Hazlitt Magazine

My Family's Favourite Forgery

On the art of imitation. 

One More Time Around: Remembering Chris Cornell

The singer walked a line between overt masculinity and brooding sensitivity—fearlessly exploring the dark, wailing with the voice of a man who could sound like he was trying to escape his own body.

'We Must Have a Desire to Make Scale Models of the Universe': An Interview with George Saunders

The author of Lincoln in the Bardo on stretching out in liminal spaces, the feeling in your chest when you’re working, and why writing fiction is like building a model railroad. 

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‘Everything I Do Is In The Same House, Just On Different Floors’: An Interview with Kyo Maclear

The author of Birds Art Life on spark books, the art of stillness in children’s literature, and collaborating with illustrators. 

Kyo Maclear skirts and samples fact in her fiction. In her picture books, word play often becomes literal. Virginia Wolf posits the animalization of Virginia Woolf’s bad mood, Julia, Child imagines the cookbook author reverted to childhood. Her most recent picture book, The Fog, licks at the realities of global warming, but through the eyes of a people-watching bird.Birds Art Life, Maclear’s first title to officially live in the bookstore’s nonfiction section, flips that perspective. Whether working in fiction or non, Maclear is reaching for a whole story, a more full understanding that neither could truly tell on their own.In Birds Art Life, she chronicles a year, she contemplates art, she looks at birds. She follows around a man she identifies as “the musician,” though his primary role is as a non-commital guide to the solace of urban birdwatching. She wants to find the missing piece, a way back to her life before it was shaken by her father’s unreckonable illness. But there is no widget to be found, only a new understanding, a clearer emotional truth.When Maclear and I sit down at a picnic table in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park on a blustery weekday afternoon, she is quiet, clutching her coffee and shivering just a little. Maclear’s particular way of being quiet is patient. Thoughtful, easy. She is generous with her attention. For the last third of our conversation we are interrupted every few minutes by an uncomfortably close and alarmingly fearless squirrel. The interview slowly melts into elaborate personal stories of past squirrel encounters, none of which are transcribed here.“A spark bird could be as bold as an eagle, as colourful as warbler, or as ordinary as a sparrow, as long as it triggered the awakening that turned someone into a serious birder. Most birding memoires begin with a spark bird [...] I began thinking about “spark books”. It occurred to me that most ardent readers would be able to pinpoint the book that ignited their love of reading.” - Birds Art Life, page 113Serah-Marie McMahon: In the book, you describe the summer as a pre-teen in Japan when you felt yourself become a reader, and you list your friends’ spark books, but nothing of your own. Does one exist?Kyo Maclear: I’m not sure if I have one specifically. I had a fetish for Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, which is bizarre looking back. I can't read it without cringing now—it’s so heavily Christian, its symbolism so overwrought. But something about it resonated. My copy was lovely, illustrated by Herbert Danska. I still have it.When you’re a child, adults are kind of giants. They dwarf you in different ways, with their power. This giant was captivating, how he reforms through the child figure. He was beautiful to me. And there was this garden. It’s a bit of colonial story, but The Secret Garden was also very important. Gardens enchanted me, especially the hidden garden, the walled off garden. These little Edens, little Utopias. I found them magical.Did you have a garden growing up?In England we had a garden. In Toronto my mother uprooted everything growing in our backyard and built a Japanese rock garden. It was her attempt to re-envision the landscape in a way that felt familiar to her. I grew up with a lot of plants that aren't native to Ontario or Canada, but yeah, I always had a garden. Do you have a spark book?I think mine is From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. That book was really important to me, it opened my eyes as a kid to the nature of independence. That you don't need to rely on your parents to provide your sense of wholeness. You can go find it yourself. And maybe it will be messy, and maybe it won't turn out exactly how you think, but you can be responsible for your own happiness. Oh, I loved that book too, for the same reason I think. I was always attracted to what I call “orphan stories,” even if the parents were there. Kids who took off, and through their own wiliness had these great adventures. The idea of staying overnight in a museum was enchanting to me. I grew up in museums, it was a rare common bond between my mother and I. It was a space we could connect through, with pictures in a way we couldn't through words.Both your books this year revolve around bird-watching. How do you tell a story differently with a book for children than you do with a book for adults?Everything I do is in the same house, but it's all taking place on different floors. My kid writing floor, my adult writing floor, my scholarship writing floor—I'm writing a dissertation now. They are all different ways of telling stories, but they are all concerned with the same themes.I find myself thinking a lot about kinship, how we might form it in more inventive ways. In The Fog, a human and a bird find a sense of kinship, these little lone wolves finding each other, understanding and really getting each other in a way that their own species don't. In Birds Art Life I found this weird kinship in a totally motley crew of urban birders, somewhere I never expected to find a sense of community. I'm generally not a person who seeks community. I'm such a solo person, almost agoraphobic. I like the idea of finding tribes in ways that are non-tribal, and that are unexpected.What is the role of an illustrator in authoring a picture book?I love what images can do, above and beyond just parroting the words. A really special picture book will take a story into another dimension, provide something atmospheric. When we were working on The Fog, I sent the illustrator, Kenard Pak, a link to an old book. It was from the ’60s maybe, called Hide and Seek Fog. It had a real sense of atmosphere to it, the pages almost felt damp with fog. I could have described that feeling in words, but Ken captures it so beautifully with his clouds and mist, above and beyond anything I could ever design. I love the collaborating. It's something I gravitate towards again and again. Doing something that is not solitary.You both avoid community and are attracted to work specifically that is not solitary. It is contradictory, I know! I think maybe I am comfortable when there is a structure and context. I'm socially awkward in so many ways. Being part of a project makes it easier. Truthfully I just love creating things with other people. It's pure joy.What does that collaboration look like?I always have art notes in my manuscript, take-it-or-leave-it notes. I don't intend to be a guiding hand, but I give over a lot of the motoring along of the story to images, and I need to actually be specific about what I'm intentionally leaving out. Whenever you see words in the art, I've written those. Other times I leave gaps and ask the illustrator to please fill it. To create a wordless spread that captures a certain sensibility, or whatever.Sometimes in my text I play the straight man. I want the beat to fall on the illustration, so there is kind of a de-dant de-nah. I leave it to the illustrator to finish the thought, to imbed humour in a way that plays up the earnestness, makes it a little funny.That needs to be a conversation between two people, you can't do it if you're the only person creating something. It's not monologic. It's not a monologue, it's a dialogue. You can create a lot of humor that way. I really need to have a sense of play to derive any pleasure from what I'm doing.Most of the interpretations of The Fog include a strong environmental message, but I read it differently, as a metaphor for depression.Well, that fits in with my whole oeuvre, which is mood disorder. [laughs] I’m always somehow dealing with themes of depression, or anxiety, or OCD.I don't even know if depression is exactly the right word. Being too much in your own head. But once you connect other people and realize they feel the same as you, it gets easier. The fog begins to clear. I love that. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I mean it fits. It's about the idea of naming things, having things named for you. How important that is. How you are in a squishy and uncertain place before things are defined or a consensus is made about what's happening. So there is also that theme of normalization, how you can get accustomed to the most inhospitable conditions.You talk about the idea of a “the new normal” in Birds Art Life as well, what we accept as our new baseline.Right, the shifting baseline. One conversation I had with Ken, which I think is still unresolved, was the kind of open-endedness of the conclusion. Some people are going to have a hard time with it. People who want it to be more pragmatic, have an environmental message about how everyone took action, how everyone put solar panels on their houses and the fog disappeared through collective action. It's really not that. We veered away from that story, despite some counsel from a good friend of mine who's a climate change activist. He suggested we might want to be more activist, but we felt like it was all implied.We left it to the reader to come up with their own ideas about where this story should go. The ending isn't conclusive. The bird and the girl are left thinking about what to do tomorrow. The reader still sees all these messages in the water, and there’s a sense that something else is going to happen, but we didn't want to tie it up in a tidy bow. Ken was really very adamant about that.I wanted to ask about the girl, the human part of the relationship in The Fog. Did she come out how you envisioned her?Ken and I had talks. Because he's also Asian I could be forthright with him and say: I want the Asian character to be Asian. I don't them to be racially indistinct or some ambiguous any-ethnicity. I want them to be look really East Asian. And he's like: got it. He had planned on doing that anyway. It was nice to have a conversation where he didn't get defensive, where he understood right away.It's not just that I want there to be more children of colour in picture books, I'm also increasingly interested in how certain ethnicities are not seen in nature. We see a lot of stories of Asians in cities. I'm trying to figure out ways of telling stories that are unexpected in setting, placing characters where you wouldn't necessarily assume them to be.I read the post you did last year about identity and representation in children's books. Do you still feel the same way?Yes. I feel like I could add to it now though. It was a very modular piece about the need to parse this idea of diversity. There are many different kinds of diversity, and what we've seen is a resurgence of casual diversity. Everybody and their uncle, and their sister and their, I don’t know, dog, are writing books where there's some sort of rainbow tribe. I think that's really well intentioned, but it stops us from asking questions about what inclusion really means, who's writing picture books, and what publishing looks like. We needed to be more specific in this conversation.Since I wrote that piece, people have drawn my attention to things that I hadn't noticed before. Like about how animal stories are not neutral sites. My friend was talking about Finding Dory, and how she felt the characters were particularly white in certain ways. How it's culturally coded. I don’t know if I would have thought that way, or questioned animal stories, or like, stories about shapes. Those too can have assumptions embedded in them—about who they are spoken about, and who they are spoken for. It's an ongoing conversation basically.Your picture books, while being very much for children, definitely appeal to adults. Not in the Disney movie way of winking pop culture references over the kid’s head so parents don’t fall asleep, but that seem to understand how to tell a powerful story. How considered is your audience?This actually preoccupies me. When you publish a kids book it will say ages 4 to 8, or whatever. I know why they do it, but in some ways I wish they wouldn't. I write picture books for all ages, which is not to discourage children as readers. My books can be entered at different levels. That's the way I'm writing them.It's such a silo, you know? Kids Books. It's such a silo. All books should be read by all people. I like the non-categorical books, books that jump fences. I'm drawn to those. So why not let picture books jump fences too? Why not put them in art sections, or Julia, Child in the cookbook section? I mean, why not?A great picture book has more in common with the poetry section than with some things in the kids’ section, like a middle grade novel. Not because picture books are necessarily "poetry" in structure, but because they are siphoning down such big ideas to so few words. The rhythm is so important, in a different way than it is for a novel.Yes! Yes. And I don't know if a poet would cross over as successfully into middle grade as they would into picture book writing. Anne Michaels did it well, but I think it can be difficult. I’m sure there are some unusual middle grade readers who don't care about plot, but at a certain age there’s an impatience with just beautiful language.I've been thinking a lot about Hayao Miyazaki’s films, partly because I'm writing about it right now for my academic work. In an interview with Roger Ebert he talks about this idea of the gap—what he calls the japanese word ma—the kind of stillness that doesn't move things along.In picture books there are so many moments like that. In Miyazaki films there are so many moments like that. They are usually concerned with nature, and take place in a field of grass that has nothing to do with the plot. The background rushes to the foreground, and suddenly you're by a stream. It’s given you insight into the character's temperament, or mood, but it's not actually about plot.Picture books can allow for those moments, capture its beauty. I think that's why I return to them again and again. That stillness is so important. I almost have narrative sickness. I'm tired of narrative. It's weird.I want to end with a line I loved in Birds Art Life, "The more I encountered the reality of birds, the more my secondhand impression of birds began to fall away.” Do you think this is also a role kids’ books can perform? I think that’s true of really good kids’ books, to defamiliarize the familiar so that we can see it again, but in a specificity. We tend to fall into habit-mind, like with a drawing exercise. You draw the vase, or the flower pot, or whatever, and you're doing it from habit-mind. It looks a certain way. Then someone asks you to do a blind contour, and now you're really seeing it. You’re seeing every change and texture, every little detail, every chip. Kids’ books should do that particularly well.
My Family’s Favourite Forgery

On the art of imitation. 

There was a painting hanging in the house where I grew up—Troll Forest, my mother called it. As a child I found the scene scary: it’s a moody forest, the kind where the sunlight doesn’t reach all the way to the ground. Among the rocks and trees there’s a stone structure that resembles a troll, one of those large, ugly creatures described in Nordic folklore.To a connoisseur, it’s probably not a very good piece of art. I like the colours, though: shades of rust red, steel blue, muddy yellow. Having looked at that picture for over 30 years, my feelings have moved from fear, to indifference, to affection. It looks a bit amaterur-ish but I like it a lot—it’s always been part of my life. I like looking at Troll Forest for the same reasons I like looking at the face of a person I’ve known forever.There’s a signature in the corner of the painting, in neat block letters: Samuel Slyngstad, 1978. Over at my grandma’s house, Samuel’s signature can be found on three more canvases. A couple of my uncles have Samuels too, and my father’s cousin even has her own version of Troll Forest. Samuels everywhere! Clearly this Samuel Slyngstad was an artist of some repute.It was a long time before I realised that Samuel wasn’t actually a famous painter. I first started looking into Samuel some ten years ago out of idle curiosity, only to find that no one had heard of him. There’s nothing on the Internet. But in my family, everyone knows his name. How did Samuel Slyngstad, obscure painter, became so famous to us?I asked my mother about Samuel the last time I visited. But she knew nothing about him, except that his painting came to us through family. “Your dad’s mother, it was her brother, let me think. The woman he was married to, I think Samuel was her father.” Not much, but it was a start.Samuel Slyngstad was remarkably ordinary, I came to learn: he lived his whole life in Ålesund where he was born, a manual labourer whose hobby was painting. Every single one of Samuel’s paintings are copies, imitations of works by fine artists. Does that mean there’s an original Troll Forest out there?*My father met Samuel several times as a child, he tells me when I call to ask about our old painting. “Every summer we’d travel down to mum’s parents at Sunnmøre, and most years we’d stop to visit Uncle Arthur and Aunt Bjørg. Her father Samuel lived upstairs,” he says. This was at Ragnvald Jarls Street in downtown Ålesund, a mid-size coastal town in Western Norway. “Their house was full of his paintings,” says my father, suggesting I contact his cousin Yngve, Samuel’s grandson.I find Yngve Eiken on Facebook where he responds almost immediately, more than happy to talk about his grandfather’s paintings. “I never thought of Grandpa as an artist anyone would know about,” Yngve tells me in his singsong Ålesund accent. “He never wanted to hear anything of it!” He laughs. “They wanted him to join them at the city art collective, but Grandpa refused, telling them he had no business being there. I suppose he didn’t really think he was good enough. He didn’t want to be called an artist.”While Samuel may have refused to call himself an artist, people enjoyed his work, and they wanted to buy it. So when friends, family and the occasional tourist came knocking, Samuel had to find a way to reconcile this demand with his non-artist self image: “He asked for payment to cover the canvas and the paint, nothing more.”Yngve spent a lot of time with his grandfather as a boy, making things and going on trips to the woods. When Yngve and his parents eventually moved away from the house they shared with grandpa, Samuel would visit every day. “He was a man of routine. No matter the weather, every day he’d come at 4 p.m., or if it was a Sunday, at 11 a.m. He’d sit for an hour before going home, always on foot.”Samuel’s most productive years came towards the end of his life—he was a widower for two decades. “Four of the eleven Slyngstad siblings were painters, but none of them could afford to go to art school,” says Yngve. Samuel would find pictures of famous paintings in books, or in newspapers left down on the docks, and tear out pages to take home. There he’d sketch the image onto a larger canvas and add colour—often from imagination if the inspiration was black and white.When I describe my parents’ picture, Troll Forest, Yngve knows the one I’m talking about even before I’ve sent him a photo. “That’s Troll Rockslide,” he declares confidently. He has one just like it, and his sister has one too. He laughs. “So there are four or five of these ones, huh? I had no idea.”*The art of copying fine art has a long history; the likes of Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh learned the craft by copying the old masters. And since most people can’t afford the originals, there’s always been a market for buying copies. Today, industrial-scale art copyist operations are plentiful in China, so if you want a knock-off Matisse you can get one in just a few clicks. But if you want a copy that can fool an art connoisseur, you need to hire a specialist.Susie Ray, an art copyist living in Cornwall, England, says it takes much longer to copy a painting than to create an original. Her bread and butter is painting for people who’re looking for exact replicas of famous works. People seek her out because they have the original in a vault but want one for the wall, or because they don’t have the real deal but want people to think they do—Ray is very discreet.Ray will only replicate a painting once: “I put in a huge amount of energy. It’s recreating someone else’s work, and [it takes a vast] amount of time and concentration.” The process is a lot like solving a puzzle, says Ray, explaining how she needs to use the same type of canvas, paint and brushes as the original, and replicate the way it dried so the textures build up in the same way. “You have to approach the painting the same way the artist did. Because you are copying, you’re painting a lot slower, so you have to [try to] keep the same spontaneity of the original painting.”Ray always signs the backs of her copies, as she has no desire to pass off her works as originals. “People often talk about how the original painting has an aura to it,” she says when I ask how she views her copies in relation to the originals. “But if you take a good copy and put it on the wall and no one knows, it still has that aura.” Ray laughs. “I don’t make it too complicated, though. I just make the copy.”*Just how important is authenticity? I know the Samuel painting I grew up with isn’t one-of-a-kind, so whatever value it has will always be about something else. But authenticity remains something we covet. I thought about this recently when I visited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, wandering around in silent awe among the thousands of originals, many of which I’d previously only seen in reproduction. To stand in front of a Picasso is to be in the presence of true genius, watching as mastery meets mad creativity. Maybe if they’d all been copies it wouldn't have made a difference to my experience—except that if I’d known, I’d never have bothered going.We look for authenticity everywhere. Travellers look for so-called genuine local experiences away from the crowds; we seek out true versions of dishes; we buy director’s cuts of films and unabridged books. Even those who prefer a no-stress pool vacation and the mildest curry on the menu may well cop to a desire for a degree of authenticity in their interactions, as I learned when a then-boyfriend discovered I’d been texting the same holiday photos to a friend as I did to him. We want our experiences to be meaningful, and this often translates to a desire for originality. But does this mean they need to be unique to have value?“I love the process of seeing a painting emerge. It's an original experience,” says Antonia Williams, an art copyist who also makes her own art. Speaking via Skype from her home in Portugal, Williams laments the quality of copies from industrial-scale operations in China, where the painters have never seen the original, let alone researched the methods. “There’s an awful lot of bad copying around, by people who don’t understand the method of slowly building up a painting.” A bad copyist may simply start in one corner and move across the canvas, says Williams, instead of building up the layers to replicate the process of the original artist.Williams’s favourite artist to copy is Chardin, the 18th-century French painter. And it’s when she describes the process of copying Chardin that I finally understand why someone might choose to dedicate themselves to the art of copying: “It's very subtle. The colour is very subtle. When you start painting, you understand how complex his paintings are. When you look at it you think, ‘Oh that's lovely.’ But when you start copying, you realise his vision was very specific, what he was searching for. When I'm copying the painting, I'm also experiencing his search.”Samuel was a family man who built roads and bridges for a living, stone by stone in the streets of Ålesund. For him, being an artist seemed impossible. At first I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t create original works, but after speaking to the art copyists I think I see what he was doing: copying works of famous artists let him experience a world otherwise out of reach.*Troll Forest currently sits in a closet in my mother’s house, relegated there from the living room, by way of a few years in the hallway. My plan is to save our Samuel from obscurity and hang him on the wall of my home in London. I know it’s a copy—it’s not even a one-of-a-kind copy—but still, it’s valuable to me.I can just about picture Samuel, flicking through newspapers left around the docks of Ålesund, finding Troll Forest in one of them and deciding to give it a go. I’d come to accept that the inspiration for Troll Forest was some random, obscure picture I’d never find, but after speaking to Yngve I decided to take one last crack at it. Armed with the proper title—Troll Rockslide—it’s almost rudely easy. My jaw literally dropped as my laptop screen filled with the original that Samuel must have copied, like a magician flicking back the curtain to reveal the trick behind the illusion. The style is different but this is definitely it: “Trollura i Jahrskogen”—Troll Rockslide in Jahr Forest. Painted in 1933 by Henrik Sørensen, a Norwegian artist who’d studied under Matisse, the canvas resides at Holmsbu Gallery in Hurum, an hour’s drive south of Oslo. In fact, the entire gallery is situated within the very same moody old forest that the painting depicts.Henrik Sørensen was a passionate advocate for preserving the virgin forest, presumably the reason why he chose it as the theme of Troll Rockslide. Samuel Slyngstad would have created his copy in his studio in Ålesund, steadfastly refusing the label of artist as he channeled the experience of being one. My copy of Troll Rockslide was a gift to my parents from family, shortly after they’d moved into their first home and had all those bare walls to fill. “He was a bit folksy, Samuel. It was art for the everyman.” That’s my father’s take on the appeal of Samuel’s work. Just like the art of copying is a window into someone else’s experience, owning a copy lets you peek into a world that you otherwise may have no access to.My unoriginal and inaccurate copy of Troll Rockslide is miles from being authentic, but now more than ever I feel like it’s part of a bigger story—it’s had a secret life for all these years. My painting is the story of an artist striving to save a precious forest, a dock worker dreaming of a creative life, a young family starting out in a country village—and now, a daughter who’s crossed borders to live in a global metropolis. I don’t need a copy to be in the presence of art—London has dozens of museums full of famous originals and I can go and experience them whenever I want. But that’s not what my Samuel Slyngstad canvas is about. My beloved fake is a reminder to me that everyone wants something, and it’s good to dream a little.
One More Time Around: Remembering Chris Cornell

The singer walked a line between overt masculinity and brooding sensitivity—fearlessly exploring the dark, wailing with the voice of a man who could sound like he was trying to escape his own body.

