Talking to the author of Beautiful World, Where Are You about not creating characters from a place of moral superiority, authors as celebrities, and the great stakes of love and friendship.
The author of The Death of Francis Bacon on “big, canonical problematic figures,” questioning artificiality, and creepy doll furniture.
One way to describe Max Porter’s new novel, The Death of Francis Bacon (Strange Light), is wet. Wet with paint, wine, raw meat, coughs, and cum. By the author’s own admission, the novel is an experiment to be shared with the reader—something less concrete than the conventional realist novel, more open to the reader sticking their own fingers in and swirling around the dark colours and seeing what images come forth. Set in the final days of the great Irish-born painter Francis Bacon’s death in Spain, Porter stages these hours in the narrow space between mortal terror and ecstatic joy. The tiny book is divided into seven “written pictures” (dimensions and numeric titles are given), in which Bacon and his taciturn nurse narrate an oblique shuffle off this mortal coil, portraying—to the degree that Bacon portrayed—instances of joy, pain, remorse, and visceral bodily life. As the follow-up to his Booker-longlisted novel Lanny, and his first novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (which was adapted by Enda Walsh into a 2019 play starring Cillian Murphy), Porter explains that The Death of Francis Bacon is an avoidant project—a consciously made small thing, purposely uneasy with itself and the world it will be read in. Fresh off of summer vacation, I spoke to Porter from his home office in Bath, aptly filled with vintage doll furniture and a flawless Swedish Lundby dollhouse. Naomi Skwarna: Welcome to my kitchen. It’s where I get the best Wi-Fi. Max Porter: Welcome to my weird little office where my son is just playing Fortnite right there. I told him he can’t talk but you might occasionally hear him being like, you know, whatever they say on Fortnite, some nasty shit. Right off the bat, why did you write this book now and how did you begin? My Canadian publisher Strange Light provide an answer to that in and of themselves. They’ve created this space within the corporate publishing environment for experimentation. There was a degree of, as there is on everybody, pressure, to make my “next big project,” after my last novel. I have been resisting that in almost every way. I resisted living the publicity circus to the second book, and I was always keen to collaborate with people on stage, I was keen to share the space with other writers or other disciplines. I’ve been very, very busy, collaborating with people, musicians and theatremakers and filmmakers this year, all I think in an attempt to avoid fixation on the single product, and the author as sole promoter of that product. The whole thing started to give me heebie-jeebies, so actually I wrote this book in a very private space in a very private, intellectual mode in lockdown. I probably would have been happy to put it in a magazine or a pamphlet with a small indie press, or give it as a gift, basically, which is kind of my mentality. I mean, I’m in the gift economy! I like to think of the work like that. The fact that it is less commercial or exists in a slightly oblique way in relation to other art historical or biographical or fictional projects, I thought that’s actually okay. I like that about it, it might be a generative thing. Also I like that there might be times in my life when I do little books, little strange books that will only interest a sliver of the people and will certainly not please even a sliver of that sliver. But I hope it’s interesting work that extends the kind of monologues we’re all having with ourselves about the meaning of fiction, the function of the novel, critical analysis, all those sorts of things. So, that’s where it came from; addressing my own interest in Bacon’s work, and how we write about art and the failings of art history and whether fiction is a useful tool to deepen engagement with the work. What about Francis Bacon and his work that made you want to imagine the moments before his death? It’s a kind of engagement with myself as teenage art fan. Bacon was the first painter with whom I had a visceral shocking encounter; where I was sort of blown away by the power of the work and needed to read—and started to really understand scale. I love unpacking big canonical problematic figures, like I have this temptation to ruffle the baggage a bit, especially of someone that curated their own myth in the way that Bacon did. You said that he was the first artist that you had a visceral reaction to. What was the context for that? Was it a particular painting of Bacon’s? It was actually a school project. 1998. It was at the Hayward gallery. I thought it was the most extraordinary work and I came back and I chose to do it, you know, for my end-of-year project or whatever this was, I guess it was maybe my GCSE coursework or something? I tried to paint like Bacon and found I couldn’t. It coincided with my interest, in retrospect, you don’t know it when you’re 17 or 16, but looking back, it was my political awakening. I was suddenly discovering activism and the anti-war movement; I was reading about the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition and British colonial atrocities. Bacon suddenly rose up out of the world of what was available to me as a student. Bacon is very juvenile in his obsession with meat and sex and violence in a way that I felt was really compelling. It chimed with me, discovering that human beings were these killing machines, and being preoccupied with meat and the human form and the kind of artifice of figurative painting in the history of the West—thinking, Bacon is getting somewhere, pushing past that. Peeling the skin off things. Now it’s years later, I’ve had children and thought about different modes of writing. Really, as far away from Bacon as you could get, like ‘70s minimalism and psychoanalysis and feminism and performance art, but then finding myself coming back around to Bacon. I started asking myself almost in the analytical sense: who were you as a teenage boy? What were you frightened of, what was your privilege, what was the privileged position that you were looking at art with, what was the institutional setup of your encounter with these paintings? So I suppose that’s how the setup came about, the nurse-slash-critic-slash-analyst, and the painter-slash-victim-slash-person on the deathbed. So you were asking, why did I want to kill him? Well, yes! I know it’s a novel, but it does feel a bit like a play in terms of it being a monologue, having little directions and such. To me it felt like you were staging his death, and then he’s dead at the end, which feels very ritualistic and cathartic— I wanted to stage it purely in the Beckettian sense of “let’s put these two people on the stage.” I have erased the idea of character completely, so in a way they’re taking turns to play the idea of Bacon. If this were a stage play, which it looks like it might be, I hope that there would never be an 80-year-old man that looks like Francis Bacon playing this part. I’m hoping it would be played by a child; by a person of color; by anybody! Anyone can take their turn at playing the part of Francis Bacon or the part of the nurse, and they might even be interchangeable. It’s a representational game, and the most boring thing would be if it were purely illustration. It’s an effort away from the literal; to try and deepen the questions around the idea of someone like Bacon and his sense of self. I’m interested in plays and I’m interested in that directness of encounter. I’m interested in the kind of artificiality of the novel that we forget about because of the conventions of the social realist novel, where we just accept the third-person realist setup as normal, highly artificial and phony in many ways. There might be gimmicks and strategies we can employ to question artificiality; to be much more collaborative with the reader. Speaking more about the theatrical framing of this novel—that makes a lot of sense. Can you tell me a bit more about how you see it in performance? The starting principle for me to turn it into a play was the iconic book of interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester. It’s so fascinating—he admitted in his foreword to taking thousands of hours of muddled, drunk, endless, chopped, and collapsed ranting and tidying it up into these interviews. Sometimes he had to create a question [after the fact] that Bacon would then answer. The concision and coherence of those things is a total fabrication. I thought about translating this book, which is like a play, into a play that I hope is somewhat like a book. Really scramble the conversations and have it much more like a fragmentary or fractured state of consciousness. It’s a requiem of someone dying, and now knowing what we know of neuroscience and the way the brain works, that would involve a scrambling of everything. No longer just art, but also feeling and thought and music and politics and everything in there. But to do this, regarding tidying up as I go from book to stage, I felt I needed to have the structural coherence of the triptych. [Holds up drawing of stage layout] So there are three blank canvases, that’s a chair, that’s a bed, that’s an umbrella, and in the stage directions the characters move in front of each canvas. I was interested in trying to get some of the strategies of visual art into the novel, and now some of the strategies of a novel into a play. It seems to me that there’s good and interesting work to be done by my collaborators in that as well. I’m not an actor, but I hope that each of those people, whether it becomes a real thing, would enjoy that rearrangement; that drastic rehabilitation of each of these things in a new space. Yeah, well, I mean, you seem like a very tactile writer! Even seeing your dollhouse and all the doll furniture on your windowsill— My creepy doll furniture! —No! Not creepy. And knowing that with your previous books, you made sketches as you were writing. I start with drawings, yes. Your process seems to involve some back-and-forth between one medium and another, and also now it seems like you’re moving into a live dimension with this book as well, working in time versus drawing, which is, I guess, at its endpoint, somewhat static. What I like about Bacon is that paint was such an obsession of his and he had, like, a lifelong reckoning with the medium. I’m not saying as the writer, I’m a visual artist or anything like that, but my reckoning is with the medium. With this book, I’m asking myself, is it possible to smear and smudge language in the way that you might smear and smudge a painted figure so you can’t tell whether it’s a figure or a carcass or shadow or a snarling dog crouching on a figure, right? Is that possible in a sentence? Painters have possibly a different leash, with regards to gimmickry. Or maybe there’s a shorter one. As a novelist, I’m not going to alienate my reader immediately so that they leave me thinking it’s nonsense. I don’t want to suggest an indulgence on my part about the reader, but I hope that in this collaborative effort between reader and text, that might be somewhere in between poetry and prose, as you say something to do with, with space and time and texture, that is interesting to both of us. And never finished! And maybe providing a kind of aesthetic experience, rather than a complete one? I think that’s exactly right. I come from the oral tradition into writing. I’m not a great master of plot and the conceptual side of things. I come from the heartbeat, drum banging side of things. I want musicality, I want movement and energy in the prose that relates to sound as well as to meaning. I think fundamentally I’m that type of writer, which is why I break lines; it’s why I’m interested in hybridity. I’m sort of seeking out energy from it, more than seeking out intellectual brilliance. I feel other people are always going to do that better. Maybe this is related to a certain disillusionment on my part with the linguistic moment that we’re all in—finding things to be quite argumentative and flat and embittered. Do you see that in fiction, or…where are you locating that flatness? Quite evasively I’d say “oh, just in the discourse.” But what I mean is Twitter, right? I’m also a heartbroken English person, watching my country, my culture, and our relationship with the continent being severed and hijacked by a bunch of zombified criminals. Culture is going to be a victim in that war. The Bacon book represents a kind of yell against the sterile, urbane, bitter, tetchy mode that we’re in, and speaks of Europe and painting and the transmission of ideas. It speaks of a kind of high camp, celebratory time, when we talked about art and ideas flamboyantly. I suppose a little tiny bit of me just romanticizes that generation. I suppose to stage the death of that type of conversation with that type of artist is possibly just a purely romantic gesture on my part. You described the writing as being sort of smeared. The experience of reading it internally is—I had to sort of smear my inner vision to read it as well. It really does kind of bring you into it that way. I wanted to write about painting, but I didn’t want to do that, like, “He puts the brush in the paint.” I needed to do it through reference to red currant jelly and pheasant, and cum and liquor and waking up in the taxi and being shocked, still in a taxi! And, you know, drugs and cigarettes and peppermint oil. I hope it’s a sort of a clarion call for us to use more than just the sophisticated, cosmopolitan, politically on-the-point language of the novel. There are other realms of experience that are relevant—and possibly even juicy. I’m talking as if the history of Western art, which was Bacon’s preoccupation more than mine, is like a supermarket full of bodies and the supermarket’s failed attempts to describe the body. In his dying seconds, Bacon is suddenly able to describe—or feel—what the body was in relation to representation, and that should be a preoccupation of novelists, right? It shouldn’t just be cool, calm people meeting at dinner parties or in sophisticated intellectual environments on campus and having razor sharp conversations with one another about the ideas within the work. It might also include the shit, piss, cum, and the screaming and the pain—of being creative! And the constant failure to it, the constant yawning gulf of what we were trying to do and what we actually achieved, and that being directly related to masculinity as a tragic project. It’s a vicious, violent, flawed undertaking that we are just carcasses, belching and lurching our way quite quickly to the grave. It’s a pretty tragic portrait, one that doesn’t need a thousand pages! So I hope the shortness of the book, that as you say sort of smears your mind’s eye, is somehow closer to the person—more like Bacon’s genius in paint. I hope I’ve been painterly in my novel writing. Because of that smeared reading experience, you can’t really cling to it the way you can a more conventional text. Yeah, and I don’t think it even needs to be for excellence’s sake. I don’t think it needs to always be a razzle dazzle affair. I think it can sometimes be a quiet escape, relating more to the inner voice. It can sometimes be a deeply held, silent conviction between you as writer and you as reader. That’s why it’s so futile to stress out when people have bad or negative reactions to the work. Like, it’s so far beyond the writer’s control that it’s almost hilarious that people go hunting, responding to their critics or saying “you haven’t experienced it right.” What a desperately crap piece of art it would be if everyone experienced it the same way every time. Which relates to that kind of flatness that you were talking about in so much of, like, online discourse, Twitter— You experience it? The flatness. I do, yeah. I think flatness is the perfect way of putting it, because there isn’t much of a way in. It makes it seem like that’s choice. It’s tyrannical, in the way it’s made it seem like freedom but is in fact a tiny sad prism. I suppose it’s particularly like this to me because I don’t want to fight. I’m not a fighting person. I’m more of a heartbroken person, and I’m trying to reconcile my heartbroken base position—at that the scale of injustice in the world and the sadness that is out there—with my fundamentally joyful relationship with art and language. And I suppose the Bacon book was the result—to come back to your first question and give you a sensible answer—it was a symptom of me trying to reconcile those two positions with my children here in house trying to learn, and living in this strange Zoom box, but also living in this strange miniature toy shop, and trying to map where I’m at, I suppose, in my fascination with representation and language. It seems like Bacon, your problematic famous English man, is a good person to have fun with. We can’t let these sleeping dogs lie! We’ve got to keep poking them and see what they yield.
Talking to the author of Beautiful World, Where Are You about not creating characters from a place of moral superiority, authors as celebrities, and the great stakes of love and friendship.
Sally Rooney’s new novel is deceptively easy to summarize: it is about four youngish Irish people and the relationships between them. Alice is a writer, Eileen is an editorial assistant at a literary magazine, Felix is a warehouse worker, and Simon works in the Irish parliament. Alice and Eileen have been best friends since university, and the novel’s narrative sections are interspersed with their emails to each other. Alice and Felix meet and start dating as the novel begins, while Eileen and Simon have known and loved each other forever. Alice and Felix live in Mayo, while Simon and Eileen live in Dublin. Like all Irish people, they spend a lot of time discussing the logistics involved in visiting each other, having many long chats about what is in reality a short and convenient car ride. They talk also about their work, their families, their feelings for each other, and about the way they understand the world. They are very funny and often perceptive, although not always about themselves. Like Rooney’s previous novels, Beautiful World, Where Are You (Knopf Canada) is preoccupied with the problem of not being able to look inside someone else’s brain, even if you share a marked affinity or have known and loved them all your life. Her protagonists do not appear to have resigned themselves to this reality, and are constantly repositioning themselves in an effort to see each other more clearly. Unlike Conversations With Friends and Normal People, though, the narrative perspective of Beautiful World, Where Are You reflects this preoccupation. In Conversations with Friends and Normal People, we are told what Frances thinks or what Connell feels; in Beautiful World, Where Are You we are told only what the characters say and do, so that ascribing motive and intent becomes part of the reading experience. Doing this is much less hard work than it sounds—we all spend our days trying to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling, one way or another, and anyway the lucidity of Rooney’s prose means it mostly happens without noticing. It is worth drawing attention to, though, because of what it says about the questions and convictions that drive her work as a whole. She is always interrogating what it means to live in the world with other people, what we owe each other, why we behave so oddly so much of the time, and what it means to mostly fail in our efforts to understand each other but to keep trying anyway. Beautiful World, Where Are You returns again and again to the question of perspective: where we stand in relation to each other, and where our individual little worries and heartbreaks stand in relation to a world that is getting uglier all the time. Because Rooney is so widely read, and because her novels are so frequently described as providing the definitive account of “the millennial experience,” as if there’s a common one, it has become possible to overlook how much of these conversations her work itself has driven and been responsible for, and not simply been a reflection of or reaction to. There is no one else who writes like her, and Beautiful World, Where are You is full of the observations her work is so celebrated for. It is her best book yet: radiantly intelligent, funny, sad, and evidently in love with the world, beautiful or not. I spoke to her about it over email this August. Rosa Lyster: I wanted to start at the very beginning, because it’s my sense that all of the major preoccupations of this novel are present from the first page. Alice and Felix meet for the first time in a bar, and their interaction is described with this very striking sense of narrative objectivity: “The woman at the table tapped her fingers on a beermat, waiting. Her outward attitude had become more alert and lively since the man had entered the room. She looked outside now at the sunset as if it were of interest to her, though she hadn’t paid any attention to it before.” How did you arrive at the decision to begin the novel from this vantage point? What does this initial sense of narrative impersonality allow you to do or say?Sally Rooney: That decision did take some time. After I first conceived of the four principal characters and the relationships between them, I struggled for a relatively long period (maybe nine or ten months) with the question of perspective. The novel does not have one particular central character, and I wanted to find a balance between the different narrative strands of the book without imposing a hierarchy of significance. My problem was that any time I drew close enough to the protagonists to begin narrating their inner thoughts or feelings, I found myself getting bored and irritated with my own voice. Like: “great, here comes the author again, telling us exactly how everyone feels and thinks.” In my real life, obviously, there is no one to tell me how other people think and feel, and I barely even know what I think myself. So the more I tried to insist on my closeness to the characters by presenting their interiority in the narrative, the further away from them I actually felt, because their interiority did not resemble anything at all from my real experience of living.After various failed experiments along these lines, I had to try and find another approach. In essence, I wanted to allow the novel’s characters to go about their lives without any apparent authorial judgement or commentary. And I gradually began to find that I didn’t need to present what is generally called ‘interiority’ in order to accomplish this. I could just impartially observe and describe the characters saying and doing things, without needing to speculate on what they secretly thought or felt. This decision does impose a certain distance between the reader and the novel’s protagonists, but it’s a distance that makes sense to me—basically the same distance that prevents us from reading the minds of other people in our real lives. And actually, the more time I spent writing from this perspective, the closer I felt to the characters, and the easier it was for me to observe (which is to say invent) their words and actions.Almost all the narrative sections of the book are written in this style, or something similar (I can think of at least one exception, which we can talk about if you like!). But alongside these narrative sections, the novel also includes email correspondence between the two female protagonists. In a way, the emails were easier to write, maybe because they’re just written straightforwardly in the voices of the characters themselves. The only passages that survive from those early months of narrative experiment are in the emails. Many horrible draft chapters came and went… But some emails lived on. Why was this important to you, to allow the novel's characters to go about their lives without authorial judgment or commentary (and I wonder if you thought of this as a moral choice first, or an aesthetic one, or both)?It didn’t strike me at the time as a moral choice at all. I was just bored of my own judgement and commentary. And the prose felt very flat and lifeless every time I tried to write from that perspective—“he thought,” “it reminded her,” and so on. Partly it might have been because I had recently finished writing a novel in which the perspective did switch back and forth between two protagonists in the third person. And they were always thinking and feeling things, and I was always telling the reader what they thought and felt. So I had kind of exhausted that narrative technique for myself, at least temporarily. I didn’t want to write that novel over again. I had to [do] something that to me felt sufficiently different. There are a lot of things I won’t or can’t do in my work, so the number of things I will or can do is therefore necessarily constrained. And the effects of that constraint may as well be called “style.” But I don’t consider myself a talented stylist by any means. Like any writer, I