An Interview With Edwidge Danticat

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As a writer, Edwidge Danticat is revered for her elegant prose and her moving depictions of Haiti and the Haitian diasporic experience. She has written more than a dozen books, including her debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, which was an Oprah Book Club selection, and the memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2009, she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Danticat has a BA from Barnard College, an MFA from Brown University, and holds honorary degrees from Brooklyn College, Smith College, Yale University, and the University of the West Indies. She has taught creative writing at NYU and the University of Miami while continuing, throughout her career, to be a strong advocate for Haitians, immigrants, and women of color.

In March 2018, Danticat was the Robert L. Hess Scholar-in-Residence at Brooklyn College. In this capacity, she met with students to discuss politics, immigration, race, ethnicity, and gender. Some highlights from her residency include her powerful memorial lecture, A Right to Be Here: Race, Immigration, and My Third Culture Kids [watch here], and her participation in a panel with fellow writer, Madeleine Thien. Even with her full schedule of events, Danticat was generous enough to find time for an interview with The Brooklyn Review. Below, she answers our questions about craft in the context of her 1996 story collection, Krik? Krak!; her most recent novel, Claire of the Sea Light; and her stories in progress.

 

Krik? Krak! opens with “Children of the Sea,” which is told through the perspectives of a man on a boat (bound for Miami) and a woman in Haiti. What inspired this story?

I started writing “Children of the Sea” when I was an MFA student at Brown University. I attended a Haitian church in Providence, Rhode Island that became a second family to me, and I knew some Haitian people on campus as well. Somehow, word got around both at church and on campus that there were some new Haitian families coming into the community in Providence. They had arrived by boat in Miami after a military coup against the democratically elected president, President Aristide, then were relocated to Providence by the organization, Catholic Services. A few of us were asked if we could help these families adjust by spending time with them and helping them get a start in the community. I spent some time with a family with one daughter, and also with a mother and her son. The father had died during their trip. From my conversations with them, I learned a lot of things that ended up inspiring “Children of the Sea.”

I was always interested in these journeys and in what it is physically like to be at sea for days, not even knowing where you are going. For me, there is a historical resonance in that with the Middle Passage, with how our ancestors got to this part of the world in the first place: on ships and on a terrible journey.

How did you decide on the epistolary form?

Along with plot, I am always thinking about structure. Sometimes the story guides you to the best structure for its telling. Using letters seemed like the best way to tell this story. When writing these letters, the characters are selecting what they want to tell. In this case, the woman is writing in a way that would not endanger her or her family if her letters were found by the military authorities who took over the country, and the man is writing with the urgency of someone who could die at any minute while at sea.

Can you speak to the similarities and differences in the language used by the two lovers?

When people are young and in love, it’s so overdramatic, especially if there is some obstacle to that love. (Cue Romeo and Juliet.) They’re very passionate and their emotions are heightened anyway. In addition to all of this, these characters are in a very dangerous political situation. It was important for me to differentiate their voices in some way, beyond just putting their names at the top of the sections, like dialogue in a play. The man on the boat doesn’t have as much time as the woman does, so he writes more urgently, and he tells her quite bluntly what is happening to him. These might possibly be his final words, so he’s not protecting her from the danger he is facing. I wanted to convey the difficulty of being in danger while knowing that the person you love most in the world is also in danger and desperately wanting to say something to them that you can’t. Both characters feel this, but for the man, the danger is more imminent.

What was your research process like for “Children of the Sea”?

I suppose I was doing research without thinking too much about research. With the families that I came into contact with in Providence, I would sometimes hear them testify at church services about their experiences. Sometimes I would just ask questions, if I felt it wouldn’t upset them. I have heard people tell their stories on the radio, to immigration lawyers. I have been on congressional delegations to detention centers where people tell their stories. So it’s research without necessarily thinking you’re doing research. At that time, there were Haitians who were denied entry into the United States and could not be returned to Haiti, and Haitians who were HIV positive and were detained in Guantanamo, Cuba—so these stories were public record. It was very important to me though that the story [“Children of the Sea”] ring true, so I included a lot of the actual details I learned.

I’m curious about your thoughts on what makes a story a story. How might the standard notion—that a story requires ‘the possibility of change’—apply in the case of something shorter like “Night Women” from Krik? Krak! ?

Today one might think of “Night Women” as more of a vignette than a short story, a sort of parallel tale to “New York Day Women.” I wrote “Night Women” when I was still in college. Back then, I was very interested in theatre and was reading a lot of French surrealists. I also come from an oral story telling tradition; that is, I was told a lot of stories as a child and I saw how orality—tone, pitch—can make a story different each time. So I didn’t put these sorts of limitations on myself. In the shortest vignettes or the longest narratives, a story takes us on a journey. I would say what makes a story work is that no matter what the length of the story, the character—or some other element—is in a slightly different place at the end of the story then at the beginning. That being said, it’s your story, do what you want or what you feel the story needs or demands. Invent new forms, if you must. That’s very exciting too.

“Night Women” came to me in one sitting and was meant to be like a monologue. I could see someone performing it in a dark theatre with props around them. I felt it could work in different spaces, but also I just felt such liberty in what a story could be, that I thought surely it was a story. All of this is hindsight, of course. In the moment, I was just writing what was on my mind. But there is movement from beginning to end; it’s night, it’s day; and the underlying feeling that carries it through—and carries through it—is longing.  In much longer pieces, it can be harder to carry a singular, strong emotion all the way through. Some of the stories I am working on now are ones I wrote a while ago and have been returning to over the years, and they are much  longer and have more reach and more depth. Still, there is something to be said for a story that gets written in one sitting, as if out of breath, a story you write quickly because you absolutely must.

Can you share when your next collection will be published?

It is scheduled for summer 2019.

I’m in that stage of editing when you think you’re done, but then something else occurs to you, and you want to add it—and luckily you still can! When I was younger, I was a more impatient writer. I just wanted to write fast and finish quick. I remember hearing writers say, “I started this story ten years ago,” and would think “No! [Laughs.] That’s not possible!” But I have stories like that now too, stories that have taken ten years to fully make sense. Twenty-five years after Krik? Krak!, I appreciate having the time and the distance that comes with telling a story in that way as well. I think it happens as you get older. You put things down, you pick them up again, and if you’re lucky they age well.

Are there stories from the Krik? Krak! era that you are still revisiting?

No, no. That book is closed. The earliest story in this forthcoming collection is from 2006.

Because the stories in the new book come from different periods, the styles and subjects vary. This time, I was determined to write something that could not in any way be mistaken for a novel [Laughs]. These are clearly stories. Still, they have unity of themes: rites, rituals, notions and ideas that carry throughout most, if not all, the stories.

Ville Rose is the fictional setting of both Krik? Krak! and Claire of the Sea Light.  Did you choose to return to Ville Rose because of the town itself? Have you considered using your fictional town as Gabriel García Márquez uses his [Macondo]—as a sort of repository of characters that can be used to populate other stories?

For Claire, I needed a coastal town. I already had Ville Rose from Krik? Krak!, and I could expand on its description. I haven’t done what Márquez did: pulling characters from one work and put them into another. But now that the town exists in my imagination, it will always be an ancestral home for my characters. In the new collection—though no stories are set in Ville Rose—there are characters who are from the town and remember it and talk about it.

Why use the fictional town?

In response to my first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory, some people argued that I described Haiti inaccurately—because if you say ‘Haiti’ to twenty Haitians, it means something different to each of them. With Ville Rose, I avoid that problem. And I can blend elements from actual places with several creations of my own. A fictional town can be its own singular thing—something specifically yours—and still feel like a place that people know.

Even though Ville Rose feels specific to Haiti, for me—a reader from elsewhere in the Caribbean—it easily feels like home, whereas that feeling might come harder with an actual Haitian town.

Yes, exactly. It’s a town of the imagination. From what I’ve seen of the Caribbean, there are physical similarities, but also nuances. The familiarity of the physical space, together with the connection to the characters—who can also feel very familiar if you develop an emotional attachment to them—can make you see a story, and its nuances, as your own.

As readers we are always bringing our own mental images into a story. For example, Esmerelda Santiago’s writing about eating guavas made me think: “That’s how my grandmother did it!” And it may seem strange, but I remember reading a lot of Amy Tan and thinking, “Oh my God, that’s my mother!” [Laughs.]

In your Robert L. Hess memorial lecture, you mentioned how you brought your daughters to the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 2015 to assist refugees, and how you wanted to tell them “Those bodies [the refugees’] could have been ours; in fact, they are ours.”  For me, that bridging of self and other seems crucial to the work of fiction, particularly when it comes to reading. But what about in the act of writing? In your work, would you ever feel comfortable inhabiting the body of someone with a life that is vastly different from your own—someone, perhaps, from an unfamiliar country?

That one is tough. First because where I come from, there are so many stories left to tell. But also, I would certainly be more intimidated to try, for example, to write about someone from Iraq. Actually, I was recently asked by someone to write a ballet set in the Amazon, and I said to this person that, as conscious as I think I am, I worry that I would inevitably find myself with the inability to find nuance, to just revisit clichés. It would’ve been really cool to write a ballet. But I would’ve probably just read books and articles and found some sort of consensus among them to use. To get beyond the tropes that people already know about a place, I’d have to go beyond book research; I feel I’d have to go there, immerse myself in the culture, and learn the language. And even at that point, if I don’t think I can understand an experience well enough to say something absolutely new about it, then it doesn’t feel like my story to tell.

Of course, I can write about being a stranger in a strange land. It’s a common theme in literature, and it works sometimes, because built into that perspective are the weaknesses of looking from without. The hard thing is doing it from within.

I’m reminded of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk [The Danger of a Single Story] in which she emphasizes the importance of where a story begins and who is telling it: the insider or the outsider.

And Americanah is a great example. The text itself acknowledges that Ifemelu is a “non-American black.” An outsider perspective. It’s like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. There is plenty of sharp, extraordinary insight, and we know what gaze we’re getting it from. The problem is with people who go to a place and assume their view of it is more important than that of people who’ve been there for generations, the people who become experts on a place in one day. As fiction writers, we know what it takes to inhabit someone else on paper, so it might be harder for us to claim that kind of authority. At best, if we are humble, we can say we are trying.