Chris Cornell and Soundgarden had always been there. The memories come quick: Being transfixed by the melting Barbie doll in the “Black Hole Sun” video on MuchMusic. Terrorizing the neighbourhood while blasting Badmotorfinger in my friend’s mom’s minivan. Playing “Outshined” on guitar a thousand times in my dad’s basement. Hating Audioslave. Eternally defending these legends against accusations of being corny or dated to people who just didn’t get it, man. To a lot of people, they were just that band—the last classic rock band you could talk about for hours and headbang to for even longer. To me, they were everything a true classic rock band should be.So when the news reached me via fragmented texts yesterday morning—from close friends, estranged partners, old tourmates—all with some combination of “Chris Cornell” and “this is awful,” I feared, rightly, that a lifelong hero had passed. Worse: It was suspected, and later seems to have been confirmed, to have been a suicide.Though never too far from the public eye, Cornell seemed to be a private man, with his own demons rarely surfacing despite having a longstanding relationship with drugs—as did his peers Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley and Scott Weiland. Unlike those frontmen, though, his personal life never quite seemed to get the better of him; his songs dealt less with wallowing in his own pain than assessing and confronting it. When it comes to depression, this tends to be a productive approach.How are you supposed to feel when the people you grew up idolizing decide they no longer want to live their hallowed lives? How does one reconcile that kind of loss with their own struggles? And yet, somehow I understood. The devastating climax of “Slaves and Bulldozers” rang immediately through my mind: “Now I know why you’ve been shaking.”*An Adonis with a voice any singer would make a Faustian deal for, Cornell was one of the last larger-than-life rock stars left. He and Soundgarden were a crucial part of the Seattle scene in the mid-to-late ’80s, which gave way to the grunge explosion in the early ’90s. They had landmark releases on both Sub Pop and SST—labels synonymous with “indie rock” and true meccas of gritty guitar music in their time—and they did it well before many of those labels’ most iconic acts even got signed. Their early material could sometimes be mistaken for macho riff rock, but moments like the tense but tranquil bridge on “Loud Love” and the slow, grinding build of “Beyond the Wheel” showcased their ability to pull the listener into a world much more menacing than Cornell’s bravado and guitarist Kim Thayil’s shrieking leads let on.They were veterans of their local scene, making the jump to a major label during the early stages of majors snatching up indie bands before many of their peers. Instead of watering down their sound as so many would upon making a similar transition, they became even more complex, growing into a sort of post-modern Zeppelin on later records such as their major label debut, Badmotorfinger, and their opus, 1994’s Superunknown. They took the stark, metallic sound they’d honed alongside contemporaries like The Melvins and Mudhoney and started incorporating more psychedelic elements, never fully settling into any one style but rather constantly building upon their own. The first four songs on Badmotorfinger—“Rusty Cage,” “Outshined,” “Slaves And Bulldozers” and “Jesus Christ Pose”—comprise one of the most ferocious openings to any rock record not named Appetite For Destruction, and I owe all of my future spine and throat problems to the amount of time I have spent screaming along and headbanging to these tunes since I was a pre-teen. I have often said that if you can’t get down to at least one of those four songs then you must hate rock music, and I stand by this statement.As the group’s often shirtless leader, Chris Cornell walked a line between overt masculinity and brooding sensitivity. In an era where seeming like you knew how to sing or play was a strong case against your credibility, the guy wailed like Robert Plant while his bandmates flexed their deceptively dexterous muscles and made no apologies for it. What separated Soundgarden from their jock-rock ancestors was Cornell’s willingness to go beyond mere histrionics and push his superhuman voice to its absolute limit. His band fearlessly explored dark, murky waters via intricate time signatures, odd tunings, and serrated guitar assaults to match their singer’s opaque, cerebral lyrics and incomparable vocal range. If you enjoyed unstoppable guitar riffs with a healthy dose of melody, then you were never going to find a more satisfying band than Soundgarden. A song like “Slaves and Bulldozers” strikes you less as a group of masturbatory virtuosos than four desperate men trying to capture the precise feeling of a nervous breakdown, and when Cornell breaks through to his highest vocal register, it sounds like a man trying to escape his own body.[[{"fid":"6700516","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"SLAVES AND BULLDOZERS LIVE - SOUNDGARDEN","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]With Temple of the Dog, Cornell reckoned with Wood’s heroin-related death on songs like “Reach Down,” which lyrically works as both a touching tribute and cautionary tale after witnessing his dear friend spiral into addiction. His lyrics were never as blatantly autobiographical as Cobain’s (who he would be nearly twice as old as at the time of their respective deaths), and his public persona never seemed to revolve around drug problems or legal troubles the way that Staley’s and Weiland’s did, either. These comparisons are not meant to minimize each singer’s own personal turmoil, but rather to illuminate the fact that in spite of his own issues, Cornell had seemed to overcome each of them on his own terms and come out stronger as a result. That mindset seemed to extend to his other facets of his life and career, too: the Timbaland collaboration, the "Billie Jean" cover, the Von Dutch tank tops, Audioslave—there was a sincerity in everything he did. He always meant it. Then why, even through the shock, did his sudden death make a sort of sense to me? I am not and would never presume to know what any person is dealing with internally when they choose to commit suicide, and it is a somewhat morbid preoccupation for people to give posthumous meaning to an artist’s work when they take their own lives. But, as someone who has struggled with depression for the better part of their own life, I understand that it is not a thing one can defeat in a single sitting. It is an ever-morphing monster that one must constantly learn and re-learn how to conquer, again and again. And unfortunately, it is a long-term battle that people like Chris Cornell—as charmed as his life might have seemed to a kid who grew up singing his songs—sometimes lose.It’s a common reaction for people to condemn those who kill themselves as “selfish,” but I have trouble reaching this conclusion myself. There is nothing readily apparent in Chris Cornell’s lyrics or public actions that would indicate he did not fully appreciate life—his own and those of his family and loved ones. And yet, as a friend informed me as we both discussed his death at 3:30 this morning, he was found dead roughly an hour after he’d walked off that stage in Detroit. Whatever form his depression had last taken seemed insurmountable for him, and for all the battling he had done throughout his life, he had reached this conclusion for himself, and then, tragically, acted upon it. I wonder, perhaps selfishly, what this means for people like myself who deal with depression, and what it would take in my own life to conquer it once and for all. His decision suggests that, whatever it is, it must certainly have to come from within, which is both liberating and terrifying. Now I know why you’ve been shaking.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
‘I’ve Had These Feelings and This Fight for My Entire Life’: An Interview with Jen Agg

The restaurateur and author of I Hear She’s a Real Bitch on reclaiming the narrative, writing as catharsis and redacted nudes. 

About a week before I interviewed Jen Agg, author of the newly released memoir I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, I spoke about my own work at a Ryerson University journalism class. All of the students were women, and they all wanted to know how I navigated writing about my own life. Wasn’t I afraid of saying too much? Wasn’t I afraid of angering the people I wrote about? Wasn’t I afraid to talk about feminism? Wasn’t I just afraid?The word rattled in a way that’s truthful. I tried to be inspiring. I told them that nobody has a right to tell their stories but them. I said that the world would be better if more women shared their stories. I said, be vulnerable, but I also said be courageous—dissolve your fear like salt in water, throw your tears down the sink. The unsettling truth, though, is that it can be scary to turn your soft underbelly to the world, to show strangers your rage and fear and all the things you did wrong and right. The words freeing and cathartic and terrifying can shift unexpectedly, like one of those where-did-the-ball-go? carnival games with the cup. The truth is that it’s by turns delightful and awful to be a real bitch—even if you’ve reclaimed it, even if it’s tongue-and-cheek.I wish I could have shown those women Agg’s book. I would have said, This is how you do it. Or maybe, I would have been more Agg-like: This is how you FUCKING do it!!! This is how you be yourself on the page. Be bold. Grow. Share your mistakes. Tell us how you got back up. Tell us how you soared. Be the hundred different things that make you the person you are and do not write just to be liked—your story is so much more important than that.As a feminist and head of her own super-popular restaurant empire, Agg tells us what it’s like to dominate an uber male, often misogynistic industry. But as much as this is a story about stumbling and triumphing as a woman in the biz, it’s also a story about simply being a woman with opinions. (So, like, basically, just a woman.) In I Hear She’s A Real Bitch, Agg cuts through the crap and lets us see who she really is—and how she got there. I chatted with Agg in her new Toronto restaurant Grey Gardens about periods, the word “outspoken,” and what it means to defy others’ definitions of you and tell your own story.Lauren McKeon: Over the years, you’ve had a lot of press coverage. It feels like a lot of people have tried to write your story for you and define who you are. How did it feel to be able to tell your own story and have control over it?Jen Agg: I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms, but I do think it was a big reason that I wanted to write the book. I was tired of being shoved into someone else’s narrative of who and what I am—usually based on them not knowing me at all, or based on a public perception that is hugely rooted in misogyny. So, yes, it felt good.To me it seems that often when someone writes or talks about a woman, there’s this tendency to try and fit us into these neat little boxes. Sometimes it feels like we’re allowed to be this set number of things, and if you venture outside that—well, watch out. That’s been my whole life. When people start to know who you are, they start to have ideas about you. Maybe one time you didn’t hire someone and then they tell seven of their friends what a bitch you are because you didn’t hire them—I’ve told stories like that in the book. Or maybe you just have the temerity to say what you think, which is not okay if you’re a woman. It’s really, really not. It’s hard to ignore that. I think the counter-argument people will make is, “Jen, it’s not that you’re a woman, but that you’re legitimately outspoken.” There’s a case to be made for that, but I don’t think I’m judged by the same standards that outspoken men are judged. Recently, I’ve had journalists call out misogyny in other articles written about me. It was heartening. Can you say heartening? It warmed my heart, but I think it’s also a sign of the times. I’ve had these feelings and this fight for my entire life, but it feels like our culture is finally starting to fucking catch up to it.You used the word outspoken, and you also tackle it in your book. I wanted to touch on that word: outspoken. A lot of the time, when it’s applied to women, it’s a slight, but when it’s applied to men it’s more like oh, he’s so courageous in his opinions. How gendered has that word become? What are people really saying when they call you outspoken?When people call women “outspoken,” they’re calling us rabble-rousers. Shit-disturbers. I’m literally quoting myself from the book, which is so fucking embarrassing. But that’s what they mean. They don’t mean that with men. I understand the point to balance. I do say more than what a lot of men say. And I do say what I think. But I do also firmly believe it’s a gendered term. It’s just rooted in the idea of a woman’s place, and a woman’s place is to sit down, shut up, cheerlead for the men—to make sandwiches, but not run kitchens.It’s so strange to me. The word outspoken should be a good word.Shouldn’t it? Yes!Like you’re standing up, you’re speaking out. Maybe we can Take Back the Night on it.Right? The word should be so good. Instead, it’s just become so gendered. The idea of women being loud isn’t something we’ve yet hurdled over.I’m going to pause you right there. It’s not even loud. This is actually a thing I’m starting to take issue with. I’m not loud. I’m calm and nuanced and able to think through my thoughts well. Just because I’m using all caps for emphasis—with tongue usually firmly planted in cheek—it doesn’t mean I’m literally screaming.I see the point. It’s okay to be loud. I like that idea too. At the same time, I’m actually not a screaming harpy. I’m not being extremely nuanced right now, because it’s so early in the day. I mean, it’s not really—but for conversations like these. But here’s what it is though: It’s not being loud; it’s just saying words. It’s just saying words. And that’s what’s so offensive to me. It’s not loud. It’s just speaking. It’s just speaking words. And when you start to identify “loudness” in terms of women who are just speaking words, it does us a disservice.There’s a moment in the book where you’re talking about some of the threats you get on Twitter and you say something like, “I have to laugh it off because what’s the other option?” Can you expand more on that?I make a little joke somewhere where I’m like: “I’m not getting rape threats. What’s wrong? You don’t want to rape this?” It’s an extremely inappropriate joke and I realize that, but I do try to twist it into something funny. That’s because it’s unimaginable to me that someone is so driven into a frenzy of rage by the words that I’m saying that they want to murder me, or they want me to get raped, or they want my tits to be cut off and fed to me, or whatever egregious thing it is they’re saying. You really do have to laugh.I read them to my husband sometimes and he can’t handle it. He gets more upset than I do. It isn’t even that I’m not upset by it, but for now it’s easier and better to not take it seriously. Not that I don’t think it’s serious. I think it’s serious and gross and really beyond the pale. I do think all of those things. But if I were to entertain the idea that any of these men actually wanted to rape me, I don’t think I would be able to sleep at night.Right. Either you let it infiltrate your own life—and it can—or you laugh. In a way it is ridiculous. It’s gross and wrong and all those things, sure. But at the same time, it’s also ridiculous that these people on the Internet are in such a frenzy.Because I said words. I do think it’s ridiculous and I try to ignore it. I also have this really remarkable ability—and I do think it’s remarkable and I don’t know if it’s just how much wine I drink—but I’m able to move past and forget things really easily. That’s not to say I don’t hold a grudge. I hold a grudge excellently. Although I also accept reasonable and legitimate apologies like a champ. But I can just forget shit. Someone can say something extremely cruel and cutting on the Internet or in a comments section somewhere and I’ll read it and say, “Oh that’s fucking rude,” but I’m able to file it away. It’s like water off a duck’s back. It’s very effective in controlling how I feel every day.Given all the stuff people write about you, did you ever think about how the book would be received when you were writing it?No, I really wrote it for me. I wrote it as catharsis. I wrote it as telling my story from my perspective. I know me better than most anyone else. Maybe not better than my husband, but I like to think I do. I just wanted to get the words on the page. It was remarkably easy to tell my own story. I just thought about plowing through each chapter and eventually I started to see it come together like a Tetris game. I also wrote the book while I was building two restaurants and living in two provinces. I wasn’t thinking about much other than fucking finishing it.I never get bogged down by what other people think, though. Of course, every once in a while I can get my feelings hurt. I’m not made of stone. I think people sometimes think if you’re a strong woman you can take on the world. And it’s like, “Yeah, basically I can get right back up, but I fucking have feelings.”Whenever I read women’s memoirs, the unsuccessful ones to me are the ones where women feel they either have to be so self-deprecating (I’m not that good)or, on the other hand, like they have to be superwomen (struggles do not exist). What I loved about yours was that there are the moments of confidence, which are deserved and awesome, and then there are the moments of vulnerability where you pause and show your feelings. It’s often really hard for women to do that because we face so many pressures. Was it a conscious choice for you, and how did you push yourself?That’s a great question. No, it’s not conscious. This is the thing that I think maybe people don’t understand about me. I’ve encountered some journalists who seem to believe that somehow everything on my Twitter feed is calculated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Five minutes ago, you said something and I wanted to tweet it and I resisted because I know we have limited time. That is how I tweet. And that is how my book works as well. This is, as much as possible, how I see myself and it’s an honest depiction of who I am. That’s what we’re searching for—who we are. Who are we? How do we exist in the world? And I really, really try to show all sides of how my personality developed, how I am in the world—all those things. That included things that were difficult to tell and it included admitting weakness at times in my life, which wasn’t easy. I also think that it’s insulation from other people putting those things on you. If I hadn’t told certain stories, I would be opening myself up to somebody saying, “Well, what about this?” I didn’t want that. I would rather be like, “This is everything; take it or leave it.”That touches on another thing I wanted to ask you.I’m just segueing for you.We’re like in sync, but not the band. That would be less cool. ANYWAYS. Returning to the idea of “This is who I am.” You mentioned catharsis earlier, which is interesting because while I was reading it, I kept thinking, “This must be cathartic for her—to tell her own story.” I think inevitably when women write their own stories someone will always say, “Well did you ask so-and-so if you could write about them?”It’s not their story.Right. It strikes me as expecting women to ask permission to tell their own stories. It really irritates me. You were very open about sharing stories about your interactions and relationships with those in your life, good and bad. Did you face that when you were writing this—or did you ever think, “I don’t know if I should mention this person?”Only one time. With my husband. With everyone else it was like, “This is fair game.” But with my husband Roland, I wrote about some very private things in our marriage. When I wrote that chapter, I felt it was important for all the reasons I just discussed: it’s my story and it was a turning point in our marriage. So, I called Roland. He likes when I read my work to him. What is more beautiful than your wife reading you a story? I was kind of crying as I read it to him, because some of it’s really emotional. He just listened to it. And I was like, “Honey, is it okay?” It was more like, “Are you going to be okay with this?” This is very private. And he said the best thing ever. He told me, “Honey, this is your story to tell, and it is not for me to tell you whether it’s okay or not.” But, yes, he was okay with it. It was such a relief.Speaking of Roland, I have to admit I laughed that I got to the part where I got to the redacted part [in the advanced review copy] about his nude drawing of you.  This handwritten note from you fell out when I turned to the page where Roland's drawing will appear in the book when it goes on sale, and it read "REDACTED! Nude. Of me. LOL—you'll have to buy the book"  and I thought, this is the best. Women get criticized for so many things, for telling their own stories—For being naked?Yes, for having bodies and saying, “This is my body, not yours.” How did that decision to share that come about—and even just to write about the body in the way that you do. How did writing that feel?It felt great. All of the art in the book is by women—except for the art by Roland. We weren’t going to do any photographs so it didn’t make any sense for anyone other than Roland to draw me. This is the true story of what happened. I was reading in bed. I didn’t have pants on because I’m in my house. Of course I didn’t have pants on! He comes in the room, and he’s like “Oh, honey.” He gets his iPad and he’s like, “I need a picture of your pussy.” So he made me pose. And he told me he was going to do a nude of me for the book. At first, I thought “Ohhhkay, that’s an interesting choice.” But then I realized that’s actually fucking cool. We talked about it and decided it’s art. As Roland said, “ Art is beautiful, your body is beautiful—so why not?” I’m sure I’ll get some negative, ugly backlash from shitty men about it, but I don’t care. It’s a beautiful drawing.Did it tie into your decision to talk about sex? They seem linked: the ownership of our bodies, and also the ownership of the statement, “Yeah, women have sex and we like it.” It’s complicated and complex and fun for us too.Absolutely. I didn’t think I could write a memoir of my life and not include my sex life. That would feel very incomplete. It’s a very important part of my life. The story I tell about losing my virginity—that is really what happened, of course. My friends really made me feel like it was seedy and obscene and I should be embarrassed. At the time, I was so young that I thought maybe they were right, and it stayed with me. Then one day, I realized they’re not fucking right. This is ridiculous. Men can fall dick first into any hole around and it’s fine. The idea that women’s virginity is a gift that we’re saving to give to the right person is fucking gross. I’ve always hated it.In a way, it goes back to telling our own stories. I feel like women have to keep telling their stories and more and more. We have such an incomplete understanding of women and their lives.It feels to me sometimes that women are not in touch with their own bodies because we’re just trained not to be. Whereas, I’m really sensitive to what’s happening. I know which ovary is operating which month and I think talking about periods is fine. We’re taught to be ashamed of this stuff at such a young age. Like: hide your tampon when you go to the washroom. I think most women probably still do that as adults. And part of my fighting instinct is to really loudly announce stuff like, “I’m going to go change my tampon.” Well, actually it’s actually a Diva Cup, obviously.So you also joke about white girl feminism a few times in the book.I am a white girl, technically speaking.It’s a huge conversation in feminism right now: How do we move past white girl feminism? How did your feminism evolve as you were writing the book?All the hard questions, huh? I don’t know if it evolved while I was writing. I’ve always tried to be intersectional. It’s obvious to me that I’m going to have an easier time fighting for feminism than a woman of colour will. And it’s always been obvious for me. I really do try to be an ally. It’s a complicated subject, but I do understand the concepts of how to amplify someone else’s voice: move aside and let people speak; when you’re on Twitter, do retweets and don’t just quote tweets; and so on. I really do try to do that. I understand the privilege I have, obviously. I understand my middle class privilege. I understand my white woman privilege. And I thought it was important to acknowledge that in the book, to not pretend to be oblivious to it. The more people that talk about it, hopefully the more it will seep into the mainstream in a real way—it’s starting to.Why do you think people are still so scared of feminism in general?It’s the status quo. People like the oatmeal they’ve had every day. They don’t want a different bread, even if it’s way better. Even women like the status quo, and especially the middle class. I had this great moment recently. A woman came into Grey Gardens with her husband. And I almost started crying in front of her as she told me her story, which is trés embarrassing. She told me that when she first came across my Twitter feed, she dismissed me. Oh, she seems crazy. But then she started to really read my feed. And she decided a lot of what I was saying made sense. Eventually, she started speaking up at work. She was a smart woman, somewhere in her 40s and none of this ever occurred to her—probably because she’s had a semi-privileged life. Now she calls herself a feminist, she speaks up at work, she engages in feminist actions. And, she told me it was all because she started reading my Twitter feed. It was really powerful. It meant a lot. So I don’t care about the haters. If I can have one story like that a month, that’s enough.
‘We Must Have a Desire to Make Scale Models of the Universe’: An Interview with George Saunders

The author of Lincoln in the Bardo on stretching out in liminal spaces, the feeling in your chest when you’re working, and why writing fiction is like building a model railroad. 

