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Rothko at the Inauguration

A story of America in three scams.

 I  “Hereinafter, The Painting” I saw the fake one first, years ago, printed out in a report tacked on to a court filing out of New York City. There were two pictures on the first page, two sides of a painting, back and front. On the left, two rectangles, black over crimson on a background of lighter red. On the right, a wooden stretcher bisected by a crossbar. The edges of a canvas, folded over and stapled, were visible along the edge. There was a name on the back, too, and a date, written in fuzzy, impasto caps: “MARK ROTHKO/1956.”  It was the spring of 2013. I was thirty-one years old and had just moved in with the woman I would marry. I had come to Toronto two years earlier for a minimum wage magazine job at the tail end of a depression that had, for the fourth or fifth time in my twenties, scrambled my life and left me starting from what felt like scratch. Every story seemed like a last opportunity then, a last chance to prove something to myself, about who I could be and what I could do with my life. Looking at that report, I didn’t know that it would be a story, though I thought it might be. I certainly didn’t think I’d be puzzling over it for the next eight years. It was written by a kind of fine art scientist named James Martin. It described his analysis of a 50-inch by 40-inch oil painting, Untitled, 1956.  “Hereinafter” the report said, “the “Painting”.” It was ten pages long. It broke down primers and pigments and binders. It looked at crossbar marks and the history of paint. It came to a stark conclusion. The painting, which the oldest art gallery in New York had sold to a Gucci magnate for $8.3 million, was a fraud. It wasn’t a Rothko. He didn’t paint it. Not “in 1956 or any other date.” *** In November 2011, not long after he joined the New York Observer, a newspaper then owned by a thirty-year-old Jared Kushner, Michael H. Miller, an art reporter sitting on about $100,000 in student debt, received a short press release from the offices of M. Knoedler & Co., a 146-year-old art gallery on the Upper East Side. The note was barely three sentences long. It announced that, effective immediately, the gallery, which was older than the Metropolitan Museum of Art and had survived the Civil War and the Great Depression, would permanently close. The news, and the manner of its delivery, came as a shock in the New York art world and even inside the gallery itself. “It really seemed from the outside…like people just showed up that morning and had no idea that they were going to close,” Miller said. Knoedler wasn’t the largest or the wealthiest gallery in New York. It wasn’t Gagosian, or Pace. But it was a fixture, in the city and the scene. “It was absolutely top tier, but a little bit like a dowager lady,” said Pepe Karmel, an art historian at NYU. Knoedler had been the gallery of choice for the robber barons of the 1920s. It exhibited and sold works by the likes of Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet. “Everything they did was first rate and top drawer,” Karmel, said. “It was a key part of New York City history.” That’s what made the sudden closure so strange. The recession was over. The high-end art market was booming. The very rich, the only customers who really matter in art, were doing fine. And in the space of three sentences, with no forewarning, in the middle of an exhibition, the oldest, most storied gallery in the city was done. “A lot of galleries at that time were closing, but nothing of the stature of Knoedler. That seemed kind of impossible,” Miller said.  “It was clear that there was something fishy there.” *** What struck me first, when I finally saw the real thing, was the scale: a massive plane of orange and red that filled my field of vision, an empire of rectangles and colours on a Dallas wall. At the edges, in between the blocks, were whole border worlds of porous fades. Everything bled into everything else. Nothing was contained. I had always known art as something you approached, something you peered at and “hmm’d.” The Rothko wasn’t like that. It loomed. It leaned into me. It occupied space. “It’s not easy,” Rothko’s son, Christopher, told me years later. “He really asks a lot of you. And the more you’re willing to put in, the more you’re going to get out.” *** In the fall of 2004, Domenico De Sole, a fashion kingpin who ran Gucci for ten years and later co-founded Tom Ford, approached the Knoedler Gallery with his wife Eleanor. De Sole, who later became the chairman of Sotheby’s auction house, was, along with his wife, a noted collector of what might be considered the art of the regular rich—very expensive, first-class work that is a level below the most famous names. The De Soles went to Knoedler because they were interested in acquiring a work by Sean Scully, an Irish-American abstract artist known for his large, colourful images of bars and squares. Knoedler didn’t have any Scullys; the gallery wasn’t doing well with living artists. But Ann Freedman, Knoedler’s president, did offer to show the De Soles something better. In her office, she said, she had a newly discovered work by Mark Rothko, one of Scully’s forbearers and perhaps the most acclaimed American artist of the 20th century. By any rational measure, the De Soles were and are very rich. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily Mark Rothko rich. A single Rothko sold at auction in 2007 for $72.8 million. The record price paid for a Scully was about $1.7 million. The Rothko Freedman showed the De Soles that day wasn’t prime, exactly. It was on the smaller side, about 4 feet by 3.5 feet. But it was painted in 1956, in the middle of Rothko’s classic period. It was an arresting crimson, black and red. It was on canvas and it was in impeccable condition. Given all that, the multimillion dollar price Knoedler offered was something of a steal. *** The next time I saw a Rothko, a real Rothko, was in Detroit in 2015. It was a seven-and-a-half-foot canvas of floating colours, with blocks of brown and orange that seemed somehow superimposed on the background in 3D. The year before I saw it, Orange, Brown, 1963 was nearly sold off, along with the rest of Detroit’s municipal art collection, after the city declared bankruptcy. For a time, the people of Detroit faced a choice: keep their public art, including works by Van Gogh, Matisse and Diego Rivera, or salvage their municipal pension system. “Finally, I want to ask you a question that you were already asked—to give you another shot at it,” a judge asked Detroit’s lawyers in a bankruptcy hearing that summer: “Why not monetize the art?” *** Michael Miller, the art reporter who covered Knoedler’s sudden closure, graduated from New York University with two degrees in English Literature in 2010, two years into the financial crisis, and eighteen months after his parents—who had cosigned his student loans—lost their jobs and eventually their home. For Miller and his family, it was a savage time, as it was for many Americans. His parents struggled to find and keep work. His mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Every month, he strained to make loan payments, pay his rent and still have enough money left over for a carton of eggs and a can of beans—“my sustenance during the first lean year of this mess,” he wrote in 2018. At the same time, even as he wondered seriously if he wouldn’t be better off dead than this deeply in debt, Miller was climbing up in the small world of New York arts writers, dealing with the gallerists, brokers and billionaires fuelling the art market’s lunatic rise. The discord was never lost on him. “It was really during the recession, which was a terrible time for everyone. For me personally, it was terrible,” he said. “And there was a certain indignity to working for Jared Kushner for $30,000 a year.” *** It’s fair to say that when the De Soles left Knoedler that day, they did not expect to get conned. The art world may be full of exaggeration and sketchy deals. But the Knoedler name had an old-world heft. Its endurance alone spoke volumes. Nothing too shady could have survived that long.  Freedman’s official story was that the Rothko had come to the gallery by way of a mysterious Swiss-Mexican collector who had recently died and left his art to his children. She wouldn’t identify the collector—in internal Knoedler correspondence, he was known as “Mr. X,” “Secret Santa” and “the goose that laid the golden egg”—but she told the De Soles there was no question about the painting’s authenticity. It had been “viewed” by leading art experts, she said, and was set to be included in an updated version of Rothko’s catalogue raisonné, the definitive inventory of his works on canvas.  The De Soles agreed to buy the painting for $8.3 million. It was the most they had ever spent on a single work of art. After the purchase went through, they lent it to a Swiss museum. Then, once it was returned, they hung it on the wall, under glass, in their home on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. It remained there for the next six-and-a-half years. It was still there, hanging near two Twomblys and an Ellsworth Kelly, when the De Soles read about Knoedler’s closure in The New York Times.  ***  The townhouse that once housed the Knoedler Gallery, at 19 East 70th Street in Manhattan, is half a block in from Central Park and ten blocks south of the Met. In 2011, not long after the gallery closed, its long-time owner, Michael Hammer, the grandson of industrialist Armand Hammer, (and the father of the actor Armie Hammer) sold the building at the cut-rate price of $31 million. The building was flipped again in 2013 for $35 million. Then, in 2014, Leon Black, a private equity billionaire known in part for his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, bought the space for $51 million. When I stood outside the townhouse in the fall of 2019, a temporary construction wall blocked the exterior where the Knoedler façade had stood for almost forty years. Inside, construction lamps lit what was left of the ground floor. Black, who Bloomberg once called “the most feared man in the most aggressive realm of finance” was renovating it as a private home.  A leveraged buyout specialist, Black made much of his money acquiring companies, slashing costs and reaping fees. But he’s also a noted art collector. He was, until last year, the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art; in 2012, he bought Munch’s The Scream in a private sale for $119.9 million. Between the time Epstein was convicted—of soliciting a child for prostitution—in 2008 and the time he committed suicide in 2019, Black paid him more than $50 million, according to The New York Times. Among other tasks, Epstein helped Black manage his $1 billion art collection. *** A few blocks south of the old Knoedler townhouse, beneath an upscale Italian sandwich shop and just off Madison Avenue, a silver nameplate sits bolted on to a large, wooden door. There are two words etched on to the plate. Mashed together they form a stylized brand: FreedmanArt. Anne Freedman left Knoedler more than a year before the gallery’s sudden collapse. But for years she had managed Knoedler’s most important, and most lucrative, file: The mysterious masterworks of the late Mr. X. The so-called “golden goose” paintings had come to Knoedler through an unlikely broker. A long-time gallery employee and art world gadfly had introduced Freedman to an obscure Long Island art dealer named Glafira Rosales. Rosales told Freedman she represented the heirs of a European businessman who had made a fortune after relocating to Mexico before World War II. Because of his business interests—he was in banking and industry—he travelled frequently to the United States. And over a period of decades beginning in the 1940s, he had acquired a small museum’s worth of paintings directly from the some of the most acclaimed American artists of the day. The mystery millionaire—Freedman never learned his name—had died in the early 1990s. His heirs, a son and daughter, inherited his entire collection, which included works by Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman. The son now splits his time between Mexico City and Zurich. He was interested in selling off his share of the collection, quietly and privately. Could Freedman help?  Indeed, she could. She never met the heir. She never learned his name. But for fourteen years, she bent the entire business of the gallery around his collection. Between 1994 and 2008, at Freedman’s direction, Knoedler bought dozens of paintings from Rosales and sold them on to a who’s who of global capitalism. Goldman Sachs executive Jack Levy bought a Pollock for $2 million. UFC mogul Frank Fertitta paid $7.2 million for a Rothko. Real estate investor Jay Shidler, the richest man in Hawaii, spent more than $3 million combined for a Krasner and a Motherwell. Knoedler’s profits from the Golden Goose collection were massive. “[They] kept the gallery in business basically,” Miller said. In one case, Knoedler paid Rosales $80,000 for a Krasner then sold it on for $1 million. In another, Knoedler bought a Pollock for less than $1 million then sold it to a hedge fund manager for more than $15 million. All told, Knoedler pocketed over $60 million from the Rosales paintings before Freedman left the gallery in 2009. For Freedman, Rosales had been like a creature out of a fine art fairy tale. “She was effectively a stranger who had never really sold art through that gallery or any other gallery before,” Miller said. “And she suddenly had this treasure trove of unheard-of masterpieces by the great artists of the 20th century.” *** After I left Miller at The New York Times building in Manhattan, where he now works, I took the subway to Woodside, a neighbourhood in Queens. There, behind a small brick home, on a lot between two apartment buildings, I met the artist Zhang Hongtu in his studio. Zhang was born into a Muslim family in the Gansu province in 1943, six years before Mao founded Communist China. He studied art, survived the Cultural Revolution, and worked for years designing jewelry for export. “The funny thing was, at that time in China, nobody was allowed to wear jewellery,” he told me. “Jewellery [was] bourgeois.” In 1982, Zhang emigrated to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League, the same school where Rothko had spent eight formative months in 1925. He found New York incredibly liberating. At the League, there was no one standing over his shoulder telling him: “You cannot do that. You can only do that.” For the first time, he was able to follow his own instincts. He developed his own style. He became more political, more pop-y. In 1987, he drew a portrait of Mao on a Quaker Oats box. In 1989, after Tiananmen Square, he painted a parody of the Last Supper, with Mao’s head on every body, onto the ripped-out pages of Mao’s Little Red Book. Still, well into his fifties, Zhang was living a double life in New York. By day, he worked a jackhammer, cutting stone on construction sites. At night, after a brief nap at the kitchen table, he painted and sculpted and worked on his art. That only began to change in the mid-90s. In 1994, Zhang sold The Last Banquet—the Mao parody—for $50,000. The next year, he was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Soon his older pieces began to climb in value. A gallery in Taiwan took him on full-time. By the time I met him, Zhang had come to be considered one of the founders of China’s Political Pop art movement, the same one that made Ai Wei Wei famous. He wasn’t rich from his art. His work sold in the thousands, not millions. But he was comfortable. Sitting on folding chairs in his paint-flecked studio, he chatted happily about art and his career. I wanted to know how he kept going all those years, through exile in the countryside, and making cheap jewelry, and hammering stone. “I was always very confident,” he said. “I always thought I was going to be a great artist, like Picasso.” Even in the hard years, he was happy. “This world doesn’t need so many Picassos,” he said. “But if you are a good artist, if you do your best, people will open to you.” *** I had been in Dallas that day, the day I first saw a real Rothko, touring a fighter jet factory for a business magazine. The factory looked like a tipped-over skyscraper, long and low and drab on the outside. Inside, the jets, part of an overbudget trillion-dollar program, were arranged by construction stage. Every part of every one of them glowed a minty green. It was the strangest, most arresting shade. The jets all looked edible, or like toys. Later that summer, on a runway near Pensacola, Florida, one of them, valued at $232 million, burst into flames. *** In the early 1980s, while Zhang was studying at the Art Students League, he befriended an older Chinese artist named Pei-Shen Qian. Qian was a gifted technical painter with a solid following in China, but like Zhang he initially struggled in America. “He was kind of frustrated because of the language problem, the connection problem,” Zhang told The New York Times. “He was not that happy.” By the early ’90s, he had fallen out of touch with his friends. For a time, he sold his work on the street. But around the time Zhang’s own work began to sell, Qian’s career, too, took off. At some point in the late 1980s, he met a man named Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz in Manhattan. Over the next several decades, the Spaniard would buy dozens of paintings from Qian, for hundreds and eventually thousands of dollars each. By the mid-90s he was effectively Qian’s only customer. The money was decent. “He wasn’t making millions,” Miller said. But he was finally something close to middle class. He bought a home, in Queens. He began to work full-time on his art.  The only problem was, the art wasn’t his, not really. He was painting it. But it wasn’t being sold under his name.   When Bergantinos Diaz met Qian, he was in a relationship with Glafira Rosales. They opened an art business together. They had a daughter. Over a decade and a half, they made millions selling Qian’s art, mostly to the Knoedler Gallery. They bought him old canvases and old nails. They gave him old paints—though some weren’t quite old enough. They even took requests. When Freedman asked if the Golden Goose collection had any Pollocks, Qian painted two.   Together, Rosales and Bergantinos Diaz made $33 million off Qian’s work. For eight of the paintings, they paid Qian at total of $50,400. “I think he was a kind of patsy,” Miller said. “They just needed somebody to do it. And he did it.” ***  My intro into the Knoedler affair came in 2013, when I was working for a business magazine, the oldest business periodical in the country. (It stopped publishing print issues in 2016. For several years afterward it operated as little more than a Twitter account.) I’d read a story in The New York Times that mentioned the involvement of a Toronto theatre mogul named David Mirvish. Mirvish was and is a big name in Canadian business. In New York, his involvement was a curiosity. In Canada, it could be big news. (Such is the nature of Canadian reporting.) I spent most of that year on and off trying to figure out what Mirvish’s interest had been in the paintings. But the more time I spent with depositions and financial statements, with transcripts and expert reports and carefully lawyered statements about how one judges exactly whether one thing or another is real, the more I found myself drawn to the pictures themselves. It was a trying time, personally. I felt stuck in the story, dug in without any clear way out to something revelatory. But the more blew I deadlines and lay awake, feeling stress hives grow, the more I stared at the black-and-white copies of copies in those reports and wondered what they’d look like real. I spent days researching precise details about the art—details I knew I’d end up cutting from the final piece. I even went to the empty location of Mirvish’s own, long-closed, bookstore in Toronto to see if I could spy the fifty-foot Frank Stella he had once kept on the wall. The doors were locked. The windows were covered. I went right up to them but couldn’t see anything inside. *** The Knoedler affair began to unravel, as things often do in the art world, quietly and out of the spotlight. (There is nothing the wealthy deplore more than a scene). In 2002, Levy, the Goldman Sachs executive, submitted the Pollock he purchased from Knoedler—a small greenish canvas painted with oil and enamel—to the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) for review. The IFAR report, when it came back, was scathing. The experts who viewed the painting found it “limp” and “formulaic.” The story Knoedler told about the painting’s history was “inconceivable,” “improbable,” and “difficult to believe.” IFAR refused to certify the Pollock and Knoedler bought it back. The gallery then sold it on, in a complex deal, to Freedman, her husband and Mirvish. The brutal report didn’t stop Knoedler from selling more paintings from the collection. In fact, Freedman and Knoedler kept selling Golden Goose paintings—with a new backstory—for another seven years. They kept selling them after a second organization, the Dedalus Foundation, cast doubt on seven more paintings. (One Dedalus board member called them “laughable fakes”.) They wouldn’t stop selling them until a London money man’s untimely divorce threatened to push the whole thing into the public eye. ***  By the time I published my story on Mirvish, a complicated, business-heavy piece about art law, ownership and authentication, I was something close to obsessed with the art itself. I started hunting down real versions of all the fakes I’d seen—Motherwell’s Elegies, Newman’s shades of black on white, Rothko’s floating haze—in Dallas and Detroit, in Buffalo, Toronto and New York.  Working in Ottawa one day, I went to the Canadian National Gallery to see Rothko’s No. 16, 1957. I was months into a long feature about a far-right Canadian media figure at the time, part of a series of pieces I wrote in that period about the ugly wave of populist politics then sweeping the world. The Rothko outstripped anything I’d seen before: an almost 10-foot wall of colour and mood. I stood for so long in front of it that my legs began to twitch. Canada’s National Gallery bought No. 16, 1957 in 1993 for C$1.8 million. The purchase caused incredible controversy. “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with these jerks,” one member of Canadian parliament said at the time. If sold today, the painting would probably gross something close to $100 million. Financially, it’s one of the best investments the country has ever made.  *** In the end, it wasn’t a Rothko that brought Knoedler down. It was another Pollock. Pierre Lagrange, a Belgian hedge fund manager once called London’s “zaniest financier,” bought a Golden Goose Pollock from Knoedler in 2007. (At least, he thought he bought it from Knoedler. At the time of the sale, the gallery actually co-owned the painting with Mirvish.) He kept the Pollock in his London home until, at the age of forty-eight, he accepted that he was gay, left his wife and precipitated a costly divorce. As part of his settlement, Lagrange, who looks like an aging, well-groomed werewolf, had to sell his Pollock. But none of the major auction houses, not Christie’s, not Sotheby’s, would take it. There were too many questions about the origins of the work, questions that Knoedler refused to answer. Furious, Lagrange met with Knoedler’s new president, Frank Del Deo, in New York. He demanded the gallery take the painting back. He threated to sue. The gallery refused. That’s when Lagrange submitted the painting to James Martin, at Orion Analytical—the same scientist who would later study the De Soles’ Rothko. Martin examined the canvas. He tested the paints. He found the work contained at least two pigments that weren’t developed until well after Pollock’s death, in 1956. He concluded, as he later would with the Rothko, that the painting was fake. In November 2011, Lagrange sent the Orion report to Knoedler. The next day, the gallery shut its doors and announced, via press release, that it was closing forever. Lagrange sued. Other buyers followed. Soon, the Knoedler affair was the biggest story in the art world. “There was a period where you couldn’t go to a dinner party without there being a conversation about it,” Karmel said when I spoke to him for the Mirvish piece. (Divorce has long played a strong supporting role in the art market. In Sept. 2021, Sotheby’s won the right to auction off an estimated $600 million worth of art owned by divorcing real estate developer Harry Macklowe and his ex-wife Linda. Included in that collection was Rothko’s No. 7 (1951), which was eventually sold, in November 2021, for $82.5 million.)  *** In the summer of 2016, after covering Hillary Clinton’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I drove across Pennsylvania to meet my girlfriend in Pittsburgh. It had been a long trip. I had turned thirty-five on the road, the night after Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president in a half empty arena in Cleveland. My girlfriend and I were spending two nights in Pittsburgh to celebrate. One afternoon, we went to the Carnegie Museum of Art.  They had a Rothko up, a gorgeous vertical rectangle of yellow on blue. But for whatever reason, I don’t remember much about it. I sought it out. It was there. I saw it. But it didn’t stick with me. A month after the trip, we found out my girlfriend was pregnant. Our daughter was born about nine months after I got home. *** Most of the lawsuits stemming from the Golden Goose frauds were settled out of court. Only the De Soles went all the way to trial. When the case finally came before a judge in 2016, Miller was there, in court, every day. “It’s rare for something like the De Soles trial to happen,” he said. “People just don't have the energy. They just want their money back or they want to move on to the next thing they can make a profit [from].” For the De Soles, Miller believed, the trial was as much personal as it was financial. “It was really more of a crusade for them,” he said. It seemed as if, unlike all the other collectors who had shelled out millions for a fake painted in a Queens garage, the De Soles wanted the story public. They wanted to show the world how Knoedler had ripped them off. They wanted Freedman to testify, to lay bare the high class grift of it all. During the trial, the painting—the fake Rothko with the rectangles of black over crimson on a background of red—stood behind a screen. Every once in a while, a lawyer would haul it out as “Exhibit A.” For Miller, sitting in the gallery, it was tough to separate the canvas from what he knew about its background. “With the knowledge that they're fake, it’s hard to look at a painting like that and be like, well, it’s still pretty good,” he said. Eventually, the De Soles settled, just before Michael Hammer, the “shadowy Oz-like rich guy” behind Knoedler, was scheduled to testify. (But not before Hammer’s embarrassing spending habits—fuelled by a Knoedler Black Card—were revealed.) That was no surprise. “It is exceedingly rare for forgery cases to go to trial,” Leila Amineddoleh, an art lawyer, wrote after the case. It is even rarer still for them to end with a jury verdict. In a fight between the very, very rich, after all, you can never be sure who the everyday people on a jury will believe. *** Glafira Rosales eventually gave up the fraud and cooperated with an FBI investigation. She spent three months in jail awaiting trial, pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay $81 million in restitution. “Last I heard Glafira Rosales was a waitress at a diner in Queens,” Miller said. “It says a lot.” Bergantinos Diaz, who she accused of years of physical and emotional abuse, fled to Spain, where he remains, free. Qian, the artist, went back to Shanghai. A documentary crew recently found him there, living and painting in a small apartment. As for Freedman, to this day, she presents herself as the central victim of the fraud. She’s back selling art, out of her own gallery. Miller likes art. He finds the business fascinating in a grotesque, mirror-on-society kind of way. But he also sees it as a reflection of a lot of what’s wrong in America today. “It’s easy to pin a lot of things on the art world, but it is a symptom, I think, in the way that student loan debt is a symptom,” he said. “It’s just a distillation of the free market and every horrible thing that it’s capable of doing.” It’s a world of the rich, by the rich, that’s divorced now from the comparatively normal. “You work in newspapers,” he said. “It’s similar to that, in the way that private equity has profited off of the media industry and left journalists and editors holding the bag. That’s the case in the art world. A small amount of people has gotten very, very rich off it and everyone else has suffered greatly. And there’s no turning back once you get there.” ***  By the time the De Sole trial ended, my involvement in the Knoedler case had been over for years. I left the magazine in 2014 and joined a newspaper in Toronto. I wrote about crime and life in the city. But mostly my beat was the right-wing political world. In January 2017, I was in Washington D.C. to cover the inauguration of Donald Trump. My girlfriend was five months pregnant with our daughter. We were getting married in a week. I had my flight home scheduled for the afternoon after the inauguration so I could get back on time for my bachelor party. It’s easy to recognize in retrospect, though I certainly didn’t at time: I wasn’t ready, for any of it. I was obsessed with the idea that having a child was an end, that I had to achieve everything I could before my daughter was born. I had a big feature planned to come out on our wedding day. I met with a book agent just before I left for Washington. When I explained everything that was happening in my life, she looked at me like I was delusional for wanting to write a book too; I probably was. By the time inauguration week came, I was also physically tired, from work and wedding planning and anxiety, and from sleeping on a friend’s small office floor in D.C. (The newspaper couldn’t afford a hotel.) Two days before the event, after filing a story from the coat room of the National Gallery of Art (there was a desk in there and the WiFi was free), I walked into the gallery itself. I knew the National had a large Motherwell—one of his Elegies, the series Qian had forged—and I wanted to see it. I found it hanging on the wall opposite a huge open staircase. It was large and striking, but distant somehow in the nearly empty gallery. I spent several hours drifting through the barren buildings—a linked set of two on the National Mall, a short walk from the Capitol where the inauguration would take place. In the East Building, in a tower above the third floor, I found myself in a newly opened gallery space split in two by a white wall that came up just short of the ceiling. From the entrance, I walked first past Newman’s Stations of the Cross—fifteen plays on a theme of black or white stripes on white canvas. Once past the dividing wall, I stepped into a riot of colour and shape. It was an entire room of Rothkos, more in one place than I had seen combined in two countries, four cities and three states. I sat down on a bench, placed right in the centre of the room, and stared. I was alone with ten paintings that, if sold at auction, would be worth more than half a billion dollars. There were purples and greens, blues, oranges, tans: all of them arranged in stacked blocks of colour with those tide pool edges—the spaces in-between where everything combines. I don’t know how long I sat there. I know I cried, although even now I’d have trouble breaking down the exact alchemy of why. Eventually, a woman walked in and I left. Outside, I scribbled a phrase in my notebook, diagonally, across most of a page: “Rothko at the Inauguration.” What I didn’t notice then, what I wouldn’t have understood if I had, were the name plates on the paintings. Two of them were typical. One was listed as a gift from Enid A. Haupt, a publisher and philanthropist, the other from the collection of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who married into the Mellon fortune and at one time owned as many as thirteen Rothkos. The other eight, though, were unusual.  They spoke of another scandal, as large and evocative in its own way as Knoedler’s. The paintings were all done in an eight-year period between 1949 and 1957. They differed greatly in colour, shade and tone. But they all listed identical provenance. They all came, in other words, from the same source, in the same year. Next to each painting, in the gallery’s records, was a single, mysterious, line: “Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. 1986.” II THE MOST SIGNIFICANT PIECE At some point in early middle age, having already pursued a career in clinical psychology, Christopher Rothko, Mark Rothko’s second child and only son, became, somewhat to his own surprise, the de facto overseer of his father’s legacy. The role was unexpected for Christopher in part because, for most of his childhood, he had had almost no relationship with his father’s art at all. “There really was a very significant portion of my young life where there not only weren’t any paintings in our home, but there was very little museum activity as well,” he said. He knew his father was an artist, obviously. Even in the 1970s and ’80s, “Mark Rothko” was a famous name. He remembered his father’s studio. He was aware, in a background kind of way, of the long and brutal fight going on over his work. But visual art wasn’t Christopher’s passion. In school, he went into the sciences. He long figured that if he inherited anything from his father, it was his love of Mozart. But as he grew older, Christopher began to take on more and more responsibility for what might be considered the Business of Rothko. He helped organize shows, spoke at openings, sat on boards, delivered lectures—including his first, in his father’s hometown in Latvia. He edited catalogues and even wrote a book, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, that came out in 2015. That book was the reason I reached out to Christopher, and the reason he met me, in a café near his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I wanted to ask him about the impact the Rothko room had had on me. I was still, years later, trying to figure out how much of that full-body hush I felt was me and how much was the art. Rothko wasn’t surprised I asked. People have for years told him similar stories about his father’s work, and about that room in particular.  “Really the magic of his paintings is his ability to find that level of communication that is so elemental,” he said. “He’s able to essentially get under your skin.” Christopher Rothko’s own relationship to his father’s art has evolved over the years. He’s always been fond of the earlier, lesser known, work. His favourite Rothko might be Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, a big, surrealist canvas that hung in his living room when he was boy. (It now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.) But in recent years, he’s found himself drawn to the dark, almost monochromatic, paintings his father did in the last years of his life. He knows what most people think of that work, that it’s a reflection of how his father felt—depressed, sick and often drunk. But he doesn’t believe it’s that simple. Art isn’t always a reflection of biography, even when the pieces of that biography seem to line up so well. “And then of course,” he said, “the most significant piece of that biography is the fact that my father killed himself.” *** Once I knew to look for them, I started seeing them everywhere. They were up in the Met, in tiny print, beneath the details of a large canvas of white and red on yellow. They were there on the opposite wall, too, twice. Tiny words, next to two paintings of scuffy black and grey. In that exhibit alone, I saw them five times, the same words, again and again: “Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation.” Most of the Rothkos in that exhibit were clustered in a single, dimly lit room. While I looked at them, a class of school children walked in. They huddled around one painting of bold rectangles on yellow.  “This is the last painting that he painted that was very, very bright,” their guide said.  After the children left, I stood in front of the painting. As I stared, a third rectangle seemed to emerge, yellow on yellow, between the white and red — brighter and deeper and more insistently there. I walked around the room but kept coming back to that work. Up close, all the brightness seemed overlaid on something dark, a shadow beneath the yellows and the red. Eventually, I moved back to the opposite wall where two late works of brown and grey on paper were hung. There was a faintness to both of them; the paper bled through. *** On Wednesday February 25, 1970, Oliver Steindecker, a friend and assistant, found Mark Rothko lying face up on the kitchen floor in the studio where he had been living for the past eighteen months. Rothko’s face was pale, almost jaundiced. He wore black socks and blue long johns. His pants were folded neatly over a chair. On a nearby sink, Steindecker found a double-edged razor blade, one end wrapped in tissue paper. At some point, several hours before, Rothko had used the blade to cut holes, each more than a half inch deep, into the inside of his arms, just below his elbows. He was sixty-six years old. He left behind Christopher and his sister Kate, six and nineteen years old, and almost 2000 unsold works of art.  Rothko had been deeply depressed for more than a year before his death. In 1968, he suffered an aneurysm from which he never fully recovered. He was drinking heavily, had alienated friends, and left his wife, Mell. According to his biographer, James E. B. Breslin, he was also receiving a barrage of conflicting treatments for heart disease, hypertension and depression from a nest of squabbling doctors. And before nearly severing his brachial arteries, he took a potentially lethal dose of Sinequan, an early antidepressant.  *** Though he was born in New York, Christopher Rothko spent much of his childhood in Ohio, first with his aunt and uncle in Columbus, then later with his sister in Cleveland. In Manhattan, his father had been famous, a legend, even, in certain circles. But in Columbus, “nobody had heard of him,” Christopher said. “So that part of my identity kind of went underground for six or eight years.” In his twenties, he trained as a psychologist. He practiced for a time but as he grew older, he did less therapy as he took on more management of the art. Christopher Rothko thinks that background, in psychology, is part of the reason why he’s so skeptical about the correlations people often make in his father’s paintings, the links between colour and mood. “I’m always a little suspicious of that kind of socially mediated understanding of how colour, as well as a lot of other things, work,” he said. His father’s paintings are about reflection, he believes. “In the dark works, he’s slowing down the conversation. He’s really insisting that you stop and reflect. You can’t do a drive by and say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw a Rothko there. It was yellow and red and orange.’” Christopher might be fighting a losing battle on that front. At the Met that day, the guide asked the children what they thought about a painting in grey and black.  “He was in the darkness,” one girl, maybe eight or nine years old, said. “He was trying to tell his family he felt alone,” another added. “Well,” the guide replied, “after his dark period, he did commit suicide.” *** What is certainly true is that the sunnier works are now more valuable. A big, bright Rothko is a commodity as much as it is a masterpiece. It can be bundled into an art investment fund and sold as a security. It can live unseen for years and even decades, appreciating in a freeport warehouse, where it can’t be taxed or traced as its value grows. “I try not to think about it,” said Laili Nasr, the National Gallery’s leading expert in Rothko, “because I think that gasp that you hear when people come into the Rothko room, a little part of that gasp is: ‘This is worth so much money.’”  *** In 1958, after several decades of teaching and obscurity, Rothko accepted what was, at the time, the largest commission of his career: $35,000 for a series of murals in the new Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building. Rothko was by that point well established as a leading American artist. But he was far from rich. In 1949, at the dawn of his most active and artistically fruitful period, his net income had been less than $1,400. (That’s the equivalent of about $15,000 today). By the late 1950s, he was more comfortable, maybe even upper middle class, but he remained deeply ambivalent about money, the rich, and the commercial side of art. The Seagram’s commission was something of a surprise. Rothko was openly, publicly disdainful of the kind of people who would eat in the Four Seasons. He described the restaurant to his friend John Fisher in 1959 as a “place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off.” After eating in the restaurant himself, Rothko—having spent two years on the murals—cancelled the commission in a huff. “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine,” he told another friend, according to Breslin. He returned the money and kept the murals himself. “As an anarchist, he disapproved of the wealthy and questioned their taste,” Fisher wrote in 1970, after Rothko’s suicide. But in the last decade of his life, only the very wealthy could afford his work. It was a conundrum that dogged him until his death. “When his work became a commodity he could no longer evaluate it,” his friend James Brooks told the journalist Lee Seldes. “He did not know whether people were buying his paintings because they were good or because they were Rothkos."  ***  Four metro stops from the National Gallery in Washington, an old bench sits in the darkness between four large paintings in muted shades of orange, green and red. In the early 1960s, Duncan Phillips, a Pittsburgh steel heir turned art collector, opened the world’s first Rothko Room in his family’s museum in northwest D.C. Rothko himself advised Phillips on the layout of the room. He wanted the lights dim and the paintings hung low. On a trip to D.C. for Kennedy’s inauguration, in 1961, he even suggested Phillips swap out the chairs in the room for a bench.  That same bench, with wooden slats, was still in the Phillips Collection Rothko Room when I visited. As I shifted to look at the different paintings, the slats moved beneath me. Unlike the wide, airy Rothko room at the National Gallery, the Phillips room has a gently claustrophobic air. If you spend much time inside, it begins to feel like the paintings are closing in—a soft smothering of paint and mood. On a wall just outside the Rothko Room hangs a painting that feels somewhere between Abstract and Gothic. It features a woman’s profile from the shoulders up, atop a cloudy background of stormy blue. Instead of a face, the painting has what looks like a waning yellow moon melted sideways onto a misshapen skull. The placard next to the painting identified the artist as Theodoros Stamos, a contemporary of and at one time a close friend of Rothko’s. (After his death, Rothko was initially buried in the Stamos family plot.) Stamos finished Moon Chalice in 1949, when he was twenty-six years old. Eleven years later, he would enter what would become the worst, most personal legal battle in the history of modern art. By the time it was over, Stamos would be in ruins. His career collapsed. His reputation never recovered. Christopher Rothko would end up, according to multiple accounts, with the title to his Manhattan home. *** The more money Rothko’s paintings earned, the more miserable the painter seemed to grow. “Rothko, I believe, deeply resented being forced into the role of a supplier of ‘material’ either for investment trusts or for aesthetic exercises,” Fisher wrote. And yet, in the last decade of his life, he kept agreeing to long, complicated and often unfavourable contracts with men he seemed to loathe. In the late 1950s, Rothko had fallen in with an accountant and art world hanger-on named Bernard Reis. At first, Reis just provided Rothko financial advice. But over the next decade, he grew to influence more and more aspects of the painter’s life. When Rothko suffered his aneurysm in 1968, it was Reis who checked him into the hospital, according to Seldes, pushing aside his wife and friends. It was Reis who steered Rothko to the doctor who prescribed him the Sinequan. And it was Reis who, fatefully, pushed Rothko into a financial arrangement with Marlborough gallery and its owner, Frank Lloyd. “Behind every major art gallery,” Miller told me, “there’s always some shadowy Oz-like rich guy who owns a holding company.” In Seldes’ book, The Legacy of Mark Rothko, Lloyd comes off as the shadowy rich guy of shadowy rich guys. “The degree of sadism” at his gallery, Motherwell told Seldes “was unbelievable, even for a big corporation.” (Motherwell eventually left Marlborough for Knoedler. & Co.) Rothko had a similarly toxic relationship with Lloyd. But until the day he died he continued to do business with the man. In fact, the morning his body was found, he had been scheduled to go to his warehouse with Donald McKinney, a representative from Lloyd’s gallery, to pick out more canvasses for sale. The prospect of that meeting haunted Rothko. “I think he felt…that he had sold his soul,” McKinney told Breslin. Seldes even believed it played a role in his suicide. “The final turn of the screw that night in February was the new deal Lloyd had proposed and the scheduled warehouse selection…the next day."  (Seldes may have been something of an unreliable narrator on that point. Later in the book, she entertained the possibility that Rothko, against all evidence, was murdered.) *** Rothko’s first ever high-profile show was held at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in New York in 1945. Decades later, in 1978, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—famous for its Frank Lloyd Wright spirals—would host the first major Rothko retrospective after his suicide. In 2019, I stood, midway up the central spire in the Guggenheim, looking at a large canvas of black over grey with a white border that Rothko painted in the last year of his life. I was in a dark place, myself, professionally. The paper where I worked, always conservative, had become both harder and less interesting under new management. I no longer covered the far right; at times I felt like I was participating in it by continuing to work there. All of that was in my mind as I looked at that Rothko at the Guggenheim. The hazy line between the colours on the canvas stood at about the forty-five yard marker on a football field. The grey washed up against the black and receded back again like surf. All around, at every corner, the edges popped out and bled gently into the border. No one lingered long before the Rothko. (The darker paintings really are Rothko’s deeper cuts.) Ten seconds. twenty seconds. A quick photo and they were gone. Many walked straight by. Like the works in the National Gallery and at the Met, Untitled (Black on Grey) was donated to the Guggenheim by the Mark Rothko Foundation in 1986. But Untitled had had another stop along the way. Before ending up at the Foundation, Untitled had been sold, cheaply, to the Marlborough Gallery, the spoils in a conflict The New York Times would later call “the betrayal the art world can’t forget.” *** According to Rothko’s final will—which Reis amended for him in the last year of his life—the bulk of his artistic estate was to be donated to a foundation set up in his name. Rothko wasn’t always clear what he wanted that foundation to do. He had always expressed a desire that his paintings be held together, in large groups, for public viewing. But he also spoke at times about wanting to set something up to help out mature artists in financial trouble. Before his death, he named Reis, his friend Morton Levine, and Stamos, the painter, as the executors of his estate. After his suicide, the three gathered to decide what should be done with the Mark Rothko Foundation. What they decided on was a liquidation sale. Despite two of the three having conflicts—Reis was on Marlborough’s payroll and Stamos was setting up a representation deal with the gallery—the executors agreed to consign or sell the entire Rothko collection to Lloyd and Marlborough at a below-market price. The executors’ goal was to quickly monetize the paintings—which Levine had photographed and catalogued before Rothko’s death—and dole out the cash that came back in grants. The deal left Rothko’s family with just forty-four paintings—the ones that were in the family home when he died. It also eliminated any chance of a significant public future for Rothko’s work. Instead, the paintings were to be parceled and sold off, for Lloyd’s benefit, to buyers Seldes called the “the modern Medicis.” *** About three years after my first visit, I returned to the National Gallery in Washington. Harry Cooper, the gallery’s senior curator, and Nasr, an art historian, met me in Cooper’s office. I told them that I wanted to understand what the Rothko room had done to me. (That’s one advantage of being a writer. You can cry in front of paintings and later get one of the world’s leading experts to tell you why.)  