Hazlitt Magazine

'I'm Writing for Everybody Else, Too': An Interview with Jesmyn Ward

The author of the National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing on the pressure of accolades, discovering new stories and processing pain. 

I Always Wanted To Be Owen Wilson

As a nerdy kid who wanted to be a film critic, I saw myself in Wilson’s unexpected comedy. But my favourite writer was destined to become a movie star.

The Last Distraction

I thought baseball would become political in 2017, but it only absorbed the frazzled, babbling-lunatic tenor of the country at large—which gives me hope for the game’s future.

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Nice and Cold

Jonathan Glazer’s lush, romantic take on the gangster movie, Sexy Beast, uses the simplest of moments to build its sense of dread: a warm day, a clear pool, a frosty beer.

In a small, unglamorous Spanish restaurant, Gal Dove’s friends arrive with bad news. And not just bad news—life-changing news, in the truest sense of the word. He’s just found out that he’s been offered a job, one for which he’s been asked to come out of retirement, or rather—and you can tell this from the look in his eyes, from the shift in atmosphere when the identity of the caller is revealed—for which he’s been told he’s coming out of retirement. One final heist. It’s this scene towards the end of the film’s first act that serves as the catalyst of Jonathan Glazer’s lush, romantic take on the gangster movie, Sexy Beast. It’s in this moment we first hear the name Don Logan. Gal, played by Ray Winstone, may be at the core of the film’s plotline, but it’s Don, the psychotic, manipulative, maniac London mercenary, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, who informs the entire piece. When Gal’s friends break the news that Don wants him, he knows that the life he’s made for himself—the villa in Spain, the pool, the nice restaurants, the calm—is about to be destroyed. Perhaps then, that’s why in this scene he allows himself one final moment of respite—a last piece of clarity, before everything goes to shit. A waiter approaches the table whilst Gal processes the information. Without missing a beat, the waiter pours out a beer, its frosted amber rendered particularly evocative by the film’s hazy cinematography. How good that beer looks, how hot the room feels. He takes a sip and gestures to the lager—an almost imperceptible movement, like The Wolf drinking coffee in Jimmie’s flat in Pulp Fiction, rendered through alcohol instead of caffeine. “That’s nice, that,” he says. “Nice and cold.” This is Gal’s last meal. It’s a dramatic tonal shift, a flip-flop from sheer panic to a pure, base level of satisfaction. A need being met. The film, from its outset, effectively foreshadows this sort of disruption. In the first twenty minutes, though, it’s less polar, more a continued zig-zagging between idyll and turmoil throughout three sequences, where external forces don’t allow Gal any kind of respite. * In the film’s opening scene, Gal lies—speedo-clad, sunglasses on—in his private pool, a red love-heart tiled on the bottom. He is the archetypal Brit-abroad, doing the exact kind of thing British people do when they encounter actual heat—dry, desert heat, the kind you don’t get in the UK. He says it’s “too hot,” and then begins to fan himself with a tiny hand-held electric fan, as if that’s going to do anything at all. It’s the most British reaction to being in the sun you could imagine. He is living his best life. That is, until a boulder crashes into the pool, totally soaking him, although ironically, probably cooling him off pretty quickly. Still, the pool is destroyed, and, you know, he nearly gets hit by a boulder. But don’t worry, he bounces back, manning a barbecue in the next scene. Here, it’s important to note the cultural difference between the American barbecue and the British barbecue. The American barbecue is an artisanal craft on which whole swathes of food culture are built: smoking, slow-cooking, dry-rubs, hot sauce, ribs, brisket, chicken—the whole of the South, basically. The British barbecue is: every year on a day when it’s forecast not to rain, but it rains, a dad gets out either a very rusty gas cooker or, more likely, a disposable foil tray filled with charcoal, and burns meat over fire whilst getting slowly drunk. And we love it. This scene is porn for British dads. Look at Gal, holding court over this grill, his subjects—wife Didi, friend Aitch and Aitch’s wife Jackie, the friends who have joined him in this post-gangster life—sitting, waiting for their quarter-pounder. Once again, Gal’s having a time, and then suddenly the fire spits at him, a throng of flames leaping out and sending him a few steps backward. The third moment is slightly weirder, more conceptual. Gal and Aitch stand in a desert with shotguns, joined by Gal’s Spanish errand boy, and try (unsuccessfully) to shoot a hare. Again, a minor cultural point: it’s unlikely that Gal and Aitch—two East End wide-boys—have a relationship with hunting. Hunting is not a working-class pursuit in England, and gun ownership isn’t really a thing, although with both being ex-gangsters, you can imagine they know their way around them. Still, you can tell they’re both playing at it—Aitch in blue Wranglers and a ten-gallon hat, Gal in army fatigues and a military bandana. However, not only do both Aitch and the kid’s guns fall apart in their arms, the scene is followed by a dream sequence in which a tall, pretty terrifying rabbit appears on horseback and aims a gun at Gal’s head. London-based psychotherapist Ales Zivkovic talks about how in dreams, the symbol of the rabbit often refers to something that is ungraspable, foreign, or unknown, a reflection of the animal’s nature in real life, their elusiveness. The rabbit is a frequent a symbol of an instability or psychosis: Donnie Darko (2001), Choking Man (2006), the white rabbit of Alice In Wonderland, Here, the rabbit escapes Gal in reality but returns in his subconscious, a symbol of his fear that is returned to in the film’s closing scene. Throughout these opening moments, the dream sequence in particular, you can’t help but get the sense that somehow, Gal knows what’s coming. The unease that hangs over his opulent, blissful lifestyle is palpable—he’s just waiting for it. It’s The Appointment in Samarra, the idea that you can’t outrun fate, and if in the story of Samarra, fate is the servant eventually coming face to face with death, here it is Gal hearing he’s been called out of retirement, and that Don is coming. Perhaps the real reason that Gal’s small toast rings out so clearly in this film, though, is because of who’s saying it. Ray Winstone is an odd kind of leading man, an actor whose entire career seems predicated on the idea that he’s just one of the lads. Where Ben Kingsley is method, serious, a towering thesp, Winstone is an everyman. Rico Lowson, Programme Coordinator at UK film education charity Into Film, suggests this is crucial to us empathizing with him as Gal. “He is of that world entirely, it’s unreconstructed, there’s a genuine sensitivity to him because he’s right on that edge of pure bloke, but there’s a yearning to him. If you listen to him in interviews, he’s exactly the same.” We understand his performances through the lens of what we know about him as person; there’s no divorcing the two. That’s not to discredit his performance in any way—in a film that is all about the rhythm of the dialogue and the tension between Gal and Don, Winstone is flawless, never misses a beat, but what it means is this: when he drinks a beer, something he’s probably done countless times before, and takes the trouble to say how good it is, you know that means something, and by extension, you know how bad it’s about to get.
The Last Distraction

I thought baseball would become political in 2017, but it only absorbed the frazzled, babbling-lunatic tenor of the country at large—which gives me hope for the game’s future.

Paint the Corners is a monthly column about baseball. And just like that, it’s over. A six-month season, a month of wildly entertaining playoffs, a record-setting seven-game World Series that felt agonizingly close up to its final day, and now there’s a long winter before pitchers and catchers report. The final stretch of a baseball season is so unlike anything that precedes it, as if the whole sport suddenly switches genres from a low-key comedy to a grisly slasher. Throughout October, the games grow increasingly high-stakes until finally, with one mundane play (in this year’s case, a routine ground ball to second), it all just stops. November 2, the first baseball-free day since the pre-spring chill, felt longer than average, emptier. Every day since has, too. Except, I suspect, in Houston. Back in April, I had only the vague feeling that baseball would be different this year. I thought that, surely, the closed world of Major League Baseball would be forced to address Trump, eater of worlds. One errant tweet, one notionally controversial player interview, and the game would collide with the president’s ever-ballooning ego like the rest of our culture. And certainly the wider game encompassed issues that Trump, through petty vengeance or mere incompetence, made his own, from the anti-Trumpcare banner that flew over Progressive Field in Cleveland to the long-awaited first knee taken by a ballplayer, the Athletics’ Bruce Maxwell. But these were feints, small nods to the reality of the current regime. Baseball, let alone the MLB, was largely unaffected by Trump. I spent the season combing for news stories that even tangentially gestured at politics, and though I always found them, they never cohered into a single narrative. Instead, I came to a greater appreciation for the game’s capacity to mirror our culture. Of course politically minded story lines popped up in our most ethnically and racially diverse sport, the one whose player base and business interests now stretch from Gulf Coast junior colleges to Vilnius. The game naturally broadcasts our national reality back to us because it is diffuse and sprawling enough to still encompass it all—nearly 5,000 total games every season, played by men from all corners of the globe. And so it felt almost fated, for example, that Bruce Maxwell initiated his offseason with a frightening-sounding incident in which he pointed a gun at a food deliveryperson. This was late October, right between the two mass shootings that have defined autumn 2017 in the United States. As if we needed further proof that our firearm worship constitutes mass psychosis, baseball was there to provide one small example of the derangement. And as Puerto Rico struggled to overcome a botched hurricane recovery and an open-shut case of contractor corruption, it was Kike Hernandez, consummate utility man and P.R. native, who hit a shocking three home runs to send the Dodgers to the World Series, where they played against a city that was itself reeling from its own environmental disaster. Baseball can be such a wonderful distraction from the sick, overwhelming world, but the closer you look, the more it resembles the world itself. * Last year’s playoffs took place at the end of a demoralizing, frightful presidential campaign that had seemingly upended the laws of societal physics. A man with no political experience could talk about his penis during a debate and still get a major party’s nomination? He could be caught on tape spewing the most crudely insulting, sophomoric sexism and still hold a chance of winning the presidency? The world seemed upside down, and so baseball obliged: the Cubs, for the first time in over a century, became world champions. This year, the world isn’t caught in election mania, but everything nevertheless feels like it’s in free-fall. A new swarm of scandal and vulgarity envelops everything ad nauseam, without even a national election day on the horizon to act as a finish line. For months, our hopes have been pinned to some unsure, unknown legal reckoning by Robert Mueller, a revelation to ensure comeuppance or impeachment or even criminal charges, which will then give way to… something, surely, some kind of course correction, right? What would that even mean at this point? And so baseball obliged yet again, with a postseason where order of a kind has been restored: we came perilously close to the Yankees winning an AL pennant (just a few months after their owner compared players speaking about politics to a monkey showing its ass, no less) before the league’s two winningest teams ultimately met in the World Series. There was a hugeness to this series—a sense, as with the daily news, that anything could happen and reality could pivot in an instant. A record twenty-five home runs were hit over those seven games, many of which either tied or reversed a lead. Astros star George Springer had a dismal ALCS performance against the Yankees, then struck out four times in Game 1 against the Dodgers, but starting in Game 2 he emerged as a titan, tying the record for most-ever home runs in a World Series and eventually winning the series MVP. Clayton Kershaw’s October heartbreak has long been the only moderately pitiable thing about him, but he had two incredible starts and four scoreless relief innings against the Astros. His reliably unhittable teammate Kenley Jansen, however, suffered a few scuffs to his armor by surrendering leads in Games 2 and 5. This is America in 2017, so we had racial scandal, too, in the form of Yuri Gurriel’s horrible slant-eyed gesture mocking Yu Darvish. We had on- and off-field drama, including two extra-inning games, one of which went more than five hours, and allegations of a juiced ball. At least two players reported blackouts-from-joy, out-of-body experiences where sheer hysteria erased their memories. This is a nuttier, more fevered version of America’s pastime, a perfect fit for a summer in which multiple cities drowned simultaneously, Republicans repeatedly attempted to strip health care from millions, northern California incinerated, Las Vegas was turned into a nightmarish shooting range, and Puerto Rico nearly collapsed. Right on schedule, Robert Mueller announced his first indictments the day after Game 5, the craziest of the series. I thought baseball would become political in 2017, but it only absorbed the frazzled, babbling-lunatic tenor of the country at large. If anything, this gives me more hope for the game’s future. The sport and MLB feel alive to the world. Baseball is in flux right now like everything else; the last three World Series have vanquished decades-long championship droughts, and would have done so even if the losers had won. The number of foreign-born players continues to grow each year, and the conventional knowledge about how to win a game or construct a team is seemingly revised after every season. For now, baseball is an exciting yin to society’s yang, proof that the unprecedented doesn’t have to be nauseating. * But let’s not get too rosy-eyed. The day after Game 7, two renowned New York-based media entities, DNAinfo and Gothamist, were unceremoniously shuttered by their owner, Joe Ricketts. The decision followed the writers’ vote to unionize, and a spokeswoman for ownership made it clear that the two events were related: “The decision by the editorial team to unionize is simply another competitive obstacle making it harder for the business to be financially successful.” Funny thing, that. Because Ricketts owns another business, the Chicago Cubs, that has been wildly profitable of late despite its players being union members. If anything worries me about baseball and the game’s role in our culture, it’s the sheer profitability of it, and the narrow ways those profits are shared. It was heartwarming that the Astros’ owner Jim Crane, a billionaire shipping magnate, led the club’s $4 million investment in Houston’s post-Harvey recovery, but that was a crisis response. In terms of everyday economic implications, baseball teams are primarily a risk-free investment for the old businessmen who buy them. As the GOP continues with a donor-demanded tax plan that would gut our remaining safety net and widen our already untenable wealth gap, it is hard to stay too excited about a league where failed fools like Jeffrey Loria can infinitely profit off their mismanaged teams and successful ones like Joe Ricketts can dissolve multiple newsrooms with a single memo. I don’t expect baseball will ever reckon outright with our Gilded Age income inequality, but if 2017 is any indication, the effects of that inequality will somehow make themselves felt in the game nevertheless.
‘I’m Writing for Everybody Else, Too’: An Interview with Jesmyn Ward

The author of the National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing on the pressure of accolades, discovering new stories and processing pain. 

