Julia Child’s collaborator Simone Beck has lingered as an object of pity in public memory. But maybe Beck didn’t want stardom at all.
The author of Seek You on recognizing obsessions, Sandra Bullock, and separating solitude and loneliness.
For centuries, queerness and horror have been intertwined, horror relying on queerness for shock and pungency, and queerness relying on horror for visibility and validation.
Ever since my mother first read me to sleep with nursery rhymes and fairy tales, I have sought to find my place in them. Was I the farmer’s wife being chased by three blind mice? Was I Little Miss Muffet, running screaming from spiders? Or was I the wicked witch, the dark fairy, the evil stepmother? Even at that age, I knew that I wasn’t the bland, courageous prince who would chop through a forest of thorns to rouse his love with a kiss. From the earliest days of childhood through to my teenage years, the books I read, the movies I was taken to, the TV shows I watched—everything told me I was destined to be a villain or a victim, or possibly both. For most of its history, horror has been an inherently conservative genre, as fear is an innately conservative emotion, and horror has traditionally been employed to uphold conservative values: the triumph of the virtuous, the punishment of the wicked, the rejection of the different, the dissident, the unknown, the preservation of family, country, and God. As I write in the genre, I continually have to question whether I am demonizing sides of myself that I should be embracing and celebrating: my values, my relationships, my sexuality, my otherness. * For centuries, queerness and horror have been intertwined, horror relying on queerness for shock and pungency, and queerness relying on horror for visibility and validation. The genre we describe as horror today has its roots in the romance and Gothic genres of the eighteenth century, which in turn were influenced by the pre-Romantic movement known as the Graveyard Poets, the more gruesome works of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, and Middleton, as well as the works of Milton and Dante, which described in graphic detail the torments of Hell that await those who had sinned. While the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras were more liberal in their depictions of queer historical figures, relationships, sexuality, and romance (though often with tragic ends), such positive portrayals declined as the Church and the State both worked to criminalize and demonize such behaviour. With the arrival of Gothic novels, the early Victorian thrillers known as “sensation novels,” pulp novels, and penny dreadfuls, we stepped into the spotlight in one of the few great leading roles we were allowed to fully inhabit: the villain. In such works as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (who warns his “brides” as they approach Jonathan Harker, “He belongs to me!”), queer attractions and subtexts could suddenly be explored, and queer characters could take a role at the heart of the story, albeit as predatory unnaturals with perverse desires, seeking out innocents—including children and animals—to corrupt and consume. From Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, chances are that if you read a story from this period that depicts “a secret side,” a “hideous transformation,” a “debilitating disease,” a “tainted bloodline,” “wanton decadence,” “unbridled hedonism,” “a duplicitous nature,” or a “twilight underworld,” you are likely confronting a carefully coded example of queer horror. Queer writers found we could work within the confines of this most conservative genre, using metaphor and allusion to describe meeting places, encounters, relationships, occupations, and networks through which queer people could find each other, gather, and form community. At least for a while, it was better to be seen as a monster than to remain unseen. However, in our zeal to use the genre to portray some aspect of ourselves, what we most often revealed—or were required to reveal—was our self-hatred. For queer readers, hatred, and self-hatred, were the stinging medicines we were forced to consume if we were to satisfy our need to see ourselves. * So-called sexual deviance and perversity continued to play a starring role in horror past the turn of the century and into the early 1900s, through two world wars and the deeply conformist 1950s and early ’60s. As stage plays, fiction, cinema, and television became more permissive, explicit portrayals of lusty lesbian vampires, pansexual covens, mother-obsessed maniacs, and cross-dressing cannibals shocked and titillated mainstream audiences and enraged censors and queer activists alike. The lines between good and evil began to blur, the anti-hero became a dominant protagonist, and the prim, prudish, unfailingly heterosexual heroes were subtly mocked for their dullness while the outlandish monsters and murderers were quietly cheered for their rejection of social norms. Up until this point, family as a microcosm of society had been held up as a sanctity, as the source of strength and safety, and heroes would do anything, including sacrifice themselves, to destroy the monster and restore order. Then we began to see a transition from the common theme of “destroying the abnormal to preserve family and society” to the implication that family and society were themselves the abnormal and would destroy you. This new wave of horror was the one I grew up with, precociously reading novels such as Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Thomas Tryon’s The Other, Stephen King’s Carrie, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, and V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. In these stories, family and society were where the monsters were made—through divorce, abuse, neglect, through isolation and exclusion, and especially through a disregard for and degradation of the rules of gender and sexual identity that “good families” obeyed. This was the new order, and while “good people” and “good families” could try to combat it, they risked sacrificing themselves for no reason or, worse, becoming monsters themselves in the process. These narratives unfolded in stark contrast to those I’d seen in old creature features on television, where the monster, even if created by our greed or misadventure, was still an external force we could fight and destroy. Now we were in the era of Bob Clark’s influential proto-slasher Black Christmas, where the obscenity-spewing woman-hating killer—whose perverse and monstrous tirades alluded to abuse within his family—was calling from inside the house. As LGBTQ communities became more vocal and visible in our demands for civil rights, portrayals of queer monsters and villains and grotesques were decried as homophobic and transphobic. As a queer young man who loved horror, who, like many, was drawn to darkness, I struggled as I confronted images of myself and my friends that openly maligned us, and recoiled with a different kind of fear as I imagined my parents, my employers and co-workers, my straight friends and their families, seeing these films as legitimate depictions of my life, my experience, and my desires. In recent years, the queer villain/anti-hero has made an interesting and largely welcome return within horror, as we have seen an increase in the psychological complexity of its monsters and the conflicted nature of its heroes and victims. Michel Faber’s cerebral sci-fi horror novel Under the Skin (and its more oblique 2013 film adaptation with Scarlett Johansson) presents an alien who performs gender, taking on the image of a vulnerable, feminine woman to attract, ensnare, and harvest her human male prey; her journey both illuminates and subverts the trope of “trans woman as male deceiver.” In John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In, the genitally mutilated child vampire Eli befriends and imperceptibly grooms the bullied boy Oskar to replace the aging “father” in Eli’s thrall. Oskar and Eli ultimately escape the town where Eli has been feeding; we understand that Oskar too will grow older, will become protector and facilitator and “father,” as Eli remains ageless. And then there is the titular creature of the 2014 film The Babadook, who was embraced by film-savvy queers as a darkly dapper symbol of queer resistance—“I’ll wager with you, I’ll make you a bet: the more you deny, the stronger I get.” Once it bursts out of the closet, it refuses to be repressed or restrained. In the end, despite all attempts to exorcise it, it cannot be defeated, nor can it be driven away; it can only be integrated into the family, fed and nurtured, accepted and embraced. * I’ve had to reckon with my own personal history with queer horror, how it has shaped my view of my community and of myself. So much of it is about the aspects in queer culture that straight people fear, that straight society fears: strength and independence in women; vulnerability and intimacy in men; the upending of gender and family roles; the repudiation of the primacy of reproduction; the hollowness and bankruptcy of the dominant social structures; challenges to the pronouncements of the Church. And our intrinsic invisibility, our insidiousness—that we could be anyone, anywhere, hiding in plain sight. I have to admit, there is something delicious in that—that we would provoke so much unease, so much discomfort, so much irrational, unfounded terror just by existing. But what are queer people afraid of, apart from the obvious? I asked myself this as I was writing my first novel, The Bone Mother, which included an array of queer and trans people among its many monstrous and human characters. We are afraid of death, of course, of violence and torture and sickness and suffering, of being exposed and humiliated and shunned and persecuted. We are afraid of being erased, or unseen, or forgotten. We are afraid of being alone. Sometimes being queer is about all those things; they are at the heart of our history and the root of our oppression. Sometimes being queer is about being cast out; sometimes it’s about casting ourselves out, walking or running away while we still can. Sometimes being queer is about being the monster, the one who corrupts, the one who devours. Sometimes—after everything and everyone has been stripped from us—sometimes being queer is about being the last one standing. Excerpted from Red X by David Demchuk (Strange Light Books).
The author of All’s Well on dark academia, Shakespearean witches, and the tragicomedy of chronic pain
“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven,” says All’s Well That Ends Well’s Helen early in the play. It’s a sentiment not at all helpful to Miranda Fitch, the erstwhile actress and current beleaguered drama professor of Mona Awad’s off-kilter novel All’s Well (Hamish Hamilton). Miranda might well know that the pain she feels constantly radiating from her back and leg shouldn’t still be affecting her, and yet the pain persists. Struggling through a failed marriage, entitled students, and a roster of doctors no longer receptive to her suffering, there seems to be no hope for Miranda until three men, ominously gathered in a local bar as if in Twin Peaks’s Black Lodge, offer her respite. Suddenly, there is no more agony; every part of Miranda’s once-stalled life now teems with possibility. In All’s Well, fantasy blurs with nightmare as pain is suffered and then shed, with dramatic, Shakespeare-worthy turns of fate transforming what was once a curse into a terrible, powerful gift. Alyssa Favreau: A good place to start is this novel’s treatment of chronic illness. Why was it important for that to be the central theme? Mona Awad: I started there. I started with an interest in exploring chronic pain because it’s something that I suffered from for a number of years and had been living with daily, not really [being] able to find relief, trying all these different doctors, and going to different surgeons. I’d had surgery on my hip and just couldn’t find a solution for it and had to live with it. And so I really wanted to explore what it’s like to live with that every day and the ways in which it impacts so many aspects of your everyday life. And it made me really dreamy, made me dream about what it would be like if one day this pain were taken away. I started fantasizing, sometimes quite darkly, about what that might look like, how that might feel. I was reading Shakespeare at the time, and Shakespeare has all these incredible reversal of fortune-type stories, and that was very inspiring. The two just came together like a perfect confluence. It seems so important, too, that in this story the pain be a woman’s pain, that it be minimized and ignored and disbelieved in such a gendered way. Was that also the story you wanted to tell? Absolutely. One of the most challenging things about being in pain is just having your experience understood and validated by the world around you. And I think, when you’re a woman, that’s so difficult. Certainly that was my experience with doctors and physical therapists and even in the workplace. And it’s not only harder for people to believe you, but it’s harder for you to believe in yourself when you’re speaking on your [own] behalf. When you’re advocating for yourself, it’s almost like the internalized misogyny just cripples you from the start. We’re just so trained not to believe women, and women are so trained not to believe themselves and not to believe their own experiences. I really wanted to explore that, and with Miranda, of course, it’s even more fraught because she’s an actress. When you are in pain, the act of communicating it, especially something as nebulous as chronic pain … you kind of end up performing it, just to communicate it to someone else. And that act of performance also amplifies the ambiguity and makes you second-guess yourself, even though you have to do it in order to communicate your pain. That was something that really struck me, the discussion of the performance of pain. The line from All’s Well That Ends Well says it best: “I do affect a sorrow, but I have it too.” Having the pain but also needing to perform it in a way that is legible to others. It’s such a beautiful, beautiful line from that play. I love it so much because Helen is in pain, but when she says that, we don’t trust her anymore. She says, “I do affect a sorrow, but I have it too,” and the affectation creates the doubt, even though there’s a part of you that knows it’s sincere. That’s what makes it troubling. That’s what makes Miranda troubling. The pain is real, but she is performing it. That line was enormously inspiring to me; it’s really what gave birth to the whole thing. I was interested in how Miranda is embodied, as well, and her changing relationship to her body. There’s sex. There’s her gourmandise and her trajectory towards having this more balanced relationship with her body. Was that at the front of your mind while you were writing? Yeah, because you’d think that pain would make you more in touch with your body. And it does in a lot of ways because you’re so hyper aware. You’re just waiting. “Oh, God, is this going to get worse? Is it going to get better? I just don’t know.” So it makes you hyper aware of your body, but it also cuts you off from your body in these really strange ways. That’s the experience Miranda has. Initially she’s extremely cut off from her body, and then her relationship to it changes as her relationship to her pain changes. That was very intentional for her to go through a journey with her body. And she’s an actress, so she already has a very particular relationship to her body. That was very important, that arc. From a writing perspective, how did you approach creating the claustrophobia of Miranda’s pain? It was pretty easy. It’s something that I experienced, so I could really tap into my experiences of being in that place. I don’t usually say that writing is cathartic, but it was cathartic to give expression to that because pain is so difficult to communicate. There’s a scene where she’s trying to tell her physical therapist about her pain, and she’s like, “It’s red and it’s throbbing and it feels like there’s a chair on my foot.” And he’s like “Red… Throbbing… A chair.” What do you make of that? There’s this absence in language for communicating something as visceral as pain. I wanted to make the language as visceral as possible. I really leaned into that experience of feeling and not being able to give expression. You have to make do with these phrases and these metaphors that don’t quite do it justice. I’ve never thought about it that way, of writing as creating the language of pain. That’s fascinating. It was actually fun. The novel takes place in a college drama department, and the dynamics and quirks of the Shakespearean production are so perfect. What’s your history with the theatre? I was really into theatre in high school, and then I kind of dropped away from it and fell in love with English literature, [though] I still was really interested in the plays and would go see productions whenever they were in town. Shakespeare really, really became important to me when I was in pain. I was a graduate student [when] chronic pain first came into my life. I was taking a Shakespeare class with these reversals of fortune, these story arcs where your whole life could really change. The story of All’s Well That Ends Well is wonderful because a king is actually healed in the play. This young nobody orphan, this clever wench, actually gets what she desires, even though the play begins and she’s completely powerless. She manages to overturn the whole world of the play and get what she wants, and I found that really troubling when I first read it. But there is something about her agency in this world—where she starts off being so powerless—that was exciting to me. I really wanted to capture that. And it felt really kindred to Macbeth as well, so I started thinking about the two plays together. I’d like to ask you about that—how, with the ways in which the two plays interact with each other, it almost seems like one is haunting the other. Why these two plays in particular? One is on stage—All’s Well That Ends Well—and that’s of course the life that Miranda wants. It’s the comedy with the bizarrely happy ending, the improbable love. That’s the life that she wants for herself, and she’s trying desperately to stage it. The life that she is living off stage is, of course, the life that she doesn’t want, the play she doesn’t want, the tragedy: Macbeth. But there is a through line between those two plays, even though one’s a comedy and one’s a tragedy. Both are about these outlier characters who at the start of the play don’t seem to have any power within the world of the play, or they have less power than they want. And then they have to take this wildly transgressive action in order to make their desire come true, to make it manifest. That’s kind of how I see the two of them speaking to one another. One goes down the road of comedy, and it’s light and nobody dies. The other, of course, goes down the road of tragedy, and there’s murder and madness and beheadings. I wanted to explore both, one on stage and one off, because I think it’s the same story ultimately. I was really struck by the fact that witches are such a prominent figure in both plays. You’ve got Macbeth’s three witches in the form of the three mysterious gentlemen, and how their destructiveness begins to overwhelm a more healing and generative magic that All’s Well That Ends Well’s Helen has. I love that crossover. Helen does have a witchiness in All’s Well That Ends Well, which is part of the reason why I love her. She’s got this strange trickster energy. She can heal a king and get what she desires. It’s all very strange. And then the three witches in Macbeth are so fascinating. To what degree do they orchestrate the whole thing? To what degree does Macbeth really have free will? It’s one of the great ambiguities of that play. I wanted to play with that in this book. There are two different kinds of magic, and both kinds of witchery are in the novel: that kind of good, healing energy and then the more malevolent energy of the Macbeth witches. All’s Well That Ends Well is famously one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Do you see this novel as a sort of problem play? Definitely. I see it as tragicomic, which probably is what makes it a problem play or problem novel. But I also see it as the most honest expression of what I could have done as a writer engaging with these two plays, because I love the way that tragedy informs comedy and comedy informs tragedy in storytelling. I love when that happens in storytelling. That’s when you get the most potent comedy and that’s when tragedy is the most moving, when they’re walking hand in hand. And so, in this book, I really tried to do that. I tried to create both experiences simultaneously for the reader. I was surprised by how inspiring I found Miranda’s bitterness. It seems like a kind of resistance to have her be so angry and so ungracious and disillusioned with everyone around her. Was that always part of her DNA or did it manifest in the writing of her? She surprised me. She’s both the hero and the villain of her own story because she is both a kind of Helen and a kind of Macbeth/Lady Macbeth figure. I could have fun with her villainy as the book progressed. She’s been suffering for so long, and suffering corrupts you. It does things to your heart. It does things to your brain. And Miranda’s not immune. And then the sudden absence of suffering, the euphoria that comes after the suffering has ended, that’s another kind of strange filter through which to experience the world. That changes you too, changes your ability to empathize and see clearly and respond to people. I had fun with that, and I think it’s part of her humanity. To not go completely there with her would have been doing a disservice to her humanity. When she does manage to pass her pain on to others, it reads almost as a revenge fantasy, as if giving the pain to others is a way of being believed and taken seriously. Yeah, yeah. “Feel it. Feel what I’ve been feeling. And then you’ll know that it’s not a lie.” That’s the dream of people who are in pain, or at least it was my dream, sometimes, with doctors who didn’t understand or who would just blink at me. “I wish you could feel this, because then you’d know, you’d understand my desperation.” It’s a way of creating empathy, where maybe there is no empathy, even though it is a revenge fantasy at the same time. This novel has some overlap with your previous book, Bunny. I’d be interested in hearing you talk a bit more about that and whether you were interested in creating a through line for your readers from one novel to the other. There are definitely parallels. Obviously there’s still interest in the supernatural. There’s interest in the fantastic, in witchery and the occult. Bunny has all of that. Interest, too, in New England, that Gothic setting, and in the college campus. I love the fact that All’s Well also has that school year arc. There’s something about it that feels very comforting to me. It was fun to revisit a college campus again. And I love the tensions and the power dynamics that you find in a school. School is like a microcosm of the world. In Bunny, we experience the story from the student’s perspective, and in All’s Well we’re seeing things through the eyes of a teacher. I was surprised at the degree of powerlessness that Miranda feels as a teacher; it’s not really something that I fully understood until I became a teacher myself. I always thought as a student that teachers had a lot of power. They were kind of intimidating. But now as a teacher I realize I have no power; it’s all a performance. Students have a lot more power than they realize. Young people have a lot of power. It was kind of fun to explore the other side of the desk that way Both novels have this way of manifesting a new reality through artistic expression, too. Absolutely. It’s true. Miranda’s vision for All’s Well That Ends Well gives so much expression to her interior anguish and also her longings. And that’s also the case for Bunny, for the Bunnies and for Samantha. Their creations are the expressions of their fears and desires. You’ve got this amazing ability to create these kinds of manic funhouse-mirror worlds where reality and delusion is so blurred. What appeal do these worlds hold for you? That anything is possible. It’s the realm of the imagination. Anything becomes possible. In Bunny, the fact that I was looking at the world through the eyes of a writer in an MFA program allowed me to open up the borders of reality. In All’s Well, the fact that it’s theatre fiction [meant] I was able to do the same thing. Even though the stage is a physical thing in the book, it extends far past the school’s stage into the world of the novel. And that allows for anything to become possible, allows for theatrics to take place in any realm, in any part of the world of the novel. That was so exciting to me. The phrase “all’s well” gets repeated a lot throughout the text and takes on such power as both this kind of invocation that darkly manifests, but also as a reassurance that sometimes all does end well. When I first read the play, I thought that that was such a dark phrase: “All’s well that ends well.” Well, what came before? There could have been all of these terrible things, but one can still say, “all’s well that ends well,” and it sounds good. I remember when I first started reading the play, I kept picturing this woman straightening towels in a bathroom [while] her house was on fire. And that ends up in the book as a memory Miranda has with her mother. I pictured this woman saying it as a mantra to herself, even as her life is falling apart. It has a lot of darkness, even though it’s a reassuring phrase. I like that it’s reassuring, [even though] it has the potential to hold a lot of darkness and mystery in it. Do you see this as a hopeful novel? Yes, absolutely. And I wrote it as such. There’s actually an original ending that’s not so hopeful, but I didn’t stick with it because I didn’t want darkness to win in the end. I wanted hope, and I wanted the redemptive power of the feminine to be there. I do think it’s hopeful. It’s more All’s Well That Ends Well than it is Macbeth in the end.
The author of Jam Bake on flavour libraries, candied fruit and making things with your hands that taste good.
