In recent years, three novels have caused me to gasp, “No!” while riding the New York City subway. The first two were The Mayor of Casterbridge and Portrait of a Lady. The third was Alex Gilvarry’s Eastman Was Here, the often comical story of Alan Eastman, a Norman Mailer-like writer who, as the novel progresses, displays increasingly appalling—and oddly amusing—gasp-inducing behavior. Eastman is an almost pathological philanderer and liar, who in an effort to win back his wife and un-stall his literary career, accepts an assignment to report from Vietnam just before Saigon’s fall. Eastman is a selfish, narcissistic, womanizing blowhard—Mailer minus the charm and the literary genius. Gilvarry’s success at creating such a delightfully disagreeable anti-hero is an entertaining rebuttal to the notion that the protagonist of a novel ought to be likable. Gilvarry’s first novel, From the Memoirs of an Enemy Non-Combatant, is the story of a young fashion-obsessed Filipino immigrant who is arrested and sent to Gitmo after he’s mistaken for a terrorist. Memoirs manages to be both funny and serious while depicting a shift in American ideas about freedom. With Eastman Was Here, Gilvarry delves into the past, but the new work is also a comment on how sensibilities have changed in the literary world—and the country as a whole. Gilvarry and I were both fellows at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, and we’ve run into one another at various Mailer-related events over the years. Our interview touched on the strengths and weaknesses of post-World War II American male novelists; Gilvarry’s good luck with mentors (Gary Shteyngart and Colum McCann); the research required to depict wartime Saigon; and why Gilvarry felt compelled to grapple with the legend of Norman Mailer. The following is an edited version of our conversation. TM: This is your second novel. Is the experience of being published different the second time around? AG: A little bit. You kinda know what to expect. You don’t want to get your expectations too high. You’re more protective. TM: Alan Eastman is clearly inspired by Norman Mailer. As I read the book, whenever there was a biographical similarity, I wrote Mailer’s initials: NM. I did this at least a couple of dozen times. The way I read it, Eastman is Mailer, but also not Mailer. AG: Yeah, I think that’s a good read. Eastman is inspired by Mailer and is a little closer to him in biography at the beginning of his life: childhood, Harvard. They share those biographical details. I wanted him to be like Mailer and not be Mailer too. Probably when the action of the book begins, it splits. Then I fill him with an imaginary emotional life, not Mailer’s at all. TM: There’s the presence in the novel of a second Maileresque figure, Norman Heimish, who is Eastman’s rival but in many ways seemed almost more like Mailer than Eastman. Why include Heimish in the book? AG: I thought a character like Eastman needed a rival, somebody who he thought had it all who he had to measure himself up against. I feel like Mailer early on had that with James Jones. I get a lot of mileage when a character is angry. You know, to walk into a book store and see that somebody he despises is selling really well would really burns this guy [Eastman] up. TM: You’re very interested in writers of the post-WWII generation. What draws you to them? AG: I like the way novels are written in that period, the fifties, sixties, and seventies America. They’re written differently. They use language that’s taboo, that we don’t use any more. They don’t hold back in the way that my generation will sort of hold back a little. TM: So there’s something fearless about those postwar writers? AG: Yeah. Absolutely. They were pushing the envelope. If you just use the example of sex in their books. It’s done kind of fearlessly and shamelessly. And not always in a good way—but sometimes in a really good way. I wanted this book to feel like that, like it was written in that time. I didn’t live in the seventies. So I thought, How am I going to capture the feel of that period without doing all those cheesy period details? But if it could sound like a book from that time, I thought it would help the reality of the read. TM: I thought also that you captured the philandering of the seventies male writer. AG: Yeah. The scandals and the philandering—that’s a juicy period for that kind of stuff. Writers don’t really act like that anymore, or at least not in public. I liked writing about that and the incestuous publishing world of that time. TM: And writers felt like they mattered more during that time. AG: Yeah. You couldn’t really set this book now because writers aren’t as heralded as they were during that time. So it’s really like a time capsule that a man like Eastman could be like that. TM: Of course, it’s a mistake to think of that as the good old days. But what I particularly enjoyed was that Eastman was so incredibly unlikeable and selfish. Every time you think he can’t be more selfish or betray another person, he just goes ahead. And you start to look forward to those moments of appalling behavior. But today we’re in a moment when it’s considered a valid piece of literary criticism to say of a novel, “I didn’t like the main character.” So I wonder if you had any internal voice—or any outside voices—who told you not to make Eastman such a wonderful bastard. AG: Yeah, yeah. It’s a tough thing to do because you don’t want to lose your readers because of someone who is so unlikable. But I thought if I keep liking him, if I keep liking writing these scenes, then I think you’re going to like to read about this unlikable person. I was always thinking: Am I having fun with this scene? Is it entertaining at least in some way? That was sort of my guide. There were some places where I think the character went too far and maybe I had to edit it back. I had two great editors on this book—Patrick Nolan and Beena Kamlani, who is amazing. She was Saul Bellow’s editor for the last years of his life--a great, great editor. She was a really good voice for taming Eastman in certain places. TM: So to ask the obvious question, what kind of research did you do for the scenes in the novel set in Saigon? Have you ever been to Ho Chi Minh City? AG: I did go there while I was writing this book because I wanted to set the book in the hotels where all the correspondents stayed: the Continental Hotel and the Caravelle Hotel. And so I went to Vietnam and I kind of just stayed in the hotel where I was setting the novel and got a lay of the land. And I read a lot of great literature set in Vietnam. Gloria Emerson’s Winners and Losers--I really loved that book, and I’m really glad it’s now still in print because it was hard to get for a while. Norton has reprinted it. TM: Your father is a Vietnam Veteran. AG: Yeah, I’m probably drawn to the subject because of him. He was there and I heard his stories of being in Saigon. That city to him, it’s like a mythology. He remembers it in a great light, the way Saigon was. He would tell me all sorts of stories about what would go on there. So in some ways I was writing this for him, too. TM: Has he read it? AG: He did. He really loved it. He wants me to write a sequel. He’s said, ”I want to find out what happens to these characters. Please write a sequel.” TM: I wanted to ask you about a passage that fascinated me. At one point you write, “The need to enlighten the world with Eastmanisms was exhausting and erroneous.” And Eastman realizes that “his urges were totalitarian.” To me, this seems like a criticism of Mailer as flawed by his narcissism. Did you intend it that way? AG: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s a pretty good read. But not just Mailer. Many of the writers of that period were narcissists. I was really writing about Eastman first, but it is critical of that behavior for sure. And subconsciously, I felt that writing about a Norman Mailer-like character I have to make some judgements. There are things in Mailer’s life that are hard for me to reconcile. I think all of his readers who like his work, there’s something that’s a little tough to get around. I have that with Mailer. TM: The character of the woman reporter Channing in the book was, I thought, very successful, and you did something that I don’t think Mailer ever did very well: created a female character. AG: Thank you. I needed a strong female character to counterbalance Eastman, and one of the biggest criticisms of Bellow and Mailer and Roth is that they have very thin female characters. So I really needed to reach deep and develop a character that I liked. I think in my first novel I didn’t pay too much attention to the women characters. It came out a little flimsy. I agreed with that critique whenever I got it, so I wanted to correct that about my storytelling and my writing. I wanted to be aware of it. TM: What was it like being this literary-minded kid growing up in the only borough in New York that voted for Donald Trump? AG: When I was a kid in Staten Island, I hadn’t even discovered novels. I discovered novels really late; I wanted to write screenplays and write for television because I thought that’s what writers did now. I went to Hunter College in Manhattan. I have a lot in common with Eastman, I think, because growing up in Staten Island, I sort of grew up with a chip on my shoulder, with that feeling that I’ve got to prove myself to people—to people from Manhattan, the Upper East Side. I think I even came into the book business with a chip on my shoulder, like I had to prove myself somehow. It drove me. But you’ve got to realize it. Otherwise, this kind of thinking can destroy you. TM: And you’ve got these great literary credentials: you worked for Gary Shteyngart and studied with Colin McCann. Can you talk about how this affected the way you write a novel? AG: Gary Shteyngart was actually the first writer I ever met. He was a teacher at Hunter College when I was an undergraduate, and he had just come out with his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and I didn’t know novels could be that funny. I didn’t know people still wrote novels until I met him. I thought all the great writers were dead. I was much more of a film buff. And I got to meet Gary at a really great time in my life. His work inspired me and I wanted to write just like him. TM: And you got an MFA, right? AG: I took a number of years off after I graduated from college and I worked in the publishing industry. And then when I started thinking of a novel of my own, I really needed help. I didn’t know what I was doing. So I went back to Hunter to get an MFA, and I was lucky to meet Colum McCann and he really dug my work. He really believed in what I was doing and thought it was important and gave me a lot of confidence and a lot of support. [Shteyngart and McCann] are really important in my life because I look at them as sort of outsiders. I had something in common with them. They were two outsiders, but they both had an incredible desire to write well and make it. That might just be my impression of it, but they were always going to get there. Their careers were inspiring to me. Their work was inspiring. I learned the most from Colum McCann on a sentence level. And then when I got to work for Gary [as a research assistant] for his book Super Sad True Love Story, I learned the most from Gary about how to research a book and how to fake what you don’t know. I learned the way he can make something seem real. I learned so much from him, things like descriptions. Do descriptions have to come from yourself? No, you can actually research that stuff too. TM: Well, your descriptions work. As something of an old Jew myself, I thought you captured that mentality in Eastman very nicely. AG: Well, you know, I’m a New Yorker, so I feel like it’s the same kind of thing. This might not count for anything, but this Christmas I had a DNA test and it turns out that I’m one percent Ashkenazi Jewish. And it’s what I always wanted to be. I wanted to be a New York Jewish writer.
Jesmyn Ward hadn’t realized it’s been more than half a decade since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones made her a literary star. That’s because she has been extremely busy, both professionally and personally. Since her Hurricane Katrina-centric novel, the author wrote the raw and emotional Men We Reaped, a memoir about losing five family members and friends to drugs, suicide, and accidents that can only happen to young, poor, black men. She also edited The Fire This Time, an essay and poetry collection about race and identity written by this generation’s brightest talents. She also moved with her husband and children back to DeLisle, Miss., the small, poverty-stricken town where she grew up. She lived there and survived Hurricane Katrina before going to Stanford and the University of Michigan to pursue higher education. Even though Ward was busy producing non-fiction, readers anxiously awaited her fiction followup to Salvage the Bones. Ward’s third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, returns to similar settings and themes as her previous works, but is wholly original. Set in modern Mississippi, the novel follows Jojo, a 13-year-old of mixed race, and his drug addict mother as they drive to pick up his father from state prison. The mix of harsh reality and magical realism create a sense of wonderment that makes readers question what they know about identity. Ward and I spoke via phone about racial tensions, why history is so important, how hurricanes effect those who survive them, as well as what she hopes readers will remember about her novels. The Millions: I wanted to start our conversation with Salvage the Bones. It came out in 2011 and won the National Book Award. It’s been a little more than half a decade, and I was curious about how your relationship with the book or the characters has changed since the book’s release. Jesmyn Ward: I didn’t realize it had been so long. That’s so crazy. My characters remain with me in one way or another even after I’m done. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to those characters in a sequel, but I definitely still think about them. Especially now with Hurricane Harvey and Houston or whenever we encounter another hurricane and we witness the kind of devastation we are witnessing right now. I think about them lately because I wonder if people who read the book and read about this family who couldn't leave see what is happening currently and think about Salvage the Bones and those characters. Those characters still live with me. I still think about Skeet, Esch, and Big Henry, I actually roped them into the end of Sing, Unburied, Sing and it was nice to see them again. Part of the reason it’s been a surprise to me that it’s been so long since Salvage was published is because whenever I think about those characters, I can only age them by a couple of years. It’s hard for me to think of where they’d be now, 11 years later after Hurricane Katrina. That showed up in Sing because when I was writing that moment when Esch showed up, I felt she was two years older than she was at the end of Salvage and my editor, of course, caught it. She pointed out that the character would need to be 10 years older now. She hadn't aged at all in my head. Maybe that’s a deficiency on my part because I can’t age them. They live with me though as they existed in their books. TM: Were you working on Sing, Unburied, Sing during the entire time since Salvage? JW: No, not really. After I finished the rough draft of Salvage the Bones, which was in 2009, I began working on Sing, Unburied, Sing, but it was a very different book then. When I say I was working on it, I meant I was working on unsuccessful first chapter after unsuccessful first chapter. Jojo’s character was the only character that was present and real to me at that time. I didn’t know anything about his mom, his dad, or the rest of his family. In the beginning his mom was white [as opposed to black in the final version]. My understanding of who the members of his family are changed a lot. I couldn’t write a good first chapter when I didn’t have a clear understanding of who the other characters were. I spent a good four of five months writing bad first chapter after bad first chapter. Then I decided I should work on what would become the memoir Men We Reaped. I just put those bad first chapters away. I set Jojo aside and worked on the memoir. Following that, I edited the collection The Fire This Time. While I was working on The Fire This Time was when I started working on this novel again. I did take a substantial break but I came back to it again. It was very hard with me for Sing to find a successful entryway into the story. I think part of the reason it was difficult was because I couldn’t figure out who the people around Jojo should be and who they were. That’s where I start: I need a vague understanding of who the most important characters are and what their motivations are. That was very hard for me to pin down with this book. It took me a long time. After I finished Men We Reaped was when I returned to Jojo. I threw out everything I had before and I just started again. Once I figured out who Leonie, Pop, and Mam were I gained some traction. I used the momentum to move into the second chapter. Then I was able to move through that first rough draft. TM: This novel has a very serious, realistic undertone, but it also has this notion of ghosts and magical realism thrown in. When did that come into play with the story? JW: From the very beginning, I knew that Leonie was seeing a phantom. In the very beginning, she was seeing a phantom of Michael. For the first four chapters of the rough draft she was seeing a phantom of Michael and it just wasn’t working. I figured out it wasn’t working because his presence didn’t add to the understanding of who she was. Leonie was a very difficult character for me to write because I couldn’t figure out what was motivating her to be such a horrible parent and sometimes a horrible person. All that told me about her was that she was in love with this man and perhaps she was hallucinating because of the drugs she was using. It didn’t tell me anything that I already didn’t know about her and who she loved and valued. It felt like something was wrong. Then I began rethinking that phantom of someone she actually lost; not just a man she loved who was in prison. What if it was a family member she lost. That’s when I stumbled upon the fact that she would have lost a brother and that it was his ghost she was seeing. Instead of going back and correcting that in the first four chapters I had already written, I wrote going forward with that idea that the phantom was her brother. I wrote with that assumption and suddenly she began to work for me as a character. She took on new life. I understand her motivation. I understood the pain in her heart that she carried with her. By her not dealing with that pain, it feeds into how selfish and egotistical she is. It makes her a worse parent because she’s so wrapped up in this pain that she isn’t able to resolve. That’s when I knew there was one ghost: the ghost of her dead brother. At the same time I was working on the beginning of this, I read about Parchman Prison. I came across this bit that there were black boys as young as 12 that were charged with petty crimes and spent time in Parchman. I read that and I knew how brutal the prison was and that fact was heartbreaking. I wanted a child to be part of my novel and be present in the moment. I figured the only way I can make that happen was to make him a ghost. I wanted him to exist in the present moment and not just exist in a flashback. I wanted him to be able to interact with Jojo. TM: When I was reading Sing, I thought a lot about The Turner House and Swamplandia. Is this idea of ghosts, ghost stories, and the past as part of everyday life in southern or black culture? JW: I think that ghosts are embodiments of the past. Especially here in the South because we’re so close to the past. So much of the past lives in the present. We live with the ramifications of the past that might not be as clear or feel as present in the rest of the country. I sit and think of the furor we live with regarding Confederate monuments and the endless debates about whether or not to take them down. I think about all of the advocacy and opposition. We’re still dealing with monuments from a war that happened 150, 160 years ago. The violence that surrounds that history is still very present. In the South, we may not talk about it or it may not be a part of public conversation around these issues, but the underlying understanding is that the history of this region bears very heavily on the present and informs our actions. I think the ghost story form is a great way to explore and express that. TM: You’ve been very outspoken about racial tension in America. I know the media is discussing this more, but I think there is still a disconnect where most of the country doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be in these situations. Do you think about this when you’re writing? JW: I do. It influences my work because my awareness of history and the legacy of racist violence in this country bears heavily on my thinking when I’m casting about for ideas for my novels. I’m always