Jesmyn Ward is one of the great writers of our time and when I dial her number, I am nervous. When she answers, I learn that she is trying to find her way out of a building after a radio interview on the campus of the University of New Orleans. There is no one around and she has been locked out. She enters a new unlocked door and finds herself locked in again. As I commiserate with her over this experience, my nervousness ratchets down. Ward is human—she, too, gets lost and has to find her way back. We decide that she should call me back after she finds her way. Ward is the author of three books—two novels and a memoir—and the editor of an essay collection. Her second novel, Salvage the Bones, is one I recommended to friends over and over for its storytelling and poetry-infused prose. I read Men We Reaped while in transit, thinking of loss and those taken too soon. Sing, Unburied, Sing (Simon & Schuster) is her latest, and just last night, won the National Book Award for fiction—her second time taking that honor (she previously won for Salvage the Bones in 2011). The novel simultaneously takes place over the span of both days and decades. At the center is a family: Jojo is a biracial boy, Leonie is his black mother, Kayla is his baby sister, and Pop and Mam are his grandparents. In the novel, Jojo and Kayla go along with Leonie and her friend to pick up their white father from prison. It is a story that deals with what it means to be a family, what it means to grieve, what it means when the past won’t let go. Once again, Jesmyn Ward has created a work that is stunning in its representation of humanity and of people who often don’t get the chance to be rendered as human. Ward calls me back once she has made it outside. We talk about failing others because you have been failed, legacy, and the pressure of awards. We talk about more. Occasionally, I hear the wind. Abigail Bereola: Jojo is a sweet thirteen-year-old boy trying to navigate what it means to learn to be a man. To him, manhood means confronting death without looking away and it means denying himself very human things, like touch. Where do you think Jojo picked up these constructions of manhood? How much of it do you think comes from him and how much is what is put on him by other people? Jesmyn Ward: I think that a lot of it is put on him by other people. Most of the good he’s learned from Pop, about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a black man. This idea he has that men nurture—that men are caretakers—I think he gets that from Pop. This idea he has that you express your love for people by caring for them, by providing for them—I think he gets that from Pop. I think that the bad ideas he has about masculinity, I think a lot of those he’s getting from the outside world. His ideas about showing emotion, and there are ideas that he has about what it means to be a person of color and what it means to move about in the world as a person of color—I think his ideas about that, he’s definitely getting from the outside world. But I do have to say that I think that he’s a naturally sensitive person, and so I think that some of what he understands about what it means to be a man and nurture and be a caretaker, I think some of that is just because of who he is. Because he’s sensitive and because he’s so empathetic, you know?  Yeah. That’s interesting with thinking about how he does have this example of a nurturer who is right in his household, but he still feels like there are certain ways that you can nurture certain people while he kind of cuts the nurturing off with regard to himself. Huh. Yeah. I feel like… in part, maybe he’s getting some of that from Pop, from his grandfather, but in some ways, it might be that the reason he believes that is because Leonie is still his mom. I think in some ways he might be modeling her, because she doesn’t practice self-care. She’s a really destructive person. So, I think some of that may be coming from her—from watching her and the ways that she moves through the world and interacts with the world, and at the same time that she’s failing them, she’s failing herself in certain ways. So, maybe some of that is coming from Leonie.  I think it would be easy to say that Leonie is a "bad" mother, but you wrote her in such a humanizing way that I think it’s also easy to say that she is a woman who is seeking love, but who doesn’t quite always know how to give it, especially to her children. She’s grieving her brother’s death, her boyfriend’s imprisonment, and aspects of her own life in some ways. Her kids offer something other than what she is, other than her pain and self-hate, but they are also emblematic of it. Her brother, Given, was failed in the way that he died and in what came after, but do you feel like Leonie was failed, too, as a person among those who were left behind? And now she fails others because she doesn't know how to process her own pain? Oh, definitely. Definitely. That was the key for me, the key to understanding who she was and why she failed those around her. Why she neglects her children, why she is sometimes emotionally and physically abusive to them. Because she had been failed. Because she had been left to learn how to bear underneath this grief, how to carry that grief throughout her life. And she was left to struggle with that alone, in some ways. I mean, in the end, I think we all have to struggle with our grief alone, but she—I don’t know, I think that it was hard for her because maybe she didn’t have any models for how to do it. And it seems that her mother and her father were struggling with their grief and I think it was so difficult for them that they couldn’t see beyond their grief to help her through her grief. In a way, I think that that’s a really natural response because the grief of losing a child—I mean, I can’t imagine how awful that must be. But I know from experience, from my own mom talking about what it was like to lose her son, that it’s a special kind of hell. And so, I think that in some ways, Leonie was left alone to struggle with this thing and I think it’s the great wound of her life. She can’t see beyond it because she hasn’t begun to heal from it. Because she can’t live with it. She can’t confront it. She can’t sit with it. I just think that it complicates everything for her and I think that it makes her even more self-involved, even less able to care for others around her. To care for her parents or her children. To care for herself. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, there are many elements of the supernatural, but they feel so intrinsic and intuitive to the world in the story. Some people have referred to the novel as magical realism. Do you agree with that characterization? And either way, do you see the novel as resting more on the side of magic or more on the side of realism?   I think it’s a combination of the two. I can’t deny that there are supernatural elements in the story. But I think that my understanding of the world that the characters live in is that the supernatural and the natural are inextricably bound to one another. One can’t exist without the other. So, I think it is magical realism.  I guess I think about it as delving into different aspects of black culture that aren’t always at the forefront, but are very real for the people who experience and practice it, if that makes sense.  Yeah, that totally makes sense. One of the reasons that I wanted to write about voodoo or write about hoodoo is because I feel like in the larger culture—in American culture—voodoo is something that has been maligned and I think that black spiritual traditions were important and are still important, for many, for our survival. I come from an area where a lot of people are Catholics—I was raised Catholic—but yet in voodoo, you have this example, especially in New Orleans, of elements of African spiritual traditions melding with Catholicism. I think that voodoo and hoodoo were a way for people of African descent to feel as if they had some sort of power or control in their lives, especially when in every other aspect of their lives, they were denied that. I think that those traditions are really important to understanding how we survived, how we exerted control, how we assumed some power, how we claimed some agency for ourselves throughout the hundreds of years that our ancestors were enslaved. So, I wanted to push back against that understanding of voodoo, of hoodoo, of that kind of black spiritual tradition, so that people are better aware of how it, again, helped us to thrive and how it helped us to fulfill some really deep-seated human needs that we had. When reading this novel, I was so excited that Skeetah and Esch from Salvage the Bones made an appearance. Do you think of all your characters across novels as existing together in the same world? Oh, yeah. The characters at the center of my first novel were a set of twins and those were the twins that Leonie is talking about. There’s a flashback when she’s thinking about Given and Given and Pop were working on his car trying to get it together and she says, “Oh, I wish so-and-so would walk down the street.” She’s talking about the twins from my first novel. In my head, they’re all existing at the same time, in the same place. In part, what I feel like I’m doing when I’m casting about for ideas for novels is that I’m trying to figure out who else lives there. I’m trying to find more people in that place so I can write about that. I really love that. Yeah? Because that’s how life is, too! We all exist at the same time, even though we have our own stories. Do you see yourself as having an overarching project that you are working toward, that all of your books add to? I think in the end that will be the result. But right now, I don’t have everything mapped out. I haven’t reached that point in my career where I’m thinking about legacy yet. I’ve met writers who are… I sat in on a lecture by John Edgar Wideman once and he was talking about legacy and he had sort of reached this point in his career where he was thinking about what had come before and thinking about the time that he had left, so he was trying to figure out what he would devote his time to and what his body of work would look like, but I’m not there yet. I haven’t begun approaching my projects like that yet. For me, it’s really two different things that are happening concurrently. I am finding voices that speak to me. Characters that intrigue me and who I’m curious about and characters who want me to tell their story. For Salvage the Bones, that was Esch. For Men We Reaped, of course the most important character is my brother. For Sing, it was really Jojo. Jojo came to me first. So, I’m finding characters who want me to speak, but then at the same time, I’m also finding myself drawn to the same ideas. I’m obsessed with the same things. And so recently, I feel like one of the big ideas that I keep returning to and trying to figure out is I keep thinking about time and about history and about how the past bears on the present. And how it affects people in their everyday lives. I think that those two things are happening at the same time, that I’m drawn to characters but also these bigger ideas about time and history are circling in my head. But I’m sure maybe in five, ten years or so—I mean, I’m forty right now, so if I live to forty-five, or if I live to fifty, then I’m sure that I’ll reach this point. It seems like many writers reach this point where you began thinking about the time you have left and what you’ve done and you begin to plan your projects. But I’m not there yet. By now, you are the recipient of one National Book Award, a finalist for another, and the recipient of a MacArthur Grant, among other accolades. Do you find that these achievements add a sense of pressure to the work that you’re doing?11This interview was conducted before Jesmyn won her second National Book Award. Yes. Yes. Yes. I mean, I think that they add pressure for several different reasons. Because the weight of what you’ve already done and the subject matter that you’ve already written about, as a writer, you’re supposed to be thinking about audience. You’re wondering if people want more of what you’ve already written, so in some ways you feel pressured to write about certain things. And so there’s that pressure… At first, when I won the [National Book Award] for Salvage, I felt a sense of pressure because I thought, “What if this is it? What if this is the best that I’ll ever do?” And so, I think that also makes you feel a certain sense of pressure because you’re wondering if you’ve peaked as far as your work is concerned. Yes, these accolades definitely do exert a certain sense of pressure, but I don’t know. Whenever I get something—and I’ve told this story before—my NBA award from Salvage is at my mom’s house. The certificate I got, also at my mom’s house. Any time I get any sort of award that comes with a memento or something, I always give it to my mom because I feel like it’s easier for me if I don’t see them. Because then when I sit down in front of the computer to write, it helps me to forget—to sort of shrug off that pressure. Do you know what I’m saying? And to forget audience for a second! Because I think you have to. In order to really feel a sense of creative freedom and just write, you have to forget audience. I feel like audience is something that I allow myself to think about when I’m revising, but when I’m writing a rough draft? When I’m really creating something, then I feel like it’s necessary to forget audience because, I don’t know, I feel like a constant awareness of audience can make you choke sometimes. It can make you choke. So, I try to forget. Who do you write for? Speaking of audience! Many different people. On one hand, I think I could say I write for fifteen-year-old me. I write for kids who don’t see themselves in literature and who want to see themselves in literature. I write for those kids. Then I also write for present me. I write for twenty-year-old me. Aspiring writers. I write for black women. I feel like I write for my family. I write for my community. I write for my region. But then I’m also aware of the fact that I write for people who are nothing like me. And I’ve been aware of that fact from the very beginning, because I remember thinking when I was younger, when I just started out, that I wanted to write about the kind of people that are in my family and about the kind of people that I grew up with so that people who aren’t like me—so that some of the awful kids that I went to school with who were white and also racist—would read about people like me and would feel for people like me. I don’t solely write from that impulse anymore, but I am aware that I do write for people who are nothing like me. And I’ve met a lot of people who come from very different backgrounds, very different places. After Salvage the Bones was published, I went to New Zealand for a book festival. And I remember meeting a lot of readers there and they had just experienced the Christchurch earthquake and I remember meeting people and those people saying, “I love this book so much because it spoke to me, especially after the earthquakes.” And so here they were, approaching the book and loving it and feeling empathy for the characters because they, too, had lived through natural disasters. So, I don’t know. I’m aware that I’m writing for people, like I said, people like me and people like the people that I know and love, but I am also aware of the fact that I’m writing for everybody else, too.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
Sledgehammer Pt. 3

“Oh my god. Why do you play these awful pranks.”

I Always Wanted To Be Owen Wilson

As a nerdy kid who wanted to be a film critic, I saw myself in Wilson’s unexpected comedy. But my favourite writer was destined to become a movie star.

“Do I know what I’m doing today? No. But I’m here, and I’m going to give it my best shot.” - Hansel, Zoolander Some of us are lucky enough to remember falling in love: like a bolt of lightning across a crowded room, a moment of eye contact so life-changing that it looks straight at you and says, hey buddy, starting now, everything else is different. We all have our love stories. We all understand the magic of love at first sight, even if we don’t get to experience it directly. While this may be embarrassing evidence of just how small my life is, I can remember, fairly distinctly, the first time I saw Owen Wilson. Or, to be more specific, it was a series of events. A red poster in the corner of a used record store, a guy with short blonde hair curling up his mouth at the camera, looking both confused and cool. A picture in that month’s Premiere magazine of the same blonde man looking at a gun like he’d never seen it before, cocking his head like an idiot puppy. But most of all, the thing that I remember is seeing Owen Wilson in scenes from Bottle Rocket (1996), when it was reviewed on Siskel and Ebert. Now, a little background: I was a weird little kid. I wanted to grow up to be a movie critic. And Siskel and Ebert’s syndicated movie-review show served a particular function, pre-the you-can-have-anything-instantly generosity of the internet. I never knew when movies were coming out. I never knew what to see. But Saturday morning, when I finished watching cartoons and Saved By the Bell, I could futz around a bit on the television channels, and, before my mom would come into the living room with her squall of a vacuum, I’d find two Chicago newspapermen, one tall and thin, one short and fat, each wearing their finest sports coats, sitting in the aisle seat of the movie theater, arguing and talking passionately about movies that were coming out and movies that they loved, as exclusive-feeling clips from each film flickered behind them. They were a form of education in the form of entertainment. Bottle Rocket was released in 1996, square in the mighty wake of Quentin Tarantino’s gigantic, generation-defining Pulp Fiction. In this aftermath, nearly every indie film about young men trying to commit crime was Tarantino-esque, with showy dialogue overladen with references and very cool music. Meanwhile, if you were a little tween like I was, the definition of comedy at that time was, in some ways, rather traditional. There were Adam Sandler films about young men yelling at the world. There was Chris Farley bringing shame on his family by being fat. Comedy came from action. It was hard to find the wordplay-based wit of your average British comedian. Comedy, as far as I knew it, was pretty obvious. It was a hilarious person (who had been on SNL) breaking the world with their rage. The week that Siskel and Ebert reviewed Bottle Rocket, neither critic was particularly impressed. And I couldn’t quite pinpoint just what I found so enthralling about the clip. It seemed, on the surface, to be just another movie about young men obsessed with crime. But there was one crucial difference here: by no means were these guys cool. Wilson, playing aspiring criminal Dignan, is trying to push his way into a strip mall bookstore at closing time. He’s young, twitchy, and handsome, wearing a black nylon ski jacket that clashes with his military-grade high and tight haircut. He talks in a slow, long drawl that makes every sentence feel like he’s coming up with the words for the first time. To hide his identity, he’s got some tape on his nose. He comes up behind the clerk with a gun. The clerk isn’t scared. Dignan acts like the tough guy, demanding that the manager give him money. The manager tells him to not to call him an idiot, and then Dignan turns on a dime, asking, politely, whether he has a bigger bag for larger books, “like atlases.” The dialogue here isn’t funny on the surface. What made the scenes the funniest thing I had seen in my life was that here was this guy trying to be a cool robber, and he was just getting it wrong. The clerk was asking him about his disguise. The manager demanded respect. I had never seen comedy with that kind of rhythm before. You needed to listen to the dialogue, to think about the way that things were playing against what was being said. It was subtle and dry and pretty witty, and I wanted more of it, as soon as possible. I didn’t get to see the movie until it came out on video and it ended up being my favorite movie of all time, easily usurping A Room With a View (which had romance, Helena Bonham Carter’s magnificent nest of ‘80s hair, and lots of penis in a euphoric bathing scene). I rented it weekly. I tried to watch it every day. I just wanted a little bit of that attitude. Every time I watched it, I found more subtle moments of wordplay and pain that I adored. I couldn’t tell if I was in love with Owen Wilson or if I wanted to be him. He was blonde; I was blonde-ish, and if I looked at the mirror from the right angle, I could be his sister. He had a funny nose, the sort of thing that looked like Picasso drew it during a drunken phase; my nose was too aggressive for my face, a cliff about to fall into the ocean. There was something so beautiful and right about Dignan’s journey, how he wanted to have something like purpose in his life, and the only way to achieve that was to become a “great” criminal, even though he was clearly never going to be any good at it. I felt that way about a lot of things. I wanted to be great, I strove for greatness, it was the only way that I’d get anyone to pay any attention to me; and in that dreaming, I never really bothered to like myself, or to do anything of interest in the first place. There was something in the character of Dignan that I had never quite seen before. He wasn’t a wannabe gangster of an earlier vintage. Rather, Dignan was a world-weary naïf. He was too innocent to be a true hero or villain in his adventure, but he was too smart to be fooled by the trivialities that kept the rest of the world occupied. Needless to say, girls never get to go on a journey quite like Dignan’s. I found other images to aspire to.  Still, on a sunny fall day, years later, in Harvard Square, walking past the Fogg Museum down the cobblestone streets, my then-best friend’s boyfriend launched into a gentle imitation of me. “Hey …” he trailed off, pausing between each word, nearly enunciating each ellipsis. “I’m … Elisabeth!” Each syllable lasted for an hour. According to Shaun, I sounded slow, daffy and forgetful. I had a twang. A drawl. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I was Southern, maybe. And you’d definitely think I was stoned. I listened to his imitation with a slight horror. Befitting his position in my life—we were friends, sure, but I bet I was more of an annoyance—the imitation was accurate and a little mean. In my head, I was fast-talking, witty and smart, maybe a Gilmore Girl or a dame like Myrna Loy. I should’ve had an accent like my fellow native of the South Shore of Massachusetts, Mark Wahlberg, making all my As broad and forgetting about Rs. Instead, what Shaun showed me was that I had changed my speaking pattern so I sounded like a man who was on the poster in my bedroom—blonde like a bleached hunk of driftwood, squinting at the camera with an air of desperation, aiming for cool and coming off confused: actor and writer Owen Wilson. The minute Shaun began his imitation, I knew that was where the twang, the drawl, the stoned affectations (and goodness, I was pretty much straight-edge in every aspect of my life) came from, in some deep hole in my subconscious. It turns out the things you love when you’re young can leave their mark. * Owenergy Studios on YouTube is the passion project of one goofy, passable editor who is devoted to tracking Owen Wilson’s repetitions and verbal tics on screen with an admirable amount of obsession. (And yet, maybe I’m betraying my own amount of obsession to note that whoever it is, they are not completely thorough.) In various supercuts with titles like “Owen Wilson Says WOW [a two part odyssey],” “Things Owen Wilson Says,” “Owen Wilson Whispers,” “Owen Wilson Is Living The Dream,” peppered with the occasional Matthew McConaughey tribute (“Matthew McConaughey Telling Stories,” ), and some Owen Wilson montages set to songs such as Alanis Morrisette’s “Thank You” and Coldplay’s “Fix You,” Owenergy Studios embodies their mantra: “This is a celebration of Owen Wilson. We love him and just want a hug from him.” Seeing Wilson’s repetitions, often pretty banal, everyday phrases (“Wow” “C’mon” “Unbelievable!”) pile up on each other in the span of three minutes, the movie selections ranging from Cable Guy to Shanghai Noon to The Internship to the barely seen Peter Bogdanovich screwball-escort banger She’s Funny That Way, is mildly entertaining and a little embarrassing. Sure, Wilson hits a variety of words in the same way, in every film. It makes him seem a little mediocre as an actor. The last scene of Midnight in Paris: he’s standing on the Seine, staring at the sparkling Eiffel Tower, ruminating on life and love and nostalgia; the voice of a familiar young Frenchwoman chimes in, with a “Hi,” and he responds: “Hey! … Wow!” He’s certainly not a chameleon. He’s a persona, a guy, mildly befuddled at this thing we call life. Mostly, he’s just kind of charming because he always appears to be having fun. Even in dreck like You, Me, and Dupree. If the name Owen Wilson means anything to an average moviegoer, I would wager that it stands for blondeness, a magnificently broken nose, and a likable presence that generally pops up in bland big-screen films made by committee, with titles that explain exactly what the movie’s about (No Escape, Marley & Me) or, occasionally, a strange, discomfiting presence in movies made by Woody Allen or Wes Anderson.  He’s a bit like the word surfer made sentient: a ray of sunshine and a manner that says, what, me, worry? The comedy, of course, comes from the way that Wilson’s energy invariably clashes with the world. He can be the chilled-out yin to some neurotic other guy’s yang (see: Jackie Chan, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn), or he can just be an affable, handsome guy learning something about life and love in story about his dog. The thing that gets me, however, is this: Owen Wilson was a hero of mine. I imagine when I was a kid, seeing the dry, laconic, the joke-taking-a-minute-to-hit rhythm that Wilson applied to comedy was the sort of before-and-after story that people like to apply to the classic, iconic comedians and troupes, the Steve Martins, Richard Pryors, Larry Davids, the Monty Pythons, the Mr. Shows, the Alan Partridges of the world. For me, Wilson was my comedy gateway, the first time I saw a comic hero that seemed like the right kind of model of how a person should be in the world. And yet these days, when I want to talk about Owen Wilson, I feel kind of like his character Hansel shirtless, wearing a pair of elaborate angel wings, talking about Sting in 2001’s Zoolander: “The music he’s created over the years—I don’t really listen to it—but the fact that he’s creating it? I respect that.” * “Well, does the fact that I’m trying to do it do it for you?” - Dignan, Bottle Rocket The thing that kicked my mild obsession with Owen Wilson into complete hero worship was the fact that he wasn’t just an actor in Bottle Rocket—he also co-wrote the screenplay with Wes Anderson. The two collaborators met in college when they took a playwriting class together. In interviews, Anderson noted that Wilson, who tended to read the newspaper in class, didn’t talk to him much until one day when he asked him about an assignment as if they were old friends. But it was the start of a beautiful collaboration: they became roommates, and, sparking off each other, they worked on the screenplay for Bottle Rocket, which got them into Hollywood. If Bottle Rocket was a romance, then their next film, Rushmore (1998) was a revelation. It was a coming-of-age story about slacker-overachiever Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), a barber’s son who found a thing he loved—his prep school, Rushmore—and how that love got corrupted with the addition of one comely teacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams), and a budding friendship with a rich industrialist, Herman Blume (Bill Murray, in his first and greatest Sad Bill Murray performance). Like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore also had a poor boy who wanted to be great and a misconstrued idea of greatness. The movie comes on like a shot, with the guitar riff of Creation’s “Making Time” on the soundtrack and a succinct summation of Fischer’s many projects at Rushmore Academy: Yankee Review, Editor-In-Chief, Publisher; Calligraphy Club, President; Rushmore Beekeepers, President; Max Fischer Players, Director; etc., etc. Clearly this is a kid who can do anything he sets his mind to—and yet, as his Dean put it, he’s also “one of our worst students.” Wilson didn’t appear in this film as an actor (although a picture of him represents Miss Cross’s late husband). But he did appear in a promo shot featuring Wilson and Anderson in go-karts. In interviews about the film, both Anderson and Wilson would demur about how much of it was based on real life, but it was Wilson who was kicked out of his tony prep school in tenth grade for cheating on a math test and ended up at public school, before graduating from a military academy. In an interview from Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson noted that when it came to both Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, “Owen and I were together while we were writing those.” So here is where I dived into obsession. It was the purest obsession, teenage obsession, where I collected every possible bit of Anderson-related paraphernalia. I had the script for Bottle Rocket. I bought the very same poster that I had first seen in the used record store and hung it over my bed. I bought every film—once I could afford it—on DVD and until then, I rented these films as much as possible. I related to Max Fischer, I related to Dignan. I thought that Bill Murray was robbed at the Oscars, losing Best Supporting Actor to James Coburn in the forgotten Russell Banks adaptation, Affliction. (From the title, you can guess that it’s about how fathers and sons afflict each other with their habits, yes?) The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) would be the last collaboration between Anderson and Wilson as screenwriters. The story of a grown-up family of former child geniuses coming together at a point of crisis, it was, arguably, the film that made Wes Anderson into Wes Anderson, the most influential director of the 2000s, for better or worse. It’s where his inspirations—French New Wave films, Peanuts—coalesced into something like style (montages, dead dogs, elaborate fake books, suicide, father issues, a troupe of familiar faces), leading to divisive notes from critics, some claiming that Anderson treated his film like a dollhouse or a music box (twee was yet to come). It had a cast of stars—Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Luke Wilson, and Gene Hackman—with Owen Wilson taking a small but crucial role as Eli Cash, a hilarious spoof on self-serious cowboy writers like Cormac McCarthy who has a sordid affair with Paltrow’s character, and the film’s pivotal line: “I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum.” I had liked The Royal Tenenbaums enough when I saw it, but it seemed like a sign that things would be changing in Wilson’s career and Anderson’s art, that these two collaborators may not work together for long. Between the both of them, they were busy: Wilson had the imprint of stardom, and Anderson had the imprint of “great director-ness,” which meant that folks were clamoring to work with him. Life may simply have gotten in the way of the urgency that drove their previous collaborations. Wilson had become a movie star, making money joking around with Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon (2000), and he was a perfect blank slate as male model Hansel in Zoolander (2001). It was clear that Wilson was far more in demand as an actor then a writer, and a question as to whether he’d have the time to be writing. He wasn’t my little secret anymore, and he wasn’t Anderson’s, either. He was a big-time comic actor, cast in stuff that comes out in the spring and the summer that takes forever to shoot and requires a high commitment to promotion. * “You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.” - John Beckwith, Wedding Crashers Wilson came up through Texas, but part of me suspected there was something of the East Coaster in him. There was a wordy intelligence to the way he talked and the way that his scripts unfolded, the sort of intelligence that felt well-trod. His late father Robert was a public television executive who first put Monty Python on American television, and his mother, Laura Wilson, is an accomplished photographer who worked with Richard Avedon. The photo of “the gang” in Bottle Rocket—a photo that’s striking in its very composition, way better than a snapshot—was taken by Laura, along with fine-grained set photos in black-and-white on nearly every film by Wes Anderson. Her talent is on display throughout The Wes Anderson Collection, and perhaps befitting a mother’s love, Wilson seems to be bathed in light while Anderson recedes into the background, a nerd in wire-rim glasses. That intelligence, which you could see in the way that Wilson’s comedy felt new, quickly grew old as he appeared in cheesy big-budget movie after cheesy big-budget movie. Wilson was no longer a bright spot, an actor with all the potential and a great screenwriting career; rather, he was an actor-for-hire, lost in the world of big budget comedies, of scripts by committee, of “Oh Wows,” of appearances in the gossip columns as “the Butterscotch Stallion” (never not funny, especially when Wilson responded to a salacious Page Six posting about the Butterscotch Stallion’s lovemaking in Rolling Stone with “There’s lots of different paths to the waterfall”). While Wilson was making films like Wedding Crashers and doing a voice in Cars, Anderson was releasing more films under the aegis of “auteur” (a flawed, much-abused and mildly sexist term that we will nonetheless use as shorthand for “film director whose name and style you know, immediately”), choosing new screenwriting collaborators and traveling all over the world for his next films, working on the screenplay for The Life Aquatic with filmmaker Noah Baumbach and The Darjeeling Limited with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, films that came to life in Italy and India.  Clearly a creative breakup of sorts had occurred, and yet it wasn’t discussed in public. The casual moviegoer probably wouldn’t even notice it, as Wilson was still taking funny, complex roles in Anderson’s films, mostly as a steadfast supporting character. In interviews with Anderson, the director chalked up working with other screenwriters to the fact that Wilson had become a big movie star. Wilson’s reduced appearances seemed like good sport, a sign of friendship. But a Los Angeles Times interview from 2006 classified Wilson as “shocked” that Anderson wrote with someone else: “I can hardly think of anyone that I have as much fun talking to as Wes. We’re really on the same page.” I saw The Life Aquatic in the theater. The woman next to me, anytime something wacky happened, would say, “That’s weird.” I cringed. The Life Aquatic felt different from the previous Anderson films. The actions that characters would take didn’t feel natural. It felt like quirky for quirky’s sake. I suppose the balance of an innocent naïf who wants something very badly in a strange gingerbread house world is one that’s hard to maintain, but you could see the seams. In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane wrote, “nobody could leave without the impression of having nearly drowned in some secret and melancholy game.” * “That was my favorite age.” - Steve Zissou, The Life Aquatic It was a strange and sudden tabloid story. Owen Wilson, the forever-easygoing slacker star of big-budget comedies, had attempted suicide, slashing his wrists. The story dominated the tabloids in August 2007.  A People cover story alluded to past drug problems, referred to as “the hard stuff,” and two rehab stints were mentioned. Courtney Love weighed in, warning via quotes in British tabloids that her ex, comedian Steve Coogan, played a role in Wilson’s downward spiral, taking him out to strip clubs and partying. The two men had become fast friends working together on the set of A Night at The Museum. Wilson was fighting an addiction to cocaine and heroin; a quote from a 2005 Playboy interview in which he talked about suffering “from an Irish strain of depression” came up again and again, along with suggestions that he was heartbroken over his breakup with Kate Hudson. Wilson released a statement, asking for privacy “so that he could heal during this difficult time.” Required to do press for The Darjeeling Limited’s fall 2007 release—in which he played a survivor of a suicide attempt—his first interview was a pre-taped video piece with Anderson, which ran on MySpace. The collaborators avoided the suicide talk completely, focusing on what it was like to film in India and what monkeys they ran into. At this point, you could say that Wilson disappeared from public life. He pulled back from interviews. The films that he starred in for the next few years were an interchangeable series of cartoons and wacky comedies that felt beneath his intelligence. He did the voice of Marmaduke in a live-action dog movie. He starred in the Farrelly Brothers dreck about male sexual anxiety, Hall Pass. When I heard of Wilson’s suicide attempt, it was as if a distress call went up from somebody who was very important to me at one point in my life. * By the time I graduated college, I had slotted my love of Wilson and his early work with Anderson into a past version of my life. I had thought that loving movies and actors meant something, that the great amount of time and space in my brain devoted to things like minor roles for Wilson and Bottle Rocket trivia on how Kumar Pallana became part of Anderson’s movies would pay off in a job, some drive, a sense of purpose. When it came to all that time and expertise, however, IMDB had made me obsolete. And a love that felt like a secret code that made me special had become mainstream. Liking Owen Wilson, liking the films of Wes Anderson, it didn’t quite mean anything anymore. Perhaps as a response to the emptiness of Hollywood’s celebrity-driven culture, it was as if Wilson and Anderson—another artist who has never seemed crazy about selling his work—began hiding in plain sight. They were working, Wilson making terrible comedies, Anderson making more films, but they avoided press, staying reticent on the subject of their lives. The work was speaking for itself, with little input from the artist—the sort of thing that was an inevitability in Anderson’s case, the sort of thing that creates mystique and mystery. But in Wilson’s case, it felt like an act of survival. Because, while Anderson has had the opportunity to keep defining himself as an artist again and again, whether it’s through the stop-motion animation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox or the nostalgia-laden fantasies of Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wilson—as a writer, at least—has stayed in amber. To me, there was a quality to Anderson’s work that came out of his screenplays with Owen Wilson that’s missing from his more recent films, even if we are at the stage where he is accepted as a Great Director, a true visionary. It’s something like sympathy for the outsider. The bratty innocence that fueled characters like Dignan, Max Fischer, and Eli Cash all got sanded down into general rich-person malaise, the drive of the outsider turning into Bill Murray’s despair, the curve of Adrian Brody’s distinguished nose, a perfectly symmetrical shot of Louis Vuitton suitcases representing the baggage that humans bear everyday. Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel make some gestures towards being outsiders' stories, but they lose the elegance and drive that characterized Anderson’s earlier work. (Also, Budapest’s twee take on fascism is pretty much unforgivable.) As a writer, what Wilson brought to the table can be sussed out, looking at the negative space between Anderson’s first three films and the rest of his career. It is something akin to sympathy for the underdog, an appreciation of the outsider, and it can be seen over and over again, in Dignan’s drive to be someone, Max Fischer’s desperate love of Rushmore Academy, and, well, Eli Cash’s desire to be a Tenenbaum. And it worked best in Rushmore, arguably one of the seminal films about an American teenage boy who, through heartbreak, becomes a little bit more of a man.  My love of Bottle Rocket was vindicated in 2000, when Martin Scorsese called it one of the top ten movies of the '90s, writing about it in Esquire: “the central idea of the film is so delicate, so human: a group of young guys think that their lives have to be filled with risk and danger in order to be real. They don’t know that it’s okay simply to be who they are.” He mentions the film’s tenderness and innocence. And he, rightfully, notes that the end—when Dignan is caught by the cops to the sound of The Rolling Stones’ “2000 Man”—is a transcendent moment. Even as savvy an artist as Frank Ocean seems to have a preference for earlier Wes Anderson. I perked up when I saw his list of his favorite films in his Boys Don’t Cry zine, which included Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Collaboration is a dance that requires total trust. It makes complete sense that two young men could only keep it up for a short amount of time; in particular, as work and drugs pushed them apart. Wilson elevated Anderson’s work to a certain level, adding a drive and drama and soulful characters that would lose out to interior design in future work. The indulgence that characterizes later Anderson films is a tribute to Wilson’s skills. Like a hidden editorial voice, a wife saying, no, don’t go to that well once again, don’t kill the dog quite yet, something about Wilson’s eye meant that Anderson pulled back, and the scripts had more affecting stories. Normally when two men work together like Wilson and Anderson, you get report after report of every quality they brought to the table (see: The Beatles), but the way in which Wilson’s disappeared as a writer reminds me of the thousands of wives, sisters, and helpmates who looked over every word that the great man wrote, getting written out of the story in the process. *  “If the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.” - Hemingway, Midnight in Paris In the new decade, Wilson’s best role was in Woody Allen’s porn-for-English majors Midnight in Paris. Wilson’s strange rhythms and pronunciations made the script seem more charming that it actually was, and the glee that Wilson expresses as he meets all the literary superstars of the Lost Generation, from Hemingway to Fitzgerald, makes the fantasy all the more appealing. He’s so authentic you can almost forget that each woman is an underwritten shrew. It was a reminder that there’s a quality to Wilson that’s in short supply. Perhaps it’s a particular sort of charisma, the likable befuddlement of the handsome yet disheveled, the way that dopiness can be forgiven with a wink underneath it. It’s the quality of the guy who can get away with it. It’s never been a quality I could aspire to, as a woman always too confused and shy to know what capital I have to play with. It’s something quite unlike women’s charisma in film, which is never in service to their genius; too often, rather, it’s just about being appealing to some guy or another. I wanted to know how to be interesting and I always felt like Wilson offered an example as an actor, because he would end up surprising me in some way, whether it was how he hit lines, improvised, or swaggered through the world. I wanted to be him.  Even though I feel very far away from the young woman who looked at Wilson onscreen and saw something like a hero, well, I still have a lot of affection for the guy. Enough so that I still end up seeing his movies: I sat through material like Matthew Weiner’s uneven initial attempt at filmmaking, Are You Here, and the (terrible) Zoolander 2 looking for that moment where Wilson is sparking and alive. Wilson can slip in a “Wow” or a wink or a well-told joke, and it’s as if the mask is lifted, and you can see the interesting man underneath. It’s hard to find these days. But I still root for the wild-eyed Dignan of my childhood to find something like happiness. It’s probably not coming through the cinema. A person once told me “the world is ruled by the semi-smart,” a phrase that’s fairly haunting in its accuracy. As actors, directors, and artists try to have careers in Hollywood—a place that’s for vampires at best—you can see it in action every day. At one point, I thought that Wilson’s career was something to aspire for, the dream of making it with your best friend and creating things that were hopeful and earnest. But it was naïve to think that there’d be something like salvation through unfettered admiration of someone like Owen Wilson, even if, by accident, he shaped some things in my life, from my vocal inflections and my sense of humor, to a new realization about the ways that we contribute to—and are hidden from—the history of art. You get older, and actors stay in the same place. Your relationship with them, even virtually, can have a strange sort of intimacy because they have faces that you see magnified, or they’re even inside your house. Their adventures and ups and downs may take you back to very specific places. I know that there is a part of me that will always, in some way, be rooting for Owen Wilson. He provided a spark in my life when I was lonely and unformed. His rhythm showed that enthusiastic, drawling girl that I used to be, that there were different ways to look at the world, dreaming of a way to be big, even when you’re more than enough. Some days I root for that girl, too.
‘Why Are We Always Food?’: An Interview with Celeste Ng

