MFA student Brady Hugget, on behalf of the Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Kirstin Valdez Quade, author of Night at the Fiestas (W.W. Norton & Co.), the winner of the 2015 John Leonard Prize which honors an author's first book in any genre.
UPDATE: Listen to Brady's extended interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade below.
Kirstin Valdez Quade has received a "5 Under 35" award from the National Book Foundation as well as the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and the 2013 Narrative Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Narrative,The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and is currently the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan.
Brady Huggett is a second year fiction student in the MFA program at The New School. He’s a reader for Bodega Magazine and is host of Nature Biotechnology’s First Rounders podcast. His work has appeared in The King’s English, Verbsap, Liar’s League, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @addisonbench.
Discover the writer's life in New York City. The 2016 Summer Writers Colony at The New School will meet Monday, June 6 through Thursday, June 23rd. This intensive three-week program of workshops, literary salons, and publishing seminars provides a supportive yet challenging atmosphere in which to develop as a writer, whether you are embarking on a new writing project or developing a work-in-progress. Here is a look at the multi-genre and poetry offerings at this year's colony.
Jenny Zhang joins the workshop faculty of the Summer Writers Colony this year! Zhang will teach a multi-genre workshop, in which fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and hybrid forms are welcomed and encouraged. Zhang is the author of the poetry collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find(Octopus Books), the nonfiction chapbook Hags(Guillotine), and The Selected Jenny Zhang, an e-book from Emily Books. She's a 2016 National Magazine Award finalist, and her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published or are forthcoming from New York, Racked,Buzzfeed, Poetry, Rookie, The Hairpin, Dazed and Confused Magazine, Jezebel, The Guardian, The Iowa Review, and Glimmertrain. She holds degrees from Stanford University and The Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her forthcoming collection of short stories will be published by Random House in Fall of 2017.
From the publisher: Patrick Rosal’s brilliant fourth collection of poems is ignited by the frictions of our American moment. In the face of relentless violence and deepening racial division, Rosal responds with his own brand of bare-knuckled beauty.
Rosal finds trouble he isn’t asking for in his unforgettable new poems, whether in New York City, Austin, Texas, or the colonized Philippines of his ancestors. But trouble is everywhere, and Rosal, acclaimed author of My American Kundiman, responds in kind, pulling no punches in his most visceral, physical collection to date. “My hand’s quick trip from my hip to your chin, across / your face, is not the first free lesson I’ve given,” Rosal writes, and it’s true—this new book is full of lessons, hard-earned, from a poet who nonetheless finds beauty in the face of violence. June 6, 7, and 9, 6:30pm. More information.
From the publisher: Located in a menacing, gothic landscape, the poems that comprise A Woman of Property draw formal and imaginative boundaries against boundless mortal threat, but as all borders are vulnerable, this ominous collection ultimately stages an urgent and deeply imperiled boundary dispute where haunting, illusion, the presence of the past, and disembodied voices only further unsettle questions of material and spiritual possession. This is a theatrical book of dilapidated houses and overgrown gardens, of passageways and thresholds, edges, prosceniums, unearthings, and root systems. The unstable property lines here rove from heaven to hell, troubling proportion and upsetting propriety in the name of unfathomable propagation. Are all the gates in this book folly? Are the walls too easily scaled to hold anything back or impose self-confinement? What won't a poem do to get to the other side? June 13-15. More information.
Fagan Kuhnmuench, on behalf of the Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Paul Beattyabout his book The Sellout(Picador), which is the National Book Critics Circle Award fiction winner for the 2015.
