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 

Stories of the Transcendent and the Tangible: An Interview with Anjali Sachdeva

Rachel Swirsky

Anjali Sachdeva’s first book, All the Names They Used for God, collects nine of her short stories. In addition to their incisive characterization and fluid prose, the stories are united by a bold thematic exploration of the unknown. Anjali and I both attended the Iowa Writers Workshop—slightly out of synch. She graduated the year before I began at the workshop. We met a few times, though, and I remembered her when she contacted me about her first collection. I was excited to read another author who is passionate about writing about politics and marginalization, and her ease with blending genres makes her work distinct as well as excellent.

Rachel Swirsky: Why short stories? What do you love about the form?

 Anjali Sachdeva: Growing up, I read a lot of classic short stories on my own time: O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant, Katherine Anne Porter. In those stories there’s something delicious about feeling the momentum shift; those writers are so in control of the tension and pacing that it’s impossible to stop reading partway through, and there’s always some wonderful surprise in how things turn out. I definitely try to bring that to my writing. But I also love to read science fiction and horror, and those are forms that I think really thrive in the short story format because they are often very concept-based. I mean when I read the short stories of Philip K. Dick I can just see him moving quickly through this series of amazing ideas, and those same stories often get turned into great full-length movies because the concepts they’re built around are so rich.

When I get excited about something—for me, often a strange scientific fact or even just an isolated image—I can construct a story around it, and then when I’ve finished that story I can move on to something completely different—in subject matter, in tone, in structure. There’s so much opportunity for experimentation. And you can also hone every word of a story and build in layers of meaning on the sentence level in a way that you really can’t with a novel (or at least, not without taking decades to write it).

From a reading perspective, I also like that you can easily read a short story several times. I’m someone who loves re-reading. That’s partly because I keep finding new connections that I didn’t notice on a first read, but it’s also like re-entering a favorite memory. There are a couple of novels that I’ve re-read multiple times, but there are many, many stories that I’ve returned to, to see what I get out of them this time around.

RS: Do you have any frustrations with short stories as a form?

AS: Honestly, my only frustration with stories is the idea that they’re often seen as some kind of “warm up” to novel writing, like “when you really get serious about writing, you’ll settle down and write a novel.” I spoke to a number of agents over the years who told me that they loved my stories and would I please call them back when I finished a novel. And when my agent, Sarah Levitt, first reached out to me and asked to set up a phone call, I was, I think, a little rude to her because I was expecting that same reaction. I think the first thing I said was, “You know, I don’t have a novel,” or something along those lines. But luckily for me she was completely on board with that, and was also great about helping me place stories with magazines and journals before I sold the book. I feel very fortunate to have her representing me.

RS: What’s your elevator pitch for the collection?

AS: Reality with unsettling complications. There’s some variation from story to story in terms of how far from the bounds of reality the pieces stray. But what I’m aiming for in most of them is a world that feels like the real world up until a point where something uncanny happens. Something that, if you were to read about it in the newspaper, you might think, “That’s wild,” but you wouldn’t necessarily think, “That’s impossible.” And I like exploring what happens after that moment—how we react with terror or excitement or denial when we’re confronted with something strange or awe-inspiring.

RS: You write about a lot of interesting oddities. For instance, “Glass-Lung” features fulgurite, a mineral that forms when lightning strikes sand. The mermaid in “Robert Greenman and the Mermaid” displays features of deep sea fish. How do you discover oddities that draw your interest? Do they usually inspire the stories or do they fall into place as you write?

AS: It’s almost always the case with my stories that I come across one idea or piece of information that gets me excited, and in the process of writing the story I end up researching it and learning about more things that get woven into the story. So “Glass-lung” started with the idea of the glass-coated lungs, which led me to start reading about types of accidents that can create atomized glass. Somewhere along the way I learned about fulgurites, and also about something called Libyan Desert Glass, which is this glass found in the Sahara that some scientists think was formed by a meteorite striking the sand. There was jewelry in Tutankhamen’s tomb made from that glass. All of that just gets my brain percolating, and a lot of my stories are made in a sort of connect-the-dots process: I have this interesting thing, and this interesting thing, and this one, and I try to figure out what story I can tell that brings them all together.

RS: Your stories are rich with feminist themes. Has this always been one of your preoccupations?

AS: I come from a family with a lot of strong women in it, and my high school was a former girls’ school that had recently gone co-ed. A lot of the teachers there were the most wonderful kind of feminists, meaning that they taught history and literature and science and everything else as though women’s contributions and stories were just as important as men’s, and in fact deserving of some extra attention since those stories have historically been underrepresented. All of which is just to say that my early influences presented me with a world where women were intelligent and independent and valued. That carries over into my writing in that I feel more affinity with female characters who push back against the odds, or who take control of their situation in some way. The male characters have their own struggles, but they are a different kind of struggle.

RS: What do you see as the relationship between feminism and your writing?

AS: Even though I’ve never identified my writing as feminist writing, I think that magic realism and surrealism provide an avenue to explore the issues of feminism without being heavy-handed. Carmen Machado’s recent collection does a brilliant job of that, and there are a lot of other wonderful writers who’ve taken the same approach over the years. The sci-fi/fantasy author Susan Palwick, for instance, has this incredible werewolf story called “Gestella” that uses the werewolf trope to explore the ways in which women’s physical bodies are often valued above their intellect or talent. The main character starts off as a teenage trophy wife, but because of her werewolfism she ages exceptionally quickly—seven years to each human year. As she does, she goes through an entire journey of maturation and self-discovery, but it’s one that her husband doesn’t appreciate at all; all he can see is that she’s not young anymore. So I love it when I can do something similar: use a speculative environment to shake the reader out of whatever preconceptions they might have about feminism and get them to consider the real issues behind that label.

RS: Many of your characters are disabled in some way—a woman who is albino and cannot see well in the daytime, a man who will die if he breathes too deeply, people who endure forced amputations. Is disability something you’re deliberately playing with?

AS: Disability can be one kind of isolation, and in my writing (as in life) I’m always interested in the lives of people who society tries to isolate. I’m thinking about how that isolation or rejection shapes your experience of the world, and about what the rest of us are missing out on by ignoring the perspectives of those people who are being pushed out.

RS: In addition to more generalizable social themes, your stories also tackle harrowing current events. How do you approach writing fiction with political themes? Do you ever feel pressured to leave them aside?

AS: I wouldn’t say I feel pressured to leave them aside a much as I sometimes feel anxious that I’m going to be judged for approaching them “incorrectly” or for saying something that people find offensive. As much as possible I try to just block those thoughts out. If you think about it too much you can become afraid to write anything at all provocative because you’re painfully aware that someone’s just waiting to eviscerate you on twitter. But when it comes to the point where you turn away from a story because of the fear of how people will react to that story, then you’re really losing something in terms of freedom of thought and freedom of expression. And I also read a lot of science fiction, where political themes are part of the genre, so I’ve never thought of it as something to avoid. What is difficult, though, is working in political themes without creating a story that’s preachy or overly didactic. To deal with that I just remind myself that the characters and the plot have to come first, and any political issues have to be meaningfully attached to them.

RS: One of my writing teachers once told me that good fiction is never inspired by anger. I found this a bit odd as someone who enjoys work by, for example, Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison. I’m guessing some of your fiction is inspired by anger—am I right? How do you channel that?

