Hazlitt Magazine

The Decay We Dedicate to Tomorrow

In the summer, I get skinny.

Nathan Hill in Conversation with John Irving

 The authors discuss Hill’s debut work, his love of dysfunction, and why you need to think about writing a novel the way you think about keeping a garden. 

The Art of the Box Score

It’s hard to enjoy baseball if you don’t know what you’re looking for. And the box score teaches you how to do just that.


‘Female Friendship as Survival Strategy’: An Interview with Jennifer Reeder

The director of Crystal Lake on short films, the power of props, and how we cope weirder as we get older. 

An artist bio nestled a few pages into a media kit for one of Jennifer Reeder’s upcoming films, All Small Bodies, reads: “I am influenced by Ohio, where I grew up—all that sky and flatness. And even more so by the Midwestern people and their kind of everyday destructiveness and determination to cope.” It’s this fragile equation of cynicism and hope that distinguishes Reeder’s short films. Reeder has eleven directing credits to her name, the most recent and acclaimed of which are for A Million Miles Away (2014), Blood Below the Skin (2015), and Crystal Lake (2016). The majority of these are a working through of the thematic algebra of teenage ennui and feminist chutzpah. In all of these works, she casts non-professional teenage girls as the leads and pays subtle homage to a host of feminist filmmakers that have come before, from Chantal Akerman to Agnès Varda.An Associate Professor in Moving Image and the Head of the Art Department in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Reeder’s films have screened at Sundance, Berlinale, Rotterdam, and at Montreal’s Festival Regard. Reeder and I spoke about what compelled her to make Crystal Lake, a short film about a young grieving Muslim girl and a band of skateboarding feminists, her Hansel and Gretel redux, what drives her textured and intertextual moving images, and what it’s like to snoop around people’s apartments in the name of character study.Julia Cooper: The poet Eileen Myles loves your Instagram account, and said so in a recent New York Times profile. How did that happen?Jennifer Reeder: I met Eileen a couple of years ago. She came to do a reading at the school where I teach, and the person who coordinated that visit asked me if I wanted to go out to dinner with her. I had never met her. We had some mutual friends. I said of course, and we had a very lovely dinner—she’s just a remarkable human. Fast forward to whenever that Times article came out: a friend of mine forwarded it to me and said, Well look at you! I had instantly doubled the amount of followers, mostly poets.I want to talk about Crystal Lake, your latest short film about skater girls in Chicago and a young Muslim girl grieving her mother. How did this project come to life?Teen girls and female youth empowerment, female friendship as survival strategy: these have been the subject of so many of my recent shorts. I’d been following these beautiful images and stories that were coming out of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia about an organization called Skateistan. I loved that these girls could be active members of their religion and culture, but still express themselves as young girls and do something that is empowering. These are images of women embracing tradition, and also breaking out of tradition, and neither one is mutually exclusive.With Crystal Lake, I wanted to make a film that presented feminist Muslim as a very real contemporary image, and again, not as an idiom that was paradoxical or imaginary. It came out of my own interest in who I wanted to put in front of the camera. But it was also being influenced by these Skateistan images of young skater girls. I then transported that to Chicago and built a story around thinking about young American Muslim girls. I wanted to make a film about another kind of average American girl who just happens to be Muslim.[[{"fid":"6695816","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"3030","width":"3880","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Right, and who just happens to not have a lot of movies made about her yet. I loved Girlhood, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and Pariah, but those films are about a certain kind of experience for young women of color that also has to do with growing up in urban environments. There’s plenty of young women of color for whom that is not their experience. They’re living outside of cities, they’re living in rural areas, or they’re living in suburban areas. So, wanting to make a film that really represented where young women of color could say, Oh, there I am.One of the tricky things about making short films is that not a lot of cinema houses screen them. I wanted to hear you talk about whether or not there’s a market for short films outside of the festival circuit. Not really. And that’s the hard part of making short films. I love making short films; they’re so much cheaper to make, they’re faster to make; and there are ideas that should only be short films. Unlike the novella, or the short story, or even the poem, short films just don’t get the same kind of recognition. Let alone the distribution of a feature film. Even a horrible feature film. It’s one of the reasons why I’m developing a feature that has so many of the same themes that come out in A Million Miles Away and Blood Below The Skin, as well as Crystal Lake.And when you’re talking about your feature, is this As With Knives and Skin?Exactly. I’m actually making revisions to the script right now, and we’re going to shoot this fall or next summer depending on financing and casting. Even though I’m a champion of the short film they just don’t get widely screened. I think the short films I’ve made have done just as well as any short film can do: they’ve screened at Berlin, Sundance, BAM, they’ve been broadcast. They have done all the things you would want a short film to do, and yet the audience is still really tiny.I would eventually like to make my upcoming project All Small Bodies into a feature, but right now it’s a short that I’m shooting in Germany this summer. It’s a sci-fi take on Hansel and Gretel. Two girls lost in the woods take over and find a male witch.You’re the queen of intertextuality. Why do you plant the works of Octavia Butler and Joan Didion within your images—why is it important to you?I think partially it comes from having a background in visual art. I didn’t go to film school, I went to art school. I was a filmmaker but within an art school context, so I was surrounded by people who were interested in what information came from pure visual elements. I learned how much props can carry narrative content and how they can fill the gaps in terms of character development. It’s something I pay attention to in my daily life. I’m totally the kind of person who, if you invite me over to your house for the first time, I try to be stealth about it but I’m totally looking at books, looking at records, and looking at what’s in the refrigerator. Speaking of books, John Waters has this great quote where he’s like, “you should never have sex with someone who doesn’t have books.” The first thing you should do if you go home with a one-night stand is to make sure that they have books.My boyfriend went through my fridge (while I was in the shower) the morning after we went home together for the first time to see if I was a sociopath or not. There’s no severed heads in here.Nope. Just some expired almond milk. I love this idea of you taking notes at a dinner party while everyone else is talking—just you sleuthing around. I’m one hundred percent that person! What is being expressed in their environment that I can translate to a film set and make a part of the character I’m writing? It’s also a way for me to inject autobiography. Bringing some of that stuff in (like old VHS tapes) helps me inject some of my own autobiography without being overly sentimental, indulgent, or self-centered. It’s also a way to have a teaching moment. If a character’s reading a book, the book should matter; what books matter? Oh, Octavia Butler.I’ll never miss an opportunity to jam up a set with important art direction. Art direction matters. I’ve see so many films where it doesn’t. That’s why I’m such a fan of Hitchcock. The colors that those characters are in. Their hair color, their lips. It’s not that Hitchcock was filling the frame with the same kind of art direction that I do, but the color palette mattered, and the psychology of the color palette mattered. The same goes for David Lynch and other contemporary filmmakers—I think Kelly Reichardt does a great job in her film Meek’s Cutoff where the art direction is just overwhelming.Your films cast nonprofessional teenage actors, some of whom you’ve worked with more than once now. What is it about teens that draws you back to work with them time and again?Autobiographically, my teenage years are still sort of a mystery to me. Even as an adult female, I’m like, what happened? I feel like I’m still approaching 17, but now I have a car, and children, and a mortgage payment. I think that coming of age is a lifelong process. We’re constantly evolving and rediscovering who we are. I’m specifically interested in the representation of young girls because they get short-changed time and again, and adolescence is all about transition. So the teenage girl is the perfect kind of person to write a film about: there’s lots of drama. There’s lots of twist and turns and climaxes and payoffs.Everything’s so amplified. Totally, everything’s amplified, everything turns on a dime, even in the most banal setting. What I’ve usually done is to pair a transitioning adolescent with a transitioning parent, to see what happens and who comes up to the surface first.It’s usually the teen, isn’t it?Yeah, that’s what usually happens. I do think that as we get older our coping techniques get weirder. I love trying to make up for the gap of authentic representations of women. Until I’m not obsessed with that, I will keep making films about the female experience both with young women and adult women. It’s just sort of a beautiful, awkward, poetic time of physical, emotional, and psychological transformation.
Nathan Hill in Conversation with John Irving

 The authors discuss Hill’s debut work, his love of dysfunction, and why you need to think about writing a novel the way you think about keeping a garden. 

