Alden Mudge

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Michael Farris Smith, author of the gritty, riveting novel The Fighter, credits two big influences for his decision to become a fiction writer after returning to his native Mississippi.

The first, he says in a call to his rented writing studio in Water Valley, Mississippi, was his decision to leave Mississippi and work in Switzerland and France after college. “It’s a cliché to say it changed me, but it changed my life,” he says. “I was just sort of drifting around. I didn’t have any passion for anything. But there I felt connected, and it got me out of old habits.”

In high school and college, Smith was not much of a reader. His interest was in competitive sports. But in the cafés of Paris and on trains riding to work, he began to read the classics of modern American literature—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and, later, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. He saw connections between his own experiences and the internal experiences described by those writers.

For Smith, who now lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, who works as a social worker, and their two school-age daughters, the other big influence was “when I discovered Larry Brown, the Oxford firefighter-turned-novelist. What I found was many similarities between him and myself. His characters, the things that drove them, the choices they made. I knew the back roads he was talking about. I knew the problems those characters were having, and the thought occurred to me that I have plenty to write about if I want to write.”

The setting for The Fighter, Smith’s fourth work of fiction, is the vividly described poor, rural towns and back roads scattered throughout the Mississippi Delta. In the opening section—“Round One”—Jack Boucher is driving alone on one of those roads in the dark, planning to repay his large debt to an unforgiving fight and vice promoter named Big Momma Sweet. Jack, well into middle age, is past the tail end of a long career of cage fighting, a brutal, bare-fisted full-contact sport.

Jack is filled with a sense of urgency to save the land that his foster mother Maryann, the first of several real and imagined guardian angels, entrusted to him but which he has allowed to pass into foreclosure. In a lovely preamble and throughout the novel, we learn how Maryann took in and nurtured Jack, who was abandoned as an infant and spent years in and out of miserable foster homes before coming to Maryann. She is now near death, and Smith describes the visits between Jack and Maryann with great empathy.

“I think the relationship between Jack and Maryann is the most tender relationship I’ve written in my novels,” Smith says. “I came upon emotions while writing the novel that I was really surprised by. My first instinct was to back away. But then I just really wanted to embrace it. There is something of a miracle for both Jack and her in that relationship.”

Also on the road that dark night is a beautiful 23-year-old carnival worker named Annette. She is traveling with the Outlaw Carnival, a group of mostly ex-cons and grifters. Her particular talent is cheating customers who bet on the strange configurations of her tattoos. She is a lost and searching young woman, or as Smith says, “Annette is using this church of coincidence in her own theology to help herself believe that there is an answer for her somewhere.”

The fateful coincidence that really launches the convergence of these two lost souls is when Annette and the carnival boss happen upon the steaming wreck of Jack’s truck and an envelope of money, but no Jack. From there the story unfolds with velocity.

“I came upon emotions while writing the novel that I was really surprised by. My first instinct was to back away.”

“Writing The Fighter was the most momentum-filled experience I’ve ever had writing a novel,” Smith says. “I sat down in September or October, and in March it was done. It was a bullet train. I just never looked up. And I loved it. It taught me about what work ethic and consistency can do. I just couldn’t wait to get there in the morning. It had that propulsion and that energy. But it also absolutely exhausted me. The issues I dealt with in The Fighter—the subject matter and the intensity of it—really drained me emotionally.”

For a reader, a singular pleasure of this novel is Smith’s use of language. It is both hard-edged and lyrical. “My father is a Southern Baptist Preacher,” Smith says. “I think the lyricism of the language had a lot to do with growing up in the church and being around gospel music all the time. The power and imagery of that music really influenced me.”

Also because of his father’s work, Smith “lived in a bunch of different places in Mississippi,” and his previous novels explore some of those places. More recently, he’s “gotten to know the Delta. It’s such an interesting place. When I had that image of Jack Boucher driving through the night, I thought, I know where he’s going. He’s going to the Delta.”

In The Fighter, Smith writes about a violent and unforgiving world. And yet there is also grace and, in the end, the possibility of mercy. “I know people talk about my work as dark and being about the downtrodden,” Smith says. “Well, there are a lot of downtrodden people walking around. There’s a tremendous divide between the rich and the poor, and it’s growing. But we are all looking for an answer. I know The Fighter is fierce, but I think the book is about hope. I always respond to dark and bleak nature with the idea that there is hope.”

 

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Michael Farris Smith, author of the gritty, riveting novel The Fighter, credits two big influences for his decision to become a fiction writer after returning to his native Mississippi.

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“Spirit is a word I like because it suggests something deeper and weirder than joy, a sort of wellspring of life-force.”

Rachel Kushner lives in Los Angeles and is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba. Her extraordinary new novel, The Mars Room, is set largely in the California prison system. Here she answers a few questions from BookPage about her new book.

Why did you decide to title the book The Mars Room?
To me this title suits the book really well and also enhances it, brings it something “extra,” which is what a title should do, I suppose. But it didn’t come easily. I had another title that was simple and bold but a bit crude, or lacking in nuance. I ran it by a trusted adviser who read the book and suggested The Mars Room. At first I was unsure because it’s the title of a workplace in the book, a sleazy club on Market Street in San Francisco where the narrator had worked before her life dramatically changed to what it is as the book opens. I didn’t want to reduce the title to that club. But I began to see that it had other associations, just from the words alone, and how they can’t blend but are forced to. Mars is mysterious, red, distant, and also, it’s not just a planet but the god of war. “Room” suggests, at least to me, something solitary, plain, limited and confining. Mars and room: a strange combination that to me suggests an otherworldly place, not necessarily in a nice way. There is something gloomy and menacing about it.

What was the most significant discovery you made in doing your research for the book?
Maybe I’m a stickler for semantics, but I feel like I didn’t really do any research for this book. I had decided, six years back, to try to learn everything I could about the California prison system. I made that decision as a person, a woman, and not as a writer looking to research. Eventually, I ended up with this novel, but I also ended up forming bonds with people in prison and out of it whose lives had been touched by the criminal justice system, and that work continues, despite having finished the novel. I thought about class and how it affects pretty much everything and about people I’d known who had gone to jail and prison, and I embarked on a journey that resulted in this book.

I’m racking my brain for a significant discovery, but I strangely don’t think I discovered anything that was exactly a surprise to me, but I went into this phase of life without any judgments or set ideas about what I would see, which I think is crucial for a writer, to observe finely and without reaction. Maybe the discovery was how painful it was to write certain parts of the book, to think into destiny and try to answer, on behalf of someone doomed, the question of how she could attach meaning to her life. Another totally different discovery was how easily I could inhabit the mind of a rogue cop/contract killer named Doc, who has nothing to live for but his memories of the Harleys he once owned, the bars he went to, the streets he terrorized, the people he killed.

Many of your characters, even those on death row, seem to be serious readers of fiction. Why are books such an important under layer for your characters?
Well . . . only the narrator and one other character really read. Certainly none of the characters on death row in this book are readers. Betty LaFrance seems only to read newspapers articles about her murder conviction. Geronima Campos prefers to paint and draw than to read. Candy Peña knits baby blankets and is probably illiterate. And no one else in the prison is what I would consider a “serious” reader of fiction. Sammy reads Danielle Steel. The narrator likes to read, but she’s not educated, not beyond high school, and she’s not an intellectual. She reads for escape. My character Kurt Kennedy has been trying to read the same trashy Vietnam War novel for three years and talks about the problem of reading, how relentless it is (you get through one paragraph, he says, and then there’s another, and they just keep coming).

There is one character who is a serious reader of fiction, Gordon Hauser, but he’s truly an exception and meant to be, in a way. He’s not in prison. He is a failed academic who ended up teaching in the women’s prison, and is also someone who feels a deep connection to literature and, in a naïve and possibly problematic way, believes that his own love of literature can be cultivated in the students in his prison class, and that they can nurture some kind of mental freedom through intellectual engagement. This is a beautiful idea, but it is thwarted on many levels. He teaches the women children’s literature, and most of them don’t bother to read it, and they make fun of him instead of internalizing his own values, and he comes to understand that even as he knows things they don’t, the reverse is also true. They know things he will never be able to grasp, not even remotely, and not even Dostoevsky can instruct him when he is faced with the moral ambiguities at the heart of the book.

You include adapted excerpts from Ted Kaczynksi’s coded diary here. What do you think these add to the shape of the story?
They are basically straight excerpts, I just rearranged a few things. My friend James Benning, an artist and filmmaker, owns and decoded the diaries and allowed me to use them. James Benning built exact replicas of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond and Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana (both are located on his property in the Sierra Nevada), and he has done a lot of work into thinking about solitude, anger and the nature of an American transcendentalist thought, the darker direction it can go in.

