Ten Questions for Jana Larson

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jana Larson, whose first book, Reel Bay, is out today from Coffee House Press. Nearly two decades ago, writer and filmmaker Jana Larson was riveted by a short news item in a Minneapolis newspaper, which reported the apparent suicide of a young woman, Takako Konishi, who was visiting from Japan. The police, who had by chance interviewed Konishi a few days earlier—though greatly inhibited by a language barrier—speculated she had come to the Midwest in search of the money hidden in a snowdrift in the movie Fargo. Captivated by the strangeness of the report, and an image that flashed in her mind of the young woman wandering in a great expanse of white, Larson began to research the case further. Written as a hybrid screenplay-essay, Reel Bay documents the author’s obsession with Konishi’s story and her various attempts to transform the story into art. What begins as an exploration into another woman’s struggle becomes a broader reckoning with the author’s own creative and emotional lives. “Reel Bay is an obsessive, fascinating, haunting debut,” writes Dana Spiotta. Jana Larson holds an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Hamline University and an MFA in filmmaking from the University of California in San Diego. As a filmmaker, she has received honors from the Princess Grace Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives in Minneapolis.

1. How long did it take you to write Reel Bay?
Too long. My friends and family had, for the most part, stopped asking me how I was doing because it had become painful for them to hear about the book. My mother would occasionally scream, “When are you going to be finished with this thing so you can move on with your life?” I worked on the project off and on for about seventeen years, first as a documentary film, then as a screenplay, and finally as a book. If I were to add up all of the time I was actively working on the project, it was probably ten years. I now console myself by thinking that might be fairly typical for a first book.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Grappling with my own mind. Admitting to myself that I was as much a part of the story as Takako; that my own delusions rivaled hers. Then finding a structure to tell that story—about a long quest that occurred in the minds of two different women, that took them across continents at different times. Only one of them survived.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
When I’m actively working on something, I try to write every morning for an hour or two. If I don’t do that, the continuity and momentum of my thought process breaks apart and it takes me a long time to get back to it. I need to be alone at a table near a window because I need natural light. Sitting in a chair under a tree is also good. I am very particular about the pen and notebook I use. Later I go back and highlight or underline whatever interests me in the notebook and then work to cobble those lines and paragraphs together into a longer piece.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m about halfway through Antkind by Charlie Kaufman. I’m also reading A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson and In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Next up are Ornamental by Juan Cárdenas, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, and Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Probably all of them. It seems like reading isn’t a very popular pastime right now. But I feel comfortable in the more obscure corners of the artistic world. I grew up going to punk rock shows in tiny clubs and dilapidated warehouses. Mostly the bands couldn’t play their instruments very well, but there was something amazing about the energy that came from being part of something that felt totally uncommercial and sometimes a little dangerous. That probably gets lost when people in board rooms get involved and start fretting over how much money they’re investing and what kind of return they need to get. Maybe it’s great to have that kind of validation; I wouldn’t know about that. But to answer the question more directly: Julio Cortázar. I love his stories so much I want to climb inside of them. I love Lydia Davis’s stories too, but I’m already living inside of a Lydia Davis story.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Self-doubt.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
During my first year of graduate school, one of the professors said to me, “Run while you still can! People arrive here with talent and leave with none.” I thought he was kidding, but he absolutely wasn’t. The wrong MFA program can be very damaging and confusing. Still, I think that if a person has a project they’re working on and they want structure—deadlines and critiques and a practice community—to help them finish it, then perhaps graduate school is a good fit. To those people, my advice is: Get absolutely clear about what supports your creative process and what undermines it; steer toward the former and treat the latter like kryptonite.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Reel Bay, what would you say?
I don’t think you can give someone insight; they have to struggle to find it on their own. But I remember one of my professors in graduate school telling me that Jonas Mekas, patron saint of lyric and experimental cinema, encouraged artists to buy real estate in New York. He understood that the existence of an art scene depends on artists having affordable spaces to live and work. So I would say, “Buy property in San Diego while it’s still possible.”

9. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
Sometimes I can’t imagine myself without this book, and without Takako. Of course, she’s mostly a figment of my imagination; she’s continued on for so long as my companion because of all that I’ve projected onto her. And I don’t have that anymore. I have to let it go. It’s like any intimate relationship, really.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Patricia Weaver Francisco, after watching me struggle with this book for many years, said, “You need to just choose an island and swim to it.”

Ten Questions for Torrey Peters

1.12.21

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Torrey Peters, whose debut novel, Detransition, Baby, is out today from One World. Reese is proud to have served as a mother figure for several other young trans women in New York City, but above all else she longs to have a child of her own. To become a mother, she believes, is to be “granted the womanhood that she suspected the goddesses of her childhood took as their natural due.” She had once imagined she would build a family with her partner, Amy, until Amy chose to detransition, and go by Ames, leading their relationship to fall apart. But now three years after the breakup, Ames reappears with the news that his new lover, Katrine, is pregnant, and he proposes that the three of them raise the child together. And while all three characters carry fears and uncertainties, they set out to envision a family on their own terms. An honest and loving portrait of trans feminine culture, Detransition, Baby offers new visions for motherhood and kinship. “Torrey Peters evokes these characters with such fullness and compassion that they felt like dear friends to me,” writes Helen Phillips. “This is an important book, and I couldn’t put it down.” Torrey Peters is the author of the novellas Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones and The Masker. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an MA in comparative literature from Dartmouth. Born in Chicago, she lives in Brooklyn, New York. 

1. How long did it take you to write Detransition, Baby
I started in the summer of 2016 and had a complete draft of it by 2019, but then I spent another year revising and writing a different ending. 

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
It was a time in my life when I was figuring out, basically, how to live as a trans woman after the drama of transition had passed. Which is a lot of what the book is about as well, but it meant that my setbacks in life were also setbacks in the writing process. Bad boyfriends, intermittent finances, odd living situations: They happen in the book, but first they happened in life, and I had to recover from them to have the time and space to write. Finally I read a bunch of horribly square business books on time management for like, thwarted corporate middle managers, which embarrassingly taught me more about how to separate my writing from other parts of life than any advice meant for writers. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
When I have a project I’m into, I can write for about four hours a day, and can do it steadily in the mornings. I have been restoring a tiny, old off-the-grid log cabin in Vermont, and as soon as I get some solar power going up there, I’m pretty excited to start working with no internet access and just a wood stove to distract me. 

4. What are you reading right now? 
I have always wanted to be in a literary moment or scene, a place and time where other authors care a lot and share their work. I’ve always had fantasies of the Harlem Renaissance or Paris in the twenties…only with trans and queer authors. Maybe it’s finally happening! I’ve got just-finished unpublished manuscripts by Zoe Whittall and Casey Plett that I’ve just started in on. Big Canadian representation in this answer! 

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition? 
T Fleischmann. Their last book, Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, I believe, will eventually be looked back on as an important work in nonbinary thought. Often really great books arrive ahead of their time and, therefore, wide recognition comes with a delay. It takes a while for the rest of us to realize we’ve been given brilliance, but after some years, we figure it out. I believe that will be the case with T.  

6. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
This is a hard question, because neither my editor, Caitlin McKenna, nor my agent, Kent Wolf, speak in quotable aphorisms. Instead, to their credit, they are about long, slow hard work. I think that a lot of writers believe they need tank-like champions in agents and editors to take on the murky forces of the publishing world. But Kent and Caitlin are exceptional in that they have set me up to solve a lot of the publishing world problems myself. I feel confident in talking about why my book matters to both publishers and readers, and I feel that way because Caitlin and Kent have positioned me to speak for my book, instead of setting themselves up as arbiters and gatekeepers. They are an agent and editor confident enough to relinquish power back to the authors with whom they work. I mean that as the highest compliment.  

7. Outside of writing, what other forms of work were essential to the creation of the book? 
Fighting and loving other trans women. Especially other trans women artists. The book contains a lot of collective knowledge about how to make our work resonate, how to be honest, what we owe each other, and the ethics of exposing each other’s flaws for outside audiences. That didn’t just happen in the book. It happened in living rooms, in parties, at bars, working together, hurting each other, and afterwards trying to make it right—or occasionally, holding grudges. 

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Detransition, Baby
How much the writing of it changed me. It was a bit of an exorcism. It holds parts of me that are now gone from my current self. I read some of the chapters and I’m like, “I wrote that? I’m really no longer the person who would write that.” But I remember being that person, and I remember the process of the book taking that piece of me—not always bad things, sometimes even humor. I’ll read something and think, “Wow, imagine still being bitchy enough to be funny like that.” 

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why? 
My girlfriend, Chrystin. Her intelligence is totally different than mine. She’s a law professor and I feel like her mind is a deep digester, a ruminant. So she’ll read something and come back three days or a week later with it completely processed, and will be like, yeah, I wrung everything nutritious out of it, chewed the cud many times, and passed it through all four of my stomachs, but in the end, I’m missing these specific essential vitamins.  

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? 
I don’t think there’s any one piece of advice that’s always correct. What works for one project doesn’t always matter in the next—perhaps presumptuous for a debut novelist to say that, but in my experience, it’s true! So instead of responding with a quote, I’m going to respond with a book. Even though I write fiction, I find myself turning to Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir when I’m stuck. I’ll reread it, and usually in one of the chapters I stumble across a key to unlocking experiences that I can turn into fiction. Each time the necessary key has been different, but she’s stashed many keys in that book. 

Torrey Peters, author of Detransition, Baby. (Credit: Natasha Gornik)

Ten Questions for Robert Jones Jr.

1.5.21

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Robert Jones Jr., whose debut novel, The Prophets, is out today from G. P. Putnam’s Sons. At the heart of The Prophets are Isaiah and Samuel, two young enslaved men who share a secret love. Some of the other slaves on the Mississippi plantation have intuited the nature of the pair’s relationship, but most leave the matter alone—that is, until one man begins to preach the master’s gospel and persuade the others that Isaiah and Samuel pose a danger to the group. Narrated by an ensemble of characters, including Isaiah, Samuel, ancestors from the distant past, and many others, The Prophets is a sweeping tale of both pain and joy. “The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel is, should do, and can be,” writes Marlon James. Robert Jones Jr. was born and raised in New York City and earned his MFA at Brooklyn College. Featured in “Black Male Writers for Our Time” by T: The New York Times Style Magazine, his writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Essence, OkayAfrica, and the New York Times. He is also the founder of the social media community Son of Baldwin. 

1. How long did it take you to write The Prophets?
I began writing the very first sketches of The Prophets in my first year of graduate school in 2006, and I made the very last changes to the final manuscript in 2020. So technically it took me fourteen years to write the book that will hopefully make it into many readers’ hands, ears, minds, and hearts.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
The most challenging thing about writing The Prophets was trying to conjure up what it would have been like to be both Black and what we now call queer during antebellum slavery. I could find nothing in the established canon about this outside of examples of sexual assault, and I was looking for representations of love. And because I couldn’t find it in the texts, I had to imagine it through what I guess was ultimately communing with my ancestors. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
Because I created and run the social justice and social media platform Son of Baldwin, much of my writing—mostly nonfiction—appears there. I’m writing there constantly, commenting on the social and political turmoil we experience as people from marginalized communities, writing in my home office, sitting at my desk, typing on my laptop. In terms of fiction, I like to write in public spaces like mass transit or sitting on the stoop in front of my house. But sometimes I’m up at the witching hour jotting things down on whatever’s available—laptop, smartphone, or scraps of paper.   

4. What are you reading right now? 
I just finished Maisy Card’s remarkable These Ghosts Are Family. I’m halfway through Deesha Philyaw’s stunning The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Up next are Kiese Laymon’s reissue of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Bryan Washington’s Memorial, and an advance copy of Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers. There’s another stack of books I have to get to as well. I love being surrounded by books.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition? 
Gayl Jones. I was stunned to discover that she’s considered an “overlooked writer.” She’s clearly brilliant and it’s evident to anyone who reads her work that she’s probably the greatest living writer in the United States. It’s absolutely puzzling to me that more people don’t know who she is, that more people haven’t read her work, that her name isn’t mentioned with Hemingway, Baldwin, Faulkner, and Morrison, and that she hasn’t won every literary prize in existence. 

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA? 
Yes—for this one crucial reason: to understand how to give constructive criticism and how to receive constructive criticism. I attended the fiction program at Brooklyn College and one of the most valuable things I learned was not to be precious with my writing and to recognize that 99 percent of writing is revision. Sometimes we as writers don’t realize that a first draft is not a completed draft and that we have to rewrite even the parts that we personally believe are sublime. The more we work on it, the greater the result. Writing is revision. Period. That’s not glamorous, but it is rewarding. 

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
It isn’t anything that they told me specifically, but what I learned was that it is critically important to have both an agent and an editor who believe in your talent, share your goals, understand your vision, and are completely interested in ensuring that your integrity and the integrity of your work is protected at all times. I’m so lucky that I have no half-steppers on my team. 

8. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book? 
I’ll miss particular characters, some of whom I wanted to spend more time with—like King Akusa, for example. I would love to delve into her history and think about how she became ruler of her people and how expansive her love is.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why? 
My husband, Adrian. He is a Virgo and a lawyer, which means that his mind is a razor, his eye is keen, and his tongue is sharp. That also means I’m going to get the unvarnished truth about my work and really get the chance to polish it before it’s seen by other people. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? 
The best writing advice I ever heard came from the late, great Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” If she hadn’t said that, I might not have had the courage to write The Prophets. 

Robert Jones Jr., author of The Prophets. (Credit: Alberto Vargas)

Ten Questions for Yxta Maya Murray

12.29.20

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Yxta Maya Murray, whose latest novel, Art Is Everything, will be published in January by TriQuarterly Books. In Art Is Everything, Chicana performance artist Amanda Ruiz navigates critical points in both her art practice and personal life. She has a residency lined up at the Guggenheim, among other honors, but frets over becoming compromised by institutions. She’s madly in love with an actuary named Xōchitl Hérnandez, but Xōchitl has recently announced she wants a child—and Amanda worries a baby would disrupt her most ambitious projects. Then a death and an incident of violence shake her further. Shifting in form from critical essay to Wikipedia post to Snapchat message, Art Is Everything is a whip-smart and intimate portrait of ambition and survival, love and loss in the contemporary age. “In Amanda Ruiz, Yxta Maya Murray has created a character that is fresh and sassy and unlike any I’ve encountered in recent fiction,” writes Alex Espinoza. Yxta Maya Murray is a writer and law professor living in Los Angeles. She is the author of several previous novels, including The Queen Jade and The King’s Gold. Her writing has also appeared in the Georgia Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ploughshares, and the Southern Review, among other publications. 

1. How long did it take you to write Art Is Everything
Two and a half years. I’d stopped writing fiction for about eight years, but I had a big surgery in 2015, and in the aftermath I began furiously banging out passages on art, ambition, longing, and survival that wound up becoming the novel.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
It wasn’t challenging. I leapt into it and wrote it like a banshee. Not all projects come to me as ferociously though.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
I write in my bed because I blew my neck out editing my fourth novel at my work desk and had to run around with a padded neck brace for two months. Now I flounder amongst the pillows and bash away at it, so to speak. I write in the morning after running, if I can. I try to do it every workday. I used to write through the weekends but then found that wasn’t good for my relationship. “I can’t! I’m writing!” Ugh.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I just finished Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is about a guy who wants to burn down the most beautiful thing in the world. The last line is so, so boss: “I wanted to live.” I’m also careening through Iris Murdoch’s An Accidental Man—I can’t get enough of her Oxford drama and all of the philosophical sex. Camilo José Cela’s great experimental novel about the Spanish Civil War, San Camilo, 1936, recently almost broke my mind, but I coped by reading only ten pages every morning and then journaling about it. It’s got to be a precursor to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, one of my favorite novels even though I still don’t know if it’s a feminist revolution or snuff porn. The misogyny in San Camilo, 1936 is bionic. Another good ending though. 

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition? 
Carribean Fragoza’s writing is passionate and precise. Her gorgeously goth book of short fiction, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, is coming out from City Lights Publishers in March. Maceo Montoya’s Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces is an electric bildungsroman that University of Nevada Press will publish in April. Anaïs Duplan’s Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture just came out from Black Ocean Press. Duplan writes about aesthetic strategies that can help create liberation and chronicles his own gender transition journey. “I have discovered that when I experience what is universal in me, I may leave my individual oppressions behind,” Duplan writes. Essential and irresistible. 

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life? 
Death.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Art Is Everything
I dash about the world thinking that I’m relatable, low-key, and have a totally accessible emotional style, but in the writing of the novel I learned that I just might be the human equivalent of habanero chilies or Vegemite.

8. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book? 
My protagonist, Amanda Ruiz. She wears slashed Reagan/Bush campaign jerseys as couture and can make awesome art out of Styrofoam and tears.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why? 
This is a hard question for me. Virginia Barber used to be my agent, and she was a god. Rest in peace. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? 
I started writing in 1995 during a federal clerkship for a district court judge in the Central District of Los Angeles. It was a lot of intimidating work, and I would try to write at night and on the weekends. I would cry at my computer like I was Kafka collapsing under his desk at the Workers’ Accident Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. But then I read a Michiko Kakutani New York Times review of some writing advice book I don’t remember the name of, and she relayed that the book said that you should just write a page a day. A page on my computer was twenty-six lines. I wrote a page a day come hell or high marital dudgeon and pushed out three books that way.

Yxta Maya Murray, author of Art Is Everything. (Credit: Andrew Brown)

Ten Writers on Writing Advice

12.22.20

Over the course of two and a half years, nearly one hundred and fifty writers have answered Ten Questions from Poets & Writers Magazine, generating an index of almost 1,500 responses for readers to peruse. The interview has evolved since the first installment in June 2018—questions have cycled in and out—but the last question has remained: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? As we approach the end of 2020, our editors have selected ten of their favorite answers to this question, responses that we hope might renew your creative spirit after this unusual and difficult year. 

“Everything you’re most afraid of is what you need to write.” —Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, author of The Freezer Door

“It sounds a little nutty coming from someone who’s been teaching writing for more than a decade, but I’m mistrustful of writing advice in general—which relates to my irritation that writers are now expected to be sages. But I have noticed that the writers who are willing to revise their work substantially are eventually able to get their work to do what they want it to, and to find someone willing to publish it.” —Kate Zambreno, author of Drifts

“My friend, the incredible and generous poet, Willie Perdomo, once told me to work on my writing in pieces, breaking it down, and do a bit each day. I needed his wisdom. Because I can get overwhelmed. Left to my anxiety, I’ll ambush myself before I even begin because I think I have to know the entire life of a story and that it must be a single breath. But that’s not how we breathe.” —Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Seeing the Body

“It might not be the best I’ve ever heard, and it certainly isn’t the most appropriate for this moment in time, but the advice I most often need to hear is: You’ve got to get out. Take a walk. At the very least, these days, leave the screen and stand by a window. So much work can happen while you’re not working. I think this is instinctive for some people, but I always have to remind myself; otherwise I end up stuck and hunched and ripping everything in half.” —Natascha Bruce, translator of Lake Like a Mirror

“Alexander Chee once said something like, When you put something that actually happened to you in a story, you have to privilege the needs of the story and not merely what happened. I don’t remember the exact quote, but I think about that all the time.” —Brandon Taylor, author of Real Life

“Indigenous Canadian writer and Elder Lee Maracle once told me, ‘Don’t throw anything away. There’s a reason you wrote it in the first place, even if it doesn’t belong in the piece you’re drafting.’ I keep a folder on my laptop with snippets that have to be cut. After editing one of my novels, I ended up using the pieces in the folder to finish a volume of short stories.” —Cherie Dimaline, author of Empire of Wild

“My best piece of writing advice came from the poet-scholar Chiyuma Elliott at a Cave Canem workshop back in 2009. I was a baby poet who loved grand finales for my poems, and in her feedback, she said very gently, ‘At the end of a poem, leave the door open.’ I’ve spent every day of my writing life since learning all the ways you can leave a door open: unlocked, cracked, off the hinges. There are so many ways.” —Destiny O. Birdsong, author of Negotiations

“I’ve been terrible at everything I’ve ever wanted to be good at—dating, tying my shoelaces, athletics, writing, driving, math, drawing, fashion, parenting—the first time I tried it. But years ago, my father, who’s a musician and public school teacher, told me about how much better his music had gotten when he’d just made it a point to commit to doing it—with focus and intention—on a daily basis. Even when it’s terrible. Especially when it’s terrible. Intentional, focused practice: That’s it. Maybe some people are phenomenal enough to not need it, but for me there’s no shortcut. Not for anything.” —Kawai Strong Washburn, author of Sharks in the Time of Saviors

“‘Ah, go on. You’re living your life’—said to me by Grace Paley when I was not writing every day.” —Heid E. Erdrich, author of Little Big Bully

“My friend Richard Sala had two catchphrases/mantras: ‘I can’t win’ and ‘It never ends.’ Taken together, they seem like the perfect summation of creative struggle.” —Adrian Tomine, author of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist

Clockwise from upper left: Destiny O. Birdsong, Cherie Dimaline, Kawai Strong Washburn, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Natascha Bruce, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Adrian Tomine, Brandon Taylor, Kate Zambreno, and Heid E. Erdrich. (Credit: Birdsong: Hunter Armistead; Dimaline: Wenzdae Brewster; Washburn: Crystal Liepa; Sycamore: Jesse Mann; Taylor: Bill Adams; Zambreno: Heather Sten)

Ten Author Readings to Mark the End of 2020

by

Staff

12.18.20

As we near the end of a year like no other, we turn to the work of our fellow writers to mourn all that we’ve lost and to celebrate the dreams of a better future. The following is a collection of ten author readings, culled from the most recent installment of Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin, that reflect the beauty, hope, resilience, and strength of writers to confront the failures of the past and to rejoice in the promise of what lies ahead. 

 

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor reads “Hand of the Midwife” and “Stone” from her poetry collection Mama Phife Represents, published in January 2021 by Haymarket Books.

 

Peter Gizzi reads “That I Saw the Light on Nonotuck Avenue” and “The Present Is Constant Elegy” from his poetry collection Now It’s Dark, published in December 2020 by Wesleyan University Press.

 

Ed Tarkington reads from his novel The Fortunate Ones, published in January 2021 by Algonquin Books.

 

Anne Marie Macari reads “Boats Can Take You,” “Bow Down,” and “We Will All Go Home With You” from her poetry collection Heaven Beneath, published in December 2020 by Persea Books.

 

Anna North reads from her novel Outlawed, published in January 2021 by Bloomsbury.

 

Rodney Gómez reads “Warbler,” “Theories of Violence,” and “The Annunciation” from his poetry collection Arsenal With Praise Song, published in January 2021 by Orison Books.

 

Eman Quotah reads from her novel, Bride of the Sea, published in January 2021 by Tin House.

 

Jackie Wang performs “Damnation” from her poetry collection, The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void, published in January 2021 by Nightboat Books. 

 

Morgan Christie reads from her story collection, These Bodies, published in December 2020 by Tolsun Books.

 

Mateo Askaripour reads from his novel, Black Buck, published in January 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Five Cinematic Author Events

by

Staff

8.4.20

In search of an alternative to rewatching the same Netflix series? From London to New York City, these extended readings and conversations with Zadie Smith, Édouard Louis, Ocean Vuong, Min Jin Lee, and Joy Harjo possess a nearly cinematic quality. Videos might never replicate the magic of those bygone crowded halls—where the writer’s voice somehow managed to dispel the discomfort of the folding chair, or of standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers at the door—but they can provide some semblance of community while we continue to shelter indoors. 

Zadie Smith on Swing Time (Penguin Press, 2016) 

“I wanted to write about dance, really, and dance’s relation to Black life,” Smith says. “That was the first thought.” She appears in conversation with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. 

 

Édouard Louis on The End of Eddy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)

“When I started to write The End of Eddy, I felt that I wanted to say something true, something real,” Louis says. He appears in conversation with Tash Aw at the London Review Bookshop. 

 

Ocean Vuong on On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, 2019)

“Having written poems for over ten years, I got really good at getting out of the poem. I got really successful at ducking out the side door when things got too hot,” Vuong says. “The novel was the perfect antidote because it forces you to tend to bodies, day after day.” He appears in conversation with Darin Strauss at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House in New York City.

 

Min Jin Lee on Pachinko (Grand Central Publishing, 2017)

“I don’t believe in writer’s block,” Lee says. “But I do believe that your time is limited which means that we have to make choices about who we see, what we do, and how we spend our time.” She appears in conversation with Ken Chen at the Tenement Museum in New York City. 

 

Joy Harjo 

“Poetry doesn’t just emerge, it emerges from the soul of a community, from a community’s history,” Harjo says. She delivers her inaugural reading as the twenty-third U.S. Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Five Hot Summer Fiction Readings

8.1.20

As the long days stretch into the month of August, settle in, pour a cold beverage, and let the cool sounds of these five readings from recently published books of fiction provide some relief from the summer heat. 

F*ckface: And Other Stories (Henry Holt, July 2020) by Leah Hampton: 

 

A Burning (Knopf, June 2020) by Megha Majumdar:

 

Parakeet (FSG, June 2020) by Marie-Helene Bertino:

 

Sansei and Sensibility (Coffee House Press, May 2020) by Karen Tei Yamashita:

 

How Much of These Hills Is Gold (Riverhead Books, April 2020) by C Pam Zhang:

Be Bold: A Profile of Ocean Vuong

by

Rigoberto González

6.12.19

Ocean Vuong made his literary debut in April 2016 with Night Sky With Exit Wounds, a poetry collection that chronicles a family’s journey as refugees from Vietnam to America, where the poems’ young speaker grows up attuned to the turmoil of his family’s traumas while becoming aware of his sexual identity. Vuong’s meteoric rise in popularity was immediate, and so was the positive critical response to his lyrical voice.

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani raved about “his ability to capture specific moments in time with both photographic clarity and a sense of the evanescence of all earthly things.” The book’s warm reception was accompanied by a number of prizes and honors from the Whiting Foundation (Whiting Award), the Lannan Foundation (Lannan Literary Fellowship), the T. S. Eliot Foundation (T. S. Eliot Prize), Publishing Triangle (Thom Gunn Award), Forward Arts Foundation (Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection), and others. The New York Times went on to name it one of the top ten books of 2016. All for a first book of poems by a relative newcomer to the literary scene.

Rather than follow it up with another book of poems, however, Vuong shifted gears and turned his attention to a different genre entirely—fiction, in the form of a novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, out in June from Penguin Press. The book centers around the strained relationship between a mother, who struggles with PTSD induced by memories of the Vietnam War and her abusive marriage, and her son, who is contending with his sexuality as he comes of age on the drug-ravaged streets of Hartford, Connecticut. I recently sat down with Vuong to discuss his path from poet to novelist, a story that begins with—as Vuong puts it—“a little gay kid from Hartford, who read in the library with his head down so that people didn’t know he was reading.”

Born in Saigon in 1988 to a family of rice farmers, Ocean Vuong was only two when his extended family left Vietnam and traveled to Connecticut after making a brief stop in the Philippines. The seven-member household included his grandmother, “who would start to sing any time there was conflict,” Vuong says. “Since she was the elder, it cast a kind of spell over us so that we could survive our problems.” The cultural adjustment for this mostly illiterate refugee family was not easy, to say the least. Vuong’s father returned to Vietnam not long after their arrival, and his mother found a job as a manicurist, a profession she still practices. “Everything was erupting all the time,” Vuong recalls, “but it was our shared journey that kept us together.”

Though the Vuongs were the only Vietnamese family in a mostly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, they were embraced with generosity and kindness, which made them more comfortable with the reality that they now lived in a different country. “I didn’t know that most of America was white until I was eight or nine,” he says. The concept of white supremacy was encountered much later, when he eventually left the working-class side of Hartford to seek job opportunities as an adolescent in the more affluent and commercial areas of the city.

In the meantime, he was having to contend with two life-changing realizations: that he was gay and that he had, despite a love of reading, dyslexia. The learning disorder is a family affliction; Vuong’s mother and brother also have it. Much later he would find out that so did Octavia Butler and F. Scott Fitzgerald, which helped him reconcile with the possibility of becoming a writer. “I would insist it’s not a setback or an illness,” he says. “It’s just a different angle of looking at language that actually reveals a lot and was very advantageous for me as an artist.”

Vuong says he also sees his queerness as a source of strength in the way he thinks about the world. “For queer kids, when the world around you is dangerous, you go into your own refuge,” Vuong says. For him it was books. Coming out to his mother, however, was a different kind of challenge—one that he didn’t think would end well for him. In fact he was prepared for the worst and planned his exile from his family.

“I waited until I was seventeen,” he recalls. “I had enough for a bus ticket and $2,000 in my pocket saved up from my job at Panera Bread. I had my bag with me when I sat down with my mother. I was ready for rejection.” But that rejection never came. At this point the family had already suffered serious losses to drug overdoses, victims of the opioid epidemic that was affecting this working-class community, a harsh reality he weaves into his new novel. “Where would you go?” his mother asked. “What would we do without you?”

Relieved, Vuong set down his bag and began to imagine a future in Hartford the way his family had so many years ago. His mother suggested he try college first because her son “had a belly full of English.” And if not, she suggested, “You can always come work at the nail salon.” Vuong jokingly adds, “I thought, ‘Well, it’s not a bad job. Where else can you work and watch Oprah all day?’”

His time at Manchester Community College was brief but instrumental in changing his perceptions about who had the right to dream big. “I was fortunate to walk into my first class, a composition course, and be met by single mothers, people with two jobs, people in their forties—all walks of life—and it felt like for the first time I saw a teacher have faith in this community of outsiders, investing in our imaginations, and challenging us,” he says. “Folks that were not supposed to be having these discussions were allowed to.” By now he had started to keep a journal, feeling the magnetic pull to poetry—Rimbaud, Lorca, Vallejo, Neruda—copying poems from library books to his notebook because he couldn’t afford to buy books of his own.

Encouraged by his community-college education, Vuong decided to pursue a degree—one that could eventually lead to a job that would help his family—so in 2008 he enrolled in business school at Pace University in Manhattan. After two weeks, keenly aware that he didn’t fit in among the men in business suits and internships, he dropped out. “I still had my library card,” he says, “so I rekindled my love of reading. But I also began attending open mics to read from my scribbles in my notebook. I wasn’t ready to call it poetry.”

It was at one of these events that he heard about MFA programs, in which he could not only nurture his passion but perhaps also fund it. He was also eager to get back to college so he could stop deceiving his mother about his activities in New York City. Unbeknownst to her, he had been couch surfing since leaving Pace. But first he needed to complete his undergraduate degree. “I applied to the most affordable place I could find: City University of New York,” he says. He ended up attending Brooklyn College.

Although he credits Brooklyn College with giving him access to the literature he needed to finally feel well-read, it was the cafés, bookstores, and other venues that held poetry readings that gave Vuong the community he was looking for, forging friendships that fortified his resolve to keep going. “I met Saeed Jones,” he recalls, “who was fabulous and glorious, with a big, hearty laugh. And when he told me he was attending an MFA program at Rutgers in Newark, I knew that it was possible.” Soon after, he connected with poet Eduardo C. Corral, who at the time was living in his family’s double-wide in Casa Grande, Arizona, working at Home Depot, and running a popular blog called Lorcaloca. Corral’s blog gave Vuong a glimpse into the ways the writing profession welcomed or rejected writers of color. When Corral announced he was moving to New York City in late 2011, Vuong knew this too was a sign: “We had similar stories—both of us gay boys from working-class immigrant parents. He became a kind of mentor because his journey was like a map for me.”

Corral recalls their first meeting: “Ocean’s attentiveness is what first caught my attention. He was kind and curious, always asking questions, eager to listen, to learn. This attentiveness also extended to language.” Since then they have stayed in touch, though Corral contends that theirs is a bond not forged by literary success but by the amazing truth that they are sons of non-English speakers, who have been able to shape careers and help their families financially through a profession that, in effect, excludes their loved ones. “We now get to write about our immigrant families and claim a place for them in poetry,” he adds.

Ocean Vuong

(Credit: Jon Crispin )

In 2014, prompted by his intimate but influential writing community, Vuong applied to MFA programs, but only in the New York City area because he wanted to remain close to friends. He chose NYU because it offered him funding without teaching obligations. But on that fateful first day of class, he received a call from Michael Wiegers at Copper Canyon Press, letting him know the press had accepted his book for publication. “What people don’t understand,” Vuong says, “is that I had been working on Night Sky With Exit Wounds for eight years. And one of the reasons I sent my manuscript to that press was that they promised a personal rejection, and since I wasn’t enrolled in school yet, I was craving feedback.”

For Wiegers there was no doubt the manuscript needed to be in the world. “I was struck by his ability to risk toeing the edge of sentimentality, without crossing over it,” he says. “His poems were open and vulnerable and bold enough to take on the big topics of love and grief and war and familial legacy. These were gentle poems that were graceful and confident—and did not need to perform themselves toward the deep desire they contained.”

The prospect of publication would give Vuong something tangible to show his mother. “Since my mother could not read, I insisted that the book have my picture so that she could see it was really me and show all of her customers at the nail salon,” Vuong says. A few days later, Don Share from the Poetry Foundation called to offer him the $25,800 Ruth Lilly Prize. The timing was perfect for Vuong, who could now proceed with confidence, fine-tuning his book for the next two years without dealing with financial stress or the anxieties of an uncertain future. Two years later, Night Sky With Exit Wounds was published to considerable fanfare.

Besides giving his mother a book and, after years of financial hardship, a down payment for a house, Vuong also had the opportunity to show her a bit of the literary world he had just entered: “She has come to a few of my readings, and she sits in the room so that she can look at the audience responding to my work. She calls me a scholar, not a poet, because in Vietnam, scholars are revered.” What did he get for himself after that flurry of fellowships? “My only splurge was a coat,” he says.

Vuong, who now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, credits his Buddhist upbringing with his ability to navigate all the attention in stride. He meditates five times a week and keeps reminding himself of the person he was when he first fell in love with writing. “I bring him to the present,” Vuong explains, “not the person who won the awards—he has nothing to teach me. So when people ask what is the secret of my success, I say Submittable.” 

He has maintained this sobering stance as he steps into the role of teacher and mentor at his new job as assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “I tell my students that I didn’t have a social life. I had a library card,” he says. “I sit down with them and ask them to privilege intention over motivation.” But he admits it’s a challenge to keep students focused on the art of writing during the era of social media, which he believes fuels competitiveness. 

“My interactions with Saeed and Eduardo and Rickey Laurentiis were important, but afterward I went home to the page, not to Facebook or Twitter,” he says. Nevertheless, he is determined to give his students the kind of positive experience he had with his own teachers like Ben Lerner, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Sharon Olds.  

What also keeps him centered is the reality of his family’s urgencies. “They still need my support,” he says, particularly now as the current administration implements a policy to revoke residency from Vietnamese refugees deemed “violent-crime aliens.” Vuong says, “Those are my people! We come from a troubled history, and with such trauma come problems. It’s unfair to penalize a community for an affliction exacerbated by this country’s participation in the Vietnam conflict.” While he waits to find out how these policies will directly affect his family, Vuong turns to his first love, poetry, for solace. In May 2018 he partnered with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center to launch the Center for Refugee Poetics at the Asian Arts Initiative, an organization and venue in Philadelphia, with a day of activities exploring poetry and the refugee experience. Its next symposium has yet to be scheduled, but the center hopes to expand the reach of the conversation, which began with the Southeast Asian refugee diaspora.

With the publication of an acclaimed debut comes the inevitable expectation of the second book. Shortly after the release of Night Sky With Exit Wounds, as the accolades came pouring in, Vuong was courted by a number of literary agents, who suggested he write prose. But Vuong hesitated moving on from his previous project when deep inside he knew, he says, that the first book, “an eighty-five-page paperback, did not answer all of my questions. How does it contain everything I have been asking all of my life, like what does it mean to be a queer American body, or poor, or a refugee?” So he decided to investigate those concerns further in a different genre, to find out if he could learn anything new. 

While on a residency in Italy, courtesy of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, Vuong found himself browsing the castle’s extensive library, where he connected to other poets who also wrote prose, such as Anne Carson and Maggie Nelson. “I realized then that I wasn’t out in the sea by myself,” Vuong says. “Poets have been there and thrived with the sentence and the paragraph.” 

Vuong chose to explore fiction writing because he wanted “the book to be grounded in truth but realized by the imagination. That’s why the opening chapter reads like an essay.” He also credits his education as a poet with the skills necessary to move into prose. In both he could “orchestrate an entire world,” he says. Nonfiction, he notes, would have presented issues he wanted to avoid: “As a person of color, when it comes to memoir, we are seen as anthropological conduits, a vehicle of exotic information. I wanted to insist on agency as an artist, with the freedom to embellish, and then claim it as my own rendition.”

An early role model was Maxine Hong Kingston, who had set out to write the great American novel but whose book The Woman Warrior (Knopf, 1976) was presented as nonfiction. He decided not to erase that effort and succumb to the pressure to write a memoir. “I wanted to insist that these lives—yellow, brown, poor—inspired me to create art as I wanted to create it, not as others wanted me to create,” he says.

Page after page, he allowed memory to shape the fabric of the fictional narrative. He understands the impulse of readers to want to make direct connections between the writer and the writing, and he expects many will also want to draw lines between the poetry book and the novel, but that’s beyond his control. He’s more invested in his right to invent. “Writers of color are not supposed to have the musculature of an imagination,” he says. “When we use it, we’re being bold, and that’s what I want to do—be bold, make things up. I’m not here to give people the juicy bits of my community. I’m not a journalist; I’m an artist.” 

That said, he set out to write a book with a clear mission: “I wanted a voice in the conversation about what it means to be a body inhabiting this incredibly complicated, violent, and precarious country.” His inspiration was the community he hailed from: “When I moved to New York City and I’d tell people I came from Connecticut, there was this perception that I had come from a place of wealth. But I was a refugee. So I wanted to expand on working-class identity in a place where people lived rich and diverse lives. There are immigrant populations from all over the world in Connecticut. I want to shift the telescope and show that this world has always existed.”

Two years and four drafts later, a manuscript of the complete novel made its way to Frances Coady from the Aragi Agency. “I explained to Frances that I was a poet, that a poet doesn’t submit anything until it’s finished,” he says. For Coady, it was worth the wait: “When I read an early draft of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I experienced one of those glorious privileged moments in publishing when you know that what you are holding in your hand will affect readers in the most profound ways you can imagine.” The novel was sold to Ann Godoff at Penguin Press in April 2018.

Though the book was acquired for a notable sum, Vuong doesn’t want to dwell on that. He’s got more immediate concerns, like his family’s well-being—“the distress signals arrive and I have to answer,” he says—as well as his own. Diagnosed with agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder in which one experiences fear of places and situations that might cause panic, helplessness, or embarrassment, which at times keeps him from performing the most basic functions, like going to the grocery store, he has had to rely on his partner, Peter Bienkowski, for support. A former copyright lawyer, Bienkowski quit the profession to help Vuong through the demands of travel and presentations. He drives Vuong to and from the university so that he can teach his courses and meet committee obligations, because, as Vuong admits, “I failed my driver’s test five times.” On difficult days, Vuong stays home, at the cost of canceling appearances or meetings. “People have been surprisingly understanding,” he adds.

As for his own expectations with the release of his novel, Vuong doesn’t care to fantasize about its future or the rewards that might come with further success: “I don’t see myself as a success story even though I’ve experienced success. Everything I learned along the way was a strength. If I didn’t have my communities, that many consider broken or forgotten, I wouldn’t be where I am. I don’t want to be a sob story or anybody’s project. I want to show that you can have pride no matter where you come from and joy without forsaking the pain it took to get here.” 

 

Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Ocean Vuong and his partner, Peter Bienkowski, along with their dog, Tofu. (Credit: Jon Crispin )

Shape-Shifter: A Profile of Marlon James

by

Kima Jones

2.13.19

Marlon James and I have met before, many times, but never in Los Angeles. A Facebook update this morning informs me that James’s favorite city in America is L.A. I’m waiting for him in the lobby of the Line hotel, Koreatown’s very hip, very industrial, very dope—to quote its enthusiasts—singular travel destination, but I’m worried about the noise. Elevator jazz is playing overhead, and the aqua-blue couches and glass dining tables are packed with folks just like us talking about business deals, and art, and literature, and vastness, and coffee roasters, and Hollywood. When he arrives we sit at the far back of the lobby, away from the bustling entrance. I ask, “Why is Los Angeles your favorite city?” and he says “ha” in the new way we’ve all come to share the sentiment: being reminded that hundreds, sometimes thousands of “friends” and “followers” are reading the minutiae of our daily lives, even if they don’t click Like or leave a comment. The practice is popularly known as lurking. I call it research. “I still think art can happen here,” he says. “New York has museums, but museums aren’t culture. Museums are a graveyard for culture. If I am this year’s Patti Smith, I cannot go to New York, but I can still go to Los Angeles. There’s a sense of possibility here. Kendrick, and Anderson. Paak, the Black Hippy movement, Kamasi Washington, all of that is Los Angeles.” He turns the question on me, and I don’t even need to think about the answer. I love the desert, the mythos of the Western frontier, the apocalypse. “I’m going to die in the desert,” I say, and we both briefly acknowledge the setting sun, pink with hints of orange, bouncing off the backs of buses moving slowly down Wilshire Boulevard, before getting down to business.

I ask him a question about the world since Donald Trump when he lets out another hearty laugh. Hearty laughter and Facebook will become a theme of our two and a half hours together. “That’s usually a question I get from the foreign press,” he says. James doesn’t take a breath between sentences. “The most powerful aspect of fascism is that nobody knows they are sitting in fascism when they’re in it. Trump is disruptive, but he’s not transformative. We’re going to see more literature coming out of this administration than coming out of 9/11. 9/11 was instantaneous. We’re not even sure how to process this yet.” I’m reminded of the tense, private conversations I’ve had with friends since the 2016 election: reviewing our savings, taking on extra work, scaling back, canceling vacations. We’re sure that the worst of the recession is on its way, and none of us are prepared to survive it. Forget talking about the bizarre, carnival-like press conferences; no comment on the sitting president’s outrageous ideas regarding climate change; I don’t bring up the migrant children in detention centers. I’m still anchored to the end of James’s last sentence. He’s right, I can’t even process the daily news. In the name of self-care, unplugging, unwinding, getting over and getting through, I close my app like everyone else. 

I’ve sat down with James many times before, so I know his cadence. We’re talking about novelists now, and apathy, and James is about to bring his point full circle. “Every book is political. Not political is politics,” he says. “I’m not on a mission, but I think a writer has to talk about what’s in front of them, even when writing about shape-shifting creatures.” 

Marlon James is the author of four highly acclaimed novels. His first, John Crow’s Devil, which was rejected seventy-eight times before it was published by Akashic Books in 2005, went on to be named a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. His follow-up, The Book of Night Women (Riverhead Books, 2009), won the 2010 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and an NAACP Image Award. His magnum opus (to date), A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, and the Minnesota Book Award. 

His new novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, published by Riverhead Books in February, is the first book of an epic fantasy trilogy about Tracker, a hunter known widely for “his nose,” who is tasked with hunting down a mysterious boy who hasn’t been seen in three years. Tracker, who some have called a wolf, finds himself working with a ragtag band of hunters, some human and others supernatural, including a shape-shifting mercenary named Leopard, all searching for the boy. As Tracker and his group move closer to discovering the boy’s location and true identity, they come under attack by enemies near and far. Weighing in at 640 pages, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is in many ways the novel that James was destined to write. While much of the media hype has been focused on the fact that James wrote an epic fantasy, I am intrigued for all of its other riches: This is James’s first book that is not set in his native Jamaica, his first book about empire. I would argue that James has never been more free. Though he read African mythologies and epics for three years before writing one word, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a testament to his own make-believe. “I really wanted to geek out and write the story I wish I read as a kid,” he says. “I am writing the stories that I want to read about Jamaica. I wrote the stories that I wanted to read about Jamaica.”

Mic drop.

The Man Booker Prize win catapulted James to international stardom. With the win, he joined the “one-name club,” composed of those writers and artists whose legend has no ceiling and no floor: Jesmyn, Edwidge, Colson, Zadie, Toni, Hilton, Jamaica, Gwendolyn, and now Marlon. With that kind of glory comes fame: Melina Matsoukas, the visionary, two-time Grammy Award–winning director of music videos, films, and television shows (most notably Issa Rae’s Insecure on HBO), is leading the adaptation of A Brief History of Seven Killings for Amazon Studios. 

After such a meteoric rise to the heights of literary fame, I am curious about whether his approach to writing this new book was different from the others. “All my books start with trial and error,” he says. “There were four or five versions that I tried. This is the one that worked. I was talking to Melina [Matsoukas]—do you know her?” he stops to ask me. It was my turn for hearty laughter. Of course I know Beyoncé and Solange’s personal director. We have brunch all the time. He returns the laughter. “Well, we were talking about Showtime’s The Affair and the changing perspective. That’s when it occurred to me that Tracker could tell this story, but if you want to believe him, that’s your business.” How perfect, I thought. The Black woman director adapting your most critically acclaimed novel is also talking shop with you about your draft-in-progress. This is some kind of psychedelic, neon-haired P-Funk dream that could only happen in a Black Los Angeles where Black people not only know the future, they are writing and directing it. 

Still, James is modest in discussing his success. “I write the kind of books where if people don’t say, ‘Read it,’ people don’t read it. God bless those people who can write best-sellers. I don’t write great white saviors; my books are pretty nihilistic; things don’t end well, and I think something like a Booker Prize got more and more people to read my work. It’s hard for literary authors, for authors writing people of color.” James is standing for his ovation, but he’s also aware that every pair of hands in the auditorium counts. 

“Yeah, but what about the bad parts?” I ask. There’s rarely a story this enchanted without a poison apple. 

James is only the second Caribbean winner to win the Booker, following Trinidad-born V. S. Naipaul, who won the award in 1971. “It also changed the kinds of scrutiny I get,” James says, “which brings us back to Facebook. Any little thing I say on Facebook ends up in the Guardian and international media, but it hasn’t made me less outspoken.”

James is referring to two particular instances here but offers no further elaboration, and I don’t prompt him to say more. In November 2015 James responded to novelist Claire Vaye Watkins’s five-thousand-word Tin House essay “On Pandering” that would rock the Internet for weeks. In it Watkins discusses motherhood, misogyny, publishing, and pandering, which she refers to as performing for the imaginary white, male audience. “I have been writing to impress old white men,” she wrote. For as much as “On Pandering” does do, there is so much that it doesn’t do: It doesn’t consider the lives and journeys of writers of color, it doesn’t consider that her readers are people of color, and it doesn’t hold white, female publishing gatekeepers accountable for continuing to popularize and publish a very particular type of literature again and again. James wrote on Facebook: “While she [Watkins] recognizes how much she was pandering to the white man, we writers of colour spend way too much time pandering to the white woman. I’ve mentioned this before, how there is such a thing as ‘the critically acclaimed story.’ You see it occasionally in certain highbrow magazines and journals. Astringent, observed, clipped, wallowing in its own middle-style prose and private ennui, porn for certain publications.” The Guardian would go on to say that James “slammed” and “blasted” the publishing world in his retort, but James did what Black people do every day: He pointed at what was standing right in front of him and called it out for exactly what it is. 

Fast-forward two years and James would find his Facebook posts in the news again. On June 16, 2017, a jury acquitted officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of thirty-two-year-old Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, just north of Saint Paul, where James has lived for more than a decade. Castile, an employee of Saint Paul Public Schools, was shot seven times. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, live-streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, and one can see Officer Yanez still pointing his gun at Castile’s dead body. Reynolds’s four-year-old daughter is in the backseat. 

The Washington Post picked up the story following James’s Facebook essay-post “Smaller, and Smaller, and Smaller,” written the day after Yanez’s acquittal. Though James is one of the most famous people in Saint Paul and one of the most recognizable, he carries the burden of not appearing “too big” or “too close” (a phrase coined by comedian Dick Gregory in 1971) to white people but especially to police officers. He points out that while some Minnesotans want to “rebrand this state as North,” in reality, North is merely a romanticized concept in race relations. This is where I press James for more. We talk about living in this country, in the world as Black people, as writers, as people who travel frequently and observe everything. I bring up Garnette Cadogan’s groundbreaking essay “Walking While Black” and James nods in recognition. “Garnette’s piece made me think about how I don’t know how to stand still. Talking about Philando Castile, I don’t know if I should stand up and get shot, read my phone and get shot, blink and get shot. I don’t know what actual physical activity I can do, including standing still, that I can do and not get shot.” 

“And Tracker?” I ask, thinking of James’s protagonist roving through forests, mountains, and enemy territory with bands of people after him.

It’s obvious that James has thought a lot about his newest protagonist and state-sanctioned surveillance and violence. “It’s important for Tracker and Leopard that shape-shifting is a pleasure, and it’s a nature, a survival, but not in the same way. They’re not being monitored and watched. They don’t have a city system and a state working against them.”

At this point we take a few moments for ourselves to clear the air of the weight of Black death. Thankfully James has one of those urgent texts that happen when you land in L.A., and I need more water. 

When we return to the table, James is laughing. “It’s amazing that people think I am outspoken on Facebook, because I still feel like I have to hold back. I feel if I really, really said what I want to say, I could still be deported,” he says. We are laughing again partly because that is both a half and whole truth, and as Black people we are on the inside of it: It is true that James will always say what needs to be said, and that’s the source of his authority and mastery, and it is also true that James lives with the everyday threat of harassment, deportation, and violence, if someone in power decided to make it so.

“Are you ready to talk about this novel finally?” I ask. Beaming, he claps his hands and pumps his shoulders a few times like a beautiful, broad-shouldered athlete being interviewed after a victory. “Ready!” he says with a smile. 

James explains that break dancing, Labelle, Star Wars, and Jamaican fashion magazines of the eighties and nineties were his first experiences of futurism. I want to know what appeals to him about genre, specifically. Any close reader of James’s work will tell you that A Brief History of Seven Killings, which delves into three electrifying decades of Jamaican history around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, is pretty genre-defying itself. It is clear that James has a fondness for crime and mystery, an admiration threaded through all four of his novels. “Most of the books I read when I was younger were fantasy, comics, crime, and children’s books, and children’s books themselves are usually all of those things. Part of it is growing up in the Caribbean.” Here, James paraphrases Gabriel García Márquez: “Living in the Caribbean is wilder than the wildest fiction.” James credits his grandparents and his favorite aunt for his love of imaginative fiction. “Stories you’re told as a kid are always fantastical. I’m growing up in Jamaica, and I’m in a Jamaican pharmacy, not even a bookstore, you’re not going to find Moby-Dick. You’re going to find a novelization of Star Trek. Even my sci-fi fantasy cinema language is not the movies; it’s the books I read. It’s very dime-store, very pop comics; quite frankly it’s whatever got dumped in the third world, and I gobbled up all of it. I mean, I read Superman III as a book.” He returns to his love of Los Angeles briefly and says, “L.A. is the place where genre fiction exploded with the two genres I like the most: sci-fi/fantasy and crime. The crime novels of L.A. have a wider campus than anywhere else.”

James wants readers to be “exhausted” by the time they finish Black Leopard, Red Wolf from putting the full story together for themselves. “I realized reading all of the African epics, the awesome complexity of these narratives and how much intelligence that they’re expecting from the reader. People are more complicated than simple story; the gods are more complicated than that. They expect you to have the intelligence to navigate the treacherous waters.” And James flings us directly into turbulent, unreliable waters in Black Leopard, Red Wolf. He forces us to second-guess Tracker, Leopard, the entire cast of characters, and ourselves. While most epic fantasies look to the hero-crusade model, James knew from the outset that his trilogy would do none of that. “Respectability politics is Black people playing Anglo. It’s tying to a value system that I have no interest in writing about. I wasn’t interested in writing a sci-fi movie in brown face. Firstly, if you’re interested in African storytelling, realize that the trickster is telling the story, so the whole sense of authenticity and authority that we attach to storytelling—throw that out of the window. I knew I was going to write a hedonistic, queer, selfish character. I’m not interested in inner nobility. That’s a European, Christian narrative from the Crusades.”

And the novel is gay. “Gay gay,” James adds. We’re both reminiscing about our time as baby queers who weren’t yet out. I tell him about my times riding the train from Poughkeepsie to basement parties in Brooklyn where money was collected at the door by a dyke elder, bottles of Heineken were for sale in the kitchen, and we were left alone to grind against each other for hours in the dark. Ladies only. James chimes in, recalling his own closetedness and coming out.  “I was in the Bronx with the Jamaicans,” he says, “and I’d take the 5 train to Barnes and Noble, to Union Square. Just to walk around. Just to be out. Our built-in desire to shape-shift is always there.” James scoffs at the notion that an African epic can’t also be queer. “The novel is super fluid and super sexual because Africa is fluid and sexual. Pansexuality, queerness, nonbinary is not new to Africa. White people like to think it is.” Being queer doesn’t mean that someone isn’t problematic, and Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s Tracker isn’t without his problems. He’s a misogynist, but unlike other authors, James takes his character to task. “It was very important to me that Tracker is called out on his sexism. I’m not having that.”

Before our time together comes to an end, I tell James that he can’t get away without talking about process and craft. James is a tenured creative writing and literature professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul. When I ask him how he managed to write another 600-plus-page book, he scoots closer to me and shows me his iPhone screen. He opens his gallery to dozens and dozens of panoramic photos of his office wallpapered in bright index cards and sticky notes, mostly pink, yellow, and green. He shows me maps of various African dynasties and the map of his own new novel that he designed himself. I can see that besides being meticulous and organized, he’s simply happy that someone asked him about craft—for once. Before closing his phone he gives me a final observation on craft: “People disregard plot because they’re not really that interested in their characters.”

We get up to hug and ask the lobby attendant to take our photo together, though we’ll see each other soon: The very next night, on the rooftop of the same hotel, Riverhead Books and Entertainment Weekly will throw a party for him. The Los Angeles Times will be there, Roxane Gay, Carolyn Kellogg, the who’s who of literary L.A. 

James will be standing in the center of the room, dashing in a traditional Arabic black thobe with a high slit on one side, his thick hair pulled back, a composed celebrity. There will be two signature cocktails, a large spread, and heaps and heaps of praise for what is sure to be this year’s blockbuster book. Every guest will be greeted at the door by James’s team with the question, “Are you a black leopard or a red wolf?” When I arrive and it is my turn to answer, I scan the room for James and lock eyes, blow him a kiss, before turning to his team and saying, “I am both.” 

 

Kima Jones is a poet and prose writer living in Los Angeles, where she owns and operates Jack Jones Literary Arts, a book publicity company.

Marlon James. 

(Credit: Sara Rubinstein)

Episode 24: Marlon James, Ilya Kaminsky, Valeria Luiselli & More

Related Reading: 

March/April 2019

Summary: 

Our annual Writers Retreats Issue features twenty-two of the most inspiring retreats in the country; a profile of Marlon James on the release of his new epic fantasy novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf; an interview with Valeria Luiselli about her new novel, Lost Children Archive; a conversation with poet Ilya Kaminsky about his new collection, Deaf Republic; the second installment of How to Get Paid; Reviewers & Critics; the art of translation; writing prompts; and more.

In the twenty-fourth episode of Ampersand, editor in chief Kevin Larimer and senior editor Melissa Faliveno discuss new books by the three authors featured in the new issue: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James; Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky. 

The opening spread of this issue’s cover profile of Marlon James by Kima Jones. Photo by Sara Rubinstein.
 

02:40 Marlon James, the author of three previous books of fiction, including the Man Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, is back this month with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first installment of his Dark Star Trilogy, an epic fantasy that’s being called “The African Games of Thrones.” And this book is truly epic: It follows two shape-shifting mercenaries, Leopard and Tracker, on an odyssey through a Dark Ages version of the African continent, across ancient cities and dense forests, in search of a missing boy. Along the way they encounter all sorts of mythical creatures, including vampires, witches, wizards, trickster monkeys, and one very wise buffalo. Adventure and swashbuckling ensue, but so do deeper explorations: of truth, power, queerness, and the desire to understand one another.

04:25 Marlon James reads an excerpt from Black Leopard, Red Wolf.

The opening spread of this issue’s conversation between Ilya Kaminsky by Garth Greenwell. Photo by Bob Mahoney.
 

12:03 Ilya Kaminsky’s new book, Deaf Republic, is a kind of parable-in-poems set in an unnamed occupied territory during a time of political unrest. The poetic narrative starts with a gunshot: While breaking up a protest, a soldier shoots and kills a young deaf boy—and this horrific act renders the entire town deaf. The citizens coordinate their silent insurgency with sign language as the book follows the private lives of townspeople encircled by public violence. It’s a love story, a collection of poems about terror and carnage and witness and political dissent—and the power of puppeteering. Ilya was born in Odessa, in what was then the Soviet Union, in 1977. Substantially deaf from the age of four, he spoke no English when he immigrated to the United States with his family at sixteen. And yet he studied at the University of Rochester and Georgetown University and has a JD from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. His honors include a Whiting Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Metcalf Award, a Lannan Fellowship, Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the editor in chief of the literary journal Poetry International and, after several years teaching in the graduate creative writing program at San Diego State University, Ilya now holds the Bourne Poetry Chair at Georgia Tech.

15:12 Ilya Kaminsky reads three poems from Deaf Republic.

The opening spread of this issue’s interview with Valeria Luiselli by Lauren LeBlanc. Photo by Tony Gale.
 

19:44 Valeria Luiselli’s new novel, Lost Children Archive, follows a family of four—whose names and ethnicities we never learn—as they road-trip across the country, from New York to Arizona. The couple are audio archivists, and their destination on this journey is Apacheria, the place the Apaches once called home. “Why Apaches?” asks the ten-year-old son. “Because they were the last of something,” answers the father. The family, which is facing a crisis of its own, is trying to hold onto its own foundations while attempting to understand those of the country across which they travel. It’s a book that is at once a great American road trip novel and an investigation of the complexities of family, immigration, justice, and equality in the United States. Born in Mexico City in 1983, Luiselli has lived in South Korea, India, Spain, and elsewhere; she now lives in New York, where she teaches a creative writing workshop with her niece, at an immigration detention center, to mostly Guatemalan children for whom Spanish is their second language. In the fall she will begin teaching at Bard College, where he was recently appointed writer in residence. She is the author of four previous books, including Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, The Story of My Teeth, Faces in the Crowd, and Sidewalks

21:58 Valeria Luiselli reads an excerpt from Lost Children Archive.

27:48 The cohosts talk about one of their favorite subjects—made-up words!—after receiving an e-mail from Jim Armstrong, an avid listener of Ampersand who shared a project in which he came up with a new word for each letter of the alphabet, including wrught, vocabullary, and emaul. On his website, armstrongwords.com, he offers the definition and etymology of each word, then provides some useful examples. Thanks for reaching out, Jim!

This episode is brought to you in part by the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. From July 16–28, the University of the South will host the 30th annual Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Thanks to the generosity of the Walter E. Dakin Memorial Fund, supported by the estate of Tennessee Williams, the Conference will gather distinguished faculty to provide instruction and criticism through workshops and craft lectures in poetry, fiction, and playwriting. Fellowships and scholarships are available, and the application deadline is March 20. Apply online and find out more at sewaneewriters.org.

Valeria Luiselli audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, read by the author, Kivlighan de Montebello, William DeMeritt and Maia Enrigue Luiselli.

Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast is a production of Poets & Writers, Inc., and is edited and mixed by Melissa Faliveno. Music for this episode is provided by YACHT, BitBasic, Adam & Alma, and Clinic. Comments or suggestions? E-mail ampersand@pw.org.

My Past and Future Assassin: A Profile of Terrance Hayes

by

Hanif Abdurraqib

6.13.18

One can make a home wherever the body finds itself at rest. I imagine this to be true always, but especially now, while taking in the large plastic novelty fish hanging high on the wall above the head of Terrance Hayes. Even while slouching in his chair, Hayes towers above the table in front of him, so that the fish, a marlin, appears as a crown under the glow of red light humming overhead, darkening half of the marlin and half of the face of the poet. We are at Great Jones Cafe in lower Manhattan, a place Hayes told me is his “go-to spot” when we spoke earlier, trying to nail down where to meet. When I arrive, I find him alone in a corner, drink already on the table. Hayes is a Southerner at heart, having spent his childhood and early adulthood in South Carolina, so it comes as no surprise to find out why he has led me here, to this place he tells me he comes to every weekend, often alone. “I didn’t know how quiet it would or wouldn’t be in here,” he tells me as I sit down, in reference to my request that we find a low-key location for our interview. “But it’s the only place in this city where I can get good grits, so it’s one of the few places in this city I love.” I imagine this to be his way of welcoming me into a small corner of his home.

We are talking about primary colors, Hayes and I. He is describing for me his most recent project. His poems were commissioned by composer Tyshawn Sorey for Cycles of My Being, a song cycle that “explores the realities of life as a black man in America” (or so it is described in the publicity material), performed by renowned tenor Lawrence Brownlee at Carnegie Hall, Opera Philadelphia, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. So Hayes sent Sorey some work to be played in front of a mass audience. He tells me he agonized over which poems to send—“you know how I am with this shit; nobody knows what poems are except for poets,” he says—and eventually bent to the will of the composer, who had asked Hayes if he had any poems about hope, or about hate. Hayes balked at the idea. 

“They wanted [it] to be hopeful, but a hopeful poem isn’t my tendency,” he says. “And a hateful poem isn’t my tendency either.” He eventually wrote a poem specifically for the show but then set it aside. 

This story is less about the song cycle for me and more about what is happening with the interior of Terrance Hayes. “I’m not interested in primary colors,” he tells me when I ask him why he has no interest in hope or hate. “It’s not nuanced enough. I’m interested in the spaces where colors overlap. It’s like when people call someone a racist and think that’s the end of it. That ain’t the end. Racism is a symptom of fear, or greed, or some other bullshit. So even if I wrote a poem about hate, it ain’t gonna be about hate when I’m done with it. My personality likes a challenge, so I can write a poem that many would consider hopeful.”

“But aren’t you a hopeful person?” I ask. 

“Am I?” he shoots back playfully, smiling before sighing and stirring a small tornado into his drink with the tip of his straw. “I mean, the endgame is always going to be death, so how hopeful can anyone really be?”

We are talking about death, Hayes and I. Or, it seems, death is the river’s mouth our conversation is flowing into. This makes sense, in some ways. We are here to talk about his new book of poems, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, published by Penguin in June, which is overwhelming in every sense. Overwhelming in its brilliance, yes, but also overwhelming in its pacing, its style. Each poem is the exact same length—a sonnet’s requisite fourteen lines—and carries the exact same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” The book, despite its breadth and clever turns, is a confrontation. Not an unwelcome one but a confrontation nonetheless. Hayes is too crafty to force his way, unwanted, into a room, so his poems are like the slow and steady picking of a lock, until the door handle clicks. Instead of entering, the poet stands outside, satisfied with his work.

Hayes began the process of writing the sonnets with inspiration from Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets series. Coleman’s sonnets, much like Hayes’s own, are winding, endlessly questioning, and rich with syntax and alliteration. A stunning formalist, yet inventive and often two steps ahead of her peers, Coleman, who died in 2013 at the age of sixty-seven, spent much of her life as a poet struggling to make a living from her craft. Born and raised in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, Coleman worked several odd jobs until her poems began to take off, and even then it was hard for her to make ends meet. Her hustle manifested itself in her poems; chasing new ways of crafting a poem became a form of survival. She was a mentor to some and an inspiration to many more, but Coleman wasn’t always granted the acclaim she deserved. Her work—unlike the work of Hayes—wasn’t fully celebrated until after her death.

Hayes is gathering his roses while he is still alive to grasp them—thorns and all. One such thorn: Hayes, who now lives in New York City after several years in Pittsburgh, where he taught at the University of Pittsburgh and was codirector of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics there, appreciated the love he was shown in the smaller city but notes that it became overwhelming. “They had my face up in the airport,” he says. “I couldn’t handle it.”

This is not to say that Hayes is entirely humble, however—nor should he be. But he is grounded, possessing a healthy blend of logic and confidence. You know the long list. The author of six poetry collections—Muscular Music (Tia Chucha Press, 1999), Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002), Wind in a Box (Penguin, 2006), Lighthead (Penguin, 2010), How to Be Drawn (Penguin, 2015), and now the new book—he has won much of what a poet can win, including the National Book Award for Lighthead; the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for Muscular Music; a Whiting Award; an NAACP Image Award; and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. He is also a chancellor at the Academy of American Poets. All that and he’s still relatively young, just forty-six years old. Young enough to have decades of future success but old enough to have watched skilled but less decorated writers die, without much control over their legacies. 

As for his own legacy, Hayes tells me that he is most concerned with how he’s viewed as a teacher. He is at NYU now and finds himself at home in the classroom. He tells stories about his talented students and how there is a mutual pushing and pulling forward. None of it is about money, he tells me. 

“This is why I just want to leave my kids my poems,” he says, referring to his two children. “I want to leave them art.” He pauses and references something he recently mentioned to his ex-wife, the poet Yona Harvey. “Money is nothing to be governed by, because once you get it, it’s never enough. When I die, I want my kids to have my art. Surely that will be worth something one day.”

Confidence and logic.

We are talking about Wanda Coleman again, as the darkness falling on Great Jones Street becomes richer, nighttime beginning to flood in through the windows. “I wrote an American Sonnet to Wanda Coleman,” he tells me, picking apart the catfish on his plate. “And I sent it to her. We exchanged letters, and then suddenly she was ill. She died in 2013, and I registered that, and then,” he pauses, “and then around the election I decided to do something else.”

Hayes says he had a “reaction” to the election, and I understand instantly what he means, as I felt it too. For all of the “now more than ever” tropes about writers and poets being needed at this particular moment—particularly writers and poets of color—the election did create a sense of urgency for many, not necessarily to share all of their work at once, but to establish a legacy of work, something that might be left behind, if there would be nothing else left of us. If things got “real bad,” whatever that meant. For Hayes, though, the week of the election also had another emotional touch point: Wanda Coleman’s seventieth birthday would have been on November 13, 2016. 

“I had this obsession with writing these shorter poems, because I had been writing long poems,” he says, referring to the work in his last book, How to Be Drawn, which included a number of multiple-page poems such as “Who Are the Tribes” and “How to Draw a Perfect Circle.” He continues: “And I thought I could do this for her. I thought to myself, ‘Can I access the thing I most love about what she did, in these times?’” It became something he chased after relentlessly. “Also,” he smirks, after I ask him what other motivations existed for his use of the form, “I like a volta.”

It seems, at least to me, that a volta is defined best by the hand that crafts it, and so therefore a volta can be anything. Formalists will define it as the turn, or the rhetorical division, the shift, between the sonnet’s first eight lines and the final six. For Hayes the volta is in the project itself, tethered to his always shifting definition of the assassin in the work. “I’m trying to go in one way and come out another way. So, yeah, I’m trying to see how many turns I can fit into a poem, but also I like the sonnet as a way of addressing an idea: How can I write a traditional love poem to someone or something I don’t deem worthy of my love?” After a long pull of his drink, he adds, “I just don’t know what other form would be able to hold this particular moment.”

A love poem for an enemy or a foe is largely about restraint, I suppose. Which makes the project of the book and the restraints on the poems themselves even more fascinating. The central conceit is this: How can I reach out and gently touch that which might not be so gentle toward me? And how can I be sure that in honoring these foes with love, in my turning to face them, they won’t change?

Sometimes the foes are invented, and sometimes the foes are direct and predictable—country, or president, or racism. But the book is most interesting when the foe is Hayes himself. “I’m in a different phase of my life now,” he tells me after we talk briefly about what it is to want to love yourself when you are your own enemy. “Having been married and not being married [now] also bears on the sonnets,” he says, staring into his drink. Hayes is recently divorced from Harvey, though they remain on good terms, he insists, raising their children, a son and a daughter, shuttling between Pittsburgh and New York. “I haven’t talked…. People been asking this shit, but I don’t wanna talk too much about it. But what I will say to you is that sometimes the assassin is you, or sometimes the assassin is a beloved, and that role feels transferrable. It’s like the stuff in the book about Orpheus and Eurydice.” He pauses here, which is rare for Hayes when he gets into a stream of conversation. He is talking about a series of poems in the book that detail the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The poems are decidedly distinct from the others, in both tone and what they are attempting to unravel. They are the poems in the book in which Hayes is hiding the least, taking himself to task, or taking the idea of love to task, or taking the idea of forever to task. 

In one of the sonnets he writes:

I tried to tell the woman

Who sent me songs, it’s departure that makes company 
Hard to master. I tried to tell her I’m a muser, a miser
With time. I love poems more than money & pussy. 
From now on I will eat brunch alone. I believe 
Eurydice is actually the poet, not Orpheus. Her muse
Has his back to her with his ear bent to his own heart.
As if what you learn making love to yourself matters 
More than what you learn when loving someone else.

 

“Most of that is me tying back to a different kind of relationship,” he says. “Who is the assassin between Eurydice and Orpheus? Who is the poet between those two? I’m thinking about…what does it mean to be married to a poet? What does it mean to be married to a motherfucker who’s gonna be playing his music no matter what? He’s a poet. It’s what he’s gonna do. But there are consequences to that. And so you might say, well, maybe she’s the poet then. I’m just…I’m wondering about the beloved as an assassin.”

This sits between us heavy on the table, the most open Hayes has been to this point in our talk. We leave it there, untouched.

I write the poems so I don’t have to talk about this shit,” Hayes tells me when I ask him which part of the response to his work he values more: his playfulness and precision with language or his sentimentality. He is not saying this to dismiss me, and we both understand this. It’s a moment in the conversation when he is talking to me as a writer, someone who he knows has likely had similar responses to questions like this. “Anything I say in a poem, I mean it,” he says. “Feeling and intuition is the only important thing to me. You can persuade someone through logic that perhaps what they’re thinking is wrong. But you can’t persuade someone that their feelings are wrong. You can’t tell a motherfucker that they ain’t hungry if they’re hungry. No words in the world can do that. So I trust feeling as a bedrock thing. Can you want to kill a motherfucker and simultaneously love them?”

To trust one’s feelings can be all-consuming, especially if those feelings are brought into a harsher light by a mess of a political moment. Hayes is invested in his obsessions, even if his obsessions are about the nation unraveling. 

There are poets who are slow and deliberate speakers, working to make sure every sentence holds weight. But Hayes is a rapid-fire conversationalist, spreading his long arms wide, or gesturing with one massive hand. Like his work, he is challenging you to keep up with him and to pick out what’s worth expanding on. And if you don’t catch it, he’ll expand on it for you anyway. And in this moment the topic worth expanding on is Donald Trump. 

“Everything I do has to be in service of poetry,” he says, with a little more excitement in his voice. “I can’t be waking up and thinking about Trump all day. And if I do, I have to do it in service of a poem, or else he’ll be a block.”

He is talking about boxes and how every box, like every poem, has multiple sides through which it can be entered. He decided to put Trump in a box and kept turning the box until his truth looked different from every angle. He found this to be more interesting than it would have been with, say, Barack Obama. 

“Obama is super interesting to me, but I already know some of the sides to that cube. He’s a six-sided truth, but I know about half of those sides. As a brother, as a dude who loves basketball, as a dude who got old. To look at something and see yourself in it is easy. I’m not moved by that. With Trump it’s about power and the way his power has a bearing on everyone else. I can meditate on that for at least six months.”