The author of Little Fires Everywhere on class markers, digging into the suburbs, and the depictions of East Asian characters in art. 

On the first page of Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin Books), Celeste Ng gives away the ending. The Richardsons' mansion is on fire, flames shooting out of each of the six bedrooms. The youngest Richardson, Izzy, is the arsonist culprit and has already fled Shaker Heights, the peaceful, progressive suburb of Cleveland. For the rest of the novel, Cambridge-based author Ng explores the uncomfortable truths of racism, classism, identity and the privilege of who gets to be a mother. Set in Ng’s own childhood hometown, the book centers on Elena Richardson, a rule-following, do-gooder reporter at the local newspaper obsessed with maintaining the façade of a perfect life, her defense attorney husband, and their four high school-aged kids, Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy. Elena’s life is overturned when the enigmatic, status-quo-busting Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl move into the Richardson’s rental property, and the two mothers end up on opposing sides of a custody battle between a desperate Chinese waitress and a rich white couple. Little Fires Everywhere is Ng’s follow-up to her best-selling debut, Everything I Never Told You, which follows the lives of the mixed-race Lee family in suburban Ohio. While Everything I Never Told You showed the blatant racism against Asian-Americans in the 1970s, Little Fires Everywhere scrutinizes the illusion of a post-race America. Samantha Edwards: Why did you want to set the book in your hometown, Shaker Heights? Celeste Ng: I had gotten to that point in my life where I had been away from Shaker Heights long enough that I was able to look back and see it with a bit of clarity. [When I started working on Little Fires Everywhere] I had been away for ten years and I started to realize a lot of things that I thought were normal based on my hometown were actually nothing of the kind. Things as small as rules about how you took your garbage out or how you had to mow your lawn. When I got my own house, I realized it was OK if we didn’t mow the lawn and we were allowed to put our garbage on the curb. But I also realized how unusual Shaker Heights was in a lot of positive ways. It’s very much an idealistic sort of town. It’s racially diverse and fairly racially integrated. The community is so aware of race there was a race relations group at the high school that went to work with the fifth graders. I was fascinated by that tension between the idealism that runs the town and the nastiness of the world we live in, so I wanted to try and write a story about that. Everything I Never Told You is also based in a small town. What’s the appeal of writing about small towns or suburbs? This gets into deep psychological territory. I’m a city person. One thing I love about the city is that it affords me a certain level of anonymity. You get a lot of choice about who you interact with. I remember the first time I went to New York City, I was really worried—“am I going to be dressed well enough?”—and then I went and no one cared, no one noticed me. A suburb isn’t quite a small town, but it’s sort of in this middle area where there’s a lot of different people but you don’t have the same anonymity as a city. There is a very defined community and a very defined base in which that community has to live and get along. There’s something about it that fascinates me. I grew up in the suburbs, so it’s a place I feel like know really well. It’s a fun place to dig into. One of the biggest distinctions between Mia and Pearl and the rest of Shaker Heights is their economic class. It struck me that when I was in high school there were a lot of class distinctions in Shaker Heights, but I didn’t quite know what to make of them until I got older and moved away. Shaker Heights is known in the Cleveland area to be very affluent, so if you tell people you’re from Shaker Heights, they assume you have a lot of money. But the thing is, there are also a lot of basically middle class households. As a kid, I noticed who had the real Keds and who had the knock-offs. Who had the brand name coat and who has the one that looks like it. Who goes skiing and and who doesn’t know how to ski. My family never went skiing and it was kind of a fashion thing to go skiing on the weekend, and then come to school with the lift ticket on your jacket. I think it was only looking back as an adult that I could look back and go “Oh, that was a class difference.” I didn’t go to sleepaway camp, where, at least in the states, there’s sort of a class marker as well. When we see Pearl going into the Richardsons' house for the first time, she’s just in awe of all their stuff and noticing all these tiny things. You realize that for Lexie, Tripp, Moody and Izzy, these are things they don’t even notice. Exactly. It’s part of the scenery for them. That was an experience I had as a kid, partly because my parents were immigrants so they were concerned about getting us through school and saving money to buy a house. My parents were also scientists so they didn’t care a lot about decorations, they just wanted the house to be nice and clean. I’d go to friends’ houses and see all their little knick knacky souvenirs and their enormous furniture. My parents liked functional things like sofa beds. I found it really interesting how in Everything I Never Told You, which was set in the 1970s, the kids felt like outsiders because they were mixed. And then in this book, set in the 1990s, mixed kids are seen as something desirable, the perfect amount of exoticism. Lexie says to her African-American boyfriend, “If we ever had kids, they would be adorable because mixed babies always come out so beautiful.” I think as there are more interracial couples and therefore more multi-racial babies, we’re also starting to see this pushback against the idea that mixed babies are going to save the world. Full disclosure: I’m half-Japanese and half-Caucasian. Full disclosure: my husband is white so I’m the mother of a mixed kid. I remember that in the '90s, if I was dating a white boy my friends would say, “if you ever have a baby it’s going to be so cute because it’s mixing up the gene pool.” At the time, I was like “OK, cool.” Now that I’m a little older and our discussion about this topic has become more nuanced, I feel resistance to the idea that all you have to do is have two people in an interracial marriage and then their children will magically solve all the race relation [problems]. One of the reasons I wanted to set the book in the '90s is because it’s just far enough for us to see it with a little bit of perspective, but it’s still close enough we can still remember that era. There’s this sense of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve not come. This whole idea of “Oh I don’t see race,” which I remember being very much the way we talked about race at the time. Now we see that as not necessarily a positive thing.  The Richardsons view themselves as really progressive people who don’t see race, but then they say a lot of things that are subtly racist or made me feel uncomfortable. Like when Lexie is looking at [the baby] May Ling’s skin and describes it as the colour of café au lait. I feel like every woman of colour has had their skin described as the hue of a hot beverage at least once in their life. Exactly! What I hoped readers would get out of that is this little moment of slight cringing but also laughing. “Oh you’re chocolate-coloured, you’re mocha, you’re biscuit-coloured.” Why are we always food? And it’s so often a hot beverage, which is so weird. I read in another interview that when Everything I Never Told You came out, you were a bit concerned about being pigeonholed as an Asian-American writer who specifically wrote for an Asian-American audience. Are you still afraid of that? My feeling about that has evolved and I’m privileged that my experience got to evolve because that book got embraced by not just Asians, but wide a swath of the population. I think it gives me a little bit of freedom that a lot of Asian writers haven’t been given, and should be given. I was worried that people were going to say, “Oh this a book only for Asian people.” I was really happy when non-Asians would come up to me and say, “Look, I’m not Asian, but this is my relationship with my mother” or people who were mixed race, but not mixed race Asian, would say, “I really emphathised with this family.” That meant a lot to me but I feel like in a lot of ways, that was a lucky fluke, I was very fortunate that happened. Now maybe people won’t pigeonhole me, but it happens to so many other Asian writers. If you write about Asian characters you are assumed to only write about Asian issues. That’s very frustrating to me. It’s like you’ve been assigned a beat and you’re not allowed to stray from it. It’s something that doesn’t happen to white male writers. You’re not going to say, “How come you’re writing about white men again?” The baby at the centre of the custody battle is Chinese. Why did you want the baby and her mother to be Chinese? I wanted to tackle the experience of being a Chinese-American in a community where we think mostly about black and white. In the US, we’re thinking about race largely in terms of black and white. As an Asian-American, I’m in this very weird middle-ground. I don’t fit into that binary system, and yet at the same time, I’m clearly affected by both. I wanted to put an Asian woman and an Asian baby at the centre so I could look at the experience. They’re at the centre of this debate, and yet they’re the ones with the least agency. At one point in the book, Mr. Richardson says that East Asian men can either be “socially inept or incompetent, ridiculous or slightly buffoonish, but not angry and powerful.” I see that [stereotype] exist in pop culture. Like, why can’t an East Asian man be cast in a Hollywood romantic comedy? I absolutely completely agree. That’s one of the reasons I was glad I got to put that in the book because I feel like obviously there are lots of limitations on what society is going to take from East Asian women, but I feel like East Asian men even have a whole different set of limitations.  Kevin Kwan’s book Crazy Rich Asians, which is about families in Singapore, is [being turned into] a romantic comedy with an all Asian cast, which is kind of amazing. The last time there was a [Hollywood movie] with an all Asian cast was The Joy Luck Club, which came out in 1993. It’s quite startling that for whatever reason, Asian men aren’t considered for a such a wide swath of roles, they can either be the funny sidekick, or the evil bad guy/martial arts hero, but they can’t just be normal people. I didn’t want to ask you so many race questions, but I realized I just threw them all out there. It’s something that I’m really interested in too and frankly, at least right now, I’m always happier when people ask those questions than if they don’t because we have not reached the saturation point of that conversation. We have not reached the point where we don’t need to talk about it anymore. I never planned to be any kind of spokesperson, but my feeling is if people want to talk to me about it and they’re going to listen, I will.
Reckoning with Ambiguity

On Gregory Crewdson’s photograph “Untitled (Beer Dream),” the cover art for Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. 

