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Between the Covers Anne de Marcken Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Armen Davoudian’s tender and inventive debut poetry collection The Palace of Forty Pillars. Called “Brilliant and heartfelt” by Richie Hofmann, these poems tell the story of a self, estranged from the world around him as a gay adolescent, an Armenian in Iran, and an immigrant in America. Through formal invention and a masterful attention to rhyme and meter, Davoudian recreates with his art a home for his speaker who is unable to return to it in life. The Palace of Forty Pillars is out on March 19th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. About eight years ago now, Jesse Ball, a recent guest on the show at the time and one of my favorite interviews, at a time when I was trying to puzzle out how to address rising costs of doing the show with its increasing audience, out of the blue, he sent me three boxes of an out-of-print co-written book of his Vera & Linus that was published by a small Icelandic press. It was really this, Vera & Linus, the main thing that I offered to entice listeners to be supporters for many years. Looking back, this gesture may be the reason in many ways that I’m still here, that the show kept going and keeps going. This was followed by some other out-of-the-blue gestures, most notably Tin House adopting the show and offering their own books to listeners, and the Dorothy Project when I talked to Caren Beilin and Cristina Rivera-Garza back to back, offering a largesse of their back catalog. But probably nothing feels as monumental, not since Jesse’s first gesture of today’s guest and de Marcken’s gift to the show. She runs the amazing press The 3rd Thing, which shares a lot in common with Between the Covers namely that it focuses on the interdisciplinary works that bring together different genres or blur the boundaries between them or that refuse to sit neatly within any of them, and her press has an intersectional ethos, and realizes that curation and publication are inescapably political acts, that one either reiterates the world or remakes it. On top of that, with Anne’s long time love of the materiality of books, these books as objects, to hold and behold, every detail of them, they’re improbably beautiful. To cut to the chase, Anne sent me a monumental box of The 3rd Thing books to offer to future supporters and there are really too many to mention now but I’ll mention a couple of them. There is one that’s two books in one with work by Paul Hlava Ceballos and Quenton Baker that includes commentary by Christina Sharpe and artwork by Torkwase Dyson. There is a lyric noir Fugitive Assemblage by writer, attorney, and evolutionary biologist Jennifer Calkins and the 100th anniversary critical edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane, which comes with an oracular deck with prompts, images, and calls to respond from Black thinkers and makers from M. NourbeSe Philip to Alexis Pauline Gumbs. So for sure, check out The 3rd Thing as well as the Patreon page where you can support the show and get yourself a book from them, and also contributes to the bonus audio archive a morning reading full of birdsong from her front porch, of her book before the one we discussed today The Accident: An Account. The bonus audio archive is another possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers community as a listener-supporter. You can find out about all of this and much more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Anne de Marcken.

[Music]

David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is writer, interdisciplinary artist, editor, and publisher Anne de Marcken. De Marcken has a BA with a focus on experimental media from Evergreen State College and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her more recent site-specific works include Invisible Ink: Reparations and Invisible Ink: Homeless, the latter of which involves the words of houseless residents at the Compass First Presbyterian Shelter in Seattle and the Interfaith Works Overnight Shelter in Olympia, and The Redaction Project, which involved a redactive disarticulation of her unpublished story collection. De Marcken directed with M Freeman the feature film Group following nine women who meet every Wednesday for 21 weeks of group therapy, starring, among others, Carrie Brownstein. It won Best Director as well as Audience Choice for Best Feature Film at the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and Best Narrative Feature at The Director’s View Film Festival. She’s also written and directed documentary video shorts from a short form documentary on innovative stormwater management and treatment techniques to short videos for people with developmental disabilities and for advancing legislative advocacy for people with disabilities. De Marcken is also the founder, editor, and publisher of The 3rd Thing, a press that produces books that foreground the interdisciplinary and the intersectional in terms of form, content, and perspective. The 3rd Thing’s recent books include a critical edition of Harlem Renaissance’s writer Jean Toomer’s Cane in honor of its 100th anniversary, which comes with an oracular card deck with Black thinkers and makers including past Between the Covers guests Canisia Lubrin, Christina Sharpe, Gabrielle Civil, Douglas Kearney, John Keene, Nikky Finney, and many others offering insights into the work in the form of prompts, gestures, images, questions, and calls to respond. Anne de Marcken has taught writing, moving image media, and narrative studies at Evergreen State College and has served as visiting artist in the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts Program at Goddard College. Her short fiction has been featured in Best American Voices, Narrative, and Glimmer Train, has appeared on NPR’s Selected Shorts, and has won multiple awards including the Symphony Space Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize picked by Amy Hempel and the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest as judged by Carmen Maria Machado. She’s the author of the uncategorizable book The Accident: An Account described by the publisher as “A fragmentary, lyric thing. Not a story. Not a record. An account—provisional and subject to revision. It is a reckoning with the ways language and narrative fail to make sense of the recursive slippages of loss.” Ander Monson says of The Accident, “This book haunted me. Moving back and forth between image and text, between page and screen via QR code and fragment, I was reminded of the ghostly effect I get from looking at stereograms. Focus on its pieces in the right mood, and a third, composite text emerges that jumps off the page. The Accident was an uneasy and pleasurable reading experience that remained bright in my mind well after putting it down.” Vi Khi Nao adds, “Crepuscular and gradual, minimal and tender, the words and photographic poems in Anne de Marcken’s The Accident are filled with measured, continuous, indestructible longing. She has a quiet way of making you surrender, ecologically and aesthetically, through her account’s transient, fugitive beauty and explicit interlacing dormant fragility.” Anne de Marcken is here today to talk about her debut novel, winner of the 2022 Novel Prize, and thus now being published in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia by New Directions, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and Giramondo respectively entitled It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over. Sabrina Orah Mark says, “Anne de Marcken must write in a charmed ink that first erases the line between the living and the dead, and then — with prose as elegant as it is spooked — tells the story of what lies underneath. I have never read anything like this brilliant debut.” Jeff VanderMeer adds, “It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over is sad, shocking, funny, prophetic, visceral, and deeply human. From amid the dislocations, the lacerations, a profound meditation arises. Highly recommended.” Finally, Alexandra Kleeman says, “Astounding, inventive, and utterly original, Anne de Marcken has written a freakish classic with wisdom to spare about life, death, and the eerily vast space between. I was absolute putty in this book’s hands.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Anne de Marcken.

Anne de Marcken: Thank you, David. Thank you. 

DN: So we’ve corresponded intermittently over the years, sometimes about an author you’re publishing, sometimes me reaching out to you, for example, when I talked to Christina Sharpe and I wanted to include two of the books that The 3rd Thing published that included her writing, and her photography. But we had one span of intense correspondence which was during the two months between you being announced for the shortlist for the Nobel Prize and actually winning it. You were trying not to get your hopes up, yet you were compulsively checking your email and I was suggesting that there was already a victory of sorts in being shortlisted, and that you would be able to mention this in your cover letters to publishers or agents. But as we spoke more and as I prepared for today later on, I realized that my sentiment was definitely cold comfort in your case. Over the years, instead of submitting mainly through open submission periods, you often entered your stories and your book manuscript into contests, thinking that it might grab attention to agents and otherwise. But looking over the past two decades, the number of close calls, the number of times you were a finalist and not a winner is actually remarkable. Of course, in that span of time, you did win things too but here you were shortlisted yet again and even this new novel was a finalist for the Dzanc Fiction Prize before winning the Nobel Prize. Similarly, over that time period, you have both experienced the silences of querying agents and been involved in what you describe as lengthy and emotionally expensive conversations with agents who love your project but eventually pass because it’s too weird. With you describing your situation to me as a self-styled, years-long, unagented slog, I mention this because as a writer and publisher yourself, I know you are also keenly aware of and interested in the process of not only writing but also book making, and helping writing find readers. I’m also interested because when you said to me about this umpteenth indeterminate waiting period for you, “The whole strange gap between writing and publishing is a great place to encounter, and question ideas and of yourself,” I think a lot of listeners who are art makers can probably relate but mainly I bring it up because you’re now living my dream. New Directions and Fitzcarraldo being my pole star presses when I think of my own work and to be corresponding with you as you win, and witnessing all that has happened since, not just New Directions, Fitzcarraldo, and Giramondo but getting to choose between two of your dream agents, being picked up by Gallimard and France, the publishers of Proust, Camus, Duras, and more, this isn’t a question but a long-winded congratulations because it’s really been an incredible joy to watch you being strapped to a rocket like this. 