The restraints of the sonnets have been liberating, he tells me. This is only interesting because of how the book wrestles readers inside of it and gives them little room to move within it. If anything, a reader then becomes a part of the interior of the box, which Hayes is turning around in his hand. I don’t mean this to sound negative: One of the book’s strongest points is how readers have to fight their way into and then out of it. Like all of the work Hayes has offered in his career so far, it is both inviting and asking a reader to earn enjoyment of it, in this case through a means of discomfort with the repetitive nature of the poems and their aim.

Hayes tells me he has become so obsessed with the project that he can’t unravel himself from it, which makes sense. He is conflicted, because he knows he can’t do another book like this, but he also knows that he isn’t done with the fascination. “I mean, I got seventy good ones, and I don’t want to overdo it,” he says, blending his usual cool and confidence with the anxieties he holds. “It’s like [ John] Berryman, right? He put out 77 Dream Songs, and then later he put out all of them. And like, there were some all-right ones in there, but shit. I was good with seventy-seven.”

It is political, in some ways: Hayes is surviving the world by writing against it. When I ask him if the work has made him feel any better, he matter-of-factly states, “Well, the shit is still going on, you know?”

There are other ways out, Hayes says. He draws, going to a class once a week and trying to improve his hand as a visual artist. Hayes has experience in the craft, receiving a BA from Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina, where he studied both English and painting. His drawings and paintings provide the artwork for the covers of his books. It’s easy to get lost in the visual form, but he keeps returning to the sonnets. Twisting a forkful of mashed potatoes around, and up toward his mouth, he pauses.

“There’s no law that says an obsession can’t continue beyond the production of the obsession, you know?”

It’s getting late, and the fish over the head of Terrance Hayes has begun to droop its long face lower. This is a trick of the eye, I’m sure. Perhaps Hayes is growing taller, more excitable with conversation, and the fish is shrinking in the face of that. Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” is playing through the café’s speakers, and small crowds of revelers have started to filter in, the way one might expect as a night stretches its palms wider. It is perhaps late only for me. Hayes insists he doesn’t sleep much. “I go to bed around two or three in the morning and wake up around seven. I’m good with four hours a night,” he tells me, as my body involuntarily trembles at the prospect of such little time in bed. He does his best work in the hours after these, when even the revelers beside us begin to lose steam (“I like a nap, though,” he insists). This disclosure makes for an interesting moment between us: me winding down, and him warming up.

Hayes and I find ourselves in the golden hour of our conversation, too. The talk about poems and craft has perhaps drawn all it can draw from the two of us, and now we’re just talking about basketball. Hayes was an Academic All-American basketball player during his time at Coker and has remained attached to the sport. Throughout the conversation Hayes insists that he is always thinking about poems, no matter what else we’re speaking on, but he seems at ease here talking NBA. The plates are cleared off the table, and he has leaned over his drink, swinging his massive palms in one direction or another as he makes a point. An athlete and sports fan and writer, Hayes has an intimate relationship with the game. Like me, he is in it for the narratives, which I do suppose means that even in our talk about basketball, we are talking about poems. 

“LeBron James shoots free throws every day,” Hayes tells me. “And you gotta think, ‘Why is this dude shooting free throws every day if he gets paid to shoot free throws?’ He’s doing that shit with no one watching, because he’s after something different.”

I nod, and Hayes continues.

“I think about that versus someone like [Philadelphia 76ers rookie] Ben Simmons, right? Ben Simmons should be a huge star right now, and he’s perplexed by that….”

I take the opportunity to interject that Simmons isn’t a huge star yet because he can’t really shoot, but Hayes is off, sprinting a mile a minute to reach the end of his thought. 

“Yeah, but Kobe Bryant struggled with that same shit too, right? Kobe had to fight through the same thing of doing the things that should make you famous and expecting fame. But it ain’t about the fame, though.”

In many ways, I know what’s coming next—Hayes the speaker is rarely separate from Hayes the poet—but I let him draw back the curtain with his own language. “It’s about the glory. There’s a difference in fame and glory. Fame is when everyone else is peeping what you’re doing, but glory is when your peers recognize the work you’re putting in. Glory has to be number one. Glory has to be number one, because no one else has to be there.”

I ask the obvious question, the one about whether or not an artist or an athlete or a parent or a construction worker can have glory without fame. Because this is the thing with Hayes, who is undoubtedly famous and has basked in his share of glory. It has created a mythology around him that he seems equal parts thrilled to revel in and sometimes uncomfortable with. Minutes before the conversation took this turn, we were speaking about pressure, and in the middle of a response, Hayes shook his head and said, “God forbid I ever start writing bad poems,” and one ear might hear I know all of my poems are good, but to another, the poet is saying I don’t know what I would be without my insistence on living up to my own standards. So I wonder out loud how you survive at the intersection of fame and glory, or if you can cut one off in service of the other. Hayes takes a moment.

“Yeah, I think so. On the days I’m writing and I’m in a good groove, I hit moments where I think, ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ It’s the closest I can get from this,” he says, gesturing toward his head, “to getting it together on that page. And that’s glory. I’m doing that for me, with no one watching, knowing that the people I’m writing for—poets—are doing the same thing. And it only happens a few times, but when it happens it feels good. I did a 360 dunk once, and I was alone in a gym. No one saw it but the other guys on my basketball team, and those are the only people I cared to see it. A 360 dunk is fucking hard. I want the people who know how difficult the work is to bear witness to the work.”

The red light above our heads has only become more aggressive in its lapping up of the darkness, and by now we are both radiating in its shine. Hayes casually regales me with a tale of watching basketball with former NBA player and coach Phil Jackson last April, a story that few poets would have in their back pocket. “We talked about Buddhism and shit. You know, it was a good afternoon,” he says in an “Isn’t New York wild?” kind of way, to which I nod, thinking about the times I’ve been to this city and felt tiny. The gist of the story is that during their first basketball-watching excursion, Jackson insisted that Hayes not mention LeBron James, whom Jackson had found himself feuding with over a Twitter debate. When the 2017 NBA Finals came around, Jackson invited Hayes to his Manhattan apartment to watch them with him, and Hayes balked. “He invited me back to watch the NBA Finals and told me I couldn’t talk about LeBron James!” Hayes says, half-yelling and half-laughing, as energetic as he has been all night. “I can’t talk about LeBron James during the NBA Finals? I like LeBron James! So I was like, ‘Nah, I’ll pass.’ I watched the Finals alone.”

It’s the kind of casual story told by Hayes during which one realizes that he moves through multiple worlds in a singular way, something that can’t be said for many of his peers, though he is still very much among them and often in service to them. He blurbs books vigorously, he reads poems endlessly, and until recently he served as the poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine. (Rita Dove took the reins in June.) He derives great pleasure from teaching—during our conversation he is most excited when talking about the ways his students show him to and through poems. But he is also someone who pens work for operas and has his face in an airport and casually watches basketball with one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. And it all seems simple to him, something he has been working toward since he began working. Both fame and glory.

We are talking about death and isolation again, Hayes and I. It’s a fitting end to our time together. Hayes says his true inclination is to stay inside; he likes New York because he feels like he can do that here, and not many other places. He tells me he both loves and hates the way the city folds around him—loves it for its many options and hates it for its many options, all at once. 

When we get to the topic of rap, Hayes is succinct, melancholic. “I think when it comes to rappers, Biggie Smalls is closest to my sensibilities,” he insists, spinning the last bit of ice around in his drink. “He scares me, and the consequences of his art, too…. The consequences of his art informed his life. I think of this like Sylvia Plath. The fact that Sylvia Plath would write ‘Ariel’ and then put her head in an oven, or the fact that Biggie Smalls would say he’s ready to die and then die. There’s something closer to the truth for me. Closer to my understanding of the consequences of what we do. The body’s relationship to the art’s consequences.”

I nod, and look at the time. When I look back up, Hayes is looking outside, while the street, drenched in sirens, howls. 

 

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet and critic from Columbus, Ohio.

(Photos: Tony Gale)

Episode 20: Terrance Hayes, Lauren Groff, A. M. Homes & More

In the twentieth episode of Ampersand, editor in chief Kevin Larimer and senior editor Melissa Faliveno preview the July/August 2018 issue, featuring a look at how authors, agents, editors, booksellers and publicists work together to reach readers; the secrets to maintaining a long-term author-agent relationship; the summer’s best debut fiction; a profile of poet Terrance Hayes; author Lauren Groff on her new story collection, Florida; self-publishing advice, writing prompts; and more.

00:01 Terrance Hayes reads an excerpt of a poem from his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

01:12 The cohosts discuss Lauren Groff’s complicated relationship with her state of residence, Florida, which serves as both backdrop and inspiration for her new collection of stories of the same name, out this month from Riverhead Books. Contributor Bethanne Patrick, otherwise known as @TheBookMaven, profiles Groff for the new issue of the magazine. Kevin and Melissa talk about some of the stranger aspects of Florida (hat tip to the website Florida Man) and share some of their own stories about the Sunshine State, which involve hair removal, Tinkerbell, sunburn, and unsupervised teenagers on the loose. 

07:22 Lauren Groff reads an excerpt from one of the stories in Florida, “Dogs Go Wolf.”

 

12:55 Terrance Hayes reads a poem from his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, out this month from Penguin. Hayes is the cover profile of the new issue, and poet, essayist, and critic Hanif Abdurraqib, author of the essay collection They Cant Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017), interviewed Hayes at the Great Jones Cafe in Manhattan for the piece. 

14:56 Hanif Abdurraqib reads the opening section of his profile on Hayes from the new issue, “My Past and Future Assassin.”

 

18:52 Terrance Hayes reads two more poems from his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

22:18 A. M. Homes, the celebrated author of more than ten books—including novels, story collections, and a memoir—reads an excerpt from the title story in her new collection, Days of Awe, out this month from Viking.

28:31 In honor of the twentieth episode of Ampersand, Kevin and Melissa compose a celebratory haiku. (With sincere apologies to the masters of the form.) If you can do better—and we’re pretty sure you can—send us your Ampersand haiku at ampersand@pw.org

 

Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast is a production of Poets & Writers, Inc., and is edited and mixed by Melissa Faliveno. Music for this episode is provided by Podington Bear, Blue Ducks, Audiobinger, and YACHT. Comments or suggestions? E-mail ampersand@pw.org.

The Poet at Work: A Profile of Kevin Young

by

Clint Smith

10.11.17

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is located at the intersection of 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. It is eight blocks from Langston Hughes’s famous brownstone, seven blocks from where James Baldwin once attended high school, and a three-minute walk from Zora Neale Hurston’s former artist-collective residence. It sits directly across from the Harlem Hospital Center and is surrounded by an array of delis, bodegas, and brownstones—quintessential emblems of Harlem that drape the neighborhood’s landscape. 

After stepping off the subway, I walk fifteen feet to the right and purchase a chicken-and-rice meal from the shawarma cart that is parked near the sidewalk in front of the center each day. I sit on one of the benches in front of the building as cars glide down Malcolm X Boulevard, their music thumping with enough bass to shake the street. 

Mid-chew I look up and see Barry Jenkins, director of the Academy Award–winning film Moonlight, surveying a table of used books. The moment is almost too prototypically Harlem to be true. Here is one of the preeminent black artists of our time—and one of the most critically acclaimed directors in Hollywood—quietly perusing used books on Malcolm X Boulevard as passersby bustle along without saying a word to him, as if he were simply a fixture of the Harlem ecosystem. The Schomburg Center is, in many ways, the central home to the culture that Jenkins embodies, and its new director, the poet Kevin Young, sits at the nexus of participant and purveyor. 

When I step inside the Schomburg, I am escorted to meet Young in a small conference room with a dozen chairs, two square tables pushed against each other, and three rectangular windows that overlook a small courtyard. Young walks into the room with a stack of papers and several books with innumerable dog-eared pages. He moves with a sense of self-assuredness that one would expect from someone with his résumé, but counterbalances it with a disarming sense of humor.

Today he is wearing a light-blue oxford shirt with its sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows. The screen of his watch flickers as he moves his hand during the conversation. The ID at the end of his black lanyard is tucked into his left shirt pocket as if he didn’t want you to know that he is the director of the leading research center for black culture in the country. His thick, black beard is flecked with subtle streaks of gray, and he often runs his fingers through it while his other hand rests on the opposite arm. His hair is closely cropped on the sides, but the top of his head abounds with tightly coiled black curls that sprout up along his scalp. His glasses are round and thick and black and slide from the bridge of his nose when he laughs, which he does often, in a way that invites you into the conversation. I’m here to talk to him not only about his position at the Schomburg Center but also about his new role as poetry editor of the New Yorker as well as his new book of nonfiction, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, published this month by Graywolf Press. 

I first met Young two summers ago at the Cave Canem retreat—an annual weeklong workshop for black poets that serves as a refuge from the predominantly white literary spaces we spend most of our time in. Many of the fellows came from MFA programs and workshops where, as Junot Díaz put it in his 2014 treatise in the New Yorker, “the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight, and male.” 

I was not in an MFA program myself but had taken a poetry workshop as a small weekly reprieve from the datasets and statistical analyses of my own graduate studies in the sociology of education, only to have a similarly disillusioning experience as the only black person in a room full of mostly white writers. I talked to Young, for example, about how I had written a series of poems in the voice of my barber and didn’t bring any of those poems into the class because I didn’t want to endure the stress of navigating a scenario where my workshop mates had to decide how to engage a poem laden with the N-word. He laughed in the way some people do to signal that they understand—that they really understand—and nodded. “Cave Canem exists because of that need,” he said. 

At that first meeting, the gap between us couldn’t have felt wider. I was a twenty-something-year-old poet and graduate student who had not yet finished a draft of my first manuscript. I was simply thrilled to have even been accepted to the retreat. Young was a Guggenheim fellow and the author of ten poetry collections, including Jelly Roll: A Blues (Knopf, 2003), a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and a book of nonfiction, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Graywolf Press, 2012), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a winner of the PEN/Open Book Award. He was a professor of creative writing and curator of one of the most impressive literary archives in the country at Emory University. All that by the age of forty-six. And yet he was so different from what we imagine our preeminent literary figures to be. There was no bravado or pretense. There was no condescension or sense of snobbery. My first memory of Young is seeing him playing pool with poet Major Jackson in the lobby of the dormitories where we were all staying. He snacked on a bag of chips between shots, and when I walked in he looked up and asked, “You know how to play?”

That week, as Young led our workshop, it was clear that the collective project we were all embarking on was about far more than what we were putting onto the page. It served as reaffirmation that our work, our experiences, and the cultural idiosyncrasies of our voices were not something that should be compromised in order to be part of the literary community, but something that meaningfully contributed to its terrain. For many, it is often the only reminder they receive. “I think [Cave Canem] often serves as a healing place for folks,” Young says. “It helps focus the tradition that has always been there.” 

More than simply being a space of healing, Cave Canem, Young points out, has fundamentally transformed the landscape of black literature since it was founded two decades ago. He is adamant about this point. 

In the past decade alone, for example, there have been four black winners of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry—Tyehimba Jess (2017), Gregory Pardlo (2015), Tracy K. Smith (2012), and Natasha Trethewey (2007)—as compared with three winners in the previous eighty-five years of the prize combined. Smith and Trethewey would go on to serve as poets laureate of the United States. Both of their first books were published after winning the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Young was the judge who selected Smith’s debut, The Body’s Question (Graywolf Press, 2003). 

“It’s just like this unprecedented thing,” he says, leaning back in his chair, soaking in the realization as if having it for the first time. “Obviously not all of that is because of Cave, but Cave is part of what I would call the Renaissance of Black Letters, and it’s one that I think the Schomburg can be, and should be, at the center of.”

For young writers, part of Young’s approachability stems from his recognition that not so long ago he was also a young writer attempting to find a literary community. The community he found would be both personally and artistically transformative. 

In 1987, Sharan Strange and Thomas Sayers Ellis, who would soon become friends and peers of Young’s, hopped in a car and drove from Boston to Harlem to attend James Baldwin’s funeral. The prophetic luminary had died in France, but his body had been brought back to the neighborhood of his birth. His community wanted to give him a homegoing celebration imbued with Harlem’s unique character and give so many of those who loved him most an opportunity to say goodbye for themselves. At the funeral the young writers encountered figures like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Amiri Baraka, all of whom spoke at Baldwin’s service and all of whom represented the pinnacle of African American letters. Baldwin’s death was made especially difficult for the young writers who trekked from Boston not only because they were mourning the death of a distinguished black literary figure, but also because they never had the opportunity to meet him while he was alive. As Young puts it, they “swore to themselves that they would not let another black writer die without having met that person and connected.” As a way to remedy that problem, Strange and Ellis, joined by their friend Janice Lowe, started a reading series in which they paired young emerging black writers alongside their more established counterparts. The group became known as the Dark Room Collective and held the reading series in an old Victorian at 31 Inman Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where several of the young artists lived. 

Writers like Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, and Yusef Komunyakaa made their way through the Cambridge residence—metal chairs unfolded across wooden floors and couches slid against the walls to make room for the guests who had come to see these literary forebears alongside their progeny. 

Young, then an undergraduate at Harvard studying under the likes of Seamus Heaney and Lucie Brock-Broido, remembers attending some events there, before he became an official member of the collective himself, and being stunned at the sight of two hundred fifty black people packed into a single room—sitting on floors, peeking around corners, holding their breath—listening to poetry. “I think it spurred a community,” he says, pausing, reflecting on the word. “It spurred the writing community in Boston, which was really interesting then but probably was whiter than it knew, to really think about itself in new ways. It was important in that way.”

He must see it in my face as he describes how the series unfolded because he smiles knowingly as I share how shocked I am that a group of relatively unknown aspiring writers could get some of the most important artists of the day to show up and read at their house—for free. Young says that they simply wrote to them and said, “Hey, we have this thing and it’s special and we get this many people and we can get you great dinner.” “And folks came out,” he adds. “It was both a different time and also it’s an eternal thing that if you provide the space and build it,” they will come. 

After Young joined the group, the collective began traveling to venues beyond the Inman Street house to read their work. They read in other places throughout Boston and then across the country. “We’d read in a bar in Miami or we’d all get in a car, and me and Major [Jackson] had the cars and we’d drive,” he says with a laugh. “We’d drive to D.C. and sleep on people’s floors. Even then I knew it was a particular moment in time.” 

There were many poets who weren’t formally in the collective but whose presence and friendships shaped the distinctive literary sensibilities of the group. Among them was Elizabeth Alexander, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a current professor at Columbia University, and someone to whom Young felt particularly close. Alexander recounts with nostalgic tenderness the moment she met Young and another young undergraduate writer at Harvard, both of whom were in the nascent stages of their literary careers. 

“I read on Harvard’s campus through the Grolier Bookstore when my first book of poems came out in 1990. There were these two adorable, alive young men listening very, very carefully and they came up to introduce themselves afterward—Kevin Young and Colson Whitehead,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “Kevin sent me copies of the literary journal he edited and told me about younger writers who were his friends and comrades. We talked about writers and poems we admired and loved.  Later on, we sent each other manuscripts—we’ve been good book editors to each other. Now we text to make each other laugh.”

There is a photograph of the Dark Room Collective taken in 1996 that serves as an illuminating artifact of the time. Seven of the members—Natasha Trethewey, Kevin Young, Major Jackson, Nehassaiu deGannes, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Sharan Strange, and Adisa Vera Beatty—are sitting on a New England beach, some looking off in different directions, some looking directly at the camera. The photo is in black and white, and the young writers each appear to be wearing a mix of black, white, and beige clothing so their bodies blend into the sand. Young sits between Jackson and Trethewey—looking directly at the camera—his full beard then a tightly groomed goatee, the tight coils of hair on his head and a flock of thin dreadlocks falling down just past his shoulders. 

The very existence of the photo and others like it—color coordinated, posed, pensive—captures the group’s youthful ambition. Even before they achieved such high standing in American letters, they understood themselves as something worthy of being documented, archived. 

The collective would dissolve in the late nineties as its members transitioned to graduate school, new jobs, and opportunities to pursue their work full-time. 

Young’s life prior to his literary ascent was one of constant movement, expanding his conception of home beyond the limits of geographical location. His mother and father—both of whom grew up in segregated, rural Louisiana and were the first in their families to attend and graduate from college—were studying to become a chemist and an eye surgeon, respectively. As a result, they moved the family around every few years as the two of them pursued their careers. Before Young turned ten years old, he had lived in six different cities. But he always thought of Louisiana, where much of his family remained and where he frequently visited, as home. 

He attended high school in Topeka, Kansas, a place from which few might expect great writers to emerge, though Young points out that among both his heroes (Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes) and his contemporaries (Ed Skoog, Gary Jackson, Ben Lerner), Topeka has produced some of the top literary talent in American poetics. 

Young attended Harvard as an undergraduate, where he joined the Dark Room Collective, and in the years that followed, his career, like many of his collective-mates, took off. He was awarded a Stegner fellowship from Stanford before going on to receive his MFA from Brown. He had brief tenures at the University of Georgia and Indiana University before moving to Emory University, where he remained for eleven years and served as curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a 75,000-volume collection of both contemporary and centuries-old work. He also served as curator of the library’s Literary Collections, which contains the archival work of canonical writers such as Seamus Heaney, Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, Jack Kerouac, and Flannery O’Connor, among others. 

During this period, Young’s writing was prolific, and his work helped to shape the twenty-first-century landscape of American poetry. He won or was a finalist for some of the genre’s most prestigious awards and served as steward not only to the work of the past—through his work in the archives—but also to the work of the present, editing several anthologies, including The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink (Bloomsbury, 2012), The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing (Bloomsbury, 2010), and Jazz Poems (Everyman’s Library, 2006). Part of what served as a catalyst for Young’s prolific output was the unexpected death of his father in 2004. “I think I realized life is short,” he says. And part of Young’s mourning took place in his work. His books Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008) and Book of Hours (Knopf, 2014) eulogize his father in a series of poems that move between gentle nostalgia and violent grief. 

Last fall Young left the temperate seasons of Atlanta for the dynamism of Harlem to become the new director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Upon his arrival, he wasted little time ensuring that he would continue to build on the work of his predecessor, Khalil Gibran Muhammad (who left his post after five years to become a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School). Within the first few months of Young’s tenure, the Schomburg Center was named a National Historic Landmark by the Obama administration, and the center finalized plans to acquire James Baldwin’s papers, something that was of particular import to Young both because Baldwin is a son of Harlem and because the nature of our social and political moment renewed public interest in his work. 

“It was very important to me that the papers not just be announced, but be open,” he says. “And so, the day after we announced them, they were open to research service. And the researchers have come in droves to see them.”

The connection to Baldwin is also personal for Young, who says he could not have written his debut nonfiction project, The Grey Album, without the virtuosic guidance of Baldwin’s prose. The Grey Album was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the PEN/Open Book Award, but, more important, it expanded Young’s reputation from that of an acclaimed poet to a distinguished and erudite cultural critic. “Even [for] this new book, in which I think a lot about America and American history and race…his spirit provided an essential guide,” he says about Baldwin. 

Young’s new book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, and his new job fit together in ways that have aligned with unsettling relevance. The book traces the history of the hoax and deceit in the American cultural and political life—moving from P. T. Barnum (who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus) in the late nineteenth century to Greg Mortenson’s infamously fabricated memoir Three Cups of Tea (Penguin, 2007) to Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech. Young began research for the book long before the assent of Trump into mainstream national politics and certainly long before anyone could anticipate the extent that “fake news” would become common parlance in contemporary political discourse.

But as Young outlines in Bunk, there is a long and often insidious precedent for a society in which facts become secondary. And both through his book and in his role as director of the Schomburg, he hopes to more forcefully push back against the insurgent phenomenon. “Libraries are more important than ever now, because we provide free and accurate information for people across learning levels,” he says. “That’s what we do.”

The greatest hoax of them all, Young believes, is race. No other type of insidiously conjured fraudulence has endured as long and has had effects as deleterious. “I trace the hoax [of race], as an idea and a concept, and one that emerges in the eighteenth century—it isn’t a word until then,” he says. “I came to understand that that’s not an accident. In many ways, some of the aspects of the hoax and its systematic and stereotypical qualities allowed race to become more fixed around the nineteenth century. We tend to think there’s progress and things get better, but there’s a real hardening along originally unclear racial lines—or blurry ones, or ones not fully understood as biological and unredeemable in the case of black people, brown people, Native American people—all of these qualities became more and more fixed for very different reasons but similar ends, which is to justify slavery or displacement or aspects of supremacy.”

Ideas like those in Bunk serve as the bedrock of discourse at the Schomburg, where many black writers, artists, and public intellectuals come to share their work. Part of Young’s commitment as director is to flatten the hierarchies of intellectual engagement. It’s not that he wants to reduce such writers’ standing as thought-leaders in the community—indeed, many of them are his friends and colleagues—but he wants to continue opening up the space for more people to enter it. In reflecting on an event that took place right after he became director, Young says, “The discourse at that event, which was one of my first events as director, was so impressive. Just community folk asking really smart, interesting questions. The way I think of it is it’s not just scholars. Every student is a scholar; every scholar is a student. We have a lot of folks who are doing deep reading who are really engaged.”

Inevitably, the nature of Young’s new job means that he doesn’t have the same chunks of time to write that he once did as a young professor, but he says it’s well worth it. “I get to go to a place, every day, where Langston Hughes is buried and his spirit is felt. That’s amazing.” And it isn’t as if Young feels like he has less writing time; it’s just that now he has to be more purposeful in creating it. “I feel like people have this notion of writing that it’s inspiration-based and romantic. Both little-R and big-R romantic. I don’t think that’s how it works. I think we can put it many ways—perspiration not inspiration—but I think it’s really just being there in your space. It’s physical in order to prompt a mental space, but it isn’t inspiration, exactly. It’s being there and writing.”

I share with him my own struggles of clearly demarcating how much of my time I spend reading and how much of my time I spend writing. That when I do more of one, I never feel like I am doing enough of the other. I tell him how, for different writing projects, like the piece I am writing on him, I attempt to set specific word goals each day but become overwhelmed when I don’t meet them. He balks. “No, God no. You have to just think of it [all] as work. I think that’s the thing that changed for me a long time ago,” he says in the way people do when they’re reintroduced to a habit they attempted to leave behind. “It’s working. That’s why they call it your work.”

Going forward, Young will have to be even more purposeful about making time for his personal reading and writing—this month he begins his tenure as the poetry editor of the New Yorker, the first black person to hold the position. David Remnick, editor in chief of the magazine, gushed over Young’s work as both writer and editor when I called him. The two had met briefly at a dinner party at Elizabeth Alexander’s home years ago, and Remnick continued following, and then publishing, Young’s poetry and essays. “I love his work and have read him for a long time,” he says.

While online poetry journals and literary magazines have provided more and more opportunities for poets to be published, the New Yorker, with its circulation of 1.2 million, remains the largest commercial platform for poets to have their work engage the larger world. “The opportunity to get read at that scale is not a common thing for poets,” says Remnick, who wanted someone in that position who not only understands the role that the New Yorker has played in putting poems in front of those who may not regularly read them, but who would also use the platform to publish a range of different voices. “I think Kevin will,” he adds.

When I ask Young about it, he becomes more coy than he’s been in the previous moments of our conversation. His responses become briefer, as if the opportunity were a fragile vase that the wrong words might break into pieces. “I remember reading the New Yorker book of poems when I was a kid. I’m looking forward to participating in that tradition too,” he says shyly. I try to hype him up. “This is a big deal!” I tell him, attempting to pull something from him that it becomes increasingly clear he is not willing to give. I try again: “When these things happen to you, are you able to step back and say, ‘Man, I am the director of the preeminent center on black culture in the country. I’m going to be poetry editor of one of the most historically renowned literary magazines—”

He leans back in the wooden chair and laughs. “Every night, I say those exact words.”

He then becomes more reflective. “I think you’re busy doing the work of it, but that’s why you have friends, so you can sit back and celebrate or reflect. Also, it’s an actual day-in and day-out thing. You’re trying to get that work done.”

Throughout his career his friends have indeed lifted him up in celebration, and still, they recognize that despite the success he remains the person so many of them knew as an eager undergraduate trying to emerge in the landscape of black literature. “Kevin feels like his same self to me over all these years,” Elizabeth Alexander says. “He has always been prolific, hilarious, omnivorous, meticulous, dauntless, and sure-footed, a lover of black culture in its everythingness.” 

 

Clint Smith is a writer, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, and the author of Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, 2016), which won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and a 2017 recipient of the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. His writing has been published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the New Republic, among other publications. He was born and raised in New Orleans.

 

Photos: Tony Gale
 

Worth the Wait: A Profile of Arundhati Roy

by

Renée H. Shea

6.14.17

Arundhati Roy must be tired of hearing the same question: What took you so long? But then, it has been two decades since her debut novel, The God of Small Things, was translated into forty-two languages, sold eight million copies, and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and she was catapulted to international fame and remarkable financial success. Now, with the June release of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Knopf), she is not apologizing for the wait. Busy traveling, writing, and establishing herself as an outspoken activist, Roy explains that about ten years ago, the “mad souls,” the constellation of characters in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, grew insistent. “Anjum, Tilo, Saddam, Musa, and the gang moved in with me and colonized my imagination,” she says. “And for me, while fiction is necessary, I prefer it to be timeless rather than timely. So when I write fiction, I am prepared to wait for it to come to me. I am never in a hurry.” 

Yet for someone who prefers not to hurry when it comes to fiction, she is certainly capable of moving with a sense of urgency, if her prolific, and often polemic, nonfiction is any measure. Roy cites a “watershed moment” when, in 1998, the newly formed Hindu Nationalist government in India conducted a series of nuclear tests, “which were greeted by the media and establishment with a nationalist fervor and talk about the return of ‘Hindu pride’ that changed the nature of what could and could not be said politically.” Roy had her say in an essay titled “The End of Imagination,” a critique of these policies. “While India was being hailed as a great new economic power,” she says in retrospect, “within India millions of poor people were being further impoverished by the new economic policies; tens of thousands of small farmers, deep in debt, were committing suicide. Young Muslim men accused of being ‘terrorists’ on very flimsy and often fabricated grounds were being thrown in prison. Kashmir was on fire.” Her essays and speeches turned into a steady stream of books, including Power Politics (South End Press, 2001), The Algebra of Infinite Justice (Viking, 2001), War Talk (South End Press, 2003), Public Power in the Age of Empire (Seven Stories Press, 2004), Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers (Haymarket Books, 2009), Broken Republic (Penguin, 2011), and Capitalism: A Ghost Story (Haymarket Books, 2014). Fiction had to wait because, she says, she had no choice: “I could not watch all this happen as I continued my glittering career as a prize-winning novelist. I began to travel and write about these things because it was urgent and necessary to do so.” Her efforts did not go unnoticed. Roy was awarded the Lannan Cultural Freedom Award in 2002, the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004, and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2006. (She rejected the most recent award, from the Indian Academy of Letters, because she opposes the government’s policies.) And she’s been giving back, contributing prize money and royalties to fund various causes and small organizations, mainly in India.

Even though the characters from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness took up residence in her imagination, she wasn’t ready to share them until about seven years ago, after a visit with her friend John Berger at his home in France. A mentor and also a Booker Prize winner, in 1972, for his novel G—in other words, someone whom she listened to before his death early this year—Berger told her to go to her computer and read to him whatever fiction she was writing, which she did. Impressed, he said she should go right home and finish the book, which she intended to do. But a few weeks later, in Delhi, she found an anonymous note pushed under her apartment door asking her to visit the Maoists in the jungles of central India—an offer she couldn’t refuse. This was followed by a period of still more waiting, though eventually, she asserts, those characters themselves brought the novel to closure: “They compelled me! Stubborn people. I had no choice.” 

“She lives in the graveyard like a tree,” reads the first sentence of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness—an opening that is enigmatic, tantalizing, and predictive. The “she” is the aging Anjum, a central character whose mother, thrilled to have given birth to a boy, discovers “nestling underneath his boy-parts, a small, unformed, but undoubtedly girl-part.” So Anjum, originally known as Aftab, begins her journey, as readers begin theirs, into the world of the Hijra. A somewhat ambiguous term, Hijra refers to a person whose gender is neither male nor female, including those born intersex, though it most frequently refers to individuals who were born male but identify as women. (In 2014, the Supreme Court of India recognized Hijra as “a third gender,” thus conveying legal status.) Roy is careful to point out, however, that she has not “used” Anjum, whom she refers to as “a Beloved,” to typify a category of people: “She is herself and distinct. Yes, she has a schism running through her, like many others in the book. Many of them have borders of caste and out-casteness, of religious conversion, of nation and geography.” 

The novel crosses other borders of both perspective and place. Set primarily in present-day New Delhi, with a political backdrop of Kashmir’s struggle for independence, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness spans more than thirty years, often through Anjum’s eyes as she establishes herself in that space where her relatives are buried. “Over time, Anjum began to enclose the graves of her relatives and build rooms around them,” Roy writes. “Each room had a grave (or two) and a bed. Or two. She built a separate bathhouse…[she] called her Guest house Jannat. Paradise.” Beginning by taking in down-and-out travelers, Jannat Guest House becomes a community center of sorts, where nearly all the characters in this intricately plotted novel find themselves—some, as Roy playfully writes, “for The Rest of Their Lives,” some to bond as family, some only for a moment of comforting connection.

It is in Jannat Guest House, a place of physical as well as spiritual union, that Anjum and others recognize as well as honor a continuum of life and death—a place where “the battered angels in the graveyard that kept watch over their battered charges held open the doors between worlds (illegally, just a crack), so that the souls of the present and the departed could mingle, like guests at the same party.” This became a guiding image for Roy, who worked with designer David Eldridge and photojournalist Mayank Austen Soofi to create the cover art for the novel: a vertical picture of a decaying white marble grave with a withered rose placed right below the title. The haunting image melds beauty and decay and suggests the compatibility of change and permanence. 

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Roy shifts places, time periods, and viewpoints with the grace of a master choreographer as characters take circuitous paths that are at times parallel, then intersecting or conflicting, ultimately seeming a matter of both coincidence and fate. She works at that unstructured structure. “To me, the way a story is told is almost more important than the story itself. I think I might be incapable of telling a story in chronological order,” she says. “For me, a story is like the map of a great city or, at the very least, a large building. You can’t explore it by driving down the main street or entering from the front door and exiting through the back. You have to live in it, wander through the by-lanes, take blind alleys and have a smoke with the people who live there, look into the rooms from the outside in. That’s the fun of it!” 

 

Arundhati Roy in New York City.

(Credit: Tony Gale)

The novel is teeming with indelible characters: politicians—some murderously demented—accountants, teachers, militants, and mothers in a multigenerational story. There’s the irrepressible Ustad Kulsoom Bi, guru and head of the Hijra household that Anjem joins initially; the incorrigible Saddam Hussain, a name he chose for himself; the two Miss Jebeens, one killed by a bullet that passed through her skull into her mother’s heart, the other abandoned on a Delhi street and claimed by Anjum; the shape-shifting Amrik Singh, “a cheery cold-blooded killer.” A central quartet of characters—Musa, Naga, Garson Hobart (a code name for Biplab Dasgupta), and Tilo, the one the other three love—meet as students, go their separate ways, then weave in and out of one another’s lives in a plot that moves between the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Old Delhi, the glittering new wealth of malls and hotels, and the mountains and valleys of Kashmir.

Although it’s tempting to see some of these characters as representations of different viewpoints in Indian politics, Roy objects: “Even Dasgupta is partly the voice of the establishment and partly a lost, lovelorn wreck. Hazrat Sarmad, Hazrat of the Indeterminate, is the deity of this book.” Thus, Roy’s characters are, first and foremost, complicated human beings who remind us that “we do a great injustice to people when we ‘unsee’ their identities and the discrimination they suffer because of that identity,” she says. “Equally, we do great injustice when we see nothing of a person except to brand them with one single identity. Sometimes people do this even to themselves.”  

The dazzling array of characters, while hardly autobiographical, does suggest Roy’s own wide spectrum of experiences, lived passionately and thoughtfully. She was born Suzanna Arundhati Roy in 1961 in northeast India to Mary, a Syrian Christian, and Rajib, a Bengali Hindu from Calcutta. Her parents divorced when she was two and her brother, Lalith, three and a half. In interviews, Roy emphasizes that she did not come from a privileged background. Quite the contrary: When her mother left her alcoholic husband, she struggled to make a living, finally starting an independent school in Kerala. Roy went to boarding school and began secretarial college. At sixteen, she quit and moved to Delhi to study at the School of Planning and Architecture. For a while, she lived what has often been described as a bohemian lifestyle with architect Gerard da Cunha. After they broke up, Roy returned to Delhi to work at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, where she met and married Pradeep Kishen, a former history professor and Oxford graduate who had become an independent filmmaker. Roy wrote screenplays and acted in several films they collaborated on, but she became disillusioned with what she saw as the elitism of the film world. After they divorced, she made her living in various jobs, including leading aerobics and yoga classes, until she turned her attention to writing.

It’s no surprise then that Roy dismisses those questions about what took her so long by pointing out that we are the sum of our experiences. A couple of decades between novels was hardly time wasted. “I absolutely could not have written this book without having lived the last twenty years in the way that I have. All that I saw and understood and experienced has been infused in me and then sweated out as fiction.” 

With only two novels to her name, what accounts for Roy’s enormous international popularity as both novelist and dissident? Some argue that she reinforces the views of the Western liberal media and literary elite and affirms a tourist’s romanticized view of India’s ancient but flawed and crumbling beauty. That’s way too simplistic a perspective for many, however, including scholars such as Pranav Jani, an English professor at Ohio State University and the author of Decentering Rushdie: Cosmopolitanism and the Indian Novel in English (Ohio State University Press, 2010). He acknowledges that the West often views Indian authors through “a veneer of exoticism” because they are “deliciously Other.” Roy to some extent fulfills that expectation with her descriptions of the lush environment and her “unequivocal condemnation of caste and gender oppression,” Jani says, but she offers more. “While her sustained focus has always been on India, she has consistently contextualized Indian issues within global ones: The same systems of capitalism and militarism that produce inequality in India are the ones that create inequality here.”

Controversial as well as charismatic, Roy recently took on the icon of icons not only to India but the Western world: Mahatma Gandhi. What began initially as a brief introduction for a new edition of The Annihilation of Caste by B. R. Ambedkar turned into a book-length essay titled The Doctor and the Saint, in which Roy analyzes the political debate between Ambedkar and Gandhi, arguing that the latter’s more moderate call for the dissolution of only the “untouchable” caste sidelined the former’s fight for justice. She characterizes Ambedkar, himself born an “untouchable,” as the true champion of the poor—with predictably heated results. Writing the introduction to the 2017 edition, published by Haymarket Books, Roy defended herself: “Given the exalted, almost divine status that Gandhi occupies in the imagination of the modern world, in particular the Western world, I felt that unless his hugely influential and, to my mind, inexcusable position on caste and race was looked at carefully, Ambedkar’s rage would not be fully understood.” 

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy strides onto similarly dangerous ground with the Maoists, or Naxalites, a revolutionary guerrilla force in central India. Believing that “there is an unreported war taking place against these populations,” she interrupted her writing to follow instructions that began with the note under her door and spent time living with Maoist insurgents and tribal villagers. Her initial article, published as a cover story for the Indian newsweekly Outlook, became the book Walking With the Comrades (Penguin, 2012). She argues that the official military campaign against the Maoists is actually a war against the poor, specifically the indigenous tribes who live on land with great mineral reserves. “Here in the forests of Dantewada,” she writes, “a battle rages for the soul of India.” Not surprisingly, response ranged from adulation to outrage.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes some of the same risks. Toward the end of the novel, Roy presents a ten-page letter from Miss Jebeen the Second’s mother, Revathy, a member of the Maoist Communist Party of India. The letter explains the plight of those like her who have few choices, experience rape and torture, “live and die by [the] gun,” yet who recognize that the party “does many wrong things,” that “women join because they are revolutionaries but also because they cannot bear their sufferings at home.” Likely some will interpret this letter as an eloquent exposé of an unreported war; others are likely to interpret it as a lengthy intrusion of political polemic. 

Roy, however, does not see a conflict or controversy in this example or in other overtly political dimensions of the novel. “I am very much against the idea of a novel as a disguised vehicle to write about ‘issues.’ To me a novel is a prayer, a world, a way of seeing. But in the telling of a story, these issues are the very air we breathe. To avoid them would make me a dishonest storyteller. It has always amazed me how people manage to tell stories about India without mentioning caste. It’s like writing about South Africa in the 1960s without mentioning apartheid. Apartheid was not an ‘issue.’ It was the DNA of that society at the time. So too with the practice of caste and what is happening in Kashmir. So too with the brutal violence, both state and societal, against the poor, and so too with the people who resist it.” 

In the twenty years since the publication of The God of Small Things, speculation has run high about what Roy’s next novel might be. Satire was one guess. It’s true that irony, even cynicism, makes its way into the novel: There are soldiers who “fired their light machine guns,” the concept of “post-massacre protocol,” and sadistic officers who take a “torture break.” There is sly sarcasm in Roy’s description of India as the new superpower: “Namaste, they said in exotic accents, and smiled like the turbaned doormen with maharaja mustaches who greeted foreign guests in five-star hotels.” And there’s the Shiraz Cinema, converted to an “enclave of barracks and officers’ quarters.” She writes, “What had once been the cinema snack bar now functioned as a reception-cum-registration counter for torturers and torturees.”

But despite such dark humor and sardonic observations, Roy’s generously expansive novel lacks the brittle spirit of satire. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is filled with utopian communities—unconventional, misguided, and temporary as they may be—the Khwagagah or Dream Palace of the Hijra, the Jannat Guest House, even the fighters in Kashmir calling for Azadi, or freedom. It’s a novel filled with the search to belong, to find “my people,” to seize love in some form, whether as romance, motherhood, or camaraderie. Roy even tucks in Anna Akhmatova’s brave optimism: “I am not yet cured of happiness.” In fact, when asked to respond to Appalachian novelist Ann Pancake’s charge that “the greatest challenge for many twenty-first century artists is to create literature that imagines a way forward,” Roy sounds downright idealistic: “The ‘way forward’ will only come about when we change our way of seeing, when we redefine what we mean by words like ‘progress,’ ‘civilization,’ and ‘happiness.’ To do that we have to take a good look at ourselves. I think good novels help us to do that. And perhaps some are, in themselves, another way of seeing the world. In a non-didactic way, I hope The Ministry is that and does that.”

She’s right. Ultimately, it’s not politics that stay with us; it’s a beautifully written, powerful story. One of the most touching scenes in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is Musa recalling his young daughter, Miss Jebeen, demanding he tell her a story at night.

And then she would begin the story herself, shouting it out into the somber curfewed night, her raucous delight dancing out of the windows and rousing the neighborhood. Yeth manz ne kahn balai aasi! Noa aes sa kunni junglas manz roazaan! There wasn’t a witch, and she didn’t live in the jungle. Tell me a story, and can we cut the crap about the witch and the jungle? Can you tell me a real story? 

Perhaps that’s what Arundhati Roy has done with this ambitious novel that spans a continent and several decades of war and peace and people who live in palaces and on the streets as well as undercover and underground—a novel that’s worth the wait. Once again, she has told a real story. 

 

Renée H. Shea has profiled numerous authors for Poets & Writers Magazine, including Tracy K. Smith, Julie Otsuka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston. She is currently working on a series of textbooks for Bedford, Freeman & Worth, including Advanced Language and Literature (2017) and Foundations of Language and Literature, forthcoming in 2018. 

The Emotional Realist Talks to Ghosts: A Q&A With George Saunders

by

Kevin Larimer

2.15.17

In the late spring of 2000, on my first feature assignment as a twenty-seven-year-old editorial assistant for this magazine, I took the five-and-a-half-hour train ride from New York City to Syracuse, New York, to interview the author of one of that summer’s most highly anticipated books, the story collection Pastoralia (Riverhead Books). George Saunders had not yet received the kind of popular acclaim and critical recognition that followed him in the years to come, in the form of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Grant; the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story; an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the Story Prize; and so many other honors. He had not yet appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert or This Week With George Stephanopoulos, or been named by Time magazine as one of the hundred most influential people in the world. He had not yet delivered the convocation address at Syracuse University that was posted on the website of the New York Times and then, within days, shared more than a million times on social media.

Back in 2000, when the author had published just one collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Random House, 1996), and his second was just starting to gain momentum, the name George Saunders was already on every critic’s tongue, but the literary world had yet to discover the true depth of the author’s talent. Seventeen years later, we still haven’t touched bedrock, though his subsequent books—two more story collections, In Persuasion Nation (Riverhead Books, 2006) and Tenth of December (Random House, 2013); a novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (Riverhead Books, 2005); a children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (Villard, 2000); and a collection of essays, The Braindead Megaphone (Riverhead Books, 2007)—have added to the already overwhelming evidence that we are in the presence of a writer whose boundless imagination, laugh-out-loud humor, moral acuity, and, though he would protest the characterization, generosity of spirit truly set him apart.

Saunders’s soaring talents are once again on display in his long-awaited debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, published in February by Random House. Presenting a kaleidoscopic panorama of voices (the audiobook employs a cast of 166 narrators), Lincoln in the Bardo is set in a graveyard, over the course of a single night in 1862, where President Abraham Lincoln grieves the death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie, while the boy’s ghost confronts a congregation of other spirits in a strange purgatory—called the bardo, in Tibetan tradition. It is a wonderfully bizarre and hilariously terrifying examination of the ability to live and love with the knowledge that everything we hold dear will come to an end.

Seventeen years ago, Saunders offered to spend more of his time with me than any professional obligation or friendly courtesy required of him. It was my first, and fortunately not my last, opportunity to get to know this bighearted, wholly original writer. In December we met again, at a hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where we spoke for several hours about emotional realism, humor as a form of honesty, the flexibility of form, and, because this is George Saunders, poop jokes.

In 2000, I asked you if you’d ever tried to write a novel, and you replied, “Most of those stories in Pastoralia started out as novels. I’ve tried and I just recently got to the point where I’m not going to try anymore. If it happens, it’ll happen organically.” Here you are with your debut novel—so, did it happen organically?
The idea for Lincoln in the Bardo had been around for a long time, and I found myself saying, “Well, I’ll do it, but I’m not sure it’s going to be a novel. I’m hoping it isn’t. I’m going to push against it whenever it starts to bloat.” And that principle seemed to be a good compositional principle, you know? If something tries to push its way into the book, you give it a stern look and say, “Are you just here because you think this is a novel? Because that’s next door.” So that meant, too, that all the moves I developed [writing stories] over the years were of course the ones that I used. How could it be otherwise, you know? But about halfway through, I said, “Oh, this is a novel only because it’s on a bigger stretcher-frame.” But each of the individual sections was being executed by the same principles as a story would be. So that was a relief.

You just treated it like pieces of a story.
Yes. And I don’t know if other writers do this, but there’s that moment where you go, “Oh my God, I’m writing a novel. Anything goes!” And a couple of times I got in trouble because that mind-set took over. And then I would get that back in the box and say, “No, it’s by the same principles as all these stories: efficiency, one section producing and then leading to another. That’s it.” And then I would get back on track. So it was like the more I said, “The principles don’t change, but maybe the scale changes,” then I could do it. It was really a comfort to know that, in art, form is a way of accommodating one’s natural inclinations. If your natural inclination is to make small, concise structures, then form shows up and says, “Would you like me to help you link your small, concise structures?” And then form seems organic; it doesn’t seem whimsical. It doesn’t seem arbitrary. It seems organic, because it’s what allows you to accommodate your strengths.

Actually, at one point, a long time ago, I tried to do sort of a third-person version of this. And it was just dull, you know? “Lincoln walked into the graveyard. It was a dark and stormy night.” And sometimes you get into a zone like that, and you recoil. Like, no, no, no, I’m not using that voice. I can’t do it.

How far did you go using that voice?
A page. Maybe two pages. It just felt creepy. And it was funny, because I loved that idea, but the prose was doing nothing to get me into a happy zone vis-à-vis that idea. It was just, like, typing about Lincoln. So that was no good. But I did try, over the years, to write a play. Kind of the same thing: It made me more convinced that there was definitely a story there, but that wasn’t it. The play wasn’t it, for sure.

That wasn’t the form that was going to allow you to tell the story.
No. And strangely enough, the book is kind of playlike. But it was just, you know, sometimes you think—for me, for example, when I think, “I’m going to write a poem today,” it’s a guarantee that bullshit will come out of my head, because I’ve said I’m going to be a poet, and I just don’t have that gift. So my “poems,” in quotes, sound like poems in quotes. They’re just not good. The play was like that. It had a certain kind of faux-dramatic quality that just wasn’t interesting.

And how far did you get into the play?
I finished it. I did twenty or thirty drafts. I kept thinking, “I’m going to figure out something here that makes this work.” At one point I put a big sign across it: Don’t Touch It! Just stay away.

That makes me think of something Colson Whitehead said when we talked for a recent episode of our podcast, Ampersand, about The Underground Railroad and how the idea for that was something he’d had fifteen years ago. And he just put it aside. He said he wanted to wait because he didn’t feel like he could do the idea justice. He wanted to become a better writer before he tackled that subject matter.
That’s exactly the feeling I had about this…. I feel like my whole trajectory has been as a person of quite limited talent who’s a little strange and learns to harness that strangeness to accent the talent. So then you’re walking on a pretty thin ledge for the first two or three books. I think the thing has been trying to make my work—I’ve said as “happy” as I am, but I’m not sure I’m really that happy—I’m trying to make my work more like me. And so, over the past twenty years, the process has been trying to expand my toolbox to allow access to these different emotional valences that I didn’t really have access to early on. Or, I had access to them but only through a really dark route. I don’t think those early stories are particularly not hopeful. I think they’re kind of hopeful, but you’ve got to go a long way to get there, you know?

I suppose it’s like one’s personality: When you’re young, you’re a little insecure, you’re a little stealthy, and you try to find your way in the world, so you start embracing certain approaches and eschewing other ones. Then maybe at some midlife point, you go, “Wait now, I wonder if there’s more to me than this,” and you start to try to become more expansive, or maybe just get a little more comfortable in your skin, and you go, “Okay, I’m going to reconsider.” So for me it was an artistic enactment of that, which happened when I started writing essays. Especially the travel essays. Andy Ward, whom I worked with at GQ, had a really nice way of encouraging me when I would get into a place where I wasn’t relying on humor quite so much. And that in turn led to the Tenth of December and a couple of stories where suddenly I was drawing more directly on my real life…and finding that you could actually do that and still have a good prose style. Those kinds of things were the ladder that led me to be able to try this book.

What was the initial germ of the idea for this novel?
We were in D.C. and driving by Oakhill Cemetery, and my wife’s cousin just casually pointed up and said, “That crypt up there…” I don’t know if we could actually see the crypt, or if we could just see the graveyard, but he said, “Lincoln’s son was buried up there.” And at that point, I didn’t even know Lincoln had a son. I’m not exactly a history major. And then she said, “Yeah, you know, he died while Lincoln was in office, a very low moment in the presidency, and Lincoln was so bereft that he apparently snuck out of the White House, crossed the city at night, and then newspapers at the time”—I’ve verified this since—“said that he had touched or held the body several times.” So that’s just one of those weird historical things. One, that a president at that point in history could leave the White House. This was during the Bill Clinton years, so you thought, “Bill Clinton’s not coming out at night.” And then also, as a father, just this sense of loss, and also the idea that, at that time, to touch and hold a body wouldn’t have been considered quite as morbid as we consider it. And this doesn’t happen to me, I’m not a real visual person, but there was just a pop of that image of Lincoln with the body across his lap—the Pietà,  a monument or memorial or whatever. And then your mind goes, “Oh, that’d be a good story,” and I just had a feeling like, “Yeah, not for you.” Because maybe at that point…what year did we see each other?

That was 2000.
So it would be around that time. A little earlier than that, because Clinton was president. At that point I had just gotten up on my feet a little bit with a certain voice and a certain approach to material that for me was very new. So when I just did the mental transposition of that material with what I thought was my voice at that point, it’s almost like sparks: “Nah, that isn’t right.” So I put it aside. I’m not sure I was so confident I ever would write about it. But I remember kind of thinking, “Yeah, there are people who could do that, but in this life, maybe it’s just not me.” And there are lots of stories in the world; I just happened to hear that one. No problem. But it definitely persisted. And the way I knew it was, I have a range of, like anybody, happiness and not-happiness, and whenever I’d be happy, that idea would almost come stand behind me and go, “Would you please?”

But every time I thought of it, I got that uncomfortable feeling like it was more than I could do. I’m not sure I was quite as confident as Colson that I would get there, but I just wasn’t able to get over it. So that’s interesting: an idea that just refuses to be boxed. That’s kind of weird. And I hadn’t actually ever had that feeling before. I normally don’t even think in ideas. So I felt a trap was being set, because when I was a younger writer, I would have those kinds of ideas: A novel in which…

The grand elevator pitch.
Right. And then nothing would happen. So I was really resisting it. But when I have an idea like that, it’s trying to summon me into some new artistic ground. I was permitting parts of myself into the book that I had been keeping out all these years—genuine parts, and parts that I wanted to have in there. And somehow the idea went, “Come here, come here, come here. Trust me, trust me.” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I think it’s a trap.” And the idea said, “It is! It’s a good trap!”

And suddenly, you find yourself in really interesting, dramatic situations where the only way out is to summon up those previously suppressed or denied parts of your psyche that can finish it. And for me, those tended to be the more hopeful parts, actually. Or, hopeful and narratively straight, being comfortable with drama, no need to turn around and make jokes, just stay in that zone a little longer than I would normally be comfortable with. And then turn around and make the joke. It was a great experience.

I listened to an interview you gave around the time Tenth of December came out. And you were talking about how you were a little nervous about the reception of it, because you felt like it had more realism in it than your earlier work. Do you see this as a kind of trajectory, that you’re kind of pushing toward more realism?
It’s funny, in talking about writing, I think people tend to make binaries. I don’t know why, but a student will come in and say, “I don’t know if I want to be funny or serious.” Or sometimes they’ll link it to people: “I either want to be Kerouac or Flannery O’Connor.” I don’t know why these writing problems present as binaries, but they seem to be neurological. So then of course one of the things you can do is, you can destabilize the binary. If you like O’Connor and Kerouac, put them on one side of the binary, and who’s on the other side? In this new novel, it’s a kind of realism, but when I think about writing a truly realistic book, I don’t have any interest in it. So I would say it’s emotional realism. And the goal has always been—that’s actually what it is, that’s the first time I’ve realized that: It’s just to have the fiction somehow simpatico with my actual emotional life, or let’s say with our actual emotional lives. I think that was always the goal. In CivilWarLand, that’s what I was trying to do. I was in a pretty rough patch. But I think the idea would be to say, “Okay, I’m going to try to remember every emotional state I’ve ever been in, and then assume that there are a bunch I haven’t been in, and that out in the world, all the ones I’ve ever experienced are still going on. It’s not like being a depressed eighteen-year-old went away because I turned nineteen.” So then you try to experiment, to imagine all those coexisting [states]; develop a style that would allow you to talk about that. I don’t really care much about realism, except in that sense. What does the human mind actually produce for us? What experiences and prejudices and impulses and desires? How do those desires actually play out in the real world? To get to the point where you could actually accommodate that would be the goal. And that makes sense for my work, because this novel isn’t—there are only three living people in the book, so I don’t know if we could really call it realism, but I think it certainly felt like I had more room to be emotionally realistic. In other words, to be able to write about grief not glancingly but rather directly. There’s some of that in the early books, but it’s always just a quick hit and move on, almost like a marker of grief. To be able to turn directly to it for three hundred pages feels to me like a step in the direction of emotional capaciousness, let’s say. So the goal would be, when I’m three hundred years old and I’m finishing my last book, that to anybody who walked in I’d be able to say, “Oh yeah, I get that. I love you, I understand you. Let’s have a book about you.” Whereas even now, there are some areas of human experience where I’m just like, “Yeah, I don’t know enough.” Or maybe I don’t have enough generosity of spirit.

In the interview you did with Random House—the one that appears in the back of the ARC—you talking about this book being a sort of chorus of voices. And you say, “These are people who did not in life manage to bring forth what was within them.” Where did that come from? It’s a psalm, I think.
It’s the Gnostic Gospels, yeah. In some ways it’s just traditional ghost theory, which is, “Why are you here?” “I want my liver back!”

Unfinished business.
That kind of thing. And that kind of melded with the Tibetan bardo idea, which is to me the more interesting and scarier idea: whatever way that your mind works in real time, right this minute, right this second. The body’s going to drop away, and that’s going to continue, but exaggerated. So with Heaven and Hell, it becomes a little complicated. It’s not: “Turn left, you’re in Heaven; turn right, you’re in Hell.” It’s: “Where are you right now?”

There’s that binary you were talking about again.
Exactly. There’s something that’s Heaven-esque maybe. So if a person had gotten into a relationship with their thoughts in this life in a way that made them mostly pretty loving and happy, then I guess the idea would be that when you kicked off, that would continue. Or if you were an intensely self-flagellating, suspicious, greedy person whose every thought was sort of infused with that, then when you die, that could continue. That’s the theory. But the fun thing about this book was, your temptation was to say, “Well, let’s figure out what the afterlife is, and I’ll put it in a novel.” Well, I’m pretty sure that whatever it is, it’s not what you think it is. So part of it was fun. To make the afterlife surprising was a pretty natural thing for a comic writer to do. You know how to make things weird and surprising, so to take the afterlife and just make it a little bit strange. I didn’t want it to look like the Christian Heaven, I didn’t want it to look like the Buddhist Heaven. I wanted it to look like nothing you’d seen before, to simulate the idea that if you went there, you’d be like, “Oh my God, what is this?”

You’re referencing Heaven a lot.
They’re not in Heaven.

I read this novel as much darker. It inhabits a much darker space.
Yes, that’s true.

Back when we first talked sixteen years ago, you said that you could only write comic fiction. You said, “Humor, I don’t know, but comic.” So, is this a comic novel?
Yes. I think so. But…I got to certain places where, in early rounds, the material was so straight. Sort of slavishly straight. It just had a History Channel vibe in the early drafts. And that panicked me a little bit, because that’s where it looked like it wasn’t emotionally honest. It was something else. So I kind of panicked and dropped in a couple funny things. And they just didn’t belong in that book. They were kind of funny, but they also were…it’s like somebody in the middle of a marriage proposal who senses he’s going to get a “no,” so he does a fart joke. You know? You think, “Well, that’s a desperate move.” So then I had a few days of just saying, “Okay, wait a minute now.” Again, in the binaries: I was saying funny versus not-funny. Then I thought to myself, “Is there a way to turn that? And whatever it is that I have always thought of in my work as funny, or people have thought of as funny, can we rename that a little bit?” Just to give myself a little bit of room. And I thought, “Well, all right: How does a joke work in fiction?” I think the way it works is, you and I are walking through the story together, reader and writer, writer and reader, and there’s something I’ve said behind us, and I suddenly remember it. As we’re going into the apartment building, I eat a banana, I drop the peel. And then we’re coming out of the building, and I remember that, you know? And you have just said something really arrogant to me, and then you step on the peel and you fall. That’s comedy. But really, at its essence, it’s the writer remembering what he said. In other words, it’s a form of narrative alertness. So then I thought, “Okay, since this draft is a little straight, is there a way that I’m not being narratively alert enough?” And I could show you, there’s one particular moment where I had the three ghosts arriving, and I’d forgotten that they all had these crazy features, these physical manifestations. Just by the act of putting those descriptions in, the text came alive, and the text coming alive made me hear them better. And I gave them a couple funny lines. So the whole thing came alive, but with, I would say, narrative alertness. So then suddenly it gives you a little more freedom to do things that don’t break the tone of the scene. From then on, I’m like, “Oh yeah, you don’t have to be funny.” People like it when narrative alertness becomes funny, but there’s a lot of forms of narrative alertness. Cormac McCarthy is the most narratively alert person you could ever ask for. Not particularly funny, but when he’s moving through a landscape, he doesn’t forget anything that he’s made. It all comes home in that beautiful language.

The Orchard Keeper.
Unbelievable. And he sometimes can be very funny actually. But you can see that he’s not addicted to or looking for that. He’s just 100 percent alive in his fictive reality. Actually, Toni Morrison—I taught Sula this year: same. She can be very funny. But the main thing I feel with her is that the fictional world is just crackling with life, and the author is just generously looking around, blessing it all, and asking, “What do I need?” And that question means: What will make the most beautiful sentence I can put in front of you to make you feel as alive in the fictive reality as I am? So whether it’s humor or not is maybe a low-level understanding of that kind of interaction between reader and writer.

Well, I’ll tell you, when I started reading this I wasn’t sure what to do. Because I know you, and I’ve read all your books, and then here’s this novel. And it’s had such big fanfare. “George Saunders has a new novel, and I have all the feels,” that sort of thing. And I was reading along, and pretty early on you write, “When we are newly arrived in this hospital yard, young sir, and feel like weeping, what happens is, we tense up ever so slightly, and there is a mild toxic feeling in the joints, and little things inside us burst.” And so I stopped for a second, because so much of it, too, is that when a reader enters your work, so much depends on where the reader is as well. You don’t have complete control over the reader.
Not at all, no.

So at that phrase—“little things inside us burst”—I guess I was feeling emotional, and I knew I was about to read a novel about a father losing his son. And I have young kids. You know, it’s all those little things that are happening in the reader. So I read that sentence, and it’s like, “Oh, the dead are weeping.” And there are very real emotions in here that I’m thinking through as I’m reading. But then the very next sentence is, “Sometimes, we might poop a bit if we are fresh.” And right there we realize we’re in George Saunders’s world.
It’s so funny you should pick that out, because in the manuscript, that’s said on page two. In the galley, it’s deeper, but in what I worked on for many years, it was two. And I remember thinking, “I just hope my readers will make it to the poop joke.” And that’s my weakness, but I was just thinking, “That’s where I’m signaling that I’m all here.” I didn’t turn into a super-straight realist guy, which is a fear of mine, because humor came into my writing as a form of emotional honesty. We’re talking about when I was really young. I kept it out when I was trying to be Hemingway, which is a form of emotional dishonesty. My wife and I got married, we had our kids, we were having a great time, but we were pretty poor, all working really hard. The humor came back in at that point as “Holy shit, what’s going on here? This is really hard.” So that was honest. My fear is always that as you get old and august, the world actually stops being so difficult, and it’s not that funny anymore. Please note that I’m saying this in a British accent. [Laughter.] So in that case, again, that would be a form of emotional dishonesty. Just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. In that first long section I hope my readers don’t think I’m that guy now, that I’m just indulging in a straight historical narrative with capital-R Romantic tendencies. For me, that joke was a place to sort of breathe a little. You with me? I didn’t leave anything behind. I’m still doing it.

You did it.
But it sounds like you could have used a few more beats of the emotional stuff before the poop stuff.

You get a great mix of both in this novel. In all of your work.
You know what it reminds me of? If you were a Led Zeppelin fan, and then, what’s the album, the one with “Over the Hills and Far Away” on it?

Houses of the Holy.
There are parts of that album where you think, “Oh my God, where’s Jimmy Page? Where’s the guitar?” And they know that, and they’re kind of setting you up a little bit with those swelling strings, and then all of a sudden it starts. So to me, it was a little bit like, let’s make sure we don’t leave anything behind.

Let’s go back to something you said earlier about the essays that you were writing. You had mentioned that those gave you an opportunity to do a little bit of work on writing about your own emotional responses to things, which is in your fiction, but it’s not you, George Saunders, saying, “I feel this way.” There’s a part in the “Buddha Boy” essay, which a lot of people talk about because it’s a terrific essay….
Oh, thanks.

Do you mind if I read it?
Yeah, no, I love it.

“You know that feeling at the end of the day when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away, and for maybe the first time that day, you see with some clarity people you love and the ways you have during that day slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted some mildly hurtful thing, projected instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion. That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets? I feel like that now, tired of the me I’ve always been, tired of making the same mistakes, repetitively stumbling after the same small ego-strokes, being caught in the same loops of anxiety and defensiveness.” I love that you had the presence and the courage to write that. I really connect with that notion. I think anybody who is sentimental, as you said that you are…
I am.

Perhaps nostalgic…
Yes.

And is very busy and maybe has kids, as we do, you can’t help but feel that way. Some of us feel that way a lot more often than others.
Those would be the good people.

But to push that idea a little further, I have those feelings, exactly what you’re talking about there. And it’s this tremendous feeling of guilt, because I have those moments, and then I even think of myself having those moments, like, “Oh, okay, at least I’m aware enough to be feeling this.”
Yeah, I think that’s true, actually.

But then an hour later, I’m checking my phone and looking at tweets. Yet it’s a wonder I ever leave the house and let my kids and my wife out of my sight. You know what I mean?
I do. I do. I think that you’re right, first of all, that the awareness that one is less loving or less present than one would wish is actually pretty good awareness, you know? Because there were times in my life when I didn’t even have that awareness. I just was…right. I think that’s where, for me, a person’s desire to get better on that score is what leads them to something. For some people, it’s a spiritual push, meditation or prayer. But I think just to be aware of that is huge. But as you say, it doesn’t change.

It doesn’t solve anything.
I know I can’t run a marathon, and I still can’t.

I could go out and train.
I could do that. But I’m aware I don’t want to. And I think that’s part of art. Part of fiction writing is a small training in assessing how good your awareness is. You come back to the page you’ve written, and you’re reacting to it by reading it. And the critical thing is: How fine-tuned and honest are your reactions to your own work? So a part gets slow; do you notice it? Do you honor the fact that you noticed it? Are you willing to try to fix it? And then the second level is: You’re aware of your reaction to the work, then outside of that you’re also aware that that reaction is also temporary and may change. So how then do you revise? You go ahead and make the change. But then the next day you come back and do it again. And at some point, you reach a steady state where your reaction to the piece is pretty consistent. Then you’re good. But for me, that mimics the process of being in the world. How are you feeling right now? How reliable is your feeling about how you’re feeling right now?

I want to say one thing parenthetically about the GQ pieces, because you are right that I was able to turn to my own emotional state to write about them. The other thing that I learned is just the simple mechanics of…describing the setting, which I don’t usually do in my fiction. I feel like I can’t get anything going with that. Well, when you have to do it, you find that you can get something going. So there was a part of me that got more comfortable with the power of just describing physical stuff. That was something I had been suppressing. So the idea that I would spend a couple lines describing someone’s looks or something, I usually wouldn’t do it, except if I could get a little joke in there. But now I have more confidence that if I am given the task of describing your face or this street outside, I’ll be able to come up with some language that is interesting in its own right. That is something I learned from magazine writing. You’re driving through South Texas for three hours, and it’s gorgeous. You think, “Do I have something I can say about this?” Once I gave myself permission to do that, I found that, sure, your years of writing have made your language skills good enough to describe a mountain.

I want to refer to something in an essay you wrote, “My Writing Education: A Time Line,” about your experience earning a master’s degree in creative writing at Syracuse University in the 1980s. You wrote about a meeting you had with one of your teachers, Doug Unger, and basically that he didn’t pull any punches in telling you that your thesis was essentially not…it was “crap,” I think, is the word he used.
He didn’t say it was crap; he just didn’t say it wasn’t.

Right. [Laughter.] And your response was that it was difficult to hear, of course, but that he had the respect to do such a thing for you, to not just feed you a line about how brilliant you are. That’s one of the things an MFA program can offer: respect. Because for a creative writer, where else can you go in today’s society where everyone around you respects what you’re doing—maybe they don’t necessarily like your work, but the act of writing is respected. That sort of validation for writers is something we try to provide at Poets & Writers, too: What you’re doing is important. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about your experience teaching at Syracuse. When we talked in 2000, you had been teaching there for maybe three or four years. Did you have a sense then that you were going to be there for twenty years or more?
I hoped so. Yeah, those early years were really rich, and they still are. There’s something to be gained by staying in the same place for a long time. But I like this idea of respect. That’s correct. And I think, also, what Doug gave me in that moment and what I got from my whole time there was just that standards don’t move, you know? This thing that we are doing is actually really hard, and there are no guarantees that anybody will be able to accomplish anything. So when you get to an MFA program and you realize that there actually are standards that aren’t being imposed by your teachers; they’re being imposed by the world, by culture, and the rabbit hole you have to go down is very, very deep. There are levels of exertion and understanding that you haven’t even touched yet. And the whole purpose for that journey is so you can be most uniquely yourself. That’s what it should do. It should be neither a teardown nor a feel-good factory. But just to say, this thing that you’re doing is really, really difficult, really, really essential. You don’t even know yet. “Know you do not yet” [in Yoda voice]. You’ve got to say, “Actually, this is even harder than you think, and also, we don’t know how it’s going to be hard for you in particular.” To set that up I think is really useful. In some ways, it’s maybe like going to medical school—except for the money—but in the sense that someone teaching young doctors doesn’t say, “It’s all right. You don’t have to worry about tonsillectomies, because you probably will get only about six in your career, so don’t bother.” You know? That’s not a thing. The way you’d know a culture was going down the shitter would be if someone was doing that. I think it’s the same with the arts. But it’s complicated, because part of that process is to nurture, but part of the process is to not over-nurture, which I think can be a problem in MFA programs. You come to love these people so much, and the delivery of bad news is not fun. But respect is the key thing, because if you really loved a young writer and you saw that she was doing something contrary to achieving her full potential, it would definitely be an act of love to put up a sign to stop her from doing that, in whatever way worked. Basically, my prayer is: “Let me positively inflect this person once or twice while she’s here.” More, if possible, but once or twice would be great. If I could just have one interaction so that five years down the line, she goes, “Ah! I now know what he was talking about.” Or the best is when students have walled off certain material that they don’t want to do, they don’t want to do it, but it’s essential to them, and you somehow help them take the wall down. That’s really wonderful. Or when they have been hurt or maybe diminished by some life situation, and you can make them see that that actually is their material, and it’s all right.

Have you noticed any changes in how writers are approaching the MFA?
There are two observations. One is that the relation of the young writer to the MFA program has changed certainly since I was a student. At that time, the idea was kind of like, “Oh, that’s freaky. Let’s be outlaws and do this thing that isn’t actually going to make us richer or whatever.” And there weren’t very many programs. I’d never heard of one until the week before I applied. I didn’t know they existed. And then there’s the false and damaging assumption that if one wants to be a writer, you must go to an MFA program. And the related one, which is, if you go to an MFA program, you’ll definitely be a published writer. That whole suite of assumptions makes a lot of pressure for students. It’s what we call “professionalization,” and I think that’s not so good, and I predict there’ll be some kind of backlash against it. I predict there will be—there probably already is—a group of people who say, “I’m not going to an MFA program; I’m going to do it on my own.” And then we’ll have a series of successes from those writers, and the pendulum will swing. There’s nothing wrong with it, but the most damaging thing is when a student doesn’t get in and thinks, “Therefore I’m not a writer.” That is not true. And it’s a function, at least in our program, of the numbers. We get 650 applications for six spots. We have six spots because those are all that we can afford to fully fund, which we feel is kind of ethically or artistically important. So if you’re number seven, you’re great. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t get in.

Another thing you mentioned in that essay is that when you first got to Syracuse and were studying with Tobias Wolff, who is just an amazing writer, a master—
He’s a genius.

But you had the realization that he’s also a real person. He creates this amazing art for four hours in the morning, and then he goes grocery shopping or picks up the laundry or whatever. And that leads into something I want to talk about, which is how to respond to success. Because here you are, and if people see you picking up your laundry, it’s like, “Wow, George Saunders has this normal life.”
Not as often as you’d think. Mostly they’re just like, “Hmm, who’s that bald dude?”

