These older Mexican ladies can feel like their childhoods were important. Their childhoods had beauty; their childhoods are worthy of literature.[…]
I was busy preparing for my June MFA residency when Kori, Lunch Ticket’s Editor-in-Chief, reached out and asked me if I wanted to interview Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich for the upcoming Lunch Ticket Issue 14. Groggy from a marathon reading session that lasted until 3 a.m. that morning, I rubbed my eyes with my fists and squinted at Kori’s email. The book I’d stayed up all night and early morning reading was, in fact, Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. “Yes!” I scream-typed back. “I would love to interview Alexandria! The book is SOOOOO good!” It was truly kismet, since I planned on attending Marzano-Lesnevich’s Antioch seminar anyway at residency.
Marzano-Lesnevich’s writing grapples with questions of ethical ambiguity and moral judgment. Their cross-genre nonfiction book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, intertwines childhood memories of sexual abuse at the hands of their grandfather and the death of a sibling they never met with their exploration of a Louisiana murder committed by a known pedophile. The Fact of a Body, winner of both the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and the 2018 Chautauqua Prize, is a page-turner, and Marzano-Lesnevich’s elegant but simple diction makes for compelling reading. Each chapter ends with an impetus to read more, but never in a hokey way. This naturally phrased whodunit momentum is no small feat, considering they confirm the identities of both the murderer and their sexual abuser early in the book. What keeps us reading is their commitment to nosing out why they feel so conflicted about the murderer and how his case and background parallel events in their own life.
As they stated in a seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles in June 2018, the book teaches the reader how to read it. It allows the reader into the risk at the heart of the story. Citing Joanne Beard, Jesmyn Ward’s writing, and Vivian Gormick’s The Situation and The Story as influences on their writing and editing processes, Marzano-Lesnevich committed to an information-packed, whirlwind two-hour seminar on structure, risk, and meaning, emphasizing the need for writers to recognize twin obligations of structure. First, they noted, the writer must acknowledge the interior logic of a book—the chapter and scene organization. Second, the writer must consider the layer of meaning that must run throughout the story, an interior emotional logic that might make the entire story collapse if the author said it outright. Mostly, they emphasized, the structure a writer starts with is probably not the same structure the finished work will inhabit. I came away from this seminar feeling armed with lifelong advice on how to structure any writing work I complete, fiction included.
The recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, as well as a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Portland, Maine, where they are an assistant professor at Bowdoin College. They most recently taught at Harvard.
After their astoundingly organized, insightful seminar, and learning about all their other accolades, I grew nervous that my interview questions would be lacking. Marzano-Lesnevich had a busy schedule during their time at Antioch, and I didn’t want to pressure them into an in-person interview without adequate time to unwind and prepare. Foreseeing a more relaxed interview at another time, I delayed calling them until July, when the chaos of the summer calmed. Their warm, generous, precise, and intensely intelligent responses to my questions, which I necessarily agonized over, are what follow below. I interviewed Marzano-Lesnevich on July 10, 2018, via telephone, after they gave the aforementioned seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles’s June 2018 MFA residency.
E.P. Floyd: First, a big thank you for speaking with me and for supporting Lunch Ticket. In The Fact of a Body, you cover intensely emotional issues and trauma, as well as social justice topics—sexual abuse of children, your own sexual orientation, poverty, substance abuse, and lots more. As a widely published creative nonfiction writer, how much distance did you feel you needed from your own life events before you wrote about them?
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: Moving a bit beyond just that book, I find that that notion of “distance needed” from certain topics is constantly fluctuating for me. I have written and published some essays I was writing very much in the thick of things, particularly in an essay I had published in Hotel Amerika—“The Taste of Sardines.” I wrote it right after my dog died. That was because that was all I could bear to write about. What I had to do in that case, was build what the essayist Brenda Miller calls a hermit crab shell around it—I used certain narrative structures to provide almost a hard shell for the material, to protect the emotional core within it. Structure in that way was something that could give me distance. So, in The Fact of A Body, even though there was a lot of temporal distance, I discovered when I was writing it that I didn’t have a lot of emotional distance. Some of the first draft pages were really raw, and they really needed to be. I had to figure out when the narrator would include some of those snippets of raw emotion, and when the narrator would need more distance. As writers, as we work, we become more aware that we are telling a story, that we’re not just recounting what happened to us.
I used certain narrative structures to provide almost a hard shell for the material, to protect the emotional core within it. Structure in that way was something that could give me distance.
EPF: It’s so interesting that you refer to the “narrator” as being distinctly separate from the “author”—you. How and why do you distinguish between the two as a writing
AML: I think, like a lot of people, I was influenced by Vivian Gormick’s The Situation and the Story. I like to think of the narrator as being a construct of raw material—it’s both me and not wholly representative. We can see that approach (a narrator as a distinct speaker separate from the author) by looking at multiple books by the same writer. They all have different narrators. As a person who lived through these events, there were so many things that I wanted to put on the page. We, as people, serve our lives and our loved ones, but the narrator of the book only serves the story, so they have to leave some things out and put things in. Of course, when it comes to publishing, we then have to think of how our friends and families and loved ones will feel about the things we’ve written. But I use that linguistic construct to enforce that the person and the narrator have different roles. I also say it a lot because I teach a lot, so I’m used to reinforcing the concepts.
EPF: You mentioned publishing and how we as writers need to consider how our friends and families will feel about the published autobiographical details. You went through a lot at a young age. How did you decide which details to include, both pertaining to yourself and your family members?
AML: I tried to include only what served the story. For example, you never see my sister being abused, even though the narrative acknowledges that she was. The fact of how widespread the abuse was in our family felt crucial, but actually depicting it would have felt like a violation. And my narrator thinks about that decision on the page. I decided that my narrator would tell a story and at the same time sort of wrestle with the story. It was important to me to not pretend that my story was not the only story, not the only way it could be seen or told—but also for human reasons. If I was capturing a multiplicity of perspectives in Ricky Langley’s story, I couldn’t pretend that there wasn’t a multiplicity in my own story.
EPF: Speaking of multiple perspectives, The Fact of a Body is a cross-genre hybrid that seamlessly weaves your own life with the homicide case of a six-year-old boy who was killed by an adult man—Ricky Langley, a known pedophile and sex offender. Why did you choose that parallel structure?
AML: I would start writing about one side of the story and the other side would creep in; my subconscious appeared to be linking the stories. I think a lot of writing is getting out of your own way. For me, there was no way to write this where the two stories weren’t linked. Once I accepted that, the parallel structure was obvious. I will say that the realization that the strands had to collide in the third (and final) section of the book took longer. Life influences us in ways that we don’t realize until much later. When I was in law school, I read a novel called The Archivist by Martha Cooley. She wrote, “With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced.” I felt a jolt of recognition when I read that in law school: this spark that resonated with how I saw the world. I hadn’t thought about that novel for years, and then when I was writing a talk [on why they chose the parallel structure for The Fact of a Body], I sort of meditated on where inspiration came from for me, and that line came back to me. Only then did I realize how much it influenced me, as a person and as a writer constantly seeking out connections between disparate things.
We, as people, serve our lives and our loved ones, but the narrator of the book only serves the story, so she has to leave some things out and put things in.
EPF: There is a lot of moral ambiguity in The Fact of a Body. You grapple on the page with your staunchly anti-death penalty stance in a number of ways. At the end, the ethical uncertainty is just that—decisively uncertain. Was this a conscious choice you made when you set out to write the book, or did you come to this ambiguous ending in the writing process?
AML: It was a conscious choice. It was really important to me to write something that was honest about complexity. The ending wasn’t uncertainty so much as the ending was duality—duality is not uncertainty, it is an acceptance of complexity. Ricky Langley will always be both a man and a murderer. My grandfather will always be both a man and a pedophile. The journey was in accepting that that was the ending, and that that was okay. There was a reason my subconscious wasn’t leading me to a neater, clearer place. What I had to think about as a writer, was, “How do you induce satisfaction in the reader when you decide to acknowledge both the murderer’s guilt and the abuse fairly early in the book—and when the end will be complicated?”
EPF: Ah, yes. Let’s talk about chapter endings and suspense. Even though I already knew who the murderer was and who your abuser was, I kept on reading. How did you keep the emotional stakes high at the end of each chapter?
AML: Yay! Thank you. I thought a lot about that, because I knew I was going to ask the reader to process some difficult weaving of the two stories, and I felt like I really needed to earn some buy-in and create their hunger. I thought about it with this idea of negative suspense versus positive suspense. Negative suspense is when you know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading with that dread. Positive suspense is when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading to discover what will happen next. I didn’t have any positive suspense in the big things, because the reader knew about them from the start. For example, I didn’t want to use Jeremy’s death as a source of positive suspense. I didn’t want to pretend that we didn’t already know that was going to happen, so I used negative suspense instead. But I built in mini questions of positive suspense on other events in the book. The other very concrete thing I thought about was, “How does a chapter ending induce a question?” Michael Blanding’s book The Map Thief gave me this same experience of suspense, and the map trade is not something I have a preexisting interest in. What happened is that I read it pretty much in one sitting, and there was no reason for this except that I could not stop reading. I looked at the end of each chapter and realized that he was very good at completing a mini-arc at the end of each chapter, and at the same time, flinging us forward with a question. I also looked at other works, like the short story, “The Ceiling,” by Kevin Brockmeier. It was a braided narrative, like my story was, and in his short story, the avoidance of discussing the “big bad thing” creates emotional tension. As a writer, I’m constantly trying to figure out what it is I need to do, and how can I look at what other people have done, to address the story before me. For me, it’s all about reading widely.
I thought about it with this idea of negative suspense versus positive suspense. Negative suspense is when you know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading with that dread. Positive suspense is when you already know what’s happened, and you’re reading with the expectation of things working out well for the protagonist—for the emotional arc.
EPF: Speaking of reading widely, the research that went into The Fact of a Body was extensive, as you note both in the book and on your website—roughly 30,000 pages of records. Can you talk a little about the research process? How did you sit and process that amount of documentation?
AML: I didn’t organize it into some sort of neat, didactic thing. I did sort of belly flop myself into it like somebody into a pool. I got the first few thousand pages, spent a couple years avoiding them, and then spent about six months, where I wasn’t really writing, but went from coffee shop to coffee shop—and then to bars when the records got too intense—and I would just spend the day describing in these notebooks what was on every single page and my emotional response. I wasn’t at that point ready to index them, because I had such a strong emotional response to them. I thought I was putting down my strong emotional response to the records because of my own life, and that it was separate from the writing. I tried indexing for a little bit. What I realized pretty quickly is that it felt horrible—the indexing. It felt like it was collapsing the story in exactly the wrong way, creating what Sven Birkerts calls, ‘the coma-inducing effect of “and then.”’ At first, I was really ashamed that I didn’t have a very specific index—having each character on each page for each record used. I thought, “This must just be laziness.” Now, looking back, I wish that I had had the self-kindness to say, “Hey, Self, this isn’t laziness, you’ve just put in an untold number of hours reading these documents. Pay attention to this resistance.” As they say in software development, what I thought had been a bug turned out to be a feature. The resistance was telling me something. I couldn’t put it in an index, because that organized, methodical approach wasn’t the kind of story it was. What I needed instead was to be surprised by the emotional resonances that I never saw coming. It was vital to find the detail I was looking for, and then be punched in the stomach by the stuff around it that I hadn’t been thinking about.
That was not an efficient process. And it was only possible because I didn’t have an index and couldn’t just look up what I needed. It was very much not an efficient process, but it produced a kind of all-over-the-place draft that slowly, slowly, slowly let me get to know the material. Some things became big in my mind and some became small. During that note-taking time, the events of the case felt as vivid to me as my own memories. And that response, I feel, was crucial. It just took time—hours and hours and hours and days and months and years. Just kind of living with those records inside me. What’s funny is, I now cannot remember anything in the records. My subconscious is like, “Cool, we’re done, let’s make space for something else now.” I think that’s the difference between how research usually is conducted for academic nonfiction, and how it needs to be conducted for creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction research requires a lot of trust, a lot of believing, “This is all going somewhere.”
EPF: Based on your experience writing and publishing The Fact of a Body, what do you think emerging writers working in multiple genres should know or try in their drafting process?
AML: Just revise, revise, revise, revise, revise. Also, it’s important to know that doubt is not fatal. This is advice for those of us who have a tendency to really doubt or critique the work before it’s even found its fledgling voice on the page. You can do the work even through doubt. Even while feeling the doubt. It’s important to acknowledge that the doubt might be a reflection of your own fear and not a reflection of the quality of the work. Some days are awesome, and you feel all the strength and power, and think, “I can totally write this story!” And other days are not like that at all. But that’s what I would recommend: Don’t allow the doubt to prevent you from writing.
E.P. Floyd is lead editor of flash prose, an interviewer, a blogger, and an assistant blog editor for Lunch Ticket and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Litbreak Magazine, Reservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection, and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.
Percival Everett is one smart dude, much smarter than me. I worried that my interview questions wouldn’t measure up, that he would find my level of inquiry so ordinary that they would fall short of rousing his interest. Instead, I found an open, amiable, attentive individual who paused to consider each of my questions before giving me thoughtful, albeit concise, responses. His love of language is obvious. The words he speaks are as exacting as the words he writes.
Over his prolific career, Everett has averaged a new work of fiction about every eighteen months. As an older aspiring writer, I find this to be as depressing as it is inspiring. Of his over fifteen novels, Erasure, his most lauded, and So Much Blue, his latest, may be the markers by which we can trace his trajectory as a writer. Both explore some of the most daunting philosophical questions of our time—the role of the artist in society, identity, race, and relationships. Everett admits he prefers reading books that challenge him. It stands to reason that his work would do the same for his readers. His thought provoking novels reveal a refreshing, imaginative freedom that reflects his philosophy when it comes to fiction.
Everett says much of his writing is prompted by life questions he wants to examine. In each of his works the question differs, making the nature of his novels distinct in subject and structure, often mixing humor with the absurd.
In Erasure (2001), Everett explores how perceived cultural and racial bias can dictate what gets published and what doesn’t, what is valued and what isn’t. One wonders how close it comes to Everett’s own relationship with the publishing industry. The novel also seeks to erase the notion that the black American experience differs from the American experience. He makes the point with all the subtlety of a bullet train hitting a brick wall, forcing us to consider the question from a larger perspective—especially when the narrator, speaking about the dense, intellectually challenging book he’s written and had repeatedly declined by publishers, says, “I was a victim of racism by virtue of my failing to acknowledge racial difference and by failing to have my art be defined as an exercise in racial expression.”
So Much Blue (2017), examines relationships—specifically marriage, secrets, and trauma. The novel weaves three different narratives that culminate when all secrets are revealed and the narrator’s life comes into focus. Here, Everett draws from his talent as a visual artist—his artistic endeavors go well beyond writing—to accurately express the nuances of color and time. His visual imagery establishes mood, and a level of mystery that tends to provoke certain questions:What does it take to sustain a marriage? What is the difference between what may be construed as a lie versus a secret?
Everett says much of his writing is prompted by life questions he wants to examine. In each of his works the question differs, making the nature of his novels distinct in subject and structure, often mixing humor with the absurd. This is not entirely unexpected given that his initial undergraduate and graduate studies were in philosophy, namely logic, which I found fascinating and encouraging, given my own background as an engineer. It is our gain that he decided to write instead; otherwise contemporary literary fiction would be missing an important voice.
It is difficult to capture Everett’s work within a single category. In a seminar at Antioch University he said, “In fiction, there are no rules.” As a fiction writer I found this statement liberating. It was as if I’d been granted permission to let my writing unapologetically move to my own music, my own voice. Everett’s novels, poetry, and short stories all reflect his dismissal of those rules that might otherwise restrain his work. His eloquence, intellect, and style remain constant. His voice and point of view is always firm, confident, and reflective. According to Everett, “Writing is always political.”
Everett’s own trajectory as a writer has managed to avoid the issues that he tries to illuminate in Erasure. Unlike the novel’s main character, Everett is, in fact, a widely respected and accomplished author of literary fiction. His novels offer a broader, more complex view of the African-American experience rather than the narrow, ghettoized version too often considered by the mostly white publishing establishment as the only authentic black experience.
Despite his aversion to social media and self-promotion, his work has been often recognized by a number of awards. Everett is the recipient of the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the Academy Award in Literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction (Erasure and I Am Not Sidney Poitier:A Novel), the New American Writing Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, Winner of the 2010 Believer Book Award for I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Winner of the 29th Dos Passos Prize in 2010, awarded the Phi Kappa Phi Presidential Medallion from the University of Southern California in 2015, and the Creative Capital Award in 2016. In addition, his stories have been included in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Short Stories.
I met Percival Everett on a blustery February morning at a small neighborhood café in South Pasadena. As we shook hands he apologized, and true to his directness, told me that he had only thirty minutes and warned me that he was a tough interview. I suppose it was his way of letting me know he might not be too forthcoming. I’d done enough research that his warnings did not surprise me. In fact, it was that self-effacing quality that interested me in the first place. Modesty would be unbecoming to a man who’d authored so many successful novels, short stories, children’s books, and poetry collections in the span of his thirty-five-year career. I came to this interview as interested in the man as I was in his work.
The following interview is excerpted from our conversation.
Jesus Sierra: You studied Philosophy and minored in Biochemistry. I’m curious about that.
Percival Everett: Well, the philosophy I studied was mathematical logic.
JS: What did you have in mind for a career?
PE: I didn’t. I was just studying. It seems back then, you just went to college and it was what you did.
JS: Why University of Miami?
PE: I wanted to study with a guy named Howas Pospesel, a logician.
JS: And you knew of him before.
PE: Yeah. I have a love-hate relationship with Miami.
JS: Why do you say that?
PE: Because it’s a great city, full of life, with everything that’s wrong with America, right there. The exploitation of people, the disparity of wealth.
JS: How did you end up writing fiction? Were you writing fiction before?
PE: I continued to do philosophy. I graduated from college way too young, so I went on to a PhD Program in Philosophy at the University of Oregon, because I started reading a guy named Wittgenstein. The logic became the philosophy of language, and I just realized that I hated doing philosophy.
JS: Is that much like J.L. Austin? Is that the same kind of thing?
PE: Yeah, well not quite the same but he’s my favorite philosopher.
JS: I love philosophy and have a library of philosophy books of which I’ve read only a few. I’ve got too many books that I’m never going to read.
PE: Hey, that’s the way we will all go.
JS: At what point did you start writing?
PE: It was called ordinary language philosophy. It consisted of creating scenes in which people spoke about philosophical concepts in ordinary discourse as a way to understand what we mean by those philosophical problems. So I was writing scenes and since I was really disenchanted with scholastic philosophy and I was a reader, I just started enjoying writing scenes.
JS: You were asked to write fictional scenes?
PE: Well, you write dialogue. People are talking and it’s supposed to be the way we normally talk. The idea is that philosophers create their own problems by the ability to acknowledge what we already know and by speaking in weird ways instead of using ordinary language.
JS: So you took a liking to that. Is that when you decided to go to Brown University?
JS: At what point did you start training mules? Was that before all this?
PE: Living in Oregon I ended up with some jobs working ranches. Sheep ranches.
JS: Did you work in ranches before?
PE: I’d ridden but I hadn’t work in ranches. As you know, working ranches very seldom involves any riding. But when I ended up at auctions, I met some cattle guys who said they’d give me a summer job. So that’s how I started working ranches.
JS: But how do you train a mule? Is it any harder than training a horse?
PE: In some ways it’s easier because they’re smarter. But because they’re smarter it can be more difficult. You have to be completely consistent because a mule is always thinking. With a mule, if you don’t follow through one time, the mule will remember that one time and say, “do I have to do that?” (laughs)
JS: In Spanish we use the word mule to talk about someone that’s stubborn, because they have that reputation.
PE: They’re stubborn because they think they know better and they won’t get hurt. You can work a horse until he has a heart attack. The mule feels something bad and says:“That’s it, you can hit me with that two by four but the two by four won’t kill me.” (Laughs)
JS: That’s amazing. Now you teach writing. Is there anything from training mules that translates to teaching writers?
PE: It’s a good question.
JS: Well, you train mules. Do you consider teaching as “training” writers?
PE: First of all, mules are much smarter than writers (laughter) so there is that. And you’re working with the whole animal, instead of just the back end (laughs). It’s the consistency. You can do anything with a mule that you can do with a horse, except race. Because no one has figured out a way to explain to the mule why it’s worth doing. It just seems like a way to get hurt so they’re not going to do it.
JS: I see.
PE: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I want to be more like a mule or more like a horse when I go to work. Whether I just want to do whatever the story tells me, or whether I want to think about it first and be a little bit in charge.
JS: I just finished my MFA and frankly I always had my reservations about it just because of the idea of setting boundaries or rules and really wondering what it would do for me. How do you view MFA programs? Are writers born?
I’ve gotten older. I’m not a thrill seeker the way I might have been at one point. But I don’t feel any fewer thrills. I understand that those exciting moments in life are closer to home.
PE: Well, like any art, you can teach anyone to play all the notes in the saxophone but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be a saxophonist. And you can teach someone how to use language in effective ways but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to have any real talent. But I don’t know that I believe in innate talent. There’d have to be circumstances in place. I mean if you are six feet eight inches tall, you have a better chance of being a basketball player.
JS: Man, I wish I were that tall! I’d have definitely played ball.
PE: Yeah, but then you would have been a liability I combat. (Laughter)
JS: What makes a good writer?
PE: Loving language and story. Caring more about the story than seeing one’s name attached to it.
JS: Are you able to discern that when you read someone else’s writing?
PE: If I start reading a story and I forget the writer, then the writer has achieved something. The idea that when somebody is reading my work they’re thinking about me, would make me feel like a failure. It means that the work is not arresting enough to take them out of this world.
JS: There’s a passage in So Much Blue that I must have read several times. There is a moment when the narrator reflects on his relationship with his wife. It is something that I felt deeply because it helped me better understand a long ago chapter in my life. Sometimes I find that the right language can really help me navigate my own emotions. And it is your language in this case that helped me do so. Thank you.
PE: No, thank you.
JS: I read a lot of Hemingway when I was younger. In fact, he was also an inspiration for me to write. I think, particularly in a Cuban society that I grew up in, what was most admired of him was the whole macho aspect of his persona. Do you think that level of adventure is required of a writer in order to write about a particular place or experience? It seems to me you’ve done a number of things in life. For example in So Much Blue, part of it takes place in Paris, part of it in El Salvador. I have several questions here but do you think that’s necessary, in terms of experiencing life that way in order to have material to write about?
PE: I think it’s a good thing. But it’s certainly not necessary. I’ve gotten older. I’m not a thrill seeker the way I might have been at one point. But I don’t feel any fewer thrills. I understand that those exciting moments in life are closer to home. You don’t have to go very far to find them. There is nothing more exciting to me than things my kids say (laughs). So no, but it does depend on what you want to write. I always encourage undergraduates to take time off before they go to graduate school, because you do have to write about something. And I encourage them to major in something other than creative writing because it’s a non-information major. It’s great for a lot of people but you need to know something about the world. You’re an engineer.
JS: I don’t know about the world there but I do know about buildings.
PE: (laughs) Hey, you were asking about mules and writers. The construction of anything works as a great metaphor for the understanding of story knowledge.
JS: I did my twenty-minute talk on that.
PE: (laughs) There you go.
JS: When you spoke at Antioch University you mentioned that a lot of your work is research. Part of So Much Blue takes place in El Salvador just before the war. Did you actually go there?
PE: A long time ago, yes.
JS: You did? Were you there about that same time?
JS: In the novel the main character actually returns after the war.
PE: I’d gone there several times, but I’ve never gone back. But I’d love to go back.
JS: It’s probably one of the most dangerous countries in the world right now.
PE: Yeah, it is. It got better for a while.
JS: A good friend of mine is writing about El Salvador. His father is one of the last living witnesses to the 1932 massacre there. He’s documenting it all.
PE: That’s fantastic. I’d love to see that.
JS: You also set the story in Paris. You’ve been there.
PE: I can’t write about places I don’t know.
JS: So if I want to write about Pasadena, I’ll need to live here for a while and experience it?
First of all, it’s kind of sad that so few people read literary fiction. We don’t teach our people to find challenge entertaining.
PE: If you want to be true, yes. Because you’re messing with people’s stuff. And that’s why I can’t write about anything I don’t know something about. Even then, I try to do it without the appearance that I think I actually know anything. I’m a tourist in this world. Everybody wants to not look like a tourist, but I am a tourist.
JS: It’s what I like about those scenes in El Salvador, it’s two guys that didn’t know where they were and were very much tourists in a way. The point of view truly lent itself to that.
PE: I think the only thing that I’ll cop to being autobiographical is that bus scene trying to get the car past the bus on that little narrow road.
JS: In a book I read recently there is a scene that takes place in the Bay Area, where I live. In that scene the character is trying to find his way back to San Francisco from Palo Alto and he laments that he can’t take BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit], because he has no money but…
PE: BART doesn’t go to Palo Alto (laughs)
JS: Right, it doesn’t. Curiously, this book has gotten some overwhelmingly positive reviews. This leads me to the question, where do you see the state of literary fiction today?
PE: There is a lot of crap. And it’s always been that way. First of all, it’s kind of sad that so few people read literary fiction. We don’t teach our people to find challenge entertaining. I think mostly if we train people in school to find a difficult novel as much fun as watching a movie. Movies are passively received. There is not much time to put into consuming it. It’s an hour and a half. You don’t have to remember to go back to it. And as you’re saying, you don’t have to think hard. I’d love to live in a culture where thinking hard is considered fun.
JS: Well, that’s the idea of television. The idea of ‘I don’t want to think, I just want you to entertain me.’
PE: Even radio must have been better, because then you have to make the images yourself.
JS: Absolutely. When I was going to college I worked as a truck driver for the electric company and I used to listen to “Mystery Radio” every night on the radio while I drove.
PE: Oh you used those tapes?
PE: (laughs) Yeah, that stuff was great.
JS: You conjure the whole thing in your own imagination.
PE: That’s why I didn’t like it when they started making music videos. I refused to watch them, but I like the idea of music making me come up with stuff. They’d come up with all these weird things that music was about. It took all the fun out of it.
JS: I’d like to ask you about the book collaboration you did with Chris Abani, No More Red, a book of poetry around your paintings. How did that collaboration come about?
PE: Oh, oh. They just took pictures of my painting. We didn’t have much to do together.
JS: So he wrote the poems to your paintings. You didn’t do the painting to his poems.
JS: My current mentor is a visual artist as well. I asked him whether he thought his visual work informed his writing or the other way around. If he thought there was any real connection. How to you feel about that?
PE: There is some connection that I can’t articulate. The difference is why I like it. I was a musician before I was either.
JS: What did you play?
PE: Jazz guitar.
JS: Wes Montgomery?
PE: Yeah, I love Wes Montgomery. For me, any kind of art is stimulating. I always think students in our program should have to take a studio art course of some kind.
PE: Yeah. Even music, or sculpture. Anything. One of the reasons I love painting is because it’s physical. Typically, though it’s not a necessary truth. The length of the relationship with the work is shorter.