AdM: Thank you for reflecting on the past year and for being with me throughout it. It’s nice to hear it referred to as a rocket ride and sometimes the space has felt more real than the rocket. [laughs] It does continue to be, I guess comfortingly, an indeterminate process. There are a lot of things to do, especially right now, I’m in the process right now of scheduling and planning events, readings, and conversations with people about the book, so there are lots of practical things to take care of but that’s just the littlest bit of this experience. The most comfortable for me as a producer, I can make lists and check things off but there have been a lot of listless days. [laughter]

DN: Well, the sudden way in which you’ve found an immense readership in multiple languages on multiple continents all at once makes me think of the epigraph to your new book by Judith Butler, “And without you, that indefinite, promiscuous, and expansive pronoun we are wrecked and we fall.” Thinking of that “you,” I wonder if you have a philosophy or some thoughts about the reader in relationship to the writing, whether your writing in this book in particular is addressed to a “you.” I know the book is literally addressed to a “you” but more generally, a “you,” specific or vague, particular or imaginary. Do you see the reader as completing the work in some way? I think of Percival Everett who balks at questions at all about what his work means. For him, it’s the reader who decides. The reader’s role is to know and to determine that the reader, the indefinite promiscuous reader, to borrow Butler’s words, is the ultimate arbiter of meaning. 

AdM: I don’t know if I could abandon entirely my sense or my attachment to my work’s meaning. Maybe at least in this book, it felt very guided by a particular inquiry, a line of questioning and the pursuit of a feeling. It was an effort to sustain a very particular to this project feeling and I would hope that is communicated with some similarity to the feeling that I had. Yet I definitely relate to that, to that idea of the reader and write so much with the idea that it’s a collaboration with the reader, and more than anything, to leave room for the reader, to not fill up every imaginary space with what I’m seeing but rather to provide maybe just enough to lead, just enough to open a space, not to fill up a space but rather to describe a space that then the reader occupies, the reader feels very much in the way that Roland Barthes talks about in The Pleasure of the Text in that, he coyly describes it as cruising for a reader, that you show up there on the off chance, that you’ll meet somebody for who knows what or we know exactly what.

DN: [laughs] I love that. Well, perhaps it’s fitting to start with the notion of the bardo and Buddhism, the intermediate space between one life and the next door or purgatory in Christianity given the indeterminate seemingly never ending space that you’ve just left for a new life as a writer. I thought of the bardo reading this book and also of a Japanese film called After Life, not because your book and the film share similar plots. In the film, every Monday, a group of recently deceased people check in at a lodge and they meet with social workers who ask them to go back over their lives, and choose only one memory to take with them into the afterlife and they have a couple days to figure this out with the help of the social workers, the one thing that they will remember for eternity. Your book has no obvious common points with this plot but it shares a kindred setting. This decrepit hotel where your characters meet reminds me of the lodge, then being in this not life, not death and somehow both states also reminds me of this. I’d love for you to maybe more fully paint the setting of your book, which also seems post-apocalyptic in a real world way but has lines like, “Maybe there is a time between end and beginning that is like the time between beginning and end, a time that is to middle as beginning is to end. Maybe this is that time, middle but without the hope of resolution.” Paint the setting a little more fully for us but also talk about how you see this setting metaphysically in relation to other indeterminate spaces like the bardo, if you do at all see it in relationship to any of these other well-known indeterminate spaces. 

AdM: I see very much real places that are familiar to me. At a certain point or for a long time writing the book, I thought of it and even talked about it as a memoir, and the book in some ways remains very much a memoir though entirely fabricated but the settings are familiar to me. It’s here in the Pacific Northwest between Olympia and the Long Beach Peninsula, pretty much those miles. Many of them stretched along real roads. The hotel is a hotel that I know the golf course is a golf course that I know but not. Landmarks and places are real landmarks, and places to me. In that way, the setting is, like the book, not figurative. Like the book, all of these real places do in some way exist not only now. They exist all the time. They exist in a future that feels like it hovers just out of sight or just barely within sight. It can just begin to see that future and it looks a lot like now. There’s the real place of it, then there are conceptual places that contain the book. It’s structured in seven parts and broken into three larger parts or grouped into three parts. There are three illustrations in the book that I had pinned to my wall while I was working on the book that I drew as descriptions for myself of the book’s shape. One is this messy axonometric cube built of other cubes that are wrongly attached and stacked together so that you’re looking through the grid, and that’s how I thought of the hotel as this shambly network of broken lines and cubes that the characters move between, are lost in, and contained by. The second part of the book breaks into a dashed line. The dashed line is actually drawn across a folded piece of paper that I unfolded to make the dash and that’s how I think of that part of the book as a continuous thing that’s been broken apart, and all the spaces opened up between it. The character falls into these spaces and when she falls into those spaces, I’d say, “That’s where the past and the future of the places that I know exist,” the in between the gaps that open up in our reality, those middles, that unnamed middle-like space, then finally, it becomes a kind of unruly spiral where she leaves this time and she leaves this place, yet both are contained still. Not this time and not this place are still this time and this place. I’m just rambling but the places in the book, the setting of the book, it’s all familiar to me and I think I hope it is familiar in a slant way to readers but also, it is that other realm, whether it’s bardo. I say that other realm as a person who’s totally unconvinced of any other realm. [laughter]

DN: Oh, that realm. [laughter] 

AdM: But more like that “that realm” is “this realm.” 

DN: Yeah. Well, let me ask you about that realm that you’re speaking into that you’re also skeptical of. This third space and this third way of being not this or that, yet both this and that, of course, makes me think of the title of your press, The 3rd Thing where you say in the description of it, “‘The third thing’ is the idea that emerges when we use imagination instead of compromise to solve a problem, meet a need, repair an injury, right a wrong, answer a question, question an answer, to get where we’re going, to go somewhere new.” I  wondered if this notion of the third thing relates in your mind in any way to the third space of the book and/or the third space of the characters within it.

AdM: It’s a fairly portable idea, this third thing. [laughter] Actually, it came from my marriage. It came from the time that my spouse and I were building a house, a little house that was so little that there were not very many decisions, and every single one of them felt very important because it was going to determine so much of how we were able to move and what we could contain in this very small space. We didn’t want any of the things in that house to be a compromise. We didn’t want to say, “Well, you can have your tile if I can have my countertop.” Or we wanted every single thing to be exactly the best, like the thing we wanted most, so we decided that we would come up with a third thing whenever we were at an impasse and that the third thing that we arrived at would be better than either of the things that we had come up with on our own. So already, we’ve taken it from something very practical and domestic to something as impractical as literature, and publishing. I do think that I had to with The Accident and with this book, with It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over, at some point, I had to abandon my idea of the thing. The Accident, it’s a project of abandonment, of destroying the idea that I had of the thing in order to figure out the thing itself. This novel too required me to let go of any number of times but there had to be some moment when I felt it, when I felt like, “Oh, I’ve let go of it. Now I’m not reaching for the idea of the thing. I’m reaching now for the thing that I feel, the thing that it is, some undescribed, not previously read thing.”

DN: Well, I debated when to bring up zombies in relation to the book because while this book is a book of people who are undead and our protagonists and others do indeed eat others, when thinking of tropes or genres and by extension thinking of genre expectations, this is by no means a “zombie” novel. The comparisons to Beckett I think more accurately capture one aspect of at least the philosophical gallows humor and the pressure placed on a pared-down language to carry it. But it also is a novel that is a journey, one that feels far more interior and metaphysical than one might expect from a zombie book. But let’s spend a moment with the way you employ undeadness as a third thing. There are great lines throughout like, “To be undead is to be superfluous and perpetual,” or “Only the undead can truly understand the meaning of life.” Your undead in this book, they can dream. They have interior lives and dream lives. Talk to us a little more about undeadness or how undeadness functions in your world.