Gordon Hauser, my character, was meant to write a dissertation on Thoreau, and is given, as a joke by a friend, Ted Kaczynski’s diaries (in the parallel universe of my book, they are published and readable by a general public). Gordon begins to read them in his cabin. They appear after each of his chapters, and perhaps one effect is that what is Gordon’s thought and what is Ted K’s bleed together a little, on the edges, because these words of Ted K’s the reader understands to have been read by Gordon Hauser. How did he react to them? What did he think? What Gordon reads becomes part of how we regard him.

But in terms of what they add, sometimes a writer makes instinctive decisions that aren’t straightforward or obvious. This was one of those decisions, and yet I was sure it was the right thing to do. I could imagine someone looking into this someday, attempting to account for the inclusion of those diaries, examining how they function, but I think the person who will do that will not be me, but someone else.

Surprisingly, the novel, while often grim, is also darkly funny. Was that humor difficult to achieve?
I felt even before I’d written a word of this book that it had to be funny. Not for the reader, who I wasn’t really thinking of, but for me, for the whole experience of taking into my interior life a grim, existent world full of despair and violence and trauma. It’s still a world, and people live in it, meaning there is also energy, absurdity, joy and spirit. Spirit is a word I like because it suggests something deeper and weirder than joy, a sort of wellspring of life-force. A will to subvert. If I could not find that will, the subversion of humor, I felt it would be a sign I hadn’t thought deeply enough into my material, my characters, the scenes they inhabit. The humor—it’s pretty nasty and louche humor, but that’s my sensibility to some degree—anyhow, the humor came pretty easily, it turned out, and buoyed me that I was on the right track.

As in The Flamethrowers, you write in The Mars Room with affection and knowledge about cars and motorcycles. What do you drive these days?
A 1964 Ford Galaxie two-door hardtop coupe. I’ve had other cars, but this was my very first car. I’ve had it for 25 years, so the sentimental attachment is deep. I can never get rid of it. And I’m paranoid someone will steal it. Then again, in this plastic world of planned obsolescence a lot of people don’t care about classics and don’t even notice them or know anything about them. As my character Jimmy Darling points out in The Mars Room, One Cadillac Plaza, former headquarters of GM, in Detroit, is now a lottery disbursement office. Which kind of tells you everything you need to know (about the transition from manufacturing to finance capital). If we can’t go back to earlier times, and we cannot, some of us can at least cherish and maintain certain relics, and drive them, too.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Mars Room.

Rachel Kushner lives in Los Angeles and is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba. Her extraordinary new novel, The Mars Room, is set largely in the California prison system. Here she answers a few questions from BookPage about her new book.

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Mark Kurlansky dives into the surprising history of dairy in his latest book, Milk! Rich in facts, this book offers everything from recipes to the science behind the raw milk movement. Here, Kurlansky (PaperCod, Salt) tells us about his favorite cheese, the wonders of milking machines and cow flatulence. 

Milk! is your 20th published book of nonfiction, not to mention your novels and children’s books. What’s the secret sauce for being so prolific?
My father was a dentist. He walked to his office five days a week and sometimes more, first thing in the morning, and put in about 10-12 hours a day. That’s how he put us through school, and that is how I have put my daughter through school as well.

What surprised you most from your research about milk?
How many controversies there have always been, why it was the first food tested in a laboratory and the most regulated food in the world.

Aside from creamed potato leek soup, what are your favorite recipes in the book?
Coupe aux marrons, my favorite ice cream dessert. It is a simple recipe. I use that of Henri Charpentier, a popular chef back when coupe au marrons were. It takes some skill to candy chestnuts, but you can just boil them. Also Indian pudding, which reminds me of my childhood in New England; Pellegrino Artusi’s wonderful caffè latte gelato; Indian paneer Makhani; and Escoffier’s sole normande. Of course, nobody eats like that anymore, but maybe they should occasionally.

What’s your favorite cheese and why?
Nouveau Roquefort, made in the winter and sold in the spring, because it is both strong and subtle. Epoisses in the fall, because it is creamy and complex. And I love the real Basque sheep cheese, the strong ones made high on the mountaintop. You have to go there to get it. In the U.S. you get a sad imitation.

What’s the most unusual type of milk you’ve drunk? Have you tried donkey’s milk?
I have never tried donkey milk. I have tried camel milk in Dubai. It has a distinct flavor a bit like goat. But it makes fantastic ice cream in flavors such as date or saffron. Saffron camel milk ice cream is not only beautiful—that bright orange color with threads of red saffron—but one of the great taste thrills of the Arab world.

Where do you stand on the raw-versus-pasteurized milk argument?
This is a public health argument. It’s like salt. It is not true that large amounts of salt are harmful to everyone. It is to some people, and the complexity of the issue does not lend itself to public administration, so they just tell everyone to eat less salt. No harm in that.

Well-supervised raw milk is perfectly healthy. In fact it may be more healthy. It tastes better, also. But it is a logistical nightmare to supervise it. And a lot of people used to die from badly supervised raw milk. So the safest thing is to say that it should all be pasteurized. Too bad, really. If they at least wouldn't homogenize it, that would be good. There is absolutely no question that the best cheese is made from raw milk.

What farm visit was the most revelatory to you? Why?
Farms, like fisheries, have their own story to tell, and that story comes with many lessons. It’s hard to single one out. Certainly the most striking was the nomadic yak herdsmen of northern Tibet, still hand-milking in the field at altitudes almost too high to breathe, except for the yaks who like that thin air. The most fun I had was at my friend Brad Kessler’s Vermont goat farm. Young goats are just a lot of fun.

What was the most significant technological advance in the history of milk?
I think it was the milking machine. It did not come along until late in the Industrial Revolution because all cows are different, and even the teats on the same cow have significant differences. But once it was figured out, you could milk them by the thousands, and that was the end of the small family dairy farm.

Hmm. Cattle flatulence and green house gasses? Tell me more.
Well, it seems cows fart such gasses as methane. Not a big deal on the 100-cow farm. But when you have a few thousand farting together, that impacts the climate. The neighbors start complaining, also.

If you were to recommend one book from your extensive bibliography, what would that be?
They are all worth looking at, from the history of breastfeeding and ancient history to the many food books to mid-19th-century diatribes against raw milk. Check them out.

Author photo by Sylvia Plachy

Mark Kurlansky dives into the surprising history of dairy in his latest book, Milk! Rich in facts, this book offers everything from recipes to the science behind the raw milk movement. Here, Kurlansky tells us about his favorite cheese, the wonders of milking machines and cow flatulence. 
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During one of several research forays for his brilliant first novel depicting contemporary experiences of urban Native Americans, Tommy Orange discovered Gertrude Stein’s famously misunderstood quote about Oakland, California: “There is no there there.”

Why was that important?

“She was talking about how the place where she had grown up—Oakland—had changed so much that it was no longer recognizable,” says Orange during a call to his home in Angels Camp, California, not far from Yosemite Valley. Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, was born and raised in Oakland. “I didn’t immediately know this was going to be the title. But there was so much resonance for Native people—what this country is now compared to what it was for our ancestors. The parallels just jumped out at me.”

Set in Oakland, There There follows the intersecting lives of 12 contemporary Native Americans as they prepare for the Big Oakland Powwow. Some, like young Orvil Red Feather, want to connect with Native traditions. He discovers Indian dance regalia hidden away in the closet of his aunt, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, a mail carrier who as a child was part of the Native occupation of Alcatraz Island, but who now “wants nothing to do with anything Indian.” Orvil has taught himself to dance by watching videos on YouTube.

Octavio Gomez, an alienated young Native American, sees the powwow as an opportunity to rob businesses to pay off drug debts. He is close with his uncle Sixto, who at one point tells him, “We got bad blood in us. . . . Some of these wounds get passed down.”

And then there is Dene Oxendene, the character who is perhaps closest in experience to Orange himself. A graffiti artist of mixed heritage, Dene tremulously applies for—and receives—a grant to collect the oral histories of Oakland’s Native people. “I actually got a cultural arts grant from the city of Oakland to do a storytelling project that never existed but for the fictional version in this novel,” Orange admits, laughing.

Orange, who is now 36 and a recent graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ MFA program, did not grow up reading fiction or wanting to be a writer. He played indoor roller hockey until the sport died out, and he has a degree in sound engineering. “There weren’t many job prospects,” he says. “People with stars in their eyes who wanted to end up in big studios had to be willing to fetch coffee and clean toilets, so we were told.”

So Orange got a job at a used bookstore. “At the time, I was reading to find meaning,” he says. “I was raised religiously, Christian evangelical. My dad was into the Native American Church, which is the peyote church. Both of my parents were intensely into God. But none of that was for me. I was reading to figure out what it all did mean to me. I found fiction first through Borges and Kafka. I was actually eating a doughnut on a break, reading A Confederacy of Dunces, when I realized what a novel could do. In that singular moment, I became obsessed. Once I knew what a novel could do, I wanted to do it.”

