then trying and failing to rescue her. I was haunted by that image, of the two of them frozen under the ice, hands reaching toward each other, fingers not quite meeting.

With The Lobster Kings, my focus was on the family dynamic, of a daughter trying to succeed an almost mythic father. But you’re right: both of those novels are indelibly wrapped up in a landscape.

With The Hatching series, in all three books, nature is a visceral—and hungry—force. And now that I think about it, the next Ezekiel Boone book, The Mansion, is primarily set in a very remote, wooded area, where the natural world puts a certain kind of pressure on the characters.

If you live in a big city, it can be easy to forget how much weather matters, how much landscape matters. Small decisions can have big ripples. I still spend a lot of time outdoors—I’m headed to Yellowstone in about a week to go backpacking—but I used to rock climb. One of the things that terrified me about it was that the more I learned, the more I understand how close I’d come to almost getting killed when I was first starting out. As a writer, putting characters in those places and situations and then giving them slightly worse luck than I’ve had can be interesting. Or, you know, having hordes of flesh-eating spiders pop out of hibernation….

MR: The way we’re trained to think about stories, the plot grows out of our characters. In the Hatching books, though, you often introduce new characters, given them a stunningly brief biography, and then they summarily fall victim to their most significant fear or a fatal irony. Stephen King also does this a lot, these gorgeously heartbreaking single-page portraits that are followed by bedlam and bloodbaths. How do you feel about these plot-driven sacrifices? Are there any you wished you could hold onto?

EB: I end up loving almost every character I create. Almost, because some aren’t redeemable. But the creation of a character that feels real means treating the character like they are real, and having to let go of them because the plot demands it can kind of hurt. You have to do it, though. Both parts. You have to be able to create and destroy. Ideally, yes, they are “gorgeously heartbreaking” portraits that you paint quickly because you want the reader to care about the characters, to feel their breath. Otherwise, their death—or destruction or punishment or fear or even joy—doesn’t matter at all. And you have to let bad things happen to characters if you want an interesting book.

MR: What would you say—if you would say—is the difference between the Hatching trilogy and your first two novels? Was it just you getting inspired by a different idea that took you toward a different genre, or was this a conscious move toward overtly commercial fiction?

EB: The idea came first. I’m sure it’s different for different writers, but I’m pretty voice-driven, and my stories and novels usually come from a single image that I then build a world around. For the Ezekiel Boone books, it’s not that I consciously chose to move more towards overtly commercial fiction, but rather that those books happen to fall in that space. One of the freeing things about having this pseudonym is that I don’t have to worry about where my books are going to be shelved. I just write them. I’m in the middle of writing both a Boone book and an Alexi Zentner book right now, and it wasn’t a decision to write one of each, but simply that I’m writing two books, and it seems clear that one of them is more commercial, one of them is more literary.

MR: How do you split the two books up in your head? Is there ever any runoff between them?

EB: The books are pretty different beasts. I’ve worked on two books at the same time before—I’m often working on multiple projects—and the only issue is that I can have so much going on in my head that I sleep poorly.

MR: Zero Day, the book that concludes the Hatching trilogy, relies on a dense web of plotting (sorry about that!) for its third-act payoffs. Did you map it all out from the start, or drop seeds and just see how they’d grow? What was your outlining process?

EB: My planning was somewhere in-between a true outline and dropping seeds. I had the books worked out, but in writing them, sometimes I realized that what I’d written was better than what I’d planned, and that changed the direction of things a bit. A few of the characters ended up getting more time on the page then they were supposed to, which was usually a function of me liking them too much to let them go. But given the scope of the books—nearly 1,000 pages and a huge cast of characters and locations—I had to know where I was going. Even if some things got changed along the way, I knew from the first word where the story was ending.

MR: Are you going to miss the Hatching universe? Do you think you’ll ever summon any of the characters for another story, or dip back into the sandbox?

EB: It’s hard to see myself revisiting The Hatching universe. I think Zero Day draws the series to a close. I’d love to go back, but at least for right now, I don’t see a natural follow-up.

The desire to return, however, is directly related to how much I liked the characters. I found myself rooting for them and worried about them even though I knew where the story was going.

MR: As a storyteller, you want every story you write to change the reader, but I think ideally, a story should change the writer as well. Is there a way in which the Hatching trilogy has changed you? Do you feel differently about spiders now?

EB: Spiders still scare the crap out of me. I’m sorry, but they are creepy. There’s a reason we are afraid of spiders, and writing about them eating people and bursting through your skin doesn’t make it worse.

As a writer, however, one of the things I realized is that I didn’t have to stay in my lane. I earned my chops writing short stories and literary novels, but I grew up reading genre, and it was wild to realize that it was something I could write. And that I enjoyed writing it. I think it helped me to grow as a literary writer as well. More tools in the toolbox.

Ezekiel Boone lives in upstate New York with his wife and children. He is the internationally bestselling author of The Hatching, Skitter, and Zero Day.

Matthue Roth is the author of the novel Rules of My Best Friend’s Body and the picture book My First KafkaHe co-created the personality of the Google Assistant, Google’s artificial intelligence. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Brooklyn and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com.