Your characters’ experiences—Madame Gaëlle’s grief, for example—feel so inhabited. How do you make that happen? Do you put a lot of yourself into your characters?

Yes! And I highly recommend it! [Laughs.] It sounds hokey, but you have to love all of your characters—even the ones you don’t necessarily approve of—and you have to become them in some way. In The Dew Breaker, when I was writing about the torturer, I had to consider that character as somebody’s father, somebody’s husband. I had to remember that the gaze of his loved ones would be very different from the gaze of his victims.

In fiction, we want to see a whole person—a 360-degree vision of an individual. So writers need to in some way become that person. Almost like method actors. Or like actors who think about their own experiences in order to cry. If you’re writing about something you don’t know, you should call upon everything you have. Toni Morrison once said in an interview that she always tells her students that if you’re writing about a black father, for example, it’s not a black father, it’s your black father. And if you’re going to imagine what it takes to kill a baby, then you have to put that baby in your arms in some way. Then there’s also the research. I think it’s important for writers to immerse themselves in both the larger canvas and the individual space, know the context, but go as deeply as you can into the soul of a human being.

In Claire, you have several recurring and focalized characters. But with characters who are less important, how do you know if you’re over-characterizing them (and therefore giving them too much of the page)?

I always overwrite my first drafts. Because if, for example, I say early on that a character has a certain feature and I edit it out later, in some ways, I feel like that detail is still there. At least, it allowed me to see the character and the setting and atmosphere—the full world—more clearly. Later, I revise to a point where I feel that every word counts.

When I start out, I’m not sure if someone’s a minor character yet; if a work is unfolding, any character can take over. But in revision, when I’m sure of the characters’ roles, I pare down the minor characters to their singular, hair-on-fire details. Especially if you have a crowded field—and you don’t want the minor characters to be so spectacular that readers wonder why they aren’t major characters—just find a distinguishing feature. One that makes them memorable. For example, in The Farming of Bones, to differentiate Juana, who works in the house, from Amabelle (the main character), I gave Juana an obsession with saints.

In your work, there seems to be a strong relationship between character and form—particularly in The Dew Breaker, a ‘linked collection,’ and Claire, a ‘novel-in-stories.’ What attracted you to these connected structures?

In The Dew Breaker, one story leads to the next. It starts with “The Book of the Dead,” which is about an artist traveling with her father to deliver a sculpture to the person, a famous actress, who commissioned it. On their trip, the father throws the sculpture away because it was about him being a victim of torture when in truth, he says, he wasn’t the victim; he was the torturer. When the character said that, I wanted to know what he was talking about, so I had to write the next story to understand what he meant. And then in the middle of that story, I realized I had to tell his wife’s story, too.

Claire was similar. I was sort of chasing characters around. I wanted to see if I could enlarge these little seeds that the characters drop in the middle of the dialogue in each other’s stories.

Why do you think you’re writing the new stories differently?

In some of the earlier work, I liked to keep readers guessing: one story asked a question, and another resolved it. For the stories I’m working on now—both the new ones and the older ones I’m revisiting—I want to wring everything out. That way, I don’t have to write separate stories for every character who surprises me.

With Claire, there is a clear formal unity: it centers on one character’s disappearance.  And the way time functions feel very novelistic. Why else do you think it works as a novel?

Because my editor said so. [Laughs.] Seriously, I think it works as a novel because the town, Ville Rose, is really the main character of that book and the different characters each make up a chapter of the book. I also wanted the book to be like a radio show in which each chapter was an episode of the show. It’s an unconventional novel, but one anyway. I do tell myself that maybe if the title was Ville Rose, it would have felt even more like a novel. Still the novel is a flexible form and I wanted to make use of that flexibility in these books.

For me, the structure of Claire—even without the radio show—brings out a feeling of community.

That’s really what I wanted to do. And if I approached the novel in a traditional way, it would probably be huge. I would say, “Let’s go to her house today… Okay, now let’s go to his house!” [Laughs.]

Are there other (maybe external) reasons why someone might choose to write a linked collection?

I don’t feel this way, but some people look at linked stories as a shortcut to a novel. [Laughs.]  Maybe it also happens because at most MFA programs, stories, not novels, are the focus. What I like about story-based training is that it allows you to hold a whole narrative in your head. Then later you can apply that towards a longer work. After I graduated from Brown and started working on The Farming of Bones, I was writing chapters that were just one character’s thoughts, which alternated with the regular narrative, and if you plucked out those chapters, the novel could still stand by itself. Even though I did it that way, it was still different from writing short, yet the practice of writing short stories was something I could also transfer to the novel.

You’re working on this new collection in a country whose president regularly disparages women, people of color, and immigrants (focusing twice now on Haitians). As an immigrant woman of color, do you find yourself wanting to respond in your writing?—Or do you feel that the pen is not the right weapon here?

As I am answering this question, children are being separated from their parents at the border between Mexico and the United States. The world has enough histories and stories of forced parent/child separations that it is not something that should be allowed to happen ever, but it is happening now, in our time, in this place, as an immigration measure, and as deterrent to keep people from coming to the United States. And this administration is using the Bible to justify it.

We live in heartbreaking times, which make fictional stories, to my mind, even as I write them, feel small and useless, but when I look back at stories I have written during previously difficult times, I am happy I wrote them. Whether they address directly what is happening or not, it feels like I am bearing witness. I guess this is what I will continue to do, with my pen, and with my feet, and with my time and whatever other ways I can be helpful. As Toni Morrison wrote in her April 2015 essay in The Nation magazine, No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear:  “This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

An Interview with Yiyun Li

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Yiyun Li is the author of two story collections, two novels, and, most recently, a book of essays called Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. When I read her novel Kinder than Solitude, I was just beginning to take writing seriously, and the psychic familiarity of her characters spooked me – they were instantly recognizable. At the same time, I realized that I’d never expected to experience this at such close range when reading fiction in English. We spoke over the phone this spring about melodrama, the boundaries between languages, and defying representation. 

 

 

Yvonne Yevan Yu: After reading Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, I was struck by the amount of dialogue between you and others, from two-way conversations with living authors to your marginalia on writers’ old letters and journals. Was there a book that first inspired you to write in response after reading it?

Yiyun Li: I would say William Trevor’s short story collection (The Collected Stories). The first volume came out years ago. I think it was the book that made me think: “Oh, I want to write myself.” I think sometimes we have those dreams of yes, we’re going to write, but we don’t know how. We know there’s a way there but we don’t know where it is, and I think for me that book showed me the direction.

YY: What did that direction look like for you?

YL: There’s a tendency when people look at literary lineage to look at the author’s country of origin. In an old interview, Trevor said he was always asked about James Joyce. Another Irish writer, John McGahern, also said every time he was interviewed he was asked about James Joyce, and he was really funny, and said that other than my being Irish, we really share little in common. And with Trevor’s lineage, he came from Chekhov. I love Chekhov’s stories, and I sort of just made a decision: that is where I want my stories, or I want to be that kind of storyteller.

YY: When you say old-fashioned, are you talking about differences in voice or character?

YL: If you look at, say, Jane Austen, or even the 19th century writer, they do have their voice. If you read Chekhov’s stories, you won’t look at each story and say, oh, this story is about Chekhov. It’s more about Chekhov looking at people he’s interested in. There’s a story about Trevor eavesdropping on these people he’s interested in. I’m sure everybody has egos, but these writers don’t have much ego; it’s almost as if they are transparent in the story. And that’s what I mean by old-fashioned.

YY: How do you eavesdrop on your characters?

YL: I strongly believe my characters lie to me. That they lie to everyone. Every time I teach, I bring in the research down in Boston somewhere, that as grownups we lie every ten minutes. We tell so many lies in the course of a day that we shouldn’t be surprised. We’re so used to lying that we don’t think we’re lying. But I think that characters do the same thing as we do in life; they hide themselves a little. If a character tells me everything about himself or herself, I’m sure that’s not an interesting character, and I would lose all my interest. I think eavesdropping is really sort of a lie-detecting process: you just ask characters questions and make them uncomfortable. Put them in situations that they would not choose, if they had a choice. Sooner or later, I think if you tell a lie, it leads to another lie, sometimes it just cracks, and as a writer you just catch those cracks, and then you can start from there.

I look at my dog – if he’s happy, he’s happy. If he’s not happy, he shows his unhappiness. But we protect ourselves much more than animals. And I think animals only protect themselves from real dangers, like predators, or natural disasters. We protect ourselves from both real and unreal things. Part of what we’re protecting ourselves from is friction in life. We’re imagining friction when we think a person’s going to think a particular way. Between protecting and presenting ourselves, we get a lot of complexity in character.

YY: It seems that our fears, or our characters’ fears, are fiction in a lot of ways.

YL: You’re right. I’m more curious about when these things are fiction than when it’s not fiction. In other words, say we have a character running away from an earthquake in California. That’s real. An earthquake is non-fiction. If a character survives or endures all this pain from an earthquake, the reactions are real; they’re not fiction.

But I’ll give you another scenario. We lived in California, and earthquakes are big things there, they’re on everybody’s mind. When our children were younger and in grade school, at the beginning of every year, you would send a care package with one stuffed animal, some food, a family picture, and a note saying: “I love you.” Which is fiction! There’s no earthquake.

That to me is a much more interesting situation – you’re saying goodbye to your children in a hypothetical way. It’s really just a projection of a future when some catastrophe would happen. What interests me is the second scenario – it’s what could have happened, rather than what already happened. It’s a situation that has more potential in fiction.

YY: In relation to characters lying – you mentioned public and private languages in one of your essays, “To Speak Is to Blunder.” To me, your characters personify the tension between public and private. How do you approach these two languages in a character? How do you work that into their emotions, and how one influences the other?