PE: Yes. In some ways more intense. And there is this element of destruction. If I put blue on a canvas, it’s there. There is no removing it. But if I write in a character I don’t like, I just take it out.
JS: What do you recommend your students to read?
PE: I just ask them to read what they’re interested in. I think they should read stuff that they naturally gravitate to and stuff that they never imagined. There are a bunch of novels that I read every year, or every couple of years. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy: Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Again because it’s so difficult and I just want to get used to the having fun doing it. Samuel Butler’s The Way of all Flesh, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And there, people stall because of the dialect, but then they miss out on all the fun.
JS: That’s interesting you say that. We read The Color Purple, and not being from that time or that part of the country I couldn’t discern the accuracy of the language used in that novel. Whether it was appropriate to that time and place. As a somewhat uninformed reader, I didn’t know.
PE: I grew up where the Civil War started, and I never heard anyone talk like that (laughs).
JS: I’m just skeptical sometimes.
PE: I get it.
JS: You don’t have a lot social media presence. You’re there only because other people comment. When you started writing the Internet wasn’t even around.
PE: I know. In fact I used the Word word processor and a typewriter. I wrote my first five books on a manual typewriter.
JS: Do you still have it?
PE: No. I gave it to a student a long time ago. It was just heavy. I didn’t want it. I said, do you want this? He said yes.
JS: At the Hemingway House in Key West they have his typewriter on display. I imagine writing on that took a lot of perseverance, and alcohol, I guess. I have come to writing later in life. I’ve had a whole other career—
PE: I published my first book when I was twenty-four. My friend Harriett Doerr who’s dead now, published her first book[Stones for Ibarra)] when she was seventy-two. Her first book was a much better book than my first book. So you still have plenty of time.
I think it’s a bad neighborhood, the social media thing. It’s one of the problems with the stuff that gets published.
JS: I’m going to aim for that. (Laughter)
PE: Because you just have stuff. You have the luxury of reflection, and we’re smarter.
JS: And we’ve lived a little.
JS: It’s interesting, you talk about experiences, and I haven’t really taken the time to think about it until I started to write again. I’ve written my whole life, but I was just going along, writing in journals, and more personal reflection stuff to sort things out. When I went back to fiction, I realized that I do in fact have a lot of material to draw from. Going back to the Internet question. Knowing what you know now, if you were starting today, would you consider [creating an online presence]? I mean, we’re being told that’s a necessity these days, to have an online presence.
PE: I hate the whole thing. I think it’s a bad neighborhood, the social media thing. It’s one of the problems with the stuff that gets published. People get published because they might have a following on Twitter or whatever. They pitch themselves to a publisher saying, I’ve got twenty thousand followers and that’s a lot of books in literary fiction. Somebody will publish it. They’ve always been around—Vanity Presses—but I’ve heard them advertising on the radio now. Have you heard this?
JS: Yes, I have.
PE: And one of the lines I heard, either a TV ad late at night or on the radio was, it’s not about the quality of the work. It’s about getting published. I even told my son. I can’t remember what it was. Something like, why edit? Or something ridiculous like that.
JS: Your work got published because it was good work and it was worthy of publication. Nowadays, I feel a lot of pressure to get out there on Twitter, Facebook.
PE: It’s like pimping yourself out.
JS: It’s all the self-promotion you have to do.
PE: And it’s so distasteful. I think I just don’t like the idea of it.
JS: What’s a question you hate when you meet people and tell them you’re a writer?
PE: I don’t confess to it a lot. “Are you published?” is one. The thing is, I know great writers who have not been published. And they’re no less writers than I am. And I know some really awful writers who have been.
JS: I know you’re running out of time, so I’ll skip to some key questions I have for you. Who were your mentors?
PE: I have always been completely solitary in my work. Even now I don’t have any readers. It goes from me, to my agent.
JS: Is that a conscious choice?
PE: I think it’s just constitutional. I had a, he wasn’t my professor, but there was a guy named Harvey Castle. He used to be the editor of the Norton Anthology. I never much liked his work and he was a crazy person. And I mean that literally, he’d call me at three in the morning. But there was something about his approach to the world of art. He was a smart guy. Things got crazy when he was around. So maybe Castle was one. And then later, there are friends who are writers, I wouldn’t call them mentors but they do make me more comfortable with my profession. John Wideman and Richard Bausch. But we hardly ever talk about writing.
JS: Whom do you read today? As far as contemporary writers.
PE: I read so many. It’s not fair to say because I hate leaving anybody out. But there are a lot of really great writers. Then there are a lot of others that write okay, but why bother? It’s come to me that if I don’t want to finish something, I won’t finish it because life is too short. If I’m reading something and I like the writing but I don’t want to finish it, then it’s because it’s a weak story. There are a lot of people who can write but they really don’t have much to explore and say. And I’m not terribly interested in that.
JS: I’m the opposite. As an engineer, no matter how much I don’t like something, I grind through it.
PE: And you’re also at a different stage in your career. For you, the construction of the thing is important. I’m stale and cranky by now. And I feel guilty about being that way. I should go back to the way I used to be.
JS: Lastly, you mentioned something in your interview with Bomb Magazine. In it you said you wanted to be compared to Sterne…
PE: Pretty good company.
JS: How do you feel about your writing now? Are you getting there?
PE: Oh no. I’m really flattered that someone might suggest that but no. For one thing, I don’t read my work once I let it go.
JS: But you did say that what prompts you to write is when you are struggling through a philosophical question and you want to explore it through your writing.
JS: So how do you know when it’s done? Is the question answered?
PE: Oh no. No good philosophical question ever gets answered. But it’s fun to play with.
JS: But there has to be a point when you feel the process is complete.
PE: Not complete.
JS: But reaching a conclusion.
PE: I don’t know. Find me on my deathbed and ask me then. Maybe then I’ll know. Yeah, just asking the question is fun.
Jesus Francisco Sierra emigrated from Cuba in 1969 and grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District. He is fascinated by how transitions, both sought and imposed, have the power to either awaken or suppress the spirit. Sierra holds an MFA in fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. His personal essays “How Baseball Saved My Life”and “Soul Music,” which initially appeared in Lunch Ticket, have been anthologized in the recently published Endangered Species, Enduring Values: An Anthology of San Francisco Area Writers of Color. His short stories have been published in the Marathon Literary Review and The Acentos Review. Working out of the San Francisco Writers Grotto, he is working towards completing of a collection of short stories.
As my mother grew older she became more confused and unhappy and mean. When she was most difficult, I would soften my response by beginning to write her eulogy; two lines in I would start to forgive her a little and, toward the end, completely. Once, during her very last days, in a rare lucid moment she turned to me and said: “The heart is the first thing to go.” Before now, I would have only shared this story with my sisters. And then I came across this line in Victoria Chang’s new book of poetry, Barbie Chang, about a father who also suffers from dementia: “…is it possible to write an / elegy for someone who / isn’t dead …”. Reading Victoria Chang’s poetry is to listen to the music of language as it circles through exquisite personal and more universal laments about human anguish in its many forms.
Barbie Chang, recently published by Copper Canyon Press, is Victoria Chang’s fourth book of poems. Her previous book, The Boss (McSweeney’s), won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Her other books include Salvinia Molesta and Circle. Her poems have been published in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The Nation, New England Review, New Republic, and many other places; and she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017. She has also published a picture book, Is Mommy?, illustrated by Marla Frazee and published by Simon & Schuster, that was named a New York Times Notable Book.
Victoria lives in Southern California with her family and teaches at Chapman University and Orange County School of the Arts, and has recently joined the MFA faculty at Antioch University Los Angeles. On the morning of August 14, 2017, I had the opportunity to interview Victoria for an hour by Skype about her work and her life.
In preparation for the interview, Victoria generously shared a copy of her then forthcoming collection, Barbie Chang. Many of the poems in this collection are written in a persona that allowed her to be, as she puts it in the interview below, “kind of funny and sarcastic and ironic and paradoxical and… political,” though many of the poems are deeply personal and immediate as well. Throughout the collection are brief stories of a mother’s illness and a father’s dementia as well as portrayals of the numerous micro-aggressions of a divided cultural landscape. These small stories weave and flow into each other across sections, and all of these encounters are deeply empathetic to human flaws of all sorts. Sentiment skirmishes with humor and poignancy and, at times, darkness. The result is a narrative journey that is both intimate and ironic. The opening poem of the collection follows Barbie Chang as she leaves the corporate world (which we remember from Chang’s earlier collection, The Boss), to begin a different life. We hear the similar incantatory internal rhyming and rhythmic wordplay of that earlier work, as in: “once she sprinkled her yard with / timed water once // she wore lanyards in large rooms…”.
In Part One we enter world of children and a school, and the “Circle” of mothers, “the beautiful thin mothers at school / form a perfect circle // the Circle will school her if she lets / them…”. The poems yield to an increasing alienation from this circle, interspersed with a chronicling of Barbie’s relationships with men (called “Mr. Darcy”), with her mother who is sick, and with her father who is losing his grip on the world: “Barbie Chang’s father paid her tuition / by intuition his brain // now shuns all logic…”.
These small stories weave and flow into each other across sections, and all of these encounters are deeply empathetic to human flaws of all sorts. Sentiment skirmishes with humor and poignancy and, at times, darkness. The result is a narrative journey that is both intimate and ironic.
In our conversation, Victoria spoke about her books as “projects”—each one a kind of obsession for her, and she writes them in the bursts of time that she salvages from the crannies of her busy life. She talks about writing in the unbroken lines that were later turned into quatrains (in The Boss) or staggered couplets (Barbie Chang), and that explore the endless repetitions and spirals of lives and events.
Part Two of Barbie Chang is an interlude of epistolary poems addressed to “P,” which have the feel of unbroken writing formed into fourteen-line stanzas about birth, a tormented love for a child, and the struggle with the language to express it. The second stanza begins, “I want to change the ending before this / begins…” and later continues with these sibilant lines, “something wept seeps / down my arm through my fingers and comes / out as speech a soft speech sponge speech…”.
Part Three follows the stories that began in Part One, and Barbie Chang speaks about her mother’s death and its aftermath. “Barbie Chang Pokes Through” invokes a startling last image of grief: “…now she is left with / small images of her // mother that come and hover and leave / whenever they please // little hummingbirds of death.”
Throughout the collection are scattered musings on language and form, and on the purpose of poetry in the world: “…if a heart doesn’t beckon // forever why does it matter if we ever / reach language why does // it matter which form is better or whether / anyone ever wins an // award for anything”; and later,“…does anyone know the author’s original / intent does it matter // that no one knows exactly what it means,” and “…what if there are no verbs just nouns / what if saying something // makes it true…”.
The last section returns to addressing “P” in a new form: the lines are airy and double spaced with breaks—forming a kind of poetic counsel, and closing the book with this last line: “every woman // begins and ends with another woman.” Throughout this stunning and varied collection, Chang’s poems are circular and open and, as she put it in our interview, leave you “hanging like fog, or like dangling earrings” in their resistance to closure.
Interviewing Victoria Chang was like talking to a friend who is sensitive and candid; she is fierce about the important things, with hints of an old soul lingering underneath. She is a poet who has unique and searing perspectives on the world we currently inhabit. In this interview, Victoria shared her struggle to find time to write, talked about trauma and obsession, about process, and offered clues as to how an accomplished poet navigates the publishing world. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.
Theresa Rogers: You have a professional career and a family and still find time and space for your writing. How have you managed that?
Victoria Chang: Yeah, it’s been really hard. I actually quit my regular full-time day job last March, but I still do a lot of consulting because they keep asking me to do stuff. I just look for those moments where I feel really driven—and passionate—about something. And if I don’t have time to work on something at that moment because my mind’s on something entirely different, like a paying day job, I just wait until I have no choice, and then I find really weird times to write. That’s always been the case, and that’s why I think a lot of my post-children writing has been like an outburst. I just finished a draft of what, hopefully, will become my next book of poems. I wrote the whole draft—and I think it’s about sixty pages—in two weeks.
VC: Feverishly. And then I spent the next four months editing, religiously, and it’s every second, every moment. The kids are off in the summer, they’re in and out of camps and they’re older now, so right now they’re left to their own devices. Do you have children?
TR: I do. I have grown children and a grandchild.
VC: So, you know exactly what that’s like. When they were younger—I used to sit in cars a lot and even now, all last year I would wait in the pick-up line and pretty much either read or work on something that was really bothering me, and I would purposely go early since I don’t have to go into an office every day. So, I chose to spend one hundred percent of my time writing. I didn’t write a ton of reviews or do a ton of reading or engaging in the community. I was selfishly using every spare moment on my own stuff. I think that kind of held me through. I think of it as “well, I’m just like, a person with a different background and therefore I hope I have different things to say,” and that’s kind of how I’ve viewed it.
TR: I read an interview where you talked about how that gave you more material to work with.
VC: I think that’s true. It’s the material, but it’s also how your brain thinks about the material because, and this is not to criticize people who go straight into academia and all that—but for me at that point in my life, it would have been a little bit too narrow. I tend to like very broad thinking. Working in different areas has shaped the way I think about my poems. Even if they’re just about the elegies that don’t have anything to do with anything in the workplace, I like to think that my experiences have shaped my writing in some ways.
TR: In terms of your process, in a recent interview with Lunch Ticket, Dana Gioia talked about being at the mercy of the muse. Are you at the mercy of the muse? What inspires you?
VC: Without the muse I don’t see the point because there are so many other easier things to do, so inspiration for me is that passion that you must write this down. And I think writers intend—other people do other things, but we make sense of ourselves, the world around us, and our feelings through words, and we do that with the hope of sharing our words.
…we make sense of ourselves, the world around us, and our feelings through words, and we do that with the hope of sharing our words.
So, the muse is what we do—that’s all we can do! Other people work out or go start companies or make music. I think writers just have this desire, this natural desire or trained desire—I don’t know where it comes from—to write things down, and I think that it’s almost like we can’t not do it. People have said that before but I feel the same way, unfortunately or fortunately. It’s sort of who I am and what I do and that’s all I can do, and if I don’t write, I feel very unhappy.
TR: That reminds me, I wondered if the “P” that you write to in your most recent collection (Barbie Chang)—I could be dead wrong on this—but I read it as speaking to poetry?
VC: Oh yeah, I think it could be. It’s sort of like speaking to anyone but it started out literally as speaking to my eldest daughter whose name is Penny. I think it evolved beyond that but I just kept the “P” as this open thing—a body or spirit that I’m speaking to. It’s kind of like an everyone, and a no one. But it did start off as an epistolary poem to that eldest daughter. I wrote the last ones at the end of the book that are more broken up and staggered just recently, maybe early last year, as an afterword to try to make the book stronger. I had in my mind as the future I guess. I think they end up being really to anyone.
TR: I like that—“to an everyone or no one.” I want to go back to your first book, Circle, which I loved. In that collection you vividly and unreservedly describe the perspectives of abused, desperate, and haunted women. You include voices of a concubine in the 600s, a wife in the Shang Dynasty whose husband is cheating, and Lady Jane Grey watching her husband’s skull rolling down the flagstones. And I noticed that your second collection, Salvinia Molesta, has poems about Mao’s fourth wife, and Iris Chang [the author of Rape of Nanking] who I didn’t know had taken her life. So many of these poems read like incantations. What is the genesis of these poems—or what inspired you to write them?
VC: I was an East Asian studies and history major in college, and I also have a Master’s in East Asian studies. I’ve always been really interested in history and how we repeat history. It kind of refracts and changes a bit, but our essential human experiences feel or felt very similar to me when I was writing those poems. And I think I was probably in my twenties and thirties when writing those poems, and at that time I was grappling and struggling with my own personal relationships with men, relationships I had before I was married, and I didn’t really know how to do that in an interesting way. Just naturally I must have, without consciously thinking about it, gravitated towards these other women in history who probably had similar yet different experiences. I felt like I could relate to all these women in so many ways. And having grown up in a strong female, feminist kind of family, I wanted to look to all these women for help and embody their voices in some ways to make sense of my own experiences. And I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I imagine that’s probably what I was doing subconsciously. I do a lot of things; I just write them and don’t really think about it. I never really map out, “This is what I’m going to do.” I just start doing it and it’s only later I can reflect on what I was doing. And then other people always do a much better job reflecting on what I was doing. Even though the work that comes out seems organized, I tend to be very organic in the process of writing.
TR: We often make sense of our experiences and, I guess, our writing much later. At Antioch [University Los Angeles] in June, you led a workshop about endings to poems. You talked about moving past the temptation for closure and instead to let poems suggest a future beyond the story of the poem, referencing Baruch. And you gave us some great examples, including Glück’s “Purple Bathing Suit” and Haas’s “A Story about the Body.” Could you say a little bit more about how you resist closure in your own work?
VC: I think it’s so easy to say what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling and you could make successful poems by doing that all day long if you’re a good writer; but for me, there’s something else when I’m reading a poem that’s really stunning that takes me beyond, and that beyond is sort of like that mysterious unspoken, kind of lasting feeling. It’s like this lingering taste in your mouth. When I’m working on my own writing, I’m always trying to not state the obvious—whether it’s through an image or even ending a poem or, even beginning a poem. Everybody’s already said this this way before, so how do I say something in a way that leaves you kind of hanging, you know, like fog or like dangling earrings or… When I am writing, I try very hard subconsciously to not close things. Something kind of mysterious—if I’m not exactly clear what I even wrote and what it means, that’s when I like things more and I keep it that way because sometimes that ghostly feeling of multiple directions is a good thing. It could be interpreted many different ways and there’s a difference between that and purposeful mystery that is just confusing, you know? So, I do think you have to be careful when you’re writing that way not to be so opaque that it makes no sense and just agitates the reader. There’s a good agitation and there’s a bad agitation. And that comes through the editing process. You have to figure that out for yourself, what you can get away with and what you can’t get away with.
TR: That’s one of the things I love about reading your work—it’s not too opaque. It’s open in terms of meaning, but as a reader I can pick up resonances in places where you don’t say exactly what you’re talking about. This was the case in reading The Boss, which is so beautifully rhythmic. And you address—maybe not, as you say, overtly or directly—but you do address difficult truths about contemporary culture, our contemporary culture, and the power structures and so forth. Can you tell us how that book came about as a kind of extended meditation on these issues?
VC: Usually when something happens or there’s some kind of trauma in my life, [I need] time to process it. I had a really mean boss, just like awful passive-aggressive human who I’ve learned has since terrorized other people, really good, nice people, like myself, and you spend a lot of time thinking: “Well, what did I do wrong, is it me? What should I have done better?” And then my dad had a stroke, maybe nine years ago, and then he had another brain bleed, so he suffers from aphasia and frontal lobe dementia, and then my mom had a really bad—she passed—lung disease. I wrote about that too, pulmonary fibrosis. I had young kids, too, which was a different form of trauma and joy, but lots of trauma for me because I don’t do as well with younger kids. It was very challenging for me to raise babies and toddlers so the time was so difficult and not enjoyable on so many levels, so that it was just all trauma.
I do think you have to be careful when you’re writing that way not to be so opaque that it makes no sense and just agitates the reader. There’s a good agitation and there’s a bad agitation.
One day I had a little bit of time waiting for one of my kids to finish a language class and I just sat in my car instead of driving home—it was too far to drive and repeat. I had three hours, and she had six more classes, so out of boredom I picked up some scrap paper and started writing all these feelings—we were talking about this before—I finally had time to sit and stare at this tree and all these people coming in and out of the parking lot and I started writing these long-lined no-punctuation things. Eventually the McSweeney’s editors made them into quatrains of staggered lines because they felt like it was hard to read. So, I just kept on writing more of them. I had a whole notebook and I realized maybe these are poems! And I worked on editing them for a year. Then what I do is start sending them out to journals to test them and see if these are poems: “Is anyone interested in reading these?” Because you never know.
Sometimes you wonder, are you writing for yourself or are you writing for other people? I think it varies for different people but I never know if anyone’s going to like anything that I write until I start sending them to journals, and the editors either take them or they don’t, and that’s a good measure for me as a writer. So that’s how those poems formed. But I do remember, so as not to glorify it, my manuscripts going through quite a few editors who said “no” before someone said “yes.” The Boss was very difficult. A lot of people didn’t like it as a book, and I think that one was more difficult than Barbie Chang to get published.
TR: That will be interesting also to new writers to know that some books take their time to find their way to an audience.
VC: Oh definitely! I don’t know how other people’s minds work, but I tend to think that I have crazy ideas and this is not just with writing. And some of the ideas are really weird and way too far ahead or beyond what’s happening today, so I never know if something I’m writing is just way out of touch or out of whack or just not relevant. Sometimes I reflect on The Boss and think: “Well gosh, what a weird thing to write.” Especially for people in the poetry community at that time. With all the gatekeepers and editors who’ve never worked at a company before, for the most part, and don’t know what it’s like to work in the corporate environment, there’s a deadening and a spirit killing about that whole process, especially if you don’t like your job. I was worried that nobody would think it was relevant, and to some extent I was right. But then it came out and I think some people really liked it and found it relevant, so that was nice to see.
TR: Yeah, it feels almost historically cyclical because there was a time when Williams and Stephens and some of our older American poets were very much in that workaday world.
VC: Yeah! And I think that it’s a reflection of the macro literary world. Over the last twenty years most of my writer friends, almost all of them actually, have tenure-track jobs in poetry or in fiction. I’m forty-six, so I’m a GenX and almost everybody I know that’s had some success publishing is getting tenure now. There’s very few of us [who] are actually actively publishing books and in really good journals who don’t work in academia. I think this next generation will be different and I think prior generations were also not quite as much that way, and it started with the boomer generation before us. I hadn’t thought about this—it just reflects our greater job market really. And how literature has really worked itself into academia over the last maybe two generations.
TR: Much of what we’ve been talking about seems to resurface in Barbie Chang, which was just a pleasure to read. I want to go back again to June when you talked about deciding to write from a kind of persona in much of that book, and in a recent interview in Poetry Magazine you talk about how the volume came together as a hybrid space between the personal and the universal. Did that offer you a kind of freedom in what you wrote and how you wrote it?
VC: We’re all writing in a vacuum and sometimes I wonder, why would my own experiences mean anything to anyone? I have that natural fear that my personal experiences are too personal and how do we transcend that? Especially in an age where there’s so much noise and so many people are writing in this solipsistic way in this narcissistic time that we live in and I grew up in. I just find that to be so tedious. I didn’t want to be that kind of writer. I just intuitively thought it would be fun, and it is fun [to write in persona]. At the end of the day I think of writing as play, I really do, and so I thought, let me just play and change this first-person I to a third-person character and the name Barbie Chang popped into my head. I thought it would be kind of funny and sarcastic and ironic and paradoxical, and also it’s political, you know? And I think it makes a statement. This character became a way for me to write more than about my own experiences as a person of color living in a community that is not always welcoming to people of color, even today in California.
I was telling my husband that I’d just witnessed a kid make fun of Asian people—eleven years old and he pulled his eyes wide and made them all squinty—and I thought, I’m in California, I grew up in Michigan, the last time that someone did that to me was probably when I was nine years old. And it’s still happening today and he did it in front of my kids, which really, really, infuriated me. I don’t live in Los Angeles proper, but I’m really close to Long Beach and it’s a diverse community. Everywhere I go I see people of color, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, but I just feel like the people in the community [who] are not people of color, to be frank, are really racist—not all of them, but some of them; and I just wanted to write about that, and didn’t know how, so I started with the “I” and changed it to a third person, and once I changed it, it felt like, okay, now I’m really able to open it up and make it more than about myself, because I know other people experience this all the time, every day. Not only Asian American people but all people who are different, and I think that I just got tired of it and I just couldn’t believe that it still exists and that adult women were behaving the way they were behaving and I wanted to write about it. So that’s how that third person character came about.
TR: The book is so rich—some poems are surreal, some are elegiac and some are philosophical. And having gone through a similar loss of my mother, I found the poems about your mother particularly affecting. There’s one where you talk about likening your mother’s diseased lungs to honeycombs and: “there’s nothing scarier than something that won’t stop fooling you with its beauty.” I just thought that poem was stunning. But what I also want to talk about—it is the day after Charlottesville [two days after Heather Heyer was murdered during the white supremacist rally], and we were just talking about race. Your political poems in this book have a kind of openness that you were talking earlier about, but are so resonant. In one poem, a small moment about your daughter and this group that you were just referring to that you name “the Circle,” are the lines: “[The party] was a hit little girls going in figure / eights their breath / coming out in clouds shaped like / little white hearts.” And it stopped my own breath in a way just reading it. Can you talk about writing these poems at this moment in our culture?
VC: I’m glad you found things in the collection that resonated with you, and that particular poem, the ice-skating one, was actually a story that someone else had told me. Being a parent is… It’s like a war zone out there sometimes. And at this particular school (we no longer go there, thank goodness) there’s this group of women who all kind of look alike, dress alike, and they’re all very attractive, and none of them are people of color obviously—
TR: I was going to ask, are they all white? They read as white but I didn’t know.
VC: Some are half Latino or something, but you know it’s like the white majority mentality that they’re going after. There’s a sort of personal erasure, I think, with the ones who weren’t fully white, but perhaps looked white. I call them aspirational. Towards what, I have no idea, but they mistreated a lot of people in the community. And that one story about the ice skating was horrific to me. Someone had sent out an e-vite to another parent for a birthday party. But they had accidentally sent it to the wrong person, because the mother had the same name as someone else. So instead of just saying “come, just come,” this person took the time and effort to email this mother to tell her: “Sorry, I didn’t mean to invite you.” Most people would think that’s totally fine—it’s that person’s prerogative to disinvite. To me, though, it’s not. It wasn’t as simple as that. It’s a social statement, a political statement. It’s like this person wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t just “my child’s not friends with this person.” No, this other woman was very exclusive, only hung out with certain people, and for me the pain is when parents behave that way and your children get hurt in the end. Your children learn how to mistreat people; your children learn how to—on our side—only hang out with people who may be like them. And it was just a proxy for all the bad behavior at that school by these particular people, and I wrote it as if it happened to Barbie Chang. You have that freedom to do things like that.
I started with the “I” and changed it to a third person, and once I changed it, it felt like, okay, now I’m really able to open it up and make it more than about myself, because I know other people experience this all the time, every day. Not only Asian American people but all people who are different…
It’s just the ignorance, the stupidity, the entitlement, the arrogance, the idea that they’re better than [other] people, the fact that that still exists in this day and age is absurd and watching all these events happen, not just in Charlottesville but daily in this environment, I can’t even believe that people think that’s okay, that somehow because they’re of a certain ethnicity or gender they’re somehow better than everyone else. It just makes my blood boil, honestly just even thinking about all this. It starts with the parents. I’m not saying any of these parents are raising neo-Nazis or anything like that, but I’m telling you, their children will not ever have friends of color, who might be different than them, unless those friends of color are just like them; and I see this perpetuation of stereotypes of racism, of a lack of flexibility in the parents, and exclusivity, and I think, Uh, so I could pretty much tell you what those neo-Nazis parents are like,” because these kids didn’t just grow up that way; and there are aberrations where kids just become something because they’re inherently evil, but I think for the most part I blame it on the parents and I blame it on our culture—it’s all connected. It’s like your responsibility as a parent is so much bigger than just making sure a kid eats and does well in school and all these other things. You’ve got to make sure that they’re open, and again, to see that eleven-year-old pull his eyes and make them really small, it just made me think: “Who’s teaching these other kids? Whom did he pick that up from? And what parent allowed their kid to think that’s okay?” The fact that it could get generationally passed down since I was a kid is just astounding to me, and it just shows you the long-lasting effects of racism.