Through the most locked-down periods of the pandemic, I have felt cinched by my own routines, with only brief hours of darkness to peel apart the mille-feuille of same-o. Like many of us, I took some comfort in the calming measures of the domestic: cooking, sewing, and frenzied bouts of cleaning. Now facing an Omicron-haunted winter, I return to my kitchen cupboards for escape, pawing through the hardened bags of brown sugar and exhausted cartons of baking soda. On the top shelf of the pantry where I keep coffee and tea—dusted with the fragrant debris of both—are two unopened mason jars, one cherry jelly and another of pink grapefruit marmalade. Both of these are gifts from Camilla Wynne, whom I met in the brief intersection of summer and freshly vaccinated, to discuss her (then) just-released book, Jam Bake (Appetite). I can’t bring myself to break the seal on these precious jars, which preserve fruit, and something else. Some years ago I became transfixed by the elaborate cakes baked and decorated by Wynne, formerly of the Montreal-based jam company Preservation Society; a musician, pastry chef, teacher, and gentle hedonist whose mastery of what she calls “back-to-the-land” skills elevates the domestic to levels of fantasy like Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. One such cake posted to her Instagram account features three extravagant tiers, laden with candied fruit—another of Wynne’s specialties. In Jam Bake, Wynne brings her rare creativity to the masses, sharing endlessly adaptable preserve-oriented recipes and gorgeous photographs of the results. Not only about jams, jellies, and marmalades, the book also features splendid baked good recipes (kamut and poppy seed muffins with pink grapefruit and almond marmalade filling; gateau basque with coffee, date, and pear jam) in which you can inject your freshly made preserves if you don’t want to limit them to toast. Last summer, Wynne invited me to her home to chat about Jam Bake, and to make sour cherry jelly in her charming Toronto kitchen—the jelly that now lives in my pantry. My first in-person interview in nearly two years, I felt utterly drunk on the pleasures of Wynne’s vibrant workspace and immense charm (which comes through in her recipes, too). Dressed in a periwinkle zebra-print dress and coordinating Jacquemus socks, Wynne walked me through the steps of jelly-making before taking me out to her flower and plant-filled balcony, where we discussed her incredibly varied career, safe canning techniques, dresses that look like cakes, and cakes that look like dresses. Naomi Skwarna: What was your gateway to jam, jelly, and marmalade? And more generally, preserving? Camilla Wynne: I’ve always loved sugar and fruit and was pretty obsessed with it as a kid—plus the confluence of my granny and my aunt’s homemade jelly and jam. It had an air of mystery because we never made it at my house. I was the city slicker and then there were all my country cousins. When I started working in pastry, there was something so compelling about preserving because of its shelf life. [In pastry], we made so many things that were only good for that day, and so I was intrigued by the idea of being able to prolong the lifespan of all of these fruits that I loved. Then, when I left working in kitchens to go on tour with my band, I would get so upset every time we’d tour during sour cherry season! So when I was home, I started squirreling away all those flavours to enjoy later on. A flavour collection. Yeah! A flavour library. Preserving does seem like an effective way of extending the life of something that is otherwise sort of ephemeral. Since you were self-instructing, did you ever make any big mistakes, or was it pretty smooth sailing from the start? I think any of my errors have been eclipsed by stories from my students about their seriously crazy mistakes. For instance: I have never given my friends botulism. A student of mine once announced, “I’m here at this pickling class because last year I gave all my friends botulism.” You’re extremely clear about canning safely in the book—I mean, you do put a lot of time and clarity into ensuring that people don’t make those mistakes—but the pickling section definitely struck a bit of fear in my heart. Thank you! I was self-taught at the beginning and I was so frustrated about this hard line North American National Center for Home Food Preservation thing that basically says anything that’s not this is danger! But then I’d read a book from France or England and they’d say, “close the jars and turn them upside down.” I was like, are they dying in droves over there? There are lots of ways to can safely. When I teach, I show you how to work safely in what I think is the easiest and the fastest way, because I always want more time to read novels. Yes, there are a lot of bad, scary ways to can, but I teach how to discern the difference. If you understand the principles, you can objectively look at a method and tell that’s not safe. If you’re just following a set of instructions, you’ll either be a hard liner, or else you’ll just follow whatever instructions come your way, be they safe or not. It’s extremely important to my teaching philosophy for people to understand why, because I found it so hard to get anyone to tell me how it really works. Well, props to your student for giving all their friends botulism and still wanting to learn how to do it. He was a very enthusiastic 23-year-old man. Good for you, sir, but also: wow. Will his friends ever eat something he preserves again? I wouldn’t, personally! Coming back to your training—you’re one of Canada’s only Master Preservers. What does that process entail? It’s a lot less fancy than it sounds—it’s just not a program offered in Canada. I wish it were, because I think it’s extremely valuable. The idea is that universities, Cornell in my case, have extension co-ops in agricultural communities for the university to be able to disseminate their research to the farmers. So they have these programs to become a Master Preserver or a Master Gardener, where people learn to be experts at, well, “expert,” you know, through a five-day course. But we learn enough that we can then teach other people how to safely preserve. It covers freezing, pressure canning, hot water bath canning, and drying. Then basically, there’s a test, plus completing a certain number of hours of teaching or writing about preserving methods to show that you thoroughly understand the methods. It was so nice and great, but they also literally made us chant “canning is not creative cooking,” and my whole thing is that that’s not true if you understand [the science]. Reading your book, creativity feels like such a defining feature of your recipes and aesthetic. What does creativity mean in what you make and how you teach? Sometimes I’ll ask my students, “Who else here feels if they can’t be creative, they’ll die?" And everyone will be like: (stares blankly). Maybe one person will say, “okay.” I consider myself a cook as well. There’s such a dichotomy between cooking and pastry, but I cook a lot and I write a lot of savory recipes, too. I hope I don’t spend my whole career pigeonholed as only making sweets. In the end, it’s all making something with your hands that tastes good. When did you start teaching? I began in 2011 because of my friend Natasha Pickowicz, who’s a famous New York pastry chef now. She was working at the Depanneur in Montreal and was always organizing events; she’s a real organizer. And now you teach so many classes! Your candied fruit is really breathtaking, and such a unique skill to offer a class for. How do people respond to it? That class was so popular in the winter, I think partly because everything was locked down and no one I know has ever seen a class like that offered before. I couldn’t believe it! I thought no one was going to come, but it was my best-selling class for sure. Those fruits are so gorgeous. Right. I know. They’re so beautiful. You mention that dichotomy in Jam Bake, too. It reminds me of what you said earlier about being a pastry chef and preserver—that the pastries you made were meant to be eaten straight away— Yes, I don’t want to see a croissant more than two hours after it came out of the oven. They’re like those insects that only live for one day. It’s like your work is split between making delicacies with brief lives and ones that can live for very long time. And then the bridge there is fruitcake! You’ve found so many outlets for your skills—as a pastry chef, writer, teacher, and through running a business. But it seems now that you’re very much your own boss. What are some of the challenges faced by someone who wants to work the way you do in the food industry? Restaurants, which is where I worked, are their own whole thing, and we all started to see how highly problematic they are over the past couple of years. Pastry chefs, particularly, are paid less, appreciated less, and are the first to go when layoffs need to be made. Dessert is always considered optional and pastry chefs dispensable. But, arguably, fine dining is about celebration, you know? And that’s exactly what desserts are for. Sometimes I get insecure about internalizing the idea that desserts are superfluous and I’m not doing it to help anyone. But pleasure is important, you know? It makes life nice. I have to remind myself of that frequently, especially being in a relationship with someone who literally keeps people alive [Wynne’s partner is an anesthesiology resident]. You’re like, sure, and I give you cake! There’s pleasure in the making and in the receiving of cake! And a lot of your cakes in particular are some of the most stunning, sculptural things I’ve ever seen. Thank you. I obviously don’t post the ones that aren’t...[laughter] That’s every artist’s prerogative. What inspires your creativity, outside of the cooking world? Definitely clothes! I spend a lot of time looking at clothes I’ll never afford. Lately a lot of them look like fancy cakes. That is very true. Molly Goddard— Yeah. And Cecilie Bahnsen. All the ruffles? Ok, so I wanted to ask you—we’re still in the pandemic, but moving into a different phase of it. You mention in Jam Bake that making preserves has brought a lot of joy into your life. Can you talk about that joy, or the mental state this type of tactile, sweetie treat creativity cultivates in you, and what you think others can get out of it? Even though I was highly inconvenienced by jars being out of stock everywhere last year when I was starting my online classes, I also couldn’t deny how awesome it was. I love that people are taking this up, because I do think it’s so full! There’s the kind of meditative pleasure of the act itself and then the wellbeing of a stocked pantry. It really makes you think, like, maybe it makes sense during these apocalyptic times to have weird, back-to-the-land skills. Being able to eat well throughout all this must have been a real source of comfort. The act itself brings the same sense of relaxation as yoga, I find. And I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of people are nervous about canning or cooking if they haven’t done it before. If they could instead just take a breath and think: I’m just observing this thing and I know what to look for. I’m not asking anything of it. I’m entering into a dialogue with this pot. We don’t speak the same language, but maybe it can tell me when it’s ready. It’s like trying to see if a baby’s hungry. When you bake a cake, you can’t really watch it rise. It’s quite a quick process—maximum twenty minutes—but you have to be there. You can be checked out and maybe it’ll work, but also you might burn it. If you’re really there and just appreciating the serenity of observing transformation, then you’re probably going to do a better job. It just, I don’t know, unclenches something. I think it’s so nice. Yeah, I can see that. Wasn’t it thrilling when we saw those cherries transform from liquid to a solid? That’s why I call it alchemical. I know that’s just science, actually. It’s called transformation of states. We don’t really experience a lot of obvious transformation in our everyday lives. There’s the maillard effect—cooking, browning. But that’s more routine, as things we see every day. But making jam, it’s really special to see. It feels magic and if you’re not willing to experience the magic of things, well, that’s not fun for life. Beyond the actual making of beautiful jams, jellies, marmalades, and cakes, what’s the most fulfilling type of project for you? The satisfaction of writing a well-written recipe, and also making something taste good. I really have realized over the past couple of years that writing and making recipes is my absolute favorite thing. I also love teaching and I never want to stop doing that, but if I could manage to make a living by writing and making recipes? That would be certainly the dream for this guy. I have a pretty fleshed-out idea for my next book, so hopefully I can start concentrating more on that, getting it sold. What will it be about? It’s a candied fruit book! There are just so many different techniques to explore and then there are so many things to bake that are traditionally made with candied fruit, plus cool ideas for the syrup. I just think it’s a very rich topic—and I guess I will have to see who I can convince to agree with me. [At this point in the interview, Wynne proceeds to lead me through a jelly tasting. Having told her earlier that I didn’t like jelly, she is now intent on turning me around]. That was so good. Tasting those flavours [damson, redcurrant, cherry,]—I am now a jelly convert. My work here? It’s done. I didn’t hate jelly, I just didn’t know jelly. She was a mystery.
The author of Seek You on recognizing obsessions, Sandra Bullock, and separating solitude and loneliness.
Being lonely can be painful. As a species, we’re born with an innate need to be with others, and the physical and mental distress caused by too much isolation is proof of this fact. To frame this another way, for nearly all of our time on Earth, to be alone was to be in danger. Thus, the feeling of safety and well-being derived from human connection is both an evolutionary quirk and one of the more meaningful experiences we can have. With incisive prose and distinctive photo-based illustrations, Kristen Radtke hones in on this complex subject in her book, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness (Pantheon). A sweeping essay in graphic form, Radtke’s sophomore release reflects on laugh tracks, cowboy archetypes, Princess Diana, romantic comedies, mass shooters, and the early days of the internet. She describes a call service for solitary senior citizens, the infamous isolation studies of an anguished psychologist, and the industry of professional cuddling geared toward people starved for touch. She also discloses her own loneliness and conveys how fear and vulnerability are widely shared, writing, “I want us to use loneliness—yours, and mine—to find our way to one another.” Whether felt in our brains or our bodies, Radtke tells us, the ache of solitude is our signal to seek company. While tinged with melancholy, her book provides a compassionate perspective on the meaning of loneliness and the importance of human connection. The Brooklyn-based author and I recently talked about her latest book and how better understanding loneliness helped her to feel less alone. Andru Okun: Seek You is your second book. What themes or motifs do you think you’ve carried over from your first, Imagine Wanting Only This? Kristen Radtke: When my first book came out, I remember there was a review that said something about how I was grappling with isolation and loneliness, and I was like What do you mean? I’m not doing that. I didn’t recognize that was a theme I was working with, and I think sometimes it takes me a really long time to recognize an obsession I have in my work, or the fact that I may be working through something in my writing before I’m conscious of it. First books are complicated, difficult things, and I didn’t know when I started writing that I was writing a book. I just thought I was writing essays, so it came together in a very different way than this book, which felt like I had an intentional purpose when I began. There’s less memoir in this book and more reportage and research. Was that intentional? I never wanted to write a memoir. My first book sort of became one over time; I thought it’d be much more like Seek You in that it’d be more outward-facing, but early readers were asking for more personal information, like a personal guide to help them through the research. I think that’s the case for this book too—an early draft didn’t have any memoir or personal elements in it. I had a friend who pointed out that I’d done all this research, but they didn’t understand why I’d assigned myself this work. They wanted to see my personal stake in it. There’s also a discernible difference in your drawings between your first and second book. You’re now using colour, and the visual storytelling is more complex. As an author of graphic non-fiction, do you feel like the drawn components of your work grow in tandem with your writing? When I draw, it changes what I need to say and how I say it. I’m also communicating by using language in the images, and, of course, images are a kind of language in themselves. I can’t quite remember how the form started for this book—it isn’t sequential or in panels; it’s not a comic in the same way. I tried to remember how I came to that, and I really can’t. It just became the form that made sense to me as I was working. You note that you started this book in 2016. This was also the year scientists first identified the part of the brain that responds to isolation. Was this discovery part of what prompted you to pursue this project or was this coincidental? It was coincidental. I didn’t know anything about the science of loneliness before I began writing about loneliness. All of my research was done in service of this particular interest. So, what exactly was the catalyst? I think 2016 was a lonely time for a lot of people. It was a challenging year. I’ve looked for research on whether loneliness spikes during election years in America. That research has not been done, or at least it has not been published publicly. But it seems likely to me that that would be correct because it does isolate us from each other in a pretty stark way. Loneliness traditionally spikes at three ages—your late twenties, your mid-fifties, and your eighties. This makes sense because it’s when a lot of people go through a lot of life changes. I was in my late twenties, and I was just trying to figure out this transition into proper adulthood and what my life would look like, which can be a kind of isolating experience. I recently read Elisa Gabbert’s essay on loneliness that references some of the graphic essays you published before the release of Seek You. She makes what I think is an excellent point regarding writers: while we’ve come to think of solitude as a necessity, we really thrive off of interactions with strangers and crowds, that being around others engenders “a complicating energy that produces ideas.” I was wondering how you felt about this concept. It’s hard for me to say if that’s unequivocally true for everyone, but for me that’s definitely true. I find myself surprised where ideas come from, because I can never track what’s going to trigger something for me. It might be a conversation with a friend, a ride in the subway, or a thought I have as I’m falling asleep that I have to write down or it will be completely gone the next day. I think that we do like solitude, but I think it is really important that we separate solitude and loneliness because they sometimes overlap but they’re not the same. Someone can be very solitary and not be lonely, and another person can be extremely socially active and be cripplingly lonely. What does it mean for loneliness to rest, as you write, “in the space between the relationships you have and the relationships you want?” So, there’s no formula to fix loneliness, no way to easily determine how much social interaction one person needs. You can have a very outwardly fulfilling personal life and still feel unfulfilled if your relationships are not providing you with the meaningful stimulation that you need. That’s one of the reasons I think that political divides make us more lonely. I hear a lot of people say that when Trump emerged, they just stopped talking to their uncle or their dad about politics. But as we know, the personal is political, and to not talk about politics means resisting talking about a big part of who we are, our belief system. And if we can’t talk about our belief system, it’s difficult to have deeply meaningful, authentic interactions. Even with a really active social life, someone can feel a kind of longing for connection or for a witness so they feel seen, and that can lead to a sense of loneliness. Did you personally have these types of experiences where you stopped talking to a family member or a friend over political disagreements? Yeah, I come from a very conservative place. I think that it’s very painful for people who have different political ideologies from their family, for sure. Why do you think separation is such a large part of American culture? I wrote about loneliness in America specifically because I’m American and American culture is what I understand best; but I’m also very interested in how loneliness is kind of coded into our ideology and our value system and how that’s a by-product of our insistence on individualism. If we look at the American dream, it’s this idea of the white picket fence, a big yard, and the ability to literally block yourself off from other people. You can define your space and claim it. Where I come from, your measure of success is how much land you can afford to have—how many acres—and there’s this pride in not being able to see your neighbours. You’ve made it if you can be isolated in that way. And I’m not saying there’s something wrong with wanting to live in the woods (there’s not), but I think that when we start to prioritize the self over the community—which I think we consistently do in America, and I think we saw this in the divides that arose during COVID—it starts to get very dangerous. That prioritization of the self has been a big part of our thinking probably since America’s conception. It’s as if loneliness and separation are built into the architecture and the layout of our communities. Absolutely. There are not that many community gathering spaces that aren’t based around commerce. When I was in high school, we would go to the mall. It was of course a place centred around consumerism and capitalism, but now what are the gathering places that people have? Some cities are better about green spaces and public parks, but we don’t have town squares or places where we can get a town-square feeling in a way that is quite common in other cities across the world. Wealth is a factor of loneliness as well, right? Generally, the more chronically lonely countries are wealthier. This is clear for a lot of reasons: wealthier countries have a skewed relationship towards work and a lot of the work is more isolating than it is in less wealthy countries. Office jobs, for example, can be quite isolating. People in wealthier countries are more likely to be able to afford to live alone or to delay marriage; also, wealthier countries have longer life expectancies, so you’re more likely to see people that you love die and you’re less likely to live with your family during that time. There’s a lot of caveats to this, though. A country that is at war is generally an extremely lonely place. Hannah Arendt writes about this in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism; she consistently found that loneliness was out of control in countries where people lived under dictators and couldn’t trust their neighbours. Your book suggests that our perceptions of loneliness differ depending on our personal experiences of gender socialization. What drew you to examine this construct? Honestly, I think it was Sandra Bullock. In the before-times, I used to fly a lot for work and it was sort of my favourite moment to watch terrible movies. It’s just one of the greatest pleasures in the world, to detach from any responsibility and just watch a stupid rom-com from the ’90s. And so, I’d watch a ton of Sandra Bullock movies, and I started to notice she was lonely in every single one, sometimes in the same tropey way and sometimes in very different ways. In Gravity she’s literally shot into space, and in other movies she’s a sort of hapless twenty-something in her tiny studio apartment trying to make it as an assistant in a cutthroat industry. But she’s always on the outside, and I was interested in that because the formula for how they solve that is relatively consistent, and it often involves making a romantic connection or occasionally a friendship. It’s very different from how men are portrayed. The rise of the anti-hero reinvigorated the cowboy trope. If you look at someone like Don Draper, Tony Soprano, or Walter White, they’re all cowboys and basically renditions of the same characters. This isn’t to say that it’s not entertaining, but they get to be sexy and coveted and alluring in a way that a rom-com heroine doesn’t get to be. Can you explain the idea of contagious loneliness? That was one of the most shocking things I researched, although once I understood it the concept made complete sense to me. I think it was something I was already recognizing in my personal life and my relationships with my friends. The scientist Dr. John Cacioppo discovered through his research that loneliness can become contagious and be transmitted to up to three people removed from one lonely person. Basically, once we enter a state of loneliness, we’re likely to start self-isolating. It’s kind of like depression or any kind of insecurity or self-consciousness—we start to assume other people don’t like us and that they don’t want to hear from us. We imagine that rejection will happen before that rejection takes place, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once someone is lonely—particularly when someone is chronically lonely—they kind of cocoon into themselves. So, if I’m isolating, and I have a best friend, she may feel rejected by me and stop reaching out, so then that relationship will become strained and severed and she could feel wounded, which creates a type of loneliness in her that she could then pass along to another person. How do you think our culture’s idealization of the past ties into present-day experiences of loneliness? I think it’s very easy to say that everything has gone to hell and things used to be so much better. Every generation has felt like This is the end. If you go back to ancient cultures, there was a sense that the apocalypse was coming. We often prescribe that to technological advances—as we make progress, we’re lamenting the things that we lost. And I think that’s really natural, but it’s also slightly misguided because things get sepia-toned and hazy, and we forget the difficulties and complications of the past. I think about this a lot when I hear complaints about social media, and I’m not saying social media isn’t a huge problem that has done enormous damage to our understanding of truth, news, our electoral system, and our relationships to each other. All of those things have been very damaging and, in a lot of ways, catastrophic. But I think that we assign a little too much blame to new technological advances like social media. I read that the New York Times wrote this scathing editorial about the invention of the telephone and how we would soon become nothing more than transparent bits of goop, or something like that. Every technological advance is assigned as the end of everything. You write about Yayoi Kusama, a fascinating and idiosyncratic Japanese artist best known for her room-sized installations lined with mirrored glass. Why did you want to include her in this book? When I went and saw her show, Infinity Mirrors, I didn’t know she would end up in the book, which is one of the great pleasures to me of non-fiction, that research can meld with personal experience, and you start to recognize connections. This maybe goes back to what we were talking about earlier about how it can be energizing to be around strangers, because you come across things you wouldn’t in your own apartment. I think Yayoi Kusama is a very lonely figure who has lived quite an isolated life, but her work, especially at the beginning of her career, was about narcissism. One of her first pieces was these mirrored balls that people could purchase and look at themselves. Now her artwork is some of the most photographed artwork in the world, and people will wait in line for hours to go and take a selfie. They’ll get dressed up in coordinated outfits that match her show and take photos to post on Instagram. I think it’s funny that so many years before social media was invented, she predicted this phenomenon. But there’s something compelling about her work and it’s so beautiful, so it’s like Yeah, I want a picture of myself in this. At the same time, it’s easy to critique or make fun of, that people are coming to see a show about narcissism and going exclusively to take a photo of themselves. I’ve read Seek You twice now, and both times I found the chapter on Harry Harlow and his experiments on infant monkeys just so, so sad and upsetting. It’s actually a bit difficult to get through. Tell me about Harlow’s work and your interest in it. I became completely obsessed with Harlow. I had known about his famous surrogate mother studies, where he separated baby monkeys at birth and put them in a cage with a fake wire mother and a fake cloth mother. The wire mother dispensed milk; it was meant to either prove or dispel the idea that babies only loved their mothers if they fed them. I kept reading about him and came to know more about the studies he carried out after, which literally just became darker and darker. He started isolating monkeys in dark places without any visual stimuli for really long periods of time. He struggled a lot with his own mental health and he was hospitalized a few times and had electroshock therapy. He also had a really difficult personal life, including estranged marriages and distant relationships with his children. I just became very interested in how he came down this path of inducing isolation in animals as he was experiencing isolation himself. I tried to write about him with empathy and compassion, because I think that on the surface, it’s easy to say that he was doing these horrific things—which he was; there’s no way to deny that he was abusing those animals and that he was a sexist person and seemingly not a great, supportive partner—but I’m also interested in how we remember complicated figures in history. He really did change the way in which children were cared for, because prior to his study people thought you shouldn’t cuddle or coddle your children, and we now know that children need a lot of emotional support at a young age. How did writing this book change how you interacted with people out in the world? It’s hard for me to say, because just as I was finishing, the pandemic started. I think that making this book did make me feel less lonely because I understand loneliness more and I think I make more of a conscious effort to connect with other people than I used to, but I also think the pandemic has changed the way I interact with people in a similar way. It’s shown us that we actually do all owe each other a great deal, that it’s all of our collective responsibility to care for our neighbours and each other. That was the same conclusion I made in writing this book.