YL: You’re absolutely right in that I’m always interested in the countless intersections between a character’s private and public language. I believe that for every single moment, a character lives in multiple moments. A character doesn’t just live in this moment – it’s like an accordion, collapsing all these moments into just one moment. We’re unaware about that in life all the time. When you walk down the street to get a cup of coffee, sometimes you’re just thinking, “I’m walking down the street to get a cup of coffee, but what I’m really thinking about is that girl from high school who’s this and that.” And these moments are really fleeting in our real lives, and then our minds go somewhere else.

I do think that if we follow our mind all the time, it’ll just be a mess. A character does that too, and a fiction writer has the luxury and responsibility to really just look at the one moment. Auntie Mei (“A Sheltered Woman”) is sitting there rocking a baby, but it’s not about rocking the baby. It’s about all the babies before, and all the babies coming, and her own mother and grandmother. They’re all collapsed into that one moment.

YY: That boundary between languages has so much to do with time.

YL: I’m infinitely interested in time. Time in fiction, especially. Think about music, for instance, as real time. If you hear a note, you remember that note when it’s gone, but in writing you can recreate that note just as it happened the first time. In writing you  manipulate, or manage, time in a different way than in music, or in painting, or in movies. To me, in writing, you have all the luxury and freedom to do whatever you want with time. In a Grace Paley story, you can let eighteen years pass in one sentence. Then one moment can last five pages. Again, it’s like an accordion. You can collapse all the time into one moment.

It’s close to what Hemingway calls the “tip of the iceberg.” You can’t experience every second of that character. How much real time do you show? Auntie Mei is sitting there taking care of a baby, but she lives elsewhere in her memory. Sometimes she really lives in the moment, but she’s actually living in the future about running away with this baby. You always move the character around a little in time, even though the character is in real time.

YY: In Dear Friend, you say that melodrama is “absolute loyalty to the original moment.” In workshop these days, it’s often considered a critique when a piece of writing is melodramatic. How do you think about that as an element in fiction?

YL: I certainly understand where that critique comes from; on the other hand, I really don’t understand. I go back to what Elizabeth Bowen said about fiction. She said that when you write fiction you’re really putting the lid on the pot, on life, that so much pressure is built up under the lid – and that’s when you have a story. When you put that much pressure on people, melodrama is innate within everyone. But if you take the lid off, the drama flows out like fireworks. That is uninteresting drama to me. And I think sometimes I do also say to my students, I think this is unnecessary drama, and I mean that they took the lid off, letting the thing go, and it’s a big production. When I talk about melodrama, maybe I am talking about whether it’s language or feeling. You have to put pressure on it, it really bears the pressure.

YY: I wanted to ask you about audience and language. When you write, do you think of your audience?

YL: I don’t think about audience. I think about two specific readers. When you think about an anonymous audience, to me that’s just…on the days when you don’t feel secure, you’ll be able to create all these critical voices around you, right, and I don’t think I need that. I’m also not interested in hearing the chorus of what they want, or what they want to hear, or what they don’t want to hear. I’ve chosen two readers, and for specific reasons. If they like my writing, I’m happy. And I think that’s enough for me.

I think publishing itself is a different thing from writing, and I separate them completely. The publishing side is business. The joy of writing is really with writing. And I let that joy stop after the story finds my two readers. And I just don’t think about the rest of it, because it’s too much to think about.

YY: Do your readers surprise you?

YL: One of them is my longtime editor friend, who does surprise me. She would criticize my writing in a brutal way. I remember I showed her one time I thought, when I was working on Kinder Than Solitude: “That’s a beautiful passage.” She wrote next to the passage, “BS.” And she said, “It is BS, you need to go back.” That’s the kind of trust you have to give to the reader, when she says it’s not right, you have to do it again. And I would do it. As for my other reader – I’m working on this character who’s an old, highly uneducated woman, and she caught me and said, “Oh, she reminded me of Hamlet!” And I said, “What?” And then I realized she has a point. And those are the best comments, because they really point out things that I’ve missed when I’m just writing.

YY: You wrote that often you’re a part of another person’s memory, and when you are, they’re often able to have the last word about their idea of you. Readers are constantly doing that, including me, to you, to writers; our memories making claims on that person’s writing. I was struck by the moment in the book when you were at McGahern’s gathering: it felt like utopia to me, that there’s this robust community of those who understand where he’s coming from, and maybe agree with his telling.

You say that “his life was lived among his people, his books written among his people,” and I can’t help but contrast that with some of the responses from your readers, especially Chinese readers. How do you write about place and history, especially when the memories of those places are contested? I was really struck by the line: “Writing as one’s private freedom will always be disloyalty.” How do you wrestle with that idea?

YL: Say you have ten American writers writing about New York City. They may come up with ten versions, and I don’t think people will contest that one is the real version of New York, and the other nine are fake. But if you’re a Chinese writer writing in English about China – this goes for other countries, too – people start to say: which version is the authentic version? It’s a ridiculous question, because I think every writer comes from where he or she comes from, and we’re writing about memories, we’re writing about our private memories, and one person’s memories can be totally different from another person’s, and it has to be, otherwise the world would just be one place.

McGahern is a very interesting example to me, that he wrote in a way that’s so transparent to his readers, to his people around him. But he has a long life story: he was exiled too, for many years, from Ireland, even though now they love him. Again I think each writer has to take some way, to have to follow a road. So people will say this and that. To be “disloyal” is to say that I’m not going to let anyone stop me from what I want to do. And I’m not going to join any crusade or any propaganda, or any agenda, and do things that they want to do.

So those are two very important things to me when I write. That sense of disloyalty as a writer comes from Graham Greene in one of his letters. And I really agree with that generation of writers post-World War II, as they were talking about having to stand up to all this historical pressure to be loyal, to be representative. No, we don’t represent other people. I resist this pressure that I have to represent something.

YY: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I often feel I’m having a conversation with your work, so this has been wonderful.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

An Interview with Lisa Ko, Author of ‘The Leavers’

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Lisa Ko is the author of the much-acclaimed The Leavers, which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction. The novel follows the story of an undocumented immigrant woman and her child in the U.S. – a story that feels both timeless and poignantly relevant to the contemporary discourse about human migration and race. Ko’s work has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and (once, a long time ago, in an issue far, far away) The Brooklyn Review. 

I was lucky enough to speak to Ko about The Leavers, justice, her future projects, and the illustrious state of New Jersey.

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AC: Deming, the protagonist of The Leavers, is a complex character. He’s not a model minority by any means: unanchored by the disappearance of his mother, Polly, he’s a college dropout with a gambling problem who alienates his friends and vexes his adoptive parents. It can be frustrating as a reader to watch a character who you’ve grown to love sabotage themselves the way Deming does. Can you talk about why it was important to let Deming be complicated, and specifically about the choice to make him a gambler?

LK:  Deming’s journey, like Polly’s in many ways, is really one of self-acceptance, and finding the ability to live on his own terms, rather than the expectations placed upon him by others. He’s experienced so many upheavals in his childhood, and so he wants to please his friends and his parents, but in trying to do so he ends up disappointing them. He thinks that finding out the truth about his mother’s disappearance will give him a sense of peace and resolution, and that ends up being true in some ways, but self-acceptance ultimately has to come from himself and not just from outside validation. A gambling problem seemed to fit his personality and his desire for risk, as well as the novel’s themes of chance, luck, and fate.

AC: Have you thought at all about what happens to Deming after the end of the book? I am curious to know what you think he would be like as he ages.

LK: I haven’t thought too much about it as I feel the book ends on the note that I wanted it to, but I do think it ends with Deming in a much better place, and that he’ll be able to make less destructive choices and be more true to himself as he gets older.

AC: One of the most admirable things about The Leavers was the discomfort of Deming’s adoptive environment. How were you able to depict this so accurately?

LK: Thank you! I did want to center the point of view of the adoptee, rather than the adoptive parents. I also wanted to write with an awareness of the social and political contexts that Deming’s adoption takes place in – and as you said, even when everyone has good intentions, certain complications can remain. While drafting the novel, I read and listened to the stories of transracial Asian adoptees. I’m conscious of the responsibility you have when you’re a writer writing about an experience that isn’t yours, and I wanted to do the work to treat these experiences with respect.

AC: You’ve noted elsewhere that the book was inspired by a 2009 New York Times piece about a mentally disabled woman, Xiu Ping Jiang, who was held in a immigration detention center for a year and a half. There are so many horrible stories of lives destroyed by immigration policy – what drew you to that story specifically? Can you describe a bit what your research process was like?

LK: I haven’t met Xiu Ping Jiang, and though Polly’s circumstances are only very loosely based on hers, I am deeply grateful for her for inspiring the novel. I think what drew me to her story at first was that we were the same age and both ethnically Chinese. But class privileges allowed my parents to migrate here legally from the Philippines on student visas, because U.S. immigration policies favor “educated” immigrants. As a child of immigrants, I’ve often imagined other ways my life might have been, if I had grown up in another country or not been born in the U.S. I did a good amount of reading and interviewing in my research, but at some point I also had to let go of these real-life stories and let the characters live out their own lives.

AC: The characters of The Leavers are fairly apolitical. There is a section in which Polly recounts the story of her detention, but even in that the descriptions focus on her fellow prisoners and deplorable conditions rather than on bureaucratic systems or government agents. There are probably many reasons for this, but could you talk a little bit about why you made this choice?

LK: Part of the process of writing the book was figuring out what the story was. While earlier drafts were motivated by more explicitly wanting to raise awareness about these issues, I realized that the actual story was about the characters and the choices and actions they make and take while being affected by deportation and detention.

AC: Immigration has always played an important role in the U.S. Questions of who gets to stay or not, who we consider a citizen or not, and whether or not the U.S. actually lives up to its promise are more or less always relevant. But The Leavers does feel like a truly important book for this political moment. The book is certainly critical of U.S. immigration policy and the “U.S. is best” ethos, but it doesn’t feel heavy-handed; the book is more interested in following its characters and letting readers draw their own conclusions from their lives. Did you ever find it difficult to avoid didacticism or moralizing in writing about a topic that is so hotly contested today? If so, how did you overcome that? Are you involved in any immigration activism?

