Sy Montgomery Interviewed by Laura Clark Rohrer

Sy Montgomery’s vibrant writing life has been forged from an awe-inspired curiosity about Earth’s animals. A naturalist and documentary scriptwriter who has penned over twenty books for adults and children, Montgomery has peered into the hidden world of the Amazon’s pink dolphins; gone searching for man-eating tigers; been lovingly assaulted by the globe’s only flightless parrot; and taken an expedition into the “Tarantula Capitol of the World.” A master of decoding scientific complexities, her work focuses not only on animals, but also the individuals who study them. Her adventurous spirit and poetic prose prompted The Boston Globe to describe her as “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.”

In The Soul of an Octopus, Montgomery becomes enraptured by the New England Aquarium’s resident octopuses and the cluster of aquarists and volunteers who care for them. The cephalopods’ extraordinary intelligence and distinct personalities propel her both into the water and into a nuanced exploration of consciousness in which she examines “what it means to think, to feel, and to know.”

 

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery book cover, 2015Laura Clark Rohrer: The Soul of an Octopus is built around the question, “What is it like to be an octopus?” How did you approach writing a book in which you seek to understand the unknowable?

Sy Montgomery: Well, I think I have a wonderful capacity for ignorance. (Laughing) And I’m exploiting my own hunger to know. The things we want to know most are probably unknowable. That curiosity can give us an almost octopus-like elasticity to our mind.

LCR: Is there something unique about octopuses that allowed you to connect with them so deeply, or do you find yourself connecting with other animals on that level?

SM: Oh yeah, I have always felt deeply connected to different animals because, as a child, I didn’t feel there was a separation to start with. Most of us as children don’t feel that separation. Most of us as children, our dreams are filled with animals, and we can still feel the connection to our own past as hunter-gatherers who had to pay attention to the natural world and feel part of it. So that’s who we are, and to embrace the rest of animate creation is our own destiny as humans. And it is extremely dangerous for us to lose that. We’re now seeing the results of what happens when we lose that. We get pollution, we get overhunting and deforestation, and it starts to come back and bite us.

LCR: It almost seems to be rooted too in selfishness, where we forget about the other entities that we share the world with. You point out in your book that the underwater world of the octopus actually dominates much more of the Earth than humans do. It’s convenient, it seems, to ignore that other beings have feelings.

SM: Oh yes, because then we can do all kinds of things to their habitat and to them. It gives us license to treat them badly if we pretend that they don’t think, feel and know. And we’re starting to realize that when we do that we’re poisoning ourselves, we’re poisoning our own world, and we’re poisoning our own spirit.

LCR: So have you gotten any flack from the scientific community for arguing that a cephalopod has a soul?

SM: Interestingly, no. Nature reviewed my book and gave it a fabulous review. But the Wall Street Journal did not. I was thrilled they reviewed it, but it was the Wall Street Journal that said, We can’t know about this.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Sy Montgomery” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]The things we want to know most are probably unknowable. That curiosity can give us an almost octopus-like elasticity to our mind.[/pullquote]

LCR: Do you think that shows that some scientists are more open to the possibility that animals are thinking, feeling beings than the public is?

SM: The public, I think, is ready to embrace that. Take, for instance, your own dog, your own cat. These are creatures who are experiencing the world in a vivid and important way. They love their lives as we love our lives and [we think] that their lives matter and that if we have a soul they have a soul.

But there are now scientific conferences about animals’ emotions and animals’ intellect. Science is looking at this. I mean, not all of science is, and some scientists work very hard to maintain what they see as a right to cut animals up and look into their brains and squash them and then look at their juices.

Animals are such great teachers for us. We’ve known this, you know. Part of what it means to be human is recognizing the connection that we have with other species. So I think when we reconnect with the rest of animate creation it makes us better creatures.

LCR: Would you say that’s the environmental message within this book?

SM: Yes, yes. It’s the environmental message, it’s the spiritual message, that’s what it all boils down to. It’s the how-to-be-a-happy-person message.

LCR: Having octopus friends helps you become a happier person?

SM: Absolutely. I would go home every day from the aquarium every Wednesday singing in my car, top of my lungs. I was filled with elation, just bubbling with elation. I loved those days.

LCR: Were you at all surprised that an octopus could have that effect on you?

SM: Yeah, I guess I was because, here is somebody separated from us. We shared an ancestor half a billion years ago with this animal. And they just are way on the other side of the divide. They don’t have any bones at all. They can pour themselves like water through tiny openings, they can taste with their skin. They are as alien as you can get. If you look at made-up space aliens, none of them are as strange as an octopus and—could I be friends with someone like that? Well, yes, I could and I could care for them very, very deeply.

I look at probably one of the greatest ethologists of all time and that is Jane Goodall. And how did she study chimpanzees and reveal to us the lives of these animals in a way so startling that it caused us, pretty much, to re-define humanity? Well, yes, she used objective methods but she also was unafraid to use her empathy, her intuition, and her emotions. She used her relationship with the study animals as a tool of inquiry and I did that too. I’m not a scientist. I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I’m a writer and I have eyes, and I have a heart, and that’s what I used.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Sy Montgomery” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I think when we reconnect with the rest of animate creation it makes us better creatures.[/pullquote]

LCR: It seems you used that same approach to understand human characters in this book. Did you expect to tell both the stories of the animals and those of the humans that connected over the aquarium tanks?

SM: I didn’t. I had no idea, frankly, that the people would be so great. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation that everyone I met connected with an institution was somebody who I just loved. It’s an extraordinary situation. These are great people. Their stories were kind of like the setting for the jewel that is the octopus’s life because you could see so many parallels. It was great to be able to look at these different situations that people and animals both were facing.

LCR: Some have framed your book as a really good argument against trapping wild animals in zoos and aquariums. What do you say to that?

SM: Well, there are very forward-looking people who can see a day when we don’t keep animals in captivity against their will. But when you think of the world as it is now—in the wild, [octopus] lay 100,000 eggs. Now, why is the ocean not full of octopus? It’s because every one but two of those tiny babies are killed, and in most cases someone eats them alive. So the life that you might have in captivity as an octopus might start to look pretty good if you’re being kept in a place where you are not only safe but there’s something interesting for you to do every day.

So from the standpoint of the individual, probably an octopus lucky enough to live in the New England Aquarium is having a better life than the typical Giant Pacific octopus in the wild who, every single day, has to worry about being torn limb from limb. So, I don’t feel that the octopus that’s kept at a good aquarium is being subjected to horrible cruelty. I think that they can have a very good life in captivity, but at the same time I totally applaud the leaders who are looking at a day when we really look at what the animals want and the value of their lives to them and not just the value of their lives to us.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Sy Montgomery” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I’m not a scientist. I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but I’m a writer and I have eyes, and I have a heart, and that’s what I used.[/pullquote]

LCR: You had never gone scuba diving before working on The Soul of an Octopus. Had you done any kind of underwater research before?

SM: No, I had stayed tethered to the air. I love to swim and stuff, and I’d done a book on pink dolphins, but I’d never done scuba. And since then, I’ve done a book which is coming out next year for younger readers on great white sharks [The Great White Shark Scientist], and I got to dive in the shark cage and that was just fantastic.

LCR: And you came back with all of your legs and everything else?

SM: I was in a cage. In fact I was interested whether I would be frightened. Not only was I not frightened, but I felt an enormous sense of tranquility as the shark approached. The shark was not menacing at all, none of them were that we met. But the feeling I had when this animal was approaching when I was in the cage was the sea had gathered itself in this shape of a shark and was coming toward me.

It was like John 3:16, “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That’s what it felt like, the sea became flesh and came swimming towards me and all I could feel was this great sense of … of tranquil awe as this beautiful creature, as lovely as a knight in white satin, came effortlessly swimming towards me and it was just a privilege that I had, to be in the company of this beautiful fish in his world. That was great.

LCR: It sounds like all of your work becomes spiritual on a level. Is observing animals in the wild your own form of religion?

SM: Well, I’m also Methodist! (Laughing) I still do The Lord’s Prayer and all that kind of stuff. But there’s more than one way to God, and one great way to get to know someone is by studying their works.

LCR: Lovely! What were you doing when you found out that you were a Finalist for the National Book Award?

