How do two writers live and write together? The answer changes through time. In her introduction to The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, Cathy Porter describes how Sofia laboriously copied Leo Tolstoy's work: "After the baby had been put to bed, she would sit at her desk until the small hours, copying out his day's writing in her fine hand, telepathically deciphering the scribble." When reading Sofia's diaries, kept from age 16 until she died in 1919, it’s hard not to feel her creative frustration. "To each his fate," she writes. "Mine was to be the auxiliary to my husband." Historian Alexis Coe writes that being married helps academics get ahead, but only if they are male. In the Lenny Letter, she expands on her findings from reading the acknowledgements in books, "male historians often call wives research assistants while female historians say husbands were patient/encouraging." Her article is a fascinating look at a selected history of literary couplings, from the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Bruce Holsinger, a novelist and academic, also searched acknowledgments and found many examples of male authors thanking their wives for typing manuscripts. People continue to share examples on Twitter using the hashtag #ThanksForTyping. A click shows there are many women of the past century who might find Sophia Tolstoy's words familiar. While a word processor changes dynamics, the way a work is attributed often reflects a power relationship between two authors. When a couple are both authors, the relationship is often colored by the politics of their day. In 2017, many couples are striving for a more equal balance of power in relationships. There are as many ways this can play out as there are couples, but I want to continue the conversation. How does a modern couple balance the domestic with a literary life? Julie Buntin’s Marlena is one of the most energetic and vibrant debut novels released this spring, which Kirkus calls, “as unforgettable as it is gorgeous.” Her partner, Gabe Habash, just published one of the breakthrough debuts of the summer, Stephen Florida. NPR calls it, “starkly beautiful and moving.” I was intrigued to learn that Buntin and Habash are partners and live together. While I assume they both do their own typing, I wonder how this particular modern couple make it work. By email, I asked them about reading each other’s work, egos, money, and solitude. The Millions: Gabe, did you know Julie was a writer when you first met? Gabe Habash: Yes, we met in grad school. We had a craft class together, and I was immediately struck (and probably a bit intimidated) by how smart and perceptive she is. But we didn’t actually have any workshops together so I didn’t read her writing until after I graduated. By then she was starting what would eventually become Marlena. I’m grateful I get to watch how she shapes her work. It’s amazing. TM: Julie, you knew Gabe was a writer when you met. Did you consider this a good or bad thing? Julie Buntin: Soon after we started dating I realized that we weren’t going to have a problem with competitiveness when it came to writing—I’d dated a writer before, and that had been an insidiously toxic problem, but Gabe and I never had that issue. Mostly because of him, I think—Gabe is immune to comparing himself to other people. It’s very strange and I envy it. I am not immune, but am trying to get better. TM: Is Gabe the first reader of your work? JB: He is. It’s a bit of a crutch. When I was deep in revisions of Marlena, after he’d already read it a couple times, I would sometimes send altered drafts to my editor without showing Gabe, but for the most part, he sees everything before it goes out. I’ve delayed submitting things to the point of missing deadlines because I want Gabe’s take first. TM: Is Julie the first reader of your work? GH: Yes, she's always been my first reader. I wrote the first 50 pages of the novel and showed them to her to find out if it was bad. I wouldn’t write any more until I knew she liked it because I respect her opinion more than anyone else in the world—if she says it’s bad, it’s bad. Julie is just as good of a reader as a writer, if that’s possible. There are numerous reasons the book is dedicated to her. TM: Has she or he ever said anything about your writing that you wished she hadn’t? GH: Nope. JB: Gabe’s going to be embarrassed that I’m sharing this, but I showed him the first few pages of a new novel a while back. He said: “You can do better.” In general, I appreciate that we’re at a place where we don’t need to dance around anything, but that work was a little raw for a fully honest assessment—still, I’m glad he told me what he really thought. TM: Do you believe Gabe when he praises your work? JB: I do. Gabe is a bad liar, and I think my answer to the previous question gets at the directness of how we talk about writing. TM: Do you ever feel threatened by the success of Julie’s novel? GH: Honestly, no. Our books are so different and I love Marlena, so it never felt like they were competing against each other. Also, just watching someone work at something so hard, putting years into it and going through really challenging moments with it because it’s a vital part of her life—it's impossible for me to feel jealousy or to feel threatened when I saw that because I knew how much telling the story meant to Julie. TM: Marlena was blurbed by Lorrie Moore, is an Indie Next Pick, and was selected by The Rumpus Book Club. For a debut novel, it doesn’t get much better. Did you ever worry that Gabe’s book might not be as well received? JB: I have never doubted for a second that Stephen Florida would be well received. Even when a number of major publishers passed, I had no anxiety about it eventually finding the right home—Gabe did, but I didn’t. I don’t think it’s blind wife faith either—I hadn’t had that same certainty when his previous novel was on submission. After reading Stephen Florida I felt a flicker of jealousy—he wrote a book that alchemizes his talent and experience and deep thinking about literature into a novel that’s exhilarating to read. If anything, I feel a little smug about all the good reviews it’s getting. Like—told you, world! If anything (please forgive how pretentious this sounds), I worried that his book might be taken more seriously from a critical perspective, because Marlena is about girls and Stephen Florida is about boys. That doesn't seem to have been the case, at least not so far, but I did wonder if that was going to be an issue. I'm still not sure how I would have handled that. TM: Writing and books aside, what do you both love to do? GH: We like to take walks like old people. We watch Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks. Some day, I swear, I will get her to like video games. We both like horror movies, which Julie will point out to you is some study’s number one metric for determining relationship compatibility. TM: You both work in publishing and are writers. Is it ever too much? JB: It can be. Sometimes we get home and we’re eating dinner and we go from talking about our books to talking about books that he’s reading or assigning for review to talking about books on submission at Catapult or something I’m editing or a writer I want to get to teach and we have a moment where one or the other of us snaps and is like, no more books. Please, enough. And so we try to introduce spaces into our lives for other stuff. It can be overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like we’re always sort of working. But most of the time it’s nice to never have to translate why doing this work matters so much to me. TM: What about money? GH: As writers who also work in publishing, we are obviously very rich. Julie, I think, needs writing on a daily basis. I go through long periods in which I barely think about it, and then write all at one time. So having no day job I think is more for Julie—she would use the time, whereas if I weren’t in the middle of a project I would just wander around like a vagrant, wondering how to fill the hours. JB: Oh, this is a hard one. I would be lying if I said I never thought about this. It has occurred to me that in some ways I’ve made my writing life harder because I’m married to another writer, instead of someone with more financially-driven ambitions. Gabe is better at balancing his work life and writing life—he’s more of a daily chipper, less of a binger—and as much as I love my job, I feel like I am giving something up every minute that I am not writing. But maybe I would go crazy if I had that time. Or maybe I’d have finished another book by now! Who knows—like most writers, I’ve always had a job or two or three and squeezed writing in somehow. All this said, I’ve learned a lot about writing from Gabe, from his edits on my work, from the process of editing his. There a lot of writer couples. Maybe once you become accustomed to the benefits of having an in-house reader and editor, not to mention someone who challenges you to think more deeply about how and why you write, I don’t know, those things become more important than a pension. We’ll see if I feel the same way in 20 years. TM: What is the best part about living with another writer? JB: Never having to explain why you don’t want to go out. TM: What is the worst? GH: Whatever plans you might have, they can get eliminated at any time if one of us is in the writing fugue. You just have to accept that your plans are canceled in that instance. TM: Do you understand Gabe’s work better than anyone else? JB: I don’t know that I understand it better than anyone else, but I do think I understand how it came to be better than anyone else. I look at the first page and I can see ghosts of cut phrases, all the thinking that went into making the book what it is—it’s a privilege. TM: Do you understand Julie’s work better than anyone else? GB: I have no idea! You’ll have to ask her. Julie understands my work better than anyone else. TM: What is your favorite thing that the other has ever written? GH: The last chapter of Marlena is two and a half pages. I think about it all the time. It's contains everything that came before but also opens the narrative up; I love how it shows the story is longer than the book itself. JB: I love that first page. It starts, “My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them…” and ends like this: “I believe in wrestling, and I believe in the United States of America. I am a motherfucking astronaut.”