LK: Initially, I was motivated to write the novel by my own anger about these unjust immigration policies. So the earliest drafts were depicting the injustices that happened to the characters. But that doesn’t make for a story, since the characters are just having things happen to them, rather than making decisions and acting in their own lives. The story started to come together when I realized it was less about the external circumstances of my characters and more about their internal journeys: their search for home, family, and belonging.

Activism has always been a part of my life, and not only as a writer. I believe that we all have a responsibility to stand up to injustice, whether it’s through changing values – and writing and storytelling can certainly be a part of that – or supporting those who are directly impacted by injustice, or doing resistance work both within and beyond electoral politics.

AC: Can you talk at all about the development of the project? How many different versions you went through, and how the project transformed over time? Polly’s story even without Deming is rich enough that it could be a standalone novel.

LK: I knew going into the writing process that I would have a mother and a son who would be separated. The novel was originally Polly’s story, but I found myself increasingly drawn to her son’s story as well. I wrote a number of different drafts as I tried to figure out what the best way to arrange scenes and chapters, until I landed on the present-day plot of Deming searching for his mother.

AC: The Leavers felt a bit like a love letter to New York. Some of the most beautiful passages in the novel occur in New York – Deming’s childhood in the Bronx, his reunion with an old friend in Sunset Park, Deming watching a New York sunrise after a night of debauched gambling, Polly going for long lonely walks through the city. What do you love about New York? And I know you grew up partly in New Jersey as well – do you think you’ll ever write a love letter to the Garden State?

LK: I love so many things about New York, but mostly that it feels like home to me, even when I’m complaining about the crowds and high rents and subways (though maybe that griping is also part of being a New Yorker!). It’s where I feel most like myself, where I have family and community. I’ve written about New Jersey in my short fiction, so we’ll see if I return to writing more about it in the future.

 

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Good news for hardcover haters: the paperback edition of The Leavers has now arrived.

 

An Interview with Phil Klay

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Phil Klay is the author of the short story collection Redeployment, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014. He’s a graduate of the MFA program at CUNY Hunter, and a Marine Corps Veteran who deployed to Iraq. I met Phil a year after I left the military and returned to New York City. Phil is part of a network of veteran artists and writers who set me on the path of my own writing career. I interviewed Phil over the phone from our respective homes in Brooklyn.

D: You won the National Book Award for Redeployment, and you’ve written for the [New York] Times and other outlets about foreign policy and conflict, so I think everyone has this expectation of you as a conflict writer. Why do you write war stories?

 

P: For a variety of reasons—it’s currently what I’m most interested in, what I’m most knowledgeable about, what I’m most passionate about. That seems like a fairly good reason to write that sort of thing. I don’t think of myself in that way, but when there’s something happening politically that has to do with foreign policy or has to do with the military, or civil-military relations, or any of the things I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about, that tends to be when I’ll be most inspired to write something or to kind of look in to learn more about that subject, so I can add to the discussion. I’ve spent a little more than a decade at this point thinking about war and conflict and reintegration and storytelling narrative around those ideas, so it’s not particularly surprising that’s what I’d write about.

 

D: You weren’t a grunt on the front lines, you were a public affairs officer. I’m wondering how that experience mediated the way you wrote each of your characters in Redeployment, because each character, and each story, seems to have a great deal of empathic imagination and compassion.

 

P: I wasn’t writing autobiographical fiction, obviously. I’ve always tried to be pretty up front about that. The fact that I was in Iraq as a Marine gets highlighted, so there are some people that want to read autobiography into the collection. I wasn’t relying on my own personal experiences. I was relying on research and interviews and just a lot of reading and thought and discussions and arguments with other veterans. It wasn’t me trying to say I didn’t have the veteran’s story – I had the veteran’s story. In the process of being in the military and exposing myself to that kind of research, the process of engaging with a lot of stories of a different Iraq [as a Public Affairs Officer] and ideas of Iraq and the war from very different angles, made me forget the goal of having one narrative about the war, even from just the U.S. side.

In a way that gave me a certain amount of freedom, but at the same time, there was this sense that you’re trespassing. People are protective of veteran experiences, this sort of “insider status” is very important to people, and there are different gradations of that. I was a public affairs officer. I was a pogue. I was a guy who was not in combat or doing anything like that, and when you’re writing from inside an experience that’s central to people’s identity – which war experience, which involves a strange mixture of pride and sometimes a lot of pain, often is – you’re trespassing in a certain way by writing these stories.

So there was a question of whether I had the right to tell the stories, and I quickly decided that I did not, that I didn’t necessarily think anybody had the right. Certainly you see on cable news a controversy that involves veterans, or politicians trying to use veterans for political purposes. You’ll see some kind of veteran on screen trying to claim the veteran perspective on everything, or how the issue of the NFL protests can only be either understood or articulated by veterans. And so I became skeptical of these claims about storytelling, and decided there wasn’t a right way to tell a story. There are certainly a million wrong ways to tell a story, and I could only justify myself by doing it well.

 

D: I think a lot of young fiction writers struggle with this question of having a right to inhabit a character outside of themselves. Can you talk a little bit about your process? Obviously a lot of research goes into it, and we all do research as writers, but I’m really interested to hear about precisely how you tackle this issue.

 

P: The funny thing for me is that, when I write something that’s more autobiographical in terms of the non-fiction that I’ve written, I do research as well. That kind of goes along with this sense that I have that you don’t necessarily have a right to your own story. You’re sort of getting other people’s perspective that will further your understanding of who you are. I don’t think that you come to terms with what you’ve been through by taking the deep sort of Upanishadvian look into the interior self and connecting with your authentic experience. I think you come to terms with the meaning of what you’ve been through over time as you figure out not just what it meant to you, but what it meant to other people, and how people can relate to that.

What was the question again? I kind got off on a tangent.

 

D: You mentioned the right to tell a story and that, in a sense, no one quite has the “right” to tell any story, and you’ve done so successfully by inhabiting experiences other than your own. I think a lot of people want to know what that’s like: to get in the head of a state department official or a front line grunt or a recently returned veteran who struggles with mental illness.

 

P: I’ve talked about doing research and kind of understanding that these experiences are sacred to people in different ways, and being conscious of that and being conscious of that fact that you’re sort of trespassing. Part of it is figuring out a rich sense of the material you’re working with. And yet at the same time, there’s this way in which in order to write fiction well, you also have to have a kind of anarchic spirit.

Because your job, ultimately, as a writer, and surely as a fiction writer, is not to tell what it’s like to go to war. Certainly in my book, I try to show twelve guys that have very different takes on what it’s like to go to war, and that’s just not even necessarily a representative sample of the military as a whole. It’s not meant to be a compendium of military experience, either. So you’re not trying necessarily to stay true to what you might read in a memoir or interviews, you’re kind of searching for whatever is most interesting about the human experience that your research and your imagination is leading you to, and then finding tools within reality to put those things under pressure.

I also found that if I did a little bit of research – if I knew seven things about being a chaplain in Iraq – I’d put all seven of those things into a story. But if I knew a lot of things about being a chaplain in Iraq, I would feel more free to invent. I would feel confident that I could invent something and either it wouldn’t be obviously wrong, or that I was going to invent something that I felt was wrong, but knew enough about my subject to justify it. There’s a respect for experience. You’re positioned as an interloper when you’re writing fiction – or memoir, for that matter – because every memoir includes other characters that probably wouldn’t agree with your perception of them.

But then there’s also this kind of freedom and ability to chase down what’s most interesting or troubling, or what most threatened your ideas. And that’s where fiction comes alive: when you find things you don’t expect, and when you sort of take the raw materials of life and push them into a very strange place. If you know what you’re trying to say before you start and you write the piece and it says what you were originally trying to say, you’ve probably failed.

 

D: I think you and I are both in this really interesting position, you in particular: these are really dire times, and you’re writing at a moment when the country is experiencing not only a great deal of political turmoil, but also the longest American war on record, sixteen years. I think there’s always been this argument over what art is supposed to do, what the utility of fiction is supposed to be, of the lack thereof.

I’m wondering what you feel the power of fiction might be, because we have this relatively new genre of about a hundred years worth of war literature that precedes both of us, and we still have wars.

 

P: Expecting war literature to end wars is a tall order. I don’t think anybody goes up to a crime fiction writer and says, “But has crime fiction ended murder?”

But war literature does hopefully inform us and make us sort of smarter about it, both at a political and interpersonal level. Really good fiction does inform and change the culture, but I think that any kind of rapid responses are far too much to expect.

I don’t expect to write anything that’s going to radically change military policy. I think that the accumulated work of a lot of people, both veteran and civilian, operating in this space does help us to become smarter as we muddle our way through this rudderless foreign policy with huge human costs. The most that you can expect is to put your shoulder to the wheel. That’s your task as a writer and as a citizen, to do that. The incentives for war are going to be there whether we write or not, and the incentives that inhibit us from having a more coherent and thoughtful military and foreign policy are still there. I think that the best you can do is hope to make people a little bit wiser and more thoughtful of the human dimension and the costs.

 

D: It’s interesting, because when was a kid I remember reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I remember reading Slaughterhouse Five, and Catch-22, and Dispatches, and all these great works of literature, each of which told me that war is terrible. Undoubtedly, there’s some thirteen-year-old kid who’s read Redeployment or Spoils by Brian Van Reet. Or War Porn, or Girl at War, or any of the really great novels to come out of the past few years, and still felt compelled, as I did when I was a kid, to eventually join the military.

 

P: I think that’s perfectly fine, right? Frankly I’m glad that somebody like you – who not just read all that stuff, but had the kind of mind that wanted to read that sort of thing – was in the military.

I was talking to a friend whose significant other is in the military. My friend was freaked out by the Trump election, because she’s very liberal and was worried not just for the country but also on a personal level. She thought: ‘Here’s this person who doesn’t seem to have any kind of respect for military values, any kind of thoughtfulness or foresight, and this person is going to be the Commander in Chief.’ One of the things I said to her is that, on a purely selfish level, it’s one of those strange things where I’m glad that guys like her significant other are in the military, because we need people like that.