The Hamlet of Whitby, Ontario, was once a destination of note, marginally famous for its painstaking miniature village. I went there as a child, discovering in it a paradise that I hoped to encounter elsewhere, but never did. Beyond the simple fact of its existence, the village’s most striking feature was a house that bore a flaming [[FN: Smoldering]] hole in its roof. In the street below, firefighters aimed hoses in its vague direction, mouths locked in silent, frenzied os. Steps away, other homes sat comfortably unengulfed, model children playing with model dogs. Absolutely a wedding or a barbecue was happening within arm’s reach.I think of this one morning as George Saunders, on the phone from his California home, discusses his love of contained worlds—spaces (physical and otherwise) that allow him to perceive all the borders, and thus describe them with as much latitude as his imagination allows. In 2009, Saunders performed “AN IN SITU STUDY” in a Fresno tent city, hoping to “explore this unusual community of homeless people and learn something of its inhabitants.” Softly anthropological as it may sound, Saunders approaches these settings, in both fiction and not, with the full power of his compassion in play. The comedy of tone, vocabulary, and characterization tempers what might otherwise feel too painful, drawing his subjects close.Familiarity, in Saunders’s case, does not breed contempt. Rather, it feeds equanimity, allowing him to write about pre-election Trump rallies with a rare and uncompromising view of each faction’s psychic enclosure. “You could get to know every single shed and every tent and every inhabitant,” he says of his time in Fresno. It’s not entirely dissimilar from standing within a crowd of bellowing Trump supporters, cataloguing the variety of hats that dot the horizon.Saunders’s first novel Lincoln in the Bardo nudges his gift for negative capability in an even more ambitious direction than his previous work. Like his 2013 Story Prize-winning collection Tenth of December, or 1996’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Lincoln mines liminal spaces to tell stories of grief, kindness, and repetition—in this instance, locating it in the Bardo, a Tibetan vision of intermediate afterlife. Structured by way of descriptive quotations, Saunders calls on voices of both the living and dead in order to frame one night in Abraham Lincoln’s life. Based on various reports that Lincoln visited his newly deceased son Willie’s grave to hold him, alone in his burial chamber, Saunders animates a series of ambient “sick” characters who populate the Bardo in different forms, interred behind a fence that keeps them from the materially alive.Waiting for his coffee to kick in, Saunders spoke with me about fences and other obstructions, and how depicting something like a house fire in tandem with a celebration is easier to write—and comprehend—when rendered in miniature.*Naomi Skwarna: Congratulations on the release of your “debut novel.”George Saunders: Thank you. Now I can go back to work without too much shame.How wonderful that there hasn’t been a significant shame backlash.Yeah, you’ve got to set your bar high. “Thanks for publishing my book—my self-loathing didn’t get any worse.”Was there a sense of freshness in touring with your first novel, rather than a collection of stories, as you did in 2013 with Tenth of December? Well, it finally occurred to me that all these people [on the book tour] are rooting for you, as the author. They want you to try harder things, and they’re with you when you do. I’d get into certain places with this Lincoln book where it seemed like I had to go out on some new—and thin—ice. And then on tour, at signings, you’re like, “these are my people.” And in finding out more about them, I’m actually making myself a better writer, because I can find more nuance in the future.Is there an example of an encounter on this tour that has made you a better writer?People are very generous and articulate about how they were moved by it, and where. They’ll come up and tell me about loved ones they’ve lost. So you just take that bit of affirmation and you add it to your bag: okay, so as far out as I may have gone on this book (in the direction of assuming that other people are like me), I can go even further.Can you cite a way in 1which you went further with Lincoln in the Bardo?It felt like I was getting a little more emotionally frank; trying to be more comfortable in areas that previously I might’ve considered too straight or too earnest. Maybe it was just as simple as: you write something, you get a positive response from it. One thing I noticed is that, habitually, I’m a little more sensitive to the negative response. It just wilts me to be criticized. So that’s something to think about in terms of psychological dynamics. Are you correctly registering the positive reactions? Not for ego reasons, but for reasons of future writing; that whatever you’re doing here, whatever chances you took, were paying off.I think it reflects on something in the book—the varying descriptions of the moon, by the different writers attending the Presidential gala that’s described at the beginning. Any form of consensus on what the moon looked like that night would’ve rung false. Everyone experiences these things so differently, but they’re no less true.You find out what your book is by the nature of the disagreements about it. I like that idea, that truth is actually a bunch of contradictions at once, and the particular flavour of the truth has to do with flavour of those contradictions—both in terms of your work, but also of life in general.Have you been seeing that in the readers you speak to about it—different flavours of agreement?There’s a fraction of people who really aren’t liking it, who seem really put off by the epigrammatic quality. I’ve gotten letters that say, “I just don’t know how to read this book.”Yeah, I felt like I had to train myself to read it. It’s choral. Eventually I just got used to it, like reading A Clockwork Orange, where after however many pages of slowness, you learn the dialect. Exactly. The idea from the writer’s point of view is that you don’t do that just to be clever. You do it because once the person learns the dialect, they can get into higher registers.How did you decide to write the novel as a series of quotations, which sometimes feels like a script? Many years ago I started another book set in a graveyard that was inspired by, or sort of co-inspired by the advent of the chatline. I just loved the way chatlines looked on the page. You have the attribution and then some incoherent text that was then interrupted by someone else’s incoherent text that didn’t address the first—that cross-talking. So I tried to write a book with a bunch of spirits in a graveyard, cross-talking. But that book kind of died of its own weight, because there was nothing going on. So that was in my mind, and then, at some point, for quite a long time, I was trying to write this Lincoln material as a play.When did the play become a novel?It was just one of these writerly moments when I started putting the history in, thinking maybe I could put it into some sort of third-person way, and that just felt boring. So I hit on the idea of sampling the historical bits, just using them verbatim. So the ghosts still had the attribution at the beginning of the text, and the historical ones had it at the bottom. And something about that just bugged me, the way it looked on the page; the way it underscored the difference between the living and the dead. And so just on a whim, I moved the ghost attributions to the bottom, like they are now.It’s interesting to know that you unified the living and the dead through attribution. It speaks a little bit to the way that art, at least for me, is very iterative. The way you get to the interesting solution is by coming to the problem over and over again, making little adjustments each time. And then you look up and you’re like, “Oh, of course. That’s how I want to do it.” It wasn’t a big a-ha moment, it was a series of hmm, maybe moments. It’s a little bit less dramatic than the terms by which we usually discuss art. If you come at a problem many thousands of times, at the end, you’ll have a solution no one could’ve imagined at the beginning.It’s nice to push back against the idea that every artistic move is vast and observable, rather than tiny millimeters of change.The writer doesn’t know at the beginning! A story that comes to mind is, somebody asked somebody, maybe Fitzgerald or Hemingway, “How did you go broke?” and their answer was, “Gradually and then all at once.” For me, it was fifteen years of gradually moving toward this form.As you were working on it, were you in any way reacting to things that were happening in the world? Not really, because, well, it was pre-Trump for sure. Those rosy Obama years gave me permission to turn my eye away from contemporary politics. In some ways, you’re always reacting to contemporary politics. But I was really more in that dreamland of this imaginary 1862 for all that time.At a certain point, I felt like I was reading with a parallel awareness of politics that have became more present on a daily basis. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement—Well, sure, that’s true. Yep. Yes. But also, the other thing is that in America, those politics have been active since I was a little kid.Yes.It comes to the surface every now and then, and then it gets quiet. Even the brutality is enacted in the same old ways, and it’s defended with the same old linguistic tropes. I think things have probably gotten somewhat better, but the basic dynamic is still tragic.I see that in the fight between Farwell and Stone near the conclusion of the book. Other people have alluded to this too, the Civil War-era family of ghosts in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, doomed to pantomime their own murder-deaths at the hands of the patriarch. Performances of often violent repetition.I think we do it too! I get up every day and my mind starts ticking in the same old patterns. On my fortieth birthday, I had this experience of walking to class to teach, thinking, “You’re going to be fine, it’s going to be good." And I don’t remember what it was exactly, but it was some kind of little projective thing about how nice it would be when summer came and I could get back to work. And I thought, oh my god, I’ve been having this thought for … maybe my whole life. When I was in school I used to have it! And I thought, isn’t it interesting that we feel we’re made fresh every moment, but actually in some way of seeing it, we’re like these little robots who have the same thought patterns and apply them to different physical realities?[Quietly unhappy]It’s terrifying that we re-enact the same scenarios on other people and ourselves. In the book, those are pretty exaggeratedly violent ones, but [repetition] is what we do. Even positive ones I suppose.Did you ever read that Janet Malcolm profile of the painter David Salle, “41 False Starts?"I did not.She keeps trying to tell her same story of this artist over and over again, forty-one times, in slightly different ways. The very last one, the concluding false start, is mostly this quote from Salle: “Have you ever thought that your real life hasn’t begun yet?” And Malcolm sort of agrees with him, and he says, “You know—soon. Soon you’ll start your real life.”That’s beautiful. Somebody sent me an e-mail on that topic, a quote that I’d never heard before: “There is no meanwhile. Now is the meanwhile.”Speaking of in-between spaces, what is it, if there is “a thing” that makes you want to write about to these liminal spaces—for instance, the Bardo? It has to do with constraint. I think my working assumption has always been, you’re going to try to access these great universal truths in very limited spaces, both chronologically and spatially. Shakespeare’s plays do that; they’re all pretty tightly clustered in time and space. I also just feel a little bit of excitement if you say, “Oh, a theme park that’s on the subject of biblical themes.” I’m like, “Oooh, yeah,” because then you can start imagining small corners, and certain attractions and a little stream running through it. Something about my language centers come alive at that point.So through containment, you can actually stretch out a little more?These liminal spaces—something comes alive in my mind. I did a nonfiction piece where I lived in a homeless camp for a week out in Fresno, California, and that was the same kind of thing. After a while, I was so happy to be there because it literally had a fence around it, and you could get to know every single shed and every tent and every inhabitant. You could see that you only had so much to work with and so therefore the only way you could go was deeper, or something like that, if that makes sense.Gosh. It does. I suppose in a big sense you could say that that’s what Tolstoy was doing in War and Peace, and his confined space was Russia. [Laughs Midwestern-ly] For me, so far anyway, it has to be a little smaller.I saw a play last week by this theatre artist named Robert Lepage who created an entire show around a model of the apartment building he grew up in. Oh wow, that’s cool. So it was like a multifamily apartment that he was walking through?Yeah. He’s always loved miniatures, but this is the first time he’s literally rendered one of his own life. There’s a parallel between that impulse and the novelizing impulse, because that’s exactly what you’re doing: you’re making a little village, and you’re filling it up with people, and there’s no reason it should be pleasurable for you or your reader to make up a little village. We must have a desire to make scale models of the universe.Why do you think that?Essentially we’re assuming that the story will be located where it was yesterday and we can still find it. I wrote a piece for The Guardian where I compared writing fiction to making a model railroad—the idea being that there’s a lot of impulse involved. You turn a figure this way and you decide to put an overturned car here. As soon as you put down that overturned car there, you’re storytelling right away.Now I understand the fence [in Lincoln in the Bardo] better.I’m not even sure there really was a fence, but there had to be [in the story]. Now I’m trying to move the fence back. The next thing for me is to figure out how to enact a feeling of confinement or constraint while actually not. I’ve always loved the idea of writing a book that would start in the ‘50s and come to the present. These abstractions are not that valuable, really. [It’s more important] to concentrate on, almost like, the feeling in your chest when you’re working. If you have sufficient excitement, you can proceed in a fun way. And if you don’t, you can’t. Sometimes I get a little bit conceptual or theoretical and then all the poof goes out of the work—so I throw it away.I’ve been thinking about the hindrances that one comes across in a meditation practice, the question of engaging with those things. It sort of seems like in your writing you’re doing some version of that—you’re finding the things that actually accelerate you, or give you that thing in your chest. Energy.One move that’s common in any kind of meditation, or writing, is the idea of consenting to look directly at an obstruction. Normally if there’s something obstructing, you might say, “Get thee behind me” and try to walk faster than it is. In writing especially, if there’s something that’s really obstructing you, to move is to turn to it.What do you do with the obstruction then?A bold move is to say, “I see you there. Let’s talk about it.” Even just now when I said that thing about moving the fences out—it helped me to say it, because I’d never realized that that was the case before. I’m trying to move the fences out. Solving it is another thing, but you’re that much closer once you’ve acknowledged it. It’s common, even in meditation, to think, “I’m not doing very well today because of x.” But just that slight posture adjustment—of turning to it, really—invites it into the party, and then it’s in a better spirit if you’re not leaving it out in the yard.I was a little troubled by the younger characters, like Elise Traynor and Willie Lincoln, being held captive by these manifestations … I guess, these guilty spirits. People who in life committed grave acts against other humans. The Bardo seems like such a fair place, I wonder if you could explain that form of punishment?There are two answers. Technically, I just needed that. I needed for Willie to leave there. It was meant to be harmful for him to stay there, otherwise the story doesn’t move forward. The deceased could’ve stayed there forever, but it was more compelling if there was a reason for him to have to leave, some danger. This was one of those obstructions. What happened for me was something like this: it is a fair place, but it’s not fair by our standards. It’s fair like God is fair. So our job is not to judge God’s fairness by our human standards, but to say, de facto, God is fair and so we better get in line with that.I see. In a way I was kind of comically enacting it by making sort of arbitrary rules. Like, for example, why can’t they leave? Why can’t they get out beyond the fence? I don’t know, it’s just a rule—God’s rule. I thought that there was something touching about this almost being like a bad nightclub. Like, it’s dangerous in there! It might look nice, but people are really crazy in there. If a fourteen-year-old wanders in, that’s not good. The fourteen-year-old doesn’t have sufficiently thick skin to survive in that place. I like the idea of innocence drifting into some malevolent atmosphere, which was all I needed to justify an arbitrary rule.So you kind of work backward—imagining an outcome, then creating a rule that it defies.But then I’ve got to smooth it over and make it not my rule but God’s rule. One of the ways to do that was to introduce [the character of] Traynor. You show a precedent. Then not only have we mechanically enabled one of the tropes that we need, but we’ve also started characterizing God as a kind of arbitrary God. God’s judgments are not our judgments—and that certainly is true in this world.I guess like most things that earn their place in a story, it does multiple things. Bevins, Vollman, and the Reverend wouldn’t have had the opportunity to prove themselves otherwise.Being there [in the Bardo] inappropriately is the activating energy for the whole book. The first wave is, “oh God, I have to hide this defect.” And then as you’re trying to hide it, it becomes an asset. One of the built-in dangers about writing the afterlife is it might come to seem like you—the author—know something about it, which is bullshit because you don’t. So the challenge is to make an afterlife that’s truly unpredictable, that even I can’t make sense of, except it seems to have some kind of broad consistency. In other words, the danger of writing about the afterlife is that you might make an afterlife that’s too manageable—too much like the ones we’ve heard about.There’s a psychologist named Bessel van der Kolk, who often speaks and writes about about the repercussions of larger social trauma, like war. Do you think that the U.S. is still reckoning with the interpersonal fallout of the Civil War, repeating or reiterating certain kinds of historical violence?Yes, because that war never really ended. When it was won and Lincoln got killed, the administration that took over botched the next phase of reconstruction. I think Lincoln’s plan at the end was, and you could see him working toward it, was to give black men the vote and to work towards some kind of social equity. I think that’s what his logic had led him to. I think you would have seen a much different kind of reconstruction, one that would have been kinder to the South. The South would have been brought in and I think he would have charmed them and made it work. Instead, Andrew Johnson took over, was a big drunk, and kind of blew it. Really what happened is that the war was won and lost, and now I think we’re enacting the same thing.The race-based violence of hundreds of years ago. There’s a Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead; it’s not even really past.” The kind of racism present in America is so deeply ingrained that it’s really hard to get the stain out. That was the shocking thing—to finish this book and then go to the Trump rallies, where you’d see the Civil War still going on. The sides have shifted, and the issues have shifted a little, but it’s basically the same thing.The afterlife that you’ve written is a place where understanding is enabled by circumstance. Characters can actually slip into each others’ nonmaterial forms. Without possessing the ability to wear each other like coats, do you have an idea about how we can develop more compassion for one another in a time when it can feel a bit more embattled?[Sighs] I have a lot of ideas about that. It really does begin at home, trying to preserve one’s own equanimity. The process of every day asking, “am I am I feeling kind, centered, full of shit? Ideally if you have a moral center, you’re not necessarily responding to the world, the world is coming in and you’re greeting it. Just trying to protect my own perimeter, because I know as soon as I become hateful or agitated or frustrated—and that’s for sure happened—it’s hard to get that back in the bag. If everybody was doing that, it would be an incrementally softer world. There’s a tendency in this era to get hysterical about how bad things have gone. But looking back at history—they were always going bad. And they were also always perfect. Perfectly luminous and beautiful.That seems like a rightfully infinite answer. Something that I think is kind of crazy and beautiful is the idea that at this moment, there is great perfection and beauty in the world and unbelievable horror. They coexist, and they always have. The only thing that makes it seem otherwise is that the human mind doesn’t like that. Right now there are people who’re working for the benefit of little kids and making schools, and then there’s also somebody selling drugs or planning a murder—I’m picturing these things in split screen. They could even be happening right next door to each other! Why is that so hard [to accept]? It must just be a function of the mind, and that in turn is a function of our storytelling impulse. Compassionate art is interesting because a great work of art is cognizant of the fact that positive and negative both exist at the same time. It trains us to go into that space a little bit, as I said earlier, like a scale model. To accept that on a global scale is almost too much. But to say, “here’s one character who has both good and evil in them”—I can work with that. Art isn’t just a sideshow; it’s not some kind of inessential show-off movement. It’s actually the way human beings understand the world. When we do it formally, in a novel or something, I think we’re actually training ourselves in slow motion to a better understanding of all of that binary.Nuanced dualism, or something.Maybe it’s about being willing to accept, as Raymond Carver said, a small, good thing. Writing doesn’t have to solve everything, but it can incrementally push the ball of positivity forward. That’s pretty good.Yes, I guess existence doesn’t only have to be reward and punishment. It can be something milder and more boring in between.That’s right. Put it on a T-shirt.In very small lettering.
A Difficult Birth

The larger deception is that birth is only about life. In reality, the only certain thing about life is death and every birth contains that prospect.