The Rothko room itself is one half of a tall, airy hexagon—part of a matching pair—divided in the middle by a white wall on either side and at the top. The so-called Tower Galleries opened in 2016, after a three-year renovation. The towers were always there, but in the original building, they had false floors. “It was a suspended ceiling sort of hanging over the galleries below,” said Cooper. Since the re-opening, the three new galleries have been dedicated to Alexander Calder, Barnett Newman, and Rothko. There’s no formal policy dictating that that’s how they’ll always be used. But the gallery isn’t likely to make a change any time soon. “We’ve been rotating them a little bit,” Hooper said of the Rothkos. “I thought I would rotate them a lot more, but ones I picked just—it seems so beautiful that I haven’t.” As for the impact the paintings have, Nasr believes there’s just something about Rothko’s work that lends itself to the “very intimate experience of being surrounded.” It’s not that other artists aren’t great, she said. “But you don’t necessarily need to be surrounded by Pollocks.” Rothko himself certainly wanted his works seen together. In his later years he repeatedly tried to find or design spaces where they could exist in groups. (One such location, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.) He was also somewhere between finnicky and fanatical about the conditions of their display—from the lighting, dim, to his preference that they all be hung at eye height. Regardless, there is something, not quite holy, but maybe hallowed, about the Rothko room. It feels like a war memorial, or a cathedral on an off day; it bears inside a hush that’s almost physical. “It’s become a space that you go, sit in and contemplate,” Nasr said. *** Just six months after Mark Rothko’s death, Mell Rothko, his widow and Christopher and Kate’s mother, died suddenly of heart failure at the age of forty-eight. When Mell was laid to rest, Kate was shocked by how few of her father’s friends showed up. “She’d known these people for twenty-five years…” Kate said in an interview years later. “It was disillusioning for me to see the superficiality of the art world, and that has never gone away.” By the time of the funeral, Kate had other reasons to be skeptical about the art world. The details of the estate’s deal with Marlborough were, after much prying, trickling out from the executors. With them came the realization that Rothko’s vast oeuvre was to be sold off, quickly, privately and cheaply, which was devastating to Kate. Under U.S. law at the time, Kate was too young to control her own legal affairs. Herbert Ferber, a friend of the family, became her legal guardian.  In 1971, through Ferber, she sued the executors and Marlborough in New York Surrogate Court, claiming they had entered into a conspiracy to defraud the estate. The executors counter-sued, seeking, among other remedies, the paintings that had been in the Rothko brownstone when Mell died. What followed was, in the words of The New York Times, “the biggest, most publicized and most protracted legal wrangle in art-world history”—at least until the Knoedler trial in 2014. For almost four years after filing suit, Kate Rothko Prizel watched as her bank accounts drained and the fight dragged on. She was paying her legal costs out of her own pocket while the executors billed the estate for theirs. She was in school, living with her husband in a Brooklyn apartment. The only “Rothkos” they had were posters from a museum. But just before Christmas, in 1975, more than four years after the initial suit, and almost six years after her father’s death, the surrogate court ruling came down, changing Kate’s life and rewriting the legacy of her father’s art.  After sifting through some five hundred exhibits and 20,000 pages of testimony, Judge Millard L. Midonick found for Kate and Christopher Rothko on almost every aspect of the case. He stripped Reis, Stamos and Levine of their roles with the estate. He cancelled the contracts with Marlborough and ordered the 658 paintings that remained unsold returned. He also found the executors personally liable for millions in damages, which is how Christopher Rothko ended up, many years later, as the owner of Theodoros Stamos’ home. *** The East Building of the National Gallery, home to the towers and the Rothko room, was opened to the public in 1978. I.M. Pei, a Chinese-born architect, designed the building’s twin triangle shape to fit an unusual trapezoid of land reserved for the expansion between the original gallery and the Capitol Building. Construction of the airy, skylit structure was funded with a gift from Paul Mellon, Bunny’s husband—and a noted horse racing enthusiast—and his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, who was for a time considered the richest woman in the United States. (In her twenties, she almost married Otto von Bismarck’s grandson.) In 1979, not long after the East wing opened, Arthur Jafa, who would go on to become one of the leading American video artists of the twenty-first century, visited the building as part of an architecture class at Howard University. “There was an exhibition of Mark Rothko, eight brownish paintings that all looked the same to my untrained eye, and they infuriated me,” Jafa told The New Yorker more than forty years later. “I told the instructor it was bullshit. I was irate. I went back to that show ten times, kept going back, couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was obsessed. He’s still my favorite painter.” *** The Rothko case didn’t end with Midonick’s ruling. The executors appealed, lost, appealed the appeal and lost again, in November 1977. Lloyd, meanwhile, had already conspired to remove many of his assets, including at least sixty-eight Rothkos, from the court’s jurisdiction by the time the initial ruling came down.  For months before the judgement, Lloyd had been quietly shipping art from New York into Canada. His plan had been to send it from there to Switzerland, where he could lose it in a fog of quiet sales and secret freeports. But before Lloyd could get the works out of Toronto, a mystery caller tipped off a New York lawyer —Howard Eisenberg, who was otherwise unconnected to the case—to the plan. Eisenberg in turn informed the New York Attorney General who informed Edward Ross, Kate Rothko’s lawyer, who then confirmed that Lloyd’s man, Franz Plutschow, was on his way from Zurich to Toronto. That call set off a five day Christmas caper that saw one group of American lawyers and Canadian private detectives hunting for Plutschow while another set scoured local galleries and warehouses for any sign of the works. According to Seldes, they eventually cracked the case through a simple ruse. One of the lawyers called Lloyd’s Toronto gallery claiming to be a dealer with a client looking for somewhere to store his collection. “The answer,” Seldes wrote, “was almost automatic: Deakin Fine Art.” On December 23, 1975, the Rothko team, armed with a Canadian court order, raided the Deakin Fine Art Transportation warehouse near the Toronto waterfront. What they found inside was akin to the storeroom of a minor king. There were paintings by Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee. Fifteen Henry Moores. A Kandinsky and dozens of others, including twenty-four Rothkos from the disputed estate. All told, Lloyd had about 1,750 artworks worth more than $12 million (or about $60 million today) in the warehouse. They were all seized and held as collateral in the New York case. The lawyers, meanwhile, cornered Plutschow in Lloyd’s Toronto gallery—a partnership with Mira Godard, the grand doyenne of Canadian gallerists. They presented the terrified Liechtenstein resident with a court order preventing him from taking any art back with him to Europe. But the young fixer was free to go. *** In the late winter of 2019, not long before the world shut down, I tried looking for the old Deakin warehouse, on the east side of Toronto, where I then lived. Deakin Fine Art Transportation went out of business sometime in the mid-1980s. The location of its once popular and briefly notorious warehouse wasn’t listed in the City of Toronto’s archival records. It had never been mentioned in the Toronto Star, the local newspaper of record, where I now work. The lawyers involved in the Toronto end of the caper were either unnamed in the coverage or long dead. After several weeks of looking, I did reach one former Deakin executive by phone. Chris Birt had been working at the Marlborough-Godard gallery in 1975, when the Rothko raid occurred. (He joined Deakin several years later.) He was actually in the Yorkville gallery itself when the lawyers found Plutschow inside. (Seldes’ book records him making a rather panicked call to Godard in Montreal.) Birt and I spoke very briefly. The events of 1975 still had him on edge, forty-five years later.  I asked Birt if he knew where the Deakin warehouse had been. He suggested an area on Parliament Street, in Cabbagetown, where the writer Michael Ondaatje lives. He then hustled me off the phone and asked that I call him back for more details. He ignored my future calls. Fourteen months later, having been waylaid by the pandemic, I started looking again. Seldes described the warehouse as having been “a large, low, cinderblock building” with huge, double-hung doors “near the docks of Lake Ontario.” There was a Deakin warehouse near the waterfront, on Lakeshore Boulevard, just metres north of the commercial pier. But according to records held by the National Gallery of Canada, and backed up by published references to a Deakin-linked, tequila-funded art contest, Deakin didn’t start sending invoices from that warehouse until December 1980, years after the Rothko raid. Those same records, however, did point to another building, a low, mostly brick warehouse at the bottom of Pape Avenue, slightly further from the water and the pier, that today holds a photo studio and the stockroom for an art supply chain. When I visited, on an unreasonably windy day in March, I could see stacked boxes of watercolour crayons, pastels and pan sets through the windows.  Between June 1975 and December 1980, Dominion Gallery, the oldest private gallery in Canada, paid shipping invoices to Deakin at that address. It still has doors that are double-hung, though I can’t say I’d describe them as huge.    I can’t be 100% sure. But I believe that is where the Rothko raid took place. A security guard was smoking near a dumpster. The bricks on the south-facing wall were painted black. I had solved the mystery. But like many small mysteries, the solution didn’t offer me much. It was just a commercial building across from a movie studio. I had dragged my friend Jake, another reporter, out with me that day. He gamely scoured the first location with me, circling the building again and again. At the second, he mostly stayed in the car. *** The Rothko estate eventually reclaimed more than six hundred paintings from Lloyd and Marlborough. Some, however, were lost for good, including Homage to Matisse, the only painting Rothko named in his mature period and the first painting Kate Rothko Prizel can ever remember seeing. “It’s so distinct among my father’s paintings that it stuck with me my entire life,” she said in an interview in 2016. “It’s the one painting I would really like to have; I grew up with it,” she said in another. Rothko himself never sold Homage to Matisse. He named it after his hero, who died in 1954. “At some point, unfortunately, it was hanging on a yacht somewhere off the coast of Miami,” Hooper said. Franz Plutschow is still alive and still active in the Lloyd family art business. His name appeared several times in the Panama Papers, as a director of a Bermuda-based holding company tied to Marlborough and Lloyd, who died in 1998. Max Levai, Lloyd’s grandnephew, sued Plutschow in fall of 2020, alleging, among other things, that the Marlborough Gallery, which still exists, and which Lloyd’s children still own, had stolen his Instagram account. As of March, Levai’s lawyers had not been able to track Plutschow down to serve him with the suit. ***  The Rothko Affair was the greatest scandal in the history of the New York art world, until a greater scandal came along, decades later in the form of the Knoedler forgery ring. The case was covered religiously at the time by the New York press, including in The Village Voice, by Seldes. She kept on the case for years after the original verdict and her book has come to be seen as the definitive text on the affair. But even at the time of publication, it was controversial. The art critic Hilton Kramer savaged Seldes in The New York Times, as did Robert Hughes—“the most famous art critic in the world”—in the New York Review of Books. “When functioning as a court reporter she does well,” Hughes wrote. “As a sociologue of the art world, she is quite inept.” In 2010, after a chance run-in at the Museum of Modern Art, the artist David Levine began his own research into the Rothko Affair. Levine is the son of Morton Levine, one of Rothko’s maligned executors. In the younger Levine’s view, Seldes’ account is entertaining, but “wildly irresponsible.” It doesn’t reflect the reality he found sifting through thirty boxes of files in the Surrogate’s court. It doesn’t fully tell the story of Rothko, the real villain in Levine’s eyes—a depressed, alcoholic, monomaniacal narcissist who, having alienated his family, left his paintings in the hands of his friends instead, only to see those paintings destroy his friends one by one. “I think it’s awful that Rothko,” Levine wrote in a piece published in 2011, “one of the purest exponents of pure abstraction, had to take everyone else down with him in such a messily concrete way.” *** After his initial ruling, Midonick banished Levine, Reis and Stamos and named Kate the new executor. He also found that the children were owed about half their father’s estate. But Rothko’s will had been clear. He wanted his art to go to a foundation. And even subtracting the children’s share, that still left almost a thousand works of art, including more than three hundred oil paintings, that had to go somewhere. That somewhere, eventually, became the new Mark Rothko Foundation.  In 1954, Donald Blinken, a young businessman who had recently returned to New York after several years in London, met Rothko at a cocktail party held by the art dealer André Emmerich. Blinken was a bit of an art dabbler at that point. “I had been collecting younger European artists,” he said. But he wasn’t a serious collector. Rothko, even then, was serious, and Blinken wanted in. Blinken bought five paintings from Rothko over the next five years. It worked the same way every time. The painter wouldn’t let him buy just anything. Instead, Blinken had to go to the studio and choose from a pre-selected group of four or five.  He did that about once a year until 1960, when he was priced out by Rothko’s growing fame. In the 1970s, Blinken watched the drama over Rothko’s estate play out from a distance. He knew Rothko and his work. But he had no serious ties to any of the major players in the affair. In the insular world of New York art that made him something of an outlier. Midonick ordered that a board be created for the new foundation. It included a member of the Phillips family (of the Phillips collection), the director of the Guggenheim, a retired MoMA curator, two artists, a Pulitzer (not a prize winner, an actual Pulitzer) and, as president, Donald Blinken. “[They] had to find people who were interested in Rothko or who had Rothkos but were not contaminated by the original Rothko case,” Blinken said decades later, when I spoke to him. That narrow group turned out to include him. On a midsummer day in 1979, in a conference room in the offices of Breed, Abbott & Morgan, a Manhattan law firm, five people, including Kate Rothko Prizel and Donald Blinken, gathered to divide up one the great American art collections of all time. Before them, on the table, sat slides and inventory sheets, as well as coffee and sandwiches. Blinken, along with two others, represented the Mark Rothko Foundation. Rothko Prizel was there for the estate. For an entire week, working in lots of nine, the two sides divvied up the 2000 unsold works that Rothko left behind, including many that had since been reclaimed from Marlborough.  The draw worked something like an abstract expressionist fantasy draft. Kate went first, then the foundation, then back and forth another 1,556 times. (The Foundation took five out of every nine paintings under the terms of the settlement, so there were only seven picks per lot.) “At the end of the week we had agreed on everything,” Blinken said. “The children knew which pictures they were receiving. The Foundation knew which we had to give away.” The Foundation directors had made a radical decision. Rather than sell the paintings to fund grants or set up a private Rothko museum, they planned to donate them, all of them, to galleries in the United States and around the world. “The big job we had was deciding which museums should get what,” Blinken said. Between 1979 and 1986, they canvassed galleries and museums, narrowing down the list of potential donees, then asking the finalists if they’d like a Rothko. “Most of them said yes,” Blinken said. “Oddly enough, the French didn’t seem to be interested.” Starting in 1986, they gave them all away. The Met, in New York, got thirteen paintings. The Guggenheim took four. The Foundation gave one to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo—it was in storage when I was there in 2019—and one to the Dallas Museum of Art. All told, the Foundation gave Rothkos to twenty-nine American and six international galleries. To this day it remains one of the largest, most widespread gifts of art in the history of the United States. But the bulk of the collection, about nine hundred works, including two-hundred-and-ninety-five oil paintings, went to a single gallery in Washington D.C. *** By the time I returned to the Rothko room at the National Gallery, Donald Trump had been president for almost three years. He was, at the time, in the middle of his first impeachment trial. My daughter, who hadn’t been born yet on my first visit, was now two-and-a-half. A few of the paintings had been switched out since the inauguration and the gallery was much more crowded than it had been on that day. But the impact of all those paintings, all together, in one place, hadn’t diminished with time. There were ten of them in the room—nine large canvasses and one smaller one hung just inside the exit. The colours ranged from yellow and black, to green, orange and purple. But all the tension, in every block, in every picture, was in the borders, in the places where the colours met. The Rothko Foundation chose the National Gallery in large part because it is a public institution. The paintings, which had come so close to being sold off in secret deals to private buyers, would instead belong to the public, forever. The gallery has a policy to never deaccession works. “Selling, or giving away, or destroying or whatever: we just don’t do it,” Hooper said.  Donald Blinken turned ninety-four the fall I spoke to him. He turned ninety-six this year. His son, Anthony, is now Joe Biden’s Secretary of State. I told him when we spoke that the story of the Mark Rothko Foundation struck me as highly unusual: a case where a wrong had been done—in secret, for the benefit of the rich—that was in turn righted. That doesn’t happen very often when money, or power, is at stake. “It’s a good observation and I think you’re absolutely right,” he replied. “I’m very proud of what we did.” *** I spent another two days in D.C. after that first visit to the Rothko room. I watched Three Doors Down warm up for a set at the Lincoln Memorial. I stood outside the DeploraBall as alt-right royalty slinked past protestors to get inside. On the eve of the inauguration, I saw a young man marching near the Capitol, holding a sign that read: “THIS IS FUCKED UP.” As he walked, a Trump supporter in colonial cosplay jogged after him, trying to block the sign with his tricorn hat. On the morning of the inauguration, I woke up before 5 a.m. I threw my shaving cream and toothpaste in the garbage to save time at the airport and left my little suitcase by my friend Julia’s front door. I spent the next several hours going through security—a series of long lines, through fences, into buildings and basements, then out again, through another fence and onto the Capitol steps. My flight back to Toronto was at 6:35 that night. Friends and family had flown in for the wedding and I had to be back in the city by nine. Maybe that’s why I missed so much of what was going on around me. Maybe I was distracted by the spectacle of it all. It was also all very cold and strange. (The core theme of the inaugural speech was American carnage.) But in any case, I missed it. It happened—the greatest scam in American history kicked off—and I didn’t have a clue. III ‘This Was a Bonanza'  Ilya Marritz, a former senior reporter at WNYC Radio, and co-host of the Trump Inc. podcast, looks, in person, a bit like an actor playing a reporter on TV. When I met him in the WNYC offices in late 2019, he wore dark jeans with big cuffs and a tight plaid shirt. His stubble was just starting to go grey. In the months after Trump’s election, Marritz, like a lot of reporters, was still trying to get his bearings back; he was trying to find his way into what had become the biggest story in the world. Marritz is a New York native. He’s been aware of Donald Trump his whole life. “I remember his divorce on the pages of the Post,” he said. But what surprised him, early on, was just how much he didn’t know about the new president’s world. “I realized and some of my colleagues realized, that there was so much about this man that we didn’t understand,” he said. About a year after the election, Marritz and the WYNC team were still looking for roadmaps. They wanted to figure out where to look, to understand where corruption might be, if it was there at all. “We were kind of spit balling at the beginning, looking at, well, ‘what are the stories that we can do?’” Marritz said. “And very early on, I got interested in the inauguration.” *** An hour into my conversation with art reporter Michael Miller, about Knoedler and the New York art world and his own life, we started talking about Donald Trump. In a way it was surprising it took us that long. It was November 2019. Trump was in the middle of his first impeachment. We were in midtown Manhattan, blocks from the Trump Tower, in the cafeteria at the headquarters of The New York Times, a paper that published one-hundred-and-eighty-one stories featuring Trump that month alone, or an average of more than six a day.   “There’s a lot of firsts there,” Miller said about the Trump presidency. “But it’s also, kind of, the first art collecting administration.”  Trump was no connoisseur; he favoured reproductions and paintings of himself. But his cabinet was full of them. His moneymen were big art buyers. So were his daughter and her husband. “The fucking treasury secretary is a major collector,” Miller said. “His father owns a revered Upper East Side gallery that’s around the corner.” *** Marritz and his colleagues soon figured out that there was something very strange about the Trump inauguration. By that point WNYC had teamed up with a guy named Robert Maguire, an expert on money in politics. What they noticed—and they weren’t alone in this—was that Trump’s inaugural committee had raised an enormous amount of money for what looked like a very small party. “People who are experienced in this area described it as very low key,” Marritz said. There were only three official balls. In 2009, Obama went to eleven. There were no A-list performers. Obama had Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder. Trump drew The Piano Guys and DJ Ravidrums. (Even a Springsteen cover group, The B-Street Band, refused to perform.) The budget for a such an event should have been modest. Instead, it was huge, like, historically huge. For the largest inauguration in American history, Obama raised about $53 million. Trump brought in more than double that, $107 million. “The two inaugural planners I had talked to, one Democratic, one Republican, were both flabbergasted and in agreement that it would not be possible to spend that amount of money, like actually impossible,” Marritz said. It wasn’t just how much money, either. It was who was giving it. Unlike previous inaugurations, the Trump committee put no cap on individual or corporate donations. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave $5 million. Coal miner Clifford Forrest gave $1 million. Billionaire Robert Mercer, the hedge fund tycoon who funded Cambridge Analytica, gave a million, too. “This was a bonanza,” Marritz said. “Anybody could give. All dollars were welcome. Just give, give, give, give, give.” *** After all the lawsuits were settled, Kate and Christopher Rothko owned a collection of their father’s art, from every period of his career, far too vast for the two of them to ever display. In the decades since, the Rothko heirs have loaned paintings out to exhibitions and retrospectives. They’ve hung some in their own homes, in Washington and New York. And in 2004, they sold a trove of paintings to J. Ezra Merkin, a Manhattan money manager who was then putting together one of the largest private collections of Rothkos in the world. Merkin’s new Rothkos included studies for the Seagram’s murals and for the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Merkin hung them in his ten-figure co-op at 740 Park Avenue in Manhattan, around the corner from the old Knoedler building and less than a mile from the luxury apartment tower where Harry Macklowe hung a forty-two foot picture of his new wife after finalizing his divorce from Linda. 740 Park has been called “The World’s Richest Apartment Building.” Potential owners need $100 million in liquid assets just to apply to live there. Stephen Schwarzman, a hedge fund billionaire and art collector who donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration, lived there. Steven Mnuchin, a long-time Goldman Sachs executive and the son of gallery owner Bob Mnuchin, did too. In the years after the financial crisis, Mnuchin served as the head of OneWest Bank. Under his leadership, in just six years, OneWest carried out 36,000 foreclosures in California alone. In 2017, Trump named him secretary of the treasury. As for Ezra Merkin, he lost his Rothkos, which he never really paid for, in 2009. For years, it turned out, he had been passing on his clients’ money to Bernie Madoff to invest. When Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed, Merkin’s clients, which included several large charities, lost billions. Merkin never admitted any fault in the Madoff scheme. He kept his co-op at 740 Park (although it was badly damaged in a sauna fire in 2016.) But as part of the fallout, the New York Attorney General forced him to sell his entire art collection, for $310 million. A mystery bidder bought the Rothkos. For years, as far as the art world was concerned, they just disappeared. ***  Thirteen months after the inauguration, WNYC launched a podcast series dedicated to the business history and dealings of the new president. They called it: “Trump Inc.” In the early weeks, the show covered corruption at the Trump Taj Mahal, Jared Kushner’s real estate empire and the president’s financial ties to Russia. But Marritz remained focussed on the president’s first day: “I just started calling every name that I could find connected with the inauguration, every single one,” he said. “I got on LinkedIn. I reached out everywhere.” There were three big questions at that point: Where had all the money gone, who had given it, and why. The answer to the third question was in some ways the easiest to find. People went to the inauguration or gave money to the inaugural committee, or helped organize inaugural events because they wanted something from Donald Trump. “Just the on-the-books donors that we know about is a perfect guide to who has sought influence in the Trump presidency,” Marritz said. But it wasn’t just the donors. Elliott Broidy, the vice-chair of Trump’s inaugural committee, used the event to drum up business for his own companies. He offered inaugural tickets to two senior Angolan politicians in a letter that also included a contract he asked them to sign. He gave out invites to a Congolese strongman and a politician once dubbed the “Romanian Darth Vader,” all part of a plan to, according to The New York Times, solicit up to $266 million in foreign defence intelligence contracts.  “Those kinds of people were showing up because nobody was vetting them,” Marritz said. “There were no constraints put on this. It was an open for business inauguration.” *** In the summer of 2006, Steve Wynn, a casino owner and long-time friend of Donald Trump’s, agreed to sell Picasso’s Le Rêve, a famous painting of the artist’s young mistress, to the hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen for $139 million. A decade later, Wynn would help organize the Trump inauguration. He served on the fundraising committee. He had “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers”—his personal team of Vegas dancers—flown in to perform. He insisted, according to documents released by a special prosecutor, that “40 Hour Week,” by Alabama, be played at one party. Cohen, who donated $1 million to the inauguration, is himself one of the world’s leading collectors of art. His trove includes works by Pollock, de Kooning, and Andy Warhol. He owns Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a thirteen-foot preserved tiger shark swimming in a display case of formaldehyde. Cohen, who founded S.A.C. Capital, is worth an estimated $14 billion. The New Yorker once described him as “a symbol of Wall Street malfeasance.” In 2013, his former firm paid a $1.8 billion fine to settle charges of insider trading. One of his associates was sentenced to nine years in prison. Cohen now owns the New York Mets. In 2006, however, Cohen’s purchase of Le Rêve fell through. The night before the sale, Wynn put his elbow through the canvas while showing it to some friends.  *** For months, Marritz had little to show for his focus on the inauguration. He knew there was something there. That much was obvious. “There was like $40 million or so that was unaccounted for,” he said. But he couldn’t figure out what that something was or where all that money had gone. Still, Marritz didn’t give up. He felt like he was close to something big. “I just knew it,” he said. “I mean, I just fucking knew. I still know it. There is still more to be understood.” What happened, in the end, is what happens in almost every big breakthrough in journalism.  After endless calls and ignored emails, someone told Marritz something he didn’t know. “I can’t tell you very much about my reporting breakthrough except to say that eventually people started sharing documents with me,” he said. Those documents pointed him, and the WNYC reporting team, to at least two seismic facts about the inauguration. One was that the Trump International Hotel in Washington, a luxury property right between the White House and the National Gallery, got paid, a lot, from inaugural funds. The other, Marritz said, was that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, had known about it. ***  In the late months of 2016, not long before the inauguration, Trump’s advisors and would-be members of his cabinet began compiling and submitting financial disclosure forms to the Office of Government Ethics. Disclosures are always newsworthy when they emerge. It’s important to know who owns what in any government. But the Trump disclosures were eye-popping on a different scale. In a way unmatched in American history, Trump’s cabinet members and close advisors were rich, phenomenally so. Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, needed fifty-seven pages to detail his assets. (A typical disclosure is twelve pages or less.) He listed about $700 million in stocks, trusts, and property. He cited an art collection, heavy on René Magritte, valued at between $50 and $150 million. Ross, in other words, was very wealthy. But it turned out he wasn’t quite as wealthy as he had often claimed. In 2017, disclosures in hand, Forbes pulled Ross from its annual billionaires list. Ross, the magazine concluded, had invented an extra $2 billion in net worth. “That money never existed,” senior editor Dan Alexander wrote. “It seems clear that Ross lied to us.” Mnuchin, Trump’s pick for the treasury, had the opposite problem. His disclosures revealed that he was about ten times wealthier than public projections had assumed. In total, Mnuchin disclosed about $400 million in assets, including a stake in a $14.7 million de Kooning. (Say what you will about Mnuchin, but it’s hard to argue with his taste in art. After he was installed in cabinet, he borrowed five Rothkos from the National Gallery to decorate his office.) Like Mnuchin, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner initially failed to disclose the extent of their art collection. It was only in the summer of 2017, on an amended form, that the couple revealed they owned between $5 and $25 million worth of contemporary art. That revelation, at least, came as no surprise to those in the New York art world. Ivanka Trump had been a mainstay in the gallery party circuit before her father became president. Her Instagram account often showed her in the family’s Manhattan apartment, posing before works by artists like Alex Israel, David Ostrowski and Alex Da Corte. “Dear @ivankatrump,” Da Corte wrote when saw the picture, “please get my work off your walls I am embarrassed to be seen with you.” *** There was one inconvenient fact that loomed over every part of the preparations for the 58th Presidential Inauguration: Donald Trump and his advisors had not expected to win the election. The Trump team hadn’t taken the job of preparing for the presidency seriously. And what work was done, under the direction of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, was all thrown out after the votes came in. “That’s really late in the game to start planning the transition,” said Marritz. “Similarly with the inauguration, it’s always a sprint, but it seemed to come together even more haphazardly than is normal.” Trump put real estate investor Thomas J. Barrack, who was later charged with conspiring to act as an agent of the United Arab Emirates while advising Trump,  in charge of the festivities. Wynn, who stepped down from his own company in 2018 after being accused of serial sexual abuse, played an active role in the planning, as did Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign manager. (Gates later admitted it “was possible” he had stolen money from the planning fund; he was convicted of lying under oath and conspiring against the United States in 2019.) But the main job of actually pulling the party together went to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a veteran New York event planner and long-time friend of Melania Trump’s.  Winston Wolkoff would later emerge as a key player in the inauguration drama. That was in part because she kept meticulous records, but it was also because she spoke about the event to Michael Cohen, Trump’s fixer, on the phone. Cohen, who was convicted of what a judge called “a veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct” in 2018, secretly recorded those calls. And when he was arrested, investigators seized the tapes and used them to launch an investigation into the inaugural committee. Winston Wolkoff had made the mistake of assuming that, for all its public dysfunction, the Trump world would still operate something like a credible, business-oriented operation. What she found instead was a kind of chaos of disorganized grift. “There was all of this money just pouring in everywhere,” Maguire said.   Gates, Winston Wolkoff told Cohen, had asked vendors if they’d take money directly from donors, apparently to hide how much was coming in and from whom. Another consultant later admitted to using so-called “straw donors” to hide illegal contributions, likely from overseas. But the most telling story to emerge from Winston Wolkoff’s records was the about the Trumps themselves and their business interests. At some point early in the process, it was made clear to the organizers that the Trump Hotel had to be a venue, Marritz said. And when it came time to plan official inaugural events, the Trump was the only hotel the committee considered.  That in itself was iffy enough. Trump still owned his company. When the Trump hotel made money, he made money. And everybody knew that. What was worse, though, was that the prices the hotel quoted were wildly out of touch with what other venues wanted. The Trump initially asked the committee for $3.6 million to reserve all event space in the hotel for eight days in and around the inauguration. That worked out to $450,000 a day, a number so inflated and so far beyond the hotel’s internal pricing scheme that even Gates balked. (Another non-profit booked a ballroom for $5000 that week. Other hotels were offering them up for free.) Gates wrote to Ivanka Trump and asked her to intervene. A Trump Hotel official got back to Gates, said he had “spoken to Ivanka about inauguration pricing,” and offered to negotiate. After going back and forth, the hotel presented the committee a new rate: Four days in the Presidential Ballroom for $175,000 a day plus an additional $200,000 on food, and a $300,000 inaugural party for the Trump kids.  To Winston Wolkoff all of this seemed not just outlandish, but potentially embarrassing. In an email first revealed by Marritz and a team at ProPublica, she warned the rest of the inaugural committee about her concerns. “These are events in PE’s [the President-elect] honor at his hotel and one of them is with and for family and close friends,” she wrote. “Please take into consideration that when this is audited it will become public knowledge.” The committee went ahead with the buy. ***  Trump Inc. and ProPublica first published excerpts from Winston’s Wolkoff’s emails on December 14, 2018. Above the ProPublica story, co-written by reporter Justin Elliott, editors placed a photo of Trump speaking on inauguration day. You can see me in that picture. I’m sitting in the front row beneath the dais, near the far end. Frank Spotorno, the elevator design king of Long Island, was next to me. His friend Darren Aquino, a personal chef, actor and advocate turned Republican candidate, sat one seat over to the right. (In 2020, Aquino demanded a recount after finishing eighth in a Florida primary.) In the weeks before and after the ceremony, the big story about the inauguration wasn’t who was there, it was about who wasn’t. The crowd was modest. Tickets weren’t exactly scarce. I applied for credentials a week before the event. They sat me in a VIP zone. Even Spotorno had no idea how he ended up in the front row. “The CFO, the CEO (of the Trump Organization), they were all at the back,” he told me when I met him for a drink, years later at the Trump Hotel in New York. “Newt Gingrich, he was standing up, maybe ten-to-twelve aisles back…but we were sitting down. It was an awesome day.”  But all of that, to Marritz—the crowd size, the speech, the D-list VIPs—was a distraction. It foreshadowed a pattern that would play out again and again in the Trump presidency. “Some controversy bubbles up, everybody runs there and checks it out,” Marritz said. And in the process, they miss what’s really going on: “How Trump does business. And the fact that Trump expects to be paid.” ***  In January 2020, the Attorney General for the District of Columbia sued the Trump inaugural committee, the Trump organization and the Trump International Hotel alleging that the three entities had conspired to waste the non-profit committee’s funds. In December 2020, as her father was ginning up the outrage that would lead to the Capitol riots, Ivanka Trump was deposed, behind closed doors, in the case. In New York, prosecutors launched a separate criminal investigation into the inauguration in late 2018.  In February 2021, Imaad Zuberi, a California venture capitalist and lobbyist, was sentenced to twelve years in prison as part of that probe. Zuberi had been working, secretly, for, among others, the Sri Lankan government. He promised to use political donations to influence American policy. He also donated almost a million dollars to the inaugural fund.   *** In a separate case, Broidy, Trump’s inaugural vice chair, pleaded guilty to illegal lobbying in late 2020. Like Zuberi, Broidy took millions to secretly press the Trump administration after helping Trump raise millions for his campaign. Broidy, who Rolling Stone once dubbed “Washington’s ultimate swamp creature,” was forced to forfeit more than $6 million. He was facing up to five years in prison. But in Trump’s last hours in office, four years to the day after the inauguration, he issued Broidy a full pardon. The conviction, though, only scratched the surface of Broidy’s strange dealings during the Trump years. He was also involved in a plan to tilt American foreign policy away from Qatar. Broidy would later accuse Qatari agents of leaking damaging emails to discredit him, including one that revealed he once agreed to pay a Playboy Playmate $1.6 million to cover up their affair. (Like Trump, Broidy used Cohen as a go-between to arrange his payoff). Broidy’s well-paid campaign against Qatar kicked off not long after the ruling family of the oil-rich gulf state emerged as perhaps the dominant force in the global art world. In 2007, the Al Thani family paid almost $73 million for David Rockefeller’s prized Rothko, an unusual canvas of yellow over pink. The sale almost quadrupled the existing auction record for a Rothko which had been set, in 2005, by Homage to Matisse. In 2011, The Art Newspaper revealed that the Al Thanis were also the buyers of the mystery Rothkos from J. Ezra Merkin’s collection. In 2020, ARTnews named two members of the Al Thani family to its annual list of the most important art collectors in the world. At least seven top inaugural donors also made that list. Steve Cohen, who gave $1 million and bought Wynn’s patched up Picasso, makes it every year. So does Wynn. Hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin owns a $300 million de Kooning. He gave $100,000 to the Trump inauguration party fund. Fund manager Bruce Berkowitz, who for years wanted to build his own private gallery in Miami, donated $125,000. Henry Kravis, the barbarian in the business classic Barbarians at the Gate, and the owner of a Monet and a Renoir, gave $1 million. So did Charles Schwab, who owns a Pollock and a Bacon. Frank Fertitta III, a casino magnate who helped build the Ultimate Fighting Championship with his brother Lorenzo, gave the committee $207,000. The Fertittas are serious art collectors. When they bought the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, they commissioned Damien Hirst to decorate the club. Among other works, Hirst built a divided triptych shark tank to stand above and behind the bar. He also designed a suite in the hotel that rented out for $100,000 a night. It came complete with two preserved sharks in a single tank. In 2008, Fertitta, still at that point the co-owner of the UFC, paid $7.2 million for an orange, red and blue Rothko. He bought the painting through an agent, on the advice of Swiss art historian Oliver Wick. It was only in 2013, after reading a story in The Art Newspaper, that Fertitta discovered the painting was a Knoedler fraud. *** For Marritz, the story of the Trump Hotel at the inauguration was the story of the Trump presidency. It wasn’t about policy, not really. Trump never really believed in anything, except money and himself. And he was never particularly concerned about where that money came from or who was funneling it to him.  “Really, the opening act in all of that,” Marritz said, “was the inauguration itself.” On the day I met Miller, in New York, Trump had just been ordered to pay a $2 million civil settlement stemming from a lawsuit that accused him of exploiting his own charity during the campaign. That suit was tied to a fundraising event in Des Moines, Iowa, in January 2016. I was there that night. It was the first time I ever saw Trump live. The experience was a bit like being drawn into a big top by a carnival barker, only to find the barker himself on stage, inside, yelling about the greatness of barking.  But the crowd, as they always did, loved it. I have a photo from that night saved on my phone. I took it from the side balcony, moments after Trump left the stage, as the audience swarmed toward him. In the centre balcony, you can see a man pitching over the railing, his body bent past ninety degrees. In the blur of movement below, there are red hats and upraised fists and in one corner the starburst glare of a professional flash. There are parallels, Miller believes, between the Knoedler case, the Rothko story, and the great, long scam of the Trump years. They all exposed things as they already were. “You very rarely in a luxury market like the art world, or high-end real estate—which is the world of the Trumps—see any kind of transparency,” he said. None of this was new, in other words. It wasn’t novel. It was just out there, briefly, for everyone to see.  *** It will sound like pathetic fallacy, but it’s true: When Trump spoke on inauguration day, the rain began to fall. Fat drops in cold air, they caused a collective sudden rustling of ponchos being unfurled. From below, where I sat, it sounded like a thousand pigeons fluttering their wings to shake off the rain. As Trump spoke, a photographer for CNN shot a massive, megapixel picture of the crowd. Zoom in and you can see me in the shot. My head’s down. I’m looking at my notes. I watched Trump walk out from the Capitol. I saw him pause behind the bulletproof glass, saw him clench his hands and do his odd little victory shake.  But when he reached the podium, when he finally took the oath, when his four years officially began, he slipped from view. From the front row, you couldn’t see him. That was fake, too. Coda: ‘Another Poem’ At the end of my conversation with Christopher Rothko in New York, as we were gathering our things, I asked him if there was anything we hadn’t talked about, anything more he wanted to say. Rothko paused and thought; he seemed ready to move on, then something struck him: “I want to talk,” he said, “about the painting at the AGO.” The Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, acquired a Rothko directly from the artist’s studio in 1962. The painting was a gift from the Women’s Committee Fund, a volunteer organization that raised money at the time to buy and give away work. “I think that is easily one of the twenty greatest Rothkos ever painted,” Christopher told me. “Maybe higher than that. And I’ve been to the AGO four times and it has never been on display.” When I came back to Toronto that fall, I wrote a newspaper story about the AGO Rothko, which had been in storage or on loan at that point for more than a decade. “I don’t get it,” Christopher told me. “It’s not like they have other Rothkos hanging. It’s not like they are hanging exclusively Canadian art…So this is a plea to get that painting out of storage—or if not, I’ll swap with them.” He laughed then. But he wasn’t joking. Not really. Even all these years after the Rothko Affair, Christopher still owns more Rothkos than he could ever hang. When I wrote my story, the gallery told me they planned to put the canvas up sometime in 2020. But then 2020 came and everything fell away. The AGO closed in March when the pandemic arrived in Toronto. It reopened that summer and then closed again as cases climbed before Christmas. In February 2021, I reached out to the gallery again. I needed an ending. But it was more than that. I wanted to see another painting. (“I wished for what I always wished for,” Louise Glück wrote. “I wished for another poem.”)   The good news was, the painting was up, finally. But the gallery wasn’t open, not yet. I tried again in March. And for a brief window I thought I might get in. Twenty minutes. No photos. Just me. But then another surge and another lockdown. I asked again in May. And then July. And then the email came. “It breaks my heart to tell you this,” the gallery’s publicist wrote to me. “But although the AGO is hoping to re-open on July 21 (and we’d be delighted to have you in), the Rothko is coming down to make way for the Matthew Wong exhibition.”  The AGO suffers from abundance; it owns far more paintings than it can ever display. And there are deals involved with wealthy donors that govern what can be moved and when.  The Rothko offers an additional issue: geometry. The canvas, almost eight feet by seven-and-a-half feet, is too large to share space. It can’t be crowded in. It needs a dedicated wall, and there aren’t that many walls in the AGO that are large enough. That the gallery finally found space for it, that it made room, that the Rothko hung there for a half a pandemic year only to come down again before anyone other than gallery staff could see it, felt like its own kind of art: a performance of absence in a year when so many things were lost.  Maybe that’s why I kept trying, why I couldn’t let the Rothko go. It felt like a string tied through a funhouse mirror to a previous world. In late October, with the anniversary of Trump’s defeat looming, I tried one last ploy. I asked Christopher Rothko to intercede, and he agreed. And that’s how, on a late October day, I came to be standing one more time before the real thing. I’m not allowed to say where I saw the Rothko, other than to say that it was in the Art Gallery of Ontario, a building next to a playground that my daughter, now four, loves to climb and slide and swing across. But it was a strange enough thing in the end. The light was off—too stark and uneven. And as I stared, a modern art curator jiggled a silver-sneakered foot, seemingly anxious to get on with his day. My younger friends will sometimes ask me what fatherhood feels like. I’m never quite sure how to put it into words. It’s an ache in places I never knew were there, a feeling with fuzzy edges and a scarlet core where the love for everything that is washes up against the fear and the mystery of what may be. I felt a refraction of all that as I looked at the Rothko. I stared for so long that when I finally left and closed my eyes, I could see the afterglow of the canvas against my eyelids: a white haze and a brown float, and everything anchored in red—perfect smear.
“We Have to be Brave Enough to Be Vulnerable”: An Interview with Laura Raicovich