SM: Oh, this was funny—I was playing with my puppy! But what is more interesting is when I found out I made the longlist. That was when I was in the car with Wilson, driving to the aquarium. I was giving a talk that night about the children’s book [The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk] with Keith Ellenbogen, and when I was introduced for the talk, person introducing me got to tell 200 people that our aquarium was starring in a book that was longlisted for the National Book Awards and everyone just erupted into applause. It was unbelievable.

 

Laura Clark Rohrer is a writer and magazine editor based in Pittsburgh, Pa. Her science writing has appeared on Smithsonian.com. She is the senior editor of Pitt Magazine.

Carla Power Interviewed by Merritt Tierce

If the Oceans Were Ink is an introduction to the Quran, to Islam, to the extraordinarily devout and humble Sheikh Akram, and perhaps most importantly to a rare effort: Carla Power’s attempt, as a secular American, to read and understand the text that shapes the lives of more than a billion people in our world. She approaches this endeavor with great diligence and respect, and never takes the less strenuous path when it comes to difficult conversations about gender roles, cultural divides, jihad, stereotypes, and the nature of faith itself. With a journalist’s mind for the story, a born traveler’s heart for the adventure of crossing borders, and a seeker’s yen for the poetry and mysticism of belief, Power creates an exceptional record of a timeless quest.

 

If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power book cover, 2015Merritt Tierce: The Sheikh points to what he calls the laziness of obsessing over details in the Quran rather than investigating its heart, and of avoiding the challenges of thinking for oneself. You write “Gore and absolutes always grab people’s attention faster than poetry and nuance,” a reality you’ve come by as a journalist; your book points to the laziness in media coverage that privileges the sensational over the subtle. But when the object is to sell papers or generate clicks or increase ad buys, rather than save one’s immortal soul, what exactly is the path (or impetus) toward what might be more honest portrayals of Islam by Westerners? That is—you specifically dedicated a year to the poetry and nuance, and a book’s worth of words. Is there a way to calibrate this more probing, respectful approach to the frenetic pace of the 24/7 news cycle, and did your time with the Sheikh give you any insight into what that way is?

Carla Power: It comes down to what we define as “news.” Geopolitical realities today mean you have to report on groups like ISIS and the Afghan and Middle Eastern conflicts. The economic realities of the news business mean you need clicks, since competition for readers’ attention is stiffer than it’s ever been. But we’ve got to rethink what constitutes “news,” because if we don’t, and we just see it as reporting on blood and explosions, then the extremists of both stripes—ISIS and Boko Haram in Islamic societies, and Islamophobes in the West—have won.

It’s a tough balance. Since the rise to prominence of ISIS, the media have been locked into a kind of ghastly dance with jihadis, where it is these violent outliers who are presented, over and over, as representative of Islam. The extremists have figured out ways of staying in the Western headlines, and the rest of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims haven’t. Let’s face it: quietism is a yawn.

We’ve got to find compelling ways of telling other stories. By focusing exclusively on violence or the worn and predictable narratives of Scary Violent Muslim Men and Muffled Oppressed Muslim Women, we choke off any hope of hearing about other currents in Islamic societies. It’s these internal debates that are crucial to combating not just the image of extremism in media, but for combating extremism itself. The crazies have thrived on the oxygen of publicity. If we figured out a way to give the quiet men and women challenging the crazies near the same exposure, that in itself lends life to their arguments.

I once pitched a piece about a group of top Muslim women thinkers who had come out with the first comprehensive analysis of the Quran’s famous verse, 4:34, which has been used over time to make men authorities over women. It’s the verse that Muslim feminists have called “the DNA of patriarchy” in the Muslim world. So to me, as a journalist, watching Muslim activists across the Islamic world struggle to reform marriage, divorce and inheritance law, this seemed a critical publication, an event arguably more newsworthy of coverage than yet another suicide bombing or hate crime.

The piece came out, but not as news. It was posted in the relatively quiet backwater of the Ideas section. I get why, but I also see the irony: if these women had blown something up, instead of attacking the status quo using classical sources and carefully plotted arguments, they’d have made it to the news section.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Carla Power” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Getting people with divergent views sitting down over lattes and agreeing to disagree is a long way from signing peace treaties. But it’s a first step.[/pullquote]

MT: I love the point you make about equality for women when you say “Akram could content himself with a just God who would even things out after death. Yoked as I was to this life, I couldn’t afford to see my justice deferred. I needed it now, in this world, in my own kitchen and bedroom…” Are you satisfied with Akram’s assertion that the Muslim practice of male guardianship is (or can be) just?

CP: No. Or rather, yes, having the man being the provider for the household can potentially be just, if you’ve hit the jack-pot and you have a just man doing the providing. But without readings of the Quran allowing for true gender justice, assuming that men are guardians of women opens the gateway for massive abuse of power. Muslim feminists around the world are arguing that the medieval definitions of ‘guardianship’—the ones that underpin constitutions and legal codes in many Muslim countries—need revising in light of 21st century realities. They’re doing this from inside the Islamic tradition, not by importing ideas from outside of it.

Akram believes men should be a support for women rather than an authority over them; that said, he’s not as worried about reforming the old notion of the husband being the provider, and thus having the final say in household affairs.

Akram’s more sanguine about potential abuse of power than I am. As you point out, he’s convinced that abusers of power in this life will get theirs in the next one. But he’s a quietist: lots of Muslims are much more eager to see justice—whether gender justice, or economic justice, or political justice—in their lifetimes.

MT: One of the Sheikh’s major refrains is that, for many who claim Islam, there is too much of a focus on being Muslim, as an identity, rather than practicing piety; I feel exactly the same is true for the rampant and ramped-up jingoism many Americans have exhibited post-9/11—not only private citizens, but, dangerously, our government and military. At least the Sheikh has the Quran on his side when it comes to underlining Islam’s call to practice patience, purity, and pacifism, and ignore what distracts from one’s personal submission to Allah. Any thoughts on what a corollary for taming rabid militarized patriotism might be?

CP: Jingoism’s one thing; patriotism’s another. We’ve got to chip away at the notion that being patriotic means supporting imperialism, whether domestic or overseas. After 9/11, Muslims have watched extremists define the global image of their religion, while millions of Americans have watched the notion of what it means to be an American hijacked by post 9/11 wars overseas. If it’s up to ordinary Muslims to remind us that Islam is something bigger than beards and veils, it’s up to all Americans not to let the term ‘patriotism’ become the property of flag-waving jingoists.

The struggle for a pluralistic Islam has much in common with the struggle for an American patriotism that’s more than jingoistic chest-thumping. Just as Akram is urging his students to think about being Muslim as being about actions rather than a matter of beards and veils, we need to do the same. If the Sheikh goes back to his Quran, would-be patriots ought to go back to the Constitution, and its idea that to be an American is to struggle “in order to form a more perfect union.” I think of Obama’s speech last spring, on the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, where he talked about patriotism as recognizing that America was not a finished thing, but an action—a non-stop struggle to reconcile realities and ideals.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Carla Power” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]If it’s up to ordinary Muslims to remind us that Islam is something bigger than beards and veils, it’s up to all Americans not to let the term ‘patriotism’ become the property of flag-waving jingoists.[/pullquote]

MT: Your willingness to engage in earnest with the Sheikh, to try to understand Islam and the Quran from his vantage, and in person, feels so necessary in the age of the Internet’s faceless echo chamber. And yet you are a secular humanist, and the Sheikh is a person who, though it’s hard to imagine a more consummate scholar, believes in an actual fiery hell. Was it difficult to grant the whole set of truths that are unequivocal to the Sheikh’s worldview, and perhaps impossible in your own? (It seems eminently plausible for secular or non-Muslim religious Americans of relatively tolerant mindsets—and relatively stable socioeconomic situations—to take a “live and let live” stance toward Islam, but your position as a seeker is not one of neutrality. You choose instead to deliberately work at understanding what you don’t understand. I’m interested in hearing about how you have a conversation with someone when you know going into it that there are some things they just believe and you just don’t?)