Julia Child’s collaborator Simone Beck has lingered as an object of pity in public memory. But maybe Beck didn’t want stardom at all.
The sky was still dark that morning in October, 1961, when a Frenchwoman named Simone “Simca” Beck and her American friend Julia Child headed over to the NBC studio sets in Midtown Manhattan, ready to make their television debut. They were to conduct a cooking demonstration for the Today show to promote Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), the 732-page tome both women had co-authored with the writer Louisette Bertholle. It had been released a few days before in America by the publishing house Knopf to rapturous reviews. Sales, though, could’ve been better. Appearing on Today, which pulled in around four million viewers a day back then, certainly couldn’t hurt. Though the book had three authors, Bertholle’s involvement became minimal as the book neared publication, which is to say it was really a two-hander between Beck and Child. And it was Beck, in particular, who contributed the majority of the recipes to early versions of the book, many of them family heirlooms from her upbringing in Normandy. Child, meanwhile, gave the text its American soul, making the recipes legible to readers in the United States. On this day, they had five minutes to make an omelette on a hot plate. They were terribly nervous. Neither woman even owned a television. “When the camera and the sweltering lights were at last upon me in the studio, I nearly froze with fear,” Beck wrote in her 1991 memoir, Food and Friends. She just barely pulled through. Today, this clip of Beck and Child on Today has become somewhat hard to find, in spite of the fact that it’s so significant an historical artifact. It was, after all, the nation’s introduction to Child, who would seize the country’s imagination unlike any cooking personality had prior. Child called the experience “simply terrifying,” yet she was a natural compared to Beck. As the writer Bob Spitz observed in his Child biography Dearie, Beck’s “usual exemplary English sounded like French-accented Ukrainian,” and she ultimately “looked lost, diminished” on screen. In the years that followed, the two women remained friends and worked together on a second Mastering the Art volume, yet their paths eventually forked. Child found television stardom with The French Chef, her cooking show that premiered on public television in 1963. Beck, then in her late 50s (and roughly eight years Child’s senior), gained the respect of America’s food establishment through cookbooks of her own, but never achieved the same public adoration Child generated. The press was always happy to point this out. “Julia Child is a household name,” the food writer Colman Andrews wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1979. “Simone Beck isn't—except perhaps in those rare households where the stove is more important than the television set.” It doesn’t take a genius to understand how this imbalance came to be. Child, after all, was American, with a jolly persona that could lift the saddest of spirits. Beck, bound to tradition in both culinary and cultural terms, was resolutely French. Yet Beck’s imprint on the way Americans think and talk about food is unmistakable. Both Beck and Child, as cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum wrote months after Beck’s 1991 death, bore responsibility for “changing forever the way we think about eating.” Contemporary chronicles of Child’s ascent—numerous biographies of her, for example—have tended to paint Beck as a bitter shrew resentful of Child’s high profile. If comparing the trajectories of Beck and Child seems tasteless—setting two women against one another is a sport of the patriarchy—consider that Child herself even found Beck’s lack of fame unjust. “I felt that she was such a colourful personality, and so knowledgeable about cooking, that had she been American rather than French she would be immensely well known,” Child wrote in her posthumously published autobiography My Life in France (2006). Even in death, Beck has lingered as an object of pity in public memory, cast as the poor woman whom celebrity eluded. But maybe Beck didn’t want stardom at all. *** She was born in 1904, baptized with a long name typical of French families in the era: Simone Suzanne Renée Madeleine. Growing up in Normandy in an upper-middle class Catholic family, she knew English before French. Though Beck’s mother kept black notebooks full of recipes, her family could afford to hire a fully-staffed kitchen. Beck came of age at the side of her family’s cook, Zulma. She hung around the stove so often that its steam made her hair curl, made her cheeks turn ruddy. Cooking was a profession considered beneath a girl of Beck’s breeding, so that was out of the question—at least at first. Her parents told her to settle down with a man, so she followed the rules, reluctantly wedding a family friend named Jacques Jarlaud in June 1923. She was just eighteen. A short man, Jarlaud was the “unprepossessing equivalent of a frog,” Beck wrote in her memoir, she “some wide-eyed fairy-tale princess.” On her wedding night, Beck realized they had no physical chemistry. Years later, they would learn he was sterile, turning their marriage platonic. Beck led a superficial life for that decade with Jarlaud, spending her days playing bridge and grabbing lunch with friends. It took catastrophe for her to snap out of this stupor. She survived a brutal car crash in 1928, after which she “wanted something more regarding than the life of a young housewife, which was beginning to pall,” as she wrote in her memoir. So she threw herself into an unlikely profession: bookbinding. This wasn’t thrilling work, but she ended up doing it for four years, steeping herself in the art of perfectionism. What she really wanted to do, though, was cook. Her father’s death from leukemia in the early 1930s made Beck ditch her husband and chase her culinary dreams. In late 1933, she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu. She only stayed there for six months, deciding that taking private lessons from one of the school’s founders, Henri-Paul Pellaprat, would be a better use of her time. Under his tutelage for two years, she learned how to make salmon-stuffed rolled sole fillets, soufflé with Bénédictine, young duck with turnips and gumdrop-shaped green olives. In the autumn of 1936, just around the time the ink dried on Beck’s divorce from Jarlaud, a man named Jean Fischbacher came into her life. Two years her junior, he worked at a perfume and cleaning product company, and Beck found him utterly charming. He christened her with the nickname “Simca,” after the small Renault car she drove. Their courtship was the first time that Beck felt something close to euphoria, an emotion her life had previously denied her. She’d only seen this happen in movies, just read about it in books. The two wed in April 1937, and food became a vital part of the life they built together. They socialized by having friends over for dinner, where Beck would make guests fish pâté in a pastry crust, serving it with Hollandaise sauce. Fischbacher taught her to have confidence in her abilities. With his encouragement, she began to shed the traumas of her previous loveless marriage, finding liberation in the kitchen. The chaos of World War II would intensify her ardour for food, which became a rare commodity. Fischbacher served in the army as a second lieutenant, stationed at the Eastern Front before the Germans took him captive. Back in Normandy, Beck would “carry on my own war,” she would later write, “dreaming up ways to send food to Jean.” She would pilfer Bénédictine from her family’s factory and trade it for butter, ham, and pâté that she would dispatch to Fischbacher. After Fischbacher’s release and the war’s end in 1945, Beck turned cooking into her identity. On her husband’s recommendation, she joined a high-class women’s gastronomic club called Le Cercle des Gourmettes in Paris. She found her footing in this exclusive circle quite quickly, hitting it off with one member in particular: Louisette Bertholle. Beck learned that Bertholle had been thinking about writing a cookbook for Americans all about French cooking. Beck’s husband convinced her to assist on that project. She didn’t hesitate. Beck taught herself how to type, and, over the next few years, worked tirelessly to breathe life into the book. She scoured her mother’s black recipe notebooks; she scanned her mind for recollections of Zulma’s cooking. Along the way, she and Bertholle produced a tiny recipe book called What’s Cooking in France, published by Putnam in America in 1952 to little fanfare; on her own, Beck also produced a small pamphlet devoted to prunes and prune liqueurs. These endeavors were just distractions, however, from the mammoth opus that consumed Beck’s energy. In 1950, when she was in her mid-forties, Beck submitted a book of a hundred-plus recipes to a family friend of hers, Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Fisher was a famed author herself and a member of the editorial board of the Book of the Month club, a prominent subscription service in the United States. After months, Beck received a terse reply. “This is just a dry bunch of recipes, with not much background on French food attitudes and ways of doing things,” Fisher wrote. Fisher advised that the book would be better served with stories alongside those recipes. Beck’s husband told her not to be dismayed. Maybe she could find a collaborator other than Bertholle, a companion who knew French idiosyncrasies and the American way of viewing the world. It was a sharp suggestion, Beck realized. And she knew someone who fit the bill. *** Beck had met Julia Child at a party in early 1949. Born and raised in California, Child had worked at the Office of Strategic Services during the war, but she grew to love cooking after moving to Paris with her husband, Paul. When she and Beck met, Child was a student at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, yet she was upset with the lack of zeal among her classmates, most of whom were American World War II veterans. She yearned for a friend who cherished food like she did. “It was an immediate take,” Child would later write of her introduction to Beck. Child saw Beck as “good-looking and dashing in a most attractive and debonair way, full of vigor, humor, and warmth.” Beck, in turn, was struck by “this handsome, curly-headed woman” who stood over six feet tall. The two started plotting their partnership. Along with Bertholle, they began teaching cooking classes out of Child’s apartment, finding groups of Americans who were eager to grasp the fundamentals of French cuisine. The trio began calling their organization L’école des Trois Gourmandes, or “the school of three hearty eaters.” Teaching came easily to Child, yet Beck found the job unusually strenuous. Language was a particular obstacle. Though she knew English well, her manner of speech was decidedly British, her French accent foreign to American ears. In spite of such differences in ability, Beck and Child remained close, and Beck soon involved Child in the book project. When Beck showed Child her budding manuscript, Child found the directions lacking in clarity. So she gave it a makeover. By 1957, when the Childs found themselves back in America due to work, the book had swelled to nearly 900 pages. Child suggested they present the book to Houghton Mifflin, located in Boston. This required Beck to visit America for the first time in her life. Then 54, Beck went to New York that following January, finding Americans “casual, generous, and outgoing,” so far unlike herself. When she and Child traveled to Boston for their meeting, however, they were disappointed to hear that the publisher’s editors wouldn't even make time to see them, so they left the manuscript with a clerk. Six weeks later, Houghton Mifflin wrote Child to tell her that the book was unpublishable, too academic to resonate with readers. Beck, having faced such rejection before, wasn’t deterred. After three months in America, she returned to France and got to work, trading letters with Child until they completed another draft at the end of 1959. After countless queries, it landed on the desk of Judith Jones, an editor at the publishing house Knopf. Jones promised to publish the book in 1961. Jones titled it Mastering the Art of French Cooking, its three authors credited in alphabetical order, with Beck’s name first. The book was a slow burn with the American public, though the press recognized it as a groundbreaking work quite quickly. Craig Claiborne, the renowned food editor of the New York Times, thought its thousand-plus recipes, whether for quiche Lorraine or cassoulet, were “written as if each were a masterpiece, and most of them are.” The book emerged in an era when Americans were becoming hip to French cooking; over in the White House, the Kennedys had the French-born René Verdon as their chef. Promoting the book required Beck to return to America to tour the country with Child, back when the very concept of a tour for a cookbook struck many as outlandish. They rubbed elbows with luminaries of the era—the British cooking teacher Dione Lucas, the pre-eminent food personality James Beard—while giving department store demonstrations in Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco. It was during this time, too, that both women made their Today show appearance. Their labour paid off. Sales skyrocketed. Knopf ordered a second printing of 10,000. Though Beck didn’t know it yet, Child’s brief taste of small screen glory would grow into a full-fledged hunger. By the time she and her husband had relocated to Cambridge , Child told Beck that she wanted to do a television show, thinking it would be a prudent way of getting word out about the book. In 1962, Child would make an omelette with mushrooms on a segment of an educational show broadcast on the public television station WGBH. Audiences responded to Child so emphatically that WGBH decided to give her a cooking show of her own. The cooking show was not exactly a new genre—both Lucas and Beard, for example, had their own in the 1940s—but it had yet to soar, lacking a figure who could fuse education with entertainment. With The French Chef, which began airing on WGBH in February 1963, Child offered just that. Viewers fell for the disarming lady who cleaned a pig’s ears and teeth with a toothbrush. Beck would later laud Child as “a natural film star”; she took to the camera like a moth to a porchlight. But Child began to wonder if her friend was suppressing some deeper sadness. On a late 1963 visit to Beck in France, Child vigorously dodged any mention of her show around Beck, writing that she “didn't want her to feel overshadowed.” According to her memoir, Beck didn’t seem to mind that great acclaim followed for Child. Child landing on the cover of Time magazine in 1965 boosted sales so much that the two women started toiling away together on a follow-up to Mastering the Art (sans Bertholle, who was busy with a book of her own). To make the writing easier, Beck and her husband even built the Childs a house not far from them in Provence where the American couple could live part-time. If the first cookbook had more of Beck’s stamp, Child took charge this go-around. Beck, then in her mid-sixties, found herself battling arthrosis. Plus, Child “gained confidence and authority, especially as she was the one living in America,” as Beck observed in her memoir. Once the cookbook appeared in 1970, Beck returned to America to publicize it. Child was the star of the proceedings, with Beck lucky to get any promotion. Any solo publicity Beck did grab framed her in terms relative to Child, with a Times headline declaring her “Simone Beck: The Cookbook Author Without a Show on TV.” People in Child and Beck’s orbit took note of friction between the two. “It became clear to me, in working so closely with Julia, that her relationship with Simca was growing more and more strained,” their editor Jones wrote in her 2009 memoir, The Tenth Muse. The two women “were like sisters who had long nourished each other but were ready now to go their separate ways.” Jones seemed more than happy to assist Beck in finding a new direction, telling her to write a book of her own based on a few recipes that had ended up on the cutting room floor. Beck heard similar clamours from fans she’d met on her book tour. So she began to write Simca’s Cuisine, a book co-authored with the American journalist Patricia Simon. The process was challenging. Jones, in her memoir, chides Beck’s supposed arrogance, saying she seemed allergic to constructive criticism. But she couldn’t deny Beck’s great instincts as a cook. Her recipes—for rolled soufflé filled with crab, eggplant quiche, and frozen caramel mousse—were from Normandy, from Alsace, from Provence. She included ingenious tips like how to cut onions without crying, telling cooks to “take a wooden kitchen match, light it, blow it out, and hold it between your teeth while slicing the onions.” Upon the book’s publication in 1972, Beck was quite proud. Vogue called it “simply and brilliantly done,” while the New York Times surmised it “is likely to be the last of the great personal cookbooks to come out of France.” In the Los Angeles Times, Jeanne Voltz noted that Child had “overshadowed” Beck while hinting at rumours of a “rift” between the two women, but that it didn’t matter, concluding that “this is a Frenchwoman’s gift of good home cooking to America’s venturesome cooks and eaters.” In spite of what registered to the public as obvious tension with Child, Beck came to terms with the fact that Mastering had served its purpose, allowing both her and Child to pursue their own passions. She could finally write—and live—as she wanted to. *** Beck spent the 1970s, a time when she was nearing her seventies, teaching and travelling. In 1976, she began a cooking school in Provence. But she also made time to jet around the world, conducting cooking demonstrations in Napa Valley and Venice. Though Beck had intended her 1972 cookbook to be her last, these journeys inspired her to write New Menus from Simca’s Cuisine, published in 1979. Co-authored with her American assistant Michael James, the book relied on ingredients common to America. Beck folded macadamia nuts into cakes, ice creams, and blue cheese balls; she trapped avocados in aspic with tarragon and port. In spite of its American orientation, the book didn’t garner the same stateside reception as Simca’s Cuisine. The Chicago Tribune frowned that the “book falls short of Beck's previous works” due to recipes that became bungled in translation. She juggled her career commitments against twin tragedies in her personal life: the death of a brother, her husband’s stroke. Her husband would later die of cirrhosis in 1986, the same year that America’s International Association of Cooking Professionals honored Beck with a gala reception. Though Beck welcomed such recognition from America’s food establishment, her partner’s death devastated her, and she struggled to find reasons to live in his absence. Her life’s final great project routed her away from her grief: Food and Friends, a memoir and cookbook co-written with the American journalist Suzy Patterson. Per Patterson’s recollection, it wasn’t an easy working relationship. “The fun/torture of it for me was writing it,” Patterson wrote in the Montreal Gazette. The trouble may have been worth it. The engaging book was split into two halves, the first weaving between memoir and recipes, the second dedicated to a mix of French and international recipes like Italian-style green gnocchi, nasi goreng, and Brazilian mocha ice cream. The press reacted well to Beck’s swan song, with the Times saying that reading it was “like listening to your mother tell those entrancing stories of when she was a little girl.” It was Beck’s old friend Child who had persuaded Patterson to write the book with her. Though the two women saw each other less often as Beck approached old age, their bond remained. “You've got to do this,” Child reportedly told Patterson. “Simca's life story is fascinating and should be told. *** Beck died mere months after the book’s publication, succumbing to heart problems in December 1991, when she was eighty-seven. “The doctor said that because she wouldn't eat, she died,” a cousin of hers explained to the Times. It was a cruel and poetic stroke of fate: Beck died because she lost her appetite. Her demise provoked widespread sorrow within the food establishment, with famed cooking teacher Peter Kump calling her “one of the most talented architects of the new gastronomic movement” in a Chicago Tribune piece. Child seemed especially crestfallen. “She was the first person who was interested in food the way I was—as a profession, a life-consuming passion,” Child told a journalist. “She felt as I did.” But in the years that followed, the historical record became unkind to Beck, all while Child’s prestige only grew. There were reports of the nicknames: Child’s husband Paul reportedly groaned of “Sigh-Moan,” commenting that she had a voice that could “be heard in Montevideo.” Judith Jones didn’t mince words when she referred to Beck as “condescending and difficult” in her memoir. Even the reappraisals have a tinge of viciousness: “No matter how refined her palate, her haughty, untelegenic French demeanor never won over the American public,” the writer Christine Muhlke observed in a 2006 T magazine piece. That’s not to say that saintly overcorrection is necessary in Beck’s case. In his 2017 book The Gourmands’ Way, the writer Justin Spring revealed how Beck’s hauteur could morph into ugly intolerance. “You’ll never find a communist in my house,” she told one reporter. She then continued: “The barbecue, where everyone joins together and has a good time, that has nothing to do with France. The melting pot works in the United States but not in this country.” Herein lies a reminder that Beck’s very way of perceiving the world was uncompromisingly, distinctly French. To be fair, many reputable figures have similar skeletons in their closet—in her 2007 biography Julia Child: A Life, the scholar Laura Shapiro unearthed evidence of Child’s homophobic attitudes, ugly sentiments that reportedly mellowed during the AIDS crisis. But Child’s well-documented prejudices have not prevented history from revering her. In the years following Child’s death, Nora Ephron would direct Julie & Julia, cementing her legend. The cultural fascination with Child is ongoing: A book of Child’s quotes appeared last year and documentary filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West directed Julia, released this past fall. An eight-episode dramatic scripted series, Julia, is currently in production from HBO Max, with Isabella Rossellini cast in the role of Beck. Beck hasn’t inspired such a cottage industry, but perhaps she wouldn’t have wanted it. Near the end of her life, Beck made peace with the fact that stardom wasn’t for her, a reality that does not negate her contributions to American food culture. “I have always felt that my professional success was largely due to America and its cooks,” she wrote in her memoir. “My friends over there wonder why I’ve never been known as a cooking star in France.” She had some guesses as to why. In France, cooking television wasn’t the expansive genre that it was in America. Cooking there was a serious art, not a form of entertainment. “We have rock stars and movie stars, sports stars and even chef stars,” Beck wrote. “But cookbook writers and teachers?” Beck found gratification in the work itself. She had recipes to write, students to teach, and she saw little use in becoming a household name. To cook in pursuit of fame? Why, there was nothing more American.
Talking to the author of Virtue about writing as shedding self-consciousness, the impossibility of living an uncompromised life in a compromised world, and Toni Morrison’s bathroom.