The author of Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest on the myth of neutrality, collective culture, amd museums’ responsibility.

Two acts of protest have defined the art world in recent years: Nan Goldin’s activations and protests against the Sackler family’s involvement in the art world, and the open letter and outrage around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The latter is still divisive, and the art world remains fractionated by debate over censorship and the everyday horrors of white supremacy. These conversations are nuanced, complicated, and at times heated—as is Laura Raicovich’s book, Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest (Verso Books).  Culture Strike is not a neutral book clinically recounting these tensions. To do so would go against Raicovich’s dismissal of museums’ claims to themselves be neutral. “The problem with neutrality as a claim for a museum is that it fundamentally neutralizes any criticism, dissent, or alternate history that it might present,” writes Raicovich. Raicovich practices the recommendations she makes in the book by displaying her lived experience, allowing the reader to understand how her position influences her views. In the introduction, Raicovich outlines her time as the director at the Queens Museum and her later departure. After a tense disagreement with the board about allowing the Mission of Israel to rent the museum for an event that included a speech by Mike Pence, Raicovich departed the museum. In Culture Strike, Raicovich asks: what if the board of directors and staff worked closer together? What if the board of directors was more diverse? What if museums slowed down? The result might be a cultural sensitivity and awareness that prevents painful missteps.  “Failures, particularly public ones, can be spaces of growth and learning for cultural institutions (indeed for all of us) as long as they are accompanied by an accountability which their publicness engenders,” writes Raicovich. “Plus, revealing these vulnerabilities through open discussions is far more interesting and illuminating to the public from a pedagogical standpoint, and further distripts uthe fiction of any neutral position,” she continues. Raicovich proposes a different status quo for cultural spaces, one slower and more considered, where museums reflect the community, and in doing so, influence society.  Tatum Dooley: I'm interested in how you structured the book. To me, it feels like an anthropological study of American museums, especially in the last decade. You lay out texts and open letter responses as if they were artefacts, and then you contextualise them. It felt like walking through a museum. I wonder if you were thinking about those things? Laura Raicovich: I wasn't thinking about those things, but I think that's funny that you say that. My biggest concern with this book was to convey this story in a way that would appeal to not only specialists. I felt like the storytelling was really important. So the structure of the book comes out of a desire to engage people who aren't museum people or work in the field. I thought it was really important to focus on the open letters, because I thought the language was so important. The language that people used in different positions to relay why they felt a certain way. To me, it was important to analyse that for what it said about this particular moment in time when this thing happened. It was really intense and there were a lot of big feelings. But also, to be a bit more analytic: the staff at the Whitney was saying this, the director of the Whitney was saying that, and this is where I saw friction, as somebody who had been both inside and outside [of museums]. I thought that was the place that I could provide something that was of value to readers.  I’m interested in the way you tackled the Dana Schutz controversy in the book. You framed the removal of art as a choice on behalf of the artist, made after reflecting on what the community was saying. I think the distinction [of it as a choice] is an important one.   I really like the way that Sam Durant and The Walker [Art Centre] dealt with “Scaffold.” I felt like there was a really beautiful generosity and acknowledgement of the harm that had been caused by that work. What I liked about what they did in that situation was they made the offering, it was part of making amends for causing harm. I think that with the Dana Schutz piece, it was up to the curators, The Whitney, and the artists to have that conversation and, just like the people at The Walker, come to their own conclusion. And clearly, they did. I do think that it is up to the artists to lead the conversation, because it's their work no matter how the institution has framed it. As a creator, you have a responsibility to think about how people receive that work. Of course, as a public institution, you also have a responsibility to contend with how people are going to receive that work.  I think my bias as a journalist is, when something is published in a newspaper or magazine, it can't be taken down. There can be an editor's note attached, or they can publish other things and responses. Once things start getting taken down or censored, there's the risk of people with political or financial power trying removing things they don't like. And then there's a threat to democracy. But I understand that journalism and art are different things. I wonder if the same risks might be present, though?  Absolutely. I think that there are ways that cultural spaces protect artistic speech. When I talked to Rebecca Solnit, she talked about the difference between objectivity and neutrality. You can be clear about your position, and as a journalist, you should be honest about that. But you're not neutral. You have a position, .You have all of your life experiences and where you come from. All of that is built into your lens, how you see the world and interpret it. Acknowledging that is really important. The Whitney did a brave thing on one level by showing [Triple-Chaser] by Forensic Architecture and Laura Poitras at the last Whitney Biennial, a research film that researched the tear gas made by Warren Kanders’s company. That was brave, because he's one of their major donors. And he still is, in the sense that the funds that he gave were pretty significant. But again, it's interesting, the way the guise of neutrality has played into that relationship, [the idea that a] museum is neutral and just presenting what the artist believes.  In the book you touch on the failures of institutional critique. How, when a museum separates itself from the politics of the art, then they can have work by Andrea Fraser up and still not be paying their staff properly. The work allows a disingenuous way out, a cover.  Exactly. It creates a strange cover that on one hand, [the museums can say], “That's the best we can do, because we're super dependent on [investors].” But at the same time, it amplifies this problem of wealthy people who are supporters of museums, who everyone thinks of as a piggy bank. There's this widening gap between staff and boards as the wealth gap in the United States gets even more dramatically enormous. There's a gap between the life experiences of somebody who might be on the board and somebody who might be on staff. There's a real gap in mutual experience. If [cultural spaces] can each take on their own biases and acknowledge them and think through what being a more equitable cultural space means for them, maybe there's some clues in that to how we deal with bigger societal questions, because those [cultural spaces] so closely mirror the vast inequities that we are dealing with. These institutions that are perceived as elite spaces can be useful to us in sorting out how we deal with the bigger problems, because they are actually a space that we hold in common, if we claim it. Specifically in the Philip Guston chapters in the book, where the decision to delay the show is [to take time to figure out] how to contextualise the work, part of me wondered, how much should the museum be involved in that? And how much is it the viewer's role to be able to make their own decisions when thinking and looking about art?  I'm very torn about this, because it goes back to our free speech conversation and the reality of historical harm being done to certain people. That decision [to delay the Guston show] happened at a very particular moment in U.S. history, with the reality of George Floyd's murder, Breonna Taylor's murder, and so many other Black people who were killed by police. Particularly in the cultural sector, where you're interpreting an image made by a white man of a white man in a Ku Klux Klan hood, you have to deal with the contemporary context. There is an educational role that museums need to play. The artist's relationship to social justice needs to be known. My point about the decision was that decisions overall get made too quickly. Sometimes you want a slow decision. Sometimes you want to be having multiple conversations that take hours and hours to really get into it, to figure out what the right thing to do is. The fact is that institutions are not blank buildings that make decisions, but are actually a collective endeavor of individual people who make work on a day-to-day [basis]. I think that's often lost. I think that’s also connected to your points about neoliberalism. How the speed and demands of museums, and the demands put on artists, is kind of disastrous. Both to the content, to our institutions and artists. I think that speed has exponentially increased over the last several decades in ways that are not only about communication, but are about accountability. We have to be accountable for the decisions that we're making. We can't really do that without taking the time to actually make a decision properly. Part of what I want to say about the book is that anyone who's trying to make things better is gonna fuck up. We have to be brave enough to be vulnerable. We have to learn how to apologise without demanding forgiveness. We have to make amends in ways that are constructive. There are all these ways that we need to adjust how we interact with one another. Sure, there are easy things that we can identify that we should be working on. But at the end of the day, this needs to be a collective effort. I'm only one person and these are collective decisions about our collective culture and how we want to live.
Sacrifice

An eccentric monk’s singular scrap cathedral reveals the chaos and genius of his mind.