On October 6, John Irving sat down with Nathan Hill to discuss Hill's satirical debut novel The Nix at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto as part of the 2016 International Festival of Authors. Here is their conversation, lightly edited for clarity. John Irving: I met Nathan Hill in January in Oslo. I don’t recommend Oslo in January. But I was there for the Norwegian translation of Avenue of Mysteries and my editor at Gyldendal Norsk, my Norwegian publisher, happens to be Nathan’s publisher for The Nix. And she invited us to have a dinner together. I was struck at the time by how much of a buzz there already was about this first novel. It didn’t happen to my first novel. It didn’t happen to me until the fourth novel. Nor did I have a single foreign translation until that fourth novel. But Nathan was already finding success with translators, some of who are my publishers as well. We have the same Dutch publisher in common, and as it turns out the same Canadian publisher. I was very happy to meet him. I found it incredibly encouraging as I told him at my age, 74, when I see a decline in the appetite for literary fiction in our culture as a whole in North America—more of a decline in the US and the UK than I notice in Canada, but a decline everywhere nonetheless. I found it very encouraging that this could happen to a young, literary novelist today, especially because I’d already heard that the novel was long. Yes, it is.I was back in Toronto, very busy working on a teleplay, and Nathan wrote me and asked if I would look at his novel. And I certainly said I would. I’d liked him, I wanted to support a new fiction writer, but I said I was very busy right now and didn’t know if I’d get to it. The truth is, what I do in those situations hasn’t changed for a number of years: I take my assistant, he or she, aside, and say, OK, you read this book—enough of it to know if it weren’t your job, you would keep reading. Or enough of it to know that if it weren’t your job, you wouldn’t keep reading. You get to that point, you can stop reading and tell me, “You should read this book, I’m going to finish it whether you want me to keep reading it or not,” or you tell me, “I wouldn’t keep reading this book if it wasn’t my job.” But my assistants know me better than that. They know that if they say, “I think you should read this book,” and I hate it, I will make their lives miserable. So when they err as they have erred in the past, they tend to err on the side of, “No, I actually am liking this book but I think you might hate it so we probably don’t want to read it,” or words to that effect.This was very different—long novel though it was, my assistant Bronwen brought it to me. She had read not much more than half of it. She said she was going to keep going and would I give it back to her sometime soon please. That was an early indication. But she’d done something that I hadn’t asked her to do. She had marked two or three passages and she said, you read these passages, just these passages, and if you like them that’s why you'll like this book. I read only one passage and I went to page one and read the book. And Bronwen waited a long time to get it back. Because my work schedule is such that the only reading I do is on my treadmill. And this book looks like crap because of the number of times it fell off the treadmill. It is a thick book to fit on the little lip of a treadmill, especially when you crank the treadmill as I do up to a steep incline. So not only did the book fall off the lip but I stepped on it a lot. But I read every word of it, I loved it and I knew I had to write something about it and I wanted to be here to introduce Nathan to a Toronto audience tonight. In my opinion he is the best new writer of fiction in America. The best.  Nathan Hill: I’ve never been so happy for someone to step on my book.John Irving: In the early going of this novel we don’t like the character of the mother very much. We’re pretty much on the protagonist, poor Samuel’s, side. There are cruel ghosts haunting Samuel, more than one, and his mother is more than a little crazy. My first question to you is where did your love of dysfunction come from? This is not only a story of a mother and son’s dysfunction, but there is a national and political dysfunction at work in this novel as well.Nathan Hill: Dysfunction makes for really good fiction. I was writing this book in, the lions’ share of it, 2008 to 2012-'13, and it was a time in the US where everyone was saying we were more politically polarized than any time since the Civil War. I had all these ghost stories in the novel already. I had this character who came from Norway and I had the story of the house spirit, the story of the Nix, and the story of the Nix just seemed very profound to me at the moment when I was writing this novel. This idea that the things you love the most could someday hurt you the worst. It seemed true for a number of characters in the novel.Samuel’s, of course, is his mother disappears on him. And so he’s of course undermined by the person you’re not supposed to be harmed by, your mother. There’s a sister who’s disowned by her twin brother. She’s also a musician, a violinist, who, if you know any violinists, has a kind of scar from her violin on her neck. And it got me thinking about the story of the Nix again: the things we love the most can sometimes be disfiguring, such is our need for them. There’s a workaholic in the novel who is swindled by the company he has devoted his life to. There’s a college student undermined by the devices that give her life meaning. There’s a gamer who is betrayed by the very video game he’s obsessed with. And so it struck me that the story of the Nix was pretty universal for all of these characters.But I was also writing this during our great recession, which was in part caused by the things we thought were so safe they were eventually risk-free. Things like mortgage-backed securities, AAA-rated sovereign debt. The retirement that you’ve been working all your life for suddenly gone in a flash. And so one of the things I was thinking about was that kind of economic anxiety that was happening in the country while I was composing the novel and it seemed to be that, yeah, the reason why the financial crisis was a crisis was because we believed that things were so safe as to be risk-free. We thought they were too good to be true, so the housing market could never fail, you know, and so I guess that helped me connect the personal stories with the political, it helped me see what’s happened between this mother and this son is happening writ large in the rest of the country.John Irving: I totally agree that the confluence of the personal and the political are not only working to the novel’s advantage but it’s by the time you’re two, three hundred pages into it, it’s hard to separate which of the two dysfunctions is more compelling, because these characters are so well drawn that you’re drawn to them as you are by the best fiction. But the reminders of the political reality you live in and have lived in are so real that it’s in a good sense almost not like reading a novel. When I asked three women readers of The Nix, ages respectively 62, 39 and 32, what they most wanted to ask you, all of them asked essentially the same question. It’s a question about political activism, I think—I’ve reworded this my way but all three of these women came up with this: What does this novel tell us about how the radical left in the US is doing? How have we changed the radical left? Or have we stayed the same?Nathan Hill: I know that when I started writing the book in 2004, back then I was in my mid to late twenties and was very politically aggressive and I was just insane with anger that Bush and Cheney were elected for a second term. I couldn’t believe it. I was living in New York City at the time and nobody I knew would ever vote for that guy and yet he won. That victory, I don’t know, it made me reevaluate myself. I was living in, we didn’t have a name for it at the time, a kind of social media bubble. Everybody I knew agreed, we all agreed with each other. We were just echo chambers for each other. And I hope what I tried to do both in my life and with this novel was try to get out of that echo chamber and try to see a larger diversity of opinion, especially those opinions I tend to disagree with.As for the political left, I don’t know, I think it’s hard to say whether they’re more left, more or less successful. There are certainly successes. Shell Oil recently decided not to drill in the Arctic and that was in large part a response to pressures by far-left environmental groups to prevent that from happening. So there’s some successes out there. But I also know that a lot of people who were involved in Occupy Wall Street feel like that wasn’t a successful movement, that it could have done better. I look at war protests, specifically—the book contains two generations of war protests: 1968 in Chicago with Vietnam and 2004 in New York with Iraq. And there was a robust protest of the Iraq War that then kept going for another six, eight years. So you look at that and you think, well, it’s a failure. And I feel like [there's] a perception gap between protestors and what you might [call] folks in the mainstream, that the folks who will go and protest a war or protest drilling are sincere in their beliefs and well-meaning and really, really want to change the world for the better. But that isn’t necessarily communicated to the rest of the world. Oftentimes people are very easily caricatured. I remember when I went to the 2004 protests at Madison Square Garden there were people who had papier maché George Bush dolls dressed as Hitler and you’re just like, how is this helping?I guess in the novel what I wanted to do was instead of going with my first impulse, which was to try to very sanctimoniously say who’s right and who’s wrong, I realized that I wasn’t the person to be able to make that judgment. What are the odds that in my very narrow point of view that I’ve discovered the truth about American politics? It’s probably very little. It’s zero. And so instead what I tried to do in the book is to examine what it felt like to bump up against politics, to bump up against in a kind of human emotional way, to bump up against historical moments. So that’s why, when I write about 1968, I don’t include any of the characters who are the figureheads of the movement. Instead I was focusing more on the people who were in the background, you know.John Irving: The exception being Allen Ginsberg.Nathan Hill: Allen Ginsberg, right, who was there, was a kind of peacemaker.John Irving: He was trying to keep the peace, whereas I think you’d agree that Tom Hayden and the folks at SDS probably still don’t think they had anything to do with Nixon winning the election.Nathan Hill: I know that one of the things that I thought in 2004 was that the protests felt a little mediated. It felt like we were there and always thinking, what do swing voters in Ohio think of us right now? And so my impulse was to say, well, the folks in the ‘60s were way more authentic, and I believed that until I actually started researching and I saw that, for example, they nominated a pig for president in the Chicago ‘68 protest because they thought it would get headlines and it did—it was just as mediated as it is now. And then I got to thinking, well, why is authenticity the right metric for measuring a mass movement anyway? So as soon as I realized I was wrong on so many fronts I started pulling back and pulling back and pulling back until the book became more about its characters than about its politics, which I think was a very good move.John Irving: Just so you know that you’re not the only writer who’s wrong, I remember feeling very strongly in the Vietnam years, especially after 1968, that I would never again see my country as divided as it was then. Wrong. I think everyone would agree the US is much more divided today and about many more things than we were divided, in the latter years of the Vietnam War, about that war. You just used the word sanctimony. Your character Periwinkle has this to say about sanctimony and America: “It’s no secret that the great American pastime is no longer baseball. Now it’s sanctimony.”Well, you’ve heard me say before I think that Periwinkle is half-right. But the Salem Witch Trials happened before baseball. It strikes me that the Puritans in America predate baseball by quite a lot. You, and Nathaniel Hawthorne before you, know that Americans are sanctimonious. Is that sanctimony connected to the bully patriotism that those of us living outside the United States and seeing how our country looks to those abroad feel very keenly? Is that sanctimony manifest in a kind of uber nationalism that makes both of us cringe? Where does it come from, and how conscious were you of the fact that there are many sanctimonious characters in this novel and many of them wear political clothes?Nathan Hill: I went to the Wild Card game the other night, Blue Jays-Orioles, I was in town and was like I’m not going to miss this, I’m going to watch this …John Irving: I thought you were the guy who threw the beer can!Nathan Hill: No!John Irving: I texted you in the middle of the game. I was watching on TV and I said, was that you? Did you throw that can? Because as people are saying to me all the time, it is just a kind of stupid thing that happens in your novel.Nathan Hill: My seats were not that close.John Irving: That’s what you said. You texted back and said, not me, my seats aren’t that close.Nathan Hill: And it’s true that in the seventh inning I was happy not to hear “God Bless America.” Whenever I go to a baseball game in the States that’s what they play in the seventh inning, and then they play “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” And it always makes me feel a little weird.John Irving: And you can’t escape it.Nathan Hill: Yeah. The kind of American exceptionalism …John Irving: Are you tired, too, of the passing jets that fly over stadiums?Nathan Hill: The show of military force. It creeps me out a little bit.John Irving: Me too.Nathan Hill: I was connecting it to kind of nationalism and patriotism a bit in this novel, but I was also connecting it to this this feeling I was having that, because of social media, the Internet, our phones, we have at our fingertips a lot of information. Maybe it’s only natural, maybe it’s human nature, but we tend to render a verdict on something very quickly. We give something our attention for maybe fifteen seconds online and we’re like, well, thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s very, very fast.If you’ll permit me a weird answer about nanotechnology for a moment: There’s this amazing study the Yale Law School did, where they were asking people questions about nanotechnology. Now, the study, the researchers didn’t care about nanotechnology. They wanted to see what people would have to say about it. They picked nanotechnology because it seems like one of those issues that no one knows anything about. And so they’d say, are you pro or against nanotechnology, without giving anybody any information, and of course the results were all over the board, unpredictable. Then they gave people about two paragraphs worth of information about nanotechnology, and once people had just a little bit of information the results came down exactly where you would think they would in terms of right-left, pro-business, anti-business, pro-technology, anti-technology lines. And it led the study’s authors to realize that even nanotechnology could create a culture war, it could be a wedge issue, and that, weirdly, once people had two paragraphs of information on the subject, they felt incredibly confident in their opinion. In fact, they felt as confident in their opinion about nanotechnology as they did about any other political opinion that they held. And it struck me as I read about this study that all of us now, with our phones, the Internet, we are all two paragraphs of information away, we are seconds away from two paragraphs of information about any subject in the world. As such, we tend to feel really confident in our opinions about those things. And I know I did, in roughly 2004—I thought I had the answers, and then the work of the last ten years has shown me, at any given point of my life, if I look back about five years, I realize I’ve been a moron. And so I guess a lot of what goes for sanctimony in the novel is overconfidence in one’s opinion. That could be because of technology, that could be because of patriotism—the truth, it’s probably a [mix] of those things.John Irving: We’ve certainly seen a lot of overconfidence lately. You know in any good novel there are more good titles than the one you get to use. That’s just true. But there are a ridiculous number of good titles you could have used. Phrases that you do use.Nathan Hill: I needed you like a year ago.John Irving: No, I think you chose the right one. I don’t think you can beat The Nix, but there are many other temptations. Ghosts of the Old Country. The House Spirit. And how about this one, your title for part three: Enemy Obstacle Puzzle Trap. This novel is all of those things. I like this one too: The Price of Hope, and this one: Every Memory is Really a Scar. That applies to this novel very well. And what we were just talking about, Sanctimony in America would work. It would work. You must have had another title or two or three.Nathan Hill: Yeah, you just mentioned three of them. Enemy Obstacle Puzzle Trap was a possibility. The House Spirit was a possibility. What was the fist one you mentioned?John Irving: Ghosts of the Old Country.Nathan Hill: Ghosts of the Old Country was a possibility. My agent said no, we can’t use that title, it sounds too Cormac McCarthy. It’s like, you’re right.John Irving: Really?Nathan Hill: The title of the book for the entire time I was working on it came from the first line I wrote. I had just seen this parade in 2004 at the protest at the 2004 Republican convention. I had seen a parade where people walked from central part to Madison Square Garden with empty coffins with American flags draped over them to symbolize our Iraq War dead. And I thought it was not only a really moving moment but a gripping image, and so the first thing I wrote was, “There’s a body for each of us.” I was imagining a character holding the coffin, there’s a body for each of us. And A Body for Each of Us was the name of the book for ten, twelve years until literally the day before we sent it out to publishers, when we decided it didn’t work any more, and so my agent and I were looking around for a new title and decided on The Nix.John Irving: Did you see how casually he used for ten or twelve years? Most people, probably some of your friends among them, would have written two or three novels in the time it took Nathan to write this one.Nathan Hill: And they did.John Irving: Which probably galled you at the time a little.Nathan Hill: A little bit—you know, you work.John Irving: I'm an ending person. I care about them deeply, and what matters with an ending is that you, the reader, have the feeling that it’s where the novel was always going. Even if it wasn’t. It must have the inevitable feeling about it. When did that come, the ending you were driving to? Because from a reader’s perspective, it’s so much where this novel always was going. It’s hard to believe you didn't always know it.Nathan Hill: I didn’t always know it. I'm so jealous of your process where you know where you’re going—you find the ending first and you write to it, is that right?John Irving: That’s because I’m slow.Nathan Hill: I didn’t know where I was going with this novel, and that last line came to me—if the novel took about ten years to write, that line came to me year seven. But for a long time I had a different ending in mind, [and] for even longer I had no ending in mind. I didn’t know what I was doing. When I first started, and I've said this before in other places so maybe you’ve heard it before, but when I first started writing this novel in 2004 I was just out of my MFA program and, looking back on it now, was very careerist. I wanted to write a certain kind of story that would get published in a certain tier of literary journal so that certain editors and agents would pay attention to me so I could put something on my CV and get the job I wanted etc., etc., etc. It was a widget for me to get what I wanted. And unsurprisingly the writing I did was very bad.That went on for a couple of years until at some point, I had left New York, I had started teaching and I kind of threw myself into teaching because I wanted to be good at it and I liked it much more than Samuel does in the novel. I actually like teaching, but that makes for pretty bad drama, so I made Samuel pretty sour. And there’s this part of me that thought I missed my shot, you know. I’m not going to do it, this is it, I'm a failed writer. And that was the best thing that ever happened to me, feeling that way, because I stopped sending stuff out, I stopped worrying about editors and agents. The only person who knew anything about the novel was my wife. And I would read to her a few pages every couple of days, what I had done. And if it was going really well she would say, that’s really great. And if she didn’t like it she’d say, that’s really nice. She’s always supportive, but sometimes a little less so. But one of the things that I realized while writing the novel was that I couldn’t treat it like this thing that needed to get done in order to advance my career, because publishing a book is hard and there’s no guarantee that would happen and there’s no guarantee that anybody would even understand it once it left the house.So I couldn’t pin all of my hopes on that—it would be shattering—and instead I started thinking about writing almost the way a lot of people think about gardening. Nobody keeps a garden because they want to get famous. Nobody thinks their garden is a failure if a lot of other people don’t see it. It’s just, you like to garden. So that’s what the book taught me. Writing the book taught me that there’s some kind of everyday joy and delight in going to it and doing it. And so if there’s any humour in the book it’s because one of the prerequisites for me was that it had to be joyful.John Irving: There’s a lot of humour in it. It’s very, very funny, in a sick way.Nathan Hill: My favourite kind. So yeah, it had to bring me some measure of joy. So that ending emerged from feeling like I learned what it meant to be an artist, or what it meant to be a writer, from writing the book. And what the book taught me was to let go of my preconceived notions of who I was meant to be and accept the reality of what was going on and be happy about it and find some kind of everyday delight in what I was doing. That might sound like a really cheesy, self-therapy kind of thing, but it was very profound for me. And so that’s when I discovered the ending—when I felt, finally, I no longer felt in competition with people I had gotten my MFA with, people who were publishing all kinds of books and I wasn’t. I didn’t feel the kind of humiliation that I hadn’t published yet. I stopped worrying about that. I was teaching, I was keeping my head down and just doing this hobby when I could that delighted me. And so the emotion in the ending, I hope, reflects that epiphany that I had.John Irving: Well it also reflects a phrase that you used in talking about it, the "letting go" phrase, because quite honestly, several hundred pages into this novel, if I had to put it down and guess how this novel might end, how this mother-son dysfunction story might end, I was guessing that a double homicide would be pretty likely. I was saying, boy, this is really heading to a personal and political Armageddon. But without giving away the considerable surprise, which you managed to hide so well, there is a remarkable moment when Samue—who not only is angry but you're angry for him, you’re angry on his behalf—there’s a wonderful moment when he lets it go. When he realizes that it’s destructive. And that’s really astonishing—there is a breath of air of a kind you would least expect.
Banner for Straight Expectations Part 3 by Annie Mok and Natalie Andrewson for Hazlitt
Straight Expectations Pt. 3

That sounds like a defense for the dude artist.

Featuring Kyrell Grant
The O.C. at the height of its O.C.-ness (7:00), is this bolognese feminist? (19:00), and where were you when A Seat at the Table dropped? (39:38)
The Decay We Dedicate to Tomorrow

In the summer, I get skinny.

In the summer, I get skinny.That heat comes in and honey, I’m lonely, fevered, downing bottles before they can bead—the city reeks mad in the summer. Everyone’s just a little bit. Unhinged. When I’m anxious, when I’m worse, I get skinny. I stay out late nights, in a t-shirt, and I get dark and I stare at my wrists.You have big hair and you’re flirting with me in The Black Cat and I’m staring at my wrists.Toothpick and wire, my weight is my worry. Maybe you don’t notice but it’s all I see, waving these angry wands, these elbows all ball-peen, these pipe arms without comfort to offer, without protection. I’m nothing but angles. You’re wincing. There’s a wince beneath your smile.Why am I telling you this? I’m trying to cut you a key.My knees won’t stop their knock. I can hear their sharp bark beneath my jeans, no matter how much jean I wear. They’re rocks, banging against the door as I stuff this metal frame into my car, while my shoulder blades dig into the leather, peaks against the seatback, sitting in traffic, pushing my fingers into the gutters of my ribs.I can touch them all. Each bone felt another reminder of my wilt, the decay we dedicate to tomorrow. Signifier death, signifier loneliness.Like a ledge, like a ladder’s rung, my collarbones are a cliff I hang my hands upon. My grip pulls and yanks, contemplates just how easy it’d be to rip them from me, when I’m idle, anxious. I’ve got bars. God forbid I take my shirt off.Fuck. We’re going to the beach.Chicken legs. (Waste.) Chicken legs. (Now a greenhouse, a greenhouse that smells of death.) Chicken legs. (Nothingness.)*You’re back in Los Angeles. “You’ve lost weight,” you say, like it’s a good-bye, or surrender, and you, floral as ever, still want to fuck. Unfathomable.The razor tips of my hips, protruding from taut skin, rubbed red from my waistband, begin to grin. But the blush is brief and me, I can’t shake the grief. Above your body, I’m merely a pile of knives, something so nearly dead pushing into something wildly alive.And when I moan I’ll try to keep my mouth shut. So you won’t see my teeth. For who would love me, with this many gnashing cavities? This many crooked shards? The holes in my molars are a sign: beware this house that can’t take care of itself. And if I can’t help me, this beaten brigade of bones, how can I help you? You’re going to see that. And you’re going to leave.After, and after you’ve left to the restroom on sturdy tiptoe, I lie under the bed linen my sharp form so specific, my skeleton such a scrape, and feel like the discovered remains of some unidentified corpse, lying in a shallow grave, sheet like a shroud.Oh the brittle battle of my bones’ rattle. Are my shoulders sneering at you? Can’t you look away? Is the vector of my spine keeping you at bay?I wish I could be full for you. I wish I could be your meal. I wish you could put a pat of butter on my patella and sink your teeth into my fleshy thighs. I want my body to be your home. Or even mine.And when the stranger at the party says, “But you’re so thin!” I think, “Believe me, I know, and oh how I feel it, racing toward me—one large, lonely zero.And I’m gone.”No one keeps what they can’t see.
‘At First You Don’t Want Death to Mean Anything’: An Interview with Kristopher Jansma

The author of Why We Came to the City on losing someone to cancer too young, and how New York reminds everyone they’re not special. 