“I wanted badly to be good; I wanted desperately to be liked. It was easy to confuse the two.” The narrator of Hermione Hoby’s new novel Virtue (Riverhead), a half-formed young man called Luca, takes up an internship at a much-acknowledged literary magazine amid mass revolt. Above the battles in the streets, piety and complicity mingle uneasily. He grows enamoured with an older artist couple from that orbit, Paula and Jason, becoming their own object of fascination. Installed at the pair’s summer home, Luca comes across a newspaper piece about Paula’s latest show: dolls mimicking family life inside domestic miniatures. Hoby’s debut Neon in Daylight had that dizzy gait of somebody trailing behind a crush; the romantic flights of its characters always risked stumbling into the gutter. Virtue manages a more sceptical eye even while inhabiting a single narrator, as Hoby reveals her gift for describing excruciating social situations: The gallerist visibly straining to recall your importance, the patrician editor proclaiming let us see what can be done, “an invitation that now impressed me for being simultaneously inclusive and egotistic.” Whatever distance Luca finally does find from that world arrives as desolation. Chris Randle: You're calling from Boulder, right? Hermione Hoby: I am, yeah. Are you in Brooklyn? Yeah. It was apocalyptic a couple of nights ago and now it's a beautiful fall day. I really hope you're not in a basement apartment. How was it? It was fine for me personally, I'm a few floors up, but there was so much—the last I heard a dozen people had died, transit shut down. On the night of the storm itself somebody I know was at Newark Airport, and they got trapped there for hours, because there were no flights, and the complex was slowly filling up with water. During the last big storm a couple weeks ago, I was heading to a friend's going-away party, and when I passed through Metropolitan, the G train stop, it smelled like raw sewage. All this infrastructure is rotting out. Yeah, it seems like a lot of people even in New York had no idea this was about to happen. My friend texted me and said, "My basement's flooded," and I was like, oh no, her pipe's burst, and then looked at Twitter and was assaulted by these apocalyptic images. I don't know if you feel this too, but I find one of the difficult things (among many) about being alive right now is this sense that nowhere is exempt from climate disaster. That if there were a place that was somehow environmentally safe, everyone would move there and it would no longer be safe, you know? It just rained here and the skies are clear but there's been wildfire smoke for days. My partner just ran out to get another air purifier—there was that sense of, better get one before they run out, and I hate finding myself in that mentality, that scrabble to protect oneself. I think that's what's behind the whole Peter Thiel thing—this right-wing fantasy of moving to New Zealand. Yeah, exactly. Just hunker down. It's applying that capitalist logic to life itself. Absolutely. It's so depressing. I was having this conversation with some friends recently: what do we do and how do we survive? There were four of us, two men, two women, and the guys were like, you prep, you get cans of food or whatever. And me and my female friend were like, "Why would you want to survive in such a world?" [laughs] What would be the incentive to stay alive in Peter Thiel's world, a world of squillionaires hunkered down in their cabins and the rest of us fighting each other to live? That kind of dovetails with the first thing I wanted to ask, which—I don't know where you're from originally in England, but Boulder is a very different landscape, different from New York as well, so I'm wondering if that's affected the way that you write at all. I'm from the southeast London suburbs, and I was just there recently, finally seeing my family again. It felt very—I hope this doesn't sound snotty—it felt small to me: I fear I've been spoiled on these extraordinary mountain vistas. I think it felt, small, too, in a miserably post-Brexit way: inward-looking, cramped. I don't know how it's changed me as a writer; I know it's changed the way I feel and think. I feel slower, I feel much more relaxed. When I go back and visit New York, I wonder how I ever got work done, because it's so noisy. It’s a place of intense stimulation and excitement, and Boulder is of course a great deal sleepier, but it's been wonderful to be in a place that's quiet, and full of natural beauty. This is the first time in my life that I've had a room of my own to write in, and it makes such a difference to go into a space, close the door, and know that space is yours, a designated space for work. It makes me feel incredibly fortunate. I guess the way that being here has changed my writing is just having an office, which seems like an unromantic answer [laughs]. I'm writing something now which is not set in Colorado, so maybe my Colorado novel is to come. One of my friends keeps insisting I write a Western. Both of your novels are almost infatuated with New York City. They really are [laughs]. I guess you were still living here when you wrote the first one, but with Virtue, how did you summon that back up again? You mean summon the sense of New York while I was here? Yeah, I feel like I sort of became myself in New York—it's a foundational place for me. I had lived in London-proper for a couple of years after graduating, but I never felt the sense of... it's not ownership, it's more like, oh, this place gets me, and I get this place, the way that I felt as soon as I arrived in New York. I was just like: here it is. I think I moved to New York when I was 25, which is an impressionable age, and I felt like the city made me who I was. So it's still very fresh and accessible. Neon in Daylight is very much a New York novel, but with this one I didn't think I was writing a New York novel at all. To me the setting was sort of incidental, but the dynamics of the city certainly feature, and the beginning and the end are set in New York. I suppose with this one I felt like what was driving me wasn't place so much, as it was in the first book, but character. As soon as they'd become real to me, the engine was there. I didn't have to conjure the city consciously, the thing that was driving it was these people. It's kind of like, in Neon in Daylight the setting is its own aesthetic, and in this one it feels more sociological. It's really gratifying to be read like that, because I felt like I wanted to write a more grown-up novel than the first one, in which New York was not just, as you say, an aesthetic experience, but a place that was politically fraught as well. I was also curious about the shift in perspective, because your first book has a third-person narrator and the characters get introduced in this almost symphonic way, one by one, circling around each other. Whereas Virtue is first-person, more of a monologue, and I'm wondering why you chose to switch it up. I will answer the question properly [laughs], but the preface to the proper answer is that, whenever someone asks about choice, I always feel like, ah, it's not exactly choice. With this one I just had his voice in my head, unbidden. It was like this voice in the aether had chosen me for a moment, just jumped into my brain as its host. And then of course there was the choice to stick with it, and the choice not to shift into any other perspective, but Luca just seemed this compelling... presence to me. I also think there was something liberating about knowing that there would be no possible autobiographical confusion. I am absolutely not a young dude from Broomfield, Colorado. I think so much of writing is about shedding self-consciousness, following intuition, and allowing yourself to be strange and odd. To dodge the expected thing. By that I don't mean that people were expecting something of me, I just mean, in the work itself. I want it to be unpredictable, surprising, which is to say honest, and perhaps the vehicle of a young man as narrator made it easier to do all those things, because it was already removed from me. I was already inhabiting something strange and different. I had a lot of fun being a dude for four years, my shadow life as a young man. It's an act of madness to inhabit another person, but a fun one. I think there's also narrative contrivances that are kind of inherent to fiction, and first-person can lay them bare in a way that's sometimes obvious and annoying, like, oh yes, I just happened to find this cache of letters or whatever. But sometimes it also makes the whole design clear in a striking way. Yeah. I think one of the reasons I deployed this frame narrative, in which he's 34 and recollecting being 23, is that it seemed a way of doing first-person with some of the benefits of third-person, in that there was a sort of authorial voice working through the immediate voice of the young man—in other words, a double consciousness to the narration. It seemed to offer a malleability, whereby I could keep shifting, even within the space of a sentence, between the more reflective, older Luca and the young Luca who’s gauche and ardent and overwhelmed by the world. I was thrown by that near-future vantage point. Was it always framed that way? You know, originally it was much further in the future, like, a moment of facing mortality. I couldn't make it work, it just seemed cheesy and overblown, and I was like, "Well, if this moment in his youth was so important, why would he only be telling the story now, when he's 85 or whatever?" I kept trying, but I couldn’t convince myself. And then I thought about The End of the Affair, where the distance between what has happened and the point of narration is narrower, and that seemed emotionally truthful. As in, enough has changed in Luca’s life that it feels like a different time, but there's still this intense emotional residue. It seemed more plausible that he would be revisiting this time and thinking about it. I guess I had this sense that he's narrativizing this moment almost in an exculpatory way, it's self-mythologizing while knowing, as this older man, that self-mythology is a feature of youth, and that way no wisdom lies. And there's the little echo of that original framework, one of your most extraordinary passages, in Luca's reverie of his own deathbed. Oh, yeah! I feel like I'm admitting all my secrets now, but that originally was just his deathbed, straight up. And of course it was so corny, I couldn’t make it honest. My best friend read this very bad passage and generously, helpfully said, "This is almost like his fantasy of himself," and I was like, "Wait a minute, that's what it is!" This is him writing a fantasy deathbed scene, badly. It's a kind of false ending, I guess, one to do with wishfulness and self-fashioning. Yeah, it definitely fits with the... gnarled masturbation that he does, literally and figuratively. That's an intense phrase. I don't think you're wrong, but wow, yeah [laughs]. I really treasure good writing about clubbing—I didn't fully appreciate all the uses of dance music until my early twenties, which I think is true of Kate in Neon in Daylight as well. And I loved that passage where she's idling against the edge of the club: “It was a wall she found, a sallow wall, damp with moisture, but as she set her back to it the floor started to tilt, gently, some sick tease. When she blinked, she wished she hadn’t: everything refracted and blurred, trailing echoes of itself, woozily haloed in gold.” Is that a similar experience that you had? Well not that precise experience, no, but also I hear you say that and I'm like, oh my God, I'm so old, once I did drugs and went to clubs [laughs]. Although I guess none of us have been doing that over the past year and a half—for very good reason. My experience was probably pretty standard for people of my demographic; I had ecstatic, revelatory-seeming nights, a few in London, many more in New York. New York always just felt way more fun to me than London, still does. Like, a greater sense of possibility: a spirit of optimism and permissibility, rather than the defeatism and inhibition I perhaps unfairly associate with the UK. That novel feels like ancient history to me now—it was very much a novel of my twenties—but I do remember that one of the things I was thinking about was intoxication, in all its forms. You know, what was real and what was cheap and illusory. If you have what feels like a transcendent experience and it's been induced by taking ecstasy, is that any less meaningful than something I'm more likely to do now, which is hike to the top of a mountain at dawn? Or not at dawn, I need my sleep. Anyway. I think the answer is no, they're both valid—but I'm sure you've seen this too, we probably know a lot of people, we probably love a lot of people, who have become trapped in intoxication. So I don't want to be sounding blithe about what can be life-limiting or even life-ruining, but I had fun [laughs]. I hope that fun may return to us at some point. I do miss dancing. With any kind of intoxication there's this delicate balance or tension between feeling embodied and feeling weightless. I was at this friend's going-away party a couple of weeks ago, you know, molly-fied, and I didn't realize how much I had missed standing with people outside, feeling the individual beads of sweat on your skin against your shirt, hearing the muffled pulse of music coming from inside. Yes! That's beautiful. And when all of that is aligned it's just the best feeling. I think that's when I feel most at home in a body. But when those are misaligned, you don't realize how awful you're being or stumbling around blackout drunk, rampaging, unaware of what you're doing— You're right, it's a delicate thing, and I have a horror of being insensitive to other people, which is probably why I haven't gone totally crazy on intoxication, because that's just the worst. But it's exciting to see how much is being written about in terms of psychedelics, it seems like so many people are coming round to the therapeutic effects, whether you're taking them recreationally or in a more controlled way. A friend of mine right now is doing this ketamine therapy in a totally legit, controlled way, and it seems transformative. I'm like, I need to do more psychedelics before I die. Mushrooms are legal in Colorado, so I should get on it [laughs]. Weren't they one of the first states to legalize weed as well? There's dispensaries, right? Yeah. Ben, my partner, sometimes jokes, "If my 16-year-old self could see me now, living in a place where weed is legal, he'd be so disappointed in me for not being totally baked every day." I think weed isn't cool here now because it's legal. The last time I went home to Canada, where's it's legal nationwide, there's signs at the airport like, "Please declare your weed paraphernalia." I think Canadian travel regulations are the most uncool you can possibly get, so. It would be great if all drugs are legalized in our lifetimes. I'm sounding like some kind of crazy drug advocate, but maybe I am [laughs]. I feel like the great ambivalence at the heart of Virtue is complicity—have you read The Line of Beauty, the Alan Hollinghurst novel? There's a line towards the end of it, where a member of the Tory MP's family the protagonist has been living with says, "We always supposed that you understood your responsibilities to us." Embracing somebody and throttling them at the same time. And the characters in your book, they don't have that sort of political power, or even all of the wealth, but they are very comfortable, very much ascendant in the culture industry. Absolutely. I guess I'm wondering, how do you think complicity operates in that particular world, as opposed to, like, "Yeah, I'm just hanging out with these grotesque plutocrats and Margaret Thatcher." It's really interesting that you say complicity. A novelist friend of mine read this book just before it was published, at the same time as Sally Rooney's novel [Beautiful World, Where Are You], and she's like, "You and me and Sally were all writing about the same thing! It's complicity!" I don’t mean to arrogantly align myself with Sally, who’s such a fucking genius! But what I mean is, I don't think you or my novelist friend are wrong. I guess one of the questions that was really driving me from the start with this (outside of the novel, too; it'll be troubling me for my whole life) is how to live an uncompromised life in such a deeply compromised world. And of course it's not possible. Like, here's my iPhone, people in China maybe died to make this. If we investigate almost any part of our lives, and follow the trail, it so often leads to subjugation and unconscionable crimes against humanity [laughs]. I don't mean my laughter to be glib, it's just the absurdity of—how do you try to be a good person when the world is set up in this way? Should Paula and Jason, if they actually care, just give away all their money? And I suppose this ties to the question of—I think Luca makes it explicit quite early on in the book—the small world and the big world. This is actually how you and I kind of started this conversation. If you're Peter Thiel, you make your small world, you retreat to your bunker and just look after yourself and adopt a fuck-everyone-else mentality. And that, of course, is pure hell on earth. I probably sound pathetically idealistic saying this, but I want us to live in a world of mutuality and care and community, one in which we all acknowledge and honor our interdependence. When the pandemic began I had such a naïve thought along these lines: that this global disaster would wake us up to our commonality. So the big question for me was, how much attention does one pay to the small world, the world you can manage, your immediates and your home and your small community, and how much do you look outward to the civic and the political and the national, the international. I think Zara has chosen the latter, she's on a mission and she can't really form close bonds because of that. Whereas Paula is like, "Well, I've got my kids, and it's up to me to bring up these kids and make my art and that's what I'm doing." Luca is torn between these choices. All of us could be doing more, but we also I think have a duty to our own happiness. Particularly in those first years of the last administration, there was just this constant feeling of, am I doing enough? I've set up my donation to the ACLU and RAICES, but could I afford more? Should I be volunteering more? If I miss a march to go see a movie, does that make me a bad person? So we're all complicit. I mean, maybe there are a few people living off the grid, that's not exactly complicity, but it is a refusal of the world. The challenge is to find a way to be in the world that doesn't feel so desperately morally compromising, and I don't know how to do that. I'm trying [laughs]. And a lot of these galleries and little magazines and other institutions love to say the right things even as they also love union-busting, or not paying their workers enough to live on. Totally, I know. Last summer all these huge companies were loudly proclaiming "we stand with Black Lives Matter" while quietly paying the women who clean their offices, predominantly women of color, below minimum wage. We live in such an age of presentationalism when it comes to politics, as in, “let’s make it look good”—never mind what's actually going on beneath the surface. Do you remember when one of the Whitney Museum's trustees got forced to resign, for being an evil—his police-equipment company was actually called Safariland, as if he were some pith-helmeted colonist. Several writers published a collective statement against him, with a line I just returned to: "The rapacious rich are amused by our piety, and demand that we be pious about their amusements." Mmm, that's a very good line. And I love how you describe that whole world in the first half of the novel, the countess who funds the little magazine and the elderly WASP editor. When you're writing things like that, obviously they're not precise analogues of anyone, but there's also a lot of... grist for that particular mill. Do you ever find yourself consciously filing details away...? Oh yeah, I'm just a glinty-eyed little magpie all the time. The crazy thing about fiction is that, by the time you've written it, you actually forget what was stolen from reality and what was purely invented, such lines become blurred. One friend sent me a beautiful email about the book, it's an email I will treasure, but I had forgotten that there is a scene—you know when they go to the square dance in Maine? I had totally forgotten that I'd sort of taken that from a real experience which I’d shared with her, not in Maine, the details changed. She said something like, "You were just hovering above it all the whole time," which is a nice thing to say, but it's slightly sinister too [laughs]. In transmuting reality into fiction, the fiction necessarily becomes more real to you than its originating material. My first years in New York, I was lucky in that my visa status was such that I couldn't work for American publications. So in a way this lent my social interactions a kind of... innocence, I guess? If I was talking to someone at a party, it wasn't like trying to get published in whatever magazine. I was just experiencing it in a slightly anthropological way, which I think all fiction writers do. It's fascinating to observe human beings. One part of Virtue I became slightly obsessed with was Luca's... sexual indeterminacy? Very well put, yeah. I had been describing him as a straight white guy, and then I was like, well, mostly straight. Straight-ish. There's that wonderfully oblique line about his later encounter inside the infinity room with the Japanese artist. It seems pretty clear that he's not straight, but maybe too much of his identity is bound up in that. Yet at the same time he's very clearly sexually obsessed with both halves of this artist couple. And they're kind of encouraging it, pushing and pulling. I guess I don't really have a question...? [laughs] Yeah, let's just talk about that [laughs]. Is that something that emerged while you were writing the book? I had a sense from the very beginning that he would be obsessed with these two. And then as it went on I wanted him to be more obsessed with Paula, or at least the sexual attraction was more pronounced with Paula, but that didn't preclude some sexual current between him and Jason. So often the choices, because these were choices, were about it not being precise. I didn't want anything to be simple. So I didn't want it to be that he's equally sexually attracted to these two people, I wanted his sexuality to be a little mysterious. I want it always to be complicated, uncertain, because that to me seems more truthful. That's the kind of fiction I want to read, mostly. I wanted to apply that principle to pretty much every character in every situation. For example, with Zara, she is this young woman of extraordinary principle who at one point rails against the heternormative beauty industrial complex, but I also wanted her to paint her toenails, you know? It's like, there are these minor, petty, inconsequential hypocrisies within her way of living, because she's a human being. Similarly, I wanted her to maybe be a little bit mean as well as smart. I wanted everyone to feel as real as they possibly could. And that, to me, felt like trying to dodge the received or the even vaguely stereotypical at every turn. But of course the problem with that is that you have to be believable, too, and I think it's a fine line to walk between cliché and the received on one hand, and the improbable or outlandish or completely unrelatable on the other. That was one of the many challenges [laughs]. I can't speak for straight people, but there's definitely couples that I know where—they're not inviting me to their beach house and I'm not becoming obsessed with them or anything, but I've definitely found myself going, am I attracted to both of you, or am I attracted to an idea of your life? Totally, exactly! I've had that too—it's like, I find you both sexy, but is what I'm finding sexy your couplehood, your life, or is it you as individuals? And very often I think it's the couplehood, two people who are really into each other and have extraordinary chemistry, they can often become attractive to you, because you kind of want to be them, I guess. Or at least be in on that energy in some way. I remember reading that Diane Arbus had this fantasy project where she would go into people's houses and photograph them while they slept. Or even when I'm catsitting, it's not like a fetishy thing, but I love seeing how other people live, you know? Oh my god, me too. When I was doing interviews, it would thrill me when the interview was at their house, because I'm just so curious. I interviewed Toni Morrison and I got there and I really needed to pee, and she was the warmest and realest, just a force of all that’s good. She was like, there's the bathroom or whatever, and I was like, oh my God, I'm in Toni Morrison's bathroom. But it didn't need to be Toni Morrison, it's not that she was Toni Morrison, it's just that thrill of being in someone else's space, seeing how other people live. I think that's what drives me as a novelist, the fascination with other people. I'm just ravenously nosy all the time. Do you think if Luca ran into either half of that couple individually, would he still have become obsessed in the same way? I think not to the same degree. It is about the heat of them as a couple, as well as who they are individually. It's almost like, the whole domesticity of it feels very conventional on one hand, but then there's the third party making everything faintly perverse. Absolutely. I think you kind of alluded to this earlier: he dynamizes their relationship. They're getting off on knowing that he's awed by or attracted to the two of them. The erotics are triangular. There's that passage where he feeds a handheld ice cream to Paula... Oh yeah, I wrote "Magnums," and my wonderful editor Cal was like, with a little blushing face in the margins, "Do we need to specify ice cream, not condoms?" He's simultaneously wrapped up in the physical response and watching it happen. Exactly. That's narration, right? To traduce Wordsworth, it's horniness recollected in tranquility. This goes back to what we were saying about the dual voice, the simultaneity of the self and the narrated self. Virtue uses Cy Twombly's paintings as semaphore for the flush of infatuation. What elicited that association for you? Is there any other art hanging over the novel in a similar way? So, this will sound like a bafflingly oblique answer, but I often think of John Jeremiah Sullivan writing about Whitney Houston. It was just a brief thing after she died, and at some point in this highly thoughtful, intelligent piece of critical appreciation, he says something like, “her voice was so good.” The sentence is that simple, unadorned and, in a way, gorgeously thoughtless. It seemed to be a humble recognition of the way in which some things—certain paintings, infatuation itself, the miracle of Whitney’s voice—are beyond intellection. A person can cerebrate over abstract art, for example—a worthy enterprise!—but when they get in a room with a Twombly canvas they might discover thinking goes out the window. The novels I love most are dynamized by this tension, between the felt and the thought. What are you working on right now? I'm working on... well, I hope it becomes a novel. Right now it’s just a messy Word doc, so I feel a bit superstitious about declaring it to be a third novel, but I hope that's what it becomes. It involves a British man who becomes a Hollywood actor…
Talking to the author of Imperial Nostalgia about the complex British relationship to class, culture war diversions, and toppling statues.