have an aversion to anything that feels false or boring in my work, and the authorial commentary I was producing on these characters felt both false and boring, which eventually led me to develop the narrative technique we’re talking about.So the decision was as purely aesthetic as possible, at the time. But now looking back at the whole process, I think there was, if not a moral aspect, maybe a “philosophical” aspect to the development of this technique. I am interested philosophically in the degree to which we can know other people, and ourselves. In life, obviously, we have to get to know people without ever having any direct insight into their internal thoughts. The novel as a form typically gives us more privileged access to the inner lives of others than we get in real life. But novels don’t by definition have to do that. And as I went along, I found that I actively wanted to write a novel in which the characters were revealed through their outward behaviours, their actions and words, rather than their inner thoughts and feelings—the way other people are revealed to us in real life. In this novel, we still have privileged access to the characters in many ways, because we can observe how they behave in intimate situations, and we can read private correspondence between them, and so on. But nothing more than that. I was interested in the question of whether, by the end of the book, we “know” these characters less well than if we had been told directly what they were thinking and feeling. My intuition is that we get to know them just as well without that—but then, I invented them, so it’s hard for me to judge. It seems like the way you wrote this novel was to conceive of the characters first and then set about observing/inventing what they were saying and doing. What is it about these characters that made this novel possible?Yes, I conceived of the characters first, and then I got stuck for a little while. Two of the central characters, Simon and Eileen, have known each other for almost thirty years. Two others, Eileen and Alice, have known each other for about ten or eleven years. And another two, Alice and Felix, have just met. So from the outset, I had no idea “when” the novel started. Some of the most interesting and exciting scenes seemed to have happened many years previously—when Eileen was a child, or when Alice was in university. Did the novel begin all the way back then, and skip forward to the present? Or did it begin in the present, and incorporate scenes from the past? I knew the three narrative strands were all interconnected—the story of Eileen and Alice’s friendship did somehow “involve” their respective relationships with Simon and Felix—but the interconnections were not immediately obvious.So from the start, the idea was basically three linked relationships, spread out over the course of thirty years or so, happening in various cities and towns in Ireland and elsewhere. The task of turning this idea into a novel was challenging for me—my last two books were easier to fit into the shape of novels, I think. But the day-to-day writing process was the same. I imagined my characters in various different little scenarios, and typed out the scenarios on my laptop. While I was typing, I had the mental image of my characters before me, doing whatever it was that the scene required—walking around, eating dinner, talking on the phone, or whatever. And more often than not, nothing really interesting would happen. The character would finish having dinner, or talking on the phone, and that would be it, and the scene would end up in a “deleted work” file on my computer. But sometimes, a character would do or say something interesting or revealing, that seemed to signal some shift in their relationship with another character, and the scene would take on a new quality. This is the only way I know how to write a novel, or any kind of fiction. I have to write two or three scenes for every one that makes it into the book. But I tell myself the process is worthwhile because it teaches me about my characters and deepens my understanding of the work. (Whether that’s true or just a consolation I don’t know—it might be true!)You ask another question here—what was it about these characters that made the novel possible? And one answer is: their relationships with one another were sufficiently interesting to me. I wanted to understand Simon’s feelings for Eileen, and her feelings for him; and Alice’s for Felix, and his for her. And I wanted to get to know the two women and their friendship, which struck me as complicated. The novel seemed to have a lot of moving parts, in terms of the dynamics between the characters, and how one dynamic affected all the others. And that made it more difficult to write, but also more enjoyable in a way—it felt closer to the inter-connectedness of life. But another answer to the question would be: I loved the characters. And when I’m writing about characters I love, I’m motivated to write about them at great length, and to continue writing even when there's seemingly no plot and nothing is working and I have no idea what I’m doing. So that was a necessary ingredient in the writing of this book, and in everything else I’ve written too. What do you love about these characters? The idea of loving a fictional character is something that gets discussed a little bit in the novel itself. It's an interesting idea for me, partly because all my life I've loved fictional characters very much, and in a way that has felt meaningful to me, almost like loving a real person. What does it mean to love a person who doesn't exist? And relatedly: what does it mean to love a person who does? One thing that strikes me is that loving someone is very different from liking them. The four protagonists of this novel have an array of different attitudes toward religion—but to draw briefly on the Christian perspective, Jesus did not teach us to “like” our enemies. If we liked them, I don't think they would be our enemies. They can still be enemies if we love them, because love is more complicated and difficult—capable of extending to everyone, without losing meaning or exhausting itself. With that in mind, I certainly can't say I love these characters because of their likeable personality traits. In the course of the novel, we have an opportunity to see them all at their worst—at their most unreasonable, cold, aggressive, bitter, selfish. Many readers will doubtless find some or all of them “unlikeable.” That's okay. I wasn't trying to create characters I approved of or looked up to—but equally I wasn't interested in writing about people I considered morally beneath me. We also have some glimpses of the protagonists at their best, and they can be very caring, very thoughtful, and so on. The reader may feel superior to the characters, but I don't. If I did, I wouldn't have written the book. I might be crossing into moral terrain now, which is probably a bad idea. But I believe that, while not everyone is “likeable,” everyone is loveable. Part of what motivates me as a novelist is the challenge implicit in this belief. I want to depict my characters with enough complexity, and enough depth of feeling, that a reader can find a way to love them without liking them. Or even like and love them despite everything—as I do. I love these characters too, especially Alice and Eileen. At times, their relationship seems like the most intense one in the novel, or at least the one with the most at stake. There's this description early on of how they see each other: “Alice said that Eileen was a genius and a pearl beyond price, and that even the people who really appreciated her still didn't appreciate her enough. Eileen said that Alice was an iconoclast and a true original, and that she was ahead of her time." This is as sufficient an explanation for why they love each other so much as anyone could ask for, but I still wanted to ask you: why do they love each other so much? I agree there's a lot at stake between them. It actually reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my own best friends when I was writing my first book—I told her I was worried that the drama was too “low-stakes,” and she replied: “What could be higher-stakes than love and friendship?” It's a great question! And for me, the answer is literally nothing. There have never been any stakes higher than love and friendship, in my life. For other people, in different circumstances, the answer might obviously be different. But for me, and generally speaking for the characters I write about, love and friendship are supremely important. As to why Eileen and Alice love one another so much—I think there are a lot of different reasons. In some ways, they're drawn together by the things they have in common: their inability to “fit in,” their distrust of what is popular, their analytical tendencies, their senses of humour. And in other ways, they're brought closer by their differences from one another. Alice admires what she sees as Eileen's more serious intellect, her ability to be thorough and “do the reading,” and also her attractiveness—her physical beauty, her elegance, her charm. And Eileen admires what she sees as Alice's extreme self-assurance, her indifference to the opinions of others, her uncompromising personality, and her accomplishments. Each sometimes sees the other as a reflection of herself, and then at other times as an image of everything she is not. But those are more like the reasons why they like each other. And their feelings really go far beyond that. In fact their love for one another is probably close to unconditional. That might seem to imply that nothing is really at stake between them, because they are going to love each no matter what happens—but as we see in the novel, a loving and admiring relationship can also accommodate a lot of resentment, anger, disappointment, pain, and so on. I suppose we are never really in doubt about the intensity of their feelings for each other. But we do probably doubt at times whether they can go on being friends, or at least I did. I want to ask you about Alice, whose career and public profile resembles your own. At one point she says, “the novel works by suppressing the truth of the world ... And we can care once again, as we do in real life, whether people break up or stay together—if, and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, i.e. everything. My own work, it goes without saying, is the worst culprit in this regard.” What's your own relationship to this idea? I think the back-and-forth structure of the email exchange was really important for me in this regard. When I wrote that passage from Alice's perspective, I did strongly agree with what she was saying—I felt immersed in her life and her experiences, and I was persuaded by the critique that she had developed from those experiences. I still definitely think she has a point about the novel as a genre. But in the next email, we hear from Eileen, who offers a contrary perspective, not from the point of view of a writer, but from the point of view of a critic and reader. Writing her emails, I felt equally immersed in her personality and experiences, and I was brought around to her perspective instead. So although the protagonists were disagreeing with one another, I was able to agree with both of them—which meant the emails became something other than a compilation of my own opinions (I hope). But I am still interested in Alice's critique of the novel as a form. In a time of gigantic historical crisis, maybe we should try to fixate less on the tiny details of our own emotional lives, and maybe our cultural forms should try to reflect that shift—away from individuals and relationships, towards the biosphere and global power structures. Intellectually, that makes sense to me. But it's very hard, as Eileen argues in her next email, to make that shift sincerely in our own personal lives. Almost nobody can really care about (e.g.) bees as much as they care about (e.g.) their own spouse. Many people do sincerely care a lot about bees, but almost everyone cares more about their spouse. And the novel is not a didactic form by nature. For the most part it reflects or tries to reflect the psychological and cultural realities that predominate in the real world. There are doubtless novels out there that manage to place bees on a par with spouses, and that is certainly a worthwhile challenge for a writer. But it's not something I could with any sincerity attempt myself. There is also the argument that novels about relatively wealthy Westerners are the equivalent of television shows about royalty or aristocracy. These forms of story-telling present a world in which luxury is the predominant way of life for most people—the existence of poverty is acknowledged, but mostly kept off-screen. At the absolute most we get the impression that the world is divided pretty equally between rich and poor. And of course we know that in real life, the rich—even if we extend that to include the fairly ordinary Europeans who populate my novels—make up a tiny percentage of the world population. They take casual international flights, they drink takeaway coffee, they stream high-resolution TV shows on their laptops, and so on—all completely anomalous behaviours for most human beings on earth. People like Felix and Eileen are certainly not “rich” by Irish standards, but by global standards they are. This is not to blame them, or to blame myself, for the good fortune of being born in a wealthy Western nation in the 1990s—especially since Ireland is not a former colonial power, but a former (and partly current) colonial subject. But the fact is that the lives of people in Ireland today are simply not representative of the lives of most people on earth. That is a problem Alice cannot solve. I tried in this book at least to articulate that problem in some way, but whether I managed that, I don't know. Now I want to ask you about Eileen, who also often says and does things that seem likely to lead readers to draw parallels with her creator. I’m thinking specifically about this bit: “When I first started going around talking about Marxism, people laughed at me. Now it's everyone's thing. And to all these people trying to make communism cool, I would just like to say, welcome aboard, comrades. No hard feelings.” A lot of critical discussion about your work focuses on your going around talking about Marxism, and I think this will inevitably be interpreted as your directly addressing that. Did you have any doubts about including something like this, or was it an easy decision? If it is permissible to admit this, I personally find Eileen's petulance about Marxism in this scene quite funny. Eileen did not invent Marxist economic or social analysis, and she obviously was not the only person “going around talking about Marxism” in 2010 or whenever. In that sense, a completely ridiculous claim, and for that reason kind of funny, at least to me. But on the other hand, I'm sure she did meet people in university and elsewhere who laughed at her opinions, and who now put out tweets about “smashing capitalism” or whatever. You know, Marxist critique has gotten a lot more popular online, and for good reason. Eileen both welcomes and slightly resents this development. I guess I would say that in her case, the welcome is political, whereas the resentment is personal. Whether I share in those feelings, I couldn't possibly say. I think all four of the protagonists of this book probably agree at least to some extent with Marxist analyses of capitalism. And so do I, and so do a lot of people I know. My parents are lifelong socialists. My mother grew up in social housing and worked in the local arts centre until she retired, and my father was a technician for the national telecoms company. So I don't come from a very wealthy background—which has probably informed my worldview just as much as my reading of Marx has. But part of the discussion Eileen is having in this scene is about what constitutes the “working class” in Western liberal democracies now. Does it include, for example, people like Felix? Almost certainly yes. People like Eileen? Maybe not. They both work for a living, and neither of them make much money, but the term “working class” is now tied up with a lot of other things, to do with education and cultural capital rather than work and income. I'm interested in that argument not only intellectually, but probably also because it touches on questions about my own identity and my own life. I didn't mean to address my critics directly, however, because I don't really read my critics and have only the faintest idea what they are saying about me. That's not to say that their criticism isn't worth my time. I'm sure it would be worth my time if I could bear to read it, but I can't, so I don't. I remember reading one piece about Normal People—it was a review by Helen Charman, published on the White Review website. It was really quite critical of the novel in places, but I thought it was an excellent piece, full of insight. I admire Charman as a critic. But I don't have the inner tranquillity required to read criticism of my work most of the time. Quite early on, Alice writes an email where she says: “If I had bad manners and was personally unpleasant and spoke with an irritating accent, which in my opinion is probably the case, would it have anything to do with my novels? Of course not. The work would be the same, no different. And what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralising specificity? Nothing. So why, why is it done this way?” Does the arranging of literary discourse entirely around the figure of the author feel to you like a new development, or do you think it's always been like this? I don't feel qualified to comment on the literary discourse of the past. In fact, I'm not even really qualified to comment on it at present, since I almost never read author interviews or profiles of other writers (or, obviously, of myself). I'm not sure if I've ever read a straightforward biography of a novelist, or even a literary memoir. I'm a big fan of books, and there are many writers whose work I would say with complete sincerity has changed my life. But I don't generally care to know anything about their personal lives, especially if they're alive today. I might be wrong, but I suspect this is something I have in common with most readers of novels. Generally speaking, the readers I know and meet through my work are interested in the fictional inhabitants of a novel's interior world—not in the real-life personalities of writers. So why is the figure of the novelist so prominent in media coverage of books? I don't know. Partly I think it's because there's a readymade template for arranging media coverage around a particular central personality, and that template is “celebrity.” We seem to be stuck with that. There is no real reason why anyone should want writers of literary fiction to be presented in the media as minor celebrities—with profile pieces and photo shoots and so on. But because press coverage of novels is so exclusively focused on the figure of the author, writers are required (usually by contract) to engage with the paradigm to some extent. It seems like it would be better if we could do it another way. Why am I doing this interview, then?? I suppose I don't take the point that far. I think the conversation we're having now is about my work rather than me, even if it can be tricky at times to separate the two completely. And I do enjoy talking about my writing, if there's anyone interested to listen. I have friends who are writers, and I always enjoy talking to them about their work too. I think there's something to be said for people in any field discussing how they do whatever it is that they do. But I can't accept the idea that my personality should become an object of public discourse just because I've written a few books. I get the impression that Alice, a fictional character who has also written a few books, finds this even harder to accept than I do. Back to your answer to the first question, and the decision to impose a certain authorial distance. You've said that almost all the narrative sections of the book are written in this style, with one notable exception. Can you talk a bit about the wedding section? Close to the start of the book, we learn that Eileen's sister Lola is preparing to get married, so from early on I knew the novel would have to include a “wedding scene.” I thought this would present some nice dramatic opportunities, because other significant characters would be there—Simon, his parents, Eileen's parents—in combinations that might otherwise be unlikely. But when it came time to write this section, I found myself doing something different. Instead of presenting a scene or series of scenes through dialogue and dramatic action, I was trying to present a kind of sensory experience—a series of images and memories and moods. This allowed me to steal a glimpse at the inner lives of some of the novel's “minor” characters, like Lola, and Eileen's parents, who I loved. And it also allowed me to present—in a kind of loose fragmentary way—the thoughts and memories of two of the novel's principal characters, Simon and Eileen. I've talked a little bit already about the challenge of writing about a relationship of such long duration. Simon has known Eileen since she was born (and Lola even longer). How could I condense a lifetime of changing feelings into the space of this novel, especially without the use of traditional interiority? The question seemed to present itself with renewed force at the wedding, because Lola had been so intricately entangled in the dynamic between Simon and Eileen as children. I even wondered whether their relationship might have echoes in the dynamic between Simon, Eileen, and Alice later on. But if I'd tried to present this story conventionally using dramatic scenes, it probably would have run to the length of a novel on its own. I had to find a way to compress the depth of feeling between the characters into a much smaller space, using different techniques. And Lola's wedding seemed to provide circumstances of special pressure and intensity for the characters to remember and re-experience one another in a new way. In the months before I wrote that scene, I had also attended a couple of weddings myself, and I'd found them very moving and beautiful. I don't know if other writers feel this way, but I think it can be much easier to convey disillusionment, alienation, and ugliness in fiction than it is to convey love, happiness, and beauty. Some people might conclude from this observation that life is “really” alienating and ugly, and that love and happiness are illusory. But I don't think so. And in the wedding chapter maybe I was trying to suggest in some very small way the beauty of life. Finally, I want to ask you about the title, and the Schiller poem it's derived from, in relation to what you've just said. To me there's this interesting balance in the novel between the suggestion that we are living through a uniquely shattering period of historical crisis and that the world is uglier than it has ever been, and the suggestion that people have always felt like this, that a beautiful world is lost or vanished. Maybe an easier way of asking this is: what made you choose a bit of a Schiller poem for a title? I think the balance that you identify here is exactly right. In the early stages of writing the novel, I became kind of fascinated with what is called the “ubi sunt” motif in literature—meditations on decay, ruin, and the transience of beauty. In Latin poetry, in the writings of the Anglo-Saxons, in the literature of industrial-era Europe, there is this recurrent sense of a beautiful world passing away. Writing in the eighteenth century, in what is now Germany, Friedrich Schiller locates the beautiful world in Ancient Greece. But it seems to me that it can be located in almost any particular civilization as long as it is definitively gone forever. Our present sense of a beautiful world passing away can feel quite new and unprecedented, because of our political moment and because of the climate crisis. But our cultural terminology for this experience long pre-exists our present circumstances. Obviously that isn't to compare contemporary climate anxiety to (e.g.) medieval apocalypticism. The ability of our planet to support human life is very genuinely in serious danger. What interests me is that we have to find some way to express this anxiety using (at least to some extent) our existing vocabulary and cultural forms. In The Gods of Greece, of course, as in the “ubi sunt” tradition more generally, Schiller has already located the beautiful world in a specific place and time. I don't do that in the novel. And out of context, the title of the book might even sound vaguely hopeful and forward-looking, as if the beautiful world might be right around the next corner. It's probably not. But while the characters in this book are certainly disillusioned, maybe even embittered, they haven't entirely lost hope. And most of the time, neither have I.
Talking to the author of Stone Fruit on queer child care, the importance of breakups, and the peach-walnut dichotomy.