Some afternoons after work, before getting on the train back from Manhattan to northern New Jersey, my dad would stop by Around The World on West 37th Street to pick up a copy of MOJO Magazine—one of the UK’s renowned music publications—to flip through on the ride home and then toss into the dusty magazine basket in our living room the next day. Towards the end of my elementary school years, I would peruse the copies regularly for the band pics, the album artwork in adverts and reviews, the strikingly imagistic band names: one group was called Neutral Milk Hotel, one was Sun Kil Moon, another was The Flaming Lips. I was building a foundation of familiarity with the music I’d end up listening to assiduously some years later. Around that time, we were heading over to my aunt’s house in the next town over. I brought along a copy of MOJO to read in the car, flipping through the pages quickly when I came across a half-page advertisement for some albums from Matador Records. There before me was an image of Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. The cover artwork, Gregory Crewdson’s photograph “Untitled (Beer Dream),” perplexed me. This was my first real reckoning with ambiguity in visual text.  “Untitled (Beer Dream)” shows a man standing on the threshold of pavement between the driveway and the curb, gazing at a beam of light cast down from the top right corner. It’s one of Crewdson’s most recognizable pictures, part of his Twilight series. Published in photobook form in 2002, the series took him and a team of dozens (technicians, makeup & wardrobe, along with actors and actresses) from the arts circles of Brooklyn and Manhattan to the quiet of smalltown America, where they toiled for weeks, shooting only in the span of five minutes or so at nightfall called the “witching hour”: “The wind dies down and everything becomes still,” Crewdson said in a 2006 interview. While Yo La Tengo’s (former) hometown of Hoboken and Crewdson’s middle-America are many miles apart, the topographical disparity between the artists is bridged together by the night.  I thought the guy in the picture, dangling a six-pack in the light of the streetlamp, was getting abducted by aliens; people to whom I’ve shown the image have thought that as well. Simply because Crewdson altered the balance of lightness and darkness—a process that required painstaking accuracy to look this simple—it was reasonable to speculate on the presence in this photograph of some grand, intraterrestrial phenomenon. But “Beer Dream” isn’t supposed to show that aliens are responsible for the preternatural occurrences in Crewdson’s middle-America. Rather, I think a word from its title summates the essence of Twilight: that these pictures depict dreamlike happenings with no precise causes. Crewdson alters the constituents manifest in a mundane location to show how waking life and somnolence are actually a single blur, how imagination lingers just beneath daily conventions; there’s no objectivity/subjectivity binary in dreams and, hence, in waking life either.  [[{"fid":"6702241","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]  The two artists collaborated again last year, when the band’s eighteen-minute-long epic “Nights Fall On Hoboken,” from And Then Nothing, was remixed to soundtrack a live slideshow of selections from the photographer’s most recent series, Cathedral of the Pines. “My photographs are about the moment of transition between before and after,” Crewdson said in that same 2006 interview. The images that span the 100-plus pages of Twilight are a combination of indoor and outdoor shots; people in their homes or out along the barren streets. They tend to be stiff, either standing idle or sedentary, and their visages are solemn, or indecipherable. Crewdson’s lighting is meticulously patterned and distributed. When employed, it strikes through just a portion of the picture rather than completely brightening over the darkness of night, acting like a stage light borne by the natural world. As grounded, literally, as “Beer Dream” and the rest of Twilight are in a seemingly real world, Crewdson’s art simultaneously exists on an alternate plane wrought with self-contradictions. Upon first glance, “Beer Dream” is precisely detailed in its layout, yet it looks intensely ambiguous a second later. Depicted is the banality of real life, yet an unrealness lurks beneath, which compromises its entire nature. The music on that 2002 collaboration between the two artists, And Then Nothing, integrates “conscious” aspects into an “unconscious” setting: musical approaches Yo La Tengo had familiarized themselves with previously and been known for, incorporated into an album that marked their foray into ambient sounding territory. It seems as if Crewdson does the reverse of Yo La Tengo, integrating unconscious into the conscious—yet the approaches are symbiotic. Both artists represent and depict the same kind of imaginary, in which banality scintillates preternatural. * I think where my aunt lives would be a great place for Crewdson to come and plot a series one day. It’s a gated community of fully painted white, three-story homes, bunched together in groups of two or three; trees line the roads, forest engulfs the perimeter; it’s always quiet. My aunt’s place is on the periphery, right by another set of gates that leads to another community of homes. Since I was kid, I’ve wondered what it looks like over there, if the path goes on forever to gate-after-gate leading to community-after-community. But my parents have never allowed me to pursue this path; it would've been trespassing, they’ve said. For all I know, my yearning unresolved, that’s where the preternatural has been burgeoning for years.  A Crewdsonian pastiche comes to mind. The front lawn of my aunt’s home, the known, gets cast in darkness, save the muffled room-light discernible through the windows. But an expanding orb of brightness towards which I’m gazing, akin to Beer Dream’s beam of light, bulges from the left-side of the frame—just on the cusp of that gate, conduit to the unknown. No objectivity; no subjectivity. No hint at whether this is right after a family dinner, or a dream of that precise right-after. I’m just standing outside, waiting for my parents and sister, about to get back in the car.
The First Time I Ate an Oyster

God had taken someone from me, I reasoned, and I could inhale some of his creatures in exchange. 

I’ve been eating oysters. This wouldn’t be news, but I’ve been vegan for five years. My professional life as a food writer depends on this nut-cheese niche, and I’ve abandoned it for mid-day lunches I can’t share on Instagram. The consumption of these bivalve mollusks began soon after my brother’s sudden death last October. On my first trip out of the house alone, I went to the John Dory Oyster Bar for the release of a cocktail book. There, a table of oysters, four varieties on ice, served as the centerpiece to the room. There were also charcuterie and antipasti and other standard book launch fare, but they hadn’t caught my eye. I got a cocktail and sat by the window, growing restless. I stared at the oysters, thinking about summer lunches on restaurant decks that jutted out into the Great South Bay. What was it my dad always ordered on the half-shell? Clams? Or oysters? Either way, my brother never ate them. The smell of seafood made him cry as a baby. In his twenty-six years on earth, he never developed a taste for it. He would wave chicken wings in my face every time I tried to go vegetarian as a teenager. He was five years younger than me, but he taunted me like an older sibling. Meat was always something we could agree on: At Taco Bell, we ordered our hard tacos with nothing else. At The Old Olive Tree, the neighborhood Greek restaurant, our gyros weren’t sullied by onion or tomato or tzatziki. We devoured chicken fingers. We loved our mother’s breaded cutlets and juicy steaks. Quitting meat was an affront to our bond. No meal we ever shared again came without his shaking his head at me, confused and annoyed by my choice to differentiate myself from who I was as a child. On our last vacation together, a few months before he passed, he was still offering me chicken fingers. In the fog of grief, I didn’t know why I was doing anything, much less not eating oysters, so I walked over to the table. Moving quickly and looking at the shuckers with guilt in my eyes that surely they couldn’t understand, I added two to a plate along with the cocktail sauce, a mignonette of vinegared shallot and a hunk of lemon. Back at my window seat, I hunched over to hide them from anyone who might know me, and slurped them down.  The brine, the fleshiness, immediately made me feel alive—and only slightly guilty. God had taken someone from me, I reasoned, and I could inhale some of his creatures in exchange. Feeling insane after this transgression, I scurried out and wondered about the implications. I wasn’t vegan anymore, was I? Or did the clock start back up anew? Did I care? * In To Grieve by Will Daddario, he recounts a year in which he lost his father, newborn son, grandmother, friend and cat. “Might there be such a thing as an ethics of grief,” he writes, “a practice of turning my full attention to the specificity of each loss so as to carry such loss in me and to become, in the words of Gilles Deleuze, worthy of what has happened to me?” His attempt to answer that question includes the idea that “grief does you,” that no matter what you try to busy yourself with, the pain will manifest—perhaps in a way that destroys your sense of self. The oysters, I thought to myself upon reading, are grief having their way with me. I confessed my sin first to my mother and boyfriend, the latter becoming an accomplice in my extravagant oyster lunches. I dabbled in mussels but they didn’t have the same immediacy, the same sensuality. You needed a utensil. They weren’t raw; they were always already drowned in sauce. Oysters, fleshy and immediate and always still tasting of the sea in which they lived, satisfied my new deep rage. I’d cared so much, for so long, about creatures I could never communicate with, disconnecting me from people I loved—there didn’t seem a point to trying so hard to be good anymore. If that were my logic, then couldn’t I justify eating anything? Why were oysters where I stopped? A secret visit to Brooklyn’s famous Peter Luger Steakhouse became a common fantasy. There I could draw blood. There I could suck marrow from a bone. I imagined breaking apart a rotisserie chicken from Costco like we used to eat as kids—stuffing its salty skin into my mouth. I asked my boyfriend one night out of nowhere, not yet knowing that my first panic attack was arriving, “Will I die without eating mozzarella sticks again?” * On Christmas Eve, with family, I got incredibly drunk and confessed to all of them. “I have been eating oysters!” I declared to cousins and aunts and uncles, to my sister. “I wanted to eat something that had been alive. I wanted to take something from God,” I told them. Everyone understood. Everyone had been there to see me scream when I saw him in the casket. My uncle, my mother’s twin, offered a story that helped me understand why I might be running toward seafood. When I was very small, my grandma, who died when I was only five, would take me to a restaurant to watch me eat an entire lobster. “She thought it was funny,” he said, my small body containing such a large appetite. I was always encouraged to satiate that appetite, to eat everything. Maybe veganism was against my very nature. Over the next few weeks, I ordered poached eggs on my avocado toast. I stopped asking too many questions of those serving me and sipped a rich tiki drink from a ceramic pig, then found out there was heavy cream in it. Many of the next twenty-four hours were spent on the toilet—part physical reaction, part guilt, part not knowing who I was anymore. The intense fog of grief lifted on occasion and I could make sense of my choices again. Or, at least, I knew that I had to, that I had to impose some order or who knows what else grief could make me do? My brother, who never stopped wanting to see me give up and eat a chicken wing, will have to be a better ghost if he wants to get his wish. * But I keep eating oysters. They feel no pain, I read. I return to the site of that first transgression, John Dory Oyster Bar, two martinis into a Saturday afternoon, trying to re-create the rush. When I have a chance between appointments, I sit at the Grand Central Oyster Bar’s counter to have my boring Blue Points judged by the gruff old man behind it. I’m from the same place as these oysters, I want to tell him, in my defense. I’m trying to taste the past. This pursuit of oysters has given me purpose by connecting me back to someone I used to be, someone whose brother was alive, whose brother was at the table on summer days as boats came in from the same bay as those oysters—even if he never liked them. “Sometimes I eat a fast food fish sandwich just to remember my grandmother,” a friend tweets, “then I realize I'm trying to remember myself before all this.” Me too. Daddario writes, “While I might want to abandon the ocean for solid land and pretend that my surroundings are permanent and structurally sound, I must allow the weight of grief to shape my vision of the world and of myself in the world.” The ocean is where grievers reside. It’s where we’re comfortable, as the sadness moves in waves: a few days of energy, a crash. Nothing feels stable—not my family, not my mood, not the food on my plate. Will I die without ever eating mozzarella sticks again? Probably. But for however long I’m in the ocean of grief, there will be oysters to bring me ashore.
‘So Many People Are Allergic to Ideas of Spirituality’: An Interview with Jesse Jacobs

Talking to the Crawl Space cartoonist about putting characters in danger, the union between humans and nature, and the effects on his work of living in a beautiful place.

Jesse Jacobs is one of the many enigmatic Canadian cartoonists who have emerged from the blossoming comic scene surrounding Koyama Press. In the decade since launching the company, founder Annie Koyama has fostered an array of young artists, giving people like John Vermilyea, Jane Mai, Michael DeForge, and Ginette Lapalme their first mass exposure in the world of indie comics. After two well-received books with Koyama, By This Shall You Know Him and Safari Honeymoon, Jacobs returned this spring with Crawl Space, a 90-page short story that flexes the artist’s talent for design and new-age storytelling. Jacobs’s work shifts between existential and comedic writing, tugging on his own personal experiences with love, nature, and existence. The atmosphere of Crawl Space is one that persists throughout his work, where humanity is at odds with forces outside its control and the landscapes often overshadow the characters themselves. This time around the otherworldly setting is an alternate dimension, easily accessed through an old washing machine, and the protagonists are a pair of unassuming high schoolers who curiously investigate the crawlspace. The teenagers navigate the psychedelic realm, interacting with the creatures that inhabit it, before realizing the impact the space is having on their bodies and perception of time. Throughout, Jacobs juxtaposes ideas of enlightenment with the sort of reckless but naive nature of young people, drawing on his own experience experimenting with drugs and spirituality during his youth. I recently spoke to Jesse over the phone about what inspired the project and what he learned about himself while writing it. While I sat from a desk in New York and he sat outside his house near the Niagara Escarpment, we discussed nature, drugs, religion, and how to avoid making the same work twice. * Matthew James-Wilson: How did you start working on Crawl Space? Jesse Jacobs: All of my longer comics I’ve put out with Koyama Press have started as small ideas that I intended to be short comics. But doing short comics is difficult, so they’d always just expand and I’d realize, Okay, this could be an 80-page book. It was even more so that way with Crawl Space, where I had the idea of these two beings in another realm, or however you want to put it, and emerging from it. Then I expanded on that. I did it fairly quickly, too—in about eight months with breaks here and there—but it was sort of done in a fervor. What was on your mind when you started writing it? It’s so hard to articulate ideas about spirituality and your place in the world, but that was definitely what I was drawing from. I’ve always been very interested in that. I mean, I don’t know how you could not be, being a human being. So many people, especially in my generation, are atheists or are almost allergic to any ideas of spirituality. I get that, because it is kind of drippy and embarrassing to talk about. I get sort of embarrassed just talking about it right now. But the book definitely came out of thinking about that and experiences that I’ve had in my life around spirituality. Crawl Space is much more sophomoric compared to a lot of the ideas I’m thinking about, but it was definitely coming from that place. I was talking to [comic artist] Jesse Moynihan a couple months ago and he described such a similar quality or intention within his work. I love his work—he’s very inspirational to me. I think all of my work has a bit of that dimension to it, even with the stuff that isn’t overtly about other worlds or spiritual realms. But it’s in there because that’s just sort of how I view the world. There does seem to be a recurring theme of man in conflict with nature or the universe in your older work. It’s a balance. I don’t really even feel like there’s a difference between man and nature—it feels more like one thing. Most of the time I feel that way, but then every once in a while, it’s jarring when something happens to you in the natural world that can really hurt or harm you. I’ve had experiences with ticks and things like that where you have to get checked out after getting bitten. There are little things like that that sort of disrupt your communion with nature. Safari Honeymoon definitely came from the idea that we are a part of nature, like everything else in the world, but sometimes bad things can still happen to you. It’s funny living in the modern world—we feel so disconnected from it. It’s really easy to romanticize the natural world when you have the buffer of a house and electricity. When you don’t have those things it’s actually really terrifying. As much as humans want to escape from the feeling that they’re not in control of something, there are still all of these forces in nature that remind us how little control we have. It’s always so amazing when you see it happen in North America or in the west, when something like a big earthquake happens—it just seems different the way the media portrays it. If something like a big earthquake happens in a place with a depressed economy, it’s, “Oh, look what happened—that just happens there.” But then when it happens here in America, it’s, “Holy fuck … this can still happen? What do we do? Who is to blame?” It seems like after a flood or an earthquake we feel like we need to blame somebody. But it’s the same planet, so of course it’s going to happen to everybody. There was a big snowstorm in Quebec this year, and all of these people were trapped on the highway for like eight hours—which would have been a terrible experience—but nobody died or anything. All hell broke loose though, and people were like, “We have to blame the government!” You just know it was people with the sort of libertarian-style worldview who were just like, “Where was the fucking government on this?!” You’ve made most of your work while living in Southern Ontario. How do your surroundings or what you do day-to-day filter into the work you’re making? I think a lot; the nature aspect of my work really comes out of that. I live in a place that is very beautiful—the Niagara Escarpment is nearby, and I have the lake in front of me, so it’s hard for that stuff not to seep into my work. I can’t actually draw plants and animals realistically, but the sentiments and the spirits of both come into it. Are there specific moments or scenes in your life that worked their way into the book? I think I was digesting a lot of experiences from my past. People read the book and they’re just like, “Oh, you must do drugs.” and for sure, I get that. Some of that definitely informed the book, especially experiences from when I was a younger person trying psychedelics and things like that for the first time. Those experiences, which have still stuck with me, came through. It wasn’t like I was trying to literally make a book about drug use or anything, but I can understand why people think that when they look at it. It’s seems like we’re returning to an era where we can talk about psychedelics in the naive or curious way that the scientists who discovered them did before they were outlawed and demonized. For sure. There was a lot of research going on that had so much potential in the ’60s, and they’re only now revisiting it, by using psychedelics for end-of-life treatments or to treat depression. I think it’s even funny how hyper-capitalism is accepting it now—like that whole micro-dosing thing that’s supposed to improve effectiveness or productivity in the workplace. It’s just like the way they take mindfulness and cherry-pick this one part of spiritual practice to improve productivity. You go to a corporate retreat and you’ll have some spiritual teacher teach you mindfulness for the weekend so that you can get along with your co-workers better or something. Has spirituality always been a part of your life? I grew up Catholic, but I was never fully confirmed. My dad grew up Catholic in Newfoundland, and was raised in a very Catholic family. When I was in about grade four or five he just had this realization and turned his back on it all. He became sort of allergic to religion in general, just from bad experiences with the Catholic church. So there was a void there growing up after that. I was too young to process that. Doing Hail Marys and the Lord’s Prayer—I didn’t really know what that was about. I just didn’t get it, or I didn’t have the vocabulary, so that sort of spirituality didn’t exist for me as a child. Then once I [turned] 18 or 19 I started to become more interested, and it’s grown from there. I fall in and out of it too. Sometimes I’ll practice meditation regularly, and just be thinking about spiritual elements often. Then for a month or two, it just won’t even be a part of my life. I know I’m happier when it is a bigger part of my life or my thought process from day to day. Are there other themes that you wanted to fit into this book? I don’t think it was an intentional thing. I don’t approach a work thinking that I’m going to put certain themes in—they just sort of emerge naturally as I’m working on it. I think having young people populate the book seemed sort of natural, because it seemed like an innocent story. Even though this book has the longest page count of any of my books, it reads like a shorter work. Stuff has a lot more room to breathe, whereas my last two books, there’s a lot crammed in. This one is sort of spread out, which was intentional. But in terms of themes or what I’m trying to say, it just happens naturally. I remember this review someone wrote of a mini-comic I did, and he was talking about my work and that he really liked it, but he said, “Sometimes it leans too heavily on new-age sentiments and thinking that if we all get along everything is going to be okay.” I just sort of reacted like, Yeah, that’s kind of the point. It feels like, in a lot of your work, the characters often take the backseat to the conflict or storyline. Do you have a hard time investing yourself in your characters when you’re so frequently putting them into danger? Yeah, I never feel very connected to the characters. Maybe with Safari Honeymoon I felt the most connection. I think those characters were the most developed out of anything I’ve ever done. But I think one thing that Crawl Space and Safari Honeymoon have in common is that the environment itself is almost more of a character than the actual people. It’s like the space itself is the main star of the story, and then the things walking around in it are just sort of secondary. They’re almost just vessels used to explore the space. How have you noticed your writing change since Safari Honeymoon? Crawl Space was so different. Safari Honeymoon has more poetic language, and I toiled over the writing more in that book. That’s not to say one’s better than the other, because I’m working on another comic right now that’s closer to the writing style of Safari Honeymoon—it’s very intricate and plot-driven and there’s a lot of playing around with language in it, so it’s hard to say. I don’t think at this point in my life the writing is evolving as much as it is sort of circling around on itself. What direction is your work going in at the moment, then? I’m working on a [non-comics] project now, but I can’t say too much about it because it hasn’t been announced. It’s a lot like working on a comic, but with comics you’re so solitary and you make all of the decisions except for some minor editing and stuff. But with this project I have to work with a couple other people, and I’m just not accustomed to that. I had another comic that I was working on when I started making Crawl Space, so I returned to that once I finished the book. I’m slowly picking at that. It’s going to be a longer comic. It probably won’t come out next year, because I’m working on this other project, but maybe 2019. I feel like it’s a new direction for me. I just did a two-page comic for the new issue of McSweeney’s, which is a big deal for me. So, I’m working on comics and just trying to not be repetitive in my work. It’s difficult for me because there are things in my brain that I’ll always think about. Are there things you still want to push yourself to do in your work? Is there anything that’s still really challenging about comics for you? I haven’t been working on comics for a couple months, so my goals are fuzzy. I don’t want to say I’m sick of doing comics, because I’m not—I really like it. But I think doing comics all of the time, for me, isn’t healthy. So it’s nice to be doing a project right now that’s outside of comics, but still flexes similar muscles. I think that helps me make better comics, too. I have some friends that only make comics all of the time, and I’ve had parts of my life where I do that, but it’s just too much. I have to get away for a little bit. I think taking space from it is the most important thing for me, to help me even be able to answer that question. I’m not even sure what I want to do with my future comics. I guess I just want to come up with interesting stories. Drawing is fine—I love drawing, and it comes much more easily to me than making stories, so I guess I just have to focus on better narratives.
Anatomy of a Surrogacy

They wanted a baby, she wanted to carry it for them—for a fee. It’s a common transaction but illegal in Canada, and the system here leaves both parties vulnerable.