Historian Yuval Noah Harari first published Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind in Hebrew in 2011. It went on to be translated in more than 30 countries to international acclaim and first appeared in English in 2014. The book has climbed the bestseller lists since. From the Stone Age to modern day, Sapiens explains how modern humans have come to dominate our environment through our unique ability to collaborate. We can organize flexibly around imaginary concepts, like nations, gods, and money. Harari’s new book, Homo Deus, picks up where Sapiens left off and projects forward to imagine what we might become. In addition to nations, gods, and money, the self is also an imaginary concept. As self-made gods, what new world should we create? In an age where making sense of the world feels something like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose, Harari has a unique ability to construct a captivating narrative while drawing from many disciplines. Those who have read Sapiens may feel that some of the ideas in the second part of Homo Deus are familiar, but I urge you not to skip forward. The review of core ideas, like the value of money and humanism, are a necessary set up for the thrilling third part of the book. And it’s this third part of Homo Deus, where Harari plays a sort of proviso-prophet, that is especially fascinating. Malcolm Gladwell-style criticism will undoubtedly be leveled at a historian who has dared to pluck examples from philosophy, biology, psychology, and other disciplines in order to peer into the future. But much like Gladwell’s "Revisionist History" podcast, the point of Homo Deus is not to make predictions, but to loosen the grip of our past so that we can ask better questions and be more imaginative about the future. This is a brave book for a brave new world. Should you read Homo Deus? I did and it changed my life in a number of ways. Here are the top five: 5) I Feel Assured My History Degree Was Not a Waste of Time Instead of shrugging when my capitalist uncle asks, again, why I bothered to study history, I will tell him this: History can liberate us from the past. If you want people to gain rights or build equality in the world, Harari makes the case that the first step is to retell the history. The new story will explain that, “our present situation is neither natural nor eternal.” Our lives become the stories we decide to tell ourselves. History majors may yet inherit the earth. 4) I Understand Why I Went Through the Torture of Childbirth, Nearly Died, and Then Willingly Had Sex and Did It All Over Again Before the pain became so excruciating that I couldn't think, I spent much of my second labor wondering, why? If my life is a story that I tell myself, then shouldn't the pain I experienced during my first labor stop me from doing this again? Within a larger conversation about how we think and make decisions, Harari explains the peak-end rule. The narrating self, the one that tells the story, has a tendency to remember the most painful moment and the end moment, rather than a detailed play-by-play of what actually happened. Some part of myself did hold a memory of the pain, but I’d since allowed my love of my baby to override the more accurate memories. This peak-end rule also goes some way to explain multiple occurrences of teething and toddlers in my life. No need to re-read Gone Girl, I am my own unreliable narrator. 3) When I Next Get in Trouble, I Will Say My Algorithm Made Me Do It When I started this article, I stole two squares from my cousin's chocolate bar. At the time of writing, I’ve since circled back for two more. Do I have evil in my soul? Why does my mind crave chocolate? Have I evolved in a way that makes chocolate essential to my being? Perhaps my cousin will accept one of these reasons as an excuse. Or, I could tell her that I am an avalanche of electric signals fired by billions of neurons that stimulate glands to secrete hormones and make my muscles contract in such a way that the chocolate found its way to my mouth. Rather than a holistic chocolate stealing entity, I am a combination of smaller parts that have come together and evolved gradually. These parts include a wad of tissue in my head that I call my brain. As a whole, my organism works like any other algorithm. Put an input, like a search query, into Google's algorithm and you will arrive at a given result depending on how the search engine functions that day. Put chocolate in the house and you may find that a chain of electric signals and secretions work the two squares through my algorithm, which results in the chocolate ceasing to exist in its previous form. 2) I Can Now Articulate Another Thing That Has Been Bugging Me About the U.S. Election Since reading Homo Deus, I am no longer am a practicing devotee of liberalism. Many of us might agree that Donald Trump talks nonsense and he has gained popularity by pointing out that his opponents don’t make any sense either. There are times when none of it feels rational. Regardless of what side you are on, our current political imagination is dominated by liberalism. As we don’t believe in a god or politician who is all-knowing, we believe that the best way to find truth and the best leader is at the level of the individual. Our new authority, a clear and consistent inner voice, guides our most important decisions. Or does it? I don't need to do much self-reflection to realize that my inner voice is often conflicted and inconsistent. I dredge up old memories and inflate their importance to justify my current decisions. I say I believe one thing and then do another. So do the candidates. At the core of liberalism is a belief that we are individuals with defined senses of self. But for all our advances in science, we have never found any evidence of a "self." Put Trump's policies under a microscope and all you will find is a chain reaction of biochemical events. At its core, liberalism is an act of faith. In order to believe in it, you need to put rational thought aside, which astutely describes what has been bugging me. 1) I Will Kick Ass When I Next Play Settlers of Catan I’m not going to tell you the winning strategy that Harari lays out for Settlers of Catan, but I am convinced that it will give me a competitive edge. But I have a problem. If you read the book, we might both start using the same strategy, which will significantly lessen my advantage. A third player might also read the book and know both our tactics in advance. Once Harari’s book is widely read, all my advantage is lost. As we live in a data driven world, my best bet might be to build an app that can crunch the strategies and variables and make a recommendation for my next best move. If the app becomes widely used, I can go on to build a networked algorithm that can collect information and become all knowing about the strategies used in Settlers of Catan. With my one winning strategy, I will become just one point of input, whereas my algorithm's power to win, with data collected from a broad range of inputs, will quickly become a far superior player. At that point, do I cease to be the player and become the one who is played? If I sound like a character who from the pages of a Jeff VanderMeer novel, it’s for good reason. We currently use technology to overcome our limitations, but its capabilities may contain the seeds of our irrelevance or downfall. In the more immediate future, however, I plan to kick ass at Settlers of Catan.
One of my least attractive qualities is that, as a writer, sometimes I get pangs of jealousy while reading a great novel. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill is one that turned me a pale shade of green. In 1914, two babies are left in the care of a Montreal orphanage, though the care includes regular beatings and abuse. Early on in life, the two children distinguish themselves. Pierrot, a virtuoso, can make a piano sing and Rose, with her supple strength, entertains the other orphans with her dancing and humor. When Pierrot and Rose become fast friends they find solace in each other until, as teenagers, they are split up. Pierrot is adopted and Rose sent out to work. With the Great Depression taking hold, they independently struggle to make a life in the underbelly of Montreal. Through their journey toward finding each other again, the novel explores ideas about self-expression, despair, and true love. The Lonely Hearts Hotel should be a sad book, but it isn’t. As Emily St. John Mandel said, “it’s also joyful, funny, and vividly alive.” How does a writer take on the subject of sadness and write about it with joy and wonder? One way is to counter the bleak and grim, as O’Neill does, with stunning prose. All too often, though, novels are filled with stylish language, gilded metaphors, and ornate sentences that don’t hold up thematically or structurally. When this happens, the language starts to feel decorative -- I can’t help but think of the gold drapery that Donald Trump has installed in the Oval Office, fancy curtains that say nothing about grandeur and only obscure the view. But the language in The Lonely Hearts Hotel adds up to much more. Word by word, the metaphors and images allow the author to build an elegant and understated exploration of theme. So what of my envy? It's petty and unbecoming and replacing my Ikea blinds with green curtains will do nothing to improve my writing. That said, I’ve found it’s important to chase after uncomfortable feelings, as they often point toward something I want to learn. I was interested to understanding more about how O’Neill works and asked her for an interview. Going back and forth via email, we talked about how she makes choices, doorbells, Montreal, what she sees, what she thinks about, and how she writes. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is about how two orphans turn difficult experiences into art. It makes a case for sadness -- that it is important because despair contains truths that can lead to joy. It shows how an author can build a sense of wonder using precisely chosen words. I finished both the novel and this interview with even greater admiration for O’Neill’s work. Uncomfortable feelings, like envy, can lead the way to a deeper appreciation. And maybe my Ikea blinds mean I can focus on the view. The Millions: I was struck by your writing when I realized the precision of your choices. Rose, out of the orphanage and looking for a way to make money, walks up to a building. Inside is a studio that makes pornographic films. You describe what she sees, a “descending row of white doorbells, like the buttons on a dress.” My question is specific: How did that image come to you? Heather O’Neill: It’s hard to remember the motivations for that detail specifically. But let me try. Doorbells at the entrance of a building is something that’s been in my imagination for a while. I remember reading an essay once, years ago, where someone said they lived in a building with loads of doorbells. And from that moment, I was in love with doorbells on the page. What I’m saying is that, for me doorbells are fraught and magical. So whenever they are in my text, they are more than what they are. They insist on having meaning. They are put there for me as a general metaphor for the content of a building. They have some much possibility. If there are loads of doorbells, there are all these strange doors you can choose to go into. There’s something inappropriate about having too many doorbells. TM: When you first wrote that sentence, did you already know that Rose would soon be taking off her clothes? HO: I was imagining Montreal as being sexy. So there are lots of feminine details and images. There are buildings that are coy and some that are more forward. The buildings echo what goes on inside them. With that building, the doorbells were a neat white line, like buttons, and buttons are always undone. And what goes on in that building is, of course, erotic. So when I got to the door, I would have wanted some detail that heralded that. So I added that detail. But I can’t recall when I added it. It might have occurred to me at the origin of the scene. TM: When you read the essay about doorbells, did you write your observation down? Or did it come to you while you were writing? HO: Many of my metaphors, imagery come to me specifically for the scene. I do also have notebooks filled with details. Sometimes I will have an image, like a poem that follows me around, waiting to be used. So it might have been a small line that existed before the story itself. Like my dad used to have a sewing box with lots of patches in the shapes of mushrooms etc, that were waiting for the right hole to fit. TM: Do you have an idea of the plot and work back to the language? Or is it the other way around? HO: There’s so much strange intuition in writing that it’s hard to say. I have no idea what the history of that actual line is, but if I tracked it down, I wonder if it would make my writing process make so much sense that I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore. TM: Beyond the doorbell, the buildings are much more than a place to live. When Rose takes a room in a building with thin walls rather than being disturbed by the noise, she feels soothed by the voices of her neighbours as she falls asleep, “it was what the world sounded like to an unborn child.” HO: The buildings in the novel are especially alive when Rose moves further east in the city, to the Red Light District. There were secrets maps of that neighbourhood that circulated in the 1930s and '40s. They had secret back doors and tunnels in the walls and routes over the rooftops, etc. So they were complicit in the lifestyle and criminal goings on. I feel like the inhabitants of every building change it a little bit. The way that every intimate relationship you have changes your personality. And the lives and activities happening in the rooms of those buildings jolted them into life. And I find them so beautiful that it’s hard for me not to see an object of beauty as being animate. TM: And the houses get moody with age, “they refuse to open or shut their windows.” Or a hotel goes up in flames, as if the building had a heart attack. You live in Montreal and set much of your work there. Do you think of the city as a character? HO: Definitely. I always feel that it is alive. When I sit on a staircase, I know the building is aware of me. It’s always watching me. It’s talked me into some of the worst decisions of my life and whispered great words of love and belief into my ears at the same time. I feel sort of giddy when I walk down the streets. Especially in the Plateau, where I’ve spent most of my life, because it knows me. It’s always reminded me of good times we had together. Sometimes I get so taken aback when I see an old familiar building that it’s like running into an ex at the grocery store. I think Montreal, like any city, has its own personality. It’s totally funny, it’s wry, it’s dirty. It is romantic and fickle and philosophical. It always has something to say in every scene I write. It’s a main character, I would say. TM: But then you captured New York in the most fascinating way as well. It is an outsider’s view filled with awe, that the city vibrates with so much energy because of, “all the hearts beating,” and the buildings are like, “ladders up to the heavens.” If you are so rooted in Montreal, how to you approach writing about another place? HO: It depends on the place. I think my interpretation of different cities is influenced by how that place is fixed in the imagination of Montrealers. (My portraits of Paris are always suffused with a moody, existential beauty.) I wanted New York City to seem very big to the characters. Growing up Canadian, as you know, you have a sort of cultural low self-esteem. We’re taught that everybody is more brilliant and bright and interesting than us. That’s why we’re so polite, because we’re afraid of being noticed. We’re so intimidated by Americans, it’s tragic. That’s what the performers were feeling when they step off the train. They are giddy by the heights of the buildings in New York, because they represent the heights of their ambitions, what they’ve decided to try and measure up to. Because it is so big, it makes the characters feel somewhat like children. And much of this novel is about the nature of childhood innocence, and the relationship between who we were as children and who we are as adults. They are essentially living out childhood dreams, so everything seems gigantic in New York, in ambition and scope. Everything is exciting and bold. TM: So much of the observation in this novel happens on the level of the street. I imagine you wandering the streets of Montreal and staring at people for inappropriately long stretches of time. Do you do this? HO: I used to. So much as a child. I definitely had a staring problem. I was enthralled by strangers around me in the city. I thought they were so wonderful. I would watch them as though they were theatrical productions, and I was analyzing their themes. Every nutty thing they said had subtext and layers of meaning. I read people as though they were novels, before I began writing novels. So much of what I wrote, especially my early work, was based on the works of influential writers and the jokers sitting across from me on buses. TM: That is the beauty in this novel, the layers of meaning. Your choices of images and metaphors link the language to the themes. The wonder in the your language, the awe involved in seeing something like a doorbell through fresh eyes, it speaks to how one can cope with the difficult things that happen in life. Can an adult who has lost a sense of wonder find it again? HO: Yes. It comes when you trust your intuitions, allowing yourself to get excited about absurd things. I became smitten with the image of a girl in a Napoleon hat when reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel when I was in my 20s. I was so fixated on the image, I was trying to figure out why I was interested in the idea of a girl in a Napoleon hat. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel there is a girl wearing a Napoleon hat in an early scene and then by the end of the book there is a whole troupe of girls wearing Napoleon hats. I realized after using the image that it was because I wanted to bestow on the young girls a revolutionary power. I wanted to make them ambitious, and blood thirsty and defiant. All the while pulling nylons over their toes, wearing lace bras, and shrieking at mice, maintaining their femininity. My chorus girls were an army, like Henry Darger’s drawings of warrior girls, or Marcel Dzama’s depictions of girl scouts with machine guns, or Gisèle Vienne’s dolls with black bandit masks on their faces. When it first appeared to me, it struck me as the most beautiful image in the world. But beauty comes before reason. It demands you look for meaning. It announces meaning in an almost violent way. Living with a sense of wonder, allows the seemingly trivial to insist on having meaning. It is not hierarchical. Children know this. They bestow great importance on a mouse on a counter, or a sticker of a unicorn prancing across a binder. As an adult, the act of judging one’s self and the world around you as insignificant is what leads us to lose our sense of wonder. Reading is an activity that causes the brain to wonder again. I find anyways. Whenever I finish a book, I put it down and the world seems to explode with new meanings. On some level, literature assumes that every reader is a child.