AS: The title story from this collection was definitely inspired by anger. A year after the Chibok schoolgirls had been kidnapped I read an article in the New York Times that said, basically, “Hey, Americans, we know you’ve probably forgotten about this, but most of these girls are still being held captive.” Which was absolutely the case for me; I’d been appalled by it when it was first reported, and then it had slipped from my consciousness. It made me sad to realize how easy it is to forget about things like this. And it made me start thinking about what it would be like to be one of those girls, or the mother of one of those girls. If that was your daughter, what would you want for her? Of course, above all else, I think you’d want to have her home again. But if it were me, beyond that, I’d want revenge. All the pain those young women endured and are still enduring—kidnapping, abuse, rape, isolation, all the rest of it—there should be a price paid for that by someone other than them and their families. And I just thought, well, let me write about it so that exists somewhere, even if it’s only in a fictional world. I can’t say it’s the noblest motivation and maybe it’s a very American way to respond, but that was my reaction.

RS: You’ve written a book that invokes God and gods, but contains very few stories which concern religion directly. Your introduction implies that your rendering of gods broadens to a more general preoccupation with how humans strive to understand the fundamentals of the world. Did you always see that as a uniting theme for the book?

AS: I spend a lot of time thinking about the places where everyday life gives way to magic, where science and psychology and history spill over into the inexplicable. But I definitely didn’t set out to write the book with that theme in mind. These stories have been written over the course of more than 10 years, and there are other stories I’ve written that aren’t in the book, but when I was ready to put the collection together I picked the stories I thought were best and then looked at them to try to figure out what connected them. I wrote an introduction (which isn’t included in the final version of the book) on the recommendation of my agent, and it was incredibly helpful in not only getting me to think about what tied the stories together, but in giving me the tools to explain it to other people. And what I saw in all the stories was the idea of grappling with larger forces, of people wanting to put their faith in something—sometimes religion, but also biology or romance or technology. Or even just the comfort of the status quo. And in every instance, that’s a risky endeavor.

RS: You and I both went to the Iowa Writers Workshop for our MFAs. What was your experience there?

AS: I loved my time in Iowa, which was a surprise to me. I expected the MFA program to be valuable, of course, or I wouldn’t have gone there. But I also thought I’d find living in a small town in Iowa to be terribly boring, and I expected my classmates in the program to be snobbish and competitive. Neither of those concerns turned out to be valid. Iowa City was, for me, the perfect combination of cosmopolitan and rural. I spent my first year there living in a farmhouse in the middle of a corn field, just outside the city limits. So it was a 5-minute drive to classes and bars and theater and lectures from some of the best writers in the world, but I also spent a lot of time that year walking down dirt roads and railroad tracks and watching terrifying storms blow in across perfectly flat fields. And I made a lot of great friends. It’s not to say that people weren’t competitive. I think it would be hard to get a group of artists in any genre together and not have things get a bit competitive—the resources are always scarce, so someone is going to get them and someone else isn’t. But I never felt that people were nasty about it, or lording it over the other writers. I talked about it at some point with Deb West and Jan Zenisek, the administrative assistants for the program, and they said that each class has its own character—that some years people are very in-your-face about who got the better publication this month and how much was so-and-so’s book deal for. But that wasn’t my experience with the people in my year. I had amazing teachers, I read a ton of great books, I got to drink beer with famous writers, and my writing got so much better. I really couldn’t have asked for anything more.

That being said, I stayed in Iowa City for two years after I completed the program, and then I did begin to feel oppressed by the sense of competition. I don’t think anything actually changed about the people around me; I think it was me. The Iowa program is so selective that getting in feels like a victory, and I think that a lot of people, for the two years they’re there, feel successful just for being part of the Workshop. But once you’re finished, if you haven’t already sold a book—which most people haven’t but some have–it’s easy to very quickly feel like a failure: Why didn’t I finish a book in 2 years? Why wasn’t that agent interested in me? Why don’t I write anything now that I don’t have a deadline every six weeks? And when you’re in that state of mind, hearing about other people’s success—which happens constantly in Iowa City, at the grocery store, at the bar, while you’re trying to buy jeans—just feels like being pushed farther and farther down. I realize that’s a spoiled perspective. You just got all the benefits of this great program—classes and visits from incredible writers, funding, encouragement—and instead of feeling empowered, you’re whining about how hard it is now back in the real world? But I know I’m not the only one who felt that way. There were therapists in Iowa City whose whole specialty was counseling writers.

RS: In your bio, you talk about a childhood waiting to be whisked off into alternate fantasy lands. What kind of fantasy lands did you imagine?

AS: Nothing terribly creative, I must admit. I mostly imagined myself in the worlds of the characters I read about–Meg in A Wrinkle in Time or the Pevensie children in Narnia. But I think what was puzzling to me was that those characters always came back home in the end. It’s not that I didn’t like home. I loved my parents and my sister and I knew that I’d miss my family if I went off to some magical world. It was clear to me that going would be an incredibly difficult decision. But it always seemed to me that once you decided to go, you would never really choose to come back to the regular world. Why would anyone want to leave Narnia to go back to some musty country house in war-torn England, even for a moment? But that idea of escaping to somewhere else was present in so many children’s fantasy books that, at that age it felt like a very tangible possibility. Which, in retrospect, is a bit cruel. Because if you, child reading books, were never whisked away to a magical place, what did that say about you?

RS: What was the first story you ever remember writing? Crayon things count.

AS: When I was in third grade, my English teacher assigned us to write a story every week. I would always procrastinate and end up weeping at the dining room table on Sunday night trying to write my story. My mom says she remembers me saying it was hard to get started because “as soon as I write something, everything else has to fit with it all the way up to the end”—too true, and still one of the challenges of short story writing. But as much as I agonized over those stories I would still get really involved in them. I think there was a word limit of 300 words that for most people in the class was probably irrelevant because the pieces didn’t have to be that long, but I wrote 300 words every time. And I can’t remember what a single one of them was about at this point, but I remember the gut-wrenching excitement of writing them. The teacher who assigned them is named Earl Feigert and I thank him in the acknowledgements to the book.

RS: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you can give?

AS: If you’re too busy to write this year, don’t worry about it; you’ll have more time next year.

RS: What are you up to? New projects? Exciting horizons? Where should readers look to keep up with you and your work?

AS: I’m working on a novel and also still writing stories. I have two daughters who are now one and three years old, so the last year has been a lot of just trying to get back to a state where I’m not perpetually wearing sweatpants and eating bananas for every meal. But as a result I have a backlog of ideas that I’m eager to work on. The best place to keep up to date with me is always my website:

All the Names They Used for God is out February 20th, 2018, from Spiegel & Grau.

Anjali Sachdeva’s fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, Yale Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught writing at the University of Iowa, Augustana College, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh. She also worked for six years at the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, where she was Director of Educational Programs. She has hiked through the backcountry of Canada, Iceland, Kenya, Mexico, and the United States, and spent much of her childhood reading fantasy novels and waiting to be whisked away to an alternate universe. Instead, she lives in Pittsburgh, which is pretty wonderful as far as places in this universe go.

Rachel Swirsky has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the Nebula-winning and Hugo-nominated author of “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love,” and “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” Her second collection, How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future, came out from Subterranean Press in 2013. Visit her website at


DEAR READER: A Q&A with Morgan Jerkins


Morgan Jerkins is the author of This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America (Harper Perennial), which landed on shelves last month and catapulted onto the New York Times bestseller list. It’s easy to see why: Jerkins is known for her honest, incisive cultural criticism, which has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic, Lenny, Rolling Stone, and more.

Right before her book tour, Morgan spent a night at Ace Hotel New York as our Dear Reader writer-in-residence. While at Ace, she penned a letter to an imagined audience—a letter that’s been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Morgan to talk discovery, profanity, and the value of a good Spotify playlist.