One spring day, a woman living in a Canadian city emailed a couple she’d never met, who lived in another Canadian city, and told them she might be interested in carrying a baby for them. She’d seen their ad on Surrogate Mothers Online, a site that connects women who are willing to gestate other people’s children with people who need that kind of help. She told the couple a bit about herself. She was in her early thirties and had just finished up a master’s. She was not a Canadian citizen, but was hoping to become a permanent resident. She did not smoke, drink or do drugs; she ate carefully and was into fitness. She gave them her name, and would like me to use it here, but for various reasons, including the fact that she signed away her right to ever tell this story, I’ll just call her Sophie Gil. Gil had first thought about surrogacy when she’d been approached years earlier by a couple in her birth country, but her family had dissuaded her. She’d always kept it in the back of her mind, though. She was pretty sure she didn’t ever want to have children of her own, but she was intrigued by the idea of pregnancy. “I would love to give back the joy and love that I have felt in my life ... that some only feel they can have through a child,” she wrote to the couple. She meant it. “Please let me know if you are at all interested.” They were interested. The woman wrote right back. (The couple has declined to participate in this article.) She told Gil about her struggles with infertility. She and her husband had been trying to have kids for several years. She was in her late thirties before doctors realized she had a medical condition that was getting in the way; they corrected it. A number of times she became pregnant and miscarried. A subsequent time she’d used a donor egg and in vitro fertilization but she had lost that baby fairly late in the pregnancy. After that scare, the couple had found a surrogate. They had some frozen embryos left over from their donor egg cycle, but those embryos didn’t thaw well, and it didn’t work out. They were all set to do a second egg donation and fresh embryo transfer when the woman who’d promised to carry their child found out she was pregnant with her own.  The mom-to-be warned Gil that being a gestational carrier would be a lot of work. Even before the pregnancy itself, she said, there were forms to fill out, tests to be done, a contract to be signed. She wrote that she wanted Gil to know these things in advance, so she could make an informed decision. The two women exchanged several more emails that first day, to get to know each other better. Both women had pets they doted on and they shared photos of the animals. They also shared photos of themselves. In hers, Gil looked elegant but strong, with long, dark hair and a broad, bright smile. The mom shared a happy holiday pic of herself and her husband. Just one day after first meeting online, the intended mom sent over a draft contract, left over from the previous surrogacy arrangement, for Gil to look over. She told her they would pay $20,000, plus an additional $3,500 if there were twins. Gil had been sincere about her desire to help the couple, but she also needed the money. She had just graduated and was making ends meet by looking after children and doing some housecleaning. She mentioned to the would-be mom that she was in Canada on a student visa that would expire in a few months, but that she hoped to get a work visa by then, which she assumed would give her access to healthcare. She learned a few weeks later that she was not eligible for provincial healthcare. Fifteen days after their first email exchange, the couple travelled to where Gil lived and met her for dinner. Gil found them a little stiff, and a tad overbearing. When she ordered seafood, the mom reminded her that she wouldn’t be able to eat sushi when she was pregnant. But mostly they were straightforward and businesslike, which Gil liked. They seemed the kind of people you could count on not to back out halfway through a pregnancy, something that had worried her. “I think they came to the meeting prepared to offer me a deal,” recalls Gil. But she still wasn’t ready to commit. She knew pregnancy was not trivial, and, because she had struggled with negative body image for years, and had had an eating disorder, she was worried about how weight gain would affect her psychologically. But just two months after first contact, all parties were on board. The would-be mother emailed to say that she’d be sending over a revised version of the contract. It had been drawn up by a fertility lawyer representing the couple. Surrogates are advised to get their own lawyers to read over contracts before they sign on, a service the commissioning parents usually pay for. Gil was part of an online surrogacy community, and other members were urging her to get her own representation. But instead, the mother made a proposal. “In an attempt to try to keep costs down,” she wrote, “we were wondering if you really did want to use a lawyer.” It would cost about $1,000 just to have Gil go in and sign the contract, and since their lawyer was so good anyway, there was no need for a second opinion. Gil had some travel planned, and the mother wrote, “It would be nice if we can get the contract done and out of the way before you go away…. If you use a lawyer, this may not be possible.” Then, she offered a small inducement: “We thought, maybe we can both benefit, and split the savings ($500 for each of us).” Gil was not sure what to do. She had a few concerns, for instance, about what bed rest would mean for her financially. Would she really not be able to work during the pregnancy? If she couldn’t work, would she only collect part of her pay? If so, how would she survive? The mom reassured her they would take care of her financially. Gil also worried about the number of embryos. She didn’t want to be pregnant with twins. Finally, Gil wrote back to the mother. “...[B]ecause I trust you guys a lot, I think I am ok to not use a lawyer. In truth, if it were free, I would for sure meet with her. But I too am frugle [sic] and want to help save you money. Everyone has advised me to get a lawyer up till now. But…I am ok going without.... IF there is something in the contract that bothers me I trust you enough to explain and clarify.” Gil had not even read the final contract yet—just a draft. But six days after seeing the final version, and without the benefit of legal advice, she signed it. One week after that, aware that their surrogate had no provincial health coverage and would require private insurance, both would-be parents put their names on it too. The surrogacy was a go. * Having a signed legal document mapping out how their arrangement was going to work was comforting to both sides. It put into words their central intention: that Gil would carry a child genetically unrelated to herself, but related to the dad, and she would give it to the parents immediately upon its birth. In return, she would get $20,000. Actually, the “confidential agreement” was not quite that straightforward about the money. It couldn’t be, because it’s illegal in Canada to pay someone outright to carry a child for you. According to the 2004 Assisted Human Reproduction Act, doing so is a criminal offense, and could bring penalties of up to ten years in prison and $500,000 in fines to the commissioning parents, or anyone knowingly involved in arranging such a commercial transaction. (Surrogates do not commit an offense by accepting money for carrying a baby.) So, the parents used a ruse not uncommon in Canada, which involves pretending that the surrogate is carrying the child without pay, and exchanging the money under the guise of expenses, called “expenditures” in the act, which are allowed. Conveniently for those using this scheme, Canadian lawmakers have never said which expenses are legitimate and which aren’t. No regulations have been proclaimed, but Health Canada's website now provides guidelines, though these have not been made law.  Page one of Gil’s agreement contained the statement that “The Gestational Carrier has offered to carry the Child on an altruistic basis, and only those out of pocket expenses related to the surrogacy shall be reimbursed to her”; all three parties initialed it. They also initialed a page on which those expenses were spelled out in some detail, and were said to include things such as travel costs related to the surrogacy and prenatal vitamins and supplements, but also all food consumed by Gil from two weeks before the embryo transfer to seventeen weeks after the birth, and all internet and cell phone fees incurred during this time. On another page, all signed on to the idea that only expenses with receipts would be reimbursed. On the second-last page of the more than thirty-page document was a grid laying out maximum amounts that would be used to cover expenses during certain timeframes. Specifically, up to $1,600 could be claimed prior to the pregnancy, $1,000 during the first trimester, $1,000 for each of months four through eight, $2,400 during the ninth month and $10,000 following the birth. But although in the agreement these are presented as caps for expenses, the parties understood that it was in fact a payment schedule, and that all these sums would be transferred, receipts or no receipts. If challenged by authorities, the parents would say it was to cover the expenses listed in the agreement. The mother agreed to make the payments by e-transfer. It was a leap of faith for Gil, who was trusting the word of the parents over what she’d actually signed. But it was also risky for the parents. Not only were they committing to making those so-called “expense” payments, they had also given their word that they would pay the real expenses, like travel, medical costs and lost wages. And of course, if found out, they could be convicted of a crime. Minimizing that risk—of anyone finding out the parents were paying their surrogate—the agreement contains an extensive confidentiality clause. It says that Gil could only tell “immediate” family and her “closest” friends that she was a surrogate at all, and even then, it instructed her to describe the intended mother as “a friend” and that “no further detail of any nature may be given.” In particular, it warns Gil away from providing any information about “activities contemplated or carried out.”  Despite the faith both parties placed in their agreement, which typically costs a few thousand dollars to prepare, it’s not clear that such agreements are even binding. Gil and the family referred to it as a “contract,” but, notably, in an email at least, the lawyer didn’t. Anyone who knows the basics of contract law, says Ubaka Ogbogu, a health law professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, knows that in order for a contract to be binding, something called “consideration” must change hands. Typically, that is money.  Legal experts disagree about whether some other kind of exchange might count as "consideration" in a surrogacy—maybe a gift or even something intangible—but to Ogbogu it seems straightforward. The Assisted Human Reproduction Act expressly forbids paying consideration between a commissioning parent and a surrogate. So, either the contract contains no consideration and is therefore not binding, or the contract contains consideration, is therefore unlawful, and so is not binding. “Under Canadian law, you cannot have a surrogacy contract,” says Ogbogu. “The contract is unenforceable.” * Regardless of its possible impotence in a courtroom, as far as Gil and the commissioning couple were concerned, the agreement was sacred, and both sides were committed to following it as closely as possible. For her part, Gil worried that if she contravened even the finest detail of the agreement—the prohibitions on consuming aspartame, for instance, or having unprotected sex—she would not get the pay or would be left with a child she didn’t want. Things got underway quickly. Just weeks after signing, Gil had a medical assessment with the IVF doctor. One of the many things stipulated in the agreement was that a particular physician, based in the United States, would be the one handling the embryo transfer. Gil was comfortable with the idea of going to that clinic, because, among other reasons, one of her brothers was living nearby at the time. The couple had an anonymous egg donor lined up there, and, unlike in Canada, in the US it was legal to pay the donor for her help. Some of the women in Gil’s surrogate community told her that American clinics were willing to transfer more embryos than Canadian clinics. In two places, the agreement Gil signed mentions as many as four embryos being transferred. Gil was a little nervous about the prospect of carrying more than one baby. She’d raised that concern in an email sent to the prospective parents the month after they’d met online. “I would like to talk more about twins...that specifically makes me a bit nervous. What are the chances?” They’d assured her that probably only one embryo would take. But the surrogates in Gil’s online support network were advising her not to do it. They said that if the embryos were made from young eggs and then put into a healthy surrogate like her, there was too high a risk of multiples. As the day of the actual transfer approached, the idea of four embryos started to weigh on Gil. She emailed the mom. “Who decides how many embryos to transfer? … I know you are the expert...but I just want to get super informed. Four seems a lot. Am I being wimpy?” The mom replied, “I know you’re worried about how many to put in, but [we] really need this to work out. They will at least put in 3. That’s usually the norm. As for the fourth, we would have to see based on the quality. It will be the doctor and I that will decide.” Gil made the drive across the border and down to the clinic and showed up at the appointed time. Gil remembers that the mom had reassured her that they’d discuss the number of embryos with the doctor, in advance, and that she knew the idea of four made Gil uncomfortable. But instead, Gil says the decision was made in a split second, as she was lying half-naked on the transfer room table, covered only by a sheet, legs in stirrups. The doctor, sitting in front of her vagina, gloving up, asked if they’d decided on four. The parents said yes. The doctor slipped one end of a thin plastic tube into Gil’s body, on the other end of which was a small plunger, which he pressed gently, releasing four embryos into Gil’s womb. The mom, standing at Gil’s left shoulder and holding her hand, was so happy she was crying. But Gil was in shock. “There was a complete moment of disbelief. It was like the air was sucked out of the room for a second,” she recalls. Had Gil had independent counsel, she might have learned that what the mom had told her was wrong: it was Gil alone who had the final say about how many embryos could be placed inside her body, and she had until the moment before the procedure began to make up her mind. “You cannot contract out your consent to medical treatment,” says Ogbogu. What’s more, he says, consent has to be procured without duress, or it’s not consent. Giving final consent while lying half-naked on a table with the commissioning parents in the room doesn’t seem, to him, to meet that standard. If she’d had a lawyer acting on her behalf, that lawyer might have underscored that it was Gil’s decision. Her fellow surrogates were telling her four embryos were too many. Any doctor with Gil’s wellbeing front of mind would have told her the same. According to Neal Mahutte, a fertility doctor at the Montreal Fertility Centre and past president of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, professional guidelines in both the US and Canada recommend transferring only one embryo, or at most two, when donors and surrogates are both young and healthy. “[U]nless I am missing something about this case,” he told me in an email, “this transfer went well beyond those guidelines.” Research has shown that transferring that many embryos doesn’t improve the chance of live birth, he added. All it does is increase the risk of multiple fetuses and complications. *  Three days after the transfer, Gil went home. She wrote in one of her almost daily email exchanges with the mom that she wished she could tell if it worked.  The two women weren’t best friends, by any means, but they had, through circumstance, become intimates. Gil shared details about her man troubles and her shaky finances. The mom talked about pressures at work. At times, they chatted like girlfriends about eyeliner and TV shows. The mom had been through the fertility mill herself, so they could joke together about hormone injections and uterine linings. The older woman was attentive, and told Gil to call, day or night, if she needed support. She told her how grateful she was to have found her. Gil responded in kind: “Thanks for always being there.” A blood test about ten days later revealed that Gil was indeed pregnant. “OMG I have so much to tell you!!!!!” the mom typed. “I just got off the phone....you are for sure pregnant!” Gil replied: “ARE YOU SERIOUS! ARE THEY SURE?...CONGRATS TO YOU!!” Gil was told to book an ultrasound for two weeks later.   On that day, Gil learned that, not only was she pregnant, she was carrying quadruplets. Gil remembers being alone in the ultrasound room with the local doctor, and she recalls that he stared at the screen for a long time before speaking. He was visibly upset. When he’d met Gil before the transfer, to check her lining, he’d warned her that if they put in four embryos, four would grow. He was against even a twin pregnancy, and he had told her so. Now, after breaking the news, and seeing her in shock, he said, “I can’t believe you let them do this to you.” She was horrified, but also embarrassed. “I felt like an ass,” she says. The parents took the news well when they heard it. The mom told Gil not to worry, that a few of them probably wouldn’t survive anyway. But two weeks after that first ultrasound, a second scan revealed what everyone had dreaded: all four were still there, and all four were thriving. No one thought four babies was a good idea, so talk turned immediately to what’s known in the industry as “selective reduction.” This is a procedure to terminate excess fetuses. The possibility had been discussed in advance of the agreement, and written into it, and both sides had signed on; they remained in complete agreement that it was now necessary. Halfway through the twelfth week of gestation, Gil and the parents went to a hospital for the reduction. According to hospital records, fetus one and fetus four were selected for what they called “foeticide”: each was injected with two millilitres of potassium chloride to the heart. It took fifteen minutes. The procedure may have been quick, but it was extremely painful, and the mom held Gil’s hand to comfort her. Gil would now carry the dead fetuses alongside their two live siblings until the end of the pregnancy. *  It was in a dialogue over morning sickness that the first signs of tension between Gil and the intended parents began to appear. In emails to the couple just a few weeks after the pregnancy was confirmed, Gil had described her “severe all day nausea” and said that “no matter if I eat, walk, work...sleep....I feel sick to my stomach.” She started taking a morning sickness drug, Diclectin, but it didn’t help. Gil’s sister, who was a nurse-practitioner and herself pregnant at the time, told her it hadn’t worked for her either, and suggested something that had: a combination of two anti-nausea drugs, Zofran and Reglan. When Gil proposed Zofran to the parents, though, they bristled. It was partly the cost: “Wow, $20 a pill is really a lot for us to swallow on top of everything else...,” the mom wrote when Gil first brought it up. But the couple was also concerned about their babies being exposed to drugs. “Popping too many pills is never a good idea when pregnant,” wrote the mom. She included some websites about how to manage morning sickness with foods, and she suggested eating crackers.  What followed were some testy exchanges about money. “...I just want to make sure that you know that I know that taking me on as a surrogate has been extra expense for you. This affects all the decisions I make...” Gil wrote. She was living from paycheque to paycheque, and in the lag between paying out of pocket for the high-priced fertility drugs and doctors’ visits and being reimbursed for them, she found herself completely broke. “I think it is best for me not to know just how stretched your budget is cause it really really stresses me out...I promise not to ask for anything outrageous unless I feel it really is needed...” Then she mentioned that almost everyone she knew who’d carried twins needed bed rest toward the end of their pregnancies, and she worried in an email that the couple would not be able to afford to pay for her lost wages if that happened to her. “Thank you for your concern, but we can manage with our finances,” the mom shot back. She reminded Gil that it was her and her husband’s decision how many children they could afford.  The real costs of the surrogacy were not insignificant. The parents were paying for drugs, medical procedures, travel, health insurance—all on top of the fees that they were disbursing according to the fictitious expense payment plan. Despite that, the parents were quick to reimburse and respectful about doing so. When a big insurance installment was automatically charged to Gil’s credit card one month, for instance, the dad volunteered to transfer the money well in advance of the statement’s due date, so she wouldn’t be left short. Most of their emails were still friendly and supportive, but the strain of their complex relationship occasionally broke through. There were disagreements about travel: Gil packed in a lot and the mom urged her to take it easy. And about exercise; the mom thought she overdid things. As for a question about whether or not she’d be attending key medical appointments, the mom wrote: “Of course, I will be there for the tests and procedures. Why wouldn’t I be? I am the mother of the babies and I am doing my best to do everything I can to be there for them and for you.” Around the sixth month, Gil mentioned that she’d called an acupuncturist to help her deal with her left leg, which was so swollen that she could no longer bend her knee or wear her usual pants. “[A]s much as I really am a cheap-ass and don’t want the extra expense....I think that if it does help...it can only make for a healthier me, a better third trimester and and and....keep me off bed rest or something horrible like that. So I think that trying this preventative action is well worth it.” Gil says she mentioned the idea not because she was asking them to pay, but because she knew the mom had strong views about interventions. She’d already vetoed aspartame, the anti-nausea med and a flu vaccine. But the mom appeared to regard it as a bid for yet more money: “About the acupuncturist...How much does it cost?... I think floating in the pool is a better option...Sorry, but I really don’t want to spen [sic] hundreds of dollars on something that won’t work.” But eventually, the mom relented on acupuncture. * From the outset, the plan was that Gil would move to the city and province where the parents lived towards the end of the pregnancy. She would live with or near the parents, and give birth in a local hospital. Laws vary by province but at the time, in both provinces, the dad would be the legal dad from the start, and the legal mom would be the woman who gave birth—Gil. Where the parents lived, though, the intended mother could become a legal parent through what’s known as a “declaration of parentage,” which involves their lawyer going before a judge with evidence that this was everyone’s intention. If the babies were born where Gil lived, though, surrogacy was not legally recognized at all and the mom would probably have to adopt. In anticipation of this, Gil travelled to where the parents lived in week twenty-six of her pregnancy, to meet and be checked over by the doctor who would be overseeing the birth. She and the couple attended the appointment together. According to the medical record, the doctor checked her weight, blood pressure, hemoglobin and a few other things, all of which seemed fine. “She is feeling well,” he noted, “apart from some edema [water retention].”  In fact, Gil was not feeling particularly well. Just traveling to the appointment was difficult, she recalls. She could hardly bend her knees and was worried she would not be able to sit all crunched up for the journey. She remembers having trouble getting up onto the examination table. In an email sent the day before, Gil had written to the mom: “My left eye is still mostly swollen shut right now... I look like a pirate!” The day before that, she’d mentioned buying some maternity clothes and that one leg was much more swollen than the other: “I had to buy an entire size up in the pants to get it to fit my left leg. The difference in leg size is crazy!” About her acupuncture treatment the day before that, she wrote: “I actually leaked lymph fluid out of the needle holes when she was done.” Gil was still working a patchwork of jobs, which sometimes kept her busy from early morning until late at night. She was also spending a lot of time booking and attending medical appointments, chasing down medical records and faxing them to the various doctors responsible for her pregnancy care, and was now, along with the parents, looking for a place to live when she moved nearby. The parents had originally thought she’d live in an upstairs room, but they decided it would be too hard for a woman pregnant with twins. They were also worried that their various animals might not get along. Now that they were looking at apartments, though, the couple was worrying about cost, and wondering whether Gil could stay in their study. Everything changed just eleven days after Gil returned home from that appointment, when she woke with her left eye swollen completely shut. For weeks, her face, hands and legs had been swelling, but now she could barely walk. Even her lower back was puffy, she told her online surrogate friends. She was particularly distraught about it because she was supposed to travel to a university in another city for a meeting that would determine whether or not she was accepted into a program the following year. Instead, she was stuck in bed.  