AdM: It took me a long time to realize that zombies are undead. [laughter] I spent a fair amount of time trying to understand zombies and actually, the book began after I overcame my superior attitude about zombies. At the time, I was teaching undergraduates and graduates but the undergraduate students were especially preoccupied with zombies at that time, maybe they are still, I don’t know. It was Harry Potter and zombies when I was teaching, and I was bored by it or something about it, then something fortunately shifted in me and I became as interested as I should have been, just interested because they were interested but also interested because they were interested. Monsters are reflections of us at any given time and the fact that zombies were so popular, it said something that I wanted to look at, so I had not really done my zombie homework, I had not kept up with zombies over the years, so I did a bit of movie watching and book reading. I have to say I really loved Night of the Living Dead and was so shocked by my failure to pick up this cultural work, this great movie, and others too. But I think I had to get through a lot of, I was about to say, I had to get through a lot of zombie consumption. [laughter]

DN: So you were eating people for research?

AdM: I was eating a lot of zombies, not tasty. [laughter] Before I could start to think about what they were and also going back farther to Zumbis, that African zombie, and that was really helpful when I started to look at zombies and Zumbis next to each other and what is now considered monstrous in popular culture but was previously something of great value, and a source of knowledge and connection. That helped me get to the realization that they are in this space between life and death, that they are a bridge, or not a bridge, an air gap or something, something that we have to transit. They are themselves a transit, a transiting, and that there is something available to the undead that isn’t available to the living, and I’m guessing not available to the dead. This character started to be so liberated for me. All of the undead in the book became so much more interesting, funny, ridiculous and there was the potential for a variety in them, and their experiences and the way they perform this undead experience of theirs is very much the way we perform our experience of life. But they had all of these absurdities available to them that we don’t really have in life. 

DN: Well, years ago, for your Artist Trust grant and fellowship, you described your current projects at the time as including a short story clip called After Life, about how life reconstitutes in the aftermath of death, which I believe is the collection you redact, I’m guessing, in your Redaction Project and a novel called Zombie Journal. I wondered if either of these are manifesting in what we’re holding today.

AdM: This is the Zombie Journal. 

DN: This is the Zombie Journal.

AdM: This is the Zombie Journal. Yeah. 

DN: Well, when I talked to Adania Shibli for the show about her book Minor Detail, when I discovered that that 105-page book took 12 years to write, I wasn’t surprised. It seemed so perfectly distilled and so attuned to the limits of language, and its relation to silence and it’s one of, if not the highlight novel for me of the last decade, and I think at least partly because of this and I feel like your book of a similar length shares this distilled quality, and this sense of the time that is passed in making the distillation, I was underlining so much of it. It felt like I was at some point underlining the whole book. It’s a totally different project from Shibli’s in almost every way other than this. Your book is wonderfully and unabashedly philosophical, and intellectual, yet always tethered to the heart and to the body. I think we could even say it often leads with the heart and the body or that the animating philosophical questions arise from questions of the body and heart. The book is incredibly funny and heartbreaking, and you feel the winds of silence of what can’t be said of death, of the non-human blowing between the words. So I’m not surprised that this book has had a long life becoming what it is before its life now. I’d like to focus a lot of our time on what I see as the core emotional and metaphysical elements of the book, which are endlessly compelling to me. But as a way to set that up, let’s hear some of the prose itself, the opening of your novel.

[Anne de Marcken reads from It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over]

DN: We’ve been listening to Anne de Marcken read from It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over. For me, the core pleasure and achy pain of this book is the metaphysical element, the ways you in various ways meditate on what selfhood and identity are or might be, also a meditation on death and living amidst or alongside or in relationship with it. I was actually in the middle of composing a question about this when I received a question for you from another that I think articulates the thing I cherish most about your book far better than I could, so I’m stepping to the side of my own question and going to have our guest questioner ask their question first, then I’ll coast on their brilliance after your exchange with her, so here’s past between the cover’s guest Sabrina Orah Mark whose most recent book is Happily, which just won the 2023 National Jewish Book Award in memoir.

Sabrina Orah Mark: Hi, Anne, Sabrina Orah Mark here. I received It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over out of the blue it seemed, out of the best kind of blue from Barbara Epler at New Directions, one of my favorite presses on earth. I read the first line, “I lost my left arm today,” and ugh, I couldn’t put your book down. It’s possible I read the entire thing standing up with my mouth open as I slowly disappeared. I think what drew me to it most intensely is how your composition relies on a decomposition, like first, something needs to be erased, forgotten, or smudged in order for a story to grow like seeds that need to be burned in order to germinate. I was hoping you could talk about how you achieve this. You write about names giving each other names and I wondered about this kind of writing that always feels as though it’s not taking the place of but acknowledging over and over again what once was there but we can no longer hear, see, or smell what once was there. I wondered if this was connected to the drawings in the book that feel like sketches and scratches left behind proof of an ancient alphabet, a lost civilization. 

AdM: Sabrina, what a good question, meaning a question that’s so smart and smarter than I might have an answer for. Let me try. [laughs] Very generous. Thank you. Well, I’ve described a bit about those drawings and their relationship to the structure of the book and the way they held me to something that I hadn’t received. Although the zombie is the thing that I had received, the received form of the book, the genre and it does a lot of work. Working against the ideas that we have of zombies was extremely helpful, I mean they were always there for me as this foil, some other place that I wanted to go. But there wasn’t a form that the novel as a novel had for me. There wasn’t another novel that I hoped it would be like although there are other novels that I wish I could write. I wasn’t writing one of them and I couldn’t write one of them, so I was on my own in that space, I think in that space of the present non-present, something that feels so immediate and so unreachable. I’m not just talking about writing, which does feel very immediate and very unreachable to me when I’m doing it but also what I was writing about, this feeling of loss and of the lost, and the feeling that I have now as someone who’s living, aware that I will have lost someday what I have now and that I’m failing to see it. I’m failing to notice the summer day. I’m failing to notice the cold. I’m failing to notice the person I love most. In some way, those drawings, which were really sketches, just tacked to my wall, held me in that space, gave shape to my listening. Whenever I talk about writing, I picture myself and I think I do this thing, I cock my head as if when I’m writing, I’m listening. My posture when I’m writing is listening, listening for something that isn’t here, then making it here with words which aren’t anything. [laughter]

DN: That’s good.

AdM: So it feels very tenuous all the time. It feels very much like a casting of a line out to somebody I can’t see or waiting to catch a line. There’s something about structure for me and the physical, being able to physically do something or hold something when I’m writing that is really helpful. I’m a really very material person. I’m very oriented to stuff. I learned filmmaking when it was still film and you cut the film and shot the film. You had to load the film in a bag and risk exposing it. I was always drawn to the structuralists, the materialists, and all the avant-garde filmmakers who were just so fascinated by the frame. They really speak to me. I’m a printmaker. I love to work with ink and I love to work in letterpress, and things that are very material and it seems so ridiculous that I’m a writer. That’s the thing that I always wanted to be. It’s so immaterial. It’s so purely made up. Part of the actual fun and it’s not something that I felt really before The Redaction Project, part of the fun of The Redaction Project was materializing the words, was reclaiming them as these wily, or not reclaiming them, maybe unclaiming them, I found a materiality in language through redaction that I had not experienced before and at first, it was really unnerving. I found that when I redacted a line, I was immediately afraid that it was lost, that it was like, “What was happening to the words? Where did they go?” I had this feeling that they were on the loose. They would go and do other things. I realized that in fact, they did, words do go off and do other things. Right away, they just get into their own business immediately and that sense of the indeterminacy of language, the fact that it’s constituting and reconstituting itself on its own without you feels very true to me. These drawings were a way of creating a mental framework for conjuring in a particular register consistently, consistently enough to last for the years it took to write the book.