CP: There were days that I sat across a cafe table from the Sheikh, but felt that I was staring out across the Grand Canyon. I was genuinely shocked, the day that I learned that he believed in a hell with flames and chains. It was one of the things that I couldn’t quite understand, requiring a leap I just couldn’t make. Indeed, he didn’t expect me to understand it, as a non-believer—he thought belief in such things crept up on one, and didn’t fall from a great height onto you. It hasn’t crept up on me yet, and the hell issue is one that I couldn’t understand.

We could still keep having a conversation, since he wasn’t trying to convert me. I sound like a marriage counselor, in saying that it was mutual respect that allowed us to keep talking, but it was.

 

MT: Through your conversations with the Sheikh, the reader comes within reach of an understanding of how individual pious Muslims and individual respectful secularists (or Jews/ Christians/Hindus) can co-exist, and even enrich one another’s lives. But how can carefully wrought truces between individuals become institutionalized peace among tribes, clans, religions, nations? Did you and the Sheikh ever arrive at a position of mutual hope for that reality?

CP: You’ve asked the great question of our age—and the answer is way above my pay-grade. Everyone from Obama to parents working to stop gang violence in Rio has pondered it: how do you move beyond individual efforts at peace to group ones? Sitting here in Europe typing, I’m struck by the huge gaps at play during the migrant crisis: individuals opening their homes to the refugees, but governments and EU institutions being much slower to act—and in some cases, outright hostile. The best I can say is that it’s a slow process, particularly in a world where, for all the claims about connectivity and the global village, economic pressures mean that we’re increasingly likely to be hanging out in cultural ghettos. In the West, we’re increasingly likely to live near people who think like us, send our kids to school with people “like us”, and interact online with folks whose views echo our own.

Getting people with divergent views sitting down over lattes and agreeing to disagree is a long way from signing peace treaties. But it’s a first step. The Sheikh would tell his students to go round to their non-Muslim neighbors when they’d cooked biryani and offer them some, and start talking. That’s ad-hoc, low-tech, and will take generations to resonate in a political sphere, but it’s a recognition that peaceful and genuinely pluralistic societies hinge on people mixing.

In the current climate, even these tiny steps mean taking risks. The Sheikh had guts to invite me to speak at his madrasa in a tiny village in Uttar Pradesh. By having an American, Jewish, woman journalist speak in a madrasa in a town where even Muslim women don’t go out in public, risked offending his community in all sorts of ways. He was worried that the more conservative Deobandi madrasas in the area would label him a “liberal”—the prevailing smear among his peers. He was breaking with the town’s traditions of segregation of men and women. But he asked, and I spoke, and perhaps something shifted.

 

Merritt Tierce was born and raised in Texas and received her MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The National Book Foundation named her a 2013 “5 Under 35” honoree, and she was a recipient of a 2011 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. Her first novel, Love Me Back, was shortlisted for the PEN/Bingham award and won the Texas Institute of Letters’ Steven Turner Award for First Fiction. She has been a fellow at the Yaddo artists’ colony and Omi International Arts Center, and lives near Dallas with her husband and children.

Sally Mann Interviewed by Diane Mehta

Sally Mann’s reputation exploded in the nineties with the publication of her book Immediate Family, which depicted, first with unembellished clarity and then more theatrically, the lives of her children on her Virginia farm. Since then Mann has published 11 books. After Mann was asked to deliver Harvard prestigious Massey Lectures, she turned to the boxes in her attic to figure out what to say, a process that led to her eloquently smart memoir Hold Still. What you learn about Mann in 6Hold Still is that she is a provocateur in the best possible way. She is whip-smart: Her mind takes in the world in ways both blunt and slant, and her obsessions are keenly felt. Threading through the memoir, which probes family secrets, long-lasting love, horses, raising children, the legacy of slavery in the South, and her father’s art and influence, is an alert curiosity about the world. She is sharp on the slippery role of memory, how photographs obscure it, steal it. We spent a week talking, over email, about everything from how it feels to photograph the dead to her love of endurance horse-racing.

 

Hold Still by Sally Mann book cover, 2015Diane Mehta: In the prologue to Hold Still, you say, “I knew that a tarted-up form of reminiscence wouldn’t do, no matter how aesthetically adroit or merciful.” The book is frank and playful, sometimes fully exposed and other times wonderfully wry. Did you achieve what you set out to do, did you capture “memory’s truth?”

Sally Mann: No, I hope I didn’t capture it. “Memory’s truth” is a lie. The phrase comes from a paragraph in Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, in which a character, Saleem, contrasts his vivid memory of a tidal wave in the Sundarbans with the actual facts of that time. Saleem’s fictional version, his memory’s truth, is just as strong as the actual truth of this particular moment, and, as is sometimes the case, more desirable.

In Eric Ormsby’s poem, “Childhood House,” he describes the writer’s sense of being unmoored from his past after his mother’s death. That poem delivers a sledgehammer blow to any delusions of fixity or solidity in memory’s relation to the past. It “flits, occludes, is variable, sidesteps, bleeds away, eludes all recovery; worse, is not what it seemed once, alters unfairly,” Ormsby says. Writing and photography are, at best, coarse-mesh sieves for catching memory’s particles. For me, “memory’s truth” is best likened to that mathematically proven line that draws infinitely nearer its object but never arrives.

DM: You refer to Zola’s idea that memory is elusive: “With each photograph I was forgetting,” you said. What moments between the topics you’ve chronicled do you think about most? Do you wish you photographed them?

SM: I think about so many things, unwritten, un-photographed, much of it as entertaining and complex as what I wrote about in Hold Still. I used to envy writers their technical and temporal freedom:  If they want to grab hold of something, they don’t need sixty pounds of camera equipment right then and there; they can just shamble to the Olivetti and start typing whenever the Muse checks in. In a way, the writing in Hold Still is my effort to honor the many important moments, and personalities that escaped my camera, ones that, in many cases, like, say, the moment with Gee-Gee—the woman who raised me—at Putney graduation or Cy Twombly laughing at the roses “up against the wall,” are un-capturable except by words.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Sally Mann” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Writing and photography are, at best, coarse-mesh sieves for catching memory’s particles.[/pullquote]

DM: There was a scandalizing response to the nudity of your children when Immediate Familycame out in 1992. How is it different, as you’ve argued, for a woman and a mother than it has been for male artists who have photographed children nude?

SM: The few depictions of children by men, from Balthus to Lucian Freud to Jock Sturges, have been met with consternation and concern and, in the case of Sturges, the threat of legal action. I think my work was treated less harshly because I was a woman and a mother than if I had been a male, even a father. But, all the same, the release of Immediate Family just happened to coincide with a moral panic about the depiction of children and that brought the whole question to the fore.  It was unpleasant for a while but, as a country, it would appear we’ve moved on to other sources of paranoia. I sure wouldn’t wish my particular travail on anyone else, but am pleased we weathered it as well as we did and I’m now delighted to leave that episode to the historians (and the tireless Terry Gross).

DM: You’ve said you were blindsided by the controversy that emerged out of Richard Woodward’s 1992 article about you in the New York Times. It was worsened by debate around the 1990 Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center that included, among its 175 photographs, five photographs of men in sadomasochistic poses and two of children with their genitals exposed, provoking widespread discussion about what constituted obscenity in art. Is there obscenity in art?

SM: I’m not qualified to comment on the legal application of the word “obscenity,” being more in the camp of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said, in 1964, “I know it when I see it.” But I know for sure its moral meaning is debased when demagogues, who think nothing of bombing hospitals or clear-cutting rainforests, presume to apply it to pictures.

DM: Tell me about the difference between a photograph of a person and the person being photographed. Why do viewers want to overlap the two?

SM: There’s a fundamental urge to equate the man-made image with its real-world referent, which probably goes back to shamanistic efforts to control a frightening environment: Be nice to the rain god’s effigy and maybe the rains will come. But I am not so far removed from that impulse and remain troubled by the relationship between the depiction and the reality, or the perceived reality.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Sally Mann” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Obviously there are brilliant photographers working in all media, and far be it for me to preach a single method for artistically exploring the South, which remains for all of us a fascinating, paradoxical, infinitely inspiring place.[/pullquote]

DM: Can you talk about your influences? In Hold Still, you mention Wynn Bullock, W. Eugene Smith, Lewis Carroll, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Norman Sieff.