TR: True. And finally, before we go, can you talk at all about your next project that you mentioned in the beginning? Or is it something you’d rather not talk about?
VC: I read some of the poems from the next project at the reading. They are called “Obit.” They’re actually these prose pieces and prose poems and they’re shaped like an obituary so they’re thin and narrow, as if they would appear in a newspaper… It’s like a fragmentation of grief and the dying. I noticed that when someone dies [whom] you’re close to, it’s not just that person who dies, it’s everything else [that] dies around it, like optimism… Let me pull it out, I haven’t looked at it in a while. So, doctors died, money died, control died, form died, appetite died, secrets died. So like all of these other things are dying too. It was a way to distill grief. And there are some narrative stories in there, and I want it to be more philosophical. I just finished a draft of them a while ago and started the same process of sending them out, so a couple of them are actually out in the world. Agni took a bunch and 32 Poems took a bunch. And there’s more coming out in New England Review in September. I can absolutely talk about them because I feel like most of the work is complete. There will probably be tinkering and things like that going forward, and who knows if I’ll add any more. When poems get rejected I revisit and work on them, so I’ll definitely keep working on it over time.
We closed our conversation by sharing our experiences about being women in academia and in the corporate world. Victoria talked about her fascination with the Ellen Pao trial on gender discrimination in Silicon Valley (which she writes about in Barbie Chang), and in the corporate finance world more generally. As she said in our conversation: “I had written some of those poems while that was happening, so it was interesting to think about those issues and how women are always subservient in our culture.” Victoria seems to have her finger on the cultural pulse of our society in her work, which is so deftly intertwined with her everyday lived experiences. In reading her poetry, we are privy to the mind of a philosopher of contemporary corporate life, everyday racism inherited by children, gender discrimination, fraught relationships, aging and death, and of language. ~TR
Theresa Rogers currently divides her time between Vancouver, Canada, and Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and is completing her MFA in poetry at Antioch LA. She has published poems in the Cape Cod Poetry Review and The San Diego Reader as well as various local publications. She also teaches at the University of British Columbia. Learn more at tessrogerspoetry.com.
I met Margo Jefferson on a February afternoon in 2017, in New York City’s West Village. We sat in a café to discuss her latest book, Negroland, the winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. The memoir blends the author’s personal narrative with the history of America’s historical black elite. Jefferson, a member of this essential and idiosyncratic subset of American society, provides a unique perspective on its place in our social landscape by virtue of her personal history and literary skill. I suggest essential, because I believe the serpentine path of African-American upward-mobility would have been made intricately more difficult without the early and persistent accomplishments of this group of Americans. Idiosyncratic because of the black elite’s richly complex social order, allowing its members to thrive within a society constructed to deny their existence and thwart their progress. This private society, at various times called the Colored Society, the Negro Society, the Black Bourgeoisie, and the African-American upper class, cocooned itself within a system of exclusivity by way of social clubs and civic organizations, with membership based on skin color, education, family connections, and social class. For generations, the black elite socialized and married within its own closely guarded boundaries.
Tracing their beginnings to the Revolutionary War, the founders of the American black elite were, primarily but not exclusively, slaves who won their freedom through service in the Continental Army; slaves fortunate and enterprising enough to buy freedom for themselves and family members; slaves granted freedom, property and resources by virtue of familial ties with a slave master; or African-Americans born to freedom in free states.
The zenith of black society spanned the Abolitionist Movement, through the post-emancipation struggles for civil rights in the 20th century. Calling itself the Talented Tenth (a term popularized in the essay by W.E.B. DuBois, in which DuBois defines an elite class of African-Americans and their responsibility to lead the rest), members of the black elite saw themselves tasked with the responsibility of uplifting the entire race from degradation and servitude. Their influence waned in the 1960s and ’70s with the onset of civil rights and the rise of the Black Power movement.
The memoir blends the author’s personal narrative with the history of America’s historical black elite. Jefferson, a member of this essential and idiosyncratic subset of American society, provides a unique perspective on its place in our social landscape by virtue of her personal history and literary skill.
In 1995, Jefferson received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism while working as a staff writer for The New York Times. The winning body of work spans the breadth of American political life, literary art, and pop culture, including “The Thomas-Hill Question, Answered Anew,” her New York Times review of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, in which Jefferson points to the coming-of-age similarities between Thomas and Richard Nixon; as well as essays on the personal letters of poet Elizabeth Bishop, their secrets and passions revealed, and the gay subculture of New York from 1890 to 1940. In her critique of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, an account of a woman’s struggle with identity in the midst of a disfiguring illness, Jefferson writes: “Suffering is exact. Each kind has its own weight and measure. Fearing you are ugly is not the same as knowing you are. Anticipating pain you have never felt is different from dreading pain you know inside out. Feeling that you have been asked to bear too much is a far cry from learning to bear it anyway.”
Jefferson’s ability to sense, depending on circumstance, from which direction the wind is blowing, or what part of her “self” to expose, honed a keenly perceptive and empathetic eye. And it is that empathy and perception Jefferson engages in On Michael Jackson (2006), in which she explores what happened to the pop star turned accused child molester. Also a staff writer for Newsweek, Jefferson has published in New York Magazine, The Nation, Vogue, The Washington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, the Believer, Guernica, Bookforum, and Grand Street. Her essays are anthologized in: The Best American Essays, 2015; What My Mother Gave Me; The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death; The Best African-American Essays, 2014; The Mrs. Dalloway Reader; Black Cool; and The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. She created and performed a theater piece entitled Sixty Minutes in Negroland, and teaches in the Columbia University MFA writing program.
With Negroland, Jefferson turns her gaze to her own privileged childhood. She presents its historical context at a time when current generations are acutely feeling the fluidity of American identity. What does it mean to be an American in 2017, as migratory trends to this country shift away from Europe to the southern hemisphere, and as demagoguery dredges tribal fears from the bottom of our psychic well?
No better time than now to explore the genesis and evolution of America’s Talented Tenth: the bourgeois class of Negroes who valued education, achievement, and social status, producing a great many African-American professional firsts among their ranks, while audaciously and snobbishly believing themselves to be the very best America had to offer.
From the beginning, America’s black elite were culturally invisible and merely tolerated. Their earliest members, close-knit and insular, shunned white society until it was safe to mingle. As they emerged to claim their place amid our country’s striving classes, the existence of the black elite remained absent in literature and film, with only the lowliest images of black American life acceptable for mainstream audiences. An acknowledgment by the prevailing social order of an African-American upper class, whose educational accomplishments and social graces rivaled its own while exceeding that of the general public, would have been a contradiction bringing into question that very social order. It was a willful blindness perpetuated by a self-conscious and insecure dominant culture.
We are now in the midst of a new renaissance. The slave narrative is confronting the antebellum era from a larger perspective, as in Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, bringing a fuller understanding to the complicated richness of our experience. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns gives life in vivid detail to the largest movement of Americans over a period of decades: the Great Black Migration, thereby filling a gap in history as vast as the Grand Canyon. As African American artists continue to take ownership of the narrative, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland adds an important piece to the puzzle that is our full humanity.
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Angela Bullock: The title of the book, Negroland, evokes an era as well as a particular state of mind.
Margo Jefferson: Yes.
AB: Would you define the term “Negroland,” and explain why you chose it as the title for your memoir?
MJ: Negro was the preferred term—capitalized—for us, from about the start of the late 19th or early 20th century (it succeeded colored) to really the mid-to late ’60s when Black Power succeeded it. So, I wanted to signify that time period, all the political, cultural ways of talking about us as a people. Negroes and the Struggle—also we get that word capitalized. It was a big thing, to keep it separate from Colored, which had started to become a little reactionary. Black until the ’60s was often seen as an insult. So, I wanted to signify the cultural, and racial, and political atmosphere and assumption.
I added –land because in a way we are a land within and yet not. You know? A land is often the way people who share a culture now, or certain cultural habits, longings, that’s often how they describe themselves. There is a whole way of thought now: We deserve our own homeland. We’ve been taken from our homeland. It’s a powerful impulse and drive in black life. But also, within the cities so many of us grew up in—black neighborhoods framed by white neighborhoods—they are in a way lands. Those boundaries are the boundaries of separate lands.
AB: Matters of race consciousness within the black community have continued to evolve, particularly since the years of the 1970s Black Power movement. Why was it important to write Negroland now?
One of the many barriers for black people has always been the imposition of simplification, stereotypes, assumptions, even definitions of what the best kind of black person is or what a real black person is.
MJ: It’s very important right now that we [remain] aware of all the variations on our own history, all the stories that make up our history. That’s one of the things that was so wonderful about Isabel Wilkerson’s book on our Black Migration [The Warmth of Other Suns]—within this huge movement, so many particular families, individuals, and lives. One of the many barriers for black people has always been the imposition of simplification, stereotypes, assumptions, even definitions of what the best kind of black person is or what a real black person is. I wanted to record as clearly, as vividly, as honestly, as artfully as I could this history—personal and cultural—of this very particular black life and a slice of the life of this very particular group. The so-called Talented Tenth.
AB: I get a sense that there was a tight community, with a network of both local and national social clubs.
AB: During your childhood, was Chicago the apex of Negroland culture or were the branches of the black elite pretty evenly disbursed nationwide?
MJ: Oh no, my goodness. There were branches all over. I think Washington, DC would have long considered itself the apex. Atlanta was very important. Really, so many cities could lay claim to being the apex. Chicago was important. We did have our own renaissance. So many people came to Chicago during the Great Migration. Philadelphia has quite a history too, important, but not the apex.
AB: You used multiple voices in the writing of Negroland. There is an objective historical narrator within a very personal memoir, which includes both second- and third-person narration. Why was it important to you to deviate from the traditional first-person narrative style for this memoir?
MJ: It felt to me as if so much of the story I was telling involved the playing of different roles and the taking on of different personas: the good Negro girl, the strong black woman, [and then] when the ’60s came, the respectable Negro family, then the Negro girl who wanted to make her way in the more hip Negro circles. Performance was very much a part of how we grew up, how we were raised, what we were taught. Different viewpoints, I felt, would capture that. And that sense often that you were living out one role. You were reflecting on it and wondering if it was working and when would you have to shift and adapt to another situation. So those tenses and those cross-cuttings, along with first, second, third person, and even the moves between the historical narrator, a confessing narrator, a self-critical narrator, really helped me do that.
AB: You speak of many founding and pioneering members of Negroland, some individuals I’d never heard of, like Charlotte Forten. You write, “She is from one of Philadelphia’s most distinguished colored families, prominent abolitionists since the eighteenth century.” I feel a great compassion for her.
MJ: Oh my God yes!
AB: You say that “she strove for perfect selflessness and would upbraid herself for being insufficiently stoic,” in her dedication to uplifting the race. Forten wrote: “…it is ignoble to despair.” I draw a direct line from that sentiment to the inability to acknowledge depression within the generations of women that followed. Do you make that connection?
MJ: I absolutely agree. The demands and pressures (this did apply to men too, but men responded very differently), on the daughters, the citizens, if you will, of the black elite, the Colored Elite as they would have called themselves in her day, the Black Bourgeoisie, the Talented Tenth, the pressure to be perfect internally and externally, included many proscriptions. You had to excel, of course. You had to have excellent manners. And you never broke down, or showed utter fury. You had to have emotional control at all times. And to despair was in a way to give a victory to the white oppressor. Because that was in some way to acknowledge that he had defeated you, gotten inside your psyche and crushed it.
AB: I would expect that it would have also shown a lack of social class in the eyes of many?
MJ: Certainly, extreme emotional outbursts, yes. I think that is right.
So, we were lifting them up as the saying went, representing the race at its best, and of course, though some of them may have been very pleased about our “white blood,” we thought of ourselves as better than basically all white people.
AB: I am left with the impression that the class of black elites had a real stick up their butts [MJ laughs], yet I don’t see any other way social mobility could have been achieved without Negroland, given America’s history and racial divide. In the book, you also speak of the “Third Race.” Can you explain a bit more about what you mean by the term?
MJ: I spoke of how it seems ofttimes that we thought of ourselves as that. That’s a little different. As poised between all white people and the majority of less-privileged black people. So, we were lifting them up as the saying went, representing the race at its best, and of course, though some of them may have been very pleased about our “white blood,” we thought of ourselves as better than basically all white people. I certainly never heard that term literally used when I was growing up. But when I was talking about this world with a very old Negroland friend, and we were just thinking back and speculating, she said that, and I said, “Oh my God, you’re right.”
AB: And I assume you thought of yourselves as better than whites because of their discrimination.
MJ: Absolutely. We felt we have had to excel in ways that you really don’t. We are equal to the absolute top echelon of you. We’re as good as, and in some cases, we’re better. And we’re better than virtually all the rest of you. Our only competition is at the top, but we have to prove to you constantly that we are at least as good.
AB: Does the Third Race still exist? If so, what form does that Third Race take now?
MJ: That’s a question I can’t really answer. I know people from younger generations. I think it exists among some members of the black elite, in that all elites function and thrive, in part, on a sense of enormous self-satisfaction and entitlement. So, again, that may not be the words to use, but I think that sense—We are the best of our kind and we are the best of your kind too; we are the best America can produce—I think that does still exist. It’s probably more diversified because integration has changed the absolute tightness [of the community].
AB: And not defined by skin color, solely.
MJ: No. You were never defined if you were a man solely by skin color.
AB: That’s interesting.
MJ: And if you had other advantages—social, educational—that would help you if you were a woman. But the beauty standards for women were much more persnickety and intolerant. You know that. They still are. Whatever the prevailing standard is, it’s harder for women.
AB: When did you finally begin to feel comfortable in your own skin? I ask because it seems that each stage in your young life required a new adjustment in identity. There was your early school experience, where you began to perfect the art of code-switching.
MJ: Yes, absolutely.
AB: Then there was adolescence with its added sexual tension, and finally on to college at Brandeis, where your Midwestern cheerleader culture was put on trial in the midst of a rising counter-culture social order.
MJ: Yes, the Eastern intellectual culture and Black Power.
AB: I can only imagine that you were never quite black enough. You know the term?
MJ: I know the term very well. I did not feel that nearly as much in my youthful days. It was in adolescence, and in college, and after. That’s when those kinds of distinctions were made. They were very much tied to teenage-cool social behavior. And not black enough is a class code but it’s also a manners and behavior code. It’s a way of saying you’re not cool enough, you’re not hip enough, you don’t have the language, the style. You don’t have the street cred.
AB: Was there ever a time when you could relax and not have to negotiate a double consciousness?
MJ: You know, there always were times. I always had some close black friends. I had some white friends I could relax with. No life, unless it’s totally immersed in trauma and heartbreak, is without those moments when you relax. I had my family and their world, and within that, we all felt totally comfortable with each other. Also, my earliest forms of code-switching were, as you can see from the book, they were demanding, but they were not traumatic in a visible, political, social way. For example, the white school that I went to was not one of those 1950s schools where policemen were called in. Where you were challenged everyday: I’m going to beat you up on the playground. That just wasn’t it. It was in that way, progressive. Meaning there was a genuine space for comfort, ease, for security. That made a big difference. And that also existed in the black world of my family and their friends, where I was loved, despite all the demands. Families are demanding.
Oppression can damage. We know that. It damages both the oppressor and the oppressed. And the damages are generally incompatible. Do you know what I mean? The damages clash.
AB: Yes, they are. Your mom was very demanding.
MJ: My mom was charming, very smart, and a real perfectionist, about herself and everything in her world, including my sister and me. [Laughs]
AB: Your mother’s statement, “Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro.”
MJ: As a young bride, when she was so happy. Yes.
AB: It’s such a profound acknowledgement to me. Is that when she said it, when she was a bride?
MJ: Yes, in the context of that letter, which is where she said it, writing in 1944, to a dear black friend. Yes. The literal context was that she was writing about a mutual friend who had just gotten engaged. And within the letter, she moves comfortably between talking about having seen Jane Eyre, the discrimination at Fort Huachuca [Arizona] that the young black doctors were facing, and playing cards. The letter just moves so easily through all of these things, and then she says at the end, “Oh I understand our mutual friend is engaged. Tell her I wish her all the happiness that I have, cause that’s as much as anyone could wish.” And then she says: “Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro. That’s something, huh?” Just meaning: I am, in this point, just taking full advantage of the privileges that are my rights, pleasure, happiness, no cage of racial demands or bigotries on me. And this is a right and a privilege that we should all have, and maybe that is why it was so moving.
AB: From your vantage point, have we managed to advance beyond our obsession with our place in the hierarchy?
MJ: By we do you means blacks, or whites as well as blacks?
AB: I was thinking specifically blacks.
MJ: I wouldn’t use the word “advance.” I would say we are still struggling with it. Because it is real, the struggles are external, they are sociological, political, cultural, and we still bear the internal marks. Some of them are real scars. Some are real values that I honor, but the internal life of struggling with oppression, discrimination, the psychic inheritance: that’s an intense, complicated life. We are all in our different ways still grappling with it, making what we can of it, which includes art and brilliant political thought, but yeah, it’s challenging. Oppression can damage. We know that. It damages both the oppressor and the oppressed. And the damages are generally incompatible. Do you know what I mean? The damages clash. There isn’t a way as there might be, let’s say, in some personal relationships: Oh let’s work on this. You’re hurt in this way, I’m hurt in that way. In so much, alas, of the larger social, political sphere, you just feel the damage and the legacy just building up.
AB: A sort of backlash?
MJ: Yes. And to watch the rage that certain white people are feeling as if they’ve been discriminated against for centuries—is staggering.
AB: More and more, I feel freedom will be ours when we can rid ourselves of the need for acceptance from the dominant white culture. How do we achieve that in the midst of continued racial tension without succumbing to the psychic traps inherent to the Third Race?
Acceptance can be justice. Acceptance can also be craving for ingratiation and cleaving on to values that are not worthy.
MJ: Maybe it’s a question of our thinking through and fighting more carefully for exactly what kind of acceptance we want or need. If acceptance means, for example, economic justice and equality, we’ve got to keep fighting for that. If acceptance means a kind of approval of us—Oh, you do have good manners: Oh, you are just lovely, you are intelligent, we welcome you into white civilization—if it means that kind of patronizing, no. We find our own ways to claim what we want of that civilization. We accept praise, but they [the oppressors] aren’t the single standard. White people’s standards and views are not the single standard by which we judge ourselves. I think it’s defining. Acceptance can be justice. Acceptance can also be craving for ingratiation and cleaving on to values that are not worthy.
AB: And finally, you wrote, “Why is it always the Nigger Jims who show up in Mark Twain’s fiction? [MJ laughs] Why couldn’t he base a character on Warner Thornton McGuinn, the first Negro graduate of Yale Law School?” That must have been particularly frustrating to your teenage self, since Twain knew McGuinn.
MJ: I’ll tell you. I didn’t say that myself. I put that in the book as the kind of thing that my world was saying, and that I was feeling and that they were feeling. There was that knowledge, I started to say sense, but it was knowledge, and it was galling that we were visible almost no place in the culture. This world we were living in, this life we were living that was in every way the life that white people glorified themselves in. This is obviously why a show like The Cosby Show or even today, a much more sophisticated show like Blackish is getting the audiences they get. Oh, my God. They’re surprised. There we are. It was infuriating and it was so frustrating. Also, the barrage of ugly and demeaning images was much greater in those days. Yes, that was difficult. In that case, I was sitting in a mostly white, not all, but mostly white classroom, with upper-middle class kids and it was embarrassing to be parsing Jim’s dialect through Mark Twain. I have come to realize that this is a remarkable book in many ways. But we weren’t being taught, and we weren’t reading Frederick Douglass’s narratives, we weren’t reading his prose. We weren’t reading Charles Chestnut and we weren’t reading Charlotte Forten. So, there weren’t any equivalents or alternatives.
Angela Bullock is an Antioch University MFA Candidate in creative writing and a member of the Lunch Ticket blog team. She read her essay Thank You Donald at the 2016 NoHo Lit Crawl. A Los Angeles-based theater and television actor, Angela has received nominations for a 2016 Stage Raw award and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, and a 2015 NAACP LA theater award for her stage work.
In early July, my editor-in-chief emailed me with the good news that Maggie Nelson had agreed to be interviewed for Lunch Ticket. I accepted the task of interviewing her with some degree of trepidation, in part due to her vast accomplishments. She is the author of nine books, including the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Argonauts, the cult classic Bluets, the New York Times bestselling The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, and The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, as well as five books of poetry. She directs the MFA writing program at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles with her partner, interdisciplinary artist Harry Dodge. Nelson has also received a 2012 Creative Capital Literature Fellowship, a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction, a NEA Fellowship in Poetry, an Andy Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant, and, most recently, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
But I was also unsettled because within the canon of books that I would need to read or re-read for this interview were Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, both concerning the murder of her aunt in the early 1960s in Michigan by a serial killer. Unfortunately, like Maggie Nelson, I understand “the murder mind,” an appellation she uses to describe the headspace we inhabit each time we seek to comprehend incomprehensible acts, thereby imprinting on our minds the behaviors of violence. To delve into Maggie Nelson’s work, I would be reopening certain wounds within my own history.
In July of 2014, my forty-eight-year-old cousin was found dead from a single gunshot wound to her left temple in her home in Santa Cruz, Galapagos, Ecuador. The cause of death was officially a suicide, though it was not long before inconsistencies emerged. There was no gunshot powder on her left hand, there was evidence of a robbery, but most obvious, there was the phone call she made to her mother the day before her death, expressing how she was afraid—she had said something she shouldn’t have—and she needed to fly home. What began for my family as a tragedy became the uneven practice of grief, a maddening search for answers, and the honest, yet naïve, desire for justice. We barely succeeded at the first task.
In 2005, Maggie Nelson published Jane: A Murder about her aunt’s murder, a cold case, which had remained unsolved for thirty-five years. The work combines essay, poetry, and Jane’s own diary entries. In her exploration of Jane’s death, the search for the truth reads more like an ellipsis, delineating, perhaps by omission, this young woman whom Maggie Nelson never met but who held so much space within her family history. Missing persons, dead or disappeared, create vacuums that shadow us and redefine us in the process. Our “murder mind” flitters around the absence, the empty space left behind by so many unanswered questions.
There’s something very difficult about writing autobiographical books in which one’s goal is to speak for oneself only, while at the same time wanting to make a text porous enough that other people’s experiences feel invited in rather than consciously or unconsciously excluded.
For Nelson, growing up under the specter of a violent crime, she dissects how it followed her family wherever they went: how she would check the closets upon returning home from school, knife in hand, or how she and her mother had to leave movies that featured the kidnapping, murder, or rape of women (a trope repeated all too often in Hollywood), or how her mother remains startled by her own body, dreaming perhaps “of a body that cannot be injured, violated, or sickened unless it chooses to be.”
Maggie Nelson does not have the answers, but she asks all the right questions, at least the ones we ask quietly, never aloud. She writes, “Conventional wisdom has it that we dredge up family stories to find out more about ourselves, to pursue that all-important goal of ‘self-knowledge,’ to catapult ourselves, like Oedipus, down the track that leads to the revelation of some original crime, some original truth…” But the reality is far more complicated. She says, “Fewer people talk about what happens when this track begins to dissolve, when the path starts to become indistinguishable from the forest.” And so what happens when we get what we desire, this truth? What are we left with? To whom does the truth even belong?
One month after reading the galleys of Jane: A Murder, Nelson’s mother received a call from a detective. New DNA evidence had re-opened the cold case. Gary Leiterman, a sixty-two-year-old nurse, overweight and in poor health, would be prosecuted for the murder of Jane Mixer. Nelson’s family inevitably would relive the gruesome details of Jane’s death in the courtroom, presented with autopsy photographs, visual evidence, and testimony. And for her part, Nelson chose to re-enter the “murder mind” and write an account of the trial. The result, The Red Parts, was first published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster and reprinted by Graywolf Press in the spring of 2016.
It begins with two epigraphs: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known” (Luke 12:2) and “In all desire to know there is already a drop of cruelty” (Nietzsche). Later in the book, Nelson seeks a Christian friend’s advice and the woman instructs her to “just read the red parts,” which at first she does not understand. Though the significance of the title is never explained, the literal meaning refers to those Bibles which have Jesus Christ’s direct quotations highlighted in red. The quote from the gospel of Luke, its own “red part,” sets up the counterbalance to Nietzsche. In the kingdom of God there is justice, just don’t expect it to look like anything you might recognize.
The Red Parts goes where Jane: A Murder could not. Out of nothingness, there is now Leiterman and a body of evidence no longer dormant in cardboard boxes. And yet, to Nelson, these heavy facts sometimes make even less sense than the unanswered questions. She is fascinated by the way in which murder transforms the mundane items of a crime scene into “talismans that threatened at every turn to take on allegorical proportions.” Referring to a bloody towel presented as evidence, Nelson says, “… I watched Schroeder snap on a latex glove at the January hearing and pull this towel out of its cardboard evidence box, as if retrieving a piece of flotsam floated in from the far, dark banks of the River Styx. The fabric of reality had to tear a little to allow it into it.” The fabric of our reality must tear a little as well to let this book in: to feel what it’s like on the other side of violence. There is an image I cannot shake either: my cousin wore a short strand of black pearls around her neck the night she was killed. Afterwards, the pearls were found shot across the floor like marbles. I return to this: the pool of blood, the black marbles, the curled body, as if from those mental snapshots I can somehow process my loss.
In The Red Parts, Nelson broaches a theme to be continued in The Art of Cruelty, about how the female body is a site of consumable violence. It is not theoretical: she watched its consumption through the body of her aunt, the autopsy photos disseminated at the trial, republished, and consumed by a specific audience. A television show, 48 Hours Mystery, will feature an episode on Jane, whether or not the family participates. Nelson and her mother agree to be interviewed for the show, but Nelson is keenly aware of the inherent contradictions within their publicized grief. She wonders about the public’s concern over the damaged bodies of young white girls, from middle to upper class backgrounds, and poses the question: “Girls whose lives and deaths, judging by airtime, apparently matter more than all murdered, missing, and suffering brown people combined?” Nelson never shies from to putting her finger right in the throbbing wound, even if it implies that she participates in that wound.
I remember coming home from the hospital after giving birth and looking completely differently at all birth mothers on the street for a few weeks, feeling simply astonished that they’d all been through this experience, which remains mostly removed from us, like some giant secret, separated from daily life by a cordon sanitaire.
What makes The Red Parts so accessible is Maggie Nelson’s sense of detachment, a calm analysis that manages both the horror and untranslatable magnitudes of life. In The Argonauts, it is her pregnancy and childbirth, her mother-in-law’s death, and her partner’s decision to transition with testosterone supplements and surgery. In Bluets, it’s her friend’s car accident and paralysis. Woven throughout The Red Parts are numerous personal tragedies: the sudden death of her father from a heart attack, the period of heartbreak she experiences at the beginning of the trial, her heroin addict ex-boyfriend, her sister’s troubled youth. Yet the text never feels laden with sensationalism or sentimentality.