Paul Beatty’s latest novel, The Sellout, is a painfully hilarious and caustic satire about an urban, black farmer in Los Angeles, named Bonbon. Home schooled under the tutelage of his father, a social scientist whose methods are about as questionable as his ethics, Bonbon is subjected to years of racial hazing and extreme exposure therapy. This racial “education” becomes eerily relevant after his father is brutally slain by police, and Bonbon’s hometown of Dickens, the black enclave of Los Angeles, is effectively gerrymandered, gentrified and redlined out of existence. The vanishing border of Dickens devastates the population in peculiar ways, and despite all his efforts to salvage his neighborhood and identity, Bonbon draws the ire of the nation and becomes the defendant in a Supreme Court case after he unintentionally becomes a slave owner and a segregationist. But is he a traitor to his race, or a savior? Bonbon decides the only way to achieve self-determination is to put Dickens back on the map, literally. I had the great pleasure to speak with Mr. Beatty at a coffee shop on the Lower East Side, days before the National Book Critics Circle’s award ceremony. - Fagan Kuhnmuench
Fagan Kuhnmuench: Your character, Hominy Jenkins, is Dickens’ most famous resident, that is he was until Dickens ceased to exist. Hominy is a former child actor who, unable to cope with his lacking identity and relevance, forces his servitude unto Bonbon. Who or what was your inspiration for creating this character? Was he a composite of people?
Paul Beatty by Fagan Kuhnmuench
Paul Beatty: I am a huge Little Rascals fan. Me and my sister talk about it all the time and we talk about the impact of the black Rascals (Stymie, Buckwheat) and their interesting leadership roles, but at the same time being the butt of the jokes, but then they were so engaging. At some point I came up with the idea, something popped into my head about Buckwheat's understudy, and then this I just ran from there. There was a kid, this rascal, he was in some of the later ones, I think his name was Buckshot or something like that, was he the next in line? I don’t know. I just came up with Hominy. There was also a guy that lived on my block (in LA) who started the Black Stuntmen's Association, but he was an actor and when me and my brother were little we'd run over there because he'd always promise us roles in the movies, so there’s some of that in there. He was part of our lexicon.
FK: With the deterioration of black neighborhoods, what do you find is the most devastating aspect of losing “cultural privacy” to cultural commercialism?
PB: I don’t think it’s necessarily devastating. For me there’s no such thing as cultural ownership, if there ever was. I think some things get mined deeper, and some people benefit from having mined these gems whatever they are; I don’t think there's ownership in the sense that the creativity is finite. People will always be on some new things. There’s still, like with the Chris Rock monologue. The whole "Chris Rock eviscerates Hollywood" blah blah blah, but then in my little circle it was a completely different reading of the situation. He was in an impossible situation and it was not what he signed up for. He stuck out his commitment because that was important to him. What I want is not what he wants to deliver. It’s hard.
FK:You make multiple references to black actors and musicians throughout the novel and their cultural relevance; who would you trust to portray your characters onscreen and what would be an apt theme song for The Sellout?
PB: Chappelle needs to be in there somewhere. America Ferrera could be the principal. She’s a good actor. I don’t know who would be Marpessa. Regina King maybe? I don’t know the kids name, the kid that played Eazy E in the Straight Outta Compton movie. He’s fantastic in that movie. As for a song, maybe The Pharcyde’s “Drop.”
FK: Your iconoclasm not only targets the venerated institutions of racism, but also the self-proclaimed beacons of the black community that carpetbag from one cause to another, grandstanding on the the yoke of black struggle to the masses for their own gain.
PB: (Laughter). I'm not in a position to call somebody an Uncle Tom, because someone could fling that right back at me, I’m not saying that. And I'm not saying those people don't care, I’m just making fun of it. I’m thinking of Foy, for me, one of the things I struggle with is that there are always a certain class of folks that are always the butt of the jokes, and I’m just trying to turn that around. Hypocrisy goes every direction, including at me, I try to start with my own hypocrisy, to the extent that I know what it is. You know, when people throw tear gas, I’m just trying to pick up that canister and throw it back, and that’s all that is.
FK: Why did you focus on Foy Cheshire’s, Cosby-esque, revisionist history of the black experience?