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

MORGAN JERKINS: Jo March from Little Women because I’ve been a fan of her tenacity as a writer since I was a little girl.

 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 used to map it out but now I’ve learned to surrender a bit and discover my path as I go. I’ve learned that if I don’t delineate these hard and fast boundaries then my mind will start to reveal things to me as I write.

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

I think about my audience if I want to include profanity in my prose and I guess because I’m an aunt of eight children so I’m always conscious of kids! I’m always shocked when older, white women are drawn to my work.

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

The Face of Another by Abe Kobo.

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

I often pray before I write. I also love to listen to those “Afternoon Acoustic” Spotify playlists.

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.

DEAR READER: A Q&A with Mia Alvar


A plea: Read Mia Alvar’s In the Country (Vintage, 2015). Whether or not you’ve read it before, you’re in for a transformative experience (and we’re not the only ones who think so: In the Country won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award). As NPR’s Maureen Corrigan put it, Alvar is “the kind of writer whose imagination seems inexhaustible, and who stirs up an answering desire in her readers for more and more.”

Lucky for us, Mia brought that imagination to Ace Hotel New York, where she was recently a writer-in-residence. As a Dear Reader author, she penned a letter to an imagined audience of hotel guests—then kept it secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Mia about the importance of false directions, why everyone should read Carlos Bulosan, and the necessity of fingerless gloves.

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

MIA ALVAR: A character whose mind I’d live in if I could is Linnet Muir, the semi-autobiographical narrator in several of Mavis Gallant’s short stories. I’d be the insecure and dumb half of this sadly lopsided correspondence, but it would be worth it to soak in all her rich and clever insights on family and art, human nature and politics, travel and life. Inspired as Linnet is by her author, I guess this is my way of wishing I could know Mavis Gallant herself as a girl and young woman, whose fiction I would come to connect with so powerfully but whose early life story—as a child in Montreal and then a journalist on the eve of the Second World War, plotting her escape to Europe to become a full-time writer—remains exotic to me from where I sit in 2018 California.

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

I like to have a map in mind, because writing with no destination is so anxiety-inducing for me I’ve never gotten a word down that way. The map might include milestones I want to hit in the life of a character, or a set of images and ideas I feel are connected but don’t yet know how, or even a general sense of where I want a story to end. These almost always turn out to be false directions: plotlines don’t work, characters I’ve spent pages on turn out to be nonessential, the map goes out the window. Surprises and discoveries are my favorite part, but at least in the beginning, some kind of skeleton gets me going.

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?

At my desk, I tend to be obsessed on a micro level with just getting a story to work, a task that takes up way too much mind space to allow thoughts of who will read it. Also, when I feel skittish about certain material (like a heinous character, an event from recent history that feels raw, or anything I’m not sure I have the right to write about), it’s helpful in the early stages to pretend that there will never be an audience. But when I’m away from my notebook or laptop and not physically writing, I do have a sense of the effect I’d like my work to have, which is generally to appeal to both head and heart in some way. So my ideal reader is someone who reads from both those places.

Because I spent so many years in classrooms and writing workshops, I honestly forgot the possibility of being read by non-writers, who probably read more than I do but don’t necessarily spend their waking hours thinking about Writing with a capital W. I’m pleasantly surprised when my work lands for someone who is purely a reader first and foremost, who looks to books not to take them apart in an academic or technical way but in the hopes of being entertained or swept along.

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

For people like me—Philippine-American writers who spent their adolescences searching the shelves for role models—America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan is a huge and not at all obscure book, but outside of that circle I believe it could use more love. It’s a first-person, autobiographical novel about a Filipino migrant worker in California and the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s and 40s. It speeds from farm to cannery to fishery throughout the states where the protagonist seeks work, and it describes in painful detail the racism and inhumane conditions he meets along the way. It’s as moving a coming-of-age story as I’ve found anywhere, not so much from child- to adulthood but from peon to activist and artist: Bulosan became a leader in the movement for migrant farm workers’ rights as well as a prolific reader and writer, mostly after illness shut down his body and made manual labor impossible.

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

I’m always cold, so my ritual usually involves bundling up: scarves, hoodies, blankets, socks, and gloves (fingerless, to allow typing) are essential. Otherwise my process consists pretty simply of reading with a notebook handy. I take lots of longhand notes while reading up on a time period or place for research, or reading stories that employ some craft thing (an unusual structure or point of view) that I’m hoping to pull off myself, or reading poetry. As deadlines approach, I switch to the laptop to try and shape my jumbled notes into something that resembles a story.

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.

You Have To Work With the Love You Are Given: A Conversation with Tayari Jones

Andrew Ervin

Tayari Jones’s new novel An American Marriage, her fourth, does so many things extraordinarily well that it promises to become one of the big breakouts of the season, if not of the year. Everyone will soon be reading and talking about this book. At heart, it’s a love story, albeit one so fraught that it lives up to Tolstoy’s most famous dictum even while the .22 with a pink mother-of-pearl handle in the opening chapter evokes Chekov’s. It’s a wholly original novel of ideas in the grandest sense, and it’s also difficult to put down.

Celestial and her husband Roy are asleep in a rural Louisiana motel after a difficult day of visiting family and arguing. “I was still awake when the door burst open,” Celestial tells us. “I know they kicked it in, but the written report says that a front-desk clerk handed over the key and the door was opened in a civilized manner. But who knows what is true.” That is not a question. The police barge in to arrest Roy for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s an intense scene that, among too many others, calls to mind Alton Sterling, a black man shot at close range by police in Baton Rouge in July 2016. Jones renders Roy’s subsequent incarceration and humiliation with heartbreaking nuance.

An American Marriage is a profound and important novel, one that reminds us that the political is always personal. There’s a Sophoclean tenor to the way it depicts the effects sweeping national events can have on individual lives. In taking on our nation’s overzealous and unconscionable incarceration of people of color, this can also be counted among the first great literary works to arise from the Black Lives Matter movement.

I met Jones in the fall of 2005 when I arrived as a green MFA student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she then taught. Her first advice to me is something I still repeat to every fiction and poetry graduate student I meet. She reminded me that I had only three years in the program and I needed to complete my first book in that time. While my cohorts were out drinking and socializing, she wanted me to stay in and write. And I did. It’s thanks to her insight that I’ve published three books in the nine years since my graduation. To this day, Jones remains an exceptional teacher, and she has also become a mentor and friend and inspiration.

Among many other prizes, Jones has won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She now teaches new groups of lucky students in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark, and she answered my questions via email and telephone in late December and into early January.

Ed.Note: Tayari will be teaching this July as part of our 2018 Summer Workshop. 

Andrew Ervin: Can you recall what inspired An American Marriage and maybe how it evolved during the composition process?

Tayari Jones: In 2011, during a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute, I had an idea that I wanted to write a novel about something more relevant to the issues of the day. My previous work had focused on families. But I felt like I was ready to try something on a larger canvas. So I decided to write something about mass incarceration, I wasn’t sure the angle. I was reading a lot. I read The New Jim Crow a thousand times, and I heard oral histories, I watched documentaries. I have discovered the scope of a major societal problem. I mean, I knew it was bad, but things were far worse than I thought. But I didn’t have a story. So I was outraged, sickened even, but not inspired. For me, a story has to grow from its characters. My mentor, Ron Carlson, used to say “Write about people and their problems, not problems and their people.”