We need people with perspectives like yours and with the experience that you bring to be able to inform us. You don’t just want a military composed of people who are not, who have not, exposed themselves to the kind of works that are more critical of war and of military culture. My hope is not that the book will prevent somebody from joining the military. I think it’s a fine and honorable thing to serve in the military. My hope is just to increase the store of intellectual tools that you have while you’re in it.

Before I went into the Marine Corps, I had a teacher, the poet Tom Sleigh, who’s a fantastic poet. He has written about war, including a great book of poems that recently came out, Station Zed,  and has done some really good journalism as well. He made me read Isaac Babel, and he made me read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and he made me read all of Hemingway’s short stories, and David Jones’ In Parenthesis, and Céline’s Journey to the End of Night. His goal in that was not to get me to not accept my commission. It was to make me as well-informed about the kind of moral questions that I might be exposed to or see other people encounter, and I’m grateful to him for that.

 

D: The other part, and this is something that I know you’ve talked about a good deal, is that the military is a small minority that is part of a larger political system, part of a citizenry that also needs to be involved. You’ve talked about the civil-military divide a great deal, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are regarding how civilians should interact with the art, or about civic responsibility in the arts.

 

P: I’ll tell you what I don’t think it is. I think sometimes there’s this attitude where people feel like, “I’ve come back from the war, I’ve got the truth to deliver to civilians, and they need to listen to what I have to say about war because I’ve been there.”

That’s not how I feel about it. I feel that it’s your job, as a citizen, whatever avenue of national concern it is, to interact with something outside of yourself, to be informed about issues important to the national concern, and then be empowered to intelligently argue back, to form your own opinion. War is not a thing to whom a veteran is a subject. It’s something that we all have responsibility to.

Even if you did serve overseas, your experience is inevitably going to be one very small perspective on this giant thing. If you served in Iraq in 2003, that’s radically different than serving in Iraq in 2004. If you were in Fallujah in 2006, that’s radically different from Baghdad in 2009, let alone what job you were doing.

The task is to basically understand what else is out there to know, to understand the limits of your own knowledge. You need to have a discussion with a little bit of humility, but also with the ability to push back against claims that are made by veterans, by civilians, and by policy makers. It’s to engage in a serious way.

 

D: You’re speaking of writers inhabiting uncomfortable or unfamiliar spaces. One of the best books to come out of the war was probably Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

 

P: Perfect example. That book is brilliant. It is very smart about the war experience, very smart about this strange place of civilian-military relations, with that odd kind of sacred cow that we turn our veterans into. Ben Fountain is a civilian, but he did his research. He was thoughtful, but he also felt empowered to write a strong, and often deeply and powerfully satirical, book.

There’s a wonderful scene in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate where there’s a Soviet general who’s talking about Stalin and the Russian war experience. And the general says, “We only have War and Peace because Tolstoy was a veteran and only somebody who had been there could have written with such brilliance about war.” And another official says, “Excuse me, Comrade General, Tolstoy didn’t take part in the Patriotic War.” And the general just refuses to believe it.

Sometimes being on the outside of an experience can help you. It can help you see things that people inside don’t. Just because you’ve been through something doesn’t mean you’re necessarily the final arbiter of what that experience means. We understand this idea in a more personal sphere, right? If you’re having trouble with your significant other, and you go to your wise friend to complain about them, sometimes that wise friend is going to be like, “Actually, you’re the one being an asshole here.”

We’ve already talked about seeing veterans on TV, watching some jerk speaking on behalf of all veterans, and it’s just like, “Who is this tool?” A friend of mine was interviewing some Navy SEALs and one of the SEALs turned to him and said, “You know, the thing about being in a community where you’re supposed to be a silent professional is that you end up getting represented by the biggest jerks you ever worked with.”

 

D: Do you have any advice for civilian writers who want to tell stories about conflict, especially recent conflict, given all this protectiveness around the subject matter?

 

P: I will say one thing, and this is kind of advice for vets, too. In America we have this kind of canon of war literature. It’s a canon that tends to be white, male, front-line soldiers. There’s a lot of books that have been written about home that don’t necessarily get included in that canon, but of course they’re certainly war books. They’re written by civilians, and taken from a different angle.  When you read books about war that are not kind of within that canon, it often opens up really interesting possibilities for you.

One of the books that was influential for me when I was writing Redeployment was this book called Beer in the Snooker Club, by Waguih Ghali, an Egyptian writer. It’s set during the Suez crisis. I don’t really know how to describe it; maybe like if Evelyn Waugh was writing about Egyptian society during the Suez crisis. The two main characters are basically Egyptian hipsters: they’re well-educated, they’re from wealthy families though they don’t have money themselves, they’re reading books.

It isn’t really considered a war story, but there’s a wonderful scene in which a friend pays for the two main characters to go to Britain. They meet a woman on the bus there and she’s very excited, saying, “Oh, you’re Egyptian. My son was just in Egypt” – meaning her son was a British soldier invading the country – “and he’d love to meet you.” The Egyptians, being hipsters, think this is amazing, so they say, “Yeah, totally, we’ll meet that guy.”

The son is a genial, not particularly well-educated British Tommy, who winds up being solicitous to them, but also unknowingly telling racist barracks gossip to them, like, “You have to look out for those wogs because they steal.” He’s not really connecting that he’s delivering the racial slurs to the people that the racial slurs are about. And they start to kind of cruelly torment him, and feel very righteous in doing so because of who he is and what he’s doing in that situation. It’s a very strange, funny, and also kind of hateful scene. It’s very different from the typical returning soldier image that you encounter in most war literature.

There’s a lot of books that occupy that space. Andrea Barrett, for instance, writes stories about scientists after and during World War I. There’s a wonderful short story of hers called “The Ether of Space” about a sort of famous physicist who’s trying to hold out against and argue with Einstein because he still wants to believe in ether. It becomes clear during the course of the story that the motivating factor for this is that he is caught up in all this post-World War I spirituality, and he experiences things that become very important to him because of the death of his sons during that war.

There’s a wealth of war literature that we often don’t consider war literature as such because we tend to focus on that which is about or by front-line, generally male, generally white soldiers. Considering that is useful; it opens up new ways of looking at [work not considered war literature], and understanding the contours of the work, and genre conventions that you don’t see until you read something that is indebted to them.

Beyond that I would say just what I was saying before – that the subject matter is yours as much as it is anyone else’s, as long as you put in the work to make it yours. If it’s a veteran writer, I would say, “Don’t assume that the work is yours just because you lived it,” because that can lead to unreflected work.

 

D: We’ve been talking a lot about war literature from the past, but I’m wondering what you think is missing from contemporary war narratives from veterans or civilian writers. Or maybe a better question is, what stories haven’t been told yet?

 

P: I don’t know. But this is just it: there’s so many stories that haven’t been told yet. So in a way it’s not about what’s missing, or I can’t say what’s missing. It’s more that I have this sense of knowing how much more there is to be told.

I’m curious to see what the best writers in the U.S. are going to do. The war’s not going to stop. We’re still fighting. There’s probably guys right now who are going to be writing this, probably unfortunately kids in high school right now who are going to be writing great war literature about the wars going on when they’re grown. We’ll see.

I sort of wondered what kind of strategies and ideas are going to come about that I haven’t considered, would never have considered to write about? Because it takes a great writer thinking deeply about what’s missing to write it.

The story I think about is Joseph Heller reading The Naked and the Dead and realizing okay, that’s been done, putting the novel that he was working on to bed, and then years later coming up with Catch-22 and writing about war in a very different way that was, for that time, exactly what was needed.

 

D: When that book came out, we were experiencing a lot of seemingly unrelated, but truly systemic, political turmoil. Years and years, even generations later, folks are still writing about conflict. The poet Ocean Vuong, for example, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose work of course I know because I’m Vietnamese.

 

P: By the way, his nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies is good and has a lot of really smart things to say about war fiction. He also discusses a lot of the work that has been done, including some work that didn’t receive the attention he did. This goes to what the political import of fiction is, right? I don’t think anybody reading him was only thinking about Vietnam, in the same way that people reading Joseph Heller weren’t thinking about World War II. Fiction provides us with the kind of tools to reconceptualize how we think about our present.

 

D: I know you interviewed Ken Burns about the new Vietnam War PBS documentary. I think it’s a great primer for folks that aren’t well acquainted with the war. I wasn’t surprised to Phil Caputo and Tim O’Brien and Karl Marlantes in the documentary. There’s a collection of poems written by Yusef Komunyakaa that Matthew Komatsu mentioned in his article, “The Uncomfortable Whiteness of Contemporary War Literature,” and I was really sorely disappointed that Yusef didn’t end up being in the documentary. Maybe he was interviewed but wasn’t featured.

Of course you’re in this great position. You’ve spoken about this before, but could you discuss your perspective on whether or not there’s a responsibility on the part of the O’Briens and the Marlantes and the Caputos of the world to lift up voices like Komunyakaa’s?

 

P: I would say this: for myself, to the extent that I have any kind of thought formed, it’s certainly important to try to expose people to other writers from vastly different perspectives, whether it’s a writer of color, military or civilian, occupied or occupier. Even just trying to urge people to read books like Frankenstein in Baghdad, which is a fantastic book by an Iraqi writer. It’s not a matter of it being an obligation, it’s being interested in other people who are writing within the same general framework or topic that you’re interested in, but from a radically different perspective.

I think the word responsibility sort of suggests that there’s this kind of “eat your spinach” quality to it, like a task that you have. But that’s not really the way that I think about it. It’s something that you would be doing, and the reason you do it is because it improves you and is related to the whole reason you started writing in the first place, because these things are important and deserve to be thought about in a rich, complex way, and in ways that are currently not much talked about. Anybody who’s offering a kind of valuable corrective, or view counter to that of most heard voices, deserves to be highlighted, and that’s going to be useful and a joy for you as well.

What you need to do is realize that outside perspectives are not so different, not so alien, to you. All the books I loved growing up are about people from radically different societies. Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg is as different from today as anywhere in America, as any place I have lived, and yet what he described was deeply meaningful.