Shortly after local activists sent a statue of slaver-merchant Edward Colston tumbling into Bristol Harbour on June 7, 2020, The Daily Telegraph interviewed Nigel Biggar, a monkish conservative and theology professor at Oxford’s Christ Church College, who complained: “It’s not fashionable to stand up for the British Empire.” Biggar has spent the past few years doing precisely that, with a speciality in apologetics for the diamond magnate and Napoleonic megalomaniac Cecil Rhodes; his statue still looms above Oxford’s High Street, a tribute to the machinations that warped southern Africa. Peter Mitchell’s new book, Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves (Manchester University Press), critiques this reactionary vogue, moving from right-wing fury against seditious university students to the literary-political construction of the “imperial wonder boy,” always naively worldly, born to rule over some distant undetermined land. Mitchell excavates the battlefield beneath today’s culture warriors, showing how Oxford itself became a storehouse of colonial knowledge, and how imperial historiography was created by obscure Victorians like George Birdwood, an expert on Indian handicrafts who nonetheless declared the subcontinent was incapable of high art. (“[A] boiled suet pudding would serve equally well as a symbol of passionless purity and serenity of soul,” he dismissed one Buddha statue at the time.) How to unravel these faerie glamours, to disenchant their dream-castles? “Nostalgism’s political trajectory is apocalyptic,” Mitchell writes. “It tends towards mythical return, purgative violence and fantasies of a transcendently renewed state: Odysseus’s massacre of the suitors on a grand scale.” Chris Randle: Can you talk about the whole project that inspired this book? Peter Mitchell: What interested me was, as I think I say at the beginning of the book, I was working on a project about the British Empire, kind of on the way to becoming a historian of the British Empire, in 2016 when the Brexit referendum happened. And I think the Brexit referendum is a symptom rather a cause of anything, but I was feeling that it's only really new to comfortable white people that certain violences are continual, are terrifying—I was well aware by 2016 that there was a new reactionary wave in what I guess we have to call the West, and the role of imperial history and the imperial imaginary within that, especially in Britain and in England, really concerned me. I never really became an academic, but in my PhD I had worked on the empire's own creation of a mythical past, the way empire itself rehearsed certain historical scripts. I'm fascinated by the twin tracks of research in the book, where you're simultaneously looking at the historiography of imperialism alongside these present-day reactionary bleatings. What was your whole process like with that? I'm not sure that it actually worked that well, but one intervention I wanted to make, and the one intervention that I think should be made more forcefully, is that the past also has a past. Reactionary movements tend to produce pasts as stable entities, without violent and odd and conflicted relationships with themselves or with the past that they themselves have to deal with and negotiate. The tropes that come up in public discourse about the Empire include stuff like, "No one would've had these kinds of opinions back then." And you're like, well, which back then is this? You assume a historical time outside time, in which certain things just weren't in contention, when people knew where they fit in. And of course that's the whole structure of nostalgia, that the past is a place in which you would have known who you were, and you would've known who everyone else was, and in reality no one ever has. I thought that was important, a really basic point that people other than me probably made more interestingly once, but an important thing for people to reckon with in approaching how the culture war relates to history, so they're not seduced by reaction. To understand that the past has always been contingent, that there's no actual, empirically verifiable past to which one adds politics as a kind of overlay. Approaching this stuff now, you could say, "That's nostalgia," the connotation being that nostalgia never existed until now, as if there wasn't this way of relating to the past until now. So during the pandemic here when we had our absolutely demented mass nostalgization of VE Day, it was like, why are we so weird about this, people weren't so weird back then. People were weird about the past in 1945. People were really weird about the past in 1945 [laughs]. And in 1875. And when Cecil Rhodes was alive. Cecil Rhodes was a fucking lunatic about the past! The imperial nostalgists and apologists of today would be knocked into a cocked hat by how insane Cecil Rhodes was about the past. I was familiar with the whole idea of the invention of tradition, partly from that Tom Nairn book [The Enchanted Glass] about the monarchy, where he mentions how many supposedly ancient royal traditions were invented by the Windsors to seal their legitimacy. But you delve into figures I'd never heard of, like George Birdwood, or the absurdly named Francis Younghusband, who anticipated Boris Johnson: "Oh dear, I seem to have blundered into invading Tibet and ransacking all of their treasures." And interestingly, because of this particular cultural moment, [Younghusband] later becomes a racially charged kind of syncretist "Eastern mystic." He gets really into symbologies and how Man will attain the Godhead. There's actually a mistake in the book, where I'm writing later about Sandy Arbuthnot, the hero of various John Buchan thrillers, saying he's always meeting his adversary in a high mountain pass and gazing into his eyes and finding the measure of the man. That's not fiction—I had that mixed up with Younghusband in real life. He met his Russian counterpart in a tent and they drank loads of vodka and sized each other up. I was wondering, as somebody who's gone through a ton of this stuff now, how much of the historiography of empire is still informed by these people? Obviously there's been a big counter-movement over decades, but... I'm not totally confident answering that because I’m not a professional imperial historian; there's far better people to ask. But, as it should be, this is a really fertile time for imperial history as it's practiced here and in the U.S. and elsewhere. The scale of the work being done is really impressive. Obviously the historical profession has its own problems of entry qualifications and social makeup, which aren't being helped by certain structural issues in higher education, but history seems to be doing pretty well. There's all this stuff generating noise and energy—I think it's an exciting time to be an imperial historian in a university at the minute. And I think we have to remember that out of the loudest voices in the profession who're doing imperial apologetics, very few of them are really professional historians anymore. They're just not in the game. Niall Ferguson long ago gave up being a historian to become a kind of jester in the court of the powerful. [laughing as a cat named George saunters over to the laptop] That cat's massive. One of the points you make is that the British Empire never really had mass popularity behind it—I thought of Joseph Chamberlain's "Imperial Preference" scheme, which is so fantastically obscure now. It was sort of Chamberlain's attempt to resolve the inherent tensions between cosmopolitan capitalism and jingoistic nationalism. And it just didn't work. It flew apart. In one of Stuart Hall's essays about Thatcherism he talks about how she translated this arcane, freakishly niche ideology into a popular idiom that spoke to people. How do you see the ideas and images of empire being used in that way today? Well, that's the whole book really, isn't it [laughs]. Maybe to be more specific, do you see any cases of that breaking down? In the book you mention British working-class support for the Morant Bay rebellion, and something like the toppling of Edward Colston's statue feels reminiscent of that. It's hard to say because what I'm writing about, or writing against, is a very few writers for certain newspapers and a very few members of the Conservative Party. I'm writing against an attempt by an elite to create a structure of feeling out of a variety of—obviously they'd like to hope it's already there for them to conjure up, but it's not, people's natural relationship with the past is far more mysterious and inchoate than we think. And the only way to point out what it is, especially in a country where access to the means of representation and argumentation is as unequally distributed as this one, is to float a proposition and see whether people rise to it. I've just been reading a cover article from The Spectator a couple weeks ago about how the National Trust has lost the nation's trust. And it's just absolutely fucking bonkers. But the idea is, can I make your property-owning granddad angry enough by telling him that the National Trust has been taken over by Black Marxist revolutionaries who want to murder him for being white? The only way to find out if you can do that is to do it. And to some extent it works and to some extent it doesn't. The question is, is it enough to keep him voting Conservative until he dies? Is there some way you can convey the operations of British media to outsiders? In the U.S. there's Fox News, but only a small fraction of the country actually watches that. I guess it's a similar audience of older, white, propertied classes giving themselves black tar heroin. We have a really, really complex relationship to class here. The map of class stratification between who reads The Times and The Daily Telegraph and who reads the Daily Mail and who below that reads The Sun and the Express is really complicated and really tiring to navigate—but all of these papers work together in advancing a reactionary agenda that takes a lot from the States. We’ve learnt a lot from the States, especially in terms of how to prosecute a culture war, since the Nixon revolution. But the other half of it we get from Central Europe, from the French Front National, from the AfD in Germany, from Orbán in Hungary and [Andrzej] Duda in Poland. I think we're increasingly seeing the influence of a European tradition of blood-and-soil nationalism. We're not settler colonists, we're the real thing, and I think the new New Right here, whatever you want to call it, is getting better at understanding that and consolidating those narratives. How it works in terms of elections is that a lot of this media exists to keep the proportion of the country that votes and owns property voting for, if not for the Conservative Party, then voting against any redistributive politics. As is the case in the States as well, the demographic that's held the balance of electoral power since the Second World War is about to leave the stage ... There's no one central idea, a lot of this stuff is more chaotic than its creators would like to imagine, but the central thrust of it is to manufacture a politics of resentment, and to drive progressive and left-wing and class-based race and gender politics out of the acceptable mainstream. And that worked, we saw it work with Jeremy Corbyn. I campaigned a lot in the 2019 general election, and the biggest divide wasn't between white and black or rich and poor, it was between people who owned property and people who didn't. People who owned property were like, "Oh, I've always voted Labour, but I just don't know, it's just, mm." It's like, something's clearly stuck here—there's a sense taken hold that something is just not quite right about these fairly unambitious social-democratic redistributionist politics. And actually so much of the libeling of Corbyn preyed on his anti-colonial politics. I feel like he didn't even talk about Palestine that much after becoming leader, but there was also his IRA sympathies, or like, "look at the Old Fool publicly caring about the Chagos Islanders again." Venezuela came up every day of the election cycle. Up here in Newcastle, local Conservative candidates were saying, “The Labour candidate will turn Newcastle East into Venezuela-on-Tyne” [laughs]. Corbyn’s association with Diane Abbott, the fact that they used to go out with each other... that stuff about how he went to Jamaica and came back as an anti-colonialist. He went native in the wrong way, which I think has power especially because he's from a privileged class of English boy, and he went to a private school. That kind of acculturation is supposed to be a prophylactic against the seductions of the colony. Half of the drama of the colonial mission arises from when those boundaries fail to be policed. With the British media I also think of that combination of prurience and moralism, like, simultaneously nursing this Epstein-like obsession with teenage girls and raving about "gender ideology." This is something I've noticed a bit about universities. Someone on Twitter the other day was like, "The press has a hell of a weird interest in what happens in student common rooms." They like to put the gendered and often not-white bodies of the students on the front pages of their papers, scour people’s social media for pictures of them looking particularly nubile, make you hate students but want to shag them too. I mean, the trans thing is obviously incredibly prurient—these people are completely obsessed with people’s undercarriages. Really odd. Maybe that is more of an English thing, what with our humour that's constantly in the toilet. On the cliffs at the end of my street someone has carved an enormous pictograph of a cock—you know, with a big bulbous end et cetera—out of the living rock. We’re not necessarily any more insane than other cultures, but the precise lineaments of our insanity are, uh, interesting. That dovetails with your chapter about the essential boyishness of the imperial adventurer—to me the phrase "the Great Game" is so revealing of that, an endless series of intrigues and skirmishes and mini-invasions that killed many thousands of actual people, but to the occupiers it was all a jape. I forget who said this, it was some leftist academic type, but they had a tweet about how the main theme of 21st-century politics is impunity. Obviously there's Boris Johnson, where he can do almost anything and then skate away, because of his class affect— There was that amazing moment during the election campaign where the other party leaders got interviewed, they'd all agreed to it, and then they were like, "So, now it's Boris Johnson's turn." And he just went, no, fuck you, I don't care, I'm Boris Johnson, I’m not doing it. I think that's right about impunity. And so much of that imperial-wonder-boy stuff is bound up with a kind of fetishized fragility. I've just been reading Time's Monster by Priya Satia, about the different stages and cultures of British imperialism and their own histories, and it's fantastic. She writes about Lawrence of Arabia, where he's such a fragile little boy even when he's doing a massacre. He's so sad after he murders a guy that they have to lift him up into his camel's saddle, he's just too weak to do it himself. He's having an attack of the vapours because of all the people he’s killed. But the fragility is a function of the impunity, in a way: he gets to dispense violence, be feted for how daring it was, how sensitive, how beautifully described in the most delicate prose, and then he goes home and gets killed much later in a mysterious accident, because someone that magical can only die by intrigue or suicide. "If you'd been any prettier, they would've called it Florence of Arabia," Noel Coward said to Peter O'Toole after the film came out. One of the other themes of that chapter in your book is the winnowing of that whole class or sub-class, like, Rory Stewart is out of a job now. Jacob Rees-Mogg is obviously an important figure in the Conservative Party, but even now I can't imagine him ever becoming leader. He's useful for his role, which is to model a certain affect, a certain kind of political theatre that he provides. And I think the Tories are getting better at using him for that. Whether he's conscious of it is another question. And I'm sure Rory Stewart will be around for the rest of our natural lives. One of the things I always want to say about culture-war stuff is that single interventions, single figures, are diversions in a way from the main thing being communicated. Take that Nigel Biggar guy that I spend a chapter on. He's not interesting, nothing he says is interesting, none of the debates he engages in are really worth engaging in. It's what he channels, the larger structure of feeling that he enables you to access, that's important. So, you know, there'll be plenty more Rory Stewarts; there are thousands in waiting. Rees-Mogg is useful because he's such an oddity, but you could make a version of him out of pipe cleaners and plonk it in the House of Commons and have it occasionally squawk a few words of Latin and it would have the same effect. And Boris Johnson, he's very happy to draw on these tropes, these structures of feeling. What I find amazing about him is the way his appetites continue to grow. That Billy Bunter thing where he's always snaffling the pie from the window ledge. It just gets bigger and bigger with him, it doesn't seem to stop. The more you put in front of him the more he eats, and he'll eat until he bursts. He just can't have enough, and he doesn't know why he wants it. It's a Homer Simpson thing, and it's impossible not to kind of love, like having a stupid dog. Unfortunately your stupid dog is also an authoritarian who would happily see you dead if you can’t supply his needs. I think that's why there's these perpetual intrigues to get rid of him. Maybe not right now, since the Labour Party is being fully Pasokified, but there's this sense that he's just too slippery, a little bit too much of a libertine, not really the ideal figure to usher in managed democracy. Yeah, he doesn't work hard enough. I'm not really a political commentator, but I don't think we should ever underestimate the extent to which the Conservative Party is a riven organization, and what this country has been living through for the past five or ten years isn't so much a crisis of political democracy as a crisis of the Conservative Party. We're all living through their civil war. But it's a fascinating organization, because we have a hereditary ruling class and that ruling class has a party that's spent the balance of the past century in power. And that makes for a very odd kind of democracy, and an absolutely bonkers culture given that the ruling class also pretty much oversees that culture. Yeah, like, I believe the UK is still the most regionally unequal nation in western Europe. Yep. And you can see that in Rory Stewart, when he talks about his travels, and the way that for him the field of the regional isn't really that far away from the field of the colonial. Is he in a working men’s club in Easington or is he at a wedding in Kandahar? Who knows? What’s the difference? It's all territory to be mapped and conquered. There's that Victorian ethnography you dig up, which was written like a Quillette article or something. It's talking about the "negresence" of northerners and the Irish. Yeah, exactly. I worry that I’m stretching a thesis a bit, and being a bit too deterministic about how the colonial gaze gets turned on Britain's fringes, which are also its "heartlands," when that’s convenient. But it does, you know? Beyond anything else, it’s easily mapped out in the sense that some people exist to act and some people exist to be acted upon. And people especially in the North exist to be acted upon, in much the same way that people on the colonial periphery did. It's different, of course, because we have the privilege of whiteness, but as I say in that chapter, some whitenesses are more provisional than others, and sometimes our whiteness is extremely useful for underwriting the white supremacy of people who'd rather not say it with their whole chest. That's one of the things that's annoyed me more than anything else in politics over the past few years: whenever someone in London wants to say something racist or transphobic, they'll invent an imaginary working-class friend from where I'm from. What was that one reactionary-safari piece in The Guardian? With the artisanal pizzeria owner who was also a landlord? Oh, the pizza guy! He was a landlord business owner, but his opinions were properly working class because they were reactionary! I adored him. I think there's limits to how useful these anecdotes are, but I spent election day 2019 in Stockton South, which we lost, under the Labour MP who got parachuted into Hartlepool a few weeks ago and had his arse handed to him [laughs]. And in Stockton South there's loads of people who've been driven mad by the Daily Mail and they're nuts and they're racist, but also loads of people who Labour traditionally didn't really think about—they’d count on having their votes but keep it on the down-low, or assume they wouldn’t vote at all—who were absolutely red-hot for Corbyn. It was when I went round the estates, kind of out-of-town, not a lot of amenities, but they're for people who own property, and they want to own a nice house that has some Doric pillars on the porch and enough space for two cars and a garage. And everyone who answered the door there wanted me to know that they've always voted Labour until now. This is obviously part of the reactionary script in this country, everyone's always voted Labour until this one point where they've gone too far, which is now. They've probably been saying that for 30 years. But these guys were serious about their working-class identity, and I'm not going to question that. And they weren’t wrong to look at me in the certain way that you look at some dickhead who grew up with books in the house and went to university down south, because I am that dickhead and I did go down south. They were basically telling me that they couldn't possibly, as working-class people, as people who knew what's what, they couldn't possibly support this kind of stuff, it might be all right for the likes of me. I kind of wanted to say, "I made 12 grand last year and I live in a room where I can't stand up straight in London. You live in a house with Doric pillars on the front porch." One of your favourite phrases in this book is "the imaginary," which I like a lot as well. Do you see a counter-imaginary happening at all, against these zombies of empire? This is one particular historical imaginary that's been activated, and to some extent conjured and created, by reactionary politics. But there's absolutely shitloads of counter-imaginaries, it's one of a whole galaxy of them in this country. All historical imaginaries are nostalgic to an extent, but there's other nostalgias, like the welfare-state nostalgia we have, if you've seen Ken Loach's film The Spirit of '45. I find it dismaying, but a lot of Corbynism was based on, like: "Remember 1945 to '48, when we created the welfare state? That was great!" And the post-war utility aesthetic. Remember the war, but in a socialist way. We have our mythologies about the International Brigades—it's not a hugely widespread mythology here, but if you know about the International Brigades in this country, it's likely that you think they were a good thing. I remember going to university and talking with someone who said, "Well, some people went to fight for Franco, and they were good chaps too," and just being absolutely horrified, because I'd never come across that before, because it was so unusual to hear someone speak about the Spanish Civil War in a way that didn’t come from the left. We have the whole British-leftist political imaginary going back to the Peasants’ Revolt, the Civil War, the Levellers and the Diggers and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. So there's a leftist historical pantheon and heroic narrative, we have those traditions as well. I imagine there are emergent traditions from immigrant communities that I'm mostly not aware of. And a lot of our best art and writing over the past century has been about presenting counter-imaginaries like that. I was helping a mate the other day with an article about northern literature, and we ended up talking about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish writer. His whole project was to stake out another imaginary that would counter the imperial British one. I've just watched a bunch of short films by Ayo Akingbade, which are all micro-histories of Black British people, both formally and politically radical. With cinema, like the Colston statue, I feel like there's a reason so many people were simultaneously horrified or galvanized by that, because it was such a dreamlike—this fact of the landscape just toppling into the water. It was a really emotional moment over here. How much coverage did it get in the States? It's hard to say, because so much of it happened via social media, and I never watch, like, cable news, but it was all over. People were joyously losing their minds here as well. I think there's an expectation, certainly on the part of people who pay for statues and have them commissioned, that they're not to be questioned. Even in Toronto where I'm from, there's this university called Ryerson, which is named after a Macaulay-like figure, Egerton Ryerson. They just pulled him down, didn't they? Yeah! He was one of the main architects of the residential school system, which is back in the news in Canada now after the discovery of these mass graves. Hundreds of children. So the university is gesturing towards changing its name, and meanwhile a bunch of people surreptitiously took his own statue and dumped it into Lake Ontario. The university was like, "Yeah, we're not going to replace it." What sort of recent historiography or books or other interventions would you suggest for people to read if they wanted to delve further into this, the question of empire? There's loads coming out right now—my book is in the middle of a huge splurge of stuff. It depends what it's for? The journalist Sathnam Sanghera, who's a really cool guy, he's written a book called Empireland for the general reader. It's kind of like, if your dad has been going on about mad students taking down statues, this is the book to give him. So it'll probably do more good than anyone else's book in the entire field, in terms of working against the ways reaction captures people, and meeting them where they are. Alex von Tunzelmann is publishing a really good book called Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History. Priya Satia’s book that I mentioned before, Time’s Monster, basically does what my book just about barely attempts, but on a grand scale, and about a million times better than I ever could. Obviously anyone wanting to understand race and history in contemporary Britain has to read Paul Gilroy, and I’ve always loved Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolphe Trouillot. The Brutish Museums by Dan Hicks is really good, really emotional and challenging, and sort of visionary in how it approaches the museums issue. I was genuinely troubled by it, in good ways. I really want to read that one, partly because it seems like the culture industry is such a redoubt of people who are—not unapologetic Nigel-Biggar-style imperialists, more like, "It's very bad that all these things happened, and we're going to sponsor a workshop or something, but please don't make us give back our looted treasures." There's a book called White Innocence by Gloria Wekker, from the Netherlands, which is just about a perfect explication, albeit in a different national context, of what's at stake in all this. I think what's really important for people to read isn't so much about the empire—I mean, obviously we need to know more about it—but as I try to make clear in this book, most of the time it's not even about that, that's just the thing it's being hung on. What we need, and this is something that comes down to the level of school curricula, is historiographical literacy, for people to understand how the past is used and what it's for. It's not just there being true, it's a political object that's always in contention. And for that there's classics like Raphael Samuel, like, everyone could do with reading Raphael Samuel. Patrick Wright is a writer who's still around, his book On Living in an Old Country is a selection of essays from the '80s, from the last moment like this under Thatcherism, the beginning of the heritage industry. He talks about how British history, Queen Elizabeth I and the Mary Rose, get mashed together into a lovely reactionary stew, with which to underwrite, in that case, a Hayekian neoliberal revolution that completely reconfigured society. Owen Hatherley’s book The Ministry of Nostalgia is really good, about the particular nostalgic fetish of austerity that took hold in the early 2010s. I wish all these books were more dated than they are, but there you go, they’re not, and whatever’s good in my own book I stole from them. I think it's important to have examples of how to read things, because I'm not a proper historian, I'm not really a historiographer, I'm definitely not a theorist, but all my degrees are in English literature and the only thing I'm really useful for is being able to read a thing try to describe it. So this is a book not necessarily about empire, but about how to read things, how to think about the past.