You’ve been the cover story in the New York Times Magazine and appeared on talk shows; you sang a song with Stephen Colbert. You’ve achieved a very high level of success in this field. And literary journalists and bloggers and everyone on social media will pump that up, rightly so, but we don’t often talk about how, as a writer, you are supposed to respond to that sort of thing.
That’s a great question. I think one thing you can do is watch it. I’ve said before, if you eat a bunch of beans, you’re going to fart. That’s it. It wouldn’t be a disgrace, but you might notice it. So I think anybody, at any level, who has gotten any attention knows this syndrome, which is the birthday syndrome. You get something published, you tell your friends, they get excited, and you get elated, which, as a word, has positive connotations. But I actually see it as kind of a negative. You get elated: You can’t think about anything else and you want more. It’s like a sugar buzz. And then the next day, it’s not your birthday anymore, and you’re like, “What the fuck is wrong with all these idiots?” You know? That’s just the human mind responding to stimuli. So I think part of it is to ask yourself, “Where am I on that scale right now? How full of shit am I based on this attention that I’m getting?” And by the way, that would also go the other way; if you were being criticized, you would have anti-elation.

Deflation.
It’s the same thing, though, because you’re still thinking about only you and your hurt feelings. I think part of my deal is to sort of take everything in my life and subjugate it into the goal of using my talent wisely. So if success starts to occur, go on full alert to the ways in which your natural biologic reactions to success might screw up your work. One way is, you get into the rarefied-air syndrome, where you’re only in cool places being praised. That’s death. You can’t do that. The other thing would be believing that it’s objectively true that you did well. That’s anathema to an artist. Even after a work is done, you have to be going, “I should have done better; I know I could have.” That’s how you get to the next thing. I think most of it is just not believing in it too much, and maybe if you still have a little skill left you say, “Let me also not enjoy it too little, because it doesn’t happen all the time; it doesn’t happen to everybody.”

If we think about talent, talent is like a flower. I wasn’t doing publishable work until about thirty-three. Well, the odds are, it’s going to wilt. It may very well wilt before I die. So you have to treat it as something that you were gifted with briefly, and it may or may not be around. But I also think of it as kind of a fun adventure; especially in this time, I feel like it’s not a bad thing for a writer to work herself into a more public role, to kind of push herself into the public mind a little more so as to push back against some of the stuff that’s going on. But it’s like everything else. Anything that happens to you is going to have some effect on your artistic abilities, so I think part of it is to manage. Even when we met the last time, I had just come out of that period when I’d written a book at work, and the way I understood that was, okay, this is part of it. This is part of the artistic journey. I don’t have enough money, and my hours are getting burned up doing this work. All right, I accept. And then it becomes ennobled. And I found myself empowered by that. If I thought, “Ah, I’m getting cheated by the world,” then that’s disempowering. But to say, “This is part of my writer’s journey,” then suddenly you can take more of it.  

We have a little more time, and there are two topics that I want to touch on: One is the election and the other is death.
Wait, there was an election? Oh, you saved the good one for last.

It was very interesting to go back and reread, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” which was published in the New Yorker last July. I’ll confess that when I first read it—and this is maybe part of the problem—but my reaction was one of curiosity, almost like being at the zoo or something. Who are these creatures? What’s happening? It was almost a morbid curiosity. Now, rereading it, I think, “Why didn’t we see this coming?” I personally thought good would prevail. And it didn’t.
It did numerically.

It did numerically, but the system did not.
Well, that piece was really hard for me to finish, and I think it was exactly for the reason you’re naming. I went there thinking it was kind of a fringe—at the time, I think 40 percent of people who were going to vote said they would vote for Trump. But I thought it was kind of a fringe thing that would burn out. In other words, I found myself in the position of somebody who takes on the story, “Some People Like Football Better Than Baseball: Who Are They?” Well, they’re everybody. Or it’s a mix of all kinds of people. So I went in with this idea that I was going to try to pinpoint or diagnose this slender, fading movement, but in fact it’s half the people who voted. I’m still puzzling over it, actually. The one thing I’m sure of is this: The people who supported trump were either willing to ignore or could not see the humiliation and fear that he was causing in good people: Muslims, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, gay people, black people, any people of color. You’d have to be sort of willfully blind to not see the anxiety his rhetoric was causing in those people. So the thing that I think a lot of progressives are struggling with is, how could you discount that? Now, that’s an interesting question. Because the first-level answer is, they’re racist. I think it’s responsible to take that and try to break it apart a little bit, and one Gallup poll recently suggested an interesting answer, which was that most of the Trump supporters had a relatively low level of interaction with the other. They didn’t live near the border; they didn’t live near undocumented communities; they didn’t have a lot of friends of color. So it’s sort of a projection. When they have a fear about an undocumented person, it’s almost all projection.

And how were they getting their perspective on these matters? Fox News?
Well, this is the interesting thing, because that’s what my assumption was, so I would do these little fishing questions like, “So, where do you get your news?” And they’d say, “I get my news from all over.” And it’s funny, at the time, last spring, I took that to mean they also watched CNN or something. But now, in retrospect, I think they meant Fox and Breitbart and alt-right sites. They were seeing Fox as a little bit left of center. In the reporting, I would get these weird refusals of data sets to intersect. We’d be talking about something, and their facts were coming from somewhere I didn’t know about. And at the time, I don’t think that network of right-wing sites was as widely known. That explains a lot of the data in that piece. So I’m still puzzling over it.

But I think for writers, it’s a time…I feel kind of excited about writing. I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life that it was a more essential task. When there’s leadership in place that is purposefully encouraging anti-factuality, that got elected on repeatedly being as nonspecific as possible, constantly invoking linguistic tropes, meaningless linguistic tropes, using these rhetorical stances to alienate and terrify groups of people, that’s when language shows up and goes, “I did matter all along! You writers knew about it.” So, right is still right, virtue is still virtue, and I feel a little bit energized about it. Now, the one thing I noticed during this thing that scares me is that this left-right divide is getting fatal. I went with these Trump supporters, and I got along with everybody and had a really nice time. They were very friendly; we chatted; I insulted them and they insulted me. But one thing that was funny—if I was feeling insecure, I’d drop the fact that I’m a New Yorker writer, in general. And I don’t think there was a single Trump supporter—there might have been one guy in Wisconsin—who knew what that was.

I expected, “Oh, that liberal rag.” Not even that. “Is that some liberal thing?” sometimes. But they didn’t know what it was. So that means then I went home and worked five months on a ten-thousand-word piece trying to be very measured but not a pushover and all this stuff. Who read it? We read it. Now, I’m a fan of preaching to the choir; the choir needs to huddle around the most profound version of our ethos. But it was weird to think, “If I wanted to bust out and really speak directly to Trump supporters, how would I do it?”

That’s the question.
It’s a big question.

You mentioned that you feel  hopeful and energized now. That’s a very good message, this idea that language does matter now. Maybe now more than ever. But the hard thing is trying to reconcile the fact that no one really gave a shit about the language Trump was using during the campaign.
I would break that down, because many of us, including you, care deeply about it.

Of course. It didn’t have an effect, though. When I was hearing him say some of these things—“Grab them by the whatever”—I was like, “Oh, well, it’s over now,” because there’s no way someone’s going to vote for that.
It’s disqualifying, right, right.

But they did.
Yeah. And that’s a deep well. One thing I’m trying to tell myself in order to stay hopeful is that heartbreak is the difference between what you thought the world was and what the world actually turned out to be. So you thought this person loved you; they didn’t. Aww. Well, actually, that’s on you, in a sense. So those of us who are feeling crestfallen or heartbroken at this time, I’m trying to say to myself, “That’s your problem! You were out there in the rallies, why didn’t you know?” So then isn’t it literary to say, “I’m going to adjust my view because it was too small. I misunderstood America. I misunderstood the country.” That’s okay. You’re allowed to misunderstand. Also, America is allowed to be as fucked up as it wants to be. My perceptions just can’t be out of sync with that. That’s one thing.

Now, we talk about specificity. With this thing, a fifth of the country voted for Trump. That’s a pretty small number. To elect someone else would take a sliver of about 15 percent. Say 15 percent of the population would have to flip over into an anti-Trump stance. That’s really easy.

Or just vote at all.
Right. But part of me is wanting to say because of our election procedure, this looks like the country has totally changed, but the truth is—and this is something I left out of the piece because it didn’t come into focus—so many of those people I talked to were as much anti-Hillary as for Trump. To me, that’s mystifying, but that was their position. So I would imagine if you just plunk in Joe Biden next time, it all shifts. So I’m not hopeless. It’s still depressing, mostly because it makes me sad to think of all the people I met on this trip down in Phoenix, and so many wonderful Mexican Americans and also Mexican immigrants who were so humiliated by this. You know, they work so hard, and now the country is sort of turning them into enemies. And that’s heartbreaking. That’s disgusting, actually, and it makes me sad. But the other thing it does is it backlights our whole history a little differently. You talk to any African American and you say, “America’s racist!” they’ll go, “That’s not news.” So I think part of the sadness but also maybe the invigorating thing for me as an older person is to go, you know what? I maybe never saw this country correctly. And as you get older, a little bit of an Aaron Copland vibe gets in your head, like, “Oh, this lovely country that’s been so good to me.” It’s a time for me to maybe reconsider, for everyone to reconsider, and say, “Yeah, this is not new, this kind of oppressive rhetoric and this kind of knee-jerk, reactionary demagogue thing. We’ve been fighting it a long time.” I think heartbreak comes from the fact that many of us felt that that was in its death throes and that this next administration would be the end of it, or at least a good movement towards the end of it, and now we have to wait.

It’s also perhaps naive for some of us to have thought that we understood this country. It’s a huge country. There are so many people, so many different kinds of people, and to think that we know who we are as one united…
Right. And so much of that comes from our mind, what we want to see. But to turn it back to writers: What an incredible moment to say, “Okay, we don’t know.” And let’s just generalize: “We don’t know the Midwest.” Well, that’s a good project, because it’s full of human beings and therefore full of literature. I remember coming the other direction; I was in Amarillo before I came to the Syracuse program, and I’d been working in a slaughterhouse, and we’d been having a lot of drama in our circle of friends and family—real deaths and drugs and all kinds of dark stuff. And I came out here very hopeful that that would give me a badge of authenticity, kind of like when Kerouac met Neal Cassidy. I came out, and I found that a lot of the people I met in the artistic community hadn’t had much experience there, and so therefore it didn’t hold much interest. It was sometimes just a one-line joke, you know? “Oh, Amarillo, I drove through there. Bunch of currency exchanges.” And I remember, it was maybe one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life to see that I wasn’t going to get in there with that. There was no understanding that there was an entire human community there that I loved, and they were suffering. So now, it’s a tremendous literary mission to say, “Can we reimagine our country?” It’s going to take some legwork, and it’s going to take some curiosity, which is in short supply these days, in both directions. 

Well, shifting gears here—
Let’s move on to death!

Let’s move on to death. It seems like the perfect place to end our conversation. You’ve mentioned that you find death such an interesting and terrifying thing to write about. It’s in all of your work, but this book in particular, because all but three people are dead. And a horse.
Thank you for noting the horse. [Laughter.] I think it’s because I have a reasonable level of belief that it’ll actually happen to me. I remember, as a kid, being in my grandparents’ house in Texas, and it was a smallish house, and I could hear their sleep-noises, and it hit me really hard—and they were in their sixties, so they were old to me at that time—and I couldn’t sleep, and I thought, “They’re going to die, my God.” And that just-woke-up sort of confusion: “What if they die right now? They could. Well, they could. They’re going to, and they could.” I don’t think I’m fascinated with it, but I kind of feel like, you know, if you’re on the tracks and you distantly hear a train, come on! I’m not fascinated with the train, but—

It’s a fact, coming.
Yes.

I guess another way to phrase the question here is that, similar to how taking the election as this sort of negative and looking at it as a positive, which you so beautiful did, it’s a similar thing with death. I think that the kind of general feeling about death is that it’s a negative. And yet it’s going to happen to every one of us. And you seem to have taken the positive view, which is that it makes life, life.
Yes. Let me put it another way: As with the election, it’s not that you think the thing itself is positive, but being willing to accept the reality of the thing is positive. Then you accommodate it. It’s kind of like—actually, it’s sort of anti-denial. Denial is something I’m very prone to, and it’s always gotten me in trouble. Okay, look, death seems to be, as far as I can tell, it’s going to come for me. So is there any way I can accommodate that knowledge? No matter what, whether it enriches your life or fucks it up, it’s still healthy to acknowledge. So if you go to a party, and you know everyone is leaving at midnight, it should affect the way you pace yourself, or the way you are there.

I think what happened with me is, again, because of that thin ledge of talent I have, I’m not a writer who could write a story about something that has no urgency for me. There are really talented writers who say, “Oh, I’m going to imagine that I live in that apartment.” I can’t even do it, something so casual. I flounder in that mode. So I have to make sure that my stories get on something that really matters to me. Death would be one. I always quote Flannery O’Connor: “A writer can choose what he writes, but he can’t choose what he makes live.” So coming at that idea from the other direction, if your prose is flat, that means you’re not writing about—well, it means your prose is flat. And it means you better stop that. So for me, what that means is, when I get off into something where the prose starts jangling, then full-speed ahead, don’t worry about what it’s about. But that tends to be about mortality. And it might just be a lack of subtlety. I’m not too good at making a story in which nothing big happens. I mean, the masters do. Chekhov, he always can do that. I think I’m maybe just not that subtle. So for me, peril, death, has to be there for me to get the necessary energy.

This whole novel is predicated on death. Did anything about writing it surprise you?
Oh, yeah. So much. But mostly it’s—this is Poets & Writers, so we can talk about it—but mostly it was the internal dynamics. If you’re writing a story as over-the-top as this one, it’s all in the doing. It’s all in the line-to-line and section-to-section transfers. And my thought was, if ever once I got too cheesy or on the nose, all the air goes out of the balloon. So much of the editing work was: If I juxtapose this speech with this speech, what does it feel like? If I cut this speech and move this one up? I just finished section nine; which way am I going? And the constant enemy was kind of—I was going to say “banality,” but it’s not really that. I think a lot of the energy is, as a reader, going, “What the fuck’s going on here? Who are these people?” And then, just about the time they figure out who they are, then I have to keep moving it. The idea was to keep the reader always a little bit behind me but interested. So sometimes if you make a too-obvious structural move, the reader passes you. “Oh, it’s a ghost story.” That’s really hard to talk about, but it’s all the micromanaging of text and transitions and the way the speech is made, which I really like, because if my attention’s on that stuff, the big questions come in anyway, and they come in naturally. So the surprises—there were thousands of things that surprised me.

I have to ask you about one of the voices in the book: the hunter.
Yeah.

Where did that come from?
I don’t know.

You pause on that character it seemed to me in a slightly different way. It was more detailed in terms of what he had to do in the afterlife. All the thousands of animals he killed during his lifetime were gathered around him, and he had to hold them all, one by one, “for a period ranging from several hours to several months, depending on…the state of fear the beast happened to have been in at the time of its passing.”
I mean, I could make something up, but the truth is, this is what I love about writing. Basically, they’re going from Point A to Point B; they need to pass some people. What I love is to suspend the part of your mind that says, “Well, who should they pass?” and just go, “No, who do they pass.” And that guy just showed up. I don’t know why. I honestly…the only true answer is: I don’t know. He just showed up. And in that space…it’s funny: You’re walking through the woods, and you go, “Okay, I need somebody to show up on the left,” your mind turns there, and it supplies. That’s the difference between someone writing well and someone not. And I don’t think you can say much more than that. But you do train yourself, I think. I’ve noticed the training is mostly been to repress the side of me that wants to figure it out. Who should I have show up? No. Maybe just a vague turning in that direction that’s informed by everything that’s behind you, and then a trust that whatever the little intuitive leap is, is actually coming from the subconscious in a deeper way. But it’s literally like training yourself in putting up a little roadblock to your conscious mind and saying, just stay back a little bit. You don’t have to go away, but just stay back. And then veering over here and seeing what you’ve got. I mean, how do you talk about that?

You don’t want to look behind the curtain.
No, you don’t. But it’s also years of being in that exact space and being somewhat confident. And I would even say, in that moment when you turn away from the conscious, there are several different strands of other things. There are several candidates going, “I’m over here! I’m over here!” And there’s a micro-moment where you can go, “No, no, no, no, yeah.” So it’s really freaky.

Well, this book is full of those moments. As you say, it’s a comic novel, but when I was reading it, moments like that are haunting.
Oh, thanks.

Your work is full of those moments where it’s comic, laugh-out-loud moments, and then this little twist.
Part of that, again, is that alert[ness]. I’m trying to imagine where you are. Now, again, you can’t exactly, but it’s surprising how you sort of can. So if, on a micro-level, you feel like you just landed a very nice, profound, serious moment, and I’m watching Kevin—what if I do the poop joke? So it’s interesting, you know? You’re enjoying the pleasure of that deep, literary, serious moment. Now, you know, if we just left it alone, does that trail off? And if we follow it with another one, do you now feel like it’s becoming predictable? It’s a challenge of teaching in an MFA program, or teaching writing in general: Those little skills are so small and subrational, in a certain way. You can’t teach those moments, and yet everything abides in them. So that’s why I do a lot of close line-editing with my students, because in that way you can sort of communicate, if you have a sentence that’s this way, and you can edit it and make it this way, and that way’s better, you’ve kind of engaged that moment a little bit. That’s very interesting. And the danger is, in school, we’re always analyzing the effect after the fact, in analytical language. Which may or may not have anything to do with how Tolstoy did it in the first place. That’s the thing. I try to remind myself of that, that we’re talking about literature often from the wrong end of the telescope. That’s the conundrum of a writing education.

I was saying earlier how you can never know the mess of neuroses and emotions and everything that a reader is bringing to it, but on the other hand, just in my case, I’m not feeling anything new. I’m not going through anything so special that hasn’t been gone through by other people, you know?
Think of it this way: If we’re walking down the street, you’re having your thoughts, I’m having mine, somebody gets hit by a car; suddenly, we’re both in exactly the same space. So I think in art and writing, you can do the same thing, sometimes just with a simple sentence, you know? “They crossed the river.” You might be having a bad day, but suddenly, you’re crossing a river.

 

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

The Very Persistent Mapper of Happenstance: A Q&A With George Saunders

by

Kevin Larimer

7.1.00

Don’t tell George Saunders you can’t get there from here. En route to an enviable writing career, he traveled from a working-class childhood in south Chicago to the oil fields of Indonesia, a slaughterhouse in Amarillo, Texas, and the stuffy office of an environmental company in Rochester, New York. Along the way he collected an MA in creative writing from Syracuse University, where he studied with Tobias Wolff, and a degree in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.

Saunders readily admits he didn’t chart his course, and he approaches the writing of fiction the same way—with no particular destination in mind. As a result his stories end up in some unexpected places: a prehistoric theme park; a future world where citizens belong to two classes: “Normal” or “Flawed;” and a self-help seminar where participants learn to identify who has been “crapping in your oatmeal.” Ask him why his stories, at once hilarious and macabre, are littered with severed hands, dead aunts, see-through cows, and Civil War ghosts and he’ll share your curiosity. “Where does this shit come from? I don’t have an answer.”

Today Saunders teaches creative writing in the graduate program at Syracuse University. He lives with his wife of 13 years and his two daughters, ages 9 and 12. His first collection of short stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was published in 1996 by Riverhead Books. In May, Riverhead published his second collection, Pastoralia. Villard will publish his modern fairy tale “for adults and future adults,” The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, illustrated by Lane Smith, in August.

Recently I visited Saunders in Syracuse. During lunch at Erawan Restaurant and over coffee in his sunny Victorian home, he revealed two qualities that make him so popular among his students—a friendliness and a generosity one wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in someone at this stage of a successful writing career. He also displayed a quality one would expect to find in the author of such stories as “The 400-Pound CEO” and “Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror”—the uncanny ability to find humor in unlikely places.

One of the things that’s immediately intriguing about you as a writer is your sort of non-traditional background
That’s a nice way to put it …

Well, it doesn’t seem like you’ve been stagnating in some university setting.
No, that started up here. It was kind of an inadvertent path. When I look back I’m always a little bit embarrassed because it’s not like I had any sense. I had such a malformed sense of the world at each point that I ended up making some stupid decisions without really realizing what the options were. I grew up in Chicago in a pretty working-class neighborhood so writing wasn’t something…well, I didn’t really know who did it. It never occurred to me that I might do it. But I never even read a whole lot. I remember reading Johnny Tremain—that was a big watershed. I got a degree in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. This was at the height of the oil boom, so I went over to Sumatra and worked for a couple years in the oil fields. After that was a period of just bombing around with no real sense of what was going on. I worked in a slaughterhouse for a while in Amarillo, Texas. I was probably twenty-four or twenty-five. In that town if you wanted to get some money quick that’s where you went, and they would hire anybody and you could stay for as short as you wanted.

What did you do at the slaughterhouse?
I was a knuckle-puller. It’s a leg thing. It would come in on a hook. It would look like a big chicken leg. There was this complicated series of cuts. You had a hook in one hand and a knife in the other. The cuts were very surgical, some of them. When that was done you just sort of heaved it across onto this conveyor belt. It was like this big Rube Goldberg thing and it would go somewhere else. At one point I got demoted because I was too slow and I went to this place where all the stuff that was left over at the end came by on this big belt and you had to separate it. There was one box that was for bone and one was for fat and one for miscellaneous. The story was that the bone went to make pizza toppings, and fat was for marshmallows. It wasn’t too good.

So you were de-knuckling the leg. Of what animals? Cows?
Oh, cows, yeah. It was hard to tell. It could’ve been brontosaurus for all I know.

You’re a vegetarian now.
Yeah, but that’s pretty recent. One wasn’t a result of the other.

How did these kinds of experiences inform your work?
I always wanted to write but had never read anything contemporary. When I was in Asia there were all these great things to write about during the oil boom, but I didn’t have the vocabulary. I found myself drifting and not knowing how to put the stuff that was happening into the work because I had never seen it done before. But then I read that story “Hot Ice” by Stuart Dybek and that was basically my neighborhood where I grew up. To see that in prose… I couldn’t pretend that only Hemingway mattered after that. Dybek was a big breakthrough because I could for the first time see what you had to do to reality to make it literature, because I knew the neighborhood and I knew the people and I could see what he’d done to it.

You played guitar in a bar band in Texas.
A really bad bar band. We were called—it’s really embarrassing—we were called Rick Active and the Good Times Band. It was along Route 66 in Amarillo, where they had these drunk palaces where you’d go to drink and they’d pay us each $50 a night and we’d play the same set six times over and over again, never practice, no original songs. This was 1986. I should’ve known better then. In a way it’s like half of your mind is saying, “It’s okay, I’m just slumming, I’ll write about this some day,” and the other half is just that there weren’t a whole lot of other options.

Were there any other early influences?
Monty Python was a huge influence—the way that they would get at something archetypal through a side door was always really interesting. We just turned our kids on to that recently. The argument sketch. Do you remember that one? “I’m here for an argument.” “No you’re not.”

I remember watching Monty Python with my father. He was really busy and we didn’t do a lot together, but every Sunday night we’d watch that. In our neighborhood, a very working-class neighborhood, jokes were really a currency. If you could tell a joke or even if you could imitate somebody it was a really big deal. Junot Díaz, who teaches here at Syracuse, has this great theory that writers come out of any kind of situation where language equals power. So in his case, in the Dominican Republic, English was clearly a meal ticket. And I think that’s true. So that combined with just sitting there with my father roaring at Monty Python…somehow humor became validated. But for years, like a lot of working-class people, writing was that thing which I could not do. It had to be just beyond my grasp or it didn’t count, right? So it was only when that sort of dropped that I could really have fun with it. But that was relatively recently.

Humor is obviously a very big part of your writing. Humor combined with sentiment. I’m thinking of the ending of the short story “Isabelle” in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. It’s heartbreaking.
I’m increasingly happy to be a funny writer. What I find really funny is the straight faces that people keep in spite of the fact that life is so full of suffering. I think of the poses people strike, and the hatred that they develop in spite of the fact that in fifty years we are all going to be dust. We have to occupy those places so that’s really funny to me. Whenever I try to write hard and earnestly it always comes out like that. I have to sort of trust it. I can’t write anything that isn’t comic—I don’t know about funny—but comic. Earnestness is my enemy.

You’ve written short stories and a novella. Have you ever tried to write a novel?
Most of those stories started out as novels. I’ve tried and I just recently got to the point where I’m not going to try anymore. If it happens it’ll happen organically. I’m not going to sweat it because in the past when I tried to write a novel I thought, “I’ll have to do something fundamentally different, I’ll have to stretch things out.” But if I have any gift it’s for compression. At forty-one I’m like, “Well it’s nice that I can do something. I don’t have to do everything.” We’ll see what happens.

When I was working as an engineer at the environmental company there was just no way that a novel was going to happen. When I was in that job I was desperately trying to figure out another way because not only was it not a lot of money, but not a lot of time with the kids. There’s that great quote by Terry Eagleton: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” That was such a beautiful lesson because you come home half despising yourself because you’ve done such stupid things with your day. You’ve groveled and you’ve not even groveled efficiently. Then you come home and you’re exhausted and you’re not capable of generosity and I find it really sad.

A lot of your stories, like “Pastoralia” and “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” take place in this beaurocratic, artificial universe. Disneyland gone wrong.
I think it’s mostly that job I worked at the environmental company. It was a provincial office of a medium-sized company that was based in Texas so it had all the rigidity with none of the brilliance. There were probably thirty people there and they were all pretty anxious and by the time I got there they were shrinking the place down. It wasn’t huge enough that it was faceless. We all knew each other. There was quite a bit of inside space where there was no natural light. My own ego, my youthful arrogance, and my own high expectations of myself were put suddenly in conflict with this because, you know, by then I had two kids. I was maybe thirty-three or thirty-four and nothing was going as planned. I hadn’t won the Nobel Prize yet and Hollywood wasn’t calling because I hadn’t published anything, so there was something about that that made it seem absurd. It was a pretty petty place and there were a lot of rules. I mean at one point I was sending stories out and I got a nice rejection from the New Yorker and I was so excited because an actual person had responded and in a fit of madness I mentioned this to my supervisor at the end of the day. And he got this stricken look on his face and he said, “Well actually, George, it’s come to our attention that you are using corporate resources to produce your ‘writing’ so we’d like you to discontinue that.” And this was a guy who knew me and he knew my kids. So that wasn’t too good.

How are you able to negotiate some of the awful things that happen in your stories—death, dismemberment—with humor?
That’s a South Side of Chicago thing because our whole world—communicating anything emotional—was to be sarcastic. If you wanted to say you loved somebody you’d punch him in the crotch. My impulses are always very sentimental, I mean mawkishly, sit-comishly so. So in some ways I think it’s a cloaking mechanism. If you have in one scene a kid getting his hand cut off, I think in some funny way you’re more willing to accept a sentimental scene. I don’t know if you’re more willing to accept it, but maybe the juxtaposition of those two things is more interesting. As a writer I’m really aware of my defects and how much I have to find other things to substitute, so humor helps. It’s got its own inherent energy so if you can sustain funniness you almost always have to sustain something else. Pure funny you see sometimes in humor columnists who are just funny, but in fiction to keep funny going you almost always dredge something else up. I think.

For some reason I think of Charlie Chaplin.
Yeah, The Great Dictator. I think partly it’s ritualized humility. If you think of the great evils: When China invades Tibet they’re not funny, they’re not self-doubting. There’s no trace of humor in what they’re doing. And Hitler: not a guy who’s at all prone to see funniness in himself. One of the great things about fiction is that if I write an asshole into a story it has to be me. I can’t generate him. And it’s always funny in the reviews they say my stories are full of losers. I know where I got all those things. I didn’t just make them up. I think it’s ritualized humility.

In your stories, one thing that continually strikes me is guilt. I’m thinking of “Winky” in Pastoralia, and just about every story in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.
Well, I think it’s the Catholic background. The binary that got set up was that you were either doing good or you were doing evil, and you were never doing good. If you actually appeared to be doing good there was probably something wrong with your intentions. I think if you have any moral tension, guilt is part of it. If a person can feel guilt they are at least cognizant of a moral interplay. It’s a powerful emotion—one, because it implies you’ve done wrong, and two, that you know you’ve done wrong.

When I was a kid in Chicago, the big thing was to go to a Bears game because it was expensive and people didn’t really do it. But this family that lived two doors down from us—they were maybe ten years off the boat from Poland and they didn’t have much money and they lived in a house that was completely bare, no furniture. It always smelled like noodles and they were always kind of barking at each other. One day the kid came over and said “I got Bears tickets.” It was like someone in the poorest neighborhood saying they had a house in the Hamptons. So I said, “Great, we’re going to go.” It was his father, his uncle, Greg, and me. It was a big journey with trains and buses, and we stopped at other Polish relatives and there was a lot of cheek-pinching. But I was going to endure it all to see Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus. So we finally got to Wrigley Field and just before we go in the father says, “All right, boys, we’ve got a little problem which is that we only got two tickets, but don’t worry about it we got it figured out. The Andy Frain guys they never look up when they take your ticket.” So they picked each one of us up—we were maybe ten or eleven—picked us up and put us on their shoulders. And in those days they were still wearing those big overcoats, and they had us put our feet down their overcoat and they buttoned it up. And so the plan was that they were going to walk in and they would take our tickets and not look up. Now I was the all-time Goody Two-shoes, straight A, never had an evil thought. And I was just appalled to be cheating, and cheating publicly. Then the father says, “Now if they do look up, all you got to do is look retarded.” And he was serious. The idea was that if they thought you were retarded they would let you in for free. So he says, “Now let’s see how you’re gonna do it.” So we had to practice. And we started in. What I was really deeply ashamed of afterward is how willing I was. I was not going to get caught. If they busted us, I was going to go into the retarded thing, I was going to do what he said.

Something of that is in my writing too. When I’m getting ready to send something out, I get really intensely self-critical. To my credit I get really fanatical about revising, but sometimes that can bleed over to just lock-up.

I think sometimes you can find yourself frightened of what you’re going to find if you look at it too closely too soon. I finish something and I think it’s good and I don’t want to go back to it too early. How many times do you wake up the next morning and say, “That’s trash,” you know?
I think you’re right. Part of being a writer is to know when to trust yourself. I know I’m going to have a cycle. I’m going to love it more than it should be loved at first, hate it more than it should be hated later. You let your ecstatic side have it for a while, then you let your neurotic, self-doubting side. For me it was a breakthrough to realize that that wasn’t abnormal, that you weren’t right or wrong in either of those two, that you were right in both and wrong in both, and you just had to let it have a long shelf life and then it would start to make sense. Part of it, too, is knowing when to quit.

When I start to write a story I always have a simple design that would make it sort of classic and beautiful, but I can’t do it. I have some kind of weird thing that twists it, but the twist isn’t meaningless. Somehow the distortion that always happens if I work hard is useful. It’s like having this dog and going out in the field and saying, “Bring me back a pheasant.” That dog is your talent, and it runs out and and it comes back with the lower half of a Barbie doll. But if every time it brings back the lower half of a Barbie doll, you put those things together and you think, “That’s kinda good.” I don’t fight it anymore.

You write on a computer. You also said you revise a lot. How do you trust your ecstatic instinct electronically?
The kind of writing I do I wouldn’t be able to do without a computer. Until I get to the end part of a story I work on the screen almost exclusively. Any time something strikes me I just put it in or cut it or whatever. If there is anything significant that happens I’ll save it. But the main thing I do is to try to keep it really free. Nothing is ever lost. I can always go back to it. It’s like those fast motion pictures of trees growing. I don’t know if it’s true with trees or not but let’s pretend it is. You sort of see this thing accreting and parts disappear and come back in but in the long run it’s working in a general direction. I couldn’t do that on hard copy.

For me, writing has become—it sounds a little pretentious but sort of true—a spiritual practice. If you’re open to whatever the story presents with no attachments to what you did yesterday or any attachments to what you want the thing to be or how you want to be perceived, but just open to the needs of the story, that’s kind of ecstatic. It’s really beautiful to say, “What I did yesterday or for the last twenty years might be shit but that’s okay.” It’s interesting to see how the artistic form teaches you. It instructs you on your own shortcomings as a person. I love that writing can really help me turn back the spiraling neurosis. It can help me be a little bit less stupid, less judgmental and unkind.

You said it is important to be there when you’re writing, not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. Is that harder for you now that you have a couple books?
It was really hard after the first book because I just thought I had squeaked through a door. “The Falls” was the first story of the new book that I wrote and it was a real lucky sort of breakthrough because it was so different from the other book. And I remember writing it and thinking, ‘No I shouldn’t send it out because it’s not like the other ones.’ But when the New Yorker took it I thought maybe whatever it is I have to offer is not totally manifest in that book, it’s something different, and that was a nice feeling to think it’s not really about style but something else you have to offer.

And maybe you don’t even know what it is yet, and maybe you never will. Maybe you’ll be eighty and you just keep cranking stuff out and you’re good enough and then you die. When you’re young you think, “I want my work to last,” and then you see that nothing lasts. Shakespeare doesn’t last, nothing does. The moment of doing it is really all there is. Everything else is all delusion. It’s hard to remember, especially now when books are coming out.

Tell me a little about The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.
I have two daughters, and I would tell them these made-up stories about this little girl and they were funny and in some ways they were funnier than anything else. They were freer and not so programmatic. And I wrote it. It’s basically a short story really. And I liked it. There was something Monty Pythonesque about it. I didn’t have to worry about any realism and I had a really good time working on it and I sent it to Daniel Menaker at Random House and he bought it. As kind of an extra bonus he sent it to Lane Smith and Lane had read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” So that instantly became more of an important book than it was. That was really a thrill. I’d go down to his studio in New York and there would be a whole wall of sketches. Not only were they true to my work, they were twice as good as I could’ve ever dreamed of. One, he understood that the book is an exaggeration, but two, he understood the flavor of the exaggeration. It was really a thrill for someone who is not a bit visual. It was a good lesson for me because he is the least neurotic person I’ve ever met. He goes into the studio every day habitually and gets it done. I’m sort of a Catholic, “I think it’s good but it probably isn’t.” The Eeyore School of Literature.

Are you currently working on more stories?
I’ve got one that Lane Smith and I might do if I can get it to be good enough. It used to be a novella. It seems to be pretty funny. It started to be a kid’s story and then it extended to be about genocide. So unless there’s a big need for a child’s guide to genocide it won’t be that. I’m sure this summer I’ll be working. I don’t really make too many plans. I just sort of see what develops.

Kevin Larimer is the assistant editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Fiction writer George Saunders in Syracuse, New York, in the spring of 2000.

(Credit: Jayne Wexler)

Turning Time Around: A Profile of Donald Hall

by

John Freeman

11.1.14

Old age sits in a chair,” Donald Hall writes in his new book, Essays After Eighty, “writing a little and diminishing.” And so it’s not a surprise on a late August afternoon to find the former U.S. poet laureate and author of more than fifty books, including twenty-two poetry collections, perched by a window of his New Hampshire home like a rare bird, resplendent with beard feathers, pecking at a manuscript. It’s a hot, still day, and the poet who once barnstormed the country stumping for poetry, speaking out against the Vietnam War, is a few weeks shy of eighty-six—his once-notable height a rumor. Hall responds to a knock slowly, rising deliberately and moving to the door with a walker, like a man who has learned the hard way just how unreliable feet can be as they approach ninety.

Photo by David Mendelsohn
 

He waves me through an immaculate New England kitchen into the living room, where it is easily ten degrees cooler. “It’s the wonder of a porch,” Hall says, and begins telling a story about his great-grandparents, who bought the house in 1865, and his grandparents, who ran its farm when he was a child. Those days have long passed, though, along with so much else. The chair Hall once burrowed into later burned when he dropped a cigarette. He sits down in its replacement. There’s no car outside either; driving is something he’s had to give up too. These forfeitures, and the fact that we are in a town without a store, lends the room a hermetic, plush silence. Andy Warhol prints surround us. There is a portrait with President Obama, who awarded Hall the 2010 National Medal of Arts. I wonder if I should have taken Hall’s response to my interview request at face value—that he was “old as hell,” that he would get tired.

But over the next few hours something remarkable happens. Hall turns time around. His face brightens, his voice deepens—he expands. Arms waving, eyes flashing with a performer’s glee, he unleashes energetic and startlingly pitch-perfect impressions—of his longtime friend Robert Bly, of the sonorous-voiced Geoffrey Hill. Tale by tale the room peoples with ghosts. Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Adrienne Rich parade through his stories and recede. A different era of poetry, when anthologies could lead to fistfights, is briefly resurrected, a time when one could live by one’s wits rather than on an adjunct’s crumbs.

In many ways we have Robert Graves to thank for these hours of narrative fireworks. Half a century ago, Graves visited the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Hall was then teaching, and encouraged the young poet to make a go of freelance writing. All it took, Graves instructed, was a twenty-minute nap and a bit of mercenary energy. All that was required, Graves said, was for the poet to use everything he had. Almost immediately after Graves departed Michigan, Hall began his first prose book—String Too Short to Be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm (David R. Godine, 1961), about the very house and farm where we now sit—setting up his eventual move to New Hampshire in 1975, with his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. This farm was to be their retirement.

Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of that flight, and twenty years have passed since Kenyon died of leukemia at the terribly young age of forty-seven. A three-time survivor of cancer, Hall did not expect to be here either, certainly not alone. “I was given a 30 percent chance of living five years in 1992,” the poet says. “I think, like a lot of people, I always thought I would die young,” he adds. “Instead, Jane died.” Hall’s father, who worked in the family dairy business, died at fifty-two. His mother, however, lived to be ninety and met all of her great-grandchildren, something Hall hopes to do as well. (He has two children from his first marriage and five grandchildren.)

In the interim, he has followed Graves’s advice and used everything. So now he brings forth his view on the territory before him in Essays After Eighty, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in December, in which he ruminates playfully and hilariously on the subtractions of old age: driving, drinking, sex, smoking, and physical vanity. It is a shockingly funny book, sometimes an irreverent one. He thumbs his nose at death, the very thing that in many ways made him a poet. “When I was nine or ten, a whole bunch of aunts and uncles died right in a row,” Hall remembers. “I sat in bed, at ten years old, saying to myself, ‘Death has become a reality.’ That was my language at ten.” He laughs.

His first love as a writer was Poe. As Hall wrote in Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), he composed his first poem, “The End of It All,” in the writer’s shadow. “Have you ever thought / Of the nearness of death to you?” the poem goes. He wonders at this precocious portentousness now, and then grows serious again. “I used to dread it. I don’t think about it much now, at eighty-five.”

Then, as now, he looked forward. He was in a hurry to grow up and leave Hamden, Connecticut, befriending students at nearby Yale in his teens, leaving home for his final two years of high school at Phillips Exeter. Hall’s mother and father met at Bates College, but the elder Hall always felt he had missed out on a life of the mind. He was determined the same would not happen to his only child. Donald was going to go to Harvard, and he did, arriving in the late 1940s amid a swell of enrollments from the GI Bill, and joining one of the greatest concentrations of poetic talent ever to be seen in one place. John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, John Hollander, and Robert Bly were all students there at the time. Richard Wilbur was a fellow.

“It was that American century,” Hall says now, “which lasted from 1944 to 1963. There was a great sense of looseness and power, that anything could happen.” Entering Harvard Yard, Hall recalls, one would be hawked a copy of the Daily Worker, the 1920s Communist newspaper, by a Brahmin student; same-sex couples held hands. “Frank O’Hara threw the best parties,” Hall remembers. “I knew him then as a fiction writer, but he was already writing all those poems on the side.” What Hall didn’t learn on campus he gleaned by lurking around the famous Grolier Poetry Book Shop. “I met Bob Creeley, who was a chicken farmer in New Hampshire. I met him in Grolier’s—that’s where you met everybody. We talked, I thought he was terrific, he was smart, and so I looked up his poems and they were terrible. Later I loved his poems; it took a while.”

Hall’s most important friendship, however, was with Bly, who had entered college after service in the army, but had seen no action. He’d had rheumatic fever. “He was like a dean and never smiled and didn’t open his mouth much. He wore a three-piece suit,” Hall remembers. “He’d come from western Minnesota to Harvard. For a while he was looking like a Harvard man, but a year later it was lumberjack shirts. We started talking about Robert Lowell—this was two years after Lord Weary’s Castle—and Richard Wilbur’s The Beautiful Changes. We were courting each other and so on; I thought he was a bright guy and he obviously [thought I was], too.”

Their friendship has lasted sixty-five years. Every poem Hall has published has been shown to Bly, and, Hall says, probably vice versa. They began writing to each other as soon as Hall left for England after graduation, and now their correspondence stretches to more than twenty thousand letters, most of which are archived at the University of New Hampshire. “I just got a letter from him the other day,” Hall says, “but it was handwritten, not typed, just six lines.” Bly is now eighty-seven years old but remains, Hall says, his optimistic self. “He always says he looks forward to seeing me soon again.”

Every single member of the generation with whom Hall entered Harvard, except for Ashbery, has now died, along with so many of his friends and contemporaries—Louis Simpson, James Wright, Maxine Kumin, Allen Ginsberg—and Hall takes seriously the task of remembering them and their time. The manuscript he was working on when I interrupted him will be a kind of update to his classic 1978 book, Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (Harper & Row), which spun a series of keen-eyed portraits of the great poets Hall had met, from Robert Frost, whom Hall first encountered at age sixteen as a young enrollee at Bread Loaf, to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, whom Hall interviewed for the Paris Review when he was serving as its first poetry editor, from 1953 to 1961.

Many of the new portraits will involve people Hall befriended when he moved to England to study literature at Oxford University in the early 1950s: Thom Gunn and Geoffrey Hill, both of whom he published at the very beginning of their careers, along with Ted Hughes and others. Sixty years after his first arrival in England, Hall remembers the time well and fondly, in spite of its deprivations. “Rationing ended during my first year at Oxford. Clothing was utility. You could not get Stilton cheese. It was all for export. You got Danish Blue, which was horrible. I had my ration card to hand in at the college. But I loved it.”

Hall met Hill for the first time in 1952, when the English poet was just twenty. “The poetry society had its final cocktail party, which meant South African sherry,” Hall remembers. “I invited him to it because I had read his poem in [the Oxford University student magazine] the Isis. I remember meeting Geoffrey and talking to him in the corner, and he talked to me in this most astonishing way, as if he were tipping his cap. I thought he was making fun of me; I thought he was making fun of me for being working class. No way. His father was a constable in a village in Worcestershire. That was the end of my first year. In the second year I saw Geoffrey almost every day. We went to pubs, talked poetry.”

Hall returned to the United States in 1954 with a manuscript in his back pocket that eventually became Exiles and Marriages (Viking), his debut volume, a finalist for the 1956 National Book Award alongside books by William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and his old teacher from Harvard, John Ciardi. W. H. Auden would win that year for The Shield of Achilles (Random House). Hall had received his acceptance letter from Viking on the day that he learned his father would die of cancer. He read reviews of the book to his father on his deathbed. “My cup…runneth over,” Hall remembers him saying.

Like so many poets of his time, from W. S. Merwin to Rich to Galway Kinnell, Hall began his career as a formalist, only to immediately feel the inadequacy of the forms in conveying, as he has written, the “crucial area of feeling.” He sorted out this anxiety by editing, with Louis Simpson and Robert Pack, an anthology called New Poets of England and America (Meridian Books, 1957), which formed a kind of footbridge between Britain and the United States. With an introduction by Robert Frost, it was as notable for whom it included at the beginnings of their careers—Gunn, Hill, Rich, and Merwin—as for whom it left out: Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, and others. It was not meant as an exclusionary gesture, Hall says now. “When Simpson and Pack and I made that anthology, we weren’t trying to champion one kind of poetry over another. We were just publishing what we thought were the best poems.” Poet Ron Padgett echoes the sense that perhaps the ensuing brouhaha over the anthology—and Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 (Grove Press, 1960)—was overrated. “Anthologies don’t create divisions or reinforce them,” he wrote in an e-mail, “except in the minds of people who want to think about such things instead of about specific poems.”

From the anthologies and into the university, Hall’s movement in the first four decades of his career charts the creation of the poetry establishment as we know it today. In the early 1960s he accepted a post at the University of Michigan, teaching poetry when creative writing programs were an unusual thing. The novelist and biographer Edmund White, who was a student of his in 1962, remembers Hall as “sort of round-faced, slightly chubby, like a very healthy chubby man. And he would sit on the edge of the desk, and in those days you could smoke in the classroom. He would sit and smoke a cigar. He introduced us to high-class gossip. He had just interviewed T. S. Eliot for the Paris Review, and Ezra Pound. So he was full of anecdotes about that. I suppose the kind of intensity and awe that he brought to his discussions of those people made us all feel that being a poet would be exciting.”

White was writing poetry at the time, and Hall eventually came to discourage him by pointing out that “Everything I was doing could have been done better in the nineteenth century,” White recalls. White saw Hall ten years ago at Princeton and reminded him of this fact, to which Hall said, “I think that turned out all right.” However, Hall did encourage Lawrence Joseph. “He was an absolutely fantastic teacher,” Joseph wrote in an e-mail. “I know of no one who knows about and loves poetry more than he does, and his generosity knew no bounds. It’s been a great, lifelong gift having had one of our finest poets and prose writers as a teacher.”

Today Hall remains glad that he taught, but relieved that he left when he did, after thirteen years. “I was beginning to play the tape. You know what I mean. When I began, kids would ask a question and I’d never thought of the subject, so when I answered I learned something. But at the end they weren’t asking anything I didn’t know about. It was very good to get out of teaching at that point.”

While he was at Michigan, Hall’s first marriage imploded, and he went through a difficult period of heavy drinking and self-pity. He eventually met Jane Kenyon, one of his students, and married her in 1972. They decided to spend a sabbatical year at Hall’s grandparents’ New Hampshire farm, where Hall had cleared brush and milked cows as a child, in 1975. Once there, Jane didn’t want to leave. “She said in October of that year she would chain herself in the root cellar before going back,” Hall remembers. “In December I resigned from the English department.”

Turning his back on tenure and health care at the age of forty-seven worried Hall so much he took out a subscription to Money magazine. Very quickly, however, the freedom from teaching relieved his anxiety. “The burst of energy, to be in this house, and to be writing all day!” Hall exclaims now. “I was working ten hours a day! I always managed to work on Christmas Day, just so I could say so. Jane, unless she was in the depths of depression, would be up in her study working.” It was in this house that he wrote most of his breakthrough book, Kicking the Leaves (Harper & Row, 1978), which finally smashed the shackles of the old formalism and breathed a Whitmanesque breadth into his lines. Here, too, he wrote his Caldecott Medal–winning children’s book, Ox-Cart Man (Viking, 1979), which began as a story told to him by a friendly uncle, who talked about a man who used to load up a cart with goods to take to the market in Portland, Maine, and then sold everything but the cart before returning home.

Hall has always been an active correspondent, but in New Hampshire his correspondence expanded exponentially. If you wrote to him, he responded. Novelist and poet Alice Mattison, who was Jane Kenyon’s best friend, remembers striking up a correspondence with her friend’s husband in 1986, the year Hall’s The Happy Man was published by Random House. “It did not get a lot of attention,” Mattison says now. “His editor left; it was orphaned. Not a lot of people knew about it. I loved the book, so I wrote him a letter, and he answered the letter in detail, and we were just launched.” In over twenty-five years, their correspondence hasn’t stopped. “There have been times when letters overlapped and we began two correspondences,” she says.

Mattison, like many of Kenyon’s friends, was devastated when Kenyon got sick and died. “There was nothing like going out for coffee and cake with Jane,” Mattison says. “I used to hike with her sometimes; she would carry along a backpack with everything you could think of, and we’d stop every ten minutes to have snacks and water, talk. She came at life with incredible intensity, and was kind.” Hall’s grieving for her was intense—and public. And it was followed, as he has written, by a period of manic promiscuity. Mattison has not considered any of it out of bounds. “I was grieving too; I was also quite beside myself. I thought he made sense. I didn’t think he was crazy. The losses—one’s own personal losses—are the only losses in the world when they happen to you. Nothing would have seemed excessive.”

Throughout our afternoon together Hall mentions Kenyon frequently, always in the present tense. Her grave is not far away, and if the pain of her loss is not so near as to draw tears, Hall seems to remember it in small ways and big—reflexively, fondly, without shame. She reappears throughout Essays After Eighty, and the memory of surviving her loss remains acute. “I wrote poems on her death or out of her death for about two hours a day,” he remembers. “I couldn’t keep on after that. And then I had another twenty-two hours of misery. But when I wrote about her, I was almost happy, and writing about her death and all that misery was something that kept me going.”

Now, another half dozen volumes of poetry later, there will be no more poems. “Poetry is sex,” Hall says, alighting with mischief and melancholy, when I ask if he really has given up writing new poems. “No testosterone,” he adds. Prose remains, however, even if it requires more work than ever. “I used to write a book review in three drafts,” he says, hardly bragging. Talking about one of the pieces in his new book, he idly mentions it went through eighty drafts. How is that possible? “I will write down a word, and I know I’m not going to use it eventually, it’s a blank word I will fill in later, and probably in eighty drafts I’ve had ten or eleven words in one place, and each time it’s replaced by something more particular, or that fits the tone better, or with a better sense of opposites, you know, putting together words that don’t belong together.”

This work, and personal correspondence, keeps him busy. As he writes in Essays After Eighty, each day begins in the same way: “In the morning, I turn on the coffee, glue in my teeth, take four pills, swallow Metamucil and wipe it off my beard, fasten a brace over my buckling knee…then read the newspaper and drink black coffee.” Kendel Currier, his aptly named assistant and cousin, comes by to drop off manuscripts for further revision, and he dictates several letters to her. “His messages are lengthy, friendly, chatty, modest, full of reminiscences, and sometimes funny,” Padgett says. “He’s what—eighty-five?—and I can barely keep up with him.” Mattison wonders if Hall is helped here by his disclosures. “He is totally honest, he has no sense of privacy, doesn’t have a lot of secrets, and so he just says whatever needs to be said.”

Mattison is on the receiving end of one of Hall’s latest obsessions: his poems. He may have stopped writing them, but he has begun revising poems—again—to create a new (and much smaller) selected volume, to be released in 2015. She is one of his self-designated “hard-assed friends” to whom he has sent revised versions of his poems. “I can’t help myself,” Hall pleads when I ask why he does it, this continuous revising. “You do fifty drafts, publish it in a magazine, see it in the magazine, then start rewriting it. You put it in a book, and then the book would come,” he continues, then switches into the first person, as if to own up to the mania. “I’d put it here,” he says, pointing to a shelf crowded with photos of Geoffrey Hill and other friends. “I’d hate to open it up, because I know the first thing I’d look at, I would want to change something.” And so he does. 

 

John Freeman’s most recent book is Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York (OR Books, 2014), an anthology of poetry and prose about New York in the age of income gaps. He is writing a book about American poetry for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith

by

Renée H. Shea

2.10.15

Tracy K. Smith was twenty-two when her mother died in 1994. Nearly a decade later, she published The Body’s Question, her first book of poetry, in which she reflected on that loss. In “Joy,” which carried the epigraph “In Memoriam KMS 1936–1994,” Smith writes to her mother, longing to “pick up the phone / And catch your voice on the other end / Telling me how to bake a salmon / Or get the stains out of my white clothes.” Another decade later, she returns to that wrenching loss in the memoir Ordinary Light, published this month by Knopf. Smith’s first book of prose, it is a book of excavation and navigation: The poet revisits her mother’s passing in light of her father’s death in 2008, the year her daughter, Naomi, was born, and in light of the birth in 2013 of her twin sons, Atticus and Sterling. 

Smith, who characterizes herself as having been “still an adolescent” when she lost her mother, believes “it took losing my father to help me come to better grips with that first loss and think about what I needed to believe my mother’s life and her death had imparted.” And now, with three children of her own, Smith wishes her mother were nearby to consult about practical parenting concerns, but of course that wish goes deeper: “I want to think actively about the continuum to which I belong—the one that includes my mother and her mother and sisters and their ancestors—and also my children. In my mother’s absence, I want to cement that connection, and words are the best glue I know.” 

But why prose? She’s already written poems about her mother, and her Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars is, in many respects, an elegy for her father. A memoir in verse offered an intriguing form, one that is familiar territory—Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (1986) and, more recently, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the 2014 National Book Award, are exemplary—but Smith credits the influence and encouragement of the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, her mentor in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, for emboldening her to venture into prose. Smith had never heard of the mentorship program, which pairs older masters with younger artists under forty, until 2008, when she was nominated and flown to Munich along with two other finalists. Each had an interview with Enzensberger and then all four went to dinner, an experience that Smith insists turned into more camaraderie than competition. 

She and Enzensberger have become great friends after what sounds like a jet-setting year of being flown to many of the places where he had speaking engagements: “We rendezvoused in Tenerife and Paris, and gave a reading together at the public library in London. We spent much of a summer in Munich, where he lives, working on the book and getting to know each other.” In addition to face-to-face meetings, the two e-mailed back and forth, with Smith sending him parts of her work for comment. The idea she began with was, by her own description, “a big, ambitious mess” about a whole range of experiences, but Enzensberger urged her to focus discrete memories toward “a narrative with characters that moved beyond the private realm to take in and consider the relevant public history.” 

From the beginning, Smith says, she knew she wanted to write “genuine prose,” possibly because some of what she wanted to explore had already been unearthed in her poetry. “But I also wanted to embrace a fuller sense of myself as a writer,” she says. And she wanted to work within “sentences, clauses, paragraphs, the whole to-do,” since, as she writes in Ordinary Light, “Being able to tell a good story was currency in my family.” Prose gave her a certain amount of freedom to explain and elaborate. She realized how much she relies on metaphor in her poetry to evoke “a strange, powerful sameness between two otherwise disparate things.” In prose, she initially felt reluctant to elaborate on an image or interrogate statements she made, but soon discovered her expansive abilities. “I learned that prose can bear the weight of much more explication,” she says. “I can think and rethink, even second-guess or analyze something on the page in prose without going overboard. The sentence, in prose, can be as tireless as an ox.”

Enzensberger recognized, perhaps before Smith herself, that her story was about her family, with her mother as the central character. Smith opens Ordinary Light with her mother’s deathbed scene, the family’s vigil during the final hours of her mother’s life, remembered twenty years later:

Then we heard a sound that seemed to carve a tunnel between our world and some other. It was an otherworldly breath, a vivid presence that blew past us without stopping, leaving us, the living, clamped in place by the silence that followed. I would come back to the sound and the presence of that breath again and again, thinking how miraculous it was that she had ridden off on that last exhalation, her life instantly whisked away, carried over into a place none of us will ever understand until perhaps we are there ourselves.

From that solemn moment, Smith circles back to her childhood as the adored and indulged baby in a family of five children and, further back, to her parents’ coming of age in Alabama at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Dedicated to her daughter, Naomi, Ordinary Light began as a way for Smith to bring her parents back to life, “to reconstruct them,” as characters for Naomi. “At least that was my intention,” Smith says, “though in the execution it has become a book about me—about excavating my own experiences, anxieties, and evolving beliefs.” 

When asked about the title, she hesitates, musing that “maybe it’s the feeling of wholeness and safety and ongoing-ness that we slip into sometimes in our lives.” But after Smith settled on Ordinary Light as her title, she added an opening quote from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” one of her favorite short stories. As Baldwin’s narrator recalls the perfect family Sunday afternoons of his childhood when all’s right with the world, he cautions: “But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light.” In her new memoir, it is this moment that Smith explores for herself and her own children—the moment when we hear the tiger at the door.

***

In many ways, Smith seems to have lived a charmed life. Her father retired from the Air Force at forty-five because he did not want to uproot the family once again by accepting an overseas post. Trained as an electronics engineer, he found a job in Silicon Valley, eventually working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her mother, while active in her church and community, did not work outside the home except for a short stint as an adult-education teacher. Tracy, eight years younger than her closest sibling, recalls a childhood when “all of my siblings doted on me, then left for college. So I had this abundance of attention for a time, and then a period of abundant solitude.” A participant in gifted programs throughout her public school education, she graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a BA in English and American Literature and Afro-American Studies. After an extended return home following her mother’s death, Smith attended Columbia University, earning an MFA in 1997; she went on to a two-year stint as a Stegner fellow at Stanford University. She taught at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, and at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at Princeton University in 2005, where she is currently a professor of creative writing. 

Smith has published three collections of poetry—The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Life on Mars (2011), all with Graywolf Press—each receiving critical acclaim and significant literary prizes. In the introduction to her first book, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, poet Kevin Young, the contest judge, heralded an exceptional new voice:  “Smith is a maker, a wordsmith of the first order.” In 2012, Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Two years later Smith received an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Among her other awards and fellowships are the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, an Artist’s Residence at the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, and an Essence Literary Award. 

Smith had a series of mentors even before her time with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, as she developed her identity as a poet. A reader from the outset (one of the chapters in Ordinary Light is titled “My Book House”), she experienced a sort of epiphanic moment in college when she read Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging.” She describes how everything in that poem—the male speaker, the Irish setting—should have been completely foreign to her, yet, she says, “I felt so much a part of the landscape and the family he was describing that I realized this was what I wanted to do with language.” Ultimately, she got to know Heaney as one of her teachers. At Columbia, Mark Doty became, and remains, an important influence and mentor to her, someone who she says is “so generous and present” to his students. 

Yet the seemingly idyllic life of Smith’s nuclear family—“us as an invincible unit,” is how she describes them in Ordinary Light—can prepare, though never entirely protect, its members from the loss of certainty and security and, especially, the realities of racial politics. Smith is known for sharpening a political edge in her poetry, whether she’s writing about science fiction, pop culture, or current events, and this memoir is no exception. “In writing this book, I was forced to speak about and into many of the silences that ran through my life: silence about race, silence about the painful features of African American history, silence about my own choice to turn away from or reenvision the religious faith I was raised in,” she says.

One of the side effects of the memoir, Smith discovered, is that her adult perspective remained active even when she was writing about childhood: “So Tracy the citizen was allowed to engage with these private stories, just as Tracy the mother was allowed in at times,” she says. What she calls “shifting subjectivities” becomes especially clear when she writes about returning as a child to Alabama, where her parents grew up, to visit her large extended family (her mother was one of thirteen siblings): 

I was ten years old, living with a vague knowledge that pain was part of my birthright, part of what was meant by a word like Home. It was not the kind of beautified self-inflicted angst that can transform a girl into a swan or a doll or an ice princess in the ballet…. No, what I felt, what I feared and discerned, even from my rather far remove, was the very particular pain that was tied up in blood, in race, in laws and war. The pain we hate most because we know it has been borne by the people we love. The slurs and slights I knew were part and parcel of my parents’ and grandparents’ and all my aunts’ and uncles’ lives in the South. The laws that had sought to make people like them—like us, like me—subordinate. 

“Growing up black in America is inherently political,” Smith says, and her own experience proved that collision with that reality is not limited to the South. In Ordinary Light, she remembers the sting she felt when one of her high school teachers in Northern California offered faint praise as encouragement by pointing out, “You’re an African American woman. You should take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.” Even as she received one acceptance after another to impressive schools, including Harvard, Smith writes that this man’s “voice whispered in the back of my mind whenever the word diversity was printed among the catalogue copy.” 

Through writing Ordinary Light Smith has also come to some peaceful terms with the fierce religious faith that guided her mother’s life. Even as a child, she struggled to understand her mother’s devotion, especially regarding the concept of salvation, “when the world of my family was the only heaven I needed to believe in.” As an adolescent and young college student, Smith felt the growing distance from her mother in her sense of religion as something imposed, even oppressive. Writing Ordinary Light has helped her appreciate the key role of the African American church of her parents’ era in fostering a sense of family, community, and discipline “in a world full of disparities.” Even her father, with his systematic, orderly mind, Smith says, prayed with and read the Bible to his children. He was a man grounded in both the worlds of science and faith. In Ordinary Light, we meet the meticulously ordered world that her parents, especially her mother, created for their children, inspired, in many ways, by their religious beliefs: “a life that would tell us, and the world, if it cared to notice, that we bothered with ourselves, that we understood dignity, that we were worthy of everything that mattered.” 

Smith believes that the process of writing the memoir helped her codify some of her own beliefs and anxieties about religion and to speak “honestly” about how she sees God—something she needed to do for herself but that has also helped her decide what elements of her religious inheritance she wants to offer her children. “I hope they will bring their own ideas and feelings to the conversation,” she says. “I don’t want to subject them to the hard-and-fast, top-down approach to belief that repelled me.” Would her mother, who grew more religious after her cancer diagnosis, approve? Smith’s not sure, though her siblings have responded positively to the book, and she believes that “much of what the writing has urged me to discover along the way would make perfect, familiar sense to my mother.”

***

Coming at a difficult time in her life, when her first marriage had ended, the offer of a position at Princeton was, Smith says, “a benediction that my life would go on, that everything would be okay.” So far, it’s been more than okay. She relishes teaching: “Let’s just be honest and say that we academics have the best, most humane work schedule in the world, and I get to spend my workdays talking to smart young people who are devoted to the very same thing I love.” Admitting that Princeton’s faculty roster of luminaries is “pretty daunting,” she characterizes her colleagues as “happy and fulfilled and therefore very generous” and feels part of the family: “I feel that I’ve grown up at Princeton. I came here with one book. I was a child. That’s a paradigm I’m comfortable with, being the youngest of five kids, and so the eminence of my colleagues felt right, familiar. I’ve always been in the position of admiring the people around me and striving to play catch-up.” Her colleagues apparently agree. Poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, who invited Smith to do her first public reading of Ordinary Light last December at the Irish Arts Center in New York City, describes her as “a truly exceptional poet, with an eye for the arresting image that puts most of us to shame,” noting also her commitment to teaching: “My office is right beside hers, so I have a sense of her being a teacher who is at once diligent and delighting in her work.”

Last summer Smith became a full-fledged member of that community in a more rooted way when she and her family moved from Brooklyn, New York, where she had lived for fifteen years, to Princeton. She doesn’t really miss the city, and she’s a bit surprised. Apart from the practical reality that she and her husband, Raphael Allison, a literary scholar and poet, were driving to New Jersey to teach every day while their children were in Brooklyn, she says she was emotionally ready to leave: “I have so much more mental space and more patience, now that we’re living in a house and surrounded by so many trees. I used to pity New Yorkers who moved to the suburbs: I had the smug idea that they were ‘giving up,’ but now I think how much of an inherent struggle it assumes, and I chuckle.” Tina Chang, one of Smith’s best friends and poet laureate of Brooklyn, understands, though she says she went through her own “mourning” process when her friend moved. “As always, we write letters and allow our writing to lead us through our friendship,” Chang says. “What has always been interesting to me is that Tracy can occupy any physical space, and her mental space follows. Whether her body occupies India, Mexico, Brooklyn, or Princeton, her poetry fills up that geography, illuminates it, and makes it more alive.” 

So, with most of the boxes unpacked, full-time teaching under way, and three young children in tow, Smith is already contemplating another prose work, and she’s on to more poetry projects. New poems are included in a folio that accompanies a Smithsonian exhibition of Civil War photos called Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present and in an anthology about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that is forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press. She is also working on a translation of poetry by contemporary Chinese author Yi Lei and has signed on as librettist for an opera about the legendary 1960s battle between the disparate visions for New York City of urban planner Robert Moses and journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. Although most would be content to accomplish in a lifetime what Smith has already achieved, she considers herself at the end of the first part of her career, and she’s thinking ahead. She’s always been drawn to questions of what we leave behind, what it means to survive, to endure. In her poem “Letter to a Photojournalist Going-In,” from Duende, the speaker wonders if all we do is “kid ourselves into thinking we might last.” But Smith seems more like the tiny creature in “Flores Woman,” who defies the inevitability of her own extinction: “Like a dark star. I want to last.” 

Renée H. Shea is the coauthor of a series of textbooks for Advanced Placement English, most recently Conversations in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, Culture (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014). She has profiled many authors for Poets & Writers Magazine, including Julie Otsuka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Tracy K. Smith

(Credit: Christy Whitney)

Tracy K. Smith Named U.S. Poet Laureate

by

Dana Isokawa

6.14.17

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden has named Tracy K. Smith the next poet laureate of the United States. Smith, who will take on the role in the fall, will succeed Juan Felipe Herrera, who has served as poet laureate since 2015. “It gives me great pleasure to appoint Tracy K. Smith, a poet of searching,” said Hayden in a press release. “Her work travels the world and takes on its voices; brings history and memory to life; calls on the power of literature as well as science, religion, and pop culture. With directness and deftness, she contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths—all to better understand what makes us human.”

Smith, forty-five, is a professor at Princeton University, where she directs the creative writing program. She has written three poetry collections, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars (Graywolf, 2011), and a memoir, Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015). “As someone who has been sustained by poems and poets, I understand the powerful and necessary role poetry can play in sustaining a rich inner life and fostering a mindful, empathic and resourceful culture,” said Smith in the announcement. “I am eager to share the good news of poetry with readers and future-readers across this marvelously diverse country.”

Smith is the first poet Hayden has appointed to the position, which was established in 1936 as the “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” and later renamed the “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry” in 1985. Each poet laureate serves for at least one year and is responsible for raising national awareness and appreciation of poetry. Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey, Philip Levine, W. S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, and Charles Simic have all served as the poet laureate in recent years.

Each poet approaches the role, which comes with a $35,000 stipend and minimal specific duties, with a different focus. Robert Pinsky, who served as poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, launched the Favorite Poem Project, through which more than eighteen thousand Americans shared their favorite poems. Several laureates have focused more on bringing poetry into the classroom: Billy Collins curated 180 poems for high school teachers to share with their students every day in the school year as part of the Poetry 180 project, while Kay Ryan strengthened poetry’s presence in community colleges through a national contest and videoconference. Other laureates have opted to raise awareness poetry by collaborating with the media, such as Natasha Trethewey with her Where Poetry Lives video series with PBS NewsHour, and Ted Kooser with his weekly newspaper column, American Life in Poetry.

Smith will have plenty of inspiration to draw on when she starts her term in the fall. She is the first poet laureate appointed under the Trump administration, a time that has highlighted the political divisions in the country. If there’s anyone who can remind the American public of the power of poetry to give people a more nuanced way of thinking and understanding one another, though, it’s Smith. “It makes sense to me that the world of commerce and the world of politics would be invested in convincing us that we can each be one thing only: loyal to one brand, one party, one candidate,” she said in an interview with Yale Literary Magazine in 2015. “Too often we forget that we can say no to such false thinking, that nobody is single-sided, two-dimensional…. Poems activate and affirm our sense of being individuals, of having feelings, of having been affected powerfully by the events and people that touch us.”

Read more about Tracy K. Smith in “Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith,” written by Renée H. Shea and published in the March/April 2015 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Tracy K. Smith

(Credit: Christy Whitney)

Q&A: Hayden Leads America’s Library

by

Dana Isokawa

12.14.16

Nominated by President Obama this past February, Carla Hayden took office in September as the nation’s fourteenth Librarian of Congress. She is the first woman, and the first African American, to hold the position, which involves overseeing the library (a collection composed of more than 162 million books and other items) and its three thousand employees, as well as the nation’s law library, the office of the poet laureate, and the U.S. Copyright Office. Just a little over a month into her term, Dr. Hayden spoke about her plans for making the library more accessible, and a typical day in the life of the Librarian of Congress.

How are you hoping to make the library more accessible to the public?
We’re working on a digital strategy to make the collections available to everyone online. The collections range from comic books to the papers and memorabilia of Rosa Parks to the manuscript collections of twenty-three presidents. We just launched our new home page. It’s more active—you can really get a sense of what the collections are. We’ve also been tweeting every day, one or two things I find in the collections. The response has already been pretty wonderful because I’m tying it to what’s going on in the world. During the World Series we tweeted the baseball-card collections we have. On Halloween we posted the collection of Harry Houdini’s memorabilia—his personal scrapbooks and his funeral program—because he died on Halloween, in 1926. So we’re using social media and technology to touch as many people as possible in interesting ways.

How else do you envision people engaging with the library?
We’re really excited about the possibility of traveling exhibits that can go to local communities, including an eighteen-wheeler that can pull up in a rural area or on a reservation. We want people to be able to get on that truck and have an experience they might not have had if they can’t visit Washington, D.C. We’re hiring a new exhibit designer who has museum experience, and we’re hitting the road and drawing people in. And raising general awareness of the fact that it’s the nation’s library, it’s America’s library.

What do you see as the role of the poet laureate?
Our current laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, shows how to bring poetry into people’s lives in an active and everyday way. He’s demystifying it, and working with teachers, librarians, and people who work with young people to get them excited about poetry and to recognize it around them and in themselves. He wants poetry to be more spontaneous. As he has said, it shouldn’t be something you labor over—you should feel it and write it. He has this activity where he has the kids line up, like a soul-train line—the kids go down the line and write down words they’re hearing. They come out with a poem at the end.

What happens during a day in the life of the Librarian of Congress?
One month in, it is a period of discovery and getting to know not only the collections and the resources, but also the people who care for those collections. That’s been one of the greatest joys and discoveries—the curators are so knowledgeable at the library. So I go from budget meetings to visiting a collection to having the head of the British Library visit to participating in the National Book Festival and things like the poetry slam at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival.

What are you reading now?
Mysteries. I also just picked up The Gershwins and Me by Michael Feinstein; I got a chance to meet him, and got him to sign it, which was really cool. I have so many books stacked in my home—I have baskets of books waiting, just waiting. I try to think of them as pieces of candy, that they’re treats. If you walked into my apartment, you’d probably think, “This person likes to read,” and be able to find a few things to pick up.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Such Great Heights: A Profile of Annie Dillard

by

John Freeman

3.1.16

Annie Dillard wasn’t sure she was going to like me, she says, not long after I arrive at her cabin near Cripple Creek, Virginia, in the dark vastness of a November evening. Night had dropped abruptly as a curtain, just as she had warned it would, and were it not for the nearly topographic directions she’d e-mailed beforehand, and a few tips by telephone from her husband, Bob—that is, Robert D. Richardson, biographer of Thoreau and Emerson and William James—I probably would have been skulking about in the dark, kicking into one of the old iron forges Confederates used to make cannonballs a hundred fifty years ago. “I wasn’t sure if you were one of those guys who doesn’t like taking directions from a woman,” she says.

Instead, thanks to Dillard’s directions and a good bit of luck, my friend Garnette Cadogan—who came along as my copilot—and I are sitting at her dining table, cupped in the mountain cove’s silence that fills the room like a held breath, we men sipping whiskey and trying to play it cool as one of the most sensitive, listening intelligences ever to breathe American air perches before us like a falcon, unsure whether we’re for the eating or for the protecting. Dillard inquires if we mind smoke, lights an American Spirit and inhales deeply. As Bob lays out a simple supper of sweet potatoes and salmon, she steps into the silence, quizzing us on some of the books we’ve read recently.

Not surprisingly—for a writer who casually dropped into one of her books, as an aside, “I have been reading comparative cosmology”—the path into this conversation gets steep very quickly. Her references fan out, leaping from one outcropping of literary news to the next until my bad planning or Garnette’s driving or what is being read in New York seem a long way down. What do we think of Karl Ove Knausgaard? Is it possible he might not be as interesting as he thinks he is? Have we heard of Belomor by Nicolas Rothwell, the Australian writer? Now that is a masterpiece. Pico Iyer’s book on Graham Greene? He’s very good at Ping-Pong, Dillard adds, improbably. What about women, Garnette asks, after Dillard lists a string of books by men. Are there any women writers she likes? “I don’t read as many women as I’m told I should be reading,” Dillard replies. “I don’t like doing what I am expected to do.”