Orange first imagined There There around the time he and his wife, a psychotherapist whom he met when they were both working at Oakland’s Native American Health Center, conceived their now-7-year-old son.

“I was driving down to LA with my wife, and it just popped into my head all at once,” Orange says. “I knew I wanted to write a polyphonic novel and have all the characters converge at a shooting at an Oakland powwow. Growing up in Oakland, [I saw] that there were no Native-people-living-in-the-city-type novels. They were all reservation-based. That made me feel isolated. If I was reading about Native experience, it had nothing to do with my experience. So my idea was to have a mix of the contemporary with the traditional, an urban feel, with echoes of violence and the continuation of violence in Native communities.”

“I wanted to find a way to portray the way Natives experience history.”

One of the animating questions for all the novel’s characters is what being Native American means today. Orvil, for example, alienated from his heritage, anxiously Googles, “What does it mean to be a real Indian?”

“For a long time,” Orange says, “a real Indian meant someone who does not exist anymore. We’re going through a period right now as a people, wondering—because there are 575 recognized tribes, each with its own language and way of thinking—are we doing harm against Indian identity by talking about us as one people? But at the same time, we’re probably more alike than we are different.”

Which is why the idea of powwows is so symbolic for Orange. He didn’t grow up going to powwows. But later in life, he was on the Oakland powwow committee. “The reason it works so well for Native people living in the city is that it is intertribal. All these tribes come together to do one thing together. It’s a marketplace, but it’s also where we see each other as Native people. It’s an intensely visible, communal space, with people coming together, dancing and singing the old ways.”

Orange says it was very important for There There, a novel with many characters and voices, to be a readable book. “It’s an elusive thing,” he says. “Native people, I think, have a skeptical view of history, the way it’s taught and the way it’s understood by the average American. There’s a certain burden to inform correctly. I wanted to find a way to portray the way Natives experience history. And I wanted to find a way to do it in a compelling and, again, readable way.”

In There There, Orange has succeeded in doing just that. It’s a compelling read, a stunning tour de force and a display of Orange’s impressive virtuosity.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Elena Seibert.

During one of several research forays for his brilliant first novel depicting contemporary experiences of urban Native Americans, Tommy Orange discovered Gertrude Stein’s famously misunderstood quote about Oakland, California: “There is no there there.”

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Paula Saunders has been working on some of the material in her wrenching debut novel since she was in graduate school some 30 years ago.

“It was like following little fires around the hills,” Saunders says of her long composition process during a call to her home among the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains. “I followed whatever I could find to make it work. Not blindly, but consciously.”

Set in Rapid City, South Dakota, in the 1960s, The Distance Home tells the story of psychological trauma in a seemingly normal, working-class Midwestern family. Al and Eve marry young and live for a while in his parents’ basement before striking out on their own and starting a family. Al, a cattle trader, is away from home for long stretches of time, and when he returns he vents his frustrations, sometimes brutally, on their oldest child, Leon, a sweet, remarkably sensitive boy and a gifted ballet dancer. René, their daughter, is the golden child. She is lively, successful in school and is also a talented dancer. She develops a deepening sense of how unjustly her brother is being treated and the damage being done to him. Jayne, the youngest, is so young that she seems to escape most, but not all, of the trauma. The novel begins quietly, but in the end is profoundly moving.

Like her character René, Saunders grew up in Rapid City and studied ballet. She later danced as an apprentice with the Harkness Ballet in New York. So, is The Distance Home autobiographical?

“That’s such an interesting question,” Saunders says. “For me it is an autobiographical novel. But for a lot of other people involved, maybe it wouldn’t seem so. I think the invention in the novel comes from trying to draw out a relationship that I have an impression of. I have a deep love and concern for each of these characters, and of course they reflect my family circumstances. I had a brother who passed away early from liver failure, and I have a very dear sister who is still here. A big part of the material for me was trying to understand it and see it more clearly. So I created the circumstances that make sense to me, given the character of the people I knew and the eventualities that occurred.”

Asked about her understanding of the tragic figure of Leon, Saunders says, “There are people who can accept the rules of culture, adapt to them and become good at them, even though the rules often have a raw, jagged edge that is hurtful to others and yourself. But there are people who for one reason or another can’t acquire the rules or find them unacceptable. They suffer in a hidden way. Their feelings lead to some kind of alcoholism or drug addiction because they haven’t found an acceptable way in the culture to express themselves. That’s what I think about the tragedy of Leon. There are people who are very tender and very hurt by our culture. Most people can adapt, but some people can’t.”

A singular pleasure of the novel is Saunders’ depiction of the landscape around Rapid City. “That physical landscape is very much a part of me. I have just loved it. As a child you completely soak in all the things that surround you.”

But it is a morally complicated geography as well. Subtly, but quite deliberately, Saunders names some of the worst sites of Native American massacres. And some of her minor characters are obvious in their dislike of Indians.

“There are people who are very tender and very hurt by our culture. Most people can adapt, but some people can’t.”

“Well, the book is a lot about inequality and unfairness,” she explains. “And it’s also about violence. There’s violence that happens in the book all the time. To me, there’s no greater violence in this country than the genocide of the American Indians. It’s a horrific thing that we carry with us, that we never acknowledge or apologize for. We just keep consuming and moving to take for ourselves what isn’t necessarily ours, without any thought of who we’re leaving behind. That’s important to me, and that’s why there’s a parallel drawn between Leon and Native Americans.”

Saunders and her husband, George (who published his own debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, last year), are longtime practitioners of Buddhism. She says this helped her in working with emotionally fraught material.

“Without that practice, without that kind of new way of looking at it, without cultivating that kind of understanding, I don’t think I could have written it.”

Saunders wrote much of the book on a repurposed dining room table from Home Depot in a tiny room in their house outside of Oneonta, New York. To escape the winters of the Northeast, they later bought a house in California. That’s where she finished working on the novel. “I wish I could say I was writing in a little closet,” she says, laughing. “But I have a dream writing space. We’re up in the redwoods. It’s large. It has windows on three sides, one looking over a vast vista. It’s very calm. I can’t describe how much I love this space.”

Saunders thought she had finished the novel, written then in first person, and sent it to her former teacher Toni Morrison to read. “I hate to claim this, because it’s like wearing clothes that are too big, but I sent it to my great mentor. She read it, and she is not, let us say, reticent with her critique. I was a bit taken aback. I had to go and rethink the main character. I realized that if I moved that character into third person, I had the key to the character. So I went back and wrote the whole book again in third person. That took about a year and a half.”

After so much time, the publication of this novel “is really satisfying,” Saunders says. “To have this novel accepted and put forward so that other people can read it and appreciate or understand it in their own way also feels like a big blessing to me.”

 

This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo © Chloe Aftel.

Paula Saunders has been working on some of the material in her wrenching debut novel since she was in graduate school some 30 years ago.

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Two months before Esi Edugyan’s splendid new novel, Washington Black, was published in the United States, it was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

“That was a great gift,” Edugyan says of the favorable attention during a call to her home in Victoria, Canada. “I’m a Canadian novelist. Not only that, I’m a novelist from western Canada. To be noticed was like a miracle.”

Washington Black is itself something of a miracle. Opening in Barbados in the 1830s, it tells the story of Washington Black, an 11-year-old slave on a sugar plantation whose life is forever changed when he is removed from hard labor and “loaned” by his owner to Christopher “Titch” Wilde. Titch is an eccentric naturalist, inventor and abolitionist who initially wants the young Washington to serve as ballast in his experiments with hot air balloons.

Washington turns out to be a gifted artist and naturalist himself. The two develop a fraught relationship that takes them from Barbados to the Arctic and the deserts of Morocco until Washington ultimately gains his freedom. Told from Washington’s point of view, the novel examines both what it means to be truly free and the complex power dynamics of its central relationship.

Edugyan, who was “born on the prairie” in Calgary, Alberta, is the daughter of parents who emigrated from Ghana. She is married to Steven Price, a poet and novelist, who is her first reader. “From the first draft, he’s the only one who knows what I am writing about,” she admits. The couple have two children, ages 6 and 3, who are voluble in the background as our conversation begins. “Yeah, they are pretty high energy,” she says, laughing.

Edugyan took a circuitous journey in conceiving Washington Black, beginning with reading a story by Jorge Luis Borges about an ill-fated 19th-century impostor named Tom Castro, who claimed to be the shipwrecked scion of a wealthy English family. Borges’ story is told through the voice of an ex-slave. “I found myself interested in the voice of this former slave and his journey from one world—a very brutal world—to this other world. That’s where the book grew out of.”