Our relationships are different now. They’re careful, scheduled, six feet apart, and nothing like the ones in the opening scene of Stone Fruit (Diamond Comic Distributors). Three monsters—two adults and a child—tear through dense forest, chasing a white dog with wild, dangerous glee. Nothing holds them back as they roar and sing, covered in mud and grinning. There is much to love in this graphic novel but—if for no other reason than that it reminds its readers of a time less troubled, less full of worry—these first moments of Stone Fruit are a gift. But the two adult monsters, Ray and Bron, are on the verge of breaking up. The only thing keeping them together is their biweekly play date with Ray’s niece Nessie. When the situation becomes untenable—not helped by Ray’s sister Amanda’s hostility—Bron leaves to reconnect with her family. Beautiful blue-gray tones give life to the relationships Ray and Bron hold dear, even as they change, or grow, or end. Immediate and melancholy, it’s those relationships that form the heart of the story. They are undoubtedly messy, but they are real and whole and—after many months of quarantine—they have been missed. What a joy, then, to get to meet with Lee in person, perched on a sun-warmed fire escape. Meeting someone new, talking and laughing in a moment of shared companionship: that, too, is a gift. Alyssa Favreau: A big part of the story is this idea of queer family, of chosen family, and how it plays out in Ray and Bron’s relationship. Why was this the story you wanted to tell? Lee Lai: Well, I am a homosexual in my twenties [laughs]. Something most of us tend to talk about a lot is the idea of chosen family: the idea that bio families tend to reject queer and trans people and so they go and find their own. But, at least in the stage of life that I’m in, people talk about it idealistically and with a lot of vigour and energy, and then end up struggling with what that actually looks like in practice. Ray particularly is very energized by the idea of hustling forth from what wasn’t satisfying about her biological family and creating that with Bron. I wanted to do [chosen family] in a way that doesn’t just shoot it to shit, because I don’t think it’s a useless idea, but I think it’s more complicated and difficult than me or my friends initially thought it was. The book focuses so perfectly on all the different relationships: Bron and Ray, each of their relationships with Nessie and with Amanda, Bron with her parents and with her sister Gracie. They’re all complicated, regardless of whether they’re biological or chosen, and I’m interested to know more about why you never privileged one type of relationship over another and refused the easy answers. I don’t think I’ve found easy answers yet. Maybe when I become an old person—if I’m so lucky—I’ll have some easy answers. Five or ten years ago I would have been more interested in the answer as a means of getting to where I want to be, but ultimately I make comics and I’m surrounded by homos and I’m so pleased with that. I’m essentially where I wanted to be. It’s more complicated than I ever could have imagined in terms of creating and maintaining healthy community and healthy relationships, and I imagine it only gets more complicated, but hopefully we get more skilled. I don’t know how you manage to be both bleak and hopeful. I feel very hopeful! I really believe in all these things, and the mess is part of what makes me believe in it. I have a rule for when I’m writing characters, which is “no villains, only messes.” No one can actually be a full villain and, if we’re willing to focus in enough, everyone’s bullshit and everyone’s mess is something that can be empathized with. It’s a bold move to have the central couple of your story spend most of the book apart. Is that always how you imagined it? Yes. I wanted to write a story about a breakup. Initially, it only followed Ray after that part, but I showed the first two chapters to Eli [Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch] and they were like, “What happens to Bron? I’m interested. It’s weird that you just drop this character off into the suburban WASP-y wilderness and we don’t see her until she comes back.” The structure that became this split, parallel situation didn’t happen until later. And it became much more satisfying when it did. For me to write, anyway. And to read. The way the two narratives work together is one of my favourite parts. It was a challenge [laughs]. I often find that, when I’m thrown into a couple’s story at a point where they’re having problems, there’s not enough there to make me invested. I end up thinking, “All I’ve seen is the problem. You should just break up.” But, with Bron and Ray, I immediately believed that they had been good for each other and that I should be rooting for them. I’m not sure how you did that, but maybe you can reveal some of your magician’s secrets. How did you decide how much of their relationship to show? I did, for my own purposes of what I wanted to figure out emotionally, want to show a breakup in which both people really care about each other—that’s not a question. They really love each other, and that’s not enough for them to figure out their problems and stay together. I’m also a big supporter of breakups. For the sake of growth and for the sake of people changing and thriving. Breakups can be really important. I wanted to show a breakup that isn’t about the relief of getting rid of someone. That people aren’t dispensable after the romance is gone but that sometimes, especially when people are bringing a lot of trauma to the table, things can’t work out in that way. But I feel like I’m rooting for those two. They both really care and I want them to both be okay. But that comes first before the relationship does. Fine. I mean you’re right [laughs]. At one point it’s Ray’s sister Amanda who says that it’s “foolish to put all your belonging into any one person.” Who do you think is most guilty of that? It depends what timeline you’re looking at. In my understanding, Amanda did it very intensely in her relationship with [her ex-husband] Dave, who’s not in the story but his presence is felt. It definitely comes through in the way she reacts to Ray and Bron’s relationship. Yeah, her prickliness, her assumptions about the other relationship. And she does it in a way that is less relatable to me: the very heteronormative, nuclear, two-parents-and-a-child vibe. But I think everyone has their own separate reasons for putting a lot of hopes into one other person. I think that’s also Nessie. She’s bearing some of that weight between Bron and Ray—the ways in which they’re kind of relying on those play dates to feel something, to feel some levity. I think they’re kind of all leaning on each other in different ways because they all have completely different needs for it. I don’t think they’re comparable. The intergenerational relationship with Nessie is a real highlight. She is such a beautiful presence in these characters’ lives and, because of that, it was so frustrating to see Amanda’s queerphobia manifest in such a “What about the children?” kind of way. How did that find its way into the story? Amanda, at the beginning of the story, when I started writing it, was more detestable than she became. I think I started liking her much more as I got into the later chapters and she and Ray started spending more time together. The fact that she’s somewhat jealous of the magic and the fun that Bron and Ray can have together was not what I wrote into the story initially. My friend Tommi [Parrish] gave that suggestion, [that] as a burnt-out single mom, it would be a kind of obvious step from there, and that that would be informing some of the ways in which she’s bitter and nasty. It felt very realistic. It helped to soften the character a bit and make her less of a villain. I was more interested in having her go from hateful and judgmental, and somewhat homophobic, to having more empathy and understanding for Bron. But I didn’t understand what her motivations were until they broke up. I don’t love showing homophobia and transphobia in stories. I don’t want that to be what it’s about, and I don’t plan on doing that much in the future, but I think I did want to show the softer side of what that can look like when it still is wearing someone down. There’s the more extreme version of Bron’s family, which I tried to show less even though it’s implied, but I think the ways it plays out in someone like Amanda is more familiar to my life, and harder to argue with. Or it’s got its claws more tangled up in interpersonal difficulty rather than it being about homophobia in a more flat way. And even though there’s a lot of concern about Nessie and how she’s dealing with the turmoil around her, she had a little cameo in a New Yorker comic that you drew, and she seems fine. Full of life and questions. That was the first version of those characters, actually. That was just when I wanted to write about aunties and a gay kid. Or a weird kid, I guess. Maybe she’s gay. I’m pretty sure she’s gay. She’s got good influences. But I wanted to write her because I wanted to show queers hanging out with kids more. Some serious wish fulfillment. I want to talk about the characters’ monster personas. They’re such a visceral, visual element of the story when Nessie, Bron, and Ray go to this “feral and screamy” place. Was that an element you had in mind from the beginning? Yeah, that was my effort to try and draw more freely and have a bit more fun while drawing. I found it really hard to draw the monsters and make it feel natural in my hand, but I didn’t know how to draw those play scenes without doing that, without creating monsters. It would have been so easy to have this couple bonding over a child in a way that’s nurturing in a settled, domestic way, but instead, you see Bron and Ray become wilder, access less controlled parts of themselves. Where does that come from? Why does Nessie in particular make them freer? I forget how to be a child. I think I was a very fun kid, but I grew into much more of a serious adult. And I miss that. Queers in general are really good at accessing play as a way of pushing out of the parts of their lives that are heavier. I think queers tend to make great carers for children, because they’re often able to interact with children in a way that isn’t condescending, by thinking about the ways they would want to be interacted with if they were a child, remembering what it was like to be a strange beast of a child. Children are fucking weird. [Laughs.] They’re so weird! I think it helps to have mindsets in which you’re not projecting assumptions onto children. And I think folks who don’t want to have assumptions projected onto them tend to be better at handling and encouraging the strangeness of children, and also enjoying that. Imaginative play is pretty consistently present throughout. You have it in the play dates but you also see it in Amanda and Ray adopting happier personas to help process grief. And queer family-making also is this act of radical imagination, a way of manifesting something that didn’t previously exist. It seems like that line between the real and the imagined is always in flux. Was that kind of magic realism something that particularly spoke to you? I tend towards wanting to make work in order to process feelings. I was just chewing on these heavy ideas of trauma and conflict in relationships. Those things are interesting and meaty and therapeutic to figure out in comics, but I want there to be some levity. I want the story to have energy and momentum, for there to be play. I think back on some of the heaviest points of my life and those were also times in which I was laughing so hard I was crying. I think there’s a point where, when someone’s under pressure, everything becomes hilarious and ridiculous. I want those two things to be blurry in stories because they are in real life. I initially read this as a self-published first chapter. What was it like to see the project cross the finish line? I got really lucky because the first version was just a script. I’ve never done that before. I’ve mostly just written bursts of dialogue and pencilled them out in tandem. This was the first time I’d planned it quite laboriously beforehand. It still did not go to plan. It never does apparently. I wrote it in a scriptwriting class, and it was horrifying because it was the first time I’ve not had pictures to support the writing. There were a bunch of people workshopping the script, reading it, and telling me that all these characters sound the same, and they don’t know what’s actually happening, and maybe this bit is boring. Which is great! It’s so helpful getting edits. I need a lot of eyes on a project and so it was really great throughout the process to have people weighing in. Mostly I just want people to feel whatever they want to feel for this book. As long as they’re feeling something and they get from the first page to the last page, then it’s done its job. One thing that was kind of a breakthrough was seeing every single project as enabling the next. As a practice for the next thing. What allowed me to finish this was to not think about it as a product. It’s very cool that it’s being published and I’m very excited. Now I have an agent! But if I had known that from the beginning, I never would have finished it. It would have psyched me out intensely. It was a really good experiment and exercise in long-form, and it’s taught me enough to do it again. What more can you ask for? It’s very exciting. I don’t have a sister, so I’m curious to know why you chose to foreground that type of relationship. I have a sister; we’re very close. We shared a room our entire childhood and were completely at war the entire time, but grew into very close friends. I did not realize the book was going to be about the characters going off and connecting with their own siblings, but when it did it gained a lot of momentum, because it was something that I started realizing I could write a lot about and had a lot of feelings about. I know this isn’t everyone’s experience, but it’s been cool having this example of someone you haven’t chosen who is just automatically there and will always be there, regardless of how much shit you have between you. It’s an interesting way of thinking about indispensability. It seems like a type of relationship that can be so close but also so fraught. It’s interesting to see Ray rebuilding with her sibling whereas, with Bron, that relationship just isn’t quite there yet. But you do feel that there’s potential for it. I hope that the book ends in a place where there’s lots of potential for all the different kinds of relationships. I think [Ray and Bron] would be friends, and I think there’s an effort to try and project that a little bit in the conversation they have around whether Bron can still be an auntie at the end. Ray needs some time, but I’d be surprised if not. Bron and Gracie are the most ambiguous. They end on a bit of a sour point, but I just can’t see any of those relationships actually falling flat at that point. I want to show relationships in which people are having a messy time and just continuously trying, and picking up again, and trying it from a different angle. And not having a rosy time about it, the entire time. [Laughs.] I really appreciate effort. It’s hard when, for Ray and Bron, there is that concerted effort at communication, but it doesn’t work. Which is true to life: it doesn’t always work. Do you agree with Ray when she says that there’s “no amount of storytelling or sharing or talking that would close the gap”? I don’t know if it’s as simple as there being a gap to close. It’s maybe rethinking the gap. One of the things that I wanted to show in their relationship is this idea that Ray is a bit scared of Bron, or fears the things that might not serve the relationship. And then those things bubble over anyway. If there’s going to be any kind of sustainability, those short-term efforts to create compatibility just won’t work. You can’t cut it to make it fit. Maybe the gap needs to exist. Bron in particular really struggles with being not just looked at, but seen. Why is that kind of recognition so important to her? It’s painful and alienating to be just looked at. I don’t think people can get much done, in terms of thriving, from that place. But I also think that, if someone has not felt seen, it becomes hard to know how to get seen. If someone has always been othered, it becomes hard to create relationships where you can trust that you can open yourself up enough to feel something. That’s definitely and obviously a very real thing for trans folks, and there’s also the thing of growing up thinking you don’t exist. That is a very difficult way to become an adult. Being seen is just being in connection [in a way] that is real and whole, and I don’t think anyone has an easy time with that part, regardless of who they are. But it’s essential for survival. I think she’s just an example of how difficult it can be for someone. Final question: Why have the peach as a metaphor? Is it just go-to queer symbolism in a post-Call Me by Your Name world? I forgot about the fucking of the peach! Oh god, it probably is, yeah. Like most people, I just love a good metaphor. I don’t like binaries or categories but use them just as much as everybody else to play with ideas. We all seem to love horoscopes even though they are definitive in ways that are not particularly helpful. [Laughs] Agreed. I still love talking about them. I’m the most Taurus. I’m a Taurus moon! I’m a Scorpio moon, I feel a lot of feelings inside. I love that for you. One of the metaphors that I was enjoying talking about with friends while I was writing—as a way of nerding out about feelings and modes of connection—was this idea of the peach and the walnut as different ways of doing vulnerability. The idea that someone has this Cancer crab outer shell where they’re really spiky and impenetrable, but then they’re just this fucking ocean of soft feelings and vulnerability inside once someone has proven themselves to be trustworthy. And then there’s the peach person whose defences and coping mechanisms look like being really agreeable and friendly and soft on the outside, but then if someone actually starts connecting with them, they realize that there’s quite an inner wall. I think it can actually be kind of disastrous when two people connect without realizing that they’re different in that way. And so they’re bringing preconceived ideas around trust into that way of connecting. It can be hazardous. Well, I’m down for that being the next astrology, or the next love languages. [Laughs] The peach and the walnut! I’m definitely a peach.
Talking to the author of Something New Under the Sun about realist novels, writing as an archaeological excavation, and taking for granted fitting into the world.
Alexandra Kleeman published her first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, in 2015. It’s a strange, affecting, and exacting satire about food and beauty and contemporary culture. What especially set it apart, for me, was its depth of emotional resonance. Kleeman cares about the human results of the targets of her acute eye. Reading her debut gave me a sense that I was encountering a major writer at the beginning of her career. Her follow-up, the story collection Intimations, stoked those embers of promise by expanding her narrative scope. The stories vary wildly in tone and style, and yet the book as a whole is deliberately structured to mirror the arc of life. Kleeman, as an artist, can unify disparate material through her unique sensibility. She’s a literary wrangler. Something New Under the Sun (Hogarth), her long-awaited second novel, more than fulfills the potential of her first. It represents a leap forward for her as a writer. The language is exquisite and inventive and full of rhythmic poise. I found myself reading numerous sentences aloud, basking in their bracing eloquence. Here’s an example, from the opening chapter: [The city] resembles an old photograph, faded in color, with a swath of flat gray rooftops close to the highway, a sea of smaller homes and buildings with reddish, quirkily tiled roofs in the middle ground. Neighborhoods pool at the base of the brown hills in the distance; tiny modernist structures stud the slops and peaks, swaddled by smog. It looks like a diorama, three different strips of cardboard painted and stood upright to form a realistic landscape, each successive piece rendered a little hazier than the one before, articulating how vast the distance is between where they had been and where they are going. The novel is set in the near future, and it focuses on Patrick Hamlin, a writer whose autobiographical novel is being adapted into a film starring a scandalous young Hollywood actress named Cassidy Carter, the former child star of the popular show Kassi Keene: Kid Detective. As an East Coaster, Patrick’s completely out of his element in the Los Angeles of the future: the film production has little use for him; wildfires rage everywhere; the city’s water has been privatized in the form of a mega corporation called WAT-R, which manufactures endless variations of faux-water with names like WAT-R Basic, WAT-R Pure, and WAT-R Energy Surge Plus. Meanwhile, Patrick’s wife, Allison, has opted not to come to California, and has instead taken their daughter Nora to a new age nature retreat called Earthbridge in upstate New York. Isolated, away from his family, and in unfamiliar territory, Patrick finds himself enmeshed in a Pynchonian conspiracy that might involve the film’s inscrutable producers and a neurological disorder known as Random Onset Advanced Dementia (ROAD). It’s a wild, funny, and brilliantly observed satire. I spoke to Kleeman over Zoom, but as her social media seemed to show her in numerous locations, I began by asking… Jonathan Russell Clark: Where are you located now? Alexandra Kleeman: I am in Colorado right now. But my head’s sort of spinning because I came back last week from Italy, and I had to go to California immediately. And I came here—and every place has been very different, obviously—but they've all had their own particular kind of unusual heat that's going on. So the different feels of that on my body have me feeling very, like, fish out of water. On hot, hot ground. It was intense. The heat in the air felt like a wall, like you were concretely moving through. And even as it was dry, the sort of pressure from the heat was just a different sensation on my body and a different sensation even from previous times I've been in the desert in the summer. So maybe it's also that I'm reading, you know, about mussels cooking on the British Columbian coast at the same time. But it's definitely a weird time to have a body. Maybe as always. But right now does feel particularly dire. Yeah, it does. But also, we're so good at acclimatizing to the new particular form of dire. It's as though the world has to keep generating new versions of dire to make us feel that feeling. And it does, and we do. And then we go make a grilled cheese sandwich or something. I wanted to talk about your language in the book, which I just found so gorgeous. There’s a line where you refer to a grouping of trees as a “sarcastic smattering.” You employ such defamiliarizing usage. That means so much to me. I think as readers we all recognize it in a book, like when we find the description, and it's written in a way that feels both totally apt, and also doesn't feel like any of the things you'd reach for first. That's partly why my metaphor for writing, or what it feels like I'm doing when I'm writing, is often like I'm digging with a trowel, with a shovel, never with anything great like a backhoe or powerful equipment. But just digging past what's on the surface and digging until you find a thing that you can pull out. And in the extended metaphor—I think I have one of the characters using it, too—I think a lot about writing a novel as a sort of archaeological excavation. You know your site, sort of, and then you aren't sure exactly what you're going to find. You know where to dig, you start seeing pieces of it. And the pieces are a surprise at first, and then it becomes a game of arranging properly and arranging carefully, like, in the same way that you don't want to put, you know, the Apatosaurus head on the Tyrannosaurus skeleton and think you created your new species. You go from being the discoverer to being the analyst or something. So for you it’s about uncovering rather than building, revealing rather than building up and constructing. Yeah, I mean, for better or for worse, I've never been a person who's good at feeling entirely in control or good at operating in the mode of being in control. I always have to feel like I'm in a space where I know some things and I don't know other things—to have a pleasurable balance between having agency, being able to move around, being able to uncover and do things, and also beingable to be surprised, because if I weren't surprised, I would just be rehearsing what I already knew about this world or about the story. The novel is set in Los Angeles in the near future, and Patrick, the protagonist, a writer from the East Coast, feels out of sorts there, which I completely understand. Whenever I’m in LA, I feel like I’m unsure of how they do things. I really love that you had some of the same feelings moving around LA as me. I lived there for a while when I was a kid, and I've been back for longer and shorter periods of time. But there is often this interesting feeling that I think sometimes is rarer and rarer these days, but this feeling that like, Oh, I've suddenly stepped out of my element and out of sync. I don't know how this all works. This seems to be an ordinary thing, but I don't know what it is or how to use it—like, yeah, the surreal experience I had writing this was I had already decided on water and the name for it and things like that. And I went to Los Angeles on the trip, and as I was driving around Silver Lake, that neighborhood, I saw these water stores, which is exactly what I was working on building. They seemed to specialize more in a slightly alkaline water, because this is supposed to be good for your body—you could buy it in large amounts, refilling your own containers, or smaller amounts just come in a bottle. And I saw what it was—I understood the text, but I didn't understand who it was for or how to use it or how you asked for it or whether I needed it. Just these ordinary things that, you know, you couldn't find out about a place and you can’t preadjust yourself for unless you go there. It's disorienting when that happens, which is interesting, but it's also sort of a precious thing, because I think we live in a world where so, so much is expected to be standardized, so we can move around it smoothly. Like, when I drive—while around Colorado, where I'm from, or between Colorado and the West Coast or the East Coast—I sometimes feel like my path along the highway is smooth in this way that's supposed to make me feel like, Don't worry, you haven't really gone anywhere, you're still in the same place, it's just been stretched all across from the left to the right of this block of land. And you can pay in the same way. Every place takes your variety of credit card. And so to be reminded that there is such a thing as place, and that you're crossing distance, and as you're crossing habitat, and that different kinds of ecological systems actually work very differently… seems like a useful kind of jarring experience. Something New Under the Sun is futuristic, satirical, and even could be classified as postmodern, which is funny to me because I felt while reading it that it also felt almost old-fashioned—a novel with big political ideas and characters with names like Horseshoe and the Arm, who speak in depth about philosophical ideas. The realist novel, I think, was one of those things for me, because there were many I enjoyed reading, but there wasn't a lot of space where I could see myself operating in that mode. I felt like what characterizes a realist novel is: character-centered, maybe human-centered, maybe maintaining a proper and aesthetic proportion between, you know, what's relevant and what's in the background—like, a foreground/background relationship. Like, here's what's important, here's the stuff that reminds you there's a whole world, so don't worry about it. But recently, as I've gotten more interested in writing one—like, I think of this as roughly my realist novel, where that foreground/background distinction kind of collapses—I've been wondering about how the realist novel directs our attention to some parts of reality and not others. Reality is this vastly entangled thing with billions of people, technology, and climatic factors, nonhuman players that we never know, a million anthills that we never ever write about, all