At various times reading her work, I have felt as if we were sitting together on a couch, giggling (perhaps inappropriately) at dismal things. I have also felt that we may have lived parallel lives. This is obviously far from the truth—no one lives parallel lives. But it is a testament to her uncanny ability to connect with her readers. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson argues against binaries as a reductive system of thought. Instead, she refers to identities that flicker in and out, over spectrums, over time, shape-shifting. And perhaps this is why we are able to see so much of ourselves in her writing. She presents a multiplicity of perspectives. Within her work, contradictory emotions can exist simultaneously. In the interview below, she refers to her work as “porous,” so that within these juxtapositions, we have the space to incorporate our own interpretation, creating a positionality and sense of belonging to the text. But underneath it all, Nelson remains committed to revealing our most damaging societal paradigms: racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or any system of thought that creates unequal power dynamics.
This past August 2016, I contacted Maggie Nelson and we exchanged emails with questions regarding her body of work.
Diana Odasso: You address a number of binaries in The Argonauts, not just in gender and sexual preference, but also in academic disciplines and how these relate to the materiality of the body. With regard to gender and identity, you mention the identity as something that “flickers” or “becomes” rather than existing on a linear spectrum from A to B.
Yet in the “outside” world, the demand for labels remains high. The government defines. Society defines. Passports, social security cards, mortgages and health care, etc… The humiliations of daily life are particularly hard on the LGBTQ community. I’m not sure if this is your job as an artist to answer, but how can we move from a personal framework of fluidity to a societal framework?
Maggie Nelson: Well put. I think there are many others who could answer your questions better, activists working to remove gender designations from identifying documents, for example, and so on; some countries are already way ahead of the U.S. on this account, so there are some promising models out there.
My critique of the value of video testimonials still stands, which is to say that in an age of “truthiness,” the idea that a condemning video would guarantee, say, convictions of police officers in the wrong, remains a fantasy.
I definitely think that the rush to define and grant rights to a “transgender subject” will be faulty if there isn’t room for the spectrum you describe; otherwise the definition/ recognition/ construction of one subject can become a means of neglecting those whose desires and identifications don’t fit the new box (a perennial problem with defining subjects). You’re right, though—I address these issues most often as an artist more than an activist or advocate per se. I’ve seen first-hand, however, in the eager and grateful reception of The Argonauts, how large the appetite is out there for an insistence on our capacity to make community and commons without basing such in calcified or over-determined identities—something a lot of folks insist can’t be done, but the thing is, it’s already happening, it’s already been done, it’s ongoing.
DO: On the issue of binaries, you challenge the rigidity of both mainstream and radical ideas in your work. This questioning seems to be a useful tool as we redevelop our language surrounding gender and sexuality. How’s the new dialogue being created? Who’s defining it? When the world seems obsessed with the clinical definitions of who gets to pee where and in what receptacle, how do you suggest a nuanced discussion of gender in mainstream society? What space does art have in influencing long-term changes in this dialogue?
MN: I read the New York Times every day and assorted other media sources, but generally speaking, I don’t venture into mainstream Op-Ed modalities because I just don’t think the available forms allow for the nuanced discussions I value most. That isn’t to say there aren’t excellent think pieces or provocations in those forums, or that mainstream visibility performs no function. It’s more to say that the mainstream is often just waking up to issues, or to people, that have existed for some time, but it has the habit of treating them as “new trends,” which is annoying. For example, I’ve heard a lot of people lightly mock this “transdy” moment, when trans and queer issues are suddenly very visible in mainstream venues, but sometimes their scorn slips into focusing on the people who are coming into view, rather than on the venues whose stock in trade is creating the feeling of trendiness. That’s a trap I think we need to watch out for, as it discounts history, it discounts the people who’ve been living and fighting along these lines for a long time without many headlines or fashion shoots.
DO: The Argonauts addresses motherhood full frontal. You write, “Phrases like colostrum, letdown, and hindmilk arrive in one’s life like hieroglyphs from the land of the lost.” Many American women, myself included, enter pregnancy, labor, and early motherhood largely unaware of its physiological demands. Other than doctor’s advice, Good Housekeeping magazines at the ob/gyn’s office, and online mommy wars, childbearing and -rearing remain somewhat of a black hole in our society. Why the erasure of what you term “biological maternity,” both in literature and cultural narratives?
MN: You know, misogyny, matrophobia, etc. The usual suspects. The fact that most things associated with caretaking are feminized and our culture has a long history of despising the feminized. I’ve never in my life received more shocked gasps at a reading than when I’ve read my very simple attempt to describe what my placenta looked like; I naively had no idea beforehand that I was going to provoke such a response. Similarly, so many people have expressed pity for me for my “hard birth experience,” whereas I thought I was narrating a triumphant birth experience. But because there’s pain in it, and fear and blood and mortality, people think it’s a trauma, when really it’s just life. (As one nurse hilariously said to me during my labor, “This isn’t for sissies.”) I remember coming home from the hospital after giving birth and looking completely differently at all birth mothers on the street for a few weeks, feeling simply astonished that they’d all been through this experience, which remains mostly removed from us, like some giant secret, separated from daily life by a cordon sanitaire. Anyway, I don’t know that childbearing and rearing is a black hole—I think the fuzzy, mystified version (what some might call reproductive futurism) is just about everywhere. Needless to say, my interest lies elsewhere.
DO: In The Art of Cruelty, published in 2011, you discuss theories of represented violence. Since then, we’ve seen a proliferation of iPhone videos depicting police brutality, sniper shootings, terrorism—acts perhaps not vastly different from violence we’ve seen before but now occurring “live” with more frequency. (I remain most marked by the policeman shot during the Charlie Hebdo attack and recently, the Philando Castile video. They haunt me not for the killing, but for the subtle moments of humanity, for the dying.) If you were to append The Art of Cruelty in any way, what could be learned of our increased consumption of “real” violence?
The fact that most things associated with caretaking are feminized and our culture has a long history of despising the feminized.
MN: I don’t think I would need to append it. It reminds me of the re-release of The Red Parts, when people have asked me, “What would you add now that true crime is such a huge industry?” It was a huge industry when I wrote those books, too, and it was huge when my aunt was murdered in 1969. I think my critique of the value of video testimonials still stands, which is to say that in an age of “truthiness,” the idea that a condemning video would guarantee, say, convictions of police officers in the wrong, remains a fantasy. (Rodney King, anyone?) Which isn’t to say I’m not pro body cameras or websites to which videotaped incidents can quickly be uploaded, etc. It just means it’s important to remember that such things alone won’t solve the problem of white supremacy and an unjust criminal justice system. But your other point is really interesting—your point about witnessing the subtle moments of humanity, about being haunted by the dying, rather than riveted by the injustice or the violence. Personally I can’t watch the violent videos; the pregnant pause between the cop’s demand that Sandra Bland put out her cigarette and her decision to say, “It’s my car, I’ll smoke in it if I want to,” contains enough agony for me.
DO: You have often brought up issues of intersectionality, moments when you acknowledge the additional burdens placed upon brown bodies.
When the attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando occurred, it became clear that our media had limited ways of addressing intersectional issues—with the majority of victims black and Hispanic, members of the LGBTQ community, but Americans nonetheless, on American soil. Similarly, the murderer was Muslim, also an American citizen, a lone wolf killer, a man who had a history of domestic violence and psychological problems and also documented conflicts about his sexuality. He fit and did not fit several narratives at once. How would you begin to articulate the complexities of these acts of violence?
MN: You just articulate them, I guess. Life is messy, identities are messy, motivations are messy. The public silence from the terrorist-obsessed right wing over the targeting of LGBTQ people of color speaks for itself, but it’s not really surprising. (Remember when the Twin Towers fell because of the gays and feminists?) Anyway, I recommend a book by Ken Corbett called A Murder Over a Girl, about the killing of a high school student Letitia/Larry King by a fellow classmate, Brandon McInerney, as it documents the difficulty of prosecuting a hate crime when various “hates” at issue are all swirled together, or certain hates remain unspoken (transphobia, in this case); or when a human being is full of aggression and just shopping the available avenues of hatred for an outlet. It’s much more pragmatic, in my estimation, to go all-in for gun control rather than trying to parse out which impulse most prevailed in someone’s psychotic decision to kill people.
DO: The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial was just re-released by Graywolf Press. This book challenged me. In 2014, my cousin was murdered in the Galapagos. In a recent LitUp podcast, Angela Ledgerwood also mentions how she trembled while reading The Red Parts because her co-worker had been murdered.
There are a variety of angles from which your readers can enter your “world,” as I did with The Red Parts, as many others may have done with Bluets or The Argonauts. I wonder how you position yourself in regards to the relatability of your work.
MN: I’m so sorry to hear about your cousin. Really sorry. It doesn’t bring me any pleasure to have people “relate” to the book’s material, especially as that relating just underscores the widespread nature of violence against women. But if the book offers a kind of rumination or positionality that feels worthwhile or companionable, I’d be very glad. I’ve heard from people who have felt this way, and it pleases me. There’s something very difficult about writing autobiographical books in which one’s goal is to speak for oneself only, while at the same time wanting to make a text porous enough that other people’s experiences feel invited in rather than consciously or unconsciously excluded. These questions are fascinating and mysterious to me, especially as they have both aesthetic and political dimensions.
DO: I was struck by your Nietzsche quote at the beginning of The Red Parts: “In all desire to know there is already a drop of cruelty.” Has writing these books at times been a self-afflicted cruelty?
MN: Oh yes, it’s felt that way. That’s partly why I chose that epigraph. There are different types of the “desire to know,” of course—there’s the Enlightenment type, the psychoanalytic type, the more spiritual type, and so on. That epigraph was meant to dance with the quotation from Luke, which appears next to it, and ask questions about the Biblical structure of revelation. But I digress.
It’s much more pragmatic, in my estimation, to go all-in for gun control rather than trying to parse out which impulse most prevailed in someone’s psychotic decision to kill people.
DO: Could you say a bit more about the title of the book, The Red Parts? I went to a Baptist middle school, in which the bibles had red writing for all the words spoken by Jesus Christ. The quote from Luke you just mentioned is literally “a red part.” How do “the red parts” function thematically, or perhaps theologically, in the text?
MN: At the risk of sounding tautological or close-mouthed, I would say that the thematic or theological function of the “red parts” in the text is up to the reader. As Nietzsche is famous for presenting (allegorically) the death of God, and for complicating notions of good and evil, it’s obviously meant to be charged, placing his words next to the text from Luke. It’s an undecided relation, as is most else in the text.
DO: In The Art of Cruelty, you write, “Writing, especially autobiographical writing, can be a hothouse of self-deceptions, but it also has the uncanny ability to expose self-deception with the formidable exactitude of surgery.” As you have written these personal texts, have you found yourself in this position of confronting your own self-deceptions?
MN: Oh yes, once again. That’s kind of the whole game. Every draft is slathered with self-deceptions. Or if that puts it too harshly, every draft is full of layers—usually I start off pissed off, blaming others, the way we all tend to do, and I have to burn through those very human habits before getting anywhere interesting. Again, one’s writing reflects where you are in life; you can’t hide. If you’re full of blaming rage toward your folks, and you haven’t yet worked through it, that’s what is going to come out. You can’t just jump over it to forgiveness (if that’s even where you want to go). You have to go through it, as they say. But the amazing thing is, writing freely and then looking honestly at what you’ve put down on the page is, in my experience, a really good way of moving through things. This is why teaching autobiography can be so hard—if you’re a shrink, you know that you can’t tell someone something they aren’t ready to hear and expect them to take it in, rather than freak out in defensiveness. But if you’re a writing teacher, you might have to deliver the news before someone’s ready to hear it, because you only have one workshop, or one semester. I can’t tell you how many students have told me that they finally understood what I or their classmates were trying to tell them about five years after they’ve graduated. I’m still catching up to things people have told me along the way. It’s painful and embarrassing that we’re often so clear to others and so muddled to ourselves. But so it is.
DO: Harry has spoken about being a character in The Argonauts, stating that being with you, “Is like an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe-light artist.” You address the dangers of writing about loved ones and, even, the temporal dissonance between the time period you write about and the book release, which is a reliving of the past. I wonder if you could speak to that process with the release of The Argonauts.
MN: Well, we made it through a long year of a lot of publicity, so that’s something! The book garnered way more attention than I ever imagined it would, which was amazing, but presented a tough learning curve for me at times, especially in the face of media people who really, really wanted me to tell them more about Harry (or about his gender, to be exact) or even speak for him, when I had already said what I had to say about him (and what he authorized me to say) in the book, and I wasn’t aiming to travel around as an emissary to explain him or any other genderqueer person to the world.
There’s something very difficult about writing autobiographical books in which one’s goal is to speak for oneself only, while at the same time wanting to make a text porous enough that other people’s experiences feel invited in rather than consciously or unconsciously excluded.
Also, while I usually have a pretty thick skin re: reviews that get things wrong, it wasn’t as easy to ignore misrepresentations of the book if they involved Harry as well as me—for example, a line that recurred quite often was that the book was about my undergoing “arduous IVF treatments” while my partner “transitioned from female to male,” which isn’t true on either account. So in some visible cases, like the New York Times, I asked for a correction, which they issued. Anyway, I’m glad the rush of it is over, and also grateful for the ride.
DO: In a Rumpus interview, you say, “[Annie Dillard] once wrote, ‘You don’t run down the present, pursue it with baited hooks and nets. You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You’ll have fish left over.’” And you also say in first pages of The Argonauts, “You can’t fuck up the space for God.”
On one hand, your books are tightly constructed, but on the other, there is a space for reflection, for disagreement, and for the interplay of opposing ideas. How is the notion of space formally used in the construction of your texts?
MN: Space is really important. “Pluralize and specify,” as Sedgwick had it. I wrote a lot about space in the Cruelty book, so I’d direct interested parties there for more cogitation on the subject. But you’re right, space between paragraphs is the only formal device in The Argonauts—there’s either one or two. That’s it. Space in Bluets was marshaled numerically; in The Red Parts, the logic of space was the chapter.
DO: In a video interview with Olivia Laing at the London Review Bookshop, you challenge the idea that your works are collage, which implies simultaneity. You also mention that you have moved away from poetry in your recent books, because the narrative form “does more work.” Does the subject matter dictate form or are you open to new manners of experimenting? What are you working on now?
MN: Subject matter dictates form. Given that, I can’t really talk about what I’m working on until I’ve found its true subject and consequent form. But I’ll keep you posted!
Diana Odasso is currently finishing her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and is managing editor of Lunch Ticket. She has translated French texts (published in Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked), ghostwritten for an autobiography, and written for the Huffington Post. She has work published in Lunch Ticket, Waypoints Magazine, Burrow Press, and upcoming on The Thought Erotic. She recently attended the Disquiet International Program in Lisbon on scholarship. She lives in South Florida with her two young boys and Boston Terrier.
Daniel José Older is the type of writer many of us writers aspire to be—careful, intentional, eminently aware of the ecosystems that produce literary work in our society, and the role this work plays in the context of a predominantly white narrative. His Twitter following is large (sitting at over 22k followers), both because of the quality of his work and because of his willingness to engage with an industry that often ignores the immense diversity of voices—of gender, race, culture, and socio-economic background. Equally excited and intimidated by the prospect of interviewing Daniel, when we spoke on Skype in March 2016, it quickly became clear that my nervousness was unfounded. Daniel is, in the classic sense of the word, engaging. Easy to talk to, but thoughtful in his responses. Careful in choosing his words. Reiterating points that I fumbled with my first questions, my voice cracking, casting glances at my pre-typed list. But soon our conversation meandered pleasantly. Daniel and I spoke for almost an hour and a half—the topics ranging from the craft of writing to diversity, language, music, politics, and a myriad of others. Which is to say that he has a lot to say, because he thinks about all of it in the context of his writing.
* * *
I ask Daniel about the genesis of Shadowshaper, his recently published Young Adult novel, now a New York Times bestseller: whether he had always intended to write it as a YA novel or if it had simply evolved that way. He nods and tells me, “Shadowshaper was the first book I ever sat down to write.” He cites the Harry Potter books as influences for the novel. In 2009, when he began writing Shadowshaper, Daniel had already been working as a paramedic for seven years; he was also working as an activist and community organizer, interacting with young people and organizing marches. And so, between working with black and brown kids, and not seeing himself in the YA books he was reading, the kids not seeing themselves in the books they were reading, he thought, man this is dumb. “A lot of it was in the vein of counter-narrative. What if Harry Potter was to be mixed with The Wire, with characters that speak to us in genuine ways?” But it wasn’t simply about painting Harry Potter in brown face; it’s about world-building. Daniel pauses to make sure I understand, “Don’t get me wrong. I love Harry Potter. [JK Rowling] uses European mythology for her books because that’s what she knows.” The problem, he explains, isn’t that Harry Potter is white; it’s that there are, or were, few other options available. “I want to read a fantasy novel that has inside jokes for me, about my mythology.” And he wrote Shadowshaper as a counter-narrative to the predominantly white fantasy worlds that had been constructed up to then, as a nod to cultures that, up to then (and now) have seldom appeared in fantasy novels.
Brooklyn as a setting, as a basis for the world-building upon which Daniel embarks in Shadowshaper (and his other works), is the perfect backdrop—with its mishmash of cultures, of people trying to understand their places in the community. Out of this world arises Sierra, the book’s protagonist, who Daniel says emerged as a product of her environment—a strong, dark-skinned brown girl attempting to navigate her culture and the complex ecosystem of Brooklyn, and the various shades of brown the place embodies. Again, not a simple task, but one that is clearly worthwhile. “I had to ask myself, am I writer enough to tackle this character,” Daniel says, “and then I jumped in.” And, as with many of his characters, Daniel writes Sierra with nuance, confronting the difficult issues that young brown girls in Brooklyn face. In one scene, Sierra examines herself in the mirror—her dark skin and unruly afro—and grapples with conventional ideas of beauty. It becomes clear that these ideas have woven themselves into her psyche but, thread by thread, she disentangles herself from them, redefines what beauty means, and recognizes the power she carries in her appearance.
In another scene, Sierra confronts her aunt, Tía Rosa, who spouts racist remarks in her direction about the skin color of a boy she likes. About Sierra’s own supposedly disheveled appearance. At one point, Tía Rosa uses the expression “lighter than the bottom of your foot”—as a sort of insidious benchmark for the color of one’s skin considered respectable, especially for a potential mate. This line illustrates that white supremacy does not just come from white people; it is so pervasive that it weaves itself into brown and black cultures as well. Sierra, in a tense scene of familial confrontation, talks back to her aunt and puts an end to the conversation. It is one of the many scenes in which Sierra asserts herself, empowers herself. What’s amazing, Daniel tells me, is how much international feedback he got from that one scene. “Not just from black and brown communities. Indian communities, Asian communities. So many different people around the world have heard that expression, lighter than the bottom of your foot.” It’s horrifying how many people have heard that, he explains. “Everybody has a Tía Rosa,” he adds.
It becomes clear that these ideas have woven themselves into her psyche but, thread by thread, she disentangles herself from them, redefines what beauty means, and recognizes the power she carries in her appearance.
In Shadowshaper, there is a passage in which Sierra stares at her reflection in the mirror, teasing out her hair, watching the light reflect off her skin. She considers everything people have told her about appearance—her hair, her skin, and her nose—how unkind and unforgiving they have been. She eventually says, “I’m Sierra Maria Santiago. I am what I am. Enough.” This is the type of power with which Daniel imbues his sometimes vulnerable and confused protagonist—an important reminder for young adults of color who seek their own experiences in the novel of the power that they can wield over their self-identity.
Of course, the world of Shadowshaper is filled much more than the weight of oppression. Sierra and her group of friends provide a vehicle for Daniel to explore bigger questions of culture while they hang out, cut up, shoot the shit. Because what teenagers do, and do so well, is rag on each other, try on different ideas, make mistakes, try again. “There’s a great literature to the way that young folks speak to each other. There’s a power to their what I call poetic vernacular.” And though they challenge each other and question each other, their love for one other is never in doubt—this, too, is a form of power. Daniel and I speak about a scene in Shadowshaper where Sierra and her friends visit an overpriced coffee shop that has popped up in their neighborhood—the quintessential symbol of gentrification. In the scene, the friends hit the pause button for a moment on the magical, insidious shit happening around them. They take the opportunity (or rather, Daniel lends them the opportunity) to think about ancestry and its definitions. Spanish versus Latino. Anthropology. Culture. “On the one hand I just wanted to have teens cutting up, because they do that so well. . . On the other hand, [I wanted] to provide them with an antidote to the adults who are trying to put them into boxes, to prescribe to them who they’re supposed date and be, and how they identify. And they’re just saying, you know, I’ma write a book about white people!”
The problem isn’t that Harry Potter is white; it’s that there are, or were, few other options available. “I want to read a fantasy novel that has inside jokes for me, about my mythology.”
Daniel’s work, from his Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series to Shadowshaper, all exhibit the very diversity he seeks to foment in the publishing industry. He led a petition to replace H.P. Lovecraft’s image for the World Fantasy awards with that of Octavia Butler. His Buzzfeed essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” garnered a lot of public attention for good reason—it is a scathing critique of the state of the publishing industry, but also provides concrete solutions. It is the type of essay that sparks real, substantive conversation. Older is more than a writer—he is a musician, a paramedic, a fantasy nerd, and, most importantly an activist. “You know,” he says, “I was an activist before a writer. And I was a writer before I was an activist.” He is both, of course. His is the perfect case study of a writer wearing many, meaningful hats.
When I ask Daniel about what he read as a kid, in an effort to understand where he developed his unique voice, he cites a litany of influences. He calls himself a definite “sci-fi fantasy kid” (giving a nod to Dune, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings) but adds that, growing up, he also really loved mythology. “Mythology was my shit. My favorite book when I was a kid was The Iliad.” Indeed, his work seems to borrow from mythology a seamlessness (a word he uses repeatedly when we speak), the casual nature with which gods, spirits, and ghouls interact with everyday people. He also admires the ways in which myths build a universe. “It’s never just the one story,” he explains. “The story fits into this giant framework”—another hint about the way in which Older’s storytelling mind constructs the world his novels occupy. His characters (mystical and human alike) are thrust into situations, building the canon of their experience and adding to the richness of their being. His work, particularly the Bone Street Rumba series—which currently consists of the novels Half-Resurrection Blues and Midnight Taxi Tango; Battle Hill Bolero is due out in January 2017—build just this sort of cohesive, magical world. It consists of a series of vignettes, some of which have been published by Tor as short stories, that all serve to expand the realm through which his characters move.
“And then,” says Older, “I went to college and put that stuff down.” That stuff, of course, refers to sci-fi and fantasy. There was a period in which he studied nonfiction, and genuinely believed he would end up writing essays. “You know, the folks I admired were Eduardo Galeano, James Baldwin, bell hooks. And I thought shit, if I could do that, that would be amazing.” He ultimately returned to his first loves of sci-fi and fantasy, but not before taking a long detour as a paramedic, a musician, and an activist. What comes across in my conversation with Daniel is the importance he ascribes to living a life, and not just being an observer. “I felt like I needed to put myself into the thick of things, and have something to write about besides theory. . . I think writers can fall into this trap of thinking we are outside of things. I didn’t want to play into that.” His twenties were full of just this sort of living; Daniel thrust himself into the thick of things and set aside writing for a time—though he did write in the back of ambulances about the people he encountered as a paramedic (a career that lasted a decade and produced a series of vignettes called Ambulance Stories). He composed and played music as part of the Brooklyn-based soul quartet Ghost Star. In short, he did things, lots of things, all the while keeping one eye on his activist and writing goals.
…white supremacy does not just come from white people; it is so pervasive that it weaves itself into brown and black cultures as well…
Then, Octavia Butler happened, and it all seemed to click. Daniel sits up when he tells me, “It was really Octavia Butler that brought me back into thinking about fantasy again, because she does it in a way that’s so complicated. She thinks about power so deeply in her stories, but they’re still really great stories. And I was like, oh you can do this power analysis shit in the middle of really deep storytelling.” He explains that the reason this truth came as a revelation to him is that all of the fantasy that he’d been reading up to that point contained white supremacist undertones—whether that be in the form of the white savior, global destruction, or any number of tropes the dominant narratives pushes. But Octavia Butler showed him the possibility that fantasy could tear away at traditional power structures while simultaneously telling good stories. It’s safe to say that Older has taken this inspiration and run with it. In fact, he explains, this focus on the telling of stories in careful, nuanced ways that avoid the pitfalls of classic fantasy tales provides him with a platform to elevate long-marginalized voices, particularly in the fantasy genre. He uses this same platform to publish critical articles about the publishing industry’s status quo.
I ask Daniel about his role as gatekeeper—gatekeeper between the predominantly white lit fantasy writer world and that of the writers of color. He cites Octavia Butler’s influence again. “You know, people of color love science fiction and fantasy, in general . . . but we’re not usually included in the masses of sci-fi fans. . . Butler was one of the first fantasy and sci-fi writers to bridge that gap, and step into really talking to a whole other realm of folks (people of color) . . . and she did it not because she’s black, but because she’s willing to talk about race and power in a really deep way, in a way white writers are not.”
Daniel is a gifted writer whose novels embody all of the characteristics of good storytelling: rich characters, epic plotlines, and some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read. His characters jump off the page without relying on archetype, bucking racial stereotypes in favor of depth and complexity. His plots, often grand and steeped in mythology are grounded by the realness of his characters and sweep the reader along. His dialogue is sparse and powerful. Shadowshaper is carefully constructed. Its sights are aimed squarely at issues of culture, appropriation, and colonialism. Its tagline hints at the unapologetic grandness towards which it aspires, which is exactly the sort of grandness young readers are drawn to: Draw a Mural. Change the World. As with much of his work, in Shadowshaper Older seeks to find truth at the intersections of cultures, of spirits, and even of life and death. He draws on old mythologies, finding modern twists and blending them with the reality of living marginalized—but empowered—in today’s world. What’s more, the cast of characters in his work, from the Bone Street Rumba series to Shadowshaper, are all rich in their nuance and diversity.
I needed to put myself into the thick of things, and have something to write about besides theory. . . I think writers can fall into this trap of thinking we are outside of things. I didn’t want to play into that.
Along these same lines—of giving voice to the traditionally overlooked—Older embraces polyvocality. In Midnight Taxi Tango, he writes from the perspective of several very different characters: Carlos, a half-dead (possibly) Puerto Rican man with no memory of his past life; Kia, a stubborn and self-empowered black girl; Reza, a queer woman of color who never leaves home without at least a couple of guns. Writing the Other is, of course, not an easy task. Playing the devil’s advocate, I ask Daniel how he can do this—that is, write the Other—when it is so difficult to write experiences that one hasn’t personally lived. “That a complicated question,” Older tells me. I apologize. He shakes his head and says, “I’m not here for the easy ones.” He adds, “you can’t write and not write the Other. You’ll have very boring books with one character. It’s a memoir. But here’s the thing: it shouldn’t be too much to ask that it be done right. And the problem is that it’s not usually done right. It’s usually done very poorly, and that needs to be part of the conversation. Otherwise it just becomes well, you asked for diversity so we gave you a black bad guy!” The problem, as Daniel sees it, is not necessarily that there is a lack of diverse characters in novels nowadays (he sees progress on this front), but that the conversation seems to have stopped there. That the publishing industry seems willing to hang a banner on this accomplishment and call it a day. The next step, then, is to build characters that are true to life. To write these characters not as tropes, but as living, breathing beings.