But when I was in Atlanta visiting my mom, I overheard a young couple arguing. The man seems little tired and not well dressed, and the woman was just stunning. I could tell they were in love, and in trouble. She said, “Roy you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” And he said, in really frustrated voice, “What are you talking about? This would not happen to you in the first place.”

I couldn’t get these people out of my head. They were both right. He was recovering from a trauma that she was, in many ways, safe from. Or at least she was shielded from its effects directly. But at the same time, he couldn’t even imagine waiting for her. He couldn’t believe a situation in which that type of selflessness would be required of him. So I realize that they were at loggerheads in some ways. And that even though his problem is a societal problem, it is a deep racial problem, it goes back all the way to slavery, really.

At the end of the day, these were two people in a relationship, a marriage. And love requires more than a deep understanding of history, of justice. A relationship is about two people and whether they can share their lives, share a bed, share a home. A close reading of The New Jim Crow won’t bring your lover back to you. I headed to the page wondering about the way our real human hearts intersect forces that are so much bigger and older than we are.

AE: One of the things that made a real impression on me is that it’s part a book about fatherhood in its many forms. Looking back at what you’ve written, why do you suppose that fathers and father figures are so vital to your story?

TJ: I think you are the first person to notice the way that fathers thread through the entire body of my work. I really can’t say what my thing is with fathers. It may be that, like a lot of people, I have a father. We’re close. I call him Daddy Bear, and he calls me Baby Bear. To this day! But I think about me and my brothers and sisters it sometimes seems to me like we are five people who have five different fathers. And that has always intrigued me about my dad—and everybody’s dad. So perhaps I’m working that out in my fiction?

AE: In what ways did our current political climate complicate and inspire your novel?

TJ: The idea of incarceration looming as just one misunderstanding away has always been part of my understanding of the world. As a matter of fact, writing this I always thought that this was the least interesting part of the story. Roy’s actual imprisonment and the injustice. After all, for me this is a settled issue— both that it exists and that it is wrong. For me, the challenge lies in the collateral effects. This is where story trumps issue.

AE: What did you learn in writing this?

TJ: The most interesting thing I learned was a matter of craft. When I first started to write this book, understanding that it was a story of a marriage, I wanted to focus on Celestial. I was fascinated by her dilemma. Here’s this woman, more bride than wife, married less than two years. And now she is expected to be “ride or die” for her husband—just as her art career is blossoming, as her dream is unfolding before her. For obvious reasons, I was into it. But as I wrote draft after draft, the pushback from my beta readers was overwhelming.

People think they are interested in women who don’t play by society’s rules, but when they see it in action, it is too disturbing. A question I kept getting was why is she “like that”? My question was “like what?” After all, in my view, Celestial is a person who wants the same things that anyone wants—to live her life in a way that fulfills her. This emotional limbo of being married but not really, of having one foot in her life as an artist and one foot emotionally serving the needs of her husband—it was too much.

Anyway, so I kept trying to make plot points that would justify her right to her own life. And I was getting irritated, and the book was getting clunky. And, truthfully, I was tired of what I processed as people’s really basic understanding of the conflict. Seriously. I stopped getting feedback because it was not helping me at all.

I started thinking about other novels by women that questioned the idea that women’s first (and only) priority is to be a good wife and mother. These novels were primarily by white women. They just get tired of being domesticated and go do something else. Trigger the applause. So why couldn’t Celestial?

And here is my big revelation. The reason is that in the novels by white women, all the characters have about the same level of material comfort. The husband that the woman wants to leave is in a comfortable position. You feel that he will be alright without her. He’ll probably be remarried in 25 minutes and there might be a custody fight or something, but you don’t worry about him. I connected this dot to understand that in a story the person with the most urgent crisis will always take the reader’s eye. You can’t revise around this. I could embroider Celestial all I wanted to but as long as Roy was wrongfully incarcerated, he would be the center of the narrative.

This made me a little crazy because part of what intrigued me about this conflict was the idea that Roy (and the Roys of the world) are the default narrative in African American discourse. The point of any novel is to challenge the prevailing narrative and my novel seemed to be almost fated to be more of the same. I knew if the book was going to work I needed to make Roy the main character. For a full year, I was resentful as hell! But then I had an idea. I, as the author, understood Celestial’s heart. Maybe I could take Roy on a journey to learn what I figured out. So that was the craft thing.

The emotional thing springs from the same well. With Roy, the question always is “What is freedom?” Roy starts out thinking that freedom is the ability to control your own life—and I agreed with this; this is why I so wanted Celestial to have the right to her own destiny. But Roy and I both—by the end of six years—come to understand that freedom is when you understand yourself to have the luxury of empathy.

AE: Does that empathy also explain why the novel is so funny at times?

TJ: People always ask me how I manage to find humor in situations that seem so daunting. But my general belief is that life is a predicament and there is always a funny angle on a predicament. The novel is funny at times because no matter what is going on with you, even if, like Roy, have the boot of The Man on your neck, something funny is bound to happen. You go to prison, but your cellmate chooses to be addressed as the “Ghetto Yoda.” I’m into humor. I don’t believe that we laugh to keep from crying. We laugh because life is hilarious.

Tayari Jones is the author of the novels Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow, and An American Marriage (Algonquin Books, February 2018). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, The New York Times, and Callaloo.  A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, she has also been a recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, United States Artist Fellowship, NEA Fellowship and Radcliffe Institute Bunting Fellowship. An Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University, she is spending the 2017-18 academic year as the Shearing Fellow for Distinguished Writers at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Andrew Ervin is the author of the novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House and a collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions. His most recent book is Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World.

Dear Reader: A Q&A with Kaveh Akbar


Kaveh Akbar recently appeared on the cover of Poets & Writers as one of “Ten Poets Who Will Change the World.” You need only read one of his poems to see why. He’s the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books) and Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry Press), and the founder and editor of Divedapper. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Times, The Nation, Tin House, and many more.

As this month’s Dear Reader author, Kaveh was selected by Tin House to spend one night at Ace Hotel in New York, where he penned a letter to an audience of strangers. What he wrote has been a secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Kaveh to talk about the dangers of certainty, the gift of time, and playing with words.

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

KAVEH AKBAR: It would be amazing to talk with Rumi, right? Still our best-selling poet, this many centuries later? And his connection to my mother tongue, my genealogies, would be illuminating.

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 never know where I’m going! I think certainty is death to a poem. The language always knows more than we do.

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 think about audience at all when I write. But when I decide if something’s worth publishing (I don’t publish or share nearly everything I write) I am always accountable to the reader’s attention. The reader is giving me the profound gift of their time, their attention. Does what I’ve written reward that attention with delight, with a fresh encounter with language or surprise or a lived experience? This is always the question I’m asking myself.

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

Zeina Hashem Beck’s Louder Than Hearts is an extraordinary book of poems I think everyone should read.

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

I always write with a stack of books at my side. I flip through them, writing down individual words I like, then riffing on those words a little bit. When I have a few pages of this “word bank,” I begin composing in earnest. It primes my brain for a kind of associative leaping and vernacular play that I find to be essential to my writing process.

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.

Home for the Holidays: A Conversation with Claire Dederer, Margot Kahn, and Kelly McMasters

Kelly McMasters

Home is a thorny concept, often more fantasy than reality. And in the midst of the holiday season, when most people are consumed with the idea of home—whether that means decorating it, inviting others into it, returning to it, or dreading it—three writers took time to discuss what home means for women specifically.

In a new essay anthology, This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home, edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, women explore the ways in which home connects to issues at the forefront of our cultural conversation: immigration, gender equality, sexual and family violence, homelessness, the environment, and poverty. Margot and Kelly discussed these concepts with Claire Dederer, a memoirist and essayist who has had more than her fair share of thinking devoted to the ways in which gender shapes our experience of home, as evidenced in her most recent book, Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning.