Zora Neale Hurston famously said: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”For me, 2008 was a year full of questions. It was the year of the financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression. It was also the year my family’s tenant was murdered while we were home, just months before I left Brooklyn for the first time to go to college. Why all at once? was just one of those questions.Some strange and difficult years are ones we coincidentally share with other people. I found out later, when Kristopher Jansma became my senior project advisor at university, that 2008 was a time that changed him, too. It was the year his twenty-two-year-old sister Jennifer passed away from cancer. It was also the year he got married, finished a novel, threw that novel away, and realized he had to start his whole writing process over again.Jansma’s second novel Why We Came to the City focuses on that time through five fictional characters: George, Sarah, William, Jacob, and Irene. With the exception of William, they are all fresh to New York, hoping to prove that they have something special to offer the city. It’s an ambition so many young people carry as they move here, except that one of the characters, Irene, discovers she probably won’t have the time to prove it. After finding a lump under her eye, she is diagnosed with cancer. In the most wry and tender way, Why We Came to the City explores Irene’s illness and then looks into how people pull themselves back together after life doesn’t work quite the way they imagined it.I met with Kristopher Jansma at a coffee shop between our two respective neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Eight years after the strangeness of 2008, we looked back on everything, but it wasn’t a teary, wrought exchange—it was a good time.Freddie Moore: Your first novel travelled around quite a bit—from Manhattan to the Grand Canyon, Sri Lanka, Luxembourg, Ghana, and other places around the world. What made you decide to ground this novel in New York?Kristopher Jansma: I thought this time it would be interesting to stay in one place but move around a lot within that. One of the things I wanted to do was try to look at New York City as many worlds within one. So, the characters live in different neighborhoods, mostly in Manhattan, and William is from Flushing. I was trying to make sure that all the characters went to a bunch of other places as well throughout the book, so they go to Staten Island at one point, then go to Brooklyn and Queens. I think the Bronx was the only place I didn’t have them go, and Jacob drives through it at one point, but that doesn’t really count. [Laughs.]I think one of the greatest things about living here is that you can always hop on the train and go into a totally different environment and see all types of culture smashing together. Even when you’re in areas like Greenpoint, which is pretty gentrified at this point, there’s still at least some of that. There are these old Polish places, and they might be full of hipsters, but they’re still there, they’re still serving their food. I think there’s still a lot of that variety in the city. It was important to me that the book revolved around that.What was your favorite area to write about? I don’t know if I can say Manhattan as a whole, but . . . I started writing the book when I was still living in Manhattan. I was living on the Upper West Side when I was writing the first chapters and that’s probably why it has a Manhattan focus to it. But, that was the thing I wanted to capture the most anyway—what it’s like to be young and in Manhattan—because I lived there for the longest of any place. I lived down on the Lower East Side during the years that this book is set in 2008 and forward. That is where I felt like I grew up, and went through a lot of the stuff that the characters are going through in the book.I think my favorite part of the city is the drinking tour that the boys go on in the first half of the story. That was really fun to map out where they go, and most of that is in the downtown area.Even when the characters leave New York, there’s this feeling that they could go back at any time. It still feels like a place that belongs to them. As a Brooklyn native, I am always struck by the loyalty people have to New York as an adopted home. Why do you think that is? People are always so touchy about that. Right? Like, you grew up here, so if I were to call myself a New Yorker to you, that would be probably— [Laughs.] No, you can call yourself a New Yorker! Maybe not to you, but to others. Because it is different. You know, you grew up here, you went to the schools here, etcetera. It’s a little different from somebody who comes when they’re in their twenties. But I’ve lived here now longer than I’ve lived anywhere other than where I grew up when I was a kid. And I have no ties to that part anymore. I grew up in New Jersey—Which wasn’t a place that you chose, either. Yeah, It wasn’t a place I chose. I had a very happy childhood living there, but I was also very happy to leave. I’ve never really had any real inclination to go back. In a way, I’m even a little proud of the fact that I was able to get out because so many people I knew are still there. New Jersey in particular always seems like a place that draws people back and so I feel like I’m always fighting that urge. But my family doesn’t live there anymore. My grandmother moved farther south in Jersey and we would go down there to visit her every once in awhile, but my parents are gone, my brother doesn’t live there anymore.New York has become a real home. I’ve been here for 13 years and now that I’m having to think about moving away, it really does feel like leaving home for the first time. So I’m trying to figure that out. There’s the home where you grow up and then there’s the home where you become an adult, and this is definitely that place for me. I mean, I got married here, I had my first kid here. He’s growing up here now. So, it’s very much like all my big life-cycle things revolved around here: My first jobs, and first apartments, things like that.One of the main characters, Irene, undergoes chemo in the city. How different would her experience with the illness be if the book was set somewhere other than New York? I don’t know how different it would be somewhere outside of New York. One of the big things I wanted to show with Irene, and with all of the characters, was how life around the illness doesn’t stop just because she gets sick. One thing that’s really annoyed me about other books and movies is that when somebody gets cancer, it’s like all other responsibilities melt away and everyone seems to be free to hang out in a hospital room all day. It ends up seeming really unrealistic.One thing I wanted to show was how the city, as wonderful as it is, does not care if you are in the middle of something heavy. There are still going to be people who cut you off on the highway and give you the finger. There’s still going to be somebody on the bus who’s, like, shaving. [Laughs.] And you’re sitting there as you’re going through this cancer situation thinking: how is it that the rest of the world doesn’t see that? So I wanted to show that with what the characters go through.I wonder if it was not in the city if that would go away a little bit? If it’s easier to stay within your bubble if you’re in another place? I think life would still find its way of intruding. There are always things that you have to deal with.But you don’t have to deal with public transit. Yeah. [Laughs.] Maybe it’s just public transportation. And other people in general. I think it’s easier to get away from other people when you’re not in the city. Here, there’s just no option. You go out the front door and you’ve got to deal with other people every day. You can’t just go from your house, to your car, to the hospital — back to your car, back to your house again. That changes it a little bit.Eight years ago, your sister Jennifer passed away from cancer. How did the process for a novel based on that loss start? And when did you decide you were ready to write about what happened? She passed away in early 2008 and the rest of that year I didn’t really do that much writing. I was sort of reeling from what had happened. Jennifer had been living with my now wife, Leah, and I for six months. While she was getting treatments here in the city, I was teaching, and Leah was editing, and we were all doing the things we do. I was also then trying to finish a novel and was very stubborn about it. I was like: I’m not going to give up my writing time and let this intrude. So I started writing through it, and then, around the time my sister ended up passing away, I had finished the book and realized that it was terrible. Obviously my head was not where it needed to be to do a good job with it.The rest of the year I couldn’t get much done, but in early 2009, when Leah and I were on our honeymoon, I decided that I was going to get back into writing. That’s when I started this project I called Forty Stories, where I was going to try to write a story every week for the whole year. In the beginning, I wrote a bunch of very short pieces and then they got longer, and eventually, through that whole thing I ended up stumbling onto the characters for my first book. Most of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards came from the stories that I wrote throughout the course of that year. I ended up writing something like 650 pages. [Laughs.] The more that I wrote, the more stuff started coming out automatically.One of the stories from that year was called “The Murphy’s Odyssey.” I wrote it in the summer and it was about these two characters, George and Sarah, who are on a boat in the Greek Isles for their honeymoon, and swept off-course by some kind of storm. They have their friend’s ashes that they’re supposed to be scattering somewhere. That was the first thing I had written about those characters and it was something that ... I think up until that point I had been feeling like I didn’t want to write about what had happened with my sister. There’s this sense I’ve always had that one of the reasons to write stories is to make sense out of things that have happened in your life ... and I very much did not want any of what had happened to make any kind of sense. I didn’t want to give it any retroactive meaning or anything like that. I didn’t want to write something that said: “And then I learned a valuable lesson from everything that had happened!” And then, at some point, I got over that and realized I had to write about it anyway.What made you decide to write the story as fiction instead of a memoir? Why tell it slant?Erghhh. I absolutely do not think I could have written it as memoir. There are a lot of people who can do that, and I admire the hell out of them, but I just don’t know how they do it. Even being able to hide behind the little bit of fiction, it’s so hard to write about that kind of stuff.I wrote a few essays about the realities behind the book when it came out and even that was pretty difficult. Then we’re just talking about 1000 words, so ... [Laughs.] On top of just writing about my actual sister, which I still find really tough to do, there are parts of it that I don’t even necessarily feel I have full ownership over to write about. Whether it’s how other people in my family dealt with the situation, or even, to some degree, writing about who she was felt really tricky.Did you have to make conscious efforts to work in humor and balance in Why We Came to the City? Or did these sections come to you as a means to get through some of the raw, emotional parts of the novel?I think it was important to balance things out. I knew that what I was writing was going to be very sad in a lot of places and I wanted to show that these characters are full of life and really living in New York in a way that’s taking inspiration from everything around them. One of the things I learned through the reality of everything is that the purpose of humor is to help us get through those things.I can remember days when I was trying to get my sister into a chemo appointment and some guy would cut us off on the highway. I drove her in a couple of times, and I remember her leaning out the window and just screaming at this guy, and then, of course, because he has no idea, he leans out of his car with both fingers up, screaming right back at her. In the moment, it was the worst thing that had ever happened. I was like: “God, the universe just does not care about what we’re dealing with right now.” But then later, even by the end of that night, we were laughing about it. It’s funny even when you get a little bit of distance from the actual moment.One of the big things I wanted to do in the second half of the book was show how their friendship is able to help bring them back from the grief they’re suffering, through humor and all of the stuff that holds them together in the beginning. That was a big risk with the book. I had always had this idea that Irene’s death would fall somewhere in the middle, and the second half would be all about the journey home. That’s where the Odyssey idea came in. They have the war and then the journey back again.What made you decide to spend just as much time with the illness as with the grieving process? The easier way, or more common way of writing that story would be to just do part one and then have the death happen. And then what you tend to see, or at least what I tend to see, is some sort of epilogue chapter or two where we flash forward five years into the future and everybody is getting their shit together, and then they’re all happy, and whatever. Or you have something like The Big Chill, where it starts with everyone getting together right after somebody’s died and then explores their grief that way. I wanted to put those things together because they’re all one story. The story of what it takes to help somebody through that, but also how you recover from it afterwards.There’s this quote that I read a long time ago—I was sort-of nerding out and went to the Salinger letter collection at Princeton’s Library—and it’s in this letter that he wrote while in basic training. Salinger was complaining to his editor, Whit Burnett, about how he was feeling that something was off in all the stories he was writing. He wrote something along the lines of: I feel like I’ve gotten really good at writing stories that leave everybody broken at the end.And then he says something like: I feel like no writer has the right to do that unless they can put them back together again. That was a real moment for me. I never wanted to do that again. I had been through phases when I was writing really sad stuff, and not because I’m a sad person or anything like that, but just because that’s what people figure smart literary fiction is supposed to be. It’s just relentless tragedy, and then it’s over. It’s like things start out terrible and then get worse and worse.Like Vonnegut’s Kafka plot diagram? Exactly! And I still see that everywhere. It obviously works really well. It’s a narrative that people like, although I can’t entirely figure out why. Maybe it makes people feel better about how their lives are not quite so terrible. [Laughs.] I don’t know. But, yeah, for me I wanted to be able to—if I was going to do that, then I had to be able to do the other part too.That’s something I look for when I’m reading as well. I want to see: Can this writer not just devastate me? I think anybody can make you sad. It’s like: Here’s this character, I’m going to make you like them, and then I’m going to have terrible shit happen to this person for five-hundred pages, and then it’s over. I think it really takes something else, and something special, to show how you make things better again. And I don’t read much that does that, so when I see it, I really get excited about it.One of the characters, Jacob, gets really excited about bibliotherapy in that latter portion of the book. Do you believe reading can serve as a form a therapy?Yeah, absolutely. When you’re reading the right kind of thing that is not just trying to show you the truth about how terrible life can be, but the truth about how there’s a lot of wonderful stuff in life too. Jacob in that section is channeling a lot of what I think about as I’m teaching, which is the other big part of my life.Is there a book that’s been therapeutic for you? There are a lot. Though, one I read last year that I would definitely put in that category is Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Towards the end, she’s writing about her friend who is a quadriplegic after some sort of accident and there’s one part where she’s talking about despite the fact that her friend is in this terrible situation, she’s still able to be remarkably upbeat about some things. She doesn’t dismiss the pain and suffering that she’s going through, but she addresses it and then moves on from it.I think that’s something you struggle with after you’ve gone through a big loss. You don’t want to deny your grief and pretend that everything is fine because that’s not going to work. You also don’t want to dwell on it, because that just leaves you nowhere. I think that’s where that clicked for me. You have to be able to acknowledge pain and then move on from it, and acknowledge that it’s real and it’s not going anywhere—that it’s always going to be part of your story. And then you have other things to do with the rest of your time.What about writing? How can authors strike a balance between writing to heal themselves and creating a story for other people? That’s where I think fiction can help. By making something fictional, you’re already starting to take what you experienced and process it in a way that makes it not so much about you. Whereas with memoir, it’s always first-and-foremost about you and then hopefully, usually, you can open up a few windows so that people can jump into your experience. I think fiction allows you to take your experience and give it to other characters.When I first started writing Why We Came to the City, I thought of it as the book I would’ve wanted to read while I was going through everything with my sister. I wanted to write something that was true and honest about what the process of losing someone to cancer is—especially when they’re young and you have all that wrapped up in it too. Then at some point when you’re writing it, it starts to become bigger than that.Of the three mourning sections in the second half of the book, William’s really stuck out. I love that Irene’s death inspires a scavenger hunt of sorts for him—he goes from contact to contact in her address book to turn pieces of her past into something he can understand. It made me think back to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, when Oscar is given a key without explanation of what it might unlock. Why do you think death sends people on these journeys? I think at first you don’t want death to mean anything, and then, eventually, you do start to feel like you’re trying to figure out how it fits into the rest of the world. I think it promotes this existential crisis where you’re searching for meaning in the wake of what has happened.All the characters in the book are dealing with this revelation that there’s nothing special about them. When they’re young and they first get to the city, they feel like they’ve been knighted and they’re ready to come forth and conquer, and then everything comes crashing in on them. William’s a bit of an outsider from the beginning because he’s the only one who doesn’t feel he is special. In fact, he is puzzling over the opposite: Irene seemed to find him special and he doesn’t understand why. I think, then, he’s trying to figure out what is special about me? and embrace that. That was a big part of it.The thing with Irene, trying to figure out who she was, mirrored what I was talking about before with my sister. Especially after somebody has died, you can look at them in a hundred different ways and see all these different pieces but they don’t ever add up into the person who is gone. I think that’s something that William is trying to figure out.William is also literally haunted by her ghost. The novel grounds itself in realism, but there are some spiritual moments that push the bounds a bit. What made you decide to play with that? All the characters are fairly agnostic. George is a lapsed Catholic, Sarah has a Protestant upbringing, and Jacob is Jewish ... culturally, but doesn’t seem to buy into the rest of it. William has also been raised with shamanism in his background, but thinks it’s sort-of crazy. So, through the second half of the book, I wanted to show them all looking for answers back in their faiths.William’s journey involves looking back into some of that stuff, which I really loved. I went to Columbia’s East Asian Library and read all these articles on shamanism. I was fascinated with it because a lot of what I was reading was talking about how in Korea in particular, and even in places like Flushing where there are large Korean populations, that people are able to—with no cognitive dissonance whatsoever—go to the hospital and have something treated with Western medicine, and then turn around and walk over to the shaman’s office and be like: “Can you do a ritual here to clear things up?” When they interviewed people, they would say they didn’t believe in the stuff, but then a shockingly high number of those people were also going to do these things anyway. I think that’s what pushes William towards it eventually, too. He doesn’t believe in it as a principle, but when he’s in a moment of crisis it’s there for him anyway.So, what’s next for you after writing something so personal? I’m trying to figure that out now. I would like to get back to something a little more fun and playful the way that Leopards was. Obviously this book has a lot of fun, playful parts to it too, but I definitely need a little break from the personal side, and the heaviness that comes with it.I’ve been working on something recently that I’ve been very excited by—right now it’s looking like part of a novel about a family. I’ve always really loved intergenerational family stories like Middlesex or East of Eden where you get three or four generations and you follow the course of their family through history. So I’m trying now to write something along those lines about a family where each generation doesn’t really know very much about the previous one.It’s going well so far, I think. We’ll see.
The Art of the Box Score

It’s hard to enjoy baseball if you don’t know what you’re looking for. And the box score teaches you how to do just that.

My dad only uses blue pens, the type that come in packs of twelve and have nibs a little too big so that the ink runs together if you don’t write in blocky capitals like he does, especially if the pen has overheated in the afternoon sun. He’d have them in the front pocket of his shirt when we’d scramble out of the car with our gloves and our snacks. Tickets in hand, we’d weave through the crowds into the Rangers’ Ballpark in Arlington that my dad called the Temple and find a spot in the blistering hot stands to watch batting practice.The pen would come out when the screen in center field showed the names of that afternoon’s lineup. Together, we would build the box. He would draw the lines for the innings, write the names on the left hand side of the yellow legal pad, sing the national anthem. The box score, when finished, looked like a cluster of small squares, one per batter per at bat. At the top, inning numbers labeled the vertical columns. The horizontal columns showed each batter’s performance. In the printed versions that come with the five-dollar game program, each box would have a diamond printed to represent the field. But I don’t remember using those. We always drew ours. Once the box was drawn, we would wait. In the shoeboxes full of keepsakes I’ve moved from apartment to apartment, from where I grew up in Texas to a big coastal city, there are dozens of these yellow pieces of paper. The ink has faded now, but it was smudged to begin with—the running blue lines falling into each other in my uncertain childhood hand.Baseball is a slow game. Unlike football and basketball, there’s no ticking time bomb to race against. There are no scheduled halves or quarters. A half-inning ends when one team gets three outs. It can take ten minutes and three batters wildly swinging or an hour of base hits and runs scored. The fastest baseball game ever was played in 1919. It took fifty-one minutes. The longest lasted eight and a half hours, in 1984. When you sit down to watch a game, you have to settle in. And the best way to settle in is to score it yourself, to mark every play, every base advancement, every wild pitch.Besides biting my nails, there is no habit I’ve kept in my life for as long as the box score. Once, when I was seven, a small boy about my age sat behind my family in the outfield. It was a brutal day, as most summer games are in the Texas heat, and around the fourth inning he started to whine. He was too hot, there wasn’t enough food, the game was too boring. My dad leaned over to me and jokingly muttered “baseball is dull to dull minds,” before tapping the yellow pad with his pen. “Pay attention.”In the most basic version of a box score, every player’s turn at the plate is marked inside a square next to their name. Every defensive position is assigned a number, and every potential play assigned a letter. Let’s say the hitter pops the ball up high into the sky, and after it plummets back to earth the second baseman catches it. Our hitter is out. F is for fly out and the second baseman is always number 4. So inside the box, we write F-4. If he strikes out, we put a K in his box. If he strikes out without swinging his bat, we draw the K backwards. If a box score is kept fastidiously, it can tell you what happened in every single at-bat of a game.In practice, everyone keeps a box score differently, but there’s always a method to the madness. Some people print out mock scorecards to write on top of. Some people use the ones that come with their programs. Some people, like my dad, just draw the lines themselves. L. L. Bean (yes, that one) developed his own format for keeping score. My dad colors in the inside of his diamond whenever a player scores a run. Somewhere along the line, I stopped doing this and started circling the bases a player reached. For any given game, our scorecards would say the same thing in different ways.*The box score was invented by Henry Chadwick, a British man who fell in love with baseball as a sportswriter for The New York Clipper. He ran the first box score in the paper in 1859. There was limited photography in 1859, certainly no televisions to watch the games on, and definitely no gifs. If a fan wanted to know what happened in the game, all they had was the score printed in the paper.Baseball is a game with holiness in its bones. It’s traditional, and in that tradition grows superstition. But the box score is more than a way to find out what happened during a game. To keep a box score is to become a participant in a century-old art form. While the goal of a baseball game is simple—win by scoring more runs than your opponent—the drama and the skill of the game are often more subtle than other team sports. Sure, there are homeruns and the occasional jaw-dropping outfield catch, but there are 162 games in a baseball season. Highlight-reel plays alone won’t get you to the playoffs; consistently mastering the little things—the double plays, the routine grounders, the perfectly placed bunts—makes a championship team.It’s hard to enjoy baseball if you don’t know what you’re looking for. And the box score teaches you how to do just that—to look. Every pitch becomes important. Every play becomes yours. Each club has an “official scorekeeper” who decides if a play is a hit or an error when the third baseman kicks the ball, but you don’t have to listen to him. The box score is yours from the minute you write down the team names.*Baseball is a game with holiness in its bones. It’s traditional, and in that tradition grows superstition. There’s reverence in keeping a box score that asks you to take this game seriously, to appreciate the movement of the ball and the athleticism of the players. And it’s an art practiced and loved by women just as often as men. In seats in stadiums around the country, little old ladies color in squares in whatever way they think is best. At a Nationals’ game I attended in July, I watched as an usher escorted two old women down the stairs to their seats. Holding their elbows, he helped them to their folding chairs and, once sitting, the one nearest the aisle dug through her bag to pull out a spiral-bound book of box scores. Throughout the game, they kept the score together, passing the pages back and forth between them each inning, shaking their heads when they disagreed on how to mark something.But, like any place where women exist in male-dominated spaces, sexism runs rampant. At one game I attended with my dad during high school, a group of men behind me leaned forward over the seat making comments about how hot it was that a girl could know the game with the intimacy I did, as if the keeping of a box score wasn’t for my own enjoyment of the game but for theirs. “Fellas, she’s fifteen,” my dad threw over his shoulder, and they backed off.[[{"fid":"6697691","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"403","width":"760","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Archives. For the most part, though, there’s community among the box score keepers. Baseball has the oldest viewers of any sport: fifty percent are over the age of fifty-five. Enrollment in little league baseball has dropped rapidly in the last ten years. Though revenue is at an all-time high, Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball told the Washington Post in 2015 that baseball struggles to hook the younger generation. I rarely see kids keeping score at the Washington Nationals games I attend now, but maybe kids never really kept score. I remember people asking how old I was, in awe when they saw me keeping score as a child.Like baseball’s graying fan base, the box score is dying out steadily. They rarely make the paper anymore. Like baseball, the box score is a slow art, one that asks you to watch carefully what’s happening in front of you and tune out a world whose distractions seem to conspire against just that.The last time I kept score at a Nationals game, there was a man a few seats over who kept his in dark black ink. Eventually we got to talking about the pitcher's hanging curveball and Bryce Harper's arm. Near the end of the game, I asked him about a mark on his board I'd never seen before, a "WW" that occupied several squares."Oh," he told me, "that's the saddest mark of all. It means I wasn't watching."
Writing Fan Fiction with Margaret Atwood

Talking with the author about her new prison-set adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Hag-Seed.