"Don't just read the thing that you think is for you... read the thing that's not." — Lisa Lucas In a bleak year, I found a book that brings me hope. milk and honey is a collection of illustrated poems that was first self-published in 2014. Author Rupi Kaur, who is 24 years old, has a strong visual aesthetic and is well known for her Instagram images. She draws huge crowds at her appearances. The book is now published by Andrews McMeel and has become a staple on the bestseller lists. Before I read it, I assumed milk and honey wasn’t for me. Maybe I had the idea that popular and poems are two things that shouldn’t go together. I took a cue from my stubborn instance on using capital letters in a book title. It’s also fair to say that my reading preferences often don’t line up with the bestseller lists. What I didn't take into account was that this book might remind me of my past in a way that could influence my future. Just before I started university in the early-1990s, more than 15 years before Donald Trump bragged about grabbing pussies, there was a campus rape awareness campaign called “no means no." In response to the campaign, a group of students put up signs in their residence windows mocking it, “no means harder," and "no means tie me up." On Dec. 6 of that same year, a gunman entered the École Polytechnique in Montreal. He specifically targeted women and ended up killing 14. His suicide note blamed feminists for ruining his life. In 1991, the year I arrived at university, for the first time women became the majority (51 percent) of graduates in Canada. The administration had responded to the fear-filled atmosphere by covering the campus in educational posters. Many of them gave advice to women about how to avoid sexual assault and wider dangers, don’t walk alone, don’t drink too much, be careful of dark corners. I remember the posters presenting safety as something that could be achieved through a combination of advanced strategic planning and the suppression of all bodily urges. In keeping with the times, avoiding sexual assault or more became a mission that I took seriously. The consequences, after all, were dire. We all knew victims who had suffered twice. Once from the incident and a second time if or when people found out. “She was raped,” the whispers followed a friend like a dark shadow. If someone asked why, the answer lay in her failure to preform defensive maneuvers. Fault wasn’t assigned. It was an assumption. Of course I didn’t manage to avoid all trouble. Few of us did, but we didn’t talk about it much either. A large part of our tactical maneuvering was about keeping quiet so that we didn’t suffer twice. I didn’t see this as a political decision at the time, though it was. Back then I saw it as surviving intact. I soon entered the man’s world of work and part of my job became using my smarts to figure out how to wedge my ill-shaped body into offices that were never designed to fit. Shoulder pads were the least of my problems. I tucked my boobs into a blazer and dodged, ducked, and dove when trouble found me. It sometimes did. Now that I’m older and the politics have evolved, I speak out, but I'm aware that I’ve left behind a big steaming pile of crap -- in my case that’s a handful of men who might expect women like me to dodge, duck, and dive around them, regardless of how they behave. Some of these men have probably shifted their gaze to a younger generation. I feel sick that my silence might lead to more harm. Many of these memories came back as I read milk and honey. Kaur writes around the subjects of sex and power with an honesty and candor that made it all feel fresh. Not all that much has changed and so much in her book feels familiar, however there is a profound difference in how she frames her story. These are poems I wish for my younger self to read. The arc, told over four parts -- the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing -- is different to the world I knew, especially the healing part. It is not a story about fitting into someone else’s world, but about how to imagine your own. What I internalized, Kaur dissects: What I repressed, she releases: What I kept quiet, she calls out: Raur is like many people in the generation younger than I am. They are not dodging, ducking, or diving. Despite a climate full of fear, they are speaking up. They are calling out the behavior that I did not. Their willingness to do this is bringing change -- it's also the brave heart of the many allegations of sexual assault or inappropriate conduct that have been brought forward on so many university campuses in the past few years. It is painful to admit that my silence has helped to create such chaos. I came of age in a world where education and work meant fitting into a someone else's world. I managed to find a way into a room of my own. But while experience can bring wisdom, those same experiences can calcify and create a rigid view. Sometimes it takes a new perspective to flush out our thinking. milk and honey stands out in my year of reading because it reminds me why listening is so important, especially as I grow older. Rupi Kaur's book shows how a younger generation is doing more. They are shaping a world of their own. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
The Red Car, a new novel by Marcy Dermansky, comes with a blurb from Roxane Gay, "I want to eat this book or sew it to my skin or something." As a reviewer, I feel that endorsement alone means my job is done. You should read The Red Car because you will love it. And then you might want to eat it. But maybe you need convincing? That could only be the case if you haven’t heard of Dermansky’s previous novels, the darkly honest Twins or the wickedly twisted Bad Marie. Anyone who has read them will be tempted to lick the cover of her newest at the very least. The Red Car tells the story of Leah. In her early thirties, she has an apartment in Queens, a husband named Hans, and a part-time job that allows her enough time to finish a novel. But none of it feels right. When her old boss Judy dies, Leah goes to her revisit her old life in San Francisco where she inherits Judy’s most prized possession, a red sports car. What follows is a sort of road trip, except that Leah is a terrible driver. She drinks, has random encounters, writes, and stumbles her way through the Bay Area in search of her true self. If a story of a woman going west to find herself doesn’t sound original, it’s Dermansky's delivery that makes this short novel perfectly delectable. As background: Alan Watts was a British philosopher who first gained popularity in California in the 1960s by expounding a mishmash of Zen Buddhaism, semantics, and musings on nature. He’s now commonly found as voice on YouTube set to Terrence Malick clips, but I've been listening to his older recordings. One that caught my attention was his take on the brains. To Watts, we are as successful as human beings because we let our incredible brains do most of the work for us. They take charge of growing babies, make the heart beat, and heal wounds without any conscious input. Our brains are so much more intelligent than we are that we don’t even understand how they work. But who, then, do I mean by "we"? Instead of identifying with our big brains, we identify “I” with a small slice of our conscious attention. I think of that part of my mind, my “self” as a small narrator who runs the commentary of my life. But, is there any self there? When I die, I won’t leave a self behind. I can’t look through a microscope and see my self. The idea that we should or could be a consistent person when our cells and circumstances regenerate everyday is fiction. There is only a story we tell ourselves. So when Leah sets out on a road trip in search of herself, how will she find what isn’t there? Dermansky cracks her character open and lets the runny yolk of Leah’s life spill over the pages. The results are highly entertaining. Rather than confused or scattered, Leah is lonely. Like everyone else I know, she is inconsistent and haphazard as she grapples for a story arc that will help her life make sense. When Leah listens to her sort-of boyfriend reading a dirty passage of Henry Miller in a taqueria, she acknowledges that someday, "I would be old and that I would be mortified at myself, for allowing this to happen." During a shopping trip at Macy's she isn't only trying on a dress, she attempts to slip into a new skin, "I felt like an alternate version of myself and this was the person I would be." Judy, the dead boss, becomes another voice in Leah's head. But Leah doesn’t believe in ghosts and knows that she is only talking to herself. That doesn’t stop her from taking Judy’s good advice: "you shouldn't always believe the things you tell yourself." In what I found the most relatable passage about Lulu Lemon-style yoga ever written, Leah fails to do a headstand, "I was watching woman more beautiful than I was, stretching more deeply than me. And while I had these inappropriate competitive thoughts during a nonjudgmental yoga class, I judged myself for my thoughts." Dermansky seems to write without censure. She hasn’t tried to level Leah’s lack of a consistent self by rolling a forced order over her character. Maybe Dermansky didn’t buckle when an editor asked, “but does Leah’s next move make sense?” and perhaps she didn’t bend when a reader questioned Leah’s motivation. When a character is on a quest to find a true self, the discovery at the end can often feel lifeless. The Red Car pulses, as it gives a twist to the road trip genre. Leah doesn’t find herself, she comes to understand the many people she can be. Leah is funny and insightful and a mess and fantastic. You’ll want this story to seep inside your skin. One reading of The Red Car should do, but the relationship could be more permanent. You may want to follow Roxane Gay’s impulse and eat a few pages. They will become a wet wad in your stomach and some of the ink will leech into your blood stream. The Red Car will become part of you. And you will feel less alone.
Lauren Groff's Fates & Furies, just out in paperback, tells the story of a marriage. The first half of the novel is from the perspective of the husband, Lotto, who sees marriage as, “a never-ending banquet, and you eat and eat and never get full.” The second half is from the perspective of the wife, Mathilde, who says of marriage, "Kipling called it a very long conversation." Fates and Furies shows how two people can misunderstand each other over time. Lotto and Mathilde live their lives together, but they inhabit completely different worlds. In this way, the novel has a similar dynamic to Twitter. People tweet messages at each other while also inhabiting completely different worlds. Though on the social network major miscommunications take only 140 characters to unfold, in both a true connection remains elusive. So what if Lotto and Mathilde were both to tweet? Without the luxury of 400 pages in the novel, Lotto would need to activate all his advantages given the limited space, whereas Mathilde would need to cut short her passive aggressive ways. If you have read Fates and Furies, you might question whether a private person like Mathilde would ever expose personal details in a forum designed for public consumption. Under usual circumstances, she would not. But she's always made an exception for Lotto and his wicked sense of timing. And he, in turn, has made a life of luring her in. But would high-born Lotto join Twitter? I’ll remind you that he is an actor in a playwright’s hide. He’ll never not be vain. ___