Oftentimes it is the people who are operating in these spaces that are ignored who often have the most interesting things to say. That’s part of why I think reading war fiction that isn’t considered war fiction, or that comes from the sorts of voices that we tend not to associate with war fiction, is valuable and fascinating. Reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches was a revelation, and so was reading Wallace Terry’s Bloods – a great book.

 

D: We’re talking a good deal about the situation of conflict and war literature, and a lot about the political dynamics of it. You’ve mentioned a lot of your influences, even some past professors. What kind of craft advice do you have going forward for young writers? What helped you when you were starting?

 

P: We already talked about reading widely. Aside from that, I think there’s a certain arrogance that comes with writing, like, “I have something to say that everybody needs to read,” but there’s also a kind of humility that you need in order to do it well. When you’re reading your work, you need to learn to be more interested than defensive about your mistakes. Take an interest in your own errors, because they have the most to teach you.

Other than that? Finding good friends to critique your work. I rely heavily on friends to provide edits, or to talk with. Even just, “I’ve seen you on Twitter talking about some stuff, and I thought that you might have some interesting things to say about ideas I was thinking about.” I think there’s this image of artistic work as this incredibly precious, isolated expression of the authentic soul or whatever, but it’s not that at all. It’s hard work, and it benefits greatly from really smart people being able to make you smarter, by being able to engage with them.  

 

D: I think the first time I saw you speak you mentioned something by a philosopher who said that books are essentially long letters to friends.

 

P: Thick letters to friends. That’s Sloterdijk, he’s quoting the Romantic poet Jean Paul. I love that idea. Of course the reason I love this is that you’re supposed to write back, right?

 

D: Is there anything that you’re working on right now that you want to talk about, or are free to talk about?

 

P: I’m working kind of slowly on a novel about the U.S. involvement in Colombia post-9/11, so we’ll see how it goes. 

 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Interview with Monet Hurst-Mendoza + Excerpt

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Monet Hurst-Mendoza is an accomplished NYC-based playwright from LA. Rising Circle Theater Collective, Looking Glass Theatre (NYC), Amios, Playwright’s Playground at Classical Theatre of Harlem, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and many others have developed her plays. She is a current member of the 2017 Emerging Writers Group at The Public Theater and is a 2016-2018 Van Lier Fellow at New Dramatists. Monet was a 2014-2016 WP Theater Lab Time Warner Foundation Fellow and has held residencies with The Other Mirror, The MITTEN Lab, and SPACE on Ryder Farm. 

Hurst-Mendoza debuted her play, Veil’d, at the Astoria Performing Arts Center in November. Just before the premiere, Hurst-Mendoza spoke with The Brooklyn Review’s Cherry Lou Sy about playwriting, Veil’d, fighting xenophobia in the age of Trump, pie, and the Dodgers. An excerpt from Veil’d follows

Cherry Lou Sy: Why theatre? Why are you so passionate about it?
Monet Hurst-Mendoza: 
I am passionate about theatre because it is an in-your-face, moment-to-moment experience that can’t be replicated the same way twice. Theatre can be entertaining, but it can also call for brutal honesty and introspection. I love that theatre can be a political act just by its existence. But what compels me most about theatre is that it is a communal gathering, at once vivid, volatile, and necessary — and it can spark inspiration that can change the course of someone’s life.

CLS: What would you like people to know about you?
MHM: 
I love to bake pies, but I rarely ever eat a pie I’ve made myself. I really revel in the baking process and then enjoy watching others eat this dessert I’ve made with my own two hands. I guess it’s very similar to playwriting.

CLS: What do you think makes a “good” play?
MHM:
I always say, “I know it’s a good play if I’m afraid to show it to my grandmother.”

CLS: You’ve had so much success with developmental programs in NYC: the Van Lier at New Dramatists, the Public’s Emerging Writer’s Group, and the WP Playwright Lab, to name a few. How were these programs helpful to you as an artist? Do you have any advice to other playwrights who would like to apply?
MHM: 
I’ve been very fortunate to have been admitted to these wonderful programs — I absolutely think they’ve helped me grow as an artist. Each group is unique, but they have all provided me with a sense of community that I think is so vital to what we do.

Artists need other artists to survive. Community provides opportunities and a wealth of resources you may not have previously had access to.

I got in to all of the fellowships I’ve been accepted to after several rounds of denials. When you’re starting out, it can feel like you have to apply for everything all the time. You don’t have to put that momentous pressure on yourself, That is absurd.

I constantly have to remind myself that it’s better to submit a quality application than a rushed one, and that it’s okay to wait to apply if I don’t have a play or personal statement (hate those) that is quite ready for what is being asked for in the application guidelines. Keep working, keep marinating, and set a goal to apply the following round. If you’re passionate about a program and you get denied, keep reapplying for as long as you deem it useful to you. In the meantime, find opportunities to create work and build community close to home. Start your own writer’s group, participate in one-off play festivals, etc. Stay tenacious — you got this.

CLS: Congratulations on Veil’d, your world premier production at Astoria Performing Arts Center in New York. Why is this work important now?
MHM: 
Thank you! I thought the production was very exciting. Veil’d was the first full-length play I ever wrote, so it’s poetic that it was also my first world-premiere.

The play is a modern-day twist on the Rapunzel fairy tale. It focuses on an Afghani couple that immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan at the height of Taliban rule to create a new life for themselves. After difficulty conceiving, they gave birth to a daughter, Dima, with a rare allergic reaction to the sun. As a result of her illness, the young girl becomes more sheltered and finds safety and comfort in wearing her mother’s old burqa. Though her parents worry about her future and are dismayed at her choice to wear the burqa, as it symbolizes the life they escaped, we as the audience get to watch how Dima grows into young adulthood with the help of some secret friends.

As much as this play is about first love, friendship, and self-actualization, it also examines what it means to be an American in today’s climate. Trump’s Muslim Ban is just one of numerous examples of the caustic effects of xenophobia that impacts the lives of many wonderful people in our communities. That is not the America I want to live in. So, as a playwright, I pick up my pen to engender understanding, hope, and empathy through truth in my storytelling. During our rehearsal process, we emphasized the importance of upholding the narrative of a Middle Eastern family that was not rooted in fear, judgment, or alienation. The Mansour family is just like any other you might encounter, grappling with questions of parenting and identity as they work to create the stability and happiness we as Americans promote and strive for. If the American dream is meant to belong to all, then it is our responsibility to set places at the table for everyone.

CLS: Can you talk about one defining moment that influenced you as an artist?
MHM: I saw Soho Rep’s production of Blasted by Sarah Kane in college. Sarah Benson exquisitely directed the production. I rushed an evening performance without having any knowledge of the play beforehand, except that it came highly recommended by my playwriting teacher. I was seated in the front row, which was a really intense seat location for Blasted. There is a moment in the play where the setting of the first scene, a nice hotel room, collapses. When it happened, a piece of prop ice from a champagne bucket hit my foot. After that, I knew this play wouldn’t be like anything I had ever experienced before. After the show was over, I was shaking, inspired, and in tears; I couldn’t physically move from my chair. That play, that production, changed my entire perspective of what theatricality is and can be. It blew my mind.

CLS: Anything else you might want to add?
MHM:
 I’m a Dodgers fan so I gotta shout out my boys for all the hard work they put in this past season. #GoBlue

 

Read an excerpt of Veil’d here: Veil'd

An Interview with Mary Gaitskill

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Mary Gaitskill is the writer of three story collections, three novels and, most recently, a book of essays called Somebody with a Little Hammer. She was my teacher last summer at the New York State Writers’ Institute, where my classmates and I hiked, ate several kinds of fruit pie right out of the tin, and, most importantly, workshopped each other’s manuscripts. In class, Gaitskill shared her favorite stories by Dickens and Nabokov and listened closely as we discussed each other’s work, occasionally disagreeing, or pointing us in a different direction. We spoke again over Skype last fall, while she was teaching in Pittsburgh and I was back at Brooklyn College.

Monika Zaleska: I’m interested in how you write these minute changes in behavior between people, especially in romantic or sexual relationships. For example, in “The Blanket,” Valerie and a younger man, Michael, are innocently playing out their fantasies with each other, but then there’s this shift. After she tells him she was raped, he stops the car on a dark street, thinking that they’re still joking around or that it’s still part of the fantasy. To her, it’s not. I wonder how you approach writing these shifts in relationship dynamics.

Mary Gaitskill: The relationship in “The Blanket” is a particularly dramatic situation because they’re in a realm that can be treated playfully, or can suddenly become serious, so the small changes matter in a way that they might not, say, in a student-teacher relationship. A student may disagree with something I say, but we’re not in a dark car together talking about rape. What I’m more interested in is the relationship between fear and excitement, how something scary in one context can be exciting or playful or funny in another. In his mind, he’s still in a place where they’re fooling around. To me it’s interesting how dark and light can be interchangeable sometimes. Feelings blend into each other in unpredictable ways, especially feelings like aggression and excitement and love and hostility. It’s very mysterious, and can be scary.

MZ: You delve so deeply into the emotional lives of your characters. How do you balance developing that emotional landscape with the larger action of a story or novel? Which comes first for you when writing?

MG: I don’t know. I do spend a lot of time on characters’ internal thoughts. I feel like that’s where my strength is, and it’s hard for me to translate it outward into action. That’s a challenge for me as a writer.

MZ: You also seem interested in characters that have trouble communicating, or that have frustrated or conflicting emotions that are hard to pin down.

MG: The people in my stories, in Veronica or in The Mare, don’t have a strong social grounding. Like in Veronica, for Alison to be friends with another model, that would make sense in the world. But for her to be friends with this older, socially unattractive woman, Veronica, doesn’t make social sense. I think she feels a deep affinity for Veronica because they’ve both been wounded, and they have both occupied worlds where their external appearance is very important. For Alison it’s the fashion world, and for Veronica it’s styling herself in these weird sweaters she wears and her intense make-up and hair. It’s an affinity that isn’t obvious, but it’s there.