thinking about race, violence, the history of the South, and how that history bears on the present. I saw Ann Patchett speak 10 or 15 years ago and one thing she mentioned in her speech was that how she thought writers write the same book over and over again because they’re obsessed with the same ideas. Those ideas always surface in each story they write. As I’ve written more fiction and creative non-fiction, I’ve found that is true in my case. I’m always thinking about how black people survive. How people are marginalized in the South and the way they still survive that oppression. I do have to say that when I’m writing and I’ve immersed myself in that world with those characters, then I am just thinking about the characters in the story and who they are and how they are evolving. I’m trying to find the important moments in their lives—moments beyond which nothing is the same. That’s what I’m thinking about when I’m writing. I’m not thinking about themes or symbolism. When I’m actually writing I’m just thinking about the people. I think about the issues and big ideas when I’m thinking about novel ideas, but once I begin writing I throw that all out the window because the work is able to come alive and these people are able to live when you immerse yourself in the world. TM: Earlier you mentioned how devastating Hurricane Harvey is to the people of Texas. I know you were still living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina hit. If you don’t mind, I was just curious what life was like for residents after the media and most of the country move on from these tragic events? What do families go through? What is it like having to restart? JW: It’s really difficult. Donations do make a difference because they help people who are attempting to rebuild their lives. Habitat for Humanity did a lot of work here after Hurricane Katrina. They rebuilt a lot of homes. It’s a hard question to answer because a lot of people had house insurance and made house insurance claims, but that didn’t work for everyone. Some claims were denied on technicalities. A lot of the rebuilding that people had to do down here was out of their own pockets. It was a slow process. They rebuilt as they were able to slowly save the money that they needed to rebuild. That’s one of the reasons a hurricane appears out in the Gulf—and I don’t want anyone to go through the pain we went through—but I’m always grateful when the hurricanes don’t come for us. I still feel like a decade after Katrina, we’re not ready. There was just extreme flooding in New Orleans two or three weeks ago from just a bad rainstorm. The streets were flooding and homes were damaged. It’s a hard question for me to answer because it’s still a continuous process. TM: Your memoir came out between Salvage and Sing. Do you ever think about more memoirs on different topics? JW: Right now, no. I really don’t want to write another memoir. There are many reasons for that. Men We Reaped was the hardest book I’ve ever written. It required that I make myself vulnerable. It required that I make the members of my family vulnerable. I had to tell the truth and reveal all of these secrets about our lives and that was very hard to do. I don’t know if I can do that again. It was important to me because I had to write that book to tell my brother’s story. I had to tell the story about my friends and my cousin. Men We Reaped came out before Black Lives Matter was a movement. I almost feel like at that time I was trying to express the sum of the opinions that Black Lives Matter has expressed, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to do so. That book was difficult to write because I didn’t have that vocabulary to write about these people that I loved and lost. Fiction is easier than creative non-fiction for me. Creative non-fiction is hard for me in general whether it’s essays or a book-length memoir because I tend to shy away from the pain of what I’m writing about. It makes me write around my subject instead of focusing. Creative non-fiction is a lot of work for me and my editors because they have to make me focus on whatever I’m trying to avoid in the piece I’m working on. So, no, I don’t want to tackle another non-fiction book, but who knows in 20 years? TM: Is it going to be another half decade before your next work of fiction comes out? JW: I have something percolating, but it’s probably going to take me some time to finish. It might be another four or five years before it comes out. I’m writing the first chapter of the rough draft. I’m at the very beginning of the process. The novel is set in New Orleans at the height of the domestic slave trade during the early 1800s. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It’s definitely challenging me as a writer and as a human being because the main characters in this are people who were enslaved. It’s really hard to sit with that. The subject matter is making it hard for me to write this novel. Hopefully it will be done in four or five years. That’s including the rough first draft and multiple revisions of that. TM: What is your hope of what people walk away with after they finish Sing, Unburied, Sing? JW: I hope that the characters stay with them. That Jojo, Leonie, Kayla, Ritchie, and Pop stay with them. That next time readers encounter an older black gentleman in the grocery story or the next time they unfortunately see a 14- or 15-year-old black boy like Jojo dead from police violence that maybe it’s a bit more painful and a bit more prevalent for them because they’ve seen the humanity in the characters I’ve written. Maybe that makes it a little easier for them to see humanity and personhood.
Fans of Nancy Pearl know her as many things—renowned librarian and former executive director of the Washington Center for the Book, author of the Book Lust/Book Crush reader recommendation series, originator of the One City One Book initiative, and featured books reviewer for NPR’s Morning Edition. Now, readers can experience Pearl’s love for the written word in an entirely new way: she’s written her first novel, George & Lizzie, out this week. Pearl’s debut revolves around the two titular characters, who embody temperamental opposites and yet find themselves falling in love. George comes from a loving childhood and approaches his adulthood, and marriage to Lizzie, with the same intense affection and forgiveness modeled in his family. Lizzie’s own history is one riddled with cruel rejections, starting with her parents, Lydia and Mendel, and evolving into a self-loathing that lingers well into her adult life. Even as George’s love continues to deepen for Lizzie, her sexual history—particularly a time in her life she labels as the Great Game—leaves her burdened with a shame that limits her ability to give and accept true intimacy. As readers move further into George and Lizzie’s story, Pearl asks us to consider the odds of love triumphing where self-love never existed. George and Lizzie’s story remains true to Pearl’s own self-professed reading preferences: description and exploration of the characters drives the plot. George & Lizzie achieves this through vignettes that circle back across the timeline of the narrative, with each separate piece united by Pearl’s ability to recognize humor in even the most devastating of circumstances. I spoke with Pearl about her new novel and her fascination with the stories people have to tell, whether in literature or in life. The Millions: George & Lizzie provides a unique narrative structure—scenes unfold as vignettes, remembrances, or something akin almost to diary entries told in third-person. What led you to choose this type of structure for your novel? Nancy Pearl: That happened accidentally. First of all, I wanted to write a novel that I would love. I was going through a time when my favorite authors weren’t writing fast enough for me and I needed more books that were smart and funny and that was what compelled me to take these characters I’d been thinking about for a long time and start writing about them. And so I would sit down and I would just write a section of their lives, whatever was at the forefront of my mind. I came to see it as snapshots of their lives at different times. Even the chapter headings were just notes for myself. I would save them and remember what was in that particular section. I’m not naive enough to not know that I was writing a novel, but my motivation wasn’t to get published but really that I wanted to spend more time with the people in my story. The order of the book and the back and forth was even more random than it is now in the sense that, when I submitted the book for publication, it was in the order that I wrote the chapters. And so you might read the results of the Great Game before you knew what the Great Game was. But my wonderful editor at Touchstone, Tara Parsons, spoke with me about the George and Lizzie plot arc, and then we fit everything else around that. See, plot is not that important to me. I think what’s always important to me in life and the books I read are the people involved. I could never write a mystery, for example. It’s always about exploring the characters and, for me, it’s the characters that need to stand out. And a sense of humor. I think in all my favorite books, characters are the main focus and I want the plot to arrive out of the characters, rather than having the characters live within a plot that’s been devised. TM: So let’s talk about the Great Game. Lizzie’s obsession with her ex-boyfriend, Jack McConaghey, is a strong source for her own self-loathing. She can’t seem to move past her belief that his love for her was erased by her revelation of the Great Game, where she slept with the starting members of her high school football team. Which aspects of female sexuality did you want to explore through Lizzie’s story? NP: I think society has these morés set up for teenage girls, especially. And to break those taboos can really cause you to doubt yourself and to not forgive yourself. It’s interesting that both things she can’t forgive herself for have to do with her sexuality. The fact that Jack leaves and doesn’t say why gives her added reason to go back and not forgive herself. She also never tells George about this part of her sexual history. TM: Lizzie’s character feels very much halted in her adolescence—that stage where we begin to consider complex and ambiguous concepts, like love, truth, and identity—three issues that Lizzie struggles with throughout the entire book. Lizzie’s conceptualizations of these are categorical—You love or you don’t. You are good or you are worthless. You are honest or you are a liar. And it’s this style of thinking that limits Lizzie’s engagement with life. What interested you in creating a character with this form of primary struggle? NP: I should preface by saying that in many ways this novel was my discovering George and Lizzie rather than my inventing them, so it almost seems like they really existed. I know I made them up, but it seemed throughout the whole process that they were real people and I was just uncovering things about them. I absolutely see that immaturity in Lizzie—there’s a point in the novel where George comments that Lizzie has the emotional age of a 13-year-old and Lizzie agrees, as do I. It wasn’t that I sat down and tried to figure out who Lizzie was—I mean there were things that I had to figure out, like her parents—but it just seemed so natural for who I saw Lizzie as that she would be stuck in that period, partly because of the Great Game. Maybe this is the place to say this novel is not autobiographical. TM: Yes, unfortunately there’s this assumption that any time a woman writes a novel where a female protagonist engages in risky sexual practices or experiences some form of trauma that it must be autobiographical. NP: Lizzie’s behavior doesn’t come from a story someone told me. The Great Game is just something I imagined someone like Lizzie might do. The hard part having to do with that—I mean my editor kept saying "Why did she do it?" and I had to figure that out, but I also had to figure out how to tell that part of Lizzie’s story. Being a writer, you have ideas in your head and put them on paper and they seem so stilted. I describe myself as a very critical reader of the books I read, and I feel I was even harder on myself as a writer. TM: Lizzie, who begins the novel as a high school upperclassman and ends it as a woman we assume is in her late 20s, is never clearly described. Given that these times in a woman’s life are especially riddled with doubts about physical appearance, I found it very interesting as a reader that Lizzie’s physical self is never a point of concern for her. Her self-criticism stems from flaws she sees in her character, especially due to the Great Game—why did you want to have your female protagonist so comfortable in her skin and so uncomfortable in her self? NP: I think it was something that I discovered. I didn’t describe Lizzie because I really wanted readers to make their own picture of her. It seemed like I couldn’t have this one character who is so wrecked emotionally and feeling terribly about her body. I wanted to give her a break. In most of my own reading, I don’t care how characters look, I care about how they feel. TM: Lizzie’s parents, Lydia and Mendel, are psychologists who ascribe to the Behaviorist approach focusing on reinforcement and punishment and they take this to an extreme in their own parenting of Lizzie, which is cold and distant. Was your choice for her parents to be Behaviorists just reflective of the popular ideas at the time the novel was set, or do you have a viewpoint on this particular field of therapy? NP: My husband is an academic psychologist. But he’s neither a Behaviorist nor a Freudian. He’s a Humanistic-Transpersonal psychologist. You get a good sense of him from George. The Dr. Kallikow that influences George reflects much of Joe, my husband. Though Joe does not wear earth shoes. Or a beret. I knew right away that Lydia and Mendel would be academic psychologists. I wanted Lizzie to have an unhappy childhood, but not the typical unhappy experience. I didn’t want there to be physical abuse or poverty—I wanted this unhappiness directly attributable to her parents. In the beginning I considered having them be Freudians, but I thought that’s such a cliché: such a large part of our daily existence in our culture acknowledges Freudian issues. Once I decided that, Behaviorists seemed the next best option. And there’s no room in Lydia and Mendel’s relationship for Lizzie. That’s why I did that entire background for Lizzie’s family tree. When Tara, my editor, got the manuscript I wondered if she’d like it to be taken out, but I feel George and Lizzie’s story needs this backdrop, especially Lizzie’s. That part was fun to write too, because it was entirely invented. That whole thing about Minsk and Pinsk—all of those things were a lot of fun. Some chapters were much harder to write. TM: Which were harder to write? NP: I mean everything is hard—I have trouble sitting down to write. I don’t have a place to write besides my dining room table and it’s hard because I see things to do in the house, so I would go to the library. They have a quiet room there with a shelf going around it at computer height. Two hours and that was it. I’d have my Diet Pepsi, turn off Internet access, write for two hours, and then go home. I’ve also been a morning walker for a long time and basically go for a long walk—6 miles or so—every morning. I stop halfway to get a Starbucks tea and I continue my walk. It’s a lovely ritual and George and Lizzie would always be percolating in the background. I walk to the University of Washington campus and on the way back I walk down a street with lots of fraternity and sorority houses. As I walk I’ll think about different things, like what my life would have been like if I’d joined a sorority at University of Michigan, or what if I’d married this guy I dated when I was a junior. When I was stuck on something or couldn’t figure something out, the answer would frequently come to me on my walk, even though I wasn’t concentrating on the characters or the problem I was stuck on in the novel. I’d smell bacon cooking and think, oh, Elaine—maybe that’s her favorite breakfast. Everything just related back to my characters. TM: Almost 20 years ago, you began the movement that became One City One Book through your work as Executive Director at the Washington Center for the Book. What other initiatives do you hope to see realized for America’s (and/or the world’s) readers in the near or distant future? NP: I had this life-changing experience in Bosnia where the cultural attaché with the U.S. embassy there invited me to teach teachers how to lead book discussions—this was about four years ago. In Bosnia I saw how powerful books could be to bring people together to talk about important things like identity and how a book could help people think about their lives in a different way. That was my motivation when we developed One City One Book. I wanted to get people who might not think they have anything in common with each other to see that common humanity. Bosnia was an amazing place to see Serbs and Muslims coming together and finding out that they share many things—they are both mothers or that both sets of parents are mixed ethnicities, for example, and that linked them despite the fact that one was a Serb and one was a Muslim and they had the war behind and between them. I think reading is such a wonderful tool to develop empathy. We spend so much of our time in our own skins and we just think about our mind and our body, yet when we’re reading we are experiencing the lives of other characters and I think that freedom—that escape from ourselves—is the beginning of developing empathy. TM: Are you working on another novel already? NP: No, I have this obligatory novel that I wrote when I was 18—the kind people write when they want to be writers and are unhappy, which I definitely was at age 18. I read some of it recently and it was painful. It was just so earnest, there was no leavening in it. I mean, you could just see who I was as an 18-year-old. The little bit of the manuscript that I managed to read reminded me of interesting things I’d forgotten about that I’d put into that novel. It was also very stream-of-consciousness, which is quite different from George & Lizzie. I did start writing a short story about Maverick, Lizzie’s boyfriend her junior year of high school, as he turns 50. I don’t know if he becomes a sports commentator—I think he has a sports podcast instead. But for me, it’s always going to be that same narrative voice—that close third person narrator. I don’t know if I can access another voice, or if it’s always going to be this way. I mean, I started out in elementary and certainly high school and college writing poetry. I always defined myself as a writer. I thought I would be a writer and when I was in my 30s all of the lines that started to come to me as poetry started coming to me as prose instead. I wrote a short story that was published by Redbook in 1980 and they said they loved that story and "please send us all your writing." I did just that, but they said although they loved it, my writing was too depressing for their readers, and then I just sort of stopped writing and I didn’t start again until I began George & Lizzie. TM: There are many literary references in the book—as you wrote George & Lizzie, did you have any beloved novels in mind that you wanted to use in representing your characters? NP: It was really hard to narrow it down to which book Lizzie would be reading when she met Marla—it was easy to give George books, but with Lizzie there’s so many other books I wish I could have included and have her reading. I have this fantasy of George & Lizzie being illustrated and having a picture of Lizzie’s bookshelves and the Christmas tree of Elaine’s or the family jewelry store in Stillwater. There are so many smart and funny books I’d like to have included and I’m so glad I included I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I think Lizzie needed to be a reader. It was something that brought her pleasure when she was a child. That’s what reading did for her and it continues to sustain her, as it does for so many of us, including myself. *** In line with Nancy’s love for characters and their stories (and backstories), she’s kindly provided us with a recipe that features in George & Lizzie. Elaine’s Mandel Bread Recipe (which she got from her cousin Marilyn) Preheat oven to 350 degrees Ingredients: 4 eggs 1 cup canola oil 3½ to 4 cups flour 1 cup sugar 2 tsp baking powder 1 tsp vanilla ½ cup chopped nuts Mixture of equal parts cinnamon and sugar, for sprinkling Beat eggs until foamy. Add rest of ingredients. Divide dough into 4 parts. Make a long roll of each part and put it on a greased baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes. Slice each roll while still warm. Put back on cookie sheet, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar mixture and bake for 8 minutes or until brown. Then turn over each piece, sprinkle again with cinnamon and sugar, and bake for 8 minutes. Elaine often adds dried fruit in addition to nuts—cut up dried apricots, cranberries, or raisins. Sometimes she adds part of a package of trail mix.
Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker is one of the best books of the year. A biography of an elusive, and barely understood, literary figure, it’s also a secret history of a certain time and place. When I read an advanced copy, I couldn’t stop talking about the book. This included a conversation with Kraus’s Semiotext(e) co-editor Hedi El Kholti. He suggested that Chris and I should have a conversation about our two books. I hadn’t even thought of it, but it made a certain sense: my new novel, The Future Won’t Be Long, is concerned, roughly, with the same time and place as Chris’s book. Which is to say New York. The dirty New York. Before Giuliani and gentrification. And, besides, Chris Kraus changed my life. Literally. She was the editor on my novella ATTA, which Semiotext(e) published back in 2011. It’s all gone weird from there. A few weeks ago, we managed a conversation about our new books. Here’s the result. Jarett Kobek: I guess the best place to start is to explain our two books and then move forward. Your book, After Kathy Acker, is a formidable biography of a foreboding figure, Kathy Acker. As you know better than anyone, it’s impossible to summarize the whole of Acker’s life in a sentence, but to give an ultra-uninformative biopsy: writer, artist, performance artist, minor-literary celebrity, with a deep connection to New York and its era of transgressive art. My book, The Future Won’t Be Long, is a novel about (amongst other things) the East Village in the mid- to late-‘80s and early- to mid-‘90s, and is concerned with lives and secret histories in the aftermath of the real heyday of the transgressive moment. If I were to give a snippet summary, I could do worse to say that its characters exist in a world that came after Kathy Acker. A few months ago, I read Angela Nagel’s Kill All Normies. I don’t know if you’ve gotten to it, but it’s supposed to be a book about the rise of the Alt Right. But it’s curious, because her book ends up being a meditation on the value of transgression as a strategy, and how the Alt Right succeeded on a roadmap of co-opting and adopting this strategy. This would seem to be the entire methodology of the presidency: transgress all social norms and then, while the world plays catch up, transgress again. So now everyone’s like the characters in The Future Won’t Be Long. We’re all living in a word that comes after Kathy Acker. All of this is a very long-winded way of asking you to do the least envious of things, which is to iron out the ambiguity of your title. What does it mean in 2017 to be after Kathy Acker? Chris Kraus: Matt Fishbeck suggested that title, and frankly, I didn’t think about it that much. It just sounded right. Mostly, I guess because, as you say, it evokes the distance between her era and the one we’re living in now. And my approach to writing the book was to write through that distance. Transgression has become so banal. Even within Kathy’s lifetime, by the time she left the East Village, a new generation of people like Richard Kern and Nick Zedd had far surpassed her transgressive capital. I mean, Joe Coleman was biting the heads off of rats in his performances, and how do you compete with that? If you have any sense, you don’t even try. Kathy was actually quite critical of that work, in some of her letters. Your book is an incredibly precise and inspired evocation of a decade, 1986 to 1996. Without seeming to be one, or taking history as its literal subject, it captures the difference in consciousness, the texture of life, that’s emerged since those years. For one thing, the characters -- who, as they themselves admit, aren’t all that remarkable, they’re lumpen-creatives, more or less -- are formidably informed, as only savants are today. There’s a great line in Gary Indiana’s Resentment where Seth, the narrator, observes during a night-long group adventure, how each half-generation seems so much less informed than the last. Were you consciously trying to depict the difference in culture between then and now? JK: We've entered an era in which, in theory, anything goes and yet everything is so much more restrictive than it was 20 years ago. The rules are subtle until you bang up against them. You have an excellent example of this in After Kathy Acker, when you write about the case of the writer Janey Smith and his fuck list, a moment in which it became clear what aspects of Acker's work had been adopted and repurposed and what's been rejected. The idea was with Future was, exactly as you suggest, about making a contrast between then and now. I have officially reached a point in my life where I've started sounding old, but I have an inescapable sense that we're in an era of calcification. The 21st century has turned everything that was even remotely interesting from the 20th century into a kind of religion, completely with dogmas and priestly castes. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what turned out to be a transitional moment before the hardening had fully set in. As lumpen-creatives, the characters are haunted by a past that was much more interesting than the one they're living (at any given moment, New York is always better 10 years before, but in their case it's true) and they're also haunted by a future that's about to hit them harder than they can imagine. With one exception, none of them are even particularly good with computers! Which reminds me: towards the end of Acker's life, it's a different story. You paint a portrait of someone, just before her death in 1997, who is totally addicted to her computer and the nascent online world, a place where almost everyone would end up 10 years later. Do you think this was a result of her own exhaustion/disappointments with the role she'd found herself in, or was it an expansion of her previous work? CK: By the mid-'90s, Kathy hit a wall, both creatively and in terms of her career, that must have been very painful. Her last two novels, Empire of the Senseless (1988) and In Memoriam of Identity (1990) had not been well received, at least not critically or within the literary world, in NY or London. She was living in San Francisco, drifting further to the margins of what she’d previously considered central. To me, the great poignancy of Acker’s life was that she’d outlived her dream. Literature, capital L, was no longer important in the same way. The time when writers could be cultural heroes was already over. Her publisher, Grove Press, was bought and sold twice in the last few years of Acker’s life…publishing had already become corporatized and hegemonic. Her writing had become somewhat repetitive, and so non-narrative that it was unreadable by many, and she hadn’t figured out another way. But she was trying. Rather than change her writing style, she looked to aspects of internet culture as mirrors of her own interests: avatars as a means of escaping fixed identity in gaming; the intricacies of coding as a metaphor for consciousness. Still, she wasn’t stupid. She already saw the limits of the internet, and I’m sure if she’d lived longer, she would have pursued entirely new directions. I agree with you about the calcification, and the rules. The present’s very puritanical. In both our books, there’s an ethos of self-destruction, of losing yourself however possible, that’s been replaced by rigid self-protection. But at the same time -- there were definitely winners and losers in that game. Towards the end of the novel, you have that beautiful passage: This is how the world works…in talking about who does, and doesn’t take the blame for Angel Melendez’s murder. I always thought the double standard between self-destruction and self-advancement was one of the hypocrisies that’s been edited out of memoirs and other histories of that era. Do you agree? And, I’ve got to ask - what about the murders? Really, two of the most central events in The Future are the grisly murders of Monika Beerle and Melendez -- murders “shared” by their communities. JK: Future was intended to be a much shorter novel, purely about the Club Kids. As I wrote, the book kept expanding. I remembered Daniel Rakowitz and Monika Beerle. For the readers who don’t know about either of the killings: Daniel Rakowitz was a guy who wandered around the East Village in a religious delusion. He was considered a more-or-less harmless nuisance. Then he moved in with Monika Beerle, who was a dancer at Billy’s Topless, and very shortly thereafter killed her. Because of the grisly circumstances, the story was one of those New York infamous crimes. Rakowitz dismembered Beerle’s body in a bathtub, boiled the head on his stove, and then apparently served the broth to homeless people in Tompkins Square Park. When he was finally arrested, Rakowitz brought the cops to a locker in the Port Authority, where he’d stored Beerle’s skull in a tub of kitty litter. Angel Melendez was Michael Alig’s drug dealer. Michael was King of the Club Kids, a loose group of kids who hung around the city’s nightclubs and performed all kinds of outrageous antics, and who ended up getting a huge amount of media coverage. In 1996, Angel went to Michael’s apartment and ended up killed by Michael and a guy who called himself Freeze. Angel’s body was dismembered in a bathtub. Then Michael and Freeze dumped Angel in the river. The story played out in the press for months and months until Michael was arrested. What I didn’t know until I started doing research is how much the two murders paralleled each other. Much like Michael Alig’s murder of Angel, everyone knew. Possibly an even greater number than knew about Alig killing Angel. Alig at least hid the body from his friends and played coy, sometimes saying he did it, sometimes saying he didn’t. Rakowitz showed people the remains. He told a ton of people that he had murdered Beerle. And like the murder of Angel, it took forever before there was any official involvement. With Michael, everything was fabulous. Even murder. But Rakowitz was just squalor. So it seemed absolutely vital to include. To strip away the glamor. No one posts to Tumblr about Rakowitz being fabulous. There’s an easy narrative about these killings -- a story about how excess ends in horror. I don’t subscribe to that, but I do think the killings speak to something about the social scenes that end up lionized in books like mine. It sounds horribly dated describing it like this, but if you try to create a lawless society of outsiders, essentially a world without critical judgment, then the real temperature of that scene is taken when someone’s actions force you into a situation which manifestly demands judgment. And nothing does that like forcible death. This gets us back to the question about self-advancement and self-destruction. Because I agree, it’s almost always hidden. But there are always winners and losers. And I think it may be the same conditions which produce a blindness about it. CK: Yes, that’s really interesting. Your book describes a period of total decadence, the last days of the underground empire, before the fall. I didn’t see that before, but the way these ‘communities’ react to the killings puts everything into focus. I was very aware of Monika Beerle’s murder - horrified by it. In my film Gravity & Grace, her killing kind of a secret subtext…the character Gravity has made a kind of stained-glass graphic novel depiction of it, installed on the panes of the French doors in her slummy apartment. Although mostly during that period, I remember the hordes of people selling their belongings on blankets in the street, and the rash of break-ins and petty crime in the East Village. You couldn’t park a car in the street without it being keyed or broken into. You write about the destruction of the Tompkins Square Park bandshell -- the way someone painted over the Billie Holiday mural. I remember when that mural went up -- my then-boyfriend Bud Hazlekorn helped to paint it. We’re seeing the same thing now in Lincoln Park, Boyle Heights, and MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Vandalism is the last gasp of resistance. In The Future, Baby and Adeline and their friends are just living their lives, but of course they’re part of the force of gentrification. And people like the drag queen Christine/Christian in your book just disappear in the most sordid, but wholly predictable ways. There’s a whole population that becomes the collateral damage of “the democratization of lust,” as Baby puts it, or excessive freedom. As the former Urizen publisher Michael Roloff told me, when I interviewed him for the Acker book,“What looked like the ‘greening of America’ in that neck of the woods metamorphosed into the wildest kind of neo-liberalism down in Tribeca and the East Village.” JK: Speaking of complicity. It sounds absurd, given that Future is populated by historical figures, but including Beerle (as necessary as I found it) has sat poorly with me. That’s a human being whose murder has reduced her to a story about Rakowitz. Which is one that I have used and now participated in. What I’ve done is in some ways the antithesis of what you’ve done with Kathy Acker, but I wonder if there was any hesitation on your part in taking on a biographical project of someone who (I assume) you personally knew? Not so much in terms of the exposing Acker, but exposing yourself, linking yourself to the story? CK: I didn’t know Kathy at all, and I think that made it easier to work on the book. As I wrote diplomatically in a publicity piece for the book, “our two brief social meetings were tinged with antipathy.” That is: she reflexively disliked me because a) I was no one, and b) I was married to Sylvere, who she’d been close to. For those reasons, and others, I thought it best to leave myself out of the story. But Kathy and I knew many of the same people, and we shared the same cultural influences. Writing about Kathy became a way of writing a revisionist history of New York in the 70s and 80s, just as you do in The Future for the following decade. But getting back to “the democratization of lust” and neoliberalism: Your first novel, ATTA, is a nuanced and unsentimental psychobiography of the 9/11 suicide bomber. The book never justifies Mohamed Atta’s actions, but it steps back far enough from reflex moral condemnation to consider his rationale and motivations. Atta’s master’s thesis critiqued the introduction of Western-style skyscrapers in the Middle East and called for a return to the “Islamic-Oriental city.” Your radically propose that, at least in his mind, the destruction of the World Trade Center was a form of architectural criticism. Do you think your background as the son of a Turkish Muslim immigrant has given you a different perspective on the value of “freedom,” and how these values play out psychically and geographically? JK: I think the hardest thing to talk about when it comes to neoliberalism is how, particularly in the era of the Internet, everyone is to varying degrees complicit in its relentless process of change. You literally cannot live in the US without exhibiting some complicity. There’s obviously different degrees in this assessment, but that’s been my life experience from the moment that I moved to NYC. The changes of the Giuliani era were performed, essentially, for my benefit. So it was very important to make sure that the characters in Future were situated in a time when they couldn’t be anything but gentrifiers, but who (perhaps with the exception of Adeline) see themselves as existing in resistance to the surrounding society. But they are of course key components of society’s forward march. The future really won’t be long. The moment for me of brutal awakening (the process is ever ongoing) was 9/11. As you mention, I’ve got a personal connection, which is that my father was a Muslim immigrant to America. What happened on 9/11 was this: the least interesting thing about the man suddenly became the most important. He went from 20+ years experiencing literally no animus or prejudice to someone who climbed down a fire-escape at 5 a.m. to avoid his neighbors beating the shit out of him. He eventually left the country, which has been hugely damaging in some ways. If nothing else, his apartment in Turkey has given me a staging ground for travel around the Middle East. But yes, I think that 9/11 and ensuing years of an endless American dialogue about Muslims -- one which creates endless wars despite the political party in office and which on all sides has nothing to do with the lives of any Muslims I know or to whom I related -- has caused me to become increasingly obsessed and skeptical about almost everything. So that’s the reason, really, I was interested in writing a revisionist history. You mention that you used Acker’s bio for the same purpose. Why did you think it was necessary? CK: Richard Hell’s memoir, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, mentions Kathy in passing, a reference to some kinky-sex episode they had. And of course Richard wasn’t writing a book about Kathy, but I thought she deserved better than that. All of these memoirs and novels, photo exhibitions and films, were coming out about that era, the romance of the last avant-garde. And I found those depictions false. They necessarily edit out the texture of life: the boredom, the small competitions and rivalries. If you can’t tell the truth about an era you witnessed and lived, you can’t tell the truth about anything. Initially my motivation was to tell the truth about that era, in some small way, by tracking one person’s life. As I did the research, I became more interested in Kathy’s writing. Reading it closely, understanding her process, I came to admire her in ways I hadn’t before. Do you think people will ever be done with New York? In a way, I think we’ve both tried, in our books, to finish with that romance. When will people be done with New York?