these different things, and we cut this path through it that makes the world seem on the whole more stable and more tidy than I think that it is, and that tightness helps us focus in on the characters and feel for them in this intense, interlocked, and involving fashion. But increasingly, I feel like the emotions that I have as a person supposedly living in reality have a lot to do with the outside and with the unexpectedness of things that I realize are going on that unsettled my idea of what I should be paying attention to, and what is going on in my life—it pushes into the frame. And my life, a lot of times in the past few years, has felt less like a thing that, well, how should I say, is less like a house that I live in [in] my life, and more like just a space that people are constantly walking through. I've never used that metaphor before. I'm not sure it works. But something like that. Your first novel focused a lot on the body and food, and this new one also concerns itself with the things we put in our bodies, here in the form of WAT-R, the fabricated, corporatized water. What is it about the body that interests you? To me, the body feels like a journey into unknown space as well. It's a journey into the external space that's inside us. Because there’s such an interesting and varied way in which we relate to our body. I think when you cast your eyes over your body, from the eye—I want to evoke a video game term, like the first-person-shooter perspective. You pass your eyes over your body and you feel a different level of recognition of acceptance of identification with each different part. Some part looks the same, some part looks a little different—you wonder if that's because you're getting older or because you've been spending more time in the sun or you've been doing exercise, whatever it is. It's a constant effort, I think, to sweep all these different parts into some sense of belonging and identity; there are times when it happens naturally, and then there are times when you're doing work to pull that body together. And on the inside, too, I feel like the feelings [of] identification get even more entangled, especially. We're at a point of high self-knowledge about the mechanics of the body and what's in it and how it works, and yet I think we still don't necessarily know that much more about how to care for our bodies—like, what's the right way to eat? Is it this paleo extreme diet? Or this raw food diet? Or this Mediterranean diet? Or this? You know? How do we not just know our body, but how do we, like, love it and care for it—and, in doing that, care for ourselves? There's something about the body that always remains for an evening, as we always try to make it our own. And the Earth is a body, too. And we certainly don’t know how to correctly take care of that. Your use of water in the book is pretty apt in that sense. It’s the connective tissue between all of life; it runs through everything. In writing this, I tried to think a lot about the different ways in which I was taught where water was. And I think one of the most common ways was in chemistry, when you learn water is a special substance—it's made up of these molecules, and some of the special properties it has, [the energy it takes] to heat one gram of water one degree, that it will freeze and will evaporate—and in the middle of those two extremes we live and we take advantage of its plasticity and its properties to make all of our life processes possible. But when you think of water, when you learn about water, as this list of features and abilities and qualities, it becomes possible to think, well, there could be something else that ticks off almost all those boxes, and some of those boxes are important. Some of them are ancillary. So we can create a substitute, you know, and when you atomize something, it becomes possible to think of recreating and replicating it, remaking it. But there are so many other ways to understand water, too, and to understand its social function, its ecological function—to understand the way that it in its specific volume and presence in an environment makes it possible for this type of life to exist around, it makes it possible for a certain number of animals or species to gather there. Our history of water management has been one of atomization. What were the first seeds of Something New Under the Sun? One of the first ideas was doing an exploration of water in a second book that would parallel an exploration of food [in the first book]. And food and water have some similarities, especially in the way that they enter the body and the connection that they have to survival. For some reason, I'm almost fixated on survival, and what elements of the survival relationship you can see in in the corners and crevices of a life that is comfortable and does not seem to be about survival. I feel like our lives are arranged so that we think about success, or progress, or perfecting ourselves, or maybe improving ourselves, healing ourselves, whatever it is. But beneath that, there's this heartbeat of survival, your basic material connection to the world. And so I was planning on doing the second book on another survival material, water, and then this third one that I'm working on is about money, which may or may not be a necessity of survival. So I wanted to do something about water. And I grew up in a state that has similar water issues as California. So in Colorado, we're currently in another big drought. We’re in a summer of record heat following another summer of record heat. And last summer, when I was in Colorado, they had three of the ten biggest wildfires in Colorado history, all within one year, and we had the first and second biggest two. So many records were broken. And it marked a sort of categorical shift in how I experienced the weather in Colorado, because I'd always heard of wildfires, or sometimes you could see a wildfire—growing up in California I saw wildfires semi-regularly, usually smaller ones that would be, you know, on the hill as you're driving past Fry's Electronics about to take another exit on to a different highway to go back home. It was just something in the background, and you could pay attention to it or you could not pay attention to it. But last summer, it was impossible not to notice all the time that there was a wildfire going on someplace, because it just changed the transparency of the air. It eliminated the mountains from view on a lot of days, it turned the sun red. Also, in a way that was more difficult to pin down, it changed the feeling of your body, of your lungs, how the air felt going in, the temperature it seemed to be, whether you felt well breathing outside—sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in very extreme ways. Most of the people I knew living in Colorado bought air filtration systems. Characters in the novel suffer from a neurological disorder called ROAD (Random Onset Acute Dementia), a result of drinking WAT-R. Where did that idea come from? I spent some years working in aphasia research. So I was in cognitive science in the language processing lab, and we spent time making language processing experiments for both college student types [with] unimpaired language function, and then also with aphasics in the New England area who would do the same language tasks. And in the delays that it took to do them, or in the breakdown in the ability to come up with a correct response to a question, you can identify sort of how the language system has been bruised or broken by damage in these in particular areas of the brain. The history of how people have treated people with aphasia, or with brain damage, language loss, or impairment otherwise, is a sad and dark one. Because, you know, humans often get talked about as the language animal—the thing that sets us apart from other animals. Obviously, animals have language systems of their own, to varying degrees, but it seems true throughout human history as a whole that when someone loses the ability to speak language, or when they go and speak language the way you want them to, if they're a foreigner, if they don't speak properly, it is an excuse to dehumanize them. In both dementia and in aphasia, it's this loss of fit with the world that I'm really interested in. And something that I feel we aren't grateful enough for most of the time—that most of us fit the world so well, which lets you do basic things like ordering food in a restaurant, talking on the phone, setting up a medical appointment. There are different obstacles in different places where you feel that lack of fit, like being uninsured, and being unable to take care of a simple thing with your body, you know? The world is made so that even if you feel like you move through fluidly a lot of the time, sometimes you get kicked into this zone of non-fit and you feel your vulnerability and your specificity there so intensely. So I think what I was interested in with Random Onset Acute Dementia (ROAD) is thinking about, like, we have a certain fit with reality, and it lets us have a consensus reality with other people and share—share our experiences, more or less, even argue about our experiences when I see them differently. But to lose that, and to no longer have access to a form of reality that lets you share space and time with people is a really scary idea to me. And, you know, not to be too dramatic about it, but I think that there have been sometimes recently where you can have a conversation with someone sitting next to you on a plane or with a family member and really feel like we do not share a consensus view of reality. It's this jarring feeling. And in it, you know, you think that you're probably the one with a better version of reality, but you know that you don't seem that way to the other person. And it feels sort of like you could slide right off the face of reality.
The author of Lost in Summerland on marriage, Virginia Woolf and the hermeneutics of suspicion.
When I first encountered Barrett Swanson’s essay “Lost in Summerland”—a reported piece about a road trip to a Spiritualist convention taken in the wake of his older brother’s traumatic brain injury and its resultant (possible) psychic powers—I couldn’t stop sharing or talking about it. Credit to my friend Chelsea, who passed me the story in the first place. Or maybe she tweeted it out? I can’t remember. This was in the old world, at the end of 2019. I was still technically on Twitter then, though my attachment was frayed: I’d recently downgraded from a smart phone to something less interested in knowing me, and I’d put a block on my computer to prevent access to the site most of the week. I say all this so you’ll understand that it was a moment of real coincidence—not just an algorithmic belch passing as synchronicity—when Swanson, who is not on social media at all, came across an essay I’d written three years earlier and sent me an email just days after I’d appointed myself a proselytizer for his work. We struck up a sort of low-key pen pal-ship. Swanson’s debut collection of non-fiction, also Lost in Summerland (Counterpoint), is a blend of empathetic reporting and incisive thinking that takes the reader on a guided tour of America’s wild, imaginative, and sometimes dangerous myths. Follow him into a mouldering futurist’s Floridian swamp-palace; down the rabbit hole of true crime conspiracies haunting the economically fragile Midwest; into the literal rubble of a Disney-inflected FEMA disaster simulation training centre. In a book about the power and limitations of narrative, Swanson’s essays search out older, maybe kinder ways to say new things. Lost in Summerland reminds us that a good and well-told story can, sometimes quite literally, save a person’s life. In keeping with our pre-existing correspondence, Swanson answered my questions by email. Suzannah Showler: Is it cheating if I start by asking you about something we’ve talked about a little bit before? A number of the essays in Lost in Summerland are dispatched from communities and subcultures that you have some kind of affinity with or para-relationship to but are not all the way inside of (psychics; anti-war veterans-turned-farmers; a men’s group/corporatized toxic masculinity recovery retreat; West Wing cos-players, etc.). I was wondering if you could start by saying something about that insider-outsider thing, and how it works for you both when you’re immersing yourself in something in the first place and when you’re writing about your experience after the fact? Barrett Swanson: Oh, god. Where to start. I suppose the insider-outsider thing begins for me with the very scenario of writing longform magazine pieces, in part because I'm trained as a fiction writer and so most of my instincts are utterly different than those of a quote-unquote real journalist. (I would gasp for want of breath if I mentioned all the times when my inexperience or lack of training made me look like an absolute lummox with editors; I remember very distinctly, for instance, having to look up the term “nut graf” after receiving an editorial note during my first time writing a magazine piece). Setting aside the clinical levels of shame and imposter syndrome I'm apt to feel in such moments, I’m inclined to think that my inexperience—my outsider status in the magazine world—has served me well, because I tend to come at a place or a subject with an infant-like blankness in terms of what I’m “supposed” to do with the topic. All my writerly antennae are instead tuned to the emotional voltage of the situation as opposed to whatever would supposedly make for a “good” piece of magazine journalism. I guess this goes some way toward explaining my approach when it comes to entering into these subcultures. Basically, I'm trying to immerse myself as much as possible in the intellectual and emotional frequencies of the experience. My whole goal, at least for the first few hours (or days or weeks, depending upon the extent of the reporting), is to disappear. Joan Didion has this great thing about how her slightness physically causes people to forget that she’s in the room and makes them more likely to reveal themselves. I guess I try to do a similar thing, at least dispositionally. I want to be so open and receptive to the people I’m meeting that I’m basically a mirror, so that they take me as one of their own. Possibly that sounds Iago-ish, or something, particularly because so many of the groups I cover are zany or a little out-there, maybe, but as you mentioned, I almost always choose topics that intersect in some way with my own life. I wrote about anti-war veterans because I teach a lot of people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, which made me think about the debts I might owe them. I wrote about psychics and mediums because after my brother had a traumatic brain injury, he started having paranormal experiences. If there’s one thing I think I’m halfway decent at as a reporter, it’s my ability to chameleon myself onto the psychic ambiance of the situation. Sometimes this can be physically and spiritually exhausting—the men’s retreat piece, for instance, was a veritable Iliad of emotions—but I think there’s a deeper dimension to this, because this effort, at least for me, is born of the impulse to consider how I’m implicated in the topic I’m writing about. One thing of things that I found really exhausting as a graduate student was that we were constantly encouraged to read texts “suspiciously”—or with what gets called “the hermeneutics of suspicion”—which assumes that the text contains biases and subterranean arguments that a reader must unearth and bring to light. One assumes that the author is the enemy and so we must constantly bloodhound around, looking for signs of contradiction or symptoms of bad faith. While this critical stance has much to recommend it, I can’t help noticing how this suspicion has infiltrated the larger culture and has become our default mode of interacting not only with texts, but also other people and the outside world. This seems particularly prevalent in a lot of non-fiction writing, where the whole aim and objective is to eviscerate one’s subject in ways that flatter social media algorithms and rack up a lot of retweets. I am sick to death of this kind of writing—the dunks and pile-ons, the takedowns and hot-takes. Such mercilessness seems so easy and is so utterly antithetical to what I take to be the artistic imagination. And so, I have turned to a different mode of critical reading to inform my headspace when reporting. One of my friends, the essayist Jon Baskin, has written about how the philosopher Stanley Cavell practices a type of interpretation where the hermeneutics of suspicion are trained not on the text but on the reader themself. Cavell wants us to ask, “How is the book implicating me? How is it exposing aspects of myself that I normally keep hidden?” For me, the act of reporting functions as a similar form of introspection. What does this subculture expose about me that I don’t want to confront? How am I culpable or complicit? Which is another way of saying: how is the reader complicit? If a piece isn’t asking this question, I’m not interested in reading it. It is laughably easy to point and sneer—far harder (and more artistically daring) to acknowledge one’s own place in all this. I’m very much with you on all of this! And that’s more or less where your book starts, right? The opening essay is about a moment when you run up against the limits of that mode of suspicious interpretation and it provokes a kind of crisis of narrative. Or a life crisis within narrative. I read the rest of the book with that “end stages of suspicion” feeling in mind—I saw it as being as much about its subjects as it is about re-building a relationship to narrative. Since you mention the kind of writing you’re sick of—what are you not sick of? What are you loving, or wish you saw more of? Also, kind of a left-field question, but what did you love reading as a kid, or before your brain was colonized by suspicion? In terms of contemporary essayists, I really love the work of Elif Batuman, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and Elisa Gabbert. While I admire all of her work, Batuman’s recent essay about Zoom versions of Greek tragedies during the COVID pandemic was easily the best thing written in the past year, which is why I’ve become a diehard evangelist for that piece; so much so that my students have to tell me “enough about Elif Batuman already.” Ghansah and Gabbert I love for similar reasons—all three are committed to tunneling into their experiences alongside whatever subject they’re covering in a way that ensures that they almost always have skin in the game. They are almost always risking something either emotionally or intellectually. I’m also a diehard fan of Sheila Heti, whose last two books—How Should a Person Be and Motherhood—I have begun to interpret as a strain of spiritual writing, inasmuch as this is a writer who’s willing to take the moral decisions in her life seriously and without embarrassment. I aspire to that kind of unswerving candor, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. I also teach Virginia Woolf for school, and because she is my heart’s true friend, I never get sick of her stuff. My students make fun of me for it, but I get pretty worked up whenever I get to the Septimus section of Mrs. Dalloway, or when Clarissa finds a way to forgive Miss Kilman, the religious woman, who’s stealing the attention of her daughter. Here’s one of my favourite passages, where Clarissa’s thoughts swerve from hate to sympathy: “Odd it was, as Miss Kilman stood there (and stand she did, with the power and taciturnity of some prehistoric monster armoured for primeval warfare), how, second by second, the idea of her diminished, how hatred (which was for ideas, not people) crumbled, how she lost her malignity, her size, became second by second merely Miss Kilman, in a mackintosh, whom Heaven knows Clarissa would have liked to help.” How many of us suffer from a similar misapprehension, mistaking people for ideas—and ideas for people? Reading-wise, as a kid, I was pretty into Stephen King. I think the first truly “adult” book I read at age 11 or so was It, which for about thirteen different reasons—not least among them my innate sensitivity and anxiety—was a mistake. Even now as an adult, whenever I hear the pipe organ intermezzos of your standard carnival music, I’m apt to suffer PTSD-grade flashbacks from that early encounter with Pennywise. What else? I was a pretty committed athlete as a little guy, so I remember inhaling lots of sports biographies, alongside the journals of Kurt Cobain (was I ever so young?), and then whatever teachers got me into from school—Ethan Frome, The Red Badge of Courage, and Edgar Allan Poe. Pretty morbid stuff for a middle schooler, to be honest. When I was reading Lost in Summerland, I found myself repeatedly cross-referencing any mention of your age against historical time markers and trying to suss out if we’re born the same year. Even as I was doing this, though, I was like: why does this matter so much to me? Partly I am just an annoyingly self-interested reader, and I was looking to have the sense of generational recognition I felt coming through in these essays affirmed. But I wondered whether you might resist being read as a generational writer when so many of these essays are, in one way or another, about complicating grouping people according to type (which is maybe another way of mistaking people for ideas, ideas for people). Also, follow-up before you’ve even answered: if we are the same age or proximate, can I ask you my new favourite thing to ask people our age? Do you think of yourself more as an old young person, or a young middle-aged person? Or are both totally unappealing and/or not of interest? Maybe not everyone is quite as obsessed with parsing degrees of aging as I am. It’s funny because as I was reading your (incredibly brilliant) poetry collection, Thing Is, I had a similar hunch that we were about the same age. As you rightly suspect, the generational thing is tricky for me, not least because I’m wary of being seen as a gold-star-earning millennial, but also because I’m interested in the way that so many of our social issues have been radically de-historicized. Many of the essays try to suggest that whatever we might see as our unique or “unprecedented” social problems (pandemics, cataclysms, the evaporation of truth and consensus) actually have both ancient and modern precursors that might be useful and instructive. (For instance, part of the reason I decided to teach Mrs. Dalloway again this semester is that it’s fundamentally a pandemic novel; that first line—about Clarissa “buying the flowers herself”—suggests this is the first errand she’s undertaken since being bedridden with the influenza virus). Possibly the most salient example of this in the collection is the note about how spiritualism—what with its seances and table-tipping—roughly coincided with the death of God and the birth of capitalism, two phenomena that torpedoed most of the reigning assumptions that Americans had about reality. I try to make the case that this mirrors our own present culture’s interest in astrology and New Ageism, which is an attempt to find order and meaning in the wake of Trump and post-truthism. And about the aging thing. Oh, god, Suzannah. I don’t know. I teach four classes a semester at a Midwestern university, so mostly I just feel old. For a while, I used to pride myself on being the hip young professor, but this year especially I have fallen so behind on the argot and lingo that I essentially feel like a senior citizen. Because we are holding online classes for the pandemic, the students tend to use the chat feature a lot during our web conferences, and they might as well be typing Sanskrit. Plus, when you go bald in your early twenties, as I did, you’re forced to reckon with the questions of aging at a breakneck velocity. While your friends head to the liquor store to grab provisions for a party, you’re traipsing over to Walgreens for a fresh bottle of Rogaine. More seriously, though, if there’s an extent to which I feel “young,” it’s owing to the fact that I haven’t yet been able to afford some of the major assets we might otherwise associate with one’s entrance into middle-age. There was a great piece in n+1 maybe like ten years ago about how all the complaints regarding millennials’ arrested development ignored the extent to which student loan debt has skyrocketed across the last half century, and the idea of financial solvency before the age of 40 was either a matter of extreme class privilege or an out-and-out pipe dream. Speaking of the hallmarks of “adulthood” (scare quotes necessary), I want to ask you about the role marriage plays in the book. Your wife is in a lot of these essays, providing little glosses and tethers. And then marriage as a concept is more explicitly explored in the last essay, “A Church Not Made with Hands,” which I’m really trying not to spoil right now. I happen to really love being married a weird and identity-making amount, and I often feel like a huge square about it. But you seem to be arguing for coupling as a kind of ethical practice (in a way that reminded me of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, actually, which you bring up when describing Sheila Heti’s work). I was wondering if you could say more about what you’re up to here? (And can you tell me that it’s cool to like marriage?) I’m roaring with laughter at this question because I, too, feel like a huge square about my love for being married. Kierkegaard was very much on my mind throughout “Church Not Made with Hands”—not only Either/Or but also Works of Love, particularly his stuff about how to treat one’s “neighbour.” As it happens, I’m currently writing a piece about marriage and the screwball comedies from the 1930s and ’40s (think: His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth; think: My Favorite Wife and Adam’s Rib), which my wife and I have been re-watching during this last phase of the pandemic. Not only do these movies make me revere, afresh, directors like Leo McCarey and George Cukor, but I am also just endlessly dazzled by Irene Dunne and Katherine Hepburn, whose wit and on-screen voltage is so pyrotechnically compelling. Anyways, Stanley Cavell (who is increasingly becoming a really important thinker for me) wrote about these films in an insufficiently celebrated book called Pursuits of Happiness, where he characterizes them as “comedies of remarriage,” in which the spouses divorce or separate at the beginning of the movie but, via a maze of side-splitting circumstances, come back together in the end. For Cavell, the salient feature of these films is how the spouses eschew new experiences for new ways of apprehending their experiences—i.e. rather than trading old lovers for new ones, they learn to reanimate their marriages through heroic leaps of perception, little dramas of “forgiveness,” which he describes as a forfeiture of revenge. He (somewhat provocatively) argues that the calisthenics of intellect and emotion that are necessary for marriage are the same ones required of us in the operations of a democratic society. More broadly, though, I think I find marriage intellectually compelling because it can function as the central narrative of our lives, one whose success depends upon our continual re-enchantment. In this way, its habits of mind resemble those of religion—elsewhere, I’ve described marriage as “the theology of us”—where the survival of the relationship depends on a shared interpretation of experience, a hermeneutics of affection. And I guess if we apply Cavell’s logic to this end, it would seem to suggest that sometimes failures of relationships can be the result of bad storytelling—bad interpretation. And maybe certain moments in my book suggest that the social contract—like that of marriage—can fail because of similar narrative deficits. Now that your book is entering the world, is there anything new you’re working on now that you can tell us about? And what, whether writing-wise or other, are you looking forward to this summer? I have a piece in Harper’s about a long weekend I spent inside a TikTok collab house, which was upsetting for about eleven different reasons. And I also have another essay that will run in Lit Hub about my experiences in a professional singing and dancing group when I was kid (long story). But apart from the aforementioned piece on the comedies of remarriage, I’m currently writing a long essay about forgiveness, and I’d like to do a reported piece on elephants, assuming anyone will let me write it. I’m also taking a stab at writing fiction again. Mainly, though, I’m trying to figure out how to preserve a sense of self that is not beholden to algorithms and to regard myself and the members of my community with imagination and patience.