We start talking about humor, and as if tuned by sonar to Dillard’s needs, Bob returns holding a book on stand-up comedy by Phil Berger.

You can almost hear the pops and fizzes of combustion as the flue clears and Dillard’s mind gulps down the oxygen it has been feeding on for years—books. It’s something to behold. Here is the sensibility that emerged from a white-glove Pittsburgh background because she read a novel about Rimbaud and wanted her mind to be on fire too. Here is the writer who pulled it off, chiseling out Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974), the Walden of our time, in nine months because she read a book on nature and felt she could do better. And thus Dillard wrote that great, elegant prayer to the seasons, largely at night, in the Hollins College library in Roanoke, Virginia, powered by chocolate milk, Vantage cigarettes, and Hasidic theology. Here is the woman who, upon winning a Pulitzer Prize for that book at age twenty-nine, turned her back on fame and stepped even deeper into the void—this time all the way out to Lummi Island, Washington, in Puget Sound, to write a sixty-six-page narrative on pain and eternity and God, Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977).

In person, the effect of all this is like meeting a mountaineer whose work lay behind her but whose stories of having done it still get passed around as legend. If Holy the Firm pointed to the peak Dillard was trying to climb, and her next book, Living by Fiction (Harper & Row, 1982), was a nod to the people who had gone before her and failed, then the ones that followed, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper & Row, 1982) and The Writing Life (HarperCollins, 1989), told the story of actually doing it. The false starts, the caffeine yo-yos, the encounters in the Amazon or the Arctic—or at church—that kept pushing the horizon further out; the tapping at supporting rock walls and the bolts she’d drilled into them to see if they’d hold; the occasional plummets. All the hard work of staying awake, and the descent. One of the reasons Dillard is so beloved is that she tried just as hard to make the case that we could all do it, live this way, that all you need to do is work with a demented singularity of purpose.

But most of all, through everything, she has never stopped reading. “I have written down every book I’ve read since 1964,” Dillard explains as I turn the Berger book over now, wondering in what obscure corner of her mind she will sock this information away. These diaries now get packed off to Yale’s Beinecke Library as fast as she fills them, just the name of the book and occasionally a checkmark, if it was really loved. I remark there’s something almost monkish about this notational labor, surely she must be the best-read person for hundreds, if not thousands of miles—an assertion she refutes before I can finish the comment by telling me about Bob’s physician, who had read one of her books in German and English, just for the comparison. 

As for her, what is she after, inhaling those hundred or more books a year since age five? That library in the sky of her mind she has built. What is she seeking? “It’s what I’m for,” Dillard says simply, putting out her cigarette. “Somebody has to read all these books.”

For the past ten years, that—and painting, and walking—is what Annie Dillard has been up to. “I had a good forty years of writing,” she explains to me later, but she stopped writing after her novel The Maytrees was published by Harper in 2007. “There’s no shame to stopping. My last two books were as high as I could go,” she adds, referring to the novel and For the Time Being (Knopf, 1999), her book about belief in landscape and time. The smoke has barely cleared from these books, though, and it is only now, as her oeuvre has settled into the culture—or perhaps, most important, the loam of its writers—that its radical illumination has begun to reveal its long neon half-life.

It is through the doorways Dillard torched open that writers as diverse as Jonathan Lethem and Maggie Nelson have stepped, the latter of whom was one of Dillard’s students at Wesleyan and is now a friend. “Her books are wild,” Nelson writes to me. “They do what they please; they do what they need to do; they keep their eye trained on the things that matter most.” Geoff Dyer was also enabled by Dillard’s permission and contributes an introduction to The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, which is being published this month by Ecco with selections from all of Dillard’s work, including the lamenting and powerful uncollected essay she published after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

I tell Dillard the story of a writer I know, Phil Klay—a future marine, no less—who didn’t learn of the attacks until days later because he was walking the Appalachian Trail. “I was on the beach in Cape Cod,” she replies, nodding. “I came out of this shack I was writing in and figured now might be a good time to disappear.” She then taped a twenty-dollar bill to the gate at the top of the dunes, on the hope a passing stranger with honor and time to spare would pick up some provisions, some batteries. Someone did. Meanwhile, rather than wait, Dillard went back to doing what she has dedicated an enormous portion of her life to doing: contemplating the infinite.

Even in the dark near Cripple Creek, bedtime approaching, it’s clear the apparatus for this life remains in place. Dillard lives in a cabin separate from her husband’s, and has a third where she paints. All of this will be shown to us in the morning. “Bob,” Dillard says, just before turning in, eyes over my shoulder, “those are headlights.” For a brief second Richardson’s face flashes with alarm, and then indeed two beams begin to snake up Dillard’s long gravel driveway. As Bob walks out onto the porch to greet the surprise guest, Dillard explains to us that this is most likely Gary LaVallee, a friend from the area who helped Dillard clear the land on which she built the two additional buildings.

Gary’s methods are as extreme as Dillard’s observational register is austere. He doesn’t work with a crew, just his car, which he repeatedly drove into tree trunks on the nearby hillside to fell the evergreens, then hacked up what was left with an ax. His arms are as muscled as those of a professional rugby player. His eyes twinkle benevolently. Somewhere in the hills nearby he is building an enormous, five-thousand-square-foot cabin, alone, by hand, with eighty-foot logs he raises by himself with a pulley system. Gary talks genially and then excitedly when he finds out Garnette is working on a book about Bob Marley: “I heard him open for Springsteen.” He offers to pick up milk or anything else for Bob and Annie, and when told they’re okay, gently leaves.

Until recently, Bob and Annie inform us as Gary departs, he was driving around the hills of Cripple Creek in an antique dump truck with no brakes and a pile of boulders in the back. Now Gary gets around mostly by pickup or car, and occasionally he parks in their drive to use their Wi-Fi and get on Facebook.

“I’m not sure I believe in God,” Dillard says, packing up her books and supplies for a night of reading, “but I believe God watches out for Gary LaVallee.”

Annie Dillard in Key West. 

(Credit: Brian Smith)

In the morning the cabin is clobbered by light. Deer stand in groups chewing on dewy grass so far away, yet still visible, the eye needs a moment to adjust its lens before one can count the animals. Hunters cannot shoot on this land and the animals seem to know it. Dillard owns most of what the eye can see, but is loose with her ownership. Appalachian land is cheap. Some of it she has bequeathed already to her friend, the activist physician Paul Farmer. It’s quite a spread; her great-grandfather founded the company that became American Standard. Bob boils rich Cuban coffee strong enough to compete with the view. As he begins frying up eggs, he raises Annie on a walkie-talkie to let her know breakfast will be ready soon. By the time she arrives at the table, Bob has pointed out cardinals and owls in the brush.

As we eat, details of Dillard’s biography—the known things—slip out in asides and in peripheral conversation, echoing some of what Bob told us the night before over a nightcap. How they met because she wrote him a fan letter for Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986); how he was already teaching her book to students when she wrote; how they met for lunch—both of them married; and how they didn’t look back when it was clear they were falling in love. He is Dillard’s third husband. “She is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Bob tells us when she is not present, “and I’ve known some smart ones.”

“I got my name from my first husband,” she explains to me later in an e-mail. “I had no intention of getting married, let alone young. Richard Dillard, my poetry-writing professor, talked me into it. It was fine. That was a ten-year marriage, after which I headed west and met Gary Clevidence. We were together twelve years. With Bob it’s been twenty-eight years and counting.”

The novelist Lee Smith met Dillard as a freshman at Hollins, and has known her ever since. “The class was filled with talent,” she wrote to me, “but Annie’s was always extraordinary.

The group of us became a gang, a cohort, a karass—and we had fun, too. Inspired by Richard Dillard and his friend George Garrett, often on campus, an antic spirit prevailed. We wrote and put on plays, took over the newspaper, published our own literary magazine, Beanstalks, when the upperclassmen running the real literary magazine turned us down. We satirized everything and everybody. We loved to party, and we especially loved to dance.

This was true of Hollins girls in general. When several mostly-English majors formed a (really good, by the way) rock band named the Virginia Wolves, several of us became go-go dancers and performed with them at Hollins, UVA, and other literary festivals. We all had go-go names (I was Candy Love), white boots, glittery outfits, and cowboy hats—I don’t think Annie was an actual traveling go-go girl (no outfit) but she always loved to dance, and still does, to this day, as does my entire class, which always shows up for reunions (even the 45th, our last) with music like “Barbara Ann,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “My Girl,” etc. (I know, I know…you’d have to see this to believe it. Husbands flee.)

Watching Annie and Bob over breakfast, editing each other’s stories and officiating over the presentation of flatware, coffee, second and third helpings, it’s clear that whatever came before, this is the show. It is the big love, and they move with the grace and irascibility and tender watchfulness of a couple well into what Richard Ford called in his third Bascombe novel “the permanent period.” Virginia is one of three places they call home, boxes shipped ahead every six weeks like provisions sent further up a slope, the two of them following by plane with backpacks, like students. Spring and summer they spend on Cape Cod; in fall they are here in Virginia, and in winter they wind up in Key West, where over the decades they’ve come to know some remarkable writers—Joy Williams, Ann Beattie (who nursed Dillard during a recent hip surgery, coming by with movie rentals and hot meals), and the biographer and essayist Phyllis Rose. “These are some powerful, remarkable women,” Bob says, his eyebrows adding commentary.

“She was also one of the most generous teachers I’ve ever seen,” Rose writes when I ask her later about her friend. Dillard went to Wesleyan in 1979 at Rose’s request, after deciding her years in the Pacific Northwest were over and she was looking for someplace new—a general theme in Dillard’s life. “She was generous with her time, her hospitality, her advice, and even sometimes her money. She usually had classes meet at her house, and outside of class time students were welcome too, for Ping-Pong or potluck.” A Ping-Pong table sits on the cabin’s porch behind us.

Maggie Nelson says the games were part of the whole instruction method. “Annie made a writing workshop an ‘experience,’ involving an Act One, sitting in a classroom; then an intermission of sorts, which consisted of taking a brief walk through the Connecticut woods to her house; then an Act Two, with refreshments and reading aloud in her living room. On the way to her house there was a hole in a chain-link fence, which she taught us to crawl through, likely in celebration of both trespassing and accessing liminal spaces. She encouraged us to get out into the world, which explains at least one afternoon I spent playing video games with the owner of a local baseball-card store, in order to write a profile of him.”

I realize, when Dillard beckons us from breakfast for our tour of her own liminal spaces, that her demeanor is not that of a famous person reduced to interior scale—or even of a genius judging the brain capacity of two citified visitors—but that of a teacher who never truly left the classroom. She taught for four years at Western Washington University in Bellingham, followed by twenty-two years at Wesleyan, after all. “Studying with her was a top-to-bottom education on being a working artist,” novelist Alexander Chee tells me.

“I knew I liked you guys when I realized you read fiction; you’re fiction people,” Dillard says as we get ready to check out her cabin and her study. It’s a short walk over to the buildings, maybe a hundred paces, but in that space the energy changes. It feels wilder, more animal; a skull and pieces of wood sit on a table. The cabin itself is plastered with photographs of her friends and family; her daughter, a poet and Iowa MFA graduate who lives in Arkansas and whose privacy Annie asks me to respect; Gary LaVallee; Bob. There’s a photograph on her refrigerator door of a place in Turkey. Serious travel—for health reasons—is something Annie and Bob have had to give up recently, but, she says, “If I went again I’d go into the Hula Valley, the wilderness. Just to see it.”

A small shelf of books sits next to her laptop—an old hardback copy of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, among some beat-up paperbacks. Some volumes of her own books. Her books are no longer coming out at the alarming rate at which they appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s, but this is where she still does the work she doesn’t consider work, firing off letters of encouragement and interest to writers all over the world.

Pico Iyer struck up a fast and ongoing long-distance friendship with Dillard, stoked by her correspondence. “Her e-mails to me, long and incandescent, veered between fervent literary recommendations (of Hardy, Joyce Cary, Robert Stone) and exuberant reminiscences of her cavorting on the beach and love of the [Pittsburgh] Pirates and delight in miniature golf.” If he was expecting a symposium in person, he was mistaken. “When we met, all she wanted to do was play Ping-Pong, in her backyard, each returned slam threatening to send a stack of books on esoteric theology or meteorology skidding off the dining table a few feet away. At some point, I realized that I was meeting the closest I could get to my longtime hero, D. H. Lawrence: someone furiously alive, attentive to everything and impossible to anticipate.”

As it did for Lawrence, painting has become Dillard’s primary mode of expression in later years. (She turned seventy this past year.) “I switched to painting,” she tells me. “Not really my art, but it lets me make something new. I paint people, mostly faces, in oils, on black-gessoed paper.” She invites Garnette and me to investigate the studio, which is as compact and crammed with information as a human skull.

The austerity of the studios she describes in Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, and Holy the Firm come zooming back like déjà-vu. Tacked-up pieces of paper describe radial-axis instructions for depth and perspective. Another piece of paper lists the radio stations on satellite radio. An orphaned pack of American Spirits gleams. The view out the window unfurls the cove and the mountain across.

Bob radios back that it’s getting on toward noon, so we leave the studio and cabin and pile into his Toyota and head off in search of Gary LaVallee’s Valhalla, as locals have dubbed his massive log cabin in progress. We bounce treacherously up a muddy boulder-strewn drive out onto a high bluff only to discover this isn’t Gary’s yard at all. Whoever lives here has managed to transport, intact, an unmuddied, vintage 1940s low-rider with exposed piston, up the mountain, where it sits near a farmhouse, as improbable and somewhat sinister as a puma in a library. We circle around and down and off the hill and backtrack into town, Annie and Bob pointing things out along the way: the Confederate-era forge, the remnant of the railroad the army built into the mountains to haul the iron out, the hotel that was opened but never really took off.

Our destination is the Cripple Creek Mall, an ironically named general store where you can buy anything from MoonPies and soda made with real Carolina sugar to extension cords, hats, toilet drain snaking equipment, packaged ham, dried kale, bullets, and several strains of honey. Dillard talks to Eddie Younce, the proprietor, asking after his and his family’s health while he comments on how good she looks, after which Eddie delivers a detailed forty-five-minute dissertation to Garnette on the best places to gather and make honey in Appalachia. “I could sit and listen to my father and his friends talk about honey for two, three hours,” he tells us.

At some point during Eddie’s monologue, Annie and Bob back silently out of the store. We find them later down the lane, standing, holding hands, as if this is all there is to do in the world. It’s past noon and the sky is showing it and already I know we’re going to have to hurry to get out of Cripple Creek before dark. We hustle back to the house and through a lunch of chicken and potatoes before they send us packing. The light chases out of the hollows and falls again quickly as the little roads turn to interstate and Garnette and I race so I can make a train back to New York City. The next day, after I’ve woken in New York and the deep, soft pocket of earth we visited feels a million miles away, Dillard writes to me, the first of many e-mails about the late E. L. Doctorow, Key West, the Pacific Northwest, landscape and family, and generosity, as if she hadn’t been demonstrating it all along.

“Working in a soup kitchen is great for a writer or any artist,” she writes in one. “There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise. You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing.” She may have stopped writing, but Annie Dillard continues to feed the minds of generations of writers. As she might say, that’s what she’s for.

 

John Freeman is the founder of Freeman’s, a biannual anthology of new writing.

Telling Stories in the Sunlight: A Profile of Judy Blume

by

Kevin Nance

7.1.15

At the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar, Rachel Kushner was onstage discussing her first novel, Telex From Cuba (Scribner, 2008), which was inspired by stories from her mother, who had grown up on the Caribbean island ninety miles to the south in the 1950s. In the audience that day was best-selling author Judy Blume, a longtime resident of Key West, Florida, and a member of the Literary Seminar board of directors. When she heard Kushner utter the phrase “the fifties,” an epiphany hit Blume with the force of a thunderclap. She had a story to tell, she realized—a big, important story rooted in the fifties but about which, curiously, she had spoken to no one for more than half a century.

Photographs by Kevin Nance
 

Over the course of fifty-eight days in late 1951 and early ’52, when the then Judy Sussman was in the eighth grade in her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, three airplanes crashed there, all in or near residential neighborhoods and all with significant loss of life. When the first plane plummeted from the sky, it was believed to be a freak accident in an era when commercial air travel was relatively new and glamorous. When another disaster followed, the adults in Elizabeth began to wonder whether something was awry at nearby Newark Airport, while the kids—including Judy and many of her classmates at Alexander Hamilton Junior High—spoke of sabotage, aliens from outer space, perhaps even zombies. And when the third plane went down, it seemed to many that the town was under siege, or the victim of some modern version of a biblical plague. The airport was shut down for nine months pending a safety review, which ultimately failed to explain the crashes. 

And for decades afterward, the future writer, who had watched her town endure unthinkable horror—her own father, a dentist, was called in to help identify burned bodies from dental records—kept those dangerous memories in some vault in her mind, locked away.

“I must have really buried this someplace so deep inside of me that for more than forty years it never occurred to me, ever, that I had this story to tell,” Blume says in a tone of wonder at the elegant Key West home she shares with her husband, nonfiction writer George Cooper. “How is that possible? It was really deep, I guess. My husband says I never told him this story. My daughter, who became a commercial airline pilot, said, ‘Mother, I cannot believe you never told me this story.’”

Better late than never. In her latest novel, In the Unlikely Event, published by Knopf in June, Blume unpacks the events of those two months when the sky kept raining down catastrophe on Elizabeth. The product of months of research and years of writing and editing, In the Unlikely Event hews closely to the actual details of the crashes and then, with the imaginative sympathy that has been a hallmark of Blume’s novels for young people and adults over the decades, describes the toxic fallout that afflicted the lives of the townspeople. The result is a portrait of a community in crisis, in which grief, fear, and outrage are balanced, to some extent, by the characters’ capacity for heroism and a faith that, even in the shadow of tragic events, life goes on.

“Because that’s what you do when something terrible happens,” the author explains. “You keep going, doing what you do.”

Along the way, Blume weaves a tasseled shawl of historical detail of New Jersey in the early fifties—the era of Frank Sinatra, Martin and Lewis, Nat King Cole, cocktails at the Riviera, Jewish gangsters, Liz Taylor haircuts, Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare, and sci-fi movies dressing up A-bomb paranoia in Halloween costumes—in which the comfortingly mundane reality of the characters provides a vivid contrast to the disruption of the airplane crashes. The novel’s heroine, Miri Ammerman, and her uncle, the young reporter Henry Ammerman, who breathlessly covers the crashes in the purple prose of small-town newspapers of the day (the word inferno comes up with alarming frequency), struggle to maintain their sense of normal life in the midst of extremely abnormal circumstances.

“I have a fabulous memory for my early life, but I remember very few things about the crashes—which is why I had to do so much research,” Blume reflects, still puzzled, one typically perfect afternoon in Key West. “I do have a very vivid memory of where I was the afternoon of the first plane crash. I was in a car with my parents on a Sunday afternoon, and it came over the radio: ‘We interrupt this program to tell you…’ The crash was a block from our junior high school—one block!” She thinks back, shakes her head. “I knew that the crashes happened, but I don’t remember my feelings about them. Was I scared? Was I not? I don’t know.” Another thoughtful pause. “But all the mundane stuff, how people lived back then, was right at the tips of my fingers. I am, after all, a kid of the fifties.”

It was in that seemingly carefree yet oddly stifling decade that Judy Sussman began to develop as a storyteller—not a writer yet, as she kept her tales in her head—which served as a way to explore questions that often couldn’t be asked out loud, even of her parents, as beloved as they were. “Full of secrets,” Blume, still peeved, says of that decade. “Nobody told you anything.”

 

The 1970s were hardly better. When the author’s narratives began to be recorded and published in her late twenties and early thirties, she was immediately celebrated—and in some circles deplored and censored—for her frank fictions that touched on, among other things, the physical and sexual development of girls and young women. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (Bradbury Press, 1970), still perhaps Blume’s best-known novel for teenagers, was primarily about its sixth-grade heroine’s struggles in a mixed-faith family, but caught the disapproving eye of cultural conservatives who objected to its candor about brassieres, menstruation, sanitary napkins, and the like. In Deenie (Bradbury, 1973), Blume broached the topic of masturbation, and in Forever… (Bradbury, 1975), she graduated to teen sex. Her books’ directness on these and other “adult” themes made them simultaneously among the most banned and most popular books of their era. (To date, according to her publisher, Blume’s books in all genres have sold more than eighty-five million copies, making her one of the world’s most commercially successful writers.)

“I was very interested in writing about real life, about growing up,” Blume says. “Nobody talked about those things back then, so the books were a way to satisfy my curiosity.”

Kristen-Paige Madonia, author of the young-adult novel Fingerprints of You (Simon & Schuster, 2012), grew up feeling similarly about Blume’s novels for teens. “My sister and I took turns reading Margaret, which was incredibly important to us,” says Madonia, who got to know Blume personally years later. “Judy took subjects that were masked and muddy and made them okay and understandable. She was very clear about things that were happening to us as young girls—boobs and periods, all that—and you felt you were in dialogue with her. She was with us, speaking to us, which was far more comfortable than having that conversation with your mother or a teacher. Her voice is so accessible, so warm and down-to-earth, and I think that’s why she’s connected to so many readers over the years.”

In later years Blume turned to adult fiction, producing a pair of best-sellers, Wifey (1978) and Smart Women (1983), both published by Putnam. Although writing had always been a joy—“I felt as if I were reborn every morning,” she says—Blume suffered an existential funk in the early 1980s after reading Dad (Knopf, 1981) by William Wharton, whose prose struck her as so superior to her own that she felt paralyzed. “I was so caught up in the book that it totally took away all my confidence,” she says. “I just felt, ‘Why am I doing this? I can’t write this well. I will never write as well as this.’ And I couldn’t write at all for three months.”

Eventually, Blume got her groove back, in part by making peace with what she sees as her own limitations as a prose stylist. “It was never about putting the words on paper,” she says now, over a dinner of grilled snapper and Key lime pie at an open-air beachfront restaurant. “I’m not that kind of writer, as many people would tell you. It’s about getting the story out, the story and the characters. It’s not about the language. I do what I have to do to tell the story.”

With that pragmatic approach, Blume has written several new books in recent years, including a third blockbuster for adult readers, Summer Sisters (Delacorte, 1998). But her editor at Knopf, Carole Baron, says that Blume’s way of describing her writing process doesn’t do it justice. “She’s a great writer, whether she believes it or not,” says Baron, who also edited Summer Sisters. “Her dialogue in particular is perfection. And I do believe that’s one of the reasons—whether in adult books or books for the young—that Blume has always connected with her readers. She knows how to speak to them through the words of her characters. Her writing is deceptively simple, but it delivers a blow. To say that it’s not about the language, she’s selling herself hugely short.”

As for the popular (and vaguely dismissive) characterization of Blume by some as a “YA writer” who occasionally writes books for adults, the author shrugs. “Children’s books, YA books, adult books—it’s all the same process,” she says. “Lots of times, I don’t know which it is. I’m just telling a story.” With a knife, she slices through a thick layer of meringue on the pie, as if hacking away at the fluff of the argument. “I hate categories,” she says with a rare frown. “You have to be published by a certain department, and there are children’s book buyers, YA book buyers, adult book buyers. But that’s about the marketplace, not the book.”

Last year, as the deadline for the delivery of the manuscript of In the Unlikely Event began to loom, two issues—both related to language and storytelling, as it happened—presented themselves as potential roadblocks in the publication schedule.
 

One was that after having written the first of the novel’s four parts, Blume took two years off from the project to work on the film adaptation of her novel Tiger Eyes (Bradbury, 1981), directed by her son, Lawrence Blume. (As a published author, she chose to retain the surname of her first husband, John M. Blume, an attorney. They divorced in 1976, after which she married a physicist, Thomas Kitchens. They divorced after two years, and she married Cooper in 1987. “I’ve been with George for thirty-five happy years,” she says with a smile, “to make up for everything else.”) When Blume returned to work on In the Unlikely Event, she came to see Part One as too slowly paced and too crowded with characters. “I kept telling Carole, ‘I want to speed it up!’ You know you’re in danger of damaging your book when you want to take out big chunks of it and throw them away. And Carole would say, ‘Put that back!’”

As Baron recalls, “My feeling was that when we experienced the horror of the first airplane crash, we should know who the people were.” She got her way.

The second issue was that the newspaper articles about the airplane crashes, attributed in the book to Henry Ammerman, were largely based on actual accounts that originally appeared in two local newspapers, the Elizabeth Daily Journal and the Newark Evening News, both now defunct. It didn’t feel right to publish the real-life newspaper stories verbatim under Henry Ammerman’s fictional byline, but with her deadline approaching, Blume despaired of finding enough time to rewrite the stories.

At that point, Cooper entered the fray. “I’ll be your Henry Ammerman,” he said. Under Blume’s supervision in the role of a tough “city editor,” as he put it, Cooper got to work, recrafting the newspaper articles, retaining and sometimes putting his own spin on their hyperventilating prose style. “I took all the stories and added some flourishes of my own,” he says now. “I tried to tailor them to the fictional narrative, building on the story that was building in the fiction.”

“I would have said the exact opposite,” Blume says. “The news stories gave me the structure for my narrative.”

During the writing of Summer Sisters, Blume, who then lived in New York City, frequently talked about her love of summer, so Cooper said to her, “You could have more summer in your life if we went someplace in winter.” “Great,” she said, “let’s try to rent a place somewhere for a month.” They rented a place in Key West, fell in love with the island, and returned again and again, eventually making it their home in 1997.

 

“You live a regular life here,” the author says during a contented walk on the beach at sunset, “and you forget how lucky you are until someone reminds you.”

The self-styled Conch Republic has been good to Blume, and not only because of its nearly endless summer. For decades the island has nurtured a community of poets and writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, John Hersey, James Merrill, and Shel Silverstein, a context in which Blume fits like bougainvillea on a breezy Old Town veranda. And from her twin perches as a best-selling author and a board member of the Literary Seminar, she has been well positioned to mentor many young writers whose work she admires, providing advice and much-needed advocacy at some of the most crucial stages of their careers.

“I wanted to be a writer because of Judy Blume and her books,” says Carolyn Mackler, who first met the author while interviewing her in Key West for an article in Ms. Magazine. “She was my hero, and she was very welcoming and generous and kind to me on that visit. I was twenty-four, and during the interview, I mentioned that I wanted to write novels like hers. She said, ‘When you get a draft that you feel comfortable with, call me and we’ll talk.’ She really ended up guiding me through writing and publishing my first novel, Love and Other Four-Letter Words [Delacorte, 2000]. She read an advance copy and gave it a wonderful book-jacket quote. She’s been a mentor to me for seventeen years.”

Something similar happened to Madonia, whose short story, “Cheap Red Meat,” won the first Key West Literary Seminar Fiction Contest, in 2008—largely because, unbeknownst to the young writer, Blume had come across the story in the contest slush pile and fallen in love with it.

“I got down there and was waiting in line to have my book signed by Judy Blume,” Madonia recalls. “She saw my name tag and said, ‘It’s you!’ She loved what she saw in that short story, and really fostered my career from that moment. Half an hour later we were exchanging numbers and making plans to have breakfast. You know, you meet her and forget that you’re talking to someone unbelievably famous. And whenever I’ve hesitated in my career or had doubts, she’s always been the one I reach out to. She always says, ‘Go write another book. That’s who you are.’”

After decades of feeling reborn every morning at her writing desk, Blume herself has reached a point in her life when she’s not sure whether she’ll write another book. And if she does do so, she insists that it won’t be another lengthy, scrupulously researched tome like In the Unlikely Event, which arrives in bookstores at a muscular 416 pages.

 

“I’m seventy-seven years old and I don’t want to write another long novel,” she says. “I don’t want to spend three to five years doing that. I’m not saying that I’m never going to do anything, because I have a lot of creative energy.”

Baron isn’t buying it, at least not entirely. “I think the thing about this new book that’s different from her other novels is that there’s a basis of fact in dealing with these airplane crashes,” she says. “Judy is so thorough about her research, so adamant about getting every single fact right, that it added a layer to her editorial process that I don’t think she’s ever experienced before. So, sure, I believe she’s not going to undertake another book that has such a basis in nonfiction. But Judy is a storyteller, and storytellers are always telling stories. She said the same thing to me about this maybe being her last novel, and I said to her, ‘When you’re ready, I have an idea.’”

Who knows? Thanks in part to the comfortable climate and her long walks around Key West every morning with Cooper, the author appears significantly younger and more energetic than her actual age might suggest. But as always, Judy Blume is a pragmatist who understands her limitations. After many happy years in their gorgeously landscaped, high-modernist home in Old Town, Blume and Cooper are making plans to sell the house and downsize to a much smaller condo on the nearby beach. The heavy spadework of In the Unlikely Event—the digging up of what had been buried for so long—has been done. An assignment has been completed, a burden lifted.

Standing on a Key West pier taking in yet another gorgeous sunset, Blume heaves an unmistakable sigh of relief. “If this is my last book, then I’m really happy about it,” she says. “I feel I was meant to tell this story, and now I’ve told it.”

 

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinNance1.

Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith

by

Renée H. Shea

2.10.15

Tracy K. Smith was twenty-two when her mother died in 1994. Nearly a decade later, she published The Body’s Question, her first book of poetry, in which she reflected on that loss. In “Joy,” which carried the epigraph “In Memoriam KMS 1936–1994,” Smith writes to her mother, longing to “pick up the phone / And catch your voice on the other end / Telling me how to bake a salmon / Or get the stains out of my white clothes.” Another decade later, she returns to that wrenching loss in the memoir Ordinary Light, published this month by Knopf. Smith’s first book of prose, it is a book of excavation and navigation: The poet revisits her mother’s passing in light of her father’s death in 2008, the year her daughter, Naomi, was born, and in light of the birth in 2013 of her twin sons, Atticus and Sterling. 

Smith, who characterizes herself as having been “still an adolescent” when she lost her mother, believes “it took losing my father to help me come to better grips with that first loss and think about what I needed to believe my mother’s life and her death had imparted.” And now, with three children of her own, Smith wishes her mother were nearby to consult about practical parenting concerns, but of course that wish goes deeper: “I want to think actively about the continuum to which I belong—the one that includes my mother and her mother and sisters and their ancestors—and also my children. In my mother’s absence, I want to cement that connection, and words are the best glue I know.” 

But why prose? She’s already written poems about her mother, and her Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars is, in many respects, an elegy for her father. A memoir in verse offered an intriguing form, one that is familiar territory—Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (1986) and, more recently, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the 2014 National Book Award, are exemplary—but Smith credits the influence and encouragement of the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, her mentor in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, for emboldening her to venture into prose. Smith had never heard of the mentorship program, which pairs older masters with younger artists under forty, until 2008, when she was nominated and flown to Munich along with two other finalists. Each had an interview with Enzensberger and then all four went to dinner, an experience that Smith insists turned into more camaraderie than competition. 

She and Enzensberger have become great friends after what sounds like a jet-setting year of being flown to many of the places where he had speaking engagements: “We rendezvoused in Tenerife and Paris, and gave a reading together at the public library in London. We spent much of a summer in Munich, where he lives, working on the book and getting to know each other.” In addition to face-to-face meetings, the two e-mailed back and forth, with Smith sending him parts of her work for comment. The idea she began with was, by her own description, “a big, ambitious mess” about a whole range of experiences, but Enzensberger urged her to focus discrete memories toward “a narrative with characters that moved beyond the private realm to take in and consider the relevant public history.” 

From the beginning, Smith says, she knew she wanted to write “genuine prose,” possibly because some of what she wanted to explore had already been unearthed in her poetry. “But I also wanted to embrace a fuller sense of myself as a writer,” she says. And she wanted to work within “sentences, clauses, paragraphs, the whole to-do,” since, as she writes in Ordinary Light, “Being able to tell a good story was currency in my family.” Prose gave her a certain amount of freedom to explain and elaborate. She realized how much she relies on metaphor in her poetry to evoke “a strange, powerful sameness between two otherwise disparate things.” In prose, she initially felt reluctant to elaborate on an image or interrogate statements she made, but soon discovered her expansive abilities. “I learned that prose can bear the weight of much more explication,” she says. “I can think and rethink, even second-guess or analyze something on the page in prose without going overboard. The sentence, in prose, can be as tireless as an ox.”

Enzensberger recognized, perhaps before Smith herself, that her story was about her family, with her mother as the central character. Smith opens Ordinary Light with her mother’s deathbed scene, the family’s vigil during the final hours of her mother’s life, remembered twenty years later:

Then we heard a sound that seemed to carve a tunnel between our world and some other. It was an otherworldly breath, a vivid presence that blew past us without stopping, leaving us, the living, clamped in place by the silence that followed. I would come back to the sound and the presence of that breath again and again, thinking how miraculous it was that she had ridden off on that last exhalation, her life instantly whisked away, carried over into a place none of us will ever understand until perhaps we are there ourselves.

From that solemn moment, Smith circles back to her childhood as the adored and indulged baby in a family of five children and, further back, to her parents’ coming of age in Alabama at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Dedicated to her daughter, Naomi, Ordinary Light began as a way for Smith to bring her parents back to life, “to reconstruct them,” as characters for Naomi. “At least that was my intention,” Smith says, “though in the execution it has become a book about me—about excavating my own experiences, anxieties, and evolving beliefs.” 

When asked about the title, she hesitates, musing that “maybe it’s the feeling of wholeness and safety and ongoing-ness that we slip into sometimes in our lives.” But after Smith settled on Ordinary Light as her title, she added an opening quote from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” one of her favorite short stories. As Baldwin’s narrator recalls the perfect family Sunday afternoons of his childhood when all’s right with the world, he cautions: “But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light.” In her new memoir, it is this moment that Smith explores for herself and her own children—the moment when we hear the tiger at the door.

***

In many ways, Smith seems to have lived a charmed life. Her father retired from the Air Force at forty-five because he did not want to uproot the family once again by accepting an overseas post. Trained as an electronics engineer, he found a job in Silicon Valley, eventually working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her mother, while active in her church and community, did not work outside the home except for a short stint as an adult-education teacher. Tracy, eight years younger than her closest sibling, recalls a childhood when “all of my siblings doted on me, then left for college. So I had this abundance of attention for a time, and then a period of abundant solitude.” A participant in gifted programs throughout her public school education, she graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a BA in English and American Literature and Afro-American Studies. After an extended return home following her mother’s death, Smith attended Columbia University, earning an MFA in 1997; she went on to a two-year stint as a Stegner fellow at Stanford University. She taught at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, and at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at Princeton University in 2005, where she is currently a professor of creative writing. 

Smith has published three collections of poetry—The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Life on Mars (2011), all with Graywolf Press—each receiving critical acclaim and significant literary prizes. In the introduction to her first book, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, poet Kevin Young, the contest judge, heralded an exceptional new voice:  “Smith is a maker, a wordsmith of the first order.” In 2012, Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Two years later Smith received an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Among her other awards and fellowships are the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, an Artist’s Residence at the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, and an Essence Literary Award. 

Smith had a series of mentors even before her time with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, as she developed her identity as a poet. A reader from the outset (one of the chapters in Ordinary Light is titled “My Book House”), she experienced a sort of epiphanic moment in college when she read Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging.” She describes how everything in that poem—the male speaker, the Irish setting—should have been completely foreign to her, yet, she says, “I felt so much a part of the landscape and the family he was describing that I realized this was what I wanted to do with language.” Ultimately, she got to know Heaney as one of her teachers. At Columbia, Mark Doty became, and remains, an important influence and mentor to her, someone who she says is “so generous and present” to his students. 

Yet the seemingly idyllic life of Smith’s nuclear family—“us as an invincible unit,” is how she describes them in Ordinary Light—can prepare, though never entirely protect, its members from the loss of certainty and security and, especially, the realities of racial politics. Smith is known for sharpening a political edge in her poetry, whether she’s writing about science fiction, pop culture, or current events, and this memoir is no exception. “In writing this book, I was forced to speak about and into many of the silences that ran through my life: silence about race, silence about the painful features of African American history, silence about my own choice to turn away from or reenvision the religious faith I was raised in,” she says.

One of the side effects of the memoir, Smith discovered, is that her adult perspective remained active even when she was writing about childhood: “So Tracy the citizen was allowed to engage with these private stories, just as Tracy the mother was allowed in at times,” she says. What she calls “shifting subjectivities” becomes especially clear when she writes about returning as a child to Alabama, where her parents grew up, to visit her large extended family (her mother was one of thirteen siblings): 

I was ten years old, living with a vague knowledge that pain was part of my birthright, part of what was meant by a word like Home. It was not the kind of beautified self-inflicted angst that can transform a girl into a swan or a doll or an ice princess in the ballet…. No, what I felt, what I feared and discerned, even from my rather far remove, was the very particular pain that was tied up in blood, in race, in laws and war. The pain we hate most because we know it has been borne by the people we love. The slurs and slights I knew were part and parcel of my parents’ and grandparents’ and all my aunts’ and uncles’ lives in the South. The laws that had sought to make people like them—like us, like me—subordinate. 

“Growing up black in America is inherently political,” Smith says, and her own experience proved that collision with that reality is not limited to the South. In Ordinary Light, she remembers the sting she felt when one of her high school teachers in Northern California offered faint praise as encouragement by pointing out, “You’re an African American woman. You should take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.” Even as she received one acceptance after another to impressive schools, including Harvard, Smith writes that this man’s “voice whispered in the back of my mind whenever the word diversity was printed among the catalogue copy.” 

Through writing Ordinary Light Smith has also come to some peaceful terms with the fierce religious faith that guided her mother’s life. Even as a child, she struggled to understand her mother’s devotion, especially regarding the concept of salvation, “when the world of my family was the only heaven I needed to believe in.” As an adolescent and young college student, Smith felt the growing distance from her mother in her sense of religion as something imposed, even oppressive. Writing Ordinary Light has helped her appreciate the key role of the African American church of her parents’ era in fostering a sense of family, community, and discipline “in a world full of disparities.” Even her father, with his systematic, orderly mind, Smith says, prayed with and read the Bible to his children. He was a man grounded in both the worlds of science and faith. In Ordinary Light, we meet the meticulously ordered world that her parents, especially her mother, created for their children, inspired, in many ways, by their religious beliefs: “a life that would tell us, and the world, if it cared to notice, that we bothered with ourselves, that we understood dignity, that we were worthy of everything that mattered.” 

Smith believes that the process of writing the memoir helped her codify some of her own beliefs and anxieties about religion and to speak “honestly” about how she sees God—something she needed to do for herself but that has also helped her decide what elements of her religious inheritance she wants to offer her children. “I hope they will bring their own ideas and feelings to the conversation,” she says. “I don’t want to subject them to the hard-and-fast, top-down approach to belief that repelled me.” Would her mother, who grew more religious after her cancer diagnosis, approve? Smith’s not sure, though her siblings have responded positively to the book, and she believes that “much of what the writing has urged me to discover along the way would make perfect, familiar sense to my mother.”

***

Coming at a difficult time in her life, when her first marriage had ended, the offer of a position at Princeton was, Smith says, “a benediction that my life would go on, that everything would be okay.” So far, it’s been more than okay. She relishes teaching: “Let’s just be honest and say that we academics have the best, most humane work schedule in the world, and I get to spend my workdays talking to smart young people who are devoted to the very same thing I love.” Admitting that Princeton’s faculty roster of luminaries is “pretty daunting,” she characterizes her colleagues as “happy and fulfilled and therefore very generous” and feels part of the family: “I feel that I’ve grown up at Princeton. I came here with one book. I was a child. That’s a paradigm I’m comfortable with, being the youngest of five kids, and so the eminence of my colleagues felt right, familiar. I’ve always been in the position of admiring the people around me and striving to play catch-up.” Her colleagues apparently agree. Poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, who invited Smith to do her first public reading of Ordinary Light last December at the Irish Arts Center in New York City, describes her as “a truly exceptional poet, with an eye for the arresting image that puts most of us to shame,” noting also her commitment to teaching: “My office is right beside hers, so I have a sense of her being a teacher who is at once diligent and delighting in her work.”

Last summer Smith became a full-fledged member of that community in a more rooted way when she and her family moved from Brooklyn, New York, where she had lived for fifteen years, to Princeton. She doesn’t really miss the city, and she’s a bit surprised. Apart from the practical reality that she and her husband, Raphael Allison, a literary scholar and poet, were driving to New Jersey to teach every day while their children were in Brooklyn, she says she was emotionally ready to leave: “I have so much more mental space and more patience, now that we’re living in a house and surrounded by so many trees. I used to pity New Yorkers who moved to the suburbs: I had the smug idea that they were ‘giving up,’ but now I think how much of an inherent struggle it assumes, and I chuckle.” Tina Chang, one of Smith’s best friends and poet laureate of Brooklyn, understands, though she says she went through her own “mourning” process when her friend moved. “As always, we write letters and allow our writing to lead us through our friendship,” Chang says. “What has always been interesting to me is that Tracy can occupy any physical space, and her mental space follows. Whether her body occupies India, Mexico, Brooklyn, or Princeton, her poetry fills up that geography, illuminates it, and makes it more alive.” 

So, with most of the boxes unpacked, full-time teaching under way, and three young children in tow, Smith is already contemplating another prose work, and she’s on to more poetry projects. New poems are included in a folio that accompanies a Smithsonian exhibition of Civil War photos called Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present and in an anthology about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that is forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press. She is also working on a translation of poetry by contemporary Chinese author Yi Lei and has signed on as librettist for an opera about the legendary 1960s battle between the disparate visions for New York City of urban planner Robert Moses and journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. Although most would be content to accomplish in a lifetime what Smith has already achieved, she considers herself at the end of the first part of her career, and she’s thinking ahead. She’s always been drawn to questions of what we leave behind, what it means to survive, to endure. In her poem “Letter to a Photojournalist Going-In,” from Duende, the speaker wonders if all we do is “kid ourselves into thinking we might last.” But Smith seems more like the tiny creature in “Flores Woman,” who defies the inevitability of her own extinction: “Like a dark star. I want to last.” 

Renée H. Shea is the coauthor of a series of textbooks for Advanced Placement English, most recently Conversations in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, Culture (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014). She has profiled many authors for Poets & Writers Magazine, including Julie Otsuka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Tracy K. Smith

(Credit: Christy Whitney)

Internal Tapestries: A Q&A With Louise Glück

by

William Giraldi

11.20.14

In his essay “Meditations of a Sitter,” Louise Glück’s onetime teacher Stanley Kunitz penned a line of such searing veracity it seems a condemnation of entire quadrants of the human tribe: “The empty ones are those who do not suffer their selfhood.” To suffer a selfhood means to embody the soul of self, to know yourself en route to becoming yourself. Glück studied with Kunitz at Columbia University in the mid-sixties, and for nearly five decades she has been the American poet most willing to communicate the flammable vicissitudes of selfhood, to detect the temblors beneath the self’s consistent adaptations to the facts of living. The facts of any life are impotent and ineffectual until literature intercedes, until it takes hold of those facts and twists them into the light, casting a refraction that allows us to glimpse them anew.

Glück’s refractions reveal the counterpoint between fable and fact, between mythos and mundanity, between the paralysis of silence and the necessity of assertion. Her new book of poems, Faithful and Virtuous Night, published in September by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, betrays an intimate surrealism, a congress of parable and dream—it’s more a stranger to normality than anything she’s ever written and ceaselessly thrilling in its tonal effects. Thoreau believed that “truth strikes us from behind, and in the dark,” but in Glück truth seems to strike always from below, from beneath the half-lit undulations of desire and dread.

Glück shares a birthday with Immanuel Kant and is the author of thirteen books of poems and a fierce collection of essays. She is the Rosenkranz Writer-in-Residence at Yale University, and for eight years served as judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, a service of which she remains immensely proud. As a poet she’s so decorated that if she were a general you’d have to squint into the glare of her: the Bollingen Prize for Vita Nova (Ecco, 1999), the Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris (Ecco, 1992), the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Triumph of Achilles (Ecco, 1985), the Wallace Stevens Award, the Lannan Literary Award—on and on. We spoke for several hours one July afternoon at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her immaculate apartment is adorned with artwork by the poet Mark Strand, and out back breathes her beloved garden, transplanted here from Vermont thirteen years ago.

What’s remarkable about the architecture of Faithful and Virtuous Night is that one can land anywhere inside this book and find a poem that is both self-fulfilled, unconcerned with what precedes or follows, and also a component in the larger whole that informs the unfurling narrative. You’ve erected similar scaffolding in the past—in all of your books since the 2007 collection, Ararat, the poems coalesce and function as a single movement—but in its intricacy and dynamism the architecture of this new book seems to me entirely different.
It seems to me different too. There were years when I thought I’d never resolve the issue of this structure, never be able to give a shape to these poems, which usually means there’s a piece missing, as was true here. I had first thought that the long monologue—which is now divided, interspersed with these surreal, fragmented narratives and prose poems—I had thought that the long poem would be a whole that moved roughly chronologically from section to section, but it seemed lifeless when I put it together that way. I tried rearranging the sequence but that wasn’t the answer. At some point, fiddling with order, I put the title poem next to “An Adventure.” That juxtaposition suggested the shape this book wanted. But that shape didn’t really find itself until the end—when I wrote prose poems, which I’d never done before—they were written in a tide of exhilaration at the thought that maybe I could finally finish this book.

Those prose poems are ligatures that allow the whole to cohere with such startling poise. They recall the way Hemingway’s vignettes function in his story collections, the narrative tendons connecting muscle to bone. I cannot conceive of this book without them.
I can’t either. It was my friend Kathryn Davis who prompted me toward them. She’d read every poem as it was written, and during one of my many stages of hopelessness she said, “I think you should be reading Kafka’s short fiction.” I’d read Kafka’s short fiction before but thought I’d try again, and although I didn’t love it this time around, that was useful to me, because I didn’t feel daunted by him. I read the short-shorts—“The Wish to Be a Red Indian” and others—in bed, where all my mental activity now occurs. My bed usually looks like Proust’s bed; my whole life is lived there. I got my notebook—which I keep around usually for other purposes, because if I let myself think that I might write something I become so paralyzed with longing and despair I can hardly bear it—and I wrote a little prose poem. It was, I thought, terrible, not even worth typing. But I was having dinner with Frank Bidart that night—I’m willing to be humiliated in the presence of my friends—and so before I threw away the prose poem, I thought I’d see what Frank thought. And Frank, as you know, can be a tough critic. He told me I mustn’t throw it out, and after that I wrote a little squadron of them. The book was then very easy to put together. I’d been trying for two years, but I didn’t have that last mode. It didn’t need another large thing, another tone, but it needed another mode, another facet to the prism, another method by which to examine these same materials.

What a bolt of insight for Kathryn Davis to recommend that you go back to Kafka. The frequent playfulness and stabs of comedy in your work are too little noticed, and the same is true for Kafka: Many readers don’t notice how funny he can be. I’m delighted by your dedication to great prose writers. The poetic persona in “A Summer Garden” is reading Mann’s Death in Venice. Do you see a novelist’s sense of narrative as different from your own?
Yes, I think prose writers work with narrative very differently. When I’m trying to put a poem or a book together, I feel like a tracker in the forest following a scent, tracking only step to step. It’s not as though I have plot elements grafted onto the walls elaborating themselves. Of course, I have no idea what I’m tracking, only the conviction that I’ll know it when I see it.

The novelist enjoys a clear advantage over the poet who employs narrative: The novelist has characters who need something, and they have either to achieve their needs or not achieve them. The plot is the pursuit of those needs. The poet doesn’t necessarily have that. I like your image of stalking through the wood, unsure where it ends. The novelist had better see to the end of that wood. Not that there can’t be surprises in what is found there, but better at least to glimpse it in advance.
I depend on that ignorance, on not seeing to the end of the book, because if I have an idea, initially it’s likely to be the wrong idea. I mean my ideas come later, after the fact. Ideas are not a part of how I conceive of a book.

Reading you, and especially these new poems, I’m often in mind of a quip by the English critic Desmond MacCarthy: “It is the business of literature to turn facts into ideas.”
It’s pretty, but I don’t know if that’s what I think. I don’t like that trinity of words: business, facts, ideas. I don’t think literature exactly has a business, and the minute someone says to me what the business is, I immediately want to prove that that’s too limited a notion. For instance, I want to substitute tone for fact. If you can get right the tone, it will be dense with ideas; you don’t initially know fully what they are, but you want by the end to know fully what they are or you won’t have made an exciting work. For me it’s tone—the way the mind moves as it performs its acts of meditation. That’s what you’re following. It guides you but it also mystifies you because you can’t turn it into conscious principles or say precisely what its attributes are. The minute you turn tone into conscious principle it goes dead. It has to remain mysterious to you. You have to be surprised by what it is capable of unveiling. As you work on a book of poems you begin to understand what is at issue, but I don’t have any attitude toward the facts. And if MacCarthy’s terms are correct, I would prefer the notion that a poet turns ideas and abstractions into facts, rather than the other way around.

All through your work, certainly from Ararat on, much of that rhythm happens by the repetition of simple terms. In this new book the same terms appear again and again: silence, winter, mother, father, night. The overlap of personae works the same way, when the poet’s perspective repeatedly intrudes upon and augments the perspective of the larger narrative.
Yes, there’s that overlap, as you say, because over and over there are the same materials, though to my ear they’re passing through a very different lens. More interesting to me than the repeating words (which seem fairly ordinary) are the repeated images. When I put the book together, I was astounded by the internal tapestries. I hadn’t consciously built in those recurrences or echoing gestures and vignettes, but there they were—there was the train, and the train again, and the train was a character. Averno I thought of the same way, actually. It’s not a shaped narrative arc the way some of the others are, but it’s a meditation on a set of conditions and dilemmas, so all the poems revolve around certain repeating images, such as the burned field, which is right out of Henning Mankell. Averno was my homage to Mankell. I tried to use something from one of his books in every one of the poems. Nobody noticed it, which is good, but it was there for me.

In her book Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, your friend Wendy Lesser speaks about your abiding love of murder mysteries and of Mankell in particular.
Mankell makes me happy. Murder mysteries are a way of releasing the unconscious mind to speculative, shapeless, dreamy seeking by absorbing the conscious mind in a compelling quest. One of the advantages of aging is that you know you’ve read a book, or believe you’ve read a book, but you don’t really remember it. You remember only that you love it. And somewhere near the middle you realize that you actually do remember all of the details of the plot. It’s immensely pleasing to read something you have confidence in, something that won’t disappoint you. The only disappointment might be that you’re missing the thrill of uncovering the killer, but it’s a small disappointment if you love the world that’s being constructed.

In that regard Wilkie Collins is unmatched—one can read his best novels every few years with identical pleasure. He’s better than Dickens in the construction of a thrilling, alternate world that dictates its own stipulations. Do you remember The Woman in White?
And The Moonstone, yes. I read those books first in my adolescence and a few times since then. I bought The Moonstone again when I felt I had exhausted all available murder fiction, and I had trouble getting into it. Maybe I’ll try again. I certainly need something to give competition to the iPad. I seem to be in an iPad period. I don’t read on it. I just watch things that move.

Your legion of devotees might be startled to hear about your iPad.
I was startled myself. I never had the Internet until last year. This is all brand-new for me. The iPad was given to me at a reading. I told the person: “Don’t give this to me. I will never turn it on.” But the person shoved it at me, so then I had it, and I felt sort of responsible to it. So I sat with it for about six months. And then one day I began poking at it. I knew people poked at it. But nothing happened, and I thought: “Well, I just don’t have the gift.” Then I realized I needed some sort of hookup. That took another six months. By this time my niece was in a television show, Orange Is the New Black, which was available only through streaming. It turned out, on this little device, you just press something and there they all were. And it became my bed buddy. It’s really the freakiest thing because I became an addict very fast. At the moment it has usurped the place of reading in my life. Part of me thinks this is dangerous; my own vocation will dissolve. Another part of me thinks this is exploratory, that if my vocation is so fragile or precarious it isn’t a vocation. After all, there were two years when I read nothing but garden catalogues, and that turned out okay—it became a book.

You mean The Wild Iris. I’m certain you’re the only American poet who’s won the Pulitzer after two years of reading nothing but garden catalogues.
Well, there’s something my brain needs in such indulging, so I indulge it. This iPad addiction seems to me endlessly curious. Something may come of it. I’m an opportunist—I always hope I’ll get material out of any activity. I never know where writing is going to come from; it isn’t as though I have something in mind and this iPad is the source. This is just dream time, the way detective fiction is. It stills a certain kind of anxiety and at the same time engages the mind. As the mind is engaged and anxiety suppressed, some imaginative work in some recessed portion of the being is getting done. Not to say that every moment is contributing to a book or a poem, but you can’t know in advance what will. Don’t prejudge your stimuli. Just trust where your attention goes.

You once said to me on the phone, “Follow your enthusiasms.”
I believe that. I used to be approached in classes by women who felt they shouldn’t have children because children were too distracting, or would eat up the vital energies from which art comes. But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake. When I was young I led the life I thought writers were supposed to lead, in which you repudiate the world, ostentatiously consecrating all of your energies to the task of making art. I just sat in Provincetown at a desk and it was ghastly—the more I sat there not writing the more I thought that I just hadn’t given up the world enough. After two years of that, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be a writer. So I took a teaching job in Vermont, though I had spent my life till that point thinking that real poets don’t teach. But I took this job, and the minute I started teaching—the minute I had obligations in the world—I started to write again.

The catalyst for Faithful and Virtuous Night was your agon with not writing, with wordlessness.
Yes, I was moaning to my sister about losing words, about the deterioration of my vocabulary. I said to her, “How am I ever going to write when I’m losing words?” and she said, “You’ll write about losing words.” And I thought, “Wow, good, I’ll write about having no speech, about deterioration.” Then it was the most exciting thing, a wealth of material—everything I had been bemoaning was actually unexplored territory. That was the catalyst, as you say, for the whole endeavor—a liberating, a permission. The idea of writing about not writing seemed promising because I knew a lot about those not-writing states, but they were not something I’d ever written about. One of the experiences of putting together my large book of extant poems was an astonishment because my sense of my life, now fairly long, is that almost all the time I’m not writing. I was flabbergasted putting together that large book, nearly seven hundred pages. And I thought: “How can that have happened? When did I write all that?” My feeling concerning my life is that always I was not working. Well, apparently I was.

The gestures of silence lurk everywhere in Faithful and Virtuous Night, as they do in your work as a whole, but is your conception of your own silence a kind of illusion? A seven-hundred-page collection of poems is not silence.
No, it’s real, not an illusion at all. I go through two, three years writing nothing. Zero. Not a sentence. Not bad poems I discard, not notes toward poems. Nothing. And you don’t know in those periods that the silence will end, that you will ever recover speech. It’s pretty much hell, and the fact that it’s always ended before doesn’t mean that any current silence isn’t the terminal silence beyond which you will not move, though you will live many years in your incapacity. Each time it feels that way. When I’m not writing, all the old work becomes a reprimand: Look what you could do once, you pathetic slug.

I recall those lines from “Approach of the Horizon”: “It is the gift of expression / that has so often failed me. / Failed me, tormented me, virtually all my life.”
Do you know Iris Murdoch?

She’s superb. I love the humor in Under the Net.
I’d been rereading all of Murdoch before I began this new book. I often reread a writer—read one book and then want to enter that world more fully. In any case, I can hear Murdoch in those lines you just recited. I love The Black Prince, A Severed Head, The Green Knight, even strange things such as A Word Child. There’s something in her archness, not a tone I’d normally think to emulate, but there’s something delicious in it. Her people might be murdering and raping but really they’re thinking about what goodness is in the world, bizarre juxtapositions of that kind. Something of her got transferred to this new book. It’s a matter of tone. The interest of the poems is in the tone in which large pronouncements are made, not necessarily the pronouncements themselves. The pronouncements are constantly being scrutinized by the tone, which is taking objection to some of the things being said. It’s not a book in which large bannerlike truths are being unfolded.

There’s a disciplined seething detectable just beneath the surface of these new poems, a fervency of feeling we know is there just as we know distant planets are there—not because we can see them but because they cause a bending, a wobble in the light of their stars. In these new poems, the tone, the pitch is bent to reveal the seething beneath it. The book has such a patient turbulence.
That’s nice, a patient turbulence. It’s there as a background but the whole book seems to me to be about moving beyond that turbulence, or that seething, as you say, and into this uncommon zone where you’re on a horse flying through the air. How did that happen? What’s distinctive in this book is that sense of dreaminess. But there are two parallel issues regarding silence: one is the silence that is the faltering of a gift or a need for expression, and there’s also silence that is the result of deterioration, a faltering in the being that is a product of age. Although I’ve been writing about death my whole life, deterioration or the weakening of the powers is brand-new to me. The subject is gloomy, I suppose, but new material is exhilarating. The quality I feel most intensely in this book is a quality of euphoria, a floating, a whimsy. It’s an undertaking of a large adventure, which is the adventure of decline. It seems an oxymoron, I know, and will come to seem a gloomy fate, but now—as long as it produces something of which you’re proud, you’re grateful for it, delighted by it. 

You said once that the life of a poet oscillates between ecstasy and agony, and what mitigates those extremes is the necessary daily business of living.
Yes. Friends, conversation, gardens. Daily life. It’s what we have. I believe in the world. I trust it to provide me.

William Giraldi is the author of the novels Hold the Dark, published in September 2014 by Norton, and Busy Monsters (Norton, 2011). He is the fiction editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.

 

Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith

by

Renée H. Shea

2.10.15

Tracy K. Smith was twenty-two when her mother died in 1994. Nearly a decade later, she published The Body’s Question, her first book of poetry, in which she reflected on that loss. In “Joy,” which carried the epigraph “In Memoriam KMS 1936–1994,” Smith writes to her mother, longing to “pick up the phone / And catch your voice on the other end / Telling me how to bake a salmon / Or get the stains out of my white clothes.” Another decade later, she returns to that wrenching loss in the memoir Ordinary Light, published this month by Knopf. Smith’s first book of prose, it is a book of excavation and navigation: The poet revisits her mother’s passing in light of her father’s death in 2008, the year her daughter, Naomi, was born, and in light of the birth in 2013 of her twin sons, Atticus and Sterling. 

Smith, who characterizes herself as having been “still an adolescent” when she lost her mother, believes “it took losing my father to help me come to better grips with that first loss and think about what I needed to believe my mother’s life and her death had imparted.” And now, with three children of her own, Smith wishes her mother were nearby to consult about practical parenting concerns, but of course that wish goes deeper: “I want to think actively about the continuum to which I belong—the one that includes my mother and her mother and sisters and their ancestors—and also my children. In my mother’s absence, I want to cement that connection, and words are the best glue I know.” 

But why prose? She’s already written poems about her mother, and her Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars is, in many respects, an elegy for her father. A memoir in verse offered an intriguing form, one that is familiar territory—Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah (1986) and, more recently, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the 2014 National Book Award, are exemplary—but Smith credits the influence and encouragement of the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger, her mentor in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, for emboldening her to venture into prose. Smith had never heard of the mentorship program, which pairs older masters with younger artists under forty, until 2008, when she was nominated and flown to Munich along with two other finalists. Each had an interview with Enzensberger and then all four went to dinner, an experience that Smith insists turned into more camaraderie than competition. 

She and Enzensberger have become great friends after what sounds like a jet-setting year of being flown to many of the places where he had speaking engagements: “We rendezvoused in Tenerife and Paris, and gave a reading together at the public library in London. We spent much of a summer in Munich, where he lives, working on the book and getting to know each other.” In addition to face-to-face meetings, the two e-mailed back and forth, with Smith sending him parts of her work for comment. The idea she began with was, by her own description, “a big, ambitious mess” about a whole range of experiences, but Enzensberger urged her to focus discrete memories toward “a narrative with characters that moved beyond the private realm to take in and consider the relevant public history.” 

From the beginning, Smith says, she knew she wanted to write “genuine prose,” possibly because some of what she wanted to explore had already been unearthed in her poetry. “But I also wanted to embrace a fuller sense of myself as a writer,” she says. And she wanted to work within “sentences, clauses, paragraphs, the whole to-do,” since, as she writes in Ordinary Light, “Being able to tell a good story was currency in my family.” Prose gave her a certain amount of freedom to explain and elaborate. She realized how much she relies on metaphor in her poetry to evoke “a strange, powerful sameness between two otherwise disparate things.” In prose, she initially felt reluctant to elaborate on an image or interrogate statements she made, but soon discovered her expansive abilities. “I learned that prose can bear the weight of much more explication,” she says. “I can think and rethink, even second-guess or analyze something on the page in prose without going overboard. The sentence, in prose, can be as tireless as an ox.”

Enzensberger recognized, perhaps before Smith herself, that her story was about her family, with her mother as the central character. Smith opens Ordinary Light with her mother’s deathbed scene, the family’s vigil during the final hours of her mother’s life, remembered twenty years later:

Then we heard a sound that seemed to carve a tunnel between our world and some other. It was an otherworldly breath, a vivid presence that blew past us without stopping, leaving us, the living, clamped in place by the silence that followed. I would come back to the sound and the presence of that breath again and again, thinking how miraculous it was that she had ridden off on that last exhalation, her life instantly whisked away, carried over into a place none of us will ever understand until perhaps we are there ourselves.

From that solemn moment, Smith circles back to her childhood as the adored and indulged baby in a family of five children and, further back, to her parents’ coming of age in Alabama at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Dedicated to her daughter, Naomi, Ordinary Light began as a way for Smith to bring her parents back to life, “to reconstruct them,” as characters for Naomi. “At least that was my intention,” Smith says, “though in the execution it has become a book about me—about excavating my own experiences, anxieties, and evolving beliefs.” 

When asked about the title, she hesitates, musing that “maybe it’s the feeling of wholeness and safety and ongoing-ness that we slip into sometimes in our lives.” But after Smith settled on Ordinary Light as her title, she added an opening quote from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” one of her favorite short stories. As Baldwin’s narrator recalls the perfect family Sunday afternoons of his childhood when all’s right with the world, he cautions: “But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light.” In her new memoir, it is this moment that Smith explores for herself and her own children—the moment when we hear the tiger at the door.

***

In many ways, Smith seems to have lived a charmed life. Her father retired from the Air Force at forty-five because he did not want to uproot the family once again by accepting an overseas post. Trained as an electronics engineer, he found a job in Silicon Valley, eventually working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her mother, while active in her church and community, did not work outside the home except for a short stint as an adult-education teacher. Tracy, eight years younger than her closest sibling, recalls a childhood when “all of my siblings doted on me, then left for college. So I had this abundance of attention for a time, and then a period of abundant solitude.” A participant in gifted programs throughout her public school education, she graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a BA in English and American Literature and Afro-American Studies. After an extended return home following her mother’s death, Smith attended Columbia University, earning an MFA in 1997; she went on to a two-year stint as a Stegner fellow at Stanford University. She taught at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, and at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at Princeton University in 2005, where she is currently a professor of creative writing. 

Smith has published three collections of poetry—The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Life on Mars (2011), all with Graywolf Press—each receiving critical acclaim and significant literary prizes. In the introduction to her first book, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, poet Kevin Young, the contest judge, heralded an exceptional new voice:  “Smith is a maker, a wordsmith of the first order.” In 2012, Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Two years later Smith received an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Among her other awards and fellowships are the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, an Artist’s Residence at the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, and an Essence Literary Award. 

Smith had a series of mentors even before her time with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, as she developed her identity as a poet. A reader from the outset (one of the chapters in Ordinary Light is titled “My Book House”), she experienced a sort of epiphanic moment in college when she read Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging.” She describes how everything in that poem—the male speaker, the Irish setting—should have been completely foreign to her, yet, she says, “I felt so much a part of the landscape and the family he was describing that I realized this was what I wanted to do with language.” Ultimately, she got to know Heaney as one of her teachers. At Columbia, Mark Doty became, and remains, an important influence and mentor to her, someone who she says is “so generous and present” to his students. 

Yet the seemingly idyllic life of Smith’s nuclear family—“us as an invincible unit,” is how she describes them in Ordinary Light—can prepare, though never entirely protect, its members from the loss of certainty and security and, especially, the realities of racial politics. Smith is known for sharpening a political edge in her poetry, whether she’s writing about science fiction, pop culture, or current events, and this memoir is no exception. “In writing this book, I was forced to speak about and into many of the silences that ran through my life: silence about race, silence about the painful features of African American history, silence about my own choice to turn away from or reenvision the religious faith I was raised in,” she says.

One of the side effects of the memoir, Smith discovered, is that her adult perspective remained active even when she was writing about childhood: “So Tracy the citizen was allowed to engage with these private stories, just as Tracy the mother was allowed in at times,” she says. What she calls “shifting subjectivities” becomes especially clear when she writes about returning as a child to Alabama, where her parents grew up, to visit her large extended family (her mother was one of thirteen siblings): 

I was ten years old, living with a vague knowledge that pain was part of my birthright, part of what was meant by a word like Home. It was not the kind of beautified self-inflicted angst that can transform a girl into a swan or a doll or an ice princess in the ballet…. No, what I felt, what I feared and discerned, even from my rather far remove, was the very particular pain that was tied up in blood, in race, in laws and war. The pain we hate most because we know it has been borne by the people we love. The slurs and slights I knew were part and parcel of my parents’ and grandparents’ and all my aunts’ and uncles’ lives in the South. The laws that had sought to make people like them—like us, like me—subordinate. 

“Growing up black in America is inherently political,” Smith says, and her own experience proved that collision with that reality is not limited to the South. In Ordinary Light, she remembers the sting she felt when one of her high school teachers in Northern California offered faint praise as encouragement by pointing out, “You’re an African American woman. You should take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.” Even as she received one acceptance after another to impressive schools, including Harvard, Smith writes that this man’s “voice whispered in the back of my mind whenever the word diversity was printed among the catalogue copy.” 

Through writing Ordinary Light Smith has also come to some peaceful terms with the fierce religious faith that guided her mother’s life. Even as a child, she struggled to understand her mother’s devotion, especially regarding the concept of salvation, “when the world of my family was the only heaven I needed to believe in.” As an adolescent and young college student, Smith felt the growing distance from her mother in her sense of religion as something imposed, even oppressive. Writing Ordinary Light has helped her appreciate the key role of the African American church of her parents’ era in fostering a sense of family, community, and discipline “in a world full of disparities.” Even her father, with his systematic, orderly mind, Smith says, prayed with and read the Bible to his children. He was a man grounded in both the worlds of science and faith. In Ordinary Light, we meet the meticulously ordered world that her parents, especially her mother, created for their children, inspired, in many ways, by their religious beliefs: “a life that would tell us, and the world, if it cared to notice, that we bothered with ourselves, that we understood dignity, that we were worthy of everything that mattered.” 

Smith believes that the process of writing the memoir helped her codify some of her own beliefs and anxieties about religion and to speak “honestly” about how she sees God—something she needed to do for herself but that has also helped her decide what elements of her religious inheritance she wants to offer her children. “I hope they will bring their own ideas and feelings to the conversation,” she says. “I don’t want to subject them to the hard-and-fast, top-down approach to belief that repelled me.” Would her mother, who grew more religious after her cancer diagnosis, approve? Smith’s not sure, though her siblings have responded positively to the book, and she believes that “much of what the writing has urged me to discover along the way would make perfect, familiar sense to my mother.”

***

Coming at a difficult time in her life, when her first marriage had ended, the offer of a position at Princeton was, Smith says, “a benediction that my life would go on, that everything would be okay.” So far, it’s been more than okay. She relishes teaching: “Let’s just be honest and say that we academics have the best, most humane work schedule in the world, and I get to spend my workdays talking to smart young people who are devoted to the very same thing I love.” Admitting that Princeton’s faculty roster of luminaries is “pretty daunting,” she characterizes her colleagues as “happy and fulfilled and therefore very generous” and feels part of the family: “I feel that I’ve grown up at Princeton. I came here with one book. I was a child. That’s a paradigm I’m comfortable with, being the youngest of five kids, and so the eminence of my colleagues felt right, familiar. I’ve always been in the position of admiring the people around me and striving to play catch-up.” Her colleagues apparently agree. Poet and New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, who invited Smith to do her first public reading of Ordinary Light last December at the Irish Arts Center in New York City, describes her as “a truly exceptional poet, with an eye for the arresting image that puts most of us to shame,” noting also her commitment to teaching: “My office is right beside hers, so I have a sense of her being a teacher who is at once diligent and delighting in her work.”

Last summer Smith became a full-fledged member of that community in a more rooted way when she and her family moved from Brooklyn, New York, where she had lived for fifteen years, to Princeton. She doesn’t really miss the city, and she’s a bit surprised. Apart from the practical reality that she and her husband, Raphael Allison, a literary scholar and poet, were driving to New Jersey to teach every day while their children were in Brooklyn, she says she was emotionally ready to leave: “I have so much more mental space and more patience, now that we’re living in a house and surrounded by so many trees. I used to pity New Yorkers who moved to the suburbs: I had the smug idea that they were ‘giving up,’ but now I think how much of an inherent struggle it assumes, and I chuckle.” Tina Chang, one of Smith’s best friends and poet laureate of Brooklyn, understands, though she says she went through her own “mourning” process when her friend moved. “As always, we write letters and allow our writing to lead us through our friendship,” Chang says. “What has always been interesting to me is that Tracy can occupy any physical space, and her mental space follows. Whether her body occupies India, Mexico, Brooklyn, or Princeton, her poetry fills up that geography, illuminates it, and makes it more alive.” 

So, with most of the boxes unpacked, full-time teaching under way, and three young children in tow, Smith is already contemplating another prose work, and she’s on to more poetry projects. New poems are included in a folio that accompanies a Smithsonian exhibition of Civil War photos called Lines in Long Array: A Civil War Commemoration, Poems and Photographs, Past and Present and in an anthology about Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello that is forthcoming from the University of Virginia Press. She is also working on a translation of poetry by contemporary Chinese author Yi Lei and has signed on as librettist for an opera about the legendary 1960s battle between the disparate visions for New York City of urban planner Robert Moses and journalist and activist Jane Jacobs. Although most would be content to accomplish in a lifetime what Smith has already achieved, she considers herself at the end of the first part of her career, and she’s thinking ahead. She’s always been drawn to questions of what we leave behind, what it means to survive, to endure. In her poem “Letter to a Photojournalist Going-In,” from Duende, the speaker wonders if all we do is “kid ourselves into thinking we might last.” But Smith seems more like the tiny creature in “Flores Woman,” who defies the inevitability of her own extinction: “Like a dark star. I want to last.” 

Renée H. Shea is the coauthor of a series of textbooks for Advanced Placement English, most recently Conversations in American Literature: Language, Rhetoric, Culture (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2014). She has profiled many authors for Poets & Writers Magazine, including Julie Otsuka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Tracy K. Smith

(Credit: Christy Whitney)

A Slender Hope: A Profile of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

by

Renée H. Shea

7.1.09

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received the call on her thirty-first birthday, last September. She was taking a bath at her sister’s house in Lagos, preparing to go to dinner, when her brother told her she had an important call from Chicago. Wrapped in a towel, she grabbed the phone through a barely open door and heard from the MacArthur Foundation that she’d received one of its five-hundred-thousand-dollar fellowships, known as genius grants. With that call, Adichie joined a diverse group of scientists, artists, humanists, teachers, and entrepreneurs, as well as writers—company that still amazes her: “Half the time I think I shouldn’t be there. When I was in Lagos, anytime something happened, like the TV wouldn’t work, my friends would ask, ‘Well, what does the genius think?’”

Photos by Doug Barber.
 