Rachel Khong has trouble telling her life story. To her, life happens in the tiny daily interactions, and so to have a tidy narrative ready—the sweeping story of how she got from A to B—doesn’t accurately take into account how mysterious everything is. Khong says that she “didn’t want anything big” to happen in her debut novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, but instead wanted it to exist in the “space in-between.” Written in a series of diaristic entries, the novel starts around Christmas and spans a year. Thirty-year-old Ruth Young, fresh off a broken engagement, has moved home after learning that her father, Howard, has Alzheimer’s disease. The book follows her as she tries to care for him while dealing with her breakup and career ambivalence. Khong and I spoke by phone about the relationship between food and control, the process of editing her novel, and the odd things your exes remember about you. The Millions: You’ve mentioned before that you don’t think Goodbye, Vitamin is necessarily about Alzheimer’s, and that it’s more a novel about memory. I’m curious, what do you mean by that? Rachel Khong: Well, it’s obviously not not a novel about Alzheimer’s. That’s absolutely a component of the book and it’s a really important dynamic in the family. The fact that her father's been diagnosed with it is the reason that Ruth comes home. But I’m hesitant to have it be labeled a novel specifically about Alzheimer’s because I don’t think that’s the main struggle. I think it would be disappointing to someone who came to this thinking, “this is going to tell me a lot about Alzheimer’s and what it’s like to take care of someone with the disease.” It’s more about this woman who is having to come to terms with her own life as she has narrated it until that point, and also navigate these relationships with family members and with friends and obviously with her ex-fiancé. TM: Right, the novel takes place at the very early stages of Alzheimer’s. We can see the effects, but it’s not yet about tropes like “my father doesn’t recognize me” or “should I put him in a nursing home.” He’s not really in the worst of it. RK: Yeah, her dad is in the beginning stages and it’s not quite as bad as it will be. It’s still a more pronounced version of the memory loss that, really, we all experience. I think Alzheimer’s was just a way to talk about memory that was more explicit for people to understand. I think I err on the side of subtlety and not saying things really directly. That’s the kind of thing I like to read and I think more can be communicated sometimes in the space between words. That sounds so pretentious, I know, but I think more can be said by not directly going, hey, it really sucks that Alzheimer’s wipes away your whole life and it destroys the relationships in your life. That was not something that I felt needed to be explored because it was almost too obvious. I wanted to write about the day-to-day memory loss that we all experience because that was just more interesting to me. TM: What drives this interest in memory? You said that Alzheimer’s was a way to explore memory, is the theme of “memory” a way to explore something else? RK: I have always been interested in communication and how faulty it can be between people and trying to understand the reason for that, and I think I pinpointed that to memory. Memory is everywhere, in the ways we think of ourselves and tell our stories. There are certain kinds of people who have more of a sense of who they are and their whole life story. They could tell it to you at a campfire. I think that I have never thought of my own life in that way. Does that make sense? TM: Yes, definitely. I know people who have an “elevator pitch” version of their life that’s very coherent and that they have down flat. RK: Exactly. I’ve never been able to completely narrate my life from like from start to finish because that’s just not the way that my brain operates. And so I was interested in, what’s the difference between these two approaches—not that there are only two—and trying to understand what makes us think of ourselves in a certain way, how we as individuals think about our own lives and how memory figures into that. TM: So what do you say when you do get asked that question about your life story? RK: Immediately, I just am deeply skeptical. It doesn’t feel accurate to narrate your life in that elevator pitch way, so I just feel kind of squirmy. I know the things that have been consistent in my life. I know that I have always wanted to be a writer, for example, and I’ve always been somebody who likes to make stuff up and imagine things and wants to know more about other people and get inside their brains. But that’s not what people necessarily are asking. They want to know how you get from point A to point B. I think life is so much more mysterious than that and it feels really fake to me to try to make sense of that and that’s not what the book does. TM: The book takes place over a year and it uses this very diaristic form. What made you choose that span, and that format? And have you read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot? That’s the book that I was thinking of when I was reading Goodbye, Vitamin. RK: I have not. TM: I think they’re similar, not necessarily in plot or theme, but in that they’re both written in these short entries, and they’re both very—I think “observant” is the word that comes to mind. Just made up of these little moments. RK: Yeah. I wanted the book to be a reflection of life, I think, and so I didn’t want anything huge to happen. I didn’t want anything terrible to happen to Howard, I didn’t want anyone to die, I didn’t want anyone to get married. In that big life story that you tell somebody—that myth that you tell people—you wouldn’t talk about things that just happened quietly every day and yet those things are the very material of that big sweeping story. Those little moments, those little interactions are who you are; every day is what makes up your life. I think I just wanted to explore that space and to not have those big events and those things that would normally get told in the big sweeping story to be part of this book. I wanted it to exist in the space in-between. TM: One of my favorite scenes was this really small moment. At one point Joel, Ruth’s ex-fiancé, calls her and tells her that he learned that goats have square pupils and that this is something he thought she’d like. It’s such a small, sort of useless thing to know about someone, but it’s special that they remember it about you. And knowing that other people remember these small moments about you, to my mind, gives all of these day-to-day moments more power. RK: Yeah, I think you have it exactly right. The fact is that Ruth has sort of been waiting for this call. She’s been waiting for a call or some word from him, she’s been quietly agonizing when she knows she shouldn’t be and then the thing he calls about is square goat pupils. Which sounds silly, but it’s also something really intimate to know about a person, that they care about that sort of thing. But it’s also sort of arbitrary and that’s how things are. TM: Yeah, there’s a line where Ruth talks about how Joel did “half the work of remembering.” And I remember reading Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, which is a memoir about her husband’s sudden death, and she says something very similar, about how in a relationship you divide up the labor of who remembers what. RK: Two people can have a whole list of shared things and shared experiences and when that, when a relationship ends and you no longer have those shared things, it’s almost like your identity has changed. You have to learn how to be the person and do the work of remembering your own life again. I think it’s easy for people to tell you when you’re mourning the end of something, it’s easy to say, you’ll get over it and it’ll just take time, you’ll get over it. There are still things that remain in your brain that you have no power over and will always take up space there. TM: In the novel, Howard is a university professor who’s had affairs in the past. At one point, we meet one of Howard’s current students, Joan. Ruth thinks that Joan has had some sort of affair with her dad. Joan says something like, “he doesn’t remember me,” and Ruth goes, “what doesn’t he remember?” That was really poignant. On the one hand, it’s sad that he can’t remember because it’s a disease, but on the other hand, him not remembering almost absolves him and makes their family life easier. But Ruth won’t forget. RK: Having Joan in the book to me was a way for Ruth to have to confront this version of her father that she didn’t really know that much about and see it in action and up close. And she has to process it and be forced to deal with it and to see what her brother had seen all along. Unlike him, she left home because she got to really see her father’s flaws close up. It was really important to me to have Howard be this flawed character, not this shining, amazing history professor who was blameless and was a perfect father and now having tragic things happening. I really want to explore all the ways in which we all kind of fail one another and having Joan be there and just sort of having her be there for Ruth to deal with was a way to do that. TM: Did she have to confront this directly? She couldn’t really believe her brother’s memories or take his word for it? RK: She didn’t want to have her bubble burst. Some of us are more able to just take someone else’s word at things and then others of us need to experience things more empirically and experience the heartbreak firsthand. For Ruth, of course she believes her brother, but it’s hard to really take someone else’s word for something so big when all you know of that person is their more loving side. She is obviously throughout pretty conflicted. She wants to hang onto this previous memory of her dad. You do kind of want to believe the best about people. TM: I’m also interested in the role of food and health in the novel, especially given the title. Ruth becomes obsessed with making her dad eat “cruciferous foods” like broccoli because she reads that they ward off dementia. That made me think about how, culturally, we really want to believe that if we eat enough acai berries, we can protect ourselves. Then, near the end of the book, Howard refuses to eat the cruciferous food and Ruth is just like, “okay.” Is this her acknowledging that she doesn’t have much control? RK: I think the sense there is just that maybe happiness is more important than food. Even as the book spans a year and nothing huge happens, there is this small shift in the way that Ruth and her father kind of come to think about, well, just living and the time that they have. They sort of start to learn more to live moment-to-moment, be content in moments and just be able to observe something and have that be completely fulfilling. For Ruth, it would make sense for her to want the future to come quicker, in her own life personally. She wants things to be better, she wants to get over this breakup, she wants to have a job that she loves, she wants things for her own life. But I think because she knows that wanting the future for herself means wanting a worse future for her father—a future in which he will necessarily be in a worse mental state—she’s learned how to think less about, or obsess less about, the future, to just live more in the present. So, back to the question about food, I think that’s just an offshoot of that. She’s kind of surrendered some of that control, control of obsessing over the diet, the control of whatever her own future will be personally. TM: What was the process of researching this book like? How much of it was biographical—you’re also from southern California, where the novel takes place—versus a lot of research? RK: I don’t think any element of the book was either straight-up from my knowledge or straight-up imagined. I was reading a lot about California history, about Alzheimer’s as a disease. Some of the characters are really some amalgamation, others are a blend of things I’ve stolen from people. TM: What sorts of things did you steal? RK: There’s this journal that Howard has kept for Ruth and it’s full of entries about days when she was younger. I made a lot of those up, but I did have a few of those that my friends told me about their kids. I have one friend that was telling me about her son Darwin, and he had said the line in the book about asking what nerds are, and then getting them confused with nerves. Then I asked her for permission to reuse that in the book because I thought it was so wonderful. TM: What about the process of editing? RK: It was a really very haphazard process. I wrote the beginning, middle, end as a draft and then I sort of would attack really randomly. I had a day job too and just having to revise when I had any spare moment led to this really random way of approaching the revision process. It helped that the book is formatted in the way that it is. I would open the book up at random and see what needed to be fixing, and then fix it. Sometimes I’d just think of a new scene and stick it in there and try to arrange it or deal with it later. The book is a lot about the layering of emotions and dynamics between people. So revising was just this really gentle layering and layering on of emotions, but also of people’s characteristics and things like that, spending lot of time with these characters and thinking about what their motivations were and what they would do next was a big part of revising. TM: So this book is out, and you’re writing another novel! Can you tell me a little about it? RK: Not quite. I am definitely working on a novel, but it’s I’m a little stuck right now and I’m trying to figure out what’s happening next, so I can’t jinx it.