PB: And that’s something I feel strongly, people are so uncomfortable with things that are negative and ridiculous and racist and mean, I’m just not an erasure person. I think you lose a lot and build up a false sense of who you are and where you come from without having to deal with all that stuff. I'm not saying it’s healthy or productive, but it’s easy to dismiss that kind of stuff. Hominy for me, in part he represents black comedy, black thespianism, black thought, intellect that people just brush aside. I remember going to an event once, Amiri Baraka was talking about Stepin Fetchit, he was the iconic black buffoon in the 30s and 40s, the embodiment of all sloth dimwitted, slow moving, black male stereotypes, Baraka talked about this character as a fucking idiot, but he's the smartest guy in the room. Because only an idiot goes to tote the bail for a quarter and runs. He shuffles, takes his time, gives himself the maximum amount of space; that's something I’ve never forgotten. For me it ties in the way that psychology teaches me how to look around and underneath, it’s such a brilliant example at how shortsighted we are at times.
FK: Who, with regard to social critique, are your biggest influences?
PB: A lot of it is my friends, they say smart things. (Laughter) That's a good question. A lot of books really stayed with me, Harold Cruse, even stuff I didn't really agree with, like Angela Davis, I don’t have a person that is a beacon, but I have episodes and names and anecdotes that are very important. They aren’t things I necessarily agree with but I think about them all of the time. Like the Baraka story. Or when I was in school I heard Angela Davis speak, and she made this real vociferous speech about political correctness and how people don’t have the right to use certain words around you. And it was weird because I half disagreed with her, but I always go to the point where I don’t want anyone to tell me what words I can say, but I want to be considerate, then decide if I want to use these words. I try to use everything I say with a purpose, knowing that it can be taken in what I consider the "wrong" way. I understood where she was coming from about being respectful and not debasing people, but then there’s that censorship part that I’m uncomfortable with. I think everyone is always looking for these straight lines, but life doesn’t work like that.
It’s funny because I’m teaching this class out in LA, and I’m trying to get my students to think about place and identity and how it affects your story. Is the place just a backdrop to your fiction? So I started with this Rebecca Solnit, Guillermo Gomez painting map of SF where they are pointing out different places in SF and talking about who they are in each place. I’m here, in this coffee shop, "I’m this person, in this taqueria here, and I’m this person."
I remember doing another interview on the radio, and somebody said that "doing blackface is bad" and I remembered this skit on SNL where Billy Crystal is doing this Negro leaguer in blackface. And I thought it was so funny and so smart, and I’ve only ever talked about it to my friend Darryl. He heard the interview and we talked about why THAT one was ok, and he said "because you could tell there was a genuine concern and care, even if it was racist as hell." I’m not offended by that at all. I’m not saying it isn’t offensive but that’s different than these kids doing "Compton Cookout.” For me there's no solemn thing. There’s no ownership for me. Part of being an artist is to share. Part of sharing is for people to steal. People get inspired. No one owns these ideas, that language.
Paul Beatty is the author of the novels Tuff, Slumberland and The White Boy Shuffle, and the poetry collections Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce. He was the editor of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. He lives in New York City.
Fagan Kuhnmuench is an MFA Creative Writing (Fiction) candidate and a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He did his undergrad at the University of Washington. He is currently working on a darkly comedic novel that explores gentrification, writer's block, and consumerism through the lens of the burgeoning New York Hardcore punk/ skinhead scene. He is also an illustrator and works on videos for his site gnarlyheadache.com.
Stephanie Belk, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ottessa Moshfeghabout her book Eileen (Penguin Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Stephanie Belk: Eileen touches on some heavy and eerie subject matter, while the prose is controlled, eccentric, and elegant. What has influenced your style? Which authors do you gravitate towards?
Ottessa Moshfegh: My imagination has always been heavy and eerie—I'm a pretty moody, tortured person, big surprise. Learning not to take myself too seriously has influenced my work, and vice versa. I don't know which authors I gravitate toward anymore. I go through phases of not reading at all, particularly when I'm writing a first draft of something, which I'm doing now. The last book I read was a diary of Fernande Olivier as research because I thought the character in my new novel might be obsessed with Picasso's Rose Period. But then I changed my mind. Also, I have problems with my eyes, and I use them so much to write that reading anything that's not crucial is hard to rationalize.