DN: Well, I feel like I want to ask Sabrina’s question over and over again but with different words each time. In a way, I feel like you could say that your book does this. Thinking of Sabrina’s saying that your composition relies on decomposition, that first, some things need to be erased, smudged, or forgotten in order for a story to grow, I want to take this into the realm of selfhood and identity because your book puts intense pressure on the notion of an individual self and what a self is, both in a compositional and a decompositional way, in a way that troubles selfhood through accretion and accumulation, and also that troubles selfhood through loss and removal. I wanted to start with the loss as Sabrina does even though I wonder if they really exist in a sequence as she suggests of first loss in order for something to grow or if they are constantly superimposed in contradictory as your book is very comfortably dwelling in a place that’s unresolvable, a place of not knowing. I think of how we are both accumulating, as we age, experience and things but that we are also paradoxically accumulating loss. Even just in the short passage you read, the main character has lost an arm and all the characters have lost their relationship to their own names, which is a bigger loss I wonder, but both call into question, “How much can we lose and still be ourselves?” whatever that means. Then the mystery of how what one is lost can become central to one’s sense of self at the same time. We see this composition, decomposition, loss, accumulation motif through your work as an art maker, your Invisible Ink projects for sure, also your last book The Accident described as, “Not a story. Not a record. But rather an account, provisional and subject to revision. A reckoning with the ways language and narrative fail to make sense of the recursive,” and which Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore describes as, “Living in the gap between seeing and feeling, feeling and knowing.” But perhaps I think most of your Redaction Project, which you’ve just mentioned was motivated by your frustration at editing your story collection, a collection that consisted of many already published stories, some award-winning but as a whole, despite being purportedly ready to go do an agent, felt lifeless to you. You said, “I tried rewriting the stories. I tried just moving on. Neither was possible. They were too good and they were too bad.” So in a way, you were in a bardo state, the indeterminate place. But you say that when you covered up the first word, as you say today, you suddenly felt glad, which led to the realization that whereas writing had never been joyful, redacting was very joyful, then you joyfully mess with the story collection this way. I also just have to say I love that the story collection is called After Life and that you’re giving an afterlife to a book called After Life. But also this notion of how you mentioned your fear of redacting a word and where would it go, would it disappear? Your discussion in talking about The Redaction Project, that you eventually come to this realization that the redactions are coverings and that the coverings themselves become compositional tools where the blacked out words become presences, not just absences. You say, “Eventually, the revealed words and the redacted words come to be the same thing: the material evidence of the effort to make meaning. And eventually, I was able to work into the text. To ravel.” I was just curious if you see or how you see, if you do, the ways The Redaction Project is living in the work of this novel. It’s another way of asking Sabrina’s question but maybe moving the focus from the drawings to the text. You answered her around the drawings and I wondered if this notion of covering and/or erasing of accumulation, of loss, how you see that project that you did with your own work into something else as related to what’s going on in this book. 

AdM: The ongoing project of loss is not one that I really undertook intentionally. It does seem to accumulate. Loss does seem to accumulate. I’m thinking about how I realized and may have written somewhere about the difference between deleting text from those stories that I was working and reworking, and redacting the text. You described the moment that I realized that I was just as interested in the redaction as a compositional unit equal to the words. There was also this realization of how, by leaving the redacted lines in place, the sense of narrative stayed in place. If I had just eliminated the redacted words and compressed the remaining words, which I experimented within various places, there was no sense of event, no sense of time, no sense of story. But even though with the redactions in place, any story is pretty incoherent, there’s story, there’s a sense of movement, and there’s this head feeling through the text. It draws you forward because the line has this power, a line of words. Even when they’re covered up, they have this power to move you forward. I don’t know. There’s some moment where a certain amount of redacted text starts feeling object-like rather than narrative-like. I’m not sure what the tipping point is, what the balance of revealed word to redacted word is before it becomes a block, this visual block but it’s a lot. You have to redact a lot of text before you stop trying to read it. That effort to read, the fact that I’m acting like I’m reading while looking at these blacked out lines, that feels like something that’s happening for this character in It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over. It feels like she’s reading something she can’t see. All of the things that she doesn’t remember are, I’ll just try this out, maybe they’re redacted by the things she does remember. The characters have these obsessively revisited memories and they’re almost synecdoche for their lives but they have more meaning than they ought to. Then also her movement through space feels akin to that redacted line that moves, that moves you through the story, the story that you can’t read. She’s pressed to move. She’s compelled to move. Something really changes for her when she stops moving. When she stops running, everything changes for her. So there is something about narrative movement and the impossibility, the illegibility of her own story to herself that feels akin to the redaction, the redacted text.

DN: Well, in talking about your words that remain but covered, you’ve talked also about the ways Godard’s jump cuts in his film Breathless, are “An indexical evidence of the missing shots and are radically reflexive indicators of the constructedness of conventional film and of narrative itself.” I feel like your book also calls attention to its constructiveness by evoking what isn’t said I think. I’d like to talk about the way not just decomposition but composition and construction in your book also trouble identity. This has to do with what our main nameless protagonist puts inside her and there are many things we could discuss with regards to what goes inside of this character and how that troubles the sense of self, not just the body parts that she loses and how much could you lose in that way, and still be you, but also what you bring in. I want to start with cannibalism not because it’s the main thing I want to focus on in this regard because there’s this uncanny phenomenon happening on the show so far this year for some reason around cannibalism. We’re talking now in February, you and I, the second month of the year and already, this is my third cannibalism conversation for 2024. With Mathias Énard, we talked about the corpse wine drinkers of Borneo, about the contradictory feelings we have around a dead loved one wanting to preserve them and their memories, yet a deep loathing, repulsion, and fear around the body itself and how this ritual moves toward the taboo instead of away, and brings the opposing forces together. Then when I talked with Álvaro Enrigue about his book taking place during the encounter of Montezuma and Hernán Cortés, we look at the question of Aztec human sacrifice and ritualized cannibalism, how they were not remarked upon by the Spanish in a significant way until they wanted to justify destroying the culture and in arguing for genocide, they wildly exaggerated their scope. But also the aside that Muntenia who lived at the same time in Europe and was encountering so-called savages who were coming to Europe, hundreds of thousands mostly as slaves but not entirely, but after his encounter with some indigenous people from Brazil, after a performance by them, he compares their ritual cannibalism to the barbarities happening in Europe in his time, finding his own people’s barbarism much more so than these people who in a ritualized way were actually honoring the dead. But here, we have our undead protagonists and others eating other people too but not as part of an obvious cosmology but rather in the more post-apocalyptic scenario, we think of most often with zombies. At a lecture you gave at Evergreen, you talk about how you grew up in Tahoe and that the chief myth there was that of the Donner Party who were a group of pioneers who were trapped in the Sierra Nevada’s one winner where some of them resort to cannibalism, even killing two Native American guides for food. My childhood in Colorado was also weirdly engaged with the mythos of one cannibal, Alferd Packer, who was a prospector and wilderness guide, ultimately known as the Colorado cannibal and the student cafeteria of the University of Colorado Boulder where I went to school is called the Alferd G. Packer Memorial Grill with the catchphrase “Have a friend for Lunch.” These cannibals are closer to the desperate hunger of the cannibals in your book than what we discussed in the conversations with Énard and Enrigue. In that same talk, you mentioned that you were working on a book of cannibal taxonomy that was also an examination of whiteness and also the way that your own family’s arrival in Tahoe geographically went roughly the same path as the Donner Party. It’s a first step to talking about not what we lose as we go through life and the innumerable body parts lost in your book but to talk about what we put inside of us, what we accumulate or consume. Talk to us a little more about this long-standing interest of yours generally speaking but also more particularly how you see cannibalism functioning in the world of this main character. 