One late spring evening in 2018, Justo Gallego Martínez said he would show me his grave. The old man was warming his hands by a stove in the dim back room of his cathedral. A dusty film coated the cement floor. The shelves and tables were full of relics, screws, chipped wood, crushed glass, and half-eaten loaves of bread. A bare hanging bulb cast the room in a jaundiced light. “I want to be buried here,” Justo said, signalling around him to the cathedral’s cavernous nave and the twenty trembling towers sprawled across thousands of square feet of his own land on the outskirts of Madrid. He wanted to die where he had spent all his life hiding from a world that had never quite understood him.  The cathedral’s crypt would be his burial place. And he’d be buried there because it was his cathedral. He’d designed it entirely in his head, without a single measurement or calculation on paper, without a record of any of the materials he’d used. And he had done it largely by himself. I sat near Justo in the gloom and watched as the fire threw shadows across his sunken eyes and recessed temples, as it flickered over his gummy smile, his gnarled hands, and his frail, angular body. He was nearly a century old, but energy still pulsed through him. “Come on, let me show you,” he squawked. Grabbing my arm, Justo winched himself up from his seat and led me out the door to the ambulatory. His baggy blue coat hung from his skeletal frame like wet clothes on a washing line, and his hunched old shoulders and limp hands made him seem grim reaper-like in the darkness. Outside, an uncovered dome, 120 feet high and 30 feet wide, loomed above us. The nave lurched some 150 feet to our left, covered by a half-barrel vault whose exposed beams curved upwards like a whale’s ribcage. The rest of the cathedral was an architectural Frankenstein propped up on mismatched bricks, tires, wheels, food cans, plastic, and excessive quantities of cement. Large chunks of the building were already in decay, invaded by moss and rising damp. The aisles burst with dusty cement bags piled as high as the first-floor gallery. Other rooms erupted with thousands of broken tiles, dismantled cement mixers, motorbikes, rotten wood, oxidized saws, festering ropes, chicken carcasses, and plastic bags fossilized in pigeon shit. Justo didn’t look up or down. He shuffled over the slippery marble tiles to the altar at the back of the apse, passing by a life-sized crucifix cast in white plaster. “Down there,” he pointed. Next to the shrine, the floor opened like a sinkhole to the darkness of the crypt below. This hole was where it had all begun, Justo said. Here, he had first started to dig and to formulate his vision. Here, too, at the back of the crypt, in the half-light of the lower courtyard, is where it would end. A six-foot-high wooden cross leant against the wall. In front of it lay a yawning pit, seven feet long and four feet wide, a pyramid of dirt heaped at its side. The bottom was too dark to see. But Justo wouldn’t look at it. He just stared out at the courtyard, at the crumbling cloisters and the glinting dooms, at the sprawl of his cathedral. *** I had lived in Spain for almost six years before I heard about Justo. In early 2018, I came across an article in a local paper about an ex-monk building a cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, a town on Madrid’s outskirts. For almost sixty years, with no help or architectural expertise, Justo Gallego Martínez had been constructing a cathedral near the size of the Sagrada Familia using waste and recycled materials. When the monk started his project, the locals had called him a madman. Since then, he had fought with family members, created enemies, and won an adoring international public. He had also never formalized the structure, which means that his cathedral was illegal. The Official College of Architects of Madrid confirmed that “not even the preliminary papers [for registration] have been submitted.” Representatives from the Catholic Church would later tell me that it is too expensive and complicated a project to take on. And the provincial government maintained it didn’t have the money to renovate it to standard. There was a real worry among the locals that the cathedral might be torn down. Several months after reading about Justo for the first time, I found myself standing next to this bewildering man, as he stood next to his own grave. On paper, there was little to unite the two of us. I was a twenty-seven-year-old agnostic baptized in a Presbyterian church, a writer who had always been rather obsessed with the meaning of his own work, which is a sententious way of saying I was harmfully ambitious. My desire to succeed, or whatever I thought that meant, kept me up at night, made me irritable and anxious, imbued me with a sense of superiority on some days, and crippled me with self-loathing on others. Justo, on the other hand, was an extremist Catholic. He had deferred the meaning of his creation to God and was seemingly obsessed, not with his ego (which was an anathema to him), but the purity of his devotion. [[{"fid":"6708341","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] While, during those early visits, I might have been tempted to see Justo’s dedication as some sort of existential mirror for my own roaming, distracted mind, as I got to know him better, I realized that, like his cathedral, everything was more complicated than I had perhaps wanted it to be. In reality, Justo was a mess of incongruities and non sequiturs. He could be open-minded and bigoted, forgiving and stubborn, kind and brusque, wise and simple. He was a flawed genius, who never sought to be named as such, a man who didn’t want to be discovered, but had done everything to make himself discoverable. His achievements had attracted people from all over the world, but his inability, or perhaps just an unwillingness, to articulate his own vision had allowed those people, including me, to write his story for him. *** Justo’s early life was marked by religious fervour, political upheavals, and health problems. As a boy, he was very close to his mother. “She was a saint,” he told me. “She was the one that taught me the words of the bible.” At an early age, he had to leave school due to the Spanish Civil War, which ravaged Madrid and its surroundings. His mother’s teachings were a vital part of the little education that Justo would receive. The young man had always fostered dreams of dedicating his life to God. When he would travel to Madrid to run errands, he would roam the capital’s streets searching for a woman more beautiful than the Virgin Mary. “But I couldn’t find her,” he sniggered. So, the boy chose to consecrate his life to the Virgin and remain a virgin himself—a man of God, not tempted by the flesh or carnal desires. “I want to be pure, not a slave to my body.” At the age of twenty-seven, he entered the monastery of Santa María de la Huerta in Soria, northern Spain. Many of his fellow monks found him strident and difficult; he would work longer hours than necessary and often pray into the night. Insisting on remaining teetotal, he even refused to drink the wine during communion. “They were very suspicious of me,” he once told local journalists. “They said I was breaking the rules.” Seven years after he first entered the monastery, Justo said he contracted tuberculosis. He travelled to Madrid to recuperate in the hospital that now houses the Queen Sofia National Museum Art Centre; how long he spent there is unclear, though he claimed it was a year. When he tried returning to the monastery, his brother monks did not allow him back in. I once asked Justo whether he thought this had to do with his extremism or his illness, but he was reticent on the details. Justo merely said that he returned to Mejorada del Campo and fell into a funk, a sort of depression. He no longer knew how to dedicate his life to God. “The brother monks have abandoned you,” his mother would tell him, and Justo indulged in her pity. He began to live like a hermit. He spoke to no one, not even his friends; he thought only of God and the Virgin Mary, in whom he sought solace and inspiration. Where would he channel his religious fervour? What could he possibly do with himself that would mean anything? It was in the midst of this incessant self-questioning, he said, that it came to him—the idea to build something for his Creator: a cathedral, which would demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice himself for God. In 1961, Justo started to dig, laying the foundations of what would become his life’s work. He came from a relatively well-off family with considerable land near Madrid. Over the years, he sold much of it to fund the construction of his church. He also relied heavily on charity; a factory in a nearby village supplied cement, while another offered broken tiles and discarded bricks. Working alone, he barrelled mountains of dirt, scaled scaffolding with no harness, and soldered with no mask. He worked feverishly, without rest and with little food and water. Sometimes he would have visions. Laying bricks, he would suddenly remember the Holy Trinity, drop to his knees and weep. “I don’t know if these visions were mystical,” Francisco Martinez, a local priest, told me, “but he definitely had many intense, visual experiences with God.” Justo hated angles and straight lines and tried to avoid them in his cathedral at all costs. He preferred curves and circles—vaulted ceilings, domes, arches, rounded chapels, annular altars, and spiral staircases. “God made all things round. He made the planets round. He made the earth round.” While God may have spurred Justo on, his lack of education held him back. He read little beyond religious texts and had no grasp of even elementary mathematics. He didn’t know about circumferences, radii, or diameters. So he found his own way to make circles: he’d bend metal rods around columns, draw around circular water drums or tins of paint. But Justo knew making curves was no easy task. They were expensive, had little tolerance for error, and were harder to build than straight lines. Everything had to be calculated to fit within centimetres of accuracy. A millimetre of imprecision in one step could culminate in a spiral staircase that didn’t quite reach its landing. [[{"fid":"6708321","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] The curve Justo loved most was the dome. Measuring 120 feet high and 30 feet across, it was modelled on the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Still, unlike its more famous inspiration, Justo’s dome was a quarter of the size and unfinished. With large blue metal girders curving up to a pressure ring at its centre, it looked like a mechanical spider atop the nave. The dome took him thirty years to imagine, and seven years to build. It is what he talked about the most and the only thing I ever heard him boast about. “You won’t find anything like this in Madrid,” he’d say. There were never any plans or drawings for the dome. Though he received help from ironworkers, Justo implied that he did the work alone. When I queried how that was possible, the answer was a mishmash of incomprehensible anecdotes. There were stories of spindly scaffolding 250 metres high, no harnesses, groaning metal bars, and strong winds. “I was always worried about the wind,” he told me. But when I pressed him further, when I asked him how he had actually built it, Justo merely said he had managed it through a combination of determination and prayer. There was no reflection or consultation unless it was with God. Nor was there much inspiration from architects, who Justo didn’t like being compared to. Besides religious texts, he only read books on medieval castles and gothic architecture. For him, Gaudi, the architect of the Sagrada Familia to whom he is often compared, was “garbage.” “His stuff is completely over the top! There are too many spires, too much of everything.” Justo made up for his technical shortcomings by finding strange solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. He piled empty paint cans on top of one another and filled them with cement to make columns. He bent corrugated iron rods and fed them through slinky-like springs to create the structure for arches. When the columns he built were too short, he filled the gaps with clumps of iron, piling them up like mismatched books to the height of the support beams. He’d then solder them together. To Justo, building was more an instinct than an acquired skill. He reacted rather than pondered, and he mustered things he wasn’t able to process or explain later. *** In the ’60s and ’70s, Spain was in the midst of a dictatorship predicated on deeply conservative Catholic values. This would have suited Justo, except that the dictatorship also brought with it an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion. People kept their politics to themselves for fear of repercussions. The age was permeated by a pernicious silence and a regression to the refuge of the norm. Over the decades, as the ex-monk continued to build, most of the villagers declared him an outcast. A madman. “He was the type of person dressed in a winter coat in the summer and summer clothing in the winter,” recalled Lucia Moncada, a local resident. He was the kind of man who didn’t fit in. To Justo, however, these types of criticisms had no effect. “It’s easy to overcome judgement,” he once told Spanish television. “They called me crazy. . . . So what?! I’ll get over it.” But Justo wasn’t crazy. He was just unwilling to submit to what most people considered normal. He wasn’t accommodating of others’ concerns. He didn’t need love or approbation because he had purpose. That was enough. That was his strength. His marginalization, his self-removal from the world, allowed him to work, to achieve what most distracted minds never could. And if Justo worked mostly alone on his cathedral, it is also partly because he had struggled to find anyone he consistently got on with. When he first started his project, he was helped by his nephews, and to compensate them, Justo built houses with the money he received from the sale of his lands. According to Justo, he also gave them access to funds to support themselves while they assisted with the construction. But the nephews soon began taking advantage of their uncle and drove him into debt. In the early ’80s, the bailiffs came knocking, and Justo said he had to move into the cathedral full time. He had no money to continue the construction and no hope of sustaining his commitment to God. “The biggest devils I have ever come across are in my own family,” he said of his nephews. That’s when Ángel López appeared. He started visiting Justo in the early ’90s. After living and working alongside the old man, Lopez—a squat, beefy labourer from Guadalajara—told me he had an epiphany and renounced his former life to move into the cathedral with Justo. He sold his apartment in Guadalajara and paid a large chunk of Justo’s debt. During the three years I spent in and around the cathedral, I found Ángel hard to place. Sometimes, he would speak to me like I was his accomplice, whispering to me his confidences in chummy conspiratorial tones; at other times, he treated me as if I were an incompetent foreigner who barely understood Spanish. Often, he seemed to be doing his own thing. He would be out hunting rabbits or at the bank for longer than seemed likely. He was always going somewhere, always surprisingly unavailable. He was not filled with Justo’s religious fervour, nor did he have his charisma. Though he always spoke fondly of Justo, calling him his “master” and a “genius,” he could also be spectacularly unenthusiastic about the cathedral’s future. “When Justo’s gone, there is no plan,” he said when I asked him about it. There was suspicion surrounding Ángel. One local believed that he was as bad as the nephews: “Ángel has Justo wrapped around his little finger. He is playing the long game, waiting for Justo to die so he can cash in.” But Ángel remained incredulous in the face of these rumours: “I paid Justo’s debts. I have been here for years and still they think I’m bad.” As Justo got older and sicker, Ángel’s influence had become more palpable. Though he was undoubtedly loyal, I often sensed that Justo had become his mouthpiece, wheeled in front of the public when it suited him to say what he himself couldn’t say. Ángel had been in the cathedral for twenty-four years and it brought him a sense of entitlement. Whether his intentions were sincere was never easy to divine, but I often found it hard to reconcile his presence there. Why had Justo rejected the help of so many other people for so long but ended up with Ángel? When they were together, the two men bickered like seagulls, squawking and squabbling their way into getting nothing done. “You’re getting worse,” Ángel would intone. “You don’t listen,” Justo would retort. In some ways, Ángel reflected Justo’s insecurity. Perhaps Justo feared that if he had taken on a more able helper, he would have lost control of his project. Perhaps Ángel’s ordinariness allowed Justo to stay in control longer. But I also had to check my cynicism with reality. While I was there, I saw that Ángel religiously made Justo’s lunch and dinner. In the mornings, he got him out of bed and dressed him. He would take him to the doctors and to mass every Sunday. “He cleans my poo, he feeds me and he carries me in his arms,” Justo confided in me. *** Throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, Justo’s feverish devotion—“his craziness”—emerged as something more than just eccentricity. The cathedral was becoming more significant than any of the locals could have imagined, and Justo passed from madman to genius. [[{"fid":"6708331","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] Soon, there was interest from local papers. Then, the national press came, followed by journalists from abroad. At the end of 2003, photographs of Justo’s cathedral appeared in an exhibition called “El real viaje Real / The Real Royal Trip” at MoMA in New York. However, Justo declined the invitation to travel to the United States because he had “too much work to do.” The cathedral became famous in 2005 when it appeared in an advertisement for the Coca-Cola brand’s Aquarius drink. “The advert became one of the most successful campaigns in Spanish marketing history,” Felix Muñoz, an executive working for Coca-Cola who commissioned the campaign, later told me. It might seem ironic that a man uninterested in himself and his legacy would agree to let a company like Aquarius in. But Justo only acquiesced to the commercial so that he could get funds to continue his construction. He didn’t see the cash, only more bricks. Indeed, when the commercial was shot, Justo had no idea of the consequences or repercussions of his decision. He seemed confused, in fact: “I didn’t know it was going to be on TV. I thought they were just going to print something on the side of the can.” The concept behind the commercial was the unpredictability and spontaneity of the ordinary man. “Heroes didn’t need tight latex and red capes,” Muñoz told me; they could be common men and women who came from nowhere and asked for nothing. In Justo, Aquarius found extraordinary ordinariness. “He wasn’t your typical handsome young actor,” Miguel Garcia Vizcaino, the commercial’s director, recalled. During my first trip to the cathedral, I, too, bought into the commercial’s branding of Justo. I had always been haunted by the ideal version of myself that I wanted to be. And in Justo, I found a decisiveness that censored my relentless self-doubt, muffled the self-questioning. Justo repeated the same routine every day, until one day, he ended up with something not even he could have imagined. But, like the commercial, I had misinterpreted Justo. He did have an unshakeable belief, that much was true. But it wasn’t in his own self-refinement; it was purely in God. If he hoped to inspire other people at all, it was by encouraging them to follow his lead and become closer to God. “What I have done with the cathedral is an apostleship,” he told me on many occasions. I would later come to see the cathedral as a carapace that protected Justo from temptation and vice, from the everyday of the outside world. The irony was, of course, that this fortress for his ego was so impressive that the world came to hear of it, to see it, and to venerate him for it. While Justo had tried to embody temperance and humility, one of the world’s largest brands had turned his abnegation of the ego into the exact opposite—a celebration of individual accomplishment. Aquarius had made his faith synonymous with ambition, his devotion with perseverance, and his sacrifice with self-interest. Over the years, tens of thousands of people have come to visit the cathedral. They all want to see Justo. To touch him. To hear him speak. To understand him, his inspiration, his genius, and his imagination. I saw old ladies kiss him, fervent pilgrims grab him, and people approach him with schemes to protect and reform the cathedral. People often talked about him in saintly terms. They marvelled that, during almost sixty years of construction, he had suffered no significant injury. Carlos Luis Martin, an architect who helped Justo at the cathedral, recounted witnessing an accident: “I was working in the crypt. Justo tripped over a stone and fell and smashed his head on the ground hard. . . . But [he] just got up. ‘God has healed me, and now all is fine,’ he said. And there was not a scratch on him.” Still, Justo often found all the attention difficult. He would get angry and clash with visitors. He would call them “idiots” and make them delete their photos. He would berate women who came in wearing short skirts. He put up signs saying he was not to be spoken to. Carlos Silvera, a Madrid-based artist who painted the cathedral’s murals, remembered when a young woman visited the cathedral and told Justo how impressed she was with him. “She said she had studied art. She told him how she had travelled. She told him how she understood religion. But as she was talking, Justo interrupted her: ‘You use the word I a lot, don’t you?’ The young woman went quiet and began to blush. ‘You know that your biggest enemy is I.’” Justo always had it within him to be tactless and unsympathetic. He could not see, or perhaps refused to see, what his building meant to others. He wanted to keep its significance tied to God, and failed to understand how it moved and inspired those who came to see it. Indeed, as the cathedral’s wobbly towers began to rise above the drab uniformity of Mejorada del Campo, capturing the world’s attention, Justo wasn’t able to fathom why he could no longer control his story. He even became resentful. When Felix Muñoz returned to the cathedral two years ago to visit Justo—having not seen him since the shoot in 2005—he found a man and an attitude he was not expecting. Justo told him that the advertisement had only brought him problems. “He told me he wished it hadn’t happened.” I bore witness to Justo’s frustrations on several occasions, no more so than one afternoon in late 2018, during my second weeklong visit to the cathedral. My friend Denis Dobrovoda, a Slovak film director, had turned up with a camera. Both of us had wanted to make a film about Justo and his work and had struck the same deal with him as at the beginning of the year: we would work, and he would let us film. However, when he saw the camera and drone—the “machine” and the “little plane,” as he called them—he decided we had been dishonest with him. He had assumed we’d bring a small “machine,” not a “giant one.” In what felt like a punishment, Denis and I were sent down to the lower cloisters to clean up the mess that had accumulated there over the years. We rifled through plastic bags, rotten insulation boards, and chipped marble and granite. Justo loitered in the courtyard, mumbling to himself. Suddenly, his gaze focused on an abandoned fish tank made of thick glass, congealed glue protruding from its joints. In the middle of the tank was an amorphous tower of dried clay. It was hard to figure out precisely what it was—perhaps an abstract rendering of the cathedral or maybe merely a lump of sand. To Justo, however, it was now a “monstrous vanity” gifted to him by “some rich person.” “It has to be destroyed!” he snapped. Justo barked at us to ram a heavy wooden plank that was lying nearby against the side of the tank to break the main structure. It was typical of him to use whatever was immediately available to solve a problem. Justo was frail, his skin thinner than rice paper, and neither of us wanted him to cut himself on the glass. We were also aware that he was allowing us to film him in return for our work. So, rather reluctantly, we bashed the plank against the fish tank, hoping that nothing would happen. The dull thud of hardwood hitting the thick glass confirmed our expectations. It wasn’t working, so I suggested we stop. Justo, however, was insistent: “Find me an axe! We need to destroy this—now.” The more we tried to convince Justo that this wasn’t a good idea, the more aggressive he became. We would be kicked out of the cathedral! We were devils! My first thought was to find Ángel, the only person who could talk Justo down. Ángel was nowhere to be found; an axe was. I was indecisive. Perhaps it would placate him, I thought. We would watch over him, and everything would be fine. After all, he’d been doing things like this for sixty years, and he’d never been seriously injured. So I handed Justo the axe. He snatched it from me and began bashing the glass of the fish tank. The first layer shattered, bursting like an old-fashioned camera bulb. Justo scrunched up his eyes and pursed his lips. He raised the trembling axe again. And again. Justo’s jacket sleeve slipped down his arm, and I saw that his veins ran like roadmaps down his arms. I saw the thick, sharp glass. I watched his rickety wrist, his eyes scrunched up like crumpled paper, the splinters of glass spurting up like hot steam with every swipe. I imagined the glass slicing through his skin, the blood gushing from his arms. I pictured Justo on the cathedral floor, dazed and white as marble. I imagined the ambulance arriving, and heard our feeble explanations. I had imagined enough. I ran up to him and snatched the axe from his hands. Justo balked, “You scoundrels! I’ll kick you out if you ever do that again. This is my cathedral.” *** By the end of 2019, Justo’s health began to deteriorate, and his undiagnosed dementia progressed more quickly. He laughed less and made less sense when he talked. He also seemed increasingly frustrated. Ill and weak, he was frequently in and out of the hospital. Disorientation had become the defining factor of his life, and Justo was shrinking inside his cathedral, even as his reputation outside it continued to grow. He spent most of his time sitting in an old office chair in his gloomy personal quarters. A puddle of murky, bloated lentils and a hollowed-out baguette often sat at his side. He was always cold: “I have no meat on me.” He stuffed scraps of cardboard, kindling, or anything that would burn into his rickety wood-burning stove. Occasionally, he rose from his chair, his bones creaking like warped wood. The scratchy shuffle of his scruffy black shoes on the cement floor presaged his arrival. Most of the time, Justo wandered aimlessly, taking things from here to there, picking up a piece of wood and inspecting it, dragging a pile of stones to nowhere in particular. He might then sit in another chair on the balcony that led to the cloisters, where he squinted at the sun, rosary beads twitching in his hands, muttering and murmuring to God. Despite his deterioration, Justo still had his infectious, boyish enthusiasm that transcended generations and our respective beliefs. In fact, during those visits throughout 2019, I felt that our relationship evolved beyond its initial awkwardness. That summer, as we sat in the ambulatory together, he asked me about my family’s faith. “Are your parents Christians?” “Yes,” I told him. It was a half-truth; they were baptized agnostics like me. “But have you studied the catechisms?” he asked again. “No.” “Well, I want you to have this,” he said, brandishing a book of catechisms. “It’s my gift to you.” Another time, I remember being in Justo’s dingy backroom, stoking his wood-burning stove. “You have to read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis,” Justo told me excitedly. “It’s incredible!” (The book, one of the most important devotional Christian texts ever published, preaches that a good Christian should live an interior life by renouncing all that is vain and illusory. It was Justo’s second bible.) He retrieved a bashed-up copy from a nearby shelf littered with nuts, screws, and sandpaper, and handed it to me. “Read it aloud,” he ordered. Without overthinking, I began to read: “How undisturbed a conscience we would have if we never went searching after ephemeral joys nor concern ourselves with affairs of the world.” Justo stood back, a contented smile on his pencil-thin lips, his eyes closed as if in prayer. The book seemed to be giving him sustenance and greater joy than, as à Kempis writes, a “multi-course banquet.” But those moments were rare. Mostly, Justo just seemed lost in his cathedral and in his ailing head, which, he grumbled, “no longer worked.” *** At the beginning of 2020, the cathedral was in a precarious situation. Justo was weak and rarely left his room. His impending death threatened to leave behind an administrative mess. The cathedral was illegal, after all—it didn’t exist on any register. And over the years it had swollen into a sprawling mass of iron and cement, with its gangly cloisters and crooked towers encroaching on the surrounding buildings. No architect was willing to sign off on its structural stability and soundness. The building did not meet any of the required standards. Anyone who vouched for its stability would be liable for any damages incurred by visitors. The local government was afraid that it might fall and so would not formalize it. The church couldn’t be consecrated if it didn’t have the correct administrative approval. It was a Catch-22, and neither the town hall nor the local diocese appeared willing to invest a cent in breaking it. When I talked to the vicar in charge of all the diocese’s architectural projects, he was cagey about Justo’s cathedral. He said he wanted to set up a foundation to gather funds to save it. But, if the cathedral was saved, he couldn’t say “whether it would be used for religious purposes or not.” When I asked Ángel what he would do when Justo passed away, he looked at me blankly. “I don’t want to think about the day that Justo is no longer here.” But locals and people farther afield still recognized the importance of the cathedral. YouTube is filled with young vloggers waxing lyrical about its importance. There are regular articles in Spanish national papers providing updates on the building’s legal situation. UNESCO representatives even paid a visit in early 2020. Still, these attempts to legalize the sprawling structure had been slow and bureaucratic. It looked likely that Justo would not live to see his cathedral saved. Then, in May of 2021, Justo and Ángel donated the cathedral to an organization known as Mensajeros de la Paz, or “Messengers of Peace,” a Catholic NGO working in over fifty-five countries whose main goal is to help people living in poverty. Padre Ángel, the organization’s founder, had, like Justo, been deemed a visionary; a crazy man, he had started the organization by himself and had grown it into one of the biggest Catholic NGOs in the world. Desperate for a solution, Justo and Ángel had asked the organization to take care of the church. Padre Ángel, who knew of Justo’s story, was enticed. He decided to take on the church—no matter how much it would cost, no matter how difficult an undertaking it might be. And he wanted to do it quickly. Within a matter of days, the donation had been notarized. The organization swiftly moved into the cathedral, cleaning up the general mess, smoothing over cracks, reinforcing arches, putting up walls. They also sent in a company of the country’s best structural engineers, some of whom had worked with the most prestigious architects in the world. During their initial surveys, the engineers were surprised to find that the cathedral was more structurally sound than had otherwise been thought. It was proportional and had been built in mind of the elements. “With so little knowledge of construction, it’s as if he’s invented architecture in his head,” one of them marvelled to me. Though the engineers couldn’t be sure that the cathedral was completely stable, they were surprised by how carefully it had been built. It was worth saving, of that they had little doubt. [[{"fid":"6708336","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] But, at times, the organization’s involvement felt overbearing. Justo was disappearing from his own cathedral. He no longer came out of his room. He no longer shouted at volunteers. He was bound to a wheelchair or to his bed. As I walked around the cloisters, the nave, the crypt, his absence felt prescient; I sensed the cathedral’s future was out of his hands. It was being transformed in line with the Messengers’ own aesthetic. The nave was now decked out with their paraphernalia: huge posters depicting the pope hung on either side of the main altar, the Messenger’s maxims and motifs were written on the walls, and a makeshift food bank had been placed in the central nave. Justo’s name appeared on some of these new additions, but his presence felt largely posthumous. The Messengers also announced they wanted it to be an open religious space where Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholics could congregate and discuss religion. I knew Justo. I knew how antiquated and conservative he could be. I knew that he had fought for many years for his cathedral to be consecrated as a Catholic place of worship. I wondered if he’d be horrified at the Messengers’ vision. *** The last time Denis and I saw Justo, he was on his deathbed, a colostomy bag hanging from his mattress, his bald head shining like a crystal orb. Ángel was by his side. Neither of us had seen Justo for months, and we were hearing rumours of negativity and tension among Justo’s family and friends regarding the takeover. We wanted to know what Justo thought of the cathedral’s new guardians. Propped up by a pillow on a hospital bed in his newly decorated bedroom, Justo’s voice was an octave higher than when I’d last seen him, his speech more accelerated, and his mind, as it always was, a swirl of thoughts and ideas. He was at times thankful, and other times angry, about what had happened. But more than anything, he just seemed confused. I didn’t know what to take from this interaction. In truth, I felt Justo was too far gone to answer our questions, and it was hard to know what he was saying for himself and what was being said for him. When Justo’s words became muddled, Ángel often finished or interpreted his thoughts. Over the following days, as I witnessed these meetings and saw how frail he had become, I felt sad that Justo had to be part of these discussions and tensions. After all, notions of legacy were in many ways anathema to him; legacy was vanity, and vanity was the devil. I was taken back to that late spring evening at the end of my first visit to the cathedral, Justo standing precariously close to his grave. He seemed nonchalant, as if it were normal to pre-empt one’s death. “I’m ready for the end,” he mumbled, still staring out at the courtyard. Justo told me he had been content with his efforts as far back as the late ’90s, even when the cathedral was half-finished and the central dome didn’t even exist. He said he’d tell those who asked him: “I’m already happy with it, I think I’ve done enough.” Justo didn’t believe in perfection. How could he? Perfection was God. Unattainable. Perfection was really only the mask of ambition, and Justo wasn’t driven by ambition. His cathedral was full of half-baked ideas, trial and error and moments of brilliance. It was the inside of Justo’s head rendered in iron and cement. “We are only in transit here on this earth,” he said, turning his head toward me. “In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we do here. It’s up there where it counts.” For Justo, the cathedral was the sacrifices it entailed: the long labouring days, sleepless nights, solitude, and alienation. His sacrifices were his devotion to God, and while his legacy and reputation might be written by outside institutions like MoMA or Aquarius, by me, only God would know his real reasons. “What happens to the cathedral is now no longer up to me,” he said, glimpsing his grave. “I’ve done everything I need to do.” Justo didn’t want to stand around any longer. He shuffled from the darkness of the crypt, through an arched doorway, out into the light of the lower courtyard, disappearing from view. Justo died on November 28th, 2021. 
Every Letter a Path

My name is someone’s past and my present and I’m not sure about the future. 

Should I introduce myself? Is that a nice way to begin? It would be good if it were simple like that. It would be good if I could say my name and not think of the dead. My life began in memoriam, my birth marked by formative loss. I am first-named for my grandmother, Sara: she died when my mother was sixteen. And I am middle-named for my uncle, Leslie: he died when my father was thirty-two. Two deaths. And in their wake, gaping craters. Black holes. A thick and endless abyss. Who does that make me? Was I born a conduit for my parents’ pain? Or am I a second chance?  I feel the weight of my name over my head like a hood—warm and comfortable but a little disorienting. I am constrained by the grief and by the love it represents. Ten letters so specific, I am unsure how to wear them. I am unsure where I fit in. I suppose that’s why I’m here. ~  In Neil Gaiman’s novella Coraline, the title character meets a cat, introduces herself, and asks its name. The cat replies that it does not have or need one: “Now you people have names,” it says to her. “That's because you don't know who you are.” ~ My name is someone’s past and my present and I’m not sure about the future. My name bends in the light and it gropes in the dark. My name is a blessing and it is a responsibility. In Judaism, it is common to name a baby for a deceased loved one (though never for someone living, the custom dictates, so that the angel of death does not take the wrong person). Often, it’s just a first initial that the dead and living share, but I inherited the exactness of my relatives’ names, every letter a stamp on my identity before I had begun to form it for myself. Every letter a path. “So much of what is transmitted between parents and families is not the obvious and the verbal and what’s said,” says Dr. Mavis Himes, clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and author of The Power of Names: Uncovering the Mystery of What We Are Called. “It’s also the silences.” ~ “There is a Quichua riddle: ‘El que me nombra, me rompe.’ Whatever names me, breaks me. The solution, of course, is ‘silence.’ But the truth is, anyone who knows your name can break you in two.” —Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House  ~  There is a letter, sent from my grandmother to one of her sisters, announcing my mother’s birth. “She has black hair and a round little face and a nose all over it,” Sara writes in long, looping scrawl that my mother says she’d recognize anywhere. “We’re just not sure of her name yet—it might be something like Trudy Beth—how does that sound?” ~ Will you do one thing for me, if you don’t mind? Will you stop reading, for a moment, and say my name out loud? Sara  Leslie Harowitz How does it sound? Does it sound strong or soft as it comes off your tongue? Does it sound curious and graceful and good? Does it sound like the name of a woman you’d like to learn the intimacies of? Does it sound like the name of a woman who understands who she is? These are things I want to know. ~ S-a-r-a. Translated from Hebrew to mean “noblewoman” or “princess.” The wife of Abraham in the Old Testament; the cornerstone matriarch of the Jewish people. Her name is more traditionally spelled S-a-r-a-h, and people often add the h to my name when they don’t know me well. A silent, seemingly harmless fifth letter, and yet it startles me every time. Don’t they know who I’m trying my best to live up to? L-e-s-l-i-e. Gaelic, meaning “holly garden,” for whatever that’s worth. I ask my father if he knows why his parents named his brother that. He isn’t sure, but mentions that Leslie’s middle name, Errol, was chosen for his mother’s love of the actor Errol Flynn. I give Flynn a quick Google to make sure I have the spelling right; it turns out his middle name is Leslie. Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn. One of his films is called Escape Me Never. ~  “After years of my pleading, my mother finally gave me her yellow gold ‘D’ ring that was passed down to her from her mother. Daisy, Dulcie, Dolores, and now Durga. The ring’s band is thinning so I don’t wear it often but when I do, I feel the clout of family. Few things yield such command. I’m from somewhere! And these women had something to do with it!” —Durga Chew-Bose, “How I Learned to Stop Erasing Myself”  ~  I understand that naming a baby is not an easy or quick thing. It’s not like picking the paint colour for the nursery, which can be covered with a new hue in a single cumbersome weekend. A name is permanent. A name goes on paperwork. A name is how a child first finds their place in the world. It cannot be hidden with a roller brush. It took social justice professor Minelle Mahtani and her husband two weeks after the birth of their son to choose his name. “I see now that passing on a specific part of my family legacy matters to me, not just a vague gesture to my heritage,” she writes in her essay, “What’s in a Name?” for This Magazine. They eventually decided that, bucking Western tradition, their son would be given the last name Mahtani, honouring the lineage of Minelle’s father.  Whether we like it or not, our names do define us. On a superficial and stereotypical level, they tell people who we are—or at least, who they think we are. Name signalling is when a person’s moniker signifies their religion, race, or socioeconomic status; our names can also affect our ability to find a job or a romantic partner, thanks to what is referred to as name bias. There is even research suggesting that over time, our names can affect our physical appearances. A 2006 University of Michigan study found that a person’s satisfaction with their first name directly related to their sense of self-worth. “The link between first name and identity appears consistent,” co-authors Jean M. Twenge and Melvin Manis write. “What you think of your name has something to do with what you think of yourself.” I don’t mean to suggest that I dislike my name. Not at all. I love the simplicity and evenness of Sara. I love that Leslie is wispy and genderless. I love these names individually, but I love them especially when they’re together. Because that’s how they feel most like they’re mine. ~ Nomen est omen / name is destiny ~  I know that my name comes from sweetness and from tenderness. Still, in the quiet, these legends hover. I know I am lucky to have my name, but worthy of it I’m not so sure. Himes asks me a question that sticks: “What has been your relationship with your name?” What has been my relationship with my name? Maybe a better question is: what has been my relationship with my grandmother and with my uncle? Can I get to know them now? The mere fact that I am named for their memories means it’s too late. But I’m trying to find them in the stories. I’m trying to understand. So, I suppose, my relationship with my name makes me sad. Because my name means my parents’ grief. Call me Cheryl instead. Call me Michael. I don’t care. Call me anything else if it means Sara and Leslie didn’t die so soon. If it means I had the chance to meet them. If it means I can know the sounds of their voices and what it was like to make them laugh and how they walked into a room. If it means saving my mother and father from that pain. I’d do it. I’d give my name away for that.  ~ Sara Shirley Sheckter. Born in 1918 in Vegreville, Alberta, the fourth oldest of a now-unheard-of ten kids. Named in honour of her paternal grandmother, Sora. A devoted daughter who grew up working in her father’s bakery. Good with her hands. Meticulous. Sara had short but thick black hair, delicate lips, a warm smile that revealed a set of false teeth (the flour from the bakery, she claimed, rotted her real ones). When I look at photographs of her in her later years, I am ashamed to say I don’t recognize her. But when I look at images of her in her youth, I see traces of my mother. Same eyes, same nose. I wonder if they are my eyes and my nose, too. For most of my mother’s life growing up in St. Catherines, Ontario, Sara was sick. She contracted a virus in her heart muscle that caused the organ to fibrillate, which in turn led to cardiac arrests; her children lived in fear that one wrong move would trigger a fatal attack. Every day, my mother would rush home from school and yell for Sara. Was she still there? Was she still flesh and soul and bone? Sara was an avid and skilled sewer, often making my mother’s outfits—outfits for her Barbies, even. Frilly, detailed numbers with lace and sequins. She also sewed aprons for a local community organization and for my mom’s dance recitals; Sara loved to dance and put her two daughters in classes from when they were small. My own mother forced me to take dance lessons when I was little; I hated it at first, but after a few attempts, the aversion grew into adoration. Now I understand why it mattered to her so much. Sara collected stamps. Many weekends, she’d tote my mother—only seven or eight years old—to the Welland Canal in the Niagara Region and ask disembarking sailors if they had any stamps from faraway places that they’d be willing to part with. She would offer to take them to Niagara Falls in return. “I would be sitting,” my mother recalls, “in the backseat with a sailor.”  Sara baked. She’d make cheese rolls, sugar nothings, even delicate icing roses placed gingerly on top of cakes. My aunt Karen, a few years older than my mother, was usually tasked with standing at the stove and stirring the custard for Sara’s lemon meringue pie; despite her best tries, Karen burnt it every time. She can’t eat the dessert to this day. Sara also loved to be social and to entertain. “She was a one-woman welcome committee,” Karen says. As she got sicker, it became harder for her to live the life she wanted. It made her demand more of her family—to excel at the things she could not. Sara died of a heart attack at age fifty-two. At the time, my mother was visiting Karen, who was working at a Gulf Island summer camp. My dad happened to be working there that year, as well. He went to Sara’s shiva—the Jewish period of mourning after a funeral—out of support for his colleague. It wasn’t until years later that he met my mom; still, it comforts me to know that they were together that day. I cannot tell yet if Sara and I are alike in any significant ways. I don’t have a fondness for baking; I was never good at crafts. Perhaps our personalities do not converge. But in my name, on paper, I become her.  “If I see Sara without an h, I go, ‘That’s my mother’s name,’” my own mother says. “The spelling of your name always does that. Every time.” ~ Leslie Errol Harowitz. Born in 1942 in Vancouver, B.C. One of four kids. A romantic, a prankster; he would go to the ends of the earth for a joke. No punchline was too far-fetched. No party was too elaborate.  He had kind, squinty eyes; a round face; large, nerdy glasses that would probably be considered cool now; a happy, crooked smile. Looking at his picture, I see a hint of mischief that reminds me of my father.  Leslie was a klutz, not much of a sportsman, but great with words (just don’t try to decipher his printing). He liked to construct silly contraptions—one famously called Bite Da Mama was engineered with wind-up toy dentures to annoy his mother by nipping her in the arm—and had nicknames for everybody; my father’s was Baby Bowie. Leslie teased relentlessly, but as is the case with so many jesters, the more he ridiculed you, the more he liked you. Leslie was generous, in particular with his time. When he was a law student at the University of British Columbia, he took it upon himself to help my father—ten years his junior—improve his writing skills. “I’d have weekly assignments. He would give me a topic and I’d have to write two or three pages,” my father recalls. “And then he would edit it and mark it up, and we would sit down and discuss it. I’d take it back and have to do a second draft and then maybe a third draft, and then we’d move on to another assignment.” My dad’s grade eight English teacher went from being on his case about poor performance to reading his assignments aloud for the class. I’m warmed by this. The love of words that I share with my father: it came from Leslie. Leslie was fiercely loyal, led by his principles, and fancied himself a handyman—though the stories say otherwise. One day, when they were both adults living in their own homes in Vancouver, my father got a call from his brother. “You have to come over right away,” Leslie said calmly. “I’ve had a bit of an accident.” My father whipped over to his house to find Leslie with a board of wood nailed to his thumb. He had been taking down the family’s sukkah—a temporary hut built for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot—pulling apart wooden beams this way and that, and one of them, it seemed, bent but didn’t fully disconnect from the structure; when it swung back into place, its nail went right through his finger. Leslie opened his own law firm with two colleagues, but no matter how well they did, he never felt comfortable in his success. And according to his widow, my aunt Sharon, he was never really in love with his work: “He always said, ‘Nobody in law likes law.’” Leslie’s taste for elaborate schemes never faded, though, nor did his impressive ability to run late for absolutely everything. He had a yellow Chevy convertible that he loved, but as my father puts it, “it didn’t always love him back.” When he was feeling uncomfortable, his right eyebrow twitched.  Leslie was also a hypochondriac, and it made him fearful that he’d die young, leaving his wife and three daughters behind. He was forty-three when a heart attack killed him, caused by a condition savagely referred to as the widow-maker. Leslie would have loved me, my father says. I suppose it’s not hard to believe; we were family. But what would he think of my writing? And how would he feel knowing I carry part of his identity in mine? Would he think I’m doing a good job? I ask my father why I was given Leslie’s name. “I guess,” he says, “because he was just a hole in our life.” ~ There is another letter, this one written by one of Sara’s sisters to her kids, documenting various family milestones. In it, she mentions the birth of a cousin named Faigie—another prominent moniker in the family. “She will perpetuate the name of her two grandmothers,” she writes. “Life is eternal.” ~ I come back to the question: what has been my relationship with my name? It is one of honour and healing. I hold it tight, even when it hurts. “You lighten the burden of your past, but you can’t eliminate it,” Himes tells me. “You can’t erase your name.” I don’t want to erase it. I want to know it. I want to trace the lines of its curves, over and over again. ~ When I sit down with Sharon to learn about Leslie, I ask her: who was I named after? Do I live up to his memory? Do I live up to my own name?  Her face is a mixture of pleasure and surprise. “Your middle name is Leslie?” she asks. Surely she knew, but somewhere along the way, among the everyday muck, amidst the heartbreak and the joy and the mishugas, she forgot. “Yes,” I say. Yes.  “Sara. Leslie. Harowitz,” she announces, and hearing her say it makes me want to cry. Each syllable like a warm tear down my cheek; their streaks are invisible but I feel them just the same. “That’s me,” I say. At least, a version of me. A version of me I’m interested in becoming. A version of me who lives softly in the margins but also brightly in the open. A version of me who is proud of her name, even if she doesn’t fully understand its legacy yet. A version of me who carries her ancestors in blood and in documentation and maybe that’s enough. ~ Will you do one last thing for me? Will you say my name out loud again?  Sara Leslie  Harowitz How does it sound? I’m getting closer to answering that on my own. To feeling like this narrative is really mine.  ~ I think I should introduce myself. I think that is a nice way to end.
‘I Would Not Ever Give Anyone the Raw Experience’: An Interview with Donika Kelly

Talking to the author of The Renunciations about structuring a book of poetry, living with myths, and caring for yourself and others when writing about trauma. 