Although she was shocked at receiving a MacArthur, Adichie should have been used to hearing such news. Her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin Books, 2003), a coming-of-age story about a Nigerian girl who must endure the cruelty of her evangelist father, was long-listed for the Booker Prize, short-listed for the Orange Prize, and won both the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Three years later, her follow-up novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf, 2006), a story set in Nigeria during the Biafran War in the late 1960s, won the Orange Broadband Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. More than that, its publication marked her arrival as one of Nigeria’s most important voices.

Recently she returned to the United States, where she lives part time, to promote her June release, The Thing Around Your Neck (Knopf), a collection of short stories, some originally published in magazines such as the New Yorker, Granta, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and Zoetrope. She had been on tour in England, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada for the book’s overseas publication earlier this year. Accustomed to being in transit, she divides her time between Nigeria and Maryland, where she lives with her partner, a family physician, who practices there. “I’m so emotionally invested in Nigeria as a country and society, which I feel has so much potential it hasn’t lived up to, that sometimes it gets exhausting. There’s so much to do, and I want to be involved. But then I find I need to leave to have some space. I quite like America, my home of convenience, where I don’t have to deal with things like electricity shortages.”

Adichie grew up piecing together “tiny stories,” as she describes them, about the Biafran War, which raged from 1967 to 1970 and ended almost a decade before she was born. The conflict resulted from ethnic tensions among the Christian Igbo population in eastern Nigeria, which seceded to form the Republic of Biafra, and the largely Muslim Fulani-Hausa in the north. At least a million people, mostly Igbo, died from massacres and starvation during this brutally violent period, though some estimates put that figure as high as three million. Both of Adichie’s Igbo grandfathers died as refugees who had to flee their hometowns. Her grandmothers survived and, as she says, “somehow kept children and relatives together. My parents, part of the postindependent [Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960], hopeful middle class when the war started, lost most of their property”—in addition to family and friends.

Her parents rebuilt their lives and raised a family of six children. Her father was professor of statistics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he was appointed vice-chancellor in 1982, and her mother became the first woman registrar. The fifth of the six children, Adichie grew up speaking both Igbo and English. She recalls the thrill of reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the groundbreaking novel about the clash between Igbo tradition and British colonialism, when she was ten years old. “I realized that people who looked like me could live in books.” But her parents encouraged her to pursue a practical career, so writing had to wait.

She began studying to be a doctor in Nigeria but, urged by her sister Ijeoma, came to the United States on a scholarship to Drexel University, in Philadelphia. She transferred to Eastern Connecticut State University, in Willimantic, where she lived with her sister and her sister’s husband, and took care of their son while they started a medical practice. During that time, she wrote Purple Hibiscus, reworking it during her tenure as an MFA student at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

Set around the mid-1990s, when Nigeria was under the control of a junta led by General Sani Abacha, Purple Hibiscus is narrated by fifteen-year-old Kambili Achike, whose father, Eugene, is both a courageous champion of human rights and a religious zealot who terrorizes his wife and children. Kambili, though desperate for her father’s approval, cannot measure up to his impossibly high standards: “I needed him to hug me close and say that to whom much is given, much is also expected. I needed him to smile at me, in that way that lit up his face, that warmed something inside me. But I had come second. I was stained by failure.” After a military coup, Eugene sends his children to stay with their Aunty Ifeoma, an outspoken university teacher, who introduces Kambili to “a different kind of freedom,” including traditional religious beliefs and more humane and expansive relationships. Even in this debut novel, Adichie depicts characters whose personal lives are played out on the larger canvas of a society beset by corruption and violence.

Moving back in time, Half of a Yellow Sun takes its title from the flag of the doomed Republic of Biafra and tells the story of the civil war from three interconnected perspectives. The main characters move back and forth between the earlier more peaceful part of the decade and the bloodshed that ended the 1960s. Adichie, who spent four years researching and writing the novel, tells the political saga through the lives of well-to-do twin sisters Kainene and Olanna, the urbane, intellectual Odenigbo, and the white British journalist Richard as their comfortable lives unravel into a struggle for survival. At the center of the novel is Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old who comes from a poor rural village to work as Odenigbo’s houseboy and is eventually conscripted into the Biafran army. Reviewers praised the novel for its epic scope. Rob Nixon, writing in the New York Times, lauded Adichie for positioning “her characters at crossroads where public and private allegiances threaten to collide.”

Adichie says she always knew she would write a novel about Biafra. At sixteen, she wrote what she describes as “an awfully melodramatic play” called “For Love of Biafra,” and earlier in her career, she wrote short stories that dealt with the war. In “Ghosts,” one of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck, she revisits this time period with a meeting between a seventy-one-year-old mathematics professor retired from the University of Nigeria and a colleague, who was assumed to have died as a result of the 1967 violence but had, in fact, been living in exile. Adichie says this story is “in some ways a love letter to my father,” and the tenderness of that tribute comes through in the professor’s reflections on his past:

 

We hardly talked about the war. When we did, it was with an implacable vagueness, as if what mattered were not that we had crouched in muddy bunkers during air raids after which we buried corpses with bits of pink on their charred skin, not that we had eaten cassava peels and watched our children’s bellies swell from malnutrition, but that we had survived. It was a tacit agreement among all of us, the survivors of Biafra.

 

That period has remained a powerful political issue in Nigerian society, but Adichie felt that the conversation about it retained “an implacable vagueness” and was largely uninformed, particularly for her generation. Half of a Yellow Sun, which was well received in Nigeria, changed that to some extent. “I often get feedback from friends, from friends of friends, about how the novel has become a starting point for talking about the war. My Nigerian publisher told me about a family in Lagos—the man is a newspaper publisher. Their daughter read the book and asked her mother about the war. To the husband’s surprise, she began to tell their daughter stories of what her family went through—yet he had never heard these in all the years of their marriage.”

In a 2007 article, Vanity Fair featured Adichie—along with Doreen Baingana, Uzodinma Iweala, and Helon Habila—as part of the new generation of young writers leading an African literary renaissance. The piece described Adichie at a literary festival in Nairobi, looking “radiant, fresh off her rock-star-style tour of Nigeria and splashy New Yorker debut…part[ing] the crowds, Cleopatra-style” and hailed her as the heir to her countryman Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart celebrated in 2008 fifty years of continued popularity and influence.

Adichie says Achebe is her hero and guiding literary spirit. While there is remarkable variety in the work being written by the Nigerian authors in her generation, Adichie believes they all share a certain freedom that was forged by Achebe’s writing. “When Achebe published Things Fall Apart in 1958, it was a novelty,” she says. “There may have been five other African writers writing in English. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for people like him, feeling they had this burden of responsibility, of being a pioneer, thinking, ‘the dignity of my people rests on my shoulders.’ I don’t have that burden. I’m not representing anyone—and I owe this freedom to that generation.”

Most of the twelve stories in The Thing Around Your Neck focus on contemporary situations, whether the setting is Nigeria or the United States. They explore the subjects of immigration and exile, shifting values, and cross-cultural communication among families and communities. In “A Private Experience,” two Nigerian women—one a privileged Igbo student who is visiting her aunt while on holiday from her medical studies, the other a poor Hausa trader from the marketplace—find themselves hiding together during a violent riot provoked by a man who drives over a copy of the Koran that had dropped on the street. Based on an actual incident in northern Nigeria, the story explores the brief intersection of these women’s lives during a dramatic moment that links them regardless of their tribal, religious, economic, and educational differences. “Sometimes we like to say we’re really not different,” says Adichie. “I think we are, yet what interests me is that we still can make connections.”

“Cell One,” one of two stories previously published in the New Yorker, depicts a well-off family whose son, Nnamabia, is a member of a gang whose members “had mastered the swagger of American rap videos [and] were undergoing secret and strange initiations that sometimes left one or two of them dead.” Nnamabia, the spoiled brother of the female narrator, is arrested after a gang shooting. Although it is unclear whether he is guilty, in prison he experiences the corruption of the prison guards and finally confronts his own selfish and irresponsible behavior when he speaks up for another inmate who is being brutalized by them. At the story’s end, he seems deeply changed, but can he sustain this transformation? “I believe in redemption,” Adichie says quietly, then adds, “I’m very suspicious of excessive happiness. The way the world works is a struggle, but I believe in hope—in slender hope.”

In many of these stories, hope seems in scarce supply when it comes to marriage. The wife in “Imitation” tries to take in, via long distance, the news that her husband’s mistress has moved into their home in Lagos while she waits for him in their affluent home on Cherrywood Lane in suburban Pennsylvania. In “The Arrangers of Marriage,” a new wife resists changing her name
from Chinaza to the Americanized Agatha, only one demand made by her husband in an effort to speed up her assimilation—and acceptability. Patriarchal attitudes seem to dominate, regardless of the Nigerian or American setting, as an expression of the imbalance of power, particularly when sex is part of the bargain.

“I’ve always had a problem with marriage as an institution,” says Adichie. “The way it’s set up, women automatically make more compromises than men.” Despite the inspiring model of her parents’ forty-five-year marriage, she gets angry at the way our society makes a fetish of marriage. “Undue privilege is awarded to married people in so many ways. I’m all for partnerships as long as they’re mutually beneficial, satisfying, respectful. I’m part of a couple and I’m quite happy, but I also think I could be quite happy if I were not part of a couple. In Nigeria, sometimes women act as if their lives are complete because they’re married—and it’s just not true. Maybe it’s the feminist in me, but I see the lies that people tell themselves about marriage and think how unwilling we are to admit that it’s not always a perfect thing.”

Although the subject is different, a similar fierceness fuels the story “Jumping Monkey Hill,” whose title refers to the name of a resort, where an aging British intellectual and his wife lead an African writers workshop. As two narratives unfold—the third-person narrative that describes the workshop and the story that the Nigerian participant Ujunwa Ogundu is writing—so does a brutal indictment of postcolonial paternalism. In the final scene, the pompous academic dismisses Ogundu’s story, saying, “This is agenda writing, it isn’t a story of real people.”

“That is the one story propelled by rage,” Adichie says. “I’m not interested in writing about myself, but that one is personally based on what really did happen to me. I felt diminished.” In fact, she had to change her thinly disguised portrayal of the workshop leader before Granta would publish it because of fear of a lawsuit. She still makes no apology for the unflattering depiction: “For me it’s about who is policing the production of literature, who is saying what is acceptable, especially for Africans. If someone tries to tell you what your own story should be, that’s ridiculous.”

Adichie takes her commitment to authentic storytelling well beyond her own writing. Along with her efforts to promote literacy in Nigeria, for the past two years she has led workshops in Lagos for aspiring writers. In 2007, when Fidelity Bank invited her to give a reading, she agreed but said she wanted to do more for the community. She proposed a series of workshops “to help writers polish their craft, to give them a chance to be with other writers, to demystify the publishing process—and hopefully to get them comfortable with the idea of being read by others.” The first workshop was advertised with no requirement other than a brief writing sample—and over two hundred applied. Adichie chose twenty-five participants and had enough success that the bank agreed to expand the project. In 2008, applicants exceeded seven hundred, mostly from Nigeria but a few from Cameroon and Zimbabwe. Dave Eggers from the United States, Binyavanga Wainaina from Kenya, and Marie-Elena John from Antigua joined her as guest faculty serving a group ranging in age from eighteen to fifty. “Friendships formed. People exchanged books and stories. One person from the first summer ended up at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, another just published his first novel in Nigeria,” Adichie says. “Some participants formed Web groups where they continue to read and support one another. So I like to think that their writing lives are better, in general, because of the workshop.”

Nigerian Breweries has signed on as sponsor for the next three years, and this September Eggers will return along with other international writers. The workshops received wide media notice, and the accompanying literary events during the evenings drew substantial crowds. Adichie says the attention has been both “moving and humbling” but also useful. “Being known has given me a platform to talk about the things I care about, which is an incredible luxury.” For Adichie, success has meant more than making a name for herself as an author. It has given her the ability to see her slender hope realized in the lives of her fellow Nigerians—and to see the rest of us inspired by her work.

 

Renée H. Shea, professor of English and modern languages at Bowie State University in Maryland, has written profiles of Andrea Levy, Rita Dove, and Sandra Cisneros, among others, for Poets & Writers Magazine. She is coauthor of the book The Language of Composition: Reading, Writing, Rhetoric (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

A Great Good: An Interview With Jacqueline Woodson

by

Rigoberto González

8.17.16

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than two dozen acclaimed books for young adults, middle graders, and children—a body of work that places African American characters at the center of richly drawn narratives that have helped young readers engage with real-life situations such as interracial relationships, child abuse, poverty, and homosexuality.

Her own childhood story—she was a precocious daughter of parents in a troubled marriage, who found solace in the imaginative world of books, and eventually in writing—forms the basis of her New York Times best-selling memoir Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014), which won a National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Newbery Honor Award, an NAACP Image Award, and the Sibert Honor Award. Brown Girl Dreaming also traces Woodson’s journey from Ohio to South Carolina to Brooklyn, an eye-opening childhood in which she learns, among other things, about the regional differences of the black experience during the 1970s.

With the release of Another Brooklyn (Amistad), her first adult novel in twenty years, Woodson revisits that important period of dramatic social changes. August, a young black girl who moves with her father and brother from Tennessee to the culturally rich Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, comes of age during a time when her empowerment as a black woman offers new freedoms as well as familiar demons: classism, racism, and sexism. Another Brooklyn follows August as she learns the hard lessons of adolescence, uplifted by the strength of her girlhood friendships and guided by her family’s religious conversion. All the while, the terrible truth of her mother’s fate back in Tennessee weighs heavily on her emotional well-being.  

I sat down with Jacqueline Woodson at her home in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn for a conversation about her new book, New York City’s literary legacy, gentrification, Islamophobia, and happiness.

The dedication of Another Brooklyn reads “For Bushwick (1970–1990) In Memory,” which covers the span of August’s coming-of-age in the novel. The reader also gets to observe Brooklyn come of age, as it negotiates the changes and challenges of those eras, through the perspective of a young black woman—a point of view that’s relatively absent from the portrayals of Brooklyn in literature. What drew you to tell this story at this stage of your career? Why this book now?
The Bushwick that’s on the page is a true place, as it exists in the book. I wanted to put that on the page in its true existence because when a neighborhood becomes gentrified, its new inhabitants think they’ve discovered someplace new, but that place had a story before them. Bushwick is its own character, and this book is one of its biographies. I wanted to pay homage to the Bushwick I grew up in, so my dedication also suggests this book is an elegy to a place and time that is no longer with us. Overlaid on that biography is the narrative of the four girls, which is fiction. After having written Brown Girl Dreaming, which is a memoir, I really wanted to move away, just for a moment, from children’s literature and explore something I felt was invisible, which is the story of the black girl in Brooklyn. 

In the novel, we meet August as an adult looking back at the place where she grew up. But what does Jacqueline Woodson have to say about the Bushwick of today?
August in the book is looking back with a kind of melancholy or longing for this intensity of that period she lived through. Jacqueline Woodson looking at the place now—I look at it in wonder because I still go to my old neighborhood a lot and I’m just surprised by the fact that I grew up with white flight. Most of New York City was on the edge of white flight at the time, but now I’m watching the reverse of white flight, with white folks coming back into the neighborhoods their ancestors fled from. It makes me marvel at how cyclical everything is.

I’m trying to place Another Brooklyn as part of the borough’s writer-of-color lineage. I see Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, published in 1959, and there are a few contemporary works, such as Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, but one has to really dig hard to find those narratives that are not centered on white characters. What areas need that literary attention in order to expand what is celebrated as Brooklyn’s—and New York’s—cultural heritage?
There is so much territory left to explore in New York City in general. I feel like Brownsville is not on the page, East New York is not on the page; there are stories from the Bronx and Harlem, but since Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas not enough books about the black NYC experience are getting talked about. DJ does a great job in Shadowshaper, writing the black Latino perspective on the page, but we need more. Even in the Bushwick I grew up in there was a larger Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Ecuadorean population—I would love to see those stories, that Brooklyn.

And I’m even remotely interested in the vision of the kids of the hipsters who are growing up in those neighborhoods now. I know their stories are not going to be my story because of our differences in class and race, but I feel they too are part of all of these deep pockets that are not represented. I’m waiting for more stories from Queens—from Jackson Heights and the Hindu population. There’s so much that still needs to be told in order to shape this city in a way that’s nuanced. We still have a pretty flat narrative.

There are a few parallels between Jackie’s story in Brown Girl Dreaming and August’s in Another Brooklyn: Both young black women have roots in the South and eventually journey north with one parent. One gives shape to her memories through her affinity for language, the other comes to terms with her losses through her knowledge as an anthropologist of the rituals of death and dying. Agency is an important fire in your work. So is memory. How do you see these as critical components of a young black woman’s experience?
Starting with memory, when you look at who we are as a people and how we got here and what we were allowed to hold on to: We were allowed to hold on to our spirit—a certain amount—and we held on to our memory. No one could take that away unless they beat us unconscious. I believe in genetic memory, that our ancestors are pretty much with us. And I believe in asking questions about the past to make historical connections because that’s what gives us strength. And in terms of agency, I grew up in the 1970s, which was so much about black power—taking your power, owning your power, making yourself visible in the world even if the world wasn’t reflecting you back. So as a writer I feel that every time I sit down to tell a story it is to create that mirror for myself and for other readers who have historically not seen themselves in the pages of literature, and to talk about how badass we are, because there’s so much strength in being a person of color and having survived.

Another Brooklyn is being marketed as an adult novel. But with contemporary YA novels being edgier, taking risks that keep their stories ahead of their time, could you imagine your younger fans reaching for the latest Jacqueline Woodson title? Is the YA designation fast becoming a fuzzy category?
Oh, I think I see my audience reaching for this book the way I once reached for Judy Blume’s Forever—“Wait, she has an adult book? There might be some sex in it!” So I definitely see that happening. Also, having been publishing for twenty years, my population has grown up now, they’re adults. So I definitely see them reading it. But I do think that distinction between YA and adult is fast becoming a fuzzy line in terms of subject matter. There are still differences in the approaches to writing the two narratives, but today’s YA author is claiming more permission to take risks in order to keep up with a changing world, which is why our books continue to be banned. 

Is Another Brooklyn an adult novel because of the treatment of sexuality? Not only August’s own sexual desires but also all of the lessons August learns about women and their bodies: from Muslim women, from prostitutes, from her own friends who are experimenting and pushing boundaries. Why is this still important work to do on the page?
For too long we were given the wrong messages about our bodies, especially as women of color, and I wanted to show that a girl’s sense of her body is really shaped by the outside gaze, by the mirrors in her community. But I also wanted to show her agency and the way women can come together more powerfully. At one point in the book I have August with her girlfriends, and she’s thinking about how boys don’t understand why girls cover themselves even when they’re alone. It’s important work to do on the page because we are sexual beings and we have a right to be so and to walk through the world with these bodies. Living in the age of Beyoncé is really exciting for me—she’s not only celebrating the black body, but also the big body. I grew up with Twiggy as an idea of what is a beautiful body, but thankfully I also had Angela Davis and Diahann Carroll. I was informed differently, but when I’m coming to the page—because the narrative is so much bigger than real life—I have a responsibility to write what I believe in, in terms of representing more fully who we are as women.

There are so many rich layers to the life of August—her girlfriends, her brother, her love interest, the father’s love interests. She’s at the center of a complex support network, but one character who really stands out is Sister Loretta, who guides the family through their conversion to Islam. August says, “My Muslim beliefs lived just left of my heart,” meaning she understood everything that religion was providing for her and her brother, including structure and a mother figure. Was this a decision that came about given this country’s escalating Islamophobia? What do you hope readers take away from this encounter with a black Muslim family?  
It’s really a scary time to be living in. And Islamophobia happens when people are thinking, “Muslims are those people over there and have nothing to do with us.” Putting their humanity on the page was really important to me. We exist in all kinds of religions and this is the religion of this family, and the book deals with how this girl is taking in this religion because she’s negotiating it against this space and time of friendships and sexuality and puberty and adolescence. And faith. That’s all part of August’s journey.

I was talking to a friend about the shooting in Orlando, and during these times of crisis it’s so hard to remember the kind of work we do as artists. It’s nonstop. Much of it is economic, but so much of it is also emotional and at the core of who we are. Like Audre Lorde said, “We must wake up knowing we have work to do and go to bed knowing we’ve done it.” And writers, especially, every time we sit down to work we are working to impact a great good. And even though I am not always conscious about what is happening, when I sit down to create the narrative I know that all the information coming in from the world is informing that narrative.

The four young women at the center of Another Brooklyn—August, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi—create such a special bond that it’s difficult to see those friendships begin to crumble. You once said that one question you wanted to explore through writing was “what is the happily ever after?” After completing this novel, dozens of books into your career, and as times change, what have you come to understand about happiness?
That it ebbs and flows like every other emotion we have. I think that if I were happy all the time I’d be the most boring person in the world. The nuance comes from working towards happiness and not always getting there, or some days getting there surprisingly so. That I can wake up in the morning and get to write is amazing to me, so the mere fact that I’m here and that I’m able to tell my story is the happily ever after for me.

 

Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Joy Harjo: An Interview

by

Stephanie Izarek Smith

7.1.93

Joy Harjo is a poet unafraid of self-discovery. She explored painting, dancing and medicine before focusing on a writing career. Born in Tulsa in 1951 to the Muscogee tribe (of the Creek Nation), Harjo is both Muscogee and white, and her acceptance of both heritages plays a crucial role in her work: Her poetry preserves her Native American background, while integrating aspects of the mainstream American culture in which she was also raised, to create a unique, poignant voice. 

Harjo attended high school at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and went on the study at the University of New Mexico, where in 1976 she was in the first graduating class of its creative writing program. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1978. She has taught creative writing at the University of Arizona and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of New Mexico. 

Harjo has published four books of poetry and several short stories, and has written several screenplays. She is a winner of several awards, including an Academy of American Poets Award in 1978, two National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowships (in 1978 and 1992), the Josephine Miles Award for Poetry from PEN Oakland in 1991, and the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award in 1991. Harjo has also served on a policy panel for the NEA. 

Now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Harjo has a 23-year-old son, Phil Dayn, and a 19-year-old daughter, Rainy Dawn, who is the subject of the poem “Rainy Dawn” that appears in Harjo’s most recent collection of poetry, In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). 

From a hotel room in Lincoln, Nebraska, Harjo reminisces about her childhood creative stirrings. “I went outside very early in the mornings to draw in the dirt while everyone was still sleeping. I’d sit there and imagine what I could paint. And what always came to me out of the imaginative sphere were images—not particularly words, but images. Maybe that’s how I think, because sometimes I feel that I write as a painter. It’s almost as if I paint the poems.” 

Harjo came from a family of painters. Her grandmother Naomi, a full-blooded Creek Indian, and her Aunt Lois, who was the family member closest to Harjo, were painters. Both women received their BFAs in fine art in the early 1900s and painted in the classical European style, but their subjects were often Native American. In her living room, Harjo has a painting by her grandmother of Osceola, the Seminole warrior who would never surrender to the U.S. government. Harjo uses a different medium, but the same collaboration of classical and Native American influences is the marrow of her poetry. 

Reading was a large part of her childhood. She loved poems and memorized them, first because she was forced to in school, and then because she enjoyed doing it. For her birthdays, she requested poetry books, but she was on her own in the quest for quality poetry because she did not have any outstanding educational figures to guide her. 

In high school, Harjo trained as a dancer under Rosalie Jones, a dancer of the Blackfeet tribe, and toured as a dancer and an actress with one of the first all-Indian dance troupes in this country. The show was called “Deep Roots, Tall Cedar” and gained recognition from many professional dance companies because it combined elements of classical European drama with traditional tribal drama. 

After the tour ended in 1968, Harjo, who was 17 years old, returned to Oklahoma, where her son, Phil, was born. She next moved to New Mexico, leaving Phil’s father behind and enrolled at the University of New Mexico as a premed student. Within one semester she returned to art. The university setting introduced Harjo to a world of poets from backgrounds similar to her own and among the group of Native American writers at UNM she found a poetry that spoke of familiar places in a language she understood, something she had never encountered before. “Most of the poetry available to my generation was set in New England or in the Northeast and was written by men, or women emulating the male experience. I always had to change myself to conform to the poem. But I loved the melodic tones, the rhythm, and the music—those are the things that pulled me into a poem, as much or more than the idea. 

One of the first poetry readings Harjo attended was given by Galway Kinnell, who became a source of great inspiration to her. She views him as a musician as well as a poet in the way he writes and reads his poetry. Harjo recounts with verve another significant event that was the turning point in her “unconscious decision” to take up the art of writing poetry: “I was watching a documentary one Sunday afternoon about a tribe in New Guinea. There was a storyteller, but he was also a poet—you could tell by the way he spoke his words. The story was about a hunt for a wild pig, and as he spoke he became—through his inflections and physical movements—the poem, the animal itself, while remaining human. It touched me as nothing else had.” 

When asked about other important influences on her poetry, she says, “There are people who were very important to me. They were poets who I felt were human beings with integrity—integrity to the word and integrity to their country (the land), and to their human beingness. I think of people like Pablo Neruda. One of my favorite poets from Uganda, Africa, who influenced me very much is Okot p’Bitek. I love his piece ‘The Song of Lawino.’ I also like the work of other African writers—West African writers especially. In this country, I became excited by the African American writers: Ishmael Reed’s fiction, the work of Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, Leslie Silko, and Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, a novel that was pretty much a poem. All were important to my writing.” Harjo had also read the Bible twice by the time she was 12 years old. 

Harjo became disenchanted with the academic view of poetry, because it distorted poetry’s sheer beauty. “I think that what’s happened within the past centry, and it probably came with T. S. Eliot—although you can’t blame everything on T. S. Eliot—is that poetry became the property of the academic. It was taken away from the people in a sense, and I don’t believe that’s where poetry belongs—it belongs to the people. Yes, you can take apart literature, separate it, and see how it works, but as with taking apart the human body, you can’t see the spirit, which is at the root of it. It is the same with a poem—you can’t touch the spirit.” 

Harjo sought a more creative approach to teaching and adopted a method that was directly influenced by one of her students. “I was teaching a class that involved African music and its connection to the spoken word. There was a young Ghanian man who told an incredible story about how he studied to be a master drummer. At seven years old, he was the apprentice to the master drummer, who would send him out into the bush every morning. He had to listen to all of the sounds going on around him, including the sound of the sun coming up, the insects buzzing, the people going for water, and the sound of the hunters as they went out into the bush. He would take it all in, and his ongoing lesson was to repeat those sounds on the drum and perfect them. Of course, it was the same lesson that went on for years, but it was the first teaching method I felt made sense. The workshop method is useful for technique and craft, but the approach seems more like business rather than the sacred art that poetry is.”

As a poet, Harjo viewed a changing society as an opportunity to explore the new attitudes toward her culture and humanity through writing. “I have felt the explosion of the civil rights movement in this country and have been challenged by the shock waves of human rights struggles all over the world. I’ve been especially involved in the struggles of my Indian peoples to maintain a place and culture in this precarious age. My poetry has everything to do with this. I came into writing at a poignant historical moment. I was lucky to be a part of a major multicultural movement with other writers.”

The beginning of her writing career also coincided with the rise of the women’s movement. Harjo noticed a great many poems being written straight from “the kitchen table,” and her poetry fit into this niche as well. “This poetry spoke very openly and honestly of women’s experiences. I considered it to be an incredible revolution in which we gave ourselves back to ourselves. Women had been stripped away by the language, by expectations of the language, and by expectations of the poets and the fathers of the poets. And we are not out of it yet.

“I am seen as a feminist poet. The way I interpret feminism in my own work is the power of a woman to be a warrior—to recognize the warrior characteristics within herself, which include self-love, vulnerability, honesty, integrity, a sense of morals, and so on.” But in a broader sense, Harjo’s poetry reflects the truths of being human, our relationship to one another, and our relationship to the physical world we inhabit. 

Harjo views herself as a woman who has had to learn—or who is learning—to honor the female within herself. “I think it’s easier to honor the male in our culture because it’s much more accepted. There are almost no truly powerful and sustained images of female power. None. Look at Marilyn Monroe? The Virgin Mary? And what images exist for Indian women? The big question is, How do we describe ourselves as women in this culture? It’s unclear. 

“I’ve had to nurture and accept all the elements of myself—both the creator and the destroyer; accept both my white and my native relatives, and accept the female and the male. It’s an ongoing internal war. I almost destroyed myself by the time I was twenty, because I felt like I had to be one or the other. Finally, at one point I made a stand, and here I am.” If there is any one poem that exemplifies her reconciliation of self, Harjo says it is “I Give You Back” in She Had Some Horses (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1983), her second collection of poems. 

Harjo’s subject matter is drawn mainly from the Native American tradition of exalting the land and the spirit, the realities of American culture, and the concept of feminine individuality. Her characters may be actual people like Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and Russell Moore, or they may be imaginary entities. “I imagine like a fiction writer sometimes. Most readers assume that the events in a poem actually happened to the poet. Not everything I write is autobiographical. In my work, I add to or change the truth. It is still the truth, just presented in a different form.” 

There is an inherent spiritual quality to Harjo’s poetry, but she doesn’t feel that she is any more spiritual than the next person. “Part of the way I am comes from being around Native American people, but I wouldn’t really use the world ‘spiritual.’ It is natural for human beings to be in awe of the sacred and to realize that the sacred is everywhere. But humans seem to have lost their way, although every once in a while someone may find it, and I think that’s the artist. The artists and the poets are the ones who search for the sacred place.” 

Her first collection of poetry, a chapbook, What Moon Drove Me to This? (I. Reed Books, 1979) is now out of print. “It should stay out of print,” says Harjo. “It was a very young book. There are probably only two good poems in it—poems that showed promise. It was a painful book, written during a difficult period in my life. You could see the beginnings of something, but it wasn’t quite cooked.” 

Harjo’s second book, She Had Some Horses, sold over 11,000 copies and is now in its eighth printing by the same publisher. Horses are a recurring image in many of her poems, but when asked about their meaning, she laughs and replies, “I don’t really want to say, and I get asked that question often. I just leave the horses to themselves.” 

Secrets From the Center of the World (University of Arizona Press, 1989) was a new kind of book for Harjo, combining photography with poetic language. The photographer/astronomer Stephen Strom was looking for a Native American writer to collaborate with him on his book of photographs of a Navajo reservation. “My friend Rain Perish, a Navajo artist and writer, couldn’t do it and referred him to me. We met, and I loved his photographs. Whichever way you turned the pictures, the perspectives made sense, and I think his being an astronomer and spending so much time looking at the universe affected his vision. He sees the world with immense detail. I wrote some text to go along with the photos, made the rounds to all of those places, and then rewrote the text.” Harjo and Strom worked on the arrangement of the photographs together. 

Harjo had already visited most of the places featured in the photographs. “I spent a lot of time going out as a student activist to work with the Navajo people. Many of my friends were Navajo, so I learned the language. I learned the language to the point where I could speak it pretty well, joke in it, and I actually started to dream in it. For me, Secrets From the Center of the World is, in a way a tribute to that time of my life, to those people, to the land, and to the language, which I think influenced my writing very much.” 

In Mad Love and War, Harjo’s most recent book of poems, departs from her original chant-oriented writing style. “In Mad Love, the story started to take precedent. Even though the lyric is important for me, the narrative had more of an edge. Maybe I’m getting farther away from the poetics. My next book will be very different. Harjo’s next collection—The Field of Miracles—is a prose narrative, which she hopes to finish within the next year. A recent short story appears in a Norton anthology called Best of the West, a collection of works by writers west of the Missouri, and another story appears in an anthology of short stories by Native American writers called Talking Leaves (Harper, 1991). 

Harjo’s work has grown in density and in scope, and her increasing love of music has become a major element in her poetry. She plays tenor and soprano saxophone and is now learning to play the flute. She is excited by the literary possibilities that arise out of writing and playing music. “I started playing the saxophone about halfway into writing Mad Love and could already see the effect of jazz. Even though I’m just learning the elements of jazz, I listen to it a lot.” She doesn’t think that her poetry is “jazz poetry,” although it is very much influenced by the music. “I’m close to my tribal music and ceremony, and there is a relationship to jazz. There is a history of connections among the Muscogee, African American, and Seminole people. What I hear in jazz is my people, and I feel related to the music.” 

Harjo’s relationship to jazz runs parallel with her relationship to American poetry. “I am an American, but it took me a while to reconcile my feelings toward American poetry. James Wright praised the American condition, as did Richard Hugo, who truly came out of the American experience. Adrienne Rich, too, is very important—more important to America than America wants to know or realize. I think academics felt betrayed by her when she refused to wear the clothes of her fathers. She refused the forms of her fathers, and left the house of her fathers. When she left the house of the fathers and embraced the mothers, academia felt betrayed. But I look to her honesty as much as her incredible gift of language and intellect.” 

Harjo has recently formed a band called Poetic Justice, with a drummer and a bass player, and would like to record a mixture of poetry and music. She has already completed one projected called “Furious Light” (distributed by Watershed Foundation in Washington, D.C.), taped a reading of poetry from She Had Some Horses and In Mad Love recorded over music. The music was taped separately in this instance, but Harjo is eager to produce a tape that integrates poetry and music even more dramatically. 

In addition to working on her new book and pursuing her musical career, Harjo is teaching and writing several screenplays for a television series called “Tales From the Center of the Earth.” The acknowledgement and integration of all creative energy—art, history, emotion, music—are highly important to Harjo’s work and daily life. The personal growth Harjo sees through the evolution of her writing is key. “If my style didn’t change and evolve, I would quit writing. Poetry is reciprocal. As poetry feeds you, you have to nurture the art and give it time and attention. It does give back to you, I suppose like anything else.” 

 

Stephanie Izarek Smith is a writer an editor based in New York City. She is currently writing a collection of short prose and poetry.

The opening spread of “An Interview With Joy Harjo” as it appeared in the July/August 1993 issue. 

Vote of Confidence: The Life-Changing Support of an NEA Fellowship

by

Kevin Larimer

4.12.17

For more than fifty years the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been a vital part of this country’s creative ecosystem, providing funding and support to writers, translators, and organizations, as well as partnering with arts groups and non-arts sectors to create programs, such as Poetry Out Loud and the Big Read, that celebrate America’s rich cultural heritage and promote access to the arts in every community. For readers of this magazine, of course, the most visible—and sought-after—support offered by the NEA comes in the form of creative writing fellowships: $25,000 grants given in alternating years to poets and prose writers, enabling them “to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and general career advancement.” In short, they allow writers to be writers—even if that means simply giving them the ability to pay the rent or the student loan or the babysitter or the credit card bill—in a world that rarely acknowledges their work in financial terms.

But this isn’t all about the money. This is about being part of a tradition, built over the past half century, that honors artistic excellence in its many forms. This is about writers who are also nurses and farmers and teachers and librarians receiving support and validation from experts in the field—a measure of reassurance that the work they do before or after the day job or the night shift is valuable. And, yes, this is about patriotism: the federal government sending a message that the work of poets and writers is integral to an open society in which free expression is not only protected, but also encouraged. 

This and much more is at stake as we move through the congressional budget process following President Trump’s ill-advised proposal to eliminate federal support for the NEA. And while these kinds of decisions often come down to numbers on a spreadsheet, it is important to highlight the real people—with lives and loved ones and dreams and challenges—at the other end of those fellowship checks. I spoke with nine fellowship winners, from 1977 grant recipient Joy Harjo to 2017 fellows Kathryn Nuernberger and Monica Sok, about what receiving the NEA’s creative writing fellowship meant to them, both in terms of practical financial assistance and as a vote of confidence from the federal government at that particular time in their personal and professional lives.

Joy Harjo | Kimiko HahnJulia AlvarezPeter Ho DaviesAnthony Doerr  
Benjamin Percyfrancine j. harrisKathryn Nuernberger | Monica Sok

“To be an artist in my family was somewhat expected. My grandmother and great aunt were painters. With Indian oil money, they obtained arts training—but more than that, they were afforded the time to create. Two of my most valued possessions are paintings by them. My grandmother Naomi Harjo even played saxophone. But to be a poet, especially as a single mother, with no additional income, made for a different story. My family was proud of me, but their constant concern was: How are you going to make a living? We already had one poet in our family tree, Alexander Posey, a Muscogee Creek poet who founded the first native daily newspaper, but he made a living as a journalist, not as a poet. I knew that I would write no matter what, and I wrote my way through jobs, classes, and childrearing. The Pueblo novelist and poet Leslie Silko was the first writer I knew to be awarded an NEA fellowship, and she urged me to apply. I was about to graduate with my MFA and didn’t have anything lined up except a return home to New Mexico and an application for teaching creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, then a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. I remember that late spring afternoon of 1977 opening the letter from the NEA announcing my fellowship. It was the gift I needed. It was enough money to assist me with writing what would be my breakout/breakthrough book of poetry, She Had Some Horses. I used the money for rent, utilities, supplies, and childcare. The fellowship bought me time. And it bought more than that; it brought affirmation. It put my family and community on notice that what I was doing as a poet—a strange occupation for a young native mother who needed to make a living—was considered worthy of support. My next fellowship came in 1992. It gave me the time I needed to get over that hump period that happens in the lives of all of us who create art. She Had Some Horses had set a mark. The second fellowship helped me leap the fence and make a collection that envisioned a book of poetry as an oral event.” —Joy Harjo, NEA fellow, 1977, 1992; author of ten poetry collections and a memoir, Crazy Brave (Norton, 2012)

 

 

“In the early 1980s I was studying Japanese at Columbia University and working in one of the college’s secretarial pools. When I wasn’t retyping a professor’s paper, I took advantage of the best typewriter in the world, the IBM Selectric, and put it to use for my own purposes. I was the busiest-looking secretary on campus, writing poems that would become my first two books, Air Pocket then Earshot. I was also a thirty-one-year-old new mother without an MFA—which is to say, without mentors or connections—and I felt alone, isolated. All my poet friends had books, but the support for presses was rapidly drying up. For me, mailing out a manuscript with the enclosed SASE was expensive. And waiting for snail mail was crushing. This was the backdrop to a parcel I received in our small mailbox: a thin envelope from the National Endowment for the Arts. I read it in the crack-infested vestibule of my apartment building in New York City and wept. It was 1986, the year I knew I’d be okay—more than okay. The NEA fellowship in poetry gave me validation that cannot be measured. Validation, for me, was a license to trespass: to continue writing fragments about the female body from an Asian American woman’s point of view. It may be difficult now to believe how radical this was: to hold a legal pad and pen in a coffee shop and write with confidence. The fellowship marked a turning point in my life, as it does for so many writers who receive the same gift of validation from the NEA.” —Kimiko Hahn, NEA fellow, 1986, 1992; author of nine poetry collections, including Brain Fever (Norton, 2014)

 

 

“My first job out of graduate school was as a poet in the schools in Kentucky, a two-year residency funded by the Kentucky Arts Council and the NEA in 1975. I traveled around the state giving writing workshops and exposing people of all ages and backgrounds to poetry—students in elementary schools and colleges, farmers in communities in Appalachia, and reform-school teens in Louisville. After the Kentucky residency, I went on to teach across America in poetry programs funded by the NEA. I taught migrant workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley; bilingual elementary school students in Baltimore; senior citizens in nursing homes, church basements, and Sunshine Centers, as they were called, centers where a free meal was provided, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This last residency culminated in a book of their writings, Old Age Ain’t for Sissies, as well as a series of public readings in the community funded by the NEA. African American eighty-year-olds recited their poems before enthusiastic audiences, feeling for the first time in their lives that they had a voice and were being heard. The program helped create a strong, compassionate, connected community. The NEA is a cultural resource we can’t afford to lose. No other programs are so widespread, addressing so many different age populations and areas of the country. We must not think of the NEA and its programs as something ‘just for artists.’ It is a vital educational resource, which doesn’t quit after our school years are over. We are educating our citizenry in the rich literary resources of this great country and helping them evolve and develop their own expressive tools. An informed citizenry means a stronger, more united, compassionate, and educated America. The individual grant I received from the NEA in 1987 allowed me to take time from full-time teaching and work on the stories that would eventually become my first published novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, based on my family’s immigrant experience after escaping the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960. The novel now forms part of the curriculum in many schools and universities—the NEA at work again, enabling the creation of a diverse culture that enriches us all. Finally, in 2015, it was the NEA that nominated me for a National Medal in the Arts. For a little immigrant girl to end up receiving an award from the president of the United States was the American Dream come true. But none of us get where we want to go by ourselves. Along the way we encounter helpers, fairy godmothers. The NEA has served that role for me and so many others. I don’t have a magic wand to wave, but I do have a pen to write down this plea: Keep this incredible national treasure endowed and vital for the next generations of students, artists, writers, and readers, so that they can continue creating the country we all dream this can be.” —Julia Alvarez, NEA fellow, 1987; author of twenty-two books, including the children’s book Where Do They Go? (Triangle Square, 2016)

 

 

“I was lucky enough to receive NEA fellowships in 1998 and 2016. Both enabled me to write for a year. Both provided a considerable morale boost. Both made possible the books I was working on. That much is likely true for most recipients, of course. In my case, though, as an immigrant to this country, both also felt like an embrace from my adopted home. The emotional significance of the $25,000 grants, in other words, far exceeded their already handsome monetary value. The NEA also cemented my bond to the U.S. in another way. In between my two awards I had the privilege of serving on the panel that selects NEA fellows, which is how I found myself in a federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue at 9 AM on September 11, 2001. We saw smoke rising from the Pentagon through the windows of our conference room. Shortly thereafter, we were evacuated. That afternoon, back at the hotel, we decided, in spite of shock and sorrow, to continue our work. A small gesture, of course, but it felt like something worthwhile, a modest assertion of life and hope, of creativity, in the face of destruction, and one only made possible by dedicated NEA staffers. That night I walked down to the White House, which was floodlit like a beacon, and stood with the hushed crowd gathered before it. There’s been much talk of patriotism in the years between then and now, much talk about what the country stands for. The NEA, representing as it does a nation’s faith in the arts, seemed to me that day and ever since, an institution any country could and should be proud of. The federal building where the NEA was based on 9/11, incidentally, was the Old Post Office Pavilion, now the Trump International Hotel. The cost for a night in its largest suite on September 11, 2017: $25,000.” —Peter Ho Davies, NEA fellow, 1998, 2016; author of four books, including the novel The Fortunes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

 

 

“My wife and I were married in 2000, but we couldn’t figure out how to live in the same town. She was working for Hewlett-Packard in Boise, Idaho, and I was hopscotching around the Midwest chasing teaching gigs and fellowships. We were paying two rents, spending all our money on airfare and telephone bills, and multiple times a year I cajoled my Subaru across Wyoming and Nebraska with our goldfish in a gallon water jug beside me. Every night I asked myself, ‘How important is it to me to be a writer? Important enough to spend anniversaries and Valentine’s Day and random Tuesdays apart? Just because I want to chase a silly dream?’ Then I won an NEA fellowship. I promptly sold the kitchen table, gave away most everything else, drove two thousand miles west, and moved in with my wife. For the first time since we were married, we got to wake up together every morning on a consistent basis. And after she went to work, I got to turn on my computer and face down the dragon of my next book. Years later, serving as a judge on a panel to award those same fellowships, I discovered that all over the country, writers and their loved ones were weighing similar choices: Make a car payment, or write an essay? Take a second job so a partner can finish her novel? The National Endowment for the Arts allows artists and their families to prioritize creativity, even if only for a few months, and sometimes those months are all an artist needs to give back to the country a piece of work that will outlast us all.” —Anthony Doerr, NEA fellow, 2002; author of five books, including the novel All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, 2014)

Benjamin Percyfrancine j. harrisKathryn Nuernberger | Monica Sok

“If I could have any superpower, it would be to stop or stretch time. And whenever someone asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas, I say, ‘Time.’ There is never enough of it. Here is the math of 2011: Two young kids, one still in diapers; two teaching gigs—at a traditional and a low-res MFA program—which translates to maybe a thousand manuscript pages in need of editing; one leaky roof; one totaled car; one novel under way; twelve speaking gigs; ten book reviews; six short stories; $40,000 in student loans; a five-hour flight to one set of grandparents; a five-hour drive to the other. There’s nothing startling or appalling about these numbers; I was responsible for many of them, and I was building the life I wanted. But working sixty hours a week and chasing bills and scrambling from one speaking engagement to the next and trying to be there for my family sometimes added up to a schedule that made me feel stretched so thin you could see through me. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I’m not sure I can keep up this pace,’ and she said, ‘I don’t want you to.’ The NEA fellowship allowed me to slow down and carve out time so that I could properly research and pour all of my creative energy into a book that I couldn’t have written in such a harried, exhausted state. Time. That’s what these grants give their recipients. The gift of time, which is in such short supply for all of us. And, of course, money: to hire a babysitter. To fly out a grandparent for help. To teach fewer classes or take on fewer freelance assignments—or escape whatever other obligations are keeping us away from the page, the canvas, the studio, the darkroom. And here is the lovely, complicated calculus of the NEA: Those dollars become hours, and those hours become novels, memoirs, sonnets, sonatas, landscapes, photo essays, documentaries that have an incalculable effect on enriching and expanding the lives of their audience.” —Benjamin Percy, NEA fellow, 2012; author of seven books, including the novel The Dark Net (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

 

 

“Being awarded the NEA Fellowship changed the direction of my life. At the time it was awarded, I was teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a secondary school in northern Michigan. I enjoyed the job but wasn’t writing enough. While a brilliant few are able to meet the time demands of high school teaching loads and still write, I didn’t have that stamina. Additionally, northern Michigan, though beautiful, was culturally isolating. Short on money and time, I worried I might get stuck in a career that would have meant limits on my writing. Winning this fellowship allowed me to accept my current residency at Washington University in St. Louis. It also gave credibility to my work. For poets, that’s a big deal. While, as artists, we all want to make work that is satisfying on its own merit, most poets do not survive on their work alone. As important as the work is to our audiences, I believe part of the reason harsh critics of the genre can get away with claiming poetry has no social poignancy is because we stand to make so little money in our field. Book contracts offer smaller advances than in other genres, so publishing does not always equal income. People who love poetry often depend on this community of reading and performance, and those events are generally free to the public. With our short form, we have a vibrant and accessible presence online. But it means the power of this art is not in its capital. We do what we love, and fellowships, such as the NEA’s, are monetarily crucial. The National Endowment for the Arts fellowship has, quite simply, allowed me to continue my work.” —francine j. harris, NEA fellow, 2015; author of two poetry collections, including Play Dead (Alice James Books, 2016)

 

 

“The recipient of an NEA grant sits precariously at the nexus of contradictory forces: art, government, and money. Great art ought to have nothing to do with money or power, and so paradoxically it comes to have a great deal to do with both. The philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer suggested the distinction between entertainment and art is that entertainment has purpose (to inspire people to pay for it), while art has ‘purposiveness.’ Purposiveness is the feeling that a work of art is accomplishing something beyond its own ends. By providing financial support and putting a spotlight on my recently released collection, The End of Pink, the NEA grant encourages me to focus more on purposive writing and less on a purposeful hustle to find readers, royalties, and otherwise ‘succeed’ in the literary marketplace. I’m able to use this year of grant funding to finalize a third book of poems, Rue, which considers eighteenth- and nineteenth-century botanical expeditions and folklore surrounding plants historically used for birth control through a lens of intersectional feminism. The grant has also allowed me to plan poetry readings in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado, often in rural areas that are disconnected from more urban literary hubs. How bold and brilliant a democracy is to invite paradox and dissent into its agencies, its budget, its apparatuses of power and control. Governmental support for the arts, which by their nature challenge the government that funds them, is a mechanism that inculcates within itself a relentless seeking after deeper understandings of what a democratic government should do and be for its people. Though not everyone who deserves these grants receives one, the presence of the NEA reminds all of us that our creative work is essential to the advancement of a great nation with even greater as-yet-unfulfilled ideals.” —Kathryn Nuernberger, NEA fellow, 2017; author of two poetry collections, including The End of Pink (BOA Editions, 2016)

 

 

“My manuscript needs work. It’s full of myth-making and family narratives in the context of the Khmer Rouge regime. Lately, I’ve been allowing myself to dwell in my dream space longer, to take more risks in my poetry. With the support of an NEA fellowship, I feel more confident about the imaginary world I’ve been trying to create over the last three years. Every week I continue my process of world-building. I spread out all my drafts and swim in the poems I’ve started. At this time in my personal life, I want to create new structures within my craft, to be wildly imaginative, to survive better in my search for love and healing. Without the financial burdens of rent and utilities, monthly student loans, credit card bills, and medical expenses, I can rest and practice more self-care while dealing with the difficult subject of genocide and intergenerational trauma. The award will also help me travel to Cambodia over the course of writing my first book. When I learned that the NEA might be defunded and then eliminated, I thought about the Khmer Rouge and its horrific transition into power, one where hundreds of thousands of artists and intellectuals were targeted in the early days of the regime. I’ve always been aware of myself as a poet in this country. The urgency to write remains the same for me, but I renew my desire to hone the subversiveness that my craft relies on so heavily. In 1990, the NEA also supported my grandmother Em Bun, a weaver, through a National Heritage Fellowship. My grandmother was a refugee. Over the course of three generations, the NEA has helped two women artists in my family. I strongly believe that it must continue to do the necessary work of preserving the arts.” —Monica Sok, NEA fellow, 2017; author of the poetry chapbook Year Zero (Poetry Society of America, 2015) 

 

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

Photo credits: Joy Harjo: Karen Kuehn; Kimiko Hahn: Beowulf Sheehan; Julia Alvarez: Bill Eichner; Peter Ho Davies: Dane Hillard; Anthony Doerr: Todd Meier; Benjamin Percy: Arnab Chakladar; francine j. harris: Cybele Knowles; Monica Sok: Sy J. Abudu

NEA at Risk: The Future of Arts Funding Under Trump

by

Kevin Nance

4.12.17

Update: May 23, 2017. The Trump administration today released its first full budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2018 (running from October 1, 2017, through September 30, 2018). The $4.1 trillion budget is notable for its cuts to domestic programs focused on social welfare programs, science and research, and the arts, including the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as the defunding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Each of the proposed cuts must pass through Congress before becoming law. 
 
Update: May 1, 2017. The House Appropriations Committee released the FY 2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill, the legislation that will provide discretionary funding for the federal government for the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2017. The bill includes $150 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), $2 million above the fiscal year 2016 level. Congress is expected to vote early this week on the full spending package.
 

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a word commonly used to describe the Republican Party’s nominee, Donald J. Trump, was nonideological. Running from outside—and to some extent against—the Republican establishment, Trump appeared ready to offer a policy agenda that would depart from his party’s traditional platforms in ways large and small. 

Following his Electoral College victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, however, President-elect Trump launched a transition during which he announced one rock-ribbed conservative appointment after another, including that of Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of far-right media company Breitbart News, who is committed to what he has called “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” as his chief strategist. And in the first six weeks of his administration, President Trump took a series of hard-line Republican positions: cracking down on immigrants, rolling back a slew of Obama-era regulations protecting the environment, nominating a Supreme Court justice said to be “an heir to Antonin Scalia,” reversing federal guidelines on restroom rights for transgender students, and, more recently, announcing a massive military buildup. This last increase is to be funded by deep budget cuts in other programs—including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent agency of the federal government that offers support and funding for individuals and organizations through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector.

On March 16, Trump became the first American president to propose not just cutting funds for the NEA but abolishing it outright. The White House unveiled a proposed budget that includes eliminating the NEA and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or CPB, which helps fund PBS, National Public Radio, and local public radio stations across the country.

“We are disappointed,” NEA chairman Jane Chu said in a statement, “because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every congressional district in the nation.”

Why kill the NEA? If the $3.9 trillion federal budget is envisioned as a pie, the Endowment’s most recent slice under President Barack Obama ($147.9 million, or .004 percent of the total) would hardly register as a crumb, much less a sliver. And yet the NEA quickly surfaces in nearly any discussion of budget cuts in the Trump era—not because gutting or killing it would contribute meaningfully to any fiscal imperative, but because many Republicans object to it on the ideological grounds that taxpayer funds shouldn’t be spent on the arts, which they consider inessential (or even “waste,” as Brian Darling, a former staffer of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank and longtime NEA opponent, put it in a recent article in the Hill, a newspaper covering politics).

“I am deeply troubled by the Trump administration’s proposed FY 2018 budget calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts,” Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of the lobbying group Americans for the Arts, said in a statement. “Our nation’s parents, teachers, community leaders, arts advocates, government officials, and even economists will not accept this proposal.”

Although Trump has now gone further than any of his predecessors in the Oval Office, the NEA has been the target of Republican budget hawks since early in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget and an architect of what became known as “supply-side” economics, planned to abolish the NEA and NEH over three years. Those plans—later confirmed in a book by Livingston Biddle, NEA chairman from 1977 to 1981—were shelved when a special task force (which included Reagan’s former Hollywood colleague Charlton Heston) concluded that the two agencies performed a valuable service to the nation. Still, and simply put, conservatives have been critical of the NEA for more than three decades because they consider it a frill.

That philosophy was carried to its logical conclusion at the state level in 2011 in Kansas, where Republican governor Sam Brownback gutted the Kansas Arts Commission by line-item-vetoing the $689,000 in state funding that would have qualified it for matching grants from the NEA and a second group. “In difficult fiscal times such as these, the state must prioritize how to spend its limited resources and focus its attention on providing core services,” Brownback said in a statement at the time. In an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine, Kansas Arts Commission chairman Henry Schwaller called it “a devastating loss.” “This has happened because of the governor’s ideological belief that public funds should not be used to fund the arts,” he said. “But it’s also related to his clear misunderstanding of the role of the arts in society and in Kansas in particular. Children and seniors, especially in rural communities, will lose access to the arts because of this.”

Cultural conservatives also still harbor an animus against the NEA that has its roots in the controversies that erupted in 1989 over photographer and NEA grantee Andres Serrano—whose “Piss Christ,” part of the artist’s Immersions series, showed a plastic crucifix submerged in what was said to be his own urine—and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs depicting the gay S&M subculture were shown in an NEA-supported exhibition in Cincinnati. The Serrano and Mapplethorpe firestorms, stoked by subsequent flare-ups involving the so-called “NEA Four” (performance artists Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller, whose grant proposals were approved by the NEA’s peer review panels but vetoed by then chairman John Frohnmayer in 1990), turned the NEA into a national lightning rod. Led by Republican senators Alfonse D’Amato of New York and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, conservatives in and out of government repeatedly called for the arts agency to be dismantled as an affront to traditional American values. “Do not dishonor our Lord,” Helms railed on the Senate floor in reference to Serrano. “I resent it, and I think the vast majority of the American people do. And I also resent the National Endowment for the Arts spending the taxpayers’ money to honor this guy.”

In recent years, controversies involving NEA-supported art have become exceedingly rare, in part because most grants to individual artists were discontinued, by congressional mandate, in 1995. The exceptions were literature fellowships and two lifetime honor programs, the NEA Jazz Masters and the NEA National Heritage Fellowships. At the same time the NEA’s advocates have successfully made the case for the arts as an economic engine, contributing $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy in 2013 alone, according to a study conducted by the NEA and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. (That includes for-profit arts activity such as filmmaking.) The NEA has also staked a claim as the nation’s most effective instigator of contributions to the arts by others. For every dollar it awards in grants, the NEA says, up to nine dollars is generated in matching support from private and public sources, leading to an additional $500 million in arts funding in 2016. Still, that onetime shibboleth of the religious right—that the NEA supports degenerate art—still bubbles up now and again on alt-right Internet forums.

Weeks before President Trump unveiled his budget plan, two powerful conservative groups—the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of 173 conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives—called upon him to abolish the NEA and the NEH. And the NEA remains a perennial target of right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart News, once edited by Bannon and known to be on Trump’s daily reading list. Breitbart has been publishing articles critical of the NEA at least since 2009, when it claimed the agency was encouraging artists to support President Obama’s agenda on education, health care, the environment, and other topics. “The National Endowment of the Arts is under attack—again,” poet Dana Gioia, who led the NEA from 2003 to 2009, wrote recently in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “The foes are the same tired cast of characters who have assaulted the agency for the last thirty years. Their arguments are the same threadbare notions that have been repeatedly rejected. They are mounting a partisan battle that will do the nation no good. But for the sake of the arts, it needs to be fought again and won.”

Gioia continued: “Both the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee have long been obsessed with ending federal support for the arts. During my six years as the chairman of the NEA under president George W. Bush, these groups launched one unsuccessful volley after another. Their stated rationale was that the federal government had no business funding the arts. Beneath that small-government ideal, however, was another openly acknowledged motive not related to the public good but to political advantage. By eliminating the NEA, they could deliver a symbolic victory against leftist urban constituencies.”

For all these reasons, the NEA finds itself once again in potentially mortal danger. With Republicans now firmly in control of the executive branch and both houses of Congress, the agency’s prospects for continued survival may be dimmer than at any point in its history.

***

The NEA was established by Congress in 1965, during the Johnson administration, to “support the survival of the best of all forms that reflect the American heritage in its full range of cultural and ethnic diversity and to provide national leadership on behalf of the arts.” Over the years, the Endowment has dispensed more than $5 billion to artists and arts organizations in the fields of dance, design, folk and traditional arts, literature, media arts, music, opera, multidisciplinary works, performance art, theater, and the visual arts. (Poets & Writers, Inc., the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine, receives an annual grant that supports the magazine and the website pw.org. Poets & Writers is also a cofounder of the Literary Network, or LitNet, a coalition of sixty-eight nonprofit literary organizations that was established in 1992 as an extension of the now-defunct Coalition of Writers Organizations and in response to the freedom of expression controversies surrounding the NEA.)

In the 2016 fiscal year, more than 80 percent of the NEA’s $147.9 million appropriation was distributed as grants and awards to organizations and individuals across the country. About 40 percent of that money was awarded directly to the states through their arts agencies. The other 60 percent was distributed to artists and arts organizations applying through the NEA funding categories.

In a clear response to past criticism of its grant-making process as “elitist,” the NEA now earmarks a portion of its grants for underserved communities. Forty percent of NEA-supported activities happen in neighborhoods with high poverty rates, and 36 percent of NEA grants go to organizations that reach people with disabilities, people in institutions (including prisons), and veterans. One-third of NEA grants serve audiences with low incomes. 

And while some have charged that the NEA favors large cultural institutions that would more appropriately be funded by their presumably wealthy patrons, the majority of NEA grants—65 percent—go to small and medium-sized organizations in every congressional district in the nation.

All grant applications to the NEA are reviewed on the basis of “artistic excellence and artistic merit,” according to “Art Works for America,” the NEA’s 2014–2018 strategic plan. Applications are first evaluated by independent panels consisting of experts in the various disciplines and “at least one knowledgeable layperson.” The panels’ recommendations are forwarded to the NEA’s advisory body, the National Council on the Arts, whose members are artists, scholars, and arts patrons appointed by the president. The council’s recommendations are sent to the NEA chairman (currently Jane Chu, a holdover from the Obama administration), who makes the final decision.

But will there be any grant decisions to be made in the new fiscal year? Will there be a National Endowment for the Arts at all? As of this writing, it’s unclear how Trump’s budget will fare in Congress, where the NEA still enjoys the support of most Democrats and some Republicans, including moderates and even some conservatives. In his statement, Lynch quotes North Carolina Republican representative Mark Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, as saying he opposes Trump’s plans for the arts: “I appreciate the education that is found in the arts, so at this point I have no path to making any kind of hard cuts right now.” In her statement, Chu implied that anything could still happen. “We understand that the president’s budget request is a first step in a very long budget process,” she said. “As part of that process we are working with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to prepare information they have requested.”

A message posted to the grant application page of the NEA’s website on the same day the president’s proposal was unveiled reads, “We continue to make FY 2017 grant awards and will continue to honor all obligated grant funds made to date. In addition, we will continue to accept grant applications for FY 2018 at our usual deadlines…. The agency continues to operate as usual and will do so until a new budget is enacted by Congress.”

In the coming months the House and Senate budget committees will each write and vote on budget resolutions, at which point the subcommittee’s “markup” appropriation bills determine the level of spending for all discretionary programs. Then the full House and Senate debate and vote on those bills; only after each bill passes Congress can the president sign them and the budget becomes law. 

Whatever happens during this process, it won’t occur under the radar. It will be done in the full glare of the public eye, and under the careful scrutiny of those who benefit from NEA’s support, including members of the literary community who stand ready to protect the future of arts funding.

 

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine

Five Hot Summer Fiction Readings

8.1.20

As the long days stretch into the month of August, settle in, pour a cold beverage, and let the cool sounds of these five readings from recently published books of fiction provide some relief from the summer heat. 

F*ckface: And Other Stories (Henry Holt, July 2020) by Leah Hampton: 

 

A Burning (Knopf, June 2020) by Megha Majumdar:

 

Parakeet (FSG, June 2020) by Marie-Helene Bertino:

 

Sansei and Sensibility (Coffee House Press, May 2020) by Karen Tei Yamashita:

 

How Much of These Hills Is Gold (Riverhead Books, April 2020) by C Pam Zhang:

Agent Advice: The Complete Series

by

Staff

4.10.19

The industry’s best and brightest agents respond directly to readers’ questions in this regular column dating back to 2010. To submit a question for the next featured agent, e-mail editor@pw.org

Jody Kahn of Brandt and Hochman
4.10.19
A literary agent answers questions from writers about genre, age, costs, and client lists.

Priya Doraswamy of Lotus Lane Literary
10.10.18
An agent answers questions on obtaining the copyright of a self-published novel and seeking a U.S. publisher from abroad.
 

Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency
8.15.18
An agent answers questions on referrals, pitching a self-published book, and what to do if you’re dropped by an agency.
 

Annie Hwang of Folio Literary Management
12.13.17
A literary agent answers readers’ questions—from how seriously agents consider a writer’s previous sales to how to responsibly seek new representation.

Kirby Kim of Janklow & Nesbit Associates
4.12.17
A seasoned literary agent offers valuable counsel on when to query, how to keep revising, and whether horror fiction is a genre worth pursuing.

Anna Ghosh of Ghosh Literary
12.14.16
Anna Ghosh answers readers’ questions—from why poetry agents are seemingly nonexistent to whether or not it is possible to be “too young to write.”

Betsy Amster of Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises
10.14.15
The agent of authors such as María Amparo Escandón and Joy Nicholson offers advice on query letters, editing, and what not to do when submitting a manuscript.

Danielle Svetcov of Levine Greenberg Rostan
4.15.15
Should you pay to have a manuscript edited beforehand? Are there benefits to querying via snail mail versus e-mail? Danielle Svetcov of Levine Greenberg Rostan answers readers’ questions about what (and what not) to do when trying to find an agent.

Meredith Kaffel Simonoff of DeFiore and Company
8.20.14
An agent representing authors such as CJ Hauser and Cecily Wong answers questions about writing in multiple genres, agents’ fees, and publishing work in online journals.

Amy Rennert of the Amy Rennert Agency
3.01.14
The agent of authors such as Diana Nyad and Herman Wouk answers questions about self-publishing, age restrictions, and working with an agent remotely.

Chris Parris-Lamb of the Gernert Company
10.06.13
Chris Parris-Lamb of the Gernert Company offers advice on submitting query letters and manuscripts, and when to embrace or eschew self-promotion.

Lucy Carson of the Friedrich Agency
9.01.13
Lucy Carson of the Friedrich Agency discusses e-book publishing, when to send a sample to an agent, and more.

Matt McGowan of Frances Goldin Literary Agency
5.01.13
Literary agent Matt McGowan, who represents Eula Biss, John D’Agata, Brian Evenson, and many others, answers writers’ most commonly asked questions.

Rebecca Gradinger of Fletcher & Company
10.17.12
Literary agent Rebecca Gradinger explains why writers need agents and offers tips about best practices for finding one.

Douglas Stewart of Sterling Lord Literistic
4.12.12
The agent of Jami Attenberg, David Mitchell, Carolyn Parkhurst, Matthew Quick, and others offers guidance about publishing credits, MFA programs, and unagented submissions.

Jenni Ferrari-Adler of Brick House Literary Agents
3.01.11
Does your book need to be finished before you seek representation? Do agents really read synopses? Agent Jenni Ferrari-Adler, whose clients include Lauren Shockey and Emma Straub, answers these questions and more.

Terra Chalberg of the Susan Golomb Literary Agency
10.15.10
When is the best time in your career to look for representation, and when should you call off an author-agent relationship? Terra Chalberg, whose clients include Lori Ostlund and Glenn Taylor, tackles these questions and more.

Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner
8.11.10
The agent of authors such as Kevin Brockmeier and Marisa de los Santos offers her thoughts on self-publishing and what she looks for in the first five pages of a writing sample.

PJ Mark of Janklow & Nesbit Associates
5.01.10
The agent of authors such as Samantha Hunt, Dinaw Mengestu, and Josh Weil offers advice on shaping a query letter and when to follow up after pitching your book.

Katherine Fausset of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
3.01.10
Agent Katherine Fausset answers questions from readers about the agent’s role in submitting work to literary magazines and how writers can choose agents based on their client lists.
 

Agents & Editors: A Conversation With Four Literary Agents

by

Michael Szczerban

6.17.15

Since the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and the recession that followed, the book business has shuddered through intense turbulence: corporate mergers, acquisitions, spinoffs, and bankruptcies; startups that sizzled and then ceased; the fall of Borders and the rise of Amazon; new book formats, business models, imprints, and agencies; litigation; technological upheaval; and a host of other unexpected challenges and radical transformations.

And yet writers keep writing and readers keep reading. In the midst of such tumult, that’s just about all the stability I could ask for—and perhaps all our business really needs.

But what of the publishing professionals who came of age in the business during those disruptive years? Could it be that the agents and editors who took root in this new climate are of a hardier stock, and that their perspectives on culture and commerce will differ significantly from the generations that preceded them? As this group of up-and-comers becomes the establishment, they will shape what gets published, why, and how.

I recently invited four young agents—Claudia Ballard, Seth Fishman, Melissa Flashman, and Alia Hanna Habib—to my office to talk about what it means to be a literary representative today. Each of them has achieved success in the postcrisis years. Over a couple of six-packs of beer and some chips and cookies (blame the new economy for my chintzy spread) our conversation took off. Here are brief biographies of the participants:

Seth Fishman started his career in publishing at Sterling Lord Literistic in 2005, and has been an agent at the Gernert Company since 2010. His authors include Kate Beaton, Anna Bond, Ann Leckie, Randall Munroe, and Téa Obreht.

Claudia Ballard is an agent at William Morris Endeavor, where she has worked for nine years. Her clients include Marie-Helene Bertino, Marjorie Celona, Amelia Gray, Eddie Joyce, and Emma Straub.

Alia Hanna Habib became an agent at what is now McCormick Literary in 2010, after working for five years as a publicist at Houghton Mifflin. Her clients include John Donvan, Ophira Eisenberg, Elizabeth Green, Josh Levin, and Caren Zucker.

Melissa Flashman became an agent at Trident Media Group in 2002, after working as a “coolhunter” and an assistant at ICM. Her clients include Stephanie Mannatt Danler, Kristin Dombek, Stanley Fish, Emily Gould, and Kate Zambreno.

Let’s start with your first interaction with a writer. How does their material find its way to you, and when it does, what makes you respond to it?
Fishman: I was all about the small magazines when I first started out. My first client came from reading Tin House. People ask now whether those magazines matter; they do. Even if we don’t have time to read them now to look for new clients, our assistants are reading them—at least I hope they are. That first client led me to a number of other clients, including Téa Obreht and her book The Tiger’s Wife, which was my first sale. Those connections are incredibly important.

Habib: Whether I’m reading the Atlantic or a literary journal, if something grabs me the way it would grab anyone as a reader, I’m going to write to that person. Don’t we all look for clients that way? But I do a lot of nonfiction, and in many ways that process is different.

Aren’t there also many similarities: story and voice and that elemental thing that makes someone pay attention? What’s universal about how you respond as a reader and an agent?
Habib: I’ll give you an example. I was reading an article in the Atlantic about the first diagnosed case of autism by two writers, John Donvan and Caren Zucker, at a moment when I thought I had read more than enough about autism. The first line caught my eye. The reader in me noticed that I was reading the article really quickly. Then the literary agent part of me asked, “How do I help make this a book a lot of people will want to read?” I think our job is partly to see what the writer doesn’t see.

Ballard: There’s also a real community of writers out there, and incredible resources for unpublished writers to connect to the publishing community so that agents can find them. Tin House is a fantastic magazine for that, because they publish new voices every issue. It isn’t easy for writers who are just starting out, but writers refer other writers. The more you are tapped into a community, the more you’ll benefit from that flow. It’s about getting your feet on the ground and getting your name out in the universe.

Flashman: Two questions always come up when I’m at writers conferences. People in MFA programs always ask if they need to be in San Francisco or New York City, and people in New York always ask if they need to have an MFA. I don’t think either one matters, necessarily. What matters is that they are both cultural ecosystems. Maybe you don’t have an MFA and you live in Austin or Louisville. What matters is being around other writers, supporting one another’s work, and reading. Maybe you start a literary magazine, or maybe someone gets into the Oxford American, and through that door, three more writers come in. That’s how it works. 

What about social media?
Habib: Social media can create those communities too. Roxane Gay did that so brilliantly—she created a ready readership for her books by engaging so openly and honestly on Twitter. She’s not my writer—I wish she were! But that’s another way to open the door.

Fishman: I’ve learned that different social media systems are for totally different things. For me, Twitter is for professional contacts, and Facebook is personal. I’m an agent but I also write, and when I put something on Facebook about my book publication day, I get three hundred likes—it’s like a super birthday. But if I put it on Twitter, I might get six retweets and fifteen likes.

Ballard: I don’t tweet, but I use Twitter to see what everyone else is talking about.

Flashman: I make secret lists on Twitter for different ecosystems. For instance, I’ve been thinking about a type of fiction you might call an art-school novel, and where to find the girls who like reading it. I know where they are on social media, and I know there are certain publishers and editors who can publish that type of book well. And I keep track.

So, social media is a way of being part of a community, rather than what publishers might call “platform”—thousands and thousands of followers who are primed to click Buy?
Ballard: Being tapped in doesn’t necessarily translate to platform. It’s a way in which you can engage. It makes it a lot easier for people who don’t live in places where a lot of writers happen to congregate. Still, when a writer sends me a query, I connect first and foremost with the writing.

What’s important for you to see in a query from a writer?
Fishman: All I want from a query letter is reasons to go to the next page—reasons to read the book. While I’d like to say I read everything, I have an assistant and we have interns who look at things first. When I look at a query letter, I read the first and third paragraphs. I don’t care about the synopsis—not because I don’t care what the book is about, but because a lot of writers don’t know how to write a good synopsis. The first paragraph is where writers will tell you about any direct connections to you.

Flashman: It will also tell you if this book is even in a category that you represent. I wouldn’t know a good science fiction novel if it punched me in the face. So if someone is pitching me science fiction, either there’s a connection or they liked one of my other novels, in which case I might be interested. But if there’s no connection to any of the authors I’ve represented, I’m just not the right agent. There is a great agent at my agency, John Silbersack, who does science fiction. He represents the Dune estate. He’s edited Philip K. Dick. He is the man. Those writers should be e-mailing him, not me.

How much material comes in to you in comparison to what you take on?
Ballard: Well, if your name is listed on the Poets & Writers website, you will get a lot of queries. I probably get a query every ten minutes. I have to engage with them very, very, very quickly. It’s important to make your query succinct and to target the right agent for you.