Even though I became a mother years before, I truly earned my flowers and breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day on a Tuesday eight years ago. I was two weeks overdue when I checked into the hospital to be induced. At the time, all I could think about was getting the baby out. I was huge. As my good friend put it, “you are the most pregnant woman I have ever seen.”This was my second child and so the nurse decided to try a subtle method of induction. She used a cartridge full of gel to, as she put it, “ripen the cervix.” I already felt ripe, a fruit fermenting in my own skin. The other women in the room were mostly first-time mothers and had been sitting for long hours with IV drips inserted. Before long my waters burst with a loud pop. I assumed this swift outcome a result of my experience. “Excuse me ladies,” I muttered, as I waddled towards the delivery room. The second birth is easier, isn’t that what we say?As I walked down the hall, my baby pulled down and dread set in. Including the placenta I had something roughly the weight of a bowling ball inside my body. It had to fit through a chamber that I prefer to think of as about the width of two of my husband’s fingers. My memories burst with an equally loud pop, the recollection of the first birth rushing back. Where were those memories when I needed them, the moment before I had unprotected sex? As Margaret Atwood writes in The Handmaid’s Tale, “who can remember pain, once it’s over?” The answer, I suddenly knew, was the woman who is about to give birth again.A second labour tends to progress more quickly. My contractions soon came hard and fast. I intuitively knew that something was wrong, though I couldn’t say what. It felt like my muscles were attempting to rip me in two. My own body wouldn’t try to kill me, would it? In retrospect, I’m sure this was a kind of deeper instinct taking hold—an intuition that evolved thousands of years before anaesthetic, scalpels, or opioids came about. I wasn’t panicked; it was more like I settled into seeing everything more clearly. I was reminded of the handmaiden in Atwood’s novel, Offred. Her only choice was to give birth or die. Mine felt roughly similar. And as the pain increased, I became aware that I couldn’t stop the process. Any illusions of free will were gone. But unlike Offred, I didn’t live in a totalitarian state. My commands came from within.Why don’t we talk more openly about what it is like to give birth? This is a question I thought about while writing my novel, The Last Neanderthal. UNICEF estimates that 353,000 babies are born around the world every day, that’s 4.3 babies every second, or over 120 million ever year. While medical care differs in each place, the process of vaginal birth is much the same. Our bodies have changed little in 40,000 years and birth is still as primal and raw as it was back then. Do millions of women all forget? While Atwood’s tale of dystopian birth is a notable exception, our stories of birth are often rosy—I picture a female actress on screen with a balloon tucked under her gown, moaning, spritzed with oil for sweat, but mascara in place. Splayed legs are considered a graphic touch and some light make-up stands in for blood, but these depictions aren’t only false for lack of haemorrhaging. The larger deception is that birth is only about life. In reality, the only certain thing about life is death and every birth contains that prospect.*My contractions grew stronger. I asked for an epidural, as I felt I needed my wits about me. Spinal fluid tapped, a drip inserted, I was positioned back on the birthing bed, the baby pressing heavily on my spine. I submitted once the drugs kicked in. A calm spread through me. That helped my body let go and soon I was ready to push. I collected myself by listening to the heart monitor that was strapped around my middle. I watched the needle chart his pulse. When it was time to push, I did. Immediately, the needle flattened. His rhythm slowed.Death in childbirth used to be more ordinary. It’s said women in 15th-century Florence used to make out her will on learning she was pregnant, presumably an upper-class approach. Even now, estimates for the number of pregnancies that end in miscarriage are twenty percent or higher. While a mother is at risk, a baby is equally so. We all know many women who have had miscarriages, but how many come to mind? It’s probable that you can only name a few who are closest to you. “Pain marks you, but too deep to see,” says Atwood. Most women grieve in silence.A nurse shouted something sharp. Chaos broke out in the room. Bodies wearing scrubs rushed in. A doctor screamed for a vacuum, eyes bulging, veins sprouting along the reddened skin of his neck. I watched this all with a kind of detached wonder, probably thanks in part to the epidural. But also, I wasn’t surprised. They had discovered what my body already knew.The umbilical cord was wrapped twice around my baby’s neck. When I pushed the cord tightened. He was slowly strangling. I have been trained as a first responder and I knew the statistics for adults. After a minute without oxygen brain cells start to die. After three minutes, serious brain damage is likely. I assumed a new born had even less time.The head doctor rushed to my side, ripped the heart monitor off my belly, the slowing beeps that amplified a small heart stopped. The doctor’s face now close to mine, “you have one push to get this baby out,” he held up a single finger in front of my face to show the stakes. “One.”A new contraction rumbled up. I started to push. The vacuum was involved, hands pushed along my body, a nurse whispered instructions in my ear, but I knew I was beyond help from others. For all our advances and technology, this was up to me. I found the deep muscles near my diaphragm. I got to the end of what I thought was my strength, only to push twice as hard again. I felt the baby slip. Something took, like I got traction, and he started to move. I pushed harder. He came out with a sensation that felt like part of my life slipped away.I looked at him, blue and slippery with a pointed head and lying on a silver tray. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me he was okay—somehow I already knew.And now eight years later to mark these hours I get flowers, a card, and breakfast in bed. My son empties the dishwasher and plants a kiss on my cheek. And though I can remember the birth if I try, I also know why many prefer to live with our illusions about birth. It’s much easier to wish us “Happy Mother’s Day.”
Infatuation is a Gateway Drug to Writing: An Interview with Chris Kraus and Sarah Gubbins

Talking to the novelist behind I Love Dick and the screenwriter behind its new TV adaptation about taking the love triangle to Marfa, working out creative pain, and Kevin Bacon. 

“In a sense, I Love Dick is about a crush. And Moby Dick is about a whale."- Ruth Curry of Emily BooksThree years ago, Chris Kraus sat across from me at the Ukrainian National Home—an East Village staple famous for its cheap perogies and literary clientele—and proclaimed that I was in a very normal place for a female artist in her late twenties trying to make it in New York. What she meant by normal was depressed, beating myself up over my creative failures while seeking refuge and distraction in destructive love affairs.My connection to her work at the time was simply that my father had appeared in her film Gravity and Grace, which is the central artistic failure in her first novel, I Love Dick. She gave me a copy of the book, which I tore into as soon as I was home, recognizing similarities between us on every page. Completely insecure in a sea of seemingly more successful artists and writers, sucked in by the seductive misery of unrequited romantic obsession, I felt close to the letter writer in the book and became invested in her satisfaction.I was infatuated with this tale of infatuation, which can serve as both a distraction from and a fuel for creative work. When an artistic project isn't working out, it can be a relief to refocus mental energy onto a more mundane infuriation such as unrequited love. The journey into complete obsession can overtake everything else in your life if you’re not careful, but if you’re smart, you could turn it into your next project. This is better articulated nowhere than in I Love Dick, which has recently been adapted for television by Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins.In anticipation of the on-screen version of the book, I spoke to Kraus and Gubbins, who wrote the show, about common misconceptions regarding the novel and the process of turning it into a series.*The novel's protagonist, Chris, begins the book by grieving a recent artistic failure: her film, which has left her in a state of financial disarray, has not been accepted at any festivals. At the same time, her highly esteemed academic husband Sylvère’s guest-lecturing opportunities bring them to California, where they encounter the cultural critic Dick ____. After a single dinner at a local sushi bar, our narrator appears to develop strong, love-like feelings for the middle-aged bachelor cowboy. It’s as though the displacement of feelings of artistic failure onto an unrequited love object is a way for her to cope with her disappointment at not becoming the next indie film director darling. “When I wrote the book, I exaggerated the extent to which she cared about his acceptance or rejection of her. Artistic rejection is much more crushing, and she’s trying to escape from that,” Kraus says.Readers didn't always pick up on the fact that Chris's narcissism was exaggerated for comedic effect. The novel is written confessional-style, in the first person. The principal characters share the names of the author’s IRL circle. In the TV version, Chris’s brattiness and Dick’s sexism are hammed up to the point of pantomime, which is what Kraus intended. “People found it almost impossible to accept a female anti-hero,” she says. “I think the genre has been pushed in recent years by Sheila Heti and others, in a way that makes it easier for people to accept a female anti-hero now.” It’s been debated whether that anti-hero is or isn’t Chris Kraus herself. “I see writing as a performance—not necessarily of one’s life, or the facts of one’s life, but of moods, feelings, thoughts and disposition. In I Love Dick, and my other books, I see myself writing through a character mask.”Soloway’s pilot follows the book haphazardly, with Chris (Kathryn Hahn) and Sylvère (Griffin Dunne) encountering Dick (the almost too perfectly cast Kevin Bacon) in Marfa, Texas, where Sylvère has been invited to do a fellowship in Dick’s department. Gubbins explains the change as being integral to the tension of the show. “We found it interesting to see what would happen to this triangle given a more stranded geographical setting.” The show’s creators chose Marfa, she says, because, “There’s no place like it in the country. The light. The elevation. The rugged landscape. And the town attraction, a constellation of people. Artists. Ranchers. Folks trying to escape the confines of obligation and those who have lived in the town for generations.”Another diversion from the novel is that Dick’s role will be far more central in the TV series. At the end of the pilot, Chris decides to stay in Marfa for the duration of Sylvère’s residency, hinting at a much messier love triangle that could unfold. Kraus is excited at the possibilities a more fleshed-out crush character might bring. “As Kevin Bacon said recently in an interview, he couldn’t possibly play a character long-term who’s just a cipher. He was interested in the phenomenon of Dick’s celebrity in this small, fishbowl world of the Marfa Institute—already a new invention.”The opening scenes center around Chris’s excitement about her upcoming trip to Venice where her film will be shown and her subsequent meltdown when she finds out the film has been pulled from the festival. Here she encounters Dick, a well-respected academic and loner who is not looking for an admirer of any kind, let alone a neurotic artist who craves validation from sex and men. Enter the blank screen for Chris to project all her desires, fears, obsessions, frustrations onto. Her Dickstraction. Through focusing her energy on attempting to secure Dick’s affections, Chris is able to move on from her pain. Chris can accept that she has little control over whether Dick likes her and it’s an easier anxiety to manage than the responsibility for a failed project that was wholly her design. Surprisingly, her husband Sylvère supports her exploration of her own obsession, perhaps due to his identification of it as baseless and therefore not a threat. He is pleased to see his depressed wife excited about being creative again, the end of the pilot sees Chris penning the letter to Dick that will form the basis of her first artistic success. “Sylvère knows this is about Chris discovering something as a writer, and is generously and selflessly very encouraging of this,” Kraus says, adding, “Speaking now as myself, not the Chris character, I don’t think I could have become a writer without Sylvère's encouragement and support.”The dynamics of Kraus’s own life and the reception of her work play out in the TV pilot. At dinner, Dick baits Chris by stating women are incapable of making interesting films because “they have to work from behind their oppression, which makes for some bummer movies.” This pronouncement sounds exactly like criticism that has been leveled at Kraus since the book was published. Similarly, the pilot also introduces a small cast of younger characters such as Devon, who finds Chris and Sylvère equally fascinating and farcical and decides to turn them into a play. Devon and her college clique feel reminiscent of Kraus’s readers who scoff at her overly-academic theorizing about a crush. The book, which is an exploration of Chris’s failing film career and move to literary arts, becomes a show about the reception of the book it’s based on.Though the “love” part of I Love Dick ends in failure, the “I” part has an adventure that ultimately leads to satisfaction, if not success. By the end of the story, the narrator has left her old life and former husband on the East Coast, has made the brave and independent decision to start anew in California, sans romantic interest, and has a book length manuscript that will, less than twenty years later, be turned into a TV series. By working through a minor romantic disappointment, by coming clean about her own self-absorption and inability to accept responsibility for the direction of her career, novel Chris and IRL Chris find something far more gratifying.Ultimately, I Love Dick is not about Dick, or even Love. It’s about I. In her forward to the novel, Eileen Myles writes, “Her living is the subject, not the dick of the title.” Says Kraus, “The ‘Dick Adventure’ is definitely an escape from the failure of her artistic career, and she unexpectedly finds it very fruitful.” Unrequited crushes can be a great motivator, a desire to prove to the crush, or better yet, yourself, that you are capable of more than just pining over some man. “I think it’s a matter of deciding to make yourself available to something else. In the book, Chris decides to give up on filmmaking and make herself available to something else. Dick is a gateway drug to writing.”
The Best Worst Team

Tragedy, spectacle, disgrace, massive wealth, grotesque inequality, and the tasteless whims of a hated New Yorker: does any baseball franchise more resemble America in 2017 than the Miami Marlins?

Paint the Corners is a monthly column about baseball.The Miami Marlins started the season on the road, losing two of three to the Washington Nationals and winning two of three against the New York Mets, and didn’t return to the ostentatiously outfitted airplane hangar known as Marlins Park until April 11. Amid their home stadium’s massive glass façade, state-of-the-art retractable roof, nightclub, swimming pool, bulletproof tropical fish tank backstops, and Day-Glo mechanized home run sculpture, the perennially marginal Marlins played a humble baseball game against an even humbler opponent, the Atlanta Braves.The Marlins always have a few exciting young players on their roster, which is led by arch-tater-masher Giancarlo Stanton, but as their circus-like home conveys, the game itself is often the least interesting thing about this team. For the past few seasons there has tended to be some significant storyline buzzing at the outer field of vision when they play, some high-stakes uncertainty or emotional challenge that makes them a fascinating franchise to follow even when their games inevitably stop mattering. In 2012, it was their full-scale reinvention: new uniforms, a media-darling manager in Ozzie Guillen, and the grand opening of Marlins Park, all of it orchestrated by billionaire owner Jeffrey Loria, a Manhattan art dealer who looks like Randy Newman’s evil brother. Since taking ownership of the team in 2002, Loria has masterfully taken advantage of the evildoing arsenal available to sport executives—exploiting whole cities and Major League Baseball for sweetheart loans they’ll never recoup, chronically penny-pinching his roster into non-contention, and generally flogging his own ego to the detriment of anyone else’s enjoyment. He’s earned his reputation as one of most despised owners in sports, but the team, more than most, is his singular invention, from the personnel down to the uniform color scheme.One of Loria’s crowning disgraces is the mammoth, insanely structured contract he offered Stanton in 2014, right after the hulk suffered the most harrowing kind of baseball injury, a fastball to the face. Thankfully the pitch only fractured Stanton’s cheekbones and jumbled his teeth, but his dramatic exit and $325 million payday further emphasized that the Marlins are a team of operatic gestures and drama. That reputation continued last season, as Miami gave Barry Bonds his first post-retirement position in Major League Baseball by hiring him as a hitting coach, and then celebrated as Ichiro Suzuki, a Marlin since 2015 and one of the genuine baseball heroes of any era, became the first Asian player with 3,000 hits.That glorious milestone had barely passed when the emotional pendulum swung back with force: In late September, beloved All-Star pitcher Jose Fernandez was drunkenly piloting a speedboat with two friends in the Sunday predawn when he hit a coastal outcropping, killing everyone aboard instantly. It would be impossible to overstate the magnitude of this loss—to the team that he anchored, the sport that he reigned over, and particularly to Miami’s Cuban population, for whom Fernandez was a combination saint and chosen son. As a teenager, he endured multiple dangerous emigration attempts (including one where he dove into the ocean to rescue his drowning mother) before finally making it stateside for good. Once he became a celebrity, he was an advocate for his fellow immigrants and a doting, accessible Superman for many autograph-seeking children. For too short a time, this clownish, handsome, prodigiously talented young man was like a vessel for everything fun and wholesome in baseball, a living tribute to the game’s place in the American story of global inclusivity and youthful spirit.When he died, Fernandez’s coaches and teammates enacted one of the most incredible displays of public communal grief I have ever seen in professional sports. They wept their way through a dazed press conference mere hours after the crash, then through a cathartic home run by leadoff hitter Dee Gordon in their first home game the following night, then again as Fernandez’s hearse departed Marlins Park two days after that. On Opening Day 2017 they all wore Fernandez’s number, 16, above their hearts, as they will do all season, and you can bet more tearful tributes will follow. The most prominent members of the organization—Stanton, Loria, and ex-Yankee manager Don Mattingly—were as crushed as anyone by the loss, ensuring that Fernandez’s memory and legend will define the team for at least as long as they all stick around.This is more sweeping human interest than any sports team could be expected to withstand, but devastating personal struggle is only one facet of the 2017 Marlins. There’s the small matter of Miami’s perilous future as a potential climate change casualty: scientists now warn that Miami Beach, right across the MacArthur Causeway from Marlins Park’s hub in Little Havana, could be fully underwater within decades. And unbelievably, this team of all teams currently exists in closer proximity to our famously climate-hostile president’s part-time residence at his Mar-a-Lago club than any other. (They’re also the only team with significant cultural-geographic ties to a country that Trump has threatened.)As well, this past offseason, rumors ran rampant that Loria will soon sell the franchise. For a brief moment, it appeared the buyer might even be Jared Kushner’s family, but the ultimate victors may be an investment team headed by the odd, Trump-adjacent couple of Jeb Bush and Derek Jeter. It is widely expected that the sale could yield upwards of $1.6 billion, the grandest sum ever paid for a baseball team, but the formal announcement will be postponed until after the Marlins host this year’s All-Star Game in July. Given their lackluster performance for the last decade-plus, it promises to be the most well-attended and high-profile event ever held at Marlins Park.Their home opener, for comparison, drew only 36,000 fans, about three-quarters capacity. Those in attendance were treated to ceremonial first pitches by three members of the 1997 world champion Marlins team; Charles Johnson, Edgar Renteria, and Livan Hernandez played for the fish back when they still wore treacly teal and were named for all of Florida rather than the state’s most cosmopolitan city. The franchise was only four years old at that point, and eked into the playoffs as the National League wild card team, a performance they would repeat in their only other championship season six years later. Those World Series Marlins teams weren’t pretty to look at, they shared a cavernous stadium with the Miami Dolphins, and their rosters were short-lived and full of players that would go on to longer careers elsewhere. But credit where it’s due: they threw a couple prom-dress-hued wrenches into an era that was otherwise dominated by the sanctimonious and charisma-deficient Joe Torre-Derek Jeter Yankees. In 2003, they beat the New Yorkers themselves, finishing the job in the Bronx.Even in victory, the Marlins have always been an underdog team, and that reputation still overwhelms their outrageous ballpark and purported free-market value. They routinely sit near the bottom of the total attendance tallies each year, and their competitive fate is all but foreordained: the NL East has the big-spending, talent-stacked Nationals and Mets at the top, and the woeful, eternally rebuilding Phillies and Braves at the bottom, which gives Miami room enough to over-perform their middling expectations but virtually no chance of breaking through to the playoffs. They finished 2016 three games under .500, in third place.This year, the Marlins took an early lead in their first home game, putting up three runs through singles and sacrifice flies in the first inning. They broke it open in the fourth with a three-run homer by Dominican-born first basemen Marcell Ozuna, which he duly dedicated to Fernandez in postgame interviews. That was more than enough to secure a W. The whole event was so party-like, it even begat MLB’s first on-field cat video.The following evening, in their second home game, the Marlins came from behind twice by the fifth inning thanks to a pair of two-run homers from Stanton. No animals this time, but the carnival atmosphere persisted; the second, more missile-like of Stanton’s shots made its way to one of Marlins Park’s many club-level wading pools, where a seemingly beer-ennobled middle-aged man jumped in fully clothed to retrieve it. He was rewarded with a photo-op visit from the only cheerleading squad in baseball, the Marlins Mermaids, and a leisurely interview on local TV. The bullpen let the game slip away one run at a time in the final two innings, and the Marlins eventually lost 5-4. Attendance: 16,808.It seems reasonable to expect the Marlins to trudge through 2017 like so. Despite the loss of Hernandez, there will be moments of great baseball (Ozuna is on pace to beat all his previous offensive high-marks), plenty of fan lunacy, and at least one mid-season stretch of attention paid to their garish fever-dream stadium. But it is worth pausing here to consider just what his coming payola says about baseball and the United States in this era of severe income inequality. While worries persist about baseball’s long-term popularity among kids, especially African-American ones, the business side of the game is strong, bolstered in huge part by MLB’s success as a tech leader. The organization licenses a world-standard video streaming service, BAMTech, the profits of which are split evenly among the thirty teams, netting each an estimated $400 or $500 million.Between this and the typically extortionary public-financing stadium deals that Loria, like all pro-team owners, has enjoyed, it makes sense that he will manage a handsome profit on his fifteen-year pet project. But $1.6 billion—or even half that—is a nauseating number for a team that’s years from making the playoffs and wracked by local disinterest. There’s no better illustration that sports ownership exists in a different dimension than the fans or players they lord over, one divorced from concern about winning or losing.When Loria inaugurated the revamped 2012 Marlins, he said the team’s new black/orange/yellow color scheme was “sort of an homage to Miró’s palette,” and installed dozens of contemporary artworks throughout the new Park. Meanwhile the fans have continued to stay away, with the notable exception of days when Jose Fernandez pitched. Loria has already helped destroy one poor-performing franchise, the Montreal Expos, who were dissolved as part of the byzantine deal with Major League Baseball and current Red Sox owner John Henry that brought him to Miami. Despite buying his way to a World Series victory in 2003, he has largely failed upwards in baseball, and his most lasting achievement is an urban temple to his own self-satisfied taste. It’s all too fitting that Loria will likely become ambassador to France, since the president is now another Big Apple behemoth who shares his taste for tacky Florida grandeur. If Jeter does indeed take ownership next year, he’ll be only the latest high-rolling New York legend in the Marlins’ orbit. Not enough for these men to retire to Florida, they have to buy a billion-dollar chunk of it.Meanwhile, as of this writing, the Marlins are fourth in their division, six games under .500 and trailing even the Phillies and seemingly cursed Mets. Intermittently awe-inspiring, besieged by tragedy, uneven in performance, and hostage to the tasteless whims of a widely reviled septuagenarian billionaire: in 2017, no baseball team is more American.
‘The Novel is a Hysterical House of Mirrors’: An Interview with Edan Lepucki

The author of Woman No. 17 on unreliable narrators, interiors both personal and domestic, and leaning in to where a book is trying to take you. 