It is apparent from her previous novel, Half-Blood Blues, also a Man Booker Prize nominee, that Edugyan is fascinated by sounds and voices within her fiction. Half-Blood Blues unfolds from the point of view of a black jazz musician in Germany at the outbreak of World War II and captures the rhythms of jazz and the desperation of that era. In Washington Black, Washington’s voice seems to speak across the decades from the 19th century. “They had to sound true to their eras and backgrounds,” Edugyan says of her narrators. “I wanted this to have the sense of a written narrative, a bit formal, as though it’s a slave narrative that’s been transcribed for the record.”

Edugyan says she doesn’t write autobiographically and speculates that writing from male points of view “is maybe a way to put some distance from myself.” To achieve that authentic-sounding voice, Edugyan read a lot of nonfiction. She mentions Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, Richard HolmesThe Age of Wonder and Andrea Wulf’s book on the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, as being influential. “I’m somebody who really enjoys reading widely,” Edugyan says. “I enjoy research and delving into things deeply. But of course, at some point the trick is to stop, because you could turn your whole life into researching. At about the halfway mark, you don’t want to do any more research. Then you’re reading for prose that is just really beautifully written.”

“I didn’t want these abolitionists to be viewed as the great white saviors. It’s not just black and white.”

The 1830s, in which Washington Black is set, were an especially significant decade in the history of slavery. Although the slave trade had been outlawed in the British Empire, slavery itself was still legal. “It seemed like this was a really potent time,” Edugyan says. It afforded her the opportunity to examine the complex relationship between Washington and Titch. “I wanted to show something more nuanced and more subtle about the relationship. I didn’t want these abolitionists to be viewed as the great white saviors. It’s not just black and white. I think there’s a lot of gray. Theirs is not a true friendship. The power imbalance is just so staggering.”

Both Titch and Washington are haunted by their pasts. Titch, burdened by the expectations of his colonial family, is a man “who was very enlightened for his era, very open-minded. You get the sense that if he met Washington today, they could have a good friendship. But he’s living in the shadow of this very strange relationship. There’s something unfinished there.”

And Washington? “He comes out of a life of brutality and savagery. He’s wondering how to begin to live a life that he owns.”

Furthermore, the early 19th century was a period when Europeans were exploring the Arctic. Her knowledge of sea life adds pleasurable depth to the novel. “We live right on the coast,” she explains. “Having young children always asking questions when you’re at the beach makes you see things anew. Growing up, I didn’t know tons about sea life, but I’m learning now. It’s an interest of mine.”

Her efforts have paid off in this story of high adventure with a unique and compelling character. “I’m lucky to be writing in an era when stories from people of color are things people want to hear. I know that 30 years ago that was not the case. It was a struggle. But I do feel now in the Canadian landscape there’s a real effort being made to be more inclusive.”

 

This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Tamara Poppitt.

Two months before Esi Edugyan’s splendid new novel, Washington Black, was published in the United States, it was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

Interview by

Despite the fact that John McPhee’s delightful new collection of essays, The Patch, is his 33rd book, he thinks it’s “ridiculous” to call him a prolific writer.

“Here’s the thing,” he says during a call to his home in Princeton, New Jersey. “Every day you go over there [to his office at Princeton University] and try to get going. And you don’t get going, and you don’t get going—and you spend your whole day staring at the wall. Then a little panic sets in because you’re getting nothing done. Then maybe between 5 and 6 in the afternoon, you get something done. Then you go home, and the next day is the same, and the next day is the same. In other words, you spend most of your time not only alone, but getting nothing done!”

McPhee says he imagines the “something” at the end of day—a paragraph or two—as a few drops in the bucket. “If you do that 365 days or 330 days a year, the bucket is going to have some water in it.”

But still, a lot of people haven’t written 33 books, right? “And a lot of people aren’t 87 years old,” he replies, laughing.

At 87, McPhee is still writing and teaching his influential undergraduate writing class at Princeton, where he grew up as the son of a University team physician. McPhee has an office in Guyot Hall in “a kind of fake medieval turret that used to be a paint closet,” and he rides his hybrid bicycle roughly 2,000 miles a year.

Readers of The Patch first learn about McPhee’s bicycle riding in an amusing essay called “The Orange Trapper.” But while a bike getaway is an important part of the story, the essay is really about McPhee’s obsession with collecting golf balls. The titular “Orange Trapper” is a device he uses to sate his particular appetite. McPhee writes that he quit playing golf altogether at age 24, but as this and another great essay (“Linkland and Bottle”) convey, he’s still very interested in the details of the sport and the changing nature of the ball itself.

“My fascination with golf was from the war years, when I was a little kid and caddying at a local golf course. [The scarcity during] the Second World War made it clear that hunting for balls was like a treasure hunt. That’s the source of my compulsion to find golf balls.”

Clearly, McPhee is also obsessed with the arduous task of producing precise, invigorating nonfiction narratives. He is probably best known for his stunning narrative of America’s geological history, sections of which appeared over the years in the New Yorker magazine and in separate books. When collected into the single, strapping volume Annals of the Former World, McPhee was awarded the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. But he has written books on an astonishing range of other subjects—oranges, the Alaskan wilderness, America’s nuclear power technology and basketball player Bill Bradley, to name a few. McPhee’s writing and teaching has influenced generations of writers of literary nonfiction.

The range of McPhee’s interests is on joyous display in the second section of his new book, which he calls “an album quilt.”

“It’s called an album quilt because each block in an album quilt is unique; it doesn’t repeat the other blocks.”

“It occurred to me that there was a lot of material that I had written in various places, including for private purposes, that had never been in book form, and there was a lot of fun in some of it,” he explains. “I wanted to do a piece with fragments of that stuff, fragments that would be amusing and interesting to read in 2018.”

So over time, McPhee went through years of material, amassing a collection of some 250,000 words from nearly 60 years of writing. He threw out almost 200,000 words in the editing process.

“The goal was not to preserve anything. I kept 56 items, some of which are a fraction of a page, and the longest of which are about four pages. I wrote a cover story in Time magazine on Sophia Loren, for example, and there are two or three paragraphs from that story because they were the ones that fit this idea. I put them together without dates or an index. I wanted it to have a kind of antique impression, talking about Jackie Gleason, talking about Richard Burton, a passage on Cary Grant and so on. It’s called an album quilt because each block in an album quilt is unique; it doesn’t repeat the other blocks. That seemed like a good title.”

McPhee dedicates The Patch to his 10 grandchildren. He lists them in alphabetical order—he doesn’t want to appear to express preference. “My grandchildren are much beloved to me,” he says.

The title piece of the collection is about McPhee’s father. The essay describes in exquisite, meditative detail fishing with a friend for chain pickerel, a tricky fish other fishers consider a nuisance, around a patch of lily pads on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. The magic arises from how he links this memory of fishing with the stroke and eventual death of his father. These brief nine pages are a beautiful encapsulation of all that makes McPhee a great writer.

“There’s no accident that this piece is number one in the collection,” McPhee says. “And the number one reason that I am pleased that this collection is going to exist is that this piece is in it.”

This poignant essay—along with other gems—make The Patch worthy of any curious, thoughtful reader’s attention.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Yolanda Whitman.

Despite the fact that John McPhee’s delightful new collection of essays, The Patch, is his 33rd book, he thinks it’s “ridiculous” to call him a prolific writer.

Interview by

Buried away in the small house she shares with her husband and their children, ages 11 and 13, are the abandoned pages of a novel Yangsze Choo worked on for eight years.

“It was really, really terrible and is hidden away forever. Forever!” Choo exclaims, laughing, during a call to her home in Palo Alto, California. But as she discusses her new novel, The Night Tiger, it is apparent just how deep and abiding those early themes have been in her writing life.

Choo, who speaks with a British accent, is from Malaysia and spent her early childhood in that former British colony before her father, a diplomat, was posted for extended periods to Japan and Germany and also Thailand and the Philippines. She went to Harvard, where she met her husband, and worked as a management consultant before the couple moved to California about 13 years ago. “I now describe myself as an unemployed housewife,” she says wryly.

Given her accent, you could imagine Choo to be kind of proper or a bit reserved. And you would be wrong. During our call, she is enthusiastic and funny. She laughs heartily. She jolts the conversation with exclamations like “I was super excited!” She describes “a really fab Victoria sponge cake” recipe that has recently forced her to “scamper on a treadmill like a hamster.” She marvels that there is now an app that replicates the clink and murmur of a coffee shop so you don’t feel lonely when you write. She sometimes interviews the interviewer.

Her well-received debut novel, The Ghost Bride (2013), is set in Malaya in the 1890s and concerns a young girl who, in accordance with a legendary Chinese tradition, receives a proposal from a family to become a ghost bride to their only son, who died under questionable circumstances. The Night Tiger is set in colonial Malaya in the 1930s, and the “night tiger” of its title lurks in the underbrush of a thicket of interconnected mysteries and unsolved killings.