Talking to the author of The Turnout about why The Nutcracker is important for young girls, writing about the body, and the great noir trope of the insurance investigator.
“They were dancers,” begins Megan Abbott’s sure-footed new novel The Turnout (G.P. Putnam's Sons), describing adult siblings Dara and Marie Durant via their shared and lifelong vocation and obsession. Drilled as children by their maître de ballet mother, the sisters have long since taken over the family business, molding cycles of young girls as they had themselves been molded, exhorting their charges to literally follow in a lineage of bruised, bleeding, perilously equilibrious footsteps. Although it takes the outer shape of a thriller—a form of which Abbott remains a reigning adept some ten novels into her run—The Turnout is most compelling in its vision of dance as a kind of existential choreography. The narrative traces vicious circles like pirouettes around and through the wracked physiques and fragile psyches of its characters. Noir is in Abbott’s bones: there is, inevitably, a crime scene, a body, a bloody weapon, and a list of suspects. But these things are almost incidental to the effects that the writer is striving for this time out, and which she achieves. The central mystery here is primal: nothing more (or less) than the question of whether getting older and growing up are actually or at all the same thing. Childhood looms large in The Turnout. We learn early on in the story that the Durants’ main meal ticket is their academy’s annual and elaborate production of The Nutcracker, a ballet whose status as a wholesome holiday perennial belies its unsettling origins and subtext. E.T.A. Hoffman’s original 19th-century fable concerns a young girl in thrall to a handsome military doll and brainwashed in her dreams by an evil rat king—a plot given a considerably more whimsical (and sanitized) spin as the show was revamped and commercialized in the 1950s. The show’s protagonist is named Marie, and Abbott isn’t mincing metaphors (or messing around) by having her own Marie fall under the spell of a malevolent, nocturnal creature—Derek, the shady, middle-aged contractor contacted to repair the school’s interior after a devastating (and ostensibly accidental) flash fire. That the thick-waisted, heavy-booted Derek ends up doing his own sexual renovations on Marie—much to the horror of Dara and her crippled childhood-sweetheart (and ex-dancer) husband Charlie—is in keeping with The Nutcracker’s barely submerged themes of innocence initiated swiftly into experience, while the gaggle of younger, tutu-clad girls infesting the premises are like sugar plum fairies, imps recklessly rubbernecking at the scandals and messes of the adult world. At this point in her career, Abbott’s hard-boiled style has grown refined without becoming rarified; she writes precisely without making a fetish of precision (that kind of pathology is left to her characters). The Turnout unfolds in shapely clusters of subjectivity, informationally dense—i.e. everything we’ve ever wanted to know about the collateral damage of dancing ballet but were afraid to ask—yet emotionally transparent. The narrative is filtered through Dara, a watchful, controlling, but fundamentally passive woman whose horror at having her space—and the makeshift, quasi-incestuous three’s-company family unit she’s set up with Marie and Charlie—invaded by somebody whose business is remodelling is made palpable and contagious. The tension of Derek’s comings and goings evoke a sort of irrational B-movie horror (or maybe an episode of Property Brothers from Hell). The Turnout is never better than in these early, Derek-heavy, scene-setting passages, which bristle with anxiety, embarrassment, and an illicit eroticism that seems to come as much from Dara’s subconscious as her newly oversexed sister’s breathless, increasingly guilt-free reports from the field. Skepticism, speculation, protectiveness, competitiveness—Abbott conveys furtive, squirrelly sensations in a way that gets under our skin. She also manages the plot’s machinery like a pro, perhaps not to the point of fully disguising its grind—one big twist is telegraphed politely in advance—but so that there’s pleasure in the gears themselves (the aforementioned bloody murder weapon is worthy of inclusion in Clue). It’s rare to encounter a work of genre fiction that doesn’t throw its back out trying to pluck a few thorny ideas here and there, and rarer still that those ideas actually draw blood; by the end, the splayed, weary, marrow-deep ache evoked by Abbott’s prose gets transferred onto the reader. It hurts so good, and when it’s over, you’ll still feel it tomorrow. Adam Nayman: Do you remember the first time that you saw The Nutcracker? Megan Abbott: It was definitely a big part of my childhood. I mean, I was a terrible dancer. I did not last more than two years in ballet before I attempted tap instead, and you could imagine how successful that was. But every year we would go to see The Nutcracker in downtown Detroit, and it was just so magical. It's such a strange fairy-tale and so transfixing; as kids you like weird things, you like dark things, and you specially like it when it's supposed to be for you and it has all that dark stuff in it. It's also one of the two go-to titles you'd use if you were trying to convey an archetype of popular, enduring ballet. The other one is Swan Lake, which is more grown up, at least superficially. As you say, The Nutcracker seems innocuous, but one thing that The Turnout deals with is how kinky and sexualized it is under the surface, and the charge that it is. I looked a little into the history because apparently it was not a big deal until [George] Balanchine mounted a new version of it in the early 1950s and it became a Christmas special. He sort of turned it into this annual Christmas pageant for the whole family, and [did] not present it as a super-creepy story, but of course all the other things still get smuggled in. That's a phrase I love; Martin Scorsese uses it in his documentary My Personal Journey Through American Cinema, where he talks about B-movie directors smuggling things into their movies—subversive ideas, coded implications of sex, darker views of American institutions. Anyway, weirdly I feel like Swan Lake would actually be less damaging to give to young girls in childhood because it doesn't encourage you to become friends with your paedophilic uncle. (Can I add something here to indicate that I was kidding? E.g., “That’s a joke! I actually think The Nutcracker is important for young girls because they get to be the hero in that ballet, and also that children do like dark things. It’s a way of figuring out the world and its mysteries.”) Dara's understanding of The Nutcracker is very sophisticated: she understands it as narrative and as metaphor; she knows how to dance the parts and how to teach others to dance them; she directs the show and makes money from it. But she's still very much inside the story, unconsciously in her own life. Knowing how to do the magic trick doesn't mean you can't fall for it; it's like she's still the little girl watching The Nutcracker for the first time, still hypnotized by itall those years later. Yes! You kind of fall into these things when you're writing, whether it's conscious or not. It's true, though, for Dara that The Nutcracker became the template for her life without her knowing it, in that classic Freudian way where you have to keep repeating and repeating until you can break the cycle and release yourself. She's not able to do that, and so it becomes a trap. She's a very controlling person, and somewhat difficult, or at least that’s what some early readers told me. But I find her very moving because while all the characters in this book are trapped, she's the only one who doesn't know it, which seems like a greater tragedy. Ballet strikes me as a form where being trapped is part of the process, because there isn't necessarily freedom of expression. It's all very to the millimetre. It's restrictive, and whatever comes out isn't coming out of you. It's more about hitting your marks. The precision is so intense, and many dancers I read about have a lot of mental tricks of the trade to help them get past certain, very legitimate fears. I wrote a book about gymnasts, and it's a very similar discipline because they know you risk your life if you're a millimetre off. But I get why ballet dancers don't really like any cultural representations of their art form, because it tends to emphasize the pain of it above everything else. But it's also true that, historically, ballet requires you to transform your body in these very “unnatural” ways, and that torture is built into it. There’s been a strong push in recent years to move away from that, saying it doesn't have to be that way, and there's more talk now about different body types for male and female dancers, but that's not how it's been for most of the last century. Instead, the deal was you had to make your body do things it wasn't built to do: you have these children who aren't developed yet risking permanent changes to their body—things they can't undo. They're doing it for the art, and as lovers of art, this is what we love—to see people throw themselves into it like that, so fully. But, of course, we’re seeing it from a distance, bearing none of the risk ourselves. In both gymnastics and ballet, the masochism is inescapable but it also has to be disguised or denied, at least to the observer. I think about Swan Lake and the old metaphor of the swan who's beautiful and perfect above the surface but churning away furiously below. Nobody is supposed to see that part. As with anything that requires that kind of complete devotion, you have to believe that it's worth it. Because otherwise, what is it all for? With ballet, more than gymnastics, it's tied to notions of femininity and what we consider “female”—you know, girls aren't really supposed to sweat. Historically, the female ballet dancer is meant to be nearly doll-like, a performance of femininity. At times the book reads like an inventory of injuries; all these welts and cuts and bruises. It's like body horror. I tend to write about bodies a lot, maybe because I've never had the ability to be artful or successful with my body. And I'm fascinated by the toll, by injuries. Somebody told me I have scars in all my books, so I guess it's a fixation, and I'm drawn to subjects that let me pursue it. I'm writing something now about a pregnant woman, so more body horror to come. The Turnout observes Dara and Marie's ballet academy as a kind of ecosystem, with all these different levels and stratifications. There's a definite pecking order or food chain amongst the girls. All of the practice and preparation creates these obsessive relationships and rivalries, these needs to please and to be validated. It's a very pressurized environment. For me, it's at the ages of eleven and twelve that girls are at the most vicious, and that viciousness gets channelled in this space. For me and everybody I knew, [dance] was very cutthroat, and we all fed off that energy. Everybody wants to be Clara in The Nutcracker, and to be at the centre of the story, even though she doesn't actually do anything in the second half of the show; the Sugar Plum Fairy is the star, if there is any “star.” It's hard not to see these rituals as a metaphor for things that are yet to come in life. I feel like for Dara and Marie, there's something punitive about teaching ballet to these kids, almost like they're inflicting it on them. Or because they went through this grinder once upon a time now there's a catharsis in seeing others broken down. Like, “this is going to hurt, this is going to tear, this is going to bruise, and that's the way it is.” That experience of pain sets Marie up to embark on a pretty self-destructive relationship. She's used to being knocked around, in one way or another; that's been life for her and her sister from the beginning. Knocked around by ballet, knocked around by their mother; Marie is knocked around by a sister who bosses her around. And then that gets tied to her experience of sexuality and her notions of pleasure, and that's where it gets really complicated. There are a lot of dichotomies in The Turnabout. Pain and pleasure is one for sure, but it's also there in terms of character types. Dara's husband Charlie is this very beautiful, smooth, frail and fragile man-child—he's broken—and Derek, Marie's lover, is not only physically solid and powerful but, as described by Dara, he's this dripping, Rabelaisian figure. He's masculine in a slovenly, erotic way, totally undisciplined, this big, swinging-dick guy, and his appearances, especially at first, are totally startling. I was having a fun conversation with myself about this very thing a little while ago because I'm adapting the book for TV, and it's very true that on the page we're not supposed to know if Derek really is that disgusting, as disgusting as Dara describes him. He’s not, probably, but you still have to figure out how to do it in terms of point of view, which is a benefit that the novel has. For Dara, he represents everything that's chaotic, and so he has to be repulsive in every way, like a symphony of horror. She's restricted herself from wanting or getting anything outside of her small world, and here comes a guy who takes, takes, takes. That taking is why Marie is drawn to him, because he's so opposite to the life she's been leading. For Dara, that makes this guy the Devil. You're billed as a crime writer, and The Turnabout does have a crime in it, but it's buried pretty far into the narrative, and a lot of what's interesting in the themes and characters exists totally outside of a genre framework. I wonder how self-conscious those delay tactics are for you at this point. I want to be in a dance with the reader; that's the pleasure of it for me. I love those sorts of books, where you feel like you're being let in on something, like a whisper over the shoulder or peeking into the keyhole. But it's also a question of how long you can do that until it starts becoming annoying. In a crime novel, it can be frustrating where things are written like everybody is a suspect, and while there's certain value in those kinds of mysteries and they're really fun, they're not the kind I write. In my books, I want it to almost be like I'm talking with someone about two people we know and about what happened to them, and I want it to draw them closer and closer. But you didn't just want to write a novel about these strange people who do ballet for a living. You also wanted there to be violence and a crime scene. I can only really conceive of a story if it's around a crime! Sometimes they happen sooner, sometimes they happen later, but usually it's well into the story because I want you to care about everybody and understand them first. I've been asked if I'll ever write a novel without a crime in it—some people really want that—but I'm like, “it gives you your plot engine!” Everybody can relate to situations where your back is against the wall, or when your defences are down and your unconscious just spills forth. It's in the midst of sex and death that that stuff comes out. As a very lapsed Catholic, those are the only two things [I’m] interested in anyway, so it all fits with the presence of crime. I can't remember the last crime novel that's also partially about contracting and construction. It's so perfect because you have two sets of professionals in one space, big guys clomping in dirty boots through pristine spaces populated by delicate little girls in tutus, and everybody is getting on everybody else's nerves. Lots of moments where space is being invaded. I'm trying to think of a few movies that have played with that. There's Pacific Heights! Sure, there's Pacific Heights. It's a situation where you have a stranger coming into your space. If you're someone who's very controlling about those things—like if you're running a dance studio, which is already an arena focused on control, and which is the source of your economic survival—it creates a pressure cooker. The other appeal of making the intruder a contractor was it meant I could bring insurance issues into it all. It’s a great noir trope. One of the main reasons I first started writing crime fiction was because of Double Indemnity: I love any time there's an insurance angle within a story, and in the novel of Double Indemnity there's a great bit about insurance salesmen and this great big roulette wheel, and that they are the ones who know that when you gamble, the house [is] going to win, and you're going to lose. There's something I love about that. It's so noir. The insurance investigator is a great archetype because it's hard to make them into heroes. You can do it with cops, or even with crooks or sociopaths, but insurance adjusters are like the reality principle in noir. They're the ones asking the banal, boring, potentially destabilizing questions. You have a wonderful insurance agent character in The Turnout, who seems to have wandered in from some other novel, maybe the hardboiled novel in her head where she takes this old-school idea of what her job should be about. Absolutely. She's deeply committed to her job, just like Edward G. Robinson is in Double Indemnity. I wanted her to really care, to be a seeker of truth. My brother is a prosecutor, so I know about all the different realities that go into police investigation, and whether there will be the time or budget to prosecute. But an insurance agent doesn't need to prove anything to a jury. They just want to stop you from gaming the system. It’s about the payout, the money, and there's something unstoppable about the power of money in America. It always sort of pushes forward. The police may lose interest in a case and decide there's nothing to chase even if things look suspect, but if there's an insurance payout to be had... Speaking of the link between violence and money in America, I love the cheque stabber that Dara and Charlie use to spear their bills. It's so out of time, and so funny—each bill from the contractor gets impaled on this gleaming sharp edge. Yeah, it's definitely symbolic, but even if you know it's symbolic, you don't necessarily see that it's a bit of foreshadowing as well. I had a letter opener in another one of my books as well. That's where my noir side comes into play; these objects are sort of archaic. They don't really belong in our time. In my books I guess I try to avoid things like texting and social media use, not because I think people should avoid them in writing, but I want a timeless quality. And it works here because the sisters are in this old, falling-apart house and of course there are old things in it, things that somebody forgot to throw out, anything their mother touched, their whole family history told through forgotten objects. Recursiveness is a big thing in this book; you talked about Dara being trapped in The Nutcracker, and reliving all these old performances and productions while time moves forwards. Backstage dramas are all about this tension, about people trying to make each performance feel new for an audience even though the only way to do that is to know it all to the point of redundancy. It's exhausting. There is always a relentless quality when you say, “the show must go on.” It means, “this is going to happen.” It's sort of fatalistic, in a way. It's not going to stop, this is never going to stop. The other thing that feels eternal is the idea of children rubbernecking at the adult world, whether it's the students getting these little hints that untoward things are happening just out of sight in the studio space or the sisters' memories of seeing their parents fighting. There's other, even more intense flashback stuff that of course I won't spoil here, but I kept thinking of the line from Into the Woods, which plays with some of the same archetypes as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake in a different form: “children will listen.” There are moments where you see how complicated the adult world can be, how somebody can be crying but they're actually laughing and vice versa. The ability of kids to understand and access what's really going on is very real, and they're always getting lessons on how or how not to behave. Those first encounters with grown-up things, with ideas about masculinity and femininity, they never go away. And because Dara and Marie are in the same space as when they were kids, it keeps replaying, in this very Grey Gardens or Flowers in the Attic sort of way. With Marie, it's like she tries to fuck her way out of it, while Dara keeps doing the same things she did before. We're all stuck with ourselves, and again that's very noir. You can only change yourself so much.
The author of Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology on body horror, revisiting old LiveJournals and high school Latin teachers.