The sticky, insufferable sensation that art is a status reserved for a select few is the raw emotional material that Edan Lepucki’s second novel, Woman No. 17, draws on. The book is concerned with the lives of a woman, her new nanny, and the relationships, or lack thereof, that these women share with their mothers.S., a painter turned photographer and nanny, is often criticized for a lack of depth in her work. Lady is too readily encouraged to pursue writing. The women toss and turn over their creations, and this only escalates as they butt heads with an artist whose work is validated by the outside world. While S. opts to slap impostor syndrome in the face, Lady fumbles. As she has in her earlier works, Lepucki's latest magnifies the interior worlds of these women and their struggles.*Rachel Davies: How did your writing process for Woman No. 17 compare to that of your first novel?Edan Lepucki: I had about 100 pages—I actually just went to check to see how much I had—I had a little over 100 pages of Woman No. 17 written before California came out. My friend, the young adult and comic book writer Cecil Castellucci, gave me some advice, that Aimee Bender gave her, which was to try to finish your next book before your first book comes out. So I didn’t quite reach that goal, but I tried to get as much down as I possibly could so that I would have a manuscript waiting for me before I finished with whatever happened with California.I was really happy I did that, because I didn’t have to come back to a blank page, which is really my worst nightmare. So my writing process, honestly, was not very different, and I’m writing a third book now that’s the same. I don’t do very much research, I always write in order, I write in the order that I perceive the book to be read in, so I don’t write random scenes. So pretty much, my process is not very different despite the fact that my stories are quite different.The interior spaces characters occupy, or have occupied, seem to play a crucial role in your writing, be it the second childhood home of Joellyn in If You’re Not Yet Like Me, living in the woods in California, or Lady’s mother’s house in Woman No. 17. Confined spaces, and domestic spaces are really interesting to me. In my spare time, I read design blogs religiously, even though I don’t really have anywhere to decorate at this moment. I love to go to open houses, even if I’m not looking for real estate, I just love to be in spaces, and see how people do them. I’m kind of obsessed with staging as a thing that people do to sell a home, and what kind of fantasies are projected onto those spaces, and how they raise the property rates even though it’s just a performance.I think homes have always been the number one place that I write about, so, I mean, that’s obvious if anyone’s not writing something super adventurous, but I feel like all of my work deals with domestic space, a confined space, and what happens there. Also, just how we identify with certain homes, and interiors, and who they make us think we are, even if we’re not that. So Joellyn thinks about this empty space she had as a child, and she’s ashamed of the apartment that she has, and Zachary’s going to go see. Then in Woman No. 17, Lady lives in this mansion now, and not that long ago she lived in a one-bedroom apartment as a single mom with her son. Now she’s the owner of this glorious Hollywood Hills mansion, and she has impostor syndrome there, I think. It just keeps coming back in my work, I never thought about that.Lady has this distinct sense of wealth that’s amplified by her memories of living in that one-bedroom apartment with her child. I wanted one of Lady’s crisis-points to be class, even though I don’t ever say that outright. She was by no means poor growing up, she had a nice house, but I think she has kind of fallen from that, and when she started dating Karl he rescued her from that, and she has all of these privileges to deal with, and I don’t think she knows what to do with it. I think she doesn’t feel that it’s a part of her identity and who she is, yet at the same time she’s very comfortable. I think S. also is straddling these two worlds, her father lives in this very nice house in Berkeley, and her stepmother pays for that house, but it’s still the lifestyle that her father enjoys. Her mother is at the whim of the landlord, and she could be kicked out, and she has to fire her housekeeper if she’s off the job, and if she stays off the job for too long then that will be a financial disaster for her, there’s no safety net for her. She’s really aware of those differences. It’s interesting because in early drafts, people referred to S. as “rich,” and I wasn’t sure where they were getting that from. So I tried to add signifiers later on to signify that that’s not the situation—not that she’s by any means in danger, but that she has college loans, and she needs money to buy art supplies. I thought, maybe it’s the artmaking that makes people think she’s privileged, that she’s privileged to become this artist as she sees fit.You edit for The Millions, and occasionally write non-fiction. What do these other projects and outlets offer you alongside your longer work?The Millions, for a long time, has been a lifeline for me. I have been working for The Millions since 2006 or 2007, and I didn’t publish my first book for seven years after that. So I felt like I was labouring in obscurity for a long time, all the stuff I was writing really wasn’t seeing the light of day, and I wrote a first novel that never sold. Even if I published a story here and there, to get it published would take nine months, and then it would come out in this small magazine. It was kind of before the time where everyone was publishing fiction online. The Millions really allowed me to interact with the literary community online, to share my voice, and hone my opinions about a lot of fiction that I was reading. It released something for me that—I mean, I was already frustrated, but I felt like I would have been more frustrated without that community. Now I feel similar, that the novel takes so long, it takes years to do, but the nonfiction pieces I spend between a few days, or a few weeks, which is a short amount of time, comparatively. So that’s a nice difference, in terms of reaching out to people, getting feedback, and feeling like I’m engaging with the literary community.Right now, it’s kind of fun. I just wrote this piece that I published—it seems like forever ago, but I think it was yesterday [laughs]—about when I modeled nude in college. I knew I could write about it related to my novel, and there’s this idea that you should be publishing a lot around when your novel comes out to just spray your name everywhere. From a mercenary aspect, I was thinking I should write about it, and connect it to my novel, but of course when you’re actually writing these pieces you don’t want them to be promotional because that’s dumb, they don’t need to exist then. But writing that piece sort of helped me understand why I wrote the novel in the first place because I got to write about how much I liked modeling, and photography, and stuff about the body. All of this stuff does relate to my fiction, and allows me to understand what the hell I was doing in my fiction, which I don’t think about too much when I’m writing so that I don’t overdo anything.Woman No. 17 manages this tussle of identity that the characters experience, especially S., with such nuance, and a big part of that is reflecting on the characters’ creative projects. What was it like figuring out who these people are while also figuring out how they want to be seen through their art?It’s going to sound crazy, but I didn’t do it on purpose. Not to say that I have no intentions when I’m writing, but I think if I had sat down, and said, Okay, I’m going to try to present these characters in one way in this regard, and another way in this regard, then you’re not really sure who they are. I think I would have been paralyzed, and I wouldn’t have been able to go forward. So with both characters I just started with voice, especially with first person narrative, I tend to think of them as entirely performance anyway. So I think most of my first person narrators, the deeper subject is always about how they present themselves, and how they see themselves in the world. I’m especially interested in how people think of themselves in the world, and how that might not be totally accurate, or they’re willfully not seeing what you want them to see. So I think that’s already built into the first person narrator, so thematically it already came with the package. But as soon as I started writing both characters, they were doing all of this strange dodging from the truth, or saying one thing, but doing another thing. The novel has this kind of hysterical house of mirrors quality that I did not do on purpose, but when I noticed it I leaned into it, where Lady would do something, and I would switch to [S.’s perspective], and there would be some sort of echo of Lady’s behaviour. Lady had a former boss who was an actress, and S.’s story with Lady is kind of like Lady’s story with the actress, she worked with this rich lady in this big house. But I didn’t intend for that to happen, there would just be echoes like this that would happen, and the representation, the mixed representation, the art—all of that stuff thematically serves the work together, but I didn’t do it on purpose.How did you determine what S.’s art projects would look like?That part, and Seth’s disability, were the two biggest challenges for me as I worked on the draft. I spent a lot of time thinking about every project she would do before she did it, as she’s in the midst of the project—I have her detailing how much she’s had to drink, she has the breathalyzer. At a certain point I needed for her to do more, and I thought of her painting herself but not figuratively, and I didn’t know where to take it, so I had to think of a different direction. I tried to work into her narrative some of that processing, and brainstorming. I honestly thought the Tevas part, where she describes the Tevas art project, would be cut. There’s so many parts of everything I publish that I think, Oh, this’ll be cut later, and then it isn’t. I think it’s a way for me to write without worrying—I tell myself it’ll be edited out. I was writing this thing, having the time of my life writing it, and nobody told me to take it out, and some people really liked it, but I had to figure out how to make it relevant to the whole story without just being a comic interlude about bad fashion in Berkeley. I did see connections between the project she was doing in the current part, and that part of the book, and also her reaching out to her old boyfriend, but trying to draw it all together without boring the reader was really hard.Texting and tweeting play a large part in how the characters communicate with each other in the novel. Sometimes I feel like tech-speak can come off too stiff in literature, but I think you pulled it off in Woman No. 17. What was the experience like getting used to talking in your character’s online voices, and seamlessly integrating it into your prose?I’ll say ahead of time, after writing California, I knew I wanted to write a book that had technology because I’m tired of having so many books that don’t have technology in them, or that assiduously avoid technology even though it’s such an integral part of our lives. I have a lot of angst about my own technology use, and what it’s doing to my brain, and how it makes me interact with the world online, and how we present ourselves online, like you said. I really wanted it to be a part of my book, and I also wanted to make sure that it locked into the plot. Not only be like background, I wanted it to have some way to tell the story. I had my sister who’s ten years younger than me just read the book specifically to help me, to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid. She would tell me little colloquialisms that I was being too formal with. [laughs] I wanted to make sure, obviously, that her dad would be very formal in texts. When Kit writes her email, and random stuff is capitalized, I was inspired by Miranda July’s project [We Think Alone] where she had people’s emails. Every day you would get this email, that was a series of [a random person’s] emails–I loved this project. I wish it would go on and on forever. I loved how Kirsten Dunst would randomly capitalize stuff, it was so bizarre. You see that sometimes with people, they randomly capitalize things, other times people add apostrophes because they don’t know what they are used for so they just add them like a little piece of jewelry. I love that stuff, I love how much it signifies.
Moon Colonies

“It reminded me of a dream I’d had where a shark circled my chest hungrily and I felt relieved.”

[[{"fid":"6700441","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":"1000","width":"1000","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]In the morning the waves glowed like uranium, a deep sweat coming up off the seafloor. It was beautiful but it was nerve-racking too, being that close to the future.Then a bloom of moon jellies drifted in, their tentacles dragging behind them like purses. I thought it was a sign, some kind of big money omen, but Joelle said we should get ready to move on, start trucking north—where we were really headed.For the past month we’d been “down beach,” less than a mile from Atlantic City, camping out in a mail-order bungalow belonging to Thea’s sun-shriveled grandfather. Me, Thea, and Joelle—we’d had it to ourselves—one hundred square feet of no electricity, plus the washed-out fire pit and jack pines.“I want to try the Taj,” I said. “I have that feeling.”That feeling had done well for me so far.At least it had kept Thea and Joelle in tallboys and blobs of Coppertone, and that day, for lunch, we had lobster from a shack that seemed too legit to be real—a wonder that in between the boardwalk’s Shoot the Gimps and the constant grind of tattoo joints we’d found J’ean, the Lobster Man, two samples from his morning’s load of big’uns in his baloney-colored fists.J’ean was headed north too, back up buggin’ lobster on Eastpot.“New Jersey lobster?” said Joelle. “How shitty does that sound? I mean, by comparison.”J’ean just shrugged. “Goin’ to breeze up today,” he said through the slice of his hand.That put an extra volt through me. I loved storms. I turned toward the ocean. It was still August but now the waves looked like sandwich foil that had been crumpled up and hucked away. I was in a hurry. The boardwalk was an ongoing line of cracked wood; it stretched forever.“Let’s take a cart-pusher,” I said.A rickshaw cart was extravagant, but we were leaving soon. Joelle had a job to get to in New York—she referred to it vaguely without offering even one giveaway detail—and Thea’s sister had just popped out twins into the Grey Goose-saturated swamps of western Connecticut.Babies! How wild. We bought them pint-sized T-shirts and joked about their names. Felix. Maude. We loved them already as an idea.Thea was a week late for her obligatory nanny gig. No biggie, she said. That was Thea. We’d been something two years ago, had been so looped on pints of tequila and what she called sloth weed that neither of us remembered much. The non-memory was connective.BEACH! Thea had said on the phone, a month earlier. She knew I was depressed in New Brunshwick. Bored and hot. Joelle’s here, she said. You’ll like her. You’ll see.But Joelle was different. My crush now seemed like something I’d been born with. Plus Joelle was smarter than me: her brain had that slaughterous left hook.“The Taj,” I said, aloud.The long line of cart-pushers stretched toward the casino action. It was a casual, twenty-four-hour kind of job. We passed two snoring against the cracked vinyl benches of their contraptions but the next guy along looked scarily awake.“I haven’t slept in three days,” he said.“Awesome!” said Thea.“Really!” he promised.He must have been fifty, a meth-head probably. I assumed they all were. His hair was sticking up but he had a nice face.*There was a haze over the boardwalk. I couldn’t tell if it was the heat or the breeze up, sucking aloft those clouds of sand. I felt clammy pressed in between the two of them. A line of sweat slurred along my chest binder. There was a time when I was sure I would get surgery, when I stayed awake late staring at the plaster wall. I’d made an appointment with the surgeon even, checked the box: payment plan. A giddy, raw feeling. How could it not mean change?The cart jerked forward. I stuck my palm between Joelle’s jean shorts and the seat. We hadn’t been alone together since we first mashed faces two nights ago, which meant sex with our clothes on, a bunch of fingers, punk shots at best. We lay next to each other in the violet half-light of the bungalow’s only room—not caring much about Thea but pretending to care, keeping sort of quiet. We were accelerating particles about to separate. Soon we’d be peeled apart.“It’s just a body,” Joelle had said, when I bucked her hand away from where she was trying to insert it.“Sure,” I’d said, bleakly.“Okay, yeah, it’s internal. But it doesn’t have to be domestic.”I rolled away from her, from the king-sized futon the three of us shared, our only furniture, the raft in the middle of our floor. I tugged the sweat-stained material back into position over the slack mounds that on good days I pretended were giant pecs. Joelle leaned down and put her thumbs against my temples.“It’s Thea, right?” she whispered. “You’re so shy!”“Yeah,” I said.This had nothing to do with Thea, but then again, I hoped it did. I was a concrete bunker pretending to be a friendly, all-access picnic area. I scrubbed a small pile of sand across a floorboard. Joelle was naked more than not.The next time it happened, she stared at me from far away.“Why don’t you just cut them off?”*Our cart neared the strip. First was Bally’s. Bally’s had a Wild West front, with sheriffs and hookers painted all over it. It was ridiculous but secretly it turned me on.“Yee-haw,” said the cart-pusher.“Get a room,” said Thea, elbowing me.My body was trying to wedge itself underneath Joelle’s. It must have been something floating from her pores.Two teenagers ran out of the air-conditioned saloon doors, flinging off their Nets jerseys when they hit the hot. I stared at the bank of their bare torsos. There was a sink in my old studio building with a sign hanging next to it. “Black Mold,” it said, a Sharpie-drawn arrow pointing down into the dirty plastic interior. My painting summer was gone and not much to show. I’d drawn exactly one still life: an oyster and a flattish grape.“Can’t go in Bally’s anymore,” said our cart-pusher, nodding it by.We were cruising faster now.“When I started this job I was pants size thirty-eight,” he huffed. “Now look at me, I’m thirty, thirty-two!”He wore his expression like a founding father. Someone you could trust.*In the Taj Mahal, gold chandeliers spaghettied from the ceiling, gaudy and awful. I played Frontier, drawn into the vortex of radioactive desertscapes and howling coyotes, and then immediately hit it big on MJ’s Moonwalk. A thousand bucks on my second spin, zing zing zing! “Billie Jean” exploded from the speakers while a rocket sprayed MJ with moondust.Joelle sat next to me, smoking.“Let’s get a room,” she said.When you score like that the hospitality staff comes over—they don’t want to let you alone. We stared up at two managers and a tired-looking hostess whose sole job it was to get me drunk and playing again, tout de suite.“We’re very happy to have you here, Mr. ...” They trailed off. “Very happy.”The manager in charge smiled olympically and handed me a plastic card.“We’ve put you in the Chairman’s Tower,” he said, “ocean view.”“Yeah sure!” I said, chewing my lip. I was sweating but I wasn’t sure why. Everything was the same, but outside it looked very dark.“Do you have any tequila?” I said. They hustled it over to me in a plastic Taj cup. It must have been a slow day. Thea had evaporated, probably reading at the bar, and I thought about strolling over to her and swinging her around as the skirt-thing with legs she’d recently been wearing swooped. I’d always been comfortable and drunk with Thea, half-blind, in a warm cave.Then Joelle and I were in the elevator, grinning, pressing all the buttons at once. I clamped my voucher ticket. A thousand bucks, we said back and forth to each other. A thousand bucks! It was that free kind of money that you could do anything with. Joelle wanted me to cash it in so we could throw it all over the bed.“Just for fun,” she said. “Then you can call that surgeon.”I thought about the old Biggie video, the stacks of cash flying everywhere, the helicopters, the epic yacht.“It’s only fifty twenties,” I said. “Is that really enough?”*Our room faced east as promised. There were smudges on the mirror and cigarette burns pocked into the heavy carpet. We sat at the little coffee table and I stared at Joelle. My neck felt prickly. She’d gotten tan, really dark. She was Italian. Her Italian-ness and double-jointed thumbs seemed like perfect chemistry. She wiggled them idly as she smoked. Now the water looked like a series of yellow planks and the sky was hot and gray. Joelle took off her shirt in a motion so convincing I wasn’t sure she’d ever had it on. I wanted to ask her about the job in New York but stopped. The room felt thick after all our time out on the beach. The wall-to-wall. The so-far-undented carpet space near my feet where we should fuck, astral wand, blow our minds et cetera, after, and only after, we did it in the shower and on the ample bed. I twisted my plastic cup of warm tequila.“I should get some ice for this,” I said.In the hall I began to walk toward the elevator. Soon enough, I was back downstairs. Grit had settled on the machines in my brief absence. I re–fed in my ticket and thought about moon jellies. They were see-thru but vacant. It’s just a body, said Joelle. On the screen, the aliens and their queen, Michael, were changing colors and shapes before my eyes.The $1,000 became $963. A minor subtraction. I would’ve spent it anyhow. Plus, I still had that feeling.When I looked up again, it said $815 in the lower left corner. I should find Thea, I thought. She’d love this. I wanted to show her the whole ticket, the $1,000. I increased to MAX BET. Wind blammed against the boardwalk-facing plate glass, the windows of my chest.MAX BET MAX BET MAX BET.There was no one around; the place seemed practically evacuated. This is how the game works, I told myself. If you quit now, it’s got you, you’re a real loser. In front of me, craters opened up in unison, spewing confetti. Each eruption seemed like a sure win. But still the left corner dwindled. I began to think of Joelle, topless in the room. It seemed dumb that I had left. Worse than dumb. Abyssal.I knew I should take the ticket out, but I couldn’t. The lizard part of my brain kept saying: the next spin is the one. I had another tequila. Then a few more.I knew a guy back in Albuquerque whose foot went numb from a skateboarding accident, then turned an angry celery color. Eventually they had to cut it off. He was okay through the operation but in the recovery room, goopy with anesthesia, he became obsessed with wanting to keep the foot. He was going to taxidermy it from toenail to ankle, he said, and freestyle it into a lamp. The surgeons gave it to him reluctantly. After all, it was his foot, what could they do? He stuck it in the freezer and five months later, when the taxidermist was ready, he got the lamp.“What happened next?” said a voice next to me, a bun-sporting granny zinging away on Miss Kitty.“Nothing happened,” I said. “He was a real weirdo.”“Well, did the lamp work?”“Yep. He said it had a nice homey glow. But then one day he came home from work and his dog and the lamp were gone.”“Did he put out an APB?” She hit a LITTERFEST!, and the siren atop her machine flashed like cherry Jell-O.“He did,” I said. “Except it was just part of him that was missing. A missing foot report. They found it down by the viaduct, the place the accident had happened to begin with.”I paused for effect.“Well,” she said.“It was gnawed to pieces,” I said with relish.It reminded me of a dream I’d recently had where a shark circled my chest hungrily and I felt relieved.The coins from LITTERFEST! stopped ringing and she began to hum.“Lord, I should cash this,” she said.She flashed me her sleeve hem and no fingers, just a cauliflowering stump atop her old wrist, the skin fused to itself in tight folds.Then she was gone.*I was sweating swimming pools. What’s that horrible sound? I thought. But it was just the deafening silence of Moonwalk. I stepped into the bejeweled elevator with an awful chewing in my gut. There were a million times I could have stopped. It wasn’t free money. It was a chunk of something.I fiddled with the floor buttons but this time they were sticking in their slots. I was there in the mirror—my sloping body, my very own continental shelf. They hadn’t found the dog after all, that was the sad part. It had just loped off. Already I was begging Joelle to forgive me. On the closed face of the elevator doors, a prayer from Emperor Shah Jahan floated over a flat Taj Mahal:The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.But in the room, Joelle was missing. The cleaning service was vacuuming up our nonexistent mess. I sat down on the bed.“He was in here,” said Joelle’s voice. She was talking to Hotel Management in the hall.“He was just sitting there like a total SOB.” She moved through the gold-trimmed doorway.“Oh,” she said flatly, “it’s you.”Apparently some skuzzbucket had entered our room while I was gone. Had sat down on the bed, just like I was doing. When Joelle came out of the bathroom, he was flipping the channels.“This asshole?” said Hotel Management, pointing at me.“No, not that asshole,” said Joelle.Now she was livid.“I’ve charged some things to the room,” this new Joelle told me. “Majorly $$$ things.”“Uh-huh,” I said.“But you can cover it, right?”“Uh-huh,” I said.The TV was still on. The news anchors were saying things like “level two” and “hurricane” and “South Carolina.” Was the Chairman’s Tower wobbling?“Don’t leave,” I said to Joelle.“This is still our room, right?” I said to Hotel Management.*I went in search of Thea. She appeared, a bright hole in the gloom, at the Rim Noodle Shop bar.“You look like a train wreck,” she said. “No. More like a train who, for no reason, stopped and then tipped over. What happened to you?”“Two tequilas,” I managed, to the barman. Boy was it dark.“It’s a hurricane out there,” I said. “A big one. If it’s not here yet, it’s coming.”“Uh-hm.”Thea seemed skeptical, but I sensed a radical shifting of things: a new world order.“Thea?” I said.I had a decision to make but I wasn’t sure what it was. When I leaned over and tried to put my mouth near hers she hit me.“You idiot,” she said. “You idiot idiot idiot. You NERD.”*I took the same cart-pusher back to our bungalow. Rain globbed against the sand. I was hoping Joelle and Thea would be there—at least, I thought I was. My skull was hot.“Found you!” he said, elated.What a great new life without sleep, I thought. We rolled on. Caesar’s, Trump, Tropicana.“Can’t go there anymore,” he yelled at each one over the thump of the tires.“Why’s that?” I yelled back.“You drink?” he said.“Who doesn’t?”“They kept handing me screwdrivers, buying me stuff with Visas, Mastercards. Everything premium, I was happy as shit!” He paused. “Shit went south real quick.”I nodded. “It usually does,” I said.“I was running,” he said, “as fast as I could. But after a while, I just stopped. I got right up into those pigs’ faces. I really wanted to know.”The light was gone. Between the drops, the beach stretched out, a fossil of itself—all wear and cruddy ridge.“Know what?” I said.“I mean, somebody had to have the answer!” said the cart-pusher, doing his best George Washington. “They had me by the short hairs, I was bawling like my life depended on it, but I had no idea what for!”*At home, Joelle and Thea were on the phone, which meant crouching in the bog bushes behind the cabin. It was the only place with reception. I followed their voices and the blue cellular glow.“It’s Thea’s sister,” Joelle informed me, glaring. “The twins are sick. Their fevers are climbing past a hundred and four.”I lay down on the sandy wash. It was intuitive, canine. The lower to the ground I got, the better. I wanted to pull Joelle down on top of me and bury my face in a hunk of her rain-sticky hair.Thea covered the phone with her hand. “I can get a flight,” she said. “But there’s a weather advisory? I have to go now.”“Can you help her?” said Joelle, looking at me hopefully for the first time since Moonwalk. Joelle had money but it was all glommed up in something, her father probably.I thought about my empty wallet, my art school economy. I scrubbed the ticket out of my pocket and handed it over slowly.“Three dollars and twenty-four cents?” said Joelle.I’d painted the Taj Mahal once in a class. My dome had a nice full onion shape but those moon-facing spires that lined the central tomb had confounded me. Somewhere around their midsection they’d rebelled—sticking in every direction but up. My art teacher threw out his hands.This is all about Love! he’d said, pacing. And Sacrifice! You’re so terrestrial. You’re scared to leave the ground!I looked at my spires, their tips lopsided and heavy, tugging down toward earth. Boobs, I’d thought. I was too embarrassed to say my Taj was already on the moon, that’s how I’d understood it in the first place.This story appears in Large Animals: Stories by Jess Arndt, published in May 2017 by Catapult. Photograph by Jess Arndt.
The McSorley Poet

My father’s stories come from a career behind the bar of New York’s oldest pub, among the alcoholics and loners and deviants who became his people and helped him find his voice as a writer.