In The Mare, people are always telling Ginger that she has nothing in common with Velvet or her mother. Here’s a middle class white woman who has a relationship with an impoverished Dominican girl and she keeps being told you can’t understand her, your life is too different. In a way it is, but in another way, it’s not. Ginger feels out of touch with the world around her. She can’t understand the people around her or be understood by them. She’s looked down upon by them, and that’s similar to the experience that Velvet’s mother is having in her neighborhood. She literally can’t understand. She can’t speak English. It’s a more serious situation because she feels physically threatened, perhaps even more than she really is. Velvet is also having a lot of trouble socially connecting with the people around her. All of them are people that don’t really fit in. They have a deeper connection, but the social, external connection doesn’t make sense to people. I write about that a lot, people who have instincts to connect that aren’t supported by the outside world, and that’s hard. Harder than people realize sometimes.

MZ: In a novel like The Mare, why do you think it’s crucial for the story to be told from many different perspectives? There’s the voices of Ginger and her husband Paul, who take Velvet in from the Fresh Air Fund for inner-city kids, and take her horseback riding for the first time. Just Velvet spends summers with them upstate, yet you also include her mother Silvia’s voice and her little brother Dante’s.

MG: Well, partially because I didn’t feel like I could tell the whole story in the voice of a Dominican girl. I know enough that I could tell part of it, but I didn’t feel like I could tell the whole thing from her point of view. Just of the sake of reality, I felt I had to tell half of it from the middle-aged white person’s point of view. But also, part of the story is about how the different people see each other, and try to understand each other, and do so very imperfectly.

MZ: Did you always know you were going to include the younger brother Dante’s voice in the book, or did you think writing in the voice of an eleven year old girl was challenging enough?

MG: I didn’t initially think of doing anyone but Ginger and Velvet, and then Paul crept in in a natural way, and I thought he was a good counterpoint to Ginger. He could say the things that Ginger wouldn’t say to herself or think about. Much more reluctantly did I include Velvet’s mother and I was really uncertain about that. I didn’t think I could do her. Yet I felt that you were hearing so much about her that if I were the reader I would want to know what she thought. And then Dante came in from the side. I don’t remember how I made that decision but I’m glad I did. He’s one of my favorite voices.

MZ: I think it’s really interesting to see how a child sees the developing drama of the novel in both a simpler and more complicated way.

MG: Yeah, he’s definitely a wise-ass and I like that about him.

MZ: So why the reservations about writing Velvet’s mother?

MG: Because she’s so different from me. She’s close to my ageshe’s younger than me, but she’s not significantly younger and her life is totally different than mine. Velvet’s life is different too, but at least Velvet grew up in this country. She’s Dominican-American, but also she’s American, basically. She listens to pop music and watches the same TV shows I do. She comes from a different cultural place than me, but it’s not radically different. She’s impoverished, but she reads and writes, whereas her mother is someone who has grown up in a different country. She’s in a poor neighborhood and she’s responsible for the care of two young children. I can only imagine the sense of stress and fear you would feel not only for yourself but your kids. You are in a dangerous neighborhood, and because you can’t understand what people are saying, you don’t know the rules of that neighborhood. She doesn’t like black people and so she is possibly more afraid than she has to be. That’s a level of stress that’s hard for me to understand.

MZ: Do you worry about being criticized for trying to portray someone so different from yourself?

MG: Somewhat. I’m afraid it could be seen as insulting, or just simply unaware. I was concerned with it.

MZ: I wonder how you negotiate those feelings as a writer. I often have them myself and wonder what my own limits of understanding are when it comes writing other people’s experiences.

MG: I ultimately decided that if I do a poor job, people can say so. It will be clear. I’m not going to do any terrible harm to anyone, though there might be people who disagree. But it could be seen as just stupid. If it is, I don’t think it’s going to harm anyone except me and my credibility.

MZ: At the New York State Writers’ Institute, you read from your story, “The Agonized Face,” about a woman at a literary conference attending the talk of a feminist author. The feminist author criticizes her bio in the conference program, which focuses on the more salacious aspects of her life, such as her brief time working as a prostitute. Our narrator is confused by this feminist author, by how she is both vulnerable and outspoken, both victim and champion of womankind. I’ll admit that I also wasn’t sure what to take away from the story.

MG: People still have so much trouble with women’s vulnerability and strength. Really the trouble the narrator is having with the feminist writer is that she’s someone who appears to be a know-it-all, but is also very vulnerable. Look what happened to Marilyn Monroe. People adored her, but she died early. She was treated badly and not respected in her time. The feminist writer is no Marilyn Monroe, but she’s a woman who is presenting as vulnerable while trying to be very much in control. And if there’s something that story is about, it’s about even other women’s difficulty in coping with that. The sexuality of women still throws people because it’s so fluid and open.

There’s a story by David Bezmozgis that I teach often called “Natasha.” It’s a really good story, but it always gets my students riled up, the undergrads especially. Some of them hate her and think she’s a psychopath or monster. Other people think she’s really an unfortunate girl, and that the he’s really horrible and takes advantage of her. I don’t think either one is true, though I’m more on the side of her being a very unfortunate girl. I don’t think the narrator is taking advantage of her, though I think he doesn’t know how else to be. Natasha seems to be in control. That’s how she presents. In some ways she is, and in other ways, she’s not.

MZ: That story sparked a heated debate in our craft class at Brooklyn College as well.

MG: It always does. It’s partly because people are still mystified or don’t know how to respond to a woman who is both very powerful, which Natasha is, even at the age of fourteen, and very, very vulnerable and clearly has been badly hurt.

MZ: In our class this summer, we started talking about a philosophy of writing. I remember you came in with some notes, but then you became hesitant to present anything to us as a philosophy of sorts, and we ended up talking about how style shapes writing. Do you think having a philosophy of writing is helpful?

MG: As a writer, I don’t think you have to have an articulated philosophy, though I think most writers do, whether they know it or not. I think I was hesitating because I’m not sure how current my philosophy is or if my students need to hear what I have to say. I don’t know that it’s going to help them get published or move forward in their writing. Nonetheless, I have these opinions and feelings that are important to me. But if I wasn’t a teacher I would have never tried to find a way to express them verbally.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Monika Zaleska is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Review. Her work has appeared in Lenny Letter, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Rookie Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel. 

 

An Interview with Wells Tower

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From the archives: Evelyn Spence talks with Wells Tower.

Does fiction begin with the story or the sentence? Pick up any Wells Tower story, and the first thing that jumps off the page is the language: It’s in turns dazzling, tight, comic, and dark. In “The Brown Coast,” a house is “broken out in pediments and lathework grenades and ornamental buboes.” The sun looks “slick and orange, like a canned peach.” An extramarital affair has “no joy in it, just a two-week spate of drab skirmishes in a basement apartment that smelled heavily of cat musk.” In “On the Show,” a man says, “I’d eat her whole damn child just to taste the thing he squeezed out of.” It’s dialogue that makes one laugh—bitterly. In Tower’s acclaimed debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, the Brooklyn writer seems, as one reviewer said, simply incapable of writing a boring description.

But language has to serve a story and its characters. And in Tower’s fiction, language serves a assembly of down-and-out men and women who face their uncomfortable problems—and inhabit their often-glum worlds—with striving and hopeless self-knowledge. The narrative arcs are traditional, yet the situations are anything but: a group of Vikings pillage a tiny island with brilliant grotesqueness, but come off as a bunch of ordinary guys. A cocky older brother eats turned moose meat to prove a point to his younger adult sibling. A retired optometrist bites his stepson on the leg. A short-tempered man drives his ex-wife’s boyfriend home from an ashram after he busts his ankle. Tower, 37, gets under the skin of insecure teenage girls and tottering old men, of the guilty and the clueless, the resentful and the deformed, in equal measure.

Tower’s voice has found a place in the sometimes-diametric worlds of both fiction and nonfiction: Harper’s, The Paris Review, GQ, The New Yorker, Outside, Washington Post, McSweeney’s and The Believer. And his real-life reporting experiences—as an operator of a pirate-ship ride with a traveling carnival, for instance—occasionally seep into his stories, often years later. All writers pull from some corner of their autobiography; Tower manages to blend meticulous observation and free-wheeling imagination into taut and small epics. Recently named a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library, he’s set to expand his reach into a first novel.The Brooklyn Review spoke with Wells Tower, who lives in Brooklyn and North Carolina, by phone.

What was your early life like and what made you want to write?
I had a true appetite for language and story from a pretty early age, and I always really liked words. My parents were big readers—my mother was a classicist and fed me a steady diet of Greek mythology. The first things I remember writing were a couple plays in first or second grade. I studied anthropology and sociology at Wesleyan University, and soon after graduating, I started figuring out ways to get a paycheck writing. I thought I big victory would be something like writing a bulletin for a paper towel corporation. A dream. I ended up getting a job at the University of North Carolina Urban Planning Department—and convinced my boss to write a monthly newsletter. I just wanted to do something that let me write sentences.

What about where you grew up? Did it influence your language?
It’s probable. I suppose I could give a canned answer and say that I grew up in the South, around lots of phenomenally good banjo-playing storytellers, but that’s not really true. My parents weren’t Southern. I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which is a geographically diverse place. There may be a particular kind of story that people in the South tell—certain reportorial habits that Southerners have that they are particularly proud of. I kept my ear out for particularly striking, charming, funny expressions from a very young age. I remember listening very carefully to the way that people talk. And I’ve remained a big collector of conversations.

What was the first thing you ever published?
I wrote a column about comics in the high school newspaper. Did stuff for a lefty weekly in college. A ’zine with my bandmate Al that was somewhat literary—we’d review surgeries and car accidents, not records. My first big story was for the Washington Post—I pitched a story about being on a traveling carnival, and even though I didn’t have reporting experience, they took a chance on me. And some of those notes ended up, much later, in “On the Show.” But the first real fiction I published was in The Paris Review—while I was a student at Columbia. They found me in the slush pile.

What are your writing habits like?
I really try to be at my desk by about nine in the morning, and I work until three or four o’clock. Much more than that and it becomes counterproductive. I’ve come up with all sorts of Internet repression methods in my life: I don’t have high-speed wireless. I use an old word processor, I write longhand, I have a typewriter. To me, the Web is truly lethal to fiction. Plus, I don’t really believe in the whole self-promotion thing. For one thing, I’m kind of allergic to it. Particularly with fiction. It’s simply in opposition to the work. And I’m not going to bully people into reading it. Or even make the case that they should read it. It’s just stuff that I wrote, which I can leave up to everybody else to be interested in. The work itself should be more of an organic process. And I’m not going to try hard to sell people.