Weird Sister is a column about Shakespeare, and marks the first time the author has used her Master's Degree in Shakespearean Studies since its acquisition in 2011. Long before Wattpad or Twilight or 50 Shades, Margaret Atwood was a fan of fan fiction. So, she says, was any lover of classical literature, whether they realized it or not.“It’s been going on since ancient Greek times,” she says. “There were a number of different versions of the Odyssey stories. We happen to have the one that was written down and presented to us as Homer’s, but there were a lot of other variants at the time. When Don Quixote was published, people started immediately ripping it off. This is just something that happens with successful fictions.”Hag-Seed, Atwood’s newest novel—a re-telling of The Tempest set mostly in a Canadian prison—is a kind of fan fiction, and the joy she takes in the source material is evident. Released this week,it is the fourth title in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which has best-selling authors crafting novels inspired by the Bard’s thirty-seven extant plays.Atwood says adaptations like these require both a reverence for and willingness to desecrate their source material, and is quick to point out that Shakespeare himself based many of his plays on preexisting myths or folk stories: “What does fan mean?” she asks. “It’s from the word fanatic, someone with a passionate interest.”The author herself is interested in Shakespeare to the point that she seems somewhat incredulous when I ask what his appeal is to her, personally. “Oh come on, what a question. His multiplicity, his ability to understand human beings… his theatricality,” she says. “Quite often with Shakespeare you read it on the page and think, this will never work. But with few exceptions the plays are extremely performable.”*Hag-Seed occupies itself with this performability, following Felix Philips, the former artistic director of the Stratford-esque Makeshewig Festival as he stages a production of The Tempest at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute. The Tempest is not a play known for its stageability—it opens with a shipwreck and features densely rhetorical speeches, a magically vanishing banquet as well as the shapeshifting and sometimes invisible Ariel—but Felix, we learn, is famous for adventurous reimaginings of Shakespeare’s classics. Casting himself in the lead role and filling in the rest of the cast with an ensemble of convicted felons, Felix both plays the part of Prospero and borrows from his story, using the prison play as an excuse to enact revenge on a duplicitous colleague who ousted him from his festival.The Tempest is often considered something of a challenge: there’s magic, for one; added to this, the prevalence of songs, special effects, and an overarching moral ambiguity that makes it difficult to know who to root for. In Atwood’s telling, Felix allows the prisoners to rewrite the songs, magic is provided through illegally-procured hallucinogens, and modern technology creates some rudimentary special effects, though the ambiguity remains.It is precisely this ambiguity that attracted Atwood. “I didn’t think of it as a problem play,” she said. “I thought of it as a play with some unanswered questions. When you go back through various stage productions, they’ve been extremely varied in terms of where they put the emphasis, and the play allows that. People have always edited the play to make it fit the production that they were putting on.”Prospero, an aged conjurer, closes Act V by retiring the costume, props, and book of incantations that have given him his powers of creation. The breadth of Atwood’s research is obvious (she includes a lengthy bibliography and a helpful plot summary for the less-researched reader), and results in a pointillistic work full of small, artful nods to its source. Fletcher’s inmates, for instance, are forbidden to use curse words except those found within the play, a conceit Atwood exploits with glee (“Red plague rid thee,” she says, is a favourite), and which peppers the novel with the early modern period’s inventive swears; the minor role “Auspicious Star” in the original morphs cleverly into Estelle, Felix’s ally and a supporter of drama programs in prisons; the Fletcher Institute itself winks at John Fletcher, a playwright with whom Shakespeare collaborated on at least two plays after writing The Tempest.For her collaboration, Atwood began at the end: “I started with the epilogue, which is one of the most peculiar epilogues in Shakespeare,” she says. “It ends with three words: ‘Set me free,’ spoken by Prospero, who is in effect asking the audience to free him from the play in which he is a character. Get your head around that one! So it’s about prisons, partly, and about how we free ourselves or how we are freed. You know, how do you get out of this place you don’t want to be?”Imprisonments both literal and metaphorical are frequent themes of Atwood’s, and Hag-Seed focuses on both, presenting literature as a step, if not towards freedom, then towards a redemptive humanity in either case. “Shakespeare rehabilitates in a different way,” Atwood says. “You don’t necessarily get a message of hope at the end of Hamlet, do you? But I think because he understands the multiplicity of human character so well, people can see their own conflicts and their own ambiguities in the characters. […] Everybody in The Tempest either has been imprisoned or is put in prison or is threatened with being imprisoned, in the entire play. Everybody.” Inspired at least in part by Montaigne’s “On Cannibals,” the conditions required for an “ideal commonwealth” are a central concern of the characters in The Tempest. Meditations on justice, punishment, and retribution run through Hag-Seed, although Atwood insists her work does not forward a vision of own her ideal Commonwealth. (What would her utopia include? “Probably more Shakespeare.”)Hag-Seed also shows the reader something its source material does not: what happens to its characters after Prospero’s epilogue and the end of the play. As elsewhere in the novel, this revelation is performed on textual and meta-textual levels, with the prisoner-actors composing potential afterlives for their characters as a closing assignment in Felix’s program.*The Tempest is often mistakenly called Shakespeare’s final play. This bit of false trivia has given the play its reputation as Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre, with Prospero standing in for the playwright himself. While Shakespeare co-authored at least two plays—The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, as well as, possibly, the now-lost Cardenio—after The Tempest’s first staging at Whitehall Palace in 1611, it is easy to see why this reading has been so tempting: Prospero, an aged conjurer, closes Act V by retiring the costume, props, and book of incantations that have given him his powers of creation. Despite his daughter’s new home in Naples, he will retire to Milan, where, he says, “every third thought shall be my grave.”Hag-Seed, too, explores the idea of an elderly creator considering his next move after a successful adaptation. Though the novel ultimately restores its Prospero to his position within the Makeshewig Theatre Festival, it is a restoration in name only: “He’ll work behind the scenes. He’ll break his staff, he’ll drown his book, because it’s time for the younger people to take over.” The figures of Prospero, Felix, and (maybe) Shakespeare are united through The Tempest in a looking back, a surveying of the art they’ve made. Looking ahead, for them, is bleak, their creative powers apparently fading with their youths.As for Atwood, the second instalment of her graphic novel series #AngelCatbird is out in February, and she has recently filmed cameos in TV adaptations of Alias Grace (for Netflix) and The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu). There’s been a series order for The Heart Goes Last, as well. Her website says that after book tour season she’ll be hunkering down to spend time with “all those unpublished poems that have accumulated.” I ask Atwood about her relationship to her own artistic legacy, and she shrugs: “Not dead yet.”
‘I’m Happy When I’m Inside a Book and I’m Not When I’m Not’: An Interview with Jonathan Safran Foer

Talking with the author of Here I Am about different notions of home, the downsides of television development, and whether or not he’ll ever write another book.

Since the release of his last novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer has published two books (the pro-vegan tract Eating Animals and the art curio Tree of Codes), promoted the movie adaptations of his first two novels (Extremely Loud … and his debut, Everything Is Illuminated), taught creative writing at NYU, and organized a campaign by Chipotle restaurants to print writing by eminent authors, including himself, on their paper cups. Now, eleven years later, he’s returned to novel-writing with Here I Am.A great brick of a book, it tells the story of a Jewish couple in Washington, D.C., whose marriage is disintegrating. Autobiographical elements, Foer insists, are coincidental—Jacob, Julia, and their three sons, he says, don’t in any way map onto Foer, his ex-wife Nicole Krauss, or their two boys. Nor, he says, is it particularly significant that Jacob Bloch is an unhappy TV writer—much as Foer himself might have been had he followed through with All Talk, the show he was developing with HBO in 2012. Instead, he turned his attention back to literature, although Here I Am also incorporates a story bible for a fictional TV series, and it’s shot through with the kind of barbed, witty dialogue that might have made All Talk a hit. It isn’t as overtly experimental as Extremely Loud, whichincludes series of photographs, blank pages, and multi-coloured handwriting, but it’s still a remorselessly unwieldy tome that takes us incredibly close to his characters’ thought processes: we delve inside their heads, sometimes to the point of claustrophobia. But in keeping with his previous work, which dealt with the Holocaust (Everything) and 9/11 (Extremely), it depicts the impact of a drastic event: the destruction of Israel, touched off by an earthquake. Jacob wonders whether he should leave his family and help his ancestral home.So stuffed is Here I Am with digression, rumination, and recrimination, it’s no surprise Foer says he relishes book tours, so readers can help him interpret what he has written: “If someone says, ‘Why do you think Jacob did this thing in this situation?’ usually I want to say, ‘I don’t know. What do you think? Let’s talk about it.’ It’s not Socratic; it’s that I’m curious.” On a sunny Yonge Street patio in Toronto, Foer, trademark oval tortoise-shell specs in place, sips at a pint of Great Lakes’ Miami Weiss (“Miami nice,” he affirms), and tells Hazlitt about the tribulations of writers, the sympathy of readers, and letting your subconscious lead the way.*Mike Doherty: How did this book come to be?Jonathan Safran Foer: It was a sloppy, inefficient process. It had a lot of starting points. I did write something for HBO which shared [with Here I Am] this inciting event of a discovered cell phone with sexual texts. At some other point—I don’t even remember if it was before or after—I had this mental itch about an earthquake in the Middle East, and I don’t know what inspired it. For years, I’d been working on a story that took the form of notes to actors. Stuff comes together.I think there’s a subconscious structure inside of us that is yearning to be expressed, that is not only more interesting but more authentic than the kind of structure we might apply: “I’m going to write a book about this. It’s going to be divided into five chapters like this. There’ll be a rise and a fall, and this character’s going to be representative of this.” One can do that, but then you are ceding all control to yourself, as opposed to being open to fortuity and accidents, and weird rhymes and all the great things that happen if you just allow them to.At a certain level, you took control and said, “I don’t want this to be a TV series. I want this to be a book.”Well, the TV series was very different. It was more that I don’t want to devote the next five years to being a TV writer. It stops being writing and starts being show-running, which is managing personalities and being on-set and doing all kinds of things that weren’t how I want to spend my time. Amazing people dream of doing it and do it great; it’s just not my thing. Would it have been gratifying to see a TV show that I made? Yes. But a book is singularly special for me.Your protagonist, Jacob, writes for TV, and he’s unfulfilled. He keeps working obsessively on a bible for another TV show that becomes his writing outlet …I wanted him to write a TV series in large part to have that bible. That was the thing that interested me: that form, which predated my writing for TV. And my writing about divorce predated my divorce. It’s really odd, but the things that I was interested in, I was interested in for really purely aesthetic reasons.You mention a “mental itch” about the earthquake, and the personal and the political come together here, as they often do in your work. When you write something for aesthetic reasons, how does the political come into it? Do you have to sit and think about, “This is exactly what would happen if there were an earthquake in Israel” and be very serious about working through these things?That I was serious about, and I ended up getting help from some people in the Israeli military who have done military history in the U.S. for some journalists—I was pretty rigorous about getting that right, but also for aesthetic reasons. For me to have imagined that [entirely], it wouldn’t have been interesting, because I wouldn’t have known how to get to the stuff that was interesting.In the book, a whole host of countries declare war on Israel. Do you sense that quite possibly that would actually happen if there were a major earthquake there?I was trying to create something that would be useful in the book; I was not trying to write the most plausible scenario. It’s not plausible that Syrian rebel groups are going to all unite, or that Sunnis and Shia are going to unite, or Hamas and Hezbollah, but it’s not outlandish. It fuels the drama of the story.You’ve been called a “European novelist writing in America,” but despite the events in Israel, the focus is on your characters in the U.S. Does this feel like a particularly American novel to you?No, it feels like a novel very much about home and different notions of home. America is one kind of home, like an ancestral homeland is another kind. A house is kind of home; a familial unit is kind of home; a relationship is kind of home. I think America and the quality of being American is important to the book, but primarily as an example of a home.Under one roof, you have a number of characters—including Jacob’s cousins from Israel, who have very different ways of looking at the world. Is home a place where we can bring together disparate ideas and make them either coalesce or achieve a productive tension? What’s the relationship between home and the outside world that people are bringing into it, for you?That’s a really interesting question that I don’t have an easy answer to. I think there’s two versions of it. One is in the title, Here I Am, and I think that’s the one Jacob sort of subscribes to: wanting to have an ultimate home, an ultimate identity, that the paradox has become unsustainable. “I don’t want to be both in this marriage while also feeling like I want to be an individual in the world. I don’t want to be a parent who is seemingly devoted to parenting while also being a professional who is seemingly devoted to himself. I don’t want to have religious values and secular values that are in conflict. I want to be integrated.” And I think [Jacob’s eldest son] Sam is suggesting something a little more along the lines of what you were saying, like, a home where these paradoxes can be sustainable, where you can hold opposing ideas in your head and in your life at the same time.Are the differences between them due to their generations?Um, I don’t know if it’s generational or that Sam is a little more developed as a person. The book is ostensibly about Sam’s movement into adulthood, but it’s also about Jacob’s movement into manhood and his [own] bar mitzvah. In the end, I imagine most readers’ loyalties are with [Jacob’s wife] Julia and Sam. Loyalty might not be the right word, but if you had to locate where hope was in the book, the potential for happiness, it’s with them.A number of authors, Jonathan Franzen among them, like to write characters who are ostensibly unsympathetic but win you over. What you’re describing seems like the opposite process …Yeah, I think that might be right. I don’t know that one is ultimately alienated from him. Even if you are disappointed or frustrated by him, he’s a human, and he’s worthy of sympathy, if not loyalty. It’s an idea I’ve become interested in a lot in my own life—the balances between loyalty and, “I understand you but I can’t forgive you.” I think we feel loyalty to the family, so we’re rooting for Jacob and Julia together. That’s how I felt, anyway, and some readers I was talking to said the same thing.It’s not a conventional novel, but considering how experimental/postmodern your other books were, were you consciously looking something that would be less overtly experimental?No, it’s just where my aesthetics were, where my concerns were, and I wanted the form to suit the content. I wanted it to be a book that took place in living rooms and kitchens and bathrooms and had conversations and intimate relationships. It’s less brightly lit.So in theory your next book could be something like the last one, with pictures and different coloured writing …It could be. I may not write another book. I have no idea. There’s no place where I’m in a rush to get to.You’ve said in the past that you define yourself as a novelist, so it’s interesting that you say you don’t know if there’ll be another book.I assume there will. I don’t know if there will, but it took me a long time to make this one.Was it more difficult in some ways to write this book?I think writing itself was probably more difficult, but that’s largely just because life was more full. More things were requiring my attention and time. This book took me the same amount of time as my other books did. It just took me a lot more time to get to the beginning of it, to find a project that I really cared about. Writing the book only took two or three years.The galley copies include acknowledgements, in which you write, “thank you, Michelle [actress Williams, whom Foer is dating], for making me an office where I could finally write and a home where I could finally stop writing.” Had the writing process become difficult for you?Yeah, I suppose it had. When I would go to the office, wherever it was [Foer has been known for writing in libraries and cafés], it was hard to find something that I cared about enough, and it was hard when I was not writing not to think about that fact. And then I was able to find a balance.Was it hard to switch off?Yeah, it was. I’m happy when I’m inside of a book, and I’m not when I’m not inside of a book. It’s such a big part of my identity, and I find it very fulfilling, gratifying, and fun also, expressive, and it’s a language for things that have no other language. When I’m in it, I feel good, and when I’m out of it, I feel bad.If I were a short story writer, I wouldn’t feel it as extremely, because, “OK, I can work on another short story!” With the novel, there’s only one project that takes up a long period of time. You’re putting a lot of eggs into one basket. It can be the source of a lot of happiness and a lot of worry.Does that always resolve itself to your satisfaction?No, I write lots of things that I throw out. The other day, I opened a box and found a draft of a novel that I was working on in between my last one and this one—300 pages, something like that; it didn’t work out. I just didn’t care about it enough. I don’t look at that as a profound waste of time, but it’s very disappointing.I don’t find it terribly difficult, because I’ve had enough experience with writing to know that those ideas might resurface in other ways, and it’s obviously a necessary part of the process. I know that about myself.You can happily throw out—Not happily, but I am not swinging from the rafters.
The Three Lives of Malvina Schwartz

Butches, Femmes, and Mobsters: Inside the world of America’s first drag superstars.