Between worn arms, near the dark stove,      Orange ears twitching, weaving cat dreams; Sawdust-tailed beggar, warm friend to all,      To be again graced, the scarred seat waits— “Red,” by Gene Hall, 1995McSorley’s Old Ale House, the Manhattan landmark where my father has tended bar since 1972, has always attracted poets, but my favorite verse about the pub wasn’t written by any of the heralded bards who drank there over the years. Not the E. E. Cummings one that begins “I was sitting in mcsorley’s. / Outside it was New York and beautifully snowing. / Inside snug and evil.” Not Reuel Denney’s “McSorley’s Bar,” which contains a couplet whose beauty never fails to leave me gobsmacked: “The grey-haired men considered from their chairs / How time is emptied like a single ale.” Nothing by Dylan Thomas, who never published a poem about the bar but who drank there often enough to get eighty-sixed once upon a time. Not Woody Guthrie, a poet of sorts, who visited McSorley’s in 1943, when LIFE magazine photographed him strumming his guitar for a group of workingmen huddled over mugs of ale in the front room. And not Joseph Mitchell, whose New Yorker prose about the bar carried the simple beauty of poetry and perhaps best captured the essence of McSorley’s.The poem that has always sent me reeling with joy and heartbreak and nostalgia wasn’t published anywhere, and it was written by Gene Hall, a McSorley’s character best known for fixing anything that broke inside the bar with gaffer’s tape. Clocks, chairs, typewriters—it didn’t matter. Tape was the answer. Gene was a retired member of the merchant marine who lived in one of the apartments above McSorley’s. During the couple of decades he spent at 15 East Seventh Street, Gene functioned as a quick-fix handyman who could be called downstairs at a moment’s notice to patch up minor malfunctions around the bar. Perhaps as a testament to the practical skills he picked up during years at sea, or maybe because it took a full-blown catastrophe to get anyone at McSorley’s to call a professional plumber or electrician, Gene’s short-term solutions often became semipermanent. Gene was quiet—it’s easy for me to recall his black mustache and dark bottle-cap glasses, but I can’t remember speaking to him once during my childhood, when my father would bring me to work on Saturday mornings. But my father and the other bartenders I looked up to talked about Gene with a measure of reverence that made it clear he wasn’t just another local screwball who hung around the bar to pick up odd jobs. And even if Gene and I never shared a face-to-face connection, I felt like he was whispering in my ear every time I read the poem he wrote in memory of Sawdust, the McSorley’s cat I grew up with.“Red” is a four-line poem about a bar cat, an orange tabby named both Sawdust and Red. My dad and I called him Sawdust because his fur reminded us of the wood chips the waiters spread across McSorley’s floor every morning. Some of the old timers preferred a simpler nod to his color: Red. He was the last great cat to spend his entire life—1985 to 1995—at the bar. I grew up dangling strips of cold-cut ham and turkey for him to claw out of the air, then sitting beside him and petting him in his favorite spot, a chair behind the potbelly stove. He was fearless and outgoing—my father could set a mug of water on the bar and Sawdust would leap up and start lapping it up between amazed customers. He was daring—my dad loved to tell the story of the time Sawdust sprang from a hidden, dark corner of the bar to sink his claws into a banker’s thigh, right in the spot where a roach had passed moments before. Mischievous and tender and ever ready for some new friend to scratch behind his ears, Sawdust was adored by pretty much every person who met him, and he died too soon.When my father returned from work one Friday evening in 1995 and told me that Sawdust had developed some form of feline cancer and had to be put to sleep, I remember thinking it was impossible. He was only ten. At home, my family’s neurotic house cat Bismarck (obtained through a McSorley’s cat litter and distant cousins with Sawdust) was ancient, nasty, and showed no signs of slowing down. Why’d we have to lose Sawdust?Gene must have felt the same way, because he typed four timeless lines about the cat, which were then framed and hung on the wall behind the stove, just above the chair where Sawdust loved to sleep. The final image in Gene’s poem, of the empty seat, marked by Sawdust’s scratches and awaiting an impossible return, brings the image of the cat coiled in slumber straight to the front of my mind, as if I’m seeing it in real life. And at the same time, it reminds me how forevermore I’ll see Sawdust only in my memories.I love this poem because it connects me to a specific time in my bar upbringing. If not for that overpowering bit of nostalgia, though, I’d choose any of my father’s poems as the most vital bits of McSorley’s verse ever put down on paper.*My father grew up in Euclid, Ohio, and moved to New York City in 1967, when he was twenty-two. He got drunk in McSorley’s on his first night in Manhattan and wound up moving into an apartment above the bar in 1970, which led to him working there a couple years later. His first decade in the city was defined by books and booze. He arrived in New York a heavy drinker, the habit passed down from an abusive alcoholic father, and before long my dad settled into a routine of polishing off one quart bottle of cheap vodka or brandy per day, plus a round or two of McSorley’s ale whenever he passed through the bar.He kept himself together enough to hold down his shifts at McSorley’s and to enroll in the MFA creative writing program at City College, whose faculty back then included Adrienne Rich, Joseph Heller, and the two authors in charge of my father’s seminars, Anthony Burgess and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. After nights of slinging ale and cheddar plates served with raw onions and a sleeve of Saltines, he’d trudge upstairs to his apartment and peck away at his typewriter until five or six in the morning, fueling himself with sips of Tab and brandy. His first completed manuscript was a 900-page epic—a father-son coming-of-age tale mixed with a spy thriller and framed by the Jason and the Argonauts myth. Then, my father attempted a stream-of-consciousness novel written from the point of view of two brain-damaged stroke survivors that, in the style of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Her, contained no punctuation. His next project was less formally daring but still plenty imaginative: a futuristic dystopia in which New York is overrun by giant, man-eating rats.None of my father’s manuscripts sold, and as years passed his ratio of time spent drinking versus time spent writing tipped heavily toward getting soused. After spending a drunken night in May 1975 standing on his fire escape, looking down at the sidewalk in front of McSorley’s, and thinking he should throw himself upon it, my dad decided to get clean. He began attending twelve-step meetings and gave up writing, which was tied together with his romanticized self-image as a depressive, alcoholic writer.In 1976, about a year after my father got sober, he traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, to visit Cates Park, where Malcolm Lowry wrote much of Under the Volcano. It was an alcoholic’s final pilgrimage, my dad’s chance to pay his last respects to this patron saint of drunkards. When my father was drinking, Lowry had provided him with a fatalistic ideal of how addiction, even at its most destructive, could produce something transcendent. Sure, Lowry drank himself to death. And by most accounts, he sank into abject misery as his alcoholism progressed and gradually overwhelmed his literary talent. But along the way, he wrote Under the Volcano. Was that not worth it?When my father was depressed and drinking, the answer to that question—fucking A it’s worth it!—seemed clear. When he saw no way out, when he assumed he’d just keep boozing till he died—the dead alcoholic son of a dead alcoholic father—that inevitability could even feel inspiring: I know I’m screwed. My dad fucked me up as a kid and I’ve only fucked myself up worse. But while I’m around, maybe I can create something that matters.So when my father stood along a path named Malcolm Lowry Walk on a raw and gray Pacific Northwest afternoon and looked out on Vancouver Harbour, not only was he saying goodbye to the vodka-infused self-hatred that he’d carried throughout his adult life, but he was also walking away from the writerly ambition that had been his sense of purpose in those years. That creative impulse had kept him from being just another Bowery wino, but the practice of writing had become too tangled with the habit of drinking for my father to give up one and continue the other. To have a shot at a better life, he had to quit both.So he wrapped rubber bands around his manuscripts, shoved them inside leather portfolios, and shoved those inside shoe boxes: the Argonautica novel; the punctuation-less screed about bedridden stroke victims trapped in their own minds; the sci-fi tale of New York terrorized by two-hundred-pound rats. He locked them away in file cabinets and put his energy toward staying clean, working at McSorley’s, and devoting himself to family life. He married my mom in 1979 and they had me three years later.Besides love notes to my mother and birthday poems for me, my father gave up creative writing for the better part of two decades.But he never let go of the written word. When I was young, the first thing my friends would say upon visiting our apartment was always, “You have a lot of books.” My mother, who’d left the hotel and corporate kitchens she had cooked in before I was born to teach hospitality management and culinary arts at a CUNY campus in downtown Brooklyn, had a wall of cookbooks opposite our front door. Each room in our place had its own mammoth bookcase—a shelf for my father’s accumulated dictionaries, musty Modern Library editions of Crime and Punishment and Moby-Dick with their onionskin-thin pages, a corner filled with novels and essays and letters by Lowry, Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, and other practitioners of the virtuosic, manly prose my father admired in the seventies. Even the TV “entertainment center” in our living room was more bookcase than anything else. The floor-to-ceiling complex of shelves and cabinets was entirely stuffed with books, except for a small, square space in the middle to house a television set.Although I don’t remember seeing my father sit down at a typewriter when I was a kid, I understood that he’d been a writer, saw his creative writing MFA diploma hanging on our wall, and heard about his unpublished novels. He tried to build the foundation of a literary sensibility in me, insisting that we spend Sunday mornings reading Huckleberry Finn aloud to each other as soon as I got far enough in school to speak full sentences. It didn’t work. Twain time might as well have been Sunday school to me, and until my mid-teens I pretty much always chose going to the movies with my mom or playing pickup basketball over cracking open a book.At times, I could even be contemptuous of my father’s passion for reading and writing. I have no clue what motivated this occasional nastiness, other than the wanton tantrums of adolescence and the impulse to lash out at one’s parents. It was during one of these moments when I committed what I now think of as the most shameful act of my youth.I was nine or ten years old. It was a Sunday afternoon and my parents took me to a diner a few blocks north of our apartment for lunch. I can’t remember what, if anything, made me angry that day. Probably, my dad had called me out for getting outhustled on a rebound during a rec-league basketball game that morning. Late in the meal, as I picked over my remaining french fries and avoided a mayonnaise-oozing cup of coleslaw, my mother asked me about a recent playdate with a friend from elementary school, inadvertently hitting a nerve with my father.After the playdate, when my dad had come to pick me up from the other family’s apartment, my friend’s mom gushed to him about friends of theirs whose son would soon publish his first book. The kid was the same age as me, and his forthcoming book was some cutesy how-to gimmick about growing up in New York from the point of view of a real third grader. The notion drove my dad crazy. The child author’s family was wealthy and connected: address on Park Avenue, Dad in finance, Mom a high-powered media somebody, attending the prestigious and completely unaffordable Dalton School. He was the kind of kid whose parents dress him up in Brooks Brothers suits—and who actually likes it. He was the type of character guaranteed to rankle my father’s working-class sensibility. And because this kid’s family knew everybody who was anybody, this nine-year-old was getting a chance to achieve a dream that had eluded my father.“Next time Rafe goes over there you better pick him up,” he told my mom. “I don’t think I can take that again.”“Why?” she asked.“Well, I walked up there and the girl’s mom wouldn’t stop jabbering about some other kid they know who’s so brilliant and who’s going to publish a book. Give me a break. It’s just some rich kid whose parents pulled strings.”Even at that young age, I felt aligned with my father’s sense of class conflict. I’d never met this boy, but I didn’t like him, either. But I was still stewing over our basketball argument, so I decided to say something I knew would hurt my father: “You’re just mad because he has a book and you don’t.”As soon as the words jumped off my tongue, I knew I’d crossed a line. My chest tightened, and I felt like a fist had risen up from my belly and lodged itself in my throat. I stared down at the paper place mat in front of me, filled with little square ads for neighborhood dry cleaners and bakeries. I couldn’t look up at my dad, who didn’t even respond. He didn’t show anger or sadness or disappointment, and that made me curse myself even harder. Why the hell did I say that? Why would I call my father, whom I loved and just about worshipped, a failure? I didn’t even believe what I’d said, but I said it because I wanted to stick it to him. He probably doesn’t even remember that moment, but now, almost twenty-five years later, I feel sick thinking about the silence around that table and the look on his face when I raised my eyes from the place mat. His face was empty—just numb. As if his only thought were, How could my son do this to me?*My jeers that day were especially hurtful because during those years my father had begun to consider changing careers. He was a little more than twenty years into his tenure at McSorley’s, and many of the guys he’d worked with and grown close to in the eighties had left the bar for more fulfilling lines of work. Noone gave up his front-room waiter shifts to become a college math professor; another waiter, Fuller, got hired as a manager at the flagship Barnes & Noble bookstore in Union Square; Farnan, one of my dad’s partners behind the bar, married a surgeon and moved to Connecticut; and there was Bart, my father, staying put behind the taps and wondering if he should also try something else before it was too late.He got close. For two years, he rode the train up to Hunter College on his off days to take graduate courses in education. He earned the necessary credits for a degree, wrote his master’s thesis, and gave serious thought to becoming a high school English teacher. But he couldn’t complete the program and receive his certification without a half-year of student teaching experience, and that would require him to quit McSorley’s and spend six months working for free. He could have made it work—my mother’s City College job was secure, and because she and my father had already paid off the remainder of the mortgage she and her previous husband had taken out on our West Village apartment, my parents were carrying hardly any debt.But the prospect of not earning for half a year made my father question how badly he wanted to run a high school English class. On one hand, he was eager to try something different and he believed he could develop into a great teacher. With his passion for the written word, his ability to read people and treat them with appropriate levels of compassion or toughness, and his bar-honed street smarts and sense of humor, he knew he had it in him. But was it worth everything he’d be forced to give up? It would take years before his teacher’s salary caught up with the money he was already taking home from McSorley’s. He’d no longer be able to work nights—a schedule that allowed him to spend time with me in the afternoon and attend nearly all my basketball games. And what if he got stuck in one of the city’s underserved and overwhelmed public high schools, forced to spend his class time maintaining order among forty or fifty rowdy, hormonal teenagers instead of teaching the work of the novelists and poets and journalists he loved?In the end, it took two years of course work and arriving right at the edge of a decision to leave McSorley’s for my father to realize he wanted to stay at the bar. He didn’t need to change careers to find satisfaction. He just had to find a way to inject the bartender’s life with a greater sense of purpose. The solution was obvious: He had to write again.My dad likes to say that the novels he wrote in his twenties never got published because he wasn’t sober and clearheaded enough to complete a fully realized work of fiction. That theory is as good as any, but here’s another: Those books were all some form of imitation. They didn’t really spring from my father’s experience and imagination. The reimagining of the Argonautica myth was a nod to James Joyce and Ulysses. The stroke novel was a stab at Ferlinghetti’s avant-garde formal experiments. The attack of the giant rats book is tougher to trace, but its blend of sci-fi absurdism and sense of impending doom could have been influenced by Vonnegut and Burgess, my father’s grad school instructors. My father had spent a decade working on three books, but not one of them was truly his.It took those unrealized novels, plus a couple of decades at McSorley’s and an aborted attempt at changing careers, for my dad to finally settle into his voice—that of a wizened, slightly weary everyman bar poet. After he decided to junk the plot to become an English teacher, my father began work on The McSorley Poems.During my last few years of high school, he was nocturnal. On Sunday, Monday, and Thursday nights, he’d arrive home from McSorley’s around 2 a.m., take a shower, and then park in front of our family’s massive desktop computer. His workstation was set up in a corner across from my bedroom, and I got used to waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the glow from his monitor creeping toward me through the crack at the bottom of my door. I’d fall back asleep to the staccato clack of his fingers on the keyboard.He went on like this—stealing hours on the graveyard shift, writing and revising and refining between two and six in the morning—until one day I woke up before school and saw a binder on the kitchen table, right where I usually sat down to eat my cereal. I flipped it open and found an early manuscript of The McSorley Poems, by Geoffrey Bartholomew.*I don’t really like poetry. I blame myself, not the poets or the form. Maybe I’m too impatient, maybe I’ve got the wrong temperament, or maybe I’m just too simpleminded, but I’ve always been the kind of reader who prefers plain, straightforward writing about a subject that interests me. There may be beauty and mystery in some poetry’s broken syntax and delicate metaphors, but often, by the time I’ve decoded a line’s meaning—if I’ve decoded its meaning—my first response hews toward, “Why bother?”But The McSorley Poems spoke to me. Feel free to chalk that up to filial piety—I was going to find a way to like the book even if my father had decided to write the entire collection in nineteenth-century Gaelic. But from the first pages of the manuscript, I found myself engaged. In every line of every poem I recognized the artifacts and characters I’d grown up around and felt them come alive with language.The first third of the binder described various McSorley’s artifacts—the turkey wishbones that had been dangling above the taps since 1917, when a group of regulars hung them for good luck before shipping out serve in World War One; the stuffed jackalope behind the bar; Harry Houdini’s handcuffs dangling from the ceiling as if the great escape artist had been hanging there with them, freed himself, and left behind a souvenir. The middle section consisted of poems devoted to “Unsorted Regulars, Misfits, Liars, Heroes & Psychos.” The language was raw, peppered with black humor and full of tragedy—a reminder that for all the laughter and communal goodwill I associated with McSorley’s, the men and women who are drawn into the bar’s orbit typically arrive with some scars. These were my father’s people, the alcoholics and loners and deviants he made his life with, and even at their darkest, the poems shined a light on his characters’ humanity. The first stanza of his poem for a deceased former coworker named Doc Zory made me feel as if I’d finally met a figure who existed in my head as some kind of long-lost uncle:Big Z was my old man first Gypsy violinist      to play Carnegie Hall Ma died young on us so he taught me the axe honing an edge to call shadows until beauty was airborne I’d hear him at wolf’s hour      that moan of catgut      barely touching then madly bowing wrenching their love when he died I joined the NavyThe plainspoken lines were a step and a half removed from prose poetry, and my father was telling the stories of a career’s worth of bar denizens. The manuscript was a history as much as it was a collection of verse, with the third and final section reaching back to portray Old John McSorley and the bar’s founding family through a blend of archival research and my father’s imagining of the emotional lives of the Irish clan that came to the United States in the 1850s and opened the bar under its original name, The Old House at Home.He put the finishing touches on the manuscript in 2000, my senior year of high school, and gave the book a title: The McSorley Poems: Voices from New York City’s Oldest Pub. Twenty-five years after he’d earned his master’s in creative writing, my father found his voice, and it happened to be in the bar where he drank on his first night in Manhattan, back in 1967. McSorley’s cast of sad sacks and strivers was a perfect fit for my father’s storytelling poetics, filled with the pathos and hope and explosions of humor that made pub life so rich.[[{"fid":"6700356","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Harry Houdini's handcuffs, hanging from the McSorley's ceiling.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Harry Houdini's handcuffs, hanging from the McSorley's ceiling."},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Harry Houdini's handcuffs, hanging from the McSorley's ceiling.","title":"Harry Houdini's handcuffs, hanging from the McSorley's ceiling.","height":"940","width":"1420","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]My mother reached out to the handful of friends she’d made over the years who worked in publishing. Regulars at the bar offered to pitch The McSorley Poems to their cousins and nieces who worked for the Times and public radio. Fuller, the former waiter who’d left to work at Barnes & Noble, vowed to give The McSorley Poems choice placement near the front of the store whenever the final product was released. Despite the best efforts of the McSorley’s extended family, however, my dad’s poetry never found a publisher.My mother and I ended up feeling more disappointed when publishers shunned The McSorley Poems than my dad did. He approached the project with a practical understanding of how difficult it was to publish any book of poetry, let alone a collection written by a fifty-five-year-old first-time author who hadn’t been part of the literary or academic poetry scene since the late seventies. While my mom and I licked our wounds and snuffed out our fantasies about Clint Eastwood growing a mustache to play my father with tight-lipped dignity in a Hollywood adaptation of my dad’s life and career, my father was researching how to self-publish the book. He found a printer who specialized in small press runs and had experience with other poetry collections. He registered The McSorley Poems with the Library of Congress and applied for an ISBN number. He even lined up a deal with a local book distributor to have the book sold in New York bookstores, including the Barnes & Noble where Fuller worked.He printed up the first batch—a run of two thousand books—near the end of 2001, and the following February he held a launch party at McSorley’s. That night, he stood on a table in the back room and read “Minnie the Cat” and other selections for a giddy crowd of regulars, coworkers past and present, and unassuming drinkers who just happened to pick the evening of a book launch to grab a pair of ales. Over the next few months he was written up in community newspapers and did readings and interviews for a handful of talk radio shows.My father planned to sell the book at the bar, on a McSorley Poems website, and at bookstores for as long as they’d keep it on shelves. Hopefully, he’d manage to sell out the entire first print run. Well, The McSorley Poems is now in its fifth printing. A reporter from the Los Angeles Times stopped by the bar in 2010 and wound up profiling Bart the bartender poet almost ten years after the book came out. After the first run, my dad has sold the book mostly in person, at McSorley’s, at a rate of about thirty copies each month. When he reaches the end of the current batch he’ll have hit six thousand sold. Unless you’re the poet laureate, those are damn good numbers, better than what some nationally recognized poets sell.Over the years, as he sold and signed copy after copy of The McSorley Poems while working his shift, the rest of the staff noticed an unfortunate pattern. Whenever would-be buyers asked to peruse the book, it had an uncanny knack for opening to page fifty. While that’s not the exact middle of the book—the page count is 112—it seemed that some physical characteristic of the binding made page fifty the most likely to open first. We inspected the main bar copy for dog-ears, strategic bends, or some other kind of manipulation meant to increase the odds of the book opening there: nothing. The paperback showed no signs of tampering, and besides, the pattern held true over multiple copies of The McSorley Poems. Somehow, with mysterious frequency, when customers first picked up the book, the first poem they saw was right there on page fifty. Its title: “Rectum Lips.”There are probably a dozen poems in the book that are darker and more graphic, but none with such a smutty title. It’s a short, three-stanza story written in the voice of a meek gay customer who gets caught peeping in the men’s room. It ends tenderly, with the character criticizing the bartenders’ nickname for him—Rectum Lips. It isn’t apt, the character says, because “I just like to watch.”It’s unclear how many sales my father has lost to “Rectum Lips” over the years. The other barmen have taken the book’s stubborn insistence on opening at page fifty as further proof that there is no governing superstition at McSorley’s more powerful than Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will. More often than not, however, The McSorley Poems overcomes its first impression, and the customers flipping through the book absorb the language and decide whether or not it sings to them.The McSorley Poems never led to a Clint Eastwood movie, but it marked a far more meaningful achievement for my father. He’d turned his creative energy into a work of art that deepened the bond thousands of readers already felt with McSorley’s, and he made the leap from being a guy who always dreamed of writing a book to being an author.*I wasn’t able to attend the book launch of The McSorley Poems in 2002. I was in Illinois, a second-year journalism student at Northwestern University. I thought I’d skip a couple of days of class to fly home and see my father’s reading at the bar, but just before I had planned to book my ticket, I bombed a statistics midterm. It was the first time I’d screwed up on a test I had studied for, and I panicked. I called home, asked for advice about what to do, and talked myself into staying at school to focus on pulling up my grade. I got an A in the course, but looking back on that winter, the only thing I can remember is sitting through stats class the Tuesday morning before my father’s reading, and hating myself for missing his moment.Fortunately, I got a second chance. In October 2012, my father released The McSorley Poems Volume II: Light or Dark. He’d spent much of the previous five years chipping away at a second volume, which he planned to sell from behind the bar alongside the first book. Volume two begins with a miniature epic—a fourteen-page, 160-couplet poem depicting historical events in and around the bar from 1854 to 2011. From there, the collection features a familiar mix of verse devoted to McSorley characters and antiquities. The book is dedicated to me, and my father asked me to introduce him at the launch, another back-room Tuesday-evening affair at the bar.That night, I stood on a bank of seats in the corner near the kitchen and told a crowd full of McSorley’s regulars who’d known me since I was a toddler how proud I was of my father’s work. Then he stood up and read “Fathers and Sons,” which now trails only Gene Hall’s “Red” as my favorite McSorley poem:When I turned twenty-one my Dad took me here we got a good buzz on we actually talked, too I don’t know about what women, a job, the future the big hazy things that you don’t listen to your old man about anywayWell, ten years later I got the call to meet him he said to get the same table, if possible, and I did the one by the coal stove it was early November a gray quilt on the city I got cancer, he said it’ll kill me but not yetYou pick a special place to tell your son you’re dying, it’s that simple he knew I could go back and back again, though it’s not much to hold onto sit down with a couple ales and wonder at how fast all this shit disappearsIt’s probably not a perfect poem. But damn if it ain’t true to life. Every McSorley’s barman and woman has a story like this: the time a customer brought his ailing brother for what might be their last drink together, and the front-room waiter cleared an entire table of its customers so they could have some peace and quiet. McSorley’s is a place for rabble-rousing, a place where you can get kicked out for not drinking to excess, but it’s also a place where people come to share some of the most intimate moments of their lives. I don’t want to think of the day when my dad and I have to have a talk like the one in “Fathers and Sons,” but if it comes, I know where it will happen, and I know how much the time we spent working behind the bar together will have meant to us.[[{"fid":"6700346","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Behind the bar at McSorley's in 2006. ","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"Behind the bar at McSorley's in 2006. "},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Bart and Rafe behind the bar at McSorley's in 2006. ","title":"Bart and Rafe behind the bar at McSorley's in 2006. ","height":"1022","width":"1552","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Adapted from Two and Two: McSorley's, My Dad, and Me by Rafe Bartholomew, published May 2017 by Little, Brown and Company.
‘There is a Mercilessness About Talent’: An Interview with David Lipsky