Fishman: Otherwise it’ll just get put away. My assistant filters things for me. Now I probably get only three or four every other week that the assistant thinks are good enough. I’m not looking for much more to represent right now. But the last book that my assistant brought to me and said, “You have to read this now,” I stopped what I was doing, read it, loved it, and sold it.

Ballard: I personally read all my queries, but it’s hard. It’s a volume game. But when you have a lot of volume, you pick out the things that you feel most connected with even more quickly. I do take referrals more seriously. It’s a two-way street. You want to feel a connection to the work, but you also want a writer to feel connected to you.

Do writers need to write better query letters to get your attention, or do they just need to write better books?
Flashman: They need to approach the right agents. I think there’s a way of focusing queries to ten or fifteen agents: Sit down with a legal pad, or your iPad, and find roughly ten novels that are similar. Writers usually thank their agent at the back of the book. Keep a running list of novelist, novel, agency, agent. Go to the Internet, make sure the agent’s still alive and taking on clients, and go from there.

Habib: I’d add, when you’re looking at those books that you love, to also look at lists of successful debuts and see who represented them. I think we’re all saying that when you get a query, and it’s from someone who’s read and liked one of your client’s books, it helps.

Fishman: There are so many other simple things. Make sure the person is the correct gender!

Flashman: “Dear Mr. Flashman…” no.

Fishman: And sure, we’re overwhelmed, but we want to find something good. We want that desperately. We’re not being assholes. We’re just being human. We connect with the things that we connect with. We have bad days; we have good days. If someone goes online and says, “Don’t submit something to me today,” on Twitter, then you shouldn’t, because that person’s really trying to tell you something. 

Let’s talk about MFAs. Seth, you have a master’s in writing, and Melissa, you wrote a great essay about them in the anthology MFA vs NYC.
Flashman: I think some people might think I’m on Team NYC, and against MFAs, because I’m here in New York publishing. But I’m actually very pro-MFA, because I think some of those programs are like the WPA for writers—the good state programs especially, where they give writers money to go study. You don’t need to go when you’re twenty-two. It’s often better to go when you’re thirty, thirty-five, when you have more of a life behind you. But you don’t need to go to an MFA program at all. You can hang out with other writers and write anywhere.

Ballard: My take is that MFA programs attract like-minded writers. People who want to be a part of the writing community, or want to take the time to say, “I’m going to focus on this.” It doesn’t create talent, but it can provide you a lot of feedback and time. Some people feel the workshop scenario is not for them, but I find that people who are serious about a writing career tend to seek them out. It’s not a necessity. But it signals seriousness to an agent. Seth, you went to one—what do you think?

Fishman: I don’t necessarily perk up based on where a writer went. We’ve all seen work from writers who went to the famous places and we’ve passed on it. There are other hybrid programs that I would like to recommend, though. In the speculative-fiction world, the best thing I’ve seen is called Clarion. It’s five thousand dollars for six weeks, and features huge teachers like Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin. I represent a lot of people from there. It’s like a boot camp.

Flashman: So you’ve found that ecosystem.

Fishman: Right, I’ve found the ecosystem that’s perfect for me. And I love it and I shouldn’t be telling anyone about it. At the same time, I’m sure there are versions of it in other genres. There have to be.

Ballard: There are also writers conferences like Bread Loaf or Sewanee where writers seek out like-minded people who can’t take much time away from making a living, but are often incredibly talented. 

Habib: And to get back to query letters: At least in our office, our assistants and interns do give a closer read of the material in the slush pile that says the writer got an MFA.

Fishman: I’m looking for expertise. If a book is about geology, I want to know if you’re a geologist. Same with fiction and an MFA. 

What else matters?
Flashman: Like all agents and editors, I want a novel that, as one of my writers said, “has blood in it.” I want a novel that’s very deeply felt and urgent. I went to a PhD program almost right out of college and realized very quickly I did not want to be an English professor. There’s a tendency among writers to go straight into an MFA program, and for some writers, like Téa Obreht, it’s great. She had a great story and something urgent to tell. But a lot of writers don’t know their story yet. It might not surface till later.  

Habib: I was a publicist before I became an agent, and when we’d have to publicize novels, the goal for fiction was always to develop a nonfiction hook. That’s the stuff that you can talk about in interviews, and it can develop naturally with writers who have life experience. When a book lands at a publisher and the writer has had a world of experience and can talk from a place of knowledge, that’s gold. That gets publishers excited to publish a book well.

When I read submissions, I try to say no as quickly as I can—because the most fun, and most time-consuming, part of my job is to say yes to a project I’m excited about. That could be because the writer has made something I didn’t know I cared about seem urgent or relevant, or demonstrated undeniable artistry, or shared some unique expertise on a subject of interest. Projects that I immediately connect with are rare, but they’re what editors live for.
Fishman
: The hardest query to get is the average to just-above-average one, because you have to read the whole thing, thinking, “Well, maybe I can do something with this.” By the way, I think it’s okay to get rejected.

Ballard: Also, taste is incredibly subjective. We see things that we’ve passed on go on to sell all the time, but if you aren’t the person who believes in the book, you should not be selling it. And that’s the bottom line. 

Flashman: The trick is, if you’re a writer, you don’t just want an agent who could sell it. You want an agent who must sell it. We all get query letters, and think, “Yeah, I could probably sell this.” But are you really the best agent for it?

Editors know the difference between the agents who represent whatever they think they can sell and the ones who are more selective.
Fishman
: I think the easiest thing to do, in a lot of ways, is to sell a good book. Everything else is the hard part.

Ballard: I often take people on and then work with them for a very long time. The first novel I sold this year was something I had worked with the author on for four years. It wasn’t that I was editing every line. We just had to find out what the story was. I work very closely with my clients, and I bet everyone in this room does. The better you make the book, the better the sale. 

Flashman: Your point is really important because sometimes writers think, “Oh, I’ve got an agent! We’re sending it out, it’s going to be a best-seller tomorrow!”

Habib: There’s a lot to be said for the long game. Look for an agent who’s in it for the long haul.

What has been most surprising to you since you became an agent?
Ballard: It’s surprising that the most beneficial thing for my long-term career was, in a funny way, to get promoted in 2008, right when the financial crash was happening. It felt like everything we knew about publishing was going to change dramatically. I remember some older agents bemoaning the fact that things used to sell more easily, that there was a guaranteed number of hardcover copies sold if you were paid a certain level advance. But all those guarantees went out the window. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But I didn’t have any false expectations of what success would look like in the industry. I think that agents who came of age in the nineties experienced a very different business than what we’re experiencing right now.

Flashman: Another thing that’s surprising is the sales numbers. When you compare movie box office receipts to how many books you have to sell to hit the New York Times best-seller list—it’s pretty astonishing.

The best-selling books aren’t reporting millions of dollars of sales over a weekend like the top movies do.
Flashman: Right. And I’ve had books that end up in what I hear publishers call the “power backlist,” where they maybe hit the list once but then go on to sell and sell and sell just beneath that level. And sometimes the literary novel that you hear about everywhere and think will be a massive best-seller ends up selling four thousand copies.

Fishman: I think literary fiction in particular is a big echo chamber in New York. I represent a lot of literary fiction at different levels of success, and I love it. But when I send out a science fiction novel, I can send it to five, six people in a first round. I can send a literary novel to fifteen to twenty people. And you can pour your heart and soul into a literary novel and be shocked by how few sales there are. In other genres that have dedicated groups of followers, you may have less shelf space, but if you get on that shelf, you sell more copies at a minimum. Each genre has its own dynamic.

Flashman: Each industry is weighted to different sorts of backgrounds, too. One thing I realized pretty quickly when I got into publishing is that it’s heavily weighted to English majors. I love literary fiction, but I don’t ever worry that there aren’t going to be enough editors to buy literary fiction. I do worry about books about science and technology.

Fishman: I want to comment on what Claudia said a minute ago, because I came up in 2008 as well. A lot of people from my class—the people we were drinking with when we were starting—are all moving from publisher to publisher now. When you sell a book, you sell it to a house. The editor is the point person, but editors move quite a bit. That’s been a learning process for me. Now it’s not just “Are you the right editor for this book?” but also “Are you going to be around at this place when the book comes out?” In the last two years I’ve had eighteen orphaned books.

Habib: The last, like, five books I sold were orphaned.

Flashman: I’ve had books become best-sellers that were orphaned. Sometimes those books have even had three editors.

Ballard: You just want the house to carry on the enthusiasm of the original editor.

How do you conceive of a perfect match between author and editor?
Habib
: A lot of us go to a lot of lunches with editors, and when I go out to lunch I want to get know the person. I hate talking about their list. I want to hear about the books they loved as a child. I want to hear about their dog. I want to hear about their quest to find the perfect preschool. Part of it is just matchmaking—some nebulous quality that helps give you a sense that an editor and an author will understand each other. That is, that the editor will understand the author—but also be able to crack the whip. 

That’s important. I’ve been too close to a book before.
Ballard
: I think that’s an interesting thing about our relationships with writers, both on the editorial and agenting sides. You have to feel close to the work, almost as close as the author, but never quite as close as they do. Because it’s not originating with you. It’s not your art. You’re art-adjacent. I come from this place of being a deeply sympathetic reader: Do I love reading this book? That, to me, is always the first indication of a match. And that registers in an editor’s first phone call to you, and that letter expressing their love for the book. The feeling in-house. It is this connection that has to really feel organic and real and based in a deep reading of the book.

Habib: Some writers think that an agent can somehow convince publishers to buy their book, just by their sheer charisma and personality and power. The real thing we do is find the most sympathetic reader for the book, the editor who will best help the writer. I’m not going to convince someone your book is good. That’s your job. I can convince them to read it, and I can help make it the best book possible, but my job is to find the best reader for you. 

Fishman: We build lists over a long period of time, and people pay attention to your track record. There’s also another level that we mess around with, which is our experience. Every day we work with someone, we find out whether we want to work with them again.

So, do editors still edit?
Fishman: Yes!

Habib: Of course!

Ballard: Yes!

Flashman: And we know who edits more. 

Do you mean there are editors who don’t give their all to a book?
Flashman: Well, there are editors who buy books that don’t need very much editing. Sometimes that’s just a whole different business. They might be books that have outside editors or ghostwriters on them, so there’s a lot of editorial processes happening before it ever gets to the editor. And they’re in the business of making a certain kind of hit at a publishing house. But editors totally edit, Poets & Writers readers!

Fishman: There are some editors who are better cheerleaders than other editors in-house, which is totally different. They all edit, but in addition to good editorial vision, I’m looking for the editor who has the muscle and excitement to get something happening in house.

Habib: One of the things I was surprised by when I moved over to the agenting side was the skepticism a lot of first-time writers have about publishers. They’ve heard all these horror stories, so they think editors don’t edit. They think publicists don’t care. They have this hierarchy of who’s good: Publicists are the lowest, then editors, and then agents. The writer trusts the agent to find them a good home. I want to believe that all of us do that in good faith, knowing that editors do edit. Ideally, the publicity and marketing department will do their best job, and if they’re not, we try to help them, and to be there, and to be honest about when it’s not happening.

Flashman: If editors wanted to make a lot of money, they would have gone into another business. The people who work in publishing love books. They really want to make it happen. They love to edit. I think most editors wish they had more time in the office to edit because they’re doing a thousand other things.

What qualities do you try to bring into your own practice as an agent?
Ballard: I think that the people who’ve lasted in the business are the people who conduct themselves in an honorable way and are deeply passionate and incredibly knowledgeable about their field of interest. It’s meaningful to say that we all do what we love, and that you see agents who have achieved a lot of success in the industry who really love and care about it. When I first started out in the business, I thought for sure I was going to be an editor, just because I was an English major. I didn’t realize how much editing happens on the agenting side, or how much I valued the kind of personal relationship you have with your writers.

Flashman: I think we’re somewhere between a shrink and Karl Rove. Nothing about my politics, but there’s a lot of strategy and a lot of psychology.

Fishman: Yeah. I don’t know if writers realize how collaborative being an agent can be, especially within an agency, because we really do work together.

When do you feel competitive with other agents?
Flashman: When we’re competing for the same project! Which we often are.

Habib: I never ask who else is offering to represent a book.

Flashman: I don’t either, but some agents do. I don’t want to know. 

Ballard: I tend not to ask until the very end, or right when I sign the person. I’m curious. We’re inherently competitive, and I think you want a competitive agent because she is going to be that way for you no matter what situation you face.

Fishman: I don’t want a book to go to Claudia when I competed against her for it. Heartbreaking stuff. 

Ballard: But also, if Seth wins something over me, it’s a sign that it was a good book. 

Flashman: You’re like, “I was right!”

Ballard: “I cared about this, but at least I lost it to someone whose taste I really respect and feels similar to mine.” 

Flashman: And if you lose it to someone who you don’t respect, you’re like, “Oh, that writer is just making bad choices.” 

Fishman: That’s true!

Ballard: Look, I would rather be in the mix and lose than not be in the mix at all. 

Fishman: Every once in a while there’s an author who leaves his or her agent for some reason, and I didn’t even know, because I don’t want to poach. I don’t want to be an aggressive person.

Ballard: And sometimes you’re going to lose something just because it just goes more quickly than you can read it. That’s because we’re busy human beings. We’re not reading machines. We have, hopefully, rich lives outside of work where we have families and friends and hobbies and pastimes.

That’s not so different from competing for a book as an editor.
Ballard: The problem is that the decision isn’t based on money, so when we do lose, it’s all personal.

True—but as an editor, if you lose to an underbidder, it’s even worse!
Ballard
: Then you can take it personally!

Fishman: I’ve done that twice.

Flashman: I’ve had someone take a lower advance…maybe never?

Habib: Oh, I’ve had that happen a couple times.

How do you describe your agency in the context of others that authors might sign with?
Fishman
: I try to think honestly about what other places offer. There are positives and negatives for everything. I don’t just try to point out the negatives. I try to point out how The Gernert Company specifically can address any of the things an author might bring up.

Flashman: As an agent, and as an editor, you have to figure out what’s important to each writer. 

Ballard: Ultimately, what you get is representation from me. That’s more important than the size of the agency—if anyone ever feels lost at a big agency, then they’re just not being represented by the right agent at that agency. You’re first and foremost represented by me as your agent, and I’m the leader of a deep well of resources that exist within my agency, including UK representation, foreign representation, first serial rights, marketing. 

What are some common mistakes that beginning writers can avoid?
Flashman: I’ve had this fantasy that someday I’m going to take a three-day vacation upstate, to a place like Woodstock or Phoenicia, and write a manifesto of my ten rules for writers. The biggest rule will be about finding the sweet spot of perfect communication with your agent and with editors. Some writers undercommunicate, and I call this a “high-school-girl” theory of being in the world—you want everyone to come to you and recognize how great you are. But you have to be out there with other writers and communicating with your agent. If you publish a piece in the New York Times, I really want to know about it so I can tweet about it and tell your editor and tell my foreign-rights people. For those people, I would say be less of a “high-school girl.” Be like a “high-school boy” who wants all these girls to know who you are. I don’t mean that in a sexist way. And then, on the other hand, there are writers who are trying to manage their anxiety and send seventeen e-mails a day to me, the publicist, the editor. We get so much e-mail, and we just want to make sure we’re answering everyone’s questions. When we get seventeen e-mails, we don’t know where to put our focus.

Fishman: A lot of authors don’t fully realize that we work for them. It’s a weird relationship because at the beginning, they’re trying to impress us. But the truth is that we work for them.

What about issues of craft?
Fishman: I think focusing effort on trying to grab someone at the beginning of your manuscript, instead of focusing on the actual story, is a problem. This is a personal thing, but I often see that issue in prologues that take something exciting from later in the book and move it to the front. I know there are exceptions. I admit to the exceptions. I have clients who have exceptions. But I always make my clients think about whether that prologue needs to be there, and where the beginning of the story really is.

Flashman: It is a subjective industry. Especially with literary fiction, we all have this sort of thing we gravitate toward. For me, it’s elegiac fiction. If your intro sounds like the beginning of The Great Gatsby or The Secret History, I’m a sucker for it. I call it “book voice.” I read the intro to Gatsby along with one of my author’s intros this weekend out loud just for fun. I’m not a poet—I don’t know much about poetry besides English 201—but I love that voice.

Ballard: I ran into Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House, recently, and he was telling me that he’s teaching a class at his MFA program this semester that’s all first paragraphs.

Habib: That is brilliant!

Ballard: All you can bring in is the first paragraph, and those paragraphs are all you workshop the whole semester. I think that is so brilliant. That is the thing that’s going to hook you, that you form that snap judgment on, whatever you’re reading—even if it’s a book that’s been published and widely acclaimed.

Habib: In some ways your experience as an agent should mimic the experience of a reader who picks up a book at a bookstore. I often read e-books, and, before I buy a book, I download the free sample. That’s how I decide. So, for me, I’d say, “Really think about your first twenty pages.”

Fishman: I read books that are not my own all the time because I want to find a query that makes me stop reading that other book. If I’m bored I will pick up my regular book, and enjoy it. If there’s something that keeps me from it, that’s a real sign.

What other advice do you have for authors?
Flashman: I’m always telling authors to storyboard their books with big Post-It notes. That’s valuable when I’m working on big-thinking narrative-nonfiction books—to look at a really great book and see the architecture underneath it.

Ballard: I think that story is undervalued, in literary fiction at least. The writing, obviously, is key. But you need to tell a really good story. It’s hard to do.

Habib: Story is undervalued in nonfiction, too.

Ballard: I actually think it can be simpler than you think it’s going to be—or, it can be more classic than you think it’s going to be. Your voice and your telling of it are going to make it more interesting. Some people are trying to whiz-bang their way through a novel. Others are just so quiet that it doesn’t matter how pristinely beautiful the writing is—it doesn’t have that thing that pulls you through.

Habib: The number one bad habit I see with nonfiction—the habit I have to break my writers of—is they all want to do a series of profiles instead of telling a story. Every submission comes in as, “I’m going to do a series of profiles that explains X problem.” But most readers are not going to finish a book unless there’s a narrative thread that brings them through to the end. It has to have a story.

What about bad habits in editors or publishers—the things we do that make you grimace?
Ballard: The good thing is that it’s not that easy to quantify. Any frustrations I have are specific to the occasion or relationship.

Fishman: Sometimes there is a feeling of defensiveness with agent involvement. I’m sure that is based on prior experience with other agents, but there have been a number of times that I would have loved to participate in the publication of the book in a more creative and collaborative way. I don’t want to just sell the book and step back. I like to be hands-on in publicity and marketing. In certain categories, I feel like I know a lot about those things. I get frustrated sometimes when there’s defensiveness in response to an honest attempt to make the book as good as possible.

Flashman: Writers may not realize that editors and agents tend to be specialists, but publicists are often just assigned to books. There are exceptions, but a publicist might be working on a novel, a cookbook, a diet book, a book on pets….

Habib: I worked on all four of those as a publicist. And, you know, publicists often don’t get the glory. It’s a pretty hard job. The publicist usually only gets a phone call from the agent when something has gone wrong. That’s not the way the model should be. A mistake that editors and publicists can make is trying to spin how a book is doing, or what’s happening with it, to the agent and author.

Fishman: Whatever it is, I’d much rather know. 

Habib: Just tell me!

Fishman: The writing is on the wall pretty quickly. From what I understand, a marketing and publicity base budget is established early on. A lot of the goal, in my estimation, is to tick that up every second of the day. It’s very hard to do, and it takes a lot to make that happen. I focus on trying to get the publisher to a place where they’re excited about the book beyond what happened when they bought it.

Habib: Publicity is not always about the budget. It’s about how the book is being perceived, how it’s being pitched, and what the response is. Sometimes the publicist, for whatever reason, doesn’t understand the book and isn’t pitching it well, or it’s not going well and the publicist is too terrified to say, “No one cares about this. What are we going to do?”

Ballard: Having gone through that now a few times, unfortunately, you can tell when the energy’s there and when it’s not. It’s not manufacturable. You go to a publicity meeting and people ask, “Do you have a Twitter account? Are you on Facebook?” And you’re like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s a very basic question, but yes, thank you.” What are the things that we can actually do to make this more tenable out there in the world? It’s hard. 

I’ve asked agents to help push to increase a book’s promotional budget, but the best thing for a book sometimes has little to do with money and everything to do with creativity and effort. Money won’t improve a book that, God forbid, just doesn’t deliver, and it won’t create an awesome pitch or fix an uninspired marketing plan on its own. But it can make people pay closer attention and try harder.
Ballard
: Not to turn the tables on you, Mike, but when do you feel frustrated? One of my frustrations is occasionally that the cover options presented to us are basically final. I’ve never really gotten into a situation where it’s been a problem. It’s just something that authors really have opinions about. And so, you are the representative for their artistic vision for this book, and the publisher has their own very strong opinions of how it should look.

Designing a book jacket can be like walking a tightrope. Editors stand right where the artistic ambitions of the author meet the commercial ambitions of the publisher, and we try to make everyone happy. But those ambitions are often signified in visually different ways, so it’s hard to have a compromise design that is crisp and strong. I’m sure you’ve seen covers that look like a hodgepodge of competing ideas and lose some power as a result.
Fishman
: I wonder about designers at the publishing companies, and what happens before an author ever sees a jacket. Designers are probably the people I am furthest from and connect with the least. Yet they are arguably some of the most important contributors to a book’s success.

What has gotten easier since you got into the business?
Fishman: Submissions. When I was an assistant, we used to print out every manuscript and put them all in boxes and put labels on them. It would take all day to do a submission.

Ballard: For me, as someone who does a lot of literary fiction, there’s this incredible part of our industry that is so supportive of new voices, and so interested in publishing difficult literary fiction. The importance of those indie publishers has grown exponentially since I started. The ways in which they care about the creative atmosphere. The ways in which they’re perpetuating these incredible voice-driven authors who may not find a home in the mainstream. They have made my job easier, because I know that my author is going to find a home. You just have to sometimes dig a little deeper to find it. 

Michael Szczerban is an executive editor at Little, Brown and Company.

Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Georges Borchardt

by

Jofie Ferrari-Adler

9.1.09

Every industry has its share of hidden gems—those people
who are cherished by their colleagues and peers but barely known outside of the
business. Book publishing is no exception, which is why the name Georges Borchardt
probably doesn’t ring a bell unless you’ve worked with him or are lucky enough
to be one of his clients. Relatively unknown outside of publishing circles for
more than fifty years, he seems to lack the gene for self-promotion.

Borchardt was born in Berlin in 1928. His early life, spent
in Paris, was marked by war and heartbreak: His father died of cancer when he
was eleven, and his mother and much of the rest of his family was killed in the
concentration camps. As a teenager, Borchardt spent almost two years in hiding
at a school in Aix-en-Provence, where his name did not appear on the official
roll. “I was a sort of nonperson,” he says. After the war he moved to America
and found work at a literary agency that specialized in foreign writers. (When
he arrived, it had just sold Albert Camus’ The Stranger to Knopf for $350.) Borchardt served as the agency’s
assistant and soon began to look for authors of his own. In 1953 he came across
an Irish playwright and novelist who wrote in French and, after selling three
of his books to Grove Press, American readers were introduced to the work of
Samuel Beckett. Other early authors included Laurent de Brunhoff, Marguerite
Duras, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault. In 1959 Borchardt
took on the task of finding an American publisher for Elie Wiesel’s Night. After numerous rejections, he finally placed the memoir
with a small press, Hill and Wang, for an advance of $250. Since then the book
has been translated into more than twenty-five languages and sold more than ten
million copies in the United States alone.

Over the past half century, Borchardt; his wife, Anne; and their daughter, Valerie (who joined
the Borchardt Agency in 1999) have built a staggering list of clients. They
include poets John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Rafael Campo, and Philip Schultz;
fiction writers T. C. Boyle, Robert Coover, David Guterson, Charles Johnson,
Ian McEwan, Claire Messud, and Susan Minot; nonfiction writers Anne Applebaum,
Stanley Crouch, Susan Jacoby, Tracy Kidder, and Kate Millett; and the estates
of Hannah Arendt, Samuel Beckett, Robert Fagles, John Gardner, Aldous Huxley,
and Tennessee Williams.

While Borchardt’s credentials are impressive—and go a long
way toward explaining why he is considered a luminary within the industry—they
pale in comparison with his extraordinary charm and personal magnetism. His
laugh, a high staccato that welled up frequently during our conversation, is a
particular delight. T. C. Boyle has especially strong feelings about his agent,
once describing him as “the most wonderful man who ever lived on this earth.”
After spending just a little time with him, I can understand why.

Your background is quite
different than a lot of people in publishing.

My background is different
primarily because most literary agents in America have English as their native
language. But I started out without knowing the language. I grew up in Paris. I
was in France during the war, so I spent pretty much two years in hiding. My
father died early on, when I was eleven, and my mother and most of my family
were deported to the concentration camps and died there. But I had two older
sisters who survived. I was in hiding in Aix-en-Provence. I was at the lycée
there. Through connections, the head of the lycée had allowed me to stay there
as a boarder. But I wasn’t on any roll. In other words I was a sort of
non-person. So as a result I was able to get my two baccalaureates. And when I
went back to Paris, my sisters and I actually got our apartment back, but it
was emptied of all its furniture and it was rather gloomy to camp in the empty
rooms. I went to law school for a year but I was really too young for it—I was
seventeen—and too unbalanced by what had happened. I really didn’t like it. My
sisters had worked in the American field hospital in Aix-en-Provence when
France was liberated, where they had met all of these gorgeous American G.I.s who
were distributing marvelous goodies like Spam and Wonder Bread, and they
dreamed of going to America. We had relatives who had gone to America. So I
figured I’d go with them for a year, which would be an honorable way of not
continuing with law school.

When was the first time that you
were really aware of books? Were you interested in them as a young boy?

Books were a big thing in my
family. Today if you give a book to a child for his or her birthday the child
feels rather annoyed. It’s like a punishment. But when I was a child I had a
list of books that I wanted for my birthday. I would sometimes ask if I could
have one of my favorite books bound—French books are all softcover—and then
it was a matter of going to a shop and selecting the leather and the endpapers
and so on. I liked books as objects. I liked to read all the things that boys
liked to read then. Alexandre Dumas. James Fenimore Cooper. I remember one
novel that I particularly loved called Ivanhoé, which I think in English is called Ivanhoe. So I was interested in books but not any more than
anyone else. When I was sixteen or so, like most of the more literate people my
age, I was totally in love with André Gide. I remember walking down the street
in Aix-en-Provence and sort of reciting as a mantra the opening line of Gide’s Les
Nourritures Terrestres
: “Nathanaël, je
t’enseignerai la ferveur.” Well, Nathanaël, of course, in English is Nathaniel, but somehow Nathanaël has much more resonance than Nathaniel,
which sounds ordinary. Nathanaël sounds like the trumpets in a Handel piece. I
don’t think I ever really thought about the meaning of the sentence; I just
liked the way it resonated.

In France when I
was in school, every year you read a play by Molière, a play by Racine, a play
by Corneille, and you also had a special subject called “recitation” for which
you memorized either poems or parts of these plays. In France you got not only
a grade in every subject but you also got ranked. So you could be first in your
class or twenty-eighth, or somewhere in between. It was a sort of public
humiliation. Being first didn’t make you popular but being last made you
ridiculous. And in recitation I was practically always first. I was always
assigned the major parts in these tragedies, which was usually the female role
because in most of the plays, certainly the Racine plays, that was usually the
central character. So I think language was always very much a part of what I
was interested in. But I certainly never thought of working in publishing and
didn’t know anything about publishing. I thought I would work in the music
industry because my father was the head of a phonograph record firm. So I
always had a lot of records at home. It was mostly classical music except that
the star of the firm was Édith Piaf, so I had a bit of everything.

What year was it when you came
over?

It was ’47. I knew some English
because I’d had it for six years in school, just as I had Latin for six years,
and I knew English pretty much the way I knew Latin. I was very good at both,
in school, which meant translating texts from Latin into French and from French
into Latin as well as from French into English and from English into
French—and maybe memorizing the occasional poem about daffodils. But I didn’t
speak the language. It wasn’t taught that way in French schools at the time. So
when I came here, to my great chagrin, I didn’t understand a word of what
people were saying. It would always take me a long time to get a sentence
together in my head. By the time my sentence was ready and polished, the
conversation was already miles away from where it had been, and what I was
going to say no longer fit it. I would also mispronounce things and, as I’m
sure you know from traveling in foreign countries, when you mispronounce
something and people start laughing, it’s very embarrassing.

How did you get into publishing?
A friend of mine helped me compose
two ads that I put in the New York Times.
I don’t remember exactly what they said but it was something like,
“Nineteen-year-old Frenchman blah blah blah,” and the other one would have said
something similar.

These were ads that people would
place when they were looking for work?

Yes. They would say, “This is who I
am, and I’m looking for a job.” There was a lot of that going on. I’d gone to
various employment agencies and they all said, “What is your American
experience?” Well, I had no American experience. When I put the ad in the paper
I expected a good amount of mail. Still, I figured I could carry it by myself,
so I went to Times Square to get it. There were only two letters, one for each
ad, but both from the same person. The letterhead said “Authors and Publishers
Representative.” One said, “If you’re interested in the letterhead, come in
next Tuesday at ten.” The other one said, “If you’re interested, call for an
appointment.” My English was not very good, and it was even worse on the phone,
so I decided to go in person. The woman who owned the agency was named Marion
Saunders. She was the daughter of a British Foreign officer, so she’d spent a
lot of time in Berlin and Paris and all over. She spoke quite a few languages,
and she enjoyed speaking them, and our interview was primarily in French so that
she could practice her French. She was very pleased with the way it went, and
at the end of the interview she said, “I think I’ll probably offer you the job,
but I wrote to one other person from whom I haven’t heard yet.” I took out the
other letter and said, “I am the other person.” So that’s how I got into
publishing.

What was the agency like?
It was primarily doing foreign
rights for other agencies but also representing a French literary agent who
controlled most of what was coming out of France because, in France, most
authors don’t have agents. They give the rights to the publishers. And this
agent in Paris, who was represented by my boss in New York, had an arrangement
with Gallimard, the main literary house in France, to represent all of its
authors. The husband of the Paris agent had been a friend of Hemingway’s and
various other American authors who had been in Paris at the time and had sold
Hemingway, Dos Passos, and practically all of the other major American authors
of that period to Gallimard. In exchange, Gallimard was giving her many of its
French authors who had come out of World War II, people like Sartre and Camus.
When I got there she had just sold a book by Camus called The Stranger to Knopf for, I think, three hundred fifty dollars.
I was nineteen and I was amazed that you could get paid to read books. Although
I was also a gofer. I did all the dirty work. I did the filing. I did the
bookkeeping. I’d go to the post office to get stamps or to the bank to get
money because in those days you still used those things. But the main thing I
liked was reading the books that came in. And instead of just limiting it to
the books that came from the agent in Paris, I started going through the French
equivalent of Publishers Weekly
to see if there was anything else that might be interesting. I had no idea what
we could sell, but when I’d see something that I wanted to read, I would ask
for a sample copy. It was a good way to build up a little personal library. You
have to remember that books were extremely valuable in France because during
the war there was no paper. There were really small printings. So if you owned
a book by André Gide, for example, all of your friends would want to borrow it.
You owned something really valuable.

So I’d go through
these catalogues and if something caught my eye I’d ask for it. At one point I
asked for three books by this Irishman who was writing in French called
Beckett. I read them and thought, “This is really quite interesting.” I started
sending them around—they were in French—and I’d get letters saying, you know,
“Pale imitator of Joyce” or “Unreadable prose.” Finally, one day, a man named
Don Allen came to the office. He was working for Grove but on a freelance
basis. He was doing the same thing for New Directions. He saw these worn copies
of the three Beckett books on my desk and said, “Oh, you have Beckett?” I
probably said, “You’ve heard of him?” He
took the books and about a month later Barney [Rosset] called and said he
wanted to buy them. He made a very generous offer: a thousand dollars for the
three of them. Since everybody knows that novels sell better than plays, we
divided it up so it was two hundred dollars for Waiting for Godot and four hundred dollars for each of the novels,
which were the first two novels in the trilogy, Molloy and Malone Dies. The third one, The Unnamable, wasn’t written yet. And then it took ages for the books to be
published because Beckett decided he wanted to translate them himself, which
meant rewriting them.

Who were some of the other
writers who were important to the early part of your career?

There was Camus. There was Sartre.

Did you have relationships with
those guys?

Not with them. Sartre did actually
come to New York during that time. But he stayed in a cold-water flat that had
no telephone, so it was difficult to communicate and I didn’t get to meet him.
I was only at the agency for three years before I got drafted into the army.
This was in 1950 during the Korean War. I had a choice of serving in the French
army or the American army. The French consul told me that I would be better fed
and better paid in the American army, so I decided to serve in the American
army, and I did for two years. I was sent to Fort Devens for basic training and
was put in a Tennessee National Guard unit that had been activated and needed
to be brought to full strength with draftees. We were sent to Iceland to defend
Keflavik Airport against a possible Communist takeover. This was in the days
before jet engines were common and planes couldn’t cross the Atlantic without
stopping somewhere. When we got to Iceland, the army, which was not any more
efficient than publishing, realized there was no one to pay the troops except
for a warrant officer who was leaving. They looked for a volunteer to take over
the job. Most of the Tennessee boys were totally illiterate and couldn’t do
arithmetic, so I started paying the troops. And when the air force came in,
they kept me because I had all the records. I was in charge of a little
division that looked after travel pay. I would compute officers’ claims for
reimbursements or per diems and so forth. I had two air force people working
under me as well as an American civilian girl named Bunny, who I didn’t consort
with after hours because she’d go to the officers mess and…who knows what she
was doing. [Laughter.] Anyway, I was
very good at my job and the officers loved me because they usually had a hard
time getting their money. As a result of that I got two thirty-day leaves to go
to Paris, hitchhiking on air force planes. So I spent two longish periods in
Paris and got to meet the French publishers for whom I’d been selling books in
America. One was rather terrified when he saw me because he was a member of the
Communist party—he was the rights director at Gallimard—and to be seen with
someone wearing an American uniform did not give him much pleasure. Those trips
were very useful because I’d corresponded with these publishers but I hadn’t
met them.

When
I got out of the army, I’d agreed to go back to the agency for a year, but I
didn’t really want to. I thought maybe I would work for a publishing house
instead. But nobody seemed particularly interested in hiring me because having
a language was not considered any more useful than it is now because nobody
wanted to do translations. So when I left the agency after another year, I got
a letter from the head of one of the French publishing houses, Editions du
Seuil, that said, “Should you decide to start your own agency, I’d like you to
represent us in America.” I was sort of amazed by that because I was shy, I was
in my early twenties, I didn’t have much self-confidence, and the idea of
somebody else having any confidence in me seemed amazing. So I decided to do
that, sort of on the side, while also taking advantage of the G.I. Bill of
Rights and taking courses toward a master’s at NYU, where I’d already, at
night, gotten a B.A. in English. When I went down to NYU I met a woman in the
elevator named Germaine Brée who had just become the head of the French
department that day. We started chatting and I said, “Let me know if you ever
need somebody to teach a conversation course. I’m very shy and maybe that will
help me get over it.” She said, “Fine,” and the next day her secretary called
and said, “You’ve got three courses.” But they weren’t conversation
courses—they were languages courses. So that’s what I did. I got a master’s
and taught French for six years and did agenting on the side. But I only
represented French publishers. No one else was doing that. I would go over
catalogues and go to France twice a year, which was tax deductible. Not that
there was much to deduct since none of this was bringing in much money. But I
was actually being paid by the G.I. Bill—it was different than the World War
II G.I. Bill—and I didn’t have to pay for my courses since I was a graduate
student. I was getting a bit of money from NYU, maybe a thousand dollars a
year, a bit of money from the government, and a bit of money from selling the
occasional book for very little money.

Tell me about some of the
editors you were getting to know.

The one I knew best, and the one
who was incredibly nice and generous to me, even before I went into the army,
was Mike Bessie, who was then at Harper and later started Atheneum and then
went back to Harper. He was very interested in France. He’d been a journalist,
he was fluent in French, he’d been in army intelligence in World War II, and he
was very cultured. I did, of course, meet Blanche Knopf, who was also fluent in
French but knew very little about literature. I was somewhat intimidated by her
but I also found her slightly ridiculous. With Sartre she had decided that he
was a novelist and a playwright but systematically turned down all of his
nonfiction. So all of his essays and philosophical writings were published by
minor firms like Philosophical Library or Citadel. When I took him over it was
with The Words, which I sold to
Braziller. But all of those books should have been with Knopf. I remember
having lunch with Blanche. She was extremely gracious. If we had lunch in a
restaurant she’d say, “Last year when we had lunch you ordered gigot, but I
remember that you like it rare and I don’t think they do it very well here.
Maybe you should try….” She was sort of amazing in that way. But I also remember
having lunch at her apartment, which was in the building where Michael’s is
now, on Fifty-fifth, where the Italian Pavilion used to be. It would be the two
of us and her poodle, Fifi. She’d say, with her raspy smoker’s voice, “Mr.
Borchardt, what is interesting in Paris right now?” I’d say, “Well, there’s
Michel Butor, who’s just written a new—” She’d lean over and say, “Fifi! Don’t
do that! This is my Balenciaga suit! I’m not going back to Paris until next
spring! You were saying, Mr. Borchardt?” [Laughter.]

What other editors and
publishers made a big impression?

I became very close with Bob
Gottlieb, who was at Simon & Schuster. He knew French, and his French was
particularly fluent if he’d had a drink. At one point later I was very
impressed when he decided to memorize the whole of Valéry’s “Le Cimetière
Marin,” which is a very long French poem. That was really quite impressive. He
was a junior editor at Simon & Schuster when I started agenting on my own.
I had been introduced to someone important at Simon & Schuster, who of
course didn’t want anything to do with a somewhat useless agent who had
practically no books, and she handed me off to Bob, who then called about once
a month and said, “They just gave me money to take someone out to lunch. When
are you free?” I think he called me so often because he couldn’t take out a
real agent, who would have been insulted to be seen at lunch with this kid, who
not only was fairly young but looked ten years younger. He may have been
twenty-five, but he looked fifteen. He wore sneakers when nobody was wearing
sneakers. He looked terribly unimportant. And he was fairly unimportant, although by then I think he was
already allowed to buy the occasional book. So we would have lunch, sometimes
in a restaurant and sometimes in Central Park, and I actually sold him Michel
Butor and eventually de Gaulle’s war memoirs, even though the first volume had
been published by Viking and had done very badly. He also asked me to help out
a friend of his named Richard Howard, who stupidly enough had translated a
short novel by Jean Giraudoux without checking to make sure the rights were
free. But they were, and I got it published by a little firm called Noonday
Press, which was an independent house at the time. And then this same Richard
Howard started translating other books, many of them for Grove. He also
translated de Gaulle’s war memoirs for Bob and he got invited to the Elysée in
Paris.

So
there was Bob. There was also a very smart editor at Knopf who spoke French
named Henry Carlisle, who was the father of Michael Carlisle and who later became a
writer. But the editors were all sort of in the background. They weren’t listed
in the Literary Market Place. Editors
were considered, by many publishers, a semi-necessary evil who were nearly as
unpleasant to deal with as authors or agents. [Laughter.] Agents were at the bottom, then authors, then
editors. If all three of them could have been gotten rid of, publishing would
have been a nicer, more clubby industry. I remember selling Henry a book called
The Notebooks of Major Thompson
that became a mini best-seller. Knopf had this little bulletin in which Alfred
would write a letter, and in one of them it said, “Next spring we are
publishing The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos, which Blanche snapped up in Paris on her last
trip.” I remember calling Henry and saying, “This is outrageous! You bought
this book here, from me, and you should be the one who gets the credit.” He
said, “Oh, no, calm down, that’s just how it is….” [Laughter.]

I’ve
already mentioned Mike Bessie. I was able to sell him The Last of the Just, which was Atheneum’s first best-seller. There were
the Wolffs at Pantheon, Kurt and Helen, to whom I tried to sell Night. But nobody wanted Night. I have a letter from Blanche Knopf saying something
like, “You’re wasting your time with Elie Wiesel. He will never find an
audience in this country.” I have a long letter from Kurt Wolff, which
unfortunately says nothing. It says, “You’re right. This is a great book.
Usually when you send a book you don’t make many comments. I assume that if
you’re sending it, it means you feel we should publish it. In this case you
said it’s something we have to publish. And you’re right. But for reasons that
I’ll explain to you the next time we have lunch, we just can’t do it.” I don’t
remember if we ever had that lunch or if he ever explained their reasons, so
I’m afraid that will be missing from your interview. I could, like most people
who write their memoirs, invent a nice story. I’ve never understood how people
can write their memoirs in such detail. I don’t remember details about 99
percent of what has happened in my life.

There’s
Braziller, who bought a lot of French things even though he didn’t know French
himself. From time to time he would take out an ad in the French equivalent of Publishers
Weekly
, and many French publishers thought
he was one of the biggest American publishers. Dick Seaver worked for him for a
while before he moved over to Grove, where I dealt with him a lot because he
was Barney [Rosset]’s French guy. Barney knows some French but Seaver was
really quite fluent and he’d lived in Paris.
Dick
and I were friends for years and years.

Do you have any great stories
about Dick or Barney?

With Barney the relationship always
had its ups and downs. I liked him a lot, and I liked the books he did. I also
sold him a lot of books, including Story of O, which, later, during one of his bankruptcies, he had to give to
Random House. It’s still selling very well. I remember him often being angry at
me for one reason or another. I remember complaining to Don Allen once and
saying, “What’s wrong? I’m bringing him all these books and I’m certainly not
hurting him in any way….” Don said something like, “Barney is a rooster. You
can’t have two roosters in one henhouse.” [Laughter.] I think that is sort of true of Barney. But Barney
can also be very generous. And I like him.

But there were moments when he would
get very angry at me for one thing or another. I remember once going down to
Grove Press because they hadn’t paid their royalties or something. The first
thing Barney said was, “I never bought a book from you that I hadn’t heard
about before.” I said, “That may be true, but you still owe me….” [Laughter.] But to some extent he was probably right. It was
sort of irrelevant, but he was probably right because everybody had potentially
heard of these French books. They were published in France. And I had heard
about them and asked to represent them. Although by then I had exclusive
arrangements with several of the publishing houses, two of which we still
represent: Seuil, the original one, and Minuit, who have been Beckett’s
publisher and also publish Elie Wiesel’s Night. Night,
incidentally, now sells about six hundred thousand copies a year in its Hill
and Wang trade paperback edition in America.

How did you meet Elie Wiesel?
I met him because I was trying to
sell Night, unsuccessfully. The French
publisher wrote to me and said, “Elie Wiesel now lives in New York,” where he’d
come from Paris to be the UN correspondent of an Israeli newspaper. One day he
came over to my apartment, which was also my office at the time, limping with a
cane. I thought it was the result of his concentration camp experience but it
turned out that he’d been hit by a taxi and broken practically every bone in
his body and was still recovering. I have a letter, actually, where I wrote to
the French publisher saying, “I met Elie Wiesel and you’re right, he seems
quite nice.” We finally sold the book to Arthur Wang.

How much did you get for it?
Two hundred fifty dollars, payable
in two installments and on condition that I find a British partner to share the
translation cost.

[Laughter.] How much money do you think
they’ve made on that book?

That’s the irony when you see how
publishing works. You don’t necessarily make the money out of the flavor of the
month. The real money, if you’re in it for the duration, comes from books like
that—from books nobody wanted—be they by William Faulkner or Elie Wiesel or Beckett
or many others. Unfortunately, that argument is totally unconvincing to
publishers now. If you’re an editor at Random House or one of the other large
firms, you can’t say, “We’re not going to make any money on this book for the
next three years, but in ten years everybody will be envious of us for having
it.” The guy you’re saying it to has two years to go on his contract, which is
about to be renegotiated next year. What good does it do him to have a book
that will bring in money ten years from now? He couldn’t care less! He wants
the book that makes money now so he can
tell his bosses, “You should give me another contract for five years at twice
the salary.” So it’s become different, and I think that’s what’s weighing on
publishing, more than any of the other crises that come and go.

Did you become close with
Wiesel?

I did. We were both bachelors at
the time. We had the kind of relationship where you call up at six o’clock and
say, “Are you doing anything tonight? You want to meet at the Italian place on
Fifty-sixth?” He lived in a one-room studio on upper Riverside Drive. It wasn’t
much bigger than this room but it was filled with records and books. For some
reason he had a car and would sometimes drive me to the airport. I was living,
before getting married to her, with a woman who had been a student of mine at
NYU. In Elie’s memoirs he says something like, “I drove Georges and Anne to the
airport and during the drive Georges mentioned that Anne had decided to change
her last name to Borchardt. That’s how I found out that they had gotten
married.” Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. It could be. But we had,
indeed, gotten married, partly because we found it too complicated not to be
married. I would be invited to dinner by, say, Roger Straus. FSG was also
buying French books, and Roger had been very nice to me and would invite me to
dinner parties at his townhouse with really important people like George
Weidenfeld. These were fairly formal dinners and it was awkward to say, “Can I
bring a date?” If I was invited it was probably because they were a man short,
and by bringing somebody you upset the balance of the dinner. It seemed simpler
to be married. People had to invite both of you. So one day we went down to
City Hall and got married and then went back to work. [Laughter.]

My wife and I did the same
thing.

You probably had the same
experience. It gets too cumbersome to always have to explain the situation. And
your wife meets people who might ask her out for a date. It’s just simpler if
you’re married. I remember we were at a party, maybe at Henry Carlisle’s, and
there were several people there. Somebody told Anne about this new firm that
was starting: Atheneum. But by the time we got home, she’d forgotten the names
of the people who were involved, including the name of the person who had told
her, who had also asked her for a date, which she had turned down. I said,
“This one you probably should have accepted! I want to know who’s starting the
firm!” [Laughter.]

Did you make any big mistakes
when you were starting out that you look back on with regret?

I probably should have started to
take on English language writers sooner. But I was sort of nervous about it.
There were all these brilliant agents who had gone to Harvard and were members
of the Harvard Club, where all the editors would meet. Everybody in publishing
had gone to Harvard. Except the people at Scribner’s, who had gone to
Princeton. [Laughter.] I was a sort of
outsider, and I thought I’d remain an outsider, so it took me a while.

How did you come to represent
John Gardner?

We had a group of writers who came
more or less at the same time that included Stanley Elkin, Bob Coover, John
Gardner, and Sol Yurick. For some reason I seem to remember that Sol Yurick
came to us through George Steiner. He was a very close friend of Bob Coover’s,
who had been with Candida Donadio but became disenchanted with her. Bob had met
a marvelous editor named Hal Scharlatt who was at Random House at the time. He
had a collection of stories called Pricksongs & Descants. He told Hal Scharlatt that he was sick and tired of
agents and wanted to do the deal with him directly. Hal said, “You can’t do
that. If you do the deal with me directly, I’ll have to screw you [on the terms
of the contract].” Hal told him to come and see me. To humor Hal, he came to
see me, having already decided to tell Hal that it would not work. But for some
reason he decided to come to us, and he’s been our author ever since. He also
sent us Tom Boyle. They tend to come to us through each other. I can’t remember
exactly how John Gardner came to us.

Tell me about your experience
with him.

His editor was David Segal, who was
good friends with Hal Scharlatt. They both had been editors at McGraw-Hill and
I think both of them had been fired from there. The three of us became friends.
We were all sort of outsiders. They were interested in writers whom nobody else
wanted, and I was interested in the same writers. And since nobody else wanted
them, they were also the only writers I could get, particularly since people
would probably discourage American authors from coming to us by saying, “Oh,
isn’t that the French agent?” If you say that in a certain way it becomes very
negative. It took us a while to change that image. So John probably came to us
through David Segal. I know that David had published one of John’s books by the
time John sent us two manuscripts, The Wreckage of Agathon and The Sunlight Dialogues. I also remember, quite vividly, that, being an
extremely kind person, I gave Anne the shorter book to read, Wreckage
of Agathon
, and decided to work my way
through the long one, Sunlight Dialogues, not realizing that I’d given myself the much better book. [Laughter.] And I loved that book. By then David Segal had been fired by McGraw and gone to
NAL [New American Library]. The person who had fired him at McGraw had just
been appointed editor in chief at NAL. David called me and said, “I’ll be the
first editor to be fired twice by the same person.” He had probably called many
people saying the same thing, and he didn’t actually get fired, but I think
agents stopped sending him books because they figured he would. Then he moved
to Harper, which always seemed to have, at least briefly, a literary sort of
editor, although they were mainly doing nonfiction. And he acquired nothing but
duds. Not only did he publish John Gardner, but also Cynthia Ozick and Fred
Exley and other people who lost Harper money. So he got fired again. Then he
got hired by Bob Gottlieb at Knopf. But while he was at Harper I sent him Wreckage
of Agathon
and Sunlight Dialogues. He said, “I can do the short book but until this
author acquires an audience we wouldn’t be able to price the long one.” So he
only bought Wreckage of Agathon.
When he left and went to Knopf, I sent him Grendel and Sunlight Dialogues and he said the same thing. I said, “You can’t do
that. You have to publish Sunlight,
too. If you want to, you can publish Grendel first.” So he talked Bob Gottlieb into giving us a
two-book contract. They published Grendel, which did quite well—it probably sold about twelve thousand copies,
which was good, then or now—and then David died, in his early forties, having
pretty much drunk himself to death. Hal Scharlatt died at age thirty-eight,
walking off a tennis court. Those were big losses, two superb editors with good
taste and good noses. You need instincts in this business. It’s so
unscientific. You can never really explain why you love something. It’s like
any other form of love: you can’t really explain why you’re in love with
somebody or something. I think of the often-quoted sentence by Montaigne, when
he was asked about his friendship for La Boétie. He said, “Because it was he,
because it was I.” That’s about as close to explaining it as you can get.

Did you become friends with
Gardner?

We became good friends. I remember
he and his first wife taking our daughter and their two kids to the circus when
they were in New York. I remember going to Chinatown with them. They’d just
been in Greece, and his daughter was being very obnoxious—she isn’t anymore,
she’s very sweet—and trying to get attention by offering her Greek change to a
Chinese vendor. I have letters from John saying, “I know I’m one of the major
writers of my generation. All these people who don’t recognize me will regret
it.” Of course he was right, and one of the admirable things about writers is
that they really know they’re writers. I
mean, any normal human being would just give up. Why would you do something
that nobody wants? But they do, and they have this sort of inner feeling. He
was one of a kind. People often ask me, “What kind of relationship do you have
with your authors?” Well, each one is different, just as you have a
different relationship with each one of your friends. And you’re not exactly
the same person for each one of them, either.

Do you have any great stories
about Coover?

One amusing story about Bob comes
to mind. Some years ago he was asked by the New York Times to write an op-ed piece about the Intifada and
Valentine’s Day. The dates coincided. It was to run on a Monday, which was
Valentine’s Day. He called me on Friday evening to say that he had just heard
from the editor that they’d killed the piece because some higher-up at the Times objected to its ending, which was something like “as
the birds do, do.” Evidently the juxtaposition of the two dos was just too much for the Times. So they killed it. Bob asked me what I could do. I
said, “What can I do? It’s Friday night. Valentine’s Day is Monday. The most we
can probably do is get a story about what the Times did published in a magazine. But that would be
months from now.”

I sort of tossed and turned all night, and the next morning I
went to the office. It was Saturday morning. I remember that it was snowing. I
called Jack Miles, who was also one of our authors and whom I’d met when he was
the book review editor at the Los Angeles Times. Now he was a freelance writer for them and he knew
everybody there. I told him the story and said, “I know the L.A.
Times
hates the New York Times. This is a very good piece. Do you think they could
run it on Monday?” He said he’d make a phone call. I walked home for lunch in
the snow. The minute I got home, Jack called and said they wanted me to fax the
piece so they could read it. So I went back through the snow to the office.
When I got there I realized I’d never used the fax machine, which at the time
was fairly new. So I called Anne on the phone and eventually managed to fax the
thing. By then I’d gone back and forth through the snow several times and
wasn’t in a very good mood. I knew nothing would happen anyway. We were having
dinner with friends that night, and five minutes before we went off to dinner,
the phone rang. It was the L.A. Times. They said, “We’d like to run the piece, but we can only pay three
hundred fifty dollars.” Well, the New York Times, at the time, paid two hundred fifty dollars, which
I was going to make them pay anyway because they’d really accepted the piece.
So now Bob would be getting six hundred instead of two-fifty. I said, “Oh,
that’s okay.” [Laughter.] I
remember telling the story at dinner that night. When I was finished my
friend’s husband said, “But how much money do you make out of this?” I said, “Normally we would have
gotten twenty-five dollars before expenses, but this way we get sixty dollars
before expenses.” He looked at me as if I were totally insane. But to me this
was one of the highlights of my career.

You also represent T. C. Boyle.
Didn’t he say somewhere that in his opinion you are the greatest person who has
ever lived?

He tends to exaggerate, a little
bit, from time to time. But most of the time he’s right, of course. [Laughter.] When I first met him, he was the assistant fiction
editor at the Iowa Review and Bob
Coover was the fiction editor. But Bob had moved to England and Tom was doing
most of the work. I think Tom was impressed by the fact that I was actually
submitting short stories to the Iowa Review, which was paying something like thirty-five dollars
a story. One day he wrote me and said he had a collection of stories. Many of
them had been published in literary journals but also magazines like Esquire, maybe Playboy, but not the New Yorker,
which at the time wouldn’t have touched any of these authors because they were
using words that the New Yorker
didn’t recognize. And we managed to find a publisher for his collection without
too much trouble. Maybe three people turned it down. We sold it to Peter
Davison at Atlantic Monthly Press. Then he wrote a novel called Water
Music
, which was also published by
Atlantic. But Peter didn’t like his second novel, Budding Prospects, so we had to find him a new publisher. We sold it
to Amanda Vaill at Viking. Paul Slovak was the publicity director. He and Tom,
both towering over everyone else, got into the habit of hiking together and
became good friends. And then Paul later became his editor. Tom doesn’t really
require much editing. His books come in pretty much ready to go. And Tom and I
have become close friends over the years. It’s been great fun, and we’ve been
able to get him published all over the world. He’s a real writer. I often say
to people in the office that the kind of writer I like to take on is somebody
whose book you can open to any page, read a paragraph, and say, “Here’s a
writer.”

You also represent one of my
favorite nonfiction writers, Tracy Kidder. How did you meet him?

Tracy, too, is a superb stylist.
And there, too, we’ve become good friends. He had written a book for which he
had an agent. I don’t remember who published it or what it was about, but it
was a terrible experience and he doesn’t want to hear about that book anymore.
Then he wrote Soul of a New Machine,
which he sold to Atlantic-Little, Brown himself. I don’t know how he got
my name, but I remember that he came to see me, feeling that he had made a big
mistake, that he should have used an agent, that the publisher wasn’t going to
do anything for the book. This was before it was published. He was very upset.
I said to him, “There isn’t much I can do at this point. The first thing you
should do is call them and ask what the book’s advertising budget is.” In those
days publishers still had individual budgets for each book. Sometimes it was
zero, but they still had it. Now they just advertise their two main books and
do nothing for the others. But I told him that, and maybe one or two other
things, and within two weeks—I think the book had become a main selection of
the Book of the Month Club—he sent me a bottle of wine with his thanks. I had
really done nothing. I explained to him that he was more grateful to me for
having done nothing than most of my authors were when I actually had done
something. [Laughter.]

Then
he sent me three proposals for his second book. Two were business books and one
was a book about building a house. Well, to me, building a house was of no
interest whatsoever. In France, if you want a house, you buy some old stone
thing and make something out of it. But putting all this wood together? I don’t
know. To me it was totally uninteresting. And, in addition, the obvious
commercial follow-up to Soul of a New Machine was another business book. So he’d asked me to rank them, and I ranked
the two business books first and House third. Two weeks later he called me and said, “You know, House is really the book I would like to write.” I said,
“That’s fine. We’ll get you a little less money, but we’ll definitely get you a
contract. Don’t worry about it.”

Had Soul of a New Machine already won the Pulitzer?
Probably. I think that had already
happened. Anyway, I think he felt a little annoyed by my reaction, and he then
produced the most amazing outline I had ever seen for House. I called him and said, “I’ve changed the ranking.
This is now number one and the business books are two and three.” How he did
it, I don’t know. It was an impossible book to write a proposal for because it
was going to be an account of what would happen but hadn’t happened yet. I got
him an enormous contract for the
book. He was very surprised. He said, “Are you sure?” and so on. [Laughter.]

How did you sell it? Was it an
auction?

No. We just sent it to
Atlantic-Little, Brown, which had just been bought by Mort Zuckerman. We
asked for a certain amount of money and they reluctantly gave it to us. Mort
Zuckerman even came to see me at the time of the negotiation. It didn’t start
out very well because he saw a copy of Harper’s on our reception table and said, “Why do you have Harper’s and not the Atlantic?” I said, “Because Harper’s is giving us a free subscription and the Atlantic is not.” [Laughter.] I thought he wanted to meet because he might want
to renegotiate the advance. But not at all. He wanted to see about the
possibility of getting first serial rights for the Atlantic. He didn’t realize that if they had asked to make
that part of the contract I probably would have thrown it in. But they hadn’t.
[Laughter.] So he went back to
Boston with his scalp—that is, my concession that he could have first look at
first serial—and I did end up selling them first serial for another
twenty-five thousand dollars or so, even though the book itself ended up being
published by Houghton Mifflin. We’ve been Tracy’s agents ever since. And he’s
lovely.

Are there any writers who got
away? Whom you wanted desperately?

Oh, many. The one I probably regret
most is Jhumpa Lahiri. She would have been perfect for us and vice versa. She
just did a marvelous interview with one of our authors, Mavis Gallant, for Granta. I got the impression that Mavis Gallant is her
favorite author, and it sort of reopened the wound because I thought, “Did I
mention to her that we represent Mavis Gallant? Would that have made a
difference?” But maybe not.

You’ve witnessed such a long arc of contemporary
literature. You’ve seen fads come and go, seen various schools of writing come
and go. I’m curious about what seeing all that has taught you about the craft
of writing and what makes great writing.

It’s a gift, and I don’t know where
it comes from. I don’t think the writing schools bring you that gift. They may
help you develop it in some way, and they put you in contact with other writers
so that you feel less isolated and less lonely, but essentially what makes a
Cézanne a Cézanne or a Picasso a Picasso or a Proust a Proust or a Joyce a
Joyce, I don’t know. I can’t tell you.

So there’s nothing specific that
you’re looking for in a piece of writing?

No. I just want to fall in love
with it. Ask an eighteen-year-old kid who tells you that he wants to fall in
love, “What do you want to fall in love with?” What is he going to tell you? You don’t know until you’ve found it.
But when you find it, you know. How, and why, I don’t know.

I’m curious about your take on
nonfiction with regard to memoir and the issues of truth and accuracy that are
always being raised now, especially because you come from Europe where there
are different traditions.

I’m certainly not in favor of
lying. I think, basically, that nonfiction should be truthful. There are
certain liberties that the reader will accept. It’s a sort of silent covenant
between the reader and the writer. The reader cannot really expect the author
of a memoir to remember absolutely every detail. The reader has to allow the
author to say, “It was a very gray morning when I was taken to jail” even if it
turns out to have been a sunny day if you look up the weather in the almanac. I
don’t think that sort of thing really matters. There are things that are more
and less important. But I don’t think the author should deliberately lie to the
reader.

I recently read a
rather interesting book that the author quite honestly calls a novel. It’s been
published in France but doesn’t exist in English. It’s by the Moroccan writer Tahar
Ben Jelloun, and it’s a book about his mother. His mother was not literate. She
was married twice, had several children, and lived a long life. He wanted to
tell her story, about how she was sort of married off. He says himself that she
wasn’t going to tell him the whole truth, and he had no way of finding it out.
She’s not a historical figure. There are no records. He said, “I’m telling the
story as I see it, and I’m filling in some of the details with what I imagine
it must have been like.” That, I think, is fine. Even if he didn’t call it a
novel—which it isn’t, totally, either—all he has to do is write a brief
foreword to explain how he approached the story. He’s not cheating. He’s just
giving his subject a bit more body and substance. And there is a truth that you
can find in fiction that is just as powerful as the truth you find in
nonfiction.

But you can’t change things. I feel
very strongly—it’s one of my strongest feelings, I think—about lying. I
absolutely hate lying. But we all lie in a way. As I’m talking to you, I’m not
telling you everything I think. Nor are you telling me everything you think.
But I don’t consider that lying. It’s part of social discourse. I lied
constantly during the war, but it was a question of survival. I think that’s
fine. It’s unfortunate, but I had no choice. But I despise gratuitous lies or
lies that are meant to make you sound better than you are or, in a book, add
more panache to a story that might not work otherwise. If you need to do that,
you should write fiction. It’s a question of not betraying the trust of the
reader. But the fact that there’s an error? That doesn’t bother me at all. The
writer says there were eight people at the party and it turns out there were
twelve? I couldn’t care less. We don’t have perfect memories. You probably
haven’t been married very long, but you will find out that when you go to
parties, your wife will tell a story about something that you remember being
totally different. There may be elements that are the same, but it didn’t
happen when you were in St. Louis, it was when you were in Ottawa. As you get
older there will be more and more of those things. You will also realize that
you’re not 100 percent sure that you’re totally right either. And in the end it
doesn’t matter. In the early part of your marriage, which you’re still in, you
will still tell your wife, “That isn’t the way it happened!” But after a few
years you’ll realize that it really makes absolutely no difference.

Let’s
talk a little about the industry. You’ve been in it for several decades, over
the course of which it’s changed a lot, or at least that’s what people seem to
say. What’s your take on that?

It
has changed. Mainly it’s the shift from individual ownership to corporate
ownership. The individuals who owned the firms were, for the most part, the
sons of millionaires. They didn’t need to take money out of the firm. They
lived well before, they lived well during, and they had something very valuable
afterward. Knopf became very valuable. Farrar, Straus became very valuable. So
the heirs, I suppose, got a good amount of money. But the purpose [of founding
those firms] wasn’t really to make money. The purpose was the excitement
of publishing. It’s totally different now. Not so much at Grove/Atlantic or
Norton—those are two firms for which what I’m saying doesn’t apply—except
that they are competing against these giants. So if Grove/Atlantic has a book
that becomes a major best-seller, it can’t hold on to the author, even if the
author has made lots of protestations about how he will never leave the firm
because he’s in love with all the people who work there. Either he, or his
agent, or both, will decide that rather than taking a million from little
Grove/Atlantic, they’re better off taking six million from somebody bigger. So
they are affected by it too. The corporate thing has sort of poisoned the whole
industry.

What has that meant for writers?
It’s mainly meant that they’ve
become products. And that their main relationship is more with their literary
agent. In a way it has worked well for the agents. Their main relationship is
much more seldom with the editor because the editor’s position is very
precarious. You’ve already changed jobs like four times. That was most unusual
when I started in publishing. If you were an editor at Knopf, you stayed an
editor at Knopf. There are still editors at Knopf who have been there forever:
Judith Jones; Ash Green, who just retired; Bill Koshland, who was not an editor
but more the business person. When Bill was chairman emeritus, well after
Alfred had died and Bob Gottlieb had taken over, he would still take all the
royalty statements home and look at them to be sure they were right. Now
there’s no one on the editorial side of a publishing house who even sees the royalty statements. They have no idea what’s on
them. They have no idea whether the reserve for returns is outrageous or
justified. The person who decides on the reserve doesn’t know either. The whole
climate has changed.

What else has it meant for
writers?

Even the little things have
changed. There used to be a publication date for a book. Now nobody even knows
what the publication date is except when there’s an embargo. The pub date used
to mean the author would get a bouquet of roses or there would be a party.
There was practically always a party for the author. The birth of the book was
something to be celebrated. Now it’s just the question of “Do we admit to the
author that the actual printing is only one-fourth of the announced printing?”
It’s totally different. In fact, even the idea of two different figures for
printings—the announced printing and the actual printing—has come with corporate
publishing. Before, you printed a certain number of copies and that was what
you printed. There wasn’t the lie and the truth.

You’ve always been a champion of
so-called midlist writers. Has it become more difficult for those writers to
sustain their careers today?

I think publishers used to be more
committed to a specific author. But not always. I think the authors who are
really successful are even more successful today, in financial terms. Among our
authors, people like Tracy Kidder or Ian McEwan or T. C. Boyle. The authors
like Stanley Elkin always had to support themselves by teaching and would have
to today. So that isn’t very different except for the fact that maybe they see
one of their students being offered a six-figure advance all of a sudden
because he or she is doing something that a publisher thinks it can really
sell. Now, if the book doesn’t work, that’s the end of that career, half the
time.

It’s different. As
I’ve already told you with examples like Beckett and Elie Wiesel, the doors were
not wide open to those people either. The success of Grove Press, when it
started, was due to the fact that there were all of these marvelous authors who
nobody else wanted. Evergreen Review was
a marvelous enterprise that not only opened its doors to interesting writers
but also fed writers into the publishing company. Nobody has that kind of thing
now, even though Evergreen Review
was not unique at the time. There was also Ted Solotaroff’s American
Review
and New American Review. I think Ted was the first to publish Ian McEwan,
Philip Roth, Kate Millett. These publications were very, very important, and
there’s nothing like that now. There isn’t any publisher who’s really
interested in doing that—in nursing these seedlings and planning for the future.
Everybody wants instant gratification. So of course that has affected the
authors too.

But, in
general, good authors have always been fairly miserable. They are now. They
were then. It’s always been a somewhat alien existence. Most authors still need
to have a profession, usually in academia but not always, to sustain
themselves. Especially the better ones, who don’t want to compromise and just
want to write what they feel like writing. But I don’t think it has become much
more difficult. It has always been difficult. I would not advise any of my
friends to become writers as a career.

I think
you’re an artist because you have to be an artist. I don’t think it’s ever been
easy. It’s not easy for musicians. It’s not easy for painters. But it has never
been easy for those people. When Cézanne showed his first paintings, people
laughed at him. They thought they were ludicrous. Van Gogh only sold one painting
in his lifetime. To be an artist has always been
difficult. To be an artist in the United States has been probably even more
difficult than elsewhere because the arts are not considered all that valuable
here.

If somebody asks
you what you do and you say, “I’m a writer,” the next question will be, “But
what do you do for a living?”

page_5: 

How has your job changed as the
industry has changed?

I think there is more frustration.
We have to deal with all kinds of bureaucrats. We spend a lot of time arguing
about contract clauses. Every time a publisher hires a new lawyer or contract
manager, they decide to have new clauses and you have to argue about the
wording. And the bigger the firm, the less flexible it will be. Also, there
aren’t that many publishers around, so they’re all, in a way, in cahoots. It’s
not that they would sit down together and say, “From now on we’re going to do
this,” because then they would have the antitrust people after them. But they
might ask the assistant house counsel to call his or her buddy who’s the
assistant house counsel at such-and-such house and say, “What do you people do
about this?” And they find out that everybody—that is, the six big firms—are
now paying, say, 25 percent of net receipts on electronic rights. Okay, so
there may be a smaller firm that pays 30 percent, but why can’t they all pay 50
percent of net receipts like they did a few years ago? They can’t because they
have done a very close cost analysis and come to the conclusion, after weeks of
analyzing—analyzing what, nobody knows, because there are no figures to use
for this—that this is the figure. That
it really should probably be between 19.25 percent and 23.2 percent, but
rounding it out at 25 percent is a generous gesture and, in addition, that’s
what everybody else is doing. Now, does this matter at all, since there are no
sales of electronic books to speak of? I don’t know. But we spend a tremendous
amount of time dealing with these things because it might be worth something
and, like everybody else, we agents feel that if the publishers think it’s
worth something to them, it must be worth something to us.

But basically we
do what we’ve always done. I remember something my French mentor said to me
years ago when there were other issues. He said, “In the end the only thing
that really counts is the poor author in his attic in front of his typewriter
with his blank piece of paper and what he puts on it.” The only thing that has
changed is that maybe now he is no longer writing in the attic, and he has a
computer instead of a typewriter. But it’s still what goes on the page that
counts. And everything else really doesn’t. Eventually publishers sort of have
to do what the more important authors want. Look at the electronic thing. If
electronic publishing really takes over, the authors may discover that they
don’t need the publishers at all. But the publishers will always need the
authors to write something.

What would you change about the
industry if you could change one thing?

I would love to see half a dozen
sons or daughters of millionaires start their own firms, the way it used to be.
I think it would put pressure on the established houses to pay attention to
things they don’t pay enough attention to anymore. But I don’t think that will
happen. This question also isn’t something I think about very much because of
my own temperament. I’m very empirical. I feel that you deal with a certain
situation and make the best of it. I don’t really spend much time dreaming
about what could be. I’m not really interested in that.

One thing that always interests
me is how people view their jobs and their various responsibilities. How do you
view yours?

The main thing, obviously, is to do
the very best we can for our authors. To advise them as best we can. It’s
really different from author to author. It’s not necessarily advising them to
do what brings in the largest amount of money in the shortest period of time.
We have to think of their career—where they are, what their needs are—so it’s
different with each one. It’s not as complicated as it may sound. It’s usually
fairly clear and simple. But you have to be able to figure it out, and then you
have to find a way to come as close as possible to getting them what they want.
Practically any of our more successful authors could make more money by moving
to another house—you always get more when you’re auctioning the rights. But
you don’t want to do that with every book. With some authors the amount of the
advance is not the essential point because there’s a constant flow of money
coming in from their earlier books. For some authors, ego is the main concern
and the mere thought that someone else may be getting more money is much more
important. So everything has to be taken into account.

It feels like there are a lot of
different threats to authors out there today. What do you think is the biggest?

The main issue is that people may
read less. But there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s true—it’s always been
true in this country—that people seem to read a lot in college and then get
out of college and get a job and basically stop reading. We have two
granddaughters. They read when they’re on vacation, and one of them—the
younger one—has been reading all of these Stephenie Meyer books. But they
don’t read the way I read or their mother read. They don’t read regularly or
with the same kind of passion. They’re busy with their computers and phones.
They’re constantly chatting with each other in one way or another. And all of
that is changing reading. On the other hand, I’m encouraged by the fact that
more and more people are going to college. Some of our books that are read in
college—the Michel Foucault books, for example—are probably read more from
year to year. Beckett is probably read more. So all of the signals are not bad.
But there’s no point in worrying too much about things over which you have no
control, and where your opinions have absolutely no effect one way or the other
except possibly to get you depressed.

Do you feel competitive with
other agents?

I don’t really feel competitive. I
sometimes feel envious. Most people don’t like to admit to one of the cardinal
sins, and envy is perhaps the worst, but I think we all feel envy. Authors feel
envy when they see a book, even if it’s by a friend of theirs, reviewed on the
cover of the New York Times Book Review.
We’re all human. So yes, of course I feel envy, just as you would feel envious
if one of your best friends, who is an editor at God knows where or even at
Grove, gets a manuscript that becomes a hit and is written up everywhere.

Are editors different than they
were thirty or forty years ago?

I think they used to feel more
self-confident because they were rarely fired. Now, nobody knows if they’ll
still have a job the following week. I think they used to be allowed to spend
more time with their authors. In the old days, saying, “I don’t know how Joe is
progressing with his book and I’m going to spend a week with him to find out”
would not have been considered just another expression of the editor’s laziness
and unwillingness to do some real work in the office. The editor might even
have been encouraged to spend time somewhere with the author. Maxwell Perkins,
who is always held up as an example even though he turned down Faulkner for
Scribner’s, spent a tremendous amount of time editing two of the authors for
whom he’s best known, Fitzgerald and Wolfe. But now I think Maxwell would be
called in to his boss’s office: “You’re wasting too much time with this author.
His previous books haven’t sold very well and this probably won’t do any
better. Can’t you bring in somebody like Dan Brown who will really bring us
money?”