Reserved? Proper? Hardly. “My mom said to me, ‘Can’t you write something cheerful? Dead people, ghosts, and now this book is about tigers eating people! Why don’t you write something uplifting?’”

Of course, Choo’s parents, and especially her mother, are sources of some of the stories and fables that wend their way into the narrative fabric of the book. Choo interviewed her parents frequently to develop a tactile sense of an earlier era in what is now Malaysia. Fascinated by the black and white bungalows built to house British civil servants, she learned that as a girl her mother had a young friend who worked as a maidservant in one of those houses.

“Growing up I realized that there was very little literature on Malaysia,” Choo says. “And what there was was primarily written by British writers like Somerset Maugham. But hearing my mom’s stories about her friend the maid, I thought, there is a whole other story about the local people. I realized that I’ve always been hearing the local side, and yet what is documented is really the colonial side.”

The Night Tiger follows the intersecting lives of two young Malayans. Ren is an 11-year-old houseboy in the service of a kindly, ailing British doctor who believes he has become a “weretiger,” a murderous, mythical beast that can assume human form during daylight. To put an end to the beast, the doctor makes Ren promise to locate and restore his missing finger to his corpse after he dies. Ren, who is also haunted by the death of his twin brother (and feels his presence still as a kind of electrical charge), has 49 days to accomplish this mission. At the same time, hoping to provide for the boy’s future, the doctor sends Ren to serve a British surgeon named William Acton. The surgeon is a guilt-ridden reprobate, and in his vicinity, deadly tiger attacks begin, to Ren’s alarm.

“I think at 11 you are at the zenith of childhood,” Choo says, explaining the combination of confidence and naivete in Ren. “My kids were growing up through these ages while I was writing this book. An 11-year-old knows how to do childhood well. You are big enough, strong enough, and you can walk quite far. You can do all the housework. But you haven’t hit puberty, so your world hasn’t started to change. You are at the very top form of being a child.”

The novel’s other central character is Ji Lin, a brilliant student whose stepfather believes she should work instead of going on to university. Her stepbrother, Shin, with whom she shares the same birthday and a love-hate relationship, is sent to study to become a doctor while she is apprenticed to a dressmaker. To help pay her mother’s gambling debts, Ji Lin also secretly works in a dance hall. She enters the story when an unlucky man, who carries the doctor’s missing finger for luck, spills a vial with the finger into her hand.

To create Ji Lin, Choo burrowed back into her abandoned novel, where she had tried to develop a character who worked in a dance hall. While researching that failed novel, Choo had read a book by an author who wrote about visiting “a strange dance hall [where] all these girls were for hire but afterward were strictly segregated. It was weirdly prudish.” Choo deftly captures that menacing strangeness in her fictionalized version.

In slowly bringing these two characters together—and resolving the mysteries of a series of perplexing deaths—Choo fashions a rich and intricate tale. One of the novel’s greatest pleasures is the depth of its understory. There is, first of all, a thread of upstairs-downstairs intrigue as Choo portrays the unbalanced relationships among the British and their local servants. More than that, there are what seem to be Choo’s obsessions, or as she prefers to call them, themes.

For example, she is interested in the Chinese fascination with lucky numbers. “The belief that certain rituals would guarantee you happiness was in the back of my mind.” So were the traditional Confucian virtues, for whom her characters are named. “I didn’t plan this, I’m not that clever, but it’s curious how my characters have become the opposite of those virtues.” And Choo’s abiding interest in the nature of twins also deepens the story. “The idea is interesting because this whole novel is about different worlds—natives and colonials, the world of night and the world of day, the world of the living and the world of the dead. It’s about a lot of our unresolved fears, I think.”

Surprisingly, Choo says she did not plan out this novel. With a laugh, she explains that she had her themes, but she “never knew what was happening.” The storylines proliferated to such a degree that she had to cut about half of them out of the final novel. She has considered a sequel.

“I am happy that a lot of the thoughts I had did come out here,” she says. “I feel proud of this book. It talks about a lot of things I’ve been mulling over for a long time.”

 

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by James Cham.

Spirits stir and beasts prowl in the haunting new novel from The Ghost Bride author Yangsze Choo.

Interview by

Monica L. Smith is an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at UCLA. Her fascinating new book, Cities, looks at the 6,000-year-old phenomenon of urbanism. She draws on her fieldwork at archaeological sites worldwide as well as on scholarship and contemporary observation to produce a thought-provoking look at cities. Naturally, we had some questions.

You say that this book was a lot of fun for you to write. What are the top two or three things that made it so much fun?
First of all, writing the book was a chance to relive many exciting moments that I’ve experienced at the ancient (and modern) cities I have known and loved. And it was possible to go from one to the other in my mind and on the page in ways that wove together a story about continuities and similarities. Secondly, as an archaeologist I’m accustomed to solving puzzles in which there are a lot of missing pieces. Through a comparative approach, even if a piece is missing in any particular ancient city—some cities have historical documents but others don’t, and some cities have been thoroughly excavated while others have not—we can put together an urban picture by creatively examining the parts that are preserved. And searching for images was enjoyable, too, because I found some amazing things in my research like Juan de Solórzano Pereira’s drawing from 1653, in which he fancifully placed eyes on the city walls—300 years before the invention of CCTVs!

You write that your favorite place in Rome is not among the usual tourist sites but instead an ancient trash dump. Where’s the fun in that?
Archaeologists aren’t driven just by the romance of ruins but by the sheer thrill of putting together a story of the past through the bits and pieces that we find. The trash dump of Monte Testaccio is at first glance nothing particularly special, but then you look closely at the hill and realize that the whole thing is made up of potsherds. Just think of all of the wine and olive oil that was shipped and spilled there! There must have been lively chitchat 2,000 years ago about whether Falernian or Sardinian or Cilician wine was best (just like the conversations that you have in your local Trader Joe’s about the relative merits of vintages from France, Italy and Argentina). Another fun aspect is that Monte Testaccio is much less crowded than the usual tourist sites, where it’s sometimes hard to contemplate the past because there are so many people trying to get the perfect angle on a selfie.

You are a professor in UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Yet in this book you more or less sing the praises of consumption and ancient takeout food. Aren’t consumption and sustainability at odds?
That’s a great question, and one that I’ve also been thinking about. As ecologically minded global citizens, our approach to consumption might be all wrong if we try to stop consumption rather than figuring out why we want to consume in the first place. For the past million years, our species has been focused on getting more stuff, which is not an impulse that we are going to be able to stop or turn around very easily. Having “stuff” is a marker of what it means to be human. (Even Marie Kondo isn’t trying to get us to give up all of our stuff but to focus on things that are meaningful and joyous!) As for takeout food, it’s probably more sustainable in terms of food waste than preparing meals at home. Just imagine that you want a kale salad for dinner: If you buy a whole head of kale and a jar of garlic dressing, much of it will go bad in between tonight and your next kale craving. But if a restaurant buys that head of kale, then it will be used up by a whole variety of consumers and thus not go to waste. And takeout food has a certain kind of social justice encoded in it, because of the jobs that enable a vast diversity of people to make a living.

You note that most ancient cities were not built in “paradisiacal locales.” In a nutshell, why do cities seem to prosper in challenging environments?
Most cities are really great for something (like being a trade port or a ski capital or a manufacturing place), but few cities are all-purpose, and some of them are downright illogical in their placement—like New Orleans because of floods or Tokyo because of earthquakes or ancient Rome because of malaria that was at the time endemic to the swampy lowlands of the Tiber. Yet their residents are happy to overlook a city’s deficiencies because other characteristics make it worthwhile to dig out from disaster, over and over again. And once you get a population in a densely occupied area like a city, there are opportunities for new kinds of jobs that keep people there. Richard E. Ocejo (Masters of Craft, Princeton 2018) has recently written about cities in the U.S. that were once manufacturing hubs but have evolved into centers for the knowledge economy (information management, finance and technology). Even though there are “growing pains” such as gentrification associated with those transformations, the cities themselves don’t lose populations and just keep right on going.

You write of humans as migratory beings and of the vibrancy of cities being in part due to their mixture of people and cultures. In what way, if at all, does that shape your opinion of our contemporary debates on refugees and “illegal” immigrants?
Cities are intricately bound up in national discussions of migration and ethnicity around the world. We know that when immigrants can choose their destinations, they tend to head toward cities to maximize their employment and continuing-education opportunities. (Remember that immigrants include professionals as well as manual laborers.) In the U.S., programs of refugee resettlement target cities as places that are already diverse. So we shouldn’t be surprised that cities are front and center for discussions about all types of migration.