In the introduction of her new essay collection Women and Other Monsters (Beacon Press), Jess Zimmerman quotes a tweet that I find embarrassingly relatable: “ok horse girls definitely had an energy but lets talk about the real powerhouses of middle school weird girls: the ancient mythology stans.” I was a teenage ancient Greek mythology stan. In high school, I could rattle off the names of Zeus’ mistresses and their children, and knew the story of Odysseus as well as the love triangles on The OC. In my senior year of high school, I was part of a four-person team that competed in Certamen, a Jeopardy-style quiz competition that covered riveting subjects such as Latin derivatives, mythology, and Roman daily life. My team wore laurels in our hair and called ourselves the Vestal Virgins, the priestesses of the Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta, who took a 30-year vow of celibacy and protected the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta. (Even at the time, I knew this was a deeply uncool namesake.) All of this to say, I was very excited to read Women and Other Monsters. In her essay collection, the Brooklyn-based writer applies personal stories and sharp cultural analysis to some of Greek mythology’s greatest female monsters, like the man-eating whirlpool, Charybdis; the seductive half-bird half-woman, Sirens; and the Furies, the three goddesses of vengeance who prowled earth to torture sinners. Zimmerman unpacks the lasting influence of these myths on western culture, dissecting monster-by-monster the way they’ve shaped our views around femininity, morality, hunger, sex, and motherhood. She rehabilitates these monsters, showing how their devious and grotesque traits are actually their greatest strengths—and also qualities that would be revered in male heroes. Although Zimmerman read the great Greek storytellers of Ovid, Homer, and Sophocles in college and post-grad, her entry point was as a pre-schooler reading the illustrated children’s book D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. But her essays will appeal to a much wider cross-section than mythology buffs. Zimmerman shows how these monsters have shaped tropes in pop culture, and expertly weaves in candid personal stories about fatness and beauty, her ex-husband, toxic old relationships, and female friendships. I don’t think I’ve ever read something that so breezily connects the Furies to Social Justice Warriors, or segues from an I spoke with Zimmerman over the phone—we both agreed that in Zoom calls we end up thinking too much about how we look—about the evolving transformation of Medusa, making readers feel pain, and why Greek mythology is popping up in home décor trends. Samantha Edwards: I'm excited to talk to you today because I was also a bit of a mythology stan back in the day. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was your first entry point to Greek mythology, and, I’m wondering, what made you so captivated by this book? Jess Zimmerman: It’s hard to answer that just because that was many decades ago at this point. I was literally in preschool when I got my copy. It still exists, but minus both covers and a bunch of pages, and it’s got my marker scribblings in it. It’s hard to get back into that mindset, but I was attracted to things that had a sort of epic, fantasy adventure quality, which is typical for little kids. You don't realize at that time who was allowed to have the epic adventures, who is waiting at home fighting off suitors or being the monster that's being hunted and defeated. I think until you get old enough to think about it, you don't realize what kind of messages are being Trojan Horsed, as it were, into those stories. You just get caught up in the adventure aspect of it. I got into Greek mythology later on in high school when I was taking Latin and classical civilization history classes, which I know sounds like I went to a really fancy private school. In reality, I grew up in a small town in Ontario and my high school was in the boonies. We just happened to have one teacher who was really into Latin, so I think they just let her teach these courses. I also took Latin in high school, and I went to a public school, and I think it was just because my teacher was like 100 years old and had just been there since Latin was a normal thing to teach in high school and they couldn't make him leave. Ok great, so we’re in the same boat where we went to public schools that for some reason had Latin. And it’s always pushed by some weirdo who just, like, can't be made to not have a Latin class. Our Latin teacher would actually send us older students to the Grade 9 classes when they were picking their courses for the next year and get us to try to recruit kids to sign up for Latin because the school needed enough students to justify a class. The Latin Agenda. Yes, totally! While studying Greek mythology, I never really thought about the monsters in the stories. I was always focused on the gods and goddesses. Why did you decide to focus on monsters, and why did you want to bring new cultural analysis to these stories? Was this a concept that you had been thinking about for a while? Before it was a book, I did some short versions of several of these essays on Catapult. I tried to sell it as a book and people weren't interested. So, I was like, “OK, well, maybe it's an essay series.” Then an agent reached out to me, and I was like, “See! One person agrees that this is a book.” Before I started writing the book proper, I had been thinking about these extended metaphors for a couple of years, and during that time, actually, is when Circe came out. There were a few other things too, like the Medusa with the Head of Perseus statue, that were going around during #MeToo. There were a few little things that made me think that we were ready to go back to these stories and think about what we had learned from them. Why do you think that people are more interested in these old stories now? You mentioned Circe by Madeline Miller coming out, which is super popular, but I’m also seeing mythology pop up in other ways too, whether it's a line drawing of Aphrodite on a throw pillow or, like, Greek column plant stands. Why do you think people seem to be more interested in Greek mythology? I think it's two related phenomena, one of which is that these stories have an extreme hold over Western culture, and Western culture has been like a wild cultural juggernaut that has just been steamrolling everybody else's culture for a very long time. So, part of it is just as simple as that: this is the culture that has declared itself to be the best and the most important and has at times violently enforced that. And so, of course, these are stories that we know and that still exist in our literature and our art, because it replicates itself like a little virus. Once those images are in the arts, then that becomes what art looks like. And then part of it is that we're continuing [to] roll back that over-influence of Western culture [to] try to make space for other ideas. We’re ready to analyze and question it, and find some other way to tell stories in a way that we haven't always been [doing]. I think that the reason those images persist and the reason that people are now interested in questioning these stories are basically the same reason, which is that it has been just this massive cultural boot on everyone's face. I think most people have a clear idea of what Medusa looks like, but for those reading this interview who aren’t mythology stans, can you give us the CliffsNotes version of her backstory—or rather the D’Aulaires’ Notes version—and how that story has progressed and been warped by pop culture? So, the backstory that's in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is that she used to be very, very beautiful, and, in particular, she had very beautiful hair. She caught the eye of Poseidon, who was the God of the sea. Throughout all the stories in Metamorphoses, it is never a good idea if you're a woman—or if you're coded female or feminine—to catch the eye of a God, because that almost invariably means that you're going to be assaulted. That's what happens in this story. He catches up with her in the Temple of Athena and rapes her. Athena takes that personally, because it's her temple, and takes it out on Medusa. Essentially, Medusa can turn you to stone if she looks at you, she has snakes for hair, and she has a hideous visage. All of is this is revenge that Athena takes on her for essentially being victimized in her temple. I really liked Athena when I was a kid, but she is not a sympathetic character in a lot of these stories. What's interesting about the way that Medusa’s image has shifted, is that culturally she has sort of snuck back into being very beautiful. The book opens with this little but perfect exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago, which was about Medusa and all these other female monsters, specifically focusing on the ways that these more monstrous forms have had their edges sanded off and become more and more approachable and more and more beautiful. What that does is give the impression that any woman could be a secret monster, because they all look normal until you see the one thing. In the very ancient images of Medusa, she's got tusks, she's got a beard, she's intended to have a very frightening visage, and people would put this image outside of their homes for protection. Over time she's become the image that I think we often think of, which is where she has a very beautiful, very feminine, and often white face—and also happens to have very beautiful snake hair. Another monster you write about is Scylla, a nymph who is turned into a sea monster by a jealous Circe. After she walks into a pond that Circe has cursed, her lower half turns into rabid dogs. The story of Scylla reminded me of the genre of body horror. During the pandemic, I watched the David Cronenberg film The Brood for the first time. Have you seen it? I've not seen that one. But I've seen a lot of other Cronenberg movies. So, in the movie, a woman transforms in these really grotesque ways after she undergoes a controversial therapy that makes you expel suppressed emotions through physiological changes. Apparently, the book was inspired by Cronenberg’s divorce, which makes you think like, wow, that must have been a very bad divorce. I wonder if Cronenberg is missing the trick there. Like, obviously, I am fairly unfazed by a lot of weird body stuff. I do like going to anatomical museums. I have a lot of animal skulls and some human teeth [laughs]. I have a deep creepy streak. What tips it over to horror for me is when you really think about the fact that it’s something that could exist within your personal body. The idea of othering the horrible things that are happening really makes it toothless. Not to say I’m unaffected by Cronenberg, but I would be more affected by a movie that specifically uses the uterus or things that I know I have. That’s part of why I look at that and say, “Oh, this guy's working through some shit,” because when somebody is creating horror that is specifically about someone else’s anatomy, that's not horror. That’s a kind of violence you're inflicting on someone else. Right, like how the story of Scylla is so scary because when she tries to flee from the dogs, she realizes they’re a part of her body and there's no escape. That’s a chilling moment to me. And it's something that I think all of us feel occasionally about our body. That’s where the true body horror comes from. It is a part of you. The story with Scylla is that she walks into enchanted water, and then she looks down and she sees, essentially, her lower half has turned into dogs. In the image we use on the book cover, she also has tentacles, because in Homer she has these horrible, dangling legs, and very long necks. But Ovid describes her standing on dogs gone mad. That makes the hair of my neck go up. I think that's probably why they say don’t look in a mirror if you’re on mushrooms or hallucinogens. Yeah, absolutely. You write pretty candidly about your body and relationships with exes. How do you approach writing about things that have caused you pain or trauma? At this point, I’ve been writing about body stuff for long enough that it lives in an intellectual space in my brain. We already have such a visceral attachment to the body, so being able to elevate that is actually pretty useful. And in terms of writing about relationships, I still have the instincts to intellectualize, but it doesn't necessarily serve the piece to stand outside the relationship and try to analyze it in a way where you don’t actually feel it again. And so that’s more of a struggle. There's one chapter in the book that I wrote the best I could—and then I read Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House. She is a real master of bringing her feelings into your body. You really experience them. That book is upsetting. It is nauseating. It is so beautiful. It's also very, very intellectual. It elevates everything. I think it's partly because she's a wonderful fiction writer, so she creates these scenes that you can really see. She's a very precise observer. So, I read that and I went back to this chapter and I was like, “This has to hurt more.” This has to suck more for me, so it can suck a little bit more for the reader in a way that feels real. I don't have her memory for details, so I ended up having to go back to like, my LiveJournal and old emails, and literally quote things that show what I was going through because I was searching for something that would convey that experience in a way that wasn't purely cerebral. Is the chapter you’re referring to the one with the professor? Because in that essay, I really felt it. I really felt your pain. And it made me think a lot about past relationships, and honestly, it was painful! So, good job? [Laughs] I credit Carmen for that. She doesn't know she did it, but I do credit her. Going back and re-reading LiveJournals, diaries, and old emails can be such a nauseating experience, especially if you’ve ever been in relationships where there’s been huge power imbalances. But it also brings about this weird secondhand embarrassment too. Oh, totally. It's mortifying. But I do try to replace the embarrassment with compassion for myself.
The author of Finding the Raga on teachers, poetry, and performance.
In the summer of 2020, my Inbox fired news of scientific and literary worlds in equal proportions. A non-fiction book was to published in Spring 2021 by an Indian writer and musician, whom I’d never heard of. It was about the raga, a subject I also knew almost nothing about. But I was interested in the form, which I’d admired for its improvisational quality, its mind-blowing creativity, its beauty. Though one of the roots of the Sanskrit word raga is related to colour, there is no translation for it into Western music traditions. Roughly speaking, it is a set of melodic structures, subject to both rules and improvisation (akin to a “non-constructible set” in human language), and must be discovered by an artist through live performance. Its presence in Indian music is mentioned as early as in the Upanishads, just before the start of the common era. I spent the next few days that summer devouring every bit of Amit Chaudhuri’s writing and all the interviews I could find. He talked about the role of improvisation in writing and how none of his fiction was memoir (even though in his latest novel, the main character shares his name, city, age, and profession). When I found a video of his raga-infused 2019 performance of Gershwin’s “Summertime” at the Institute for Ideas and Imagination at Columbia University, I wanted more of his “bent notes,” his “always transmitting,” his “double hearing.” Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music (New York Review of Books) is an exposition of the raga, but also a poetic exploration of life, the imagination, inspiration, and creativity. I had a one-hour exchange with Chaudhuri about the book over Zoom on March 23, 2021. But that was a failed recording (it wouldn’t “convert”). Thankfully, the art of raga itself allows for mistakes to be integrated into performance. It can even be seen as part of its tradition of having a long introduction (called the “alaap”). Chaudhuri explains it in his book: “The initial delineation of the raga, before the vilambit or slow composition starts to the tabla’s accompaniment . . . the singer ascends reluctantly from the lower to the upper tonic, subjecting the notes and the identifying phrases to repeated reinterpretation . . . through a progression of glissandos . . . and can take up to half an hour or more, depending on the singer’s inventiveness or obduracy.” My second interview attempt on March 24 was more focused and refined, ready. “From alaap we move to drut, fast-tempo segments.” Dim evening light and the hum of a ceiling fan accompanied Chaudhuri’s voice from a guest house he was staying at in Shantiniketan—a city north of Kolkata founded by the Tagore family and where poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote many of his works—and created a breeze that I noticed moved the hair slightly at his forehead. Canadian birdsong and a spring breeze through my Guelph morning window were also impossible to ignore. Madhur Anand: I confess that everything I wanted to know about the book is already in the book. And everything I want to know about you is also in the book, since it’s part memoir. I don’t want to ask questions that are outside of the book, because I sense the outside world is already interwoven into your writing, and into you, the way you describe raga itself to be. You write, “The raga is not about the world: it’s of it. Once you know the raga, the world and it can’t be independent of each other . . . in contrast to how we experience music in a concert hall, a significant leakage in both directions is allowed: the raga’s into the world and the world’s into the raga. For this reason, every sound—birdcall; a car horn; a cough—is continuous with its textuality and texture.” Nevertheless, let’s proceed. You start the book with reproducing an interview from 1991 of famous Indian classical performer Kishori Amonkar. Can I start by asking you one of the same questions that person asked her? What are you searching for in your music? She answered, “Ananda” (bliss), but how would you answer the question? Amit Chaudhuri: I’m still discovering this music: things to do with the alaap; the unexpectedness of this exploration; the basic tranquility with which it is undertaken; the subtlety needed to make it true. I’m still discovering these processes, what it is that makes it beautiful and important, when there are no pre-given, pre-fabricated answers to this question of what makes it important, what it is. Was your question what are you discovering through your music? No, but that’s how you are answering it (which is fine!). It was: What are you searching for? I’m searching for the answer to this question: what is it that makes it so deeply important? The already given answers, even if they make complete sense and come from people I deeply admire, don’t do it for me. Because, they are words. You talk about your “thwarted desire to become a country and western singer” before you introduced your raga-infused original composition Country Hustle at your performance at the Institute of Ideas and Imagination in 2019. Why that desire in the first place? In fact, I first wanted to be a Canadian singer-songwriter, because I was listening to Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. You talk about your mother’s influence on your awakening and entry into raga, and while you describe her quite a bit in the section entitled “Ananda” in your book, in our interview yesterday you said a few things about her that aren’t in the book. Could you elaborate? Yes, that only occurred to me yesterday. A kind of change was happening when I was around 16 when I discovered Indian classical music. I was beginning to withdraw from my friends, my contemporaries, and from college. Initially my mother was cautious about me getting into Indian classical music because of the impact she thought the hours of practice would have on my heart murmur. But then doctors said that surgery could wait, and my parents relaxed. They wanted me to do what I wanted to do. That’s all in the book. But I also began to discover my mother. She’d never been a friend of mine. The relationship had been fractious. She was very strict with me in some ways. She was an amazing singer, but [at] the age of 16, I realized she was an ally. An intellectual and artistic ally. We both disliked the same things. We also were bored by the same things, whether it was to do with music or people. And we also discovered that we valued the same kinds of things in the arts, in music, and in people. She of course, as the wife of my father, had to play a social role to some extent. I began to play less and less of a social role. My mother was in sympathy with this. This all increased our closeness. Just as I listened to her closely, she listened to me very closely. And having a listener like her remained very important to me right until the end of her life. Poetry comes up so much in the book. You describe the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s definition of poetry as “a delay between listening and looking.” You also quote T.S. Eliot: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” What’s the relationship between raga and poetry? I am happy that you make the defining rubric for the kind of writer I am as “poet.” The excitement of writing lies for me in estrangement, transformation through the act of imagination, not so much narrative. Improvisation in modulation in raga is deferral. You are not only demonstrating a form and structure, but you are showing how to defer that demonstration, defer the immediate delineation of that form, to come from different perspectives, to arrive at it, but arrive at it through a series of delays, and then further development accompanied by further delays. Delay, in fact defining development, is another word for embellishment in improvisation and creativity. Creativity dies when the form is given just like that, straight away. That’s not the point of khayal. It’s only to do with individual approaches and individual ideas of hinting, suggestion and prevarication, that something has been gestured at. That’s where invention takes place. Poetry is so much determined by what’s not said and what’s left out. Deferral plays a part in determining the form of the poem. I would say the same for my novel. It proceeds in a series of improvisations which are different ways of delaying the matter of giving out something. There is that connection, there. I think the other connection, as musician and composer, between the two has to do with soundscapes. Everything is soundscape to me. I use the sound of a country and western song to write a country and western song which only could have been written by someone who could never have been a country and western singer. I do that because I am approaching the country and western song not as a thing to cover or to reproduce, but as a soundscape. I’m interested in all kinds of sounds, whether it’s the slide guitar or the sound of a ceiling fan, or the sound of a train in the Berlin underground beginning to move and covering an octave, or the sound of car horns outside. That, [those sounds,] I’m interested in as a human being, as a writer. Sounds excite the imagination so much, partly because they are synecdoche: they stand for something you cannot see. They are the invisible in your life. A difference [between writing and performing the raga] is the huge amount of time you need to put in practicing, daily. It’s a boring, tedious discipline that one has to follow. One cannot afford not to. There is a tension with being prepared for that art which is very different from writing, which is more about a state of receptivity, and knowing when and how to be receptive. Let’s talk about jet lag. Something none of us is experiencing these days, except, perhaps, through intercontinental Zoom calls, and indeed, as you argue, through the experience of raga itself. “A raga that’s sung at a time of day it’s not meant for is subjected, in the critic Raghava Menon’s words, to ‘jet lag.’ The metaphor of intercontinental travel emphasizes the textuality of Northern Indian classical music. When I practice morning raga Todi in Oxford, I feel an incompatibility. This is because the morning in Oxford is not only a different reality; it’s a different language. The problem of making a Todi fit is a translational one.” To what extent does one need to understand the Indian landscape/culture/language to understand raga? Can one have an empathetic experience of other places/times/cultures through the raga? I don’t like to think of the ragas as being rooted in the Indian landscape. And, certainly, once you begin to grasp their form and the tradition’s rhythmic and musical intricacies, they’d be a wonder to any musician, whatever their tradition, to listen to. But what I’m interested in is the music’s unique relationship to the world—not narrative, not representational, not mimetic, not even ritualistic. It’s another way of understanding how the imagination can be of a place without a rhetoric to do with locality or nation. Please tell us more about the relationship between artistic practice and instruction. How do you find your teacher? My teacher’s son said to me, not very long ago: “You and my father used to sing at the same key. You both had high-pitched voices. You sang at the E or the F scale. And I on the other hand at C-sharp or D, and my father used to tease me about it. You sang so much like him.” There was a commonality in voice, pitch, and key, and a commonality about what one wanted out of art, even when I was just beginning to discover what I wanted out of art, which was subtlety, texture, obliqueness, not over-emphasis, not convention. I could easily have encountered Indian classical music in the form that it’s usually encountered in a teacher, which is the form of convention, of rules, and the foundational aspects of how to begin. Instead, I encountered somebody who wasn’t consciously or unconsciously interested in coming to me in that way, but [in] unfolding the raga with the presupposition that the texture and the nuance would be audible to this person. That is, [to] me. And that was a great relief that that happened. And that his voice and approach were characterized primarily by texture, by that kind of subtlety. Otherwise I may not have been interested in learning from him. Then, the other thing is that his father was the greatest composer of khayal in the 20th century. These compositions are very difficult for people learning Indian classical music afresh—I mean beginners—to master. They are difficult in terms of knowledge of the time cycle but also the complexity of notes that you are supposed to be producing with your voice, so they are virtuosic, and yet they are not exhibitionist. They are intellectual and artistic as well. It’s primarily very beautiful, despite being very difficult. It kind of brings home the idea that difficulty need not be a kind of characteristic of virtuosity. That difficulty can be beautiful, and it can be beautiful in a very unostentatious way. That is without drawing attention to itself. That I think again matches with what my temperament thinks is true. A degree of difficulty is interesting, but not for its own sake. It can have its own beauty and even simplicity. I don’t think they are in two different compartments, simplicity and beauty on the one hand and difficulty and virtuosity in the other. I don’t buy that. In the book, you describe Bharata’s theory that the seven notes of the raga come from seven animal sounds (peacock, ox, goat, demoiselle crane, cuckoo, horse, elephant). What are ragas of the past like to experience as both a singer but also a listener in contemporary times, vis-à-vis environmental changes? I don’t think of ragas as ragas of the past, because it’s a form that is always developing. Khayal itself is a quite modern form. It seems to come to you as a kind of immemorial form. The figure of the ustad, the singer, as someone elaborating on a phrase for hours, seems like a stock/cliché of Indian classical music, and yet part of it is very modern. What we hear today, that expansiveness, comes from a recent modernism. I see the raga as an old thing but also a very contemporary thing. It operates according to contemporary creative ideas, such as “found material.” The raga is not authored by anyone. It is found; it is interpreted in various ways. The raga is an elevation of various materials: some of it is folk tunes, some of it chants. It’s been turned into something secular and put in a new context. I see it as a language. I see the monsoons as language. I see the ragas about the monsoons (the Malhars), or even paintings of the monsoons, as part of that same language. It’s difficult to say that one is a natural phenomenon, and the other is a reflection of the natural phenomenon. They are part of a natural linguistic fabric of which the air and the clouds are also a part. The fabric begins to break down now, in our times. There’s a rent in one part of the fabric where the monsoons don’t happen, they come late, or they seem misshapen somehow, not reaching their full forms of monsoon. Then you begin to think of a time when there may be no monsoons, or the monsoons may occur in December instead of June. So, we are talking about a breakdown of language over here. That will have an impact on the raga, how we understand that raga. Will it be seen as a vestige of dead language? What will happen to it? I didn’t ask this yesterday because I was too shy but I will today: do you like to dance? [Laughing] I like dance. I love it as a form. I love Indian dance. I like the cosmology of the figures, the old Buddhist paintings. The Indian figure in classical dance also has a kind of constellation from the head to the toes. That, I like. But I don’t dance myself. I’ve never danced. Never? Not even at a wedding? Never. I’m just too shy. I can never get rid of this crippling self-consciousness. And now it’s too late. Maybe . . . No, I don’t think so.