By some secret law of lists, “summer reads” often settle on books that are light and fluffy and happy. Like a marshmallow, they are usually too sticky and sweet for my taste. What about a list for us wretched assholes who prefer to spend the summer wallowing in a someone's else’s misery? On holiday, I cut myself off from my regular writing regime to focus on the people I’m with -- I understand this is called “relaxing.” As my real life is relatively drama free, this means I have dangerous spare capacity to obsess over...what? While a happy book might distract me temporarily, it’s far easier to become completely consumed by an epic novel full of anguish. Over the years, I have a developed specific criteria for the books that I want to read over the summer: --The novel must have a high page count, a minimum of 500 but preferably cresting at 800. This is crucial, because I want to have something that I can sink into for a good number of days in a row. --I’ll want to read in 75- to 100-page chunks at a time, because this is precisely how long I need to hide from other human beings on any given day. --I have to be dying to get back to the story. The urgency must be genuine -- this helps make my pleas for reading time feel authentically desperate. --And most importantly, the plot should involve hardship, anxiety, and a certain level of suffering; these hold my occasional bouts of existential dread at bay. So, like a marshmallow caught on fire, please enjoy the burnt crust of my epic summer reads: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry This book is a complete kick in the ass. It’s beautiful, big, and full of empathy. Every single one of your 21 senses will be plunged into the social chaos of India in the mid-1970s. From slums and squalor come friendships, and, in comparison, how could you dare feel intolerant of your own family? The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Jason Diamond recently tweeted the last paragraph from a 1992 profile on Donna Tartt. “Look at these goldfinches...Goldfinches are the greatest little birds, because they build their nests in the spring, a long time after all the other birds do. They’re the last to settle down...” If you haven't read The Goldfinch, please understand that in this quote Tartt gives a pitch-perfect plot synopsis of the nearly 800-page novel she would go on to write some 21 years later. This is an author who deserves your undivided attention. If you worry that small birds sound twee, rest assured the section of this book that takes place in Las Vegas will sort you out. Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie McDonald It was sometime in 1997 that I started to figure out how the world might work. I credit this book with helping me grow up that much faster. It’s devastating and terrible, and funny, a wicked combination. Adam McKay: If you are listening, before writing the script for the Theranos film could you read this book first? I ask for the dose of empathy that can make an ambitious character feel real: Everything in New York is a photograph. All the things that are supposed to be dirty or rough or unrefined are the most beautiful things. Garbage cans at the ends of alleyways look like they've been up all night talking with each other. Doorways with peeling paint look like the wise lines around an old feller's eyes. I stop and stare but can't stay because men always think I'm selling something. Or worse, giving something away. I wish I could be invisible. Or at least I wish I didn't look like someone they want to look at. They stop being part of the picture, they get up from their chess game and come out of the frame at me, blocking my view. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara The only problem with categorizing Yanagihara’s novel as a summer read is that it is hard to read and, on occasion, you might have to take a break. If you do, don’t carry the book around with you! Your cousin will see the cover and feel confused and ask what it is about. And if you tell him, he will then ask, “Why would you read something like that?” Don’t answer. Head back to the hammock and keep reading. You’re on holiday, after all. The Orenda by Joseph Boyden Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, recently gave Barack Obama a copy of Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road. It’s set in WWI and in the wilds of Northern Ontario and is a great book, but his more recent The Orenda is the book that earns a place on this list. A decent page count, murders, torture plagues, a cut off pinky, and you are good to go. A House For Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul Some people say this isn’t Naipaul’s best novel and they are wrong. This is Naipaul's best novel. It follows the path of a man to middle age as he searches for autonomy -- a house to call his own. This resonates, especially when on holiday. If you wrote as beautifully as Naipaul, you could buy your own house. Or cottage? Or rent a hotel room on the other coast... Barkskins by Annie Proulx If this list sticks in any way, your summer read is Barkskins. Enjoy the burn. Image Credit: Flickr/Ray Bodden.
I've been following Pamela Erens's work since her debut in 2007. With each novel, her reputation has grown; I admit that I expected her new book to land on my doorstep with a resounding thud -- the sound of a weighty third novel announcing its author has arrived. The actual tone was higher, more like a plonk. Erens's third novel, Eleven Hours, is 165 pages long. It is a heart-in-your-mouth, hold-your-breath read that uses one of the most familiar, and possibly underused, time constraints to hold tension: labor. A woman named Lore, in the early stages of labor, checks into the hospital alone. She brings with her a detailed birth plan, which her assigned nurse, Franckline, eyes skeptically. The nurse knows all too well that the only certain thing about birth is that it won't go to plan. As the novel charts the course of the contractions, the relationship between the two women becomes more intense. Their lives and past experiences become briefly intertwined through the deeply intimate process of birth. Why hasn't a novel like Eleven Hours been written thousands of times before? Like storming the castle, slaying a serial killer, or saving the world, the story of a labor has all the elements of a classic plot. An inciting incident, conflicting needs, rising action, suspense, a built-in climax, and a kind of resolution that often feels both surprising and true. Like the structure of Eleven Hours, the outcome of a birth, though often happy, isn't assured. For with every birth, comes the possibility of death. And it’s this natural tension -- as Karen Russell puts it, "the tides of memory, sensation, and emotion" -- that Pamela Erens has caught so precisely. On the eve of publication, I wanted to know how Erens came to this point in her writing career. In an email exchange, I asked her about working at Glamour magazine, the hard slog of doing publicity yourself, getting the rights back and the reissue of her first novel, glowing reviews by John Irving, "big" books, and "small" topics. The Millions: Since your first novel was published in 2007, you have been listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, you were named a contemporary writer to read by Reader's Digest, your criticism has appeared in many prestigious publications, and your work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. Have you made it? Pamela Erens: Hmm, what is “making it?” On the one hand, so much more has come my way than I could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. I remember when my second novel, The Virgins, came out, realizing that people I didn’t actually know were reading my novel. That was thrilling! Honestly, I think almost everyone who read my first novel, The Understory, either knew me or knew someone who knew me. Getting to write essays for a place like Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal I'd held in awe for years: that knocks me out. But one keeps moving the goal posts, right? It’s just human nature. You (I) want more readers, more sales, a prize...Sometimes I hate that the mind works like this. TM: You were an editor at Glamour magazine. How did you make the transition from magazines to novels? PE: Actually, the fiction came before any magazine work (I also had stints at Ms., Connecticut Magazine, and a New York City weekly called 7 Days). The magazine work was what I gravitated to after college because I was a huge reader of magazines (still am) and needed to make a living. But I wrote fiction as far back as I can remember. If Glamour shaped my work, it was by training me to be succinct and draw the reader in quickly. In school, you learn to generate a lot of blah-blah in your writing, a lot of what my boss at Glamour called “throat-clearing.” Magazine work cures you of that. TM: Did the success of The Understory surprise you? PE: Very much. For one thing, during the editing process I gradually gleaned that my editor and publisher (it was the same man) was no longer really running the press that was supposed to bring out my book. He was traveling a lot, hard to reach, involved in other business ventures. He was shutting down operations, and there were many months where I didn't think the book was going to come out. In the end he did honor the commitment to publish, thank goodness, but there were long delays, and the press lost its distributor. The book was not in bookstores, period. People rightly criticize some of Amazon's practices, but if it hadn't been for Amazon no one would ever have been able to get ahold of the book without coming over to my house to ask for a copy. There was no publicity for The Understory other than what I did myself. The publisher did print advance reading copies, but I had to figure out where to send them. I ran myself ragged writing notes to newspapers and possible reviewers -- but at the time I knew hardly anybody. A couple of things worked out, including a Publishers Weekly review, which was hugely important in legitimizing the novel. Jim Ruland, a wonderful writer I'd gotten to know via the online writers’ site Zoetrope, did an interview with me for the literary blog The Elegant Variation. It was an L.A.