At one point, you write that we need an archaeology of the disenfranchised. What would that look like and mean?
Most archaeologists have focused on elite residences, tombs and temples, which makes it appear as though ancient societies were somehow richer or more prosperous than ours. Low-income people and slum dwellers are part and parcel of every urban center in the modern world, and increasing amounts of archaeological research show that they were omnipresent in ancient societies as well. We can study these low-income populations by digging in areas on the “backsides” of fancy houses to find servant quarters and makeshift housing, and by looking at the health and well-being of the whole population as archaeologists in Rome and Mesopotamia have started to do. That research can make us a little uncomfortable with our assumptions about ancient behavior, because mortality profiles and habitual violence as revealed by skeletal evidence show that urban life has always come with haves and have-nots. If we want to combat that trend in our own cities, we have to recognize that we need to work harder on equalizing urban opportunities instead of assuming that everyone will do well on their own.

Most of your current fieldwork is in India. What are you discovering?
Along with my Indian colleague Rabindra Kumar Mohanty and our many faculty collaborators and students, we have been digging at both a large urban center and smaller village sites in eastern India. The village sites are particularly interesting to study because they are quite modest: there are very few consumer goods, and the housing was made of perishable materials like bamboo and thatch. Once the city was started, it seems that people—especially young people!—ran away to the “bright lights” of urbanism where they could experience things that seem very mundane to us now but that would have been new and exciting to them: brick and stone buildings, formal marketplaces where they could get ready-made food, new types of construction work on projects like the mighty city wall and the opportunity to spend their earnings on cheap but stylish trinkets like beads and terracotta ornaments.

You cast many of your descriptions of ancient cities and activities within those cities in surprisingly contemporary terms. Why did you decide to write about the long-ago past in this way?
Actually, it’s the data from the past that provide a compelling first-person realization that people in ancient cities had the same experiences and perspectives that we do. When you read in 2,000-year old poetry from India that “bejewelled dames in sky-high mansions live, whose fine clothes wave about their waists,” you can’t help but think about Beverly Hills. When you read a text from ancient Mesopotamia about 350,000 goats and sheep, you can’t help but think about the Chicago Board of Trade. And when you read about Juvenal complaining that he can’t walk in the street without being bumped by some clumsy guy with a barrel, you can’t help but think about the way that you dodge delivery people on the sidewalk whether you’re in Manhattan, Mumbai or Mombasa.

I’m curious about your observation that “the excess of anxiety is not a flaw of urbanism but a design feature.” How is something unpleasant like anxiety helpful to city life?
Most of the anxiety that we face in cities isn’t necessarily debilitating or unpleasant but simply a result of calculating the benefits of the increased choices of food, work and goods that we have in an urban setting compared to rural places. When we have an examination or a job interview or are simply buying a new appliance or trying out something different for lunch, what we are really doing is engaging in a process of risk and reward as we try to have something “better,” even if we are not quite sure how it is going to work out. In cities our choices are amazingly varied, and at every scale: what neighborhood to live in and what school for your kids, but also, “If I buy those cool shoes, will I finally start running again?” And on a serious note, when we do face significant and debilitating anxieties, there are more facilities and experts to treat them in cities than in the countryside. (Many studies have observed that the suicide rate in rural areas is higher than in cities.)

With our largely interconnected planet today, isn’t almost every person a city-dweller, even if they live in the sticks?
Well, there’s still a difference between being affected by cities (which practically everyone in the world is) and actually living in one. One telling example is the way in which tech companies such as Google and Facebook are sticking with the urban form even though they have to pay much higher prices for office space. If they were being logical about costs, they would locate themselves “in the sticks,” as you say. (They are digital corporations after all!) But instead they are going right into the heart of cities because they want to attract the kinds of workers who thrive on the amenities and diversity that only cities can offer.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Cities.

Monica L. Smith is an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at UCLA. Her fascinating new book, Cities, looks at the 6,000-year-old phenomenon of urbanism. She draws on her fieldwork at sites worldwide as well as on scholarship and contemporary observation to produce a thought-provoking look at cities. Naturally, we had some questions.

Interview by

In Ask Again, Yes, her third novel, Mary Beth Keane tells a wise and searching story of two families who are neighbors in the suburbs north of New York City. Over the course of 40 years, the families are riven by a mother’s violent act and brought back together through the enduring bonds that link two of their children. The author touches on profound questions of contemporary family life.

Could you tell me about the seeds of thought and feeling from which this novel grew? What interests led you to the story you would eventually tell in Ask Again, Yes?
I had an idea for another historical novel, and I thought I was working on that, but the issues I was facing in daily life, either at home or vis-à-vis my friends and family, kept interjecting, so I put that novel aside and went with this one. It was as if I turned 40 and everyone around me suddenly went a little nuts, so I started writing as a way of finding my way through the things I was having to face on a daily basis anyway. The fictional town in this novel is based on the town where I grew up (and where I currently live, once again), and the themes of family estrangement, mental illness and even violence are based on people in my life. Like Kate and Peter, who are the central love relationship in the book, I met my husband when I was very young (I was 14). We lived in neighboring towns instead of neighboring houses. Like Peter, my husband was estranged from his mother and father for many years. We thought when we were married we were putting an end to one story and starting one of our own, and in some ways that was true, but that old story has followed us and had a much greater impact on our married life than I ever imagined it would.

I’m also curious about the book’s title. Did it leap to mind immediately, or did you struggle to find it? What does the title signify to you?
It didn’t leap to mind immediately, but I didn’t struggle either. I like to title things early because titles help me focus. I knew I wanted to end the book on a note of optimism. I knew that these characters would go through a world of heartache, but the whole point, for me, was to say that life, love, whatever—it’s all worth it. But at the same time I wanted the book to be honest. And I wanted it to be totally unsentimental.

Reading is a key part of my process, and I usually begin my writing day with reading something I’ve already read, something really good. It helps me transition away from the chaos of domestic life to writing, which has to be quiet (the opposite of our usual weekday mornings around here). Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses was one of the things I turned to many of those writing mornings. By the end of Ulysses we know that Molly and Leopold’s relationship has become petty and cynical, but in that chapter, when she reflects back on their beginning, the reader can see that there’s real love there, and that the beginning still matters.

Your previous novels feature Irish immigrant characters. Here, two of your main characters are also immigrants from Ireland. What is it about the Irish immigrant experience that interests you so much?
All immigrant stories interest me. The notion of the American dream is something I’ve been thinking about my entire life. It’s not fashionable, especially now, and it’s certainly far more difficult for some immigrants than it is for others, but I still believe in it. I write Irish characters, I suppose, because my parents are Irish-born, so it’s the immigrant story I feel most comfortable writing about. Half my family stayed in Ireland, and half ended up in the United States. I spent my childhood either planning a next visit to Ireland to see my aunts and first cousins, or hearing about Ireland constantly. But as much as I knew that I was supposed to love and feel connected to Ireland, it always confused me a little. Ireland is so often recalled with such warm, sentimental feelings—think of the songs!—and yet so many stories of “home,” especially in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, were truly brutal. There’s a reason so many people left.

I remember one particular Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house here in New York. Angela’s Ashes had come out that year, and there was a heated argument about it. I was a sophomore in college, and it was the first book I read about Ireland that didn’t seem washed with fiddle music and clinking glasses. It was truly, brutally honest. I loved it. Most of my aunts and uncles of McCourt’s generation were deeply upset by it, but I remember realizing that no one was denying that what McCourt wrote was true. They were just upset that he wrote about it. Some things should never be spoken, and that, in a nutshell, is the Irish character. I think I’ve been trying to buck that my whole life.

In your acknowledgments, you thank NYPD officers “who answered what were probably very dumb questions without flinching or rolling their eyes.” What were two or three key things you learned from them that helped shape your narrative?
I can’t identify two or three things. I needed to know everything! Things that I couldn’t look up anywhere. When a patrolman gets dressed, in what order does he or she clip things to the belt? What parts of a uniform are uncomfortable? What did people gossip about at the station house? What’s allowed while on patrol? What’s not allowed but snuck in anyway? Can an officer on duty get a cup of coffee? A sandwich? Did they talk about their spouses with each other? Their children? Affairs? Or are some subjects untouchable?

I wasn’t interested in particular cases (which was confusing to some of the cops I spoke with, as they all LOVE talking about their craziest cases). I was only interested in how they felt in different moments and how those feelings might be surprising. Were they actually nervous when they appeared confident? Eager? Afraid? Proud? Getting cops to talk about feelings takes a while, but one big thing I learned was that they carry really deep guilt when things go wrong. At least the good cops do.

Four of your characters at one point or another work in the police department. Yet the novel is far from a police procedural; it’s more about their lives away from work. Why did you decide to tell the story in this way?
Police work is really interesting to me for a lot of reasons, but I was never interested in writing about cops on the job. We’ve all seen that, haven’t we? I spent my early ’20s watching “Law & Order,” and any scenes I wrote of cops on the job felt like a “Law & Order” episode to me. Plus, the book was always meant to be about love, what these cops are like at home, how they might carry what they see and do on the job into their domestic lives, how the job shapes them as men.