Over the course of her career, Patricia Smith has a reputation for tackling complicated ideas, combining humor and tragedy, and bridging the gap between spoken word and lyrical prose. She’s a four-time National Poetry Slam champion, a finalist for the National Book Award, and has received many other awards for books like Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Blood Dazzler, and Teahouse of the Almighty. She edited and contributed to the prose anthology Staten Island Noir, and has contributed poems to many anthologies including the recent Bearden’s Odyssey. Smith’s new book is possibly her best work to date, but it’s also a departure. Incendiary Art is a book-length sequence about violence and rage and fear. There is no narrative arc to the book, rather the poems and the sequences of poems function like a mosaic covering the life of Emmett Till, the voices of mothers whose children were killed, fathers who kill their own children, and urban violence ranging from the Tulsa massacre of 1921, the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, Los Angeles in 1992, and other events. It is also a very personal book; Smith writes of witnessing the 1968 riots in Chicago following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and many summers spent in the deep South with family. Her mother kept the photo of Emmett Till from Jet magazine on the wall of their house. We spoke about her challenging, complicated book, and why she felt it needed to be written. The Millions: Incendiary Art is an amazing book, but it’s also a really hard book. Patricia Smith: It’s funny you should say that. I’m so used to doing readings to promote a book. You pick out poems and you have your favorite pieces—balancing long poems with short poems, funny poems with serious poems and all that. It’s so hard to read from this without inserting poems from other books because there’s very little light in these pages. That’s not to say there’s no variety in the book, it’s just a really difficult listen unless you can work in a breather somehow. It’s been pretty revelatory because I’ve been reading poems that I haven’t read in years. This book has changed the idea of what a reading is for me. TM: I’ve heard and read your work for 20 years or more now, and Incendiary Art feels very different from your other books. Where did it start? With a single poem? Were you always thinking in terms of a larger project? PS: It started in a very strange place, with the sequence “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters.” I think I wrote “The Five Stages of Drowning” poem first. I had those two news items and I wasn’t sure where they were going to go. I wanted to examine the particular dysfunction that would lead a man to feel so disconnected from his daughter that he would use her as a pawn to punish the mother. My initial idea was to do a book on the many ways–both physical and psychological–that fathers can drown their daughters. For example, there are the stories about fathers in the heartland who “married” their daughters to keep them chaste until they were old enough for their own husbands. I started seeing a lot of things like that. I began to collect a lot of clippings and do a lot of reading about father-daughter relationships—not necessarily just black fathers. Because I had a really special relationship with my father. It started there, but I realized pretty quickly that that was a dead end. Around that time, I was a teaching a class, telling my students they they should always listen for the voices they weren’t hearing. I talk about taking the time to look for an unexpected entry point into a poem. At the time, every two weeks or so there was another shooting of an unarmed man–usually by the police. I had my students look at news stories and I said, what is the voice we’re not hearing? I realized that there was always a very frantic shot of a mother in the beginning of the story and another frantic shot of a mother at the end when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter was deemed not responsible for the death of her son or daughter. And then after that last frantic shot, the mothers disappeared. I thought about these mothers trying to re-enter their lives and what might be like. And so the “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” poems began that way. They wound up being the center, the focus, of the book for me. I tried to build everything else around that. TM: It is interesting that the Emmett Till poems came later, because those poems and the Incendiary Art poems are really the spine of the book. PS: The Emmett Till poems happened because Mamie Till was yet another mother whose son was gone. And I began thinking about the Incendiary Art poems during the riots after the death of Mike Brown. I realized how many times fire entered the picture, burning the landscape clean. I also heard someone ask, why do they burn their own neighborhoods? That made me think of the riots after the King assassination, which is when my neighborhood burned down. I spent some time trying to mix all these things and find a common entry point. Then I realized it wasn’t the subject matter, it was the fact that I was the one handling the subject matter. The same feelings kept rising to the surface even though I was looking at different topics. I decided that the idea of the changing landscape, the landscape that’s cluttered and confusing but that gets burned to the ground and starts over, was what I wanted at the center of the book. That encompassed all those different parts in my eyes. And hopefully in the readers’ eyes, too. TM: The Incendiary Art poems loosely connect Chicago in ’68 and Tulsa in ’21 and the MOVE bombing, and they’re all about fire and violence and rage, but the connection is in part, as you said, that it’s you telling this. PS: I guess there might be a stronger connection in my head simply because I was right in the middle of the riots in Chicago [in 1968]—and every time I see a riot of that type, it pulls me back to all that heat and chaos. It also makes me think of what it must have been like in Tulsa and wherever. I wrote because the connection felt strong for me and I hoped that some semblance of that connection would come together for the reader. TM: I know people who still talk about Emmett Till in a certain way and it was because he could have been them and they’ve never forgotten that. PS: That’s what my parents felt and that’s what they tried to drill into me. That’s why they had the Jet magazine picture in the house, the picture of Emmett in his casket. TM: How did you come up with the idea of writing about Emmett Till in the style of a “choose your own adventure?” PS: I used to love those books when I was a kid. And I as I get older, I look back on things and think a lot about the role of chance. I had just read about Mamie Till trying to get Emmett to go with her to Nebraska and then giving in and letting him go to Mississippi. I went through his whole story and said, where else could things have changed? I was one of those kids that was sent South. I was sent to Greenwood Mississippi every summer to get away from the city and run and be free and all that, but as soon as I got there I was presented with a whole set of rules. I was told how far I could go down a certain road or what man I should definitely not speak to if I happened to run into him. There were those same types of rules on the west side of Chicago. The South looked freer. It looked like you could run and play and do things you couldn’t do in the city, but it just operated under a different set of rules. My mother probably didn’t think of it this way, but it was so frightening to have that picture torn from Jet Magazine in the house all while I was growing up. My mom believed that the way to get through life was to be as beholden as possible to white people. If she was in a room and a white person walked in, her whole body would get smaller. She tried really hard to teach me how to live like that—not only because she thought that was how to be successful in the world, but because it was the way to stay alive. You don’t talk back, you don’t do this, you don’t do that. If you said the wrong thing to the wrong person you might wind up in a shallow grave somewhere–and you never knew who the wrong person was. I thought about that a lot. TM: “Sagas of the Accidental Saint” is the center of the book in a lot of ways, and you have this long sequence where you have one line on a page–“The gun said: I just had an accident”–and it goes on, page after page. It’s a long and complicated series of poems and those 10 pages with one line each were almost exhaustingly long. How did you decide on that length and that effect? PS: I knew the whole sequence was going to be long. I worried that people wouldn’t know that first long sequence was in the mother’s voice unless I said, this is in the mother’s voice. I really wanted to impose some form on that segment. I assume everyone reads aloud—which may or may not be true—but I wanted there to be something intriguing about the passage outside of the content. A sound that a reader wanted to keep coming back to. A lament. I didn’t want to have names that people necessarily recognized immediately in the cases I cite. I want people to know that while they see these things in the news every once in a while, the tragedy is a more constant and consistent drumbeat. There’s a case in the news and then maybe a case a month later, but no, it’s more often than that. It’s something unfortunately that’s numbing and a certain portion of the population gets used to it. If there’s something very public or brazen about it then maybe it makes the news. Nowadays it makes the news usually because there’s film. I wanted people to say, I don’t know that name, I didn’t know that name, I didn’t know how many times people committed suicide with their hands tied behind them. I wanted it to be relentless, but I didn’t want it to be too much. About the repeated bullet line—when I had it printed out to read, I realized that I would pause a certain number of beats between each repetition of the line—and that it was just enough time for a page to turn. So I then printed it out with one of the lines on each page. There’s something striking about the physical act of turning the page. If you say it and you breathe and you turn the page, people have said to me afterwards, you feel like you’re being held captive. You don’t realize it until maybe the third time, oh my god, she’s going to do that 10 times. Because there were 10 shots. I want you to hear every gunshot—and in order to replicate that feeling, it’s not enough to stay on one page and say this happened 10 times. The time you take to turn the page is enough time for the gun to fire again. I’m always trying to give the reader at least as much of me in person as I can on the page. Whenever there’s something like that, when I can do something to help you hear me saying the poem, I’ll do it. I was afraid that when I spaced those out the way I wanted that the publisher would say, this is too much, this is too long, but they were very supportive. They knew exactly what I wanted to do and we kept it that way. It also helps me when doing readings because if I read the whole “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” it’s half an hour. It helps me to be able to take two or three of those cases out of Accidental Saint and read them as individual pieces. TM: Have you always written that way? Thinking about sound and meter and trying to replicate the way you read on the page? PS: Almost from the beginning. Because I got introduced to poetry by getting up on stage. The audience can only hear the poem once. Normally they don’t have a copy they can read again. You have to be very cognizant of not only the poem’s content, but the fact that it is able to be received and interpreted relatively easily. I didn’t know I was doing this consciously until I started to really study poetry, but I talk aloud while I write. I say one line over and over until the next line comes and then I say those two lines until the third line comes. Not only will I have internalized the poem somewhat by the time I’m done, but I’m really conscious of the way the words reach the air, how they sound. I think that is the result of me spending so much time doing poetry for an audience, before the idea of the reader was ever really clear to me. When I started to study poetry, I realized that there were poems I go to again and again. I even know them almost by heart. But every time I see these poems I read them all the way through—why do I do that? Because the poet did something technically to help heighten my response to the poem and I didn’t know what it was. I wanted to know what those sounds were called and what was happening with meter. They have to work hand in hand—the content has to be something that draws the reader in, but so does the sound. If I can take something horrible and lend music to it, you have to read it. If I can take something beautiful and add some sort of cacophony to it, you have to read it. Meter is something you have in your toolbox that can really enhance a poem in a lot of ways. It would be overwrought if you did it all with the content, but you can do something that the reader can’t point to right away, and they can leave the poem with the feeling you want them to leave with, without knowing how they got it. TM: You contributed to the recent anthology Bearden’s Odyssey, about Romare Bearden, and I liked your poem in the book, but I kept thinking that the way that Bearden used collage is similar to what you tried to do in Incendiary Art in some ways. Were you conscious of this? Were you familiar with Bearden’s work? PS: Not really. I mean I’d seen pieces of his before, but I never studied his work. I looked at more of it when I was presented with the idea of the anthology. The idea of collage however, goes back to Blood Dazzler. There’s a poem in Blood Dazzler about the 34 nursing home residents who were lost in Hurricane Katrina. People ask me about that a lot. It’s sort of a juncture for me because I so often turn to persona. That was the first poem, and I thought that was going to be the only poem, resulting from Katrina. That’s the poem that I had. I didn’t intend to write a book. Our lives are one long narrative and every once in a while you see something and you take a picture—I want this moment, I want this day. I pictured a camera moving around that room. The lights are out, the water is rising, and people are pushing call buttons and no one is coming. I wanted a camera to scan that room and I wanted it to stop and maybe it only stops for a second, but a second of life is better than none. In Incendiary Art, I felt for a long time that I needed to do more to pull together the sections. It wasn’t enough that we’re talking about different types of loss. That’s overarching. If I think about African-American lives and I think about those long narratives and those snapshots, if you put all those snapshots on the table and someone looks at them, they’re going to have a hard time putting together a story. But if you realize what narrative they came from, then you’ll know what the story is instinctively. That idea of the line of lives and pulling what we need from it—those moments, those instances, those days—whatever you need to piece this life together. One of the things about Incendiary Art is that I didn’t know how to end it. There is so much I felt that I needed to keep in the conversation. This happened with Blood Dazzler, too. I had people say to me, you’ve got to hurry up and get this book out because people are going to forget about Katrina. The idea of someone forgetting about something so huge and important was so amazing to me. How? And now I hear people saying, you hardly hear anything about the men and women who died at the hands of the police—I hate to keep saying that—because of all the political turmoil that’s now piled on top of it. People were paying, or pretending to pay, a lot of attention to that until our very survival as a country became an issue—and now our focus is in a million different places at once. All I want is for someone to pick up Incendiary Art or pick up Blood Dazzler and say, that’s right, this is happening. That’s what I want. Maybe it won’t last long, but for the moment they’re reading those poems I want them to be thoroughly involved in what they’re reading. The idea that things have to be tied together tightly or that they have to lead so directly one into the other, I think I’m walking away from that idea. TM: I could feel rereading those last few poems that you were trying to find a way to close the book. You couldn’t have an Emmett Till poem be the last one because him being alive wouldn’t work, even though you make it clear that only chance keeps him alive. But you seemed to be trying to find some light. PS: It was a difficult book to close. There’s not a narrative arc in the book. I wanted that last Incendiary Art and that last Emmett Till. We talked about the gun said I just had an accident, and that was another way to close the book, with that ellipsis that keeps going. I wanted Emmett to be laughing and alive—which goes back to that idea of chance. Taking this turn instead of that turn. I was in a store here in New Jersey the other day and in the current political climate someone can very nakedly stare and sneer at you publicly, as if they’re daring you to say something about it because they’re emboldened. The question is, because I’m a very impetuous girl, do I say something back? If I say something, does the person get in their car and follow me home? There are dangerous situations in places where I’m not used to being frightened. That idea of not knowing who your neighbors are. Having people who were content to be hateful in private in their basements are now out in the open. When I look back, I tend to say, that’s the way it was, but not the way it is now. To see that again—that’s as much light as the book could find. One of the things I ask my students is can we find beauty anywhere? Can we find humor anywhere? I think there might be a couple of moments where something visually is a little lighter, but there’s no humor in this book. When you said it’s a different book, I think it is. TM: After finishing a book like this, is it hard to let go? Do you really need to spend time with something funny and lighter? PS: It’s a combination. For a while after Blood Dazzler people would come up to me and say, well there was just this major tragedy in you-name-the-place, what are you going to write about it? Well, I’m not going to. I’m not the tragedy writer. I’m not the natural disaster writer. That was what I was moved to write about at that time. When I say that Incendiary Art was a hard book to finish, it was hard to finish because things kept happening that should have been in the book. I would see something and immediately say, I want to write about that but where is it going to go? I’m writing in reaction to a lot of things. I’m writing because I’m angry and I’m sad and I’m trying to make something make sense. If I keep doing that, I’m going to wind up with exactly the same kind of book. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I do want to be funny and I do want to find ironic things and play off of them, and now I’m frightened politically. If we write to move our lives forward, we’re constantly writing about those types of things. I’m working on some fiction that came right out of Incendiary Art and the mothers of those murdered people. I wonder about the folding back into what an ordinary life should be. How do you do that being a woman who woke up one morning with a son or daughter and went to sleep without one? I have my Guggenheim proposal, which I haven’t started. My husband and I collect 19th-century photos of African-Americans and I want to do a book of dramatic monologues using some of those photos. There could be light in that for me. Luckily I have six weeks of residency this year. I’m not thinking I wrote a dark book so now I have to write a light book. I would like to, for my own psychological health, pull up and out a little bit. I’d like to write a children’s book again. I haven’t done that for a long time. I think of myself as a storyteller and not necessarily a poet and so you look for the best way to tell a story. Hopefully I can get something that lightens the landscape a little bit, but I go with what presses me to be written.