AdM: It feels like cannibalism in this book is one of the most direct features or illusions to the popular conception of zombies. It’s what makes them abject in a way, which I think is interesting. If these characters didn’t eat people, I’m not sure that they would matter to us. If zombies didn’t eat people, would we care? Which I think is a part of that monsterizing of the original zombie. Interesting that this religious, I’m going to say religious although that may not be accurate, but this religious figure of the zombie, this cultural figure of the zombie that predates our popular culture figure of the zombie, this turned into a monster. This black cultural figure is turned into a monster by Western contemporary imagination and made horrifying, not by its undeadness, but by its insatiable hunger, which arguably is the projection of this contemporary Western culture on that original figure, that it is our insatiable hunger that we bring to that figure that makes it monstrous. It’s cannibalism in this book that makes the monster a monster, that makes the protagonist monstrous to herself, also a ridiculous figure to herself, both horrifying and ridiculous figure. I discovered things about the literary presence of cannibalism in the book. The importance of horror to the story felt new to me. I hadn’t reckoned with horror as so narratively compelling and it’s the fact that they eat people that makes them horrifying at first at least. I think as the book continues, what I discovered were the ramifications of that horror or the ramifications of the cannibalism and the positions it puts them in. The desire to care for our loved ones when they would just as soon eat us becomes an important question and a different kind of horror. There are all kinds of analogies to make to cannibalism and popular culture, and I joke about some of them in the book. We used to be consumers and now we’re just consumers, and there is this taxonomy of zombies that I was working with. The people have definitely done more and better than I have in any number of Reddit threads about plague zombies, scientific experiment zombies, and alien zombies, all the different kinds of ways that people turn into this monstrous version of themselves in hunger to eat other humans. But then the taxonomy of cannibals that I allude to in this talk that I don’t know where you found, [laughter] that taxonomy of cannibals is really about cultural consumption, specifically the cultural consumption by White women, of women of color, specifically Black women and Black culture. That’s not not in this book but it’s not what the book is about. I think anytime you talk about cannibalism, you import a lot of interesting questions but they aren’t necessarily taken up in this book in the way the thing I’m working on now hopefully takes them up. I’m deep into cannibals now. [laughter] 

DN: Well, let me ask you just as a curiosity rather than it being specific to the book we’re discussing. This is going to come from my faulty memory from long ago near the beginning of the show. So over 10 years ago, I interviewed Colson Whitehead about his zombie novel and I remember researching the origins of zombies then. The questions are, what I posed to him, I don’t remember it really going anywhere and I don’t know that it was specifically relevant to his book but just like I had looked into at one point the theories around the origins of vampires in the UK which a lot of people say is this intersection of the anxiety around the new freedoms that women were experiencing along with the image of Jews, so you had this woman in this anxiety that she would be lured away by this Eastern European man living on the outside of town who would then seduce her and suck her blood. 

AdM: [inaudible] [laughter]

DN: So misogynistic and anti-Semitic. But I remember looking up the zombie and you referenced zombies in Africa but I remember, I could be getting this wrong, but in Haiti, and this was around the time I think of the occupation of Haiti by America in the early 20th century when a lot of the American imagination was captivated by voodoo and also a lot of writers were even going to Haiti but that the zombie was perhaps an anxiety around the uprising of black people against the plantation owners, and this idea of this unindividuated, they were supposed to be beasts of burden and they uprise. I don’t have any idea if I’m even remembering it correctly. But have you, given that you’re constantly unearthing stuff around this? Does that ring anything, any bells for you? 

AdM: Well, it makes sense to me. One can imagine the anxiety provoked by the enslavement of people. That those people would not want to be enslaved and that there would be a horrible price to pay for the horrible thing. The only text, so to speak, that I looked at related to Haiti and Zombies in Haiti was Maya Deren’s film.

DN: Yeah. I love her.

AdM: Yeah, I love her too. I love her too. It is, as you would imagine, not a perfect document or quite a perfect document, a quite perfect encapsulation of the anthropological, creative investigation of a culture not your own. Same problems exist today. They were maybe less acknowledged at the time. Her use of film was extraordinary and imaginative, and in a way, that almost matches what she was documenting even though there is this objectification happening. But she’s so engaged as an artist in the making that there is, I don’t know, there’s a vibrational resonance between the footage, her making of the footage and what she’s capturing in that footage. In my recollection of watching her film, her film footage about this and she wasn’t working alone, there was no anxiety. It was only interested in that Bedouin concept of the swinging door between the worlds and that there were people who were physically embodying that moment of access from one realm to another. I think that’s unusual. I think that view of voodoo culture, of Haitian culture, then and now is not typical of somebody coming from the outside and looking in. I think it’s fraught with anxiety generally and that is a root of the monstrosity of this figure. Now it is so two-dimensional, the zombie, which was part of its great function for me that is so flat. It’s such a trope but I think it has a lot of importance. I haven’t listened to that interview with Colson Whitehead and I did not read his zombie book. At a certain point, I just had to stop reading zombie books but it actually was at a fairly early point that I stopped reading zombie books. I will listen to that. I’d be interested to hear what he says or doesn’t say in response.

DN: Well, back then, the interview I think is 20 minutes long.

AdM: Oh, wow. [laughter]

DN: It’s a very different world when I was doing those early conversations. Well, my favorite part of the book has to do with the non-human and particularly the non-human that our protagonist puts inside of herself. I feel like just like both loss and accumulation raise questions of selfhood in your book, also by extension, it feels like the book is asking how much of ourselves might simply be other. I bring this thing up too often but Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o says, “Which is more me, my arm or the air? You can cut off my arm and I am still entirely me but if you cut off the air, I cease to be.” That’s just paraphrased but I think it’s quite profound. It seems to me it speaks right to the heart of a mystery about who we are. On the flip side, thinking of accumulation, I think of Amitav Ghosh who wonders if the very notion of a single species is a faulty notion, noting that the majority of the cells in our bodies are the cells of other creatures. He cites a microbiologist who describes the human body under the microscope as looking like a coral reef, an assemblage of lifeforms living together where Ghosh says, “It is known also that microorganisms influence moods, emotions, and the human ability to reason. So if it is true that the human ability to speak, and think, can only be actualized in the presence of other species, can it really be said that these faculties belong exclusively to humans?” So in this spirit, we have a question for you from the writer, scientist, and environmental lawyer Jennifer Calkins, someone you’ve both collaborated with on durational performances, poetry, and visual art and where you’ve even performed an erasure using one of her articles in a law journal on The Paris Climate Accord that you just published in Permafrost Magazine. Lastly, Jennifer is someone who you’ve published at The 3rd Thing her lyric noir Fugitive Assemblage. Here’s Jennifer asking you a question about the non-human.

Jennifer Calkins: Hello, Anne. I’m really excited to be able to ask you to talk more about the more than human animals that the narrator has a relationship with in this absolutely wondrous book, in particular the birds. As you know, I am very cranky about how birds are portrayed in texts. They are flattened and pinned to the page, used as symbols and the individual lives, and worlds of these birds are usually erased, not present, or subsumed to human considerations and I don’t feel that in your work, which of course is no surprise to me, given what I know about how you live your life in wonder and awe in relationship with more than human beings, non-human animals, birds, and otherwise. I’m going to read one paragraph from the book because while part of what I want you to talk about is crow and the crows, which of course are a very central piece of the narrative, I also want you to touch on these other beings: so on page 71 of my copy, you write: 

A bird. A dapper Scrub Jay lands on my forehead and tilts its head, so we are eye to eye. In that meeting, a clue is conveyed that reveals a mystery that wasn’t a mystery until there was the clue. Not the kind of mystery that can be solved. Not a mystery of what happened or who did it or even why. This has all been known for so long. The kind of mystery that is a sacrament. When the Jay pushes off into the air, it leaves on my skin the firm live impression of its departure.

I am so grateful to you for having written those two paragraphs and I would love to hear you talk more about the feathered beings, and the narrator’s relationship to these beings throughout this text.