While your character Anne apparently performs well as a nurse, she is pretty clearly mentally unbalanced from early in the novel. This raises a lot of questions, such as: How could people around her—her husband particularly—do nothing until things got clearly out of hand?
From what I’ve seen and read, the way things go for Anne is not uncommon. Denial is a strong feeling, and we’re all guilty of sinking into that feeling at times. When we hear cases of extreme mental illness we think, well, if my loved one were like that I would have done something. But we only ever hear the ends of stories. When we’re in the middle of it, I think we often fail to recognize something for what it really is.

I also read case after case of people who were able to keep their debilitating mental illnesses private for a remarkably long time. Our work lives are sort of a performance, aren’t they? Most people have a role, they play it, they go home. And at home, the people there might not want to face the thing that’s happening. I think Anne’s trajectory isn’t all that uncommon. Isn’t this why we’re all fascinated and shocked when otherwise normal-seeming people commit heinous acts?

One of the great pleasures of the novel is your depiction of the growing bond—a lifelong bond, it turns out—between the neighboring children Kate and Peter. Where did that come from? Were there similar loving friendships in your childhood circle of friends?
I met my husband at 14, and we started dating at 15. We got engaged when I was 25. We literally grew up together. I’m still close with a lot of my childhood friends, many of whom I’ve known since first grade. There’s something magical to me about being friends with someone now who I knew as a child. It’s as if we know each other’s most essential selves, and so when we accept each other for who we are, we really know what we’re talking about. In a lot of cases in my own life, people may look and appear like confident, competent adults, but I still see the child in there, and some of those basic fears and insecurities are the same now as they were back in grade school.

The story you tell here spans four decades. I have to say that it is masterful. But I wonder what led you to tell in a comparatively brief novel a story that covers so much time?
I wish I knew! Thank you for describing it as a brief novel. At 400 pages I often worry it will be considered too long. I didn’t know at the outset that this novel would cover so much time. I wanted to write about a mother and a son reuniting, and about forgiveness after a trauma and childhood love, but I didn’t know the shape the story would take for a long time. Structural problems emerged quickly. In order to appreciate the forgiveness that takes place for these characters in the present day, the reader would have to know the past. I didn’t want to bog the book down in backstory, so I couldn’t begin with Kate and Peter married. I couldn’t begin with the two of them in crisis and then pull from the past to enrich it. I had to write my way there. So I divided the book into sections and made each part speak only for itself. And the more I committed to that, the more it made sense. It’s not as if anything we do is in service to any other (future) part of life. Mostly we’re acting for now. The problem with THAT was that each section meant a myriad of possible rabbit holes I had to resist traveling. For example, I couldn’t have Francis or Anne think TOO MUCH about the old country, because then it would quickly become a sentimental Irish immigration novel. I couldn’t show Peter and Kate TOO MUCH in the mundane early marriage years because although it was important for these two in particular to have ho-hum years (like every other couple), it would bore the reader. So I was constantly overwriting and then cutting way back to keep the book on track.

The book has its share of sorrow and loneliness, but it is redeemed by love and forgiveness. I’d like to know your thoughts about forgiveness.
This is complicated for me. Forgiveness is good and healthy and right. We all know that. But what does it mean? If there’s trauma in a family, does that mean forgiveness will lead to Christmases and birthdays together? I don’t think so, personally. I think it only means finding peace, somehow, and moving on, but there are people in my life who disagree with me. I forgive when I believe someone is sorry for something, when I see someone is struggling or has regrets. I think I’m capable of forgiving almost anything if a person cops to the thing they’ve done, and I always try to call myself on my own mistakes in the same spirit. But there are people who create narratives for themselves in order to see their own participation in a mistake as justifiable, and it’s hard for me to forgive a person like that.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Ask Again, Yes.

Author photo by Nina Subin

In Ask Again, Yes, her third novel, Mary Beth Keane tells a wise and searching story of two families who are neighbors in the suburbs north of New York City. Over the course of 40 years, the families are riven by a mother’s violent act and brought back together through the enduring bonds that link two of their children. The author touches on profound questions of contemporary family life.

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When the Charles Manson Family murdered five people in August 1969, it was the shocking climax of America’s most chaotic decade. Now, after 20 years of meticulous research, Tom O’Neill reveals that everything we thought we knew about this tragedy is really just the tip of the iceberg.


Tom O’Neill recently sold the movie rights to Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, the strangely compelling account of his 20-year search for the truth about the horrific 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Charles Manson Family in Los Angeles.

“My agent called me about [the movie] a week or so ago and said, ‘Tom, you have to understand. You’re the protagonist now.’”

O’Neill had long resisted becoming part of the story. He began to examine the Manson case in 1999, 30 years after the Tate-LaBianca murders, when he was hired by the now-defunct Premier magazine for an article on Manson’s connections to Hollywood. He began to find anomalies in the case presented to the jury by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and in Bugliosi’s bestselling book about the murders and trial, Helter Skelter.

Chasing leads, O’Neill missed his deadline—by a month and then a year. He got a book contract and researched up blind alleys, down rabbit holes and deep into the weeds. He also found incredible, tantalizing information. He blew past the book deadline. The publisher eventually sued him to retrieve the advance, which he had used to continue his reporting. “I do not want to glorify myself,” O’Neill says, “but I did not take vacations or buy nice things. I lived pretty frugally.” His investigation of the case went on for 20 abstemious years, until he was well into his late 50s. He was evicted from his apartment. He got loans from his family and had to join the gig economy and drive for Uber to support his continuing investigation.

A few years ago, his agent approached Little, Brown. His agent said, “The curse of Tom also pays off in the end because he won’t believe anything until he tries to disprove it. He’ll attack from every different [angle] that he can, and if he can’t disprove it then he’ll allow it.” 

By then O’Neill had reams and reams of notes, documents and photographs and a whiteboard with spiderlike webs of connections among the principals in the murder. (Many of these are cited in his extensive and illuminating endnotes.) Someone suggested he collaborate with Dan Piepenbring, a young writer whose work with Prince on a memoir had previously gone awry. Piepenbring brought a strategy and some order. Part of the strategy was to convince O’Neill to include his long, frustrating odyssey to discover the truth within the narrative. 

O’Neill interviewed major and minor characters in the Manson story, including Manson himself. People did not react kindly to this pursuit of the facts. Terry Melcher, the only son of Doris Day and a previous tenant in the house where Sharon Tate and others were murdered, was hostile when O’Neill presented evidence that he had lied on the stand during the Manson trial. O’Neill tracked down Manson’s brilliant, bombastic, obstructionist attorney, Irving Kanarek, who was by then indigent but still a man with stories to tell. And of course there was prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.

In the book, O’Neill recounts an incredible six-hour interview with Bugliosi at his home, with dueling tape recorders and Bugliosi’s wife dragooned into being an often-bored witness. In O’Neill’s telling, Bugliosi is a strange, testy guy. Post-Manson fame, he ran for district attorney and attorney general, and in both cases his sordid past (unknown to most general readers but uncovered in detail by O’Neill) came to light. Mention of this enraged Bugliosi, as did O’Neill’s assertions that he had mishandled the case. Backed by interviews from other prosecutors and the police, O’Neill told Bugliosi that he thought the narrative that the Manson family had committed the crimes to start a race war—the “Helter Skelter” scenario Bugliosi put forward at the trial—was bogus. At the end of the interview, Bugliosi said he would hurt O’Neill like he had never been hurt before, and he would sue him “FOR ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS!” Obsessed, Bugliosi then called O’Neill night after night. O’Neill has some of the tapes from these and other conversations and, as part of the book promotion, will make some of them available on social media.

Another line of investigation took O’Neill from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The Manson Family first formed in the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Manson and “his girls” were frequent visitors to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. The doctors there received government funding to study the effects of psychedelics and mind control. In his assiduous research, O’Neill uncovered that one of the doctors there—“Jolly” West, a CIA contractor—did a jailhouse psychological profile of Jack Ruby, who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy.

What could this all mean? O’Neill, a cautious investigator, expresses frustration. There are so many questions. “I perhaps naively thought that I was going to answer the big question, find out what really happened, but I can at least show that things happened dramatically differently than has ever been presented before.”

O’Neill believes Manson and the Family are guilty, but he thinks so much else is in question that the Manson trial was a disaster. And the odd connections to government activity intrigue him. “I think I can show that Bugliosi suborned perjury. I think I can show that Jolly West had a critical role in what we know about Jack Ruby and his memory of what happened when he killed and why he killed Lee Harvey Oswald. And all that information was known by Richard Helms, who was the liaison between the CIA and the Warren Commission.” He also presents information that Manson and his followers were involved in other killings, but ultimately his investigations were stonewalled by the authorities.