From this, our conversation veers naturally to a discussion of one of the characters in Shadowshaper, Wick, a white anthropologist who attempts to study the protagonist Sierra’s Caribbean ancestry and, ultimately, to harness its magic. Wick’s intentions are good—initially he wants merely to act as chronicler, as preserver, but he soon begins to wield the power for himself. There are many notable questions surrounding this character, one of which Sierra herself asks: who gets to study whom? Why is it that this white man gets to play scientist with her culture and that of her ancestors? And more importantly, do his intentions matter? That is, do his benevolent aspirations do anything to dull the decidedly colonialist nature of his actions? The answer is no, of course. Daniel tells me that “a piece of Wick’s whole problem is that he doesn’t fully understand the powers around him.” He is participating in this centuries-long battle, of which he understands almost nothing. There is a clear parallel here to what humans do, particularly those belonging to a dominant class, and a call to more fully grasp one’s role in the grander narrative, both literary and otherwise.
Older seeks to find truth at the intersections of cultures, of spirits, and even of life and death. He draws on old mythologies, finding modern twists and blending them with the reality of living marginalized—but empowered—in today’s world.
“It’s never about you,” he says, when our discussion shifts to gentrification—a rampant problem in both my adopted city of San Francisco and Daniel’s home in Brooklyn, and in many urban areas across the U.S. It’s a topic about which everyone seems to have a strong opinion. Unsurprisingly, Daniel’s thoughts on the matter are carefully thought out. “When I wrote about gentrification for Salon, a lot of the response was well what am I supposed to do about it? And it’s never been about how this individual person shouldn’t do that. It’s about: are you aware of the power framework that’s functioning through you when you make a move. And then do you have that in mind so that you can understand it and react to it? Are you conscious of your relationship with the police, with real estate people?” And therein lies the heart of the problem. Many people who move through life, even allies (most notably allies), are, despite their good intentions, unaware of the space they occupy within a system that aims, intentionally or otherwise, to marginalize. This is a profoundly uncomfortable topic of conversation for white people. For cisgendered people. For men. For those who do not need to consider their place because it is the default. But, the uncomfortable conversation is precisely the one that needs to be had, especially for writers, and it is precisely why the Wick character exists. Daniel explains to me that Wick was originally written as a prototypical bad guy monster (big teeth, scary), but he changed him to the more nuanced, profoundly human, well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed-to-fail character he eventually became. Daniel tells me that “great writers should be the first people to dive into layered conversations. That’s the thing that literature is supposed to do. Talk about uncomfortable shit. That’s your job. Why would you miss that opportunity?” Daniel lives with this discomfort. His work lives in that fraught space because that’s where all of the change happens—and all of the best literature. Avoiding the difficult or accepting the erasure of marginalized communities does nothing to make things better.
The problem, as Daniel sees it, is not necessarily that there is a lack of diverse characters in novels nowadays (he sees progress on this front), but that the conversation seems to have stopped there. That the publishing industry seems willing to hang a banner on this accomplishment and call it a day.
Our conversation meanders again to the idea of the “issues book.” I ask—“so is that why you wrote Shadowshaper as a YA novel? So that you could tackle these questions of race and white supremacy.” Daniel pushes back against my white person question. He explains the concept of “the issues book”—unsurprisingly, a book that is predominantly about one issue. Race, for example. “There will be subplots, characters might fall in love, but at the end of the day it’s about this one. . . whatever.” Though he doesn’t disparage any individual book for this approach, Daniel questions the overall concept. “People of color, or anyone who deals with any kind of oppression, walks through life every day multitasking. It’s not like everything else stops so that they can deal with that oppression. You’re trying to pass the SATs, and you’re getting hit on the street, and you’re being told you’re ‘less than’ by your teacher. All these things are happening at once, and you have to multitask to survive.” This point is particularly salient in Daniel’s novels, particularly Shadowshaper, because all of these things are happening in concurrence with threats from zombies, ghosts, and all manner of evil spirits. In Shadowshaper, Sierra fights zombies, anti-blackness, street harassment, her grandfather’s patriarchy. All of these facets of Sierra’s reality bring depth to the world in which Sierra lives, and they are a true representation of the black and Latino experience. “It’s not just a bunch of outlying moments of bad shit happening. They’re all in conversation. They’re all related. Even if the book doesn’t explicitly tie it all together, if I’ve done my job you walk away seeing that there are these connections between the different conflicts.” All of this is to say that Daniel’s approach to writing, as it is to living, is holistic.
One particular aspect of Daniel’s writing that stood out to me is the musicality of it. Not in the sense of the musicality of the prose (though that too) but his willingness to use music as the glue between his stories. Unlike many writers, though, he does not reference popular bands, or even real bands. Instead, Daniel invents and describes music specifically for the novel in which it appears—another example of his ambitious world-building techniques. In fact, the music he composes crosses the boundaries of his novels—Kia, one of the main characters of the Bone Street Rumba series often listens to King Impervious, who is actually the character Izzy from Shadowshaper, one of Sierra’s inner circle of friends. In Salsa Nocturna, one of Daniel’s early collections, music appears that also emerges in his later works. In essence, Daniel constructs, in his world, a sort of literary score. When I ask him about this, Daniel smiles broadly. “It’s more fun that way!” he says, “You get to make your own music!” I ask him about Sierra’s brother’s band, Culebra, a thrash metal salsa band. In Shadowshaper, Culebra acts as a sort of character in its own right, joining the ancestral and contemporary. “It’s based on a Mars Volta song (L’Via L’Viaquez),” Daniel tells me. “I heard it one day at Newbury Comics with my mom, and we were both like what the fuck is this?! And so we bought that album. And that became Culebra.” As a Mars Volta fan, I am ecstatic when he says this, but it also clicks for me that of course Culebra is The Mars Volta—because he describes their music with such intense detail. He does the same with a particular song in Half-Resurrection Blues, too, as he describes the music at the cusp of a burgeoning love between two of the protagonists. Amid a flurry of poetic prose, the reader is lost in the notes. Daniel tells me that the description of the song seems to have resonated with readers so much that people often tweet at him demanding its name. He shrugs and tries to explain. “I made that shit up!”
Great writers should be the first people to dive into layered conversations. That’s the thing that literature is supposed to do. Talk about uncomfortable shit. That’s your job. Why would you miss that opportunity?
We talk about the publishing world, and how the publishing industry, while making strides in the right direction, is not yet willing to be publicly open about race. “We’re still not in a place where people in the publishing industry, in general, are being brave in their public dialogue about this. Diversity is a really nice word to say, but it doesn’t mean anything. . . you have an amazing diversity of whiteness, but people of color still only get to be that one singular person who made it through the gauntlet into the future.” In short, we are part of the way there. We are having the discussion and this is encouraging, but there is a lot of work left to do. We need editors of color. Agents of color. Acquisitions editors of color. It’s an entire ecosystem shift that the literary world requires—not simple tolerance of alternative narratives. Because the industry still frames these narratives as alternatives rather than one of a multitude of voices.
Near the end of our interview, I ask Daniel my standard guilty-liberal question. What can I do, as an editor, to make things better? After a hearty laugh, he tells me it can be as simple as diversifying who you’re watching, particularly in online spaces like Twitter. It takes some sifting, of course—not everything you see on Twitter is worthwhile. But, he tells me that, after a while, “you start to see whose voices the people are lifting up.” He points me at publications that espouse the principles of diversity, like Seven Scribes, Catapult, and Fireside Fiction (for which Daniel has recently begun editing), and encourages me to follow the works that emerge from such publications. Daniel explains to me that, as an editor, you have to solicit work from writers of color. It’s not enough to simply state “diversity” as a goal. “Writers of color have no reason to trust majority white publications.”
My conversation with Daniel concludes with a discussion on the use of italics for foreign words—a rule with which Daniel strongly disagrees, and one we at Lunch Ticket have agonized over. MLA standard says to italicize non-English words. Writers who code-switch don’t like to do so. Daniel becomes animated during this discussion. He clarifies his position for me: “There’s a functionality to language that matters much more than any sort of rules and regulations. Italics do not help with clarity, they confuse things.” Daniel tells me that the rules surrounding the use of language should reflect their usage, not dictate it. “Language is a living, fluid, complex, and ever-changing entity that comes from us. In some ways you can think of it as one of the great democracies, but only if you treat it that way.” In a way, this thought embodies the very nature of Daniel’s thinking—that writing can be a power for good, but only if it’s done carefully, and with intentionality.
Alex Simand is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. His work has appeared in such journals as Red Fez, Mud Season Review, Five2One Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and others. Alex is the current Blog Editor for Lunch Ticket and past Editor of Creative Nonfiction and Diana Woods Memorial Prize. Find him online at www.alexsimand.com or on Twitter: @AlexSimand.
The story in Lidia Yuknavitch’s national bestseller, The Small Backs of Children, is centered around a picture taken by a photographer on assignment in a war zone. The picture is of a young girl caught midair at the moment an explosion kills her entire family. The novel is a combination of sexual fairy tale, anti-cautionary tale, art manifesto, and the story of the birth of art. The plot unfolds around that picture, and although the story is told in a straightforward manner, it’s anything but. This is a novel in the classical philosophical tradition, long belonging to male writers, more recently shared by Cixous, Aker, and Sontag. Themes of art, violence, feminism, war, sexuality, addiction, loss, and motherhood are expertly braided with a riveting plot and parallel narratives. But unlike the tomes some other modern writers produce—Jonathan Franzen, or David Foster Wallace, for example—Yuknavitch writes compact prose, layered and dense with meaning. And everything that occurs comes through the body, unapologetically.
Anyone who has read The Chronology of Water, Yuknavitch’s brilliant anti-memoir (she calls it anti-memoir because there is no linear narrative arc, a varied tone, and no resolution; I call it brilliant), will recognize the story of the loss of her daughter in The Small Backs of Children. “Inside everything I have ever written, there is a girl,” says the writer, a character known only by her profession. The rest of the cast, too, is known only by a simple description: the widow, the filmmaker, the girl, the poet, the playwright, and the photographer. “This, reader, is a mother-daughter story,” says the writer, the only character to speak in the first person. We wonder who is speaking: the writer character, the author, or both. From that character’s point of view, the story is about the loss of her baby and her obsession to save a child she’s seen only in a photograph. Somehow, the inclusion of nonfiction makes the fantastic story believable. Yuknavitch’s muddling of roles, of fiction and nonfiction, personal and political, is used effectively, with authority. Interpretation is left to the reader.
Like all of Yuknavitch’s writing, The Small Backs of Children is a physical experience. It’s one reaction after another of breath and tears and muscle and heart. We are never in a scene where the bodies are not doing the work; the physicality of the violent imagery is powerful, as is the beautiful prose. The book starts off asking the reader to imagine Eastern Europe in winter, “However it came to you. Winter. That white….” The scene is of the girl observing a wolf caught in a trap, about to lose its leg, its blood red against the white of the snow. The girl goes over and “pisses and pisses where the crime happened.” A bit later, “This is how the sexuality of a girl is formed—an image at a time—against white; taboo, thoughtless, corporeal.” It’s how Yuknavitch makes art in the story, too, one image at a time, from pain, from the body. The unflinching violence of her story feels real in a way the news cannot.
The Small Backs of Children answers the question of what to do with all of the pain and suffering we endure as a result of violence. The answer is that we feel it in our bodies, and then make art.
Some of us admire movie stars, some sports stars, but people like me have writer stars. Lidia Yuknavitch is my writer star. I am lucky enough to live close to where she lives, writes, and teaches. I’ve taken several of her workshops and I attend every reading of hers that I can. I first became aware of the Cult of Yuknavitch (I am a member!), when The Chronology of Water came out. I saw people with pain-dazed eyes wanting to be near her, to tell her their stories, to touch her. It made me vow never to ask her for anything. I held to that until this interview, which took place in September 2015, at Papa Hydns in Southeast Portland, Oregon.
* * *
The week or so before our formal interview, I heard her read and give a Q&A at Imprint Books in Port Townsend, WA. She said the Small Backs of Children didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of years of war photographs, which she had gotten from her aunt. When her father became ill her aunt gave her a box of war photographs her uncle had taken illegally in Lithuania, along with redacted stories from the war. Yuknavitch wanted to know two things: what happened to the stories of those people in the photos, and what about the war zones doesn’t make the news? What happens to the people who live in those cultures daily? Those photographs, along with daily grief over the death of her daughter, were the genesis of The Small Backs of Children. She “put the stories in pieces across the bodies of women and girls.”
Someone at the Imprint Books Q&A (okay, it was me), asked about the frank sex scenes in The Small Backs of Children. Lidia said that we experience sexuality from birth, and she wanted bodily reality in novels. She wanted to liberate sexuality for women from what we’ve inherited. It was important to her that the girl in the book not flinch sexually, even though she was a victim.
All of this was rolling in my thoughts when I met Yuknavitch for this interview a week later. I tried to act normal but, like I said, I might as well have been sitting down with a rock star. She bought me a sandwich (!); we split a piece of cake (although I am sure I ate more); and then I started off by telling her that I was a reluctant interviewer. I told her how I was hesitant to take from her, but she was so approachable and intelligent that we started talking and didn’t quit, even with food in our mouths.
Join the revolution. Don’t sit and watch. Make art, challenge, help. We’re killing our daughters. It’s perpetuated by TV, books. It’s my job to agitate.
Lidia Yuknavitch: Gak! So many people ask me that question. Why? Fiction and non-fiction are mirrors of each other. One does not exist without the other and each contains elements of the other. I’m interested in how they play off of each other.
Kirsten Larson: The great reviews and attention coming from first The Chronology of Water and now The Small Backs of Children might make it seem that you’ve had rapid success, but you’ve been successfully publishing for quite a while. How have your recent successes been different from previous books, which have also received excellent reviews? Is it more than media exposure?
LY: Yes. I had two different experiences with The Chronology of Water, which almost killed me emotionally, and The Small Backs of Children. I didn’t know that opening up my story would make it so that others could open up theirs. I was really overwhelmed by it and wanted to take care of people. I’ve since learned to have healthy boundaries and how to make them without hurting people.
With The Small Backs of Children I know who I am, I know my limits. I recharge with family and copious amounts of time alone. Literally double what the exertion was. With Chronology of Water I needed two years of alone time in pillow forts. My family has learned to tell.
Lidia is married to Andy Mingo, a filmmaker. Lidia is also a painter. They have a son Miles, also a deep thinker and artist. I asked what it’s like with a house full of artists.
LY: [Talking about when she met Andy] Right away, we had a conversation about image systems and image syntax. (I had to Google these concepts later. – KL) I love that we can talk. He understands me. Oh, and he’s in charge, I like that. (She said something like, “he’s hot, too. Even our lesbian friends agree to that.” – KL)
KL: The poetry of your writing, your unique music, is stunning. When reading your words I’ve often had physical reactions and have had to stop and linger over sentences. I hold the book to my chest until I can calm my racing heart and breath. I don’t know what my question is. Um. In the narrative of The Small Backs of Children, art seems to be born of pain, from the body. On your website you write, “In 1986 my daughter died the day she was born. From her I became a writer.” I read this and my body sinks in, there’s a lifetime and more in those two sentences. Can you talk to me about the body / pain / art connection?
LY: I secretly hoped people still had bodies. I wondered, is anyone willing to meet me there? Despair is fear and hopelessness and violence. I want people to have a physical experience when they read my book.
KL: Do you get tired of the media?
LY: It’s both heaven and something else. Important things are happening, though, like “Black Lives Matter.” The movement is bringing bodies back through the very media that erases the body. It’s so important.
KL: I always wonder, why do you think women’s sexuality is shamed by religions?
LY: Anthropologists say major religions need to establish taboos because taboos regulate behavior. Those in charge are those who control procreation. It’s like property to be owned and passed down. Subordinating the feminine is a social regulation tool—keep the wealth. In ancient matriarchal societies they shared labor and wealth. Only in a very few is sex taboo. Although, if you make that argument you are an essentialist, which is very threatening to patriarchal social groups.
KL: You’ve inspired me to radical body acceptance. We’re both 52. What are your thoughts on aging in a society that fetishizes youth, and demoralizes women’s bodies through every available channel?
LY: Join the revolution. Don’t sit and watch. Make art, challenge, help. We’re killing our daughters. It’s perpetuated by TV, books. It’s my job to agitate. I’m starting teen workshops that give a different message. Every facet works to agitate against messages. We don’t even know, we haven’t figured out what women are or should be. We can’t take a day off. The day we really do wake up as a group will be a revolutionary moment. We could change the world in a week.
KL: I know you have another book coming out next year, but you don’t necessarily want to talk about specifics. I heard it was about Joan of Arc. I’m excited to read it.
LY: I think I am on the final edits. I hope they are waiting for me when I get home.
KL: Your generosity toward other writers is something that I love. Who has influenced you in the past?
LY: Who is next? Who has the most fire? Work needs to be alive, on the cusp. I am excited about fissures opening to different styles of writing. We have to turn things over continuously, or it deadens. We have a market problem, and literature is a product of the market. It’s a living organism. I’m very excited about Maggie Nelson, Rebecca Solnit, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Gerard.
KL: I am excited to hear you are starting workshops based around the seasons. What’s the significance of seasons?
LY: It’s a chance to remind everyone that change is happening all of the time. It’s important. Transformational. There is movement in writing, life is omnipresent. We get stuck. Making art is change—all the different ways we make art. Also, I might be a dork, but I really like the change in weather and the ritual around it. There is pleasure to me in changing color, the experience of the seasons. Winter is cooler and darker. For introverts, it’s an amazing time.
Lidia Yuknavitch is author of The Small Backs of Children (Harper, 2015); Dora: A Headcase (Hawthorne Books, 2012) which has been optioned for film by Katherine Brooks; The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books, 2011), which won the Oregon Book Award Reader’s Choice 2012, the PNBA Award 2012, and was a finalist for the 2012 PEN Center USA creative nonfiction award; Real to Reel (Fiction Collective 2, 2003), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award; Allegories of Violence (Routledge, 2000); Liberty’s Excess: Fictions (Fiction Collective 2, 2000); Her Other Mouths (House of Bones Press, 1997); and Caverns (Penguin Books, 1990). Her essays and short stories have appeared in Guernica, Ms., The Iowa Review, Exquisite Corpse, Another Chicago Magazine, Fiction International, Zyzzyva, and in several anthologies. She earned her PhD in English Literature from the University of Oregon, and teaches writing, literature, film, and women’s studies at Mt. Hood Community College.
What Lidia is known for, besides all of her accomplishments, is being an extremely generous teacher. She is genuinely free with advice and gives of herself in a way I’ve rarely experienced. She wants to start a revolution and bring a bunch of artists along.
Kirsten Larson lives in Portland, Oregon. She is a contributing editor at NAILED Magazine and an instructor at Portland State University. Her essays and stories can be found in the Huffington Post, NAILED Magazine, Manifest-Station, and several small literary journals. She has a short story in the anthology, City of Weird, forthcoming in October of 2016. She is currently working toward her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles.
Prolific writer of primarily creative nonfiction, Roxane Gay tackles fiction in her debut novel An Untamed State, about a Haitian-American woman, Mireille (Miri) Duval Jameson, who is kidnapped for ransom and brutalized for thirteen days as her diplomat father struggles to get her back at a fair price. The problem is, there is no getting her back—at least not the way she was—and it is she, not her father, who pays the real price. Using literary devices like point of view and figurative language, Gay brings the motifs of survival and resiliency to light through Miri’s struggle. These motifs are at the heart of the narrative; they are the real story.
The book is set up in “the before,” when protagonist Miri has a husband and a baby and a career and confidence and spunk, versus “the after,”when she has nothing because she is nothing—her sense of self, her belief in happily ever after, her notion of her perfect father all die with her in the cage where, for nearly two weeks, she is held. The drama is in the thirteen days of captivity, filled with hunger and brutality and rape and abuse, but also in the aftermath, when she devolves, curling into herself, before she can eventually make sense of her trauma and regain some semblance of a life.
Gay writes the story in an interesting way, playing with point of view as she switches back and forth from first person narration—Miri’s perspective—to third person omniscient narration. Her doing so allows the reader to enter each character’s psyche and also gives her the opportunity to shine a spotlight on the book’s primary setting, Haiti—a land of contradictions—which, in addition to being beautiful and ugly, familiar and unknowable, filthy and a jewel, is the birthplace of Gay’s own parents.
As readers, we trace Miri’s evolution—a transition Gay meticulously crafts—from headstrong, willful, independent law student and abiding daughter—whole on her own—to a woman who needs her husband to feel whole, who is “inconsolable without him,”to a captive who “need[s] something to fill the gnawing hollow inside”of her, to an entirely un-whole shell, so empty that she can’t bear the thought of anything inside of her, be it food or her husband.
We also follow Michael Jameson, Miri’s other half, as he goes on a personal journey from determined courter, to faithful life partner and father, to irate husband who will stop at nothing to get his wife back, to meek and terrified man who doesn’t know if he has the strength to put the pieces back together, to supportive lover who chooses his wife always—“today, yesterday, [and] tomorrow”—the kind of man who will be her rock through the “for worse.”
Finally, there is Miri’s dad Sebastien Duval—a Haitian success story—a self-made man: calm, rational, determined, demanding, serious, disapproving, controlling and in control, hardheaded, obstinate, and ruthless. A man of principals. As readers, we watch as this strong man goes from being Miri’s hero to being a stranger whose sacrifice costs his youngest child everything—whose “impossible choice [to take thirteen days to pay her ransom]…killed all [her] love.” In the after, Sebastian knows that his daughter sees him as “a man who could not love [her] enough to save her when there was still something of her left to save,” and this knowledge slowly eats away at him. He is racked with guilt over making his daughter dead instead, and this contrition softens him and makes him more human.
As readers, we get all of this information either from Miri or from the omniscient third person narrator. This interesting back-and-forth dance jumbles time and perspective, keeps us in suspense, as we gain access to the rich and layered characters, bit by bit.
Just as artful as Gay’s unique approach to point of view is her use of literary devices. Whether she uses personification—the Haitian air “wraps itself around you,” “The cuts on my back wept angrily,”—or polysyndeton—“I would taste the salt and sun and sea,” the air filled “with the smell of soap and sweat and smoke,”—or antithesis—“We loved Haiti. We hated Haiti,” the country held “so much beauty, so much brutality,” I became the woman “who remembered everything and the one who remembered nothing,”—or simile—The scar “swelled like something serpentine,” “I stayed there…like a prayer,”—or metaphor—“He was a sharp blade, I was a tender wound,”—or repetition—“The smell of his saliva repulsed me. The texture of his tongue repulsed me. The sticky wet sound repulsed me,” “I tasted nothing, felt nothing, was nothing,” “I kissed his forehead. I died. I kissed his cheekbones, sharp. I died…pressed my lips to his chest…I died,”(363), Gay draws the reader in with her beautiful use of figurative language.
A final gift of Gay’s is her ability to present multi-dimensional characters. Even the most evil of men, Miri’s captors included, are given a depth that makes them somehow human, and this ability to see their humanity is what helps Miri to survive and eventually make herself whole again. She says of the Commander—the mastermind behind her kidnapping—“We were both broken in similar ways.” That she could be so perceptive and kind in her assessment is quite remarkable. Later she writes, “He was rough because he is not a man who knows how to be gentle,” again showing her sympathy toward the character and making him somehow less evil, less black and white. She paints more gray still into this beast when she admits that he carried her “to his room, placed [her] in his bed like he was a good man…covered [her] with a blanket like he was a good man,”treating her “as both lover and enemy—the only way he could.” Of another rapist she describes the “gentleness of his touch” and says, “It would be easy to pretend the man before me was a lover, that our bodies belonged together.”
Of her father whose “eyes [start] to water”with regret, Miri thinks, “He did not deserve the truth of how I died [inside],”even after his failure to pay quickly. She shows him further compassion by allowing him to pull her “into a loose, awkward hug”for his own emotional well-being.” She even lies to him, feigning forgiveness in order to grant her dad peace, reasoning, “I lied because that lie cost me less than the truth would have cost him.”
Gay’s novel is successful because she hones in on a universal theme, survival, something to which we can all relate, and makes us believe it is possible, even under the most unimaginable of circumstances. She shows us that “dirty and broken” people, like countries, can be cleaned, can be healed. That after the darkest of hours, it is still possible to overcome ourselves. That the will to live, to fight, is almost indestructible. This message on resiliency is what Vivian Gornick would call the “so what?”of the narrative; it is the very essence of Gay’s work.
Roxane Gay is one of the most prolific writers of our time, and her career has never been hotter. Her 2014 debut novel An Untamed State (reviewed above by yours truly) is on the shortlist for the PEN Open Book Award, and her most recent essay collection Bad Feminist, released this past August, was a New York Times bestseller. Gay also works as editor for The Toast’s new sister site The Butter, contributes to Fortune Magazine in a column entitled “Beyond the Workplace,” and has a very active social media presence (no really, check out her Twitter). When she isn’t on book tours or sitting behind her computer screen churning out gems for us to read, she can be found mentoring fiction MFA students at Purdue University, playing competitive Scrabble, and keeping up with all things pop-culture related. We recently caught up with Gay and learned everything from her thoughts on catchy but misogynistic music, how to write the “other,” and whether she still holds a flame for The Hunger Games’ Peeta.
Melissa Greenwood: In your recent article for Fortune “When Mentors Cross the Line,” (about a situation at Stanford where mentoring “went horribly wrong,”) you write, “There is a responsibility attached to being a mentor. Mentors must live up to that responsibility.”
Now that you mentor fiction MFA candidates at Purdue, can you speak a bit more about this responsibility insofar as it relates to you personally? How does this new role compare to teaching a roomful of students?
Roxane Gay: When I am working with my thesis students, I’m hoping to guide them toward the best writing of which they are capable. Sometimes this means helping them find confidence in their voice. Sometimes it means telling them difficult but constructive things about how they can improve their writing. Mostly it’s about being there for that student in the ways they most need me to be there. It’s similar to teaching in the classroom but different because it’s such an intimate and intense and ongoing relationship.
MG: I can imagine that there are a lot of topics that come across your desk in your role as cultural critic. How do you decide what to write about? I noticed, for instance, that you addressed Michael Brown (Ferguson) and not Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe”)? Was it simply too much, too close together? Was it an “I just can’t” moment for you?
RG: I try to write about those issues around which I feel the most urgency and that I feel in some way qualified to discuss. I didn’t write explicitly about Eric Garner but I have discussed him in some of my work. Mostly, it was just too much to wrap my mind around yet another unarmed black man murdered by police within such a brief span of time. I also don’t want to be a “hot take” vending machine. I want to consider the world more carefully so that means making the wisest choices I can.