SM: There are 100 more, and from all disciplines. I’m a magpie image-gatherer. As we say at auctions, items too numerous to mention: literature (Whitman, Rilke, Faulkner, Proust), a picture clipped from a newspaper of a firefighter trying to resuscitate a child, an Odetta song about a woman slipping a chained man some corn bread, the sight of a dog crazed with pain by the side of the interstate, Larry drifting in the current below the rapids at the cabin, the sombrero on Cy’s bookshelf, a ransom letter made from cut-out letters from a newspaper, Ezra Pound’s Canto 81, almost any poem by Sharon Olds or W.S. Merwin.

DM: What interested you in 19th century photography and why do you prefer it?

SM: Cataloging the Michael Miley (1841-1918) archive at Washington and Lee University hooked me on the nineteenth-century photographic idiom: I printed thousands of his glass negatives, many of them taken literally in my backyard, and grew to love the odd juxtaposition of specificity and mystery. But do I prefer it? Not always. I’ve certainly seen some contemporary work that gives me a similar frisson.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Sally Mann” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I absorbed my father’s fascination with Death, which he regarded without fear or loathing but as a kind of awkward, late-arriving guest at life’s banquet who has amazing stories to tell to anyone who can listen.[/pullquote]

DM: You’ve said, “When shooting with collodion, I wasn’t just snapping a picture. I was fashioning, with fetishistic ceremony, an object whose ragged black edges gave it the appearance of having been torn from time itself.” Why is the wet-plate collodion process, with what you’ve called its freedom of expression and the satisfaction of the ceremonial process, perfect for what you call the “nostalgia-drenched deep South?”

SM: I’m inclined to label as “holistic” those old-time, folksy, soulful, artisanal processes that slicker technologies have displaced. There’s a correspondingly rich theoretical discourse asserting the superiority of that holistic process. But, for me these older processes are simply more congenial for a whole host of personal reasons, not least their openness to accident and undirected distortion. Obviously there are brilliant photographers working in all media, and far be it for me to preach a single method for artistically exploring the South, which remains for all of us a fascinating, paradoxical, infinitely inspiring place.

DM: You’ve talked about making art a kind of childcare. Included in your 1984 family portraits series is “Damaged Child,” a photograph of your daughter Jessie swollen with gnat bites. Your shots gradually became more stylized as you added props and created more elaborately conceived portraits of your children’s lives. What did that transition feel like?

SM: That 1984 photograph of Jessie marked the starting point of the Immediate Family series, which began, as you say, simply by documenting the everyday joys and woes of childrearing: playtime, bloody noses, wet beds. The element of theatricality was a natural progression, effected with the collaboration of the increasingly sophisticated kids who were themselves using role-play as a means of trying out the world.

DM: You cite as influences Margaret Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces, about sharecroppers in the Deep South, and the Steichen-curated 1955 MOMA exhibit The Family of Man. What is it about these that so affected you?

SM: Those are among the foundational texts, if you will, of my particular aesthetic. They somehow spoke to me both on the deepest, most universal level of human compassion and, as well, depicted the unforgettable everyday scenes I saw from the passenger window as I drove with my father on his house calls.

DM: You’re currently photographing African-American men whose ancestors were slaves. What drives your fascination for Emmett Till and what impact has this had on this series?

SM: Till’s murder, which somehow lodged deeply in my young brain, and the unreformed aspects of Southern society which it represents, must necessarily preoccupy any non-Neanderthal Southerner, artistic or not.

DM: Your father had a huge influence on you; he even gave you your first Leica. What skills did you take from his renegade, artistic sensibility, and how do you see them in your work?

SM: I’ve dedicated a quarter of my book to discussing this man and his influence on me, but the thrust of it is that, among other things, I absorbed my father’s fascination with Death, which he regarded without fear or loathing but as a kind of awkward, late-arriving guest at life’s banquet who has amazing stories to tell to anyone who can listen. He listened, and I hope to be doing the same. And, more than that, I think I learned to not turn into that boatman he thought himself to be, yearning, as I say in Hold Still, to go with the current of desire (his largely unrealized passion for art and literature) but rowing toward another destiny (his career as a physician).

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Sally Mann” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]No cinematic imagery can prepare you for the olfactory and tactile and visible assault on the senses at death’s own acreage.[/pullquote]

DM: I’m fascinated by the shots you took of bodies decomposing naturally at the Tennessee Body Farm, published in What Remains. How did you feel about doing this work, and was it in any way an evolution or response to the evocative, dreamier imagery of Deep South?

SM: It was a natural segue from photographing the blood, sweat and tear-soaked soil of the Deep South, then the Civil War battlefields, to working at the Body Farm. In all cases the landscape was death-inflected, but, oh my, did the Body Farm make the carnage of the Civil War easily imaginable for me. No cinematic imagery can prepare you for the olfactory and tactile and visible assault on the senses at death’s own acreage. But just as at the battlefields, here the fundamental opposites of human experience—death and life—were brought together. Like the battlefields, like the Delta, death is the fatal yet fertile mother: What devours also creates.

DM: You’ve pointed out that few sister photographers have appraised and studied a man’s body the way you have with your husband Larry Mann, in the ongoing series Marital Trust and in Proud Flesh. You said: “I joined the thinly populated group of women who have looked unflinchingly at men, and who frequently have been punished for doing so.” How does your female gaze differ from the male gaze that we are so used to?

SM: I’m not sure it’s possible to make comparisons on the basis of two such unequal datasets.  Walk in to any museum and you find room after room filled with images of women as appraised, desired and judged by men. This is the civilization we’ve all grown up in.  The answering voices of women are, as yet, barely audible. It’s difficult to contrast the female with the male gaze when the latter has such an advantage in cultural saturation.

But I’m working to remedy that. The act of looking appraisingly at a man—making eye contact on the street, asking to photograph him, studying his body—has always been a brazen venture for a woman. For a man, these acts are commonplace, even expected. But it has been especially difficult to photograph this man I love with the same degree of calculation and unconcern that I have seen reflected in the parallel work of so many male artists. It is a testament to Larry’s tremendous dignity and strength that he allowed me to take the kind of truly candid pictures that others might find awkward or even shaming.

DM: How do you manage and reconcile this power and responsibility for photographing your husband, even as you say muscular dystrophy and age has ravaged his body? How does loving him affect the photographer-subject relationship?

SM: Photographing what I love is second nature to me, so my work with Larry continues a long-practiced habit.  His trust and patience, and absolute lack of insecurity, continue to amaze me— remember the distinction that Richard Avedon made between the professionals and the innocents? Let’s hope that Larry won’t some day wake up and realize he was an innocent. Joking aside, we have a pretty clear understanding, not that dissimilar to the one I had with the kids: He and they have all believed strongly enough in the work to make their risks worth taking. Of course it’s also more interesting than that; they learned the difference between being a subject and being oneself, and the complicated, intimate relationship between the two.

DM: Given your love for horses and endurance riding, and the 2006 riding accident that broke a vertebra in your back, why haven’t you done a book exclusively on photographing horses?

SM: When I ride, especially the fast-flowing-as-one with the galloping horse on the mountain trails—not to be overly poetic but, yes, it does happen like that—I feel a freedom like no other. It’s basic and primitive and in no way relates to the life of my mind or of my aesthetic sensibility. I keep the two parts of my life completely separate.

DM: Do you feel you have truly captured yourself in any of your self-portraits?

SM: I defer to the myth of Tantalus, in which the desired object is always out of reach.

 

Diane Mehta’s essays, articles, and poems are in the Paris Review Daily, The Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, The Believer, BOMB, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, Fast Company, and the New York Times. She has a small book about poetry and is writing a novel about a mixed-race Jewish-Jain couple set in 1946 Bombay. Twitter: @DianeMehta

Ta-Nehisi Coates Interviewed by Jason Diamond

Even though he tells me, “You aren’t really conscious of what you’re doing always,” it’s hard to read 2008’s The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s of growing up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood and his 2015 book Between the World and Me, which starts off addressed to his son, and not think of the deeper connection between the two books. His memoir was about the things his own father taught him as a young growing up in Baltimore, while Between the World and Me is Coates bridging what came before him and what’s happening today to give his son some context and understanding of the black experience in America. Both books are about parents teaching their children about the world, and it’s that very personal nature of the father talking directly to his son that makes Between the World and Me impossible to put down once you open it up.