O’Neill believes “there’s a hell of a lot of connections that Manson had with Hollywood people that have been erased. . . . I believe there were other people involved in the murders that were erased.” His biggest hope, he says, “is that the book will spur other people to pick up where I’ve left off. There’s a hell of a lot more out there.”

When the Charles Manson Family murdered five people in August 1969, it was the shocking climax of America’s most chaotic decade. Now, after 20 years of meticulous research, Tom O’Neill reveals that everything we thought we knew about this tragedy is really just the tip of the iceberg.
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You’ll be hearing a lot about Fleishman Is in Trouble this year. Early reviews are nearly ecstatic. And why not? It’s a terrific novel, sharply funny and brilliantly observed.

It’s the story of Toby Fleishman, an Upper East Side hepatologist (think liver expert at a prestigious New York hospital) who is in the midst of a bitter divorce after a 14-plus-year marriage to his wife, Rachel, a driven, incredibly successful owner of a high-end talent agency. She runs with a crowd that earns so much more than Toby’s mere quarter-million dollars a year that they basically view him as a pauper. It’s Toby who has sued for divorce.

In one of the comedic, thought-provoking reversals this novel deploys so adroitly, Toby is the primary caregiver for their two children—Hannah, age 11, and Solly, age 9. During the summer weeks when this story unfolds, the couple has the customary child-sharing arrangement: Toby will take these days and Rachel the others. But Rachel suddenly disappears and is nowhere to be found. Toby is left in the role of full-time caregiver just when the possibility of career advancement and his dating life as a 40-something divorced man are taking off. How then to respond to a conflict between responsible parenthood, the demands of career and the allure of the sexually charged online dating scene? 

In exploring Toby’s dilemma, Brodesser-Akner doesn’t miss the opportunity to examine the state of contemporary divorce and the weird culture of post-divorce dating.

“When I turned 40,” she explains, “a critical mass of my friends started telling me they were getting a divorce. I was shocked. They would tell me about how their marriages failed, but I was most interested in what their lives were like now. They showed me their phones and how they were dating. It was different from how we were dating right after college.”

She tried to interest a magazine she was writing for at the time, but the idea didn’t appeal to her male editors. So she “sat down and started writing it. A force overtook me. The thing I do mostly is write profiles. I just thought of it as a longer profile.”

The story bloomed, and part of it was the titillating content of her divorcing friends’ phones. “I couldn’t believe how wild it was. How free everyone was. No one was coy. No one was flirtatious. They just went for it. I wanted to tell the story of what it is like now.”

In writing about this modern phenomenon, Brodesser-Akner calls herself a “bit of a prude.” But even in her fictional realm, she’s a reporter interested in the underlying facts—so much so that she took the unusual step of hiring a fact-checker to ensure that her depictions were accurate.

“I’ve done very well in my writing career by being as specific as possible and never being vague,” she says. “Half of the things [the fact-checker] found were amazing, and half were embarrassing—like why are they taking a cab to the 92nd Street Y if they live on 94th Street? That was worth all the money I paid for it. I’m about accuracy and not looking like an idiot.”

Her characters, however, can often seem like idiots, although very successful and mostly lovable idiots we grow to care about. She writes about her characters with empathy but also with the cutting, acerbic wit that became her signature style at GQ and in her current position as staff writer at the New York Times.

“It’s a characteristic that people don’t always enjoy in me as a person,” she admits, “but they do like it in me as a writer. I wasn’t tremendously popular in life growing up until I became a writer, at which point people started to seek me out more. It’s interesting to me that the things that make some people like you are the same things that alienate others.”

While often laugh-out-loud funny, the novel also intimately probes issues of contemporary life, such as social and sexual inequity. We are very sympathetic to Fleishman, who is in trouble. But we’re eventually led to wonder, isn’t Rachel, the missing parent, also in trouble?

“My husband always says that when you’re a hammer, everything is a nail,” Brodesser-Akner says. “Around the time I was writing this, I was suddenly aware of a lot of inequity. I felt very loved and treasured [at my job], but then I would get wind of certain salaries, and I would see how different it was for my husband. I grew up in a house with a single mother with lots of limits that looked like gender limits. So when you wake up to it, it’s all you can see. It was important for me to write a book that was relevant, modern and that showed that suddenly the world [can be] just completely different from what you’d pinned your hopes on.”

Perhaps most surprising of all is that Brodesser-Akner says this engrossing novel took her just six months to write. “I’m a freelancer, my time is very valuable, and we have a mortgage to pay. I couldn’t take more time than that because I needed to see if this was worth it.”

Obviously, it was.

 

Author photo by Erik Tanner

Taffy Brodesser-Akner cuts through post-divorce dating with her debut novel.
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With her new novel, Maaza Mengiste pushes against what is told and what is remembered.


Four years into the nine-year marathon that would result in The Shadow King, Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste’s stunning second novel about the 1935 Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia, the author hit a wall.

“I had published a novel, so when I started this one, I thought I knew how to write a novel,” she says wryly during a call to her home in Queens, New York. Mengiste came to the United States as a child after Ethiopia’s brutal 1970s-era revolution toppled Emperor Haile Selassie, experiences that formed the foundation of her first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. Mengiste is now a professor in the MFA program at Queens College in New York and is married to a fellow writer/professor. After four years of frustration writing the new book, Mengiste says she really had “to relearn the craft in order to do this.”

One of the problems with her first draft, she says now, is that it was too closely tied to the facts of the war in Ethiopia. For those who don’t know, Italy believed it had been denied its fair share of African colonies after World War I and, using a border incident as pretext, invaded Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) in 1934 and briefly annexed it. 

Mengiste’s early draft “was completely attached to the historical facts and the historical data. Everything that I wrote was absolutely accurate, and the book that emerged was dry, and it was boring, and the characters were wooden, and I was completely defeated by what I had done.”

Another trap for her was the Ethiopian mythology about their ultimate victory in this war. “As a child, you hear these stories of heroism. These men were poorly equipped with old guns, charging a very highly weaponized European army and winning. While doing research, I started thinking about the myths and legends of war, and I realized that if Italy had its propaganda machine, then I also had to accept the fact that Ethiopia had its mythologies about this war. I realized I needed to break apart the myths and legends and propaganda and look deeper.”

That deep dive revealed the often hidden but undeniable role of Ethiopian women in the conflict. From that realization Mengiste developed her central character, Hirut, a young, often abused servant girl who displays a shrewd toughness and rises to become a leader. Mengiste also felt free to invent the character of “the shadow king,” a poor man with enough physical resemblance to Emperor Selassie, who had gone into exile, that he could be cultivated and trained to inspire Ethiopian fighters.

“In Ethiopian culture, the emperor is always in the front line. Always. But past leaders also had a doppelganger, somebody who looked like them on the battlefield to inspire morale and serve as a decoy,” Mengiste explains.

She quickly adds, “Part of my concern in this book was to center the story on people who are often not written about in history—the farmers, the peasants, the servants who don’t have the social standing to make them newsworthy—because the stories that get remembered are so often about people who are already famous or noteworthy.”

Freeing herself from being factually scrupulous also allowed Mengiste to be adventurous with the form of this novel. Yes, there are standard chapters, but there are also descriptions of photographs (one of the Italian characters in the novel is a morally compromised photographer forced to document the Italian army’s horrific atrocities); “interludes,” which describe Haile Selassie in exile in Britain; and a chorus that comments on the activities of the novel’s characters. The result is an epic novel reminiscent of the great Greek tragedies.

At Queens College, Mengiste often teaches a course on the literature of conflict, and the class always begins by reading a Greek tragedy. “I love the Greek tragedies,” she says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve read [the story of] Agamemnon and the Iliad. . . . I wanted to have the chorus because I was thinking that the way history is told is not the way that it unfolded. The chorus was a way to push against what is told and remembered.”

Mengiste also looked to the Iliad for inspiration in writing her incredibly gripping battle scenes. “I would read those battle scenes and not be able to breathe because there was just so much momentum in the prose. It gave me a great sense of the movement of battle, and I wanted to emulate that the best I could. It was fun. I really let the voice go free during battle.”

Asked what she is most proud of in The Shadow King, Mengiste points to “the freedom I gave myself. I’m really proud of the structure of the book. People will either like it or hate it, but I was willing to take the risk because I wanted to push myself as a writer—not just as a thinker but as a writer. Some of my favorite writers are those who break form. I wanted to see if I could do that under their tutelage. I’m really proud of being able to combine the stories of the Ethiopians and the Italians, to force questions about both of them, about loyalty, about racism, about being subjugated by the very people who should be protecting you. These were the questions I wanted to bring forward.”

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a review of The Shadow King.

With her new novel, Maaza Mengiste pushes against what is told and what is remembered.

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