Novelist Julia Fierro has an eye for spoiled paradises. In her first novel, Cutting Teeth, a satirical look at parenting customs in Brownstone Brooklyn, a group of angst-ridden, citified parents spend a fraught Labor Day Weekend in a shabby Long Island beach house ironically named Eden. Fierro's second novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, a darker, more ambitious book, is set on Avalon Island, an idyllic islet off the coast of Long Island beset by an infestation of gypsy moths and, more troublingly, by toxic waste from an aviation plant that may be poisoning the local water supply. The Gypsy Moth Summer, which came out in June, is at heart a tale of two women: Maddie LaRosa, whose family straddles the class divide between tony East Avalon and working-class West Avalon; and Leslie Marshall, scion of the town’s most prominent family, who returns to the island with her African-American husband, Jules, and their two biracial children. Maddie falls in love with Leslie’s son Brooks, upsetting the delicate balance of race, class, and deeply held secrets that have held Avalon together while poisoning its culture—and its children. Fierro and I recently exchanged emails about the real-life inspirations for her novel, the intersection of race and class in America, and the growing toxic plume spreading underneath her native Long Island. The Millions: Writers often start a book with a line of prose or a visual image. Was that the case for you with The Gypsy Moth Summer? What started you writing this story? What sustained you once you got started? Julia Fierro: The Gypsy Moth Summer's first seed, so to speak, was planted many years ago with the character of the Colonel, based on my maternal grandfather who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. Like the Colonel in the novel, my grandpa was a tough son-of-gun and inspected our bedrooms wearing his white military gloves once a year (we got a dollar if we passed and a talking-to if we failed), but my grandfather was not as tyrannical as the Colonel in The Gypsy Moth Summer. In my first creative writing class at college, I wrote a sketch of the Colonel who, two decades later, became the patriarch of Avalon Island in The Gypsy Moth Summer. That sketch sat ignored for years until I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. I tried to turn the sketch into a story titled "The Gypsy Moth Summer." I rewrote that story many times over the next decade—from the Colonel's perspective, from teen Maddie's perspective, even, I am ashamed to admit, from the caterpillars' omniscient point-of-view (I'm laughing at myself). Eventually, I realized this was no story but the opening chapter of a novel. After my first novel, Cutting Teeth, was published, I looked at that pile of pages (hundreds of pages of various opening chapters all for the same book) and tried again. This time, all those details and characters, and, most importantly, the story, fell into place. It would be easy to look at all those pages as a waste of time, but I was fully informed when I sat down and wrote the novel. TM: You speak of the Colonel, and of your granddad on whom he is based, as tyrannical, but as a reader, I found him more pathetic than frightening. He's slipping into dementia, he yells at the TV every time Bill Clinton appears, and his worldview seems almost comically out of date. I read him as a symbol of the broader rot that you seem to be saying existed at the heart of the Reagan-Bush-era U.S. war machine, which in the novel is producing bombs that kill American women and children by spreading carcinogenic toxins. Was that your intention? JF: I was raised by two devout Roman Catholics, and although I'm an atheist now (the doubt which makes me a decent fiction writer makes me a bad believer), and I don't necessarily believe in "karma" (if only the universe was so just), I wanted to write about an island's sins catching up with its sinners. It was my intention to expose what you call "the rot" at the heart of an island whose bread-and-butter is the making of killing machines. But I thought of it as a poison, similar to the real-life toxic plume that is growing under Long Island. The Gypsy Moth Summer's Grudder Aviation is loosely based on Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, a major producer of military aircraft from 1929 to 1994, when it was acquired by Northrop. Grumman was a half hour east from where I grew up. Many of my cousins, aunts and uncles lived near the factory, and several of my school teachers. The breast cancer rate in this area is triple that of New York State. Throughout my childhood, at any time, I knew multiple people who had cancer—family members, neighbors, teachers, even school friends. Most survived with treatment. I knew I wanted to address the cancer rates on an island that, like Long Island, gets its drinking water from wells. I grew up on an idyllic islet (like Avalon) but my parents forbade us from drinking well water. We made weekly trips to my grandparents' home "in town" where they received water from the town supply. We filled plastic gallon bottles—my father called it "Holy Water." When I first began researching cancer on Long Island, I read about the toxic plume under the island stretching south to southeast—4.5 miles long by 3.5 miles wide. This plume is growing. Its origin is the now-closed Grumman Aviation factory in Bethpage. Why didn’t I know about this plume of Trichloroethylene, classified as a human carcinogen by the EPA, that had been growing, thriving, under the island I’d believed so beautiful? Why hadn't I been paying better attention? TM: Wow. So, many of your friends and family from near where you grew up have had cancer? What's happening in the real-life counterpart of the fictional town of Avalon? Have people turned against the factory? JF: Avalon Island is an amalgamation of different parts of Long Island. The east side of Avalon Island is modeled on the wealthier towns of Cold Spring Harbor, Laurel Hollow, and Lloyd Neck. When I was eight, my parents moved from a working class town mid-island to a wealthier town on the North Shore. They found a house that had been abandoned by its previous owners. My father fixed up the house as best as he could. My parents moved so my brother and I could attend the prestigious public school. They wanted us to grow up around wealthy kids in the hope, I imagine, that pedigree would rub off. They worked multiple jobs to pay the astronomical taxes. The west side of Avalon Island, where the fictional Grudder factory churns out aircraft, is based on towns further east, like Bethpage, former home to Grumman and most affected by the toxic plume. Why hasn’t the toxic plume and its connection to Grumman been covered in national news? Perhaps it is due to geographic isolation. Or is it an issue of class? The pollution affects working class and middle class towns stuck between the tony western towns of Nassau County closer to the city and the summer vacation areas out east in the Hamptons. Still, the demographics of these towns are mixed—there are working-class families, but also white collar professionals. Perhaps, the answer is the close ties Grumman has to the military. It wasn't until 2012 that the issue was fully covered in the press and only in 2016 did Governor Andrew Cuomo order the Navy and Northrop Grumman to provide the state and a local water district access to test for toxicity. The resulting numbers are abysmal—drinking water at risk for 250,000 people; clean-up costs "between $269 million and $587 million," which could take "up to 100 years to clean." When my younger brother graduated from high school, my parents moved further east—closer to the pollution but with a fraction of the taxes. They noticed immediately the unusual number of people with cancer. Out of 50 homes on their road, 10 had one or more family members who had cancer, had died from it, or who were in recovery or in treatment. TM: Some writers find it hard—and risky—to write characters from outside their own culture and experience. In the case of Jules, he's male, black, and from a working-class background. Then there are his biracial kids, who are figuring out their own place in the world. Did you ever find it tricky to write these characters? What experiences did you draw on as you were writing their chapters? JF: Writing outside my perspective often feels far more rewarding. Maybe this is why I write fiction. I find myself feeling more comfortable writing from a male point-of-view, and I imagine it’s the distance that allows me to escape into another person's consciousness. Jules is the character I care most for in the novel. Perhaps, because I felt a great responsibility to do his story justice, aware that his story is not my own. It’s essential for writers writing outside their narrow perspective to be mindful that it is a great privilege to do so, and he or she must be open to and accepting of criticism. Writing and reading is how I practice my humanity and to write (and/or read) only within my limited experience seems counterproductive, and cowardly. I read many memoirs by African-American writers, specifically books focusing on the experiences of young black men, like Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped and the recent essay anthology she edited, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race; Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle; D. Watkins’s The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America. I reread books that had shattered, and then rearranged, my limited perspective as a young reader, the most important books in a reader’s life—Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Sula, and Beloved; and James Baldwin’s nonfiction, especially his book of letters, The Fire Next Time. TM: One of the central relationships in the novel is the marriage between, Leslie Marshall, the white daughter of one of the factory's founding families, and Jules. Why did you decide to add that layer of racial and class complexity to the novel? JF: I do not think one can, or should, write about class without also writing about race and the intersection of the two. The Gypsy Moth Summer is very much an "anti-revenge" revenge story and I knew Jules had to be black in order for both sides of Avalon Island, the wealthy white easterners and the working class white westerners, to unite in their need to make him the scapegoat for their own crimes, ultimately absolving themselves (only in their bigoted minds) of their racism, and their responsibility for the terrible tragedies of that summer. As the child of an immigrant, I’ll always be interested in the competition among Americans to advance in status. There is a vast difference in privilege in my life versus that of my father who spent the first 18 years of his life in poverty in Southern Italy. He was eight years old when the Allies liberated his region from the Germans and he hid with his village in a cave for weeks as the bombs fell. Only recently, after becoming a mother, was I able to accept the reality of his early life. The poverty, the disease (they had no access to healthcare—his sister died at four because of a cut on her foot), the lack of education. No running water or electricity. My life is so privileged in comparison—it often feels as if there are two or three generations between my experience and my father’s. Yet, because my parents moved us to an affluent area for the good schools, I often felt like an outsider next to my wealthier classmates. I need to write about this impulse to look "above" and "below,” to aspire to rise in status, even if (as those on Avalon Island do) it means stepping on the backs of those “below.” My father's favorite show was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and we'd watch it together every week. I can't remember if there was an episode focused on Donald Trump—but how could there not have been? I grew up watching my father worship, envy, and, sometimes, detest the rich. Is this juxtaposition of idolizing and loathing the elite intrinsically linked to the American Dream? I write to examine that question.
Teju Cole can seduce you a dozen ways. As a writer who refuses to be boxed in by the conventions of genre, he blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir, sprinkling in just enough tidbits from his own life to leave you wanting more. His essays cover an astonishing range of subjects, from favorite writers like W.G. Sebald and James Baldwin to photography, travel and the politics of race and nationality. His interests veer between aesthetics and politics, and he writes about both as the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine. The pleasure of dipping into Cole’s work is encountering an extremely fertile mind. He seems instinctively drawn to creative work that’s fragmentary in nature rather than fully-formed worlds. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he turned Twitter into an art form. But just when Cole developed a huge Twitter following, he abandoned it. “I try to find out what I can do in that space,” he told me, “and then without any compunction or regret I move on.” His latest experiment is Blind Spot, a strange hybrid of photography book and essay collection. Cole has traveled everywhere and come back to tell us what he’s seen, and it’s all filtered through his distinctive perspective - part Nigerian, part American and thoroughly cosmopolitan. He recently came to Madison to speak at the University of Wisconsin, and shortly before his lecture, he stopped by my recording studio for an interview. Like he always does, Cole was carrying a camera. This one was his small Fujifilm X70 digital camera, one of nine cameras he owns. I asked if he uses them all. “Yeah. It’s helpful to have different tools,” he said. “Each one makes you shoot a little differently and opens up another seam in your head.” We talked about what he likes in photographs, his dislike of artistic boundaries, the complexities of racial identity, and his roots in both Lagos and New York. Steve Paulson: You always seem to be looking around and taking photos of the places you go, but you’ve called your new book Blind Spot. What does that title refer to? Teju Cole: Well, if you're looking a lot, at some point you become aware of the limitations of looking. It's just like being a writer. At some point you understand there are things that words can accomplish and then there's a moment when words cannot help you. Looking has been so central to my way of being in the world that it goes a little bit beyond the conventional. But I was also very much into art as a kid. And I've got three university degrees and they're all in art history. Art history is basically about looking closely and trying to give an account of what you're looking at from the art tradition. Then I got into photography more than a dozen years ago. And not long after that I really got into writing about photography and that entailed even closer looking than just taking photographs because now I have to interpret other people's photographs. SP: It sounds like you're saying the more you look, the more you realize what you don't see. TC: Absolutely. You realize that in everything you're looking at, you're missing something and it becomes a haunting question. The other thing that happened was that sometime around 2011, just after my first book, Open City, was published in this country, I had an episode with my eyes. I woke up one morning and was blind in my left eye. I wasn't in pain. I just couldn't see and it was like a veil had fallen over my vision, and my right eye wasn't doing so great either. So of course this is a nightmare for anyone. SP: Especially for you, since you’re a photography critic. TC: An art historian and a photography guy. This occlusion went away over the course of a couple of days. But doctors could not quite figure out what was going on. Eventually I got a diagnosis from this top specialist on retinal problems. He said I had something called Big Blind Spot Syndrome. It's something I kept thinking about afterwards. Later, I had some surgery. The problem has come back again but only rarely. But I kept thinking about the blind spot. And it changed my photography SP: How so? TC: I was already looking intently, but I started to look more intently, more patiently. My photography got a bit more meditative and mysterious. I began to pay attention to the ordinary in a more focused way. SP: What’s striking when I look at your own photographs - of back alleys, side streets, a tarp hanging over a shack - these aren’t the usual tourist photos we see. TC: That's right. Having eye trouble made the ordinary glorious. It's just the way the sun falls across concrete or, like you said, a hanging tarp. It's almost like William Carlos Williams’s poetry. I'm not the first person in photography to pay attention to such simple scenes, usually devoid of people and excitement. Certainly in American photography we've had pioneers like Lee Friedlander or Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, but the discovery for me was finding out the highly personal way I wanted to do this. Simply to make images out of the ordinary and then to draw the extraordinary narrative that might be lying behind that terrain or city if it was a place I was visiting. SP: Does your approach to photography match how you look at the world? Is seeing the same thing as taking a picture of it? TC: It's getting closer. This aspect of my work -- writing for the public and making images -- has been going on for about a dozen years, and in that time I've understood more and more that all of it is of a piece. I used to think they were really separate. Now I realize that looking at the world, making images, writing about images, writing about things that are not images, all of it is an attempt to testify to having been here and seen certain things, having looked at the world with a kind eye but an eye that is not ignoring questions of justice and history. And that's why Blind Spot is a book of text and images. SP: Nearly every page of this book has one image and an accompanying bit of text that you've written, often just one paragraph. Sometimes you reference the picture you've taken, sometimes you don’t. What's the connection between text and image? TC: I wanted to make a book that was a little bit novelistic but with none of the things you expect from a novel. This book is not made up. These are stories drawn from real life -- personal experience, philosophy, essayistic-type of speculations. Novels usually don't have 150 color photographs. And yet I wanted to give it the energy of a novel or a documentary film, just a very peculiar one. So in one sense it was about the excitement of working in a new genre -- a genre I was developing myself -- the rhythm of text and image. But if you look at just the images all by themselves, they have a common visual language. They’re in color. I shot everything in film in 25 different countries. They usually have streetscapes or interiors, not a lot of people. When we have people, they’re turned away from us, so there's a quietness that connects all the images. And if you read all the text in sequence, they have a kind of philosophical temperature that unites them. So this adventure was finding my way into a new form that I hope has a coherence. So if somebody goes through the book, they feel they've been through something strange and marvelous. It's a strange album, a strange movie, a strange novel, but it's none of those things because it's actually just texts and images. SP: What can text do and what can an image do? TC: Text is very good at being explicit. When you write, you're saying something in particular about the world. Images are specific about