The Renunciations (Graywolf Press), poet and Iowa Writer’s Workshop professor Donika Kelly’s sophomore collection, opens with an explosion. In a nod to astrology, even the poem’s title, House of Air, Hours of Fire, evokes a blinding brightness that reduces to ash. And reading this collection is in many ways a flammable experience: the language simply glows, even when it appears as erasure or empty brackets. The content circles childhood sexual abuse, divorce, and glimmers of hope and home, the possibility of rootedness. Along with fire, other elements come into play: water, earth, air. Sediment that gets disrupted, shoots of new growth, foundations maybe, slowly, being built. Kelly’s almost otherworldly gift for composing words into something alive was clear in her 2016 debut, Bestiary; The Renunciations too embodies the animal, which is also the human. In “Hymn,” she writes: “...the closer I am/to my animal self the more human I am/the more I let myself break/like a wave. Ocean/in my arm. Stone in my arm./Iron and wood and brass in my arm.” And in one of the several poems titled “Dear–,”: “I hold my breath. My body hollows,/grows teeth: gathers bone, gathers root and nerve.” The visceral nature of this collection carries the reader to heights of poetic euphoria while simultaneously refusing to look away from pain. “I am neither land nor timber,” she writes, “nor are you/ocean or celestial body. Rather,/we are the small animals we’ve always been.” I spoke to Kelly on Zoom about myths and mythology, artifice, hope, and what it means to be a non-believer. Sarah Neilson: The epigraph of this book is from Anne Carson: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.” What is the myth you've lived past, if you have one? Are there any myths that are meaningful in your life? And how do they serve you or not serve you? Donika Kelly: The core myth that I would say I've lived past… Well, there are two. The one where my dad sort of occupies the center of the family. And a big part of [living past] that was teaching gender studies—just realizing I could put myself at the center of my life. A man doesn't have to be at the center of my life. And the other myth, which comes out of that, has to do with the formation of romantic relationships as I saw modeled in my family of origin: My parents are definitely a stay-together-forever, it-doesn't-matter-how-bad-it-is, this-is-better-than-anything-else model. That's not a great model. It was not a great model when I was a kid, I recognized that. But that was a hard one to let go—that being married, being partnered, meant that that person was also at the center and that I wasn't at the center of my own life. So those myths, if that's a way of thinking about them, those myths served to keep my attention on other people and what other people needed. And I think this book demonstrates the process of, how do I move those folks from the center? How do I move those ideas from the center? And how do I get closer to the center of my own life? I'm hoping that I'm not living with too many myths right now. Carl Phillips has this craft essay on the uses of myth and fable. And he says that—I'm paraphrasing, so, grain of salt—but the way I remember it is that a myth helps us explain something we don't understand. And I think I've come to understand some things now. I don't need the myth anymore. The first poem in the collection, House of Air, Hours of Fire, is such a powerful gut-punch of a poem. What made you decide to open the book that way? That poem is the clearest overture that I've written. It captures the two strands of the book: the removal of the father from the center of the speaker's life, and then the ending of the marriage. The title refers to the fact that my dad is an Aquarius, which is an air sign. My ex is a Leo, and I'm a Sagittarius [fire signs]. I don't necessarily believe in astrology, but it created one small lens for understanding, a kind of elemental interaction. The Aquarius is the water bearer, and so I started with that—what does my dad have to bear? What does this father have to bear? And then what does the speaker, the daughter, what does she have to bear? The poem also brings in a lot of the themes around landscape and time that feels like it foreshadows what's to come in the book, and it was one that I wrote towards the end of writing the poems that would go into the book. In an interview with The Creative Independent, you said: “...it’s not just like, ‘Here’s this trauma without the artifice.’ The artifice is nice. The artifice is like a little pillow around the trauma, and a reminder that I’m okay and my speaker is okay, and hopefully the reader feels safer in that space.” I think sometimes the word “artifice” has a negative connotation. Can you expand on the idea of finding safety and comfort in artifice? Artifice doesn't have a negative connotation to me, and I don't know how it could, since I'm a poet; so much of the genre relies on artifice. Like, Oh, here are some stanzas. Here's a rhyme. Which would not occur naturally, right? Here's a soundscape that's holding the poem together in some way. The artifice for me is actually really comforting. It's one of the things that I love about poetry—that there are ways to present material and process emotional material to make it available, or translate it for readers. That being said, the artifice for me as the writer is a way of processing the feeling, the thought, the act. The experience, the events. It suggests a measure of distance or control in relation to the material. As a person who has written about sexual violence and trauma, I often am read as “raw.” But I would not ever give anyone the raw experience. That would feel irresponsible to me. But I think what that means is it creates a feeling inside the reader of encountering something that is intense. There's a measure of intensity. And it was important for me to feel that I was exercising some control over the experience, over the work—that there was a reason that I was bringing myself to that event and remembering it, and a reason I'm asking the reader to come along with me to remember. For me, the artifice is the suggestion that there is a structure here, that design and thought has gone into this, that I've made something for someone. How do you take care of yourself when you're writing about trauma? I have some very basic strategies. So, when I decided… it didn't really feel like a decision, but when I felt compelled to write about childhood sexual abuse and the abuse that I experienced, I knew that I was going to need some help. I've been in therapy since I was 17 or 18, almost consistently. Therapy is a big tool that I use to help manage and navigate some of that traumatic stuff. So when I'm writing, if it feels too hard, I can take that to therapy and work out what's hard, what feels scary, why I feel compelled to write about this. So there's that aspect of it; therapy is super helpful. But when I'm actually writing and I've decided this is what I'm doing, writing about this traumatic stuff, I can get really anxious and scared. Part of my strategy is to remind myself that I'm safe, which has been true. For the last 10 years or so I’ve felt really safe. The other thing that I do is remind myself I can stop at any time, that I don't have to do it. No one's asking for the poems. It's not like someone's like, "We need your poems about trauma." It's not for anyone, and I think that has been really important to recognize—that the work that I'm doing, and writing the poems, is first for me. So if I am not being served by the process, I can stop. I've gotten pretty good at just checking in and attending to all the little parts that can get worked up. I am so drawn to your use of empty brackets and erasure, conveying this sense of missing, or stolen, or hidden information. Can you talk about the role of these tools in the book, what they mean to you? This is the reduction in erasure. Each section is headed by a redacted letter, and those letters are drawn from real letters that I wrote in a therapeutic practice, like writing a letter to somebody that you don’t send but you can say whatever you want in it. I did that, and it was helpful when I did it. But it was to someone; even though I wasn't ever going to share it, it was to that person. I got the idea in a workshop with Gabby Calvocoressi. They asked us to do either erasure or redaction as part of an exercise, and I was like, "Oh, I have these letters." I was drawn to those letters because I believe I thought—not consciously, not in the foreground of my brain, but somewhere deep—I thought, "I wrote something to myself in here. It wasn't really to this person. This is for me." And so the redactions in terms of what they do for me, and what they did for me in the process of writing them, it was a way of trying to find these messages to myself. This goes back to what we were talking about with artifice. They are a reminder to the reader that the reader does not have access to everything, even though the collection is very forthcoming, very plain-spoken, I think. I hope. It feels intimate, but there are things that people don't know and won't know who do not share that experience. The brackets do something similar, the sort of erased parts and withholding. But what they do for me is that I've taken out some things that I don't ever want to say. I don't want to have to complete the sentence. I don't want to have to save the thing that I'm recounting, that I'm remembering. Thinking about other strategies for taking care of myself and writing about trauma, that particular technique is perhaps one of the more protective ones. I don't ever have to say that thing out loud, and so I'm taking care of myself. My speaker doesn't have to say it out loud, so it's also a kindness to the speaker. I feel like it's an act of tenderness of care. It's like, "We don't have to say that." It's not necessary to say everything; we can say what feels possible to say right now. I’m curious about the structure of the collection and your thoughts about where you were positioning the different poems, and the different emotional tones of the poems, in relation to each other in the book. I feel so pleased with the structure, and in some ways the process of it coming [together] in terms of it existing in its final form. When I initially put the manuscript together, the sections alternated in the ways that they do now: the sections about the end of the marriage alternate with the sections about the father—the sections about the end of the marriage are moving forward in time, is how I think of it. It's like we're coming to the end. It's like a series of oh-no’s; I have to figure out how to be by myself. I think the first section is about, who is this person? Of course they're scared. I know that there's a way to flatten out abusers, people who are abusive, [by making them monsters]. And that's not interesting. So I thought I might do a little bit of internal investigation about how I understood my dad's life and his existence before he was my dad, like as a whole human being. But I don't know that much about him; as it turns out, I know very little. So putting the poems together in that first section is really like trying to understand something about the father as a person who had experiences. Then it sort of moves forward into the abuse. It felt important to me to not start with the father or begin with the abuse. That actually felt really important to me. But it felt like I needed to articulate my own progression towards being able to talk about and acknowledge what happened. And that's replicated in the book. Jeff Shotts, my editor, was like, "Can we have some page breaks, some section breaks?" And I was like, "No. Absolutely not." He was like, "Numbered sections." I was like, "Unthinkable. I couldn't possibly." But I listened to Jeff. I might not always agree with his direct suggestions, but I do trust his instincts. I think he really was asking for room to give the reader some kind of respite, like some little pitstops through the experiences. There's room to breathe in the book and the way that it exists now. Before it was like a waterfall, and now I think there are these steps between them that feel careful and caring, too. This is important to me, to the speaker. The speaker doesn't have to rush through all of that, and also the reader doesn't have to rush through all of it. We came back to air. Yes. I'm really interested in the way that you explore the tension between science and faith. It’s not a binary tension, but there’s a line from In the Chapel of St. Mary’s that reads, “I try to find comfort in the inevitability/of science, when what I lack is faith.” In Sanctuary, you write, “I call this the difficulty of the nonbeliever,/of waking, every morning, without a god.” Can you talk about exploring that faith and prayer aspect, and the word “non-believer” in your work? Greek mythology relies on gods in a particular kind of way. They're very fallible. I stopped believing, or maybe I never really believed in God, when I was in my twenties. And that was really disorienting because it felt wrong. But the Greek mythology still made sense, and part of what I was trying to work through in this book was like, "Why am I still relying on Greek mythology when I don't believe in anything?" I don't have a prayer practice. I don't have meditative practices. The primary practice in my life is writing and writing poetry. But I don't necessarily believe that I am right. There are so many things that I don't understand. I think that in some ways, the book is working through that. What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to trust that things will be okay? What does that mean to move through the world without a sense of something larger at the wheel? And where I've come to is, strangely, I believe in time. I believe in the experiences that I've had. I believe in trusting my instincts based on my experiences. I believe in relating to people based on the experiences that we have had together. That has been the thing that has made the most sense. And the writing of poems takes a certain kind of time. That time feels long and stretchy, even though it tends not to be on-the-clock long. There's just something about time that feels really comforting. So my sort of new interest, my new direction, I am thinking about time, also geologic time. Because it's so big, and we're so little. At the end of the book, with The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings., you so beautifully reclaim the land use imagery you started with, and turn it into building something rather than taking something. Can you talk about the process of arriving at that last poem? Was it actually the last poem you wrote for the book? I just thought that last poem feels appropriately hopeful, which is to say not very but a little bit. Like something could potentially happen that is positive. I wrote that poem, again, in a workshop with Gabby. Same workshop. It was a very productive time in Provincetown. And I wrote that before I wrote [the opening poem] House of Air, Hours of Fire, like a full year before. The thing I like about the last poem—aside from its tempered hopefulness which I do really like—it's very tempered, and that's reassuring to me. The speaker in that poem is trying to figure out what the future could look like and hasn't started to make anything. But it's like trying to imagine what the future could look like. Like to stand in a mud field and call it a pasture. I don't really know what a pasture is, and the speaker doesn't either. But it's like, "Okay, so I could make something here. Maybe a life." It feels in contrast with the beginning where that speaker's feature seemed more foreclosed. Here at the end, it does feel like a bit of an opening. And I've often struggled to think about the future. So I count The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings. as little gestures of hopefulness and possibility.
‘Part of Being Young is How Much You Notice’: An Interview with Scarlett Thomas

The author of Oligarchy on teenaged girls, hierarchies within hierarchies, and the great confidence tricks of capitalism. 

In The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante’s narrator Giovanna reflects on her adolescence: “I spent the days studying myself . . . as if I were a piece of good-quality material damaged by a clumsy worker. I was I—whatever I I was—and had to concern myself with that face, that body, those thoughts.” Giovanna’s seemingly boundless obsession with, and revulsion at, her own body (and the perceived disgust of others) seems excessive only until you inhabit the mind of a teenage girl. And then, all at once, it makes perfect sense. There is an absolute, infallible logic of heightened self-consciousness into which Ferrante writes, as does Scarlett Thomas. The British novelist’s newest book Oligarchy (Counterpoint Press) begins with Natasha, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, joining a private, all-girls English boarding school. Here, Tash (the “more English” variant of her name) finds herself in a rarefied world of money, angst, and the all-consuming desire to be thin. Tucked away in a turret, the most remote of the school’s dorms, it’s as if Tash and her friends (including Tiffanie, who “is too lazy, too French, and frankly too fucking cool to learn English pronunciation”) were “put here for a deliberate reason, to make them feel different from everyone else: to make them go bad.” Haunted by the ghost of Princess Augusta, whose portraits line the school’s gothic hallways, the “bad apples” (later, just “apples”) are consumed by what teenage girls are often singularly devoured by: themselves. Thomas’s novel is an account of the interior lives of adolescent girls; a text haunted by all of us who have walked those strange corridors before. Oligarchy is also every boarding school story you’ve ever read gone wrong; or rather, gone true. Thomas writes: “On Sunday night the girls break out of the attic dorms and it’s like an Enid Blyton book except it isn’t because in what Enid Blyton book do girls escape at midnight to weigh themselves on kitchen scales that they then break?”  Blyton’s Claudine at St Clare’s, who limited herself to tiny portions of cake, certainly couldn’t have conceived of it. But Ferrante’s Giovanna probably could have. And Tiffanie? Well, it was Tiffanie who broke the scales.    Richa Kaul Padte: You write of teenagers: “They raise their eyebrows and lower them again and experiment with the sort of make-up that male teachers can never detect but female ones always can. Not because they plan to lie . . . [but because] at fifteen you have to practice everything you do.” I’m always so grateful to have left that awkward age behind, but at various points Oligarchy made me go: “Wait, do I still . . . do that?” Do you ever still feel the extreme self-consciousness of being a teenage girl, or did you write it purely from memory (or research!)? Scarlett Thomas: Oh my God—totally! Most recently, it’s been about Zoom calls; first experimenting with all the normal filters, and then adding lighting and plants in the background. I now do my makeup with Zoom open, and as a result I think I look okay on screen but kinda weird IRL. Recently I had to have a meeting on Microsoft Teams, and I spent about half a day trying to get Snap Camera to work with it just because I couldn’t bear to appear unfiltered. There’s so much technology now to assist this sort of thing. I take pictures of outfits now too—although that does actually save time when deciding what to wear. I feel so comforted by this! Last year I read Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory, in which she talks about how our selfies feel truer and more like “us,” because it’s the same image we see in the mirror. On the other hand, candid pictures can feel quite alarming, because at some level we literally don’t recognize ourselves in them. She writes: “It’s the reflection that’s inaccurate, but to us, the unreversed face looks wrong.” Do you mirror your image on Zoom? (I definitely do!) Actually, no! I did at the start, but then I sort of became obsessed with this other, weirder self that I didn’t know at all. On the one hand I’m trying to make myself as fake as possible (all the filters, etc., as I said) but on the other hand I’m so obsessed with the image that’s seen that I want to work on the canvas as I know others are experiencing it. Also I like seeing my book jackets non-mirrored. Bodies loom large in your text—even when they’re practically disappearing. There’s this great paragraph I wish I could quote in full, but some of it goes: “Rachel, whose dark regimen of pubic hair has paraded shamelessly up to her belly button and down her thighs . . . Lissa, whose T-zone cannot be absorbed by all the cotton wool balls in the world . . . Donya, whose underarms smell of offal.” Are the keenest observers of teen girls’ bodies other teen girls? Where does this lead? I think part of being young is about just how much you notice. Kids drink everything in in a way that adults don’t. When I was young, I noticed everything, remembered everything. And I guess I was super-critical in a way I definitely didn’t understand. I sensed that I had this thing that adults wanted, but also that the thing was utterly without meaning or value. Having perfectly clear skin or visible collarbones is just random—or worse, it denotes being young and inexperienced. Who wants that? (Obviously I want it now I don’t have it any more, but back then I just wanted to be “experienced.”) There seems to be a sort of public acknowledgement thanks to the new Britney documentary that teenage girls—including queen Britney, herself—have so much less power than we imagine they do. And I wonder if that imaginary has to do with precisely this: that as adults, we want what they have (or what we once had), so much so that we forget how very little control teenage girls are actually afforded?   Yes, absolutely! It seems to be one of the cruel ironies of life that you want to be old when you’re young, and then young when you’re old. And the celebrity thing is fascinating. One of the great confidence tricks of capitalism is to make us believe that “stars” are powerful. Everyone grows up dreaming of becoming famous, but of course that means being exploited—literally becoming a branded item for sale. In that sense, Britney is less a human and more a product that broke down or malfunctioned. Why do we want that, rather than to become an exec with actual power? Growing up, I attended a very expensive boarding school where I was a day-student (my parents were teachers so I got to go for free). And something I really loved about Oligarchy was that it’s the only boarding school story I’ve ever read where a day-student doesn’t feel left out because they aren’t in dorm, but because they don’t have money. Which is exactly how I felt, surrounded by the many expensive things my friends so casually owned and used and lost. Was this a conscious choice, or have I just latched on to this detail given its personal resonance? It was conscious—I’m interested in hierarchies within hierarchies. Where other people might just see “wealth,” I always want to look for the nuance. It’s great, because we do start by thinking that everyone is just “rich,” but it’s all so relative. Even the context of an elite private girls boarding school is eventually revealed as “less-than” old English public schools (like Eton). Given that this is all still the one (or maybe . . . three?) percent, what do you see as the value in prying apart these distinctions and hierarchies within wealth? For me it’s less about the wealth and more about the hierarchies themselves. Hierarchies can be based on other things—attractiveness, daringness, or anything—but the key concept for me is always power. Who has it, how do you get it, how do you lose it?
‘There’s No Public Health Without a Public’: An Interview with Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley

The authors of Until Proven Safe on the ongoing pandemic, the history of quarantine, and our existential precarity.

In August of 2019, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley gave a lecture in Moscow on the phenomenon of quarantine. “I would go out on a limb and say that we are entering the age of quarantine,” Manaugh said toward the end of the presentation. “If everyone at this event at some point in their life experiences quarantine, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising.”  This prediction was eerily accurate. Due to the global spread of COVID-19—the first cases of which were identified a few short months after the aforementioned lecture—the once obscure subject of quarantine has taken on new relevance. While Manaugh and Twilley’s Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine (MCD) is a timely release well suited for our current moment, it is not a book dealing strictly with the present. Rather, it tracks the historical evolution of quarantine, the origins of which date back to the 14th century.   Heavily researched and inquisitive, Until Proven Safe is an atypical travelogue of quarantine sites that includes the lazarettos of Croatia, the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre in London, and a radioactive waste depository in New Mexico. Along with carefully considering the spatial and temporal implications of the legacy of quarantine, the journalistic duo also looks toward the current pandemic to examine what we can learn to guide us in the future.  Manaugh and Twilley, who are married, spoke with me over the phone from their home in Los Angeles. Both are accomplished thinkers in their own right: Manaugh is the creator of BLDGBLOG and author of A Burglar's Guide to the City; Twilley is a New Yorker contributor and co-host of the podcast Gastropod. It was exciting to have them on the line at once. It wasn’t a light conversation, but it was engaging, much like the couple’s assorted work.     Andru Okun: As your book notes, the last mass quarantine event before COVID-19 was about a hundred years ago. I know the interest you both have in quarantine pre-dates the pandemic, so I’m curious to hear what it was like to have a subject you had been researching for years suddenly enter into global public consciousness.  Geoff Manaugh: Speaking for myself, it was kind of an emotional rollercoaster to be working on a project that, to be honest, was relatively obscure up until about a year-and-a-half ago. Even some of the experts that we talked to for the book thought of quarantine as a thing of the past, that we had moved on to other solutions to dealing with pandemics or contagious disease. We went from feeling as if we were writing a book that made people look twice at us—wondering why on earth are you interested in quarantine?—then suddenly every trip to a restaurant, bar, or gym there’d be a TV on and people would be talking about quarantine. It kind of felt as if our book had leaked out into the world and taken things over. It definitely made us get the book done; we realized that this was something we had been well placed to write about because we had been researching it for so long, and now was the time to finish it. Nicola Twilley: One funny thing is that the book was actually going to be called The Coming Quarantine. Then, of course, quarantine came, so it got a new title. Geoff said it was a rollercoaster and it was. One of the emotions was frustration at seeing all of the challenges, abuses, and issues around quarantine that we had seen through our research for the book. It was almost this strange déjà vu where everything we had learned about quarantine played out in real time, but it was so frustrating to see we hadn’t really learned from quarantines past. In some ways, it made the book a little more activist than it would have been in really flagging how we can do this better next time. I imagine you’ve both formed opinions on the recent pandemic responses throughout the world. Where do you think quarantine measures have been successful and where have they failed? NT: There’s a few examples of success that are interesting for different reasons. Quarantine was initially reliant on islands when it was formulated during the Black Death. Dubrovnik used islands, Venice used islands—that built-in cordon sanitaire of the ocean has always been useful. And it was no surprise to us to see that the countries that did well in keeping COVID out were island nations. New Zealand and Australia were able to take advantage of the ocean and their relative geographic isolation. The other places that have done well, frustratingly, are the ones that used the U.S. pandemic response playbook that we ourselves did not use. One of the central figures in our book is Dr. Martin Cetron, the head of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. We spoke to him a couple of times during the pandemic, and we could hear the anguish in his voice explaining to us that, say, South Korea was running a playbook that the CDC had written and trained them on, and yet, the CDC was not implementing this playbook itself. GM: While in agreement with everything Nicky said, quarantine is really a very specific thing. It’s different from a lockdown or a stay-at-home order or social distancing. In the United States, if you do in fact say it’s quarantine, and if you are quarantining individuals, that comes with a federal duty of care for making sure people can get through quarantine. They’d have accommodations and access to food, maybe even wage coverage. If it’s just a lockdown or a stay-at-home advisory, then there’s no real obligation to do anything for those people. So, basically, you’re asking the population of a city or a nation to take on all of the loss, risk, and responsibility of mitigating a pandemic disease but not doing anything to help them. In nations that took it seriously—that said, we're going to pay lost wages or make up for some of the loss that goes into a pandemic response—people were more willing to do the things they were asked to do. NT: The U.S. is more individualistic and doesn't have public safety nets in place. It’s like we say in the book: there’s no public health without a public. Countries that don’t have a strong culture of public welfare or public good did worse.  Why is this distinction between quarantine and isolation so important?  NT: These terms do get used interchangeably and we’re not pedantic about it, but one of the things that makes quarantine so interesting is this element of uncertainty and suspicion that makes it so powerful and prone to abuse. That’s why we focused on it. GM: We didn’t write a book about isolation or pandemics. We wrote a book about quarantine specifically because it’s so metaphorically interesting. Quarantine means you don’t know if you’re infected or infectious; you don’t know if someone or something is dangerous. So, quarantine takes on these really interesting, almost poetic overtones—there’s something inside of you that might be waiting to reveal itself, and quarantine is the time and space needed to give it a chance to appear. I think that metaphoric aspect is one of the things we tried to emphasize in the book as well—that you find quarantine operating at different scales, far bigger than just medical response. It informs our mythologies, our sense of ancient religion. It gets into a poetic discussion that I think is quite exciting.   Would you elaborate on these metaphorical implications? GM: During the Black Death, quarantine was expanded from thirty days to forty days, and it was done because of the biblical resonance of forty days—it ties back to Christ’s time in the desert and the rainfall that caused the flood for Noah’s ark. The number forty provides this sense of quarantine being tied back to something much larger than oneself, and it thus gives it a kind of theological weight.  “The Masque of the Red Death” [by Edgar Allan Poe] would be a classic literary example of this idea of separating from others and waiting to see if something is in you. Arguably, it’s a story about isolation, but to a certain extent, it’s a story about quarantine. The wealthy of the society seal themselves off to avoid catching a hemorrhagic fever, only to find that they’ve locked themselves in with the disease. Quarantine pops up a lot in contemporary horror as well, even in a movie called Quarantine that came out in 2008, as if the title itself was enough to let you know it was a horror story.  On a mythological level, one of the stories that I love because it’s so fascinating from a cultural point of view is the story of Alexander’s gates. Alexander the Great, when he was conquering the open lands of Asia, had built a huge set of gates in the Caucasus Mountains that would divide the Christian West from a monstrous Eastern other. It’s also very interesting because the Caucasus Mountains became sort of pseudo-scientifically associated with the origin site for the Caucasian race; there’s something fascinating about the idea that Europeans actually thought that at the very heart of what it means to be Caucasian is a set of iron gates in the Caucasus Mountains dividing them from the “other” that challenge their identity. Although that’s a story of separation, it touches on some of these themes of how quarantine, isolation, and spatial segregation impact even our identities as ethnic races.  NT: Another example is how the Austro-Hungarian cordon sanitaire—or quarantine corridor—ended up informing European vampire myths. For about a century, there was a thousand-mile quarantine corridor along the imperial frontier of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It went through Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia—this swath of land that was at the edge, neither one thing nor the other, a sort of liminal zone in which travellers crossing had to wait and see if they were carrying disease. And the people who lived there had to serve on the quarantine line. It’s had a lasting impact on how people conceive of the edge of Europe, how that region functions. It is also the home of vampire sightings in Europe. So, there’s this idea that there’s a zone of suspicion, and inside the inhabitants are neither healthy nor sick; it’s also the home of these sort of liminal, living dead figures. It was interesting to see that these edge spaces are home to monsters, as well as people waiting to see if they have a disease.   I was particularly fascinated and horrified to learn about the “American Plan.” I had no idea of this piece of American history.   NT: I also had never heard of this; I don’t think it gets taught in school. When people look back at mass quarantines of the past, they tend to look at the 1918 flu. But around the same time, there was this Orwellian-sounding American Plan that used quarantine to detain suspect women. A new generation of women were starting to not just stay at home, get married, and have kids; they were moving to cities and working in offices and factories. That newfound independence was causing great alarm among the patriarchy and there was a fear that these “loose women” (and there was no evidence that they were particularly loose) would infect America’s young men with STDs. There was no sense that America’s young men might bear some responsibility for that or might be even able to avoid those STDs. Quarantine was used to detain these women on suspicion of spreading STDs and it was used widely and in very biased way[s]: African American women were detained under American Plan laws at a far higher rate; people used it for personal vendettas, like husbands reporting their wives after an argument to have them detained; bosses reported recalcitrant workers to the American Plan officials. It was an ugly set of laws and even uglier in its implementation. There’s one book about it that came out, [The Trials of Nina McCall] written by Scott Stern, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on this and then turned it into a book. Until then, I think it was a forgotten piece of American history and a fascinating example of how quarantine could be abused.  Do you think we’ve seen similar abuses of quarantine during the current pandemic?  GM: We certainly have. We see that a lot in how potential guilt has been assigned to an entire class of people. In the early days of the pandemic, a lot of divisive language was used to describe Asian individuals—whether they were U.S. citizens or foreigners—as potential carriers of COVID-19. The attitude toward who was considered potentially contagious or quote-unquote dirty or a risk to others. To a certain extent that’s continued, as seen in the huge spike in crimes against Asian Americans. I think that the rhetoric we saw from the previous presidential administration also carried on these themes of who was a risk and who was a threat to the American public and the health of our nation.   NT: This is a slightly different example, but another thing that’s always been true of quarantine in history is that the wealthy and the poor are viewed and treated differently. Even in the very first quarantine regulations in Dubrovnik during the Black Death, essential workers had to stay and the wealthy were allowed to flee. You saw that display of limitations of people’s mobility during COVID-19, too.   In regards to how the U.S. handles quarantine, there seems to be an issue of guiding principles. Given how profit-driven the country is, I question how possible it is to even have a successful mass quarantine unless people figured out how to profit from it. How do you think current socio-economic factors impact our susceptibility to pandemics? GM: I absolutely think that larger questions about inequality, wealth disparity, access to health care, and even access to a home (if you’re being asked to stay at home, you need to have a home to stay in), all of these conversations are relevant. I also think that that’s exactly the role of governance—and I’m saying this as a believer in government. That’s when government steps in to fill a void that is otherwise unaddressed by economic or social circumstances. It’s the government who would be responsible for the individual in the case of last resort, so you can make up for lost wages. Or if you’re asking someone who can’t afford to quarantine because they still have to buy medications or put food on the table and they don’t have savings or have family members that they’re trying to take care of, then they actually have a way to make up for that and they can afford to not work.  NT: One interesting thing that a former head of the CDC, Julie Gerberding, pointed out to us at a pandemic simulation is that the U.S. has a very well-funded military with the sort of health care that you would hope to see. When it quarantines, it provides housing and people continue to get paid and their families are fed. The military does quarantine and health care right, and the U.S. taxpayer funds that. It’s interesting to me that we have this example that is much more functional, and yet there’s an unwillingness to expand it beyond that limited group. One of the things we saw again and again in pandemic simulations, [was that] people who were supposed to evaluate our pandemic preparedness would talk about our manufacturing capabilities and our PPE reserves, but our preparedness to quarantine never came up during these simulations. As Geoff said, can people do what is being asked of them? And if not, how do we make them ready to do so? How do we put in place the structure and resources that would make quarantine possible? As we write in the book, quarantine was just invoked and not discussed or imagined in any way as an experience. There wasn’t thought given to what it would be like to be prepared for it. GM: Also, you mentioned if people could figure out how to profit off of quarantine. I genuinely believe that’s going to happen. I think there’s a drive to get in on quarantine as a business model. One of the things we try to do at the end of the book is look at a rise in the quarantine profiteer—people who are trying to disrupt quarantine in the Silicon Valley sense—and get ahead of it. So next time there are stay-at-home orders, maybe your smart home can be an active participant in your medical isolation. Maybe your subscription Amazon purchases can be used to help mitigate the kind of difficulty of staying at home. We’re already seeing everyday appliances becoming diagnostic tools—our Alexas and other always-on microphones can pick up the sound of a cough and detect whether it might be COVID-19 or not. We’re seeing the rise of all kinds of things that are going to turn quarantine into a niche industry. To be clear, I say this in the dystopian sense and I’m not advocating for it, but I do see that there is going to be profit made in keeping people isolated from one another. And so, it will be quite interesting to imagine when the next pandemic hits exactly who makes money off our quarantine experiences.    This is actually something I wanted to talk about. Contact tracing and genomic sequencing have shown how collecting information can help us respond to viral outbreaks. But on a smaller, more personal scale, data presents some frightening scenarios, like the hypothetical of the hyper-connected smart home determining that a person living within it is potentially contagious, then imposing quarantine upon them by locking them inside against their will. As far as pandemics go, how concerned should we be about surveillance and diagnostic infrastructure? GM: I would say that diagnostic infrastructure is not in and of itself dystopic, but I think the idea that corporate interests will find a way to spin a profit off of making sure that we stay isolated from one another has dystopian overtones. I think it’s a really complex and nuanced conversation because I don’t think the answer is that we need data privacy. It goes back to what Nicky was saying, that we can’t have public health without a public. If people are known to be carrying highly transmissible diseases that are threats to the general public body of a nation or city, public health officials need access to that information. They need to know who is infected and at what stage of the infection they are in, so I think that the testing and tracing infrastructure is important. It belies the idea that we all have to have absolute privacy over all of our data. At the same time, obviously we don’t want to turn all of our medical diagnoses over to the public so that everybody knows our illnesses and ailments. So, I think that we’re constantly going back and forth between information that is vital for public health versus information that is being sold to corporations that potentially don’t have public health in their interests. One of the examples we use are bleach companies or vitamin firms getting access to our state of health—curing illness is not necessarily in their interest if they can profit off of cleaning surfaces for the next six months or selling cough drops instead of a cure. You get into not just mixed messages regarding whether or not they’re on our side, but incentives that could potentially go against public health itself.  NT:  Adam Kucharski, one of the epidemiologists we talked to, has been working on modelling for the U.K. government, and I think he has a really smart attitude to this. He relies on data, and sometimes data that you might otherwise be very reluctant to share about your movements and interactions with people. His point is that it requires trust; if you're asking people to do this, you have to demonstrate a social benefit. You have to think in terms of permission rather than just doing it and hoping you get away with it. You have to involve people; if it’s for a social good then it should be a social effort. The data gathering in and of itself is not inherently bad; using that data to limit people’s movement is not inherently bad. How the protections and the process around building that system work is where the nuance lies, making sure that it’s being done for the public good and not private profit.  One thing that’s worth noting is that throughout the pandemics of history, surveillance and quarantine have gone hand-in-hand and the tools of that surveillance and that monitoring of people’s movement have hardened into the bureaucracy we know today: the border control, the passports. There is a real risk that things put in place to manage a pandemic will harden into a new reality without discussion. I think we would all do well to have the kinds of discussions that Adam advocated and that we advocate, too.  The pandemic is still very much ongoing, but I have wondered about what aspects of the past year-and-a-half will stick. Do either of you have any thoughts on that?   GM: It will be so fascinating to see what the remnants of COVID-19 are and how it changes cities. I think that there are certainly positive things, like the changes to the use of the streets for outdoor dining. It’s almost like the Europeanization of American cities in the name of social distance, so you can eat outside in a way that would be typical for a European city, but that isn’t something that you see very often in a place like Dallas. I think that things like that would be great if they stuck around. Other minor cultural quirks might change, like handshakes; although, it's funny to see people who can’t stop shaking hands. I could definitely go the rest of my life without shaking hands again. I think that the hand sanitizer market is likely poised for a permanent boost, in terms of having hand sanitizer stations everywhere. This also ties into the argument now about vaccine passports. These things already exist in the sense that you’re required to get certain vaccinations before going to schools. For travel, there are recommended vaccinations for places where you might be exposed to certain diseases, but now that it’s happening with COVID-19 there’s this kind of exaggerated political outrage. But will we see vaccine passports become a permanent part of life? Or having to bring your vaccine card around? All these things are going to be interesting to track in the months to come.  NT: And, certainly, there are examples in other countries, like the way China expanded its Alipay system into a health and mobility control app. I don’t see that being rolled back. One thing that I think is interesting is that in the U.S., so much is driven by the idea of liability and trying to avoid it that it’s actually businesses and universities (which are basically businesses) that are figuring out how to bring everyone back together but not make ourselves liable to a COVID super spreader event. So, what you’re getting is these businesses—not in discussion with their employees or consumers—implementing different testing regimes, whether it be swabbing buildings or monitoring sewage or air quality. And those kinds of monitoring systems also are invasive of peoples’ privacy. That’s all being done right now without any real oversight, guidance, or consultation, all in the interest of liability. We've been taught to think that we’re on CCTV in public spaces, but we haven’t been taught to think that what we’re breathing out is now being surveilled through an air quality sensor. And that’s personal information that we’re leaving in a space that's being gathered, and it’s not necessarily something we agreed to. Surveying air quality or swabbing surfaces as a sentinel of disease is a great idea, it’s just something that you want to think twice about the privacy issues around before implementing and ideally have a conversation with people whose privacy is going to be invaded in this way.   While reading this book, I felt like I was being regularly reminded of how incredibly vulnerable the human species is. For so many people, there seems to be a very deep-seated unwillingness to acknowledge this precarity, an unwillingness that is especially pronounced in affluent countries. I’m curious to hear if either of you feel the same. GM: I agree with that. That comes to the fore whenever there’s a blackout basically anywhere in the United States and people suddenly realize how thin the line is that keeps us back from a much earlier age in which we maybe don’t even know how to survive. We certainly don’t know how to make our goods or grow food. I think one of the reasons why there’s been a decade-long interest in infrastructure—especially in architecture and geography—is that it’s almost a branch of precarity studies. It’s people looking into these systems that are otherwise invisible and exist on the periphery of the world and yet keep everything moving. It’s like the stagecraft that allows the actors to get through their roles, and I think that kind of interest—at least in an academic world where people are interested in writing about ports, electrical infrastructure, or hydrology—all of these things are an attempt to shine a light on that precarity. I think that people don’t really want to admit that things are as bad as they are. One of the things that’s funny is that every political ideology has its own pet disaster, and I think on the right there’s a huge fear of electromagnetic pulse weaponry, but it's a very peculiar worry that is specific to conservative geopolitical thinkers. The idea is that North Korea or a similar power will explode a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere above the United States, and so, while it won’t kill everyone with an explosion, it will short out all of our electrical devices, including our power stations and cars. So, there’s this idea that we have to harden ourselves against the disappearance of civilization, which is to say the short-circuiting of our infrastructure. I think that’s fascinating.  NT: The larger, more abstract way that I think about this, and it comes up in my refrigeration research all the time too, is that we have not assigned economic value to resilience and we have assigned economic value to efficiency and optimization. So, we have a system that is highly efficient and optimized (of course in some cases it’s not actually that efficient, but it’s economically efficient and not resilient). I think the idea of incentivizing resilience—or even requiring resilience through regulatory means—is something that we really need to do. Climate change is making this increasingly obvious, but it is something we’re very reluctant to do because the benefits are almost invisible: it’s things not going wrong. It’s hard to get excited about that, as it’s not a clear win in the same way. We saw this again and again in the pandemic preparedness sphere, these big simulations where the same things would go wrong every time. But until they actually go wrong, there’s no incentive to do anything about it.  When you say “resilience,” what specifically do you mean?  NT: It looks different in different examples, but resilience could be not having a supply chain that is entirely dependent on the Suez Canal being open, for example. It could be not having a fruit and vegetable supply that only comes from three states, as that’s inherently fragile.  GM: Redundancy is a really important thing, to have a backup. Also, I think COVID-19 has shown us the limits of just-in-time inventory and infrastructure. Companies have gotten so used to having something shipped in on a twenty-four-hour notice, that we’ve seen a lot of companies just running out of goods. Products are running short on shelves. Starbucks was the big story recently because they were running out of ingredients and didn’t have access to things that they needed for their drinks. The global economy has become really dependent on this just-in-time approach to life, it’s almost become an ideology. I think resilience would be not being dependent on [things being] just in time, even though that would have its own costs built into it.       It also seems like there’s an issue of precedence. There are people in power who don’t want to set up a dynamic in which they help another country out of a dire situation because I think we all know, even if we don’t want to admit it, that more dire situations are certainly on the way. Which brings me to nuclear waste . . . [Laughter]  Your reporting on nuclear waste was an unsettling illustration of how difficult it is to safeguard against human error. How did you arrive at the subject of geologic disposal? GM: What we wanted to do was look at the outer limits of isolation technology in terms of how we think of threats and dangerous material, as well as how we try to contain it. There are so many similarities between the burial of nuclear waste and some of the protocols that exist for quarantine and high-level isolation units in hospitals. There were many similarities we saw between how Ebola patients would be treated in London and the Royal Free Hospital and how the nuclear waste isolation pilot plant in New Mexico is run, in terms of circulation, filtration, and air ventilation. When you get into nuclear industry, these interesting similarities are scaled-up dramatically, and what we wanted to look at was how we handle something that has a danger that is far in excess of an individual human life, if not the lifespan of human civilization itself. How do we figure, model, confront, and build for that?  That led us into nuclear waste as a way of looking at containment, isolation, and, to a certain extent, quarantine vis-à-vis taking something dangerous out of society and placing it elsewhere in a kind of sacrifice zone. We thought that there would be lessons to learn from that; that we could look at the way that systems are designed for long-term, if not permanent, isolation and see how both metaphorically and literally those same systems might inform a quarantine station design or the design of a hospital.  NT: The second half of the book, where we look at planetary quarantine and agricultural quarantine and nuclear waste isolation, we thought that by looking at how we implement these protocols in different fields that we could get perspective on things that are harder to extrapolate when you’re talking about just quarantining humans. When the consequences are existential, you have to approach risk differently. You can’t approach it in terms of likelihood, you have to approach it in terms of its consequences. Looking at nuclear waste isolation helped us pull out larger threads that apply to quarantine and isolation as a whole. GM: One of those things is the challenge of communicating risk to future generations. That’s something we saw throughout the history of quarantine and even during COVID-19 where there was a struggle to communicate to people that this is actually dangerous, a real virus that should be avoided. People don’t always believe the information and they may not trust the authority that’s communicating it. In the history of quarantine, we saw that houses being marked as dangerous or under quarantine were specifically targeted by criminals and burglars as places to break in and steal items because those were seen as unprotected houses where things could be taken. In other words, the warnings weren’t heeded even then, so there’s a challenge to communicate over huge spans of time that a nuclear waste site is in fact a place to avoid, that the danger is real and the risk is not exaggerated. That was a major aspect not just of the nuclear waste chapters, but also just the entire challenge of communicating the need to quarantine.  This last question is very much an existential one: Until Proven Safe claims that there’s an increased likelihood of quarantine in the future. Generally speaking, how optimistic do either of you feel about our ability to handle the crises that await us?  GM: Ooph. I guess I’d say, for me, there are at least two answers to that question. In terms of the prognosis that we’re going to quarantine more, not less, in the future, I definitely stand by that. If we take the time to learn from this pandemic and to learn where and how quarantine worked or failed, then we can use quarantine as a very simple spatial power to address disease mitigation and to prevent the next pandemic from being as bad as it could be. Quarantine has a reputation for political abuse and for being ominous and dystopian, but at heart it’s just an unbelievably simple form of personal responsibility that says we’re going to take some time apart and ensure that we’re not a danger to one another. I’m optimistic that if we’re able to make quarantine work as a tool then it will become appreciated for what it is as opposed to feared. The other question I think is just a temperament question: am I optimistic about our ability to address challenges? Nicky and I kind of swap back and forth between who’s the doomsday foreteller here, but I would say that I am not optimistic at all that we're able to address these larger problems as a civilization or as nation-states or even as a species. Again, I think that’s a temperament question rather than a rational, political assessment of where we are. I would say there are many larger problems than COVID-19; there are many diseases that are much more fatal and dangerous; there are other problems like climate change that we simply are not addressing right now, and those stand out to me. But Nicky, what do you think? NT: I see no evidence that society at large has learned from pandemics past. Individuals have; again, Dr. Martin Cetron at the CDC did a detailed study of what had worked and not worked in quarantines past to come up with new federal quarantine regulations that do all the things that we need to do to make quarantine work. It’s just that they weren’t implemented at scale—we were in lockdown deliberately, not quarantined, and we didn't follow the CDC playbook. So, individuals can learn, but whether we as a society can learn, I see no evidence that that’s been the case in the past, therefore I am not optimistic we will. We need to; we need quarantine. We’re going to use it again, as Geoff said. We need to redesign it so that it works better next time, and if I had to put money on it I would say we’re not going to. I would really like to be wrong.
Digitizing Maxi Cohen’s Legacy

What does it take to preserve an independent filmmaker’s oeuvre?