The recording begins with a prickly hiss of static, and a word rendered incomprehensible by the stretching of magnetic tape, before a woman’s voice becomes audible.“-ZZZSSseries of interviews, 1983.”“Okay.” Another woman, her voice deeper, raspier, older. A smoker?“Buddy, talk about your childhood.”The interviewer is Joan Nestle, perhaps the most famous lesbian historian in America. Aside from her books—A Restricted Country and The Persistent Desire, among others—Nestle is primarily known as the co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). Inaugurated in 1974, the LHA is “the world's largest collection of materials by and about lesbians,” according to their website. Until 1992, the archives lived in Nestle’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Today, they inhabit an entire brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood known in part for its significant lesbian community.[[{"fid":"6697616","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Buddy Kent (left) as a chorus boy at the Club 181, 181 2nd Ave., Lower East Side, mid to late 1940s. (Courtesy of Lisa Davis)"},"type":"media","attributes":{"title":"Buddy Kent (left) as a chorus boy at the Club 181, 181 2nd Ave., Lower East Side, mid to late 1940s. (Courtesy of Lisa Davis)","height":"211","width":"320","style":"margin: 15px; float: right;","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The interviewee is Malvina Schwartz, a.k.a Bubbles Kent, a.k.a Buddy Kent, one of New York City’s reigning drag kings from the Forties through the Sixties. Her publicity photos show a slim woman with a handsome face, dark hair, and a big smile. On the tape, her tone is no-nonsense but relaxed, a slight New York accent peeking through when she drops her R’s—nevah, evah. Near as anyone can figure, she was born in 1921, making her sixty-two at the time the tape was recorded. Or maybe it’s tapes, plural? I don’t have the original, just a CD that skips and jumps, presenting snippets of interview out of order, the story of a police raid on a drag show suddenly giving way to a description of the mobsters who controlled the gay bars like an iron fist latched ‘round a limp wrist.The history of that recording is a microcosm for queer history itself: fragmented, discontinuous, and surprising to the modern ear. It came to me sideways, passed from queer hand to queer hand—from Kent to Nestle, from Nestle to the author Lisa Davis (who used it as research for her period lesbian murder mystery, Under the Mink), and finally from Davis to me.Along the way, the details of its creation have become murky. Nestle only remembers interviewing Kent once, in the small Greenwich Village studio that Kent had inhabited for decades. But in parts of the recording, she occasionally makes reference to earlier conversations, and plans future ones. The Lesbian Herstory Archives have a tape marked “Buddy Kent,” but it has even less material on it than my CD, leaving me to wonder whether I’m holding multiple interviews stitched together by the random forces of glitch, or if there was only one interview, with a second tape that never made it into the Archives.This is queer history: A game of telephone played down the decades, preserved by passionate individuals and community institutions working on the margins; half-forgotten documents telling of wholly forgotten times, of lust and fear, shame and pride, butches and femmes, lovers and fighters.This is the story of Malvina, and Bubbles, and Buddy—and Lisa, and Joan, and me, and too many more to be counted, each reverently preserving the pieces we’ve been handed, each looking for a little bit more.*Malvina:I was born in Manhattan. We moved around a lot. I don’t even remember the names of the schools I went to because we moved so often ’cuz my father never worked. When I was a senior in high school, my mother used to give my sister fifty cents to follow me. She’d say “Follow her, see where she goes. She comes home at midnight!” Of course I was in the Village, visiting the bars. I didn’t drink; I was a good clean-cut kid. I was into sports and school. I was the star athlete. And very innocent, ’cept I knew I was gay. Greenwich Village was my territory—like what Israel means to the Jews today! You didn’t have to conform because in the Thirties and Forties, there were so many theatrical and aesthetic people around, and they dressed real weird. Nobody would pay you any mind. The blacks and whites were integrated here, intermarried, so it was like a melting pot. It was really the only place in the city where you were accepted without being looked upon as strange.I’d go to the bars and listen to music; cruise the glamor girls and lie about my age. Then I’d come home and wash out my one shirt, so I could have it clean for the next day. I always wore a white boy’s shirt, a bow tie, and always a navy blue or black skirt. I’d have my mother slit the side and put a pocket in it, so it would feel like pants. I had curly hair so I’d slick it wet and make it straight. And men’s shoes, because I had big feet. In those days you didn’t wear stockings until you were eighteen or nineteen. First of all they were expensive, and second of all you just didn’t wear them. Your mother didn’t get them for you. So when you came down to the Village you took your socks off, put them in your pocket so you’d look older. Because at sixteen, you wanted to look eighteen. I would order a rum and Coke, take the rum, and throw it on the floor. I’d keep the stirrer in the Coke so it would look like a mixed drink and I wouldn't feel like a kid.Then I graduated high school, just under seventeen, and I wasn't prepared for anything ’cept college. ’Course, that was out of the question with my family. So the next thing was to get a job. I went roller-skating for AT&T, the telegram company on Chambers Street. At the time, they didn't hire Jews and they didn't hire lesbians, so I had two strikes against me. I let my hair grow a little bit, wore some lipstick, and bought a cross. And that's when I changed my name.Then at eighteen I was of age and I walked into Ernie's, got my first job as a bartender, which I had never done. When Ernie interviewed me, he said, "What do you do?" And I said "Everything, everything."So he put me behind the bar, and I was in full drag at this point: pants, vest, shirt, tie, short hair. I worked like that for a year. Then the liquor board came in and thought I looked too young. One reached across the bar, touched my face and said, “He isn't even a shaver!” But Ernie had all the connections. He took the men in the back, paid them off, and from then on, he said, “I'll have you tend bar from eight to twelve. After midnight a girl cannot be behind the bar.” Because now my cover was blown: I was a girl. So from twelve to three I mingled with the customers. I danced with the men, the women, whatever. Drank with them, got commissions. And my salary started getting a little better.Then one night they were short of acts and Ernie came to me and said, "Do you do anything?" And I said, "Oh, yeah! I dance." Well, I had [only] done high school tap dancing, but I had a lotta gall!I got up, I did a number, and they were stuck. They said, “She looks like she’s got some potential.” They helped me whip together a real act. *For over thirty years, The Gay Center in Manhattan has been home to a lecture series called Second Tuesdays. It is the longest continually running queer cultural event in the city (and perhaps the world), and it was there that I first encountered Lisa Davis, and through her, Buddy Kent. Davis was giving a reading from Under the Mink, her mystery novel set in Greenwich Village in 1949, which had recently been republished.In the novel, Blackie Cole is the star attraction at a mob-controlled bar where everyone works in drag, from the wait staff to the performers. In the men’s room one evening, she stumbles across the murdered scion of one of the city’s first families, and soon finds herself caught between the law and her employers.Fiction it might have been, but fantasy it wasn’t: During her talk, Davis explained that as a young academic working at Stony Brook University on Long Island, she’d befriended a group of older lesbians, women with names like Toni the Stripper, Sully Sullivan, and Augusta “Gus” Cole. Her book was based on their lives. Not the mystery bit, but the really interesting stuff: The world of America’s first drag superstars, the swells who came to see them, and the Mafiosi who kept everyone on the take and made it all possible.[[{"fid":"6697621","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"222","width":"350","style":"float: right; margin: 15px;","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]“The clubs run by the Mafia were very elegant,” Davis told the audience. These were places like the Moroccan Village and The 181 Club, where wealth and privilege kissed up against debauchery and vice.This was in contrast to actual gay bars, which were also run by the mob, but were dank little dives. After all, they catered to gays at a time when homosexuality was illegal. No one was going to protest the shitty conditions or watered-down drinks when just being seen in one of those places could ruin your life. Many of these establishments existed literally in the shadows, beneath New York City’s two former elevated trains.“Most of the bars in the Village were lesbian,” according to Davis’ research. “The boys were uptown under the 3rd Avenue El. The girls were downtown on 3rd Street, under the 6th Ave El.” Most of the places, such as Benny’s Wonderbar, Tony Pastor’s Downtown, Elle’s Bar, Mona’s, Provincetown Landing, and The Welcome Inn, are only dimly remembered today, if not entirely forgotten.While the union of dykes, fairies, and goodfellas might seem unlikely, there were a number of reasons for this connection, as C. Alexander Hortis documented in his book The Mob & The City. Prohibition had trampled New York’s nightlife, forcing it all underground; the 21st Amendment made bars legal again in 1933, but by then organized crime had a stranglehold on the business. Add to that the fact that it was illegal to serve drinks to known homosexuals (a law that remained on the books well into the Sixties), and the mob’s knack for finding the silver-lucre lining to every outlawed activity, and gay bars were suddenly an attractive business proposition—a bit of turf they were more than willing to defend. As one bartender told Hortis, “Even if you came in [and] tried to open a gay bar, you would be contacted by the Family, and be informed it was a closed shop.”Despite our modern association between “the working class” and homophobia, scholars such as George Chauncey have shown that immigrant working-class men (and, in particular, Italian men) in early 20th century New York were actually more likely than other men to engage in same-sex sexual activity, as well as in many other kinds of non-marital sex. Less is known about the sexuality of working class Italian women, but in the Fifties, The 181 Club (where Buddy worked for a time) was run by Anna Genovese, wife of Vito Genovese, one of the heads of the Genovese crime family. According to the women Davis knew, “Anna was definitely into the girls.” This presented quite the issue for them, as they had to navigate her advances without alienating her, or being seen as a threat by her husband.All of this information, and more, flowed freely from the women Davis knew, many of whom still lived together some thirty years after their time in the bars had ended. In fact, when she died, Buddy still lived in the same building as Kicky Hall and Jackie Howe, two of the nightlife impresarios who helped launch her career. All of them have long since passed away, but I asked Davis out for coffee to learn more about the forgotten world in which they once were stars.“When they got together, it’s all they talked about!” Davis recalled with a staccato laugh. Short, grey-haired, and wiry, she’s about the same age now that Buddy was when Joan Nestle interviewed her. “You’d think that for gay girls, working for the Mafia would be some kind of scourge—it was the greatest thing that ever happened to them!”And yet: They didn’t want their stories told. Not by name, not while they were alive. But Davis sat in the background, listened carefully, took notes. When they threw away their photos—the publicity shots for their latest routine, say, or the candids they took with customers for a fiver—Davis rescued them from the trash. Little by little, she assembled an archive of anecdotes and abandoned ephemera. The stories became Under the Mink, and an amalgam of once-famous drag kings, including Buddy Kent, became its protagonist, Blackie Cole.*Bubbles:When I was twenty-one, The 181 Club was hiring attractive lesbians to wait tables. If you had any talent, they put you in the chorus. So I became a chorus boy/waiter. We were all making money and buying cars and really living it up. I did a strip out of top hat and tails, a Fred Astaire dance and then—with one flip of the hand—my pants flew out from under me. Then I went into a girl strip. When I finished people didn't know if I was a boy or a girl because I was quite slim and very flat.Next I worked with Kicky Hall and his Review. We went to Atlantic City, the Jockey Club, which was very gay. Did three shows a night, mingled with the customers. The tips and the salary were fabulous. We worked seven day weeks for three months. Then we came back to the city and Kicky booked us into The Moroccan Village. The shows were very professional there. Besides your own act, you did the opening number, a chorus number, and the closing. They had a cover and a minimum, which in those days was a lot. And everybody made money. When we had money we didn't pocket it or anything, we lived it up! We were all twenty-two, twenty-three, and our life was a bold big bubble. You tipped the waitresses, and you tipped the band to keep playing, and you bought everybody drinks. And some other night maybe you were by yourself without a live wire, and everyone else was buying you drinks.After the shows, we’d all go to Yank Sing’s Chinese restaurant. Everybody who was anybody in showbiz would appear there. So from four to six am you were either at Yank Sing’s or Reuben’s. On your night off, still in full drag, living as a man, you’d be going to nightclubs like the Copacabana or the Latin Quarter. The girls there all knew who we were because they would come to our club, cruising us. It was quite the thing be seen around town with a lesbian. Moms Mabley? She was a very good friend of mine. We used to go to the Theresa Hotel, Frank's Restaurant, and Johnny Walker's—that was the one black gay bar, uptown. Billie Holiday used to come there, and Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan. Everything was accepted. You were just another freak, barking along. Downtown, you saw an occasional black, but it just wasn't done. We had mixed acts even while we had segregation in our club, but we still drew all white people. The only [venues] where the blacks really integrated was Atlantic City after 1960. When The Moroccan Village had a shooting—nothing to do with the lesbian thing, just a crazy shooting—the club was closed and I moved on again. I wanted to make some big money, so I worked some straight clubs, because I wasn't just a gay act, I was a novelty act. My first straight club was Jimmy Kelly's, on Sullivan Street, the place where The Fantasticks is now. I worked there for a year, which was very unusual because they usually had you work three months. But instead of getting stale, I changed my act, so they kept me on. The Wall Street men liked it. They came to do their little kinky thing with strippers. And I was a stripper, I just was an out of the ordinary one, because I stripped as a man. They enjoyed it. They asked me over to their tables just like the other strippers. So the bosses said, “She might as well stay.” I was billed as “Bubbles Kent, Exotic Dancer.” I had a lot of gimmicks, but I always came out as a man. Then Kicky and Jackie decided to get this little place that was doing nothing, The Page Three. We struck a deal with the owners and bought into the place. So finally we were working for ourselves and getting a little bit of the gravy. A lot of very big people used to come down there, like Jimmy Donahue. And the crowd followed us, the hookers and the madams and the kinky guys with money. Our show was a success from the first week.*“First of all, I’m a femme from the Fifties,” said Joan Nestle, when I asked her how she came to interview Buddy. Over Skype, her soft grey curls formed a pixelated halo around a smiling face. In a momentary reversal, her voice was now coming to me from the future—these days she lives in Australia, fourteen hours ahead of New York.[[{"fid":"6697626","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"365","width":"238","style":"float: right; margin: 15px;","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]But then, Nestle has always been a little dislocated in time—an out dyke before the sexual revolution of the 1960s; a throwback to the bad old bar days during the “new purity movement of the Seventies,” when some lesbian feminists condemned anything that smacked of role-play, S/M, or pornography, including butch/femme bar dykes, such as Nestle and Kent.“I had been trying to say that these lives were more than roles,” she told me, her voice inflected with passion and, perhaps, a tinge of sadness for having to make that argument. She wanted to prove that the women she remembered from the bars in the Fifties weren’t closet cases pathetically aping heterosexual romance; they were as real and complex and queer as anything that happened after the Stonewall riots. “What that meant is that with my little tape recorder I interviewed every pre-1960s lesbian I could find.”This was predominantly an organic process, one woman introducing her to the next. And one of the easiest ways to meet these women was through SAGE, Senior Action in a Gay Environment (now Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders). Founded in 1978, SAGE was one of the first social and support groups to provide for elder queer people, who often face the mounting pressures of growing older with a legacy of economic, medical, and emotional baggage from long histories of homo- and transphobia.“Buddy was very big in SAGE because she’d worked in clubs all her life, so she ran their social,” recalled Lisa Davis. In the pre-Internet world, SAGE was like a freewheeling family reunion, reconnecting queer people whose lives had overlapped at one point and then spun away from each other. A place where exes and rivals and long-lost friends bonded together over the one identity they all shared: survivor. From her decades in the bars, Buddy knew everyone. So after Nestle interviewed Sandy Kern, another SAGE-going working-class butch from the Forties, Kern told her that she had to talk to Buddy.“Getting into her apartment…” Nestle slipped into a reverie for a moment, clearly re-living the experience. “She just opened the door a little bit and—”Nestle paused, refocusing.“I think I must have reassured her off mic that she would have control over these tapes,” she said in a more serious aside.Buddy was nervous: She had three siblings: two straight brothers, and an older gay sister. Davis and Nestle both recall another generation of relatives—nieces, nephews?—but neither knows anything about them, not even if they also took the last name “Kent.” A link, broken.It was the history that Nestle and Buddy shared—their time in the bars—that eventually convinced Buddy to open up. “Buddy talked to me because I was a working-class femme who had a crush on her from the minute I saw her,” Nestle recalled with a sly smile.[[{"fid":"6697631","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"376","width":"255","style":"margin: 15px; float: right;","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]There is an undeniable undercurrent of the erotic to the tape. Nothing so specific as an outright seduction, but a tension, a backdrop, a potentiality, excitement in a protean form, capable of becoming sexual, but not necessarily so. It is the frisson of recognizing your secret self in another, and it wafts through the entire field of queer history like the smell of poppers at an orgy: omnipresent and un-locatable at the same time. For queer people, community and sexuality are conjoined twins; you can’t reach for one without touching the other.But as desire motivates, so can it distort, and the excitement of discovery can obscure the reality of what has been found. Because queer history is so rare, and there is such a palpable thirst on the part of queer historians like myself to connect with these ancestors, it can be easy to focus on the exciting parts of their stories, to turn them from real people into clickbait headlines: You Won’t Believe These 14 Photos of Historic Drag Kings! Buddy’s life as a performer was only one small part of who she was, but it’s the best-documented part because that’s where her life intersected with the lives of straight people, who had money.Halfway through a question, Nestle stopped our interview, agitated.“I hear the wonder in your voice and…” she trailed off, picked at some invisible thing on the arm of her chair. “How can I put this? Buddy's life wasn't exotic. It was real. She was a working woman. She had talents and she wanted to use them to pay her rent, help her girlfriends. The real importance [of that tape] was how it showed the every day nature of making a life as a different kind of woman.”*Buddy:The butch always protected the femme and carried the suitcase. If you happened to be a butch with a heart condition you were really in trouble because you couldn't carry the suitcase and you were ridiculed. The girl never drove the car, even if she owned it. If the butch didn't drive, they parked somewhere on the side streets so nobody saw. If the girl was a better dancer, you still had your hand in the leader’s position even though she was pushing you into the steps. You paid the check; she handed you the money for her share. At home, the butch never did the cooking, unless she was from a big old Italian family and she was really a terrific cook. But then if they had a party it would all be pre-prepared, so the girl could be in the kitchen and heat it up. The butch greeted you at the door, took your coats. The femme sat you down and offered you food, while the butch got your drink. It was a very heavy role play time.There was love, yes, but I think the dykes many times weren’t sexually fulfilled. The butch played the role of satisfying the female, and that was it. There were some dykes in the Thirties who were using dildos, but that was very rare. But the ones who were had those two-sided ones, so evidently they were getting their satisfaction! The relationships that lasted longer, I think, were the ones that were sharing sexually.But there were very intense loves and then there were casual loves, just like in a heterosexual relationship. There were couples that stayed in love and romance for years and years, and then there were some that fell into a pattern of married life and it was just a matter of not being alone.The women were strong in those days. First of all they had better jobs than the dykes, who were limited to factory work, because that's where they were accepted. They were like the token freak of the company. The femmes who couldn't be identified because of their appearance could have good jobs. Also, if you went out on the weekends, there’d be catcalls, and the butches wanted to be protective. It was the femme’s point to come between them and say, “Just don't bother, we're not going to win.” They really had to be the stronger one because they knew it would be a losing battle. The girls used more sense. And actually the dyke at that point wanted to be stopped, but felt they had to come through for their image. When I stop to think of it, the butches were the biggest crybabies. Try to get them to a dentist or a doctor, they fell apart.We didn't have what you have, consciousness raising groups. You had to work out your own problems or you became a neurotic who fell by the way side. A lot of gays wound up psychotics, alcoholics, or junkies, because they couldn't cope. *Try as I might, I can’t establish a date of death for Buddy. Not even the year, or the place she was buried. I’ve searched every permutation of every name she ever used—Bubbles Schwartz; Malvina Kent; Buddy Schwartz-Kent—but no obituary ever comes up. Even in death, however, she stuck with her friends from the bars.“Jackie Howe got sick,” Lisa Davis responded, when I asked what happened to Buddy in the end. “She went to stay with some of her family, who of course threw her out soon after. And she died. Then Buddy's sister died, and Buddy just didn't care much anymore, so she died, too.”There’s a whole section of the tape that sounds just like that, Tito Puente playing in the background, Buddy flipping through a photo album, pointing out the women she knew and what had become of them:Let's see. That's Dean, she's dead. Very, very attractive. She OD’d. This was Jackie Howe, she's downstairs. That's Rosita, she was a hooker. She’s dead. This was a pimp; that was one of his whores. This was the millionaire who used to come around the clubs buying everybody drinks. That’s a girl I went to high school with—not a success story. Dead.[[{"fid":"6697636","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"311","width":"312","style":"margin: 15px; float: right;","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]On the tape, Buddy said she stopped working in the bars some time in the Sixties, as first television, and then disco, stole the crowds away. The dawning world of lesbian feminism, with its focus on radical politics, left many bar dykes behind. So when they closed The Page Three, Buddy traded in her dancing shoes for an X-ray machine, and became a technician at St. Vincent’s hospital, a job she loved. New bright young queer things appeared, at Studio 54 and The Wow Café, and the fog of time swallowed the 181 and the women who were its kings.The old bars closed; the old dykes died; the new world moved on. We forgot, and then we forgot the very act of forgetting, and like that, Buddy’s world disappeared from our popular consciousness. Queer history, like all marginalized histories, is a fragile thing with limited infrastructure to preserve it and pass it on. Like a big bold bubble, it shimmers in the sun, but leaves only a tiny, shiny residue when it pops: A tape. Some photos. A dwindling collection of memories. Pieces that will never make a whole. Were it not for the crucial work of Joan Nestle, Lisa Davis, and the Lesbian Herstory Archives, we would have even less.But then, nothing is ever perfectly preserved. All history is partial, kept only by happenstance, or because it meant something to someone at the time. The best it can do is demarcate the edges of what was once there, sketch out a coastline and write here be lesbians on its uncharted heart, that space where history meets mystery and becomes myth. The power of Buddy’s tape is not just what it tells us about her life, but what it suggests about the lives of hundreds of others. What we know always asks the question, “What don’t we know?” And perhaps the most important part of every interview is the moment the tape clicks off, reminding us of all the life lived outside the range of our recording.*Buddy:There’s only one regret I ever had: that I never finished college. Which I probably didn't want too bad or I could have done it. It's just that I was more interested in money at the time, and cars, and running around. Eventually I probably will. I'm very close to an AA [Associate of Arts degree] now. But I never— [end tape]Recorded interviews have been edited for length and clarity. The taped interviews with Buddy were conducted by Joan Nestle for the Lesbian Herstory Archives and provided courtesy of Lisa Davis. 
Banner for Skinny Dipping by Becca Tobin for Hazlitt
Skinny Dipping