 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates book cover, 2015Jason Diamond: When you were starting to plan out Between the World and Me, did it initially start out with the idea to address it to your son?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: No. I had the idea to do it after that. I tried to write it, and I wrote like four different drafts of it, and went back and fourth with my editor. Once we had a pretty decent draft, Chris [Jackson, Coates’s editor] really felt like it was still missing something, and that was where I came up with the idea for the letter. If I recall, we were going to write a straight essay, and then I was going to have a letter to my son after that, but it never got to that. I have some scraps of what that letter would have looked like, but that ended up in Between the World and Me because when I thought of it, I was like, ‘hell, why don’t I angle the whole thing to the boy.’ The dangerous thing about that is that I didn’t want to be corny, like that can be really corny. One of the things that Chris told me, many people had tried to take the ball from Baldwin, to do some sort of impression of The Fire Next Time because it’s such a seminal essay, and most of them had failed. I was really conscious of that. I thought about that, that It could be syrupy, it couldn’t be the talk in any cliche form. It needed to be something bracing, direct, and aggressive, and at the same time reflect how I actually talk in my house.

JD: How do you handle being compared to somebody with a legacy like James Baldwin’s? Does it take you by surprise to hear people say things like you’re “the next Baldwin” or this generation’s version of him?

TC: To be honest, I had heard it before. There were people that said that about my other work. I actually think his influence in my writing was there before Between the World and Me. Baldwin–excuse my language–didn’t give a fuck. He just didn’t care, and I mean that in the best sense of the world. He just kind of said, ‘this is what I see.’ And he’s seemed so stripped of all the kind of maudlin bullshit that you have to do when you talk about black people or America. He didn’t play, and that as a writer is such a radical declaration of your humanity, and I really wanted to do that.

JD: And that comes through in his writing just as it does when you watch something like his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley…

TC: Well Buckley’s just full of shit. He’s just blowing hot air. It’s the enemy of writing, the enemy of any sort of truth seeking, the enemy of trying to actually understand something.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Ta-Nehisi Coates” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]It needed to be something bracing, direct, and aggressive, and at the same time reflect how I actually talk in my house.[/pullquote]

JD: I read that Toni Morrison was one of the only people you reached out to for an endorsement. What did it mean to you to get that endorsement from her?

TC: I didn’t want anybody else, I mean there was one other person, E. L. Doctorow, but he was sick. Doctorow because of the way he interacts with history, but Toni Morrison is the goddess of black literature right now. There’s a tradition that’s behind Between The World and Me that I’m really trying to evoke, and it’s not just Baldwin, it’s Richard Wright, it’s Sonia Sanchez, it’s [Amiri] Baraka; all of that is in there, it’s all baked into that text even though Baldwin is the most obvious one. And our greatest living representation of that tradition is Toni Morrison.

JD: One of my favorite quotes in the book is, “I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might understand the breach between the world and me.” Do you get any closer to understanding that breach by writing?

TC: Yes. That’s the primary reason to write. You just understand more and more and more, and you just begin to get it. You see the architecture. It’s the sky slowly revealing itself, and suddenly you can see the stars and how they relate to each other, and you can see Mars and Venus. Yes, that’s the reason to write.

 

Jason Diamond is the author of the forthcoming memoir Searching for John Hughes (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016). He’s the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and an associate editor at Men’s Journal.

Hanya Yanagihara interviewed by Kirstin Valdez Quade

A Little Life (Doubleday), Hanya Yanagihara’s remarkable second novel, follows four friends from college to middle age. The novel centers on Jude, who has suffered a traumatic history none of his friends can fathom and that he can’t bear to speak about, but that nonetheless shapes every aspect of his life as he ascends to the highest echelons of corporate law, acquiring wealth and influence he could never have imagined as a child. Spanning fifty years, the book is an exploration of the legacy of childhood abuse and of the power—and limitations—of friendship. By turns brutal and exhilarating, the novel brings the reader through some of the most frightening territory imaginable, yet remains relentlessly compassionate.

 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara book cover, 2015Kirstin Valdez Quade: You’ve written in Vulture about the visual art—photographs, paintings, and drawings—that inspired and shaped A Little Life, and certainly the prose has a visual—cinematic, really—immediacy to it. I love, for example, your description of that ghastly middle-of-the-night taxi ride Jude and Willem take to the doctor’s office and the streetlights, “which slapped and slid across his face, bruising it yellow and ocher and a sickly larval white…” What about books? Were there books that you were particularly in conversation with or that haunted you as you wrote?

Hanya Yanagihara: Not consciously, though after I was finished, I realized I’d in fact alluded to, or borrowed, what I might characterize as tonal chords from other books. Two of my favorite novels of the past decade or so are Mona Simpson’s Off Keck Road and Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, and both of those novels—one, a perfect study of a life alone, a small life, and yet a whole life as well; the other, an unforgettably unsettling study of dependency and manipulation and truth—resonated with me and, I think, found their way into my own book, though in ways I imagine are unrecognizable to everyone but me. (Plus—though you definitely wouldn’t know it from A Little Life—I admire both of those books’ brevity, their authors’ ability to make an entire world in a small amount of space.) There’s also Pnin, which, its genuine wit aside, has always struck me as the saddest of Nabokov’s novels. Finally, I was inspired by Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, in particular how boldly and commandingly he moves the literal universe to make room for his own: his creation of a shadow Oxford, for example—the details and physical realities of the actual one bended, reed-like, to suit his narrative—definitely influenced my creation of the boys’ university, which is never named, but for which I rudely displaced Harvard to make space for my invention.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Hanya Yanagihara” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]One person can’t save another. But to be a member of a real friendship means that you recognize that…and try anyway.[/pullquote]

KVQ: Philip Pullman! I never would have made that connection, but I see it now. There is a timelessness to your novel, and Jude and Willem and Malcolm and JB inhabit a world that that is almost, but not quite, ours, unlinked as it is to the major events in our recent history. Your novel is primarily interested in the internal worlds of these characters as they navigate their relationships.

HY: I’ve spoken about this before, but I wanted to remove every external event from this book: once you remove historical landmarks from a narrative, you force the reader into a sort of walled space, one in which they have no choice but to focus entirely on the interior lives of these characters. There’s no distraction and no respite and no tether, either: I wanted the world of this book to feel by turns intimate and oppressive—and utterly inescapable.

KVQ: Would you talk about your title? One of the many pleasures of reading A Little Life—and there were many pleasures, despite the fact that I was often in tears or sickened or physically weakened as I read—was seeing how the meaning of the title shifts and morphs and is inverted over the course of the novel. What does the title mean to you? Were there others in the mix?

HY: It was always the title, though I had a backup—Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days: the name of one of JB’s shows—in case I needed it. But no one seemed to object. As you say, the title is meant to shape-shift as the reader moves deeper into the shadow of this book, and it’s indeed alluded to in different ways, but really, I meant it literally: We have such small lives, all of us. And this is the story of one of those lives.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Hanya Yanagihara” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Even darkness can be joyous to inhabit if it’s your darkness, if it’s something you’ve created and feel certain about.[/pullquote]

KVQ: This book is, at its core, a love story—a particular kind of love story based on deep and unconditional friendship. Regardless of how Jude might lash out or injure himself, Willem, Harold, and Andy remain steadfast in their commitment to him—and steadfast in their hope that their love can heal him. These aren’t relationships I often see represented in fiction. What especially interested you in the unconditional nature of the friendships?

HY: Among other things, I consider this book a story of two romances: the one between Willem and Jude, and the one between Harold and Jude. But I’m not sure that I’d consider either of their friendships with him—as generous and forgiving as they may be—unconditional. Part of what gives relationships their charge is the sense that they are breakable, that within each one is the possibility of a fissure. (This is true of every relationship between humans: One of the greatest socially sustaining fictions we’ve created is the idea that a parent’s love for a child is inviolable.) So much of this book, especially what it suggests about friendship—its possibilities and its limitations—grew out of conversations with my own best friend, and our discussions about the topic. Friendship is ultimately revelatory because of, not despite, its limitations. One person can’t save another. But to be a member of a real friendship means that you recognize that…and try anyway. It’s the realization that what you’re doing may not resolve anything—but that lack of resolution doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

KVQ: And certainly Jude himself can never trust that his friends won’t abandon and hurt him, which is a major source of the book’s tension—and also why, in his darkest moments, he is compelled to test the limits of those friendships. Why do you think Jude never has any particular closeness with women (with the one exception of Ana, his social worker)?