what was seen but not about what it means. When you put them together, you have the opportunity either to explain, which is usually not what I'm doing, or to create a kind of poetry. So you put the semantics of text together with the description of the image and they meet at an interesting angle. And out of that angle, I’m hoping and praying that some kind of poetry happens. SP: And there's a third thing you do. Often you're not just describing the picture. You refer to favorite books and writers and artists. There are layers upon layers. Nothing is ever direct with you. TC: [Laughs] Not really. Well, it’s all part of my world. This library contains The Iliad and The Odyssey. It also contains the Bible. I'm very interested in Christian theology. I think this is my most personal book to date and Christian teaching was a big part of my formation. And the moment I start thinking about how much I am seeing, how much I am missing, all this Christianity just comes in -- not as an explanation but as a lens to understand it. Stories like Jesus healing the blind, and religious faith as a kind of seeing, as a form of prophecy. Religious faith is something I drifted away from because I realized that some of the claims it made about special vision did not hold true. Having believed was a kind of blind spot. SP: Is your project to remove the blind spots, or to acknowledge that we all have blind spots? TC: It’s really about acknowledgement. To go back to these very old texts was also a way to acknowledge the antiquity of these questions. There's something elemental about a person walking down a street, so I talk a lot about walking in the book because walking is connected to photography but photography is connected to seeing. The kind of seeing we do has to do with us being upright creatures whose eyes are flat on our faces. We're not like dogs close to the earth, with eyes on either side of the snout. So these are very old questions. At some point we were on all fours and then we stood up. Of course the book is haunted by frailty, eventually also by death. I wanted this book to be very contemporary but also to deal with what it means to be a human creature upon the earth. Somehow thinking about theology and Homer gave me access to that. SP: You’ve taken these photos all over the world. I started jotting down some of these places: Lagos, where you grew up, Nuremberg, Tivoli, Nairobi, Auckland, Tripoli, Milan, Berlin, Zurich, Copenhagen, Seoul, Bombay, Sao Paolo, Brooklyn, Beirut, Bali. The list goes on and on. You must like to travel. TC: I get to travel a lot. I take a lot of pleasure from it and I get a lot of productive discomfort from it. I only included photos I felt were relevant to the project of the book. I only included places where I made film photographs because I wanted a consistency of effect and appearance. Not because film is better than digital. For example, on this visit to Madison, I've only brought my small digital camera. SP: So I have this image of you. You land in a new place and just start walking with your camera, not necessarily to any particular destination. Is this what you do? TC: That’s pretty accurate. You know, what's missing from this book is I don't have any pictures of Iceland because when I went there, I didn't take a film camera. I took a digital one. I have no pictures from South Africa. I have no pictures from Australia. SP: What does film give you that you don’t get in a digital picture? TC: I think it affords a certain kind of slowness in the thinking. I have only 36 shots on this roll. Do I really want to take this picture? SP: You have to be more selective. TC: Yes. But having shot with film for many years now, I think that has also started to affect my digital shooting. I'm not so happy-go-lucky anymore. SP: I know people who deliberately do not take cameras when they travel because they worry they're always going to be looking for the good shot rather than just having the experience. Does that resonate at all with you? TC: I understand where that thinking comes from. One of the most wonderful writers on photography was the English writer John Berger, who died earlier this year. He was somebody whose work I very much cherished. And I got the opportunity to ask Berger about why he didn't take photographs and he said he tried it very briefly -- maybe in the 80s. He had a photographer teach him how to take and develop photos and then he realized that when he took photos of a scene, it kind of foreclosed the writing he wanted to do about that situation. His attention to detail went to the image rather than to the writing he was able to do about it. So he preferred to observe and draw and write. But I find that I'm able to do both. SP: Do you carry around a notebook as well as a camera? TC: I always have a notebook, a pen and a camera. These are my tools because the world is always giving you various phenomena. You’ve noticed that some of what I'm writing about is different from what I photographed. Sometimes they coincide. I don't want my photography to be an illustration of the text. I want the photograph to hold its own. What is the light doing? How are the colors working? How do things balance? The narrative also has to meet the demands of storytelling, of obliqueness, of compression. It has to detonate in a certain way that might actually be adjacent to the photograph, not sitting right on top of it. Which is why I don’t really call these texts “captions.” They are voice-overs. They are running parallel. Each has to emanate its own energy. SP: You’ve talked about these elusive and mysterious photos that you like to take. Is that also what you like to see in other people’s photography? TC: I like a very wide range of things in photography. This is important for me as a photography critic not to be closed-minded. So I like photos of the kind that is related to my work. I particularly like Italian contemporary photography. But I also like spectacular street photographers who can nail a decisive moment. I sometimes do that but not a whole lot of it. I also like a good portrait. SP: Even though you rarely take portraits. TC: I love strong portraits. I think it's a challenging art form. Irving Penn was a great portraitist but I would rather look at a portrait by Gordon Parks. It seemed to have more import. And I think Richard Avedon, whose style is not so far from Irving Penn’s, was a more successful portraitist. But Henri Cartier-Bresson was an even better portraitist. There was something about what was happening around his portrait that gave it more energy. The young contemporary photographer Christopher Anderson is an extraordinary portraitist and he gets a lot of magazine work because of this extraordinary ability to work with color and appearance when making images of people. I like conceptual photography. And at the same time I like photojournalists and spot news reporting. So I like all sorts. But this applies to writing as well. SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory. TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal. SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences? TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way. SP: So you don't want a narrative that's too self-contained and wraps everything up? TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce's short story "The Dead." Excellent sentences and they're somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it's jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It's about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it's about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I've tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences. SP: There's one page in Blind Spot that I want to quote because it raises some interesting questions. It’s about Lugano. You have a photo of a park bench, a statue of a horse and some buildings. And here's the entire text that accompanies that image: She said to me: Europe is getting worse. I still don't understand why you want to move to Switzerland. I said to her: I don't want to move to Switzerland. Quite the contrary. I like to visit Switzerland. When I'm not there, I long for it, but what I long for is the feeling of being an outsider there and, soon after, the feeling of leaving again so I can continue to long for it. There's so much in that passage: your love of travel, your feeling of displacement, wanting to be an outsider but probably also experiencing the cost of being the outsider. TC: Yeah, but some very profound pleasures in it. Why is that text in Blind Spot? Because it encapsulates a misunderstanding. “Oh, you talk about Switzerland. You must want to live there. You want to be a Swiss citizen.” No. So I’m thinking through that response. What is another possible reason for wanting to be in Switzerland? Well, one way is to enjoy visiting without the desire to live there. It also fits in this book because Switzerland is one of the hidden themes of the book. And I keep going back there. SP: It made me think of an essay you wrote about James Baldwin in Known and Strange Things. He lived in a tiny mountain village in Switzerland in the 1950s, basically in exile. He was the only black person in that village, and that's where he went to finish writing Go Tell It On the Mountain. Maybe he had to go there to be able to finish this book about America. TC: Precisely. There's a way that outsiderness either in your own person or in your location can help you understand what you're an insider to. Being a Nigerian-American in America helps me to understand Nigeria in a more intense way. SP: Is it easier to write about Nigeria when you're in the U.S.? TC: No writing is easy, but it affords me a certain insight while looking at it from a distance. Being in Nigeria, having grown up in Nigeria, also illuminates my understanding of America even though I'm an American. That outsiderness helps. But the peculiar thing about having a couple of Switzerland essays in Known and Strange Things is that it's a perfect illustration of the way that each of my books hands on the baton to the next book. So Known and Strange Things becomes a kind of prequel to Blind Spot. The final essay in Known and Strange Things is called “Blind Spot.” SP: Which is about the experience of losing your vision. TC: Yes. And then in a weird kind of way this blooms out into an entire book of photographs. But Known and Strange Things takes up in essayistic form many of the concerns that have been raised in novelistic form in Open City. What does it mean to live together? What are the responsibilities of looking at art? What should migration look like? Meanwhile, Open City itself is a kind of expansion on the out-of-placeness of the narrator who was at the center of Every Day Is for the Thief, which is the first book I wrote. So I dream of this organic flow of books. SP: Even though the format of each of these books is really quite different. Some are fiction. Some are nonfiction. One has a lot of photographs. You seem to enjoy playing with form. TC: Not only are they four books in four different genres, but each one is also considered peculiar within the genre that it's supposed to be. Open City is strange for a novel. It's a novel without a plot. And 400 pages of an essay collection that’s curiously personal and still you don't know too much about me [laughs]. SP: There's one other form that you’ve mastered. You turned Twittter into an art form and developed a huge following. TC: Thank you. It was a creative space for me and I enjoyed it very much. SP: You wrote a series of tweets that got a lot of traction called the White Savior Industrial Complex. This was in response to the Kony 2012 video that was all the rage a few years ago, about the African warlord who had an army of child soldiers. TC: So many things were coming together publicly and I wondered, what's my response to this? It allowed me to think about what we do when we do charity. What do we owe to the people to whom we're doing some kind of mercy or favor? How much of it is tangled up in our own ego for wanting to be the savior? How much of this is actually racialized? If white Americans are going to Africa to go save, how is this related to the history of colonialism? How is this related to racial politics here in the U.S.? How is this related to being a white person and how you view black people? Does equality have any role to play if we're helping people who are desperate, or does desperation absolve us of the need to treat people like equals? I thought these were good questions to ask. Yes, the title was provocative. The White Savior Industrial Complex got people's hackles up a little bit. SP: Because you were calling out people, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes a lot about this kind of thing. TC: Right. I was calling people out. But the interesting thing about justice is that unless somebody pushes, nothing really happens. If black people don't push and speak out, nothing changes in race relations. If women don't speak out and make a fuss and make things a bit uncomfortable, gender relations don't really move. As we say, it's the person who wears a shoe that knows where it pinches. And so the person whose shoe is pinching has to make the complaint. So there's a space for complaint. And Twitter was an interesting place to put those ideas out there. SP: Are you still on Twitter? TC: I'm not on Twitter. I've not tweeted in about three years. SP: Why did you let it go? TC: That's exactly what I do with each of these genres. I try to find out what I can do in that space. I try to do good work there, and then without any compunction or regret I move on. And I try to find the next place to continue my exploration. SP: What was it about the Twitter moment that appealed to you? TC: An instantaneous public. The conveyance of compression and sentences into the minds of others. How much can we fit into this form? I think what any artist has to offer is really freedom. Freedom can be contagious. I chafe at excessive convention but I love to work within conventions and then try to push them and stop somewhere before the breaking point. So perfectly good English sentences but then I’m pushing against what is permissible. So with this new book, what does the photography book look like? Well, not like this, which has a lot of text. So is it a selection of essays? Is it a memoir? SP: Your personal history has clearly shaped your writing. You were born in Michigan, but within a few months your family moved to Lagos, where you grew up. How long were you in Nigeria? TC: For 17 years. SP: Why did you come back to America? TC: I came back to the Midwest, to Kalamazoo, for university. My father was deeply unimpressed with the state of Nigerian universities in the early 90s and he wanted me to go back to the U.S. I didn't mind that, but I certainly did not arrive in the U.S. as a desperate and eager immigrant. We had very little money, but the privilege of choice was there. I got some scholarships and loans and then I had to start learning what it meant to be here as an American who was Nigerian. It was almost as if for the first time I was also learning that I was black. That did not need to be stated in Nigeria because everybody else around me was black, but I had to learn the racial politics of the U.S. and then I had to start experiencing in my own body the variegations of racial prejudice. SP: So at first, you did not have the experience of most African-Americans? TC: I did not. But I've been in the U.S. for 25 years. I'm a black guy in America, so within those first couple of years, there are many things I did not have a narrative for. What does it mean if I'm strolling around in a small town in Michigan and a car slows down, the window is wound down and someone shouts the N-word at me? And what does it mean in a university setting where somebody says to me, “Oh, you're not like those other blacks”? All of this stuff had to be understood as a black person in America. In fact, I'm an American African but I'm also an African American. SP: Wasn't it years before you actually went back to visit Lagos? TC: Yeah. It’s a little bit different from the narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief but there are some similarities. I went back to Nigeria after three years, but then I didn't go back again for another dozen years. There was a big mental distance. I kept not having the money. I kept not having the time. I kept worrying about whether I would be able to go. I went back in 2005 and I've been back every year since then. It became a priority and I reestablished roots there. SP: But you live in Brooklyn now. TC: I live in Brooklyn. I live in the U.S. SP: Do you consider Brooklyn home? TC: Yes. That's where my wife is. My brother lives there. My friends are there. My books are there. My office is there. So that's home. I also consider Lagos home. My parents live there. It's where I grew up. If I go to Nigeria, my room is there. The two most spoken languages in Lagos -- Yoruba and English -- are languages I’m fluent in. So there's an at-homeness, but a home is also wherever there's good wi-fi. That connects me to the world in a way that is irreducible and essential to my experience of the world. SP: Do you consider yourself more Nigerian or more American? TC: Neither. Split right down the middle. Or rather 100 percent of both. I feel very invested in Nigeria's future. There's a book I've been working on for a long time about Lagos, so I think a lot about Nigeria. I'm American and America is in crisis at the moment and I feel invested. Open City was definitely an approach to this question but I feel invested in what this country ought to be. I'm a citizen who is not a patriot. I'm a citizen in the sense of being invested in what we owe each other. What do we do to protect each other's rights? What do we do about people who break our mutual agreement? What do sanctions and punishments look like? Those philosophical questions are very interesting to me. Our borders are interesting to me. If my money's being used to kill foreigners in the theater of war, that's my business. So I'm very American and I'm also very Nigerian. SP: The two cities where you’ve spent the most time are Lagos and New York. Are they totally different experiences for you or do they have certain similarities? TC: The commonalities are extensive. It is the experience of cosmopolitanism, which is maybe the fourth definition of home for me. And this is what I find in spaces in Lagos. And it’s what I find in New York -- restaurants, clubs, bookshops, shopping malls, traffic, crazy people on the street, high fashion. Cities as a kind of problem-solving technology. If there are 16 million people in the same place, then we have to use resources in a way that makes sense in such a compressed space. SP: What are the biggest differences between Lagos and New York? TC: New York is much richer. Lagos might have 25 buildings of monumental scale and New York has 300. The sheer physical scale of New York never ceases to surprise me. And then there's that thing of New York being a world capital. Lagos is the capital of Africa. Don't let people in Cairo or Johannesburg tell you different. Lagos is the place where the pop culture of Africa is being made. Lagos is the capital of Africa but New York is the capital of the world. So there is something about encountering this expansive, complex mutual togetherness in conversation. It's possible in New York. So New York is almost not an American city. It's a city that's a vision of what the world looks like if these borders are not as they are right now. This interview was conducted through the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. An edited radio version will air soon.