In 1986, seven female independent filmmakers from five different countries came together to interpret the seven deadly sins for a film called Seven Women, Seven Sins. In preparation for filming Anger, New York-based filmmaker Maxi Cohen placed an advert in The Village Voice that read, “ANGRY ? ? ? ? WHAT MAKES YOU ANGRY? I'M MAKING A FILM ABOUT ANGER. PLEASE CALL 976-5757.” She made a second casting call on a local radio station. The host said, “I think you picked the right city. New York is the anger capital of the world.” Cohen interviewed her ad respondents on BETA-SP, a then cutting-edge Sony camcorder, resulting in a collection of narrated traumas: a young woman with white-blonde curls recites the details of being raped and, years later, stabbed, expressing a wish that all the evil in the world be concentrated on her attacker; a couple who loathe each other but can’t afford to stop living together form a wall of hateful noise; a man in sunglasses recounts murdering four people. The most remarkable aspect of these interviews is the accepting calmness in Cohen's voice. “I do feel like I speak to people's higher selves, and hope that I create a safe space so that they can honestly reveal them,” she says. “When you see a documentary, sometimes it's hard to realize that it's just as much about the filmmaker. Somebody else might get different responses or not as much openness. It's my nature that makes people feel comfortable and safe and open.” She is not intimidated by bearing witness to these raw stories. Cohen’s flair for gathering confessions from everyday people is a constant in her films. Second Grade Dreams (1983) is, literally, a collection of seven-year-olds relaying their dreams. Intimate Interviews: Sex in Less Than Two Minutes (1984) features women talking about sex. Las Vegas: Last Oasis in America (1982) brings together a patchwork of eccentric Vegas characters, including kids with sage insights on gambling. Birty: Godmother of Watts (1994) is a moving portrait of a Black 50-something foster mother in Los Angeles who has suffered several lifetimes worth of state-inflicted losses to her family, yet persists in caring for the vulnerable, including two drug-addicted babies. Much of Cohen’s work blurs the line between fiction and documentary. In Boney (1982), Cohen's long-time collaborator, and a spoken-word artist in his own right, Joel Gold, improvises an outsize character walking the streets of New York. The Edge of Life (1984) is metafiction chronicling a day in the life of a video artist with a striking resemblance to Cohen, filmed in her own SoHo studio. How Much Is Really True? (1989) features Cohen herself as one in a group of four women who take a trip to the beach. Sometimes Cohen invites members of the public to enact her filmmaking ideals. In South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices (1994), she gives cameras to members of the Black, Latino, and Korean communities who lived and worked in the areas most affected by the 1992 LA riots sparked by the police killing of Rodney King, a Black man. The camerapeople embed themselves within their own communities and the combined footage is a panoramic people’s history of a major moment in US civil unrest. The Belgian auteur Chantal Akerman also contributed to Seven Women, Seven Sins (she was Sloth). Akerman’s death in 2015 brought on retrospectives that included screenings of the film, which, in turn, led to renewed interest in Maxi Cohen's body of work. The majority of Cohen’s films had been made using magnetic video, a medium that formed the basis of grassroots political and artistic filmmaking from the ’60s until the ’90s but is now more or less obsolete. “We had been asked by curators to do this retrospective of all my work and it really wasn't available,” says Cohen. Established filmmakers are more likely to have the financial means or machinery in place to preserve their work for rediscovery and retrospective. Artists putting out work on niche formats, who are relatively unknown, are more likely to lose it to the whirligig of life. The possibility of a legacy is weighted towards those whose interests dovetail with market forces at a crucial moment in their creativity. Is it up to an individual to try to secure their legacy? Or must they succumb to luck and collective impulse, as unfairly stacked towards the ruling classes as these forces tend to be? How can artists from more disadvantaged backgrounds give their work the best chance of survival? *** Cohen has been interested in the arts since her stage debut, at age two, as a rabbit in a local theatre production. In her early years, she tried dancing, the piano (“but my mother told me I was tone-deaf”), and painting. “The truth is, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be a painter. I thought, ‘If I learn to animate, I can paint.’ So I went to New York University to do animation. I thought they had animation classes. But they didn't.” A lack of animation classes wasn’t the only issue Cohen had to contend with. NYU was a lonely place to be in the late ’60s for a woman trying to figure out her creative path in a sea of men. On the surface, she had arrived at an aspirational location, for the school was scattered in stardust. Martin Scorsese taught classes and Oliver Stone was often around. These trappings belied the rampant misogyny which meant that Cohen was constantly second-guessed by the men in the film department. As she puts it: “The guys who ran the equipment all knew better than you did.” Cohen’s driving force was not a particular career role, but the expression of ideas. So when her class was given an assignment to make a three-minute film about how to open a door, she was unimpressed. “I thought that was the stupidest assignment. Instead, I raised some money and made a film about Black Jews who were hiding in the pine barrens of New Jersey, who had escaped the anti-Semitism in the ghetto of Philadelphia. I thought, ‘Nobody's made a film about them. That's much more interesting than how to open a door.’” Due to the steamrolling nature of the men in the film department, this project was subject to interference. “One of the guys in the film department who handed out the film cameras said, ‘Let me come shoot it for you,’ and he was just horrible to work with. He took over and then most of the film was light-struck.” This patronizing attitude was everywhere. Haig Manoogian (to whom Martin Scorsese dedicated Raging Bull) told her that women had no place as filmmakers and that she should probably leave school because “the best I could become was an editor, and the best grade I could get was a C.” Nonetheless, she kept plugging away. “I tried to take as much advantage of the situation to discover what it was that I wanted to do. I had to figure out why I was there. I knew that I wanted to make this film about my father because he was a bigger-than-life character. That was the way I reasoned being in film school.” The film about her father became Joe and Maxi. It was released as a documentary feature in 1978, immediately stirring both praise and controversy and securing a cult prestige that causes it to crop up in repertory programmes to this day. Mainly shot on 16mm when Cohen was 23, eight months after her mother died from cancer, it’s framed narratively as a way to bond with her dad, Joe, after years of estrangement. Theirs had been an inappropriate relationship when she was an adolescent, involving sexual behaviour and beatings. She was scared, but she never stopped loving him. Joe and Maxi is a casually shocking chronicle of a dynamic that veers between touching and queasy. The vulnerability that Cohen would later inspire in her interviewees finds precedence in her own emotional nakedness before the camera's gaze. She is unafraid to show herself stunned into silence by the tsunami that is Joe. Formal rather than filmic influences set the tone of the documentary. Cohen learnt her craft through working on magnetic media, where she says that editing meant literally cutting then scotch-taping film back together. To avoid too much of this, she developed a habit of shooting in long takes. “Years later I saw Faces. John Cassavetes could have influenced me but I hadn’t seen him at the time,” she says. When Joe and Maxi was released, documentaries tended to be contrived around a pose of objectivity. As Cohen recalls, “Somebody would be shooting and you would have a narrator explaining what you saw or interviewing someone. My favourite accolade for Joe and Maxi came when it was played in LA. Some guy came up to me and said, ‘Who played your father?’ It was so real, he thought it was fiction! The intimacy and this way of working was instinctive. When I made video, the camera was an extension of my hand and my mind. A lot of people have told me over the years that Joe and Maxi influenced them, filmmakers who are very well known and who are much more successful than I am. . . .I don't know if I should say this but Michael Moore once said that to me, and Judy Helfand and Michel Negroponte.” *** Magnetic media marked a revolutionary departure from earlier television cameras, which were so heavy that vehicles had to transport them. In 1967, Sony released the Portapak, a two-piece set-up composed of a video camera connected to a tape recorder, both small and light enough for one person to carry around. It used magnetic tape, as did the later iterations that Cohen used: a one-inch open reel and 3/4-inch U-matic. (Although by 1994, she had upgraded to digital. Birty: Godmother of Watts and South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices were shot on D2, a digital video camera.) While Cohen was finding her filmmaking legs, so too were people from different subcultures. The freedom that magnetic video offered to shoot one’s community away from establishment red tape and systemic homophobia made it a form that appealed to collectives like Queer Blue Light, a non-profit organization that operated from 1971 to 1974 capturing vignettes of gay life in San Francisco. “You weren't going to be able to get a studio television camera that weighs 400 pounds and commercial people weren't going to be interested in your subculture,” says J. Vincent Raines, who spent the years between 2000 and 2008 volunteering for the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, a museum and archive of materials and knowledge promoting understanding of LGBTQ+ history, arts, and culture. He says that magnetic media opened up possibilities for his community. “It was more accessible. In many cases, it was cheaper; it was reusable; it didn't need to be sent away to someone else to process. So if you were dealing with material that was sensitive in some way, you didn't have to involve a third party. It was more easily shared, it was more easily and cheaply duplicated than, say, a film.” Over eight years, Raines digitized thousands of hours of audio and video from the GLBT Historical Society’s archive of film and magnetic media. “This was all material that was sitting in boxes on a shelf somewhere for decades,” he tells me. “I found it fascinating to bring this material back to life. A doorstop-looking reel of tape could have images and sounds and bring you back to another time to meet people who, in many cases, are long gone.” His descriptions of the works channel the energy of the ’70s gay counterculture. Raines digitized videos by Queer Blue Light shot on EAIJ-1, a one-inch open-reel videotape that came out in 1969. “They ran around the Castro District in San Francisco taping various events, including the second or third Castro Street Fair in 1976. Harvey Milk pops up in one spot.” Then there are more personal scenes. “Not only were they out on the street, there were a few tapes where they're just goofing around sitting in someone's living room, so there's insight into more of the interior lives.” The biggest collection he worked on was shot on U-matic, “you know, the chunky three-quarter-inch videotapes,” by a man with a home-video business who recorded everything from leather and drag pageants—Mr. Leather and Miss Continental—in his native Chicago, to fundraisers and talent shows in San Francisco. “That was just an enormous collection,” says Raines. “What was poignant is that, towards the end of it, there were tapes made by his partner after he had died of HIV. A lot of the challenge working with that archive is much of the material came in a chaotic fashion and out of order as people died during that plague [the AIDS epidemic]. Often the family, or whoever was trying to get rid of a lot of property, would just throw them in boxes and donate them.” All the work that Raines digitized remains held at the GLBT Historical Society archive, and some, like “The Gay Life,” a radio show made on audiotapes, is publicly available to listen to online. The counterculture of the late ’60s and ’70s existed along identity lines, but also, notably, along anti-establishment lines. We need only hark back to images of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, grinning under a walrus moustache as he rides a motorbike through the desert to the sound of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” to know the type. Michael Shamberg has been a Hollywood producer since 1980 with big-boy credits like Pulp Fiction, Erin Brockovich, and Contagion to his name. In another era, he was a part of the New York video counterculture, and in 1970 co-founded the Raindance Corporation, an “alternative culture thinktank,” with Frank Gillette (a social activist and video artist), Paul Ryan (a former research assistant to Marshall McLuhan), Louis Jaffe (a musician and journalist with money to invest), and Marco Vassi (Gillette’s friend who went on to become a renowned erotic novelist). A journalist by trade, Shamberg met Gillette while covering a video art show and, after spending some time hanging out with artists, realized the potential of video art and public-access television. Switched on by a medium he felt had the potential to be a great social equalizer, he quit his staff job at Time Life. “I was young and didn't need much money and just felt it was a valid form of expression.” Raindance put out a video art journal called Radical Software that brought Shamberg into contact with an ever-greater network of video artists. For Shamberg, the most compelling element of magnetic media was rooted in his journalistic impulse to document events freely. In 1972 he co-founded TVTV, a video collective that made documentaries using guerilla techniques, with Allen Rucker, Tom Weinberg, Hudson Marquez, and Megan Williams. “The first things we did were the political conventions in 1972. I have to laugh because myself and my partner, Allen Rucker, we'd go to the White House every day with long hair and press credentials.” Shamberg was filming in Steven Spielberg's office when he didn't get nominated for Jaws, and the extremely charming response can be found on YouTube. He says this was a time when even well-known directors were less guarded. “There were no publicists to say, ‘No.’ Everything you got was much more authentic. Whereas now, people are both guarded and filtered or, conversely, with social media they're simply doing it for the camera.” An ex-boyfriend introduced Cohen to magnetic video and it immediately impressed her as free from the hierarchies and misogyny of traditional filmmaking. She went on to do a master’s at NYU where she became friends with other video artists fuelled by the same ideals as Shamberg and his collective. “We were guerrilla TV-makers, all seeing video as a political tool. We could play and go anywhere and experiment. It was the beginning, so nobody knew more than anybody else. There was a level of equality between men and women and there was a kind of freedom about it.” *** As video artists were finding their way forward, a new era of public-access television was dawning in America. Previously, there had been only three television networks: CBS, NBC, and Public Television. In 1969, the government mandated that two channels be given to the general public to create their own programming. Public-access television decentralized the means of production and freed broadcasters from having to abide by studio production values, tone, and equipment. Both Cohen and Shamberg say this foreshadowed how smartphones and social media have blown open citizen journalism today. The truth of this parallel is evidenced by the extraordinary social impact of Darnella Frazier, who had the presence of mind and fortitude to record on her phone the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin, which sparked an explosion of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 and led to Chauvin’s eventual conviction and sentencing. Indeed, filming on smartphones has become a ubiquitous way for non-white Americans to document the racism they experience and witness, making it harder for wider society to turn a blind eye and, sometimes, mobilizing real change. Back in the early ’70s, Shamberg’s work with the Raindance Corporation in documentary videos overlapped with public-access television to the point that he wrote a book, Guerrilla Television, in 1971, solidifying the values central to both mediums. “I look back on it now and it was so jargony it's a little bit embarrassing, [but] it was a manifesto about democratizing television. The idea of a manifesto is that for a new media or art form, historically, like with Dadaism, somebody is always going to write about it. So I'm proud of it as a manifesto. It summed up a lot of ideas.” In Guerilla Television, Shamberg writes, “The inherent potential of information technology can restore democracy in America if people will become skilled with information tools.” Like Cohen, he was influenced by the idea of new technology for social change, a movement spearheaded in America by Red Burns and George C. Stoney, the latter carrying the epithet “the father of public-access television.” Cohen recalls speaking alongside Shamberg on a ’70s panel about programming hosted by the National Cable Television Association. “When I started out in video, there were a handful of people across the country and we all knew each other. The people who were part of TVTV are like my closest friends,” she says, citing projects with TVTV participants Nancy Cain, Skip Blumberg, Elan Soltes, and Wendy Appel, who co-produced Cohen’s South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices. Fresh from graduating with her master’s in 1971, Cohen instantly found work creating public-access television in Cape May, a small town in New Jersey with a population of 5,000. Her local community series was called Are You There? “I showed up and taught people in town how to make television. I had an open workshop. I did a TV show once a week and played the videotapes that the public made. I said, ‘Well, if you want to respond, just call me up and I'll come make a video with you.’” The impact of Cohen’s work in Cape May was historical, causing her to butt heads with the town’s mayor. “A dialogue happened in this town and as a result, for the first time in 100 years, a Democratic mayor got elected. [Public-access television] changed the social, economic, and cultural trajectory of that town forever.” After a year in Cape May, Cohen returned to New York where she worked as director of the Video Access Center, part of the Alternate Media Centre (AMC). This was the first public-access facility in the United States, set up by Red Burns and George C. Stoney. The AMC trained thousands of laypeople in the tools of video production. After another year, Cohen set up video arts distribution at Electronic Arts Intermix, putting out work by the likes of Tony Oursler and Bill Viola, “all the people who were using video as art.” Oursler and Viola were pioneering multimedia artists at the time and have gone on to have prolific, award-winning careers, exhibiting work to this day. Cohen recounts AMC alumni recording everything from homophobic police officers talking to members of the gay community to Salvador Dali just kicking back; from Betty Dodson’s masturbation workshops to Allen Ginsberg in his tiny apartment in the East Village; from the 1974 Democratic Convention to Yoko Ono talking cosmic feminism in her white room at The Dakota. Cohen wore many hats in these scenarios, enabling others to make work, but also shooting her own stuff. It was a time when the fruitfulness and momentum of making videos far outweighed thoughts of storage and archiving. *** In 2019, Matthew Hoffman, a young Canadian studying for a master’s at NYU in Moving Image Archive and Preservation, was doing a collection management assignment that involved a variety of possible tasks, some purely organizational, some involving collaborations with artists. “We were essentially given a long list of people we could request to work with in a top-three order. I looked into Maxi's work and started reading about Joe and Maxi; it sounded like everything I've ever wanted to see in a documentary film. I watched it and thought that it was one of the best documentaries of that era, as important as anything the Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) were doing in the ’70s. I was shocked by how raw it was.” Hoffman was moved. “When I came to class, I said, ‘Look everybody, I have never gotten my first choice for anything over the last year and a half, and you all know that, so I want to do the Maxi Cohen collection. Does anyone have issues with that?’ Everyone said ‘No’ and then I turned to the professor and said, ‘Okay, so that's what we're going to do.’ I was very adamant.” Over the course of the collection management assignment, Hoffman spent quality time at Cohen’s studio in SoHo, New York going over records of her archives. He was excited to see that she still owned the master materials of films shot on magnetic video. “It leaves this great window open for preservation that's timely.” He created a list of Cohen’s video works, noting which had yet to be preserved, considering both the films and the surviving recordings from Cape May and the AMC. The non-film works felt too sprawling for a student project. “It was expansive and I don't know if I was ready for that quite yet.” There was much to choose from, which “speaks to the fact that there's so much to preserve with Maxi and with so many artists. If only those resources were readily available because it is not only a financial commitment but a time commitment. It's amazing how much there is to be done.” Hoffman’s anxieties about the scarcity of preservation resources were born out in the experience of Raines. He relays an illustrative experience with buying and selling a time-base corrector that he first bought on eBay for a little more than $100 and then auctioned off a few years later. “I put it up with a really low opening price and it sold for almost $800. So, obviously, in that amount of time, they had become scarcer and grew in demand.” For his thesis project, Hoffman decided to digitize eight films—one feature, South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices, and seven shorts: Second Grade Dreams, Intimate Interviews: Sex in Less Than Two Minutes, Las Vegas: Last Oasis in America, Birty: Godmother of Watts, Boney, The Edge of Life, and How Much Is Really True? He hired a vendor (Mercer Media in Long Island) based on affordability and the ability to meet the required technical specifications; he also observed and assisted in the digitization process. When the video files were delivered, Hoffman performed quality control and, once satisfied, ensured that both the newly digitized works and the magnetic media masters were stored according to best practice. “How lucky can I be?” was Cohen’s reaction. For several years, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York had shown interest in paying for a 4K restoration of Joe and Maxi. Hoffman and Cohen seized the idea of using the restoration as a hook for a retrospective featuring her newly digitized films. Hoffman collected the digitized files on March 9, 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced a global pandemic on March 11. When Cohen and I first talked in August 2020, well into the COVID-19 pandemic, MoMA had gone quiet. “Communication has only gone in one direction. Whatever plan was in place may no longer be in place,” said Cohen, deluged with other projects but keeping a half-hopeful, half-mournful eye on the horizon. So, then what? *** Legacy is a crushingly heavy idea that requires all logistical dominoes to be in a row. Without the Raineses and Hoffmans of this world, less mainstream and more obscure work would be as good as extinct. But what about the people who do not have access to the means of production in the first place? Even though magnetic media was more accessible than other forms, its heyday wasn’t a lost Eden powered by equal opportunity. “Let's face it, even back in the ’70s and ’80s, getting this equipment for most people required at least a certain income, unless someone was fortunate [enough] to get it through school or a friend,” says Raines. “Much of the material we have from the ’70s and ’80s is by men, and white men in particular, so it didn't completely open the door to everybody. There are a lot of barriers to having your expression preserved and your legacy carried forward, especially in this realm where you don't have a studio and a machine and a patriarchy behind you.” Still, without the patriarchy behind her, Cohen managed to make the work, but its preservation was down to Lady Luck visiting in the form of Hoffman’s university assignment. This is not a lottery that many disenfranchised creators tend to win. Shamberg agrees with Raines that the video art scene, as he knew it, did not include the widest demographics. Having used the term “marginalized” to explain how his peers in the counterculture identified, he is keen to stress that it had a different meaning then. “We were a bunch of, basically, white people wanting to express ourselves about the culture. We were hardly oppressed the same way that women, Black people, and minorities are.” He is turned on by the possibilities of the present moment and doesn’t seem remotely nostalgic. “The rebellions that are happening now for political and media power have much more scale and weight to them than what we did. We were probably ahead of our times in seizing the means of production, but the dynamic of technological exploration continues to today.” Shamberg has made his peace with not having a legacy: “I don't think you can look at me like some really good Black filmmaker [such as] Ava DuVernay, or [someone like] Quentin Tarantino, and say, ‘Well, there's a Michael Shamberg legacy.’ The abilities and skills brought to mounting those films are probably worthy of recognition, but not me personally.” Instead, his focus is on keeping on moving. “I’m 77 and I’m just going to keep working as long as I can, looking for what's new.” It’s perhaps easier to shrug off the idea of legacy when your works remain accessible. Shamberg doffs his cap to Pacific Film Archives, who have taken his TVTV collective’s archive into storage. Meanwhile, there are artists whose work disappeared before anyone even knew to save it. There will always be talented people who are locked out of the dominant technological platforms, who have not been brought up to believe that their voices have value. In such conditions—lacking access to technology and a support network—many also lack the confidence to push their work forward publicly and end up destroying it, either actively or through atrophy. As Raines says, “That happens so frequently with artists. It was so easy to do in haste with magnetic media, to just record over it or erase it, whereas, if you've made a film, you have to go to the trouble of burning it. People don't understand the value of what they have in the moment.” A normal way of working on video involved recording new footage over existing tapes, meaning that a lot of Cohen’s material from the AMC years has been lost. Raines talks about the same phenomenon with regard to the Queer Blue Light collective: “At some point, one of the guys reused tapes to record Chinese lessons, probably for pay, and recorded over who knows what. I heard that they had a whole tape of Harvey Milk practising political or campaign speeches and I'm pretty sure they recorded over it. So that's the peril of magnetic media. What's priceless in the future, you don't know; you might record over it.” As towering Australian goddess Nicole Kidman said on the Marc Marron podcast WTF, “I give blood and then the interesting thing is to see the reaction.” Artists offer something that makes them vulnerable—and subject to a private backlash of self-questioning and doubt. Perhaps a way to reduce instances of work being lost is to prioritize artistic communities over individual stardom and teach creators that they are not best placed to judge their own work. If all creators had a network of cheerleaders, maybe some wouldn’t have their chance of a legacy strangled at birth. The problem, as ’twas ever thus, is that potential profitability is mistaken for intrinsic value. No matter how many cautionary tales exist of great artists like Vincent van Gogh and Emily Dickinson, who laboured in obscurity for their lifetimes only to gain an enduring legacy after death, the comfort of being recognized by a large number of people—and their wallets—in the here and now fogs up a more existential awareness that this moment will be washed away by future ones and no one knows what works will be left standing. There is, of course, the real and pressing need that we all have to survive by selling our skills. While the industrial fight for fair pay will never end as long as bad-faith operators, per Oscar Wilde’s definition of “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing,” wield exploitative pay practices, it is vital that artists resist this kind of cynicism on an individual level. Most creative people, understandably, want to earn a living from monetizing their art, yet struggling to do so does not invalidate the art or preclude its potential for finding an audience at a later date. *** How important is it that a work lives in public? Does it still have value if it doesn’t connect with a large audience, or has no audience at all? Some idealists believe in art for art’s sake. That is to say, something profound happens in private when you work on your art. I think about the day I spent as a volunteer art critic for The Koestler Trust, reading a binder of poems by prisoners identified only by their serial numbers. These poems reckoned with primal emotions and experiences: love, death, suffering. They would never bring their authors fame or fortune, or even recognition, yet by putting words to their feelings, something important had already happened in their lives. But for many artists, creation stems from wanting to communicate something to leave behind. For that possibility to exist, the work must exist. Dead formats tell no tales. *** Since the pandemic hit, Cohen has worked alone out of her studio in SoHo on a variety of projects, without her usual producer, assistant, and interns. There is a book, a film she’s been gathering material on for 40 years (“a sequel to Joe and Maxi”), a feature documentary on ayahuasca, a feature documentary that arose from her filming evicted artists in her SoHo neighbourhood breaking into a fancy hotel, and an art installation on “the movement in water,” created in connection with the Buckminster Fuller Institute’s Design Science Studio who gave her an award in service of imagining a world that works for everyone. “It’s really exciting because you’re working with a lot of futurists and people who are highly optimistic. You see the renaissance—or the regenaissance—below the surface of all this turmoil, and all this male, right-wing domination, trying to play itself out.” When we speak again a few months later, in January 2021, it’s all systems go, and she is thriving. “I have a film editor who’s edited all of Gus Van Sant’s films. I’m in a cyber community.” What’s more, to the delight of Hoffman, who is only hearing this news on our call, MoMA has come through with the digital restoration. “Seeing Joe and Maxi made me really want to put on this epilogue,” says Cohen, referring to the eight films digitized by Hoffman. Seven Women, Seven Sins is the other of her films out in the world, anchoring her in the consciousness of certain industry gatekeepers. She tells herself to make a note to reach out to the curators in Italy and Belgium who wanted to host retrospectives after Chantal Akerman died and before her newly digitized canon existed. On our first call, reference had also been made to a streaming platform interested in buying South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices, as its subject spoke to the Black Lives Matter movement. “I never heard from them actually,” says Cohen. “I don't know if I stayed on them enough. I should really pursue them. I'll make a note. I have, like, lists and lists of things I have to do.” Papers rustle over the line. I say that maybe she has enough on the go, but no. “It would be nice for the film to have a home.” Finding homes for all the newly digitized works is a Sisyphean task, add to this the fact that there is so much work yet to be digitized from Cohen’s time in Cape May and at the AMC. Much has been lost or recorded over, but stray treasures abound, even as their ripeness for preservation is risked with every passing day. Cohen has held onto the Yoko Ono video from her AMC days, which Hoffman finds thrilling. “I'm ready to get the Yoko Ono transferred right now!” Does she feel like she gets enough credit for the trailblazing work she did? “Well, that's so sweet that you're writing and that Matt is doing this because the truth is that I've never really been out there. I don't brag, I'm a modest person, but in having these discussions I see that I did make a real imprint on the cultures. So I appreciate all of this. None of us want to go and be forgotten.”
‘It’s Very Easy to Imagine a Dystopia’: An Interview with Joss Lake

Talking to the author of Future Feeling about letting characters carry on in literary reality, counterbalancing angst and humor, and the interconnectedness of queer relationships.