-based blog, so perhaps that was how the Los Angeles Times folks, who nominated it for the book prize, got wind of the novel. I sent the book to several prize competitions, cursing at the steep entry fees, but it led to the short list for the William Saroyan Award. So: a combination of stubbornness and a few contacts and some lucky breaks. TM: Picking up on things working out, Tin House republished The Understory in 2014. How did this come about? PE: By the time The Understory came out in 2007, Ironweed was basically no longer operating except to send copies to Amazon once in a while and bring out one other book they had under contract. I figured that if I could get the rights back, maybe eventually another press would be willing to do a reissue. I was afraid of losing track of my publisher (he was often in Asia) and not being able to contact him if an offer came up. So in 2010 I made a request for the reversion of rights. The publisher was very accommodating about it. Later, when I got an agent for The Virgins I mentioned to her that I owned the rights to The Understory. After Tin House took The Virgins, she sent The Understory to my new editor, who said that he was interested it in, too, but wanted to see what happened with The Virgins first. And luckily that went well, so Tin House brought out a reissue of The Understory about eight months after The Virgins. It was great to see it with a new cover and in bookstores. TM: The Virgins got a rave review from John Irving in The New York Times. How did you swing that? PE: I don't think authors ever get to swing anything when it comes to The Times! The review was exciting for reasons beyond the obvious. I'd been a John Irving fan since the age of 15, when I read The World According to Garp. My early- to mid-teens was the one time in my life I stopped writing. I’d been a massively scribbling kid. I’d written a novel at the age of 10 -- that was published -- I really should refer to it as my first novel. It was called Fight for Freedom and it was about a slave girl who escapes to the North before the Civil War with the help of Harriet Tubman. My mom, always an optimist and a booster, sent it out to a few places and it got taken by a small feminist press in California called The Shameless Hussy Press (this was the 1970s, okay?). But once adolescence hit I guess I just got too busy with trying to be popular and attract the interest of boys. Anyway, The World According to Garp blew me away. I couldn’t believe fiction could be written that way. It was so irreverent and joyful and antic and dark and political. Afterwards, I went out and read all of Irving’s earlier books. They jolted me into writing again (at first very Irving-imitatively), and I haven't stopped since, other than for a brief period when I couldn't sell The Understory and thought, crap, I really don't have what it takes, maybe I would like to be a librarian. Not a joke; I was looking into it. So there was a big kick in being reviewed by one of my first literary heroes. TM: Big books are having a moment. Of the many virtues of novels like The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, A Little Life, and City on Fire, they have also received attention for their high page count. Eleven Hours is 165 pages long, is this a contrarian stance? PE: You've hit a sore spot for me. Some of the novels most dear to me are big and multi-charactered, with wide panoramas. Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Howard’s End, Angle of Repose. Then I have this other passion for slender, intense, highly concentrated novels and collections, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, Desperate Characters, They Came Like Swallows, Jesus’ Son. But it's the longer, more sprawling books that epitomize "The Novel" to me. Why? I've been pressing myself on this one lately. It has nothing to do with artistry, I'm beginning to realize. It has to do with certain longings for status and, believe it or not, with how I want to see myself as a person. Do I not have enough empathy to write more than two or three or four characters a book? Am I lacking in imagination? I just have to get over those probably false equivalences. Jane Austen famously referred to “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Well, we’re still reading Jane Austen today, while Walter Scott, the “big book” writer of her day, not so much. TM: What is a "big book?” PE: Usually, for me, it's a novel that takes on a lot of the “outside” world, that’s sociological and/or historical as well as psychological. Sometimes a book like that truly does offer a “big” experience, and sometimes it’s just kind of, well, journalistic: doing the work of nonfiction rather than fiction. I think about Kafka, another writer I love. Can you imagine if Kafka sat around saying, "God, why can't I write a multi-generational novel with lots of sociological color and several gripping subplots?”? You could argue that Kafka is one of the narrowest writers around. He barely does description or character. There’s only sometimes a bit of plot. But in plumbing what he plumbs he brings us some of the most potent experiences in literature. He brings us the unconscious erupting into our lives and the dread at the heart of being human. He goes places no one else goes. We authors just have to write what we write and not get caught up in these ideas of "big" or “small." TM: I agree, but know from experience that it's not a comfortable feeling to be told your novel is "small." While there is no set definition of "small," it can feel diminishing? PE: Yes, it can. My other hangup about "writing short" is that long books do often generate more excitement and attention. Though it's not always the case. The wonderful Dept. of Speculation, a novel you can read in an hour and a half, was one of the most lauded books of 2014. There's Garth Greenwell’s book What Belongs to You. There are Ben Lerner's two short novels. These have been among the most justly praised books of recent years. I’ll also say this: When advance reader's copies of Eleven Hours were mailed out, I realized one big advantage of a short book: people are much more likely to get around to reading it. It's not such a huge investment of time. That's a long way around to your question of whether writing short is a contrarian stance. No! Both The Understory and The Virgins started out as longer books. Making them into the best books I could resulted in major amputations. I knew from the start that Eleven Hours would be short, because of the time frame and because there were only so many uterine contractions I could describe without losing my shit, but I kept hoping it would magically pass the 200-page mark. It just didn't want to. Some authors seem to achieve their best effects through expansion. For me, at least so far, it's compression that brings out what I want. TM: What did your editor at Tin House say about the length of the manuscript? PE: I worried about what both my agent and my editor would say about the length of Eleven Hours. I was afraid someone was going to use the dread word "novella." (For the record, as a reader, I love the novella form. I just thought that if Eleven Hours was labelled as a novella it might be tougher to sell or get reviews for.) Neither said anything. When I expressed my own anxieties, my editor mentioned another novel that Tin House had done, even shorter, and commented that the right layout and presentation can make a short book very appealing. That was nice. Tin House does in fact have a track record of beautifully publishing shorter novels. TM: Eleven Hours tells the incredibly tense story of a woman's 11-hour labor. How did it feel to write? PE: I had a lot of false starts with Eleven Hours. I wrote my first two novels in almost complete isolation. With The Virgins, I submitted the first 15 pages to a workshop once; that was it until it was finished. By Eleven Hours, I had a writers’ group, and I was also having trouble getting it launched. Trying to capture the physical and psychological experience of childbirth was so difficult. Not because I didn't remember it well or was spooked by the material, but simply because it was hard to find the language to say much about it. What I was able to get down on paper was fragmentary and rather dreamlike. I would bring in these fragments and my group would be encouraging but also kind of lost. I really felt that this book needed to be in third person, unlike my first two novels, and I just couldn't hear the right voice. Eventually I had a setup and a reasonably workable narrator and I proceeded. Then I didn't show anything more to anybody and completed a draft in about a year. Wow, I'm getting really fast! I thought. This is progress! I sent the manuscript to my agent. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear her trying carefully not to make me feel terrible. She pointed out what she liked and didn't. She didn't like that much, but what she did I gained the confidence to build on. I got some good feedback from her then assistant also. I spent two more years on the book and got regular critiques from my group. They were essential in helping me see where there was a live vibe and where things were going dead. The breakthrough was when some intuition sent me back to Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of my favorite novels. That was the voice I wanted, that mobile, poetic, exalted, wry, empathic voice that is distinct from any of the characters. So then I spent the rest of my time figuring out what of Woolf's method I could adapt or steal. In short, the novel didn't get written all in one breath, by any means! TM: Eleven Hours is published by Tin House tomorrow. How do you feel right now? PE: A bit strung out, as always before a publication. But pleased. It’s always sort of a miracle when something that started years ago as an idea, a little thread of words in your head, becomes this independent object in the world. And something that is particularly satisfying to me this time is that the content of the novel brings me full circle to some of my earliest concerns and interests. In college I discovered I was a feminist -- that is, someone who is very interested in how gender shapes inner and outer experience. I studied gender via philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, literature. Glamour magazine was a continuation of that. Women’s magazines are where you can routinely find some of the most inquiring and informative journalism about women’s physical and mental health, reproductive rights, sexuality, and so on. The Virgins drew somewhat on that vein of interest, in its attempt to be straightforward about teenage female sexuality, but Eleven Hours does even more so. Why are there so few accurate or in-depth depictions of labor and delivery in literature? It’s just staggering. TM: That's a great question. Where is the experience of labor and delivery in our literature? PE: You and I were just talking about “small” books, and it seems as if childbirth, this absolutely enormous event in the life of billions of people past and present, is seen as a “small” topic. It’s absurd. With Eleven Hours I wanted to write this thing that I wasn’t seeing out there. I wanted to do it as both an artist and a feminist. And now it’s out there, and I feel very satisfied.