She emailed the mom to tell her what had happened. Gil made it clear she wasn’t well enough to work. She wanted to know if they would pay her lost wages until she recovered. According to the agreement, she could only be paid lost wages if she had a doctor’s note calling for bed rest, but it was a Saturday, so she couldn’t get one. She had a regular appointment scheduled for five days later, but she couldn’t get by without being paid during that time. She mentioned she was thinking of going to the emergency room. In an online post to her surrogate friends that day, Gil wrote about the phone conversation that followed. According to Gil, the mom told her she was just like “every other surrogate”—going after the parents for money so she could sit on her ass and collect. Gil wrote, “She said who was *I* to put myself on bedrest...I told her I CAN’T WALK. My BP is up and I feel terrible... And then she launched into the fact that she has been upset all along that I have been prioritizing my [career] over her babies and that I was a bad surrogate and she could never forgive me if something happened to the babies... She just went on and on. That she really had misread me and had thought I was different and not a money hungry surro but in the end I am like them all. She said that she is already paying tons of money for these babies and won’t do a penny more....that I should be ashamed. I just shut up and let her talk.” The mother told her in no uncertain terms, Gil wrote to the group, not to go to emergency. As a non-citizen who wasn’t yet a permanent resident, Gil was not covered by provincial health care, and according to Gil, the mother argued that a visit to the ER would be too expensive. In the end, Gil promised to just go to her doctor’s office on Monday, even though she didn’t have an appointment, and see if he would look her over. “Then I hung up,” she continued in her post to the other surrogates, “and I have not stopped crying.... I just feel so crushed and hurt....It so ruins the whole connection I thought we had. I guess I really was dumb and in the end no one really really really is happy to pay you for ANYTHING even if it means helping the[m] have children that they always wanted....I have no idea where to go from here to patch things up.” The surrogates on the message board were livid. One said she had to pace for five minutes before she could steady her hands enough to type. Others pointed out that Gil’s symptoms were worrisome. One replied: “My immediate thought when you said you don’t know where to go from here was GO TO THE HOSPITAL!!” So Gil did. * Gil had been mistaken to think at the very beginning that she would have coverage under the province’s public health insurance plan, but she had been upfront about this with the parents before the agreement was signed. She had said she understood if they wanted to find somebody else. Instead, they opted to purchase private coverage. Even before signing the surrogacy agreement, they bought a policy in Gil’s name that would cover the costs of pregnancy and a hospital birth. But it would not kick in until ten months after signing—which turned out to be only three and half weeks shy of the due date. The couple purchased another medical insurance policy to specifically cover pregnancy complications, but it would only cover the first and second trimesters. That meant that for weeks twenty-six through thirty-six of the pregnancy, Gil was uninsured. It was during this coverage gap that she found herself so swollen she could barely move. Sunday morning, when her blood pressure measured 163/104, she called a cab and headed to the emergency room of the only hospital she knew—the place where she’d had the reduction. She walked into the ER and said, “I think I’m very sick.” The looks on the nurses’ faces suggested they thought so too, and Gil was quickly triaged and admitted. She figured they would keep her in for a day or two to stabilize her then send her home. Around noon, however, a doctor came in to discuss the plan. The first thing they would do, he said, was give her a steroid shot to help the babies’ lungs develop. Gil was startled: she knew that was something doctors did to get a preemie ready for birth. “You’re going to deliver the babies?” she asked. He told her they had to, or she wouldn’t survive.  She was suffering from preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication. Doctors started scrawling the word “HELLP” in her notes, indicating that she was suffering from what’s considered by some to be an extreme variant of the condition, known as HELLP syndrome: H for hemolysis, the destruction of red blood cells, EL for elevated liver enzymes, indicating liver damage, and LP for low platelet count. According to hospital notes, her condition was “severe,” the water retention so significant that when her skin was pressed with a finger, it made an eight-millimetre indentation. Her blood pressure was high. Her lab tests were worrisome. Doctors were concerned about a blood clot or organ failure. The only cure, they said, was to get the babies out.  Gil reminded the doctors that these were not her babies, that the parents had to be notified. They promised to do that, but also made it clear that her health came first. “They said, ‘We’re not going to save the babies at risk of losing you. That just doesn’t happen.’”  Doctors began inducing labour with Pitocin just after midnight, and they continued to infuse her at intervals throughout the night. But one of the babies wasn’t doing so well, so in the morning they told her she had to have an emergency C-section—right away. The doctor prepared her for what was about to happen: within forty-five seconds, he said, she would be surrounded by people—a separate neonatal team for each twin, multiple doctors, about twenty people in total—but, he assured her, she would be in good hands. “It was like they kicked the door open,” she recalls, “and I was swarmed with people shouting orders and yelling...I was scared.” Minutes later, the two babies were born, small but alive. They were just twenty-eight weeks and five days old, not quite three-quarters of the way through a full gestation. The parents did not arrive in time to witness the births—hospital notes suggest they weren’t informed until early that morning—but they stayed that day and the next. Gil believed the worst was over. “I thought, ‘The babies are alive and I’m alive and now I just have to heal.’” But she was still in danger. Her blood pressure was still very high, she was still extremely swollen, and tests revealed that her liver was struggling. She was transferred to the intensive care unit, where she stayed for three days while they stabilized her. Her brother, who had travelled the very first night to be with her, now stayed by her side.  Three days after the birth, she was finally well enough to be moved from the ICU to a regular hospital room. She was also able to take a few steps, so, at the suggestion of the parents, she went up to see the babies. She was surprised at how beautifully formed they were, despite being so little. “I didn’t know how I would feel,” she says. “And maybe if I hadn’t almost died I would have had room in my mind to think, ‘Oh, I carried those babies.’ But there was no connection at all, no longing to nestle them or hold them or hang out with them or anything.” After returning to her hospital room, Gil and her brother say, she received a text from the mom, imploring Gil to ask doctors if she could be discharged, because her stay was costing too much money. Gil’s brother, who’d stepped out for to get some food, now found her in her room “sobbing,” saying she had to leave. “If she’d had the choice, she might have tried to do that,” he says. He was furious. He told her not to reply—not to communicate with the parents at all for a while. He took over, and in an email to the parents, he acknowledged that things hadn’t turned out the way they’d planned, but the focus had to be on his sister’s health, not their costs. The dad wrote back and apologized. But he emphasized again how expensive the hospital was—$6,000 per day, he said—and wondered whether she couldn’t be an outpatient. “It was troubling to me that her health and well-being was not top priority,” says Gil’s brother. “This was very upsetting to her. I think it delayed her recovery.” According to hospital records, doctors were concerned about a sudden rise in blood pressure that day, up from 130/80 in the morning to 160/100 at 5 p.m. They noted the following day that she’d been crying a lot and her blood pressure was unimproved at 170/100. Seven days after showing up at the hospital, Gil was discharged. Her blood pressure was still higher than normal, and doctors had scheduled follow-up appointments to check on her liver and incision. She was glad to be out, but she felt strange. Amid the larger medical crisis over saving her life, the fact that she’d been pregnant and given birth had mostly been forgotten. Little was said about what to expect of post-partum life—the bleeding, the hair loss, the moodiness—and as she moved back into the world, among people who had no idea what she’d just been through, it was as though none of this had happened. As though she’d never had babies at all.  * The couple’s response to her illness marked a turning point for Gil. “Had it not been for that phone call... I would have SO trusted them,” she wrote to another surrogate a few days after she got out of hospital. Then, being asked if she could check herself out of the hospital because they couldn’t afford it just added fuel to the fire. Gil began to worry that the parents might actually try to stiff her. Some members of her surrogate community worried about this too. There was a lot owing—not just the bulk of the pay, but also the hospital charges and fees for follow-up care, all of which would be billed directly to her. Her only leverage—and she knew it—was that the babies were considered hers under the law until she signed them over. She decided she wouldn’t do that until she was at least paid the full sum promised in the agreement. More than three-quarters was still outstanding.  The day after getting out of the hospital, Gil had contacted the dad to settle accounts. He’d been friendly and matter-of-fact, describing the surrogacy relationship as “wonderful for the most part” and the blow-outs at the end as “rough spots.” He agreed with Gil’s calculations—that all the payments, even for months eight and nine, which didn’t end up happening, were owing—and he even pointed out that she hadn’t received the seventh month payment, so he added that in. He committed to paying all the hospital and medical costs as the bills came in, as he’d always done in the past. But he asked that the paperwork required to transfer legal parentage be signed first.  Gil wanted to be paid first. But, still weak, she didn’t have the strength for a fight. So, she turned over the negotiations to a fellow surrogate, who I’ll call Jenny Lee, who had successfully managed two of her own surrogacies, was active on the message board in support of others and had followed Gil’s surrogacy closely. “She was a kick-ass advocate for me,” Gil recalls. Lee contacted the family, introduced herself and gave very specific instructions for how she wanted things to go down: they were to reimburse for a doctor’s bill “TODAY” by e-transfer, for the seventh month payment “TOMORROW” by e-transfer, and the balance was to be sent to a lawyer, who would hand it over precisely when the paperwork was signed. Bank draft only, she specified; no personal cheques. “We feel your proposal is fair,” the dad wrote back amicably. But according to Jenny Lee’s emails from the time, the lawyer told the parents that she wouldn’t do that. So, the father reiterated that the surrogate should just sign the papers and the parents would send the money. Gil refused to budge: “No go,” she wrote Lee. “I want an even deal.” Lee honoured that position, and negotiated hard. A few days later, she posted on the surrogate message board: “I have gotten them to send the bank draft to the lawyer....So [Gil] will get the bank draft first, then sign the papers.” (The lawyer vehemently denies that this ever happened.) Two weeks later, Gil received the bank draft for $17,900 and signed the documents required to give up legal parentage. *  A central purpose of Canada’s 2004 law, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, was to protect people such as Gil. Lawmakers feared exploitation of surrogates. But they fixated on one type of exploitation over all others—coercion through money—and they failed to fully anticipate the many other perils faced by people like Gil and the commissioning family in what is inevitably a delicate arrangement. The law’s architects were primarily concerned that if wombs and gametes were allowed to be traded openly in the marketplace, vulnerable people would be enticed to monetize them. As a result, lawmakers decided that only individuals offering these things for free, out of the goodness of their hearts, could be trusted to be doing it without coercion. They had in mind, where surrogacy was concerned, mostly sisters or cousins or nieces offering help within their own families. The idea of a stranger being contracted to carry a baby seemed to arouse a certain discomfort, not unlike what people often feel about paid sex work. A pregnancy was too intimate—too sacred—to sell. They couldn’t fathom that a sane woman would grow a child in her uterus only to relinquish it, let alone take money for doing so. But the reasoning that underpins these ideas comes from a different time in medical and social history. The Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies was launched almost thirty years ago, in 1989, and most surrogacies at the time involved a woman gestating a fetus made from her own egg. Mary Beth Whitehead, a New Jersey surrogate who in 1986 decided to keep the baby, was at the front of everyone’s mind. The discovery that it was even possible for a woman to gestate someone else’s embryo had only been made in 1983 and the practice was not yet widespread. When Canada’s law actually came into force years later in 2004, after a number of false starts, it still reflected that earlier view—that women would be contracting to give up their own genetic babies for money, and that surrogacies with strangers were morally questionable. Consequently, payment was outlawed, and anyone looking to lure a hapless woman into the baby trade through offers of money could be thrown into prison for up to ten years, fined up to half a million dollars, or both. The Assisted Human Reproduction Act has been a spectacular failure. A big part of the reason for that failure is that while the debates dragged on, science advanced rapidly. Increasingly, surrogacies involved babies not genetically related to the surrogate, as with Gil. Many people (though not all) have an easier time accepting contract gestation when there are no genetic ties between the woman carrying the baby and the child itself. During those same years, society had also advanced: parenthood for gay men, for instance, was becoming ever more commonplace and, therefore, so was surrogacy. Eggs and sperm were more readily available. The reality even in 2004, and much more so today, is that many people do accept the idea that a woman can carry a baby for someone else and hand it over to them, without being “unnatural” to start with or psychologically harmed by the very process. This change in attitude has made prosecuting difficult, especially when, as is often the case, both sides are happy with the arrangement. This was the dilemma faced by the Crown during the one and only prosecution under the Assisted Human Reproduction Act. Leia Picard, now Leia Swanberg, a fertility broker whose business involves bringing together surrogates, egg donors and parents (she is careful about the wording, because taking money for matching is also a criminal offense under the law), was convicted in 2013 of paying surrogates and egg donors outright. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police found that, although Picard’s agency, Canadian Fertility Consulting, had collected envelopes full of receipts, in many instances these envelopes had never been opened, did not add up to the amounts disbursed, and often pertained to expenses not directly related to surrogacy, like car insurance or household purchases. But even as the judge read out the $60,000 fine, he made a point of conceding that her clients appreciated the work that she did.  Ironically, despite its central goal, not only has the law failed to curb the commercial trade in wombs domestically, it has contributed to turning Canada into a magnet for international clients. Several of the country’s top doctors, lawyers and brokers actively solicit international clients at trade fairs and conferences around the world. The fiction of altruism combined with the threat of prosecution has kept surrogacy prices low.  Typically, Canadian surrogates earn in the low $20,000s, whereas Americans take home the Canadian dollar equivalent of $40,000 to $50,000. (It’s worth noting that some women really do offer surrogacy without pay.) Add to that the fact that all Canadians (Gil was not one) enjoy publicly funded medical care, even when they go through high-risk pregnancies-for-hire for foreigners, and it’s not hard to see why Canada has become an appealing surrogacy destination. * A regulatory regime that really had everyone’s best interests at heart would have committed to studying how surrogacies played out in real life. Had lawmakers made genuine efforts to understand surrogacy, they might have devised a different strategy for managing the risks. They might have understood that the real dangers were less about coercion to participate and more a matter of how the arrangement was carried out. Gil is clear that the money the couple offered didn’t coerce her into anything—any more than the money she earns at her current job coerces her. Surrogacy, she maintains, was something that she was curious about and wanted to try. Prostitution, on the other hand, was something she had never wanted to be involved in, and when someone once half-seriously suggested she become an escort, she turned the offer down flat, even though, as she points out, the money would have been significantly better than what she got for surrogacy. What’s undeniable about Gil’s experience is that both parties were comfortable, and remained comfortable throughout, with the central transaction: the couple wanted a baby or babies, and Gil was happy to carry them, for a fee. The fact of one woman gestating babies for another and relinquishing them upon birth never in itself became a point of tension between them. Neither did the fact of money being paid for that service. According to Karen Busby, a law professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, who published a systematic review of forty research studies on surrogacy, satisfaction with the arrangement is not uncommon. Nonetheless, Gil’s surrogacy highlights serious problems. One was that she didn’t know her rights as a patient. Gil had four embryos transferred into her uterus, even though she voiced concern about the prospect of even two. Part of the reason she didn’t know her rights as a patient is that she did not get, and was not required to get, independent legal advice. Some lawyers, Busby among them, think it should be mandatory for surrogates to get this advice.  Another risk to Gil was that the physician who carried out the transfer did not follow professional guidelines on the number of embryos to put in. According to research by Pamela White, a specialist associate lecturer at Kent Law School in the United Kingdom, Canadian fertility doctors are also more likely to transfer more than the recommended number of embryos when the patient is a surrogate, as compared to patients going through IVF for themselves.  White looked at data available through the Canadian Assisted Reproductive Technologies Register, owned by IVF clinic medical directors and which collects, voluntarily, data on assisted reproduction, including number of embryos transferred and whether the woman was acting as a surrogate, and the Better Outcomes Registry and Network. The difference was especially pronounced if, as in Gil’s case, donor eggs had been used. In 2012, for instance, 85 percent of surrogates had two or more embryos transferred, compared to only 57 percent of non-surrogates. If Canadian guidelines had been followed, White calculates, more than 50 percent of gestational surrogates would have had only a single embryo transferred, yet just 15 percent did. Why aren’t Canadian fertility doctors following their own guidelines? White says her findings raise the issue of whether protections should be in place to limit the risks that surrogates are allowed to take. Surrogates, who undergo medical procedures for the benefit of other people, are patients who deserve extra protection, not diminished protection, says White.  Agreements should not be made that involve the parents trying to tell women what they can eat and how much they can exercise, Ogbogu argues, as these stipulations are unenforceable and thus misleading. “A surrogate cannot agree to anything I cannot force my wife to do,” he says. In other words, a surrogate has every bit as much agency as any other pregnant woman, and commissioning parents should be reminded of that, not led to believe otherwise. Ironically, one of the things that made Gil’s surrogacy especially precarious was the very federal law that had been designed to protect her. Because at the time no one had been prosecuted for breaking it, people assumed it was okay to do so. It appeared to Gil that the lawyers and doctors were all in on the sham. Like paying in cash to avoid HST, paying a fee and pretending it was expenses had become normal practice. Yet both sides knew that they were engaged in something murky. They had signed an agreement they knew to be partly fiction. The deceit made it difficult to talk through honestly what was happening, or could happen. While the parents knew, for instance, that they had agreed to pay a fee plus expenses, they were somehow caught off guard when unanticipated expenses arose. Did no one counsel them about what actual expenses could amount to, on top of the fictional ones? Did no one tell them about the chance of multiples being born early, and what that could cost, given their uninsured surrogate? Allowing fees to masquerade as expenses made the experience much more dangerous for both sides. This sort of fiction continues today. The agency that was set up as a result of the 2004 law, Assisted Human Reproduction Canada, could have played a key role in alleviating many of these problems. It could have provided clear and accurate information to surrogates and families alike about informed consent, medical rights and the dangers of multiple births. It could have been the central repository for data on assisted reproduction—everything from numbers of surrogates and numbers of embryos transferred, to live births and birth outcomes. (To the extent that any data are collected in this country today, it is voluntary, not very extensive and owned by a group of private fertility doctors. Both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority have some mandated data-gathering capacity for assisted reproduction.) It could have also spearheaded qualitative research about the relationships between surrogates, would-be families, fertility brokers and society at large, and used it to advise government on policy. A federal agency could also have worked with provinces to resolve issues around legal parentage, vital statistics and even medical standards. Instead, after a few years of blundering, in 2012, the Canadian agency was simply scrapped. * After getting the bank draft in hand, Gil thought: “They have the babies. I have the money. It’s done.” But there would be one last chapter in their shared story. About a week later, Gil received a letter from the provincial government alerting her to the fact that she could apply for child benefits. She imagined how great it would be to collect the money—she had a surrogate friend who did that, with the family’s blessing—but she didn’t want to have any further entanglements. She emailed the family and asked what she should do, and they referred her to their lawyer. It did not occur to Gil that the letter signaled anything more significant.  Further correspondence arrived about two months later, however. This was from the provincial court. At first, Gil didn’t know what it meant. She emailed the parents again: “I am just not really clear...It says the petitioners request was not granted and therefore dismissed. Is this just lawyer speak that all is well?”  In fact, it was a copy of a court judgment informing her that the parents’ effort to make the intended mother the legal mother had failed. Gil, the document said, remained the twins’ legal mother. That meant, according to the document, she not only had authority over the babies, but she also had a duty to provide for them. The ruling also said that since the children were now residing outside the province, her home province had no jurisdiction to resolve the matter. It would have to be dealt with where the children lived. Gil was angry that neither the family nor their lawyer had informed her about any of this directly. She demanded to know what was going on and what would happen next. The lawyer assured Gil that the parents would try again in their own province and that everyone was working hard to resolve this. “Try to relax,” she wrote. After all she’d been through, Gil just wanted everything to be settled so she could move on. She also happened to be in the middle of applying for permanent resident status in Canada. She was terrified that appearing to be the mother of two babies—or, worse, a miscreant involved in a reproductive crime—could ruin her bid. Citizenship and Immigration Canada was asking her to submit not only the babies’ birth certificates, which she had copies of, but photos, which she did not. Reluctantly, she contacted the parents yet again, brusquely explaining the problem, and demanding electronic photos: one headshot and one body shot each, against a white background. She threatened to “exercise [her] parental authority” and come get the photos herself if they didn’t comply. Luckily, not long after, the surrogacy case was brought before a judge in the parents’ home province. Their lawyer had to present evidence that the mom had always intended to be a legal parent, that Gil had never intended to be one and that only money for expenses had changed hands. Not quite five months after the babies were born, the judge declared that the intended parents were the children’s only legal parents. Gil, who finally became a permanent resident the following year, was scrubbed from the record. And they all lived happily ever after.  Artwork is not meant to be an accurate representation of any subjects featured in the article. Any likeness similarity in the above illustration is purely coincidental. 
The Evolution of Sarah Polley