I'd like to present to you a semi-regular column: Books & Mortar! Which will look at the fabulous world of tucked-away independent bookstores, a pulsating nationwide constellation of literary delights that, heaven forbid, you might walk past without knowing it's there. For instance, Key West, the southernmost point in the U.S., is the home of Jimmy Buffett, tarpon fishing, turquoise waters (and drinks), spring breakers, pirate stories, great Cuban food, and crazy-beautiful sunsets. But it also has a storied literary history, with residents including Elizabeth Bishop, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wilbur, John Williams. It's where Wallace Stevens famously attempted to punch Ernest Hemingway at the Sloppy Joe's bar, with mixed results. And more recent writers have called Key West home: Ann Beattie, Tom McGuane, Joy Williams (also, her book The Florida Keys: A History and Guide is one of the most masterful works of travel writing that you'll ever want to read). And now it has Books & Books Key West, a locally owned independent that opened in 2016 and is also (voluntarily—haha) nonprofit. This 1,200 square foot store is housed and affiliated with The Studios of Key West, an arts and cultural organization that, among other things, runs an artists' residency. Books & Books Key West thus also carries a terrific selection of art supplies. Oh, and one of the cofounders and owners is someone you may have heard of: Judy Blume. The Millions: What was the genesis of this amazing store? Judy Blume: George [Cooper, Blume's husband] and I wanted a full service indie bookstore in Key West. When we came to town 20 years ago there were five bookstores. Four years ago we were down to one used store. We tried to get Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, the great Miami area bookseller, to open a store in Key West. He wanted to but ultimately he couldn't make the numbers work. Rents in Key West are very high and we're more than three hours by car from Miami. Finally, Mitch said, "If you and George can find a way to make it work I'll be there for you." George is on the board of The Studios of Key West, a non-profit arts center who had just renovated a beautiful art deco building in Old Town with a 1200 square foot corner storefront. The perfect place for a non-profit indie bookstore! We (George) convinced the board of the Studios it was worth a shot. Everything happened so fast it feels like a dream when I look back. We opened in February 2016. I laugh now at how little we knew about running a bookstore. We learned on the job. We're affiliated with Mitch's stores but we're non-profit and financially independent. We call Mitch's Coral Gable store our "Mothership." They do our buying (though we can order or reject any books we want.) They set up our store with handsome refurbished fixtures from one of their stores. Their staff came down for two weeks to set us up with our initial order and to train our staff, including George and me (we have three paid employees now) and our volunteers. During "season" our volunteers are especially important to us. They are great readers. One knows poetry. One worked in a bookshop in London. I miss them terribly when they leave for their summer homes but we are so lucky to have our three hardworking, loyal, friendly, fun employees. Our first season, George and I worked seven days. This past season we were able to take two days off a week, and we're thinking of working four days a week next season. TM: Does your bookstore have a mascot? A bookstore cat? JB: The idea of having a bookstore cat is appealing but because we're on a busy corner we're concerned about any animal—cat or dog—running out into the street. One day, when we first opened, a hen came into the store. Chickens are protected in Key West and roam freely around town. We stayed calm, though we were thinking, OMG, if that chicken gets scared and starts flying around she's going to poop on our books! Lucky for us, she wandered around, then with some gentle urging, walked out the way she walked in. Maybe she was looking for a good book? We leave our door open in nice weather. Customers bring in their own dogs. We keep a water bowl outside and treats by the register. This works best when it's one dog at a time. Usually they ask if it's okay and usually we say yes (if it's a nice dog). So far only one has peed on our floor and the customer, a tourist, walked out before we knew it. Good our floor is concrete. TM: What's the most surprising thing you have found about being a bookseller? JB: How much there is to learn, how hard you work every day, not just with customers but in the back room. The number of boxes that arrive weekly is staggering. We see our UPS delivery guys almost every day. Receiving new books and returning others (I had to learn to be tough because, as a writer, I never want to return books) takes us a huge amount of time. One of our two managers is always on that. Then there's keeping up with the dusting. Everyone is expected to dust. If we had a cat, I'd give her a cloth, too. The time flies by. I usually go home exhausted but very happy and can't wait to go back again the next day. TM: You and your husband George are co-founders. How do you divide up the duties? JB: I'm on the floor, chatting with customers, helping them find the right books, even working the register (not my strong point but I'm very proud of what I've learned to do). Every day I "pet" the books, move them around, change the window displays. Tuesdays are "new book" days. That's when I get to put out the books that are date-sensitive, which means moving around all the books on the new and notable table. George is in the office most of the time. He's our CFO, making sure it's all going well. And so, far, fingers crossed, it's been a success. TM: Authors are beginning to open up bookstores all over the place: Louise Erdrich in Minneapolis, Ann Patchett in Nashville. Larry McMurtry is a long-time bookstore proprietor. Do you think you're part of a trend? JB: I didn't know about all the authors opening bookstores when we started, but it's good news! TM: What's a day in the life of Judy Blume, bookseller like? JB: Rush, rush, rush—to get to the store. We're open 10 to six, seven days a week. I ride my bike unless it's rainy. Tuesdays and Thursdays I come directly from the gym. When we opened the store, we thought our customers would be 75 percent locals and snowbirds, and 25 percent tourists. In fact, it's about 80 percent tourists and 20 percent locals. The tourists have been great. They sometimes buy a stack of books and send them home. They ask for restaurant recommendations. And they're always—always—thrilled to be in Key West. Of course we love our locals, too. So there's a lot of chatting about books, Key West, and whatever else is on their minds. By the end of the day I'm exhausted (or did I say that already?). All I want is to eat dinner and go to bed. TM: Do people freak out when they find out the lovely woman who just hand-sold them a novel is the beloved Judy Blume? JB: Yesterday a couple came in and George and I were chatting with them about their used bookstore in another Florida city. George (that devil) asked if they carried Judy Blume books and before I could stop them from answering, always afraid they'll say something like—I would never carry those books!—she said "Oh yes, a lot." At which point I said, "I'm Judy"—and she was so taken aback I was worried she might faint. But all ended well. In the beginning, before there was so much publicity, people did freak out. Once I had to prove who I was by showing the customer my photo on the back of In the Unlikely Event. She studied it, studied me (I admit I was having a bad hair day and I'm often red-eyed and itchy nosed from something—the books, the dust, the building? It was clear she didn't believe me and I was sorry I'd gotten into the conversation in the first place. Now, people come in because they've heard it's my store. The trolleys, the tour buses, the concierges at the hotels, all let them know about Books & Books @ the Studios. And we're grateful. George and I joke that I'm the Southernmost (everything in Key West is the "southernmost") Shamu. You know, have your photo taken with Shamu (remember the whale, the one time star of Sea World?) Because we're a non-profit, I don't do photos unless the customer is actually buying something. It doesn't have to be my book but it has to be something. People have been very understanding. Still, it embarrasses me to have to tell a customer our rules. TM: What's the best kind of bookstore customer? JB: Anyone who's friendly, loves to read, and finds a book or three to buy. Or maybe it's a young person who says she doesn't like to read who leaves the store with her nose in a book. TM: The worst? JB: Let's say the most challenging. That would be a customer who wants a certain book but can't think of the title or the author's name. The cover is blue, or has a spot of blue, or maybe the type is in blue. She/he will think it's new, will remember seeing it on our table last week, but it could have been she/he has just read about it. We'll go around together looking at all the places that book might be. Sometimes we'll actually find it. Hallelujah! TM: What book do you want to tell the world about right now? JB: Right now it's What to Do About the Solomons, by Bethany Ball, a first novel I loved. It's funny, sexy, and original. I'm also talking up Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato. Emily (one of our managers) and I both loved it. And, of course, my favorite book of the year, The Nix, by Nathan Hill. You don't want to miss this debut novel. George agrees. TM: Are there other staff who are also writers? JB: George has published two non-fiction books, both based on historical crimes. He's a big help when someone wants a non-fiction book on a certain subject. That's because he's a reader. It's more important to have staff who know and love books than staff who writes them. TM: One of the great things about a bricks-and-mortar store is not only the individualized book picks, but also the author events. What were some of the fun ones this year? JB: We had our first big events between January and April this year. Jami Attenberg, Kay Redfield Jamison, Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt. We had kids' authors Meg Cabot and Rachel Vail. Since summer is our slow season we won't have any more events until next fall/winter. TM: What's a favorite bookstore—NOT YOUR OWN? JB: We visit bookstores wherever we go these days. In Santa Fe we're fans of Collected Works. But, of course, our absolute favorite is Books & Books in Coral Gables. And their food (they have a cafe) is scrumptious!
Eugene Lim will not choose between superheroes and soliloquies. His new novel, Dear Cyborgs, shifts between quick bursts of pulpy action and long philosophical monologues. Characters kidnap, shoot, and poison one other, then weigh the merits of protest and relay brushes with gentrification. Capitalism looms over the book like one of Marvel’s Sentinels -- inescapable, maybe indestructible. Low art sits next to high, smudging the hierarchy. The term “thoughtful dystopian romp” comes to mind. The year or universe is hazy, but we can make out some of our less fine hours, our targeted ads. Two worlds slide together and a third comes into focus. Is this how people write in the future? Lim and I exchanged emails about the value of protest, the act of reading as resistance, and the death and rebirth of the novel. The Millions: Do you consider Dear Cyborgs a piece of protest art, or rather a means of “unveiling life” (as advocated by Tehching Hsieh)? Eugene Lim: I half-quote a piece of self-admonition associated with Antonio Gramsci on the first page of my book: “Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.” For me, this captures a pretty common contemporary state of cognitive dissonance. So I'm not sure if the book is an act of protest as much as it's an attempt to articulate this emotional state as well as look into what it’s like to try to constantly maintain it and what it’s like to live within its turmoil. There’s a directive made by the left that hopelessness and despair are to be avoided as they are emotions of some luxury. And furthermore, it’s bad for morale, so if one were to actually speak and so spread one’s despair, well, then the masses won’t come out, the public won’t march in the streets, and people will just give up. I think there’s a great deal of practical wisdom in this line of thought. (Here’s an even better articulation, by Pablo Iglesias of Podemos, of the near-null practical value of despair as well as that of t-shirt Marxism -- and furthermore a definition of politics as necessary and terrible.) However, one can’t observe the ongoing situation and, on one level, not allow the stirrings of despair and hopelessness. To deny these emotions in the face of war crime, violent structural racism, climate destruction, etc. is to be intellectually dishonest. And we all live with this schizophrenia (a parallel one to our moment of apocalypse-always and simultaneous techno-futurist utopia), which is so pervasive that we barely allow ourselves to acknowledge it. TM: Is protesting an effective way to bring about change in 2017? Or does it just allow the individual protestor to “make a moral world in which she can abide” (a line from your book)? EL: I don’t know. I think mass movements and demonstrations have been very important. Historically it’s very important for people simply to show up. Take the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests, or the first Earth Day gathering in 1970. Nixon saw the crowd and supposedly said something like, “Some of those people are Republicans,” and went on to pass major environmental legislation. Or you could look at the large flash protests at JFK and other airports after the announcement of SCROTUS’s Muslim ban. The counterexample cited in the book is the February 15th, 2003, worldwide day of marches to protest the US invasion of Iraq. Some call it the largest protest in human history,* but the Bush administration was undeterred. Other cynical counterexamples could include every Earth Day march of the past decade. Reductively, but not entirely inaccurately, one can argue that the state has learned that if a clear majority of public opinion runs counter to its will and the synonymous will of its corporate masters, the state can ignore this majority because it can manipulate elections and regulations so as to remain in power. And yet and yet… protests can and do matter. The Black Lives Matter movement is a key example. Another: the ruling for same-sex marriage as recent fodder for the argument that history “bends toward justice.” Importantly, you don’t know how this is going to happen. Chomsky says that prior to Occupy Wall Street, if you were to ask him if taking over some downtown street block would make a big difference, he would have said of course not. But OWS crystallized, framed, and popularized an analysis of class inequality that is still resonating today. Who knows which act will become significant, so arguments about effectiveness are riddled with uncertainty -- still one has to act. But how? It’s a question less answerable with a prescriptive response than with the spirit and unpredictability of art, of some flash of insight or opening. TM: A piece of graffiti in Dear Cyborgs reads, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Is it easier for you? If so, why? EL: That was a memorable line I’d chanced upon and which I remembered because it seemed to state the issue rather perfectly. It’s an unattributed quote found in an essay by Fredric Jameson (though others have identified its source, and a certain slovenly Slovenian I believe retweeted it). In our season, where bestseller lists and blockbusters seem to be monopolized by competing visions of dystopia and apocalypse -- but where the idea of successful collective action to combat the destruction of our planet by Big Oil remains impossible -- it would seem to me a line of some persuasive accuracy. Why is this so? Probably someone with more relevant experience than a novelist should be asked, but I’ll venture that capitalism is a very very successful cancer because it’s extremely hard to not want to keep up with the Joneses. TM: Hua Hsu writes that you have “an uncanny sense of what it’s like to be alive right now: constantly distracted, bounding between idealism and cynicism, ever conscious of the fact that we may never bring the size and complexity of our world into focus.” Do you consider this a fair characterization of what it’s like to be alive in 2017? Is this what you were going for in the book? EL: I think Hsu’s description is a fair characterization of our times. Perpetual distraction and multitasking seem absolutely the norm, the result of the information overload and the fast-paced, shifting landscape of the attention economy. And the simultaneous intellectual cynicism/pessimism and willful idealism/optimism comes from a desire to rebel against complicity only to have ourselves discover our very existence encoded with it. But that diagnosis is not exactly news. One thing I would like to do -- and perhaps Dear Cyborgs does a little of this -- is to approach the novel without the locus of character as its main technology. I’d like to describe the chaotic matrix in which we’re living through some other narrative device, some new way that supersedes our dependence on character as empathy avatar and our traditional use of plot as an arc about conflict resolution, and furthermore a method that accounts for the intense mind-boggling complexity we live in that somehow must be apprehended by our puny individual minds. In Dear Cyborgs, the method I tried was a kind of monologue-fractal, which is why all the characters in the book may seem empty or unrealistic, and yet their speeches seem familiar and hopefully poignant and/or meaningful. It would be odd -- in this singularity-approaching data-flooded contemporary world, one where wild algorithmic financial transactions create hidden transnational empires and where we daily use machines the majority of us have no idea how and why they really work -- for this almost vestigial not to mention necessarily linear art form, the novel, to be the one best suited to manifest, depict, and perform our world. But maybe it’s so. TM: How and why did you decide to end the book with these words: “…mourned and was chased and chased and fought and mourned and mourned and mourned and mourned”? EL: I’d rather let others speculate on the meaning of the book’s ending, but I will say something about the several kinds of grieving that are undercurrents to the book and which, on a personal level, I feel are entwined. Perhaps the primary one is the historic loss, from one point of view, of even the possibility of effective protest. Or at least the loss of protest as it once was framed and done. This is a kind of loss of innocence. Then, in terms of cyborg culture, there’s also this weird grief of going through a very particular inflection point, i.e., I’m from the last generation that grew up without the internet. This makes for a rather epic middle-aged feeling of loss, which is a bit aggrandizing because my generation’s loss of youth was simultaneous with this huge cultural shift. In addition, there is another loss that only a few may feel but which nonetheless is very intense, that is: the ongoing eroding of deep reading and the loss of the novel’s supremacy in culture. However, I believe -- and in some ways have tried to show -- that the meditative act of reading is a kind of resistance to a persistent and insidious dissolving of agency and our alienation by the forces of capitalism. Also, finally, I have tried to show that if the old narrative ideas of a Freytag plot path of redemption or self-discovery or epiphany are stale, at least there may be other possibilities. That is: the novel is dead; long live the novel.