HY: Well, it was deliberate. There’s a lot of artifice in A Little Life, and the near-erasure of women is certainly part of that artifice. Men have such a particular way of relating to one another that I wanted to focus on them. And men, to Jude, are both challenges and embodiments of danger. Often, we’re drawn most powerfully to people who we know have the capacity to harm us.

KVQ: The novel presents the reader with really joyful, transcendent moments, but spends a lot of time in some of the darkest and most frightening places fiction can go. I’ve read that you wrote the book in eighteen months. How did you occupy that darkness as deeply and consistently as you must have needed to in order to write about it so convincingly?

HY: Although the book was as exhausting to write as you might imagine, it was also glorious. Any artist knows and yearns for that period—sometimes hours long, sometimes months—when you feel like you know exactly where you’re going, when your work is propelling you down a track so swift and smooth that you daren’t examine the landscape because you don’t want to disrupt the ride. That’s what it felt like for large, exhilarating parts of this book: It often seemed when I was sitting down to write that I was settling into a toboggan, readying to zoom down a slope. Even darkness can be joyous to inhabit if it’s your darkness, if it’s something you’ve created and feel certain about.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Hanya Yanagihara” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]My hope was always that the experience of reading this book would mirror my experience of writing it: I wanted it to feel like quicksand, like entering a landscape that literally swallows you and then spits you up somewhere else.[/pullquote]

KVQ: This has been a year full of excitement and deservedly high praise for your book. What praise has meant the most to you?

HY: I don’t read reviews and I’m not on Twitter, so much of the praise I’ve heard has been from people who’ve written me or told me directly, which never loses its thrill. I always said that I wrote this book for two people—for me and for my best friend—so I’m amazed and humbled whenever anyone finds something in it that resonates with them.

KVQ: Finally, before I read A Little Life, I’d heard about it from several friends who were completely under its spell and couldn’t put it down. That was, indeed, my experience. The book is all-consuming, addictive, and there’s a remarkable quality of propulsion to your prose. From one writer to another, how did you do that?

HY: Well, thank you, Kirstin, that’s very kind of you! My hope was always that the experience of reading this book would mirror my experience of writing it: I wanted it to feel like quicksand, like entering a landscape that literally swallows you and then spits you up somewhere else. One of the ways I did this was by eliminating line breaks: once the reader enters one of the subsections, there’s no real natural stopping point until the end of that subsection. It forces the reader to immerse herself. The book is, I hope, a demanding one, not just of time and emotion, but also trust; it should feel greedy for the reader’s full attention and energy.

 

Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of Night at the Fiestas, which received a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere.

She is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. Beginning in 2016, she will be an assistant professor at Princeton University.

Lauren Groff interviewed by Tracy O’Neill

Lauren Groff is the author of The Monsters of Templeton, Delicate Edible Birds, Arcadia, and Fates and Furies, a 2015 National Book Award Finalist. Fates and Furies tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde Satterwhite, the golden boy with acne scars and fortune and the stately woman who loves him. Together, they are a beautiful couple with a beautiful life—but they aren’t without their secrets. Divided into two sections, one told primarily in the point of view of Lotto and the other in Mathilde’s perspective, the novel considers the narratives we tell ourselves in order to love. Intricately plotted and rendered with both lyricism and sly humor,Fates and Furies rides swelling waves before cresting with despair and glittering rage. Groff and I spoke in October, just a few weeks after the National Book Award Finalists were announced. We discussed under-read Shakespeare, sexy married life, and the conditions of genius.

 

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff book cover, 2015Tracy O’Neill: In Fates and Furies, Lotto’s father is described as “the spawn of a bear,” and his mother worked as a theater mermaid. Mathilde’s mother, a fishwife, returns home with hands “glittering with scales,” and Mathilde believes her children “would come out with fangs and claws.” These motifs advance a set of pseudo-creation myths for your characters and register a folkloric tone, but I wonder also if these animal elements gesture at a sense of what it means to be human.

Lauren Groff: You’re right, and thanks for the smart read. I’m always suspicious of the urge to minimize or simplify a person to a single character trait or category, which is something that we do to strangers every day. Our hearts are complex and are made exponentially even more complicated when our brains are in the mix, and there is no such thing as a perfectly good or perfectly bad person. There’s a little beast in all of us.

I wanted to talk about, among other things, a few universal emotions like rage (particularly feminine rage) and pride (particularly the pride of the creative person). Sometimes descriptors hold tiny cues for the characters’ personalities.

TO: Speaking of rage, during the second half of the book, a revenge narrative emerges at around the same time that Mathilde begins to think about how Shakespeare’s Coriolanus would not have been received as well if it had centered around his mother Volumnia. To what extent was the play an important influence on Fates and Furies? Were there other revenge narratives that you looked to in writing the novel?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Lauren Groff” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Our hearts are complex and are made exponentially even more complicated when our brains are in the mix, and there is no such thing as a perfectly good or perfectly bad person. There’s a little beast in all of us.[/pullquote]

LG: I love Coriolanus! It’s underestimated, and I think it’s great, particularly in the figure of Volumnia. During the years I was writing this book, I read as many of Shakespeare’s plays as I could manage, failing to read them all, which was my original idea, but, hey, the historical ones were tough for me. I was most drawn to the figures of the Furies, or Erinyes, particularly at the end of the Orestia. By that, I mean, outside of Shakespeare, I was drawn to the Erinyes!

TO: One of the most striking bits of formal play in the novel is the interspersion of bracketed asides or interventions—I’m not sure if either term is an accurate description. For example, you write, “Lotto’s formidable memory revealed itself when he was two years old, and Antoinette was gratified. [Dark gift; it would make him easy in all things, but lazy.]” Could you talk about the role of these bracketed sections in the narration?

LG: I chose the brackets for a few reasons: asides are my favorite things in plays, and Lotto’s a playwright, so it seems appropriate. I was playing around with time, and ideas about time, and had reread To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and loved how in the “Time Passes” section, Woolf was able to write about a much different kind of time, a more elemental, moody, larger, weather-based time that isn’t quite like human time, though human time comes in with these brackets and reminds the reader that this novel is about people. And my original idea for this book was for it to be two books, but they were written in such wildly different styles that I needed to find a way to stitch them together and the voices from the distance, swooping in like hawks, then out again, was my way of joining them. To clarify on the Virginia Woolf bit, I pictured the voices being from a different distance, a different layer of time, bringing the granular human drama into a kind of perspective. I was doing the opposite of what she was doing, in a way.

TO: Addressing Lotto’s marriage, a young composer named Leo says to him, “it’s exhausting to live with a saint.” Is part of the pain in this book caused by the sacralization of human beloveds?

LG: I think that because we can’t see inside our beloved’s skulls, and because we love them, we may assume that they’re purer and kinder and more generous than they may be. Constant emotional imagination, picturing the internal landscape of a beloved, is an act of love. Not being vigilant about doing that can make us stop seeing our loved ones, so that they seem as if they’re unchanging. But we are always changing, and wildly so.

That failure of imagination, I’d say, is part of the pain of the book in that Mathilde couldn’t be as good as Lotto thought she was, and that he didn’t, perhaps bring to her the kind of imaginative attention she deserved.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Lauren Groff” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Constant emotional imagination, picturing the internal landscape of a beloved, is an act of love.[/pullquote]

TO: For me, some of the best moments in the book were those of deadpan humor. For example, Mathilde says in response to a question about her “strange” appearance, “Oh. That’s because I’ve stopped smiling.” At another point, when Mathilde tries to explain that she doesn’t belong to her husband, Lotto sort of agrees to her terms, then begs for her to bring him a glass of water. Could you elaborate on how you see humor working in the tragic novel? And, would you consider Fates and Furies a tragedy?