SB: Eileen's isolation is palpable. She is an unmarried young woman in the sixties working as a secretary in a boys' prison, where she goes about her day donning what she has christened a "death mask," the stoic, impenetrable veneer she uses to go about her life. Her home life does not fare much better. Her father is an abusive ex-cop under house arrest for his alcoholic hallucinations, who flops around in a bathrobe and berates Eileen as she feeds him bottle after bottle while she silently seethes with resentment. Eileen might be tight-lipped in her interactions but certainly not on the page. Her character is self-absorbed, trapped in her twisted head and unable to remove her "death mask" even once she's stepped outside the prison, like in her budding relationship with her new coworker, the beautiful and elegant Rebecca, who she has propped on a pedestal, idealizing her to a point bordering on romantic.
Eileen has desires but she only seems to exist in relation to someone else, her mom's caretaker, her dad's servant, Rebecca's friend, and so on, yet Eileen's character seems so clear-cut and defined, her inner world is so rich and vivid. Did you have a vision for Eileen's journey when you first started writing the book or did it reveal itself to you as you were writing the novel?
OM: When I started writing, I knew Eileen was going to run away from all you've described, but I wasn't sure what was going to push her to do it. Growing up, I think, is a process of learning to recover from trauma. It's like building a muscle—tissue generates in the tears. So I looked at the difficulties in Eileen's life and formed her ambitions in response to them.
SB: I found that telling the story from the perspective of a much older and experienced Eileen so interesting. What pushed you in that direction?
OM: I wanted the story to be told from Eileen's perspective so that we would hear all her interior mental dramatics. But I also wanted the narrator to have the ability to make fun of those dramatics without turning young Eileen into an adversary. The older Eileen emerged as someone who could speak both from young Eileen's point of view and at a distance of fifty years' life experience. As a narrator, older Eileen is sympathetic and defensive, but she's also sometimes sarcastic, forgetful, and satirical. That was interesting to me.
SB: I read an interview you did with Vanity Fair, where you talked about how you prefer to keep a low profile and let your work speak for itself. I hear it's becoming increasingly difficult to break out as a writer without having some sort of online presence or public persona readily available. What has your experience been like? Do you feel that has impacted the reception of your work?
OM: People keep talking about the fact that I'm not on Facebook and how I keep a low profile, but I've done dozens of interviews since Eileen came out. I don't worry about whether my absence from social media might impact the reception of my work. Being a writer is a calling, a religion. It's a very private thing I do. It involves my relationship with myself and my deepest interests and spiritual quandaries, my pain, my fascinations, my instincts, my thinking. It is my life. Why would I ever want to put the details of that on the Internet? It's all in the work, anyway. I think of my public persona as a shepherd to the work. And with respect to the work, I wouldn't want to overshadow it.
SB: Do you have any words of advice for upcoming writers?
OM: Look in the mirror every day and kiss your reflection. Being a writer is a lonely life, and you have to love yourself enough for the loneliness not to destroy you. Also, study the English language. Don't rot your brains out surfing the Internet for "what's cool" or watching idiotic television as a substitute for relationships. Go for walks. Befriend older people. Be as freaky as you need to in order to protect who you are from the maelstrom of bullshit in your world. Remember that your work will be your best friend. It will challenge you and argue, it will love you, it will show you things you're afraid to look at on your own, it will piss you off, it will hold your hand, and ultimately, it will have a life of its own.
Ottessa Moshfegh's novel, Eileen, received the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction this year. Moshfegh is also the author of McGlue, a novella, and a forthcoming short story collection, Homesick for Another World.
Stephanie Belk Prats is from San Juan, Puerto Rico and is an MFA Creative Writing candidate in Fiction at The New School. She graduated with a BA in Writing and Rhetorical Studies from Syracuse University. She is currently working on her first novel.