Talking to the author of The Rock Eaters about organizing a short story collection, lingering in the complexity of a question, and the inevitably of sorrow (and, hopefully, beauty).
In the opening story of The Rock Eaters (Penguin Books), Brenda Peynado’s debut collection, a child and her family perform oblations to the angels that live on their suburban rooftops. These benevolent beings don’t pay much attention: “They chewed their cud from the grasses and bugs they scavenged during the night and then shat runny white on our roofs, the shingles looking iced with snow despite the Florida heat.” They sound more like pigeons than god-adjacent figures, don’t they? The story, incidentally, is titled “Thoughts and Prayers,” and concerns a school shooting. Peynado’s stories are full of such clever twists on the relationship between the sacred and the mundane, the familiar and the alien. While a lesser writer might let the conceit of a story dominate it, Peynado never does; there is a deep emotional core to all the stories, and often a political one as well. In “The Stones of Sorrow Lake,” a young woman travels with her beloved to his hometown, a place that doesn’t let people go once they’ve experienced some kind of trauma there; in another story, “The Whitest Girl,” a group of adolescent Latinas experiment with the power of othering and exoticizing, tools learned at the hands of their own oppressors; a third, “The Touches,” an eerily prescient story, deals with touch hunger and isolation in a future ravaged with disease, where the outside world is so deadly that people live alone in small, secluded rooms, their material needs taken care of by robots. The Rock Eaters asks big, complicated questions about the nature of love, alienation, marginalization, and power, but it doesn’t attempt to give concrete answers. After all, these are questions human beings have been asking for as long as we’ve existed and written things down. I spoke to Brenda Peynado over Zoom just after the book’s publication. This interview has been edited and condensed. Ilana Masad: People in the contemporary literary sphere like to say that it's difficult or impossible to publish a short story collection before a novel. But you did just that! Would you tell me a little bit about your road to publication? Brenda Peynado: Yeah! So each of these stories was published previously, before being collected in a book, except for the first one, “Thoughts and Prayers,” which I wrote after the book had been sold. So the road to publication started with just publishing those first short stories. A lot of them have been years in the making. I had published maybe 40 or 50 short stories before selling the collection. I think one of the things that's so hard about publishing short story collections is just that every MFA has one; if you've written 15 stories, suddenly you have something that you can consider a collection. I think my road came from not publishing [in book form] the first 16 stories [I had]. They didn't all fit together, and my writing changed a lot over the course of a decade, from very realist stories into more fabulist, going back to the genre that I loved writing. I kept getting better as a writer with every year. So a lot of my early stories ended up not making it to this collection. I did think that I was going to have to sell [the collection] with a novel, but I have an amazing editor who believed so much in the short stories that she didn't want to buy the short story collection as a freebie for the novel. She believed in it as its own book and really loved the stories. I’m so glad; you’re such a good short story writer. How did you decide, from those 40 or 50 stories that you've published, which ones would come into this collection and how you would organize them? The organization was [in service of] making it feel like you were prepared for what was coming next. So even if one of the stories was realist and the next one was science fiction, [I was] trying to get it so that one would pick up a thread that a previous story left off. One example of this might be “The Touches,” along with a story like “The Dreamers,” and a story like “The Drownings,” and how they’re about human connection and trying to understand each other, and about romantic love, but they're also wildly different. And seeing them spread out over the collection—as opposed to clumping them all together—has the effect of creating a good thread. The only ones that I felt strongly about, in terms of order, were [the first and last stories.] I knew that “Thoughts and Prayers” had to be first, and I knew that “The Radioactives” had to be last. I really want to make people cry, and I want to show the brutalness of humanity, but I also wanted to show tenderness and I wanted to end the book on a feeling of hope: that these superheroes [in “The Radioactives”] were coming to save us, in a way. That despite all of the ill, despite everything that had happened to them, they were still coming and they were going to save everyone. I wanted “Thoughts and Prayers” to be first because it picks up all of the themes of the other stories. You know, it's got the angels, so it sort of prepares you for the genre bending that happens; it has this Latina girl [narrator] and it deals with girlhood; and [the narrator] is sort of considering what forms love can take and what is worth protecting: Is love worth protecting? How do you protect it? How do you love someone, even if they're the unlucky family across the street or your mother wielding gun? I think that story sort of encapsulated everything that I was trying to do in the collection in a fun way. Something that appears in quite a few of the stories is how many different viewpoints on how to deal with a problem can exist side by side in one family, or in one community, and how people can love each other despite those incredibly different ways of approaching a problem. What does fiction allow you to explore about the complexity of how people love each other? I was probably never going to be a good essayist because I don't have answers. I only have lots and lots of questions about the world. One of the things that fiction can do so well is not give you any answers and just pile on the complexity of a question, which is where I love to linger. I think this probably says a lot about me—I'm so bewildered at how there can be such brutality and harm and sorrow in a world where there's also such love and joy. And it's not that they exist in different pockets, they're sort of mutual and flitting back and forth between each other. There's so much harm that can come from love. I just think about people with guns and how they're not shooting someone necessarily because they think, I'm going to get this gun and I'm going to go out and harm people. I mean, there are some people that do that, but there's a lot of people who are like, I'm going to get this gun, ’cause I'm going to protect the people that I love. It comes from love, even if it's flawed love. Or, you know, how much harm we can do in relationships, trying to love each other and how flawed and desperate that love is at the same time as it can be beautiful and joyful. I feel like fiction—even in political stories—always has to remember the individual and remember that all of these brutal things are coming from such complicated desires. And a lot of those desires are the same ones that we have even when we don't agree with where someone is coming from. So in my fiction, I really don't want to give people easy answers; I just want to show people how complicated all of this is. I think that's what can really make people cry at stories: how inevitable the sorrow is, as well as the beauty that comes along the way. The stories in The Rock Eaters span various genres, from straight up realism, to fabulism, to sci-fi, to magical realism. Do you know, from the start, if a story is going to go toward one genre or another? Do you discover as you write? How does genre play into your process? I sort of think genreless in that I don't necessarily have them in separate boxes. I usually start a story based on an image and that image can end up in any genre. Each writes its way into the story. I began “The Kite Maker” just with an image of these aliens flying a kite. Then I thought, Why would this be meaningful to them, and how would that be heartbreaking? Oh, they've lost their planet and this kite is representative of that lost planet. And then I was like, Okay, who's watching them? Who would that [act of] watching them break? Oh, somebody who feels incredibly guilty at the harm that she's caused these people, and the weight of that. So I went from the image to like, Okay, whose heart is this going to break? And whose heart is that going to break? The story came from there. Sometimes the stories come in layers. With “Thoughts and Prayers,” I knew I wanted angels on the roofs and that school shooting. Part of that was because I think about school shootings a lot as a teacher. Every year we get thethis-is-how-you-avoid-dying-from-a-student-who’s-become-violent seminars, where they were giving us tips and tricks to stay alive, like take off your belt and you can tie the doorknobs together! That’s so bleak. Right? So I had school shootings on the brain. I was raised very Catholic and my mother prays for a lot of people and it just kept feeling so insufficient to me. Like, Mom, I appreciate that you're praying, but also, is it that you think that not enough people have prayed for the people that died? Do you think that anyone who’s saved, it's because enough people prayed for them or prayed hard enough? What is it that you think that prayer is doing in the world? So I wanted to have these angels as an embodiment of this prayer, and people [pray to them] because they feel like they have to or because they believe it, but also, they can't quite figure out what it's enacting in the world. From there I was like, Okay, I know there's a school shooting. I know there are these angels. I know there are these two girls that are best friends. Another story, “The Stones of Sorrow Lake,” was a really realist story when I wrote it the first eight times, from scratch. It wasn't until the stones [became] the embodiment of what I wanted to talk about—a legacy of sorrows in this town's history—that the story ended up working, and finally I was able to write about what I wanted to write about. Girlhood is a feature of many of the stories here; many of the protagonists are tweens or teens. What is it about that time that feels so rich to you as a writer? I have been mourning my age lately, and part of that is how much I feel is lost. There's our aging bodies, but also how many possibilities are lost to us. When I was a kid, I thought I could be a super-secret spy, learn eight languages, have five different jobs, be an artist and a writer and an activist—all at the same time. I think there are some people who are able to do that, but I think for most of us, as we get older, the things that we can imagine ourselves doing start to narrow. What I love about that time period [in girlhood] is just how many possibilities are open to us and yet how bewildering we find the ways to get there. I think what I love to write lingers in that stage of bewilderment and possibility and wonder, and that's the attitude that I like to bring to everything. I also love how complicated girl relationships are, with frenemy-ships where you both understand each other and love each other to death, but you're also competing at the same time in this very fraught way. Another thing that I noticed come up in multiple stories is the use of a plural first-person narrator, this collective “we.” What about this narration style calls to you, and how is it useful to you as a writer? I really like writing in first person plural. Part of that is because when I have something that is too complicated for me to stare at head on with just one character, the “we” narration allows me to sort of layer on all of these complexities, whereas if I had had one character, I would have had to sort of stick with what they thought about the situation. So in “The Whitest Girl,” there’s the intersectionality of race and the way that [the Latina girl narrators are] thinking about getting back at what has gotten them, but also the ways that they could band together or not. It's hard to think about something that works on groups without speaking as a group, but I was also really interested in the ways that the group frays at the edges. In a story like “The Drownings,” [which deals with] death and risk, and [asks] what risks do we take, I wanted the story to feel like a dream, and I think the “we” narration gave it that sort of singsong, incantatory [feeling], almost like a group chanting. I have to ask about “The Touches,” which was first published on Tor.com in 2019, well before the terribly, eerily, awfully relevant year we've just gone through. Did you think about it at all when the pandemic started and social distancing became a thing and touch hunger became something that people were suddenly talking about? Was it a weird life-imitating-art thing for you? Yeah, it was really uncanny. I had written that at a time when I was interested in investigating loneliness and trying to connect with people. I had just moved to a new city and was bemoaning a loss of connection that I had before when I was in graduate school. That story came from a place of feeling isolated and wanting desperately to connect with people and not knowing how to do it. [I was just] imagining this world where we were all forced into that [isolation], and [touch] was forbidden to us. So of course, when the pandemic started, it became super relevant. I think at the time, [when I wrote the story] there weren’t all of these political ramifications of will you mask or won’t you mask? Will you quarantine or won’t you quarantine? So I was able to look at it in a very isolated way, just assuming everyone is on the same page and somehow the governments of the world all got us to the place where we were quarantining. Then what would the world look like? And what would you do to transgress those boundaries? Whereas I think had I written it in the [COVID-19] pandemic, there would have been so many politics around those choices that I would not have been able to write the same story. The weirdest part too, is—so I had virtual reality [in the story] and I had my main character electing for a baby. And the two things that happened during the pandemic were, first, last summer I got an Oculus Quest and spent a lot of time in VR. I went to a Metallica concert in VR, and you could actually see people headbanging. You didn't need to see their facial expressions; you were at a Metallica concert. And I also went to a jellyfish viewing at an aquarium in VR and there were a lot of people talking politics, and you could jump seats to talk to different people. So it was really interesting to be in VR, in quarantine, at a time when so much was happening and people were protesting. And second, out of all that and my feeling of isolation, [I turned] to my partner, like, you know what, let's start a family. Who does that? That's a bewildering choice to make considering all of that. But for whatever reason it felt right. I noticed a lot of casual bisexuality in the book, by which I mean that it's not the topic of any story, it’s just allowed and there. How did you allow that in and let it stand without comment? I think it is a privilege of bisexuality that you don't have to be out. People know you as someone who's dated men—if you're a woman—and you can casually mention that you have dated women before or relationships you've had, but strangely it's not a thing that necessarily needs to be announced until the moment at which you need it to be known. My characters are also living in worlds where no one calls them on it. In the first story, “Thoughts and Prayers,” the mother does sort of comment on what she considers to be an inappropriate relationship between the two girls but she does it silently because it's something that she doesn't want to speak about, that she doesn't want to say out loud. I think that probably goes a lot more into the mentality of the “don't ask, don't tell” aspect of that privilege. But later stories are relying on leaps of imagination—I mean, in a world where people don't sleep, can’t we also have polyamory and bisexuality as something that is a matter of course and that nobody has to question? I think part of it is a hopefulness.
Talking to the author of Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook about feminist translations of The Odyssey, the whitewashing of ancient Greece, and the link between white supremacy and classics.
Historically, translating the Greek epics has been the domain of men. For around 400 years, no woman had ever translated the Odyssey. Then in 2017, British classicist Emily Wilson became the first woman to translate Homer’s poem into English. Wilson’s translation was radically different than her predecessors’, not only because she uses plain, contemporary language, but because she re-interprets gender and class within the story. While previous translations have used the term “whores,” “the creatures,” or “sluts” to describe the women living in Odysseus’s palace when he returns, Wilson simply calls them “the girls,” noting that any other term is a misogynistic interpretation of the original Greek. In an essay in The Guardian, Wilson writes that “female translators often stand at a critical distance when approaching authors who are not only male, but also deeply embedded in a canon that has for many centuries been imagined as belonging to men. The inability to take classical texts for granted is a great gift that some female translators are able to use as a point of leverage, to shift the canon to a different and unexpected place.” Shifting the canon is also at the crux of author and podcaster Liv Albert’s work. In her debut book, Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook (Adams), Albert breaks down the histories, symbols, and cultural significance of the major players in Greek mythology and how their stories intersect. Unlike so many mythology books—which often employ stuffy and overwrought language—Albert uses a conversational tone and plays up the inherent humour of these stories. She describes Zeus as “far from the loving, doting father of Disney’s Hercules” and instead a god who “used his power and influence to ruin nearly everyone he came into contact with,” and Aphrodite as being “renowned for her beauty (which she was very, very, aware of).” Albert first studied mythology in elementary school, but only became obsessed when she was writing a novel about Greek mythology in her early 20s. When she couldn’t figure out how to get her novel published, she decided to study English and Classics at Concordia University. After graduating, she worked in book publishing in Toronto and eventually moved to Vancouver, where she got a high-paying but soul-sucking job at an aerospace company. She passed the time at work listening to podcasts, which inspired her to start her own. She brings wit and a decidedly feminist perspective to Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!, where in each episode she unpacks the specific story in Roman and Greek mythology, interviews classics scholars and academics, or reads the Odyssey and other classic works, like the Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius. Albert is a part of a new wave of women writers, cartoonists, and podcasters who are re-examining a genre that for so long has been the purview of old white men. There’s Madeline Miller’s New York Times-bestselling novel, Circe, which is written from the perspective of the immortal witch; Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, a retelling of the Iliad through the voice of Achilles’s concubine, Briseis; Rachel Smythe’s webcomic Lore Olympus; and Jess Zimmerman’s Women and Other Monsters, an essay collection that reframes the female monsters of Greek mythology, just to name a few. Albert’s The Handbook is a smart and witty introduction to the world of mythology. But it also makes the argument that even two millennia after these stories were first written down, there are still new discoveries to be made in-between the lines. I spoke with Albert about unpacking the biases in centuries-old translations, the importance of language, and why her podcast makes men so mad. Samantha Edwards: In the intro of your book, you write about how Greek myths started as oral stories that were later written down by Homer, or retold by playwrights like Sophocles and Euripides. So as a result, there are many slightly different versions of these stories. Maybe it’s because I'm a journalist, but I always found that aspect of mythology kind of annoying, like how you can never just confirm specific details or how there’s not a definitive source for certain myths. Is this something that bugs you? Or is that part of the fun, just digging through the different versions? Liv Albert: Yeah, I love it. I think it’s fascinating thinking about why they’re different, whether it’s because of who is telling the story or where the story originates from. Sometimes they’re different because there's 700 years in between the two sources. That's the thing people don't think about. The time between Homer and Euripides is like 400 years. So, it's like saying, Well, why isn’t this thing from Victorian England the same as it is in the 21st century? We’re so far removed from it we don't often think about the time between sources. How has your approach to researching myths for your podcast, Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby! changed since you first started? It's changed so much. I notoriously wrote the first few episodes on the Notes app of my phone, while not doing the job that I hated. I was just using Wikipedia and whatever I could find online. And then, slowly I was getting a hold of Greek myth books and working off of them. Then I went on to the Iliad, which is a little easier because you're not worrying about super biased retellings, you just have to worry about biased translations. I now read every primary source I can find, and then try to piece together something from like four or five different sources. I almost never read secondary sources. I'm very proud of how I do it now. I'm not not proud of how I did the earlier ones, but I really prefer what I do now, which is just so much more in depth. Can you tell me a bit about the biased retellings and how you've come across those in your own research? In ancient Greece and in Greek mythology, we only know what has survived. We don't know what women were telling each other of the stories back then. We only know what somebody wrote on a piece of paper, and then what countless people over millennia chose to recopy so that we have it today. We have really select information and from really select people, and those people are men. And up until the past few decades, most of the translations were also by men. Emily Wilson's recent translation of The Odyssey got a lot of press for addressing how [previous translations] used the word “slut” or “harlot” when the original Greek is just a form of the word “woman.” There’s a bias that’s not in the original text, but in the person translating. That happens a lot, and it means that almost every book of Greek myths says things like, “Zeus wrapped her away,” or “he ravished her.” These are euphemisms for assault. You have to read between the lines and gather that, but I don't think men often do that, by and large. One of the things I'm most proud about, when it comes to The Handbook, is that it uses the word ‘assault’ to describe what the gods did to women and other goddesses, because that's what it was. Hesiod is one of the earliest sources we have of Greek myths, and he just happened to not really care whether or not [sex] was consensual. It's just sort of like, 'this happened.” Now I have men on Twitter yelling at me because when I say that somebody assaulted somebody else, they're like, "Well, no, it just says this." They think that just because one man in 750 BC didn't explicitly say that the woman wasn't into it, that somehow means it definitely wasn't assault. In mythology, why do you think it's important that if it's an assault, we call it an assault? These stories are so old and they're all myths, so those guys on Twitter could be like, “What does it matter what words we use because it actually didn't happen anyway?” Why do you feel it's important that we choose the language that we do when we tell these stories? Yeah, ultimately, that's true. These myths are fiction, but they're also fiction based in a society that was real and that didn't value people who weren't Greek men. While it might not seem like it is necessary to say Zeus assaulted everyone, I think it's important it gives a voice and a story to marginalized people more broadly. Like sure, it's not that big of a deal that one mythological, fictional woman had a bad encounter with a god. But by calling it what it is, it points out how the way we tell these stories has been influenced by men, and how maybe it's time for other people to have a voice. I know that you make a conscious effort to look at myths through a feminist lens. How should race and ethnicity play into how modern scholars or myth enthusiasts look at these stories? I think that's really important and it's something I’ve tried to do more and more. It’s a little tricky, mostly because [the Greeks] didn't see race like we did. They weren’t a culturally accepting society, but it wasn’t about skin colour. It was about whether you were politically cultured, where you were from, and if you spoke Greek. Skin colour didn't matter. But the thing that becomes most problematic now is that there's this completely inaccurate idea that Greece and Rome founded ‘Western civilization,’ and that we have everything because of them, and primarily, that they should be considered to be white. The fact is that Athens and Rome were cities in the Mediterranean, and Northern Africa and the Middle East is also part of the Mediterranean. The Greeks traveled to all those places, they traded with all these people, they made friends and moved between cities. Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations were influenced by Africa and the Middle East. Before we chatted, I was reading about the connection between white supremacy and classics. Some modern white supremacists in the United States are obsessed with classical architecture. They use images of marble columns and sculptures in their branding, and at marches, they’ll have signs that say, "Protect our heritage" with an image of a marble bust. It feels like the whitewashing of classics legitimatizes these people’s views and makes them feel more authentic. That's exactly right. We’ve placed this whiteness upon these civilizations that were completely multicultural and worked with the whole of the Mediterranean. But white supremacists [who are obsessed with classics] have this misunderstanding over who actually gave us what we have today, who gave us astronomy and math, and all these things. It’s all just placed upon the Greeks, as if they did it all in a vacuum and were not deeply involved with the whole of the region. A really important thing that doesn't get mentioned a lot outside of academic circles is that there's also almost a literal whitewashing involved too. Polychromy, [the practise of decorating architectural elements and sculpture in a variety of colours], was the way that they actually did their statues back then. They were painted shades of beige. They weren't white—the colour has just come off because it's been 2,500 years. This idea that even the statues are visibly white because it's marble is wrong. Generally, why do you think it's worthwhile studying and retelling these stories now? I definitely started getting into mythology because the stories are really interesting and funny. Now the longer I’m in it, I also want to take back some of these stories that have been whitewashed or have been taken over by this patriarchal idea that's just false. For example, stories like Medusa: There's no evidence that she did any harm, that she was evil in any way. There's nothing. She lived at the ends of the earth, and she kept to herself. She just might have looked like a monster, and even that we're not totally sure of. And yet, we have this idea that she was awful and evil and deserves to be killed—and that comes from misogyny. In a world that has so many monsters, she's the only monster that’s treated like that, and it's just really interesting to think about where that comes from. Who else—whether heroes, gods, goddesses or—do you think are the most misunderstood? There's so many. A fun one is Pegasus. I think a lot of people in the general millennial age group who think of Pegasus are going to think of Disney's Hercules, like this cute little horse born of clouds who Hercules rode. Pegasus was actually born from Medusa’s head after it was cut off by Perseus. He cut off this woman's head who wasn't asking for any trouble, and out flew her child. Pegasus was actually the child of Poseidon and had just been gestating inside of Medusa, waiting for her head to come off. On top of that, the only hero who ever actually rode Pegasus was a poor guy named Bellerophon, who's never talked about. Meanwhile, Hercules and Perseus are always the ones riding Pegasus in pop culture. Oh no, that guy needs his own story now. I know. He's the poor guy. He's really not in anything and he is the only hero who rode Pegasus in Greek mythology. He deserves his proper due as the guy who rode Pegasus. I'm pretty sure my podcast episode on him is called "The Underserved Hero Who Actually Rode Pegasus." Well, there you go! Finally, I wanted to ask you about the quote in your Twitter bio that says you “ruin mythology.” What’s the context of that quote? The funniest thing I've experienced with the podcast—and I would say it's about 95 per cent of my bad reviews—is just how triggered straight men get about a woman taking these stories that they have always thought were for them, and making them for everyone. It lends itself back to that question you asked earlier, about why I think it's important to tell it like it is versus how it's been said over time, because [men] really get mad that I say bad things about heroes. These stories were always made for them, and I'm just saying they're for everyone. That makes a lot of people angry. I get reviews that are like, “I just wish she'd stick to the myth,” or “She’s so biased.” But I'm like, no, the earlier ones were biased. I'm just breaking that apart. Every person telling these stories, writing them down, translating them and talking about them—everyone was a man. That creates an inherent bias that I am looking at now, and it makes people feel bad. And so yes, one random, angry white man Tweeted at me and said I “ruined mythology” and I decided that needed to be in my Twitter bio forever.