LG: I tried consciously to use a lot of memes and structures to play up Lotto’s own idea of himself as a tragic hero, but I attempted to undermine that with the second part—so, no, it’s more of a weirdo hybrid with tragic elements. I wanted this book to be as different from the other one that I was working on that the same time, Arcadia, which was a more intimate book, but more painful—this one I wanted to have lots of sex and modes of storytelling and some broader comedy in it. The deadpan bits were often me making fun of something set up earlier as deadly serious, a way of puncturing.

TO: I’m glad you brought up sex. It permutes in valence throughout the story, sometimes reading as sublime, at others transactional or as an insufficient salve. What specifically were you interested in capturing about sex?

LG: Oh, god, sex is the trickiest and deadliest thing to write. There’s the tired sitcom trope that one stops having sex when one gets married, which is frankly stupid, and I wanted to work against it by having my characters do it a lot, yet I wanted to write something more interesting than the kind of sex scenes I’ve been seeing more and more, where the dude is a fumbly-charming and ends up embarrassing himself. In the end, I just settled on sex being a kind of dynamic conversation with power subtly being traded (or not) throughout, the way that good dialogue is really about the power underneath it.

 

[Warning: Plot spoilers follow!]

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Lauren Groff” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]The single-genius model of creativity is insane and destructive and wrong. If you make anything, you’ve been able to make anything because other people have done much of the work for you.[/pullquote]

 

TO: At one point in the book, Lotto notes that “if he was the one who had the relevant anatomy, a mistake would already have been made with the birth control and little Lotto would be even now kicking its heels in his gut. It was unfair that women could have such primordial joy and men could not.” Lotto may believe he’s entitled to a child, but Mathilde has her tubes tied. Is part of Mathilde’s power her power to not create?

LG: YES. It’s part of her power to make her own reproductive decisions. (I used a curse word but took it out for the NBA, ha). And to know that Lotto, charming as he may have been, would have been absolutely no help, and so she would have raised a kid with this man, resented him, ruined the sexy life they’d made and in which she felt secure for the first time. The way she did it was maybe not the right way. But, according to her, the only way she would have been able to keep Lotto’s attention. I think she was right.

TO: In an interview with The Paris Review, Lorrie Moore said, “I have always had to hold down a paying job of some sort and now I’m the mother of a small child as well, and the ability to make a literary life while teaching and parenting (to say nothing of housework) is sometimes beyond me. I don’t feel completely outwitted by it but it is increasingly a struggle. If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about.” In Fates and Furies we discover not only that Mathilde has performed all the accounting, cooking, planning, and, early on, earning, but she’s coerced her wealthy uncle to anonymously fund her husband Lotto’s first play and has secretly revised Lotto’s plays. To what extent is an author’s work ever her “own” work? What are the conditions necessary for genius or, at least, very good artistic creation?

LG: I love that Lorrie Moore quote. This was the very basic seed of the whole project, Tracy—I wanted to talk about privilege, how it’s invisible and is often taken for granted. I read lots of biographies of famous playwrights and the wife’s always this shadowy figure, who is supposed to have done nothing to help this great man create his work, when the truth is blatantly obvious that she did a huge amount of work toward the creation of the work. The single-genius model of creativity is insane and destructive and wrong. If you make anything, you’ve been able to make anything because other people have done much of the work for you. It’s so much worse, somehow, when the people taking their privilege for granted are also sensitive and creative—you sense it’s willful ignorance, not just plain ignorance. Very good artistic creation needs enough peace, money, and shelter to come about. Sometimes education, too. These things are rarely the product of a single person’s hard work, but are rather due to millions of invisible hand—taxpayers’, friends’, parents’, you name it.

 

Tracy O’Neill is the author of The Hopeful. A National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree, she has published fiction in Granta, Guernica, The Literarian, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. Her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in TheAtlantic.com, Grantland,Bookforum, RollingStone.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the NewYorker.com. In 2012, she was awarded the Emerging Writers Fellowship by the Center for Fiction.

Angela Flournoy interviewed by Alex Gilvarry

Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, is a remarkable tale of a Detroit family and the difficulties and secrets that now separate them. It is a debut of immense power that moves through generations—from the 1940s to the present national housing crisis—to touch upon decades of Americana. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flournoy was one of this year’s “5 under 35” honorees, and the New York Times has called The Turner House “an engrossing and remarkably mature first novel” with “a Márquezian abundance of characters.” But Flournoy is by no means a precocious novice. Her novel demonstrates a masterful style, ultimate empathy, and introduces us to a novelist working at the highest level of the craft.

 

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy book cover, 2015Alex Gilvarry: Congratulations on your nomination for your remarkable novel, The Turner House. Where were you when you found out about the nomination?

Angela Flournoy: Thank you! I’ve had an excellent fall season of celebrating, first for the long list then the short list. I was at home at my apartment in Brooklyn when the long list was announced, getting ready to do laundry, when I found out via Twitter. I screamed, and called my mother who lives in Southern California and was very much asleep. Once she figured out what I was yelling about at such an early hour, she screamed too.

AG: Detroit is an often-neglected city, both in reality and in literature. Do you have a personal connection to the city? What drew your imagination there? And how did you land on Yarrow Street?

AF: My father is from Detroit, so I’ve visited the city throughout my life. He was raised on the east side in a neighborhood that is now in similar condition to the fictional Yarrow Street. My personal experiences with Detroit have been largely positive. It’s a city that has faced unprecedented hardship, but it’s also a place with strong cultural institutions and proud traditions. I’d never seen both sides of the city rendered in fiction, so that was something I set out to do in my novel.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Angela Flournoy” link=”” color=”#FCB900″ class=”” size=””]None of our stories are completely separate from the people around us, so it makes sense to similarly intermingle the lives and viewpoints of characters in a work of fiction.[/pullquote]

AG: Let’s talk about the Turner family. They seem to be intertwined with all aspects of Detroit and American history. Which character came first and how did this family evolve?

AF: Lelah, the youngest Turner child came first. I imagined her creeping around the vacant Turner house at night, using her phone as a flashlight, and I wanted to know why. I had the sense that she had secrets, and I decided that the people closest to her did not know about her gambling addiction. From this first decision bloomed all of the others. I come from several large families, so I wanted to explore the dynamic of being a part of something so vast and interconnected. I initially thought I’d focus on only Lelah the youngest, and Cha-Cha the oldest, but the more I read about the history of black Americans in Detroit, the more I knew I also had to include the stories of their parents, Francis and Viola Turner. This widened the scope of the novel.

AG: There are 13 children in the Turner clan, many our main characters–we follow Lelah, Cha Cha, Troy; then there’s Viola and Francis their parents. Was it intimidating to create such a large family and all of those distinct personalities? It’s no short order for a novelist.

AF: I’ve always loved novels with large casts of characters. In some ways they seemed to be very much like real life. None of our stories are completely separate from the people around us, so it makes sense to similarly intermingle the lives and viewpoints of characters in a work of fiction. The most challenging part was deciding which voices would get the most time on the page, and which would appear less frequently.

AG: I want to ask you about “the haint” or the ghost that haunts this novel. It’s such a great word and I’ve never heard or seen it before.

AF: “Haint” is a southern colloquialism for ghost or spirit; I’ve read explanations of it as a variant on the word “haunt,” or somehow related to the word “ain’t.” It’s the term I was familiar with from the ghost stories I grew up hearing, so I thought I’d employ it in this novel that features migrants from the south settling in the north. I’m fascinated by what aspects of culture are lost in migration, and which aspects linger.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Angela Flournoy” link=”” color=”#FCB900″ class=”” size=””]I’m fascinated by what aspects of culture are lost in migration, and which aspects linger.[/pullquote]

AG: Who inspires you?

AF: I’m always open to inspiration, and I find a lot of it comes from my peers, or writers who are only a little older. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division, and his honest and love-filled nonfiction has been inspiring to me these last few years. My friend Justin Torres wrote a novel called We the Animals which is a slim, emotional gut-punch of a book, and I learned a lot about language and brevity by reading it. I’m a fan of the visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, and I follow her on Instagram to see photos of her works in progress. They’re a reminder that consistent, incremental work can add up to something beautiful.

AG: Do you have a favorite National Book Award winning book?