You wanna make out or something? You know, for comfort?

‘He’s Going to Go to His Island to Scream’: An Interview with Kevin Barry

Talking with the author of Beatlebone about fictionalizing the life of John Lennon, the hard time Kate Bush gets in the book, and why rock novels are almost always disasters.

Music and fiction collide in a vast number of ways. Many novelists, such as Colson Whitehead and Carola Dibbell, have worked as music critics, and the likes of Jonathan Lethem, Michael T. Fournier, and Alan Warner have contributed to the long-running 33 1/3 series of books about specific albums. Memorable novels have been written about fictional musicians, from Ben Greenman’s Please Step Back, which traces the ups and downs of a Sly Stone-like funk visionary, to Leni Zumas’s The Listeners, about a former member of a postpunk band trying to overcome her traumatic past.A much smaller group of writers have taken cracks at placing real musicians at the center of their novels. Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings deals in part with a 1976 shooting at the home of Bob Marley, referred to in James’s novel as “The Singer.” (“The reason I went with The Singer instead of his name was because I wanted him to be mythical,” James said in an interview with Midnight Breakfast.) Camden Joy’s novel Boy Island featured a fictionalized version of David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven, with whom the novel’s narrator goes on tour, and the aforementioned Whitehead’s Sag Harbor features a brief cameo by the 1980s hip-hop group UTFO, who help settle a dispute between the narrator and his friends concerning the lyrics of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.”Sometimes this invocation of real musicians can be audacious: consider Jack Womack’s 1993 novel Elvissey, whose protagonists travel from a corporatist-dystopian near future to an alternate Earth to kidnap that Earth’s Elvis Presley. In the near future where much of the novel is set, Presley has become revered as a god—one character has a job teaching “Comparative Elvisims at Harvard Divinity”—which leads to the desire for an easily controllable messiah. In Womack’s novel, however, this alternate Elvis, known as “E,” turns out to be a racist sociopath, and is first introduced in the aftermath of a murder. Still, he’s a hell of a singer.Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone falls somewhere between the historical and the surreal. Barry is no stranger to the latter approach: his award-winning debut novel City of Bohane was set in a strange city in the middle of the twenty-first century, while the stories in his collections There Are Little Kingdoms and Dark Lies the Island explore a range of styles and expressions. Beatlebone is, on the surface, more traditional: it follows John Lennon on a quest through the Irish countryside in search of an island he had purchased there years before.But much of the strength of Beatlebone comes from how it defies expectations. The repartee between Lennon and Cornelius, the local man tasked with driving him around, takes on an increasingly surreal familiarity. And Lennon becomes haunted both by local communes and his own memories. As Barry put it to me, “time is slippery and there are strange forces at work all the while.” Readers looking for a heroic story of John Lennon may be disappointed; readers looking for a uniquely structured story of a man grappling with his own past, which happens to star John Lennon, will find much more to savor. I spoke with Barry about the four-year process of writing Beatlebone (which is out in paperback this week), his own experience of the landscape in which it is set, and what’s coming next.*Tobias Carroll: Maybe we should start with the basics. What first drew you to John Lennon as a figure to write about?Kevin Barry: My bicycle, is the short answer. I got into cycling in the summer. I live in County Sligo in Ireland, and I go out west to County Mayo, out through Clew Bay, where he owned that island. For years, it had sat idly there, in the back of my mind—this odd little fact that John Lennon used to own one of those tiny islands down there. And I found myself thinking, “Which one?” And I started to research it. I wasn’t sure what I was up to—I’m never sure what I’m up to, as a writer. It’s always operating by gut instinct. I wrote a little piece for radio about the fact of John having an island on the west coast of Ireland; I wrote a little essay about it. And one dark, hysterical morning, I found myself scratching down some lines of dialogue, and I thought, “Uh-oh! I’m going to try this as a long piece of fiction, aren’t I?” It was a scary realization, because he’s such an iconic figure. It took a lot of work to take a voice for him.Is his ownership of the island something you’d always been aware of?It’s something that lodged in my brain years ago. It was a well-known little story in Ireland in the ’70s and so forth, right before fading with the mists of time. When he died, the island was sold and the proceeds were given to an orphanage, actually. It went back into private ownership. It’s owned by a sheep farmer now; there’s sheep out there. The weird thing is, I’ve never been a particularly fanatical Beatles fan. I was always very much leaning towards the Church of John when it came to the Beatles; The White Album is a favorite record of mine. And Plastic Ono Band, some of the early solo records, are special to me. But it was a surprise to find myself sitting down to write a novel with John Lennon as the main character in it. It’s not something I would have predicted. It was a long process, to try to get a voice for him on the page, because every reader’s going to come into the book with an expectation of what he should sound like. I had to try a lot of techniques and methods to try to get something that I was happy with.For some people, Lennon is a heroic figure; in more recent years, the fact that he was abusive has been brought up more frequently…He is a divisive figure. What’s really interesting about trying to get him down on the page is that his tone is very changeable and capricious. I was very careful not to do any traditional research amongst the texts, among the books. There’s so much of that stuff; if you open that cupboard, that whole world of materials falls out, and you get smothered by it. I did watch a lot of YouTube clips of chat show interviews with him, just trying to get the intonation of voice. He’s very capricious in tone. He will go from very fluffy and light and charming to very dark and quite thorny within the course of a sentence. To try to replicate that on the page in a believable way is difficult. It took a lot drafts, it took a lot of grunt work. It took a lot of heavy lifting. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words to whittle away to get something that I was happy with. My starting point was from a point of devotion and fandom. I am a big fan, and it was written out of that sort of poignancy, really—that he was a great artist who should still be among us.You zero in on his time spent in primal scream therapy for part of the book. When in the process did you decide that you wanted to focus on that in the novel?When I realized that he was on this kind of madcap mission or journey or quest to get to his island, naturally, it occurred to me: what’s he going to do out there when he gets there? And the whole fact of his background in primal scream, that kind of Reichian therapy, seemed—yeah, he’s going to go to his island to scream.I had to go all method actor on it. I did eventually make my way to the island myself, and I did try some primal screaming out there with, I would have to say, mixed results. Increasingly, whether I’m writing this novel or short stories, lately I kind of like to write on location: go to the place I’m writing about and get the material down while I’m there. Almost like a documentary approach, I guess, and a way for me to keep the writing fresh and immediate. This story, primarily, is about John Lennon as an individual, but it’s about an artist—how any artist struggles to get at their materials. How do you make a record? How do you make a novel? How do you make anything creative? It’s about going into your dark places and using the materials that you find there. Primal scream therapy is about doing exactly that, uncovering all sorts of buried childhood pain and so forth. It was a way, as well, to put him into difficult situations, where he falls in with the remnants of a primal scream commune. It means that they have this possession called The Rants in the book, where they try to strip each other down to the bare bones of who they are. It was crazy, intense stuff to write. It took a lot of drafts and work to get to a place where I thought I could let human eyes fall on it at all. It was very dark in the initial drafts. It remains quite dark in the book.That whole world of communes and primal scream therapy, and alternative living groups, I remember coming into the west of Ireland when I was a kid in the ’70s into the ’80s. That version of the Irish west almost never shows up in Irish literature. When you read the literature of the west of Ireland, it tends to be about the farms and the small towns and so forth. But there were a whole lot of freaks there as well, and I very strongly believe that they improved the place. They made it a far more interesting world.Was your process for writing this different than it would have been had it not had John Lennon as a central character?I kind of threw the kitchen sink at it. There were so many approaches and methods used for what’s a pretty short novel, a 54,000-word novel. I mean, there’s an essay in the middle of it. There are play texts. What it most resembles is a kind of old-fashioned play for voices, a radio play. Its primary engines are dialogues and monologues. The dialogues between John and Cornelius, they really power it along. The parts where you turn the pages really quickly—weirdly, those turn out to be the pages where you have to work at it really, really, really hard. I got through eighty, ninety, one-hundred drafts of those dialogues to try to get them flawless in their flow. I was convinced that this going to be a really short process, that it was going to be six months in and out, that I would have an intense burst of glorious prose and then would be finished. Four years later, I crawled from my work shed with the tablets of stone, having been through an atmosphere of mounting hysteria.I think the first two and a half, three years were really difficult on me, actually. The last year was great, great fun because I felt that I had the voices, and when you have the voices, you can invent at will. I broke the back of it, weirdly enough, in Montreal. I spent a year in Montreal, in 2013 into 2014, that very cold winter. Minus-25 degrees Celsius turned out to be ideal conditions for the novel, because there’s nothing else to do. I squirreled myself away, a lot of the time, in the Quebec National Library, where I didn’t have the wi-fi code, crucially. I got a lot of work done there. I weirdly associate Montreal with the novel; I managed to get a little mention of the city later on in the text, as a nod to that.You brought up the fact that a lot of the novel is two people talking, one of whom is incredibly well-known. How did you make Cornelius’s character a suitable partner for him?A central ongoing joke of the book is that Cornelius is a legend in this particular world, and he’s just got this guy tagging along with him. Everyone they meet is more impressed with Cornelius than they are with John. Cornelius is the alpha male in the pair as they rattle around the west of Ireland in this old van. Cornelius is an amalgam of various characters I’ve come across myself through the years. He’s tricky—you’re not sure what, exactly, he’s up to. He’s got a roughish charm. There are certainly elements of myself in him, in his speech and the way he talks. It was when the two of them started to play off one another that the thing stood up on the desk for me and started to come to life, and I realized that, in many ways, it’s a novel in a very antique mode. It’s essentially Don Quixote tilting at windmills, and the quest, trying to discover the meaning of life.Cornelius is also a type of character that Saul Bellow used to describe as a “reality instructor.” Saul Bellow would always have [this] character who would appear in his novels—the guy or the girl who came along and said, this is how you get true in life. Cornelius is that. He’s operating in a very unusual form of reality, where things are unfixed and time is slippery and there are strange forces at work all the while. I’m never quite working within the realm of realism. Where I operate is out on the edge of believability all the time. I want the reader to be going, “No way.” Maybe, just maybe, there’s enough to let you get away with this. It’s a very risky place to operate as a writer, but it’s very interesting as well. And a constant game you’re playing with the reader—how far can I bring this very tall tale? That was the reason I wanted to place that autobiographical essay bang central in the book, where it acts as a kind of qualifier, where you break the screen and show the reality underpinning this, where it came from—the facts of John’s life and what I brought to it myself as a writer to try to give it emotional heft and weight.The inclusion of that reminded me of the structure of John Edgar Wideman’s novel Philadelphia Fire, and the moment where Wideman enters the narrative of the book to provide a different perspective on some of the history that he’s writing about.I’m going to suggest that there’s an increasing trend among novelists to come in and out of their fictions. When you’re writing a novel or short story, there’s a sense now that you have to show the workings there and declare, “Yeah, this is a made-up thing, but this is how we’re doing it, and this is why we’re doing it.” Increasingly, when I’m sitting down at my desk, I’m not thinking about writing a novel or short story; I’m thinking about writing a book. I think a lot of the forms and genres are starting to rub up against one another and collide in really interesting ways. When different forms and genres touch each other, hopefully sparks come and you get something that’s new. What I love about the novel as a form, and what will keep me going back to it, is that I think that it’s infinitely capacious. It can take pretty much anything you throw at it. As long as the reader is having a good time page by page and line by line, they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth. I have an overall structure in mind when I sit down for this, but I’m really concentrating on it sentence by sentence, and trying to pack as much intensity as I can into each of the sentences.As they’re driving around the island, there are a number of references to the music of Kate Bush–She gets a hard time in the book.Was she in there as a kind of musical foil to John Lennon?[That was] one of the few bits of actual research I did: the book is set in May of 1978, and I did Google to find out what was in the charts at this time in Ireland. What would have been on the radio, if he had been drifting around the countryside? And it would have been “Wuthering Heights,” by Kate Bush. It was the big number one song of that era. It was fun to play with. I was myself a huge devotee of Kate Bush as a young boy and adolescent, to a feverish degree, and I remain so until this day. I’ve had some very disappointed Kate Bush fans complain to me about her treatment in the novel. I think she’s wonderful. The Kate Bush music would have been, in many ways, much more suitable to this wind-blasted landscape than John’s. For me, what was fun was to imagine if he had gone down a different road as an artist. If he had gone into a more avant-garde, experimental mode. Into more of the kind of world that Yoko operated in, and operates in—more the art world. The world that Scott Walker operates in, for example. He started out as a pop artist and became a more experimental artist. It was fun to imagine John in that world, and things going very badly.The most fun I had in the novel was the studio section later on, where it’s John and his engineer, Charlie Haimes. I thought that was fun. When things are always going dramatically badly, it’s always a fun point in a book. Apart from the essay, that was the section I wrote most easily and effortlessly. I love what-if scenarios, and imagining John as an experimental artist … There was actual stuff to play with. In the late 1960s, he was going in that direction on The White Album and tracks like “Revolution #9.” He was interested in experimental music. But, as we know, he drifted back; his last record, Double Fantasy, is as pop a record as he ever made, and as sugary-sweet a record as he ever made. After the Beatles, he was going in an experimental vein before having this period where he was blocked for a few years because he was too happy. There wasn’t enough strife and trouble in his life to come up with stuff.The thing about listening to music as you write, as you work—I did listen to The White Album to a slightly obsessive degree as I was working on the book. It’s a glorious mess of a record, and I wanted this to be a glorious mess of a novel, to be as wild and as knotty. I listened to a lot of contemporaneous stuff as well. What’s interesting about that period in rock history is, we realize now, that it was finite. The great stuff only really persisted for so long, and we went into a different and lesser era, I think. You could say that great stuff was happening from the mid-1960s to the late ’70s, early ’80s, and after that—not that there isn’t great music being made now—the really classic, iconic stuff has a period of about fifteen, sixteen years. It all seems to be enclosed in history. I was hoping that this would be the end of my rock book experiments, but I find myself lately getting very obsessed with that Altamont Rolling Stones documentary. I re-watched it again and again. It’s such a rich era, full of color and character and crazy shit happening all the time. It’s always amazed me that there aren’t more great rock novels.They’re almost always disasters. Even favorite novelists of mine, like Don DeLillo, wrote Great Jones Street, his rock and roll superstar novel, and it’s far and away his worst book. It just doesn’t work out. I think, often, the problem is that they use invented musicians and invented rock stars, and it never convinces. At one point, early on in the first year that I was working on Beatlebone, it was so difficult to get the voice, the thought did cross my mind that maybe I should make this an anonymous rock star on this journey to the west of Ireland. Maybe that would be easier. But I thought, no. That’s shying away from the difficulty of it and the real audacity of it, to try for the voice in such an iconic figure.In terms of fictional musicians, I found the main character of Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland believable, but that character is a cult musician playing smaller venues than a rock star headlining at arenas. I think the sense of scale makes a difference.As I was writing the book, I was trying to think of examples of real-life cultural figures being placed into fiction well, and there are so few. I did think to mention Don DeLillo in a more positive light: in Underworld, he re-creates Lenny Bruce’s routines, and does so brilliantly. And in Libra, the way that he does real-life figures like Jack Ruby and Oswald is stunningly well-done. But it’s surprising how little of it is there. I guess it’s because it’s so difficult. I started Beatlebone in a glow of glee, thinking, “This is a great idea—how come nobody has done this before?” And about three weeks in, I was going, “Oh, fuck, this is so difficult, this is so hard, to make any of this believable.” It was four difficult years, but when you’re doing a project like that, when you bring home to any degree that you’re satisfied with—and I am happy with it—it gives you a lot of confidence to take on other improbable and ungainly projects.Are you working on something new now?Weirdly, this has opened up a lot of possibilities for me. For example, I’m really interested in writing more essays, and maybe working more on plays. I’ve worked a little bit in theater, and I’ve got a couple of play scripts on my desk at the moment. In terms of the next book, I know what it’s going to be—it’s going to be a second novel set in the phantasmagorical city of Bohane. I’m going back out to that strange place to do another book. I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to be doing a trilogy there. I always knew when I was writing that novel that I was at least doing a second book there. The world of it was working; the city was a good character. When you build a little city, it feels like real estate, and you want to get your worth out of it. That’s definitely the next novel. I’m going to return to the city of Bohane and see what’s happening out there.
The Snarling Girl