The London Book Fair starts on April 12th. As a kick off, we thought it would be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. covers of a few notable titles from last year, a task previously taken on by our much-loved outgoing editor, Mr. Max Magee. I've lived in both the U.S. and the U.K. and always felt that if I could pinpoint the reason why the soap operas are so different -- the kleenex-lensed, pearly hues of The Young and the Restless vs. the gruff, flattened grays of East Enders as one example -- or articulate why marmite sandwiches appeal in one place when peanut butter and jelly is preferred in the other, I would finally understand where the two cultures divide. Sometimes I look to book covers in an attempt for clarity. Why is a cover in the U.S. replaced with another in the U.K. when the words inside are exactly the same? I may not like marmite, but I do have a taste for books. I sat down to see if I could finally develop the overarching theory that has eluded me so far. It's notable that many covers are the same. Some of the biggest books, like Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between The World And Me, and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels sport the same jackets in the U.S. and U.K. "It often comes down to differences in cultures and tastes. What appeals to people in one country doesn't appeal to others," says my literary agent, Denise Bukowski. "But if the book has been published first in one country and has been successful there, subsequent publishers often choose to capitalize on that success by using the original cover." But many others titles still have completely different covers, which is fortunate as it means there is still plenty for us to argue about. Below I present just a few of the choice examples. U.S. covers are on the left. U.K. covers are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis, baseless opinions, and sweeping generalizations are encouraged in the comments. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff These covers are intriguingly similar and yet so different. Swirls vs. angles, blues vs. reds, swishes vs. swipes, almost like a mirror of the two halves of the book, the first told by the husband, Lotto, and the second by the wife, Mathilde. I had trouble making sense of it all until I consulted an article called "How to Use Color Psychology to Give Your Business an Edge" and understood that there is subliminal messaging at work. The U.S. cover designer is on team Lotto and emphasized blue for grief, sadness, and distraction. In the U.K., the designer was on Mathilde's side, hence anger, rage, and ecstasy. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum I love the U.S. cover for this book, but how does it relate to the story? Flowers are sex organs. This book is about sex organs. Then what of the U.K. cover -- embroidery is about not having sex. Or not messy sex. Maybe strictly missionary? Or if you get up to more, you have to make the bed perfectly afterwards, including carefully smoothing the bedspread so that no one will suspect what you've been up to. Which is exactly what this book is about. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins These two covers clearly illustrate one big difference between the two countries, their respective outlooks on the events leading up to the U.S. presidential election. If you are a drunk woman in the U.S., the primaries feel like you are on a train and with all the antics, both comic and tragic, hurtling around you in an incomprehensible blur. If you are a drunk woman in the U.K., you watch from the outside and find yourself unable to take your wavering eyes off the speeding train -- the question that holds your attention is not if it will crash, but how. Purity by Jonathan Franzen Only a fool would think these covers came from different countries. They were clearly designed in alternate dimensions. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg Both designs take inspiration from the publisher's description of the inciting incident: "This book of dark secrets opens with a blaze." However each seem to have decided that a different element of that incident is more enticing. In the U.S., readers might like dark, mildewy, water-damaged secrets, whereas in the U.K., a good house fire will make the book fly off the shelves? A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara It's hard for me to imagine A Little Life without the ecstasy and agony conveyed by the iconic photograph on the U.S. edition, Orgasmic Man by Peter Hujar. I was struck by ecstasy every time I picked up this book and collapsed into agony after each reading session. I understand the reasoning behind the U.K. cover; it makes sense to put forward an image that evokes life in New York, but it doesn't echo the experience in the writing, as does Hujar's art. I wonder, are orgasms not a universal experience? Perhaps people in the U.K. do not have them. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee Finally, the clarity I seek. This one is straightforward. The U.S. cover lets you know the name of the book you are buying. The U.K. cover lets you know that you are buying a draft of a sequel that you won't enjoy unless you keep To Kill a Mockingbird in the back of your mind at all times while reading.
Alexander Chee’s debut novel, Edinburgh, was called, “spectacular, gripping, and gut-wrenching,” by critics and widely lauded for his careful handling of the tough subject of sexual abuse. As The New Yorker put it, “by balancing its anguish with fantasy and Korean folk tales, he keeps a sad story from becoming maudlin.” I’ve been feeling the buzz about Chee’s second novel, The Queen of the Night (Feb 2) since the summer. It tells the story of Lilliet Berne, a legendary soprano who is offered the last big accolade she has yet to gain in her singing career, a libretto written just for her. When she realizes that the libretto is based on her life, she knows that someone is trying to reveal the secrets of her past, but who? An early review says that the novel, “feels in many ways like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.” The Queen of the Night is Chee’s first novel hardcover release since Edinburgh in 2001 and its reissue in 2003. While he has hardly been idle, I wondered how that felt. As novelists often talk of the pressure to publish, were the intervening 13 to 15 years productive or full of angst? What I found was a story filled with all the twists and turns of the greatest writing careers, a publisher bankruptcy, bouts of teaching yoga, the consequences of missing a deadline by 10 years, the advance money running out, an Amtrak residency, surviving through four changes of editor, and whether it's all worth it in the end. I interviewed Chee by email. The Millions: Since Edinburgh was published, you have done a few things, like been named one of Out Magazine's 100 Most Influential People, been published in Granta, Tin House, and Guernica, written for The New York Times, won fellowships, awards, and taught for Wesleyan, University of Leipzig, and Princeton, to name just a few. But, you have not published a second novel. Why did you keep us waiting? Alexander Chee: Well, when you say it like that, it does seem like a lot. But I feel much as I did the last time, with Edinburgh -- I remember telling a friend it felt like digging a tunnel to freedom and arriving at a party. I had worked several jobs in order to write the first novel -- teaching writing, writing freelance, waiting tables, cater-waitering, working as a yoga instructor. I had hoped to earn a break from that, but instead, during the entire paperback re-launch of Edinburgh by Picador, I had to deal with how my hardcover publisher, an indie publisher who sold the paperback rights to Picador, went bankrupt owing me the equivalent of a year's salary at the time. And so as I went on tour, I felt celebrated and also robbed simultaneously. I switched agents then, and my agent was able to get me half of the remaining paperback money owed to me. But I've never recouped that loss. And while this may seem small, perhaps -- what is a year among 13? -- well, it was the first one, it set the tone. It said, you could work all this time and at the end have everything taken from you. There’s something else, an essay I’ve tried to write for a while, in my next, next book -- a book of essays I’m collecting now -- about a recovered memory I had in that first year the novel was out. I remember a guy at book club asking me why I hadn’t written a memoir. I said, "I don’t remember all of it." This was how I learned to articulate something about fiction writing: that you write to describe something you learn from your life but that is not described by describing your life. So I wrote Edinburgh. I wrote to fit the shape of what I knew to be true, but what I found was, I hadn’t dealt with what it described. And then once the book was out, the missing pieces came back. It was as if I’d cornered myself to force the truth out of me. For example, the night before Edinburgh's official pub day, I understood I hadn’t ever told my mother I’d been through something like what the novel describes. And the novel just couldn’t be the way she found out. So I called her and told her. TM: Was the time in between your two novels a frustrating period, or was it fruitful? AC: Both. Fruitful work periods are full of frustration, I think. Marilynne Robinson once observed to me something like, “Great works of art are never created out of self esteem.” I think that may be true. There was a brief moment when I remember feeling so excited about showing the world what I could do with a novel now that I’d published Edinburgh. But, in addition to the aforementioned psychic crisis, I was also just burnt out. And so as much as part of me was so excited by the idea of writing more novels, that soon became, “You want me to do all this again?” What happened next is, I won two prizes that fall -- the Whiting Writers' Award and the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship -- prizes that on their own would have meant for an amazing year. At the level of magical thinking, it felt like the universe making up some for what bankruptcy court had taken away from me. And as I had won the N.E.A. for an excerpt of The Queen of the Night, the prize seemed like a finger pointing at me and saying, “Go and do this.” So, I did...sort of. It was like wandering blind into a storm. I moved to Los Angeles, where I really just sort of rested for a few months, read things, and went to parties and libraries and tried to put my head together again. When I ran out of money, I moved to my Mom’s in Maine, Charles D'Ambrosio-style, writing in her basement every morning starting at 5 a.m., taking a break for Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns at 11 a.m. and making an early lunch before working more. It was like the weirdest saddest colony stay, about three months. And then I showed my agent what I had and she sold The Queen of the Night as a partial in 9 days. This shocked me. It had taken two years to find a publisher for Edinburgh. I moved out, spent the summer researching in Paris, spent a year in Rochester as a disgruntled faculty spouse to a man I was trying to love, and when that fell apart, got a job at Amherst College, where I had the honor of being their Visiting Writer for four years. I wrote much of the novel there. When that ended, I moved to New York again, where it seemed as if all that had troubled me about the city before had bleached away in the weather. But the writing schools in New York all pay terribly -- they can have anyone they want for adjunct money -- we should all go on strike actually and force them to give raises. Anyway, you have to constantly leave town to make enough money to live. Thus my stints at Iowa, Leipzig, and Austin. These were productive, but the moves slow the writing down. I wrote many other things besides the novel to make a living -- nonfiction is one of my day jobs. I did a lot of research, maybe