Together, the three writers puzzle out what it means to be a woman at home on the advent of 2018, and the ways in which home can be our most intimate refuge and a terrifying trap, often at the same time. 

Claire Dederer: What inspired you to pull together an anthology on the theme of home?

Margot Kahn: Seven years ago I gave birth to my son and, as I describe in my essay, I found myself in the role of stay-at-home parent. Only this was never a role I thought I’d play. I got to thinking about what it meant for me to be “a homemaker” in this day and age and, more importantly, what kind of home I was creating for my family. I thought about the homes I grew up in, and the homes of my friends; I thought about my grandparents, in whose house I spent much of my childhood, and how they had made a home in a new land after having lost everything and everyone they knew. I became curious about the choices other people were making in creating homes for themselves and their families, and I thought that by gathering these stories together we might begin to unpack this complicated notion of home.

Kelly McMasters: Margot invited me into this idea almost four years ago, in a moment of complete upheaval in my own home, though she didn’t know it at the time. In the span of a few months, I closed a bookshop I loved, left an 1860’s farmhouse in which I thought I’d live forever, and left my husband of more than a decade. I’d taken my two small sons to a new place and started a new job and was trying to create a new definition of home. And most days I felt like I was failing miserably. So as Margot was muscling through these questions of how to build, I was going through the motions of deconstructing. Now, looking back with a bit of critical distance, I think the differences between what Margot and I brought to the proverbial table—from our geographic locations on opposite coasts to where we were in our own home-making journeys—made the editorial experience, and, ultimately, the book stronger.

CD: Is there some special charge or quality to women’s writing about home? What made you decide to limit the contributors to women?

KM: Limiting the collection to women felt like such a natural decision at the time, but now feels somehow radical. The decision was made pre-election, when we all assumed we’d have a woman in the house, and all the essays were written pre-Trump—and pre-wall, pre-immigration ban, pre-trans troop ban, pre-#metoo, pre-fake news. Yet all of those electric nerves that sparked to life after the election are here in this book. I want to be clear that this book is not meant to disinvite men to the discussion; the two most important people in my life are men (my sons!), and in many ways this book is designed with them in mind. But we wanted to track the shifting negotiations of home—for women, specifically, and in this moment in time, specifically.

MK: Exactly. Historically and traditionally, the home has been the woman’s place (“a woman’s place is in the home”, et cetera). But in the past 100 years, the past 50 years especially, much has changed. Women today are looking at a different set of expectations and opportunities than their mothers and grandmothers. Or are they? Also, women’s voices are still, by the numbers, underrepresented in publishing. These are voices that need to be heard.

CD: I’ve found that it can be challenging to write about subject matter that is especially close to me — if a subject is too close, I tend to lose perspective altogether. Did you and your contributors find it challenging to describe what is, after all, your most intimate place?

MK: My essay, while especially close, felt like the most urgent thing for me to write. I wanted to try to capture this feeling of being sort of trapped at home in early motherhood in all its messiness, and I hoped the writing would help me make sense of my thoughts. I bounced my ideas off of a lot of other people, so I felt I had some perspective in that sense, but Kelly and another early reader helped get my drafts from the too-close (scattered disillusion, rage, despair) to a more reflective place. For other writers, I know there were some struggles. In a couple of cases — Tara Conklin and Jane Wong — they chose to write in the second person, which gave them an extra layer of remove. Taking a step outside themselves allowed them to write some of the hardest, most intimate things.

KM: So many of the contributors seemed to have the experience of sitting down to write one story, and having a different one pour out. That was certainly my own experience. Home is tricky that way—we see it from a distance as one thing, but if we look closer, it shape-shifts and reveals itself in new ways. I had to leave the home I wrote about before I could begin to write it, and even then I feel like I was working with limited sight. So much of home lives in memory; I don’t think it is an accident that many of these essays access childhood homes and countries and times that function more as dream than reality for these writers, places to which one can never return.

CD: Home is a refuge, but Margot gets at the idea that for women it can also be a trap — a place that imprisons them with its work and its demands. Do you think this is changing for women?

MK: My mother, and a handful of other women her age, have read my essay and said to me, “It’s like you were in my head.” One woman wrote to me, “It shot me right back to being a young mother and wife and all of the seemingly conflicting situations and emotions of those days.” It saddens me to think that not that much has changed between our two generations. And while I do think we’re moving in the right direction, I feel strongly that we need some major policy changes in this country to push this conversation forward.

So long as babies continue to be born only by women, women must not be shunned or shafted at work during her childbearing years. Nor should it be said that a woman is “doing nothing” or “taking a break” or “wasting her talents” if she chooses to stay home and raise her children. She must not be belittled or demeaned if she is cooking, tending to play dates and jingling bells in the circle at Music Together instead of litigating or operating or coding. She must not fall behind on her pay when she returns to work, even if it is five years later, or seven, or ten. (Of course if this is the man staying home, everything that I have just said should apply to him, too.) And, at the outset, she needs equal pay for equal work.


I am not saying that parents must stay home to raise their children. I’m saying that in order for the home not to be a trap, the decision to stay home or not must be a fair choice. Equal pay, affordable child care, and paid family leave make this possible. The first step was getting women into the workforce. The next step is recognizing that that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

CD: “Home” is a cozy, reassuring word, but some of your contributors are writing about circumstances that might seem less than ideal. Did you find yourself redefining the word “home” as you read the contributors’ pieces?

MK: Absolutely. Some of these essays — Elissa Washuta’s piece, for one — cracked open my thinking completely. Elissa writes about her individual body as a home and, citing the way our bacteria — our microbiome — is unique to the environment and the people we live in and with, she says “…when I left my home, I changed it completely; when I was away, I was altered; when I returned, it was to a place I’d never been to.” Seriously? I want to insert one of those fiery, exploding emoticons here. Sonya Chung’s piece, “Size Matters,” is another shake-up. This essay, a meditation on living in a small space, has made me pause many times to remember the virtues of my modest footprint and to question my values when faced with an impulse for more stuff, square footage, etc. And I cry every time I read Hasanthika Sirisena’s essay “Of Pallu and Pottu” about her mother’s immigration, with her three daughters, from Sri Lanka to the United States. The force of her conviction, the strength of her independence, and the example she sets by forging a new home is so powerful. I felt this essay punch off the page, a big RESIST fist. For her, I think, as in so many of these essays, home becomes conviction itself.

KM: Agreed. This anthology remade my entire understanding of the word. I like to visualize this collection of essays as a kind of flock of migrating birds, in the way they hold together in formation and yet pump their wings individually, switching out the leader intermittently to share the burden of setting the tempo and speed and direction, and yet work together to create this giant arrow of intention. More than anything, the way these essays lace together sweetness and sorrow, pain and pleasure, safety and danger, nightmare and fantasy, underscores the range of possibility, which I find both terrifying and liberating. We are all being propelled forward towards an idea of home, an idea we cannot see but that we feel innately drawn to, a memory we reach out for over and over, in the same way those birds keep pumping their wings without quite knowing how long it is going to take to find the place they’re searching for, or even if they will ever reach it.

Essayist and biographer Margot Kahn is the author of Horses That Buck and co-editor, along with Kelly McMasters, of the anthology This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Her work has appeared in Tablet, River Teeth, High Desert Journal, The Los Angeles Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and Publishers Weekly, among other places. She lives in Seattle. 