What makes you feel tethered to the world around you? Or, another way of putting it: what is it, every day, that convinces you you’re actually here, and that there’s a here to be? Shared experiences, for many. Physical touch, maybe, anything that stimulates your senses. I don’t have a sense of smell in my dreams. Maybe it’s consumption, or conversation. Maybe you want to weigh yourself down with objects, surround yourself in a nest that proves You Were Here. Maybe it’s creation—I made that, I must be real, look how real that is. Maybe it’s destruction—I broke that, I must be real, look how broken it is. Isolation can provoke slippery thoughts about our sense of the real. When we’re alone, when the context we’re used to is up-ended, suddenly reality doesn’t seem like something a wise person takes for granted. Pain can do this, too. Illness. Certainly, certainly grief. In her new novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness (Penguin), Ruth Ozeki shares pages from the imagined self-help best-seller of a Zen Buddhist nun named Aikon, who writes, “What is real?...Impermanence is real.” Aikon herself is a funny trick of reality, inspired as she is by the tidying boom sparked in the West by Marie Kondo. And it’s in this liminal place between real and unreal where much of The Book of Form and Emptiness lives. It’s a book with a character who is the book itself, narrating the life of the actual main character, Benny, who spends a good deal of his time tuning out the narration of the inanimate objects around him who won’t shut up. His father is dead, his mother is drowning, and the city around him is heaving with stories, voices, suffering, and respite. Eventually confined to a psych ward, Benny’s life becomes a game of chicken with other peoples’ realities: Medical professionals trying to explain the voices he’s hearing, his mother trying to pretend him back into childhood, kids at school who call him crazy, and his new friends who call him a writer. Throughout the book, Ozeki impresses upon us the layers of reality, crafted through the stories we tell ourselves, that clutter everyday life. Did a murder of crows save a woman from freezing or try to eat her concussed body? Is a bottle collector talking to himself on the bus suffering, or a savant? Does the person you have a crush on ever actually exist? Does it matter? Though he may not know it, Benny has a literary contemporary—another bookish young man in a long novel who can hear objects speaking to him: Belt, the protagonist of Adam Levin’s Bubblegum. Like Benny, objects communicate their suffering to Belt, and like Benny, he wishes to help them. Reading these two books during a global pandemic, “surrounded,” as Helen Shaw writes in her Vulture profile of Ozeki, “by and penned in by our possessions as never before,” I can’t help but wonder what these two boys appearing in these two books published during this time could mean. It doesn’t, of course, really mean anything—Ozeki was writing her novel for eight years, and this was Levin’s first book since 2010. That these books emerged at a time when our relationship with the things that surround us became so heightened is one of those wonderful tricks of literature, a synchronicity. The two boys exist in very different realities—across a continent from each other, one in the throes of grief, one a vehicle for an alternate future. We get to meet Belt as a grownup; we only live with Benny through the tumultuous year following the death of his father, Kenji. But isn’t it wonderful to imagine them together? That, ultimately, seems to be the kindness Ozeki extends to Benny, and to her reader. The world is tough. See the stories where you can and hold on to them. After all, stories are as much a tether as anything else. If something offers you a narrative, listen. Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest, and The Book of Form and Emptiness is her fourth novel. Ozeki and I spoke about both her writing and Zen practice, her previous work, including the Pulitzer- and Booker-nominated A Tale for the Time Being, and libraries, which feature heavily in Benny’s world (and, in the book, serve as a place for the reader to meet the writer’s proxy, keeping a close eye on her twelve-year-old literary charge). Haley Cullingham: I’m curious what it is about the Pacific Northwest that keeps drawing you back for literary exploration? Ruth Ozeki: I’ve never really thought about it, but now that you bring it up, I think one of the things, certainly, is the weather. The moodiness of it, and the culture, too, of it being a Pacific Rim city, I’m thinking Vancouver in particular, right? There’s a tie to Asia that I feel somehow congruent with. It’s the landscape, it’s the weather, it’s the ocean, it’s the proximity to Asia, I think there’s a kind of—the term pathetic fallacy pops to mind. The sense that somehow it mirrors my identity and my internal emotional state. [Laughs] Extreme. It’s also very extreme, right? So that’s part of it. I wanted to begin by talking about the idea of things left behind. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you think about the contrast between a physical legacy and a legacy that lives in memory and spirit, and what you were thinking in that context as you were writing and as you were developing the book. When I think about things left behind, and I think about memory and legacy, of course the first thing that pops to mind is the book. That’s what books are, they’re containers for memory. They’re containers for the stories of the past. It’s an artifact that allows you to communicate with the past. It allows you to communicate with the minds of the dead, if you’re reading dead authors. There’s that lovely idea that if you read the poems of the dead poet out loud, it’s actually the poet who’s borrowing your tongue. It’s the dead poet borrowing the tongues of the living in order to speak again. I would imagine most writers have this sense of the book as being a kind of conduit between the past and the present, because of course, as I’m writing the book, I’m realizing that I’m talking to people who exist in the future, who might not even be alive yet. I’m talking to people who certainly don’t exist yet. A book is a strange kind of artifact in that way. But I suppose, really, when you think about it, all artifacts are like that. All things are like that. And something that occurs to me, it happened the other day, I was walking down the street, and there was a parking meter, and these parking meters, they were old-fashioned parking meters, where you actually put coins into them, and I was thinking, they’ve been there for decades, right? Nobody uses these things anymore; phone booths [are] another thing. It’s an old technology, right? But it persists in time. And, in fact, the thing will probably outlive me. And I felt a kind of sudden pang of outrage [laughs] thinking, here’s this damn parking meter that’s going to be around long after I’m gone, and what does it think it is, anyway? Things have staying power. Things really have staying power. And in that sense, if you start to play with this idea of things having memory, or things having stories inside them somehow, not just books but objects as well, then it becomes an interesting storehouse of memory. When I was writing the book, I was certainly thinking of objects like that, particularly made objects, as being repositories of all of that, not just of memories, but the aspects, the emotions, of all of the people who had anything to do with the process of making. It’s kind of a thought experiment, really, more than anything else, I suppose. What would those stories be? Who has come into contact with these objects, and has participated in their making, and what kind of aura remains? Those were the kinds of things I was thinking about as I was thinking about running shoes, or pencils, or any of these objects in the book. The idea of parking meters, thinking of them in the context of the book, makes me think of how removal is an act of care, too. I think about the moment when Benny finally says to his mum, these shirts want to be worn. Don’t make dad’s shirts into a quilt. Let them out into the world and let them do their thing. But no one takes that parking meter down because no one cares about it enough as an object to even remove it. Right, or it’s a financial decision, you know, the city has just decided that, well, we’ll just keep them for now, because what are we going to replace them with, you know, whatever, they’ve got their reasons. It is a kind of form of neglect, in a way. They’re not important enough to remove. Phone booths being a prime example of that. I love walking around and seeing gutted phone booths, because nobody makes phone calls in public phones anymore, so very often the booths are just left there empty, because the phones have been vandalized or removed, you know? These artifacts of old technology, weird palimpsests that you see, in the city in particular. They’ve automated a bunch of the transit entrances here in Toronto, so there’s these ghostly ticket booths now. They definitely have an energy to them. In Vancouver, there were weird artifacts of old streetcars, or the trains themselves, these artifacts of old technology. I was curious, as I was reading, if there was one character or one spark where this book began, or if it came together in a different way? I find that there’s rarely one thing. Usually what starts a book going is a collision between multiple elements. It’s like they’re particles that have to collide, and start to constellate. So when enough particles collide, then this process of constellation starts to happen. So the stories usually come from that collision itself. When two things meet, there’s a force produced, a third thing is produced from that. In this case, the key elements were, first of all, the library, and the characters who live in the library, and the bindery itself. These were all artifacts of an early draft of A Tale for the Time Being. That book changed radically in the middle, and I had to take that book apart, maybe it was like several hundred pages, which consisted of the library and the Alice character and the Bottleman, and the bindery. All of those characters were from an early version of A Tale for the Time Being. And at some point, it was actually after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I realized that half of the book just simply wasn’t working, and so I stripped it all out, and that’s when I wrote the Vancouver Island stuff, and put Ruth and Oliver in the book, and made Ruth be the recipient of the diary. Before that, the book had been set in a library. And so I had these pages, and they were hanging around in my hard drive, and the library as a location was still very alive for me, and the characters were very alive, so they were kind of lurking in the background, waiting for a fictional home, lobbying for a new book. And then the idea of the boy, of Benny, popped into my mind, and this idea of a boy who hears the voices of things talking to him. And so, those were the two parts that came together. And I realized that, for a boy for whom the world is a cacophonous place, a library would be a very soothing refuge, and it suddenly was like, oh, of course. That’s what happens. The two bits came together that way. It was exciting. It was also funny, because I remember thinking, Oh, this is great, I have like two or three hundred pages of library stuff already written, this is going to be a breeze, I’ll just knock this one out really fast. And, you know, eight years later, [laughs] I’m still working on it. That didn’t exactly happen the way I’d hoped. I think in a way, retrofitting is even harder. It has to change significantly in order to become this new thing. Do you have a favourite library? Well, I have many favourite libraries, but much of the inspiration for the library in the book was the Vancouver Public Library. I lived in Vancouver for four or five years, something like that, before we moved up to Cortez, and so I used to go to the library almost every day, and I did all of the research for My Year of Meats there, I did some of the research for All Over Creation there, it was a place that I really, really loved. And All Over Creation was chosen as the One Book, One Vancouver book, an event that’s sponsored by the VPL, so I was hanging out there quite a bit. And one of the things that I asked for was a tour of the inner workings of the library, because I knew all of the areas that were accessible to library patrons, but I wanted to get down into the bowels of the library, and up into the roof garden too, because it’s got a beautiful green roof. They were lovely, and they gave me a tour of the entire facility, and at the time, there was a defunct bindery in the basement of the VPL. And it was the last, I mean this is the story that I heard, it was the last public bindery in North America. There are private binderies, but this is the last public bindery in North America, and they had just closed it, and people were upset. The library workers were upset, I think they went on strike eventually, to protest this as well as other things, and library patrons were upset, because it really was a symbolic decision to close the bindery, because it really signaled the end of an era. The end of a time when, for example, periodicals existed in hard copy, and the printed periodicals needed to be bound into collections, and that no longer was necessary, because everything was available online. And so it was really a kind of signal of the shift from analogue to digital, from print to digital. And people were upset about this. The symbolic impact, or import, of that was significant. So there was a hue and cry about the closing of the bindery, the library workers were on strike because the binders were being made redundant, and so I remembered that story, and that’s kind of the story behind the fictional bindery in the book. And then the other thing I remembered was, the woman who was doing public relations for the library, I think she may have been pulling my leg, but she did tell me that the sub-basement of the Vancouver Public Library was haunted. And that night security guards reported hearing calypso music emanating from the basement. I’m not going to vouch for the truth of that, you know, but that was the story that was told to me, so of course that had to go in as well. Music is definitely something that I wanted to talk to you about. I love the musicality of Benny’s name. There’s just something about it that’s like, of course his dad’s a jazz musician if his name’s Benny Oh. I felt the same way, I felt the same way, that there was something so exuberant about his name, it was very musical. I wanted to ask about the way you approached the presence of sound and rhythm in the book. I’m trying to remember where the idea of Kenji being a jazz clarinetist came from. I’m not even sure. Maybe it was just that I was hanging out at jazz clubs down in the east side in Vancouver. I can’t really remember how the Benny Goodman stuff came into the book. I think maybe the whole thing started with the name Benny. It’s just a name that I’ve always liked, and I’ve always wanted to write a character named Benny, and so when I thought about this boy, he was always just Benny. I don’t remember how his last name, how the Benny Oh came into being either. It’s funny, because it just seemed like, oh, that’s it, that’s what it is. And Kenji’s a jazz musician, and there’s Benny Goodman, and Benny Goodman was a jazz clarinetist. The whole thing seemed to be already pre-existing, and I just kind of discovered it. It’s not like I was a big Benny Goodman fan before this. I became a Benny Goodman fan as I was writing the book, and I started researching that Carnegie Hall concert, and then had to buy the music and listen to it, and all of that. Because it was a book about sound, and voices, the idea of music and musicality and rhythm and speech patterns and all of that just seemed kind of built in, once again, to the fabric of the story. And I was very aware of that when I was writing, because it gave me some kind of permission to be a little playful with the sentences. I was probably even more indulgent with internal rhyme and rhythmic structures. Sometimes you want to edit that stuff out. Sometimes you want to keep the prose from drawing attention to itself. But in this book, and this is why I say indulgent, I felt that certainly because the narrator of the book was a book, I felt that the narrator would be more indulgent, would be more self-indulgent. And it gave me permission to play a little more, on that level. There were a lot of moments where I was aware that in normal circumstances, I would have edited out internal rhymes in a sentence, but in this case, I was going to leave them. Was there anything you were listening to in particular as you were writing the book? I will send you my Spotify playlist! Of course I was listening to a lot of Benny Goodman. But I couldn’t really listen to Benny Goodman while I was writing, it was too distracting. So there was a lot of ambient music I was listening to as I was writing. And then there was—the astronaut theme took off, as it were, and so there was kind of space-y music that I associate with the book now, too. Including David Bowie. I’m curious what you think about how to capture the experience of mental illness in fiction, and why you chose to do it. First of all, I wouldn’t characterize Benny’s condition as mental illness. I would say that he had unshared experiences. But I wouldn’t call it mental illness, that’s a diagnosis that would come from a traditional medical perspective, perhaps. Benny was an extraordinarily receptive and sensitive kid, who had these experiences that other people didn’t share. People who have experiences like that, be they visual or oral, very often are diagnosed as being not normal in some way. But I find that to be worth interrogating. It’s an assumption that’s really worth interrogating. And I think that was part of my purpose for writing the book. Because, as a novelist, as a fiction writer, I hear voices too. I hear the voices of my fictional characters, and these are unshared experiences, and my job as a novelist is to share them, and to make them quote real for other people, even though they’re fictional, and they don’t really exist. But that’s my job, to try to make them manifest in some sort of way. And so, in this case, after my own dad died, I did have the experience of hearing his voice as if he were still there. As if he were standing outside, it was outside, behind me on the right-hand side, and I’d be doing something ordinary, like washing the dishes, and I would hear him clear his throat and call my name. He would just say my name. And I would turn around, the reflexes are so quick, right? So I’d hear it, I’d turn around, and he wouldn’t be there. I couldn’t see him. And then I’d remember, oh, right. He’s dead. But my experience of it was that it was real. So this happened maybe four or five times, half a dozen times maybe, over the course of about a year, I would say. And each instance was so quick and so brief. A couple of times it happened just on the brink of sleep, kind of a dream-like quality to it. In any case, I didn’t pay it much mind. It happened, went on, it was like, “that was weird,” and just kind of continued. And then eventually it faded away. I stopped hearing his voice. And then I kind of forgot about it. And then, years later, I was doing an event at a library somewhere, I think it was in Michigan, and I was talking about how Nao’s voice, in A Tale for the Time Being, and how characters come to me as voices. It’s like I hear them talking, and I write them down. And somebody in the audience, this middle-aged man in the audience, raised his hand and asked me, do I hear the voices as if they are outside me and I’m hearing them with my ear, or is it more like the voices are inside my head and I’m hearing them with my mind? He explained that his son heard voices as if they were outside and he was hearing them with his ear. And they were very harsh, and very cruel, cutting voices. Critical voices. And this was very disturbing to his son. And so I thought about that. I told the man that in the case of fictional characters it’s a more internal voice, but that I had had this experience of hearing voices, my dad’s voice, as if it was outside me. And I told him that I also understood what it felt like to have critical, harsh, cruel voices, and to hear those, even though when I heard voices like that, it was more internal, the voices of the inner critic or the inner judge, just being really super mean about my writing, you know, for example. I knew what those voices felt like, too, but I’d never heard them as though they were outside my head. So that got me really thinking about this spectrum of the experience of hearing voices. On one end of the spectrum, artists and writers and musicians, we have these, you can call them visions, you can call them inspiration, you can call them the muses, you can call them whatever you want, but it’s a common experience and it’s one that is generally, in this society that we live in, it’s one that is celebrated as a positive thing. So that’s one end of the spectrum. And then in the middle part of the spectrum, there’s the kind of critical, neurotic voices, the perseverating voices that most of us hear in some situation or another, and then on the other end of the spectrum, there are the voices that would be, if you talked to a psychiatrist, they would be considered psychotic, or schizophrenic. So there’s this spectrum the term voice-hearing kind of covers. And so, what part of that spectrum is normal? What do we call normal and what do we call abnormal? And it occurred to me that, and this is something I think about a lot, that the whole concept of normal is a social construct. We made up this idea of what’s normal. And so, since we made it up to begin with, why can’t we expand the concept? Why can’t we expand that idea of normal to include all of us? Because actually, there are a lot of people who report hearing the voices of a loved one after they’ve passed. And there are certainly a lot of people who hear voices but for whom that’s not a problem. And so it’s never quote diagnosed, and it’s never treated medically. So this is all stuff that I thought about a lot as I was writing this book. I have a lot of friends who are involved with the voice-hearing communities, and who hear voices themselves, and so this is something that I’ve thought a lot about and talked to a lot of people about, particularly people with lived experience. It's so interesting how the instinct is always to imagine the outside world as fixed, and our internal world as the one that’s making something different. It’s interesting to subvert that. And you know, the whole idea of objects speaking, on one hand you can just think of that as being sensible. Child’s play. Because children are constantly making objects speak, right? But we are conditioned out of that as we grow older. Animation is all about objects with agency, right? Objects who dance, who speak. Again, it’s a kind of a spectrum, I think. We’re really encouraged to drop all of that as we get older. Except in the context of sacred objects, which is interesting. Exactly. And in other cultures, people who hear voices and have visions are the seers and the saints and the soothsayers and the shamans and the healers. I mean, Joan of Arc. She was a voice-hearer. For that matter, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung also talked about voices that they heard. It’s not an outsider experience necessarily. I read the interview you did with Lit Hub, and you were talking about writing in a dream-state, which you call precious, and I was curious about your thoughts on liminality and how that works into your creative process. Well, I think that’s the state where I can access the story. I really do feel that fiction writing happens as a kind of dream, it’s analogous to a dream-state, and that somehow the workings of the unconscious are what produces the story. And so, as much as possible, to try to get the conscious mind out of the way, and to tap that dream-state, is really the desirable place to be if I want to write. So whatever it takes to get there is useful to me. I think I was probably talking about writing first thing in the morning. That is my preferred time to write, when I can just shut out the world and kind of tumble out of bed and go directly to the computer and start to write. And in fact, this is one of the hardest things about living on the west coast, because you tumble out of bed, and the east coast has already been hard at work for three hours, and your inbox is already filled. I would much rather live in Europe, where I could be hours ahead of the rest of North America. That would be fantastic. The point being that, yes, time to write without fully waking up is kind of great. But the other thing that really helps me is meditation, because that state of not-thinking, you’re dropping down to a more liminal place. It’s a way of dropping below the conscious mind, I suppose. If I’m trying to write later in the day, for example, after I’ve been dealing with emails for hours, it helps to sit for a little while, because it allows me to shift gears, and kind of move more into that unconscious space. I’m curious if, for you, the meditation practice is always connected to the creative process. If by creative process you mean writing, no, it’s not always connected to writing. But if by creative process you mean a kind of creative and generative and open receptive relaxed way of being, then yes, it is. The kind of meditation that I practice, Zen meditation, and particularly Soto Zen meditation, is objectless meditation. You’re not trying for anything. You’re letting things fall away. You’re not striving to achieve something. It’s really a type of profound relaxation, but it’s also a kind of alert and focused relaxation. So it’s not like the relaxation you do as you’re trying to go to sleep. It’s relaxation that you do when you’re fully awake. It’s not like you’re focused on the breath, although you might start by focusing on the breath, because that helps you move into that quiet space, concentrated space. But eventually, you let that go. And you’re not trying to achieve any particular state of mind, you’re not trying to achieve calm, or peace, or empty mind, you’re just being with whatever is there. What would your Zen reading list be? If someone came to you and said, I want to know more, what would you tell them to do? I would probably tell them, first, to see if they could find a sitting group. Because really, it’s an experiential practice. It’s called a practice, you have to do it. That would probably be my first piece of advice. But as far as books are concerned, the first book about Zen that I always recommend is a book called What Is Zen? It’s by Norman Fisher and Susan Moon, and it’s set up as a kind