Talking to the author of Abundance about what’s lacking from literature centring low-income characters, the delicate act of revealing race, and the social utility of fiction.
Money is a taboo topic of conversation in our culture, and that silence often extends into literature. Portraits of poverty abound, but relatively few novels discuss money in an explicit or logistical way. In Jakob Guanzon’s debut novel, Abundance (Graywolf Press), money is impossible to ignore. Each chapter begins not with a title, but with the amount of money in the protagonist’s pocket. The first chapter, titled “$89.34,” opens at a McDonald’s where Henry, the protagonist, is trying to stretch every dollar while celebrating his son Junior’s birthday. We see Henry before the value menu, quietly calculating how to optimize his calorie-to-dollar ratio. He washes himself in the bathroom and stuffs a handful of ketchup packets in his pocket, something to tide him over before his big job interview the next day. Newly evicted and living out of his truck, Henry tries to square his shoulders against the indignities of being houseless and unemployed while trying to overcome a checkered past and care for Junior. I recently spoke to Guanzon about portraying the psychological effects of poverty, writing a story shaped by financial constraints, and how he makes it work financially as a writer. Connor Goodwin: It’s uncommon to read books that discuss money so explicitly, and money is impossible to ignore in this book. Why did you want to center money in this way, and why do you think it’s not addressed more often in literature? Jakob Guanzon: I don’t necessarily agree that poverty or people going through tough times financially is new or unique to the canon. I think of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, a lot of Toni Morrison’s work, up to Shuggie Bain winning the Booker last year. The one thing I thought was lacking from literature that centers low-income characters—as well as film and TV—is explicit discussion of their actual budgets. We hear characters are broke, or they’re going through tough times, and they might say he’s got twenty dollars in his pocket, but we don’t get the actual logistics very often, if at all, about a character’s financial situation, which is very indicative of our culture. We’re not supposed to ask our coworkers how much they earn, which completely benefits our employers rather than establishing some sense of solidarity. So that was something I really wanted to bring forth, because it seemed to be a very relevant and prominent feature of the experience of both poverty and living paycheck to paycheck. The last stat I checked, sixty-three percent of the United States is living paycheck to paycheck. Those are pandemic numbers. I don’t know where it was before, but I can’t imagine they were all that much lower just considering the broader economics of this country. When you’re living paycheck to paycheck—which I was up until the pandemic, ironically enough; I’m of the privileged group that was able to keep their job to work remotely, but I’m very aware of that experience of always knowing my budget down to the cent—your spending power is a very specific figure of your human worth in a capitalist society. I really wanted that to be up front and play an active role in shaping this story in the same way that financial constraints dictate a person’s decisions in real life. You offer some physical descriptions of poverty, but it manifests more strongly in a psychological way—the constant calculations, feelings of shame, endless budgeting. How did you allow readers to inhabit that psychological outlook? I’m really glad you raised that. I think it’s a very important observation specific to the social utility of fiction of being able to inhabit a character’s thought processes in a way that you’re unable to do in film and other narrative forms. I really wanted readers to be in the head of a character who’s living through these kinds of situations that readers might have seen on film, but have never had access to their thought processes and to how they’re understanding their surroundings. When we hear about poverty porn, one of the trope depictions of lower-income people is this kind of impetuous, rebellious type who holds a lot of disdain and spite toward anyone at a higher rung of the social or economic ladder, rather than a much more common and truer experience of shame and a sense of inadequacy that comes from feeling totally irrelevant when you’re stripped of the agency to participate in the economy in any real or legitimate sense. That is absolutely dehumanizing and it’s something I wanted to bring to the forefront of how Henry experienced his own little world and how he understood himself. Reading this, I felt like Henry, in addition to budgeting groceries, gas, and so on, is also budgeting his dreams, ambitions, and emotions—he has to keep these in check at all times. Is that something you also hoped to convey? Very much so. I don’t want to go into the chicken or the egg of assessing the way Henry processes his personal life versus his financial life in terms of budgeting and calculations, I don’t think that’s necessarily relevant. But I do think they’re totally inextricable when money is really the primary way we assess and ascribe worth and meaning in our culture. Internalizing that into how we conduct ourselves felt really essential. There's a real denial of vulnerability and intimacy that goes into organizing one’s personal interiority in that way. There seem to be two major emotional poles in this novel, one of which is shame, which we’ve already discussed, and the other is something like pride or dignity. Can you talk about Henry’s relationship to those two emotions? I think it’d be helpful to discuss them as two separate parts really briefly. Starting with dignity— it’s not a huge request for an individual in the richest nation on earth to have an expectation for and consider dignity a right. I don’t think that’s a tall order. And yet, because of Henry’s social location and circumstances, he’s denied that in almost every minute of his day. He has to stoop to such debasing labor—the labor isn’t necessarily debasing in of itself, but the exploitative nature of how little he can expect to yield from his hours and efforts is—let alone all the interactions he has where he’s constantly feeling inadequate. When it comes to pride, that really draws from the Filipino component of his identity. The love within a Filipino family goes without saying. You’ve got your loyalty to family, you respect them—that all goes without saying. However, a child really needs to earn a parent’s pride. That’s a huge motivator, but also a huge obstacle for Henry. You hint at Henry’s Filipino background throughout the novel, but it’s not made explicit until later. Why did you choose to withhold that information? Revealing a character’s race is a delicate task. The expectation is that non-white characters need to be labeled, whereas white characters can just be assumed by default. So I’m always looking for ways of acknowledging a character’s race without including that in the three qualifiers of like, “He was tall, handsome, and Black." It’s just a bit banal to do that in such a forthright manner. Just as I want to make my prose stylistically as sharp as possible, there’s also an element of how to most artfully divulge demographic factors of characters in a way that doesn’t just sound like the census. Why did you choose to chop up the narrative the way you did? When I first started this project, I didn’t think I had the chops to handle a novel, but I did want to write something where a character’s budget was the heading sections of a short story. I had originally conceived of this as a short story within a 24-hour period. That 24-hour arc was what I really focused on writing in the first draft. About 40 pages in, I realized: 1) this definitely has potential to be a novel, but 2) because I’ve established this particular framework [of monetary headings], if I do suddenly drop the [cash] figure to something that doesn’t make sense, the attentive reader is going to pick up on that. So it made sense to include fragmented flashbacks to explain how exactly Henry got into the situation we find him in in the 24-hour track. One thing splicing up the narrative accomplishes is painting Henry’s character in many different lights—there were times where he earned my sympathy and respect, and other times where I’m like, “Dude, why would you do that?!” What enabled you to complicate Henry’s character in all these ways? Understanding how desperate and volatile both the situation Henry was in and also how a person is going to respond to this immense pressure and panic in the 24-hour-track storyline, I thought it would’ve been a missed opportunity to not depict that component of his character in other settings where you see him struggling against his own recklessness as a teenager. His immature passion for Michelle as a teenager, the way he conflates infatuation with love, and obsession with addiction. I wanted to have a wide array of examples that are still within the limits of plausibility for his character, but that really show how variegated his emotional spectrum was, to begin with. Given the subject of this book, I’d be curious to know, and I’m sure our readers would too, how you’ve made it work financially as a writer. It’s been hard. Unless your parents are bankrolling you, you have to grind like hell. I didn’t decide to pursue writing until my mid-20s. It was always this dream I had, but I had to feed myself. I went to school in Minnesota and graduated in 2011 at the peak of the financial crisis. I couldn’t find a day job, so I was still working as a landscaper, which I had been doing since I was 16. It was hard. All I wanted was a job with air conditioning, and I couldn’t get that with my college degree. I moved to Spain, was an English teacher out there for five years. I made very little, but learned how to budget and take care of myself. That’s when I was like: you know what, I’m gonna take the plunge. Lived off of boiled eggs and bananas through grad school and, once I graduated, it took about four months to find a nine-to-five job at a big company. Quitting that isn’t happening anytime soon, so I dedicate my weekends to fiction.
Talking to the author of Crying in H Mart about trusting your memory, how writing a book is different from writing a song, and art as an archive.
In 2014, as her mother was dying, Michelle Zauner didn’t make any art. This was unusual; as a kid, Zauner wrote fiction—”just little stories”—and learned to play music. She frequented open mic nights in Eugene, Oregon, where she grew up, and called her first solo project Little Girl, Big Spoon. After college, she fronted Little Big League, a low-fi emo rock band from Philly; Zauner sang about suburban malaise, disappointing relationships, and unfulfilling sex in a deceptively melodic, plaintive voice that she sometimes worked into a hoarse scream. She had just begun writing songs for a new solo project called Japanese Breakfast when she learned of her mother’s diagnosis, late stage intestinal cancer, in 2013. Crying in H Mart (Knopf), Zauner’s memoir about the months she spent caring for her mother before her death, is a confident exploration of the nuances of grief and a forthcoming account of an often graceless mother-daughter relationship. Zauner, who is Korean, recounts a fairly untroubled childhood: she tagged along with her mother on trips to Seoul to visit family; to the markets where they searched for their favorite Korean snacks and fare; to restaurants where they attempted to out-eat each other. Zauner’s songwriting skills prove impressively adaptable to memoir; the most pleasing sentences in the book are her heady and layered descriptions of these meals. Reading them might have been as gratifying as an actual meal, if the subsequent hunger wasn’t also a reminder of how bodiless mere words can be; a sentence, unfortunately, is not sundubu-jjigae. When Zauner reached adolescence, an ineffable gulf opened between her and her mother. Her mother became controlling; Zauner began acting out. A series of increasingly painful confrontations resulted in Zauner moving out of the house. Later, she struggled to fulfill the role of caretaker to her ailing mother, how to sit with her grief and its disturbances. She toured with her band, planned a last-ditch trip to Seoul, and rushed a wedding to her husband Peter, experiences she now views as attempts to postpone dealing with her mother’s certain passing. Recounting this, Zauner affords herself no mercy; she writes honestly of her guilt, the selfishness of grief. After her mother’s death, Zauner forged ahead with music. She recorded two albums as Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp (2016) and Soft Sounds from Another Planet, both incisively personal works that include meditations on grief, loss, and the arbitrary but absolute nature of death. Japanese Breakfast’s third album, Jubilee, comes out this week. Aptly titled, Jubilee is a stark contrast to the band’s earlier works, and underscores Zauner's formidable range as a songwriter and musician. With Crying in H Mart, she proves she’s an assured artist who has accomplished a new form. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Naomi Huffman: How was the process of writing your memoir different from writing songs for an album? Michelle Zauner: Two things were discipline and regimen. I told myself, it’s going to be crap. It’s going to be crap for a while. I decided I was going to write a thousand words every day. I feel like that’s an act of forgiveness in itself—like, it’s a thousand words every day, how could it possibly be good? It’s going to be complete, nonsensical garbage, and that’s OK. Up until I turned in the final draft, I was truly devastated. I’d lost perspective; I felt as if I’d had this vision of myself, and I was three steps below the intellectual I want to be. I kept saying to myself, This is just who you are right now. This is an archive of your skill set at this moment. This is the best you can do right now. You spent five fucking years on this and you need to let it go. There’s a sad, cold, hard look you have to take of yourself as an artist—this is just who you are right now. You’re gonna get better. Even though I’d never written a book, I had completed other larger creative projects. You know, I don’t love the first Little Big League record. I think I’m a much better singer, much better composer, and much better producer now than I was in my early twenties. I was twenty, twenty-one years old. But I’m still proud of what I made, and ultimately I’m not embarrassed by it. Art is just an archive of who you are at that time in your life. How does the experience of releasing a book differ from that of an album or a song? Do you have the same anxieties? With songs, it’s so vague! [Laughs] There’s so much to hide behind. People can interpret things in so many different ways, and it’s wild what people think some of my songs are about. I have this song called “Essentially” and there’s a line, “Love me asexually, love me like someone else’s wife.” And someone interpreted it as like, me wanting to have an affair, which is clearly not what that line is about at all. So I feel like, [with my music], I can’t get hurt, in a way, because there are so many different ways to interpret a song. Whereas there’s nothing to hide behind in this book. If people misunderstand you, it’s your own fault. I was really nervous about this book coming out in a way that I’ve never felt about a record. It’s very naked. It’s me as a person, whereas in music, there’s a more fictional version of me that I’m presenting. But it’s also been really fulfilling in a way I never anticipated. The feedback I’ve received has been really beautiful and moving, in a way that I’ve gotten a taste of with music, but it’s deeper. In the book, you describe feeling disgusted at your own impulse to write about your mother, to transform your grief and her suffering into a project. Having now completed the book, and seeing it celebrated, do you still feel some disgust? I wanted to include that moment because it was a real, striking thought that I had. It was also a moment of taking a really critical look at myself. It’s honestly very hard to showcase your own flaws in memoir. It’s so important, and it’s so unfair not to do that to yourself when you’re doing it to other people in your life. I knew that these moments were something I had to find and expose—you know, what things was I at fault for? Because I was writing about things at fault in my father, my mother’s friends. It’s very hard! [Laughs] I never want to admit that I was wrong. I think I was disgusted with myself because we were in the middle of it. You need to just be there. You need to not make it easier on yourself by making it into a project. I didn’t write or make any art for like nine months that year. It was a really foreign thing for me because that was all I knew, that was the only thing that gave me a sense of meaning and purpose. But in that place, in that moment, I was like, this is not the time for anything. You don’t get to have anything right now. It was what I envied my mother’s friend Kay for so much. She completely gave up all sense of self to be a subservient caretaker. And I really struggled to do that, to be honest, and I had a lot of shame and guilt and regret about that. I don’t feel guilty about that now; most of my guilt was just that I knew I needed to spend every waking moment being there for my mom and not protecting myself with a project. How do you trust your own memory? That’s a good question. I think you have to accept that it’s never completely reliable. With any work, any document, memoir especially, it’s subjective. It’s going to be misremembered. I think you just have to try to present yourself critically, and the other people around you as generously as possible. A lot of that happens in revision. Many songs on Japanese Breakfast’s previous albums deal with pain and grief, and Crying in H Mart is about learning from tremendous loss and suffering. But so much of Jubilee is about expressing and finding joy. Listening to it is relieving. Do you find it easier to make art from suffering? What was it like to write songs about joy? I don’t think it’s easier to write about pain, but it grants a kind of self-seriousness, like this is a valid topic to write about, and I think I felt I needed that validation when I was younger. I felt I needed to prove myself, to prove I had endured enough to be a serious artist, and I don’t feel that way anymore. I think it’s a natural impulse [to write about pain], it’s a salve to help temper it. Pain is a thing you get used to confiding about and navigating in art. It’s something I’ve done since I was a teenager writing about heartbreak and rejection. One of my favorite songs off the record is “Kokomo, IN,” because there’s just no pain there at all. It is pure sweetness, and I loved it. It was easy. It was fun. It’s my favorite song on the album. Even writing it, there was no anguish. It came together very easily. It was a sweet story, and I didn’t think it needed any agony. I feel like I can do whatever I want now. Are there other writers who tackle grief that you look to as guideposts? There’s a type of grief in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping—it happens in so many ways. Especially when you examine the siblings’ grief and how it impacts them. It makes me think of my father and I, how our grief affected us in such very different ways. There was this other type of grief that happened when we began separating from one another. Robinson explores grief in such nuanced and devastating ways. I also returned to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild—I think because we have the same editor. And there are similarities [between our books], too. She’s this woman who seeks out an alternative form of therapy to help her through her mother’s death. I think you could write that book off as a Reese Witherspoon movie or whatever, but parts of that book are incredible—I mean, when she eats her mother’s ashes? That scene will haunt me forever. It’s really gross and intense, and so real. I also really loved Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom. She’s Korean, and it’s told from lots of different perspectives, and again there’s a kind of nuanced grieving that isn’t necessarily about loss. Especially toward the end of her life, your relationship with your mother seems to change to become a true friendship. Was it important to you to portray it that way? That was a heartbreaking part of that experience. I think it’s pretty common for adolescents to have pretty tumultuous relationships with their parents and then be able to return to them as adults as friends, or a type of friend. It was unfortunate that my relationship with my mother was turning a corner and I could see that a lot of the things I’d hated her for I was able to actually appreciate in this new way, with some distance. And I think she was able to appreciate me in this new way with some distance. I think our relationship would have been really wonderful. I so wish that my mom could be around for my thirties. It was important to me to show [her death] was so devastating in part because our relationship was getting to a beautiful new chapter. There’s a line in the book where she says, “I’ve never met someone like you,” and I felt like that was a real turning point for us. Maybe she was like, OK, maybe you’re not going to grow out of this thing that I was trying to protect you from, maybe this is something I should be supportive of and let you have. At the same time, there was a part of me that was like, “Maybe you were right about 95 per cent of the things you warned me about.” [Laughs] Now that I’m older, I can see why she was the way she was in a way that I just couldn’t when I was younger. You’ve also written recently, for Harper’s Bazaar, about your relationship with your father. Your writing about your mother bears a sense of tribute, a spirit of eulogizing. How were the stakes different writing about your dad, who is still living? There’s less time to understand exactly how I feel. You know, my mom died almost seven years ago, and I’ve had more time away from that experience—and have spent more actual time writing about it. My estranged relationship with my dad is pretty new. It’s harder for me to approach it with the compassion with which I approach writing about my mom. But I also think it’s less straightforward. [With Crying in H Mart], there’s not much to argue about with actual grief. I don’t fear people misunderstanding the book. Making the decision to be estranged from my father is more up for debate. People have more of an opinion about it, and that makes it scarier. It’s complicated. I’m still very emotional about it, more sensitive about it, weirdly. Someone wrote a think piece about [my essay in Harper’s Bazaar] that talked about how I wasn’t being fair to my father, and it freaked me out. You know, the New York Times reached out to him [for a piece about the memoir]. He’s supposedly read the book—I don’t think he actually did—but they got a quote from him, and I was really upset. I felt like I had been so generous in what I had been willing to share in both the interview and in the book. I had created a boundary they still felt they needed to cross. So, something I had been really excited about became this shameful, devastating thing. Since that happened, I think I’ve realized I’m not ready, or I need to become a stronger person, or I need some more distance from it. I feel a lot of guilt still, which I was able to let go of with my mother. Over time, maybe I’ll have a better understanding of it. I recently did another interview with a writer who told me she wrote about things she was scared of, that writing was a way of unscaring herself, facing her fears. Do you find that to be useful? I do. I think that’s why I wrote that Harper’s Bazaar piece. Knopf and my agent were both like, Are you sure you want to come out with this right before your book comes out? My thought process was that—it really scares me. I was really scared of putting it out in the world. But it was also exciting, because I thought that was why it could be really good. I’d never seen someone talk about this, and I think a lot of people probably go through it. This girl I know wrote to me this really long story about her father, who, after her mother passed away, did a very similar thing, and it really put a strain on their relationship. Even after I had that horrible think piece written about how unfair I was [to my dad], and which I felt so misunderstood and fucked up about, getting that message made it so worth it, knowing that someone else was so fucking lonely and confused about this experience and got some comfort from it. I think that’s what drew me to writing this book in the first place. I was able to purge a lot of feelings. It was less about fear, maybe, and just that I was fucking confused. It was a whirlwind of stuff that had happened in a six-month period of time and I needed to write it down to make sense of it. There was a real feeling of, like, I need everyone to know what I went through. I felt like no one could see or know what I had went through unless I put it down in this particular way. That, more than fear, was what propelled me—what “propelled” me? [Laughs]—what was the force behind this book. What are you writing now? I don’t want to do anything for a while. Between the album and the book and the soundtrack I’m putting out later this year—it’s been such a whirlwind of press. I’m getting ready for tour, and lots of stupid livestream videos, and I’m trying to just not have a project for a while. I’d like to write some shorter, fluffier stuff—something that’s not like, unpacking trauma. My UK press person was like, we’re trying to pitch some stuff, do you have any ideas? I pitched an idea about a short essay about my relationship with chess. Like everyone, during the pandemic I watched The Queen’s Gambit, but when I was younger, from fourth to seventh grade, I was a big chess player. I went to clubs, I like, saw a Russian tutor, I went to tournaments and stuff. I think a lot of people go through this experience of like, they’re naturally gifted at something but they’re not exceptional. Confronting that early on in your life—like, when you get to that ten percent of the top people [in a field], it’s impossible. My father- in-law was almost a professional soccer player and didn’t quite make it. It’s like the gymnast who’s extremely talented but then suffers an injury or something. Those types of first loves, I think of them as little deaths in our lives, and I’m curious how they impact people, where they live inside of us. I’m also interested in having something in my life that is just pure hobby, because everything I’ve done has become, weirdly, my job in some way. So I’ve started playing online chess and really enjoying it. But they didn’t want it! They were like, Can you write about your estranged father again? [Laughs] I don’t want to! I want to write about my Russian chess tutor. I feel like I’ve unpacked enough trauma for a lifetime. Now I can write something a little gentler and cuter. [Laughs]
The author of Let the Record Show on AIDS activism, gossip, and collective memory.