MG: Because you’re a cultural critic, your thoughts and opinions are out in the universe. In your essay “The Danger of Disclosure,” which you shared with Antioch students at the June residency, you write:
I have things I want to say. I know disclosure can be dangerous, but still I want to speak. I want to share my opinions. I want to provoke conversations. I want to leave my mark…And yet, the exposure makes me anxious…I have firm boundaries about what I will or won’t write about…
How do you set those boundaries, and do you find they are ever in flux? Is it safe to assume your method of birth control, which you don’t divulge but say you “kind of swear by,” is an instance where you’re setting a firm don’t-share boundary?
RG: I set boundaries based on how much of my personal life I am comfortable with other people knowing. I am often trying to protect the people in my personal life who have signed on to be with me but have not signed on to have their lives scrutinized by thousands and thousands of people. Those boundaries are sometimes in flux in that they evolve but for the most part, I stand my ground about what I will and will not reveal.
MG: You have an active Twitter presence (@rgay), and you were busy, busy on Oscar night. You wrote “Damnit she had to speak backstage,” re: Patricia Arquette’s commentary on equal pay for women that spiraled into something less about all women and more about some women. Your next post was: “I just can’t but I am sure someone will write about intersectionality and these unfortunate remarks tomorrow.” What were your initial thoughts when Arquette made her wage equality comments when accepting her award, and how did your thinking change when she added, “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now?”
RG: I loved Arquette’s comments as she accepted her Oscar. My thinking didn’t really change because her frustrating comments later don’t negate what she said about the importance of equal pay. I wanted to believe she was caught up in a moment, the highlight of her career, and I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. In the days after the Oscars, she basically doubled down on her comments, as is her right, but as I said then, her comments continue to demonstrate the importance of feminism that is intersectional. She’s a talented actor who said something I disagree with but I don’t think anything more needs to be said than that. The world keeps on turning.
MG: You mentioned to Antioch MFA students that you wanted to make your novel An Untamed State unreadable—so visceral that the reader should have to look away. What do you say then to readers like my own octogenarian grandmother (perhaps not your ideal demographic) who actually did look away, for good. I loaned her my copy, and her response (via new-agey email, nonetheless) was: “It was too violent, and I couldn’t get past the multiple rapes. There is enough horribleness in the world right now, and reading more [of it]…is not a choice I want to make.”
RG: To those readers, I say I absolutely understand that choice. We all have to take care of ourselves as best as we can. I stand by what I wrote. An Untamed State is not a book about violence. It’s a book about hope.
MG: In “What We Hunger For” (originally published in The Rumpus), you write about your experience with childhood rape using Katniss Everdeen, the fictitious protagonist in The Hunger Games series, to talk about strength and survival. You read this essay (which can now also be found in Bad Feminist) at Antioch, and the reaction from the crowd was a mixture of wonder and reverence. How did you decide that The Hunger Games and The Rumpus would be your platforms for this major disclosure, and how did this parallel with Katniss first occur to you?
RG: I wrote “What We Hunger For” because as I read and re-read The Hunger Games trilogy, I was fascinated by how well Suzanne Collins approached trauma and its effects. That got me thinking about my own trauma and how it has lingered throughout my life so I started writing and that essay came out of me. I published it on The Rumpus because I knew my words would be safe there.
MG: You write about “rape culture,” throughout Bad Feminist, and the phrase got me thinking back to my own college years (circa 2001-2005). I went to UC Berkeley—a university that fancies itself a liberal and politically-active place—but at the fraternity parties, we’d all forget our beliefs and sing along to Jordan Knight’s “Give It To You.”
It’s creepin’ around in your head
Me holdin’ you down in my bed
You don’t have to say a word
I’m convinced you want this
And Snoop Dogg’s “It Aint No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None)” featuring Nate Dogg, Kurupt, and Warren G.
I know the pussy’s mine, I’ma fuck a couple more times
And then I’m through with it, there’s nothing else to do with it
Pass it to the homie, now you hit it
Cause she ain’t nothing but a bitch to me
And y’all know, that bitches ain’t shit to me
And then of course, there was the famous chorus, which we’d belt out at the top of our lungs as though there were no shame in the words: “It ain’t no fun, if the homies can’t have none.”
These songs legitimize and popularize rape, and I’m sure there are a host of more recent ones popping up at college campuses every day. What can we say to our youth about messages as pervasive and insidious as these, when even you have admitted (likely as much to your chagrin as my frat party admission) that “I like these songs. They make me want to dance. I want to sing along,” (Bad Feminist 187-188)? You even defined some of these “misogynistic” melodies as being “so damn catchy” to Elle, and that’s the problem—they are. So, what to do?
We have to teach our youth about cultural and media literacy. We have to teach them to recognize the damaging and often degrading messages all too often found in popular culture.
RG: We have to teach our youth about cultural and media literacy. We have to teach them to recognize the damaging and often degrading messages all too often found in popular culture, how those messages warp our thinking about gender, sex, and sexual violence, and how we must steel ourselves against those messages. We also have to urge them to create pop culture that is “so damn catchy” without being so fucked up. It is possible. And at some point, we have to lead by example and we have to forego the temporary pleasure of a catchy song for the lasting pleasure of taking a stand against such cultural misogyny.
MG: Writing the “other” is a big topic at Antioch, and you address it in your essay “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods…” in which you say, “I firmly believe our responsibility as writers is to challenge ourselves to write beyond what we know;” yet, you have not been pleased with many attempts you’ve read or watched on the screen, at least on the part of white people writing (or directing) the other. “I know that I have work to do,” you admit in the same essay insofar as your tolerance of “white writers working through racial difference.” What is your suggestion then to those who wish to tackle this “complicated” work that “requires a delicate balance,” as well as a whole lot of what I consider to be your favorite word—nuance?
RG: It’s not that complicated. We have to stop treating difference as a monumental obstacle. We have more in common than we don’t. As long as writers approach difference in good faith, there is room for trial and error. The examples I cite in the aforementioned essay were not created in good faith. They were lazy and diminishing and that is the problem.
MG: How do you strike the balance between research and personal admission in your essays, and what is your advice to those of us who aren’t yet as badass as you when it comes to seamlessly blending the two?
RG: I include as much research as a reader will need to have the proper context for considering a given argument. I don’t want it to be too much so that an essay reads like an encyclopedia and I don’t want it to be too little so that an essay reads as poorly conceived.
MG: You have said, “I want to believe writing can be a catalyst for action, for demanding change…I want my writing to do something more than just satisfy my love of writing. I want it to reach people.” What causes are most important to you now, and who specifically are you hoping to reach?
RG: I’m going to skip this question. I feel like this is pretty clear in my writing.
MG: I see that you have a book of essays due out in 2016 entitled Hunger, as well an adult novel Nice Man, and a short story collection Strange Gods. What can you tell us inquiring minds about these upcoming projects?
RG: Hunger is a memoir about obesity and living in this world in an unruly body. Strange Gods is a short story collection I’ve wanted to see out in the world for many years so I am thrilled it will happen. My editor Amy Hundley and I are working on edits right now. Most of the stories are about women dealing with the way this world makes it difficult to be a woman. Nice Man, well, that’s a secret but it involves surrogacy, a marriage of convenience, and a fierce fight.
MG: Last question: you can meet your favorite character from a book (Jessica from Sweet Valley High or Peeta from The Hunger Games come to mind), or spend the afternoon with Channing Tatum. Go!
RG: I would meet Peeta.
Aside from being a huge Roxane Gay fan, Los Angeles native Melissa Greenwood is a nonfiction MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she is entering her fourth and final term. In her past lives, she freelanced for various entertainment magazines and local papers, taught middle school English, and even custom-fit women for high-end bras at a specialty lingerie store. Now, Melissa resides in Toronto, Canada with her fabulous roommates (one of whom is not yet two), where she teaches mat and Reformer Pilates, reads a whole lot of nonfiction books, and tries to sneak time with said roommates for a guilty pleasure they share with Ms. Gay—Law & Order SVU and Criminal Minds viewing parties. Let the record show that the roommate who is not yet two does not attend said parties. Nor does Melissa’s boyfriend.
Antonia Crane’s Spent is a memoir for readers who enjoy gritty, surreal narratives and stories that eschew easy conclusions. In Crane’s world, vicious cycles can’t be broken, self-reflection doesn’t lead to happiness, and lessons aren’t always learned. There’s a weariness to Spent that emphasizes the title, an undercurrent of longing for a job that doesn’t come with such high physical and emotional demands. But this isn’t a memoir that goes easy on its author: Crane owns her mistakes as well as her choices, without attempting to explain or apologize for either. If this sounds contradictory—well, Crane owns her contradictions, too.
Spent deals with a variety of events in Crane’s life—her relationship with her mother, her education, her bisexuality, and her sobriety are all woven into the narrative—but the memoir’s main focus is on her series of jobs as a stripper and sex worker in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. The premise’s potential shock value wears off quickly: the day-to-day work is portrayed as routine to the point of dull, with money as the primary reward. During a typical day as a dancer, “time moves like peanut butter;” she describes one customer’s loneliness as an emotion that both “[makes] her sick” and “[feels] like the best thing in the world.” Although Crane claims stripping holds an undeniable, addictive allure for her, it’s easy to believe her when she states that “dancers always want to quit, but we never do. We’re ghosts, dragging our chains from club to club.” At best, Crane depicts dancing as occasionally fun and immensely lucrative; the economics of this work are always at the forefront. At worst, stripping renders her nameless and invisible and trapped.
Crane isn’t always as straightforward about the non-stripping aspects of her life. While there are some standout scenes—the decisions she must make about her mother’s end-of-life care are particularly resonant—some of her choices seem propelled by indistinct motivations and result in few resolutions. These non sequitur aspects of Crane’s writing may frustrate readers who appreciate clear cause-and-effect narratives. Yet although its stream-of-consciousness tendencies sometimes muddy the storyline’s waters, there’s no question that Spent’s style makes a statement. Crane’s still living the life about which she writes; she’s not examining a part of her life that’s already passed, but focusing on experiences that continue to shape her present. If the events of twenty years ago still feel incomplete, it’s because the objects in her rear view mirror are much closer than they first appear.
It’s obvious that Crane has a personal relationship with her work, and not just because, as she says, “without [stripping], I felt ugly, useless, and numb.” During her years in San Francisco, she protests the unfair practices at local dance clubs and helps form the first-ever strippers’ union, a vital need in an industry that exploits women from underprivileged backgrounds. And in some ways, writing a memoir about sex work in unstinting detail is also an act of social justice: Spent isn’t exactly a third-wave feminist cri de coeur, but rather a portrait of a trade in which many of the workers struggle with addiction, abuse, and poverty. It puts a face on at least one of society’s “ghosts.”
Beyond her fight for unionization, Crane doesn’t take much of an outright political stance on the issues facing sex workers; the memoir doesn’t explicitly advocate for legalization, for example, or dwell on the overarching institutional injustices that contribute to an unfair system. But through Spent’s series of anecdotes, Crane makes it clear that for herself and for many of her colleagues, sex work is an unending cycle of survival and punishment. Nothing pays as well or as quickly—a must for women struggling to pay rent, support a family, feed or overcome an addiction, or pay for school without other financial help—but as a result, Crane is harassed, recorded without her consent, and arrested, all for a job that has significantly narrowed her other possible career choices and that will turn its back on her as she ages. “I have no clue how to leave this industry and enter the work force,” Crane says in the book’s final pages. “This is the work force.”
Yet for all the ending’s brutal honesty, Crane also offers a glimmer of hope, although it’s weighed with reality. “This is where I am: I’m still doing this,” she says. “I will climb out, the window is open a crack, but I don’t know when.”
Antonia Crane is a writer, adjunct professor, and performer based in Los Angeles. She is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles’ MFA program. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Rumpus, Slake, PANK, The Los Angeles Review, Salon, and Black Clock. She is the founder and senior editor of The Citron Review. Crane’s memoir, Spent, was published in 2014 by Barnacle Books. Cheryl Strayed praised Crane’s work as “bold and beautiful and glimmering with light,” and Kirkus Reviews called Spent “a raw, searing self-portrait.”
Rachael Warecki interviewed Antonia Crane via email.
RW: In your memoir, Spent, you touch on the fact that words have always been an important part of your life, especially in your childhood. Spent focuses more on words’ importance in your adult life, but I’d love to hear more about how books influenced you while you were growing up. Looking back, were there any books that held a particular resonance for you?
AC: There was not much to do in my small town except climb redwoods, so one of the things my mother and I used to do together was go to the public library. I escaped to my Alice and Wonderland and my Frankenstein with Judy Bloom, V.C. Andrews, and Beverly Cleary, and later I found J.D. Salinger and Jane Austen. I loved stories about heartbreak and families, unrequited love and betrayal.
RW: Your relationship with your mother—an accomplished, fearless, dignified woman as portrayed in your memoir—has clearly been another strong influence in your life, even after her passing. In what ways do you hope your life resembles hers? In what ways are you glad you’ve chosen a somewhat different life path?
AC: I don’t think my life resembles my mother’s at all. My mother went from one long-term marriage to another, kept horses, and belonged to half a dozen women’s organizations. She had kids and was miraculous in the kitchen. However, I am exactly like my mother in other ways—certain facial expressions and gestures are exactly like her, especially in the eyes and mouth. I have followed her lead in the way that she mentored young women and I invest a lot of time helping others, whenever and however possible. I think my path worried my mother some and in other ways, she admired my independence.
RW: You mention that you mentor young women—correct me if I’m wrong, but I heard you volunteer with WriteGirl here in Los Angeles. How long have you been involved with the program? What support do you give young writers as they’re moving toward adulthood? What resources does the program provide that you wish you’d had at that age, and if you could mentor your younger self, what advice would you give her?
AC: I have been a volunteer for WriteGirl’s in-schools program since 2011. I volunteered to teach creative writing to incarcerated teenage girls at Camp Scudder/Camp Scott, where the girls obtained art and English credits towards their GED for participation in our class every Thursday. Our writing exercises approached the personal essay in a lyrical way that offered girls a chance to express themselves and articulate their struggles and obstacles in a meaningful, artistic way. It seemed as if many of the teenage girls had never been told they were smart and creative. When they were acknowledged by reading their work to the class, performing it live, they were elated.
On a pragmatic scale, WriteGirl has a 100% success rate getting girls into four-year universities. We help girls write their college essays in order to springboard them into educational settings, which can change their lives dramatically. In this way, getting involved with WriteGirl and other after-school programs where I’ve worked, such as Woodcraft Rangers, Arc, and Living Histories, embodies social justice.
RW: In Spent, you make several strong economic arguments for why stripping and other types of sex work should be unionized and, in some cases, legalized. In what ways do you see this as a form of social justice? In what ways do you hope to continue this social justice work moving forward?
AC: A group of young women and I unionized a strip club in the ‘90s and it was a powerful time, but it didn’t solve all of our problems by any stretch. Acknowledging strippers (sex workers, dancers) as a work force deserving of basic rights is a good start. Legalizing sex work alone will not keep sex workers safe from domestic violence and exploitation, but it’s a step in a good direction. The goal is toward decriminalization of sex workers in a way that protects some of the most vulnerable members of society from harm and exploitation. It’s a complex issue that deserves attention, time, and change, and every change made won’t be perfect, much like universal health care.
RW: What other steps do you think would make concrete, positive differences in the lives of sex workers?
AC: I think a program that helps women segue into the mainstream would be helpful. Years ago, Sharon Mitchell tried to launch a program for people retiring from the porn industry called “Life After Porn,” but her grant was denied. Sex work is the most difficult job to leave, and it’s difficult to fill in résumé gaps and not be shamed in society for spending a decade (or more) in the adult industry. Going back to school is not enough by itself. I have done that several times. It takes community support to help a person dive back into the mainstream and adjust. It would be helpful to get advice, résumé help, and jobs from folks who are already established in positions to help a sex worker get a steady job.
RW: Your memoir presents a layered and sometimes contradictory portrait of your own role as a sex worker. You mention several times that “every dancer you know wishes she could quit,” but that you personally are drawn back to stripping for the thrill of it, even when presented with other job opportunities. That said, in the scenes depicting your work as a stripper, you often present it as dull, unrewarding work. Can you talk a little more about your relationship with your work, and what aspects of it you find personally rewarding?
I was neither lost nor found. I am just a woman with a couple of cats who needs to write in order to breathe.
AC: All work is rewarding whether I am cleaning houses, waiting tables, or teaching a writing class. If work is a place to be of love and service, which I believe it is, then stripping is the perfect place to demonstrate that kindness. Stripping is physically and emotionally taxing, as well as particularly lucrative. Performing and receiving sexual validation from strangers can be intoxicating. Fast money is a drug. As a job, sex work has been the most difficult to segue out of into the mainstream for the reasons listed above. Other than providing men with a warm body to confide in, there’s a common loneliness that tugs at us when we long to connect to our families, friends, and coworkers in a meaningful way, but fail to do so. I think men search for genuine human connection in a strip club, and that women provide that in a way that can be temporarily satisfying for them [men] and lucrative for us [women]. It’s also a great place to mine for stories.
RW: In your depictions of stripping and sex work, there are many workers and customers who engage in drug use. Has your sobriety ever affected your relationships with clientele or other workers, either positively or negatively (e.g., a client who’s a little too insistent that you drink or get high with him/her, or a fellow sober coworker with whom you form a stronger trust or friendship)?
AC: Drugs are rampant in every workplace. People like to party and tune out. When I worked in a law firm, one of the paralegals was dealing coke throughout the office. People in the medical profession do drugs. As a bartender, obviously it affected my interaction with the customers because I had to cut people off or call them a cab. I have a lot of compassion for anyone struggling with a substance abuse problem/alcohol, and I try to help them get home safely, if possible. Sex workers have a reputation for doing drugs and drinking because it’s expected of us. Personally, I think being sober makes me a better employee in that environment and a more productive person, so I try to be a positive influence.
RW: You mention the difficulty of grad school—of living a life so different from many of your classmates—and yet based on your acknowledgements section, Antioch University Los Angeles clearly provided a strong community for you. How did you learn and grow as a writer during your MFA program years?
AC: The decision to do sex work while in grad school was my own solution to creating as much time to write as possible. Antioch provided an incredibly rich community of mentors and peers, many of whom I still have close relationships with. My graduating cohort, The Citrons, has been checking in every Sunday since 2009. When I attended Antioch, it was like I could finally give myself permission to write and to have access to writers I admired, like Rob Roberge, Emily Rapp, Cheryl Strayed, Leonard Chang, and Steve Almond.
RW: At the end of Spent, you acknowledge that you have not yet achieved your ideal vision of happiness—no partner, no agent, no publishing deal. Obviously, with the publication of Spent, some of that has changed. How have you come closer to achieving your personal and professional goals? What’s next for you?
AC: Every day, I work towards my goals and aspirations regardless of my circumstances. The end of Spent was more of a comment that sex work itself can be its own happy ending. I didn’t need to be rehabilitated or killed or saved, imprisoned or forgiven; I wasn’t married off or carried off on a magic carpet ride. I was neither lost nor found. I am just a woman with a couple of cats who needs to write in order to breathe. So, I’m going to keep doing that and see what happens next.
Rachael Warecki holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s New Writers Contest and a 2014 Best of the Net nomination from Spry Literary Journal. Her fiction has appeared in the Masters Review, the Los Angeles Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. You can follow her writing adventures on her website, Facebook, and Twitter
If you haven’t read or written or listened to something at least three times, you have never really read, written, or listened.
++++++++++++++++++++++++i—Kiese Laymon, Long Division
Some authors write along the questions, Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind? Long Division is true. More than ever, it is necessary. But is it kind? Rarely are things in this complicated world that are true and necessary also kind. Long Division does not shrink away from this dichotomy—instead, it rises to meet the challenge. The bravery of writing a story without shrinking away from the violence, the ugliness, the disappointments, and the sorrow of it, while still running full-tilt towards unabashed, unashamed love is itself a revelation and a revolution.
Long Division is one of those rare novels whose opening hook is so engaging, so vibrant, so off-the-page-and-walking-next-to-you-alive, that it’s almost less like reading a book with characters than it is like being pulled into a story with some people you just met—that’s how wholly formed and fully realized the characters feel. Much of that is attributable to Laymon’s gift for capturing the natural, authentic flow of speech, and the ways in which dialect and location work together to become a character in its own right. Rather than having the calculated sense of I AM A DISTINCT VOICE, the unique nuances of each character’s speech—from City and LaVander to Baize and Shalaya—are distinctive, rich, complex, and resonant. They are voices that are glaringly absent from the books comprising “The Canon.” They are the voices that readers need to hear. They are the voices that remind us of many truths that are inconvenient to white MFA students. That, in itself, is an inconvenient truth. Which is why Long Division is necessary.
There’s a lot of that kind of messy truth in Long Division. Not all of it is comfortable to sit with—in fact, most of it isn’t, and that’s precisely the point. A lot of these truths, and the subsequent questions they raise, are difficult issues to deal with in our realities—issues of race, of class, of location, intersectionality, and the “queering” of bodies—despite the difficulty of these topics, the way that social critique works inside Long Division is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Through City (both of him), Laymon truly allows his readers to lay down their defenses and honestly listen. But most importantly, through each twist and turn of the narrative, Laymon asks the reader a very important question—one that they will hopefully carry back out into the “real world” and keep in the forefront of their minds: What does is truly mean to make social or political “progress,” and if we buy into the popular political narrative, that we as a country have made so much progress over the past century, then Why does it still hurt?
Long Division is adept at sidestepping a classification—while reading it, you’re going to move through a series of questions: Just what is this novel, anyway? Is it literary fiction? Is it sci-fi, or does it live in that nebulous realm of slipstream? Is it magical realism? What am I reading and how am I supposed to feel about it? As in life, so is it in art: the genre lines are blurry, because human beings are blurry, and no matter how desperately we try to squeeze each other into neat little boxes, the truth of the matter is our stories just won’t fit. Which is why the metanarrative, the “story-within-a-story” format, works to the advantage of the novel and its three distinct timelines (1964, 1985, and 2013). In the novel Long Division that we are reading, the protagonist of our novel, City, is reading a different novel, also called Long Division, about a different character, also named City. All three timelines are fictional, but due to our reader suspension of disbelief, we are working under the assumption that the 2013 timeline is “true” and the 1964/1985 timelines may or may not be true, depending on whether we believe that (our) City’s Long Division is a journal [true] account of time travel, or if we believe that the second Long Division is just a novel. Were it not for Laymon’s name on the cover of the book, the suspension of disbelief would be wholly intact, and the reader alone would be in charge of deciding who was the “real narrator” of the book—Laymon’s structure places a lot of faith in the reader, a decision that is risky but pays off through the unifying message of love that is woven into the tapestry of the narrative arc of each unique timeline and the places where the different world collide. You can easily work Long Division into the same discussion you’d have about Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, or Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—and you should—because this story has earned a place beside these authors.
“LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him,” but thankfully—Kiese Laymon does not. What he does care about, though, is love. The love that these characters have and build for each other. The questions about how these characters want to be loved, whether they think they deserve to be loved, and most importantly: How can a community love each other in the face of a dominant culture that does not love them? How can a community hang onto each other and become stronger, instead of climbing down into the hole alone? Many readers will see accurate reflections of their world, and rejoice in finding themselves in the pages, celebrated on their own terms, and subject to the same pivotal moments that define the world of a novel. Other readers may be invited into a world that exists right next to their own—like a trapdoor in the forest—close to their world, but still removed. They will be asked to be quiet in this world, because through that trapdoor is what’s most important: listening. Really, truly listening, and for once, hearing what is being said, without just waiting for their turn to speak.
–Allie Marini Batts, Lunch Ticket Managing Editor
Kiese Laymon is the author of the novel, Long Division, and the essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Long Division was named one of the Best of 2013 by a number of publications, including Buzzfeed, The Believer, Salon, Guernica, Mosaic Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and the Crunk Feminist Collective. Laymon has written essays and stories for numerous publications including Esquire, ESPN.com, Colorlines, NPR, Gawker, Truthout.com, Longman’s Hip Hop Reader, The Best American Non-required Reading, Guernica, Mythium, and Politics and Culture. Laymon is currently a Professor of English at Vassar College. He proudly calls himself a black, southern writer, and unabashedly addresses racism and cultural issues in his work. His outspoken and honest approach to conversations about social justice evidence his leadership in the literary and activist communities.
Antioch alumni Daniel José Older and Jamie Moore spoke with Laymon about writing, language, cultural standards, and love in our communities.
Daniel José Older: One of the things that we love about Long Division is that it tells a great story while guiding us through so many layers of power, history, and pain. Complex in both theme and narrative structure, but City’s voice and honesty carry us along lovingly. How did you set out structuring the novel?
Kiese Laymon: Hmm. Man, real interview, huh?
DJO: Bwahaha. Sorry, brother.
KL: No, that’s great. That’s great. I feel like you kind of have to scrap three or four structures—or three or four or fourteen structures before you find one, and for me, the primary structure initially was—I wanted to think about this in terms of days—like, over how many days actually did the novel take place? And the first big draft, it was about seven days. And then structurally, that didn’t make too much sense because really, the meant of a lot of this stuff happened on a Sunday, and so then I just thought I needed only two, three, four days. And then, I was like, “I can have the equivalent of seven days if I break it up into three different time periods.” So I was kind of stuck on this idea of seven or eight days, somehow, some way. And I just ended up still having seven or eight days, but just in three different time periods instead of having it just consecutively one time period. I don’t know if that’s a great answer, but that’s true.
DJO: Once you had that structure, did you find freedom within that structure? Did everything take off from that?
KL: Yeah. You know, that’s how I feel. I feel like once you find the structure, then you can kind of really play, and you can actually create the flow and resonance, you know? So that’s what I felt. But you know, this book is kind of tricky because for the longest, I didn’t—we didn’t know if it was going to be sold as two different books. I wanted it to be like, a book where if you read it like this, and then you could flip it and read the other one like this, but the publisher decided they wanted to do interspersed chapters, so that—when they made that decision, that dictated a lot of how the structure actually changed, because you know, you needed to be kind of thoughtful about how certain chapters ended and how other chapters began, because sometimes chapters would end and begin in different time periods. Yeah, so I don’t feel like I nailed the structure at all. But I’m working on this new thing, and I feel like I got it. I feel like I got it now.
DJO: Hmm. Would you do something different?
KL: If I could do it over again?
KL: Oh, yeah! Most definitely.
I think like, authorship is crucial to the narrative. Like, you know—who’s writing whom? Who’s creating whom?
DJO: Structurally, specifically?
KL: Yeah. Structurally, if I could do it over again, I—I mean, what I really want to try to do is I want to try to start that book in 1985. Yeah. Structurally, I would start it in 1985, and I think that the interspersed chapters—I mean, you know—I don’t think I would do it. Now I think that I’ve sold the book, I’d have a bigger say. I actually would try to like, yeah, do what I wanted to do with it. First of all, not have any author’s name on the book, start the book in 1985, have the flip book start in 2013 and have a middle section that was 1954. That’s what I wanted to do. I just didn’t have enough pull to pull it off.
JM: Yeah, definitely the way that the reader interacts with the text physically, too. I think that definitely would change the reader’s experience.