Claire Dederer is the author of two critically acclaimed memoirs: Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning and Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, which was a New York Times bestseller. Her essays, criticism, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Nation, Vogue, Chicago Tribune, Real Simple, Entertainment Weekly, New York magazine, Yoga Journal, Newsday, Slate, Salon, and many other publications. Dederer is a fourth-generation Seattle native.

Kelly McMasters is a former bookshop owner and author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, the basis for the documentary film The Atomic States of America. She is also co-editor, along with Margot Kahn, of the anthology This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, The American Scholar, River Teeth, and Newsday, among others. She is  an Assistant Professor of English and Director of Publishing Studies at Hofstra University in NY. 

Many-Layered Anger: An Interview with William H. Gass

Greg Gerke

An interview with William H. Gass, conducted by Greg Gerke in 2012.

In his works of fiction, William H. Gass creates worlds where the characters try to find their way amid inhumanity and where language honors equally the horror and the beauty of life. But as impressive as these works of fiction are, they make up only a part of Gass’s immense contribution to arts and letters. He’s also a distinguished essayist and critic, author most recently of the collection Life Sentences and of such now-canonical books as Fiction and the Figures of Life and Reading Rilke. His subjects vary but the work is always richly observed, emotionally acute, and at the same time playful—full of wisdom and the uncanny understanding of a man who taught philosophy for fifty years. A William H. Gass topic could be an examination of the word and, a lecture on metaphor, an examination of lust, a philosophical treatise on the color blue—and that’s not to mention the book reviews that are always more than mere summary, branching into the deepest questions of language and being.

The essays and fiction are part of the same “writing problem.” As an artist, Gass is dedicated to the most basic elements of language: words and sentences—the bones, blood, and flesh of writing. Every sentence tells a story and he has made it his duty to construct each with great attention to its poetic and rhythmic qualities, with such alliterative gambits as “Why should another’s body be so beautiful its absence is as painful as the presence of your own?” from The Tunnel, and these crisp bits of economy from the essay “The Soul Inside the Sentence”: “Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.”

Last October I visited Bill Gass in St. Louis, Missouri, near Washington University, where he taught for thirty years and founded the International Writer’s Center, which later became the Center for the Humanities. Bill and his wife, Mary, warmly welcomed me into their opulent space dedicated to art and containing a library that now numbers over twenty thousand books. After talking to Bill during a celebration of Elizabeth Bishop at the university the afternoon before, I spent most of a Monday at his home, capped by a wonderful dinner with him and his wife. I asked everything I could, but mostly, all I had to do was listen.

DEAR READER: A Q&A with Danez Smith


Inimitable writer and performer Danez Smith is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Award, and [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Their work has appeared on BuzzFeed, The New York Times, PBS NewsHour, Best American Poetry, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and many others. As the New Yorker recently put it, “[Smith knows] the magic trick of making writing on the page operate like the most ecstatic speech.”

We’re thrilled Danez brought some of that magic to Ace Hotel New York, where they were this month’s Dear Reader author. As writer-in-residence, Danez penned a letter to an imagined audience—a letter that’s been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Danez to talk holy texts, the “figuring it out/fucking it up” stage, and running through the dark house of your work.

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

DANEZ SMITH: Probably Celie from The Color Purple because her letters to God and her sister are such vital and holy texts to me. I would love to be her pen pal and to help her plot on ways to win over women and bury her no good husband. Tho I worry that if I started writing her letters that’s all I would do. I would want each one to be as perfect and blood filled as hers.

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 don’t map my writing. I don’t think poetry is a genre that lends itself to mapping. The most I might “map” is adding some kind of formal structure or constraint to the poem, but even that is a tool for exploration and surprise. I would stop writing poems if they only unfolded in ways I expected. Art is about surprise, discovery, unlocking, manifesting, imagining, creating and I think that is best done by running through the dark house of your work on faith alone, trusting anything you crash into was meant to be crashed into. I think the same is true when I write non-poems. I’m working on a novel now and it’s only fun when I’m as clueless as the characters. The mapping happens more as a tool to direct the plot in some way, but that’s the boring part. I like the “figuring it out/fucking it up” part.

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

I think about audience, but who that is is different from poem to poem. Sometimes that audience is rather large, a general human audience that I am interested in talking with. I am not really surprised by who is drawn to my work through a lens of identity because I know that I also like work that wasn’t “meant for me,” but I have been rather shocked when people, especially writers, that I look up to are aware of my work. The idea of the people who made me want to write sitting down with what I wrote makes my brain feel like a very happy pudding.

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

All of Franny Choi’s books. I think a lot of folks in the poetry world know what’s up, but I want the world to know. There is really nobody who writes as damn good of a poem like Franny, and I think her poems have so much to teach us about our flawed, beautiful, glitching selves.

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

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.

The Dichotomy of Evil: The Manson Girl Who Got Away

Win McCormack

A house on Romero Canyon Road, in the Montecito section of Santa Barbara, California, the evening of Saturday, August 9, 1969. There were five of us present: four of us—myself, Richard, Jan, and Ruth (my girlfriend that summer)—were Junior Fellows at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, and there was Jan’s wife, Barbara. We were all in our early to mid-twenties. As dusk fell over the eucalyptus and lemon trees surrounding the house, we dropped acid. As it turned out, this was not the right night for this group of people to do that.

All afternoon the news had been filled with reports of a grisly and bizarre quintuple murder that had taken place after midnight in a mansion at 10050 Cielo Drive off Benedict Canyon in Bel-Air, an exclusive residential area of Los Angeles about eighty-five miles southeast of Santa Barbara. The mansion was the residence at that time of director Roman Polanski and his wife, actress Sharon Tate. When the police arrived that morning, they found, in the living room of the mansion, the bodies of Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, an internationally known hair designer who was Tate’s former lover and now a friend to both her and Polanski, and on the front lawn the bodies of Abigail Folger, a Folger-coffee heiress, and her lover, Wojciech Frykowski, a playboy and friend of Polanski from his filmmaking days in Poland. Two of these victims—Sebring and Frykowski—had been shot. All four of them had been stabbed multiple times. Frykowski had also been struck on the head with a blunt instrument. The police found another victim as well, a young man named Steven Parent, who had been visiting the grounds caretaker in his nearby cottage, slumped over the wheel of a car near the gate to the property. He had been shot four times. Someone had climbed the telephone pole, with a pair of wire clippers, and cut all four telephone wires to the house. On the front door the word PIG was written in blood that, after analysis, proved to be Sharon Tate’s. Blood was everywhere—throughout the house, on the front porch, on the lawn. Witnesses described the sanguinary scene as a “battlefield” and a “human slaughterhouse.”

Since it was the midst of summer, it did not get dark until fairly late that night of August 9. By the time darkness had consumed the house on Romero Canyon Road, Richard, Jan, Barbara, Ruth, and I were fairly well stoned. Suddenly Jan, a philosophy graduate of Reed College with a strong penchant for getting caught up in twisted and protracted flights of fancy, started talking about the murders in Bel-Air. He alluded to some of the details of the murder scene and to the names of some of the victims. Then he said that even as we sat there, the murderers could be in our vicinity; in fact, they could be right outside the house at that very moment. He emphasized the fact that the murders the night before had taken place in a canyon, and we were in a canyon, and the two canyons were not that far from each other; we could easily be reached by car, just as the victims the night before must have been. He also pointed out that the number of people in our house, five, was the exact number as had been murdered at the Polanski residence. He went on about all this at some length, until we finally told him to shut up.