Future Feeling (Soft Skull Press), Joss Lake’s debut novel, is a delightfully queer book. Penfield R. Henderson, the novel’s narrator, is a trans man living in a near-future Brooklyn in which social media is still a powerful force but also cellphones have hologram capability and New York City’s subway cars scan their passengers’ cumulative emotional state and change colors accordingly, like a public mood ring. Pen is in a lull in his life at the start of the narrative: he’s a dog-walker for those wealthier than him, he’s got a casual sex thing going on with a minor celebrity, and he has a love-hate parasocial relationship with Aiden, a trans social media influencer with perfect pecs and a seemingly serene soul. When the hate part of the love-hate gets a bit too overwhelming, Pen enlists his roommates—one a witch, the other a hacker—and attempts to hex Aiden. Instead, the hex ends up affecting a total stranger, Blithe, a transracially adopted trans man in California, who plummets into a sudden, deep depression. In this near-future world, queers in distress aren’t left to their own devices; they’re assisted, in more or less direct ways, by a kind of queer caretaking body, the Rhiz (pronounced like the word rise), whose name gestures at “mycorrhiza,” the mutual symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants—a kind of mutual aid, if you will. The Rhiz sees fit to direct Pen and Aiden to figure out, together, how to help Blithe. But this is, as I said, a very queer book, and these characters’ trajectories aren’t particularly linear or predictable, making Future Feeling all the more fun to read as its surprises, anxieties, and hilarities unfold alongside each other unexpectedly. I spoke to Joss Lake over Zoom about the novel’s structure, world, and incredible narrative voice. This interview has been edited and condensed. Ilana Masad: About halfway through the novel I realized that even though Pen, our narrator, is in his early thirties, he narrative is a kind of coming of age. In fact, that’s the case for all three of the trans men whose lives Future Feeling focuses on. What interested you about this post-transition, post-coming out time in Pen, Aiden and Blithe’s lives? Joss Lake: I think what interested me was the way that Pen had transitioned but was still in this very teenage, angsty mindset. And I was interested in this queer non-linearity of life phases. He's at a point in time where maybe some of his cis “well-adjusted” friends are having children or moving up in their careers, but he's sort of moving through puberty and then getting to a point where he's like, What is it that I actually want? [I was] playing around with disrupting these developmental milestones, with [the question of], like, what does help people move through these stages? How do you hold yourself together when maybe you're doing things out of order? Maybe you know, intellectually, that you can do something at any age, but emotionally it feels very much like, Oh, I'm stuck, I'm behind, but also I'm just getting a chance to do X, Y, and Z. For Blithe—because of the hex, but potentially this could have happened anyway—he’s just starting to confront all of this emotional turmoil and trauma for the first time. So his career was in a good place, but he’s now sort of stepping off onto another path. And then we have Aiden who is coming to terms with the limitations of his role as an influencer and is trying to conform to some social messaging and find some sense of security. One of your blurbers, Jordy Rosenberg, wrote that this book “accomplishes that rare and difficult goal: the conversion of anxiety into laughter.” Your narrator, Pen, is an extremely anxious person. He’s not always likeable—although he’s often extremely relatable, TBH—and he messes up plenty. But he’s also hilarious, and he’s able to poke fun at himself and his anxiety. How did you develop Pen’s beautifully unique voice? It was a long process, and originally, in earlier drafts, I didn't necessarily know that he would evolve [as a character]. I'd taken this class in grad school on the hysterical male and I kind of hated most of what we read. It felt like you're sort of trapped inside these very fragile cis male narrators, and there's no movement—you're just supposed to either find humor in their fumbling around or identify with them if there's something about them that's relatable, but there's no particular movement. At first, I thought I could create a hysterical trans masculine narrator, and that would be subversive in itself. It was fun to do that, but I was like, This feels very limiting. And I don't think it's actually that subversive to have a white trans hysterical narrator just spinning off in his head. I don't know that I would really care to read that, after a certain point. So I started to think, what if this narrator has all this fragility and this messy way of relating to people, and I also send him on a journey? I also wanted to have other characters give him feedback and elevate other voices; I didn't want people to be trapped in his consciousness. I wanted them to have all these ways of relating to other characters and other characters’ perspectives rubbing up against his so that he's not our elevated, picaresque hero. In some ways he is, but he has all these other elements and people that can balance him out. There was this question of what does move someone out of deep angst and [out of] taking themselves too seriously when they are stuck in a dark place? One thing that very organically arose was humor. Because the more he dug into, like, my life is horrible, I live in this whatever apartment in Ridgewood and I just walk people's dogs, the more heavy it felt. So there was a lot of counterbalancing: I'm going to counterbalance this heavy angst with humor, I'm going to counterbalance zooming in too far on him with other people coming in to add some breathing room. I think another factor was that I wrote a fairly serious, experimental, historical fiction novel, and then a memoir in the third person about transitioning, and it was very dark. I couldn't get them published. And then I started doing The Artist's Way [practice] where you write three pages every morning without thinking and what came out was basically Pen's narrative voice. I was sort of surprised that that was spinning around inside of me, but it was pragmatic to go with it. I wasn't thinking very intellectually about it—it was just some part of me that I hadn't really thought about or explored. Would you tell me a bit about how you arrived at the concept of the Rhiz—this officialization of the unofficial queer underground network that anyone who's queer has (hopefully) had some kind of contact with? It came out of a blend of personal experience and sort of imagining new possibilities. [In terms of] personal experience, just thinking about the interconnectedness of queer relationships, and using the internet in relating to queer folks, and the way you can find housing and all sorts of things just from knowing different people, and that being a kind of alternate structure—with its own problems—to capitalist, hierarchical ways of maneuvering. The Rhiz also came out of trying to come to terms with the internet and feeling, myself, very depleted by the internet and social media, but also wanting to approach it neutrally. The internet can obviously have really negative effects and can also have positive effects, so [I was] thinking about it more generatively as a structure that is linking things together and imagining an underground structure that is parallel to the internet and is very relational. Because [the book] is set in the near future, and there are a lot of futuristic technological factors, I wanted—and I didn't have a ton of space to do this—but I wanted to gesture at the queer past, so that it wasn't like these characters are existing in a vacuum. I did want there to be a sense—or at least a way to mark—that generations of queer folks have been working together for various forms of liberation. I also wanted to build in a sense of vastness, so it wasn't like Pen’s life or Blithe’s or Aiden’s is the end all, be all of queer existence. I did have a lot of fun building out the Rhiz. At first I wanted it to be a little more nefarious, like maybe there’s something sinister about it. But in a way it felt more subversive to have elements of a sort of utopia, because, to me, it's very easy to imagine a dystopia. The world that the book is set in is just far enough in the future to include some technology we don't have, but it's near enough that it's very recognizably our own late-stage capitalism, social media influencer, climate disaster-filled world. So I was wondering what did setting the book a bit in the future allow you to achieve? Did it feel hopeful or bleakly realistic to preserve many of our contemporary social anxieties and ruptures in this future space? I think putting it in the future helped me get a little imaginative distance. Setting it in the present, I would have felt more of a pressure to make things more recognizable. I mean, obviously you could set something in the present and still have these imaginative flourishes, but setting it in the near future just felt more spacious. It also gave me space to write towards something. In my immediate present, as a person and as a writer, things just felt very stuck. And so I think the future—not even in terms of following our present socio-political reality a little bit further, but the future in a more expansive way—allowed me to be able to move around in some possibilities. I think originally, the idea was that by setting them in the future, I can take all these aspects of the present and turn up the volume on them so that the characters feel extra tense and squashed by these mediating elements, and then as I was writing and changing internally, it felt like I had some agency over determining what the future could be. So, again, not thinking in the way that we're receiving information from the media about what the future will be in ten years, but just as a writer—maybe I can decide in this narrative space what a future could be. Maybe the characters—in relation with each other, in relation to the Rhiz—maybe there is a way that they can evolve in some sense. I did think a lot about how to modulate this so it's not a sort of uncomplicated happy ending. I was sort of afraid that by making any gesture toward things not being hopeless, that people would just scoff at it, like, Oh, that’s so naïve, who gives their characters a happy ending? Your characters should remain unlikable and suffer until the end. But who does that literature serve? I want to talk about the structure of the book a little bit. It has a kind of prologue, and then three parts or chapters, and then we catch up to where the prologue left off. It also has these stories-within-the-story sections, where Pen is telling a story or putting together other people’s stories. Events bleed into one another at times, and the narrative focus allows itself to shift around. In other words, the structure of the book itself feels very queer to me, very much eschewing the familiarity of simple linearity. How did the structure of the book develop and what was your vision for what it would feel like to read? I really wanted the prologue to be a kind of flash forward. The way that Pen opens [the novel], with the hex and his frame of mine—I wanted the reader to be cued that he wasn’t going to remain the same from the beginning to the end. I was sort of afraid that opening with him hexing [Aiden] would signal that maybe the book is very much about social media, which to me was the starting point, but then I wasn’t particularly interested in delving too far into that. So I wanted to mark the complexity and the layers by having this sort of signpost at the beginning—we’re building up to something and this character and the plot of the novel is going to change a lot from the beginning to the end. In terms of the narrative structures—one generative way I was thinking about social media and the Rhiz is like: Okay, if social media companies have so much data about people, then in this sort of tilted world [of the novel], maybe there's a way that characters could use all the data to understand each other and to put together these narrative packages. How can we take surveillance culture and reshape it so that characters are taking on the role of writers? Part of Pen’s process of evolving is working through stories: the stories he tells about himself, the way that he's encountering other people's stories, the way he's relating to Aiden and what that's telling him about himself. So I definitely wanted room for there to be narrative play. Having written this more experimental historical fiction novel and this memoir, I really was thinking more about the reader and wanting them to feel like they're in this heightened or different or exaggerated world, but there's a layer of generosity in the humor and how characters are relating to each other. I wanted [the book] to be inviting, through color and language and things moving around. And I did want there to be a lot of narrative elements, not to overly complicate things, but just to keep shading in complexities. One of the novel’s main themes, I’d say, is the ways in which people—all people, mostly likely—project narratives onto people. This happens with the parasocial relationship Pen has with Aiden and the way he first gets to know Blithe through his data. But even as Pen learns more about who these people actually are (as opposed to his stories about them), there’s a sense that he can only go so far into their experiences. How did you decide how far to go into the various other characters’ stories and experiences, and what held you back from exploring some of them further? It was a really interesting tension for me, knowing that I didn't want to completely keep us close to Pen and also wanting to model not going too far into someone else's experience—which is not a hard and fast rule, but it felt, at the time, like an ethical decision to stay in Pen and gesture at the complexity of other people's lived experiences without trying to narrate them too far. Especially, I think, with Blithe, giving him in dialogue and plot a lot of room to be taking his own space—going off and looking at his past and his ties to the culture of his family of origin—without me narrating that too closely. So [I was] trying to gesture at Pen's own limitations, because he can access other people’s experience in some ways, but there's also this gulf. I think he's anxious enough that he would love to just find a way to close the gulf; in some fantasy, there'd be no tension if he could just understand everything and wouldn't have to deal with the messiness of other people's experiences. But I wanted to show that there are some things that Blithe has to do internally, or with people who are not Pen, that Pen just doesn't have access to. And that's just how I imagined a sort of ethics of having Pen work through different people's experiences and how he relates to them. My last question, fittingly, has to do with resolution. At one point in the book, Pen spends time reading crime novels because he “longed for every loose end of a story to get tied up.” (216) There are narrative threads that are resolved in this book, and there are threads that are clearly deliberately not. How do you feel, as a writer and a reader, about leaving loose ends of a story dangling and free? Maybe it’s just my TV watching habits but I do love these really tight structures, like in procedural crime shows where there’s a problem and then things happen and then it's tied up at the end. But in my actual writing and my way of experiencing reality, I wanted to have so many threads unspooling in the book that it would feel sort of artificial to have to neatly tie them up. So instead of looking at the end as Okay, how do I resolve everything that I opened up in the earlier sections, it was more like where can the characters end up that represents a new phase for them? Maybe in the new phase they don't necessarily get to wrap up all these other elements of their life. I wanted it to feel like they were continuing on in literary reality and that the place where the reader left them at the end was just starting the next part of their lives.
Who Do You Want to Be Tonight, Zola?

A calculated veneer of identity is our most valuable modern resource.

1. The Story The Story is a small book, 4.75 by 7.5 inches to be exact, not much bigger than a smartphone. It’s clothbound in a maroon cover that has the rough texture I associate with libraries. When I removed my copy from a cardboard mailer branded by the film company A24 with the somewhat spoiler-y excerpt; “Florida? Murder? U have the wrong number!” my wife, a book designer, asked, “No jacket?” She’s right, the book looks like it should have a jacket, shiny from lamination. The jacket’s adhesive should peel from age and anxious picking. It should display a cover image telling you explicitly what you’ll find inside. You shouldn’t be able to help but nervously unsheath that jacket to reveal the plain roughness of the binding underneath. There you’ll uncover details hidden by the bookmakers, like The Story’s embossed jewel-toned turquoise foil text and metallic gilded edges.   The title page of The Story informs us that it is by A’Ziah King, clarifying that #TheStory was written in 150 tweets between 9:32 p.m. and 11:57 p.m., October 27, 2015, by @ _zolarmoon. On the upper left corner of each verso page of the book, next to the page number, that handle is repeated in all caps, the online equivalent of shouting: @_ZOLARMOON.   So, King is the author of this book, and @ _zolarmoon is the author of the original tweets. King and @ _zolarmoon are the same person; the name she gave her character in #TheStory is Zola (as in “Don’t be a hoe like her Zola!!”). @zola is the name of the 2021 film that is based on #TheStory, distributed by A24 with a screenplay by Jeremy O. Harris and Janicza Bravo. The # and @ symbols are doing a lot of auteurism work here, separating the person from the persona, the protagonist from the memoirist, the medium from the message. In the book trailer, King introduces herself as “The Real Zola.” Wearing three different looks in less than a minute, including an ombré blue wig and deadly looking gold nails, she holds up The Story, referring to it as “my new book… also known as the Thotyssey.” The Story contains some metatext from King, an Afterword from Bravo, and an intro by cultural critic and noted Twitter user Roxane Gay. Mostly the book consists of King’s unedited, if re-contextualized, words. The publicity materials for the book declare that this is the moment #TheStory “officially enters the literary canon.” There is a suggestion, in this project of respectability, that our new age of digital oral history can gain literary value by virtue of commercial publication. The Story is a nonfiction book, adapting, or maybe the better word is preserving, King’s viral thread about a highly eventful few days of sex work. It’s not the first book collecting someone’s tweets: Justin Vivian Bond has one, and so does a recent American president. But this is probably the first book that translates a complete narrative arc created as user-generated content on a social media platform into a physical medium that may outlast digital screenshots. @zola is definitely the first time a story created using Twitter has been adapted into a mainstream feature film.   A24 has produced a number of promotional zines and screenplay coffee table books for their offbeat movies, which they sell on their website along with branded shirts and bags. So The Story is also technically merchandise for a movie based on tweets which are based on a true story. The original text, @ _zolarmoon’s thread from 2015, is one of the most infamous in Twitter’s history. Zola goes on a road trip from Michigan to Florida following the promise of making exceptional money working in Tampa strip clubs. She’s along for a ride with her very new friend Jess, Jess’s boyfriend Jarrett, and their “roommate” Z. In Tampa, Jess agrees to trap (have sex for money) with clients Z sends to their hotel room. Zola refuses to personally entertain the clients, but when she sees how little Z is charging for Jess’s services, she takes over managing the operation with both sympathy and savvy. Things get pulpier from there. Jarrett is cuckolded. Jess is kidnapped. Chekhov’s handgun goes off. All of these events are narrated with a livid incredulity by King. The criminal adventure kept the live audience of Twitter users enraptured, but King’s voice is what made her #Story a phenomenon. She displays a potent commitment to something we all share: the instinct to make ourselves the funniest, smartest, most powerful person in any life event we recount. Zola always makes the right choice, always says the thing you wish you’d said in any conflict. When Jess assures her that Z isn’t going to force her to trap: “i said ‘OH BITCH I KNOW HE NOT I WILL DEAD ASS KILL Y’ALL,’” adding, “verbatim” as if the act of reassuring you she said exactly that is all the verification we need. The minute she gets her hands on a plane ticket home, she stares down a scene in which Jarrett is begging Z to allow a sorely beat up Jess to leave the situation, too. “WELL IM READY!” she reminds them (I like to imagine her standing in the doorway with her bags, sardonically tapping an invisible wristwatch). As Jess asks if they can still be friends, Zola looks at her “like she wasn’t speaking English” and replies, “im not gon beat yo ass rn bcus u already in bad shape. But I better not ever see or hear from you again.”  As gripping as Zola’s saga was, King’s life over the past six years has had just as many twists and turns. During her “hoe trip,” Zola navigated fraud, coercion, isolation, violence, and betrayal. Since then, she’s fought to maintain authorship of her work in the mainstream film industry, which one might argue is just as full of predatory exploitation as the Florida underworld she survived (James Franco was the first to option the adaptation rights).   I spoke with King over the phone in late June 2021, the day before her movie went into wide release in the US. She sounded tired but happy. In the following days, her Instagram and Twitter would unspool a series of @zola movie premier fashion choices as maximalist as her voice—a black mesh fascinator as she signed copies of The Story on an LA rooftop, a pastel overcoat at a Fort Greene outdoor screening, hand-shaped pasties at an afterparty in Atlanta. @zola the movie diffuses King’s authorship, not just in the screenplay adaptation by Harris and Bravo (who also directed). The film also cites as a source a Rolling Stone article called "Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted" by David Kushner, a (white male) reporter who investigated the veracity of King’s story shortly after she posted it. All this makes her credit as the author of The Story all the more significant. As King herself told me, “In order for [stories about sex work] to mean something, it needs to be told from our perspective. Me being a Black woman who is a sex worker, my voice is purposely faded to the background. I’ve always been the been the type of person to scream louder.” The most groundbreaking thing about #TheStory in 2015 was that it was nonfiction about sex work, told by a sex worker. There were no gatekeepers, no editors, no producers, no directors, no publishers, no publicists. No code switching, no compromises, no translations, no explanation, no concessions, no watering or dumbing down, no pandering. And people fucking loved it. They loved it for the lurid voyeurism and the subjectivity. They loved it for the salacious drama and the lyrical style. The danger and the compassion. They loved it because it was unbelievable and they loved it because it was real. Even when it wasn’t the truth.  2. The Book The other kind of book The Story’s design is meant to emulate, of course, is the Bible. For some people, a Bible is an object associated with a certain omniscient truth. Personally, I think of a Bible more as an amusing artifact in the side drawer of a hotel room, the spot where you stash the lube. On top of a Bible: condoms, a vibrator, poppers, gloves, the things you need to grab quick. These are the kinds of Bibles you find in the backs of pews during worship, right? Not the big heavy ones that lie open at the pulpit. The kind for the response, not the call. Utility Bibles. The word “Bible” appears in The Story, as it appeared in #TheStory and in a fourth-wall-breaking moment of the movie, too. It’s one sentence. “Bible.” In context, it means: “What I am about to tell you is the truth.” King then proceeds to describe one of the story’s most melodramatic moments, one involving attempted suicide. A moment that she admitted to Rolling Stone she made up ”for entertainment value.” So, in this case, “Bible” actually means: “Not the whole truth, but the embellishment the moment called for, wouldn’t you agree?” And we do. King says the formal constraints of Twitter (140 characters at the time) and the excitement of live storytelling informed how she originally composed the bars. “I would type in all caps. I would need everyone to understand the emphasis on yelling. Those take up two pages in the book.” (A spread on pages 68 and 69 reads “I WAS LIKE YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”) She says she had creative influence over many details of how each tweet was interpreted for its literary incarnation. The book’s narrative flow doesn’t stick to one tweet per page. There are line breaks in the form of those ouroboros of arrows representing Retweets and the valentine heart representing Likes, along with the number of people who had performed each of these actions by the time the tweets were screenshot. The book’s pagination stands in for the suspense between each tweet. For example, on page 80: Bitch… I ran so got damn fast I couldn’t even see straight. I was OUT!!! Fuck    that (end tweet)                                                 I run out                                                                                   And (page turn)   THE CAR IS GONE!!!  In 2015, these pauses between tweets were the equivalent of waiting seven days to find out what happens on a network television show. At the speed of the internet, a few seconds is a long time to hold your breath. The book maintains that tension. There’s a single illustration in the book, a digital portrait of the author by her friend Sarah Nicole François. In it, King is rendered as a digital avatar, intentionally Bimbo-fied, emphasizing her camp femme adornment with a glean of wet plastic shine. Her flat hair reaches all the way to the bottom of her stiletto platform heels. Glitchy fishnets wind their way up her squatting spread legs to a perfunctory bikini. Her nails are as long as pencils, her gaze both assertive and blank. The image has, in King’s words, blow-up vibes. “The way I told this story was my personality amplified,” she explains. “It was me on Level 10. My personality at its highest extent.” She wanted her author picture to have the same exaggerated effect.   In the context of the calculated classiness of the rest of the book design, King’s choice of portrait elevates The Story beyond the all-too-easy novelty of contrasting a civilized exterior with the seedy content contained within. François’s approach complicates the project of respectability, a trope with which sex workers are all too familiar. We often find that in order to tell our own stories and be our own advocates, we must demonstrate some form of redemption. That we are safe guides for you into the underworld, because we once descended into darkness but “left the life” or were “rescued.” Yet one of the links in the still active @ _zolarmoon Twitter profile is for her OnlyFans, where you can subscribe to her adult content for $25.99 per month. By commissioning this portrait of herself, King takes control of how the world sees her; the way she wants to be seen is embellished. 3. The Tweets Ariel Wolf, a retired stripper, is a community researcher. She is a co-author, with the collective Hacking//Hustling, of Posting Into The Void, a paper studying the impact of shadowbanning on sex workers and activists. Shadowbanning is a process of content moderation used by social media platforms in which algorithms make “high risk” posts more difficult for users to discover. The author of the offending post is given no notice that their content has been suppressed. The way sex workers have been increasingly targeted for such platform policing “aid(s) in the disruption of movement work, the flow of capital, and further chilling speech,” the paper tells us. This is true whether sex workers are posting ads and previews related to their work or using social media for the multitude of things we all use it for; networking, organizing, education, distraction, connecting, fun, entertainment, and storytelling. The experience of being shadowbanned differs psychologically from having an account blocked or deleted, which a user may contest and which allows them to understand the reason their online engagement has changed. It is a form of structural gaslighting, because platforms can officially deny that it’s happening. According to Hacking//Hustling; “When platforms deny something like shadowbanning and users feel the impact of it, it creates an environment in which the shadowbanned user is made to feel crazy, as their reality is being denied publicly and repetitively by the platform.” Wolf tells me that, though it was only six years ago, the era of Zola’s original tweets, 2015, “was a very different time for sex workers sharing stories on social media.” Back then, Wolf says, she could connect with a global community of fellow strippers. “We shared tips on everything from safety, to dance moves, auditions, pictures of our cats, hustle techniques and work stories.” Social media is where she found her people. But in 2018, the bills known as FOSTA-SESTA were signed into federal law in the United States by noted Twitter user Donald Trump. The law expands both federal and civil liability for online platforms for “knowingly facilitating sex trafficking.” This basically means that companies like Twitter that host third-party user-generated content are more legally accountable for what their users post. Framed by its Congressional authors as an aid in the fight against child exploitation, the law has increased surveillance and policing of all forms of online sexual expression, including Craigslist Missed Connections and Tumblr’s NSFW content. A June 2021 US Government Accountability Office report revealed that “criminal restitution has not been sought and civil damages have not been awarded” using FOSTA-SESTA. In other words, there is no evidence that the law has helped the people its supporters claimed it would. Meanwhile, it has had a profound effect on the landscape of online sex work. In the wake of the new law, Wolf watched her online community disappear. “Things started to get sanitized,” she says. And it wasn’t just about having a harder time connecting with friends; although camaraderie is crucial for a stigmatized community who are treated like criminals even when they’re connecting over legalized work such as stripping or porn-making. It’s also about limited access to education and safety resources: client black lists and harm reduction information got swept up in the purge. The tech corps protect themselves from civil liability by building sexual language suppression into their functionality. So, would #TheStory have been shadowbanned if it came out in 2021? King’s experiences demonstrate just how “messy,” in Wolf’s words, it can be to differentiate between legal labor and forced labor, entertainment and reality. Yet the thread itself contains words that Twitter’s algorithm may flag as a sign of soliciting prostitution. Wolf suspects that, today, those flagged terms “would stop it from going viral at the same speed.” In other words, the very thing that made #TheStory a phenomenon worthy of a film and book—its pleasure rush of popularity, the sense that everyone was paying attention to it in the same shared moment—is the reason that content moderation strategies might now ensure it was seen by less people. Social media is like a casino in that way: when you get hot, systems activate to start nudging you away from your good fortune. And the house always wins. For those who do not believe in the inherent value of adult entertainment, and do not believe the rights of those who do this work deserve protection, the limitations of online sexual expression are worth their (often misinformed) perception that children are being saved from sexual slavery.  King’s words are part of what we lose to FOSTA-SESTA, and that matters. Her point of view illustrates why anyone might make those decisions in that situation. Committing a crime is not as simple as choosing to do something illegal in pursuit of money, or thrills, or revenge. As Wolf points out, when we lose these stories, we don’t just lose entertainment; although the importance of an entertaining story, how it generates unity and empathy, cannot be overstated. Misrepresentation of sex work leads to ideological fallacies that influence lawmakers, who then pass regulations like FOSTA-SESTA. It influences financial companies to seize the funds of those they perceive to be doing sex work. It leads platforms to shroud self-expression in insidious secrecy. Just as The Social Network (2010) dramatized the founding of Facebook as that company’s cultural significance was changing dramatically, @zola depicts a bygone era of Twitter. The film commercializes a story originally told on a tech platform on which, because of sex censorship, it’s not possible to tell stories like this one anymore.  4. The Film Unlike The Social Network, @zola is not about the Internet. The Internet is more like the raw material of which it’s made. @zola is one of a slew of anticipated films finally released in theaters following fifteen some odd months where it was not advisable to sit in a windowless room with a bunch of people stuffing their faces with snacks. For many people I know, viewing @zola was their first time at the movies after being vaccinated for COVID-19. I loved a lot about @zola. It has backstage scenes that belong in a pantheon of cinematic dressing rooms along with Magic Mike and Showgirls. I loved a shot of dehydrated piss as character development. And Bravo gets some things about sex work absolutely right. After arriving in Tampa, we see Taylour Paige (in the titular role!) on the pole, feeling herself, lost in her own zone. We’ve seen her dancing alone in her apartment, and at work she’s creating a bubble for herself where only the dancing exists, only the dancing matters. There are similar scenes in the film Hustlers, where we are introduced to Ramona’s megawatt showmanship and agility as she strips to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” and in the television show P-Valley, as the music drops out and we hear athletic grunts as if this is track and field, which it might as well be. There’s an ingenious sound design trick in the @zola strip club, too. A customer leans forward and, as he bestows Zola with a single dollar, mutters that she “looks like Whoopi Goldberg.” With all due respect to the 1990 Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress, this is not meant as a compliment. It’s a power trip, and the background noise turns on a dime to match Zola’s internal reaction: all of a sudden we’re not consumed by music, but the mundane clanks of a commercial kitchen deep fryer, the whirr of an ATM, bouncers chuckling in the lobby. It’s a profound opportunity for audience empathy with Zola’s subjective experience of this attempt at degradation. More than the novelty of texts read aloud or cell phone beeps, more than the obvious moments of terror, this moment recreates what it’s like to be Zola, a woman at work. My least favorite part of the film, however, almost ruined the entire thing for me. It’s a scene that is not a part of #TheStory but is a part of almost every story told about sex work by people who themselves are not sex workers. In the film’s climax, attempting to get out of a difficult situation, Z uses Zola’s body as a distraction. He coaxes a threatening pimp to put his hand on her genitals before gruesomely shooting the other man in the neck. In #TheStory, Zola’s survival instincts kick in before she even gets into that room. She’s already set herself up as a “madame,” as Z calls her. She runs as fast as she can away from Jess’s kidnappers, realizes the cops will make things worse. She stays out of sight as Z negotiates for Jess’s release. Even if the true story of what happened went down closer to the way Bravo and O’Harris shaped it, the most important thing is that King chose to characterize herself as someone sailing through the experience without this kind of violation. When it comes to stories like this, I value the emotional coping strategies of sex workers over an agenda valued by non-sex workers. Especially when you consider the overabundance of literary classics in which prostitutes are used as metaphors for some social tragedy the author wants to explore, from Les Misérables to Les Cloches de Bale to Nana by, um, the other literary Zola. @zola takes a lot of cues from another adaptation of a story about real life crime: Goodfellas. In both films, stylish camerawork creates a heightened understanding that we’re watching a movie, and are therefore not complicit in the violence or deception inherent in informal economies, whether it’s truck hijacking or trapping. This makes me wish Bravo had pushed beyond the aesthetics and into the thematics, the energy not just of the camera’s relationship to the story but the characters’ relationship to the politics. What Zola and Henry Hill have in common is the naturalized zeal with which they dive, at first at least, into not only crime but telling you about crime. Scorsese glorifies mob life even as he lays bare its horrors and tragedies. Hill’s lowest lows of murder and spousal abuse and strung-out chases never ever undermine how fucking cool he is. I wanted the version of @zola that begins, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a stripper.”  On page 55 of The Story, Zola excuses herself from Jess and Jarrett’s interpersonal drama to chill out by the pool (“I mean, i am in Florida!” is just one example of the levity she brings to heavy situations). In the New York Times’ video series “Anatomy of a Scene,” Bravo narrates the techniques she used to imagine Z visiting Zola by the poolside, an encounter that also doesn’t happen in the tweets. Echoing the kind of language used by the advocates of FOSTA-SESTA, Bravo describes Zola’s situation as “being sold into a sex slavery of sorts.” Bravo explicitly states that she wanted to portray Z as taking control away from Zola. “A portion of the movie, you really feel like Zola is in charge of her own story,” Bravo says. “Our relationship to sex work, sex slavery, we have the privilege of experiencing at an arm’s length.” Here she makes work and slavery synonymous, while also establishing that she does not imagine her audience as sex workers, or sex trafficking survivors, themselves. But we have Zola’s own words describing how she reacted when Z told her he wanted her to manage Jess’s clients for another night: “I was like cool. I gotchu. Especially for another $500.”  Bravo believes Z takes Zola’s voice, but King never allowed that to happen in her own telling. @zola’s dramatization chooses to taint her, but she chose not to punish herself. King and Kushner, the Rolling Stone reporter, both have executive producer and writing credits in the film: “based on the tweets by” and “based on the article by,” respectively. Kushner, writing in the grammar of a magazine style guide, with an editorial department who answer to Wenner Media, represents the exact kind of gatekeepers, code-switchers, and defamation standards that did not stand in King’s way. In order to connect with an audience who proved the cultural impact and engagement data that made the story valuable to Hollywood, she had to circumvent all respectability. In order to verify the legitimacy of that adaptation, the film project needed to restore that respectability.   This is why The Story, the book, is such an important project. It canonizes King’s voice and what she wants to tell you about what happened. The motivation to draft and send a tweet is the same as the motivation to write and publish a book. Making sense of experience, grafting humor and ego onto the most interesting, sometimes worst moments of our lives.  5. The Canon  In @zola, the protagonist gazes at herself in the mirror as she prepares for a shift at the strip club, the job she traveled sixteen hours to do. She asks her reflection, “Who do you want to be tonight, Zola?” Her glamour becomes her agency. King the author and voice, Zola the persona and character, and @_zolarmoon the handle all understand that a calculated veneer of identity is our most valuable modern resource. On social media, and in sexuality, you may choose to control your narrative, because there is virtually no escaping someone else capitalizing on and consuming your personhood. For this reason alone, The Story deserves its self-hype canonization as a defining narrative of the 21st century. The Story and @zola will always have the context of King telling us her version herself in the original text. She used the tool of Twitter just as Zola uses the tool of the pole. Anyone can describe social media or the strip club as inherently exploitative. For many of us, it’s not an option to remain “pure” by opting out, logging off; instead, we figure out how creatively we can maintain control. Owning our narrative does not make us invulnerable to fraud, coercion, violence, violation. But King navigated danger, survived, told her version of the story, and leveraged the resonance of that story to further struggle and further survive. ”People in the sex industry rarely get to tell their own stories, and as a result most peoples’ impressions of what sex work is like is based on the storytelling of people who have never lived it and don't view it favorably or fairly,” Wolf says. “But everyone is curious. Everyone always leans in at parties and asks a million questions if you reveal that you've done this work, for better or worse.” On every level, King’s story is a triumphant one. Zola survived her trip to Florida, even if afterwards she explained to her boyfriend, “Neither of us r the same.” She told her story her way, experiencing not only vindication for what she’d been put through but also what we all look to social media for: as posting online goes, it must have been one of the all-time greatest dopamine rushes. She managed to leverage the popularity of her thread into a hard-won executive producer credit, and in the end she didn’t have to pander to white male celebrities in order to do it. And now we have a fascinating and well-received movie, made by Black filmmakers about Black life. And another sex work literary memoir in the canon, even if it’s at least partially embellished (as all nonfiction is). King’s dedication in her book is eight pages long. In it, she says, “Shout out to my sex workers, my dancers, my sexually fluid beings, my straight forward but with a cherry on top communicators…” I wanted to know what the term sex work meant to her. King tells me, “On my 18th birthday, I went to the strip club, auditioned, and got the job the same day. From that point, it’s where I’ve felt most comfortable. When I started dancing, every day it was a new energy. I could really express myself, not just sexually, from my makeup, to my hair, outfits, and my dancing. Through that experience I really came out of my shell. I found my self, my confidence, my voice, my sense of community. In those conversations at the club, I was listened to. Not just because I had something to say, but because I had the experience.”
‘My Reckoning is With the Medium’: An Interview with Max Porter

The author of The Death of Francis Bacon on “big, canonical problematic figures,” questioning artificiality, and creepy doll furniture. 