Notes on—and against—ambition.

A funny thing happened when I published my first book, more again when I published the second, and still more yet again with the third: People began to treat me differently. The typical exchange opens with a disinterested, “What do you do?”“I’m a writer,” I say.Here a very subtle sneer. “That’s nice. Have you published anything?”“Yup.” I offer up my abridged CV.Suddenly they stand up a little straighter. A light goes on in their eyes.A moment earlier they were talking to nobody, a nothing, but now they’re speaking with somebody, a person who matters.“Wow,” they say. “That’s amazing.” And sometimes: “I always wanted to write a book.” And sometimes: “I have a great idea for a book.” And sometimes: “Maybe you could help me write my book.”This dynamic awakens a ferocious dormant animal, a snarling girl with a big mouth, too smart for her own good, nothing to lose, suffering privately. She’s me at fifteen, more or less. When she is ready to stop suffering privately, she’ll become a writer.Oh really, she says. Now I matter? Wrong, motherfucker: I mattered before. (Also: Nope, can’t help you write a book, best of luck.)She’s a little trigger-happy on the misanthropic rage, this snarling girl. She is often accused of “not living up to her potential.” She is neither inspired by nor impressed with prep school. The college admissions race leaves her cold. Her overbearing mother berates her about crappy grades and lack of ambition. (O-ho, the snarling girl says, you want to see lack of ambition? I’ll show you lack of ambition!) Where she is expected to go right, she makes a habit of veering left. She is not popular, not likely to succeed. Her salvation arrives (surely you saw this coming) in the form of books, movies, music. She obsessively follows the trail of breadcrumbs they leave behind. Here is a neat kind of power: she can be her own curator. She can find her way from one sustaining voice to another, sniffing out what’s true, what’s real. In her notebooks she copies out passages from novels, essays, poems, and songs. She Sharpies the especially resonant bits on her bedroom wall. This is how she learns to trust herself, no easy feat. These are epigraphs to the as yet unwritten book of her life, rehearsals for the senior page she is keen to assemble. These stories and lines and lyrics are companionship, proof that the universe is much, much bigger than her radioactive family and rich bitch west L.A. and Hebrew school and Zionist summer camp. Behold: She is not crazy! She is not alone! She is not a freak! Or, rather: she is crazy, she is alone, she is a freak, and she’ll keep glorious company with all of these other crazy, lonely, amazing freaks.Look at her notebooks, all in a row. They live in my study, above shelves stacked with my books, galleys, audiobooks, foreign editions, literary journals, anthologies, Literary Death Match Champion medal, and piles of newspapers and magazines in which I’m celebrated as this amazing thing: a writer. A novelist. Legit. But witness, please, no coincidence, the notebooks live above that stuff. Spiral-bound, leather-bound, fabric-bound, black, pink, green, floral. This Notebook Belongs To: Elisa Albert, neatly printed in the earliest, 1992. Fake it ’til you make it, girl! The notebooks have seniority. Here is how she began to forge a system of belief and belonging, to say nothing of a career. Am I aggrandizing her? Probably. I am just so goddamn proud of her.*Ambition. The word itself makes me want to run and hide. It’s got some inexorable pejorative stench to it. Why is that? I’ve been avoiding this essay like the plague. I’d so much rather be writing my novel, my silly secret sacred new novel, which will take a while, during which time I will not garner new followers nor see my name in the paper nor seek an advance from the publisher nor receive the hearts and likes and dings and dongs that are supposed to keep my carnivorous cancerous ego afloat. I will simply do my work. Hole up with family and friends, live in the world as best I can, and do my work.The work: this is what I would like to talk about. The work, not the hearts and likes and dings and dongs. And maybe I can float the possibility that the work is best when it’s done nowhere near the hearts and likes and dings and dongs. Maybe I can suggest that there is plenty of time for hearts and likes and dings and dongs once the work is done, and done well. Maybe I can ever so gently point out that a lot of people seem rather addicted to the hearts and likes and dings and dongs, and seem to talk about and around writing a hell of a lot more than they actually do it. Maybe we can even talk about how some self-promote so extensively and shamelessly and heedlessly and artlessly that their very names become shorthand for how not to be.I mean: ambition to what? Toward what? For what? In the service of what? Endless schmoozing and worrying and self-promotion and maniac flattery and status anxiety and name-dropping are available to all of us in any artistic medium. But the competitive edge is depressing. That thinly (or not at all) disguised desire to win. To best her or him or her or him, sell more, publish more, own the Internet, occupy more front tables, get tagged, have the most followers, be loudest, assume some throne. Is it because we want to believe that we are in charge of our destiny, and that if “things” aren’t “happening” for us, we are failing to, like, “manifest”? Or is it because we are misguided enough to think that external validation is what counts? Or is it because of some core narcissistic injury, some failure of love we carry around like a latent virus?Perhaps it’s because knocking on doors like we’re running for damn office is a lot easier and simpler than sitting alone with our thoughts and knowledge and experience and expertise and perspective, and struggling to shape all that into exactly the right form, during which process we take the terrible chance that we might get it right and still no one will care. Maybe we are misguided enough to believe that what’s most important is that people care, regardless of whether or not we get it exactly right. Maybe getting it right doesn’t even matter if no one cares. Maybe not getting it right doesn’t matter if everyone cares. If I write an excellent book and it’s not a bestseller, did I write the excellent book? If I write a middling book and it is a bestseller, does that make it an excellent book? If I wander around looking for it on bookstore shelves so I can photograph it and post online, have I done good? If I publish a book and don’t heavily promote it, did I really publish a book at all!?Everything worthwhile is a sort of secret, not to be bought or sold, just rooted out painstakingly in whatever darkness you call home.Here is what we know for sure: there is no end to want. Want is a vast universe within other vast universes. There is always more, and more again. There are prizes and grants and fellowships and lists and reviews and recognitions that elude us, mysterious invitations to take up residence at some castle in Italy. One can make a life out of focusing on what one does not have, but that’s no way to live. A seat at the table is plenty. (But is it a good seat? At which end of the table??? Alongside whom!?) A seat at the table means we are free to do our work, the end. Work! What a fantastic privilege.Feeling like one does not have “enough” of anything (money, status, fame, recognition, shoes, name it): that’s where every kind of terrible shit starts. And the benchmarks of success constantly shift. Ambition is a fool’s game, its rewards fool’s gold. Who is happy, asks the Talmud? She who is happy with what she has.Fine, okay, but I’ve been publishing for a decade now. When my first book came out I was a silly wreck. I smoothed my dress and crossed my legs and waited smugly for my whole life to change. I looked obsessively at rankings, reviews. Social media wasn’t yet a thing, but I made it my business to pay very close attention to reception. I was hyperaware of everything said, everything not said. The positive stuff puffed me right up, and I lay awake at night in a grip of fury about the negative. You see this a lot with first timers. It’s kind of cute, from afar. Do I matter? Do I matter? Do I matter? Rookie mistakes. What’s tragic is when you see it with second, third, fourth timers. Because that hunger for validation, for hearts and likes and blings and blongs, is supposed to be shed like skin.*Ambition: an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment. Note: we are not speaking here about trying to pay our bills, have a decent place to live, buy decent food, access decent health care, get a decent education. For the purposes of this particular discussion, those fundamentals are assumed. And there’s nothing in there about spiritual betterment, social service, love, or happiness. The entire concept can therefore be seen as anti-feminist. An ideal matriarchy would concern itself exclusively with the quality of our days. Whither the collective desire to make life better for everyone? Ambition is inherently egotistical; it is by definition about being in service of the self. Which has never, not once in the history of humanity (can you tell I’ve not bothered to read Ayn Rand?) made anyone anywhere “happy.”And anyway, haven’t we collectively imbibed sufficient narrative about the perils of success and fame already? Haven’t we seen how fame can destroy and corrupt, how ambition and greed are twins? How recognition can pervert and compromise? We’re all struggling with our own unique little demon conglomerate, and we all have some good luck and some bad luck. Nobody can tell you how to be happy because being happy is one of those things you figure out by figuring it out, no shortcuts. Or maybe you don’t figure it out, maybe you never figure it out, but that’s on you. Everything worthwhile is a sort of secret, anyway, not to be bought or sold, just rooted out painstakingly in whatever darkness you call home.*I’m searching those old notebooks for one quote in particular, though. It came flooding back soon after I accepted this hellacious assignment. (I mean, women and ambition!? Too vast and complex. What the hell can possibly be said? Women: be more like men! Lean this way! Lean that way! Lean sideways! Pick a direction and contort yourselves heroically toward it at any cost! Never give in, never surrender! You are entitled to dominate! You owe it to all women! Don’t tell us what to do! Hear us roar! I dunno, you guys. I do not know.)It’s a line from an essay by Christine Doza in an anthology called Listen UP! Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. I was fortunate enough to take Women’s Studies in high school, and the anthology was our textbook. Bingo, here it is: “When I was little I wanted to be the president, a firewoman, a teacher, a cheerleader, and a writer. Now all I want is to be happy. And left alone. And I want to know who I am in the context of a world full of hate and domination.” I had copied it out in huge, swooping letters.I find Doza online and message her: Are you the same Christine Doza who wrote “Bloodlines” in Listen UP! Voices from the Next Feminist Generation?I want to include her in this narrative, let her know how much her essay continues to mean to me, twenty years on. She’s not a “famous writer.” I can find nothing she’s published since that essay. But I want to tell her how forcefully she (still!) resonates when I am asked to formally consider the odious topic of women and ambition. She managed to articulate something difficult, profound, and specific (which is hard and rare), and in so doing, she gave me a gift. A jumping-off point. Affirmation. Recognition. Clear-eyed dispatch from further on up the road. Fate brought my eyeballs and her words together, and here we still are.She never responds. I wonder what her deal is. Whatever.So maybe my great ambition, such as it is, is to refrain from engagement with systems that purport to tell me what I’m worth compared to anyone else. Maybe my great ambition is to steer clear of systems. Any systems. All systems. (Please Like and Share this essay if you agree!) What I would like to say is: Lean In my hairy Jewish ass.*My mother was one of eight women in the UCLA Law School class of 1965. A lot of professors and students treated them horribly, those eight women, because they were “taking up a space a man could have had.” Appalling, right? Except, uh, it’s true: my mother did not actually want to be a lawyer. Her parents wanted her to be a lawyer. It was fairly radical of her to become a lawyer. She is badass by nature. But she didn’t really want to be a lawyer.Upon graduation, those eight got together and decided to just ask interviewing firms outright: Do you hire women? Legend has it one honcho stroked his chin thoughtfully and replied, with no apparent maliciousness, “Well, we hired a cripple last year.”She practiced law for a total of about a year before she gave it up, married my dad, had kids and settled into the kind of furious, bored, soul-eating misery that is the hallmark of thwarted women everywhere, from kitchens and gardens to boardrooms and private jets and absolutely everywhere in-between. To this day, if a stranger at a party asks her what she does, she’ll lift her chin in a gesture I intimately recognize as Don’t-Fuck-With-Me, and say, with cement grit and dirt and bone shard in her voice: “I’m an attorney.”And isn’t everything we do, everything we reach for, everything we grab at, each of us in turn, a way of struggling onto that ledge, that mythical resting place on which no one can fuck with us? Don’t Fuck With Me seems as good a feminist anthem for the 21st century as any.Taking care of myself and my loved ones feels like meaningful work to me, see? I care about care. And I don’t care if I’m socialized to feel this way, because in point of fact I do feel this way. So! I am unavailable for striving today. I’m suuuuuper busy.But the mythical resting place is … mythical. And trying to generalize about ambition is like comparing apples and oranges and bananas and flowers and weeds and dirt and compost and kiwi and kumquat and squash blossoms and tomatoes and annuals and perennials and sunshine and worms. Wanting to be first in your class is and is not like wanting a Ferrari is and is not like being the first in your family to go to college is and is not like wanting to get into Harvard/Iowa/Yaddo is and is not like wanting to summer on Martha’s Vineyard is and is not like wanting to rub elbows with fancy folk is and is not like wanting to shatter a glass ceiling is and is not like wanting to write a lasting work of genius with which no one can quibble. Our contexts are not the same, our struggles are not the same, and so our rebellions and complacencies and conformities and compromises cannot be compared. But the fact remains: whatever impresses you illuminates your ambition.*Some ambition is banal: Rich spouse. Thigh gap. Gold-buckle shoes. Quilted Chanel. Penthouse. Windowed office. Tony address. Notoriety. Ten thousand followers. A hundred thousand followers. Bestseller list. Editor-in-Chief. Face on billboard. A million dollars. A million followers. There are ways of working toward these things, clear examples of how it can be done. Programs, degrees, seminars, diets, schemes, connections, conferences. Hands to shake, ladders to climb. If you are smart, if you are savvy, who’s to stop you? Godspeed and good luck. I hope you get what you want, and when you do, I hope you aren’t disappointed.Remember the famous curse? May you get absolutely everything you want.Here’s what impresses me: Sangfroid. Good health. The ability to float softly with an iron core through Ashtanga primary series. Eye contact. Self-possession. Loyalty. Boundaries. Good posture. Moderation. Restraint. Laugh lines. Gardening. Activism. Originality. Kindness. Self-awareness. Simple food, prepared with love. Style. Hope. Lust. Grace. Aging. Humility. Nurturance. Learning from mistakes. Moving on. Letting go. Forms of practice, in other words. Constant, ongoing work. No endpoint in sight. Not goal-oriented, not gendered. Idiosyncratic and pretty much impossible to monetize.I mean: What kind of person are you? What kind of craft have you honed? What is my experience of looking into your eyes, being around you? Are you at home in your body? Can you sit still? Do you make me laugh? Can you give and receive affection? Do you know yourself? How sophisticated is your sense of humor, how finely tuned your understanding of life’s absurdities? How thoughtfully do you interact with others? How honest are you with yourself? How do you deal with your various addictive tendencies? How do you face your darkness? How broad and deep is your perspective? How willing are you to be quiet? How do you care for yourself? How do you treat people you deem unimportant?So you’re a CEO. So you made a million dollars. So your name is in the paper. So your face is in a magazine. So your song is on the radio. So your book is number one. You probably worked really hard; I salute you. So you got what you wanted and now you want something else. I mean, good, good, good, great, great, great. But if you have ever spent any time around seriously ambitious people, you know that they are very often some of the unhappiest crazies alive, forever rooting around for more, having a hard time with basics like breathing and eating and sleeping, forever trying to cover some hysterical imagined nakedness.I get that my foremothers and sisters fought long and hard so that my relationship to ambition could be so … careless. I get that some foremothers and sisters might read me as ungrateful because I don’t want to fight their battles, because I don’t want to claw my way anywhere. My apologies, foremothers: I don’t want to fight. Oh, is there still sexism in the world? Sigh. Huh. Well. Knock me over with a feather. Now: how do I transplant the peonies to a sunnier spot so they yield more flowers next year or the year after? How do I conquer chapter three of this new novel? I’ve rewritten it and rewritten it for months. I need asana practice, and then I need to sit in meditation for a while. Then some laundry. And the vacuum cleaner needs a new filter. Then respond to some emails from an expectant woman for whom I’m serving as doula. And it’s actually my anniversary, so I’m gonna write my spouse a love letter. Then pick up the young’un from school. And I need to figure out what I’m making for dinner. Something with lentils, probably, and butter. Then text my friends a stupid photo and talk smack with them for a while.Taking care of myself and my loved ones feels like meaningful work to me, see? I care about care. And I don’t care if I’m socialized to feel this way, because in point of fact I do feel this way. So! I am unavailable for striving today. I’m suuuuuper busy.Yes, oppression is systemic, I get it, I feel it, I live it, I struggle, I do. Women are not equal, we’re not fairly represented, the pie charts are clear as day: nothing’s fair, nothing at all, it’s maddening, it’s saddening, it’s not at all gladdening. We all suffer private and public indignities (micro-aggressions, if you prefer) big and small. It’s one thing to pause and grapple with unfairness, but if we set up camp there, we can't get anything done, can't get to the root of the problem. So sure, great, go on and on about how women should help other women! Rah rah, put it on a T-shirt, sell it on Etsy. Great marketing, but what's actually being accomplished? Who, specifically, is being helped? A collection of egos shouting ME ME ME is not artistically or intellectually productive or interesting.