What do you think the best
editors do for their writers?

First of all, they encourage them.
They stay in touch with them without nagging too much. You have to find the
right balance. It varies with each author. But they should try to spend some
time with them. I think most authors would like to have a close relationship
with their editor. I have several authors who were so disgusted with their
editors that they have an editor whom they pay to edit their books before they
get sent in to their editor at the publishing house. Nobody ever hears about
it, and if they win the Pulitzer Prize or whatever, the official editor is the
one who gets the credit.

You’re not going to tell me who
those writers are, are you?

No. [Laughter.]

But can you tell me what editors
you work with in that capacity? Is it people whose names we would know?

The one who has done quite a bit of
this and is supposed to be terrific is Tom Engelhardt, who used to be at
Pantheon years ago. But there are others. Many editors who have been fired do
it.

What is your biggest frustration
with editors today?

The main frustration is one I share
with them: They can’t make a decision on their own. They have to go to
marketing people or other people who know nothing about what the editor and I
are talking about to get an offer approved. It’s not even just the
amount—different firms have different rules about whose approval you need in
order to go above a certain amount of money—as much as it is the mere
decision. When Bob Gottlieb was at Knopf, I’d send him something and he’d call
me three days later and say, “Why should I be publishing this thing? This is
not for me. This is not for Knopf.” Or he’d say, “Okay, what do you want for
it?” I’d tell him. He’d say, “That’s fine” or “We can’t pay that much.” One time
I even remember him saying, “The author can’t do this book for that little.
I’ll give you such and such,” and it was more than the amount I’d asked for.
But the whole thing would take five minutes. When Jim Silberman was the editor
in chief at Random House the negotiation would take two minutes.

Now you have the
feeling that it’s such a cumbersome process. Unless you have an auction going
for a book that everybody wants. Then, of course, it immediately moves to the
upper levels within the publishing house. I remember that Valerie had an
auction for a book that we’d gotten from England, and all of a sudden she had
six or eight editors bidding on it and people whom I won’t name but who are
known to be totally unreachable were calling her and saying, you know, “Just
call me on this number and I’ll do blah blah blah.” But that involved seven
figures. At that level everything is different. But at the normal level, things
are more complicated and you feel less of the enthusiasm. The enthusiasm gets
eaten away by the bureaucracy. But there’s still some of it. The amazing thing
is that publishing still attracts a lot of really good people—young people,
interesting people—who really love to read and want to make it work. They just
accept that it’s more difficult. And so do we. There’s no choice.

That’s a frustration you share
with editors. Is there anything that frustrates you about the way editors have
changed, or the way that younger editors are?

They aren’t very different than
they were before. I mean, some start speaking this sort of corporate language
but others remain themselves. There are some things you see less often now, but
you didn’t see them much before either. I can give you two examples. One
involved Bob Gottlieb when he was the editor in chief of Knopf. He was doing a
book of ours by a French doctor that was called Birth Without Violence. It was a new method of giving birth that involved
giving birth in the dark and so on. I remember that Bob called me and said, “We
just got the cover in for this book. I think you’ll love it. Are you in the office? Can I bring it over?”
There is no editor in chief in New York today who would do that. But there
wasn’t anyone else then either.

I also remember—I
probably shouldn’t say nice things about other agents, but I can’t help it in
this case—something that Steve Wasserman did when he was an editor at Random
House. I sent him a long manuscript by Ted Draper, who used to write for the New
York Review of Books
. Steve called me the
next day and said, “I started reading this in the office yesterday and all of a sudden I realized that it was eleven o’clock at night. This is terrific. Of course we want to publish it.” I don’t remember
if he’d actually finished it, or if it took another week to do the deal, but
that’s the kind of reaction I’d like to get more often: people who act on their
instincts; people who are genuinely excited about something. I don’t get it
often, but I never got it often.

Who else do you admire in the
industry? And what makes you admire them?

I admire people who have managed to
stick to their guns and do, essentially, what they set out to do. People like
Nan Talese, Kate Medina, Jonathan Galassi, or several of the editors at Knopf.
Of course they’re influenced by the environment—we all are—but they’ve
essentially been doing what they’ve been doing all along. So has Morgan, for
that matter. I don’t really know Morgan all that well, but I’m sure he could
have chosen an easier way of living. But he’s stuck to it. I greatly admire
Drenka Willen. The main reason I’m not mentioning other agents is that I don’t
really know them that well. Editors know agents much better. We know of each other, but we don’t really know what we’re
like. I’ve never seen another agent dealing with his or her authors. I’ve never
seen an agent dealing with an editor.

Tell me about some of the high
moments in your life as an agent.

One was meeting General de Gaulle
when I was in my early twenties. When I was a kid during the war, he was God,
and the only hope one had. If I’d stayed in France, of course, I never would
have met him. But because I’d come to America and done this thing that nobody
else was doing, it sort of made me different. So after I’d sold his war memoirs
here, his French publisher took me to see him. He was not in power then, but he
had these offices on the Left Bank. He was surrounded by nothing but people who
were six feet five and six feet six and so on. I went with his publisher, who
came from Monte Carlo and had this short Mediterranean build. So there we were:
two dwarves in the land of giants. That was incredibly exciting and heady for me. There was also an
interesting moment. The publisher, like many people from southern France, had a
tendency to talk a lot and very freely. He accidentally mentioned the name of a
magazine editor or journalist who was quite prominent at the time but had been
a collaborator during the war. When he realized what he’d done he tried to sort
of backtrack. But de Gaulle said, in a very kind voice, “Well, I know he was a
collaborator. But he isn’t a collaborator any more.” [Laughter.] So that’s one highlight. I realized that I’d done
something with my life that led me into territory where I never would have been
otherwise.

But
as the years have gone on I think I’ve become a bit blasé. There have been many
highlights—when my authors have won prizes and so on. It gives me great
pleasure, but it has become more frequent. For example I was with Anne
Applebaum when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag. But I was also with her for the National Book
Awards when she didn’t win. I was with her at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
when she didn’t win. I may have been with her at the National Book Critics
Circle Awards when she didn’t win. And just as I suffer from envy, I’m also a
sore loser and I don’t like to go to these events unless my author wins. But
the Pulitzer Prize is much more civilized because you know in advance and it’s
not a public humiliation. So that was wonderful.

I
also remember when Charles Johnson was nominated for the National Book Award
for Middle Passage. I pretty much knew
he wouldn’t win because you only have one chance out of five and why would your
author win instead of the four others? It’s a black tie event and I hate
wearing a tuxedo. I was trying to put on the little studs in the shirt that are
very pretty and belonged to my father, one of the few things I have, and I was
having trouble with them. I asked Anne to help. All of a sudden I saw that my
white shirt had little pink polka dots all over it. Anne had pricked her finger
with one of the studs and there were little spots of blood all over my shirt.
So I had to change the shirt. Thank God I had a second one. I don’t even know
why I did because I never wear the wretched things. I thought we’d be late and
I was in a foul mood. We sat at the Atheneum table. Atheneum had been bought by
Scribner, which had been bought by Macmillan. The head of Macmillan was there,
and the editor of the book and the publicist. But the head of Macmillan, who
didn’t know either of them, thought they were a couple. They were just two
employees. But they happened to be young and good looking, so I had to explain
to him that they were his employees and not a couple. Anyway, the whole thing
was stupid and ludicrous, and I was becoming more and more annoyed, and
somebody made a long speech, and then Charles won the National Book Award. [Laughter.] The mood changed totally. I can’t remember any
moment in my life when I had such a quick change in mood. The book had sold six
or seven thousand copies and I remember that people came over from Macmillan
saying, “Barnes & Noble just placed an order for x thousand copies” and so on. All of a sudden the
book had become a best-seller. I remember Charles asking me, “What’s happened?
Isn’t it the same book anymore?” And I said to him, “No, it isn’t!”

When are you the most proud of
what you do?

It’s usually when we have a new
author and I feel that we have really been able to change his or her life. That
would not really be true of people like Elkin and Coover and Gardner and Yurick
who had already been published. But it happens sometimes. I recently met a
writer whose life I feel I sort of changed because she didn’t have a life as a
writer before in a sense. It’s a young woman named Olivia Judson. She is the
daughter of a friend of Mike Bessie’s, who as I told you was one of my mentors.
He called me and asked if I’d be willing to see her as a favor. She had a
doctorate in biology from Oxford and had been deputy science editor of the
Economist
and was coming to America and
needed some advice. I immediately knew that she was incredibly bright. The
Economist
had allowed her to do two columns
under the name of Dr. Tatiana. They were a sort of mixture of Dr. Ruth and Dear
Abby. Animals would write in about their sexual problems and Dr. Tatiana would
give them an answer that was totally accurate scientifically. They would ask
something like, “My wife bit off an important part of my anatomy last night.
What do I do?” Dr. Tatiana would say, “Well, that’s what women are like, but
don’t worry about it, you’ll grow it back.” I’m making that up, but I do
remember learning from her that most seagulls are lesbians. I was so surprised
that I’d gone through life without knowing that. Anyway, I told her she should
write a book. We sold it to Sara Bershtel at Metropolitan. It was called Dr.
Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation
and it
did extremely well. We sold it all over the world. It was serialized in France
in Le Figaro, which is a daily
Parisian paper. We sold movie rights to the Canadian Discovery Channel,
although the result hasn’t been shown in this country because the Americans
found it too obscene. Now she’s writing another book for Metropolitan. She’s
written a number of op-ed pieces for the New York Times. She’s making a living as a writer. And she’s become
a good friend. I love the idea of improving somebody’s life.

There’s
also Bob Fagles, who did the translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I met him at a dinner party. He was complaining about the fact that
he’d translated a play that was supposed to be part of a series of translations
for Oxford or somebody. But nobody else had delivered their translations so the
project was stuck. He was very frustrated. The next year I met him again at the
same friend’s. Nothing had happened and he was even more frustrated. I said,
“I’m sure your contract must have a pub date. You can probably cancel it and
take the book somewhere else. Show me the contract.” I sold the book to Viking,
and then he did another one, and then he did the Odyssey, and then the Iliad, and then the Aeneid, and it totally changed his life.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
It’s
when you can bring good news to one of your authors. Their book just went into
a fifth printing. We found a home for that short story that we both liked but
so-and-so didn’t want. Or we just sold, say, Catalan rights to their book. Or
Basque rights. I didn’t even know there was such a thing! I knew there was a
Basque dialect but I didn’t know that people actually read in Basque. To be
able to make those phone calls gives one so much pleasure. Every day brings
some kind of crisis and unpleasantness, but just about every day also brings
something like that. I don’t make the calls about the translation rights anymore
because that’s our daughter Valerie’s domain. But I get a vicarious pleasure
out of the pleasure she feels, and the author feels, when she gets to make one
of those calls.

Jofie Ferrari-Adler is an editor at Grove/Atlantic.

Agents & Editors: Georges Borchardt

Jofie Ferrari-Adler is back with another installment of his series of interviews with publishing professionals. For the September/October 2009 issue, he visited legendary agent Georges Borchardt at his New York City office and talked with him about changes in the publishing industry, the importance of independent presses, and the question facing readers everywhere: Should I switch to a Sony Reader or Kindle?

Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Four Young Literary Agents

by

Jofie Ferrari-Adler

1.1.09

It must be obvious to anyone who has been following this series that I have an unabashed affection for the old guard of book publishing—and an endless appetite for their insights, their war stories, and their wisdom. But after a year in which “change” of one kind or another was never far from anybody’s thoughts, it occurred to me that the series could use a shake-up. Why not give the graybeards a breather and talk with some younger agents and editors? And while I was at it, wouldn’t it be more valuable to writers if I could get a few drinks in them first?

With that idea in mind, I asked the editors of this magazine to select four up-and-coming literary agents to take part in a roundtable conversation on the fine points of contemporary writing and publishing. One night after work we rode the subway to Brooklyn and congregated in the offices of the literary magazine A Public Space—located in a renovated horse stable with huge wooden doors that swing in from the street, vast ceilings, and an abundance of modern furniture and art—which were loaned to us for the evening by its gracious founder and editor, Brigid Hughes.

Within moments of making the necessary introductions, it became clear that I would need to confiscate everyone’s BlackBerry if we were going to get anything done (a problem that had not arisen in my previous interviews). Then the panelists sat down to a spirited conversation that was fueled by Mexican takeout, multiple bottles of wine, and several highly off-the-record digressions—some of which appear as anonymous exchanges at the end—that are probably inevitable at gatherings of this sort. Here are brief biographies of the participants:

JULIE BARER spent six years at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates before starting her own agency, Barer Literary, in 2004. Her clients include Zoë Ferraris, Joshua Ferris, Kathleen Kent, and Gina Ochsner.

JEFF KLEINMAN was an agent at the Graybill & English Literary Agency for seven years before cofounding Folio Literary Management in 2006. His clients include Robert Hicks, Charles J. Shields, Garth Stein, and Neil White.

DANIEL LAZAR is an agent at Writers House, where he has worked for six years. His clients include Tiffany Baker, Ingrid Law, Jennifer McMahon, and Matt Rothschild.

RENEE ZUCKERBROT was an editor at Doubleday before founding her eponymous literary agency in 2002. Her clients include Harley Jane Kozak, Kelly Link, Keith Lee Morris, and Eric Sanderson.

Let’s cut right to the chase. What are you people looking for in a piece of fiction?
BARER: I like what Dan has on his Publishers Marketplace profile: the book that makes me miss my subway stop. I think everybody’s looking for a book that you can’t put down, that you lose yourself in so completely that you forget everything else that’s going on in your life and you just want to stay up and you don’t care if you’re going to be tired in the morning. You just want to keep reading.
ZUCKERBROT: Doesn’t that have to do with voice? It’s about the way that somebody tells a story. It’s about a person’s worldview. There are probably very few new stories. We’re probably all ripping off the ancient Greeks—tragedy, comedy, yada yada—but it’s the way someone sees the world and interprets events. It’s their voice. It’s how they use words. It’s how they can slow things down when they need to. It’s how they build up to a scene. It’s how they describe ordinary things. Walking down Dean Street, for example. If I described that it would be the most prosaic description on the planet. But a really gifted writer will make me see things I’ve never seen even though I may have walked down the street a thousand times. At the end of the day, for me at least, it comes back to voice.
LAZAR: On my Publishers Marketplace page I say—because I’m so wise and pithy—that I want writers to show me new worlds or re-create the ones I already know. I generally find myself liking books that are not set in New York. Give me a weird little small town any day of the week.
BARER: That’s why I love international fiction. I love reading a book where I don’t know anything about the setting. I have this wonderful novel I sold this year that’s set in Sri Lanka. I didn’t know anything about Sri Lanka when I read it. Anything international, anything historical, anything set somewhere really unexpected. This is going to sound crazy, but I read a novel this summer that blew me away, and it’s science fiction. I’m not usually drawn to science fiction, but it was so inventive and original and smart, and it took me somewhere I’d never been. Finishing that book and having it blow my mind was such a reminder of why I love my job: You can read something so unexpected, and fall in love with it, and think, “I never would have thought this would be my kind of thing, but now I can’t stop talking about it.”
KLEINMAN: That’s my second criterion: can’t-stop-talking-about-it. I have three criteria. The first is missing your subway stop. The second is gushing about it to any poor slob who will listen. The third is having editors in mind immediately.
BARER: That’s so important. If you can’t figure out who you’re going to sell a book to from the get-go—if you finish it and think, “Who on earth would buy this?” and you can’t come up with more than three names—it’s a bad sign.
KLEINMAN: Not only that. I want to be thinking, “Oh my God, I’ve got to send this to so-and-so. So-and-so would love this.”
BARER: I have found myself going on and on about books I don’t even represent, books where I’ve lost a beauty contest. I remember one book I was going after. I was so obsessed with it that I couldn’t stop talking about it. I’d have lunch with this editor, dinner with that editor, and then I lost the beauty contest and the book went out on submission and five editors e-mailed me and said, “This was the book you were raving about, right? It’s awesome.”
LAZAR: What was the book?
BARER: It’s an incredible debut novel that’s coming out with Ann Godoff called The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet. Denise Shannon sold it and she did a fantastic job. It’s just one of those incredibly original books and I couldn’t stop talking about it. It was the same thing with The Heretic’s Daughter. I kept being like, “The Salem witch trials! Oh my God! Did you know that they didn’t burn people, they hung people? I didn’t know any of this!” You couldn’t shut me up. I was probably really annoying.

Aside from referrals, where are you finding writers?
LAZAR: I get most of my fiction through slush.
BARER: I found The Heretic’s Daughter in the slush pile. The author had never written a novel before. She had never been in a writing class or an MFA program. She came out of nowhere. She simply had this incredible story, which is that her grandmother, nine generations back, was hanged as a witch in Salem. Just because you have that great story doesn’t mean that you can necessarily tell it well, but it was an incredible book.
ZUCKERBROT: I still read literary magazines, and I’ll write to people whose work I like to see if they’re working on a novel or a short story collection. I found one of my clients—he’s a landscape ecologist who has a book coming out with Abrams—when he was profiled in the New York Times.

Where else?
BARER: Bread Loaf. The Squaw Valley writers conference. Grub Street, in Boston. I found the Sri Lankan novel at Bread Loaf last summer. I heard the author read for five minutes and was so blown away that I was basically like, “You. In the corner. Right now. Don’t talk to anybody else!”
LAZAR: I got a query through Friendster once. It was a good query, so I asked to read the book, and I went on and sold it. This was two or three years ago, when Friendster was still cool.
BARER: I have a lot of love for certain MFA programs. Columbia. Michigan. I try to go to those schools at least once a year and maintain relationships with the professors so they might point out people to me.
ZUCKERBROT: I actually found a writer who had a short story in A Public Space. I’m going to be going out with her collection soon. She’s been published in McSweeney’s, Tin House, etcetera. But I also have a lot of clients who send me writers. I hear things from writers I used to work with back when I was an editor. People in my family will tell me about writers. You sort of hear about writers from everywhere.
BARER: That’s exactly right. Clients come from everywhere and anywhere. And I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about agents that some writers have. They think we’re off in our ivory towers and our fancy offices in New York City. But the truth is that we’re looking for them. We’re waiting for them to come knock on our doors. I don’t mean our literal doors. Please don’t show up at our offices.
LAZAR: I once found a client through a mass e-mail forward. It was one of these funny e-mails. It had pictures of kids sitting on Santa’s lap and crying. It took me almost a year to track down where it came from, and it ended up being an annual contest that’s sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. So we put together a proposal and had a nice auction and Harper is publishing it this fall. It’s all pictures of kids sitting on Santa’s lap and crying. If any of my clients ever win a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize, nobody’s ever going to know it because I will go down in history as the agent who sold Scared of Santa.
BARER: I think finding an agent is a little like applying to college. If you know anybody who knows anybody who knows somebody who’s heard an agent speak somewhere, you want to try to use those connections. And there are so many resources now. There are so many books and Web sites. The more research you can do to target your query to the right agents, the better chance you have. The thing that frustrates me is when I get queries for the kinds of books that I just don’t do. Ninety percent of my list is fiction, and my Web site says I don’t represent military books or self-help books or prescriptive nonfiction. When I get that stuff I think, “Wow, you just wasted all this time. You should really be focusing on the agents who clearly have done a lot of books like that.”

When you’re looking at all these query letters, what are some things that make you sit up and pay attention?
LAZAR: When Evan Kuhlman wrote to me about Wolf Boy—this is a novel that Shaye Areheart published—he wrote a description of the book, and you could tell from the letter that he was a lovely writer, but I remember that he wrote about one character and the “museum of fucked-up things.” That one line stuck with me. I thought it was very specific and evocative. I think that’s what makes the best query letters. It’s hard to distill your magnum opus that you’ve been working on for ten years into one letter, but it’s great if you can get some of the specific details in the letter.
BARER: As a writer, you should be able to articulate what your book is about in a few lines. Obviously, great novels are about a lot of things. But if you can’t articulate the essence of what the story is, then maybe you haven’t figured that out, which signals to me that maybe the book isn’t coming together.
ZUCKERBROT: We don’t need to hear about all of the characters. You guys probably get the query letters that are like, “Suzy, the housewife…” and it goes on and on and you hear about everybody in the book. I mean, we don’t really need that.
BARER: It should be like flap copy. It should give you just enough that you want to read the book, but not so much that you feel like you already know everything about it.
LAZAR: I disagree with that a little bit. I’ve taken on lots of clients who sometimes have written rambling and kind of disorganized query letters. But there will be lines that jump out at you and you think, “Oh, I need to read this.” Even if the manuscript comes in and it’s rambling and long, if it has that spark that I saw in the query letter, then I don’t care if it’s rambling, because I can fix that. But I can’t fix a lack of spark.
BARER: The one thing that scares me is query letters that come in with accoutrements. Pictures. Little food samples. And the letter is all design-y.
ZUCKERBROT: Or they come on pink paper. All that stuff is a distraction from what’s important. It just tells me that they’re not real writers. I mean, could you ever imagine Marilynne Robinson sending out a query on pink paper? It’s not about the pink paper, and it’s not about the fancy font you choose. It’s about what’s on the page.
KLEINMAN: I just think that when somebody knows how to write, it’s so freaking obvious. It’s in the voice, it’s in the rhythm, and you know it immediately. It has nothing to do with anything else. It can be a letter that’s three pages long or a sentence.
LAZAR: Exactly. I would buy a shopping list if it was written by Stephen King.

Tell me ten things in the query process that can make you want to reject something immediately.
ZUCKERBROT: When I get an e-mail that says, “Dear Agent…” and I can see that I’m one of seventy agents who got it.
KLEINMAN: Bad punctuation, bad spelling, and passive voice.
BARER: Is it wrong of me to say that handwritten letters make me uncomfortable? Does that make me ageist?
LAZAR: Writers who will have a lawyer send you something “on their behalf.” It’s ridiculous, and you also can’t get a sense of the author’s voice, which is what the letter’s all about.
ZUCKERBROT: When people talk about whom they would cast in the movie version of the book. I received three of those this week!
BARER: Anything that says something like, “This is going to be an enormous best-seller, and Oprah’s going to love it, and it will make you millions of dollars.”
KLEINMAN: Desperation is always good. “I’ve been living in a garage for the past sixty years. Nobody will publish my book. You have to help me.”
BARER: I love it when they tell me why nobody else has taken it on—when they tell me why it’s been so unsuccessful.
ZUCKERBROT: Or they’ve come close and they will include an explanation of who else has rejected it and why. “Julie Barer and Jeff Kleinman said…”
LAZAR: If they’re writing a children’s book, they’ll often say, “My children love this book.”
BARER: Right! I don’t care if your children, your mother, or your spouse love it. All of that means nothing to me.
KLEINMAN: When it’s totally the wrong genre. When they send me a mystery or a western or poetry or a screenplay.
BARER: Don’t lie. Don’t say, “I read Kevin Wilson’s short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and I loved it so much that I thought you’d be great for my book.” Because guess what? That book isn’t coming out until next April. You just read that I sold that book, and you suck. You’re a liar! That kind of thing happens because everybody subscribes to Publishers Marketplace, and nothing against Publishers Marketplace—I live for it, it’s a very useful tool for me—but I think for writers it perpetuates this hugely obsessive cycle of compare and despair.

How else has technology changed things from your perspective?
BARER: The thing about technology that makes me sad is that we used to have a lot more conversations with people. And there are a lot of ways to misinterpret an e-mail. I sometimes have to stop and remind myself to pick up the phone. “It would be nice to catch up with this person and see what else is going on in their life. And we might get more out of it.”
KLEINMAN: I have a question. One of the things that drives me crazy is when editors don’t respond to me. What do you guys do?
[Expletives. Laughter.]
LAZAR: I have a trick that works every time. I use it a lot, so I should probably retire it at this point. But I write in the subject line, “People who owe me a phone call.” Then they open the e-mail and number one is “The Pope.” Number two is “Britney Spears.” Number three is “You.” Then I’ll say, “If you can explain numbers one and two, that would be great, but I’ll settle for number three. I’d love to hear from you.” They always get back to me. [Laughter. Compliments.] It’s good because it’s a little passive-aggressive, but it’s also polite.
BARER: I know an agent who once sent an editor who wouldn’t call the client a fake phone and phone card and a whole little package of messages. Like, “Hello? Pick up the phone!” It’s just astonishing and insulting.
LAZAR: I went over somebody’s head once. I went to the publisher.
BARER: I hate doing that!
ZUCKERBROT: I think it’s okay if you give them warning and say, “If you don’t call the client, I have no choice.”
BARER: But what about the editors who you leave a message with and say, “I have an offer on the table, are you even interested?” and they don’t call you back. Oh my god! It takes five seconds to shoot me an e-mail or have your assistant call me if you’re too busy.
LAZAR: I bide my time, and it never fails that a year later they’re going to come crawling back when they need a book. “Why didn’t you send me that?”

Why is that problem so common in our industry?
LAZAR: I think it’s common in every industry.
BARER: There’s no such thing as too busy. I have colleagues who are such huge agents, and they all find the time. I think it’s an ego thing, to be honest. They feel like “You’re not important enough. I don’t have to call you back.” Or sometimes it’s because they don’t want to give you bad news. That’s the other thing.

I can attest to that.
BARER: The truth is, I would rather have the bad news.

In my head, I know you would.
BARER: But it’s hard to give it.
ZUCKERBROT: I think it’s just bad business sense. I had the good fortune of working for a publisher once who returned every phone call, no matter who it was from, because it’s good business.
BARER: You never know where that submission is coming from. As an editor, obviously you’re inundated with material and you have thousands of agents calling you every week trying to sell you stuff. It must be hard to figure out how quickly you need to pay attention to something from some person you’ve never heard of. But the truth is, great things come out of nowhere. I always say to my authors, “Be really nice to your editor’s assistant. Because one day that editorial assistant is going to be an editor, and they might just be yours. This is a team sport, and if you don’t play well with others and give everybody respect…”
ZUCKERBROT: I also tell them that it’s nice to call your editor sometimes and just say, “Thanks. I’m really happy. I love what you’re doing.” That’s really unusual, and as someone who used to be an editor, that goes a long way. Thank the publicist. Send a letter to the publisher. Tell them how beautiful the book looks.
KLEINMAN: I like that moment, you know, when life is going along and you have this grateful author, and all of the sudden there’s like this switch. You can almost hear it—click—and all of a sudden they become entitled. It’s so cool to watch that. They become demanding. It’s like, “Hold on. You were really grateful last week. When did the switch go off?” I’ve started having conversations with authors about this.
BARER: I think that’s good. There are about five minutes where they’re so bowled over that they have a book deal, and then, five minutes later, not so much. What also happens is that they start to compare themselves to everybody else. “How come so-and-so got a Janet Maslin review? How come so-and-so got an ad in the New York Times Book Review? How come this person got that advance?” You know what? Stop looking around. Focus on your own book. Focus on your own career. It’s not about what everybody else is getting.

Tell me some common problems that you see in the work of beginning writers.
ZUCKERBROT: In a lot of cases, the story just sort of wanders off. You can say, “Well, there’s great dialogue. There’s great this or that.” But if there’s no real story anchoring it, who really cares, at the end of the day? You can have great characters, you can have interesting ideas, but there needs to be some narrative momentum, some narrative thrust.
LAZAR: I would say to start the story where the story starts. So often, the story doesn’t actually start until page five. Sometimes it doesn’t start until page fifty, but page five can be just as bad. As a reader, you just don’t get that far.
KLEINMAN: The big problem I see is that people don’t spend enough time with their books before they send them to agents. People are way too focused on getting published and not focused enough on really working on their craft.
BARER: You should revise it, and then you should put it away, and then you should revise it again. If you’re going to come back to me in three months and say, “I have a better version that you should look at,” then you should not have sent it to me in the first place. It’s amazing how many people do that.
KLEINMAN: Or they say, “I knew there was something wrong and I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”
ZUCKERBROT: I get those queries that say, “I just finished my novel….” And I think, “Well, now you need to write it three more times.”
BARER: Keep working on it for another year. Show it to everybody but me.

Talk to me about your ideal client.
BARER: I think an ideal client is somebody who is obviously an incredibly gifted writer who also understands that, these days, being a writer is more than just writing a book. A writer who is willing to participate in the publication. Brainstorming. Working with their publicist. Working with their marketing department. Getting themselves out there. Using their connections. It’s hard because I think a lot of writers happen to be introverts who are shy and kind of just want to be left alone to sit at their desks in solitude. I think it’s somewhat unfair that the business has changed so much and that we now rely on them. But we do. And, truthfully, the writers who are the most successful sometimes are the ones who are really willing to be a part of the business aspect of it.
ZUCKERBROT: It’s a business.
KLEINMAN: I would go a step further, or several steps further. I think it’s not just the author who’s really well connected—it’s the author who’s so well connected that he’s sleeping with a producer at ABC News or something.
ZUCKERBROT: You have to get out there. Now is not the time to sit at home and catch up on Sopranos reruns. If you have a high school reunion or anything where you can spread the word about your book, get out there.
BARER: If you’ve written a book, you should want people to buy it.
ZUCKERBROT: From reading Publishers Weekly and Mediabistro and all the newsletters we get, it seems to me that people are still looking for the magic bullet. It’s not Twittering. It’s not videos for books. It’s not whatever the latest trend is. So a lot of that falls on the shoulders of the author.
KLEINMAN: I want somebody who’s well connected and whose subject matter appeals to a specific audience.
BARER: And you have to think about what that audience is and then say to yourself, “Okay, I’ve written a memoir about my mentally ill son. Now I’m going to write an op-ed piece about what happens when you’re poor and a single mother and the state fails you, and then I’m going to write a Modern Love column about how I met my husband and how I should have seen the signs that he was also mentally ill but I missed it and then I realized it when my son became mentally ill….”
LAZAR: This is a real client?
BARER: Yeah!
KLEINMAN: This is her life she’s telling you about. Her life.
BARER: My life. But yeah, this is a client, and she’s doing all of those things. She’s saying, “I want to do outreach to the mental health community.”
KLEINMAN: But that’s a memoir. The issue is novels.
BARER: But even novels. Look at The Heretic’s Daughter. The author was like, “I’m going to reach out to genealogical websites. This is a story about my ancestor and I’m going to reach out to all these places.” And her publicist and online people were amazing at helping her.
LAZAR: See, that’s the thing about these kinds of books. As much as an author can do, you’ve also got to have Little, Brown paying a million dollars for the book and having everybody focused on it.
BARER: Yes. That is absolutely true.
LAZAR: An author who really hustles can sell maybe five thousand copies on their own. But you don’t have a best-seller that everybody’s talking about without having a publisher who’s really throwing down. And they start throwing down by paying for it. Look at a lot of the books that work in a really big way.
BARER: You need the in-house support. Whether they paid five thousand dollars or five hundred thousand dollars, you need the whole company behind it.
ZUCKERBROT: It starts with the editor.
BARER: It starts with the editor. You need to have an editor who has passion, you need to have a publisher who’s behind the editor, you need to have a sales force that loves the book, and you need a publicist who really decides to put their reputation on the line for the book. Without that entire team support, it’s incredibly hard.
LAZAR: Can I clarify something? I’m not saying a book needs a million dollars. When I say a million dollars, I’m pulling a number out of the air, even though it’s not so out of the ordinary these days. I’ve never sold a book for a million dollars. [Author’s Note: This conversation took place two weeks before Lazar sold Anne Fortier’s novel Juliet to Ballantine for seven figures.] But you hear about these books—Jeff—that sell for a million dollars. [Whooping. Laughter.] And that’s how you focus people. Unless you’re an Algonquin and you’re smaller and more nimble and you can get the independent booksellers behind a book. Did anybody read that long article about what they did for Water for Elephants? They didn’t pay a lot of money for that book—actually, for them they paid a lot of money—but they made a concerted effort that a larger house usually wouldn’t make unless they paid five hundred or a million.
BARER: It’s not so much the money, it’s whether or not the house decides, “We are really putting all our energy behind this book. When we go out to lunch with [New York Times book critic] Dwight Garner or People magazine, we are going to talk about this book.”

But that usually only happens for a few people a season at a house.
LAZAR: Exactly. It’s a lottery.

So what are the other people supposed to do?
LAZAR: They’ve got to hustle.

Give me specifics. Tell me what they’re supposed to do.
BARER: In those situations, I end up on the phone with that author brainstorming our asses off. Using every connection I have. Calling the editor and asking who they know, who their friends are. Calling the publicist and saying, “Please, we’ve got to come up with something.”
ZUCKERBROT: You can do a bigmouth mailing on your own.
BARER: You send an e-mail to every friend and family member in your address book and say, “Help this book out.”
KLEINMAN: At Folio we have a marketing director, and this is what she does for a living. But even then, there are certain titles for which there’s nothing she can do. There’s just nowhere to get a toehold. As opposed to books where you can say, “Okay. We have a clearly designated market for this novel, and we can clearly go after x.”
LAZAR: Is there a book that she did that especially well for?
KLEINMAN: Yes. She worked on this Civil War novel I sold, Widow of the South, when it came out in paperback. She went and got a mailing list of five thousand Civil War groups and we sent them postcards and e-mails. Who knew there were five thousand Civil War groups? The point is, if you can figure out who the market is, you can go after them in a systematic way.
ZUCKERBROT: But sometimes publishers do that.
KLEINMAN: Publishers don’t do that. Publishers never do that.
ZUCKERBROT: Okay, maybe not five thousand.
KLEINMAN: They’re way too busy. They’re going to pay for the co-op and everything else, but they’re not going to do specific, grassroots marketing. They just can’t. But the main point is that you’ve got to get a grasp on the audience for a book.
BARER: But that can be hard for literary fiction. Sometimes you have a literary novel that doesn’t have a specific audience.
ZUCKERBROT: That’s where the independent bookstores are still so valuable, even though there aren’t as many.
BARER: But here’s the thing. I am the biggest lover of independents ever. I worked in an independent bookstore. Toby and the people at my local independent bookstore, Three Lives, hand-sold Joshua Ferris’s novel like nobody’s business. But at the end of the day, there’s a limit to the amount of stock that they are physically able to move. I think the ABA and IndieBound are amazing, and they’re looking for ways to build their presence and be a powerful force, but I think it’s still in development. They aren’t always able to move the same number of copies as a B&N Recommends pick. Unfortunately. I think they should. I think more people should be giving them business. Can I get up on a little bit of a pedestal for a minute? This is something I say at every writers conference I attend. If you’re a writer and you want to be published, go out and buy a hardcover debut novel and short-story collection tomorrow. And next month, do it again. Buy one every freaking month. Because if you want to be published and you want people to buy your books, and you are not out there supporting fiction and debut authors, you are the biggest hypocrite in the world and I don’t know who you think you are. I mean, come on, people!
ZUCKERBROT: But when you’re talking about literary fiction—books that can’t be boiled down to a sentence, and where you can’t target a specific group—how do books like that find their audience? You’re saying it’s not independent bookstores anymore. Do you think reviews still play a part?
BARER: I think it’s word-of-mouth. I think word-of-mouth does more than anything else.
ZUCKERBROT: But where is that word-of-mouth happening now? The Internet?
BARER: Everywhere. It has to be one of those books where everybody you know is talking about it, you see it everywhere you go, it’s being reviewed on every Web site.
ZUCKERBROT: Exactly. And the publishers are asking, “How are we supposed to get that buzz going when there’s so much noise and everyone is buzzing?”
KLEINMAN: You know what the answer is? The answer is the editor. I’m convinced that if you have a choice between an editor who is a great editor—who really understands fiction, how it works, how to shape it—versus an editor who is a cheerleader, I will always, from now on and forever afterward, take the cheerleader. For a long time I kept thinking, “It’s so important to have an editor who can shape the book.” I was such a moron.

But let’s talk about what your authors are doing that’s working. What are your authors teaching you about selling books today?
ZUCKERBROT: I have a client who everybody really likes. She’s smart. She’s thoughtful. She’s genuinely nice. Across the board, wherever she goes, everyone just wants to support her. That’s a huge part of it. You’ve got to be on your best behavior, even if you’re in a crappy mood. Always write thank-you notes. Help other writers. I have another client who’s like that too. So aside from being smart and writing something really terrific, I think you have to have people rooting for you.
BARER: I’m going to say something that I think will be really unpopular. It always surprises me when seemingly smart writers—I can’t believe I’m saying this, it’s probably because I’m drunk—who are obviously really talented choose the worst subject matter to write about. I want to say, “Look around you.” I respect and understand that some writers don’t like to look at other books while they’re working on something. But think about who wants to read about this character. If you have spent four hundred pages writing about a deeply unsympathetic person, or an event that’s already been written about ten times, or…I mean, the unlikable character thing is really hard for me to understand. If I don’t like a character, why would I want to spend four hundred pages with them? Why would you write a whole book about them? Am I wrong about that?
LAZAR: No, not at all.
ZUCKERBROT: But there are some authors who you tell that to—”This character isn’t likable”—and they think the character has redeeming qualities and is likable. I have an officemate who has this wonderful nonfiction writer who was working on his or her next book and picked some subject matter that was so obscure. The agent said, “Who is the audience for this?” The writer explained that he or she was really passionate about it. The agent said, “But who’s supposed to read this? You may be passionate about it—”
BARER: But you do want people to buy the book.
ZUCKERBROT: Right. It’s not that you have to write for your audience. But you have to keep your audience in mind. That’s a distinction you have to make. Every once in a while I’ll go to a writers conference and meet someone who says, “I don’t read contemporary fiction.” I think, “Next.” I don’t want to hear that you’re mired in the classics. The classics are great. They’re an amazing foundation to have. But if you are not reading what is being published today, and what is selling, who are you writing for?
KLEINMAN: It just depends on what you want as a writer. If you want to write literary fiction that’s beautifully done but will be published by a university press and won’t get a big print run, then that’s great. But don’t come yelling at us because we can’t sell something that’s not commercial enough. I just think it’s a different marketplace and a different kind of attitude.

I hear a lot of writers complain about how hard it is to get an agent. What do you guys think about that?
BARER: Try how hard it is to sell a book!
ZUCKERBROT: When you see a great query letter, or a book that’s really great, it stands out from the pack. Everyone’s all over it. Part of the problem is that most of the query letters we see are sort of generic sounding. People say, “I’ve written a book” but don’t tell you anything about who they are. They don’t list credentials. They don’t have to have credentials, but they should just say, “This is my first novel.” It’s not easy, but just try to write a really smart and thoughtful letter. I always think about the people in all these writing groups who spend years working on something. Share your query letter with the people in your writing group. Does your letter interest them?
BARER: I would also say that the first twenty pages count more than anything. As an agent, you have a limited amount of time, and if those twenty pages don’t blow you away…
ZUCKERBROT: And you get these people who say, “I enclose the first twenty pages, but it doesn’t get good until page seventy.” Wrong answer! I think, “Ditch pages one through sixty-nine.” I can’t send this to an editor and say, “Here’s this really great novel, and it gets good on page seventy.”
KLEINMAN: But on the other side of the coin, it feels like what people don’t want to hear—readers, editors, agents—is that the premise has been done. Or that it’s so bizarre that you can’t figure out what to do with it. I’ll give you an example. I went to this Web site for writers that I spend a lot of time on, and one writer had written a query letter about his book. The character is this guy who is sitting and trying to do something, and this client of his comes in, sits down, and blows her brains out in front of him. That’s how the book starts. It’s sort of interesting, but there’s also this huge yuck factor. You’re reading it and thinking, “Okay, I can’t imagine calling up an editor and saying, ‘So, I have this really yucky book….'” This author is having a real problem selling the book. No agent wants to even look at it. So what’s he doing wrong? According to everybody else, it’s all about writing a great letter. And that’s what he keeps doing: He’s going back again and again and again to work on the letter and make the letter great. Dude, the problem is—
BARER: You have to think about the story.
KLEINMAN: Exactly.
BARER: Every once in a while I think you can transcend that. You’ll have an author like Elizabeth McCracken who writes a memoir that sounds so devastating and yet she’s so gifted and it’s so well done.
KLEINMAN: But that’s not even the same universe as what we’re talking about. We’re talking about first novelists.
BARER: That’s right. You’re right.
ZUCKERBROT: The thing is, I don’t think there are any hard-and-fast rules. There are guidelines.
KLEINMAN: Do you think The Lovely Bones would have been published if it had been her first book?
ZUCKERBROT: I don’t know what it looked like unedited, so it’s hard to say. I only read the edited version. But I read it in bound galleys and I was hooked from the first sentence. I couldn’t put it down.
KLEINMAN: Well, I so could put it down that I actually threw it out the window. I didn’t even want it in the house with me.
BARER: I was a very bad judge of that book. I really liked it, but I thought, “This will be really hard to break out because it’s so upsetting.”
KLEINMAN: “I’ve got this great book about a dead nine-year-old girl.”
BARER: It’s so hard to say that to a woman. And let’s just put it on the record right now that women buy fiction and men do not. Step up to the fucking plate, men out there, and start buying some fiction—I mean literary fiction—because otherwise we’re all just going to keep that in mind when you’re trying to get published. Show yourselves! Apparently, for some reason, they aren’t. I don’t know why. You have these incredibly talented young male writers like Ben Kunkel and Nat Rich who are publishing books, and where are the young men who should be buying them?
KLEINMAN: Totally playing video games, and I don’t blame them.

What do you mean by that?
KLEINMAN: I just find that so much fiction these days doesn’t capture me.
ZUCKERBROT: Have you read Knockemstiff? Donald Ray Pollock, debut collection, set in Knockemstiff, Ohio, in the sixties and seventies? I read a lot of things and think, “Eh, I like it but I don’t love it.” I went gaga for this book. It’s one of the best collections I’ve ever read. I read it and thought, “I’m jealous that I didn’t represent this.” Now, I don’t know who’s buying it. It’s probably women like me who love Lee K. Abbott, Ray Carver, Richard Ford, those kinds of writers.
KLEINMAN: See, I don’t want to read short fiction. I don’t want to curl up with a collection of short stories. It’s totally boring.
BARER: You’re what’s wrong with literary fiction today.
ZUCKERBROT: It’s not boring at all! How can you say that?
KLEINMAN: I want to get captured by a book and find myself five hundred pages later—
BARER: You can be captured by a short story collection.
ZUCKERBROT: You totally can. Did you read Kissing in Manhattan by David Schickler?
KLEINMAN: No, I keep falling asleep before I can get started on those things. I see their covers and I want to fall asleep.
BARER: Lorrie Moore? Alice Munro?
ZUCKERBROT: Did you ever read Eudora Welty?
BARER: This is why story collections are so fucking hard. Ninety percent of the world doesn’t want to read them.

Tell us what isn’t captivating you.
KLEINMAN: If I want to read a book, and I’m going to spend thirty bucks, I don’t want to read about a bunch of characters who are going to come and go. I want to fall in love with these characters. I want to fall in love with these characters and the world they’re living in so completely—
BARER: Julie Orringer! Jhumpa Lahiri! Nathan Englander! There are so many great collections out there.
ZUCKERBROT: What about the people who say, “I don’t have time to read a novel”? Short story collection! You can start and finish in a short period of time.
KLEINMAN: No, to me the reason they don’t have time to read is because the books are not keeping their interest.

What is not keeping their interest?
KLEINMAN: I think there’s so much MFA stuff with such a standard voice and such a standard protocol. Everything is—
BARER: Jim Shepard’s last short story collection!
KLEINMAN: I’m falling asleep already.
ZUCKERBROT: I think it’s so personal. Seriously, that’s why I love something and another agent turns it down. It depends on your life experiences that you bring to that book at the moment. Does it speak to you or does it not? It’s the same thing with movies. There must be movies you love and I hate. It doesn’t mean they’re good or bad. I think that’s the case with a lot of literary fiction.
BARER: Fiction is subjective, and I really believe that part of what I take on and what I pay attention to depends on the mood I’m in and what’s going on in my life. If I have just had a horrible breakup, and a novel comes in that’s all about some incredibly intense love affair, I’m probably not the best reader for that book.
KLEINMAN: I think it’s much wider than that. I think the problem is that we’re all sheep. I think we’re all coming from the same complex. We’re all either in New York or affiliated with New York and have the same kind of vision because “this is the stuff that sells.” I think there’s a uniformity.

Now you’re talking about a problem with the publishing industry.
KLEINMAN: Let me tell you what I mean. I have a house in Virginia, and I have friends come down and visit. I had this friend of mine who edits diet books come to visit. We went to IHOP for lunch. She ordered an omelet. Have you ever had an IHOP omelet? You get an omelet and pancakes and toast and all this other stuff. When it arrived, she was frantic. She was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe there’s all this food. What are we going to do? How can these people do this?” She sells diet books. That is her market. That’s what she does for a living. I kept thinking, “You sell diet books and you don’t even know that this is how America eats.” And I honestly feel that’s how it is with fiction, too.
ZUCKERBROT: People in New York are out of touch?
KLEINMAN: New York is a whole different planet. And I don’t think writers and publishers are thinking about the market.
BARER: I disagree. I think there are still—and these might not be the seven-figure or even the six-figure deals—but there are still editors out there who fall in love with a story and feel there is at least enough of a hook that they can use as their marketing angle to take a chance that a book might be the next big thing. Or even if it’s not the next big thing, it’s still a worthy book to pursue. I have sold novels for not a lot of money to editors who feel like, “I just love this story and I can’t let it go. I can’t give it up.” And maybe it’ll be huge, because of some fluke, and maybe it won’t, but clearly this writer is gifted and this is a wonderful book and hopefully they will go on to do bigger and better things and turn into somebody like…think of all those writers for whom publishers got in on the ground floor.
LAZAR: Stephen King.
BARER: Ann Patchett.
ZUCKERBROT: Lorrie Moore.
BARER: Writers who were published for years and years and somehow their third or fourth book exploded, and it was because somebody stuck with them.

But now there’s so much emphasis on the first book because of how bookstores are ordering based on the sales track. If the first book doesn’t sell, you can be in trouble.
LAZAR: My first New York Times best-seller was by a woman whose first book sold for not a huge sum of money. But the reason it worked was because her editor, Jeanette Perez at Harper, threw down for that book from beginning to end. She was there from the beginning of the publication to the end of the publication. She bought the author’s next book, and she bought the author’s third and fourth books. On the first book, they changed the title three times. They changed the cover four times. And because they didn’t pay so much money for the book, it could have fallen through every single crack in the publishing floor. But Jeanette just did not let it happen. She’s wonderful to work with because she will get behind a book and push and push and push. An author can make a world of difference, but the level of success we’re talking about requires a publisher to get behind a book and get a lot of copies out there.
BARER: Put that book into stores. Convince your sales force that they need to convince booksellers to order that book. If the book is in stores, it has 100 percent more chance of selling than if it’s not in stores. If you only print ten thousand copies and people walk into Barnes & Noble and look on the tables and it’s not there, how are they supposed to know to buy it?
KLEINMAN: The publishers pay for that co-op.
LAZAR: Co-op is the most amazing thing. I have a couple of books that I’m watching, and these are not authors who are huge sellers. But they got three or four weeks of co-op and the books are selling twelve hundred or fifteen hundred copies a week. The week the co-op ends, the sales go down to two hundred. It’s like the book just disappears. That’s why I think it’s fair to let authors know that distribution and placement are so important. If you put something in front of people’s faces, they’ll buy it.
BARER: Having worked at an independent bookstore, I think it’s true that a lot of people don’t know what to read. They want to buy a book but they don’t know how to pick a book. And the easiest way to pick a book is if it’s on a table. I think a lot of book buyers don’t know that the reason a book is on a table is because it was paid to be put there. And I think publishers even choose which books are eligible to be paid for.
LAZAR: This is a really interesting subject because it’s something we all know about and talk about all the time, but as agents, we have very little control over. As an agent, one thing that I like is having control over things. Sometimes, watching a publisher publish a book, and knowing everything that we know and all the tools you need and all the things that should fall into place, and just watching a book…it’s so amazing when it happens and it’s so painful when you can just feel in your heart that it’s not happening.
KLEINMAN: That’s the reason we started Folio. I was going so insane thinking about all these things that weren’t happening. I kept thinking, “Why aren’t people doing something?” So we have a marketing person, a lecture agent, a bunch of things like that.
BARER: You took it out of their hands and put it in your hands.
KLEINMAN: When Harper was publishing The Art of Racing in the Rain, they published the James Frey novel on the same day. I was just ballistic. But I could call up the publisher and say, “Okay, I know you have a book that is going to be much more media important for you,” and I could at least say to them, “Let’s use my person.” It was this amazing power thing. All of a sudden I could feel the balance of power changing. “Oh, it’s not always begging the publisher to do something.” That was cool.

Do you guys think editors still edit as much as they used to?
ALL: Yes.
BARER: I think it’s a myth.
ZUCKERBROT: I think it’s a myth that might have been started by dissatisfied and unhappy authors.
KLEINMAN: Who says that stuff?
LAZAR: Just from having read [Michael Korda’s] Another Life, it sounds like in those days, on a scale of one to ten, if a book was at three, an editor could buy it. Today a book has to be at six or seven and then the editor can take it to ten.
BARER: The difference is not that they don’t edit. The difference is that they can’t buy it if it’s not at a certain level.
LAZAR: Yeah. They aren’t any more or less talented than editors fifty years ago, but their hands are tied when a book is not at a certain level. That’s why we have to spend so much time on the editing.
ZUCKERBROT: Also, editors today, as opposed to editors fifty years ago, spend most of their days in meetings. Editing is done at night and on the weekends. It’s a very different thing.
BARER: I think Dan’s point is really true. I will not send out a book until I’ve done three line edits and I cannot think of a single other thing that I can do to help it.
LAZAR: And the writers sometimes get—
BARER: They’re ready to kill me! They’re like, “Please, please let it go. Please, can’t we just try it?” No! I will not send it out until it is perfect to me, and then it will be edited again by your editor. But it will have a chance at actually selling.
LAZAR: What Renee said about meetings is so true. This week, for some reason all of these foreign publishers are coming to meet with us. Yesterday, I had five meetings not including my lunch date. My e-mail piled up, my desk piled up, and I remember getting back to my desk and calling someone back after the whole day had passed and thinking, “I will never again get mad at an editor I like who takes a day to call me back.” Now I understand that I may have caught them on the day when they had their editorial meeting, their jacket meeting, and their positioning meeting, and they just physically were not able to call me back. I remember getting back to my desk and going, “Where the hell did my day go?”

How else have things changed? Did everybody read that end-of-publishing article in New York magazine?
LAZAR: I read it and couldn’t decide if I should buy up every issue I could get my hands on and throw them off the top of the HarperCollins building, or if I should throw myself off and make it faster. But I talked to Amy Berkower and Al Zuckerman and Robin Rue, who have been in this business for a lot longer than I have, and they all said, “We read that same article every single year.”
BARER: People who are not in the business say that to me all the time. “Oh, isn’t publishing dying?”
ZUCKERBROT: But the music industry is dead. Of all the media that’s really dying or dead, it’s music. Books are healthy compared to music. But when people talk about the Kindle and the Sony Reader? Books are pretty much a perfect technology. So all this stuff about how e-books are going to—
KLEINMAN: You freak! What are you talking about? These things [grabs a book] are Paleolithic!
ZUCKERBROT: It’s portable. It lasts. If you want to read something, what’s broken about it?
KLEINMAN: I don’t want to read it there. I can’t search that. It’s heavy.
ZUCKERBROT: Are you serious?
KLEINMAN: I’m totally serious.
LAZAR: I agree with you, but I don’t think the Kindle is the answer. It’s going to be something that’s not here yet.
ZUCKERBROT: Maybe in fifteen or twenty years.
LAZAR: But whatever the iPod of books is going to be, it’s going to come sooner than we think. It’s going to change things.
ZUCKERBROT: But does that change the fact that people don’t read the way they go to the movies or the way they buy music? That’s the question.
KLEINMAN: No, the point is that you simply have to make the device and the medium more interesting to people who do listen to music and go to the movies.
ZUCKERBROT: Don’t you have to make the words on the page more interesting? Or is it a combination of the two?
LAZAR: Yeah, I think it’s both.

I just don’t see how the iPod-for-books analogy works. Books and music are different. The problem with music was that you had to carry around all these CDs or tapes. But you’re only reading one book at a time. Most people, anyway. And you want people in the café to be able to see what you’re reading so you can look cool and pick up girls.
BARER: It’s always all about picking up girls.
KLEINMAN: My wife and daughter do books on tape, and they love them. They take them to the car, then they carry them in to the CD player in the house, then they carry them upstairs and listen to them in the bedroom. The idea that an audio book is different from a printed book strikes me as just ludicrous. They’re the same thing.
LAZAR: I listened to audio books all through high school, and I loved them. But it’s different.
KLEINMAN: It’s a different experience, but it’s the same stuff, whether it’s on the page or you’re listening to it. It’s the same book. I’m saying that we should be thinking about something totally different. There should be a device that deals with the text in whatever medium it’s in, and obviously that’s why Amazon bought Audible.
ZUCKERBROT: Reading the words on a page and listening to them are not the same experience. I wish I was a neuroscientist so I could really explain it.
KLEINMAN: You’re doing the head of the pin thing. It’s not important. The point is that you have content that you’re downloading into your brain, and it doesn’t matter if you’re reading it or listening to it or touching the page with Braille. Words are traveling into your head, and however they’re getting there, they’re getting there. We need a single device that will do that and make it somehow interesting and exciting and fun and interactive. There’s all this stuff that books can do, and they’re not doing it. The answer is always, “This [holds up a book] is the perfect device. It’s perfect. It’s been perfect for five hundred years….”
ZUCKERBROT: What I meant is that when we talk about how to create more readers, people aren’t not reading books because carrying them in your bag is so difficult, or opening it to the page is so difficult.
KLEINMAN: I think it is.
ZUCKERBROT: It’s not. This is a technology that’s been around for a long, long time, and it works, unless you happen to leave it out in the rain.
LAZAR: I bet the Kindle would break if you left it out in the rain, too.
ZUCKERBROT: The point is, how do we create a new generation of readers? That’s one of the many reasons why Harry Potter has been so fabulous. We have to grow new generations of readers. And technology can help. I’m a dinosaur. I grew up with books and typewriters. But this new generation wants all the gadgets. They want to be able to play with it and they want to be nimble.
BARER: I have to say, I really hate this debate of either/or. That we’re either going to become this electronic world or we’re going to be dinosaurs. Hopefully we will continue to grow readers, and people will read in several mediums, whether it’s on their computers or on their e-book-version whatevers or on the printed page. The goal of agents and publishers is to keep finding ways in which we can reach as many of those readers as possible and provide as many opportunities for them to read our books as we can. Not just one way, but many ways.
KLEINMAN: That’s the problem. I don’t think that’s what publishers are doing now. They are going by the same old Paleolithic ways of doing things. They are translating this ancient technique of reading into the Kindle. But it’s the same thing. And I think it needs to be something different.

How do you feel that the consolidation of publishers has affected being a writer today?
KLEINMAN: It’s totally a drag.
ZUCKERBROT: As an agent, you have fewer places to submit. It’s supposed to be about competition. But if you go to Penguin, only one imprint can bid. At Simon & Schuster there’s a house bid.
BARER: At Random House they can bid but they can’t be bidding against just each other.
KLEINMAN: It’s not just that, it’s the loss of personalities.
BARER: They all used to have such distinctive personalities.
ZUCKERBROT: And now every house has like twenty-five imprints. The editors have their own personalities and their own styles, but sometimes I can’t differentiate which houses want what because there’s so much crossover. After a while, they lose their identities. What’s the difference between Imprint A and Imprint B?
KLEINMAN: It’s so insane when you go to these various imprints that sound so similar—they’re doing the same kinds of books—and they say, “This isn’t the kind of book we publish. This isn’t right for our list.” You’re like, “Dudes, your lists are all generic now. What are you talking about?” You don’t always get that, but sometimes you do.
BARER: Look at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I love HMH. But I loved being able to go to both of them because I felt like they had distinct flavors.
ZUCKERBROT: It goes back to what an agent can do with your book, and how to place it. That’s where it hurts writers.
BARER: Here is what kills me: Everybody is looking for a big book. Nobody wants to take the chance on a kind of unknown, odd debut novel that maybe you don’t pay a lot for. Even the houses that you used to think of, now they read the book and say, “We’re not sure we could get out fifteen thousand copies, and if we can’t do that, we don’t really want to do it.” It’s like, how do you know you can’t get out fifteen thousand unless you buy the book and convince yourself to try? They want a sure thing.
KLEINMAN: But you don’t know who the market is, you don’t know how to position this thing, you don’t know how to sell it to somebody. It’s a commodity.
BARER: But I also think it’s about the fact that every publisher wants a book that everybody reads. And when we’re talking about fiction, it’s impossible to know.
KLEINMAN: No. They just want books for which you can clearly delineate the market. It has nothing to do with everybody.
BARER: But I’m talking about literary fiction where maybe…I’ll give you an example. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite books of the last decade. I must have recommended that book to at least fifty people, half of whom were like, “You’re right, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” and half of whom were like, “You’re fucking crazy. I don’t get it. It’s weird. What is this book supposed to be? Is it science fiction?” If that was a debut novel, if it wasn’t Ishiguro, and I had said to a publisher, “Here’s a book that some people are going to love and some people are going to think is fucking weird,” it’s possible that a publisher would have said, “We’re looking for something that everybody’s going to love. We want a book that has mass commercial appeal.” That is not that book, and the times when publishers are willing to take chances on those books are fewer and farther between.
LAZAR: It’s true. But I think one of the reasons why agents exist is that after a while, fingers crossed, you get to a point where something like that can be a big book because you say so. “Because I say this is a big book, this is a big book.” Even if it’s weird. Look what Eric Simonoff did for The Gargoyle. Whether or not it sold well, he said, “This is a big book,” and it was.
ZUCKERBROT: If Nicole Aragi says, “This is a big book,” you don’t think editors sit up and listen?
BARER: Now we’ve just convinced all these writers to send their books to Nicole and Eric instead of us!
ZUCKERBROT: Everyone already knows who they are.

That’s an interesting point. How do you guys compete with people who have been around longer?
LAZAR: I compete. I either lose the author or I win them over with my enthusiasm, my speed, my ideas for their book, and the books I’ve done that I can point to.
BARER: I am so picky about what I take on. I really don’t take on a lot of stuff. So if I am so crazy about a book that I want to take it on, somewhere deep inside of me I believe that it’s not possible for somebody else to be as crazy about it as I am. So you will never have as passionate an agent as you will have in me.
ZUCKERBROT: But you also talk to them about your vision for the book.
BARER: You do a lot of editorial work with them.
LAZAR: You give free notes.
ZUCKERBROT: And sometimes you lose.
BARER: Sometimes it works against you. Some writers don’t want those notes. I have lost books where I have said, “Here’s what this book needs. I know exactly how to take it to the next level.”
LAZAR: Then you know what? You would not have been the right agent. For example, when I read The Art of Racing in the Rain, I admired it very much but I thought it needed a little more x, y, z, let’s say. I remember writing a very nice note to Garth and saying, “This is very impressive, but blah blah blah.” Well, the next thing you know, some other motherfucker sells it for $1.25 million the way it was. [Laughter.]
KLEINMAN: Call me a mofo.
LAZAR: Okay, a mofo. If I had taken that book on the way it was, I either would have put him through editorial hell or I would have sent it out the way it was and maybe—not intentionally—underpitched it and if someone tried to preempt it for, you know, a hundred thousand dollars, I would have been grateful.
KLEINMAN: You want to know how I handled that, just because I think it’s kind of interesting? I read the first fifty pages and knew exactly what was wrong with the book. I called him and said, “Here’s what you need to do to fix it.” He said, “Do you want to see the rest?” I was like, “No. There’s no point. I know you have to fix this first.” He was like, “Yeah, you’re right. I see exactly what you mean.” All I can say is, I don’t feel like I’m competing against other agents.
BARER: You never feel like you’re competing against them?
KLEINMAN: I don’t want to think about it like that. I feel like I’ve got to have a relationship with the author, and it’s me and the author.
BARER: Do you ever lose things?
KLEINMAN: Constantly.

Do the rest of you feel competitive?
LAZAR: I feel competitive with a certain pool of agents.
BARER: I feel competitive all the time. But some of the people I compete with the most are the people I admire the most. So when they get a book that I really wanted, I feel validated and really happy for them. But it’s impossible to not feel competitive in this industry.
KLEINMAN: What I hate is when you don’t know if something is out with other people. I had this woman, and I should have known that she had her book out with other agents. I wrote her this nice rejection letter, gave her my comments, and thought I was sort of done. Then she calls me up and we have a conversation about the freaking book. Then we meet at some conference and I talk to her about the book. She implements everything and sends me the book, and a week later I get, “I have an offer of representation.”
ZUCKERBROT: But maybe she was taking comments from a whole bunch of agents.
KLEINMAN: Probably.
ZUCKERBROT: And you could have asked her.
KLEINMAN: Oh, yeah, I totally should have. But I don’t think about it.
BARER: You don’t have to give exclusives to agents, but you have to be up-front and say, “Other people have this.”
ZUCKERBROT: I hate it when I’m in the middle of reading something and somebody e-mails me and says, “I just want to let you know that I’ve received an offer of representation and I’m taking it.”
BARER: Yeah, kiss my ass! Thanks so much for giving me an opportunity! But I think it’s okay to say, “I’ve gotten an offer, I’m considering it, and I’d love for you to read it as soon as possible and let me know.”
ZUCKERBROT: That’s the way to do it.
BARER: There’s no clock on this. If one agent offers you representation, and you have the book out with other people, that offer, if it’s genuine, will not evaporate. Take your time. Ask questions. Give other agents a chance. Don’t jump at the first guy who offers you a ring.
ZUCKERBROT: But they get scared. The other thing to remember is that you’re hiring an agent to work for you. It’s been flipped in such an odd way. You have all these writers who are so desperate. But the truth of the matter is, they’re hiring us to work for them.
KLEINMAN: So much of it’s about responsiveness. My favorite story is about this book I got from a doctor in San Francisco. He’d written this novel. He sent it to me on a Wednesday, and I was doing the whole “I’m going to be an important literary person” thing and I thought, “I’ll read it on my at-home reading day on Friday.” So I took it home on Friday and read the book and totally loved it. I called the author and said, “I would love to represent you.” He said, “Well, Elaine Koster just offered representation, and I’m going to go with her.”
LAZAR: Oh, man.
BARER: Not even a conversation.
KLEINMAN: The book was called The Kite Runner. [Extended whooping and laughter.] And I think he did absolutely the right thing. She was totally on the ball.
LAZAR: You lost The Kite Runner? I lost The Art of Racing in the Rain, but you lost The Kite Runner? That trumps everything.
KLEINMAN: The point is, I think so much of this business is egotistical agents who make writers wait.
BARER: But you weren’t making him wait.
KLEINMAN: I totally did. I was like, “I’ll read it on Friday.”
ZUCKERBROT: But that’s only forty-eight hours!
LAZAR: You know what? Thank God for those agents who make people wait. Because then we have an advantage. We’re faster.

What should writers know about agents that they don’t know?
ZUCKERBROT: We’re human.
KLEINMAN: Nooooo.
LAZAR: Don’t tell them that.
ZUCKERBROT: We’re overworked like everyone else?
BARER: We’re subjective readers.
ZUCKERBROT: We’re basically decent people who are just overwhelmed with submissions. What I always hear is, “Agents never get back to me. They don’t do this, they don’t do that.”
BARER: I had 175 e-mails today. I just can’t humanly get back to everybody in one day!
ZUCKERBROT: We’re always looking for new writers, but our priority is our existing clients. It’s a balance between taking care of our existing clients and finding new writers.
KLEINMAN: I have two things to say. First of all, I think all agents are sheep. I think they all follow the herd. They’re subjective, but they’re subjective within a limited vocabulary. They want to do certain kinds of things. So if they do commercial fiction, they like the same kind of commercial fiction. Because they know it sells. So that’s the first thing—agents are sheep. And the second thing…crap, I had this really good second thing and now I can’t remember what it is. Forget it, there’s only one thing.

What about you, Dan?
LAZAR: I’m so irritated by what he just said that I can’t think of anything.
BARER: I have to agree. I think that’s so wrong. I’m not a sheep.
ZUCKERBROT: Maybe a lemming.
BARER: I’m not a sheep or a lemming!
KLEINMAN: I just remembered the other thing. I think agents are absolutely no busier than any other human being in modern times. So Julie got 175 e-mails today. I’ll bet you most first-year lawyers get 175 e-mails a day. I honestly think it’s a job like everybody else’s—it just may take a little longer than others.
BARER: I’m not complaining about the fact that I get 175 e-mails a day. But I do want to speak to the busyness. Just because it may take me two or three days longer than another agent to read your material doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t be the best agent once I read it and fall in love with it.
KLEINMAN: I actually agree. Because you could have a bad agent read it fast.
BARER: Absolutely.
KLEINMAN: However, I think responsiveness is important. I think there’s a huge problem in this business because the balance is so shifted. I have gone out to lunch with big agents and felt like we had to order for three—me, the agent, and the agent’s ego.
BARER: But to me it’s not about ego. To me it’s that I want to give all my clients everything I have. I spend my day giving my clients as much attention as they need. Which means that it’s harder to find the time for new writers.
LAZAR: It’s also supply and demand. There are just a lot more writers out there who need agents than there are agents.
BARER: But the thing is, I’m always looking for new writers, and I want to represent new clients, but I really want to take care of the clients I’ve already made a commitment to. So if I have a client who calls me and is having a meltdown because they’re stuck in Arizona or something or they can’t finish a chapter….
LAZAR: What are you, a travel agent?
BARER: Yes! I am shrink and mom and lawyer and editor and marriage counselor. There are days when I spend five hours handling problems for somebody.
KLEINMAN: I think that’s a woman thing. I don’t feel like I do that at all.
BARER: That is 50 percent of my job.
LAZAR: That’s a dangerous thing to say: “I think that’s a woman thing.”
ZUCKERBROT: You don’t get calls from clients who say, “My husband’s left me,” or “Oh my God, my house burned down”?
BARER: “I’m stuck on this chapter and my kid’s in school now and I think that’s part of what’s making it so hard”? My job is to help them get through that.
LAZAR: You do become sort of an amateur therapist and an amateur financial advisor.

What is getting harder about your job?
BARER: Selling books. Selling good literary fiction is getting harder.
ZUCKERBROT: BookScan. If you have a literary writer with great reviews, but the sales aren’t going in the right direction, it’s really tough. The editor punches in the ISBN and there’s the sales history. It’s really tough if the writer’s third book hasn’t taken off.

So what are you guys doing, or trying to do, for writers who find themselves in that situation?
KLEINMAN: This is why we have people on staff. We have a marketing person and a lecture person. I think it’s really important for people in this business to be thinking outside the box. I really feel like so many of these agents are dinosaurs. They have a model that works for them because they have a huge backlist. Those backlist books keep selling, and that’s the way they work. But I don’t think that’s going to work in ten years. I think you have to be thinking of other ways of doing it. One of them, for instance, is speaking. People are speaking in different kinds of venues and selling books. The question is, How can you get those books tracked through BookScan? But there are answers to that kind of thing.
BARER: I think it’s important to think carefully about what the next book is. I often say to my writers, “What are you thinking about writing next, and why?”
KLEINMAN: But that’s still passive.
BARER: I disagree. I’ve had writers who had first books that didn’t perform extraordinarily well hand me fifty or one hundred pages of their second novel and I’ve said to them, “This will not break you out. I can sell this book. It will keep you in the midlist, but it will not help your career. Put this book aside and start something else.” And they have.
KLEINMAN: Can I ask a question here? I want to figure out how to change the dynamics of the power. Because no matter how you’re doing it, it’s, “Okay, write another book.” It’s always us saying to the publisher, “Please get that co-op.” It’s all about distribution. And we are powerless.
LAZAR: We aren’t powerless. But we can’t do everybody’s job. If that were the case, then I should just quit being an agent and become a publisher and do it myself. Which I’m not going to do, because I don’t know how to do it.
KLEINMAN: If you do, can I come work for you?
LAZAR: No.
KLEINMAN: He means that in a nice way. But to me a lot of it has to be a question of shifting the power and figuring out what the publisher can do really well and how we can get them to focus on the stuff they do really well. And the stuff that they can do really well and we can’t is distribution and co-op and getting those books into stores.
LAZAR: And they can do it aggressively and excitedly when they have a book that’s exciting. I think Julie’s point is a good one. I had an author whose first book, without going into too many details, just tanked. It probably sold less than a thousand copies. We had a long, long talk, and she’s really smart, and she changed her new book around. She got a new idea. She looked at books that were working and changed the way she constructed her second novel. And if that first book sold under a thousand copies, the new one isn’t going to sell a million copies, but it’s probably selling between five and ten thousand copies. Which is a step in the right direction.
BARER: It can sound really crass to talk in those kinds of terms. Sometimes I’ll meet writers and they’ll say, “Well, you’re not talking about the craft, you’re talking about the commercial aspect.” No, I’m talking about both. If you’re a really strong writer, then you should be able to really think about story. What story is going to appeal to a large number of people and what story is going to appeal to five people? The books that don’t work these days are those wonderful little books that I loved in the eighties—those very quiet, introspective, interior, family coming-of-age books. I loved those books. But they just don’t work anymore.

What is the worst part of your job?
LAZAR: Rejection on a book you love. When no one can see how brilliant you are. You think, “This book is brilliant and I’m brilliant for loving it,” but nobody agrees.
KLEINMAN: For me it’s getting fired. I’ve been fired by two authors so far, and I will never, ever forget it.
BARER: I would say that not being able to sell a book and having a book that you’ve spent two years editing, selling, and publishing die upon publication are equally horrible experiences. The other thing that writers may not realize about agents is that I lie awake in bed at night and I think about the books I couldn’t sell or the books I sold that didn’t work and it’s all I can do not to cry myself to sleep. It hurts us as much as it hurts them.
ZUCKERBROT: And you do postmortems. I sometimes think, “Why doesn’t everybody see this book’s brilliance? Did I somehow not do my job selling it?”
BARER: “Did I let the author down? Was there another editor I could have tried?”
ZUCKERBROT: “Did I go to the wrong editor at this house?”

What’s the best part about your job?
ZUCKERBROT: Discovering a great new voice and having lots of editors want to buy the book and then making a great deal. That’s really what it’s all about.
BARER: I have to agree. I think the first part is the greatest part of the job. When you finish a book and think, “Oh. My. God. This book is so amazing, and right now I am one of the few people in the world who knows how incredible it is, and pretty soon everybody will know. And I will help make that happen.” But nothing comes close to calling a writer and saying, “Your book is going to be published.”
LAZAR: Selling the book that you’ve had a hard time selling, and then having it work. Calling the author is really cool too. Their reactions are so funny because they range from dumbfounded silence to screaming in your ear. I’m like, “I’m not fucking kidding you, I’m not fucking kidding you.” One of the absolute coolest things is being on the subway and seeing someone reading one of your books.
KLEINMAN: I like plotting. I love the whole process that you’re all talking about, but I also love when you’re sitting down with this team of people and coming up with these plans, and you’re thinking it through, and you feel like you’re all working together. That’s really cool.
BARER: Acknowledgments! I love the acknowledgments! I love going to a bookstore and being like, “Look, there’s my name!”
LAZAR: Authors should always do that. When I get a finished copy of a book and it doesn’t have acknowledgments, I don’t feel bad, but it feels much better when you get acknowledged.

page_5: 

AGENTS ANONYMOUS
In the third hour of the conversation, glutted with food and alcohol, the panel agreed to speak anonymously on a range of subjects that would be awkward to discuss for attribution. The participants swore a blood oath never to reveal who said what, and a number of verbal tics have been altered in order to throw any sleuths off the scent.