KL: Yeah. I mean,absolutely. I think there’s something to say about, you know—first book coming from a person of color being this kind of difficult—structurally difficult book. Which I keep hearing people say. And I think that’s important but, you know, I’m all about revision, and if I could do it over again, I’d definitely try to do something different. But the main thing I want to do, is I just really wanted my name nowhere on the book.
DJO: Why’s that?
KL: I think authorship is crucial, right? I think like, authorship is crucial to the narrative. Like, you know—who’s writing whom? Who’s creating whom? And I think when you see my name on the book, like, I understand why it might have to be there, but—you know, at the end of that book, I’m still interested in who’s writing Long Division? You know what I’m saying? Like, which City is writing Long Division? Is Baize writing Long Division? I just think the way to—I think the way you have to push it out to the market is just—you know, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. But that’s all good. We can’t always do what we want to do, but next time I’m gon’ do what I want to do.
DJO: I mean, for me, the structure, you could’ve done that, or you could’ve done the other way, and the book still would’ve sung to me, because at the core of it, what I took from it was: yes, an amazing story, yes, characters that I both loved and believed in deeply, but also that it spoke to what it means to be an artist of color on an emotional and intellectual level at the same time. And no essay I’ve ever read has done that, and no book I’ve ever read has done that the way that Long Division did. Because it’s fucked up out here, and Long Division—
KL: It’s fucked up out here.
DJO: It’s fucked up out here, and Long Division knew that. And so my question is like, did you go in—in your head, were you like, “It’s fucked up out here, and I’m gonna write a book about it”? Or were you like, “I’ma write a book.” And during the course of it, you’re like, “Damn, it’s fucked up out here.” Like—[Laughs]—you know what I mean?
KL: Yeah. You know, I wrote—I knew it was fucked up out here when I wrote, when I started it, and I wanted to see if I could propel a flat while kind of constantly talking about how fucked up it is—
KL:—and how beautiful it is out here because have a lot of—because we have to rely on one another and need like—
KL:—you know, sometimes intimate, sometimes terrible ways, and ultimately, you know, I just think—I think the people are trying to write us off the face of the Earth.
KL: And I just wanted to write a book that was unafraid of actually talking about being written off the face of the Earth—
KL:—so that’s what I tried to do.
DJO: You did it, brother.
KL: Thank you.
JM: I have a question about language, and I think this is a conversation, Daniel, that you and I have had before when I was preparing for this lecture about reclaiming voices for our MFA program. Whenever we have characters that are speaking any type of slang or any kind of urbanly-identifiable language, we are questioned about the authenticity of our characters. I know that you have ongoing conversations about the necessity of having your characters speak a certain way that reflects the region, so I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit.
KL: Yeah. I mean,—[Laughs]—I don’t want it to be a doom and gloom interview, but you know, this American literary enterprise—it doesn’t just attack our bodies—the major attack is on our language, and I think that is the fucking craziest attack, because like, we, black and brown folk, have like, broken and bended and breathed life into this bullshit-ass language that we were given, and then people see our language often, and they’re like—literarily they’re like, “No,” you know, “So-and-so’s not gon’ get it. Middle America’s not gon’ get it. Blah blah blah blah blah.” And the book literally is about how we navigate being present in our language and growing in our language. So the first sentence, “LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him,” I’m thinking about—that’s an important sentence to start the book. It’s important that another black boy is talking about how another black boy presents himself to white folk.
And at the end of that sentence, it’s, you know—he’s acknowledging—he knows he’s talking to a lot of different people, but he also knows white folk are listening, and even at fourteen he knows what he’s not supposed to say to white folk, so I just think—I’m trying to say like, we’re not like, all super rhetorically flexible, but I think we’re—I think most of us are kinda sorta like, rhetorically flexible by necessity. And I just wanted a book that was aware of that. But at the same time, I feel like Paul Beatty already wrote a book of like, some you know, super hyper-literate, fucking, “read everything in the world” kind of narrator. And I like that book. I love that book. But I didn’t want them to be like, super literate, you know? I wanted them to be literate, but not super literate.
DJO: Were there moments for you, when you were writing this book, that you just stopped in your tracks and had to take a moment, either literally, right then and there on the page, like, “Holy shit,” or like, you just had to step away from the process, either out of awe or frustration?
KL: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. I feel like—you know, that’s a really good question. Nobody ever asked that question before. There were three moments, I think, that fucked me up for a few days. The first was when I realized what LaVander Peeler was gonna have to do at that—at that contest. That got me. That got me misty for a while and just kind of—kind of broke my heart in this way that was good, but ultimately I was just like, “Fuck.” And later on in the book, when City is leaving Baize in the hole, that got me. A lot. That—that really got me. ‘Cause you know when you write a novel, these characters are real, and—to you. And that—that broke me. And then the last scene, which I wish I could write over, but—you know, when they’ve gone through all of this, and you know, he’s looking at his hands, and he’s thinking about what he’s been through, and his grandmother’s going down the street—you know, I just see the image of him walking into these woods with his grandmother’s car slow-crawling down the road, and they’re literally about to get in this hole together because they don’t feel like they have anywhere else to go. And I feel like the book starts with this question of like, what is love, and how does love look between like, two black boys? And I think that answer at the end is a really fucking sad, sad, sad, also slightly hopeful scene for me. So when I wrote that scene, I was like—I knew I was done with this book. This book is—I just—I didn’t know what to feel about that last scene. And ultimately, I didn’t—I just hated that I felt like I was telling the truth.
And your book in a lot of ways is your heart. And so, I’m just like, yo. I trust that there’s people out there that’re gonna do right by my heart. And I’m sure a lot of people out there aren’t, but as long as a few people do do right by it, I think we gon’—you know. We gon’ be alright.
DJO: Yeah. I think what makes that book so real in part is that it asks the question that it takes an entire book to answer.
DJO: You know?
JM: But I feel like when you reach that truth, it’s harder to put your work out into the world. You’re almost afraid to share those things about culture—about black love that aren’t necessarily talked about. How do you deal with that personally, I guess? How do you deal with the fear of that conversation out in the world? Because once it’s out there, you know, people will talk about it and take it out of context and do whatever. Do you have fear about that?
KL: Oh yeah. I have, like, immense fear. Especially in this hyper-mediated world, where people can look and see what everybody is saying about your book or your article or your short story—I was really afraid. But I mean, that book is really about community, you know? Like, I didn’t want that boy—I didn’t want City to be in the hole by himself, the way Invisible Man was, because I just think that that’s not us, and I don’t want that to be us. We all have to navigate that state of aloneness, but I just think community is essential. And so putting this book out there, telling the kinds of truths I think I’m telling, or exploring the kinds of truths I think I’m exploring, was made a little easier when you just think that there are other folks out there who are kinda sorta dealing with the same shit, or dealing with differently intricate or differently and fucked up shit, and you just trust that there’s a community of people out there who want to read. And want to write. You know?
You know, what you—yeah. And so you just trust. And I just think about love, right? At some point, you just gotta be like, “Here. Here’s my heart. You can do whatever you want to it.”
KL: I mean, at some point!
KL: And your book in a lot of ways is your heart. And so, I’m just like, yo. I trust that there’s people out there that’re gonna do right by my heart. And I’m sure a lot of people out there aren’t, but as long as a few people do do right by it, I think we gon’—you know. We gon’ be alright.
DJO: Whew. Shifting gears, although I just want to stay right there for a second—[Laughs]. Okay. How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America: it was a revelation in voice storytellling and truth-telling. It feels like an almost spontaneous purge because the flow is so on point and unflinching. But like with Long Division, there is so much rigor in its construction and meaning. Did you sit down knowing that you were going to write like, “Oh my fucking god! Rah!” And just vomit it? Or were you like, “Hmm, let me be strategic about this. Let me do this with construction.”
KL: I was just in a really bad place in my life, man. And I was just kind of writing to try and stay alive and not hurt people. And initially, I would write all of those pieces to my uncle—when he was alive, actually. I was writing it to him, but I didn’t—you know, I didn’t have the—like, I was talking about in the book. I didn’t love him enough to like, show him these essays. And then ultimately, I had written all the essays—I mean, the book was a lot bigger. I had written a lot more essays, but I had never written that story, the actual piece called How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America—I had written that. And then one day, my editor was like, “Yo, there’s like, a gap between seventeen and twenty that you don’t really talk about.” And then I said, “Alright.” So I just told myself, “I’m just gon’ sit down and try to remember.” So when I initially published it, it was called How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America: A Remembrance, ’cause it was—I hate when people say it wasn’t writing (___), because it was literally just like, I was just trying to remember. But that was the last piece that I’d written in the book, and—I don’t know how to say it other than just like, I was just trying to keep myself—keep the valuable part of myself alive, man, and I just—the only way I could do it was through writing.
DJO: Mm. Mm.
KL: That just sounds mad, like—
DJO: No, that sounds real. Do you feel more at home writing fiction or non-fiction?
KL: Man, that’s a great question because—the best part of that question is “at home,” right? I feel most at home in fiction, but non-fiction is easier for me to do. In fiction, you know, I’m literally in a home. I can get—my job is to get lost in the home of these characters. My job is literally to be at home. You know what I’m saying? When I’m writing fiction. But non-fiction, because there’s an immediate audience, and you know, you’re dealing with a smaller unit of analysis, I feel like it’s easier, but I definitely feel more at home in fiction. But that shit is harder. I don’t care what nobody say—I mean, that shit is harder.
DJO: Wait, really? You find fiction harder?
KL: It’s harder for me, man, ’cause like—
DJO: That’s so interesting.
KL:—page 270 has to somehow reverberate with page 2. And you gotta let all kinda motherfuckers come through your brain, and you gotta try to like, let those people breathe and talk and fucking shit and do all that stuff—
KL:—in ways that people want to continue to read, and you can’t count on there being an audience. Like, this is the thing for me, right? With essay writing, it’s easier for me because—it’s easier for me to voice, because I can write to whom I know want to listen. I know there’s gonna be a group of people out there who’s gonna read the shit I write.
KL: So that audience propels what I’m doing. But with fiction, for me, it’s just harder. It’s just too many things to balance. I like it more, you know? I’m more at home. But it’s a lot harder. But for you, it’s easier, huh?
DJO: Man, when I tell you that I sit down to write a short story, and I’ll just be like, “[Rapid fire sound effect],”—I mean, I’ll stop and shit, but I just like—I see it, and I get excited, and I write it, and it’s smooth. When I sit down to write an essay, it’s like, “[Violent stomping sound effect]—[Groans].” I cannot do that shit!
KL: [Laughs] What about you, Jamie, what do you think?
JM: I feel like fiction is easier for me, too, as well. And that’s maybe, for me, because I’m allowed to not directly confront any emotions as my own and instead, I kind of put echoes of myself into other characters, and I’m allowed to let other people play out situations that I’m too afraid to confront.
I mean, the—there’s a lot of answers to that question, but—I mean, the first one is that I think we gotta ask ourselves like: How do we want to be loved? And how do we deserve to be loved? And do we have the capacity to do that?
DJO: That shit’s real.
KL: That makes sense.
DJO: I did want to ask if you have just a general—you know, like we’ve talked about. We all out here kind of trying to figure out our path, and the system is fucked up, and white supremacy is real in the publishing world and even saying that, you know, like, becomes a problem somehow for people. So fuck all that, but what are the conversations that we need to be having with each other that we’re not, and what are the—you know, what are the words that need to be spoken that aren’t being spoken amongst ourselves, not to white people?
KL: I mean, the—there’s a lot of answers to that question, but—I mean, the first one is that I think we gotta ask ourselves like: How do we want to be loved? And how do we deserve to be loved? And do we have the capacity to do that?
KL: And I think that’s a fucking—them’s three questions motherfuckers lifetimes avoiding.
KL: You know what I’m saying? How do you want to be loved? Like, how do you deserve to be loved, and do you have it in you? To love that way? And I think those questions go to the root of like, white supremacy, and they go to the root of like, black and brown love. I think they go to the root of—shit, everything that I value, but I just think we run away from that, man. And you know, I think we all run away from it, but men tend to run away from it in the most violent ways, I think.
DJO: That’s real.
KL: Or in differently violent ways. In ways that hurt people more, I think. But yeah, so—so that’s one of the questions. And I think another question I think we should be willing to ask each other—and this is real. This is real to think about writers. This is real about people who, you know, are janitors, who are administrators, who are teachers—I think the question has to be like, can somebody pay you enough to not love your people?
KL: You know what I’m saying?
KL: Can you get paid—’cause I think that’s what people trying to do. Can they like—and, and if the answer is yes, I think we need to be clear about: What’s your rate? You know what I’m saying? Like, what is your going rate? If motherfuckers can pay you enough to not love your people, how much is that? Is that eighteen dollars an hour? Is that a hundred thousand dollars? Like—ultimately, I think we need to get the point where the answer to that is no.
Daniel José Older is the author of the upcoming young adult novel Shadowshaper (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015) and the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which begins in January 2015 with Half Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna. He co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and guest edited the music issue of Crossed Genres. His short stories and essays have appeared in Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, the New Haven Review, PANK, Apex, Strange Horizons, and the anthologies Subversion and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel’s band Ghost Star gigs regularly around New York, and he facilitates workshops on storytelling from an anti-oppressive power analysis. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic, and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on Twitter.
Jamie L. Moore is the author of the novella, Our Small Faces (ELJ Publications, 2013). She is a 2014 Kimbilio Fellow and an alum of the VONA workshop and Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. Her work can be found in Blackberry: A Magazine, Mojave River Review, Emerge Lit Journal, Drunk Monkeys, and Moonshot Magazine. She currently works as an Adjunct English Professor at College of the Sequoias, and is working on completing a novel.
It’s not often that I write a book review and start it with a food suggestion, but I’m doing it here: begin the When Women Were Warriors trilogy with a mug of the best tea you can find in your city or the thickest stew to be had, something like what Wilson’s young warrior Tamras would have enjoyed after a long day in the fields. Wrap yourself in the warmest blanket you can find and settle in to your armchair or bed. Get comfortable; you’re going away with Catherine M. Wilson for a while, as long as you want. I promise—you’ll want to go (and you’ll be in good company: Grammy Award winner Janis Ian is also a fan, and she’ll soon be narrating the first book, The Warrior’s Path).
When Women Were Warriors is an epic trilogy set in Bronze Age Britain. Young Tamras leaves behind the loving shelter of her warrior mother’s house to become an apprentice in the house of Lady Merin. Tamras is put in service to the mysterious warrior Maara and a careful friendship eventually grows into love. There’s Sparrow, the slave turned apprentice, who knows the pain of loss, and the wise woman Namet who has watched, and been partially responsible, for war in the name of love.
While love is a main theme in the books and the developing relationship between Tamras and Maara is at the core of the novels, the When Women Were Warriors series is not, at its heart, a romance. Make no mistake, this is an epic tale of a hero’s journey, dividing Tamras’ quest to become a warrior into three books: The Warrior’s Path, A Journey of the Heart, and A Hero’s Tale. No, these books aren’t exactly romances, but in Wilson’s world, the true warrior’s heart is one that is able to feel and experience love—of lover and friends, of self, and of the world itself: “The survival of love in the world is entirely our responsibility,” and it makes perfect sense that the warrior Tamras, who fights to be true to her heart, speaks those lines in the final book A Hero’s Tale, reminding us that all is connected.
Catherine M. Wilson’s writing is both epic and elegant. She spins a tale that I would have devoured as an adventure-starved teenager longing for stories of complex and philosophical female warriors. For example, in the second book, A Journey of the Heart, Lady Merin’s warriors defend their land from the northern tribes. Tamras, new to battle and trained, not with a sword, but in the use of a bow and arrow, saves Maara by shooting and killing an enemy chieftain. Of course, in any hero’s tale, the first kill is a chance for greater knowledge about the enemy and about oneself, but in Wilson’s capable hands, the knowledge gained by Tamras comes through the awareness of personal power. “He will come to you in dreams,” Maara tells Tamras of the man she killed, “and when you meet him face to face, don’t be afraid to speak to him. Tell him that though you are young and strong, your spirit is large and powerful. Tell him it was no disgrace to be defeated by someone so powerful. Then, tell him to leave you in peace.” Tamras’ lesson is in personal power, in trusting her connection to her own honest self and inner wisdom. Again and again in the books, she struggles to hear herself clearly and to do what her inner self dictates.
Tamras is a clearly written character, often utterly self-aware, innocent yet brave, and we’re treated to her growth; with apologies to James Joyce, this is Portrait of the Warrior as a Young Woman. Wilson gives us intense battle scenes and heartbreaking betrayal, but she also treats us to what any avid reader longs for: experiencing everyday life with a trusted character. Through Tamras, we learn the rhythms of days in Lady Merin’s house and, we can see the fine details, like needlework running through this brilliant tapestry of story: the smell of freshly baked bread from the kitchen, the green of the willow tree under which one can make love, the heft of a carved bow and arrow against one’s back.
The women, as the title of the series suggests, are entirely front and center in Wilson’s gorgeous, well-constructed series. They are queens, warriors, apprentices, wise women and mothers. Above all, they are fully human—complex and flawed and philosophical. Set in a matrilineal society, the women in the books move in a world made up almost entirely of female power and female relationships: Tamras’ mother was a warrior, as was her mother before her; at several times in The Warrior’s Path, Tamras retells her mother’s tales to Maara and, as readers, we’re treated to what would have been an oral tradition within the narrative; the myths and legends in the first book begin with, not, once upon a time, but instead an opening that hints at change: when women were warriors. The language suggests that there will one day come a time when that power will shift and women will no longer be warriors in a matrilineal society.
Wonderfully feminist, unabashedly lesbian, and beautifully epic, the When Women Were Warriors books are precious gems that should be on the bookshelves of every thinking woman. They remind us of our strength, power, and courage—and of course, the depths of our honest hearts.
– Marissa Cohen, author of CancerLand
Lise Quintana, Editor in Chief of Lunch Ticket, spoke to Catherine at her home deep in the woods of Northern California.
Lise Quintana: First, run down your list of professional careers for me.
Catherine M. Wilson: I was a professional student for many years, although, not managing to complete a degree until I was almost fifty.
LQ: What did you take your degree in?
CMW: Computer science. Smartest thing I ever did. Before that I was an anti-war protester, a civil-rights-movement person, women’s movement, gay pride, of course. My first career, I was a broadcast engineer—I was the third woman hired by a major market in San Francisco. That was in the 1970s. I did that because I wanted a job where they would have to pay me and promote me according to my job title and seniority. That was the only thing that mattered in a union job.
After three years of that, I quit to go into the motorcycle business with a partner, and then my partner and I split up. So then I got another broadcast engineering job in Monterey, during which time I started buying and rehabbing old houses. And I had a mobile detail business myself, and I got to be in my 40s and realized that my body was not going to hold up working three jobs doing heavy construction, so I went back to college at UC Santa Cruz. Got a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in computer science.
I was recruited right out of school by a startup in Scotts Valley called NetCarta in 1996, the very early days of the Internet. The guy who had founded the company was working on viral networking, on spiders: he was Google before Google existed. But the crazy venture capitalists wanted their money and they sold it after two years for $1 million.
But I had already started writing my book. So I thought that I would just take six months or a year off and finish the book, then go back to work. Ten years later, I finished the book.
LQ: Did you always want to be an author?
CMW: Absolutely. I knew I was going to be an author, because of my mother. My mother was a book person. Writers were the most important people in the world. That was the most important job in the world. You can keep your doctors and your lawyers. Writers, that was where it was at.
Writers were the most important people in the world. That was the most important job in the world.
LQ: Who were your favorite writers growing up?
CMW: I liked the classics, I liked the Brontës, I liked Jane Austen. When my mother died, I couldn’t count the number of books in her house. I had access to a very large library. One book that I read when I was a teenager that profoundly influenced me was Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, a British writer who lived through World War I and lost most of the men in her family, including her fiancé. So that’s what I was reading when I was a kid.
LQ: What sparked the story of When Women Were Warriors?
CMW: My mother was a Greek major. I was not brought up on fairy tales; I was brought up on the Greek myths. My mother’s family was from Maryland, and her father’s best friend had a wife who was the daughter of a plantation owner in Virginia. And this woman had been given a slave when they were both five years old. The slave girl, whose name was Margaret Gibson, sat next to her mistress while she was being tutored. She was privately tutored, given a classical education. As a result, this Ms. Gibson was fluent in classical Greek, Latin, French and English, because she sat next to this woman. When my mother and her family would go and visit, children and servants sat in the kitchen, so my mother sat in the kitchen with Ms. Gibson and she was told the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey and all the myths from a servant, who was able to read it to her in the original Greek. Needless to say, I grew up hearing the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
As I grew up in the 1950s, I kept looking for the story that said, “Once upon a time, a woman went out to seek her fortune” and there weren’t any. I always knew that the first book I ever wrote was going to be about that.
LQ: How long did it take you to get from the first germ of the story to when you started writing?
CMW: I started writing first. Oddly enough, I started writing fan fiction. It’s a wonderful way to find out if you have any talent whatsoever, because in fan fiction, you already have characters, you have your setting, and you can work with that and see if you have a story in you. I started posting Xena fan fiction. Two people were attracted by it: one was a woman who had been traditionally published and who thought that I showed promise, and another would later become my friend and editor, who also thought my writing was quite good. I wrote it from the point of view of the Xena characters. And then I started to think that they would go on from there and something would happen. But I realized that they were two different people. And I had to go back and start from the beginning because I had started in the middle. So I joined a writers’ group, and I took about 20 to 25 runs at it. Once I had done that—once I actually got the story started—then things seemed to go of themselves.
LQ: You chose to self-publish the books and to make them a trilogy rather then one very long book. Tell me about that choice and what led up to it.
CMW: I thought I was going to take six months to finish the book and it kept getting longer and longer. I was starting to get worried because I have studied traditional publishing. The ideal book by a new author is something that is a hot topic right now, is under 200 pages, and has some kind of platform. I had none of those things.
Several of the people in the writers’ group said, “You could make a trilogy out of it.” I could, except that I didn’t have three separate arcs. This is a classic hero’s journey, and you don’t rip a story like that into three pieces. But then I remembered Lord of the Rings. However, I was not about to publish the first book by itself, because you just piss people off. They come to the end of the book, and they go, “Where’s the rest of the story?” In fact, if you read the reviews of Book I (The Warrior’s Path), that’s what people complain of. Ripping it into three pieces was completely a marketing decision. I just received Hild by Nicola Griffith who’s been a published author for 20 years. She could get away with a 600-page novel.
When I was about five or six years into the process, I started to get worried because, for one thing, I was financing this myself; I wasn’t working a day job. I had retirement money saved up and I had money left over from my inheritance. I could envision myself at the end of this process having an unpublishable book and no visible means of support. I had been subscribing to a blog by a woman who used to review for The Chronicle. I sent her the first 100 pages, and her response was, “Take the sex out of the first part and market it to 10-year-olds.” She also told me that no editor, publisher or agent would ask to see a manuscript like this. Well, it was true. I queried 88 agents, and no one asked for the manuscript. I was honest with them. I wasn’t going to sell them the first book and then say, “Oh, by the way, you have to publish the next two as well.” When I got that bit of news about no agent or publisher wanting to see it, I was pretty much blown into the weeds by it, but this is useful information.
This woman’s business was to give the author an idea of what sort of things they should put in their query. She wasn’t a book doctor. Well, needless to say, what I got back was not very helpful, and it stopped me dead for two years. But during that time, I came to the conclusion that it was the work that was important and that if no one ever saw it—if I simply printed it out and threw it down the bit bucket—it was worth doing. And that gave me a kind of freedom that I don’t think you get any other way. The world isn’t ready for this? I’m going to make it anyway. So I did a lot of things in the second half of that book that I wouldn’t have done if I’d been thinking about traditional publishing. I lived for that last four years or so with the reality that I was making something that nobody would ever see. That was tremendously freeing. I still hate that woman for what she did, but she did me a favor by delaying me until self-publishing was as easy as it is now. So I went back and finished the book in 2006. And then I thought that I would take a year and query agents. I did all the things you’re supposed to do: I went and found a book that was similar to mine, found the agent and said, “This is like so and so’s book.” There were agents who would let you send them 50 pages and I would send them the 50 pages. I followed all the rules absolutely. And I gave up counting at 88. After that I just started blasting stuff to whomever I could find. But the whole time that I was doing that, I was studying up on self publishing. I started with the Dan Poynter books, and his paradigm was: “you find a printer, you get plates made, you print 5,000 copies offset, you warehouse them somewhere, you find someone to distribute them somehow,” but there was no distribution, there was no system to do this.
But in 2006, the latest edition said there was this place called Lightning Source and they did this digital printing, and then you could get your book listed on Amazon. I took the next year to learn the skills I needed. I learned InDesign to do the typesetting, Photoshop to do the covers. I learned Dreamweaver to do the websites. I got the paperback out on October 1, 2008. I had my books on Kindle in December 2008 and that’s when I started to see sales. If I had had Lightning Source print it as a single book, it would have run to probably 1,000 pages. It would have cost $50 or more to make a decent profit and give Amazon their cut. How do I get someone to take a chance on that? So I ripped the thing into three pieces and that way I could have normal-size books with a normal-size price, and, since ebooks don’t cost me anything to produce, I could give them away. I started out emailing Book I to people. And then somebody said why don’t you just have it as a download from your website?
When you’re self-published, you don’t have anybody beating the drum for you.
When you’re self-published, you don’t have anybody beating the drum for you. When your wife does it, or your publisher does it, it’s different. So I started just by going onto forums with people who are into ebooks, and I said, “Hey, I’ve got a free ebook.” Now if you go into a forum of readers and say, “Buy my book,” they’ll go, “spam, spam, spam.” But if you go in and “Free book,” they’ll go, “Where?” So that turned out to be the key to marketing this thing. And as it happens, I also subscribe to many, many, many Yahoo groups, listservs, about self publishing, indie publishing, traditional publishing, pod publishing, epub publishing and I found out that Amazon would price match any other price they found. So I set the book up on Smashwords, set the price for The Warrior’s Path to zero, and Amazon price matched it and we were off and running.
And about ten minutes after it went free on Amazon, Janis Ian found it and wrote and asked me for my autograph, and wrote a five-star review of it on Amazon (!!!). So when I saw her in concert last March, I brought her signed copies of the books. As I handed her the books, she said, “Are you going to do an audio book?” I said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I just signed with a company that produces audio books.” And she says, “I’d love to narrate it.” And we were off and running. So that’s going to be out in late November.
LQ: That soon?
CMW: That soon. We indies are speedy. We need those Christmas sales, man. No screwing around.
LQ: You’re really involved with your fan base. You respond frequently on Goodreads and Amazon, etc. What is the most common criticism that you receive about your trilogy?
CMW: I don’t receive criticism from my fans. But what I get is bad reviews, and generally, they are complaining about two things: One of them is that there’s lesbians in it. The other is that they have to pay ten dollars each for books two and three. So, they’re either bigots or cheapskates, that’s kind of how I look at it.
LQ: Well, all-righty then. That’s great though. That’s great that you’ve never had anyone tell you that you’re a terrible writer.
CMW: Oh, I get those. I just ignore it because it’s not true.
LQ: Good for you! Talk about the process of Janis recording your audio book.