AdM: Thank you, Jennifer. It’s really a pleasure to hear Jennifer read my words. These paragraphs, I love that she picked these little section. It’s such a little bit and it’s such a little weirdo in the book, and she went right to it. [laughter] Of course, she did. Well, I share that crankiness that Jennifer describes feeling about the representation of non-human animals. I feel pretty cranky about the representation of human animals in books too frankly. But I get particularly worked up about the impugning of human intention and meaning on all kinds of things. This is popping into my head. I had to come up with a name for an event that I’m doing related to the book and I had a hard enough time coming up with a title for the book, so coming up with another thing felt nearly impossible, so I fed all of the text of the book into a word cloud generator. It felt very 90s. I think that they’re not that old but it felt like I was going back in time in creating a word cloud. The word that I use most in the book is the word “like” which was a shock to me and an embarrassment because I think I know that early, early, I got the message that metaphors are better than similes and the good writers use metaphors, and weak writers use similes, which is not something I believe but clearly had totally taken on. [laughs] When this word “like” popped up, the shock of seeing yourself, it made me think and write a little bit about this use of simile in the book, in particular related to non-human creatures, I guess I’m counting zombies as a human creature, so the other, the non-human creatures, birds and others are related in that I don’t often say that something is something else in the book. I very, very often say that something is like something else. I feel that’s the most I can afford with animals, non-human animals, and maybe creatures in general, humans included, that I can say they are like things but to say they are things feels like such an imposition and a loss. It isn’t just that I want to stand back respectfully. It’s that also I don’t want to lose what’s really there by confusing it with something else, even by deliberately confusing it with something else. So I think I haven’t looked at them apart from the other things in the book. But I think that the creatures in the book are like every other thing in the book. They’re part of the world and confusable in a kind of material way. With the protagonist, she is unclear about where the boundaries are, about what is inside of her, what happens to what she puts inside of her. She’s unclear about what’s outside of her. When she goes outside of herself, it seems like maybe she’s going inside of herself. So while there are so many confused boundaries about selfhood, I hope that there are not confused boundaries about self and other in that way in the autonomy and agency, the sense of autonomy and agency of that Jay, that it has this ability to change her experience of her existence, yet have nothing to do with her, not be a projection. 

DN: Well, each chapter has its own epigraph and I wonder if we could see these writers who are not you that begin each chapter as now part of what makes you you, maybe in a similar way to the way you describe being entirely unrelated, yet changing one’s existence, everyone from Hélène Cixous to Dionne Brand to Toni Morrison. Chapter two opens with Susan Howe who says, “For me there are two alternatives: either swallow or break free.” What is inside our protagonist is often described as other, a subatomic insect, a swarm of bees but most significantly her placing of a crow within her chest. This crow speaks to her monosyllabically and most often, though not always, in three word sequences that are not sentences but standalone words side by side. To extend Jennifer’s question, talk to us more about the crow and the crow language, and how it’s functioning, I mean I think of course, of ghosts talking about how maybe we can’t even reason or speak, maybe our own ability to put a thought together and to say a word is dependent upon other species, so how can it be exclusively human? But here we have a different syntax, a different mode of communication happening from within her that is clearly not her in some way but is changing her even though it seems to me the meaning of what is being said within her by the crow is elusive.

AdM: I’m with Ghosh all the way on the interbeing-ness of it all. Now I can be almost impatient with writing that brings together this philosophical or even almost intuitive sense of how things are. Yeah, I would say not necessarily philosophical because not shaped but this emergent or innate sense of connectedness with scientific knowledge to back it up, like now that we’re looking at the gut biome, it’s clear that we’re all interdependent but it feels very clear otherwise and it feels absolutely true that we cannot say or mean a thing without every other thing, that we come undone without each other. There’s something about the language of the crow that was for me a practical letting go of my own intellectual conceit. When I wrote what the crow says, I had to work really hard not to work hard, to just word, word, word, word, to not make sense and to avoid making sense, and to avoid saying something or having the crow say something too similar to what the crow had said before. Well, if the crow repeats themselves, then the crow repeats themselves. That’s going to happen. There was a letting go that felt like it happened again and again. Every time the crow would speak, I had to practice just letting go of my idea of what a crow says and just put down words, and not overthink them. Then there was also the changing relationship throughout the book of the protagonist to the crow and what the crow says. At first, she is undone by it, maybe by the shock of it, then as the book progresses, she acts like she knows what the crow means but you also or I also as the writer had the sense that they were talking past each other at the same time, that they were both understanding each other, hearing each other, registering each other and had no idea about the other one or at least she had no idea what the crow was saying. More and more, she seems to just take what it says as either confirmation of what she’s feeling or as a clue as to what to do next when she doesn’t know. My sense of the crow is that it is never fully integrated into her, that she wants it to be part of herself, that she is replacing some lost thing with its body, some lost thing from herself with its body and that that never really works, she knows it never works, also, it hurts to lose it at the same time. Whatever it is that does happen becomes a real thing of its own. That’s not the same as having lost as a part of herself. It’s maybe something worse than having lost a part of herself. 

DN: Well, this makes me think of a brief meditation you do on the book on metaphor versus the thing itself, which I’m hoping we could hear because when the crow speaks, it feels at least to me that the words spoken feel like the things themselves somehow more than when a human speaks. So if we could, I would love to hear page 25 to 26.

[Anne de Marcken reads from It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over]

DN: We’ve been listening to Anne de Marcken read From It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over. I’m going to have you read one more passage of a similar length to set up my next question and that also continues this theme of what makes up our insides.

[Anne de Marcken reads from It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over]

DN: Before I ask my question, do you want to say anything about Mitchem? I love Mitchem who is the main man in the story, who always has an opinion to share and always seems to operate in the declarative mode, like a fortune cookie. There’s a dryness to him. He’s the source of a lot of the humor and counter force that our main character pushes against to test their own feelings. I keep imagining Mitchem, if this was a movie, as Bill Murray on the edge of the screen. But talk to us about Mitchem, if you have anything you want to say about Mitchem. He must have been fun to write I would imagine. 

AdM: He’s so easy to write. [laughter] I’m sorry to say that Mitchem was right there for me. Mitchem came early. He arrives early in the book and he arrives early in the process of writing the book. I don’t know. It just seemed like there’s always a Mitchem. There’s always somebody ready to volunteer to lead the cult. It’s interesting to think how he changes depending on how you cast him. Mitchem played by Bill Murray is wholly different from Mitchem played by I don’t know, Anthony Hopkins, definitely a White man though. 

DN: Yeah, no, he has to be an all older White man I think.

AdM: Yeah.

DN: Yeah. One of the debates our protagonist is having is around what the unresolvable ache they have inside them is. Is it hunger or is it grief? I think of my recent conversation with Diana Khoi Nguyen where she connects hunger and grief as both being things defined by what neither has. But here, they are put in somewhat of an opposition to each other. At one point early on, Mitchem says, “My meaning may not be clear. That does not matter. Nothing matters. My meaning. Your meaning. Meaning does not matter. Only hunger,” and he suggests hunger freed from being satiated is grace, perhaps suggesting this hunger lasts forever and only ends when we end. But the more Mitchem talks about nothing mattering, one starts to get the sense that “nothing” is something. When he says, “Nothing can be more clear than the fact that nothing is real. Nothing is real,” I think of the Auden “Poetry makes nothing happen” and Matthew Zapruder’s assertion that it is not that nothing happens. It’s that poetry makes this nothing happen. Perhaps this is what Mitchem is getting at with the decoupling of hunger from fulfillment, that the hunger itself becomes a thing unto itself. But our protagonist becomes progressively more skeptical that it is hunger. At one point, she asks in an exchange with a character named Marguerite, she says, “Why is the moon always full?” Marguerite asks, “What is it full with?” and she responds, “Hunger,” and Marguerite says, “Grief,” and this becomes a compelling alternative to her. Your book puts it forth as not two things defined by what they don’t have but hunger as a defensive form and grief as a surrender. It feels like your book dances between this defensive form and surrender. I think of how Mary Ruefle describes her writing practice, how one part of the day, she is dedicated to composing poems and the other half of the day, she’s dedicated to erasure of poems, creating poems through the removal of words. Or the line in your book, “Which am I, the abandoned nest or the tree that holds it?” I wondered if you wanted to share any thoughts, whether about this ache that lasts forever and how to name it or about creating a form that isn’t offended. Or if any of this is related to the form of the book or even the form of a person as our character moves through this world.

AdM: That’s a big question, David. 

DN: [laughs] All right, I’m ready for the big answer.