One way to describe Max Porter’s new novel, The Death of Francis Bacon (Strange Light), is wet. Wet with paint, wine, raw meat, coughs, and cum. By the author’s own admission, the novel is an experiment to be shared with the reader—something less concrete than the conventional realist novel, more open to the reader sticking their own fingers in and swirling around the dark colours and seeing what images come forth. Set in the final days of the great Irish-born painter Francis Bacon’s death in Spain, Porter stages these hours in the narrow space between mortal terror and ecstatic joy. The tiny book is divided into seven “written pictures” (dimensions and numeric titles are given), in which Bacon and his taciturn nurse narrate an oblique shuffle off this mortal coil, portraying—to the degree that Bacon portrayed—instances of joy, pain, remorse, and visceral bodily life. As the follow-up to his Booker-longlisted novel Lanny, and his first novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (which was adapted by Enda Walsh into a 2019 play starring Cillian Murphy), Porter explains that The Death of Francis Bacon is an avoidant project—a consciously made small thing, purposely uneasy with itself and the world it will be read in. Fresh off of summer vacation, I spoke to Porter from his home office in Bath, aptly filled with vintage doll furniture and a flawless Swedish Lundby dollhouse. Naomi Skwarna: Welcome to my kitchen. It’s where I get the best Wi-Fi. Max Porter: Welcome to my weird little office where my son is just playing Fortnite right there. I told him he can’t talk but you might occasionally hear him being like, you know, whatever they say on Fortnite, some nasty shit. Right off the bat, why did you write this book now and how did you begin? My Canadian publisher Strange Light provide an answer to that in and of themselves. They’ve created this space within the corporate publishing environment for experimentation. There was a degree of, as there is on everybody, pressure, to make my “next big project,” after my last novel. I have been resisting that in almost every way. I resisted living the publicity circus to the second book, and I was always keen to collaborate with people on stage, I was keen to share the space with other writers or other disciplines. I’ve been very, very busy, collaborating with people, musicians and theatremakers and filmmakers this year, all I think in an attempt to avoid fixation on the single product, and the author as sole promoter of that product. The whole thing started to give me heebie-jeebies, so actually I wrote this book in a very private space in a very private, intellectual mode in lockdown. I probably would have been happy to put it in a magazine or a pamphlet with a small indie press, or give it as a gift, basically, which is kind of my mentality. I mean, I’m in the gift economy! I like to think of the work like that. The fact that it is less commercial or exists in a slightly oblique way in relation to other art historical or biographical or fictional projects, I thought that’s actually okay. I like that about it, it might be a generative thing. Also I like that there might be times in my life when I do little books, little strange books that will only interest a sliver of the people and will certainly not please even a sliver of that sliver. But I hope it’s interesting work that extends the kind of monologues we’re all having with ourselves about the meaning of fiction, the function of the novel, critical analysis, all those sorts of things. So, that’s where it came from; addressing my own interest in Bacon’s work, and how we write about art and the failings of art history and whether fiction is a useful tool to deepen engagement with the work. What about Francis Bacon and his work that made you want to imagine the moments before his death? It’s a kind of engagement with myself as teenage art fan. Bacon was the first painter with whom I had a visceral shocking encounter; where I was sort of blown away by the power of the work and needed to read—and started to really understand scale. I love unpacking big canonical problematic figures, like I have this temptation to ruffle the baggage a bit, especially of someone that curated their own myth in the way that Bacon did.  You said that he was the first artist that you had a visceral reaction to. What was the context for that? Was it a particular painting of Bacon’s? It was actually a school project. 1998. It was at the Hayward gallery. I thought it was the most extraordinary work and I came back and I chose to do it, you know, for my end-of-year project or whatever this was, I guess it was maybe my GCSE coursework or something? I tried to paint like Bacon and found I couldn’t. It coincided with my interest, in retrospect, you don’t know it when you’re 17 or 16, but looking back, it was my political awakening. I was suddenly discovering activism and the anti-war movement; I was reading about the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition and British colonial atrocities. Bacon suddenly rose up out of the world of what was available to me as a student. Bacon is very juvenile in his obsession with meat and sex and violence in a way that I felt was really compelling. It chimed with me, discovering that human beings were these killing machines, and being preoccupied with meat and the human form and the kind of artifice of figurative painting in the history of the West—thinking, Bacon is getting somewhere, pushing past that. Peeling the skin off things. Now it’s years later, I’ve had children and thought about different modes of writing. Really, as far away from Bacon as you could get, like ‘70s minimalism and psychoanalysis and feminism and performance art, but then finding myself coming back around to Bacon. I started asking myself almost in the analytical sense: who were you as a teenage boy? What were you frightened of, what was your privilege, what was the privileged position that you were looking at art with, what was the institutional setup of your encounter with these paintings? So I suppose that’s how the setup came about, the nurse-slash-critic-slash-analyst, and the painter-slash-victim-slash-person on the deathbed. So you were asking, why did I want to kill him?  Well, yes! I know it’s a novel, but it does feel a bit like a play in terms of it being a monologue, having little directions and such. To me it felt like you were staging his death, and then he’s dead at the end, which feels very ritualistic and cathartic— I wanted to stage it purely in the Beckettian sense of “let’s put these two people on the stage.” I have erased the idea of character completely, so in a way they’re taking turns to play the idea of Bacon. If this were a stage play, which it looks like it might be, I hope that there would never be an 80-year-old man that looks like Francis Bacon playing this part. I’m hoping it would be played by a child; by a person of color; by anybody! Anyone can take their turn at playing the part of Francis Bacon or the part of the nurse, and they might even be interchangeable. It’s a representational game, and the most boring thing would be if it were purely illustration. It’s an effort away from the literal; to try and deepen the questions around the idea of someone like Bacon and his sense of self. I’m interested in plays and I’m interested in that directness of encounter. I’m interested in the kind of artificiality of the novel that we forget about because of the conventions of the social realist novel, where we just accept the third-person realist setup as normal, highly artificial and phony in many ways. There might be gimmicks and strategies we can employ to question artificiality; to be much more collaborative with the reader. Speaking more about the theatrical framing of this novel—that makes a lot of sense. Can you tell me a bit more about how you see it in performance? The starting principle for me to turn it into a play was the iconic book of interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester. It’s so fascinating—he admitted in his foreword to taking thousands of hours of muddled, drunk, endless, chopped, and collapsed ranting and tidying it up into these interviews. Sometimes he had to create a question [after the fact] that Bacon would then answer. The concision and coherence of those things is a total fabrication. I thought about translating this book, which is like a play, into a play that I hope is somewhat like a book. Really scramble the conversations and have it much more like a fragmentary or fractured state of consciousness. It’s a requiem of someone dying, and now knowing what we know of neuroscience and the way the brain works, that would involve a scrambling of everything. No longer just art, but also feeling and thought and music and politics and everything in there. But to do this, regarding tidying up as I go from book to stage, I felt I needed to have the structural coherence of the triptych. [Holds up drawing of stage layout] So there are three blank canvases, that’s a chair, that’s a bed, that’s an umbrella, and in the stage directions the characters move in front of each canvas. I was interested in trying to get some of the strategies of visual art into the novel, and now some of the strategies of a novel into a play. It seems to me that there’s good and interesting work to be done by my collaborators in that as well. I’m not an actor, but I hope that each of those people, whether it becomes a real thing, would enjoy that rearrangement; that drastic rehabilitation of each of these things in a new space. Yeah, well, I mean, you seem like a very tactile writer! Even seeing your dollhouse and all the doll furniture on your windowsill— My creepy doll furniture!  —No! Not creepy. And knowing that with your previous books, you made sketches as you were writing. I start with drawings, yes. Your process seems to involve some back-and-forth between one medium and another, and also now it seems like you’re moving into a live dimension with this book as well, working in time versus drawing, which is, I guess, at its endpoint, somewhat static. What I like about Bacon is that paint was such an obsession of his and he had, like, a lifelong reckoning with the medium. I’m not saying as the writer, I’m a visual artist or anything like that, but my reckoning is with the medium. With this book, I’m asking myself, is it possible to smear and smudge language in the way that you might smear and smudge a painted figure so you can’t tell whether it’s a figure or a carcass or shadow or a snarling dog crouching on a figure, right? Is that possible in a sentence? Painters have possibly a different leash, with regards to gimmickry. Or maybe there’s a shorter one. As a novelist, I’m not going to alienate my reader immediately so that they leave me thinking it’s nonsense. I don’t want to suggest an indulgence on my part about the reader, but I hope that in this collaborative effort between reader and text, that might be somewhere in between poetry and prose, as you say something to do with, with space and time and texture, that is interesting to both of us. And never finished! And maybe providing a kind of aesthetic experience, rather than a complete one? I think that’s exactly right. I come from the oral tradition into writing. I’m not a great master of plot and the conceptual side of things. I come from the heartbeat, drum banging side of things. I want musicality, I want movement and energy in the prose that relates to sound as well as to meaning. I think fundamentally I’m that type of writer, which is why I break lines; it’s why I’m interested in hybridity. I’m sort of seeking out energy from it, more than seeking out intellectual brilliance. I feel other people are always going to do that better. Maybe this is related to a certain disillusionment on my part with the linguistic moment that we’re all in—finding things to be quite argumentative and flat and embittered. Do you see that in fiction, or…where are you locating that flatness? Quite evasively I’d say “oh, just in the discourse.” But what I mean is Twitter, right? I’m also a heartbroken English person, watching my country, my culture, and our relationship with the continent being severed and hijacked by a bunch of zombified criminals. Culture is going to be a victim in that war. The Bacon book represents a kind of yell against the sterile, urbane, bitter, tetchy mode that we’re in, and speaks of Europe and painting and the transmission of ideas. It speaks of a kind of high camp, celebratory time, when we talked about art and ideas flamboyantly. I suppose a little tiny bit of me just romanticizes that generation. I suppose to stage the death of that type of conversation with that type of artist is possibly just a purely romantic gesture on my part. You described the writing as being sort of smeared. The experience of reading it internally is—I had to sort of smear my inner vision to read it as well. It really does kind of bring you into it that way.   I wanted to write about painting, but I didn’t want to do that, like, “He puts the brush in the paint.” I needed to do it through reference to red currant jelly and pheasant, and cum and liquor and waking up in the taxi and being shocked, still in a taxi! And, you know, drugs and cigarettes and peppermint oil. I hope it’s a sort of a clarion call for us to use more than just the sophisticated, cosmopolitan, politically on-the-point language of the novel. There are other realms of experience that are relevant—and possibly even juicy.  I’m talking as if the history of Western art, which was Bacon’s preoccupation more than mine, is like a supermarket full of bodies and the supermarket’s failed attempts to describe the body. In his dying seconds, Bacon is suddenly able to describe—or feel—what the body was in relation to representation, and that should be a preoccupation of novelists, right? It shouldn’t just be cool, calm people meeting at dinner parties or in sophisticated intellectual environments on campus and having razor sharp conversations with one another about the ideas within the work. It might also include the shit, piss, cum, and the screaming and the pain—of being creative! And the constant failure to it, the constant yawning gulf of what we were trying to do and what we actually achieved, and that being directly related to masculinity as a tragic project. It’s a vicious, violent, flawed undertaking that we are just carcasses, belching and lurching our way quite quickly to the grave. It’s a pretty tragic portrait, one that doesn’t need a thousand pages! So I hope the shortness of the book, that as you say sort of smears your mind’s eye, is somehow closer to the person—more like Bacon’s genius in paint. I hope I’ve been painterly in my novel writing. Because of that smeared reading experience, you can’t really cling to it the way you can a more conventional text. Yeah, and I don’t think it even needs to be for excellence’s sake. I don’t think it needs to always be a razzle dazzle affair. I think it can sometimes be a quiet escape, relating more to the inner voice. It can sometimes be a deeply held, silent conviction between you as writer and you as reader.  That’s why it’s so futile to stress out when people have bad or negative reactions to the work. Like, it’s so far beyond the writer’s control that it’s almost hilarious that people go hunting, responding to their critics or saying “you haven’t experienced it right.” What a desperately crap piece of art it would be if everyone experienced it the same way every time. Which relates to that kind of flatness that you were talking about in so much of, like, online discourse, Twitter— You experience it? The flatness.  I do, yeah. I think flatness is the perfect way of putting it, because there isn’t much of a way in. It makes it seem like that’s choice. It’s tyrannical, in the way it’s made it seem like freedom but is in fact a tiny sad prism. I suppose it’s particularly like this to me because I don’t want to fight. I’m not a fighting person. I’m more of a heartbroken person, and I’m trying to reconcile my heartbroken base position—at that the scale of injustice in the world and the sadness that is out there—with my fundamentally joyful relationship with art and language. And I suppose the Bacon book was the result—to come back to your first question and give you a sensible answer—it was a symptom of me trying to reconcile those two positions with my children here in house trying to learn, and living in this strange Zoom box, but also living in this strange miniature toy shop, and trying to map where I’m at, I suppose, in my fascination with representation and language. It seems like Bacon, your problematic famous English man, is a good person to have fun with. We can’t let these sleeping dogs lie! We’ve got to keep poking them and see what they yield.
‘What Does it Mean to Love a Person Who Doesn’t Exist? What Does it Mean to Love a Person Who Does?’: An Interview with Sally Rooney

Talking to the author of Beautiful World, Where Are You about not creating characters from a place of moral superiority, authors as celebrities, and the great stakes of love and friendship.

Sally Rooney’s new novel is deceptively easy to summarize: it is about four youngish Irish people and the relationships between them. Alice is a writer, Eileen is an editorial assistant at a literary magazine, Felix is a warehouse worker, and Simon works in the Irish parliament. Alice and Eileen have been best friends since university, and the novel’s narrative sections are interspersed with their emails to each other. Alice and Felix meet and start dating as the novel begins, while Eileen and Simon have known and loved each other forever. Alice and Felix live in Mayo, while Simon and Eileen live in Dublin. Like all Irish people, they spend a lot of time discussing the logistics involved in visiting each other, having many long chats about what is in reality a short and convenient car ride. They talk also about their work, their families, their feelings for each other, and about the way they understand the world. They are very funny and often perceptive, although not always about themselves. Like Rooney’s previous novels, Beautiful World, Where Are You (Knopf Canada) is preoccupied with the problem of not being able to look inside someone else’s brain, even if you share a marked affinity or have known and loved them all your life. Her protagonists do not appear to have resigned themselves to this reality, and are constantly repositioning themselves in an effort to see each other more clearly. Unlike Conversations With Friends and Normal People, though, the narrative perspective of Beautiful World, Where Are You reflects this preoccupation. In Conversations with Friends and Normal People, we are told what Frances thinks or what Connell feels; in Beautiful World, Where Are You we are told only what the characters say and do, so that ascribing motive and intent becomes part of the reading experience. Doing this is much less hard work than it sounds—we all spend our days trying to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling, one way or another, and anyway the lucidity of Rooney’s prose means it mostly happens without noticing. It is worth drawing attention to, though, because of what it says about the questions and convictions that drive her work as a whole. She is always interrogating what it means to live in the world with other people, what we owe each other, why we behave so oddly so much of the time, and what it means to mostly fail in our efforts to understand each other but to keep trying anyway. Beautiful World, Where Are You returns again and again to the question of perspective: where we stand in relation to each other, and where our individual little worries and heartbreaks stand in relation to a world that is getting uglier all the time. Because Rooney is so widely read, and because her novels are so frequently described as providing the definitive account of “the millennial experience,” as if there’s a common one, it has become possible to overlook how much of these conversations her work itself has driven and been responsible for, and not simply been a reflection of or reaction to. There is no one else who writes like her, and Beautiful World, Where are You is full of the observations her work is so celebrated for. It is her best book yet: radiantly intelligent, funny, sad, and evidently in love with the world, beautiful or not. I spoke to her about it over email this August. Rosa Lyster: I wanted to start at the very beginning, because it’s my sense that all of the major preoccupations of this novel are present from the first page. Alice and Felix meet for the first time in a bar, and their interaction is described with this very striking sense of narrative objectivity: “The woman at the table tapped her fingers on a beermat, waiting. Her outward attitude had become more alert and lively since the man had entered the room. She looked outside now at the sunset as if it were of interest to her, though she hadn’t paid any attention to it before.” How did you arrive at the decision to begin the novel from this vantage point? What does this initial sense of narrative impersonality allow you to do or say?Sally Rooney: That decision did take some time. After I first conceived of the four principal characters and the relationships between them, I struggled for a relatively long period (maybe nine or ten months) with the question of perspective. The novel does not have one particular central character, and I wanted to find a balance between the different narrative strands of the book without imposing a hierarchy of significance. My problem was that any time I drew close enough to the protagonists to begin narrating their inner thoughts or feelings, I found myself getting bored and irritated with my own voice. Like: “great, here comes the author again, telling us exactly how everyone feels and thinks.” In my real life, obviously, there is no one to tell me how other people think and feel, and I barely even know what I think myself. So the more I tried to insist on my closeness to the characters by presenting their interiority in the narrative, the further away from them I actually felt, because their interiority did not resemble anything at all from my real experience of living.After various failed experiments along these lines, I had to try and find another approach. In essence, I wanted to allow the novel’s characters to go about their lives without any apparent authorial judgement or commentary. And I gradually began to find that I didn’t need to present what is generally called ‘interiority’ in order to accomplish this. I could just impartially observe and describe the characters saying and doing things, without needing to speculate on what they secretly thought or felt. This decision does impose a certain distance between the reader and the novel’s protagonists, but it’s a distance that makes sense to me—basically the same distance that prevents us from reading the minds of other people in our real lives. And actually, the more time I spent writing from this perspective, the closer I felt to the characters, and the easier it was for me to observe (which is to say invent) their words and actions.Almost all the narrative sections of the book are written in this style, or something similar (I can think of at least one exception, which we can talk about if you like!). But alongside these narrative sections, the novel also includes email correspondence between the two female protagonists. In a way, the emails were easier to write, maybe because they’re just written straightforwardly in the voices of the characters themselves. The only passages that survive from those early months of narrative experiment are in the emails. Many horrible draft chapters came and went… But some emails lived on. Why was this important to you, to allow the novel's characters to go about their lives without authorial judgment or commentary (and I wonder if you thought of this as a moral choice first, or an aesthetic one, or both)?It didn’t strike me at the time as a moral choice at all. I was just bored of my own judgement and commentary. And the prose felt very flat and lifeless every time I tried to write from that perspective—“he thought,” “it reminded her,” and so on. Partly it might have been because I had recently finished writing a novel in which the perspective did switch back and forth between two protagonists in the third person. And they were always thinking and feeling things, and I was always telling the reader what they thought and felt. So I had kind of exhausted that narrative technique for myself, at least temporarily. I didn’t want to write that novel over again. I had to [do] something that to me felt sufficiently different. There are a lot of things I won’t or can’t do in my work, so the number of things I will or can do is therefore necessarily constrained. And the effects of that constraint may as well be called “style.” But I don’t consider myself a talented stylist by any means. Like any writer, I have an aversion to anything that feels false or boring in my work, and the authorial commentary I was producing on these characters felt both false and boring, which eventually led me to develop the narrative technique we’re talking about.So the decision was as purely aesthetic as possible, at the time. But now looking back at the whole process, I think there was, if not a moral aspect, maybe a “philosophical” aspect to the development of this technique. I am interested philosophically in the degree to which we can know other people, and ourselves. In life, obviously, we have to get to know people without ever having any direct insight into their internal thoughts. The novel as a form typically gives us more privileged access to the inner lives of others than we get in real life. But novels don’t by definition have to do that. And as I went along, I found that I actively wanted to write a novel in which the characters were revealed through their outward behaviours, their actions and words, rather than their inner thoughts and feelings—the way other people are revealed to us in real life. In this novel, we still have privileged access to the characters in many ways, because we can observe how they behave in intimate situations, and we can read private correspondence between them, and so on. But nothing more than that. I was interested in the question of whether, by the end of the book, we “know” these characters less well than if we had been told directly what they were thinking and feeling. My intuition is that we get to know them just as well without that—but then, I invented them, so it’s hard for me to judge. It seems like the way you wrote this novel was to conceive of the characters first and then set about observing/inventing what they were saying and doing. What is it about these characters that made this novel possible?Yes, I conceived of the characters first, and then I got stuck for a little while. Two of the central characters, Simon and Eileen, have known each other for almost thirty years. Two others, Eileen and Alice, have known each other for about ten or eleven years. And another two, Alice and Felix, have just met. So from the outset, I had no idea “when” the novel started. Some of the most interesting and exciting scenes seemed to have happened many years previously—when Eileen was a child, or when Alice was in university. Did the novel begin all the way back then, and skip forward to the present? Or did it begin in the present, and incorporate scenes from the past? I knew the three narrative strands were all interconnected—the story of Eileen and Alice’s friendship did somehow “involve” their respective relationships with Simon and Felix—but the interconnections were not immediately obvious.So from the start, the idea was basically three linked relationships, spread out over the course of thirty years or so, happening in various cities and towns in Ireland and elsewhere. The task of turning this idea into a novel was challenging for me—my last two books were easier to fit into the shape of novels, I think. But the day-to-day writing process was the same. I imagined my characters in various different little scenarios, and typed out the scenarios on my laptop. While I was typing, I had the mental image of my characters before me, doing whatever it was that the scene required—walking around, eating dinner, talking on the phone, or whatever. And more often than not, nothing really interesting would happen. The character would finish having dinner, or talking on the phone, and that would be it, and the scene would end up in a “deleted work” file on my computer. But sometimes, a character would do or say something interesting or revealing, that seemed to signal some shift in their relationship with another character, and the scene would take on a new quality. This is the only way I know how to write a novel, or any kind of fiction. I have to write two or three scenes for every one that makes it into the book. But I tell myself the process is worthwhile because it teaches me about my characters and deepens my understanding of the work. (Whether that’s true or just a consolation I don’t know—it might be true!)You ask another question here—what was it about these characters that made the novel possible? And one answer is: their relationships with one another were sufficiently interesting to me. I wanted to understand Simon’s feelings for Eileen, and her feelings for him; and Alice’s for Felix, and his for her. And I wanted to get to know the two women and their friendship, which struck me as complicated. The novel seemed to have a lot of moving parts, in terms of the dynamics between the characters, and how one dynamic affected all the others. And that made it more difficult to write, but also more enjoyable in a way—it felt closer to the inter-connectedness of life. But another answer to the question would be: I loved the characters. And when I’m writing about characters I love, I’m motivated to write about them at great length, and to continue writing even when there's seemingly no plot and nothing is working and I have no idea what I’m doing. So that was a necessary ingredient in the writing of this book, and in everything else I’ve written too. What do you love about these characters? The idea of loving a fictional character is something that gets discussed a little bit in the novel itself. It's an interesting idea for me, partly because all my life I've loved fictional characters very much, and in a way that has felt meaningful to me, almost like loving a real person. What does it mean to love a person who doesn't exist? And relatedly: what does it mean to love a person who does? One thing that strikes me is that loving someone is very different from liking them. The four protagonists of this novel have an array of different attitudes toward religion—but to draw briefly on the Christian perspective, Jesus did not teach us to “like” our enemies. If we liked them, I don't think they would be our enemies. They can still be enemies if we love them, because love is more complicated and difficult—capable of extending to everyone, without losing meaning or exhausting itself. With that in mind, I certainly can't say I love these characters because of their likeable personality traits. In the course of the novel, we have an opportunity to see them all at their worst—at their most unreasonable, cold, aggressive, bitter, selfish. Many readers will doubtless find some or all of them “unlikeable.” That's okay. I wasn't trying to create characters I approved of or looked up to—but equally I wasn't interested in writing about people I considered morally beneath me. We also have some glimpses of the protagonists at their best, and they can be very caring, very thoughtful, and so on. The reader may feel superior to the characters, but I don't. If I did, I wouldn't have written the book. I might be crossing into moral terrain now, which is probably a bad idea. But I believe that, while not everyone is “likeable,” everyone is loveable. Part of what motivates me as a novelist is the challenge implicit in this belief. I want to depict my characters with enough complexity, and enough depth of feeling, that a reader can find a way to love them without liking them. Or even like and love them despite everything—as I do. I love these characters too, especially Alice and Eileen. At times, their relationship seems like the most intense one in the novel, or at least the one with the most at stake. There's this description early on of how they see each other: “Alice said that Eileen was a genius and a pearl beyond price, and that even the people who really appreciated her still didn't appreciate her enough. Eileen said that Alice was an iconoclast and a true original, and that she was ahead of her time." This is as sufficient an explanation for why they love each other so much as anyone could ask for, but I still wanted to ask you: why do they love each other so much? I agree there's a lot at stake between them. It actually reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my own best friends when I was writing my first book—I told her I was worried that the drama was too “low-stakes,” and she replied: “What could be higher-stakes than love and friendship?” It's a great question! And for me, the answer is literally nothing. There have never been any stakes higher than love and friendship, in my life. For other people, in different circumstances, the answer might obviously be different. But for me, and generally speaking for the characters I write about, love and friendship are supremely important. As to why Eileen and Alice love one another so much—I think there are a lot of different reasons. In some ways, they're drawn together by the things they have in common: their inability to “fit in,” their distrust of what is popular, their analytical tendencies, their senses of humour. And in other ways, they're brought closer by their differences from one another. Alice admires what she sees as Eileen's more serious intellect, her ability to be thorough and “do the reading,” and also her attractiveness—her physical beauty, her elegance, her charm. And Eileen admires what she sees as Alice's extreme self-assurance, her indifference to the opinions of others, her uncompromising personality, and her accomplishments. Each sometimes sees the other as a reflection of herself, and then at other times as an image of everything she is not. But those are more like the reasons why they like each other. And their feelings really go far beyond that. In fact their love for one another is probably close to unconditional. That might seem to imply that nothing is really at stake between them, because they are going to love each no matter what happens—but as we see in the novel, a loving and admiring relationship can also accommodate a lot of resentment, anger, disappointment, pain, and so on. I suppose we are never really in doubt about the intensity of their feelings for each other. But we do probably doubt at times whether they can go on being friends, or at least I did. I want to ask you about Alice, whose career and public profile resembles your own. At one point she says, “the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world ... And we can care once again, as we do in real life, whether people break up or stay together—if, and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, i.e. everything. My own work, it goes without saying, is the worst culprit in this regard.” What's your own relationship to this idea? I think the back-and-forth structure of the email exchange was really important for me in this regard. When I wrote that passage from Alice's perspective, I did strongly agree with what she was saying—I felt immersed in her life and her experiences, and I was persuaded by the critique that she had developed from those experiences. I still definitely think she has a point about the novel as a genre. But in the next email, we hear from Eileen, who offers a contrary perspective, not from the point of view of a writer, but from the point of view of a critic and reader. Writing her emails, I felt equally immersed in her personality and experiences, and I was brought around to her perspective instead. So although the protagonists were disagreeing with one another, I was able to agree with both of them—which meant the emails became something other than a compilation of my own opinions (I hope). But I am still interested in Alice's critique of the novel as a form. In a time of gigantic historical crisis, maybe we should try to fixate less on the tiny details of our own emotional lives, and maybe our cultural forms should try to reflect that shift—away from individuals and relationships, towards the biosphere and global power structures. Intellectually, that makes sense to me. But it's very hard, as Eileen argues in her next email, to make that shift sincerely in our own personal lives. Almost nobody can really care about (e.g.) bees as much as they care about (e.g.) their own spouse. Many people do sincerely care a lot about bees, but almost everyone cares more about their spouse. And the novel is not a didactic form by nature. For the most part it reflects or tries to reflect the psychological and cultural realities that predominate in the real world. There are doubtless novels out there that manage to place bees on a par with spouses, and that is certainly a worthwhile challenge for a writer. But it's not something I could with any sincerity attempt myself. There is also the argument that novels about relatively wealthy Westerners are the equivalent of television shows about royalty or aristocracy. These forms of story-telling present a world in which luxury is the predominant way of life for most people—the existence of poverty is acknowledged, but mostly kept off-screen. At the absolute most we get the impression that the world is divided pretty equally between rich and poor. And of course we know that in real life, the rich—even if we extend that to include the fairly ordinary Europeans who populate my novels—make up a tiny percentage of the world population. They take casual international flights, they drink takeaway coffee, they stream high-resolution TV shows on their laptops, and so on—all completely anomalous behaviours for most human beings on earth. People like Felix and Eileen are certainly not “rich” by Irish standards, but by global standards they are. This is not to blame them, or to blame myself, for the good fortune of being born in a wealthy Western nation in the 1990s—especially since Ireland is not a former colonial power, but a former (and partly current) colonial subject. But the fact is that the lives of people in Ireland today are simply not representative of the lives of most people on earth. That is a problem Alice cannot solve. I tried in this book at least to articulate that problem in some way, but whether I managed that, I don't know. Now I want to ask you about Eileen, who also often says and does things that seem likely to lead readers to draw parallels with her creator. I’m thinking specifically about this bit: “When I first started going around talking about Marxism, people laughed at me. Now it's everyone's thing. And to all these people trying to make communism cool, I would just like to say, welcome aboard, comrades. No hard feelings.” A lot of critical discussion about your work focuses on your going around talking about Marxism, and I think this will inevitably be interpreted as your directly addressing that. Did you have any doubts about including something like this, or was it an easy decision? If it is permissible to admit this, I personally find Eileen's petulance about Marxism in this scene quite funny. Eileen did not invent Marxist economic or social analysis, and she obviously was not the only person “going around talking about Marxism” in 2010 or whenever. In that sense, a completely ridiculous claim, and for that reason kind of funny, at least to me. But on the other hand, I'm sure she did meet people in university and elsewhere who laughed at her opinions, and who now put out tweets about “smashing capitalism” or whatever. You know, Marxist critique has gotten a lot more popular online, and for good reason. Eileen both welcomes and slightly resents this development. I guess I would say that in her case, the welcome is political, whereas the resentment is personal. Whether I share in those feelings, I couldn't possibly say. I think all four of the protagonists of this book probably agree at least to some extent with Marxist analyses of capitalism. And so do I, and so do a lot of people I know. My parents are lifelong socialists. My mother grew up in social housing and worked in the local arts centre until she retired, and my father was a technician for the national telecoms company. So I don't come from a very wealthy background—which has probably informed my worldview just as much as my reading of Marx has. But part of the discussion Eileen is having in this scene is about what constitutes the “working class” in Western liberal democracies now. Does it include, for example, people like Felix? Almost certainly yes. People like Eileen? Maybe not. They both work for a living, and neither of them make much money, but the term “working class” is now tied up with a lot of other things, to do with education and cultural capital rather than work and income. I'm interested in that argument not only intellectually, but probably also because it touches on questions about my own identity and my own life. I didn't mean to address my critics directly, however, because I don't really read my critics and have only the faintest idea what they are saying about me. That's not to say that their criticism isn't worth my time. I'm sure it would be worth my time if I could bear to read it, but I can't, so I don't. I remember reading one piece about Normal People—it was a review by Helen Charman, published on the White Review website. It was really quite critical of the novel in places, but I thought it was an excellent piece, full of insight. I admire Charman as a critic. But I don't have the inner tranquillity required to read criticism of my work most of the time. Quite early on, Alice writes an email where she says: “If I had bad manners and was personally unpleasant and spoke with an irritating accent, which in my opinion is probably the case, would it have anything to do with my novels? Of course not. The work would be the same, no different. And what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralising specificity? Nothing. So why, why is it done this way?” Does the arranging of literary discourse entirely around the figure of the author feel to you like a new development, or do you think it's always been like this? I don't feel qualified to comment on the literary discourse of the past. In fact, I'm not even really qualified to comment on it at present, since I almost never read author interviews or profiles of other writers (or, obviously, of myself). I'm not sure if I've ever read a straightforward biography of a novelist, or even a literary memoir. I'm a big fan of books, and there are many writers whose work I would say with complete sincerity has changed my life. But I don't generally care to know anything about their personal lives, especially if they're alive today. I might be wrong, but I suspect this is something I have in common with most readers of novels. Generally speaking, the readers I know and meet through my work are interested in the fictional inhabitants of a novel's interior world—not in the real-life personalities of writers. So why is the figure of the novelist so prominent in media coverage of books? I don't know. Partly I think it's because there's a readymade template for arranging media coverage around a particular central personality, and that template is “celebrity.” We seem to be stuck with that. There is no real reason why anyone should want writers of literary fiction to be presented in the media as minor celebrities—with profile pieces and photo shoots and so on. But because press coverage of novels is so exclusively focused on the figure of the author, writers are required (usually by contract) to engage with the paradigm to some extent. It seems like it would be better if we could do it another way. Why am I doing this interview, then?? I suppose I don't take the point that far. I think the conversation we're having now is about my work rather than me, even if it can be tricky at times to separate the two completely. And I do enjoy talking about my writing, if there's anyone interested to listen. I have friends who are writers, and I always enjoy talking to them about their work too. I think there's something to be said for people in any field discussing how they do whatever it is that they do. But I can't accept the idea that my personality should become an object of public discourse just because I've written a few books. I get the impression that Alice, a fictional character who has also written a few books, finds this even harder to accept than I do. Back to your answer to the first question, and the decision to impose a certain authorial distance. You've said that almost all the narrative sections of the book are written in this style, with one notable exception. Can you talk a bit about the wedding section? Close to the start of the book, we learn that Eileen's sister Lola is preparing to get married, so from early on I knew the novel would have to include a “wedding scene.” I thought this would present some nice dramatic opportunities, because other significant characters would be there—Simon, his parents, Eileen's parents—in combinations that might otherwise be unlikely. But when it came time to write this section, I found myself doing something different. Instead of presenting a scene or series of scenes through dialogue and dramatic action, I was trying to present a kind of sensory experience—a series of images and memories and moods. This allowed me to steal a glimpse at the inner lives of some of the novel's “minor” characters, like Lola, and Eileen's parents, who I loved. And it also allowed me to present—in a kind of loose fragmentary way—the thoughts and memories of two of the novel's principal characters, Simon and Eileen. I've talked a little bit already about the challenge of writing about a relationship of such long duration. Simon has known Eileen since she was born (and Lola even longer). How could I condense a lifetime of changing feelings into the space of this novel, especially without the use of traditional interiority? The question seemed to present itself with renewed force at the wedding, because Lola had been so intricately entangled in the dynamic between Simon and Eileen as children. I even wondered whether their relationship might have echoes in the dynamic between Simon, Eileen, and Alice later on. But if I'd tried to present this story conventionally using dramatic scenes, it probably would have run to the length of a novel on its own. I had to find a way to compress the depth of feeling between the characters into a much smaller space, using different techniques. And Lola's wedding seemed to provide circumstances of special pressure and intensity for the characters to remember and re-experience one another in a new way. In the months before I wrote that scene, I had also attended a couple of weddings myself, and I'd found them very moving and beautiful. I don't know if other writers feel this way, but I think it can be much easier to convey disillusionment, alienation, and ugliness in fiction than it is to convey love, happiness, and beauty. Some people might conclude from this observation that life is “really” alienating and ugly, and that love and happiness are illusory. But I don't think so. And in the wedding chapter maybe I was trying to suggest in some very small way the beauty of life. Finally, I want to ask you about the title, and the Schiller poem it's derived from, in relation to what you've just said. To me there's this interesting balance in the novel between the suggestion that we are living through a uniquely shattering period of historical crisis and that the world is uglier than it has ever been, and the suggestion that people have always felt like this, that a beautiful world is lost or vanished. Maybe an easier way of asking this is: what made you choose a bit of a Schiller poem for a title? I think the balance that you identify here is exactly right. In the early stages of writing the novel, I became kind of fascinated with what is called the “ubi sunt” motif in literature—meditations on decay, ruin, and the transience of beauty. In Latin poetry, in the writings of the Anglo-Saxons, in the literature of industrial-era Europe, there is this recurrent sense of a beautiful world passing away. Writing in the eighteenth century, in what is now Germany, Friedrich Schiller locates the beautiful world in Ancient Greece. But it seems to me that it can be located in almost any particular civilization as long as it is definitively gone forever. Our present sense of a beautiful world passing away can feel quite new and unprecedented, because of our political moment and because of the climate crisis. But our cultural terminology for this experience long pre-exists our present circumstances. Obviously that isn't to compare contemporary climate anxiety to (e.g.) medieval apocalypticism. The ability of our planet to support human life is very genuinely in serious danger. What interests me is that we have to find some way to express this anxiety using (at least to some extent) our existing vocabulary and cultural forms. In The Gods of Greece, of course, as in the “ubi sunt” tradition more generally, Schiller has already located the beautiful world in a specific place and time. I don't do that in the novel. And out of context, the title of the book might even sound vaguely hopeful and forward-looking, as if the beautiful world might be right around the next corner. It's probably not. But while the characters in this book are certainly disillusioned, maybe even embittered, they haven't entirely lost hope. And most of the time, neither have I.