As an actor, director, writer and producer, she’s often examined women on the verge of reconfiguration. Her latest project, an adaptation of Alias Grace, is one she’s been thinking about for decades.

...for it is the fate of a womanLong to be patient and silent, to wait like a ghost that is speechless,Till some questioning voice dissolves the spell of its silence. - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1858, as quoted in Alias Grace Alias Grace opens on Grace Marks’s reflection. Actress Sarah Gadon, as the “celebrity murderess” who may or may not have killed her employer and his housekeeper in 1843, wears little makeup, her hair in a white bonnet, her collar white too, grey-blue top matching grey-blue eyes. Her spartan accoutrement redirects our focus entirely to her countenance as we watch it flicker from one expression to another, floating along the waves of Grace’s narration: I think of all the things that have been written about me...that I am of a sullen disposition with a quarrelsome temper, that I have the appearance of a person rather above my humble station, that I am a good girl with a pliable nature and no harm is told of me, that I am cunning and devious, that I am soft in the head and little better than an idiot. And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once? Alias Grace was published in 1996, an almost six-hundred-page factual-fictional account of the life of a real sixteen-year-old Irish-Canadian servant girl. Through the eyes, ears, mouth, mind of Grace and her psychiatrist, through their conversations and correspondences, writer Margaret Atwood forms a picture of Grace’s transformation, over thirty years, from guileless maiden to keen convict. But what to believe? Are these memories real? Is Grace the person she presents to the world? Does she even know who she is? Sarah Polley knew. At seventeen she read Alias Grace and saw herself in Grace Marks. Also young and famous and motherless, Polley too had difficulty knowing who she was, difficulty separating herself from the image others had of her and the image she had of herself. It follows, then, that the stories this Canadian filmmaker has chosen to tell—Away From Her, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell and, most recently, Alias Grace (which she wrote and produced), as well as her next adaptation, Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People—are also about women whose identities are in flux, who are knocking against a collective memory they no longer fit, who are searching for who they truly are. As Alias Grace’s co-executive producer Noreen Halpern says of Polley, so too could she say of Polley’s heroines: “She really is a woman who is so many facets of woman.” I. The Actor: “I was shut up inside that doll of myself.” – Alias Grace Sarah Polley’s parents were actors and, according to a family legend memorialized in the New York Times, as a young child she would grab their scripts and demand auditions. By the age of five, she had already made it to the big screen, as a penniless kid in the movie One Magic Christmas. Within three years, Polley was starring in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in which she played the daughter of a theater director staging a production of the 18th-century nobleman’s Don Quixote-esque wartime exploits. “It wasn’t just a story, was it?” her character asks. Polley told Maclean’s that the role’s demands—periods in frigid water, proximity to deafening explosions—persuaded her to avoid epic productions in the future. That same year, 1988, Polley became known in her hometown of Toronto for playing the title role in the 10-part CHCH adaptation of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, a series about an imaginative child whose curiosity lands her in countless compromising situations. In an interview with The Globe and Mail at only eight years old, Polley said that she “sort of” believed she was her character because she had played her for so long. “I liked the way Ramona stands up for herself,” she said. “She’s not a noisy or a mean girl, but I like the way she’s so brave and has trust in herself.” But it was not until Road to Avonlea that Polley became “Canada’s sweetheart.” The loose adaptation of L. M. Montgomery’s less famous novel revolved around a ten-year-old heiress who loses her mother and, when her father is accused of embezzlement, is sent to live with relatives in P.E.I. where she insinuates herself into the lives of the town’s locals. From 1990 to 1994, Sarah Polley was inextricably tied to Sara Stanley, not only in name but in story—she had also lost her mother.11Polley was 11 when her mother died of cancer. “I was in a daze, a very happy childhood daze, and basically I came out of it the second my mother died,” Polley told Maclean’s. Like Grace Marks, unlike Sara Stanley, she did not grieve according to convention. Rather than retreating inside herself, her response was to look outside. “All of a sudden people became fascinating to me,” she said. “I became very aware of people being three-dimensional, and having motives and angles.” Polley left Road to Avonlea in her mid-teens, admitting later to Toronto Life that the danger she felt on the set of Baron Munchausen had already “hardened” her, “isolated” her. “As a child, it’s a complicated thing to be forming your own identity while your job is to pretend you’re somebody else,” she told The Globe and Mail in 2007. “Especially for a girl, having generally older men constantly congratulating you for becoming who they want you to be.” Having developed scoliosis the year her mother died, for four years she wore a brace that had to be concealed under her costumes. After a ten-hour operation, Polley spent a year in bed recovering. Then she quit acting. Perhaps, like Grace, who had not yet determined who she was before being imprisoned, Polley saw the risks of stasis. “That happens in the Penitentiary,” Grace says, “some of them stay the same age all the time inside themselves; the same age as when first put in.” II. The Activist: “If God alone knew, then God alone could tidy it up.” – Alias Grace Sarah Polley dropped acting for activism. During the Gulf War, in protest, she wore a peace sign to an American awards ceremony. Disney, which had picked up Road to Avonlea for U.S. distribution, reportedly asked her to remove it. Polley did not. “I don’t think I ever had any big transition where I decided, ‘I’m not going to be an actor, this isn’t what I want to do with my life,’” she told the CBC at the time. “I just sort of always knew that it wasn’t my thing.” Polley claimed she had always just acted for fun and that she now had an actual vocation: activism. Appearing on the Canadian teen talk show Jonovision, she said, “I feel passionate that there shouldn’t be inequality in society.” So, in her mid-teens, Polley quit school to, as she told The Globe and Mail, “become a political activist and have more time to read.” She handed out leaflets for the Ontario New Democratic Party and, in a protest she helped organize against the provincial Progressive Conservative government, famously lost two back teeth in a fracas with the police. Polley also supported the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, speaking out against income inequality, and in 1994 considered studying political science and philosophy at the University of Oxford. Says Brian D. Johnson, a contributing editor at Maclean’s who has known Polley for two decades, “For somebody in showbusiness who’s really smart and who has ethics and principles, she [might have seen fame] as a sort of vast diversion from what really matters in the world.” Polley traced her activism in part to “middle-class guilt,” she told The Globe and Mail in 1996, but she came by her socialism honestly. Her biological father, Montreal film producer Harry Gulkin, was a communist who had also dropped out of school, in his case to join the Merchant Marines before becoming a union organizer. And Polley’s mother, Diane, and the father who brought her up, Michael, supported such values—one of her older brothers even worked for the NDP, enlisting his little sister to leaflet for him. “Being out of kilter with society in some way, a bit of a rebel—that was thought of as a necessary part of being a citizen, being in a dialogue with the world,” Polley told The Globe in 2007. So, she swore like a sailor and fought for equality, the reformed sweetheart’s response to the disparity of an industry she knew so well. III. The Star: “…what is there to celebrate…?” – Alias Grace Sarah Polley flits back and forth onscreen at eighteen between child and adult, adult and child. As Nicole Burnell in The Sweet Hereafter, she plays a girl sexually abused by her father, and also a woman who hates him for it. “Nicole is who I am internally in a lot of ways,” she told Maclean’s at the time, acknowledging the empowerment girls claim in the presence of men. “I probably acted it out a lot more with men on the set, when I realized that crawling into their laps had a certain gravity to it.” In her most celebrated scene in the film, Nicole leans on her father before standing up to him, wrapping a lie in a lie—Polley not only performs a lie in the shape of Nicole, but, within that performance, Nicole also lies in order to expose thetruth. She told Johnson that this was the first time her acting was taken seriously. “Having been an actor so much of her life, for the first time she was acting really as an adult,” he says. Until then, Polley had dabbled in roles that slyly subverted her immaculate persona—the maybe-prostitute in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, the goth girl in the series Straight Up—but she got serious in The Sweet Hereafter. “I guess the realization came from watching [co-star] Ian Holm act, and just recognizing that there’s something about the human contact you have when you’re acting with somebody who’s really looking at you, and you’re really looking at them,” she told Women’s Wear Daily. “That became completely intoxicating to me.” Before this, she had not considered herself particularly talented at performing, admitting she simply “toyed with” different sides of herself. But, despite her growth, there remained a purity to her acting. “She’s kind of incapable of giving a dishonest performance,” says Johnson. “She’s so transparent. She can do nothing and you can kind of read into her soul through those eyes.” Those Uma Thurman eyes, those eyes that narrowly avoided the cover of Maclean’s in 1997 (Princess Diana had just died). “[Polley] was dressed down for it,” Johnson says of the shoot. “On the other hand, you look at her eyes in that shot and, boy, she’s on.” And Hollywood couldn’t stop staring. Following the premiere of The Sweet Hereafter at Cannes in May 1997, Saturday Night reported talk of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod, and, by 1999, Polley had officially become an “It girl.” That year she sent a frisson through Sundance when she appeared as Stephen Rea’s protege and much younger lover in indie overlord Miramax’s Guinevere and as mercenary drug dealer Ronna in Doug Liman’s Go. In the latter, however, she seemed oddly out of place, a mound of fertile earth among the garish blooms of teen paraphernalia—Katie Holmes, Scott Wolf, Breckin Meyer—and the bright lights of a derivative pseudo-Tarantino party. But she took the role because of her politics, she told Saturday Night, because of this exchange between her checkout clerk and a mother on welfare: Mom: Don't think you're something you're not. I used to have your job.Clerk: Look how far it got you. Polley read it as recognition of society’s failure to live up to its citizens. Instead it played as a glib punchline at the expense of the poor—it played the opposite of her politics. “Everyone is only interested in themselves and getting more money and being completely reckless,” she said of the film in the aforementioned mag. “To an American making that film, that’s a celebration.” And, as a part of it, she was too. The cover of Vanity Fair, the cover of Interview, gushing call outs in The New Yorker and Rolling Stone and Premiere and Esquire followed. “I think it’s really important to emphasize that it wasn’t just a matter of celebrity,” says Kay Armatage, co-editor of Gendering the Nation: Canadian Women’s Cinema, “it was a matter of really great valued work that she had done.” All eyes were on her and Johnson remembers Polley telling him she was nervous when he asked her to present a prize at the Toronto Film Critics Association gala. “She was obviously in love with the art of [acting], but she was wary of the celebrity thing,” he says. “Being a child actor, I think she recognized it was a kind of imprisonment in a way...” And she rattled her shackles loudly. In 2006, Toronto Life reported that Polley once “threw a fit” over her Vanity Fair appearance as the magazine credited their advertiser, Tommy Hilfiger, with the vintage jacket she wore on its cover. “I’ll help sell the movie, but I won’t help sell Versace or Calvin Klein or smear makeup on my face,” she told The New York Times in 1999. That same year, she said in Women’s Wear Daily, “…I’m just too busy freaking out about who the hell I am when I’m not around cameras, you know? I don’t have time for figuring out how other people perceive me. I want to know what I think of myself first.” Her reaction perhaps hewed to where she was brought up, the place where she became famous first: Canada. “Canadian fame is that comfortable level of fame, but once it goes above a certain velocity I don’t think it’s that much fun anymore,” Johnson says. “Like anybody who is seduced by the spotlight, if you're going to stay level-headed, you've got to be suspicious of that.” So Polley became guarded with the press, mentioning to Toronto Life that she had read Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (about the ethics of reporting), considering interviews only if the journalist recorded them, hiring a publicist to “protect” her. In The New York Times in 2007, she described herself as “a really gregarious, loud person,” who would find herself becoming subdued during interviews, “playing a role of myself instead of myself...” Then she stopped. At the time, Cameron Crowe had cast her in Almost Famous and for weeks she rehearsed as Penny Lane, a groupie who falls in love with the frontman of a ‘70s rock band. “The part didn’t fit me,” she told The New York Times in 2007. “Every day, it felt less and less like something I could pull off.” So she quit, leaving behind the movie that would have given her Kate Hudson’s life, a life populated by People magazine covers and paparazzi. “I realized I don’t want that,” she explained to Toronto Life in 2006. “I want to be completely in control of the choices I make.” But it was more than that. Last month, following the first allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Polley wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about the Miramax producer propositioning her when she met him while working on Guinevere. "I loved acting, still do," she wrote, "but I knew, after 14 years of working professionally, that it wasn’t worth it to me, and the reasons were not unconnected to the tone of that meeting almost 20 years ago." That didn’t mean she knew what she wanted to do next and, after turning her back on Penny Lane, she fell into a depression. Her response was reminiscent of Grace Marks’s when she is finally set free, after three decades, into a world where nothing and no one is waiting for her: “So now, instead of seeming my passport to liberty, the Pardon appeared to me as a death sentence.” IV. The Director: “And inside the peach there’s a stone.” – Alias Grace Sarah Polley saw The Thin Red Line in 1999. Terrence Malick’s spiritual meditation on war—what it does to us, how it brings us together and pulls us apart, how we transcend it—changed her life. “It shifted something in me,” she toldToronto Life. “I’m an atheist, but…it gave me faith in other people’s faith.” She had no idea films could do that. She wanted to do that. “An actor is a filmmaker on a certain level,” says Johnson, “but not usually a filmmaker with control …” Polley had nevertheless made inroads. On The Sweet Hereafter, she had collaborated with Canadian director Atom Egoyan, not only acting in the film, but also writing some of the music as well as performing it. “That’s being more than just the talent, that’s more than being an actress,” Johnson says. “She was already thinking like a filmmaker. Atom, I think, was her entré into filmmaking.” Post-Almost Famous, Polley had an idea for her own film. Within a month she wrote and shot the first in a series of shorts about long term relationships and, with that, she fell in love with filmmaking. She also had talent. Polley graduated from the Canadian Film Centre’s directing program in 200122Eight years later she would graduate once again in documentary filmmaking. and only two years later won a Genie Award for her short I Shout Love. The following year saw her first adaptation, an episode in a mini-series based on the work of Canadian author Carol Shields. Polley added a broken relationship to the short story “The Harp,” about a woman who loses a piece of bone after she is hit by the titular instrument. “Why does everything end so badly?” the heroine asks, before her father, hearing impaired like Polley’s (who plays the father in question), mishears harp as heart. “A heart is a relatively soft and buoyant organ,” he says. “You’ll get over it in no time.” Polley’s first feature, her second adaptation, was also based on a story by a Canadian woman, was also about a woman being reconfigured. Away From Her (2006) centered on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” about a man (Gordon Pinsent) whose marriage of four decades dissolves when his wife’s (Julie Christie) Alzheimer’s sends her away from him and into the arms of another man. Polley later surmised that her own father’s experience of losing his wife subconsciously dictated her connection to the story. “[T]he most affecting emotional experience of my childhood was watching my dad lose the love of his life,” she said in Maclean’s in 2007. There was the theme of memory, too—it was not only her dad who lost someone—the seeds of which would germinate later. Adapting the work of others made sense for Polley, who had already demonstrated her aversion to self promotion. John Galway, president of the Harold Greenberg Fund, which provided financial support for Away From Her, Take This Waltzand Alias Grace, says, “A short story is really a starting-off point and then you expand the story out to become a two-hour feature, whereas often with a novel it’s actually about what you take away.” In both cases, the story is the anchor, allowing for easier control. Controlling the set was harder. Polley told the Toronto Star that she was an uptight director because she feared failure, feared losing the support of her crew, which she remembered from the sets of other first-time filmmakers. “You know as an actor so acutely what destroys morale, what creates complaints, and that can be good and bad, because when you’re directing you can become hyper-aware of that,” she said. The approach worked and her first effort was nominated for two Oscars: best adapted screenplay and best actress.33She lost the screenplay nod to the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. “When she did Away From Her, it was a revelation to everybody how good she was as a feature film director,” says Armatage, who is also a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto in the Cinema Studies and Women and Gender Studies institutes. “I think that her own career as an actor has everything to do with her talents as a director. When you look at Away From Her and Take This Waltz, for two, the performances of those two women in the leads are extraordinary.” Take This Waltz (2011), Polley’s second feature, has Michelle Williams playing a wife in a happy marriage who is nonetheless dissatisfied and falls for an artist. The script was not an adaptation, and Polley repeatedly stated that it was not based on her 2008 divorce from David Wharnsby (she married doctoral law student David Sandomierski a month before the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and the couple now has two daughters). “I think in that case she wanted to challenge herself with coming up with an original story,” Galway says. Though the characters were younger, once again here was a woman re-establishing her identity, balancing reality and fantasy (a rickshaw driver-artist who can afford a loft that big in Toronto could only be make-believe). In one scene, Margot (Williams) sits on a carnival ride next to the man she is falling for, “Video Killed the Radio Star” booming, flashing lights blinding. Then the music abruptly stops, the fluorescent glare returns, and the tin can ride and concrete floor are revealed in all their colourless banality. This unveiling is something of a Polley signature, a former star grounding herself in reality. Polley told the National Post in 2012 that her psychiatrist had once said to her: “Life has a gap in it.” She had wanted to make a film about that gap ever since. “Since I was about 19 or 20, I’ve been thinking about these things, which is why every short film I’ve ever made, as well as Away from Her and this movie, are about long-term relationships,” she told the Post, adding later to the same paper, “I’ve been making films thematically about my parents in various ways...” V. The Daughter: “I would like to be found.” – Alias Grace Sarah Polley had grown up hearing the joke, how she looked nothing like her father, how her mother must have had an affair. The question of her paternity would punctuate her life until her late twenties, often preceding a transformation. First, from actor to activist in her mid-teens; then, after the jokes became more specific (was her father in fact actor Geoffrey Bowes?), from actor to star at around twenty; and finally, from star to director in 2006, when she found out that her biological father was not Michael Polley, the man who had raised her, but Lies My Father Told Me producer Harry Gulkin. There were five years between Polley confirming her biological father’s identity and the 2012 release of Stories We Tell. Her documentary was inspired by the various interpretations—from family, friends—of the events and weaves together their memories and perspectives to create a kind of tapestry of the past. “I think the uncertainty of a basic objective truth is in my films, and that’s part of me as a Canadian. That’s a cultural thing that has been handed down to me,” she told the Toronto Star in 2014. “That there’s not one truth that everyone must obey, but that there are different realities for everyone.” Using real home videos intermingled with fake archival footage that she filmed on Super 8, Polley’s previous films re-emerged like prophesies, the opening scene, a grainy image of her mother, recalling the opening of Away From Her (“I never wanted to be away from her. She had the spark of life”); the mid-movie revelation that some of the home videos had been shot by Polley herself harking back to the revelation of Take This Waltz’s carnival scene. And the title, Stories We Tell, from a passage in Alias Grace: When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else. What emerged was a portrait of a woman not unlike Sarah Polley and not unlike the heroines she gravitated towards: “[Diane] was always trying to get out from under anything that she felt controlled her or made her feel like her life was very regulated,” says one of her sons in the film. “I wanted to share my experience of hearing the different versions and the way they were converging and diverging,” Polley told the Globe in 2012. “And to let the audience have the experience of being the observer—being me.” Despite this being her own story, the story of how she came to be, Polley consciously excluded a sit down with herself. But every scene, every shot, every fade, was evidence of her perspective, her own identity refracted through the film, just as it refracted through everything she had already made. “Before this I hadn’t realized that I was mining stories from my own life,” she told Film Comment in 2013. VI. The Writer: “Or the story must go on with me…” – Alias Grace Sarah Polley had a teacher in grade two who let her write all day. As a kid, Polley never considered writing for film. But then, at seventeen, she read Alias Grace. “To be a woman in that time, or any time, there are parts of your personality and responses to things that you’re expected to suppress,” she told The New York Times last month. “So what happens to all that energy and all that anger? What do you do with powerlessness? The idea of having more than one identity, the face you show to the world and the face that’s deep within, captivated me.” It was the first film she wanted to make, the story of a young woman whose mother died too soon, who became a celebrity without setting out to, who was imprisoned, who couldn’t parse the truth out of the past, who couldn’t even parse herself. At first, she thought she might produce it and maybe play the title role. Then she realized she had formed every image of the book in her mind. She wanted to adapt it. Polley chased the rights in her teens, but according to The Globe and Mail, Margaret Atwood’s agent thought she was too inexperienced to handle them. She kept an eye on the book over the years and, following Away From Her, the rights were hers. So, after making two films and two babies, she started writing. "Screenwriting allows for so much more reflection and solitude," she told University College Alumni Magazine in 2012. "I think it’s my favourite part of the process because everything is still possible and not mitigated by the exigencies of production.” The result was too long for a film, but short enough for a mini-series. Polley sent her six scripts to Noreen Halpern, the CEO of Halfire Entertainment. The producer thought the story of an elusive nineteenth-century servant who may or may not have committed murder, whose memory could not deliver her, was a seamless extension of Polley’s oeuvre. “I knew how much Sarah has always been interested in perspectives,” Halpern says, “who people are, how they present to the world, memory, how memory can be true, how it can be false, how it can be twisted in a way that isn’t even true or false, it’s just how memory changes over time.” At a meeting at By the Way cafe in Toronto, Polley said she would not direct. “She didn’t feel she was the best person suited to direct this,” says Halpern. “That maybe is the producer side of her taking control.” Polley suggested Mary Harron instead, the Canadian director of American Psycho, who she had always admired. Halpern agreed, as Harron “has always been able to deliver visceral images that are very much tied to character.” The duo eventually sold the project to two other women, Sally Catto at the CBC (Canada) and Elizabeth Bradley at Netflix (the U.S.), the former being particularly gratifying. “I spent my childhood on the CBC, this bucolic vision of this time that never existed in this country,” Polley said in The Globe and Mail earlier this year. “As nice as it was for families to watch, it was a bit of a lie. So to be back on the CBC in this brutally honest look at what it was like for women in period costumes, and people get spattered in blood, was extremely cathartic.” Fittingly, the last word in the series, said by Grace’s dying doctor, is her name, “Grace.” Her identity finally confirmed, Grace breaks the fourth wall, shatters the chasm between us, leaps from our collective memory into the present: I am here, her look says. This is Grace Marks. This is Sarah Polley.
Beautiful Losses