A wide-ranging conversation with the journalist and author about David Foster Wallace, complicated relationships with writers you love, and how the Kardashians are like St. Elsewhere.

In February 1996, the writer David Lipsky went on a road trip with David Foster Wallace. Wallace had just published his thousand-page magnum opus Infinite Jest and was finishing up a three-week book tour; Lipsky was there to chronicle the trip for Rolling Stone.The article would never get published. Lipsky was sent on several time-sensitive assignments following the road trip, and by the time he got around to writing his profile on Wallace, too much time had passed and his editors decided to kill the piece. But when Wallace died by suicide in 2008, Lipsky pulled out the cassette tapes he had saved. The transcriptions from those interviews would become a book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.The book served as the basis for The End of the Tour, a 2015 film directed by James Ponsoldt, with Jason Segel starring as David Foster Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg playing David Lipsky. Though several aspects of the movie have been dramatized, almost all of Wallace’s dialogue has come directly from his real life conversations with Lipsky.The film was recently screened in Toronto, as part of TIFF’s ongoing Books on Film series. Lipsky was there to introduce the film, and followed the screening with a conversation with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel. We met the next morning to talk one-on-one before he had to go back to New York. Sharing a smoke outside his hotel before we began, he peppered me with questions about what it was like to be a young writer in Canada today. “I think Hazlitt assigned me this interview because I wrote something about Infinite Jest for them once,” I said, as he lit my cigarette with a match. “Well, it was sort of about the book, but it was mostly about myself.”“Yeah, that happens,” he laughed in response.The real David Lipsky is nothing like Eisenberg’s mildly neurotic portrayal in the movie. He is tall and solid, with a focused gaze. He speaks in paragraphs, picking his words carefully, and can recall precise literary quotes perfectly. He’s also a lot of fun to talk to, both open to being challenged and willing to challenge my own ideas. During the hour we spent in the lobby of the Hyatt, I do a lot of things you’re not supposed to do when interviewing another person. I interrupt him, a lot, and talk over myself, in a way that would later become a mess to transcribe. I was excited to have him hear my ideas during the limited time we had; during our hour-long interview, his publicist comes over and politely informs us no fewer than three times that his driver is outside, circling the block, waiting to take him to the airport.When I turn my recorder on, he asks me about the transcription program I use. This is where our conversation starts.*Anna Fitzpatrick: You can just transfer the recording to your computer, and then I do my own transcribing, which is why this [gestures to his book] looks like a nightmare.David Lipsky: [laughs] It was actually very fun.Not the conversation. But listening to your own voice.It's like a video game. You get the transcriptions back from the people at Rolling Stone, and they would often get things wrong.Like Lorrie Moore and Jay McInerney. [In the book, Lipsky points out both their names were spelled wrong by his transcribers.]Exactly, yeah yeah yeah.You have this comment, like, that's the extent of literary fame.The transcribers don't know who they are!I'm going to keep shoving my recorder towards you.Yeah, I know, of course. When Eisenberg and I were talking about him being in the movie and he was asking how to seem like a journalist, I said the key thing you want to do when you're interviewing somebody, when they're saying something that you think is good, what you'll do is you'll look down quickly to make sure [the recorder is] getting it, and the audience won't even realize they're noticing you doing it, but they'll know you've liked something because you'll look quickly down.After last night’s screening, during the question-and-answer portion, people were like, "That character seemed shady," and someone yelled out, "He seemed manipulative." And I'm like, no, he's a reporter! He never lied, he was never undercover, like, "I'm here to be your friend." He was, from the beginning, there to do his job. People have this idea that what he's doing is shady, but I'm like, "You would have read the article. You saw the movie. You're the consumer." People don't question how reporters do their job.That's interesting. That was one of the things I think I was saying yesterday. I think Eleanor Wachtel asked what the piece would have been like, and I said one of the things I loved about it being like this, you'll know from doing this piece, the transcript will be about 9,000, 10,000 words if you're lucky. It might be worse. And then you will write like, a thousand words, 1,500 words. There's a lot of stuff I'll say, and you'll just decide which one sounds better for the piece.And I will make myself sound better too, by cutting out a lot of interjections.Exactly. But this, it was just like, here's everything he said. I'm not going to say, "I think this is where he's really saying what he feels, and when he said this here, he didn't really feel that." So I kind of love that.Do you meet a lot of hard-core David Foster Wallace heads, doing this?I do. But I had met them before this.And you were one.Of course. And that was the only nice thing about his not writing anymore—suddenly there were conventions. People started to get together to talk about his stuff. I hadn't been aware of that community before. Although there was a community that actually existed for a long time. It's called Wallace L, it's a listserv. Do you know what listservs are?I know it's an Internet thing.It's a shared email group where people will talk to each other. And I think that's been going since about 2000. And I read once that Wallace went on, checked it out, it was very weird for him, he got off very quickly.I read Infinite Jest two years ago; I've only read the whole way through once. And I kind of binge-read it, I just went for it, almost in one sitting. When I was doing some research last night, I was trying to remember some of the characters, who was who. And I Googled, and there were so many glossaries and page-by-page breakdowns of who everyone was.Isn’t that wild?When did you first read it?I was reading it before I got assigned to Illinois. I think I started reading it the day it became available. I was just reading it as a fan. I think February 6, was when I got it.You were interviewing him two weeks into the tour, so you had to power through it.But I had been reading it before, I guess the movie is wrong about that. He's reading it reluctantly, but it was more, "Hey, his book is out, thank god!" You were saying it seems like New York is a bigger literary world than Canada, but it's pretty similar in that you're aware of books coming in.I go to New York a couple of times a year, and everyone knows everyone.Exactly. And we had heard, when the book was turned in, that they thought it was too long. And so then, it was held—we had heard it was going to come out in 1995, so we were all very excited about it. People I knew were reading him, and then it was delayed, so that gave us a chance to try to get him on the hot list, which was kind of nice, and then it when it came out I just ran down to Barnes and Noble and got it and was just reading it very happily.You were immersed in it?It was great. It was very funny.He says in your interview, it takes two months to read well. I read it in three days, but I read it like cocaine. I woke up—I mean, I was crazy at the time—I woke up and just started reading it, right until I went to bed, and then woke up again. It took a few days like that. And it's what you two talk about in the book, about finding the right addiction. Not being able to look away. For a short time, that was it for me.It was very funny to leave Illinois and then end up in Seattle, living with the needle addicts [for Lipsky's following piece in Rolling Stone], because … now we're around people who are actual addicts. But yeah, if you're liking the book, you're going to want to read it as quickly as possible. So I wonder if the book is really working if a person could do it in the two-month version that he would love. I hadn't thought about that.How long did you take to read it? It must have been pretty quick.About a week. And then when I've read it since, I tend to read it in a week or two. I think that my cumulative reading time, though, may add up to two months. Maybe I'm doing it in the way he wanted me to do it.When you're reading something quickly, with all the characters, you have to flip back a lot, but you're so immersed in that world. It flows a lot better.It's very funny. That has never been my reading experience, two months. Let's say I've read it ... [pauses, thinks] I've read it four times. Let's say the outside reading is two weeks, that means it adds up to two months. As long as I don't read it again, I have hit the two-month mark that he wanted.You picked Jesse Eisenberg for the movie. He doesn't look a ton like you. In the scenes in the movie where you see the older version, he kinda reminded me of Jonathan Franzen.[laughs] I can see that.What drew you to Jesse?He's a writer. If you were going to be doing that role, you had to seem like you really cared about words. I read his pieces in The New Yorker, but I also knew that he wrote plays, and from talking to him I could tell he was somebody who really cared about how he really sounded on the page and also in person, and cared about words. And so I thought that if he was talking, in a movie that was going to be people talking about words all the time, it had to be someone who knew how that felt. In a way, that was the only choice.What about Jason Segel, did you have any say in that?Yeah, we talked about it, it was great. He is physically right. You wouldn't think there would be a connection, but when I had seen I Love You, Man, one of the things that had really struck me about that movie is in that movie he dresses very much like Wallace. Wallace very much loved to wear really soft things. Friends of his would say if they had a really worn T-shirt, he would say, "That's a good looking T-shirt," and suddenly he would say, "Could I...?" And then years later, he would be wearing that T-shirt. So I remember watching that movie when it came out in 2006 or 2007, and thinking God, Segel moves and is dressed just like David.There was pushback when he was cast. People were like, "Oh, this comedy bro is playing this literary genius."I remember when that happened—there was that photo of him at the Mall of America. I thought that was funny, because that's one of the things the movie ends up being about, and one of the things David talks about. One of the things that he talks about in the book too is, people have a strange idea of how writers look, you know what I mean? Jason Segel has written his own movies, right? He's obviously an intelligent person. But their idea of someone who should be a writer is, I guess, someone who would look like, very heavy glasses or something like that, who's dressed in a tight fitting—I guess I'm visualizing Max Perkins. I'm visualizing an editor and not a writer. But in a way it showed one of the things the movie is about in a very fun way, which is, writers aren't really the way you'd expect.Did you ever watch Freaks and Geeks?You know, all my friends loved that. People I'm very close to are always telling me to watch that show. I didn't like it for a very strange reason. It's a problem that I also have with Stranger Things. Movies or TV shows that are set in the past, sometimes the people who do the costume design, I guess they'll look at old footage and they'll get the clothes right, but the clothes will always look like they were made somewhere that day and they were just opened. And so in your brain you're like, okay, every scene that's taking place in the morning, you have to add the one hour shopping everyone did, because what everyone's wearing in every scene looks new. I find that very distracting.The reason I was asking about Freaks and Geeks is because Becky Ann Baker had that role in the movie—she plays the mom in Freaks and Geeks. When she and Jason Segel were on the screen together, I didn't know if that was like, a reference.I wonder! You know, [director] James Ponsoldt is someone who loves that kind of thing. He did that kind of stuff with the soundtrack. One of the things he was very proud of was the REM that you hear, the ones [from] Murmur? So I bet that would be like a smile of his.Well, there is that moment where you see Jason Segel, the actor known for Freaks and Geeks, playing David Foster Wallace, talking about Blade Runner, while "Gold Soundz" by Pavement was on the radio, and I thought, "This is every Gen X stereotype." And I thought it was funny, because he was sitting next to Jesse Eisenberg, who is famous for playing the Facebook guy, which is such a millennial role.So the two generations shake hands.And now we do have this constant stream of information, we have a reality TV star who is president. What do you think David Foster Wallace would say about today?He said that in the thing—he said if America went through a bad period, there would be some knuckle-dragging fundamentalist saying all the old bad stuff. So he gets it right. I kept thinking about that part throughout the campaign.There are so many prescient moments in the book. Some of his predictions are so accurate, but others—it's a very pre-9/11 book. He talks about how there's this moment in every generation that forces them to wake up, and he's writing a book that's so contemporary but very much of the ‘90s.He was right about that, wasn't he? But do you think 9/11—you're saying, it seems pre-9/11. You think if he were writing it now, he would take it into account—in the time after 9/11, there was a great deal of conversation about that. But then it just disappeared.People don't talk about 9/11 anymore in a way that I actually find strange. In a way, it's created the historical version of a fad. We were thinking about that a lot, and it's one of the ways we remember that period. But it didn't seem to have the effect really on the culture.But even if we're not talking about it, it's still—I mean, I was a kid when 9/11 happened. I didn't get the magnitude of it at the time. But I feel a lot of the big pop culture moments of the late ‘90s, things like Fight Club and other movies are all about, "What's our purpose?" and "What are we doing?" But in the 2000s there's a lot more about, "We're at war, we've gotta fight the terrorists." People don't talk about 9/11, but we have a president who based his campaign on fighting "bad hombres."After 9/11, people started saying it was the death of irony. But there was a moment people were saying a lot of the stuff in the culture isn't really worth our time. Time is limited, and this is a world where if we have excess time we might want to put it in things that are valuable and meaningful. And then the explosion of the Kardashians would end that decade, suggesting that 9/11 had moved out of public consciousness. David's funny about that too because he said you don't want to be serious all the time, and sometimes a good commercial novel is just what you have the perfect mental budget for. But it was nice to think of people saying, "Look, if we're going to have a book, it would great if it was stuff that was actually really good." And then it was just like, "Hey, the Kardashians are pretty fun to watch."I've read some great writing inspired by the Kardashians.Like what?I'm biased ‘cause I feel like I have such a different relationship to culture than you because I grew up with the Internet, and I grew up in this different world. But I like this idea that Kim Kardashian is someone who was famous because she had this sex tape leaked, and she repurposed that into building this empire. It's very capitalist, but she kind of took the narrative back.That's amazingly cool, right? That's a little bit like an Edith Wharton character, Undine Spragg, who was the lead in the book The Custom of the Country. That kind of stuff is great. It's not that things shouldn't be fun, it's just like ... so I mean, you're saying you like her achievements, right?I'm not a Kardashian fan. Like, I've never watched the show, or paid attention to their interviews. But I've read a lot of smart cultural commentary, because they're connected to everything now. I was watching the OJ miniseries on FX...That's a very funny scene!And they're very involved in every pop culture moment! They're this dynasty, the family is so large. Every news item ... last week, everyone was talking about that Pepsi commercial controversy with Kendall Jenner. Then there's Kim, who's married to the most famous rapper alive, and Caitlyn Jenner who has become an icon of trans rights but also a major Republican—So remember when you were asking about Wallace's predictions? Isn't that like a Wallace novel?That's just it! When you ask if I like the Kardashians, I think that's irrelevant. They're the best indicator of mainstream culture in 2017, of where we are now for better or for worse.That's true. But you can say certainly that they marked the end of seriousness, of where we've taken the culture after 9/11.Sure.But they are a really good indicator in this sense of where the culture is going. But that's right, there's an overall cultural theory of the Kardashians. There was a very funny chart someone once made of, there's a very old show called St. Elsewhere.Is that the one where it's all in the guy's mind at the end?For fun, a lot of show runners have linked, they've used law firms that were mentioned on St. Elsewhere, or characters that were mentioned—Like, crossover episodes.Yeah. They've done that long after St. Elsewhere, which suggests there's a unified theory of all television pop culture that's all taking place in this kid’s mind as he's watching the snow globe.I don't know anything about that show, but I've heard that theory.That is the conceptual version of the Kardashian domination of North America.In the movie, they have it that Jesse Eisenberg's character, it's weird to call him “Lipsky” in front of you, he was trying to sell Rolling Stone on this pitch, but in real life you were assigned it. You’ve said you were reluctant to take it because, what if you didn't like him the way you liked his book? But a lot of the film is about you trying to impress him, and him trying to impress you. Was it just that you were scared of not liking him? Were you also concerned about him not liking you?In this kind of transaction, right, let's say you don't like me. I'm supposed to be talking. You have some sense of my personality. So if it's like, "That guy sucks," [laughs] do you know what I mean? But if you get the sense that I walked away thinking, "I didn't like Anna," right? Well, it's like, "I wasn't really being me anyway. I was partially being me, but it was an hour inside … not even a coffee shop, a split glass table bar that's closed at the Hyatt, and that wasn't really me." You know what I mean?But I'm a writer interviewing a writer. Even if you don't get a sense of who I am, you'll know my professional skills, and I want you to be impressed by me.But when you were sitting down, when you were thinking about this, it wasn't like, "I hope he has a warm impression of me." Your thinking is, "I wonder if he says some asshole thing. I'm going to have to listen to him on tape." And if you've read someone's books and you love them, you don't want to then look at that part of your bookshelf for a while. Like, I think Martin Amis is a really, really great prose writer. But a friend of mine and I went to a cocktail party in the middle part of the ‘90s when a big book of his was coming out, and my friend was a producer of a PBS show about writers and Amis had cancelled that day because he was ill or something. Then we went to that party and there was Amis. And Amis looked at my friend, and he didn't say, "I feel better." What he said is, and I can't do his accent, [does an incredible Amis impression] "Sorry I cooled your show." And that made it hard to read him for a couple of years, and I really like reading him. So that's one of the things you would think, if there's a writer who becomes, you know, there are—with TV, there are five hundred, a thousand channels. I don't know how many channels are up here—I don't own a TV. Not in a David Foster Wallace way, I just have the Internet.I had the same thing, I was in the hotel this morning watching TV. I thought, "I never watch TV this way! I'm watching the news! This is fascinating!" But for reading it's very much the old system, like you have one of those channel changers you have to turn with your hand. You maybe only have five or ten channels. So if you lose a channel, something that you love to read, that can be a serious problem. He was doing great stuff, and so the idea that I might come away from that thinking “I don't like this person” meant that there was something I love to read that I couldn't read anymore. And also, now that I'm thinking about it, if I also had the impression that he didn't like me, that would have made it a social embarrassment, and that also would have been a reason not to read. If I had gone there and thought, "God, this guy is really dismissive, and he didn't seem to care about my opinions, or he didn't care about whether I was having fun..." But he was an excellent host. It's very early in the thing, but I had gone to his class, and he came and he brought me a glass of water. That's one of the things he was very smart about. If you have extra brain capacity, if you just turn it inward, it can be very painful in a way. That's one of the ways I understand depression. But the other way you can use it, which is kind, is you can just become an excellent host."Morality is what you don't feel bad about after." Who says that again?That was Hemingway. [Real quote: "About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."]I find it rare to really love a writer. But I always find that I'm overwhelmed with things to read, and maybe it's an Internet thing, maybe because I know what's out there, or when I scroll through Twitter I'm clicking on links of things to read. This is a specific experience, but I find there's this idea of people looking for excuses to cast certain writers aside. David Eggers had this piece, that you only have so much time to consume so many things in a day. When information is accessible, you're aware of what you're not consuming, what everyone is reading and you're not. So if you can be like, "Well, I was going to read him, but he's an asshole, so I'm not going to."What do you make of that?Well, I've done it too! I read The Corrections when I was nineteen or twenty, and I didn't really relate to it. It opens with Chip as a professor, and he's talking to his student that he wants to sleep with—Melissa Pacquette.I remember relating to her the most, more than Chip.Melissa's very cool! She takes him down.I just wanted to read more about her. I just didn't get immersed in the rest of the book.Huh. I love that book.Everyone does! It's a book that's been canonized, it has won awards. I read it because of the hype. But I didn't love it. I didn't love the writing. I didn't have a desire to keep reading him, at least not at that point in my life. I thought, maybe I'll revisit when I'm older. Within the next year, Freedom was coming out, and everyone