CMW: The company producing the book is called Dog Ear Audio. It’s owned and run by Karen Wolfer, and she’s from Guffey, Colorado, and she has a studio, but Janis has allergies, so we went to Nashville. You know, Nashville is just like San Jose. They have the same mini malls, the same Targets, the same Lowe’s. We were right at home. So Janis has a friend Randy Leago who’s an engineer and utility musician. He has a recording studio, and rents himself out as the engineer.
Janis would come in around 10 in the morning. There was a little closet all hung up with quilts, and Randy, bless his heart, bought a brand new $1,000 microphone. She would go in there and she would get started. Randy was sitting monitoring levels and stuff, Karen was watching the script and listening—she’s got better hearing than a dog—she could hear airplanes that were in the next state, motorcycles, cars idling at the stop sign outside; she’d stop everything until the noise was gone. And Janis would just go in to read until she got tired, and then she’d take a break. We funded this thing through Kickstarter, and on Wednesday our big money supporters came, and they got to sit in. They were supposed to get a morning session, and then we would all have lunch with Janis and Randy and everybody, but they were so polite and good and so well behaved that Janis invited them for the rest of the day. And they were just over the moon. After that, Karen and I took them all out to dinner.
Here you have fans of Janis, fans of the book, who get to participate. Even if I could have afforded to finance the entire thing—basically, the Kickstarter campaign paid Janis and Randy, and Karen and I had to cover all our own travel expenses—the marketing potential of Kickstarter is phenomenal. You get all the people who are the most enthusiastic about your work, and about Janis’s work and all of a sudden, you’ve got them shouting to everybody they know, “Go, come support this great project.”
LQ: Have you gotten more people because of the Kickstarter campaign? Have a lot of Janis Ian’s fans now discovered your book?
CMW: Janis sends me emails that she gets from these people. A lot of them know she’s gay, but they don’t think they would find anything interesting in a gay book. Well, it’s not a gay book. It’s a book that has gay people in it, but it’s not a “gay” book. I think it was Janis’s publicist who said “I wasn’t going to read this because I’m not gay and I didn’t think there’d be anything in it for me, but it was fabulous!” Janis has a large mainstream audience, a non-gay audience, who are reading this book. So we’re just getting into the mainstream thing where people are talking about it.
LQ: I have heard that if you write genre fiction well enough, it is no longer genre fiction. It becomes mainstream fiction, literary fiction. So do you see yourself more as a literary fiction person?
CMW: I would call myself literary fiction if it wasn’t for the way people think about literary fiction.
LQ: Which is how?
CMW: I think of genre fiction as fiction that has a certain premise and you know what you’re going to get. You know you’re going to have a certain experience when you read this book. You are not looking for great insights into the meaning of life. You want to see a problem solved, or a puzzle unraveled, or something. However, there are people who write those genres literarily. I think of literary fiction as simply writing that has achieved a level of perfection, a level of polish. But genre fiction adheres to a standard. There’s a way these things are written and that’s how people expect to have them read. But people are thinking “I just want to really pull some of this genre into my mystery, but my editor wouldn’t let me because they wouldn’t know where to put it. They don’t know where to shelve it or how to market it or how to deal with it.” Well, now we’ve got these indies that were just doing it how they please where you can have a love story in a mystery or you can have a mystery in a love story or you can have people go to the moon and have a mystery. You don’t have to adhere to all these strict conventions. And this is the stuff I threw out of my head when I realized I was not going to be traditionally published.
And this is the stuff I threw out of my head when I realized I was not going to be traditionally published.
LQ: So do you think the publishing industry has changed radically since you started writing?
CMW: I think the publishing industry has had its pants scared off it, frankly. I just went to a conference in which Amanda Kyle Williams was the keynote speaker. She’s traditionally published, she’s a lesbian, she had a lesbian small press series in the ’90s and now she’s published by Random House. Her third book is coming out next year in which she’s got an adopted Chinese-American woman raised in Georgia who was an FBI profiler, an alcoholic who lost her job and becomes a private investigator and who lives in a very quirky area of Atlanta with a lot of very strange people. Now this is a lesbian author who has taken a lot of crap from the lesbian community for not making her hero a lesbian. But as she said at the conference, if her hero were lesbian, she would not have a contract with Random House. So what are you going to do with that? But her books are perfect for traditional publishing. She is perfect for traditional publishing. I’m not. They can’t publish people like me. One of the things that the woman who suggested that I take the sex out of the first part and market it to 10-year-olds said was, “You need to have a bestseller about something else.” And I thought, “I’m fifty-something. Am I going to live long enough to write the bestseller that gets me the open door?” There are a lot of people now who are selling millions of books as indies who are turning down traditional publishing.
LQ: So what did your sales look like? The first year, how many books did you sell, and how many are you selling now?
CMW: I think in terms of dollars. I don’t think in terms of numbers because first of all, Book I is free. There are millions of them out there. The copyright page says if you have a friend out there who would like to read this, send it to them. It’s free for everybody—come and get it. So numbers is pretty meaningless for that. The first year, I was only out three months for paperback sales, and I think I only made $300. The second year, I made a couple thousand of dollars. Kind of nice. I did a total of $20,000 for 2011. In 2012, I did $53,000.
LQ: That’s amazing.
CMW: That’s from having the book free and the fact that every day, I market.
LQ: Talk about your marketing efforts. What does marketing look like for you?
CMW: I have so many marketing ideas. I have a towering pile of marketing ideas. The thing that I started with first was that I found people who were looking for ebooks and I gave the first book out free. If you read it and like it then books two and three—I don’t have to force them down your throat, do I? Then, I found places where I could let people know about Book I. There are three or four Yahoo groups that are all about lesbian fiction. When you go back to the bad old days of the 1990s, every lesbian I knew owned every book and every movie that had lesbians in it because there weren’t that many. Now you can’t begin to scratch the surface on it. There’s one particular group where they hated ebooks because they were elitist because you have to buy the reader. Well, you have to buy a DVD player too, but are DVDs elitist? Are records elitist because I had to buy a record player? But they soon got over that because, once you spent your $79 on your Kindle, there are all kinds of free ebooks. But then they started in on quality, and every indie book was a piece of crap. They were just into the books published by the niche publishers who were probably running a little bit scared of the indies.
I found a website called AwesomeIndies.net that will vet your independently published book. First you have to have a certain number of five-star reviews on Amazon, then you have be reviewed by one of their approved reviewers. And if their reviewer gives you four or five stars, you’re in. Because of that, I was able to advertise then on BookBub.com because BookBub is very picky. Then the Historical Novel Society, which wouldn’t review anything independently published, finally figured out that since historical fiction is the ugly stepchild of the publishing industry, publishers do not promote historical fiction. It’s why the Society exists in the first place: because no one was reviewing it. They finally figured out that there were a lot of independents who were publishing historical fiction, and so they just opened up to indies, and because I had received the vetting from AwesomeIndies, they were willing to look at this book. A reviewer emailed me back and said, “Ordinarily I would balk at reviewing a work that’s five years old. But I took the liberty of actually reading it and now there’s no way I’d turn it away.” So I’ve got a stunning five-star review from the Historical Novel Society. But every one of these things is scratch and claw, scratch and claw. I finally got onto BookBub, and the first time—this is the thing about having a free book—the first ad got me 23,000 downloads of book one. 23,000 books. How many books do most people hope to sell a year? 5,000? 10,000? That is an astonishing number and it boosted my sales that month by two or three thousand dollars.
LQ: Impressive. And you won an award for your trilogy.
CMW: I did. I won the Epic Ebook award in the mainstream category. My friend said, “You have to win an award because when you do your blurb, it has to say ‘award-winning.’” So I entered just about anything I could enter, I got my award and I quit entering.
LQ: So, do you plan on continuing writing this story?
CMW: Not this story. Something that writers are doing that I might actually do—it depends on if there’s a story to tell there—my editor thinks that I should write a Thanksgiving dinner story, because of the very convoluted relationships. I mean, they say that in the lesbian community, there’s like two degrees of separation. You either slept with her or you slept with someone who has. There’s a lot of that going on in this story. It’s everybody and their exes sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table.
LQ: Isn’t this 3rd-century Ireland?
CMW: Actually, it’s more like 1000 BCE. I know that people want to read another book, but there isn’t more to say about it. Plus, I have another story telling itself in my head and it’s set in the ’70s. That’ll be the thing I sit down to write, if I write anything.
LQ: What advice do you have for writers who are trying to self-publish?
CMW: I would say first write a good book. That’s the hard part. I’ve gone through all the stages of writer. The part where you’d just die to see your name on the front of a book. You would pay a million dollars to see that. Well, now you can, and pay much less than that. But once you get there, you’ve gotten over wanting to be there. My friend asked, “But wasn’t it a real charge the first time you saw your book?” And it was good for about 10 minutes of “Oooh, wow.”
Second of all, have somebody edit it who knows what the hell they’re doing. I had it edited by a professional copyeditor who introduced more errors than there were in the first place. I was one of those kids who marked the errors in printed books.
LQ: I was too.
CMW: I knew you’d relate to that. I fell back on my own knowledge of the English language, and my ability to peruse the Chicago Manual of Style. But edit the shit out of your book. Have somebody who knows what they’re doing typeset it. I learned InDesign. I just had someone email me who was a friend of someone I’ve actually done typesetting for and she showed me her .pdf that had no top margin in the first six pages, and it was rejected by CreateSpace. And I told her, “Well, you’re going to have to adjust the margin down.” And she said, “Can you do that?” and I go, “No.” “Can you just do a little quick fix?” “No. I’ll typeset it for you in InDesign at $1 a page.”
LQ: Which is cheap, actually.
CMW: That’s very cheap. Book designers are $5 a page. I will do a basic typeset, properly kerned, properly set up, proper copyright page for a buck a page. And then with that, you get a properly produced .pdf file to upload to CreateSpace or Lightning Source. But how many years do you spend writing a piece of work? Do you really want to scrawl it on a piece of bark and throw it out the door? I mean, come on, make a professional product. Put together $1,000—you can make a beautiful print and ebook for $1,000. Most of my clients pay me $500 or $600.
LQ: I didn’t realize how really inexpensive it is to make something really professional.
CMW: Well, you don’t have to go back and forth with me a million times on it. That’s what designers do. That’s why they charge $5 a page. I come up with a basic setup, put a couple of chapters in, and send them the sample. If there’s anything you totally don’t like, I’ll fix it. Generally speaking, they’re happy to get a professionally produced product. And the same thing with covers. Have an artist do the artwork, and I’ll stick it on. I’ll get a template from CreateSpace of LightningSource and I’ll stick all the blurb shit on there for $200. $200 bucks gets you a Kindle or an epub. So a 300-page book, $600. And it’s a professional job. And it’s going to work and it’s not going to get kicked back to you and it’s going to look good. So if your work’s not worth spending $600, then you deserve to be laughed out of the publishing business.
LQ: You are not the first person from whom I’ve heard, “Spend a little money. Make sure that your work looks good.”
You can find Catherine M. Wilson’s trilogy, and get a free download of Book I, The Warrior’s Path, from Shield Maiden Press.
The late poet laureate of Florida called Marissa Cohen’s (www.marissacohen.com) work “powerful.” Her writing has appeared in countless publications, including The Cancer Poetry Project 2 (as featured in The New York Times), Gather Kindling, and Wilde Magazine. She’s twice been interviewed on CBS Radio and also works in higher education and publishing.
Alan Heathcock’s debut collection of short fiction, VOLT, was released in 2011 by Graywolf Press and was called one of the best books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, Salon.com, and GQ, among others. It was an Editor’s Pick for both The Oxford American and The New York Times Book Review, while also being a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Award. Heathcock’s stories have appeared in the Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Storyville, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story. He’s been a Tin House Writers’ Conference Scholar and twice a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellow. His awards include a Whiting Award, a GLCA New Writers Award, a National Magazine Award for Fiction, and he took the Boise Weekly Best Living Idaho Writer award in 2012.
Alan Heathcock grew up in the Hazelcrest suburb of Chicago, Illinois. He earned a Journalism degree from the University of Iowa, followed by MFAs from both Bowling Green University and Boise State University, where he now teaches creative writing workshops.
VOLT collects eight linked short stories, set in the anywhere USA town of Krafton. With characters who beg attention for their eccentric, strange, dark, fleshy humanity; with circumstances both impossible and likely; with words that connect to each other with the evidence of artful, precise architecture, VOLT’s stories drill readers to the core. Heathcock navigates his stories with ultimate regard to their people, and without forgetting reader needs or betraying trust. His writing models a musician’s crafting of melody and tempo, the invitation to settle into its movement and be carried along through its rises and falls. True to the standard of great, contemporary storytelling, Heathcock inspires other writers, not with his growing market success, but by his exemplary craft commitment, his attendance to the level of the sentence, and his human-centric approach.
Alan Heathcock spoke with Lunch Ticket editor Lee Stoops.
Lee Stoops: Thank you for taking the time to share with Lunch Ticket readers.
My first question for any writer is: when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
AH: Oh gosh. Probably a professional baseball player or something like that. I mean I think whatever you imagine yourself as an adult, it’s whatever role you feel you are being rewarded in as a child. I always felt I was being rewarded playing baseball.
LS: So how did you come to storytelling?
AH: I think storytelling is a huge part of my family. This basic old-fashioned, sitting around telling stories to one another. It’s not anything we even think about. It’s just what we do. I’ve come to understand that it’s unique even though I thought growing up that’s just what families did.
In high school, I had that moment where I read something that changed the way I viewed the world. A friend tragically killed himself. I remember not long after that, I was struggling with understanding, even to say trying not to process what had happened. For a class assignment, I was reading Hemingway stories. In the story Indian Camp, the little boy asks his father, “Do many men kill themselves?” And he says “Yes, sometimes they do.” The feeling that that question was maybe the question that I had. That somebody else had that question in their mind made me feel less alone. It didn’t happen until later, in my junior and senior years of college where I started trying to write and express myself with words. But I think my love of stories had always been a part of who I was.
LS: What does your writing process look like?
AH: I think biggest part of maturing as an artist has been freeing myself of processes that were implied to me. I’ve figured out the way my brain works and the things I believe about story and how I need to get my imagination to a certain place.
I generally write chronologically through a story, so I’m accumulating along with the characters. On any given morning I decide what I’m going to work on, a scene or a little chunk of the narrative. And I attack the problem of how do I get my imagination all the way down into that moment.
For example: I started thinking on the scene I’ll be working on today, yesterday. Trying to get my head around it, to get my imagination down into this character’s point of view. I want pure empathy. I need her feelings, what she smells, the light, the sounds. For this scene: in a stable in the middle of a storm.
When I get to what I call the point of critical mass, when I know my imagination is there, I sit down and I write it as fluidly as I can, without stopping. To capture the truth of the experience that’s in my imagination, as powerfully and vividly and palpably as possible. And then I immediately get onto revising to make sure the language is accurate and precise. Then I do that over and over and over again.
LS: The stories in VOLT each stand alone but take place in the same imaginary Midwest town with the same cast of characters moving throughout. How did you come to the decision to link these stories instead of just writing them as a novel?
Four of the stories in VOLT come from failed novels. As the novels failed, I would pluck out the dramatic movements I thought were powerful and could stand alone. There is some freedom for them being highly particular, highly specific commentaries rather than connected in the larger thematic sense that comes with a novel.
AH: I was trying to write novels. Four of the stories in VOLT come from failed novels. As the novels failed, I would pluck out the dramatic movements I thought were powerful and could stand alone. There is some freedom for them being highly particular, highly specific commentaries rather than connected in the larger thematic sense that comes with a novel. I accumulated this familiarity with the characters, with the place, and I was pretty deep into it when I started thinking about the book.
And there, very clearly, influences like Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s book, or James Joyce’s The Dubliners came in with that familiarity with a place, with a sentiment, which enabled me as a reader go with them to a greater depth and feeling into each particular story. I just love those books so much I found it very attractive.
LS: What do you feel your roles and responsibilities are as an artist engaging in your local community? And in the literary community?
AH: Well, that’s twofold: as an artist myself, and as an advocate for the arts. As an artist, I have to write my preoccupations, to write deeply into things that confound and scare me, and places where I find great hope and great caution and try to express those things in stories so that people can read them and have the same conversation with themselves. That’s the human connection that we find through art. I think one of the main purposes of art is to allow us to see ourselves in a way that is bearable so that we can make sense of this crazy world and how we’re supposed to make sense of ourselves. And I take that very seriously.
And as an advocate for the arts. To go out and make sure that people understand the value of literature, the value of that art. Deep value. I’m very passionate about it. I do what I can to help people to be reminded of the power and the necessity of literature in our schools, in our community, in our civic lives, whatever they may be. Literature is terribly important. It needs to be cherished and curated and practiced.
LS: One of my favorite characters in VOLT is sheriff Helen Farraley because she was jokingly elected, but takes the job seriously. And, she takes justice into her own hands. Can you talk a little bit about justice as a theme in your stories?
AH: I think justice has always been a hard concept for me to get my head around. Too often, especially in America, we talk about justice as being this black and white thing. From where and how I grew up, things were not always black and white. I knew people who were known as good people who did things that I thought were unjust. And there were people who were seen as criminals, who were beautiful people and did a lot for the community. I’ve been in close proximity to terrible tragedies and seen the affects, especially with these horrible, violent acts where there’s just … We seek answers, something to settle our minds.
I used to go to this small town, Waseca, Minnesota. Beautiful, bucolic small town. We loved to go fishing, go on long walks through the fields, and that kind of stuff. In 1999, some guys came to town and were robbing a house and a teenage girl came home and found them. They raped and murdered her and left her body. I was there a few weeks after that happened. There was a pall over everything. The way people interacted changed. The community started talking bringing the criminals to justice, to restore peace. And those guys were caught, tried, and sentenced. And you think, “Okay, now we can find our peace.” But it wasn’t true. In 2009 they had a memorial service in the park. People were still just weeping. What justice will heal that?
Justice is a word we use in hopeful ways to settle things inside our souls. My stories, in part, look at how justice is not black and white, how justice is a concept, and how it can be a failing or a misunderstanding of how people cannot always be settled.
LS: Many of the characters in VOLT struggle with what they see as universal morality – right versus wrong. Are those struggles at the root of your stories, or do they work their way in as you develop the characters and the situations?
AH: Before something is a question, it starts as a feeling of being scared or confounded or confused. You know, how am I supposed to feel about this? My initial impulse is to create, to express this stuff inside me. Purging is not the right word, because these things don’t go away. I need to let people know what’s inside me, if for no other reason than to feel like I’m not alone. If I’m feeling scared or if I’m feeling furious or if I’m conflicted—if I start writing from that place, then I know I’m writing a good story. Eventually, it always seems to come to something, generally a moral question of how we operate as human beings in dealing with the great wars that rage inside us. I write for myself first, right? Even if I didn’t publish another thing, I would continue to write. The impulse to explore these things, express them on the page, is how I deal with these things that won’t go away.
LS: Some of these big, unanswerable questions—they’re dark. But within that, you also write toward redemption. Do you think fiction has to have both these qualities?
AH: Has to have? I think I have to have them. We understand the scope of love because of the scope of pain or grief or despair. That’s just a truth of the world we can’t deny. For me, I think those are the things I’m drawn to, even though I’m a naturally hopeful person. These things are not just for the depressed. Grief and tragedy happen to the happiest, the wealthiest, most well-adjusted. I don’t want to be in despair. I don’t want to be grounded by grief. My work is generally informed by characters who, though put into these places of tragedy and grief, are fighting as hard as they can to find their way out. I’m interested in their struggle because their struggle is my struggle. For what I do, yeah, it’s a necessity. I want to be good. I want to be hopeful. I want to be free from despair and from grief. But there are obstacles. And that’s where there is a story. A despaired person who has no hope—that’s not a good story arc. [he laughs]
LS: And, what about humor? You’re a funny guy—how do you reconcile that in your writing?
I think there’s a part of me that thinks I could write a really, really funny book. I love laughing. I love laughter.
AH: I think there’s a part of me that thinks I could write a really, really funny book. I love laughing. I love laughter. My wife jokes all the time, “I’m very happy that Al has it situated this way—where he has a place to put all this serious stuff so that when he walks around the world, he’s the happy go-lucky-guy.” I don’t think I have an explanation for it. I think I need years of therapy to figure that out. I love comedy, and it has a great role in my life. But I know that when I sit down at the desk to do my work, for whatever reason, I’m there to root around in the muck. I know that’s why I’m doing it. It has to have a certain temperament to it. And that temperament is humorless. [laughs]
LS: One of the things I admire most in your work is your ability to write images that cannot be forgotten. For example: Winslow Nettle’s son Rodney laying in the field behind the tractor “like something fallen from the sky” after slipping into the tiller discs. Writing unforgettable images is one of the hardest and most important things writers do. How do you settle on yours?
AH: Two things here: One is I’m always engaging in empathy. The truest experience for the character. Fiction, at its heart, I believe should be empathetic—connecting the reader with the experience of someone who is not them. As long as the character is sighted, I have to have powerful images because that’s the nature of the human experience.
The second part of it is how I choose. One of the coolest things I started doing, and I got this idea from a friend of mine who was a poet in Chicago. I would go to the art institute of Chicago—every Thursday it was free for students—and I would pick a painting. Stand in front of a Monet one week, and a Salvador Dali the next, and I would not just try to write the image, but I would try to understand the painting itself. Its temperament. I did it week after week, and it taught me some very important things about executing the power of an image. I started taking that back to characters, to what they see and how they mix that with whatever they’re feeling.
I have to write the image that captures that temperament. All images are an expression of the character’s temperament. All images are an expression of character.
LS: Your short story Fort Apache was adapted into a short film. Smoke is now in pre-production for the same. How involved have you been in that process? How has it been watching your characters come to life in a different visual way?
AH: It’s been an interesting process. With Fort Apache I wasn’t very involved. It was very exciting when they started sending me scenes. This stuff that was born out of my imagination, and now I could see real live human beings, people throwing bowling balls, breaking windows, the older brother swinging clothes he has lit on fire above his head. I wasn’t here on the set to see the reality behind it, so there’s something there that keeps the magic intact even for me.
With Smoke I’m much more involved. I’m a full producer and I’m engaged in every creative conversation. Though in some ways it’s diminished because it’s like the magician finally learning the tricks, you know? There is no magic for the magician, and there’s some tragedy behind that, but at the same time it’s cool to know all the magic tricks and to be able to influence things. I’m a huge movie fan. Films are a big part of who I am. For a long, long time, I sat by myself at my desk doing my own work. This film is a collaborative process that I get to do with guys I really like as human beings. I get to hang around with smart, artistic, creative people, and there’s something wonderful about that.
LS: What is the most unexpected thing that has happened to you since you’ve committed to this work?
AH: The way it’s changed me as a person. When the book was coming out, I had this overwhelming feeling of dread. I had written these stories over the course of a long time, over a dozen years, sitting by myself, recording my very private preoccupations. These stories were what would be characterized as dark. I was afraid that I would scare people, that people would cringe away from me. The very first out of town reading I gave was at Powell’s in Portland, and a woman came up to me after the reading. She said she had read the first story, The Staying Freight, which is about a father who accidentally kills his son in a farming accident. She had driven an hour and a half to talk to me because her own son had, about six months before, been killed in a car crash. She told me the story had allowed her to look at some things that she had not previously allowed herself to look at. It was such a privilege for someone to say to me, “I had this tragedy in my life, and this intimate thing that is a book helped me.” I found that wherever I went. Over the course of time, I switched from being a used car salesman about my book to saying, “This is my book. It is about grief, and fear, and confusion, and the invasive nature of violence, and the tenuous nature of peace and how these things scare me to death.” I have become, in this odd way, completely vulnerable and relatively fearless about being open. That wasn’t something I think I could have anticipated. It makes my job as a writer easier now. I don’t fight with myself any more. I know that my job is to immediately go into that place and to investigate those things, and that has tremendous value. It has real value in the world and in people’s lives.
LS: You teach writing workshops and classes at Boise State University. What’s your favorite thing about teaching?
AH: That’s easy. I think most students have a story that they’re meant to tell. And most of them aren’t writing that story. I get to know the students, form relationships with them in ways that I can have conversations with them about how to find the story they’re meant to write. And seeing them light up at the prospect of being able to tell the story they’re meant to write. Being a writer, being artistic, is having the license to indulge any and all of your curiosities. The older we get, the harder it is to find space where anybody will say “I want you to indulge your curiosities.” As I remind them of that gift and how they need to be finding the thing that they find deeply interesting, it just changes the dynamic of the way they understand writing, and the way they understand themselves.
LS: What are you working on now?
AH: I’m working on a novel. And I’m trying to figure out exactly what it is. I think I know what it is. In a ballpark sense, and I’m fairly certain I know what it is in a precise sense. I know that there’s another great flood. A world-wide flood. The characters don’t know that. They just know that it keeps raining, that everything is flooded, that they’re drifting around the world trying to survive. Something that some people might call a war breaks out over some of the last remaining land: mountain peaks. I know at some point, one of the characters sprouts wings, which some people in the story, and some readers, will wrestle with the question, “Is that an angel?” I never use that term in the book. But then other people start spouting wings. I won’t say much more about it. I’m interested in the question: If everything is leveled, flooded over, and all of our politics and laws, churches and everything else is underwater, how will we behave? How will we begin to recreate ourselves, civilization? What will that look like? I’m wrestling with that right now, and I’m having a lot of fun.
LS: What have you read recently that’s moved you or changed how you come to the page?
AH: Two things: I’ve re-read a book called Being Dead by Jim Crace. I read it a long time ago and remembered liking it. The storytelling is very unique in that it starts in climax and works its way backwards. And the way the storytelling obsesses over ideas is very interesting, compelling to me. And the others are these big, sweaty Game of Thrones novels. I’m not writing my stories in the way he’s writing, but I’m completely fascinated by his storytelling and his ability to keep a story going, keep me deeply engaged. And I’ve probably learned as much about writing a longer work, of how to sustain narrative drive and interest, as much from Game of Thrones as from any other book I’ve read in a long time.
LS: If you were only able to share one piece of advice with other emerging writers, what would it be?
AH: I think when most people start off writing, it’s because they’ve found something moving, they’ve had something come to life inside their imagination. They have some notion that they’d like to try it themselves. They start off by imitating, which is great, it’s fine. We have to learn by imitating.
But there comes a point where they want to transition into becoming a writer, becoming an artist. And, so to them I always say not to be afraid to take yourself seriously. You need to get looking inward and asking questions about what makes you angry, what makes you scared, what makes you hopeful, what makes you swoon. No matter where you’re from, no matter what experiences you’ve had, you’ve experienced profound things. Those are the richest part of your human experience and the most potent weapons you’ll have as an artist.
Do not be afraid to take yourself seriously. You are not a cliché. The moment you decide to take yourself seriously, to look inward, is the exact moment you’ll stop imitating others and will become original.
A graduate of Antioch University’s MFA program, Lee Stoops teaches and writes in the mountains of Idaho with his wife and children. He still builds forts and brings ghosts to campfires. His work has recently appeared in Spry, Bartleby Snopes, Writer’s Digest, and Annotation Nation.
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