too much. I was haunted by that review you get from a historian who claims your novel is stupid because of one minor historical mistake. TM: Did you hit a low while writing The Queen of the Night? AC: The hardest part came when I decided to pull the novel in 2013, and revise it around new research I'd found regarding the relationship between the singer Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Ivan Turgenev -- both characters in the novel. In particular, it was information on how she was composing operas as her voice faded, and he was writing the libretti -- he loved her, believed in her talent, and was urging her to do this. I knew if I didn't find a way to include this, I was in danger of returning to the material to write an entire novel just about the two of them. That piece then, and The Last Sorcerer, perhaps the most successful of their opera collaborations, is now a part of the novel that I may love the most. TM: Did you experience any pressure from your agent or publisher? AC: Yes. And they were well within their rights. My original contract was for a book due in 2006. Everyone involved has been remarkably patient and supportive, though there was a period when my agent would punch me in the arm whenever I saw her out. Other writers in this situation have been cancelled, so I would never complain about the pressure. While it often made me feel guilty, I tried to understand it as a way of being loved. TM: Did you feel commercial pressure, or worry about your own livelihood? AC: This is a constant under capitalism though, right? But nothing in the book is there to make it more commercial or I would have used quotation marks around the dialogue. Other people may be able to write cynically, but when I do I want to die. Which was never the point of writing. The biggest pressure was when I had run out of the money. I was paid for this book, everything else was essentially unpaid work during which time I also had to work to pay bills. And the longer the novel wasn't published, the more it seemed to endanger everything in my life -- my ability to get teaching work, to successfully apply for grants, my relationship, future projects. Each small delay, each mistake, each wrong turn in the writing became enormous as a result and it was unendurable in the last two years. The novel also ruined every family holiday vacation for a decade, too -- typically the down time between semesters when you can get writing done. Right near the end, I had a student write a story about the workshop, in which she was unkind to everyone in the class except herself, who she portrayed as a talented writer and a great beauty. This is something that happens at least once in every writing teacher’s life -- the student who thinks it is brilliant to write about the class and make everyone talk about what she thinks of them. Me? She portrayed me as a failed writer who couldn't sell his new book. All I can say is, I look forward to when this happens to her. TM: Edinburgh came out with Picador, while The Queen of the Night is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, why did you change publishers? Did it have anything to do with the gap between them? AC: This was pretty ordinary. Picador was nothing but supportive of Edinburgh and kept it in print well after anyone else would have. I can say nothing but good things about them. The publisher at the time declined to bid on The Queen of the Night. I think they knew I was likely to follow my editor at the time, who had left Picador for Houghton. The Queen of the Night took so long to write that I was orphaned three times. My current editor, Naomi Gibbs, is my fourth, the former assistant to the third, promoted now to associate. And she really did much of the trench work on the novel at the end, assisting me with the insertions I made. A painstaking task I will owe her for forever. TM: Were you concerned that you might be "forgotten" as a novelist? AC: Definitely. I would sometimes come across blog posts praising the first novel and saying things like, "It seems like he's stopped writing." That was hard to read. But, I understand. Eventually, I accepted that I was known more for personal essays and social media than for my first novel, especially after my idea for the Amtrak Residency became a real thing thanks to Twitter. But, this all makes the reception of this novel thus far really gratifying. My friend Maud Newton and I were talking about our history with blogs recently, and we agreed to think of them respectively as the sort of minor books that you publish in between the books that matter, an experiment done in a way that eventually helps the sale of the next book -- people read it, treat it like a blog and not a book -- and which allows to sustain a readership without suffering the damage of a tragic sales track record. TM: Facebook didn't exist, let alone Twitter or anything like that when Edinburgh came out. Does it feel like a very different world to publish a novel into? AC: Sure, like different planets. I laughed recently to remember those post cards I was asked to make. How I would leave them at the yoga studio I worked at, and then would feel guilty if they blew onto the floor, guilty again when I had to recycle them for having gotten dirty on the floor, etc. Such a mess. But in addition to the postcards, back in 2001, I also had a website, made for me by a friend who is an early adopter -- which I remember people treated it as a bit of a curiosity. I remember the moment my webmaster said, "You should have a blog, something to keep your readers coming back for,” something I couldn't imagine at first. It wasn’t until I moved to L.A. and everyone there seemed to have a blog that I began blogging as a way to work out of burnout. I never found out why everyone in L.A. was blogging, but I remember people sometimes mocked me for having a blog, saying it was something serious literary writers didn't do. Sarah Manguso and Susan Steinberg, one night at MacDowell, the writers colony, kept chanting at me “delete your blog delete your blog.” But by 2006, hiring committees told me it helped them hire me -- that it showed I was a thinker in a bigger way than the books and submitted essays did -- and by 2008 I found I had a reputation as a literary writer who used the Internet like a blogger, with a blog that had a reputation for literary quality. I began consulting with writers and literary organizations, teaching them how to use Twitter and Facebook, blog strategies for publication that supported their launches and tours. It’s become popular to mock writers’ use of social media again, but everyone is using it. If we disdain it, how will we know what people’s lives are like? Almost no one lives in the way these critics are asking writers to live, offline and shuttered away. Anything you write from that position will be literally blinkered. Social media makes it much easier to get attention as a writer and to be relevant between books -- in my case, a very long time. It has also leveled the playing field for LGBTQ writers and writers of color. Yes, I too hate the weird sort of wedding toast atmosphere that can come over Facebook. But, at least when I write about it in fiction, I won’t be guessing what it is like. TM: What is the biggest difference for you this time around? AC: I don’t know how to describe it yet. Mostly, I’m trying to focus on what’s next. I have my essay collection, plus ideas and pages for a nonfiction book as well as four novels. And a screenplay I’ve adapted with my partner, Dustin Schell. We’ve adapted Barry Werth’s biography of Newton Arvin, The Scarlet Professor, and we have high hopes for it. Dustin has never known me until now without me working on this novel and feeling like I would be killed by writing it. So I’m introducing him to that guy. The one who finished and survived it. TM: There is huge buzz about The Queen of the Night. How did it start? AC: Well, thanks. This answer is just an educated guess but Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has some serious game, I have to say. Their strategy was to begin with galleys early, to give people time to read it, and to make the cover into something physically beautiful -- a galley that was also an object of desire. Anyone who says a cover doesn’t matter isn’t paying attention. Michelle Triant there and Hannah Harlow were the galley masters. But I have to give a lot of credit to Liberty Hardy first of all, and her partner in crime, Rebecca Schinsky over at Book Riot, who were early champions of the novel. Liberty even made a countdown clock. Rachel Fershleiser, of Tumblr, Lisa Lucas, of Guernica, Maris Kreizman over at Kickstarter, Michele Filgate, Stephanie Anderson (aka Bookavore), and Sarah McCarry -- what we call the Bookternet, basically. Women in cool glasses who read crates of books. Plus Jason Diamond and Tobias Carroll, of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Saeed Jones and Jarry Lee at Buzzfeed. And of course, The Millions. It has to have helped to have the novel on your most anticipated list for several years. I’m just glad it is really finally coming out. And then the writer Maud Newton, who will be in conversation with me at my launch at McNally Jackson on February 2. She has consistently written about me and the novel over the years, even read an early draft -- she’s a great friend and when I thought of who to do this first event with, she was my first choice. I’m really looking forward to talking to her about it. TM: The Queen of the Night comes out on February 2. How do you feel right now? AC: I feel great. For a while I was telling people, "It could never be worth it," in terms of the time and sacrifices. Now it feels like maybe it was. We’ll see.
I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and loved it, but more I needed to talk about it. In a year where writing a book has put the squeeze on my social life, I had few opportunities to discuss the novel. I took to solving this problem through digital means. I sent out a few emails, but the dedicated readers in my life hadn’t yet read A Little Life, so I went on offensive by gifting a few copies. I posted tweets about the book to fish around for conversation. I identified and emailed soft targets, like the luring message I sent to my Donna Tartt-loving friend, “almost like The Goldfinch as far as epic reads go.” While I waited for my book seeding to take, I posted a photo of the book cover on Instagram that got an immediate reaction: “It's the best book I've ever read,” said one. "My heart was in my throat the whole time," said another. My agent and I started pecking out messages about the novel on our phones. To her, reading the book felt like an addiction. She questioned such impossible success in a group of friends, which prompted a conversation about the first part of the novel. To me, the set up felt like it was of the Manhattan ensemble genre, a distant cousin to The Age of Innocence or an episode of Friends. The brilliance lay in how Yanagihara set that tone and twisted it. One of the copies I’d planted under the guise of a birthday gift gave back in a big way. My friend, who lives in Colorado, finished the book and emailed right away. We sent reviews from The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker back and forth. We broke down each one. Was it the great gay novel? Maybe and maybe not, though there was no doubt that Yanagihara wrote across difference in a way that was refreshing and modern. In the next moment we compared the book to Great Expectations and Bleak House. “I keep thinking of Jane Eyre,” she wrote. “It’s the best kind of old-fashioned melodrama.” At that point, a friend's husband sent a message. He wondered if the book was any easier to read than it was to love someone who was reading it? I wrote back: "No." That was the only brief conversation I had about the book. A writer who lives in the U.K. posted on Facebook that she had read an early copy and needed to talk. I dove right in. We had both read about how Yanagihara had been