was talking about how you have to read this book, and I didn't have any interest in it. But then people started to be critical of Franzen, because he became this symbol for the white male literary establishment. He said a few things that weren't bad, just a little tone deaf. And suddenly my view was less, "I don't connect much to Franzen, so I'm going to choose to read these other writers instead," it was, "Franzen is bad and also old, therefore I don't have to read him."Do you think that will change?I think it's good that people have more options, and that they don't have to read the one writer everyone else is. But because of Franzen, I know who Nell Zink is, and I love her.That was very nice, wasn't it?I'm grateful to him for that!And she likes his stuff! She reached out to him.A lot of my friends love him.There are two things I want to say about that. One is, I was talking to an interviewer last year and they were saying that they hated Franzen and I asked why, because I was thinking some of the same stuff, not as well as you were putting it just now. They were saying he's bad for young writers. And this guy said, because he speaks badly of Twitter, and he can do that because he's established. But in this world where there are so many channels right now, one way that people who aren't being supported by magazines the way he was being supported, one way they can do it is by getting their name out on Twitter. And for him to say he doesn't like it or you shouldn't read it is a way of almost cutting out almost a whole generation of people who are trying to get their names out.The only reason I have a job is because of Twitter. I was … eighteen? … when I made my account. Almost nine years now. Jesus.My guess is, he doesn't know that. Because it hadn't occurred to me.I don't think he said anything truly offensive. He's not Donald Trump, you know? But I think maybe a lot of young writers don't connect to him, or maybe he's speaking to a certain generation, and I don't think that's a bad thing either. Not every writer needs to be everything for everyone. But I like that there are more options. When I was in high school, I learned the greats were Hemingway and Salinger and Fitzgerald. Dead white men.And not Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro and Joan Didion and Renata Adler.I'm Canadian and I didn't read Alice Munro until I was in my twenties! Hemingway drives me crazy, but I love Hemingway. And Fitzgerald drives me crazy, but same. All these writers I think are both frustrating and great at the same time, they don't have to be everything.Going to the initial thing you were saying, you won't just say this guy's a bad writer, or this woman is, her novel didn't work. Like Lorrie Moore's last book, A Gate at the Stairs. The first part was great, and then ... well, I won't say anything bad about Lorrie on tape. But then the second half wasn't that great. And you could just say, you have to read Lorrie Moore's stories. But instead of saying that, you could say Lorrie Moore's politics are bad, or she's bad on this issue, and that's why you shouldn't read her. I think that kind of thing is not entirely a new thing, and the reason why that's reassuring, it means that kind of thing goes away sometimes too. There's a writer I love named V.S. Naipaul, who is a great writer who is very smart on colonialism.You quoted him last night. "Writers are not their work, they're their myth."Joan Didion was a big fan of his, and she was reviewing a book of his, in I think '79 or '80. And I went back because, here's a writer I love writing on a writer I love, that's always a great thing. And she said, look, we're in one of those periods right now where all reading is political. And that will change, and then people can just talk about whether they like their work or not. And I didn't think about that time as being a time when people were picking the writers they were going to listen to for political reasons. That was fascinating, because that means by the later ‘80s, certainly by the time David was writing, that was gone. Which means, this cycle might be gone too.I think politics are linked to writing in a lot of ways, too. The way I see it, your politics are related to your beliefs and your writing is related to your beliefs—But you like Fitzgerald, right?I do. And I like Joan Didion, and a lot of her politics I disagree with.But her basic politics I agree with. She was very smart on 9/11. She wrote a great piece on 9/11 which was published independently. It was in the New York Review of Books in 2003, it was very smart on the issue. With Fitzgerald, one of the few novels I will read from the ‘30s is Tender is the Night . Have you read that book?Is that the one with Dick Diver?Yes.I remember that because it's a good porn name.Did you like it?Again, I don't like talking about books I liked or didn't in such an either/or way.Fine. Did you enjoy parts of it?I enjoyed parts of it. I got stuff out of it. I'm glad I read it.That's one of the books that's still alive. One of the ways I think about movies and books is, is it still alive, or is it not still alive? Like, Lord of the Rings, when you were a kid, people were talking about those movies? They aren't alive anymore. No one's watching them. The Matrix, great movie, is still alive. The sequels do not seem to be still alive. Fitzgerald's work is still alive.When he wrote Tender is the Night, he spent five years on it. Getting that book written under the circumstances he got it written under is an act of heroism for a writer. When he came out, The New Republic, which was the main reviewing organ at that time, they didn't review it saying, "Is it good, is it bad, are there things we like in it or didn't like in it?" They thought it wasn't sufficiently anti-capitalist for the way the political environment was. So their lead, one of the things in the first paragraph was, "you can't hide from a hurricane under a beach umbrella, Mr. Fitzgerald." Which strikes me as not always the right way to read something, but it also tells you it was a time of very political reading in the ‘30s, going into the early ‘40s, then that changed. And then we got the Salinger stuff or the Nabokov stuff in the '50s, which isn't being read politically. It's being read as, there are politics, then there is writing, and this writing can be very nourishing for your brain and how you want to act to people. Now your politics can be in there too, but this will be a different kind of nourishment for you. But by the ‘70s then, Joan Didion is saying we're back in the cycle where all reading is political again. Then that cycle goes out and you have writers like Lorrie Moore, and writers like Franzen, and writers like Renata Adler in the later '70s, and like Wallace.Renata Adler, she's also a Republican, right?My guess is that she would be centre left. Is she a Republican? That's what I mean, you don't want to know that about someone.I've only read Speedboat—An amazing book, right? There's a story of Wallace's called the “Suffering Channel,” it's like his last very long piece. You would love it. It's the last story in Oblivion . Throughout my book, I keep trying to tell David, you should read Renata Adler. It's a great book. And he's like, "Okay, maybe I'll read it, if you read The Screwtape Letters, I'll read Speedboat." And I never knew if he read it or not, but I visited the Ransom Center where they have his papers, and they had a mock up of his bookshelf. There was Speedboat. So I asked if I could look at it, because I was curious about whether he liked it. I took it out, and what was thrilling to me was, you know how in the opening of a book you have these blank pages? He had written sentences and paragraphs for "The Suffering Channel" in Speedboat while he was reading it. Since that's the last story in his last book of fiction, I felt kind of great about that. It was like, wow, he liked it after all. And it led to something else of his I like to read.When you were talking about a political critique of Tender is the Night, you said people had a problem with the fact that it wasn't anti-capitalist enough. But when I think of a political reading of Tender, I think of how he took so much from Zelda and then sort of cast her aside. That's how I think political reading has changed. Like, Infinite Jest was the first thing of Wallace's that I had read, and everyone was telling me, "Oh, you gotta read his nonfiction." So I read Consider the Lobster, and it starts with "Big Red Son" [Wallace’s essay on attending a porn awards ceremony]. And I found it unbelievably frustrating! I found he had projected a lot. I counted the pages until he actually talked to a woman in that piece.Yeah. I'm trying to think of a woman he talks to. Maybe people in the booths?He makes so many assumptions about the porn stars and performers. And it was in many ways a funny piece, with a lot of great portions, but what I loved about his fiction is the way he was able to get in the heads of so many people. I love Infinite Jest so much, but I had to put his nonfiction aside for a while.That's what I was talking about, when I was talking about meeting authors.There are two things I want to say, and I want to get back to Fitzgerald. If you look at the stories in Girl With Curious Hair, which is the first way that we started reading him, that was great, because it was really funny, and really smart. But his work got really lush, five or six years afterwards, and then it got great. The period when he is about halfway through Infinite Jest to the end of his career, his work is great, but it makes a huge jump, and that kind of thing can happen when you're writing more. If you read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again , you see how he's writing in 1993, which is his first Wallace-y essay he writes for Harper’s, and then you see what he's writing by 1996, you see an amazing development in three years. You will not like as much the earlier pieces. If you think, would I really be following this writer? I'm not sure what your answer would be. But by the end you think, this is the best person writing prose right now. So those things can be very quick. I think for him, he found the writing of Infinite Jest so immersive that it made his reading and it made his writing unbelievably stronger. And that happens when you spend that kind of time with him.The second thing has to do with what you're saying about Tender is the Night . You were angry at him for using Zelda—I wasn't angry —But you were aware of that. It was part of your interrogation of the novel. You were aware of his situation with Zelda. There's a very funny thing that Philip Roth, who used people in his life as fictional fuel, likes to quote by the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz: "When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished." You know that quote, right? Every time Philip Roth would go on CBC or on NPR, he would find a way to bring that in. You would hear about two minutes before, when it would occur to Philip Roth to use that line, and then within about 120 seconds he would say, "Well, Czesław Miłosz says..." And I remember thinking about Roth's family, or the people that Renata Adler knew, and there are some scenes that seem to be from her family life in the early part of Speedboat. Like that thing where everyone kisses the pig, because that's one of the ways Austrians celebrate the New Year. I assumed her family is Austrian. I thought about John Updike, and I thought about how well I had gotten to know his family from reading. And I thought about "Pigeon Feathers," these dark funny stories. He grew up sort of poor, in rural Pennsylvania, outside of a small Pennsylvania city, in a place called Plowville. I think it's called Firetown in the books? But that still exists. He's dead, his family's dead, but like Zelda, we know about Zelda because Fitzgerald wrote about her in The Beautiful and Damned and This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night . So it's not when a writer is born into a family, the family's finished: When a writer is born into a family, the family is saved, because their life and what they're like as a person can be preserved.She was saved until she died in a mental institution fire.Of course. But she still exists because he wrote about her, what he loved and didn't love about her. And that's one of the reasons, if he had only written about her positively, or hadn't written about her at all, she would have been lost.But she wrote, too. I don't think she was as strong a writer as Fitzgerald. I think very few people are. But she wrote, too.I'm smiling because I saw … I didn't want to read gossip. But you know how the algorithm shows what you want to read? One of the things that my phone was offering me was Dominick Dunne, who's a writer for Vanity Fair, his feud with the Didions. It was John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, and I kind of loved that, because in that partnership, John Gregory is not nearly as strong a writer as Joan Didion. So you were saying, you're not sure if she was as strong a writer as Fitzgerald—But she was still writing. I think, you say, people know her because of F. Scott, which is true, but people know his interpretation of her. I think a lot of her self got lost through that interpretation, even though he was a strong writer. She's known through her association with him, and I think part of that is a consequence from having a relationship with someone famous, but I think a lot of it really is that people don't remember women as much.Have you ever read Elizabeth Hardwick? She's a great essayist.I haven't.There's a book she writes about this topic called Seduction and Betrayal, and she has a great essay about Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, exactly talking about what you were discussing. It's thrilling to read, by the way.I think there is a lot of vindication happening right now, with a lot of feminist theorists rereading and re-examining the women in certain men's lives, especially women writers.You would love that book, especially about Dorothy Wordsworth. I mean, it's a thrilling essay. There are two essays that are thrilling in that book. The other is about the Carlyles. Carlyle was a right-wing historian who everybody [loved]—like, Emerson loved him. But the Wordsworth one, it's almost a weird duplication of the Fitzgerald situation in a way. Like, she had an amazing ability to perceive how rocks looked, or how it felt to be walking up a hill, but she didn't have her brother William's grasp of the right words to express that. So in a way, one of the things Hardwick is arguing is that, the work is kind of joint, in a way. But on the other hand, and she argues this too, like, that wouldn't have existed at all without him—William and Dorothy always shared quarters and stuff. It is very much on what you're talking about. And Zelda, they coauthored, if you know their lives, they coauthored a lot of stuff. And one way that Fitzgerald helped her to get her pieces in was saying, look, if you want to publish me, she hasn't been writing as long, and so you have to publish her as well. She wouldn't have published as much, and she wouldn't have published Save Me the Waltz with Scribner had she not been married to him.But it still happens, like—okay, this is more complicated, because you knew these people, but if you look on Mary Karr's Wikipedia page, under "personal life," it says, "She had a short relationship with David Foster Wallace. He tried to push her out of a moving car." And that's the whole section. [Note: Her Wikipedia has since been updated.] And she's doing fine telling her own story, but when I read that, I was like, "Wait, what?"So the main thing in “personal life” is about somebody else.It's one sentence, and it's about being pushed out of a moving car. That's fucked up.But the great thing about Wikipedia is you can add more about her personal life if you want to.You're right. But to bring it back to Fitzgerald, I don't think this is about him being a bad person—I mean, we all know he had his problems. I don't think he was bad for writing about Zelda. I don't think that people of that era were bad people for being more interested in his work than hers. I just think it's all just parts of a whole, the way certain voices get prioritized in history, and others tend to be less amplified. I think that is changing with how people approach things politically, and the Internet making resources available, and ... you look like you disagree. [laughs]I was thinking, you really should read that Elizabeth Hardwick book.I will!Here's what I thought. I thought, "Anna's not going to read that book."I'm going to read that book! I know New York Review of Books republished a bunch of her stuff recently, and I love them.They republished Seduction and Betrayal.I trust everything they publish.If you have a subscription with NYRB, you can just go online and download that essay on Dorothy. But I don't think that's an issue about politics. I think that's an issue about the mercilessness of talent. Like, I read things Joan Didion wrote in 1965, don't care about the politics anymore, I just want to hear her voice. I was reading an essay that she wrote—has a great title, it's called, "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind"—about the movie industry. I'm just reading it because I want to be inside her head. It's about these movies that I've never watched or would never watch, like Judgement of Nuremberg or Ship of Fools, but I just want to have the pleasure. Like, I haven't read Joan Didion for a few days, and my brain is telling me in this piece she's especially funny or especially alive, and I want to be back in that headspace, and so I'm going to reread it. And John Gregory Dunne was also a writer, and he was writing novels and essays throughout that period. I've never read one of his books. I don't think it was especially hard for him, being her spouse, I just think, my sense of what I want to read is leading me toward Joan and not toward John. And that is a mercilessness, in a way, about talent.But not every talented person is going to get published.That's what Hardwick's essay is about. [laughs] So, my mom has been on a 19th century jag for a while. She didn't necessarily want to read Middlemarch because it's very long. And she very much loves Emerson and Nietzsche. I kept saying, "You really should read Middlemarch." And then she read it, and she was fucking thrilled. And she read Mill on the Floss, she read Daniel Deronda, she read—She had to use a male pseudonym to get those books published!But here's the thing! Everyone knew that she was George Eliot. I mean, the weird thing is, I've forgotten her real name.Mary ... something. [laughs]Mary Evans, I think? But she found a way. Like, she had to publish under a male name, as did all the Brontes. Currer and Acton Bell. But they found a way to get their work out, even when it was much harder. The other way to look at it is, even though it was much harder for a woman to be a writer in the 19th century, their talent found a way. So that's why, in a situation like Zelda, it's like, if the Bronte sisters could find a way for all three of them to publish, I imagine that we're getting the best sense of Zelda's talent, even though it certainly wasn't great being married to Scott Fitzgerald. And it wasn't just like, that's just a weird taste we have now. George Eliot was seen as the preeminent writer of that era. Do you know what I mean?I do. But I'm saying it's harder for her than it would have been for a man.But she got it done!She did get it done. Marginalized voices are always getting it done. I'm just saying, there are more barriers.Imagine what it took for her to convince people to publish her, right? And not to do poems. I went and saw the Emily Dickinson show in New York. They have the first show of her manuscripts right now in the Morgan Library. It was hard for her to publish in the way we're talking about. George Eliot was writing mammoth books. That must have been difficult for people to take a buyer on at that time. But for every group that's in the process of not being as marginalized by these shitty people that control stuff, the people like ... for Henry Roth to be publishing in the 1930s, or Philip Roth to be publishing in the ‘50s, that was hard. Or for Richard Wright to be publishing in the ‘40s, or James Baldwin as a gay black man to be publishing in the ‘50s, their talent finds a way to push through it. That's a great thing about libraries. In a way, they're democracies of talent. It's one of the reasons I feel, when I visualize an ideal Borgesian library, it feels like a democracy to me in a way that it doesn't feel like a democracy to you.It's a democracy to an extent. But I feel there are writers that we're never going to get to know. Again, I don't think it's an either/or thing, where it's either a democracy or it's not.Do you remember when Gay Talese said a very strange thing about female nonfiction writers last spring? He said, "I like Joan Didion, but I like people who hang around with those characters." And it's like, Joan Didion, she was hanging out with the Manson family! When did you hang out with the Manson family? But like, Joan Didion, have you read The White Album?I have.Like, she's hanging out with the Panthers. She's being waved by a guy armed with a shotgun up to a room with other people with shotguns, and that would have been hard for her. Would have been hard for me. But she really wanted to write that piece. I guess I may have more faith in editors and readers than it seems like you do.I think talent will prevail, but not always. I don't want you to think I'm this cynical person. I'm a little cynical, but also optimistic about a lot of it.Okay, but I was talking 19th century British fiction, and it's very funny because it's like, aside from Dickens, anyone who was writing British fiction who was any good was a woman. It wasn't because people wanted to highlight female voices. They did the best work. And that's what I mean. Think about how stuffy Victorian Britain was. That wouldn't be how they wanted to present themselves, but it's very hard to be dishonest with yourself about your taste. I don't watch Freaks and Geeks because it irritates me that their T-shirts are too fresh, right? People's reading tastes, even at the time, they were like, "This is the best stuff we're going to read." So I do have a lot of faith in the honesty of people when they're reading alone with a book, and they're looking at the page, and they're thinking, does this feel alive to me, and does this make my own life alive to me?There's this great thing that Proust said about writing. He said he meant his long book to be an optical instrument in which the reader would read their own life. Isn't that great? That is what books do. They give you a way to read your own life. If the lens, if what Proust called the optical instrument, if it's not working, you don't see the writer's life, and you don't see your own life, and you can't really lie to yourself about whether that optical instrument is working or not. And that's why you would end up, with 19th century British fiction, with all the writers aside from Dickens being female because they were doing the best work, because they were the ones who let you see the world and your own life more clearly than you could without it.I start to ask him what he’s reading right now, but his publicist approaches us again. We are twenty minutes over the time limit, and he has to go. As he’s putting his coat on and going out the door, he tells me about J.M. Coetzee’s latest and the new Laura Kipniss, and, also, that I really should check out that Elizabeth Hardwick.