Leonard Cohen’s decision to pursue music as a career certainly proved a good one—for him and for us—but I’m still curious about what we lost when he gave up writing fiction.

When I lived in Montreal in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, Leonard Cohen haunted the city in a way that not even Pierre Elliot Trudeau or Rene Levesque or any of the Habs or Expos did. A friend claimed to have seen him, flanked by two women, at Vol de Nuit, the kind of place that then seemed too chic and expensive and exclusive for college kids. Whenever I’d walk by, I’d wonder if he might be there, but I never had the nerve to go inside. At the time, my friends and I considered Cohen a great poet and novelist who dabbled in music. Although we all knew the obvious songs, including “Suzanne,” “So Long, Marianne” and “Bird on a Wire” from the ‘60s—had sung them around campfires, in fact—we listened to The Clash and Elvis Costello and, speaking of poets, Patti Smith. Meanwhile, even Cohen had disowned the Phil Spector-produced 1977 album Death of a Ladies Man. But while his records weren’t exactly cool, he and his books were. I’d first read The Favourite Game in a Canadian Literature course I took as an elective while still an uninspired first-year mining engineering student. I savoured that book when I should have been trying to solve five-hour Mechanics problems and getting my head around Computer Programming on punch cards. While it wasn’t the book that triggered my switch into English Lit—I did that a year later after reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden in the wake of seeing the James Dean movie—Cohen’s first novel played a role in that holy conversion. Even after I became an English major, I didn’t read much poetry, but I loved the hardcover copy of his Selected Poems 1956-1968 that I’d found in The Word, Montreal’s best second-hand bookstore. I would stand on the furniture in my friend Amy’s apartment and read the poems aloud to her. And I was eager to tackle Beautiful Losers, which was always on those lists of the twenty-five best Canadian novels back then. Unfortunately, upon reaching page seventy-five, I declared the book unreadable and tossed it aside. I was callow enough to argue the critics were ridiculous for preferring it over The Favourite Game, but deep down I sensed that maybe I wasn’t quite ready for Beautiful Losers. Perhaps I wasn’t smart enough or maybe I was missing something. The poetic writing was confusing and hard to get through and my (admittedly limited) sexual experiences were nothing like the ones in the book. And unlike the first novel, this one had no characters for me to identify with. But between my love of The Favourite Game and the critics’ love of Beautiful Losers, I didn’t let my failure to finish the book diminish the author in my eyes. Someday, I figured, I’d try again. But for a long time, I didn’t. I carted that book from city to city and house to house for three-and-a-half decades. And even as I collected more and more of his music, that book sat untouched on the shelf. When Cohen died a year ago in November of 2016, his more recent records were already on heavy rotation in my home. I spent some time listening to older albums and deep cuts I hadn’t heard in a while and then decided to go back to his prose. After he switched careers and became a singer-songwriter, Cohen continued to put out the occasional book of poetry, but never published another novel. The decision to pursue music as a career certainly proved a good one—for him and for us—but I was still curious about what we lost when he gave up writing fiction. * When The Favourite Game appeared in 1963, Cohen was already a critically acclaimed poet. He’d followed his 1956 debut, Let Us Compare Mythologies, with The Spice-Box of Earth in 1961. But after the publication of Beautiful Losers in 1966, he turned to music, releasing Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967. At least there was the possibility of some money in it. Wittingly or not, he’d hinted at this move in his first novel when Lawrence Breavman, the autobiographical protagonist, says, “In this country writers are interviewed on TV for one reason only: to give the rest of the nation a good laugh.” Of course, poets have long been undervalued, but while Canada had produced some great novelists, Canadian literature as a crusade was in its early stages when Cohen wrote his novels. In Arrival: The Story of CanLit, Nick Mount does an impressive job of making a story about the birth of a national literature actually entertaining. The “CanLit boom” lasted a quarter century, from 1959 to 1974, and Mount gives much of the credit to an increasingly wealthy citizenry. “Affluence didn’t make the CanLit boom possible: it made it necessary, the therapist and companion to a society,” he writes. “It couldn’t cure what ailed them, but it could tell them they were not alone.” There were other factors, too, of course. These included the 1951 Massey Report (officially the Royal Commission on National Development in Arts, Letters and Sciences); the new Canada Council (which Mount downplays as a minor character in the boom); demographics; and swelling cultural nationalism. And while lots of people were involved, two were crucial. As the producer of CBC Radio’s Anthology and editor of The Tamarack Review literary journal, Robert Weaver gave many writers their start and sometimes paid for work he’d never air or publish just to keep a writer writing (he earned his unofficial title as the “Godfather of Canadian Literature”). Meanwhile, McClelland & Stewart’s Jack McClelland believed in publishing authors, not books, and used his remarkable promotional skills to help some of his list sell well (Cohen would later call the showman “the real Prime Minister of Canada”). By the time Margaret Atwood published her controversial Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature in 1972, writers could make a living in this country. And I would get to read Alice Munro stories in high school and then go on to take a university course devoted solely to domestic literature. But Canadian books in Canadian schools came too late for Cohen. He’d already moved on to music. His contribution to literary fiction amounted to two not-that-popular novels. After Cohen’s death, I pulled the British first edition (without a dust jacket) of The Favourite Game off my bookshelf. I’d found it in a second-hand bookstore for $20 sometime after I’d first read it four decades ago. At the time, I didn’t realize this was the real first edition. Although M&S had published The Spice-Box of Earth, McClelland initially passed on The Favourite Game. But London’s Secker & Warburg agreed to put it out. In 1964, Viking released it in the United States. North of the border, a domestic edition finally appeared in 1970 as part of the New Canadian Library paperback series from M&S. A series of vignettes or scenes of Breavman and his pal Krantz growing up from boyhood to early adulthood, the cinematic book is a poetic, erotic and funny bildungsroman. That was a term I didn’t know when I first read it as an engineering student, but I’d had a fondness for coming of age stories ever since reading Catcher in the Rye for the first time in my early teens. Cohen’s novel is set in and around Montreal, in places and on streets I knew. Breavman goes to McGill; I was at McGill. Breavman takes a room on Stanley Street; I lived on Stanley Street. Breavman has many lovers; I wanted many lovers. On second reading, I didn’t love it as much as I had the first time—which, I suppose, was inevitable—but several scenes continued to reverberate in my head, which is always a great compliment to a writer. Next, I took Beautiful Losers from my bookshelf. My copy is a Bantam mass paperback edition (seventh printing, 1970) with a cover price of 95 cents. Above Cohen’s name and the title, a sell line in big, black block letters reads: “The Most Daring New Novelist on the Scene Today!” Although there’s some water damage at the bottom of the first eighty pages or so, I wanted to read this copy because it’s the one I’d given up on all those years ago. When I’d first read The Favourite Game, its eroticism already seemed tame. But Beautiful Losers is still a dirty book; I can’t think of another novel I’ve read in which a woman’s vagina is referred to as a cunt so frequently. According to I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons’s 2012 biography of Cohen, “When he had first read Leonard’s manuscript in May 1965, McClelland found it ‘appalling, shocking, revolting, sick,’ but also ‘wild and incredible and marvellously well written.’ ‘I’m not going to pretend that I dig it, because I don’t,’ he wrote to Leonard. ‘I’m sure it will end up in the courts, but that might be worth trying. You are a nice chap, Leonard, and it’s lovely knowing you. All I have to decide now is whether I love you enough to spend the rest of my days in jail for you.’” McClelland didn’t have to do time; in fact, while some stores refused to carry it, Beautiful Losers faced no censorship or legal problems. But it did provoke strong reactions. The Globe and Mail called it “verbal masturbation” and said, “It’s hard to imagine any reason for publishing such a book, so bankrupt and derivative are the ideas in it and so chaotic is the style.” Meanwhile, in his Toronto Daily Star review, Robert Fulford declared, “This is, among other things, the most revolting book ever written in Canada.” But he also called it “an important failure” and concluded that it was “probably the most interesting Canadian book of the year.” The controversy didn’t help sales, though; those—and the critical accolades—came only after Cohen became a famous musician. Written on the Greek island of Hydra, with the help of amphetamines (along with hash and LSD) and with The Genius Sings the Blues by Ray Charles always on the turntable, Beautiful Losers is a trippy gumbo thick with imagery and symbolism. It includes all manner of sex (hetero, homo, auto and mechanical); the conversion of Indigenous peoples by the Jesuits; a sexual game called the Telephone Dance; spiritual and religious rants and musings; art; body-building ads in comic books; drugs; a sex toy called the Danish Vibrator; the Quebecois independence movement; paranormal activity in a Montreal movie theatre; and much more. The four characters are an unnamed old folklorist in a treehouse; his mentor and lover, a now-dead Parliamentarian and separatist named F.; Edith, the folklorist’s wife and F.’s lover, who killed herself by sitting in an elevator shaft and waiting; and Catherine Tekakwitha, a real-life seventeenth-century Mohawk woman who converted to Roman Catholicism at nineteen, took a vow of virginity and died in a Jesuit mission at the age of twenty-four due to fasting and self-mutilation (the Church later canonized her). The opening line of the book is, “Catherine Tekakwitha, who are you?” But trying to summarize the elements doesn’t help much and is probably beside the point. Even when I finished it, I had little sense of what the book was about. “Beautiful Losers is a prayer for both union and emptiness, and a quest for sexual and spiritual fulfillment,” according to Simmons. “It’s a satire on life in the sixties.” Okay, sure. For his part, Mount says, “It’s a book about wanting to fuck a saint….” He gives it three stars out of five, which in the rating system he uses in Arrival means “very good” (The Favourite Game gets just two stars, meaning “occasionally interesting”). “Like Jack McClelland, I’m damned if I know if Beautiful Losers is a great book or not,” he writes. “I know it’s a great (if morally difficult) book to teach, but I have a hard time imagining anybody but the very young, the very stoned, or the very overeducated actually enjoying it, and I’m still naïve enough to think enjoyment is part of art.” In a note to readers for a Chinese edition, Cohen admitted in 2000, “This is a difficult book, even in English, if it is taken too seriously. May I suggest that you skip over the parts you don’t like? Dip into it here and there. Perhaps there will be a passage, or even a page, that resonates with your curiosity… In any case, I thank you for your interest in this odd collection of jazz riffs, pop-art jokes, religious kitsch and muffled prayer…What you have in your hands is more of a sunstroke than a book.” Beautiful Losers is indeed difficult, and I can’t say I enjoyed it or that I would recommend it to friends. Maybe I took it too seriously. And, yet, McClelland was right—it is marvellously well written. And it left me wishing there were more Cohen novels to read. While plans are afoot to posthumously release The Flame next year, it will be a collection of poems, lyrics, notebook excerpts, illustrations and, apparently, some prose. But my hope for another novel from my man remains unfulfilled.            * That desire for more leads me to speculate about a timeline in which Leonard Cohen didn’t become a professional musician. I imagine in the fifty years between the release of Beautiful Losers and his death, he would continue to write poetry. He would win much acclaim for it, but not even great poets make a living off their art. So, to survive financially, he’d focus on fiction. Perhaps he would try another experimental novel or two, but then he’d settle into writing more accessible, though still sexy, literary books. After all, as rich and fabulous as his music is, it’s not particularly challenging. And much of it is popular, especially the early folk songs and several of his albums from 1988’s I’m Your Man on. In fact, even as a septuagenarian, he filled hockey arenas (when I saw him at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre in 2012 his fresh and vital performance was nothing like those ridiculous reunion tours of washed-up boomer bands). By the ‘70s, when people began to take Canadian literature as a given, I’m convinced Cohen would have thrived. We’d all read some of his less erotic books in high school. And actually like them. He wouldn’t churn out novels—we know how long he worked on his songs—but each new one would be an event and attract younger fans because his hipness somehow seemed the inverse of his age. We’d talk about him the way we talk about Munro, Atwood and Margaret Laurence. He’d be less outspoken than Atwood or Mordecai Richler, even reclusive at times, but when he did grant an interview or speak out publicly, everyone would pay attention and appreciate his romantic perspicacity, his spiritual wisdom and his mischievous wit. The people who get uptight about awards would be outraged when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature and Cohen didn’t. We would all be terribly sad when he died.