AdM: [laughter] All right, brace yourself.

DN: Here we go.

AdM: All right. I was thinking about what is that hunger? Why is this undead creature hungry? Hunger being something that seems to only belong to the living, like only have a use, so it had to be something else. The hunger had to be something else, then I thought about zombies. They don’t really seem defined just by hunger. They’re not just binge eating at home. They’re full of rage. They are compelled to violent acts in order to feed themselves. They are so full of rage. Then I was thinking about Anne Carson writing about Euripides and in her Preface to Grief Lessons, Anne Carson writes, “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him to throw away the anger of all his bereavements. Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother’s funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore off her head and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away.” Their hunger, in my mind, became rage and thinking about, “What is that rage? Why rage? Why are we raging? Not just why are they zombies raging? Why are we raging?” I think it’s because we are grieving, grieving real things that we’ve lost and grieving things we will lose, that we know we will lose. We may be even grieving not being able to grieve, grieving the insufficiency of our lives to contain this much loss. It’s the word “full” in that passage by Anne Carson, “Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” That connected with me to the sense of this question about the mysterious inside of the zombie body, “Where is it going? Where are the humans they eat going?” There’s no process for them. There’s no digesting them. They must just go into some terrible endless space. They are full of some emptiness, then I thought about it as grief.

DN: Well, thinking of defending a form or defending a self versus surrendering to less form about fully living and about, no matter what, dying, we have a question for you. I share the same curiosity that this writer has. Here’s a question from novelist and short story writer Alexandra Kleeman, whose most recent novel is Something New Under the Sun. As an aside, I’ll say she’s also a great profile writer, everyone from Rachel Weisz to Michelle Yeoh and also one of past Between the Covers guests, Jeff VanderMeer, who I’m not surprised also loves your book. That profile is titled His Novels of Planetary Devastation Will Make You Want to Survive, which I think is a fitting aura under which we’re going to hear Alexandra ask her question. 

Alexandra Kleeman: Hi, Anne. Hi, David. This is Alexandra Kleeman. I really enjoyed your novel, Anne, and I really like the surrealism, pathos, and incredible humor of it. For this reason, the comparisons that have often been made between it and Beckett’s plays, and novels really resonate for me. Beckett is often considered pessimistic and I’m wondering if you feel that you are that way, what your relationship to pessimism is in your life, and if you have any advice for the pessimists out there.

AdM: That’s great, thank you. Thank you, Alexandra. Well, I feel like I’ve never met a pessimist who doesn’t say they’re a realist but you’ll never hear an optimist say that. [laughter] So somehow, the optimists know that they’re not right. [laughter]

DN: Really? 

AdM: [laughter] That they’re hopeful.

DN: Yeah.

AdM: But the pessimists think they are right, which doesn’t mean they are but they think they are. I don’t think I’m pessimistic. I’m surprisingly serious to myself now. I don’t know how that happened and also I’m extremely enthusiastic, so I’m a very serious, enthusiastic mourner and lover of all things. I’m not sure how enthusiastic Beckett seems but he does seem like a lover of things and the comparison is just astonishing, so I’ll leave that there. But any advice for the pessimists? [laughter] My brother was a pessimist who would have said that he was a realist and acknowledged that he was a pessimist, and always in conversation, I got cast as the optimist. There was some requirement that I match his pessimism with my optimism and it’s a strange constraint to have to take a position on it all, right? I mean things don’t look good. Things do not look good but that can’t really mean anything to us or to me I should say. I cannot be stopped by that. It’s a trite thing to say but I think more and more, and definitely in this book, this book was probably, more than anything, a long process of being with that fact that things don’t look good and I love them all. That’s the painful bind. 

DN: Well, thinking of form in relation to selfhood and in relationship to writing form, and in relationship to death and oblivion, it feels like your book often meditates on its own form, not explicitly, so perhaps this could be an example of me reading too much into this. But at one point, when describing the crow language, after the crow said one of its typical utterances of only nouns, no verbs, adjectives, adverbs, or pronouns right after the crow says, “Apple arm ink crown” the protagonist says, “The crow’s words hang in the dark like the fireflies. Not like the fireflies. They are separate and not sequential, simultaneous but not overlapping. They are periodic and persistent. The syntax is spatial as if each word is pinned to a different wall of a room that is my body. I can only look at one wall, one word at a time, except there are not walls, just the night and my body and the words.” When you say the crow’s words were like the fireflies, we can look to where you describe them blinking on and off where you say, “I begin to see the intervals between their flashes as connective. A constellation of sentient stars separated by time instead of space. A viscous tick-tock in which I, too, am suspended. I feel it inside me. The static blankness of my arrested cells and the uncertain space between them. The gap between one blink of memory and another. The interval that is relationship. The body of the crow in the body of me. The black hole that is sucking me inside out, the utter unutterableness that I never entered when I was alive,” and at another point, describing some escape border, you say something similar, “Everything coming undone or coming together in those few silent seconds between launch and landing.” All of this reminds me of Rosmarie Waldrop’s notion of gardening the gap, of how writing for her becomes an exploration of what happens between words. In one poem of hers called Driven to Abstraction, she says, “And I write. Have made a pact with nothingness. Make love to absent bodies. And though I cannot fill the space they do not occupy, their shadows stand between me and thin sky,” which feels like a kindred gesture to yours and your book formally echoes this with many standalone paragraphs, gapped by white space on either side. In your previous book The Accident even more so with this tension between image and text, between being on the page and the QR codes that are luring us to the screen, all of it asking us to leap across and into the gaps between modes, and genres. But the latest book doesn’t only enact the gaps through the non-humans and their behavior, and in the form of the book but I feel like it meditates on itself in this way too. There’s this great line in the book, “The space between me and me is you. This is a mystery,” which evokes the sense of the third thing. Your press of the same name also does this where you say you’re not just interested in creating books but creating culture and to create culture is to create community. But also the books that you put out are creating a gap or living in a gap between image and text or text and performance or with the reissue of Cane between a book and an oracular deck of cards. I wondered if this sparked any thoughts for you, this continual return within the book to this blinking on and off, this periodicity, this question of whether the unutterable and blank is empty or full because to me it feels like the fireflies are suggesting, in a way, the form of the book in some way.

AdM: I think that’s right. Different things occur like that again and again. I’m imagining, it’s not exactly remembering where to point to in the book, but it’s if not a motif in the book, a consistent preoccupation of mine in this book and elsewhere with gaps as an essential material reality, unfortunate word, what do I mean, material reality? My sense that there’s nothing between my hand and the table right now is so incorrect or that my hand is something, and not something and nothing, also very incorrect. In fact, the book had many and wider gaps originally. Almost every white space in the book previously was a page break and it would be a much longer book if it hadn’t been recommended that that was not serving the book. That was the most significant editorial intervention working with Barbara Epler at New Directions that she really recommended that it be collapsed and I don’t disagree. I do still feel it as a book with more pages and with more space. But I’m not sure that those breaks aren’t more legible as gaps using white space rather than page breaks. I’m happy with the way it’s formatted. It seems different, just like a difference in formatting, not like a difference in concept. So definitely to me, I’m not sure if a paragraph equates with a firefly but things that are when we see them and when we don’t see them, things that continue to be when they’re evident to us and when they are not, things that change places between the times when we perceive them and of course, and definitely importantly, the ways we are in relation, the ways that we are because of being in relation to one another, that space between me and me, which is is both a failure to connect. It’s a thing that’s coming between me and me, and also a thing that’s connecting me and me, making me one thing. You makes me me. 