Only This: An Interview with Kristen Radtke

Mieke Eerkens

Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic memoir that explores the relationship between literal and figurative ruination. Radtke juxtaposes abandoned places—crumbling shells of churches, theaters, the spaces left behind by war and fire—with a meditation on failed relationships, family members lost to disease, and her own mortality as she recognizes the ways in which human lives fade into history.

Having studied the essay in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, Radkte resists the conventions of a linear narrative found so often in graphic novels and memoirs. Imagine Wanting Only This relies on a braided structure, allowing the work to become an essayistic meditation on a subject matter as each thread contextualizes the other.

Radtke is a writer exploring the parameters of what hybrid forms can do, and the result is a fresh take on the graphic memoir. I recently had a conversation with her about the book and the experience of bringing it into the world.

Mieke Eerkens: This is your first book-length project. I know that for me, writing a book presented so many more challenges than I had anticipated, for various reasons, and I wondered if you experienced the same thing? What did you find the most challenging part of doing this book?

Kristen Radtke: I think structure is the hardest part. It takes forever to figure out how things fit together. Often you can get stopped up by that, and it prevents you from making progress on the parts you need to write because you’re obsessed with how it will work in the end. One of the things I learned is you have to just keep writing. Structure will find its way. It seems like a miracle when things start fitting together, because it feels like it is never going to until you see, “Holy shit, it goes here.” That’s always a shocking moment.

The other thing is you really start second guessing yourself like crazy during certain parts of the project, and you think, “This was a huge mistake,” and you feel this need to undo things. I think about the sheer amount of time it takes and how much you change during the process of writing the book. So especially when you’re writing nonfiction, and especially when you’re a narrator in that nonfiction and it’s supposed to be some sort of representation of who you are, sticking in that mindset is hard, like figuring out how you allow yourself to change accurately without dismantling the entire project.

ME: I find I tend to experience my life very much through the lens of a writer. I think in metaphors and scenes as I move through my day, and am thinking about language a lot, especially when I am in the middle of working on a manuscript. I was curious if, after working on a book like yours, you begin to think in panels and imagery. Since you have a background in both disciplines, does your brain lean more toward imagery or language, do you think?

KR: I think it’s both, I think in both, but I know that I now process information a bit more visually than I used to. I start thinking about how things would unfold in panels and how they would unfold visually in a way I never did before. And even in the beginning of writing this book it was a struggle to figure out how things unfolded visually, and now it feels much more natural. But I can now look around a room and know exactly how it would look drawn. I can visualize it immediately now, which I never could before.

ME: Do you think you’ll ever go back to straight writing, or do you think you’ve found your thing in graphic work?

KR: I am working on a book of essays, but some of the essays will have images. It’s a book about loneliness, and I’ve been doing all these drawings of urban loneliness. So it will be half that, and probably some prose essays. I’ll see how it unfolds. But it will definitely still be paired with images. At this point, I don’t think I will ever do a book that is solely prose.

ME: We both studied the essay under John D’Agata, in a program that really focused a lot on the essay, and the act of essaying in our creative work. What struck me by your book was how present that essayistic quality was translated to image in the graphics, something I haven’t seen in the same way in the admittedly limited graphic literature I have read- Spiegelman, Bechtel, Satrapi, etc. For example, you seem to be working a lot out in view of the reader, such as with the calls to doctors and images of your notes about the genetic disorder that runs in the family. It’s very self-reflexive and essayistic, in terms of the word “essay” as a verb. It also really impressed me how you were willing to offer up a panel, or sometimes several panels, to visual silence or pause- your narrator just thinking, introspective, without also including something else to provide narrative information in the panel. It’s like it gave me a few beats to also contemplate without having to process or bank new information.

For example, we’ve got a young you staring through a window, you in college with a black background absorbing the classmate’s information about Gary, staring out of the car window on the way to the airport in Colorado, staring out of the window of the Greyhound on the way to Chicago, 3 panels of staring out the train window with your fiancé asleep on your shoulder, lying in the grass staring at the sky, etc.

How conscious are those panels? How do you see them functioning in your work?

KR: One of the interesting things about talking to people about the book is how many of them mention that I show my source documents- like reproducing notes, or I show historical photographs, research documents, and I show my research process. That to me was never a conscious choice; it was just how I was going to tell the story. But the sort of introspective parts and thinking about what you represent visually when you are just thinking through a problem was a hard thing for me in the book. And I think it’s something I will do differently in future work.

Halfway through the book I thought, “I can’t show myself walking alone at night thinking again.” How many times can that happen in a book? But it’s hard, because it was my first foray into this medium, and I didn’t know what else to put there. And to me, it was how I was experiencing reality and I wanted to replicate that. But I am interested in finding more creative ways to do it in the future.

ME: I felt like that was one of the more exciting things about it.

KR: That’s because you’re a literary person. I think a lot of literary people respond to that, and then comics people are like, “What is this?”

ME: It’s the essayist in you. I respond to it very well because it’s giving the reader space to think. I feel like that’s doing something new that I haven’t really seen. Like you were saying, people who come from a comics background are always filling their panels; they’re thinking “I have to provide information in every panel to move this narrative forward. It has to be doing double duty in some way.” I enjoy that that you give the space- to borrow a literary term, the “white space”- within a medium that doesn’t often provide that.

In terms of essaying, I was wondering how this book came together thematically. Was there an idea driving you that you wanted to essay, and these examples- the loss of an uncle, the loss of love and places you loved, the abandonment of places- lent themselves to that idea, or was it the other way around? Were these life memories the driving force, and through thinking about them, the unifying themes arose? It’s sort of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” question.

KR: I don’t know that the memories were the driving force. It was probably the specific abandoned places that were. But the themes definitely emerged through the writing. I didn’t sit down with some idea of what the book was about at all. I just wanted to tell the story of certain abandoned places and then I realized how certain parts of my personal life were impacting that desire and how related those two things were. And then the themes started emerging from there.

But I could never have said what the book was about when I started it. It was sort of like how we were talking earlier about how it felt like a miracle when things started to come together. I was writing about abandoned places for a while before someone said, “Hey, these are all part of the same project.” I think we are drawn to the same things over and over, and we often don’t approach it as a book project. But I also think that’s part of a first book, and why first books take a long time, because at first you don’t realize you are working on them.

ME: You have a line jotted down- “To abandon something beautiful is where the crime rests”- in a panel that shows your notebook. I think that’s interesting because the personal battle I see your narrator engaging with via these different threads in the book is culpability. There’s a slight difference, and hence a tension, between the idea of abandonment, which carries a more passive meaning of withdrawal, and ruin, the act of ruining, which implies a more active role in destruction. Later, you write about the actual creation of ruins, the fetishizing of ruins by our culture. Here, it’s not abandonment, but a theme of purposeful ruination. Am I completely off, or do you think there’s something to say about that tension in the book, the idea of intent and the fine line between abandonment or decay, and ruination or destruction. I felt your narrator might have been grappling with how responsible she might be.

KR: Personal responsibility is something I struggled with in the book a lot. And as I was sort of running through my past and trying to make sense of my experiences, I realized that I had made these decisions that weren’t very conscious and in a lot of ways were actually pretty thoughtless. I hadn’t thought about my relationship to them.

Several of the reviews of my book mentioned offhandedly that I abandoned my ex-boyfriend. They use the word ‘abandoned.’ And I never saw it that way at all, but then I thought, ‘Yeah, I guess that’s what happened.’ But I think that’s also part of being young, and I was also really young in the parts about my personal life, like early twenties. So I think in general we are still kind of coming into our own consciousness then and trying to navigate what we owe to a place, what we owe each other.