Here’s what I would have done in pre-COVID times: I’d have left my apartment in Brooklyn and biked over the Manhattan Bridge, down Allen Street, past the Bluestockings book store, until I reached Sarah Schulman’s East Village apartment. The building is an old six-floor walkup, and it’s made up of a mix of old-timers who have been there for decades and inexplicably well-to-do twenty-somethings. Sarah would leave the door slightly ajar for me to enter and, after a warm hiiiiii come in, she’d remind me to take off my shoes. But today we talk on the phone. We’re talking about her new book, Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act Up New York, 1987-1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Let the Record Show is the culmination of nearly forty years of activism, journalism, nonfiction writing, fiction writing, filmmaking, and oral history work. The book synthesizes 188 interviews that Schulman has collected along with Jim Hubbard and James Wentzy over the past twenty years in the ACT UP Oral History Project. In contrast to historical accounts that privilege a unified, authoritative narrative, Schulman approaches her political history with a novelist’s understanding of the complexities of character, action, and consequence. As much as possible, she sets the scene for ACT UP members to describe their participation in their own words. But neither is she a distanced, objective observer: she was a participant-witness, and her own experiences—particularly as a reproductive rights activist and a girl reporter—shape her analysis of ACT UP’s political history and significance. At its height, ACT UP NY drew in 500-700 people to the Monday night meetings, and there were dozens of affinity groups working simultaneously on a wide range of projects, campaigns, and actions: making needle exchange legal in New York City, establishing housing for people with AIDS, ending insurance exclusion for people with AIDS, and changing the CDC’s definition so that women could get access to benefits and drug trials, to name just a few. Let the Record Show preserves the spirit of ACT UP’s single statement of unity and purpose: “The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals, united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” By and large, her work shows, this description was true. Sarah Schulman has been described as one of the most “underrated” writers in the US and (ironically) as “the lesbian Susan Sontag.” She’s always been out in her work and has always featured queer—especially lesbian—protagonists. Forty years into her career, though, we may be having a long overdue “Schulmanaissance,” as Emily Gould puts it. Having published twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, she is one of our most formidable contemporary intellectuals and an essential recorder of queer and activist histories. I first met Sarah in a discussion about her book Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. The conversation challenged me intellectually and politically. As our conversations continued, I came to recognize this feeling of gratifying challenge as part of the Schulman-effect. Sarah is a talking encyclopedia of queer and New York history. Our conversation spins through many of the people and events that propel the book. Because I am always running to catch up to ideas she has been formulating for decades, I never leave our conversations in the same place I started. To talk with her from across a queer generational divide is to receive something simple but transformative: information and responsibility. Kelly Roberts: You aim to record ACT UP members in their own words. The book is organized around people and experiences, not strict chronology. How did you arrive at this structure? Sarah Schulman: The way that I write is that the discovery is in the writing, so I don’t usually know things before. And I’ve written a lot of formally inventive novels, and I’ve been looking at experimental film for thirty-something years. The first realization came when Jim [Hubbard] did the film [United in Anger], and we went to funders. They said, to do a documentary film, you need to take five or six individuals and take them on a journey. And Jim said, “no, we can’t do that, because that’s not what happened.” So I already knew from the beginning that it was going to be the history of the group. Then I realized I couldn’t tell it chronologically because it wouldn’t be accurate. So much happened simultaneously and overlapped, and that is what made it work. Many ACT UP members had died before you started the interview project. How did this absence influence your approach to the book? Not only had many people died, but every woman with HIV had died, except for one. So what I did was, I recreated what I call “a landscape of disappearance and apparition,” which are these remembrances of people who died. But they’re not uniform. I wanted the form of the book to reveal and express some of the emotional experience of being in ACT UP. That to me is the point of formal invention. It expresses experience instead of describing it. Some of the remembrances are quite long and detailed and some are very brief. And that’s how it was in ACT UP—somebody might die who you knew well, and somebody might die who you talked to once. Why did you approach this political history at the level of character? To just say that the group did something doesn’t explain what happened—you have to say what the people did and how they understand it. So there’s two parts: what they say they did and how they understand what they say they did. Oral history is its own source. It’s not a proof of anything except what people said. But there’s a collective energy to that. Previous histories have focused on like five people; I mention 140. I tried to say even just a few words about who they were before their experiences in ACT UP, because then you find out quite a bit. People come from some very interesting, different places, and that, I felt, was significant. If history takes place in personal experience and interpersonal relationships, how did you navigate the line between gossip and history? Well, what’s the difference? Good question. I think we’re used to histories that don’t take relationships into account, and those histories are incomplete. This is not the first popular history. But because of the gay aspect, there’s a dishiness to everything, there’s a camp quality or aesthetic. And relationships are verrrrry important. There’s a book, Personal Politics by Sara Evans, about how the feminist movement came out of the civil rights movement. I read it when it first came out, and it put relationships in the forefront as motive for political insight. But most histories don’t do that. What did you think were some of the difficult histories here? The theft of ACT UP money, dishonesty about status, and the working relationship between Gay Youth and NAMBLA [North American Man Boy Love Association]—those come to mind. I’ve already done like fifteen interviews. No one has mentioned [those things]. Well, maybe once. But it shows overall that this was not respectability politics at all. It was extremely messy. It was very human. I mean it’s about people dying. It was a very vulnerable, bodily event occurring within a highly sexualized and abandoned community. There’s a lot of humanity, and I’m just showing it. There’s a desire to punish and repress contradiction and pain and all of that. I guess that’s part of what’s called respectability politics, and I think it’s destructive. Did coming back to this book after writing Conflict Is Not Abuse help to clarify the shape the book needed to take? I think it’s the other way around. People in ACT UP were doing the right thing; the government was doing the wrong thing. When ACT UP tried to make the government do the right thing, we would get arrested. So that’s the structure of Conflict is Not Abuse: that when you resist something that is unjust, then you become stigmatized and punished. So that was a lived experience. At one point in the book, Garance Franke-Ruta says that conflicts turned inward. You have this section of archived notes from the “Tell It To ACT UP” newsletter—a place where people shared opinions and criticism outside of the regular meeting space. You called it Twitter before Twitter. Did these alternative lines of communication and inward reflections lead to productive conversations? Well, I think what Garance says is that she thinks we all went crazy. And I would agree with that. It depends. I mean some of them are anonymous. But I think the people who really could express themselves clearly on the floor did not use TITA. It was the place for people to speak who didn’t speak on the floor. “Tell It To ACT UP,” you know, what I think is the most interesting thing about that section is that the things are all written by people who are not in the book. It’s a whole new group of people. Who are these people? Many of these people I don’t even know who they are. So it’s like it was a way for people who were not leaders to express themselves. There’s always a movement between the daily grind of organizing and a historical spark that allows a movement to take off. What allowed ACT UP to gain momentum in these years? The zeitgeist is a big factor. AIDS is identified in 1981. In the first five years, 40,000 people die. The government does nothing. The gay community is abandoned by familial homophobia. People are totally in chaos. Then there’s the Bowers v. Hardwick decision where the Supreme Court upholds the sodomy law. So you have this community that needs help from the government, and they’re being told that anal sex is still illegal. There are demonstrations, and you have a political airing of a certain anger in the midst of all of this death and state oppression. There’s the action by the Lavender Hill Mob, where Marty Robinson and Michael Petrelis dress up in concentration camp uniforms and scream at the CDC. Then Larry Kramer gives a very good speech. The SILENCE=DEATH poster had gone up a few weeks before. Then people are like, OK, let’s do it. The longer history is that some people who came to ACT UP had been in previous political movements. Movements are not discrete. Gay movements are usually understood as coming from nowhere, because gay people in previous movements were usually in the closet. But nevertheless, gay people come from these previous movements. People came from student movements in Latin America, from Black movements, from sectarian Leftist movements, the reproductive rights movement, the women’s peace movement. Those people came in with very specific skills that really influenced and informed the structure of the organization. How did cultural and social scenes around ACT UP play a role in your work? In the 1980s, every part of the apparatus of power is white and male: the art world, the media, the government, the private sector. If you look back at the art element of ACT UP, if you look only at galleries, you only get white males. But if you look at things like nightlife or performance art in Asian gay clubs, then you get people of color and women. Those milieus were stratified. The Clit Club and Meat, which was the men’s night of Clit Club that was held in the same space, were both run by people of color who were in ACT UP, and they became extensions of ACT UP in a sense. In many ways this is a how-to book: how to do recon at the stock exchange, how to xerox fake IDs, how get the right screws to unhinge the Statue of Liberty for a banner drop. What are some of the most important practical organizing lessons here? The most important lessons are: don’t use consensus—have radical democracy, big-tent politics, and simultaneity of response; direct action, not social services; theory emerges from the action, not before; and you have to create your own solutions to problems instead of being in an infantilized relationship to power. Women and people of color: do not waste your time trying to have consciousness raising for white people and men—just marshal their resources to get your projects accomplished. What have you seen that’s been effective recently and why? I don’t want to answer it that way. Let me say what resonates now, what’s interesting. In ACT UP, there were 148 chapters, but they were not coordinated. You could be in ACT UP, and you could really do what you needed to do. You didn’t need permission. It wasn’t like a political party. That’s sort of what’s going on now with the anti-police violence movement. Each city, each community, is having very a localized response to police violence, is producing its own local leaders. The media is not covering those local leaders, and they’re not covering the local strategies and demands. But they’re different from place to place and milieu to milieu. And that’s the right way to do it. In Gentrification of the Mind, you said that you predicted the big era of gentrification would come to an end, that we’d be able to historicize it. Right, because of the crash, 2008, yeah. I was completely wrong. Right. Where do you see the era of gentrification now? Do you think that with a growing emphasis on local actions and multi-issue politics, more people are beginning to imagine a political future on different terms? Well, gentrification is very complicated right now, because, in New York City, for example, there’s a lot of empty real estate. But because the prices won’t come down, it can’t be accessed. So, we have empty storefronts, empty offices, empty apartments all over the city that nobody can afford. So that’s where government needs to step in. It’s not like there’s no housing stock. I don’t know. I don’t know what the post-COVID thing is. But looking at the New York mayoral election I think is a very good barometer. The outcome will tell you where we’re going. You follow the contradictions of an Insider/Outsider strategy, where some people get inside and have conversations with people with power while other people exert pressure from outside. Well, sometimes people who are inside are also outside in the streets screaming and getting arrested too. But because of the demographic of power at the time, the only people that people in power could identify with were people from their own class, race, and gender. So those are the people who were able to communicate with each other, but the thing that gave them legitimacy was the power of the outside. Jim Eigo describes this very well. I juxtapose three campaigns. I show T&D [the Treatment and Data Committee] going into meetings with pharma, sitting at the table. Then I show the women’s campaign that couldn’t get a meeting for two years. Then I show the drug campaign, which was total chaos—people stealing, people OD-ing, everything. I raise the question, if the rest of us were the ones who went inside, would we have gotten anywhere? I think that’s a totally legitimate question. Tell me more about experimental trial 076 for pregnant women with HIV, to track mother to infant transmission. There are a lot of moving parts here about race, gender, and consent, and it sparked debate about strategy and values. There’s a lot of things going on there. One is that the population involved was mostly poor women of color who were HIV positive and who were pregnant. Some didn’t find out they were HIV positive until they were pregnant, and many felt guilty. That is a force that makes people agree to be in a trial that could save their child from AIDS, but it could make it impossible for the woman to take a new class of drugs. To be a good mother, you sacrificed your life for your child, right? But is that consent? This goes back to the early reporting I did on pediatric AIDS, where infants born HIV positive, who were mostly people of color and poor, were put in placebo trials. I thought that both of these things were wrong, because I had been in the reproductive rights movement. I had been in the anti-sterilization movement, where women—this same group of women—in previous generations were sterilized against their will. The issue of poor women of color having real consent was something that everyone who had been in the reproductive rights movement was very sensitive to. And then there’s this other issue of women as “vectors of infection,” which we had already seen with sex workers. Women were seen as “vectors of infection” to men or children, not as people with AIDS deserving of treatment. There’s also the fact that those women were not getting any healthcare except by being in a trial. So there’s that, which is completely real. There’s no such thing as good medicine in the United States, so you’re in situations that are absurd. Sharon Tramutola says that for some people in ACT UP, government neglect was new, while other people always “knew the system stunk.” Ray Navarro was also critical of the “drugs into bodies” slogan because it didn’t take into account historical oppression. How did the debates about treatment and access anticipate the way the HIV/AIDS crisis looks in the present? Early people, like Vito Russo—who didn’t have health insurance—they were more radical. They came from gay liberation, and they had a vision of healthcare for all. “Drugs into bodies” came with the second iteration. They had access, they had insurance, they had good doctors. Moisés Agosto-Rosario discusses this, Sharon Tramutola discusses this, Rick Loftus discusses this. But it’s hard to say. ACT UP did the best they could, and they accomplished an amazing amount of things. But they couldn’t overcome capitalism, that’s really the punchline. In your conclusion, you share your own difficulties with gender biases in healthcare and consider the legacy of the campaign to change the CDC’s definition of AIDS to include women. What is the significance of that campaign? That in a way is ACT UP’s most far-reaching success, because today any woman in the world with HIV who takes a drug, is taking something that was tested on women. After the Thalidomide scandal of the 1960s, pharmaceutical companies were sued, and women were banned from experimental trials. It may not be to the extent that we wish, and there are still different problems of viral suppression in woman and men, but that change now affects every HIV-positive woman in the world. But as Terry McGovern points out, in timelines of AIDS history, they show Rock Hudson, but they don’t show the CDC definition change. You conclude with “the enduring relationship of AIDS,” keeping the physical, emotional, and political aftermaths of this moment tied together. What narratives were you working against? I was following César Carrasco. He’s talking about the myth of resilience: just because people are alive doesn’t mean they survived. There’s the loneliness of that generation, and many people of that generation have had drug problems, and many are depressed. He also talks about the Latino Caucus, he names like twenty-five people. And he’s like, why couldn’t you ever see us? We were there! And I end up in this phlebotomy lab with this nurse who’s my age, and she’s also a veteran of AIDS, and there we are. Or my acupuncturist. You know, we’re these old people, and we’re these veterans of AIDS, and we have private conversations about what we experienced. And that’s where it ended, because that’s where it is. This is a 700-page book with no unnecessary page. There’s much more to discuss. What was an under-represented or under-theorized ACT UP action or campaign that excited you when you were writing the book? The solidarity with Haitians is so important, and that overlaps with housing. That’s incredible. The fact that gentrifiers became housing activists because they were personally affected by AIDS—that’s amazing. I love Santa has HIV, the action at Macy’s by Action Tours. I mean who has heard of Action Tours? But they did all these crazy actions, with Jamie Leo dressing up as a priest, and the police thinking he actually is a priest, and he’s screaming. All of that, I love all of that stuff, and I’m so happy to be able to show it. And Karin Timour and her amazing insurance campaign—hundreds of thousands of people have gotten insurance because of this woman that no one’s ever heard of! What was important for you in writing this work, and what has surprised you in its reception? I don’t know. I’ve been writing about this, doing this, my whole life. I started writing about AIDS in 1982, when I was 24. Now I’m 62. This is an ongoing part of it all. The most annoying thing that people have said is “you foreground women and people of color.” That is completely false. I simply say what they did and what white men did. That’s it. I would say that’s the predominant misreading. The thing with me is, I’m a novelist, so my nonfiction books work cumulatively. There are tropes and arguments that build as you read. I actually work with the form of nonfiction. There was a book called Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, and it was an analysis of the strategies of the civil rights movement. I read it when it came out, and it really influenced me a lot. There are certain books like The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Parting the Waters, there are these histories that can only be written by people who have some kind of proximity to the events, and otherwise it gets lost. And I hope that this is a book like that.