DN: Well, as we get closer to an end, I want to just spend a moment with the question of time. Rosmarie Waldrop again in her gardening of the gap process says she’s looking to obstruct the passage of time within the sentence, suggesting the sentence is linked in some way to chronology. I think you allude to this about leaving those redacted spaces within a text carries us forward in story in a way that if you collapse it in your redaction project, it doesn’t give you the sense of eventfulness. Waldrop is looking to interrupt the experience of time by using language that imitates duration rather than mimicking passage. Your book title It lasts Forever and Then It’s Over obviously is overtly engaging with time. Time as we experience it and impersonal time that we’re born into, and fall away from at the end. The epigraph by Calvino that opens one of the chapters also engages with firefly-like discontinuity and also this notion of things lasting forever where he says, “If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.” There’s also the dread of our protagonist of undifferentiated time in this bardo state or place and there’s also this fractal or holographic element in time and space in the book that reminds me of Borges with lines like “The world is big and empty but inside me is even bigger and emptier,” and “Every live thing is the history and future of all dead things. Every dead thing is the future of all live things.” But I guess ultimately, my question about time is a question about your relationship to story and narrative of which this book has much more than your previous book The Accident did. But also like Rosmarie seems to be working within the sentence against an enactment of time, it feels like your book is both telling a story and possibly working against it or at least asking, “Are we just stories?” or “What are we without our stories?” “Are names have been removed in this world?” Certainly, names are stories. They accumulate stories. There is a line, “Now we are just the stories. The raspy husk of ourselves,” and the Pessoa epigraph were stories telling stories, nothing. I think of Pessoa who rarely wrote as Pessoa but as a hundred different invented characters, which begs the question, “Who is Pessoa?” There’s even the suggestion that story might not be or might not only be a way to a greater truth but a way to not see it with lines like, “I pretended everything would be okay because it seemed impossible to always be saying goodbye,” which again touches upon Alexandra’s question of, “Are you a pessimist or an optimist?” which you’ve already answered. But talk to us about your relationship to story and time or story and self and how you are orienting yourself to that as you tell your story.

AdM: I feel skeptical of story and I am attracted to stories. Skeptical because I don’t like the feeling of a departure from what’s actually here. I don’t like the application of a form of telling onto events and at the same time, I don’t really feel like mine is a project of exhaustive cataloging. I like the particular. I like about story that it notices the connections between things. I don’t like about story that it tends to solidify or suggest that those are the connections between things rather than all the many connections between things. I can use the idea of the fireflies in the way they all feel connected even though they’re separate because of things that they have in common, that they are all fireflies, that they are all flashing, that they are all in the night sky, that they can all be seen at once but they move around. The parts change in space. You can’t tell where they’re going to be next. They have secret moments. They have invisible moments. That feels important to the way things feel to me. I’m trying not to say the way things are or the way things really are. But the way things feel to me is that you can connect the dots all different ways and the fact of the connecting gesture should be acknowledged but the storytelling should be transparently done so that there is the suggestion of all of the multiple, the innumerable other meanings there in one. I think that leads me to fold back on myself often in a sentence to say something, then say it’s not that. To say they are like the fireflies and they’re not like the fireflies. To say it’s like this and it’s also like this. Calvino, in his book Six Memos for the Next Millennium, talks about multiplicity as one of the most important, I don’t know, values, skills, qualities for the time that he saw as the future and certainly multiplicity does something for me that works compatibly with specificity. So not exhaustive but suggesting many, many more is something I like. You can’t say everything and I don’t want to say everything. It’s hard enough just to try to say this one thing. But in saying this one thing, I don’t want to suggest that it’s the one thing. I’ll say it a few different ways or I’ll cut back on myself and say it differently, and also contradict myself, which felt really this particular cast of characters, maybe because they’re zombies, really helped me get comfortable with changing my mind, with them changing their mind. They would think one thing and later think another. They contradicted themselves, which feels like part of multiplicity that doesn’t get enough attention, like contradiction is really interesting and is certainly a part of me. What does that have to do with form, where was that going? [laughs]

DN: Well, it made me think of the one conversation in the archive of Between the Covers that’s a defensive simile but I also think is a discussion of multiplicity because it’s engaging with the Iliad, the one with Alice Oswald who I think really evokes the power of simile in contrast to metaphor, which also becomes this discussion of this repetition of all the different ways these people are being killed, happening in extremely different ways that are also like each other in some ways.

AdM: Interesting.

DN: But before we do a final reading, I wanted to talk about the end and endings, then it’s over, part of your book title. Your Hélène Cixous epigraph is, “If the end escapes us, where are we?” and 11 years ago, you did a TED Talk called Time For The Happy Ending when you talked about your suspicion of happy endings, of how even true tales are fabrications, partially because we decide when they end. In other words, we decide how we end and that the way a story ends tells us what it means. You talk about your desire to make meaning that is not dependent on resolution. In that spirit of not ending or ending without resolving, spend a moment with us imagining into the future and what you might foreground next of what you most want to bring out into the world next once you unbuckle yourself from the rocket. I know you have the cannibal taxonomy or at least, at one point, you’re working on something around this, and you’ve also mentioned, I think this might have also been at Evergreen, about a project around the figure of the goddess Columbia, the goddess of manifest destiny in relation to the story of White women as a symbol of American virtue while also being a vector of supremacy and violence. I don’t know if those are next steps up but what calls to you right now or what is finished that you want to push forward now that you’ve been pushed forward by the Nobel Prize?

AdM: Nothing is finished. I’m really slow, really slow. Everything that you mentioned I think is ongoing. I’d say the cannibal taxonomy is just like an artifact along the way to trying to figure out what I’m doing with Columbia. I think Columbia is where it’s at for me and I think it feels big. I’m really interested in the way this name, this mantle, this identity, that first was the name for the so-called New World Columbia, like Britannia and Africa. It was just a feminization of an area in the world. The way that became Columbia, the New World became the goddess Columbia, who was actually first figured by Phillis Wheatley, the enslaved poets, she coined the idea of Columbia as a goddess, this very classical figure of this white woman who was going to bring liberty and all kinds of great things to the colonies as they became a country. Then that became Manifest Destiny, which of course I love because it ties back to the Donner Party and get some actual cannibals in this book. Columbia becomes Columbia Records, then Columbia Pictures. Again, this is represented by this white woman for the times. Columbia is a ship, the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe. She becomes the Space Shuttle Columbia. She becomes all of these towns and counties throughout the US. She becomes the Columbia River. This name gets attached to so many things and I’m interested in this. As you said, this figure of the white woman is both a victim and vector of a particular kind of violence, a particular kind of American violence. I’m looking at that and all the things about cannibalism that I mentioned before, the cannibalism of the white woman, and not cannibalism of her, cannibalism by her of others and that does not seem to be ending anytime soon, so no risk of an ending there, happy or otherwise. It really is a puzzle to me what it’s going to look like. It’s so big. It Lasts Forever is such a small story. I’m very excited about what feels like this sprawling story. I can feel a shape and I think a shape is what I need, usually a shape and a feeling. I don’t quite have the feeling that I can pursue, that I can keep glowing in my heart as I’m writing and know if I’m doing it or not. But I do have a sense of shape and I think I just need a lot of quiet. I think I need to just be quiet and lie on the floor, which I do a lot when I’m writing and I have not had enough time to lie on the floor.

DN: Well, before you go lie on the floor with your cats, let’s do a final reading. [laughter]

[Anne de Marcken reads from It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over]

DN: Thank you, Anne de Marcken. 

AdM: Thank you, David Naimon. 

DN: I’m excited to be a small part of the rocket fuel.

AdM: Oh, my gosh. It’s really amazing. Thank you. Having your company on this ride has truly been one of the best parts. It’s just remarkable to have your company waiting and really your optimism for me, honestly, I mean I have spent a ridiculous amount of time on short lists and I felt so happy on that short list. I could have just stayed there and stayed there, stayed there because that’s my experience of the best thing but I was wrong. This is the best thing.

DN: This is the best thing. 

AdM: [laughs] Yeah. 

DN: We’ve been talking today to Anne de Marcken, the author of It Lasts Forever and Then It’s Over. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. 

Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find out more about Anne de Marcken’s work, her writing, her installations, her films, and more at annedemarcken.com. For the bonus audio archive, Anne contributes a reading from her book The Accident: An Account. This joins supplemental readings by so many of our past guests, long-form interviews with translators, some craft talks and more. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives supplementary resources with each conversation of things I discovered while preparing, things I referenced during the conversation, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards, including the Tin House Early Readership Subscription, getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at aliciajo.com.