ME: I sensed in the narrator a kind of guilt for these cities that were abandoned, and a questioning to what extent we are all responsible for that or maintaining that state. Whereas war is such a deliberate act of ruination, of destruction, abandoning something is such a passive way of ruining. I see in the character a sort of guilt walking around these abandoned places, at least in the beginning and the middle of the book.

KR: Yes. That’s definitely how I felt when I was there. I don’t know why that was, necessarily, other than the fact that I also felt kind of guilty for being in these places where the stories weren’t mine and were so removed from my own life. I think that was part of it too, just an uneasiness about being there and inserting myself in that narrative.

ME: I love this passage of you arriving home and thinking about Detroit and the empty homes and buildings, and the line, “We forget that everything will become no longer ours.” It kind of reminds me of that Ani DiFranco song, “Both Hands,” when she sings of the end of a relationship, and the line, “I’m recording our history now on the bedroom wall, and when we leave the landlord will come and paint over it all.”

But there’s a great counterweight to this theme in places. For example, your mother’s research into the family tree indicates a resurrection of people who have faded. And the biggest example of this is, of course, your book itself, which is a kind of preservation and permanent documenting of yourself and these events like the Peshtigo fire, which might otherwise fade into obscurity. Does writing serve that purpose of preservation at all for you? Like, “pay attention to this, don’t forget this”?

KR: I don’t know. It wasn’t really an intention of mine. I don’t think there is ever going to be a “Radtke scholar” and I don’t have a desire for that.  I have so many male friends who say, “I don’t care if people read me now, but someday I just want there to be someone who has my last name in their job description.” Maybe it’s a male thing. I think women want to be read now and be part of the conversation now, and men think it’s more noble or something, to be read later, after we’re gone. I don’t care if anyone’s reading my books in fifty years. To me that’s ridiculous. There will be new work.

One of the reasons I like graphic novels is they mark time in an interesting way. You can see things like technology. You know how in so many novels someone will be writing a letter, and you think, “Come on, you didn’t write a letter. You sent an email or text messages.” There’s this resistance to acknowledging technology. One of the things I wanted to do in the book was show how those things change really quickly. Like, when I am in college I am using a flip-phone and near the end I am using an i-Phone. I like that it documents time in those specific ways. But I didn’t think of this as a way to document anything, necessarily.

ME: I was thinking of it more in terms of the themes in the book, like the idea of preserving something—people, places, events—that might otherwise maybe fade away. I’m reminded so much of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which really explores that theme of presence in loss. I was reminded constantly of this theme in your book. I was thinking about the things you are writing about- there is a lot of yearning, rumination on loss. There is a sort of resurrection by the act of invoking that sense of loss. It’s actually bringing it back by focusing on it.

KR: That was definitely very true during the writing process. One of the strangest things for me was having to write about people who had been gone from my life for a long time, and how they became super present again. I would start dreaming about them, and I would start thinking about them all the time. And that was a sort of weird and unexpected part of the project for me.

ME: What does your ideal reader walk away from this book with?

KL: I have no idea how to answer that question! I mean, I want them to like it.

ME: Well, as John D’Agata would say to us in workshop at Iowa, “What is it doing? Does this book matter?”

KR: Ha. Right. Well, I want them to have a good experience reading it. But I don’t know. One of the things that has been cool is to see how really differently people react. Even reading Goodreads reviews—which everyone tells you not to read but of course you read them—the reactions are so different. Like some people hate the drawings and love the writing and some people hate the writing and love the drawings. And then some people think it’s super nihilistic and think there is no point, and others felt very refreshed by it and very hopeful, and I just think it’s interesting how people can project whatever they want onto it.

That’s cool for me. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like it’s mine anymore. It doesn’t feel precious to me. Even when someone has a negative reaction to it. The week it came out I wouldn’t have said this. I would have died. I didn’t want anyone to say negative things and I was miserable about any negative feedback. But at this point it is just interesting to me more than anything else, how people will react, even if the reaction is negative. I just think it’s out in the world and no longer mine. People can say and react to it however they want, and that’s sort of part of the process as well.

Kristen Radtke is a writer and illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York. Her graphic memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This, was published by Pantheon Books in April, 2017. Radtke is the art director and New York editor of The Believer magazine. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Radtke’s writing and comics have appeared in publications including The New Yorker, Oxford American, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

Mieke Eerkens is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her book, All Ships Follow Me, is forthcoming from Picador.

The Soul of a Naturalist: An Interview with Sy Montgomery

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky

Sy Montgomery writes of animals, but her work’s hallmark is its humanity. In more than 20 books, and in field research that has taken her from the realm of snow leopards in the Altai Mountains to the oceans of French Polynesia, Montgomery has searched to understand the minds of the animals with whom we share our world. Montgomery’s descriptions of her encounters with creatures as seemingly alien as octopuses and familiar as our pets inevitably reveal the kind of consciousness and personality our species has for so long been reluctant to admit. The result is a body of writing that is as rigorous in its thinking as it is enchanting, and that our planet in environmental crisis is lucky to have. It was an honor to speak with one of our greatest naturalists—and one who takes dance lessons with her dog, to boot.


Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: The Soul of an Octopus made me fall in love with your work, but I have read as much of your writing as I can get my hands on since then. In all of it, I am in awe of the wonder and respect and care with which you write about the natural world. I am just tickled to get to speak to you.

Sy Montgomery: Well, I am thrilled to find a kindred spirit. There’s nothing better than talking to an octopus fan.

EKH: What have you been up to so far this summer?

SM: Oh my gosh, I scheduled too many things. I’m writing a book on a wildebeest migration expedition that I did last summer with one of my best friends, Richard Estes. He is the world’s top expert on wildebeest, and all these years I’ve known him, I’ve wanted to go with him and finally I did, on my dream safari with my very best friend in the whole world, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Liz had discovered, with Katy Payne, infrasound and elephants, and she had done a study of the Dodoth, a group of warrior herdsmen in Uganda, and to go to Africa with Liz and Dick was amazing.

So, I’m writing that, but meanwhile I’m trying to plan for an expedition in the fall to California, for a book on condors, and I’m trying to plan another expedition in the spring with giant manta rays. I’m shepherding my hyena book to publication. But meanwhile I’ve decided that my dog should be taking dance lessons. What was I thinking? (laughing)

EKH: What kind of dance lessons? Do you dance?

SM: Well, it’s crazy. I don’t dance. I mean, I dance for fun in the basement like Snoopy does on Schroeder’s piano. It’s canine freestyle. Thurber’s two years old and he’s a Border collie, and I just wanted us to do something together. We walk for two hours in the woods every day, but I just thought, you know, they’re so smart, Border collies, and it would be fun. So he’s taking dance lessons with me, and this other lady and her dog and I’m like, what was I thinking? I purposely did not have children and now I’m taking my dog to dance lessons! (laughing)

EKH: How do the dance lessons even work? I can’t even imagine. Is it partner dancing?

SM: Yes, you’re the dog’s partner. There’s a million great YouTube canine freestyle dance videos of people and dogs dancing together to music. Thurber’s so smart but he can’t do stuff that you see there. But what he can do: He can do a weave through your legs, he can circle around you. He can do a twist, he can do a spin. He can roll over on the floor. We’re working on walking backwards. I mean, it’s just fun. Lately, he really likes that song by A Great Big World called “Say Something,” which is hilarious because of course he’s saying something. He also likes “Pink Cadillac” the way that Springsteen does it. We’re also doing “Gracias a la Vida” with alternate lyrics; it’s “Gracias a la vida for giving me my doggo…”