of dialogue. It’s a very clear, straightforward, funny book that will give you all of the basics that you need. There’s all sorts of wonderful Dharma talks online. I’m affiliated with the Everyday Zen foundation, and that’s Norman’s group. On the website, there’s maybe 3000 Dharma talks. So I would recommend checking out what’s available online. There’s just so much now, in every Buddhist flavour, every school, every lineage. There’s just so much now, so it’s a little overwhelming, too, but my experience is mostly with Zen, and mostly with Norman’s teachings. Any of his books, too, he’s got a long list of them and they’re all wonderful. But I should also say that I actually got re-introduced to Buddhism more through the Tibetan side of things. So Pema Chodron is a wonderful person to start with, any of her books are really, really fantastic. They’re good at the beginning, they’re good at the middle, they’re good at the end. They’re useful all the time, but it’s a great place to start. How did Buddhism come back into your life? I’d always been interested in meditation, ever since I was quite little, and I tried at various times to understand how to do it. I think when I was fourteen, I started doing transcendental meditation, and was, I think you could say, initiated, I’m not sure, but I received a mantra and I had a Zen practice when I was quite young. And then it kind of dropped away, but I got serious about it again in my thirties, when my parents were getting older, and they were not well. Suddenly, when the reality of old age, of sickness, of death, kind of hit me, I realized, oh, no, I need help. And the only way through this is through Buddhism. And that’s the traditional story of Buddhism, too, the historical Buddha was raised in a very sheltered way, he was a prince, his father tried to protect him from any kind of suffering at all, and the story is that he snuck out of the palace at night, and he saw an old person for the first time. And then he saw a sick person. And then he saw a dead person. And then he saw an ascetic, a religious person. So that was kind of his trajectory, too. And I think that really is the path for so many people, or the entrance to the path for so many people, because you realize, like, oh, suffering really does exist and I can’t do this alone, I can’t do this without something. In the same way that we were talking about the idea of manifesting unshared experiences in art, I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the idea of art as a vehicle for spiritual teaching or exploration. I think that, certainly, art has historically almost always been an expression of some kind of religious or spiritual experience. I mean, not always, but much of the time, anyway. In most religious traditions. It’s certainly an expression of a kind of heightened appreciation, either for the wonder or the horror of existence. The extreme states, right? Until A Tale for the Time Being, I was kind of hesitant to put too much Buddhism in my work. Although it was always there in the background. I would argue that, if you look at any work of art, or certainly any story, any novel, any piece of fiction, through a Buddhist lens, the very fact that story operates successfully, that it works, is because of certain characteristics of existence that you could say are Buddhist. For example, we always think about Buddhism as being this special thing, but it’s not. It’s just a description of reality, and a kind of prescription for how to deal with reality, how to cope with reality. For example, all stories are, on some level, about change, and about impermanence. And if you’re teaching writing or if you study writing, one of the first things that you’re taught is that your protagonist, your main character, needs to be different at the end than they were at the beginning. Some kind of change needs to happen. I mean, whether that’s true or not is arguable, but I do think, generally speaking, that that’s true. Change, impermanence, this is one of the core teachings of Buddhism. But it’s also not really Buddhist. It’s obvious. It’s just reality, right? Another one is the first noble truth, suffering exists. Well, most books, most stories, are about suffering in one form or another, and about overcoming suffering, right? Another core teaching of Buddhism is this teaching of dependent co-arising. Thich Nhat Hahn calls in “interbeing.” But that’s just another way of talking about relationships. That we all exist in relationship to each other, and that we cannot exist alone. And again, I would say that most stories are about exactly that. If you start to look at experience from a Buddhist perspective, through a Buddhist lens, you can see that it’s nothing special. It’s just a lens through which to understand and appreciate the basic facts of existence. So, in any case, to go back to your question, in these last two books, I actually have overtly Buddhist characters. Both books have a Zen nun in them. And that was because, I think, in these two books, I really did want to explore, in a more overt way, some of these teachings. There’s a whole tradition of commentary literature in Buddhism, particularly in Zen. So there’s the original teachings, and then, in Zen for example, there’s very often a poem that somebody later on writes in response to the original teaching. There’s a tradition of literary and artistic response to the teachings. This is what I mean when I say commentary literature. With both of these two books, they both had a kernel of Buddhist teachings at the core. In A Tale for the Time Being, it was Dogen’s fascicle called Time Being, or Being Time. Dogen being a thirteenth-century Zen master. So it was his teachings on time and existence. Very much what Heidegger was talking about as well. So that was the philosophical kernel at the core of the book. And in this one, the seed or the kernel at the core would be a koan, a famous koan which asks the question, do insentient beings speak the dharma? That’s the question in the koan. So that’s what I was thinking about. That was the philosophical question that I was thinking about as I was writing this book. Can insentient beings teach us something. The idea of speaking the dharma is really a way of saying, can they teach us? Can we learn from them? And the answer is yes, and we should probably listen harder. After eight years of working on it, the book is out, you’ve been travelling finally and talking to people about it. Has there been one particular thing that has been the greatest joy to connect with people on about this particular book, for you? I can’t say there’s one thing, it’s just a relief to have the voices out of my head and in the world. And I would say that’s true for all books. Up until now, this fictional world has existed only inside my head. And now, I get to share it. There’s something really wonderful and powerful about that, because in my experience, we think about a book as being a singular object. Oh yeah, it’s the book, it’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, you know? It’s my Year of Meats, or it’s A Tale for the Time Being. It’s a book. But it’s never just that. Again, and this is a Buddhist perspective on it, the book doesn’t exist without the reader. The book doesn’t really fully exist without that relationship, right? That interconnectedness. And so, there are as many books as there are readers. And I think the book actually says this, right, somewhere in there. And so it’s that experience, watching this book go out into the world and multiply, and interact with other minds, is a very exciting thing. It’s wonderful. And I feel incredibly privileged to be in a position to be able to do that. I mean that seriously, it’s an incredible privilege. I just feel really lucky.
The author of And Now I Spill the Family Secrets on contradictory memories, record-keeping, and ways to articulate grief.
On Mother’s Day in 1988, Margaret Kimball’s mother attempted suicide—a family secret that was only revealed to her 15 years later. In Kimball’s family, silence became the answer to a painful history of mental illness and death. But the unspeakable cannot remain unspoken—grief must eventually be brought to the surface. Through And Now I Spill the Family Secrets (HarperOne), Kimball’s debut illustrated memoir, she has found a way to break her family’s tradition of silence. Can a family archive provide clues when our memories feel inadequate? As she examines photographs, hospital records, diary entries, and other family artefacts, Kimball searches for meaning. Her desire to find a reason for the tragedy in her family history is an instinctive impulse, the opposite of silence. If we can define a cause by putting language to the pain we’ve experienced, maybe we can protect ourselves and the people we love from further hurt. Kimball’s pages are not typical panels of a graphic novel. She illustrates rooms from the houses she grew up in, objects from her childhood, and family records. The only time human figures appear are in her illustrations of photographs or home videos. Many of the pages show rooms in which people are absent, a choice she made to create an immersive, accessible experience, for the reader to put themselves in these spaces. When I was reading, I did exactly that—imagining my own childhood home, my parents’ divorce, and my family’s history of mental illness that has gone undiagnosed. Kimball has managed to process and work through her own trauma while constructing a narrative that will be familiar to readers who have known and struggled with silence in their own families, making And Now I Spill the Family Secrets a powerful achievement. I spoke to Kimball about the inaccuracy of memory, her childhood home, and the process of healing that came from writing about her family’s traumatic past. Sabrina Papas: A large part of the narrative of your family history is based on home videos. You refer to these home videos as “evidence,” a way to validate your own memories. The videos act as a form of time travel to access the past. Would you have been able to undertake the same journey without these videos? Margaret Kimball: I think I would have still tried to unpack the family history, but I feel like the videos just offered evidence that I wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. I saw us walking around and talking and interacting with each other. Especially the tension between my parents was so palpable, just watching it. From the position now, 30 years later as a married person, you can just see it and have a little more sense of what that might have meant inside of their marriage, to them. Whereas I never would have seen that and I would’ve questioned my memory more. I feel like the videos just provided this layer of context that gave me a little more insight into their marriage that I don’t think I would have seen. And then I could extrapolate from that what that meant for our family dynamic, if they were having so much tension. So I think I would have done a book, but it would have been a little different. Do you think our memories can be more accurate than family artefacts of videos, photographs, documents? I think both are important. A memory, you can recall a feeling or a sense of the atmosphere or mood of an experience. Whereas the evidence itself is just cold hard facts, like this happened on this date or this is the document of this, or the marriage certificate. But I feel like you need both, cause memory is really terrible. Without my diaries, without all the documentation I found, the dates would have been totally confusing to me. For instance, my concussion. I thought I was 8 years old when I had that concussion. And it was like, no I was four. And then learning that it happened in 1988, which was the big year for my family. It was surprising. I think having both documentation of things and remembering on your own are so important to push together and figure it out. One of the things I loved was, I would have my memory, and then I would find evidence that countered my memory, or added to it, or changed it in some way. So then I had to figure out like, okay well my timeline’s off, so how do I incorporate this? Or my brother’s memory is different from mine, so how do I incorporate both perspectives and try to make it fair to everybody? That was such an interesting problem to try to solve. But I felt like I just needed as much information as I could get to make an accurate story. There are also certain documents that are irretrievable. I’m thinking specifically of when you try to find the files from your grandmother’s first admission into a mental health unit in 1959. The patient files, however, were all destroyed. At the time, ideas about mental health would have been limited, even harmful—especially for a woman. But would having access to these files have made a difference in understanding your grandmother’s experiences? Oh, totally. It’s such a blank spot in my mind. Maybe she went, and it was therapeutic and fine. I wonder if she had a lobotomy or was given electroshock therapy over and over. I have no idea. I know what she was like when I knew her, but when I think of a 21-year-old, and even just having that experience of going to the hospital, you have an infant—is traumatizing. But I think there’s a whole other layer of it when there’s a physical trauma as well. I think it would really deepen my understanding of her life if I knew. They say they’re destroyed, but part of me wonders if the files exist secretly somewhere. But I can’t get them. A memory will always be different for each person involved. Even home videos and photographs, that claim to objectively capture a moment, are subjective. When constructing your family history, did you find that there were multiple versions of events to interpret? How did you choose what to accept as truth? All my family members have different memories of everything that happened. My baseline is if I had any physical evidence, like a diary entry, that was like “this person said this on this day” or just a video, or a photograph or something—I would use that as the concrete fact that was irrefutable. It’s like, “Well, I have evidence so, that’s that.” Then I just talked to each family member as much as I could about specific memories. An example is my parent’s divorce, where my mom says my dad had an affair. I haven’t exactly talked to my dad about it, but he’s kind of hinted at it. But I had to kind of interpret my mom’s understanding of an affair, which is different from mine. I think maybe during the separation, my dad was dating somebody else. And so I feel like I tried to be fair to her memory, but also be fair to my dad and say “This is what I think happened.” So I guess I just try to show the different perspectives as much as I could, and then do my own interpretation. It’s so hard cause everybody feels so strongly in their memories. I think as you remember something, it deepens that neuropath in your brain, so you’re so certain about it, but it might be totally wrong. I was reading Bluets by Maggie Nelson yesterday. There’s a passage about memories, whether or not when you remember an experience, it’s a trace of the original experience or if we’re creating a new trace each time from recalling the memory. It literally changes over time. Especially if your first memory is incorrect. That’s the interesting thing, you never know what’s exactly correct. Especially from a different angle, it looks different. I find that one of the most interesting things about memoir, and also the most frustrating things. Some days I’m like “What is the fact?” and there is no fact. It’s just a series of perspectives. Did the process of compiling research for the book make you more aware of how you record and preserve your own experiences and thoughts? When I was ten, when I found out that my mom was bipolar, I just stopped writing in my diaries for a year. I didn’t mention it, I didn’t say anything about it. I think in realizing that, I realized that sometimes I do that. I carried that through. If there’s something extreme happening in my life, I just stop writing about it. Which is probably the worst thing to do, cause I know I’ll write about it later, so really I should be documenting it. But I think sometimes it’s too overwhelming to jot things down in the middle of a storm. So that was surprising. The other thing, there’s something about records and learning how many records exist—that was kind of glorious to me. There’s public records, and then as I was talking to my parents when they finally agreed to talk to me about the book, they had so many photographs and documents and videos that I didn’t even know about. It made me think about what we keep over time and what my parents are willing to shell out. I think at this point, they don’t care. They’re like “Whatever, take whatever you want, empty our house, please.” But I think just learning the vastness of the archive that we actually have as a family, in addition to what’s available, even just online from public records is really fascinating to me. So I just try to be more aware of that and keep more records. So now if I have medical stuff, I request the records right after. I’m like “I need those for something.” I try to do that with everything. In a conversation with your mother, she expresses anger at the prospect of her life being written about. At the time, you disagree and tell her that you’re writing about yourself—a statement which you regret on later reflection. But when we write about the people we love, especially family, are we not also writing about ourselves? Is there a way that their stories become a part of us? I think yes, I’m always writing about myself. But I [also] think it’s never true to say “Well, I’m not writing about you,” when I’m exactly like “My mom tried to kill herself on this day”—that had nothing to do with me. There’s just no excuse for what memoir does to the people in our lives. It’s very much taking other people’s experiences, at least in this case cause I’m writing about my whole family. It’s taking their experiences and using it for my own purposes. In this case, I think it’s for honourable purposes. I was trying to process a lot of traumatic events that happened to us over time. Nevertheless, it’s still taking their experiences and writing about them. So I think, while I am writing about myself and trying to deal with it, interpret it, process, and heal, no matter what it’s still taking their lives. And some of the darkest times in my parent’s lives in particular, and my maybe my older brother too, I’m not totally sure. And just kind of exploiting them in a way. So that’s something I’ll probably always feel guilty about. But I still just feel like it’s such an important thing to do to, to not have secrets and not feel shame, that I’m still going to do it. No matter what, it’s still connected to you and who you are. I think it helps the family too. They process things differently. They don’t write books about it, for instance. But I think once one of us starts yacking about it non-stop, it kind of gives license to everybody to talk about it. Maybe even laugh about some of the things in a way. Or just let the memories exist, rather than have them buried as secrets. I’m interested in the absence of human figures in your illustrations. Many of the panels depict empty rooms, or objects from your childhood. The only time people appear is in illustrations of home videos or family photographs, but never in undocumented memories. Can you speak about this choice? It started out just intuitively. I was drawing rooms and not people in the very early drafts of the book. But as I tried to consider which approach to take, I felt I don’t remember people when I think of my memories, I remember very much place. Or flashes of things, flashes of a shirt, or shoes. But I don’t picture people in my memory so much as place. Place is a really strong aspect of memory for me. I wanted readers to be able to be fully immersed in the environments that I was immersed in. When I think of these memories, this is what I think about. So I just didn’t draw people. But I didn’t want it to be lifeless. So when I had photographs or something that felt more concrete to me, like “Okay, if I document this photograph, it’s real,” versus me just interpreting what I might have looked like at age six. So it was this idea of creating the environments readers could immerse themselves in. I think it would have changed the whole feel of the book if I had drawn us growing up throughout. I think it would have made it less accessible in a way, because I want the reader to put themselves in the space. If you’re just looking at people in the space, maybe you’re not in it as much. It could just be an excuse because drawing people is hard, I don’t know. But it felt to me like the most strong things in my memories are of place, not people. There’s also a feeling of the places being preserved through the drawings. The memories are so dear to me, I love them. The house we grew up in, I’m always looking it up online to see if it’s for sale. Which it’s not. Not that I want to buy it, but I just want to look in the rooms. I’m so in love with some of the memories or some of the places. I think you’re right, I just wanted to show people my bedroom or our yard—I just love them. They’re so big in my mind. I guess just to let people in on that. You write about returning to your childhood home. Your mother also visited many times and spoke to the people living there. What do you think draws us back to old homes? What are we looking for when we return? I was so young at the time. I think if I went back now, it would be trying to see it and remember it and feel the feelings of that house. Which you can never do cause it’s probably totally different. But I also think when there’s something unresolved, you might return to a place and try, even if it’s just subconscious, [to] interpret your memory of the place, or what happened there, or live in those feelings again. I do feel like it’s a way of processing, to return to a place. Especially if you haven’t been there in a long time. To just go back and see what’s the same, see what’s different, if any of it correlates to your memory. I think it’s just a way of processing something that’s happened. I’m working on another book now which takes place when I was in grad school. I keep imagining myself going back to Tucson to visit, cause I haven’t been back since then. I keep wondering what it’s going to be like, and am I going to remember the streets? One of the amazing things about going back to Glastonbury, where I grew up, is I remember my bus route. I can just drive along and I was like “Laura lived there, and Chad lived there.” It’s so weird, you see these things and it’s kind of magical to feel that, to feel that memory come alive. Like “I remember riding the bus on this street, I can find my way home.” So I think it’s just a way of processing. It gives me warm feelings to see something that you lived a long time ago that’s no longer a part of your life. It’s almost like entering a memory in a way because these places that we inhabited when we were younger, they feel like they don’t exist—it almost feels like they’re not real. So when you visit, and you’re reminded of it, it’s like you’re in a film and entering these sets of your life. Yeah! It’s connected to the evidence thing. I feel like so many of my memories, I sort of dismissed. I mean, I can name ten of them. I thought, maybe I imagined them, or maybe it was a dream, especially when you’re younger. Like my dad carrying my mom down the steps [after she attempted suicide]. It’s like, maybe that was a dream. Until it was confirmed by my brother, and then my parents, I was like “Oh, I just thought that was some weird image I had in my head that I invented.” It’s the same thing with places. It does feel like a confirmation of your experience, which is a great feeling I think. Silence became a way for your family to avoid confronting a difficult past. You write about your own habit of a “failure to record in the heart of catastrophe.” What inspired you to overcome the silence and put language to your family’s unspeakable past through a memoir? A few things. One is, I just hated the secrets. I still do. But I hated when, if I asked my dad or my mom about something and they just wouldn’t talk about it. Or they would give me completely different stories, or the story changed every time. I just hated that. I sensed their shame. I feel like secrets are [a] means of hiding shame. I sensed their shame about the past. My mom was so ashamed of the suicide attempt in 1988, she still is. My dad is so ashamed of the divorce and what happened. I just wanted to put language to it so we could deal with it, so that it doesn’t have such a big presence in our lives. I think with secrets like that, that impacted our whole lives. It just impacts everything, there’s this ripple effect. If there’s this thing that’s happening and no one’s talking about it, it creates this panic of “Is this really happening, am I okay? Is everybody okay? Is everybody not okay?” And there are just all these questions that arise when no one’s talking about what’s clearly happening, or what clearly has happened. So I feel like I just rejected that. I don’t know if it’s a personality disorder, but I’ve always been like “I want to talk very clearly about what’s happening, what’s happened, what’s going to happen,” so that it makes sense to me. You explain that grief in your family, in relation to mental health, “has been passed on and reshaped through generations, each person containing two sorrows—one for herself and one for others.” Have you found a way to take care of yourself and your own grief through the process of writing the book? The book was really surprising. I was so angry for so long at my mom. And then later at my dad, it took me a really long time to ever be angry at my dad, but I was. But in the process of writing, and trying to ask them questions, which I hadn’t done in early drafts, in part because they refused to talk to me about it. But in talking to them about it, I just felt a ton of empathy for their positions. They were in impossible situations I think. They had good intentions the whole way. I think everybody does the best they can. They certainly did. It just wasn’t great all the time. It feels mean to say I forgave them, because I don’t feel like I had to forgive them anything. But my anger dissipated, and I just felt sorry for them. I think writing the book was such a healing process. It helped our relationships, because all the secrets were out. Unless there are more I don’t know about, which is totally possible. I’m sure there are more I don’t know about. But the ones I cared about are all out in the open now, it’s all fine. I don’t feel any anger towards them anymore and I don’t think they feel anger towards me—I think—for writing a book. I hope not.
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 I blew 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.