There seems to be a disconnect between the process of writing fiction and then the process of promoting it.
That’s very true. And even the book tour part of it, the literary festivals, any of the public part of putting out a book—

Even this.
Even this! The thing that’s very strange about it is you suddenly go from being a solitary person who makes work to being a spokesperson for a product. I spent about a year just doing the public routine for Everything Ravaged, and that was strange. I found it, psychologically, pretty difficult. I was in the groove of trying to write, and being taken away from that—going from writing to telling people what a writer-person does—was odd. It really becomes this other thing. It stopped being the stories I put obsessive effort into—and became a congealed item that was subject to public perception.

What happens when you write a story?
I view Everything Ravaged as a solid apprenticeship in short fiction. I was trying a bunch of different ways to skin the cat with that book. The short story is a great laboratory for trying different narrative approaches. It wasn’t as if I was setting out to write in a certain mode. Usually I was looking back and fretting over the deficiencies in the stories I’d already written. Trying at least to write new ones, that didn’t suck, in different ways. So that at least if the story sucked, it would suck differently. [Laughs.] There are some stories that were trying to be very tidy—like “The Brown Coast,” which was the first story that I ever wrote. In the first draft, the sentence craft wasn’t particularly elegant—I was trying for a self-consciously Southern vernacular. Others, like “On the Show,” was me trying to succeed with very careful, even twee, language. There are others that are sort of memoir tricks—like, okay, I’m just going to write a really emotionally naked story with no elaborate language and no jokes. Take “Leopard.” But I can’t talk about what happens when I write a story without taking about how much they were all revised.

So…
To me, you don’t know if you have a story until you’ve written it. And it takes me months. And then, when I have the first possibly publishable draft, it still is a process of trying to trick myself into believing in my characters and places. And then the main purpose is going back, after the story is out there, and thinking about what is really going on here. What is the emotional core that the story is dancing around? What’s a way to get at that core in a more meaningful way?

Do you tend to write a lot, and then throw a lot away?
I think I’m uptight enough about language that I don’t write really careless drafts with terribly painful prose. That’s because usually, when I’m writing, it’s not the characters I believe in first. It’s the language. The technique winds up being the strength that keeps the whole thing going. I start with terrifically indulgent sentences, and then the characters start to emerge. When I write the first draft, it’s hard to know what to get excited about, because it’s hard to get excited about a void. It’s a matter of bringing something out of a muffled little object, something that’s bigger than I imagined. Also, it’s a matter, in the later drafts, of being suspicious of that impulse to keep in the indulgent language—you can’t just write a story where you’re playing with words. You need ideas. The language has to be in service to some bigger problem. Otherwise, it’s masturbatory.

Where do your stories come from?
“The Brown Coast” came to me as a fully-formed anecdote from a friend of mine who is a bartender, and then I tricked it out. “On the Show” was taken from my experience as a carnie. Some of my stories began in things that I did when I was younger—you know the young girl, Marie, in “Down the Valley,” who put her mouth over the gearshift? I used to do that. It’s so weird. And I was thinking, I wonder what would be the most awkward situation in which a father could see his child sucking a gearshift. Probably it would be in the company of his ex-wife’s holier-than-thou boyfriend. And in the title story, there is the whole “blood eagle” description, which a friend of mine told me about. [“Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there for a second, then drew Naddod’s lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings.”] We thought it was such an overly fastidious thing for the average, blue-collar Viking guy to get into. What if you were a Viking thinking about doing a blood eagle—and instead said, “Screw it, let’s just get a beer.”

What characters are you attracted to? Are they doing what matters?
I like morally ambiguous characters who have certain low impulses that get in the way of their loftier ones. I’m interested in people who are in trouble, and something has to happen, dramatically. I was just reading some Lydia Davis stories, and they are amazingly gripping. I could never write narratives that manufacture an emotional crisis in such a tiny space. Stories about a woman who could leave a glass of water on the bedside table where it might leave a mark, or she leave it on a book, and it’s a crisis. A tiny, tiny little crisis that contains so much. I can’t write like that. I’m more traditional. I write about what happens. But I love writers like Lydia Davis or Nicholson Baker.

Like Baker’s The Mezzanine.
Right: A guy takes an escalator to go get some milk and then goes back to his desk and that’s the novel. It’s brilliant. I just don’t think I could do it. I feel like I need to tell stories with a more traditional arc. I may want to abstract the form down the line, but I’m also pretty new to stories. I’m trying to get my head around the realist short story and its dramatic objectives. I feel like I need to know more about the form before I can abstract from it.

There is something about your language that is so careful and joyous and witty.
I think that I want my sentences to do all those things. I want my work to be funny—and have a light touch. But I don’t want to write merely comic stories. I want to reach into a bigger space. I want the language to be careful, but I also want it to have exuberance and humanity. I’m obsessed with sentences. And if you’re not obsessed with sentences, you shouldn’t be a writer. It’s amazing to me to see how many of the books on The New York Times bestseller list are written by people who have no interest in sentence craft. And it’s amazing that so many people want to read them. Whenever I open up a book and see sentences, it’s like I’m picking up sheets and feeling for the thread count in between my fingers. If there are thin sentences, then I’m not interested in reading.

Do you know when a story is done?
I would revise for years if I could. I really need editors to take the stories away from me. I hope that I can become a little bit more level-headed about it. I get sort of crazy. I reach down to the micro-micro level, go over and over every word. Even when I get the architecture into place, I still do a bunch of passes. It takes me a while to get there.

And now you’re writing a novel? How has that been a different process for you?
I am. I’m working my way through the first draft, and for now I’m just trying to be nice to myself. Short stories are such an airless medium—you’re constantly aware that readers will be looking, at any moment, to abandon ship. You really have to set sail immediately and then you have to make stuff happen. I think the short story is an incredibly demanding form. So far, writing a novel, I’ve been able to ease myself into it—letting it sprawl more and letting the characters breathe. I can be a little bit less uptight with the language, at least initially.

You’ve also written a lot of nonfiction. Does it feel different to you than fiction?
In the language department, in terms of fiction, there has to be something interesting going on in every sentence—whether it’s rhythm or word choice. Every sentence needs to be able to stand alone. In nonfiction, sometimes you just need to convey information. A lot of magazines don’t let you get away with a lot of show-offy sentence work—there are a few that do, like Harper’s. Maybe there are certain structural things in my fiction that may stem from nonfiction features: the anecdotal lead, the expositional second section. You can see that in a few of my short stories.

In your headspace, is it difficult to switch between the two?
It’s very hard. It really screwed me up the first few years. When I got out of grad school, I was doing a lot of magazine work to pay the bills, and I tried to do this thing where I used the long-form nonfiction creative process for fiction. With a nonfiction story, you go out and you report for a few weeks, and then soon you have huge mountains of notes, and then you sift through it and try to pull out a few nuggets and a few decent scenes, and then you come up with a contextual argument to make those scenes relevant. And then boom, you’re done. I once tried to do the same process with the draft of a short story—“taking notes” on all the possibilities and then trying to distill it into something coherent, and that was just wrong. It didn’t work. With short fiction, you have to do all you can to constrain the writing so it doesn’t herniate. And fiction needs a real emotional coherence. It’s impossible to write big gaseous reams of dialogue and expect to them to dovetail.

And are you getting better at switching back and forth between the forms?
It’s still hard. Physically, I have a fiction desk and a nonfiction desk. Remember, with nonfiction, it’s always so exciting before you go out and do it. Someone calls up and says, “We’ll send you to this offbeat event or this exotic country, can you do that?” You think, “Sure, I can bash that out in a couple weeks.” With fiction, you can’t work on something for a week, and then go away for a month, and then come back and expect to have any depth. There’s a certain immersion fiction requires that nonfiction doesn’t. You have to live it and breathe it. You have to make it your life. It’s a very delicate process: to get into the position that we can make our characters real to us. It’s a particular self-seduction. And a lot of time being alone. It’s amazing to me the people who have full-time commuting jobs, and they squeeze in writing when they can. Me, I need a good six hours to get two or three hours of work done.

Which is more true, fiction or nonfiction?
Fiction is probably truer. Fiction is much messier. I don’t psychologize my nonfiction subjects the same way that I do my characters.

Do you feel like your reporting experience influence the way you see the world and observe it?
I think the way I see the world is just the way I see the world. Reporting didn’t train me to see in a different way. Most of us are moved to write because we look at things that are going on around us and we find them interesting. And then we have the language available to express those moments. That impulse, for me, was there from the get-go. The nice thing that happened when I was out reporting—especially the stories that I tended to do—was that I often had no angle. I used to write three cover stories for the Washington Post Sunday magazine and the assignments would be like this: “We’re going to do a cover story on horse gambling. So why don’t you go hang out at a track for a month and see what happens?” Which is great but also terrifying, because you have to come up with story out of nothing at all. So I’d have no clue what I was aiming for. As much as I could, I would write frantic notes and put everything in there—every little detail, every moment. Even if nothing was going on, it was, okay, let me describe that terrible linoleum. I would constantly keep the pen moving. There’s no quest that puts the details in service of a story. Everything is potentially important. It’s almost the opposite of the deliberateness of fiction.

How do you hope your stories will impact people?
I don’t know how I want them to be read, other than people reading them and saying, “Oh, that didn’t suck.” [Laughs.] I write for people who love language, and people who like story, and people who aren’t averse to darkness—and the idea that in the midst of a lot of hard-heartedness, there can be a moment of decency that won’t trip their sentimentality alarm. People ask what I’m trying to say about the natural world, because there are a lot of animals and trees in my stories, and I’m sure there is a smart answer for that. A lot of European interviewers want to ask me what I’m trying to say about America. Whether I’m in dialogue with a French writer I’ve never heard of. It’s not a puzzle in a box. And I’m just writing a goddamn story. ✧