AF: There have been so many great winning books. I readJesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones the fall it won the National Book Award, and was immediately evangelical about it. I was living in Iowa City at the time, and I told anyone who would listen that they needed to read this book. I stopped just short of grabbing strangers by their lapels in the street. It is an elegant and urgent novel. I think I read it in 2 days.

 

Alex Gilvarry is the author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant and has been one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 honorees. His second novel, Eastman Was Here, is forthcoming from Viking.

Karen Bender interviewed by Courtney Maum

The characters in Karen E. Bender’s Refund, a Finalist for the 2015 National Book Awards, live in tenuous comfort, struggling across the changing territory of financial plains. An ailing eighty year-old swindler boards a cruise ship with the last of her savings in a red velvet purse. A dedicated employee who went into airport security after losing both her parents in a car crash is told that she’s a candidate for layoffs. A cat causes a married couple to reexamine their relationship when he tells the wife he loves her. That’s right—the cat. Because that’s the thing about the thirteen gripping tales in this collection, as much as they are about the disappointments accrued during our hourly wage lives, they’re also about the moments of grace that get us up in the mornings to go through it all again. We chatted on the phone while Karen was getting take-out and then followed up by e-mail to talk in more detail about her third book.

 

Refund book cover by Karen Bender, 2015Courtney Maum: These timely and disturbing tales about the role of money in our lives move expertly between scenes of hilarity and despair. That’s what I loved so much about this collection—you really capture the way that beauty exists even in our darkest moments and vice versa. Could you talk a little bit about how you decide—instinctively or otherwise—to balance hopelessness with humor?

Karen E. Bender: I tell my students that powerful writing balances at the edge of hope and despair. Humor works in fiction because it is the individual shouting back at the abyss, and the reader engages with the humor and shares a moment of power with the writer. I see everything with a sense of absurdity, as a coping mechanism, really, and it finds a way into my stories even when I try to just write something dark.

One example: the story Refund deals with New York City right after September 11th, which is obviously a very dark topic. But the story has moments of somewhat surreal absurdity that reveal the strange experience of living in downtown Manhattan at that time. A local park is closed for asbestos cleaning, as the parks were covered in toxic dust, and there are signs warning people not to enter the park. Clarissa, the main character, and her young son, walk into the park and her son hurls his ball toward a garbage bin and a sign that announced, “No playing in or around this container.” Clarissa is terrified, but a janitor tells her not to worry—that the container just held rat poison. Then Clarissa observes—“She never thought the term rat poison would sound nostalgic, but she was strangely calmed.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Karen E. Bender” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I see everything with a sense of absurdity, as a coping mechanism, really, and it finds a way into my stories even when I try to just write something dark.[/pullquote]

CM: Your portrayal of parenting in these stories (whether biological or not) perfectly communicates the desperate attachment, the furious exhaustion, the helpless rage against mortality that parenthood can bring. Do you think that being a parent yourself has influenced your writing?

KB: The journey of parenting is deep and gorgeous and complicated—but parenting is perhaps the most cute-ified activity in American culture—the little onesies decorated with hippos one receives at the birth of a child distract you from the immense, helpless love that overtakes you, and also the fact that the child (from the moment she/he decides to be born!) has her/his own clear desires, complex plans. Parenting is about connection and separation and mortality and time; it has made me more aware of everything, really, how the smallest actions and events are just wonderfully moving and profound.

CM: Employment—both the securing and maintaining of it—is central to all these stories. During a writing seminar, I heard the author Benjamin Percy plead with his students to give their characters jobs. What do you think of the way jobs and job hunting is portrayed in American fiction today?

KB: I agree with Percy, mostly because the world of work and job-hunting is so dramatic! I recently taught a wonderful story by Mavis Gallant, (who is Canadian), called “From Zero to One,” (in her collection Varieties of Exile) which is about her character’s experience as the only woman in an all-male office during World War II; one line that I love from that story is “The fact is that I did not know the office was dull.” Andrea Barrett’s story, “The Ether of Space,” (in her collection Archangel), features an astronomer and her work as gorgeous metaphors; John Cheever writes beautifully about the strangeness of the work world of New York City. Knowing what a character’s work (or lack of work) is can really help you ground a story.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Karen E. Bender” link=”” color=”#FCB900″ class=”” size=””]Parenting is about connection and separation and mortality and time; it has made me more aware of everything, really, how the smallest actions and events are just wonderfully moving and profound.[/pullquote]

CM: Where were you when you got the news of the nomination? You shared with me that this collection’s path to publication was hard and long. Do you have any advice for other writers out there who are working on short story collections right now?

KB: I learned about Refund’s place on the NBA Longlist when it was announced on the Internet, along with everyone else. I knew that the Fiction Longlist would be announced at 9 am on Thursday, and I was curious who was on it, so I clicked on the NBA site then. I saw the cover of Refund there, that glimmering gold, and for a moment, I thought I had gone insane. I was out of town, and I called my husband, and said, “Refund is on the NBA Longlist. Can you check? Is it real?” And he looked and said, “It’s real.” And then we screamed.

Yes, the road to publish this book was long and complicated. To writing students, I would say: if you like to write short stories, read them, discuss them in book clubs, engage with them; make them part of the literary conversation. And write what you want. Work hard. Don’t let your work into the world until it is finished. Don’t ever stop.

 

Courtney Maum is the author of the debut novel I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, from Simon & Schuster/Touchstone; the humor columnist behind Electric Literature’s “Celebrity Book Review.”; and the book reviewer for the 2022-based news outlet, “Sirens” founded by Richard Nash. She also co-writes films with her husband and names products for various branding agencies around the country. @cmaum

Interview with Todd Boss, Founder of Motionpoems

Todd Boss is the founder of Motionpoems, an honorable mention for the 2015 Innovations in Reading Prize.

National Book Foundation: How does the filmmaker select the poem?

Todd Boss: It’s a misconception that Motionpoems “matches” poems with filmmakers. In fact, we offer filmmakers groups of about 10 poems at a time, and filmmakers select their poems from those groups. We invite filmmakers to read, fall in love, and choose.

Filmmakers fall in love with poems the same way any reader does; something in the poem reaches them or speaks for them or touches a chord. If a filmmaker doesn’t fall in love with a poem, we send them more poems until they do.

 

Photo of Todd Boss with Guest Producer Jennifer David (Credit: Sarah Hrudka).
Todd Boss (right) with Guest Producer Jennifer David (Credit: Sarah Hrudka).

NBF: What is the relationship between the poet and the filmmaker like? Do filmmakers often consult poets about the direction of their motionpoems?

TB: We invite the filmmaker to participate in a short, facilitated conversation by phone with their poet if they would like. That’s because they have been guaranteed complete creative control over their project.

We always preface the conversations by telling the poet that the conversation is purely research for the filmmaker and may not have any bearing on the creative direction of the project. We take the opportunity in that conversation to reinforce the fact that the filmmaker is in complete creative control. In fact, I often tell poets that they may not like their films.

 

NBF: Does that happen often?

TB: Almost 99 percent of the time. It’s a shock reaction in its initial viewing and it’s usually overcome in the second and third viewing. It’s just that, at first, seeing someone else’s interpretation of your work is jarring.

It’s a real trust game that our poets have to play. They have to be comfortable with giving up the poem. Smart poets understand that intrinsically. Once you put a poem on paper, it becomes reimagined by every reader. A motionpoem is just a window into one reader’s reimagination of the work.

Most of our poets love our motionpoems after the third time they’ve seen it. It’s just that initial shock that we’d like to prepare them for.

 

NBF: Your entire sixth season, thanks to a partnership with VIDA, features poems from female writers. How do you see Motionpoems expanding the voices of other communities in future seasons?

TB: We just announced that season 7 will consist exclusively of poems from African American writers through a partnership with Cave Canem. We’ll have more representing voices from different cultures and groups. We will also be exploring poems on timely themes that are potent for the moment.

 

NBF: Many of your films are co-produced by presses like Copper Canyon, Milkweed, and HarperCollins. How did these partnerships form?

TB: Really just through an invitational conversation. We say, “What have you got in the coming year?” and “Can we read through it?” and offer it to our filmmakers. The resounding answer is yes; we’re rarely turned down. It’s a great marketing and publicity tool for publishers. It’s also a great gift that publishers can give to their authors.