Tell writers something they should know about editors but may not.
Editors are worried about their jobs. It’s a fact of life. It’s a business, and they can get fired, and they have to keep their jobs.

You’re probably going to have your agent for a lot longer than you’re going to have your editor.

The smaller the editor’s list, and the smaller the imprint, the more freedom they have to be selective about what they take on and the more time they have to be really responsive and really detail-oriented. It’s a lot harder for an editor who’s under pressure to buy a lot of books to be able to really be with you every minute.

Tell me about some editors who you think are really good for fiction.
I really like working with Stacy Creamer. I think she’s really smart and has a great commercial eye.

Reagan Arthur. She’s really selective, so when she loves something, you know that she’s insanely in love with it. She will go to the mat and do anything for the book. And I never feel like she is lying to me or giving me company bullshit.

The best editors are the ones who can get people in-house to pay attention. And they have the track record to show for it. You said Reagan, who has an amazing track record, and I would say Sally Kim.

I would sell a kidney to have a book with Courtney Hodell. She’s one of the smartest, most interesting people I know. When she buys a book, she is so passionate and articulate about it.

When writers are trying to pick an agent, what are some warning signs that they should watch out for?
They try to charge you money.

They promise you the sun, the moon, and the stars. They say, “I can get you six figures. I can get you national media.”

Agents who say, “This needs an edit, and let me recommend you to someone” who will charge you ten thousand dollars. A real agent should be able to help you shape something.

Somebody who says, “I’m really excited about your book and I’d like to sign you up,” and then three months later you still haven’t heard back from them.

Tell me how you feel about lunch.
Lunch is part of the job. Some days it’s really fun and you come back totally energized and inspired, and some days you come back and think, “In six months, that person is leaving publishing and I will never send them anything, they will never buy anything, and that was an enormous waste of my time.”

Sometimes you come back from lunch and you feel small and insulted and insecure.

It’s like having five blind dates a week.

Sometimes you score big time, and sometimes you’re like, “Could I have the waiter call me on my cell phone and pretend that I have an emergency?”

My most terrifying lunch, which turned out to be absolutely terrific, was when I had worked up the guts to start submitting to Julie Grau. After a while she invited me out to lunch. She called me the day before and said, “I’m going to bring Cindy [Spiegel] with me, too. Is that okay?” It turned out to be lovely, but I was so scared.

I had that same lunch with Sonny Mehta. I was like, “I…I…I…I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to get through this lunch and speak coherently.”

What are the dumbest mistakes that writers can make in terms of dealing with their editor or agent?
Saying bad things about them. Ever.

Sending seventeen e-mails about seventeen different things in one day. I mean, put it all together in one e-mail and think about whether you really need to be asking these questions. Think about how busy your editor is.

Going over your editor’s head unnecessarily.

When they don’t tell you about their next project. For example, they’ve written a great thriller that you sell, and then they write a horror novel. They say, “Guess what? I just wrote a horror novel.” You’re standing there with this horror novel and thinking, “What am I going to do with this?” They have to communicate about what they’re thinking about doing next.

Be very careful about what you blog. Not just talking about the publisher once you’re being published, but even before that. If I am submitting your book to publishers and an editor wants to buy it, they’re probably going to Google you before they even call me. And if they find things out there that are curious or disturbing? Just know that whatever you’re putting online is going to influence their perception of you.

If you take my rejection letter and post it on your Web site, there are few other agents who are going to be willing to put anything in writing to you. We look upon those writers in a bad way.

What are the biggest things that editors do that drive you crazy?
Besides not getting back to us?

I hate when an editor calls me and says, “I’m really, really excited about this project,” and then a week or two later they call back and say, “On second thought….” That usually means the publisher shot them down. A lot of young editors do this. They think that if they call back and say, “My publisher shot me down,” I won’t send them anything else. In reality, it’s the exact opposite. I’d much rather hear them say, “I love this book. I fought for this book. But the publisher said no.” What better excuse is there?

At least I’ll submit to you again. But if I think of you as a flip-flopper?

I hate it when editors toe the corporate line. They give you, “We don’t do that. At our house, we don’t do that.” Or they say, “We’re doing a great job. We are doing everything we can. I don’t know what you would expect from another house. We are doing everything that any other publisher would do.” You know what? It’s not true. You people only know what you’re doing, and I know what everyone else is doing.

I’d rather hear them say, “I have fought tooth and nail for more money for marketing, and they will not give it to me. I don’t know what to tell you.” At least they’re being honest. In those situations I blame the marketing department, I don’t blame them. Some of the most powerful editors in the world aren’t necessarily going to be able to convince the publicity or marketing departments to give their books more money.

Then they can come to me and say, “Here’s the thing. I fought tooth and nail for x, y, z. I couldn’t get it. You might consider—off the record—calling so-and-so or emailing so-and-so. Or going to your author and asking if they can contribute some funds to this.”

The editor who is honest with you about the real situation is giving you an opportunity to fix that situation.

But just to play devil’s advocate, I will call editors up and say, “Look, it’s just you and me here. We’re working together. We both want this book to succeed, despite the fact that your marketing and publicity people suck.” And the editor will say, “We’re doing everything we can,” as opposed to saying, “Okay, here’s the problem.” But if the agent is a certain type of very loud and powerful person who will go over the editor’s head and cause problems, then I can see why they don’t want to level with you.

But if you have a good relationship with the editor and they say, “Listen, here’s the deal. We have these five books all publishing this month. The other ones have really obvious hooks. Ours doesn’t. Sales is not responding to it. I don’t know how we’re going to get it attention,” then at least try to do something about it. But if you hide behind the corporate façade, then there’s no chance the book will ever work. And I will always feel like you are that team’s player and not our team’s player.

Are writers conferences useful for writers?
Yes, but not for the reason they think. The problem with writers conferences is that most of them are aimed toward getting the book published, and they should be aimed toward forming a community of writers who can communicate and help one another get endorsements and things like that.

When you’re on the fence about taking something on, what are the things that will push you one way or another?
Am I still thinking about it when I wake up the next morning?

I think, “I shouldn’t be on the fence.”

For me, “maybe” equals “no.”

Jofie Ferrari-Adler is an editor at Grove/Atlantic.

Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Molly Friedrich

by

Jofie Ferrari-Adler

9.1.08

A
few months ago, I was at lunch with a literary agent who shall remain nameless,
and the conversation turned to the subject of our favorite movers and shakers
in the industry. When Molly Friedrich’s name came up, my lunch companion—no
small dealmaker herself—lowered her voice and said something that surprised
me. “If I were a writer, I don’t see why you would sign with me or any other
agent when Molly is out there. What else could you possibly want in an agent?”

It’s a sentiment
that’s hard to dispute. The daughter of two children’s book authors, Friedrich
was born in London, raised in suburban Long Island, and graduated from Barnard
in 1974. She began her career in publishing a few days later as an intern at
Doubleday. Over the next two years she was promoted twice, first to assistant
editor and then to director of publicity at the company’s paperback imprint,
Anchor Press. After a year in publicity she took another new job—and a risky
step backward—as an assistant to the agent Phyllis Seidel. Soon she moved
again, joining the Aaron Priest Literary Agency, where she remained for the
next twenty-eight years. In 2006, she set out on her own and formed the
Friedrich Agency.

I
don’t think I can adequately convey the whirlwind of charm, passion, and sheer
personal magnetism that Friedrich has spent the last three decades unleashing
on the publishing world in service of her clients. Like many of her
authors—Melissa Bank, Sue Grafton, Frank McCourt, Terry McMillan, Esmeralda
Santiago, Jane Smiley, and Elizabeth Strout among them—she is a force of
nature. But behind the deep voice and the big laugh, there is also a Long
Island girl who was forced to grow up fast under challenging circumstances; a
young wife who left the corporate world because she didn’t want to raise her kids
by telephone; a brass-knuckle agent who admits she will go to the wall for any
novel—flawed or not—that makes her cry three times; and a mother of four who
wrote a children’s book, You’re Not My Real Mother!
(Little, Brown, 2004), after her adopted daughter told her precisely that one
day.

When
I arrive at Friedrich’s office in New York City for our conversation, I am
ushered in by another of her daughters, Lucy, who just graduated from college
and is working as her mother’s assistant for the summer. Friedrich’s office is
bright, warm, and unpretentious. The walls are painted with wide
yellow-and-white stripes that run vertically from floor to ceiling. But its
most remarkable feature has to be a memento that hangs on a wall in the corner:
a framed newspaper clipping from Christmas Day 2005, when two of her clients’
books, Sue Grafton’s S Is for Silence (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) and
Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man (Scribner), sat side by
side atop the New York Times best-seller lists for
fiction and nonfiction. As my lunch companion might have observed: How the heck
are you supposed to compete with that?

I always like
to start with a little background. Where are you from?

I’m the daughter
of two writers. I grew up in a family in which language was very important. The
one who is known, my father, is the one who got published and didn’t raise the
children. My mother, Priscilla, is the one who raised us. The two of them
collaborated on thirteen children’s books. The best book they wrote is called The
Easter Bunny That Overslept
, and it’s been
in print since 1957. It has been illustrated not once but three times and was
even made into a miserable television show for a while.

The
first exotic thing about me is that I was born in London. My parents met in
France and were married in Paris—they were both writing, my mother was
painting—and they lived a kind of faux-glamorous expatriate life. They had
three children in quick succession. The first was in Frankfurt, I was in
London, and my brother was in Paris. Then they moved from Paris to Long Island,
and they were penniless. They had no support from either set of parents. Those
were the days when even if you were educated and had children, you were
expected to suck it up and fend for yourself. The first place they lived was
with William Gaddis’s mother. She had a home in Massapequa and her house had an
unrenovated barn. And that’s where we lived—in the unrenovated barn. My one
claim to literary fame is that apparently there is a scene in The Recognitions in which the main character is describing a naked
two-year old on a summer lawn who’s putting pennies into a Woolworth’s plastic
beaded purse. Apparently that is yours truly. When I learned about it I
thought, “God, full circle! Even then I was counting money!” But I haven’t gone
back to see if it’s true. It’s a piece of family lore. I’m not going to
egomaniacally go back through that very long book searching for a possible
portrait of my two-year-old self.

I
guess the point is that I grew up very comfortable around books, comfortable
around writers who would come out to dinner parties and were always sort of
around. My father started out at Newsweek
and then was at the Saturday Evening Post for years. He started writing books then. He wrote a couple of
honestly not-very-good novels and then he wrote many books as a cultural historian.
But he never gave up his journalistic work. He needed to earn a steady,
consistent living because by then there were five children, the third and
fourth of whom were retarded. Today I am their guardian. The fifth child was
born eight years after the fourth one, and he’s the one who died in a plane
crash. So it’s a large and noisy family that’s complicated in the way of all
interesting families.

Where did you
go to college?

I went to
college at Barnard and graduated with a BA in Art History. My father would not
allow me to major in English. He felt very strongly that if he was going to pay
tuition, which he did, and that if I was going to be reading books all my life,
then there was absolutely no reason for him to underwrite four years of
studying Melville. So I tried to figure out the thing I could study that would
be the one thing he didn’t know about, and that was art history. I studied the
early Italian renaissance. Then, of course, there was the question of “What do
you do?” What do you do with a BA in Art History from Barnard, when you
basically can’t do anything but analyze the diagonal composition of a great
painting? Not useful! My parents were very consistently clear that when we graduated
there would be no support. We were not to have any kind of meltdown, we were
not to reveal any learning disorders—if we had them we were to keep them to
ourselves. We were to get on with it, and sort ourselves out, and always live
within our own incomes.

How did you
get started in publishing?

When I was still
in Barnard I was renting a room from Connie and Tom Congdon, who was an editor
in the apex of his fabulous commercial book editing life because he was the
editor of Jaws. Tom said, “You should go
into publishing.” I called my father because he was the one who could be
counted on for an honest response. He said, “Absolutely not. Publishing is what
people go into when they don’t know what else to do.” I said, “But that applies
to me!” Congdon said not to pay attention to my father. He said he’d get me an
interview at Doubleday. And I do give good interview, as you will learn by the
end of this evening. I was a great interview—very confident—and I had done
all kinds of interesting things because I’d been working every summer from the
age of thirteen on. I’d also gotten pretty poised about being around adults,
kind of old beyond my years, I guess, especially with my brother and sister as
they were.

But
then I had to take the typing test. They knocked off ten points for every
mistake, which gave me a score of negative thirty-five. They said, “We’d love
to hire you, but…” and I went away. I decided to spend the second semester of
my senior year typing the op-ed page of the Times every day. I went back for that typing test two more times, and I was
finally hired at thirty-seven words per minute as an intern at Doubleday. I
think I was hired really for tenacity alone. It was a great program that they
have long since discontinued. You got to spend about two weeks working in every
conceivable department: the different editorial departments of Doubleday, the
copyediting department, rights and permission. You got to go out to Garden City
and deal with the purchasing offices. You got to go on the road with a sales
rep and watch books not get placed. Even back then, in 1974, books were
skipped. It was really a devastating experience to observe secondhand.

At
the end of four months you got to choose where you wanted to go, and naturally
I said editorial because I have no imagination. I had the choice of working
either in Doubleday trade or Anchor paperback, which back then was about eleven
people. It was really big. I went to work as the assistant to Loretta Barrett,
who was the editorial director. It should be noted that almost everybody who
was at Anchor at the time—aside from Bill Strachan, who has no sense—has
become an agent. Marie Brown, Elizabeth Knappman, Loretta Barrett herself, Liv
Blumer. We are all agents.

Tell me what
those early days were like for you.

Anchor’s list
was fairly academic back then. There were about 135 books published a year, of
which 60 percent were reprints and 40 percent were trade paperback originals.
The fact is, I had grown up in a family of extremes. My youngest brother, Tony,
was brilliant, and so was my older sister, Liesel. I didn’t test well. I didn’t
learn easily. And I didn’t consider myself especially bright. But I was a huge
overachiever. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that if I
simply worked harder than anybody else, I would do fine. I saw the same thing
at Doubleday. It was great. People would give me work and I would do whatever I
was told. I had all kinds of time because my husband was still a sophomore in
college—I’d gotten married by then—and he had no time to talk to me anyway.
In those days you also got paid overtime, which was essential because I was
making six thousand dollars a year. We were really quite penniless, and
overtime was what kept the wolf at the door. So I did whatever I was told. I
wrote flap copy. I put books into production. I consulted the art department on
jackets. I gave books their titles when no one else could think of one. I read
whatever I was told to read and even what I was not asked to read.

Mostly,
I taught myself how to do the job. When I started working for Loretta, I had
inherited this adorable little office—it was really an outer office—with a
huge window. But I had no view because the window was blocked by old filing
that was stacked up and covering it. I decided that I was going to see my view
by the end of six months. That was my goal. Very Prussian. So every night I
would stay late and file. And I never filed anything without reading it. That’s
how I learned how things worked. I learned how people were presenting books,
who was buying what books, what Sam Vaughan had decided to publish as opposed
to what Lisa Drew was doing in trade, etcetera. I honestly had nothing better
to do than to be ferociously ambitious. And there was nothing stopping me.

And you immediately
knew that you enjoyed the work?

Oh, yeah. It was
great because everybody was so grateful. People were so happy that I was there.
Loretta would always thank me. The authors were grateful. But even then I think
I had a sense of myself. I remember there was this one agent who called up for
Loretta. I guess Loretta hadn’t returned her call, and the agent just started
screaming at me. I said, “Excuse me. You
are not speaking to Loretta. You are speaking to Loretta’s assistant. You may
not talk to me like this. Would you like me to have her return your call? And
if she doesn’t, you can count on the fact that it is not because I didn’t tell
her. But do not scream at me.” This woman immediately backed off. When I met
her years later, I said, “You’re the screamer!” She had no recollection of it
at all. But I guess even then, if I think about twenty-two-year-olds and how
easily frightened they are, I had one thing that was working to my advantage. I
didn’t realize it was an advantage until I was in the business a little longer:
I had a really good voice. I had a voice that was low, and a voice that bespoke
an authority I did not feel. I could use my voice to help me wing it. I would
speak to authors who I had never met—they were all over the country—when I was
impossibly young as though I knew what I was talking about. I would just try
and get the job done, solve the problem at hand, give my boss as little as
possible to get aggravated about. And the response from Loretta was enormous
gratitude.

So
I’d put books into production. I’d say, “Would you like me to edit this book?”
She’d say, “Well, yeah.” And why not?
Who says that I couldn’t edit? Why not learn by doing? What is editing, really,
except an experienced eye learning how to respond to a manuscript? Learning
when a passage in a manuscript simply falls apart. Obviously Loretta read all
the editorial letters that I wrote at midnight and one in the morning, showing
off for her. My job at Doubleday was to distinguish myself. And I did.

How did you
work your way up?

Oh, fast. They
had a sort of indentured servant system. You know, first you were an intern,
then an assistant, then an assistant to the editor, then an editorial
assistant, then an associate editor…. I mean, talk about hierarchical! You
could die waiting. You could be thirty.
I had no time for that. I’d been there for about two years. Everything was
going very well. I was a fully contributing, noisy person. I went to all the
editorial meetings. People were learning that they could count on me. If
somebody gave me something to read, I would never let them down. I might let
them down with my opinion, but I wouldn’t let them down by making an excuse of
my life. I made it clear that I was somebody who could be approached for almost
any problem. I spent a lot of time socializing, going to the cantina, whatever.
I’m very social.

So
then the Anchor Press publicity director, Liv Blumer, left to become the
director of publicity for Doubleday trade, and I was offered her old job as
head of publicity for Anchor. That was a big jump. I wasn’t sure that I wanted
to be in publicity, but I recognized it for what it was, which was a big jump.
It seemed like a really good thing to do—to learn how to run something, to
hire people, to learn how to promote and publicize books. And I knew I’d be
good at it. That job was very good training for me when I became a baby agent,
a year later, because it taught me how to present books that no one really
wanted to hear about.

Did you like
doing publicity?

In my opinion,
the two jobs that are the most exhausting in this business are the jobs of the
foreign scout and the publicist. The reason is that there is never an end to the job. If you’re a scout, there is
always another book you can cover, another house you can do well by, another
report you can write. If you’re a publicist, for every eighty letters you
write, and eighty ideas you try, there are seventy-nine that don’t work. But
the only ones that the author hears about—and the editor hears about and your
boss hears about—are the ones that work. It is a thankless and really
difficult job. But I did it.

Were you any
good at it?

I had one
fabulous moment. I’d started, and I was doing everything. I had hired a woman
who had no experience in publicity. She had just finished getting her MA in
Shakespeare’s Apocrypha at NYU, which proved to be totally useless. So there
were the two of us—clueless. Meanwhile, the big book on Doubleday’s trade list
that year was Alex Haley’s Roots, so no
one wanted to listen to a publicist for Anchor Press. Everyone was deliciously
over-focused on Roots.

After
six months at the new job, I decided I had earned a vacation. One of the books
I had been publicizing was from the “Foxfire” series. It was a wonderful book
by Eliot Wigginton called I Wish I Could Give My Son a Wild Raccoon. In my reading I had come across a newsletter that
was written by a woman named Kay Sexton. It was a newsletter called the “B.
Dalton Newsletter” that was put out by the bookstore chain. I read the
newsletter and thought, “This woman really needs to know about the specialness
of this book.” So I wrote her one of my two-page letters introducing myself and
telling her what the book was about and why she had to know about it and get
behind it. “All the proceeds are going to Reading Is Fundamental…. Eliot
Wigginton is wonderfulness himself….” I never heard a word from her. So I was
going on this two-week vacation, and before I left I told my assistant that I
was going to call at the end of the first week to check in. This was in the
days before cell phones, obviously. So I called my assistant from a payphone in
a bathing suit and said, “Anything going on?” She said, “Molly, you won’t
believe it. You’ve got three bouquets of flowers!” I said, “What?” She said,
“It’s so exciting—your entire letter is the subject of the ‘B. Dalton
Newsletter.'” Kay had written something like, “In all my years of doing this
newsletter, I’ve never heard from anybody at Doubleday until I finally received
this extraordinary letter from one Molly Friedrich, who urged me to take a
serious look at I Wish I Could Give My Son a Wild Raccoon. Her letter is so powerful that I print it here in
full. Please adjust your orders accordingly.” The reason I was getting flowers
is that you could see a direct difference from before the newsletter came out
and after. Usually, the marketing people, who pay the advertising people, are
always taking credit. You never know whether you have actually, tangibly made a
difference. Except this one time. So that was my terrific moment in the sun.

Why did you
leave Doubleday to become an agent?

I did the
publicity job for a year and then I got a phone call from an agent at the time,
Phyllis Seidel. She worked out of her Upper East Side brownstone and she’d
never had anyone work for her. She said that she was interested in turning her
cottage industry into something a bit more fast-moving and professional, and
she said she’d heard wonderful things about me from two people who were so
different that she was intrigued. She asked if I would come up for an
interview. By this point I had learned that it is incredibly important to never
say, “No,” and I’d been in the business long enough to see that agents were
really essential to the industry. I had also been in the business long enough
to see that, on the publishing side, there were a lot of meetings. There was a
lot of time spent gathering your insecurities together and having them
reflected in a group meeting where you got to shore yourselves up. You know:
“Well, nineteen of us like the jacket, what do you think of it?” That kind of
thing. There was a lot of inefficiency.

Plus,
I was married by then and knew I wanted children. I didn’t know if corporate
America was that hospitable to having children, at least for somebody who
really wanted to be around them and actively help them grow up. There weren’t a
whole lot of senior people at Doubleday at the time who had young children. I
decided that I wanted to find an angle of this business that would allow me to
continue working but to work around my life and my children. It was a really conscious
decision. I also had been exposed to a lot of agents—some of them wonderful,
some of them appallingly bad—a whole raft of agents from the sublime to the
really questionably professional. But I had been around that angle of the
business long enough to see that if you really worked hard to build up a stable
of great writers, it might be a good way to earn a living.

So
with that sort of young, unformed knowledge in mind, I took the subway up and interviewed
with Phyllis. She offered me two things. First, she was willing to allow me
take on writers of my own if it didn’t intrude with the business. That was
really important to me because, after all, I had been a boss already and this
was already taking a step back and becoming an assistant again, apprenticing
myself to her in order to learn the business. And second, she said she would
give me 4 percent of anything I brought in, which was kind of the carrot before
the donkey’s nose. It wasn’t going to cost her anything to give me 4 percent,
and I don’t think she even thought I would bring in anything interesting. So
she did it. But it sure was useful later on, and it set a precedent that I used
as part of my negotiation when I left a year later to join Aaron Priest. I took
that 4 percent commission with me as part of my negotiation.

Tell me about some of your early clients.
The very first client I sold was
Phyllis Theroux, who has a book right now that I’m trying to sell and will die
trying. I began working with Aaron Priest in 1978, and six months into working
for him—it was just Aaron and me, impossibly small—Aaron decided that he
wanted to move to California to open an office in L.A. This was a huge job
change. He had made it very clear when I started that he did not want me to
take on clients. He wanted me to be his assistant. I said, “Fine. But can I
work on finding clients as long as it’s not at your inconvenience?” He said, “I
don’t care what you do, just don’t inconvenience me.” So I would work at night
because my husband was busy with law school I was writing letters to short
story writers at Redbook, all that stuff. When Aaron got in
his car and was driving across the country with his wife and kids, he would
call once a day. He’d say, “Hi. I’m in Iowa. Anything doing?” I’d say, “Nah.”
But by the time he got to California, five days later, I had sold three books.
I had literally been waiting to be released. And the first book was Phyllis
Theroux’s, which I auctioned to Julie Houston at Morrow for twenty-five
thousand dollars. It was called California and Other States of Grace.
It was absolutely wonderful, and she went on to write others. But that was my
first book, which makes me sentimental about selling all of her books.

Eventually
it became clear to Aaron that I might be more valuable as a baby agent than as
only his assistant. I said, “Come on, let me hire an assistant part-time. It’s
not going to cost that much.” Then, when Aaron came back from California six
months later, there was no question. I wasn’t going to go backward. I got very
lucky that way. I could have been his assistant for four or five years without
ever having the opportunity to really step out. It was his decision to go to
California that really gave me the breathing room I needed to show off. To show
what I wanted to do. To show what I could do.

How did you build a list in those early years? Were you
getting referrals, was it the letters you were writing, were you reading the
slush?

Certainly I was reading slush, and nothing was coming out of
the slush. Some of it was the letters I was writing. And I never said, “No.”
Let me give you an example of what I mean. There’s a movie agent named Geoff
Sanford. One day he came blowing through the Aaron Priest offices. When he walked
in, Aaron wasn’t around. Don’t forget that I had this scary voice, the gift of
gab, the ability to make someone feel at home, whatever you want to call it. I
said, “Geoff! Come on in! How are you?” We talked for a while and he said, “Oh,
you’re going to be great.” We didn’t do any business, but about a year later he
called me up and said there was this writer named Sue Grafton. He said he
really liked her, she was a really good egg, and she had written a book called A
Is for Alibi
.
Then he told me she was leaving her agent and asked if I might want to take a
look. I said, “Are you kidding? I’m starving to death. Of course I’m
interested.” But I also said, “Why does she want to leave her agent?” And Sue had
told him and I can tell you because Sue has always been very straightforward
about it. Kathy Robbins was her agent at the time, and Kathy was in the process
of taking her authors from a 10 percent commission to a 15 percent commission.
Sue liked Kathy enormously, but she felt, like death and taxes, that no one
should ever charge more than 10 percent. She just felt very strongly about it.

I love finding something and getting the whole world to read it. Changing somebody’s life. Changing a writer’s life.

What is the lesson there, beyond never saying “No”?
When you’re an agent, you must be open to
every single person. There is no one who doesn’t have an opportunity to see me.
I really mean that. There is no little person who will be turned away by me. I
mean, why not? What on earth does it cost me? The business of being an agent is
the business of forming relationships, and everything is a seedling. If you go
to a writers conference, as faculty, you will probably not take on anybody at
that writers conference. But within five years, if you have done your job and
been open to the universe—not to sound too California—you will eventually
have a terrific client approach you who knew somebody who was the brother of
someone who was at the conference five years ago and scribbled down your name.
This has happened over and over and over again.

I’ll
give you another example. Many years ago, an editor at the Atlantic suggested to me that
there was a writer named Elisabeth Hyde who was working on a novel. He thought
I should check it out. So I wrote to her immediately. You know, “I hear from
so-and-so that you’re working on a novel.” It turned out that she had just
signed on with an agent. The letter I wrote back was something like, “Oh, drat.
I have a two-year-old so I’m not allowed to swear. Well, best of luck to you,
be well, blah blah blah, and I’ll look forward to reading your book between
hard covers.” Well, she held on to that letter. A couple of years ago—when my
daughter who was then two was now twenty-five—Elisabeth Hyde wrote back to me.
She sent me the letter I had written to her more than twenty years ago. She
said her agent retired, and she inherited another agent who didn’t much like
her work, and then she went with another agent who didn’t like her novel at
all. She asked the agent if it was all right for her to try to sell the book on
her own. This agent, apparently, said, “Yeah, sure. Fine.” She said, “If I find
a publisher, will you help me with the contract?” He said, “Yes.” So she finds
a publisher on her own, MacAdam/Cage, and the agent negotiated the contract for
zero advance, a fifty-fifty world rights split, and took 15 percent. I mean,
honestly! At that point it occurred to Elisabeth that maybe she should find an
agent who really liked her stuff. So she went back to her file and that’s when
she found my letter.

See
how important it is to be remembered in this business? When you interact with
someone, you want to make the molecules in the air change a little. You want
somebody to say, “God, she’s good!” You want to be remembered. You want to make
an imprint. As an agent, you have to be able to do that.

I just read this great novel you sold by James Collins called
Beginner’s Greek
. He came to writing late, and I’m curious how he came to
you.

He came to me
recommended by a magazine editor. I’m not going to tell you who it was because
if I do, then all the hard-working agents, if they’re really doing their jobs, will
call this editor up and ask to buy him or her a meal. I have to keep some of my
fabulous contacts to myself. But I was totally in love with this book and
really, really wanted to get Jim Collins. I knew that he was seeing three or
four other people, and I knew that he was well connected. I knew that my competition
was going to be horrible. Hateful. You always want the competition to be
someone who is really different from you, not just someone who is another
version of you. So I didn’t know what to do to distinguish myself. Jim decided
to come to New York to meet with people. Of course I had read the book really
carefully. I thought, “I’m going to take this guy to lunch. I’ve got to get
this guy.”

So
I blow-dried my hair and put on a suit and put on Erase under my eyes. I’m
taking him to Patroon—this very manly place, a guy place—and of course I get
there early because I’m nervous, which is so typical of me. I don’t know what
he looks like. I’m waiting in these seats against the wall. There’s a guy next
to me who is also clearly waiting for somebody. We’re both waiting. So I decide
to balance my checkbook in order to stay calm while I wait. A guy walks in and
I ask him if he’s Jim, and he says no. He goes off and sits with this other
guy. About five minutes later, another guy sits down. And I say, “Oh, I love your book.” He says, “You do?” And I start to go on
and on and on about how amazing his book is. He looks at me and says, “I can’t
tell you how sorry I am not to be the person you are expecting.” I say, “You’re
not Jim Collins?” He says, “No. I’m the owner of the restaurant. You ate here
once before, so you’re in the computer, and I was coming to introduce myself
and say hello.” I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Now I’ve lost all my mojo!
Get out of here!”

So
finally Jim came in and I said, “Are you Jim? You had better be Jim Collins.” I was so exhausted by then that it
was just ridiculous. But it was him. He looked kind of formal, in a
double-breasted suit, and very tall, and slightly nervous, but in a way that
was deeply appealing. I was just as nervous as he was. And we just talked. I
asked if I was his last meeting—I wanted to be his last meeting—and then I
told him that I thought he should not be allowed to leave the table without saying
yes to me. “Just say yes!”

You said
that?

What did I have
to lose? I think he was charmed, and he could see that I was serious. What does
a writer want? A writer wants your passion. They want you to see the book in
the same way that they’ve written it, and they want you to go to your death
trying to sell it. They want to see that you are able to speak coherently and
articulately about why you love the book. And I told him it was too long. I
told him he needed to do this, that, and the other thing. I told him there were
places where it was overly precious, where there was too much throat-clearing.
I was very open with him. But he didn’t disagree. So I did the best I could to
win him over. He was one of those very intimidating people because he really listened. I hate it when people listen too well because then
I tend to fill in the blanks and start talking too quickly and get really
Latinate and formal and nervous. Anyway, it was a great meeting. I said, “You
have to let me know. I really don’t wait well. Please.” And I told him something else. I told him there
were other agents who could sell this book as well as I could, but nobody could
sell it better. And then he called me up. Now it’s in its fourth printing. It’s
doing very well, and it’s gotten very widely reviewed, and we’ve sold it around
the world. It’s just been great.

You also
represent Melissa Bank, who has gotten all tangled up in this issue of chick
lit. Tell me what you think about that.

I don’t consider
her chick lit. I don’t know what chick lit is. First of all, is there anybody
out there who doesn’t know that the easiest thing to sell is plot? But the
thing that everybody wants is an original voice. And the thing that’s kind of
stuck in the middle is character. So here we have a collection of short
stories—The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing—that doesn’t have a single plot because it’s made up of loosely
connected short stories with one story that isn’t even part of the rest of it.
But what everybody loved about that book is what is absolutely not genre. I mean, chick lit has become a category,
right? But I didn’t sell that book as part of chick lit. First of all I wasn’t
even sure that I knew what chick lit was. And the thing that everybody, to a
person, loved about Melissa’s book is that it had an original voice.

Now,
what is an original voice? Well, think of it like this: Go to Bonfire of the
Vanities
and close your eyes and pick a
page and have someone read you two paragraphs. If you can’t identify those
paragraphs as the rhythms and cadences that belong to Tom Wolfe, you’re
finished. I’m convinced that eight times out of ten, with Melissa Bank, you
could do the same thing. Now that is saying something. So I don’t know. What is
chick lit? Does it mean fiction that primarily attracts the interest of women
readers? Well, that would include Jane Austen. Is Jane Austen chick lit? Absolutely
not. Has Jane Austen ever written about anything other than marriage proposals,
linens, china, and who has a good dowry? No. I adore her. I read her every
year. But that is what her books are about. So is she the queen of chick lit? I
don’t know. It seems kind of silly to me, to be honest. If I read a short story
by Melissa Bank, I can always identify it as Melissa because of the voice, and
my view of the world is altered for having read her work. That’s a lot for a
short story to have succeeded in doing, and that’s what her stories do. So I
don’t know, and I don’t care, whether Melissa Bank is considered part of the
chick-lit world. What I do know is: One, that I love her; and two, that I
respect her. And there are many writers who I love and many writers who I
respect. But there are very few whom I both love and respect, and Melissa is in that small group.

Tell me how
Terry McMillan came to your attention.

Terry was
recommended to me by a young editor at Houghton Mifflin named Larry Kessenich.
She had sold her first book to Houghton Mifflin, and she didn’t like the contract
and she didn’t like the agent. Right in the middle of the deal, she decided
that she didn’t want anything to do with the agent, and it just fell apart. She
wasn’t under contract yet, and it just fell apart. Larry put my name out there
as an agent she should talk to. I always tell editors, “You don’t have to
recommend me exclusively. I know that’s a terrible burdensome thing for you if
things don’t work out. But just put me on a short list. Or put me on a long
list. Just put me on a list. I promise you I will read this quickly. I will not
embarrass you. I will read this well. And if it’s really wonderful, I won’t
necessarily send it to you exclusively, but I won’t fuck you over, either.” I
was always good to my word, so it was easy for me to be recommended.

With
Terry, I was on a short list of maybe six agents. I loved the pages, and she came to meet me. I said, “Oh,
you’re great. You’re going to be a star. I don’t know how effective I can be,
but I will fight very hard on your behalf.” She had already seen four people
and she said, “I want to go with you. I like your energy.” But I said, “No. Wrong. You’ve already made an appointment with this last
person, who comes very highly recommended, and I want you to see that last
person.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because if you and I ever have a fight, or a
temper tantrum, I don’t ever want you to wonder what that other agent would
have been like. I want you to come to me with a full education of having met
five other people who were highly recommended to you. Besides, you made an
appointment and it’s wrong to cancel your appointment. Go ahead and continue
your education of finding an agent.” So she did, and in the end she came back
and told me that she still wanted me, which was great.

What was it
about her writing that you responded to?

I fell in love
with Terry’s writing because she had an original voice. Go back and read the
first page of Mama, when Mildred, the
mother, is wielding an ax. It’s like, “Whoa!” It springs off the page. That’s
why it happened. But Terry built a career by believing in herself more than
anybody else did. She really worked hard. She had a two-year-old son, and she
was living in a sixth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn. She was doing programming or
something in a law office. Things were not easy for her. But she just got on
the phone with all these bookstores and said, “I want to set up a reading” and
“You’re going to want me” and “You must want me.”

I
remember that Houghton Mifflin got an offer of ten thousand dollars for
paperback rights. This was before we knew how Mama would perform. I called them up and said, “No, no,
no, no, no. You have to understand who you are dealing with. You are dealing
with a force of nature, and it’s a force of nature has not been felt yet. You
will make a terrible mistake if you sell reprint rights for ten thousand dollars.
Believe me, if you hang on a little bit longer, you’ll be rewarded.” And they
did, and they were.

So
to go back to your question about how you build up a list, the answer is that
you just keep fighting on your authors’ behalf. Sometimes the fighting is not
effective—it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t make a difference.
But sometimes it is effective, and when it is, and your efforts have been
proven right, people start to remember. They start to think, “Maybe she knows
what she’s doing.” Then it gets to the point where it gets out of control with
editors who want to see your submissions and become really upset if they don’t.

Tell me about
that.

I remember one
editor who started to cry at lunch. This was one of the people to whom I did
not say “No.” She’s crying and she says, “I just really want to know what I can
do to get on your submission list.” I thought, “This is really appalling. I am
now in an official tight spot.” Sometimes you have lunch with people and you
know by the time the breadbasket is empty that you will not be submitting to
them anytime soon. It’s usually when somebody says, “So! Tell me about your
list!” I think, “You jerk. You moron. How dare you have lunch with anybody
and not know that stuff.” When I have a first lunch with anybody, I know what
they’ve published. I know how to spell their name. I take the time to learn who
my audience is.

But
when this person started sobbing and saying, “What can I do?” I was very gentle
with her. I said, “The thing is, it’s not easy.” I’m not a mean person, and there
is a part of me that’s deeply maternal. But I knew she was a disaster. I said,
“You have to find your own people in the beginning. You can’t expect agents to
just submit their most beloved thing to you. If they haven’t done business with
you, that is a huge risk for them.” I said, “Tell me about some books you have
published that you have found on your own and won and done well by. Books that
you’ve really published well. And this is not a test. I don’t mean to put you
on the spot. But if you don’t have an answer—and I suspect you don’t because
you are, after all, very young—then two things have to happen. One is that you
have to build a list a little bit, and the other is that you have to be right
about a book at least two times in the next five to seven years. If you do
that, people will start to send you things, because you will have stepped out
on an editorial limb and proven yourself right. That’s the way to get
attention. You have to be right.”

I
think that’s how it works. You hang around long enough, and you insist, like
Scarlett O’Hara just before the intermission, “As God as my witness…this book
will sell!” And if it does sell, and you were right, and everyone else was
wrong, then you build up credibility. But it takes time. Here I am, thirty years
later. I’m old! I’m fifty-five years old! But seriously, it is a business of
staying with it long enough to really build up credibility and respect and a
reputation for honesty. Always for
honesty. God, this is a small business. I can tell you exactly which agents
exaggerate the interest they have. I can tell you who lies. They’re out there.
I know who these people are. It’s my job to know.

How should an author choose which agent to go with?
First of all, I don’t think an author
should approach an agent before they have a manuscript. I had an author come to
me who didn’t think he’d be ready for seven to ten years. He’d had a huge first
success and he was leaving his agent and wanted to sign on with somebody new. I
asked him why he was leaving his agent. It was clear the agent had done a
wonderful job selling the book, a wonderful job on foreign rights. And now the
author wanted someone new to exchange letters with him—talk to him, be his
friend, be his sponsor—for five years or seven years before his next book was
ready? He said, “I’ve left that agent because I want someone more prestigious.”
I said, “I don’t want you. I don’t want to read what you’ve written. I don’t
want to read what you will write in seven years. I don’t want you. I want you
to go back to that first agent and show some loyalty, because you have a really
shabby reason for leaving that agent. That agent has done everything possible
to secure and establish your career. You’ve done something too—you’ve written
a good book. You have every reason to write a second good book. But for you to
leave because you want someone more prestigious? That sucks. Bye!” He wrote me
a letter saying he admired my moxie.

But
you know what’s really sad? That author did go with someone else, a very
well-known agent, and that very well-known agent sold the book for three
hundred thousand dollars. So you know what? I’m sorry to say it, but this
author was sort of right. Not right to leave his agent, but right to think that
going with an agent who was very well known might have helped him. We’ll never
know what the poor, sad, sorry, hardworking first agent who would have gone to
bat for life for this guy would have done. But would that editor have paid ten
times what the first book was sold for? I don’t know, but it really stinks.

So how is an author supposed to know whom to choose?
Okay, so the first rule is that an author should never
approach an agent until they have something. If I met every person who wanted
to just have a chat before they sent their book, I’d go out of business. If
they have a book and they are sending it out, they should always say in the
letter if they are doing multiple submissions. That is common courtesy. I would
also say that I want to know the circumstances under which I am reading
something. Have you sent this to ninety-five other people? Have you sent this
to one other person? Do I have this exclusively? Because if I push aside my own
reading, which is the tyranny of all our lives, in order to be fast, at least
tell me what I need to do. The other thing is that the author should agree—if
the author is playing consumer here and sending it to five agents who want to
read it—that he’s not going to make a decision until he has heard from all
five people. You should respect an agent’s time. Do we get paid for our time?
No. Respect a busy agent’s time. The thing I want to kill someone for is when I
read something over the weekend and I’m about to pick up the phone to tell them
it’s the most wonderful book since War and Peace, and they say, “Oh,
sorry, I’ve signed on with Joe Blow who called on Sunday morning.” No. No, no,
no, no, no. That is really wrong. Be fair. If you are going to put us on the
spot, give us all a fair chance.

The
first thing you are going to look for is: Who responds? The second thing to
look for is: What do they say? And what do they think about the book? Now this
is where it gets murky, because a lot of agents get the author by saying, “Oh,
it’s wonderful! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!” Then they sign the author on
and begin the hard work of getting the book into shape. That tends not to be my
style. I tend to be very up-front about what I think the book needs from the
very beginning. And I have lost authors because of it. Sometimes I wonder,
“Should I become dishonest?” Should I say, “It’s great!” to get the author and
then deconstruct the manuscript over the course of twenty painful weeks? I
don’t know what the answer is. I know you always have to be true to yourself
and your own style, and my style is to be utterly frank about what I think the
manuscript requires, how I would position the book, and what I would do on its
behalf.

Then
the author may say, “Oh God, I can’t decide! You’re all so wonderful!” If
that’s the case I would say to get on a plane and come meet us. Figure it out.
You should never be afraid to talk to your agent. Some authors are terrified of
their agents. On the other hand, there are some agents who have very different
styles and are overly friendly. They become “the girlfriend.” They become so
close with their authors that we arrive at what shrinks call “the boundary
problem.” This is also problematic, because then the agent loses the authority
they are supposed to have in the author’s life.

What kind of questions should an author ask potential
agents?

You are fully within your rights to ask an agent whom else
he represents. You are also within your rights to ask an agent to tell you
about a couple of authors whose books he’s sold recently. You can’t live on
your laurels and sit around bragging about your top five best-known clients.
“What have you sold recently, and how’d it go?” And maybe ask, “What did you
love that you weren’t able to sell?” Everyone thinks I sell everything I touch.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. There’s loads of stuff I take on and don’t sell. It’s
extremely painful. So I think it’s fair to talk about these things. I think you
want to see what kind of a match you are. Can you talk with this agent frankly?
Do you feel comfortable?

But
it also goes the other way. It’s a mutual interview process. There are many
people I talk to and realize that I may love this person’s work but I do not
love this person. This person is going to
be trouble. Big trouble. I had one author who I took on. It was a beauty
contest, and I won her. She was a nonfiction writer, and I don’t have much
nonfiction, so I want nonfiction. She’d been published before and had a raft of
fabulous journalistic credits to her name. I worked with her a little bit on
the proposal—you know, shoring it up—but she was a true pro and didn’t need
much help. I got three offers and sold the book for six figures. It was great.
But by the time the contract arrived, this woman had so exhausted me that I
called her up and said, “I’m not going to tell the publisher this because I don’t
want the publisher to be nervous
about it, but once the contract comes in and it’s signed, I want you to know
that I am leaving you. I’m giving you my full 15 percent. You can take it. I
want you to thrive. But you have exhausted me. I’m sorry, but it just isn’t a
good match.” Nonfiction books don’t take six months to write. They take years
to write! And the prospect of having this woman in my life for years filled me
with such a chill that I thought, “I can’t do this. Let’s solve this.”

Tell writers one
thing they don’t know about editors, something that you know and they don’t.

I would say that
they must view the fawning, deeply complimentary praise that marks the honeymoon
phase of their relationship with an editor for what it is. They must not buy into
it. They must realize that editors will say almost anything to get a book when
they have to have a book. The problem is that what you need from editors is to
have them be there for the long haul. Not just the long haul of the publication
process, but for the next book and the book after that as well. When the first
review comes in and it’s terrible, you need your editor to say, “That fucker!
He didn’t understand the book at all. Ignore it and go on.” An editor needs to
be deeply, lastingly loyal to an author and a book that he decides to buy,
because bad things will happen and that loyalty will be tested.

Tell me what you’re looking for when you’re reading a
first novel or memoir.

That’s so easy. I’m looking for the
first page to be good. Then I’m looking for the second page to also be good.
Really! The first page has to be good so that I will go to the second page and
the third and the fourth. It’s true that sometimes I get all the way to the end
knowing that I’m going to turn a book down—I’ve come under the book’s spell
but the spell is not holding me—and then I may feel committed to reading it
and showing off with a fabulous editorial letter. That does happen. But the
main thing I look for is immediate great writing.

I
think the world of memoir is divided into two camps. One camp is the memoir of
an unbelievably fascinating life. Huge! Can you top this? Death, famine,
child abuse, all kinds of terrible and extraordinary events…but the author
can’t write. In the other camp you get beautiful writing—magnificent
writing—with a kind of pointillist attention to every marvelous detail in the
course of a life in which nothing interesting has happened. It’s usually one or
the other. So when you can combine those two things in one book—an interesting
life and good writing—then you have pay dirt. But it’s hard. It’s hard to sell
memoir, especially if it’s not big in an obvious way.

What about with fiction?
Fiction is being published less and less. The stakes are
higher. All editors say the same thing to me. They say, “I’ve got money to
spend. I’d really love to do business with you. I’d love to buy a book from
you.” That’s code. What they mean is they’d love to buy a book, for which they
can possibly overpay, that is big in obvious and immediate ways. And most books
are not big in obvious and immediate ways. They simply aren’t. Something has to
change.

I
have sold books for many millions of dollars and I have sold books for two
thousand dollars and pretty much everything in between. I have experienced the
fantastical joys of selling books for a whole lot of money. It is a joyous
moment. But it isn’t necessarily the best thing in the world. It isn’t. Perhaps
it’s blasphemous for me to say that. But if you sell a first novel for a
million dollars, you are putting so much pressure on that book to perform at a
certain moment, in a certain season, at a certain level. And most books don’t
perform immediately. Something, I think, has to give.

If
I’m going to say that maybe we shouldn’t take a million dollars for a first
novel, that we should take less money, then it seems to me that we all have to
think more imaginatively—we agents and editors and publishers, all of us
collectively. I think the place to do that is in the royalty rate. You’re
always taught, coming up as an agent, that the royalty is the thing in the
boilerplate that essentially doesn’t change. You know: 10 percent on the first
five thousand copies, 12.5 percent on the next five thousand, 15 percent after
that. We are told that these percentages are pretty inviolate, certainly for
most fiction. But where is it written that you have to stop at 15 percent? If
you don’t want the burden to be up front, with the large advance that sunders
all plans if it doesn’t work out, then change the royalty structure. Give the
writer 20 percent. Go on, do it! And if you’re a small publisher, definitely do
it. Hold on to your writers!

page_5: 

But don’t you
think most writers want the big advance?

Not necessarily.
You need to be able to read your author. Some authors don’t want the big
advance. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about going from an advance of
a million dollars to an advance of ten thousand. It’s really unfortunate, but
to some extent an advance is How much do you love me? I decided about ten years ago that the differential
of love in an auction is about seventy-five hundred dollars, which is really
unfortunate. So sometimes when I’m in an auction, and I know that the author
really wants to be with a certain publisher but the underbidder is determined
to have the book and will offer more to win the author, basically I go to the
underbidder and say, “Don’t offer any more. Don’t do it.” Because the author
has made up her mind and I don’t want the editor to be humiliated. I don’t want
them to be embarrassed. I don’t want to financially mug a publisher, get the
top amount, and then say, “Hey, guess what? Thanks for letting me use you, but
actually we never wanted you in the first place!” That’s terrible. I have to
stay in business with these people. My job is to do the best job I can for my
author without ever being in collusion with the publisher. That’s a very tricky
business.

Tell me
something that you often see beginning writers doing wrong.

I think they can
over-hype themselves. If they have a writing teacher, a letter will arrive from
the writing teacher. It’s so transparent. It’s not genuine. It feels like a
form of logrolling. And it doesn’t really work with me. Or they will make false
comparisons between their book and other books.

This is the
magazine’s Independent Press Issue. As you’ve watched the industry become more
and more corporate over the years, do you think it’s been a good thing or a bad
thing for writers?

It’s been a
terrible thing for writers.

Why?
First of all,
there are fewer publishers. When I started out, there were publishers all over
the place, all kinds of publishers that were legitimate companies, in business
legitimately, in New York. I mean, what’s happening at Harcourt and Houghton is
just another nail in the coffin. I remember having a drink with Dick Snyder
maybe twenty-five years ago. He said something that I found appalling at the
time. He said that in twenty years—remember that this was twenty-five years
ago—there would be four publishers left. And we’re not that far away from
that. We’re really not. It’s bad for writers in the same way that it’s bad for
publishers to pick one or two big books and dump all your efforts and resources
into those books. It’s great if you’re the agent of one of those books. It’s
terrific. Enjoy the ride. But you too will be on the other end of it if you
stay in this business long enough.

But
I think the main thing that has been lost is a sense of diversity. I mean,
everybody complains about this. There just seems to be a terrible sameness, and
maybe it’s because of the book groups and book clubs in this country, but it
feels like readers in America are only having one of three or four
conversations a month. Look, I love Khaled Hosseini. I love Elaine Koster. I
love Susan Petersen Kennedy. I love everyone connected with The Kite Runner. But I read that book in bound galleys four or five
years ago, and really, if one more person comes up to me on the beach this
summer and says, “Oh! I love books too! Have you read The Kite
Runner?
” I really will kill myself. The
opposite of that are the people who come up to me all the time saying that
there is nothing to read. There
is so much to read.

But what are
the implications for writers? Why is it bad?

It’s bad for
writers because there is a sameness to conversations in the larger public. And
also because they have fewer choices. If you look at Publishers Lunch, you’ll
see nonfiction, nonfiction, nonfiction, romance novel, paperback original,
nonfiction, nonfiction, and then there will be one novel that was sold. Everybody wants it to be obvious
and easy, but most books aren’t. It would really be interesting to see whether
a book like The Beans of Egypt, Maine would be published today. It’s a great book. Or take Annie Proulx. How
about that? Try describing that to
your editorial department and see how far you get. She’s an extraordinary
writer, but you wouldn’t get far at all.

So where do
we go from here?

I guess you have
to just keep putting your face to the wind, and never stop trying, and you have
to give publishers a chance to build an audience and a sense of family. I mean,
were doing that with Leif Enger’s second book [So Brave, Young, and Handsome]. Paul Cirone, in this office, is the agent.
Honestly, we could’ve had an aggressive auction for that book. The trade
paperback sales of his first book [Peace Like a River] is one of the great sales stories of all time. Do
you know what the returns on that book are? They’re zero! It’s sold eight
hundred thousand copies! But we didn’t shop him around. We wanted to do what
was right for the author, and the author was very comfortable with the deal we
came up with. The deal we came up with was unorthodox, but why not do that if you can? And Grove
was very happy. Their first printing is very hopeful, and it’s on the extended New
York Times
list, and he’s doing this huge
tour. It might be a slightly old-fashioned business model, but it’s one that
works for that particular author and that particular house. So why not stick
with it? I think that loyalty is
very important. Just like reader loyalty is important, loyalty to a publisher
is important.

How has
technology changed the business from your perspective?

I’ll tell you,
what is hard about being an agent now is the Internet. The Internet is both the
joy and the bane of everybody’s existence. The bane part of it for me, for an
agent, is that it used to be that authors were in isolation. Which was partly
bad, obviously, but it was also a good thing because they really got to focus
on their work and confront what was on the page. They weren’t distracted and
hyped up by too much information. Today, if you are a writer of a certain
genre, you feel that you’ve got to get blurbs, you’ve got to cultivate all
these people, you’ve got to go to this or that event, and on and on. So you
have writers who aren’t really being given enough time to write the best book
they can write. And meanwhile they have become a kind of awful consumer. There
are a lot of conversations about who has what. Like, “Well, Joe Blow has shelf
talkers. Why don’t I have shelf talkers?” No! I don’t want to hear about Joe
Blow’s shelf talkers. You don’t have shelf talkers because your career is set
within an entirely different context than the person you just mentioned. They
all compare notes. They compare advances. Part of it is that they have been
told it’s no longer enough to just write a good book. They are told that they
have to get out there, press the flesh, have blogs, have Web pages, and get
advance quotes from everybody and their dogs. Then they’re told, “By the way,
don’t you think it would be a good idea to do two books this year?” This is
insane! It is altogether too fast. Everything in this business is too fast.

But how can
you build a career anymore if you don’t do that stuff as an author?

You can. You
have to have some luck. I mean, look at Paul Cirone’s author, Megan Abbott.
She’s building a career. She’s on her third or fourth book. She just won an
Edgar. She’s under contract. She’s with the same publisher. She hasn’t had
outrageously great sales, but she’s building an audience. She is a great, edgy,
funny, noir mystery writer.

What about
for a literary writer? Maybe a writer who has published a couple of books that
haven’t sold too well?

They are in
trouble. I’m not going to soft-pedal that. It’s very, very, very painful.

So what do
they do?

Well, thirty or
forty or eighty years ago when people said, “Don’t give up your day job,” there
was probably some wisdom to that. Certainly, if you get a large enough advance
and decide to recklessly give up your day job, at least don’t give up your
insurance. Hang on to one writing class, which gives you insurance and protects
you and gives you the potential for tenure. Don’t give it up. The first thing I
tell my authors when they sell their first book is to try to live as though
they don’t have the money yet. Don’t start building additions on your house.
Don’t start taking expensive trips to Sicily. Try to remember that this might
not happen again. It’s very important to me that people live within their income,
whether your income is thirty thousand dollars a year or thirty times that.

Tell me how
you spend most days.

I would say
being on the phone. Of course I do a lot of e-mail now, and I see the
advantages of hiding behind e-mail. A lot of the day is spent getting
information. Learning. I really read every catalogue that is sent to me. I
genuinely want to know what people are doing. From the moment I take a project
on, there is not a book I’m reading—if it’s remotely relevant to building an
argument or a case for positioning that book—that won’t in some way inform or
aid me in selling that book, or in understanding that project or the
marketplace. A lot of time is spent doing that, and getting information. Who’s
selling what? The stuff in Publishers Lunch, I’m sorry to say, is rarely the
big deals. Those can be the people who want the publicity, they want to be out
there. It’s great for them. Good. Fine. But it’s not the big deals. Sometimes
the big deals aren’t even in the rights guides.

What is the hardest thing for you about your job?
The whining. I won’t have it. I don’t
whine. I don’t want whining from editors. I don’t want whining from my authors.
I don’t want to read about authors I don’t represent who whine. I want every
single person who gets published to be grateful that they get to be published,
because many of their colleagues don’t get to be published. I don’t want
whining about money or any aspect of the business. Of course that doesn’t mean
I don’t want to know when you have a problem. It is my job to help you figure
out whether a problem is legitimate or whether it is just nervousness,
paranoia, insecurity, fear, dread, the sense that the world is passing you by
and you haven’t heard from anybody. You’ve got to get a writers group, a mother,
a spouse. You have to seek your support system elsewhere. Because that’s not
the job of an agent. When I see a problem, believe me, I’m already going at it.
The question is: Do I get on the phone with the editor or do I get on the phone
with the author and tell him I’m going to get on the phone with the editor, and
then not have time to get on the phone with the editor? In other words, you
have to trust that your agent is doing her job. When your agent says, “I will
take care of this,” chances are really good that the agent will take care of
it. But at the same time, you can’t assume that agents are always effective. I
can howl, scream, beg, sob, and implore, but it doesn’t always mean that my
howling will make a difference. Sometimes the answer is just, “No. We’ve decided
not to publish this book in paperback. The sales of this book in hardcover were
three thousand copies, and we won’t publish it in paperback.”

What do you love most about your job?
Here is the thing about me as an agent:
I am not only looking for literature that may be a contender. If I cry at three
different points in a manuscript—even if it is lumpy, and overlong, and deeply
flawed—then I am going to go to bat for it. I love finding something and
getting the whole world to read it. Changing somebody’s life. Changing a
writer’s life. I love the thrill of loving something and really believing in
it, and then selling it really well. All agents know when they’ve done a good
job. They know when they’ve done a crappy job too. They know when they’ve let
their author down and when they’ve let themselves down by extension. It doesn’t
matter if you’ve sold the book for a song or really aggressively. You know when
you’ve done well by a book and the book’s author. And then having it all work out?
Having it be published well? Being part of that ride? I mean, it’s great to be
right. It’s wonderfully validating. It’s thrilling to share in an author’s
success. Frank
McCourt is an obvious example. What gets better than that? And to have an
author who remains unspoiled, like Frank has? It is just a joy to represent an
author like that. He always has been. He’s so appreciative and never complains.
And when he does complain it’s because he’s making a joke out of it. He called
me up one time, maybe a year after Angela’s Ashes had come out, and he
said, “Oh Lord, Molly, the taxes.” And I said, “No, no, no, no, no. If you’re
making enough money to complain about taxes, you don’t get to complain about
taxes.” He laughed and said, “All right, fine!” He’s just a joy to work with.

Is there anything you haven’t accomplished that you still
want to?

No. I just want to always be in the
game. I
want to work for at least another ten years. I don’t want to retire when I’m in
a walker. The reason why this is such a great job, first of all, is
that I’ve been able to work around my children and my life. I have been able to
call my hours my own to an unusual extent, in a way that would not have been
possible if I stayed at Doubleday. But I have a very highly developed work
ethic. I work really hard. What is extraordinary about this business is that we
get to be more interesting than we would otherwise be. Because of our work.
That’s really important. In other words, we do go to dinner parties, and we do
meet interesting people, and reading remains and will always remain a great
common currency. It’s fantastic to work in the world of ideas, and great plots,
and the great insights that are given to us by writers. I don’t ever want to be
far away from that. And I won’t be. I refuse. I feel deeply privileged to be in
this business. So what if it’s changing? I’m not going to change as quickly as
it changes—there’s room for troglodytes like me. And I’m never going to rest
on my laurels. Because if you aren’t always excited to get something in that is
fresh and new, then you shouldn’t be in this business. If you’re just going
along like a hamster in a wheel, then you’ve lost the pure white heat that
makes this business so much fun. And it should be
challenging. That’s what separates the great agents from the good agents.

Jofie Ferrari-Adler is an editor at
Grove/Atlantic.

Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Lynn Nesbit

by

Jofie Ferrari-Adler

1.1.08

On a recent afternoon, I walked up Park Avenue from my
office in downtown Manhattan to interview the literary agent Lynn
Nesbit. The agency she founded almost twenty years ago, Janklow &
Nesbit Associates, occupies an entire floor of a large office building
on the corner of Fifty-seventh Street. In the elevator, I couldn’t help
but think of the celebrated authors who must have taken the same ride
to visit Nesbit, and my mind wandered to some of their memorable
opening lines: “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the
desert when the drugs began to take hold” (Hunter S. Thompson). “That’s
good thinking there, Cool Breeze” (Tom Wolfe). “It is easy to see the
beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends” (Joan Didion).

For
Nesbit, the beginnings of things were no less evocative. Raised in the
small town of Dundee, Illinois, and educated at Northwestern, the
Sorbonne, and in the Radcliffe Publishing Program, she came to New York
in the fall of 1960 and took the first job she was offered. The
position, as an editorial apprentice at Ladies’ Home Journal,
was unsatisfying. She badgered Sterling Lord—even then a legendary book
agent—for a job as his assistant, but he had nothing permanent to
offer. So, in her spare time, she read manuscripts for him in French.
Eventually a position opened up, and Nesbit leapt at the opportunity,
despite a salary cut of ten dollars a week.

She
worked her way up to being an agent in Lord’s office; her early clients
included Donald Barthelme, Michael Crichton, Frederick Exley, Hunter S.
Thompson, and Tom Wolfe. In 1965, she left Sterling Lord to start the
agency that would become International Creative Management; in 1989 she
joined forces with Mort Janklow to found another new agency, Janklow
& Nesbit Associates, which remains one of the most successful in
New York. Over the years she has guided the careers of luminaries such
as John Cheever, Joan Didion, William H. Gass, Shirley Hazzard, and
Gore Vidal; younger writers such as Ann Beattie, Stephen L. Carter,
Jeffrey Eugenides, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Price, and Scott
Spencer; commercial superstars such as Robin Cook, Richard Preston, and
Anne Rice; and nonfiction heavyweights such as Robert Caro, Jimmy
Carter, Jonathan Kozol, and Gay Talese.

In
this, the first in a new series of interviews with veteran book
editors, publishers, and agents, Nesbit talks about her life, her
career, and her authors, reflecting on the past, present, and future of
the book industry and what writers can do to thrive in today’s
publishing world.

Why don’t you start by telling me a little about your background. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Illinois, in a town thirty-five miles northwest of Chicago called Dundee.

And you went to Northwestern?
I
went to Northwestern because I wanted to be a drama major. But then I
quickly learned, once I was involved in it, that I didn’t want to do
it. It was such a serious professional school. So I switched my major
from theater to oral interpretation of literature. You’d do chamber
theater, for example. You’d take Don Quixote and present it
as a chamber theater piece. I was in a production and I played all of
the women roles. Of course they were all variations on Dulcinea or his
fantasy. It was an extremely good way to learn about the construction
of a narrative. Because when you’re breaking it apart, often you will
characterize or have an actor play the narrator’s role, so you learn a
lot about voice.

What brought you to New York?
I always wanted to come to New York. When I was a child I used to listen to Grand Central Station—”Crossroads
of a million private lives”—and think, “What could be more exciting
than New York?” I was wandering through the English department my
senior year at Northwestern and saw something about the Radcliffe
Publishing Program. I thought, “Hmmm, I want to come to New York, I
love to read books, this sounds like it’s for me.”

How did you get started in the industry?
At
the Radcliffe program, they told you to take the first job you were
offered because there were no jobs in publishing. They’ve been saying
that for forty, fifty years. Sterling Lord was the agent who came to
speak to the students, and I thought—I don’t know why, I’ve thought
about this over the years—but I thought, “Agent, that’s what I want to
do.” But Sterling said he had nothing to offer. So I took the first job
I got, which was as an editorial apprentice at Ladies’ Home Journal.
And I hated it. It just wasn’t for me. So I kept hounding Sterling. And
I read French quite well then. He was representing a couple of people
who wrote in French, Tereska Torres and Juan Goytisolo. So I would read
the books and write readers reports on them. And I hounded him. After
three months at Ladies’ Home Journal he offered me a job, for
which I took a ten-dollars-a-week salary cut. I became his
receptionist, his typist, his file clerk, and I had to weigh the
packages and stamp all the letters.

Was Sterling Lord your primary mentor in the industry?
Sterling
wasn’t very interested in fiction, which helped me. He was immediately
turning some things over to me. After I’d been working as his assistant
for a month or two, he went to the Staten Island Writers Conference and
came back and just threw these stories down on my desk. He said to read
them and write to any of the writers I liked. One of the stories was
“The Big Broadcast of 1938” by Donald Barthelme. And I read it and
thought, “This is extraordinary.” So I wrote, Dear Mr. Barthelme, I’m
an agent and I just read this story and I think it’s extraordinary and
blah blah blah and I’d love to represent you. And he wrote back and
said, “Fine.” Now I don’t think that happens today. There would be
thirty agents crawling all over that story today—there are more agents
than writers. And there are more writers than readers. I’m convinced of that.

Was Donald Barthelme your first big client?
Donald was very important because I sold the first story of his that I represented to the New Yorker.
And he went on and became such an important force in the short story.
But my first really big client—big in every way—was Tom Wolfe.

How did you meet him?
I pestered Byron Dobell at Esquire.
I told him I wanted to meet Tom Wolfe. This was probably 1963. He’d
published “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” the piece,
in Esquire, and every other agent was after him too. I still
ask him, to this day, why he signed with me. He says it’s because I’m
the only one who suggested he do a book, which is hard for me to
imagine, but that’s what he says. He was older than I was, and already
a big deal, and I was just this kid.

The
other big writer that I got young was Michael Crichton. I left Sterling
Lord in, I think, 1965, to start a literary department for Marvin
Josephson. It was called Marvin Josephson Associates. The head of his
television department was a man named Ralph Mann, and he had a friend
who had been a television agent at the William Morris office, whose
daughter was Michael’s first wife. This man was determined to find
Michael the biggest agent there was. Of course he knew everyone. So
Michael was interviewing all these people and he interviewed me, too.
He was in medical school then and he had published one of his paperback
John Lange thrillers, and he only had one other contract. So he came
back for a second meeting and said—and this I remember very well—he
said, “Let’s grow up in the business together.” So that was great.

Who was Marvin Josephson?
He
was a very mild-mannered, shy, rather diffident television agent. He
went around and bought these other agencies. He bought CMA, Monica
McCall, Ashley-Famous. And this became ICM, this big corporate
behemoth. He was never really an agent; he was a deal-maker, a buying
agency.

And when you went there, you were the head of the agency right away?
I
started the literary department for them at age twenty-five. They
didn’t have one. I went there and I was this kid. I was really young. I
got there because I was dating an agent who worked for Marvin who said,
“You should hire Lynn Nesbit.” That’s how I got there.

Tell me about some of the big personalities from those days in the book world.
Well, there were a lot of them. Bob Gottlieb was a genius.

From your perspective as an agent, what is his genius?
In
the first place, he, like Michael Korda, who is my client actually,
could read an eight-hundred-page manuscript in a night and come back to
you the next day and give you a perfect analysis. Also, Bob never let a
manuscript lay around. You would never hear from him, “Oh, I have seven
manuscripts on my desk, I can’t get to yours until a month from now.”
Bob also has such an incredibly big personality. And I always said that
Bob has a big ego, but he can lend it to his writers, so they can share
it. Bob Caro is one of my clients, and it’s written into his contract
that he has to have Bob as his editor.

A
lot of people lament how the publishing industry has changed over the
years. Your career seems to very much bridge all that—from the small
independent shops to the corporatization of it all.
I
say to Bob Gottlieb, who’s still a very close personal friend, “You
couldn’t stand to be in publishing today.” And he says, “I know.” It is
very corporatized. We all began to think about that in those days. What
was going to happen? These big conglomerates, synergy, all that. People
began to worry about it.

The first novel is the easiest to sell. But if it doesn’t do well, you’re up a creek. You have to reposition the author…because the publisher doesn’t want to take another bath.

Tell me about some more of the big characters.
We
just don’t have them anymore. Morgan [Entrekin] is as close as we have.
And Sonny [Mehta]. There were so many: Henry Robbins, Ted Solotaroff,
Joe Fox, Sam Lawrence, David Segal. Even Dick Synder is a lot more
colorful than Jack Romanos, who is now gone. I mean, they had passion,
they cared about literature. Even Dick, who’s not an intellectual. He
cared. He was a madman. I mean, we need a little bit more…. Who is a
madman now in publishing? Peter Olson, but of a very strange type. I
mean, Morgan’s eccentric, Sonny’s eccentric. Morgan’s less eccentric
than he used to be. He’s getting very conventional now with the wife
and the child. It was just different then.

So you miss the personalities
Yes.
I miss the fun. I tell Tina [Bennett] and Eric [Simonoff], “You missed
the good days.” When I worked for Sterling Lord, I had a loft, a sort
of duplex loft apartment on Barrow Street. And Michael Sissons, who’s
now the head of Fraser & Dunlop, and Peter Matson, who’s also an
agent, used to give these parties at my house. They would make these
drinks of half brandy and half champagne, and people got so drunk. One
night Rosalyn Drexler, the lady wrestler and the novelist, picked up
Walter Minton and just threw him against the wall. I’ll never forget
that. There was just more of a sense of fun.

So why was that lost?
It’s the corporate thing. People are too scared. It doesn’t attract eccentrics anymore.

Where are the eccentrics going?
The movie business. [Laughs.]

When did you start to represent Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne?
My
daughter is thirty-seven and John told this story—it’s still difficult
for me to talk about John—he told this story himself. He said,
“Remember what I said to you when we were talking about you
representing me?” I said, “No, I have no memory.” He said, “Don’t you
remember when I said, ‘What if you were to have a child?’ Nobody would dare
ask that question of a woman today! You would be stigmatized!” So I’ve
represented him since before my first child, and she’s thirty-seven.

At that point were you already representing Joan?
No. I didn’t represent Joan until the book After Henry,
when I came here. It’s been a long time now, about eighteen years. They
were very good friends of mine. I knew Joan very well. She was
represented by Lois Wallace. Well, first Helen Strauss at the William
Morris Agency, and then she was inherited by Lois, and then she came to
me. It’s been a long time now, but not back into the dark ages like it
was with John.

Were you surprised by the phenomenal commercial success of The Year of Magical Thinking?
Yes. So was the publisher. The first printing was supposedly thirty-five thousand copies, then the Times
magazine piece came out and they upped it to fifty thousand, then if
you look at later editions and the number of printings.… It obviously
touched a chord in so many people—young, old, people who hadn’t even
had anyone die. I think the honesty of her voice, the way she directly
addressed the reader, without any sentimentality, was so moving.

How did you meet Hunter S. Thompson?
I
don’t know how Hunter came to me. I can’t remember the sequence. I
don’t know who would have suggested it. Hunter was such a
larger-than-life character. I always said that he was the one writer
who always tried to say, “Oh, that didn’t really happen”—talking about
his escapades—but unlike most writers, they probably did
happen. With most writers it’s the opposite. He liked to go to these
very chic restaurants in New York. I can remember taking him to the
Carlyle and he’d be snorting cocaine right off his watch. He’d order
six bottles of beer, two margaritas, and some salad. But the funny
thing is, often he wouldn’t even touch the stuff. Lunch would go on for
hour after hour and he really wouldn’t be drinking all that much during
that time.

I read somewhere that you represented Fred Exley—and you sold A Fan’s Notes?
That
was when I was a kid too. That was very early. I don’t remember the
date, but that was when I was still at Sterling Lord, I think.

Do you remember how you met him? Were you close?
Oh,
yes. I had an incredible correspondence with him. Fred was a terrible
alcoholic and a tortured soul. Even more with Fred than with Hunter,
there was a very, very tender part of him. Very sweet. Fred showed it
more than Hunter did. I think that they couldn’t deal with their
vulnerability, therefore they drank. Or in Hunter’s case, he drank and
did drugs and everything else. They just couldn’t cope with it. A Fan’s Notes
got tons of rejections and finally I sold it to David Segal, who was
great. David was an eccentric. We need more people like him. He started
his career at New American Library, which was a rather commercial
imprint. But David had such a passion for literature and good writing.
For instance, he picked up Cynthia Ozick when no one else did. And
Fred. And Bill Gass.

You represent so many of the original New Journalists. What was it like to be at the center of a movement like that?
When I first represented Tom Wolfe, I was younger than Tom. I was a
kid. And when I went to sell Tom’s first book, his editor, Clay Felker,
was the most important magazine editor in New York. I sent Tom’s book
out for auction. Viking, with whom Clay had an arrangement as sort of
editor at large, brought Tom in for a meeting with Tom Guinzburg. But
on the auction day, Viking didn’t bid. So I thought that was curious.
But they didn’t, and the book went to FSG.

A
few days later I went to this big literary party at Rust Hills’s. I
will never forget walking in. It was jammed with every writer and
editor in New York. Clay was then dating Gloria Steinem, and Clay
walked right over to me—this is like two days after the Tom thing—and
he said, “You fucking cunt.” I thought, “Oh my God!” I saw Tim Seldes coming up, so I said, “Tim, do you know Clay Felker?” And I walked away.

So<