“Real” work is often invisible, and maybe sort of sacred as such. The hollering and clamoring and status anxiety and PR two inches from our collective eyeballs all day? Not so much. So tell the gatekeepers to shove it, don't play by their rules, and get back to work on whatever it is you hold dear. Nothing’s ever been fair. Nothing will ever be fair. But there is ever so much work to be done. Pretty please can I go back to my silly sweet secret sacred novel now? Bye. Take care.*My little boy is beside me. He is designing cars on BMW’s website. (Cars are a fleeting obsession.) He’d like a BMW someday. His dad and I hide our smirks. Sure, kid, whatever floats your boat. Yesterday it was a Porsche. Tomorrow a Maserati. Apparently he’s in an Id phase.Why don’t you guys like fancy cars, he wonders.They’re a little show-off-y, I say.I like fancy cars, he says. When I grow up I’m going to get a Tesla and a Bentley and a Cadillac and a Rolls Royce.I smile. Can I have a ride?Of course!Wait, though, there are plenty of material goods I covet. I have a shameful thing for clothes. There’s this pair of Rachel Comey high-waisted pants, oh my god. I own like six pairs of clogs. I fill my walls with art by friends. I live beautifully. Nice textiles, what have you. There’s a Kenzo sweater I might be saving up for. I so enjoy the darkest of chocolate and juice extracted in the most exceptionally newfangled way, I really do.What I would like to say (so that I might be forced to align myself) is that there is nothing material or finite that I will allow myself to rest on wanting. Okay, so dresses and clogs and art and peonies float my boat. But fool myself into thinking that these things constitute an end point, or that their acquisition will make me whole, or that people who are impressed by these things are my friends? Nope. No way. Not for a minute. (Well, FINE, maybe for a minute. But certainly not for two.)Asked for writing advice, Grace Paley once offered this: “Keep a low overhead.”*So becoming a lawyer was more or less an exercise in Don’t Fuck With Me, but what did my mother want? In her seventies now, she’s studying Joyce and Dickens. She’s in Oxford to study Shakespeare. She is delighted and enlivened and occupied, and I wonder why she doesn’t go ahead get herself a graduate degree in Literature. She would make a formidable English professor.“I’m too old,” she says.“Bullshit,” I say.“I’m stupid,” she says. I squint at her.“I’m lazy,” she amends, and my heart breaks for both of us.She used to tell me I was lazy, back when I was refusing to care about my GPA, refusing to run the college admissions race, refusing to duly starve myself like all the good li’l girls, refusing to wax my asshole or get manicures or chemically straighten my hair, refusing to do much of anything other than consume books and music and movies and books, then scrawl my favorite bits all over the damn place. She was talking to herself all along. She was talking to herself! Remember: our most haunting, manipulative ghosts always, always, always are.*I wrote a magazine piece a while back, and it’s been shared online some sixty thousand times. It’s a fine piece, but is it the best thing I’ve ever written? I don’t think so. Is it the most original thing I’ve ever written? Nah. Is it the most challenging, bold thing I’ve ever written? Nope. Sixty thousand shares is not a win, see; it’s a random, synchronistic event. The number of eyeballs on a given piece of writing does not confer nobility or excellence upon said piece of writing. If the number of eyeballs on a piece of writing excites and impresses people around me, that’s great, in that it makes possible more of the work I want to do. But it doesn’t make said work any easier! And I’m going to do said work regardless, so… what?So What? Let’s add it to our list of proposed feminist anthems: So The Fuck What?*You should write for a larger audience, my friend Josh told me a year before he died. He had read my first novel and written to congratulate me. I was on the road, touring, short-tempered. I am not writing for an audience at all, I snapped. I have no control over audience and zero interest in thinking about it. I could look up our exchange but I don’t want to, because I’m sad he’s dead and I’m sorry I snapped at him and I want to transcend physics to tell him I love him, and he may have been right, and I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Josh, and here’s a dumb cameo in this dumb essay about dumb ambition.But I don’t want to write for a large audience, silly! The masses are kind of mindless as a matter of course, are they not? I mean, no offense, masses, but Trump’s memoir sold better than all my past and future work combined. (He didn’t write it, but still.) The Media Star of the Moment could take a dump on a square of Astroturf and there’d be a line around the block to sniff it. What makes a work of art special and meaningful is your private relationship with it, the magic of finding it amidst the noise and distraction, the magic of letting it speak to you directly. You found it, it’s yours. (This, however, requires the awesome skill of being able to think for yourself in the first place; hardly a given.) Art can change you; it can move and validate and shift and bait and wreck and kindle you in the best way. And others who feel similarly about said work can be your kin. It is not a more-is-better equation.I repeat: more is not better.Beware anything standardized, that’s what I would teach my daughter. Health care, ambition, education, diet, culture: name it, and you will suffer endlessly from any attempt to go about it the same way as some projected Everyone Else. Josh, darling, I don’t write because I “want to be a writer.” I don’t want to be famous and I don’t need my ego inflated. I write to make sense of things, to make order from chaos, to make something from nothing, to examine my own thinking. Because what I have found in the writing of others sustains me. Because while I am struggling to live, the writing—a kind of parallel life—helps me along. Because language is my jam. Because I never learned to play the guitar and no one ever asked me to sing in a band.I mean, writing is liberation! Or so I tell my students, over and over and over again. Flex your muscles, I tell them. Feel the sun on your face, the wind in your hair! Struggle with your shortcomings. Leave everything out on the field! Do it again tomorrow! What rigor. What joy. What privilege. Say whatever the hell you want to say, however you most accurately can! Complete and utter freedom. Work.“The notes for the poem are the only poem,” wrote Adrienne Rich. There it is. There’s my ambition: Notes.*Oh, but get off your high horse, lady. Fucking relax. You Google yourself on the regular. Whenever you deign to log on to Twitter it’s to roll your eyes, sure, but also—BE HONEST—to type your name into the search box and see if anyone’s talking about you. You don’t even have to type your name in, BE HONEST: it’s already there, in the app’s fucking memory! Hypocrite. A nice notification or something can float you for about three minutes; a shit mention somewhere can feel like a slap in the face, even if it’s barely literate, even if it’s ignorant and hateful and so muddled it’s obviously not about you. And even as you’re skimming it, telling yourself you don’t look at this shit, telling yourself you don’t root around in this shit, you don’t play these games, you don’t care, you don’t care, you are looking at it, you are rooting around in it, you are you are you are you so are. Be honest.*The Latin root, by the way, is Ambitio, which literally means to go walking. As in canvassing, as with a political candidate. A friend who’s running for city council tells me this, giggling. I am the definition of ambitious, she says, incredulous, because she happens to be one of the most unassuming people I’ve ever met. She’s been going door to door for months on end leading up to the election. I hope she wins. She would do a magnificent job, and her corner of the world would be better for it. But she’s not who I have in mind, here. The root bears little resemblance to the plant that shoots up from it. (Reader, she won!)*Last week a young writer emailed me to ask for advice. How could she get more attention for her book? Where should she send it? The subtext: She wants what (she imagines) I have. It was funny, given that, in truth, I had right at that moment been pouting about my own status (Not Good Enough). I barely know this girl, haven’t read her book, she’s a bore on social media, but hell, what does it cost me to be generous? I wrote back right away.Send it to writers whose work you admire, I told her. Keep your head down. Do your work. Focus on the work at hand, not the work that’s done. Do the work you’re called upon to do. Engage with what moves you. Eventually you’ll get recognition. And if you don’t get recognition? Well then, all the more badass to continue working your butt off. Recognition has nothing to do with the work, get it? The work is the endeavor. The work is the process. Recognition comes, if/when it does, for work that is already done, work that is over. Recognition can really fuck you up. Remember the famous koan? The day before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; the day after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. Substitute recognition for enlightenment, putting aside how ironic that is, and there you have it.It wasn’t the advice she was hoping for, obviously. She never even wrote back to say thanks (tsk tsk, ambitious girl!). I thought of her a few days ago, when Ani DiFranco sang “Egos Like Hairdos,” a formative favorite: Everyone loves an underdog, but no one wants to be him…*Here’s what bothers me about conventional ambition, the assumption that we all aspire to the top, the winner’s circle, the biggest brightest bestest, the blah blah blah, and that we will run around and around and around our little hamster wheels to get there: most of these goals are standardized. Cartoonish. Cliché. Beware anything standardized, that’s what I would teach my daughter. Health care, ambition, education, diet, culture: name it, and you will suffer endlessly from any attempt to go about it the same way as some projected Everyone Else. You cannot be standardized. You are a unique flower, daughter. Maybe the Ivy League will be wonderful for you; maybe it will crush your soul. If the former, I will mortgage the house to pay your way; if the latter, give that shit the finger and help me move these peonies, will you? You are not defined by such things, either way. Anyway, let us discuss what we want to whip up for dinner and take turns playing DJ while doing so.“She can, though every face should scowl / And every windy quarter howl / Or every bellows burst, be happy still.” That was Yeats.I mean, fuck ambition, that’s where this is going. I don't buy the idea that acting like the oppressor is a liberation, personal ambition being, in essence, see above, patriarchal. And yeah, about recognition. What about when genius and/or hard work isn’t recognized? Because often it isn't, and what do we make of that? And what happens when the striving becomes its own end? What's been accomplished in such cases? You can get pretty far on striving alone, god knows. The striving might get recognized, but what relationship does striving have to mastery? And what's the cost of the striving? And what if we confuse striving or incidental recognition with mastery? What then!? Then, Jesus, we are so very lost. And we’ll have to acknowledge, yes of course sure, that we were born at the right time in the right place and we’ve never felt bad about working toward what we want, but want is tricky, so beware that particular sand trap. Right, and okay, be ambitious, whatever that looks like for you, but don't confuse your own worth with anyone else's definition of success. And don’t think that if you happen to impress people you must be very impressive indeed. And don't imagine that if you play by someone else's rules you can win. Anyway, there is no winning. Anyway, the game is suspect. Anyway, write your own rules! Anyway, WHO HAS TIME FOR GAMES!?“The highway is full of big cars / going nowhere fast / and folks is smoking anything that’ll burn / Some people wrap their lives around a cocktail glass / And you sit wondering where you’re going to turn.” Maya Angelou.*There is a way to spin it so that I am a winner, a big success. Six-figure book deals. Media attention galore. Professorships. Invitations to read and lecture and teach and reside. Fan letters, hate mail. Hollywood knock-knock-knockin’ at the door. Some fossilized right-wing nutcase trying to take me down in the paper.There is an equally factual way to spin it so that I am a middling mediocre failure, a nonstarter. I’ve been rejected by plenty of highbrow writer shit. I’m no household name. I barely tweet. I get ignored. You can’t buy my books in the airport. It just depends on the story you want to tell, the parts to which you are privy. Be assured, my website lists the hits alone.“The quality I most abhor in women is humility, which seems like a chickenshit response to the demands of the world, or the marketplace, not that I can tell them apart.” That’s Emily Carter Roiphe, who I really wish would publish her second book already.It hasn’t helped that I rarely deign to apply for the highbrow writer stuff. Or that when I do, it’s in vaguely mocking tones, as sort of an elaborate joke. I’m pretty terrible at applying for things. I should work on that. The snarling girl resents the expectation that she bow down before some purported authority so they might consider throwing her a bone. If they don’t want her outright, she doesn’t want their farty old bone, anyway. Maybe she’s not so dormant as I like to think. Or maybe my mother was right: Maybe she is just goddamned lazy.*I met a celebrated young writer at a party. The finest MFA, flashy blurbage, all the right everything. I’d heard good things about her first book, and I told her I was looking forward to reading it. “Thanks,” she said, looking right through me. Our mutual friend said, “Oh my god, have you read Elisa’s book? It’s so good.” The writer could not have been less interested. “What’s it called,” she wondered in monotone. “You’ll have to forgive me, but I really don’t keep up with much contemporary writing.” The condescension was burlesque. Our friend told her the name of my recent book. The light went on in the writer’s eyes. Ding. “Oh!”she said. “Oh YES!” Then she looked at me eagerly, hungrily, and I excused myself immediately.It’s creepy, it’s actually borderline sinister, that I supposedly “matter” to those kinds of people now, that’s all I want to say. That I “matter” not because of the books themselves, not because of the work therein, not because of what prompted the work, not because of my actual humanity, but because various and sundry radio programs and magazines and newspapers and podcasts and shares and mentions and likes and dings and dongs and film agents and foreign translations and lists say I matter. Some supposed authorities have deemed me worthwhile, and so now I “matter.” That is, until these authorities fade away, only to be replaced by new authorities. Gawd, I hope they like me. Just kidding. Fuck authority.*Last thought: I wish I had gotten some other lessons from my mother. More about what to make for dinner and how to move the peonies and just how tender and trustworthy love can be, for starters. But we get what we get, so I suppose I appreciate her gift (such as it is) of Don’t Fuck With Me. Especially because, have I mentioned? I’m busy channeling it, hard at work. (Hashtag blessed. Hashtag grateful. Like? Like???)*Last-last thought: I showed a draft of this essay to a trusted advisor. He didn’t like it at all. “You sound arrogant,” he said. “You’re not arrogant, so why are you putting on this front?”“Uhhhhm,” I said. “Fake it ’til you make it?”“You sound like you think you’re above all the bullshit, and that’s a real turn-off.”“I’m trying to articulate something difficult about art and commerce,” I sulked.“Try to be more vulnerable,” he said. “You’ll come across better.”Come across? I don’t have time to orchestrate how I come across, dude. My job is to write shit down. More vulnerable? I feel like I’m walking around without skin most of the time, hello. Anyway, my vulnerability is not for goddamn sale. I’d rather suck a thousand dicks. I was overcome with weariness, and I thought: Fuck it, I give up. But no, that’s not true, either. Nope. Not at all. The snarling girl is still out there, in here, flailing, desperate, and who’s going to throw her a rope? I will. Onward.This essay is excerpted from the anthology Double Bind: Women on Ambition, forthcoming from W.W. Norton in April 2017.