Ali Osworth, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Valeria Luiselliabout her book The Story of My Teeth(Coffee House Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Ali Osworth: I've never heard of any process like the one you describe in the Afterword of The Story of My Teeth. Released serially and written with the feedback from your readers in mind (where you could actually hear their voices, recorded as they talked about their thoughts), it's the opposite of the solitary process we hear so much about. What surprised you about writing this book in this way? Is there anything about this process that could or should be applied to a more solitary way of writing a novel?
Valeria Luiselli: I had no idea if the idea of putting together a reading group in a juice factory was going to work or if it was going to be a complete disaster. It turned out to be much better than what I could have ever imagined. I literally waited on the edge of my chair for the mp3 file with the worker’s voices to appear in my inbox every week. I was both fascinated and so grateful that a literary text could become a bridge between such disparate and distant worlds: a factory, a gallery, and a studio in Harlem. It made me think that literature need not be thought of as a mere commodity consumed by the so-called educated classes. It can also be a channel of communication and an instrument of social critique via satire. In fact, for a long time, it was. The only thing I regret about the whole process of writing this book is not having had more time—many more months!—to exchange texts and ideas with the workers that volunteered to read the installments.
But of course, every book is a completely different journey. This one could not have been written in any other way, but that does not mean anything for my future books or for anyone else’s books. So I wouldn’t prescribe a procedure such as this one as a kind of antidote to the often solitary process of writing a novel. Sometimes that solitude is indispensable. In fact, I am in the most solitary of worlds right now—very alone with my new novel.
AO: I see a lot of Borges in this book—some self-referential passages, the particular realism achieved by mixing real names, places and images with very whimsical, almost fantastical situations. Many other authors are invoked as well, either in quotes or in character's names. Which authors influenced this text? If you could put together a The Story of My Teeth reading list, what and who would be on it?
VL: Borges is one of my favorite writers, no doubt. But a writer saying he’s influenced by Borges is like a musician saying he’s influenced by Stravinsky. And yes, there are many other writers mentioned or quoted in the book. In fact, The Story of My Teeth is a book of names, many of which belong to writers—even if in the book many of those names do not necessarily reference those writers. I don’t know if listing names here would make much sense. There is one chapter at the end of the book, though, written entirely by my translator, which lists all the names of writers who appear in the book. That chapter is called “The Chronologic” and it’s a kind of translator’s glossary of names.
AO: The grand majority of the book is narrated by Highway. We are so deep in his head that we're not sure what's real and what's not until we get Voragine's perspective. Highway has his moments of misogyny throughout; they feel like they are natural and are woven into the very fabric of his existence. I am a woman writing misogynist characters, and sometimes I have trouble doing so—any tips?
VL: It’s a really good question! To be honest, I think you just have open your eyes and ears to get ideas for your misogynist characters. Misogyny, like any other form of violence, produces frustration, impotence and anger. And those are feelings that, if channeled intelligently, can produce very powerful writing. It’s a matter of finding the right distance from them and looking at them with emotional clarity.
AO: Speaking of distance, I felt like, even though I'd been inside Highway's head this whole time, my most complete view of him came from when I got to see him from the outside looking in, courtesy of Voragine. Did you know from the outset that we were going to get a perspective other than Highway's? How did you make the decision to include Voragine?
VL: I didn’t know anything from the outset. I didn’t even know that I was writing a novel, in fact. I simply wanted to have a conversation with the factory workers, and for that reason I did not want to have a fixed plan. Having a fixed plan would have made a conversation impossible—it would have turned the whole project into a monologue, and that would have destroyed the spirit of the text. I decided to include Voragine because the workers kept on wondering how honest the narrator was, and how his life might be seen from another’s perspective.
AO: I want to ask about the translation process for this book—is it unusual to see your work translated by someone else when you speak the language it's being translated to? What did you learn from Christina McSweeney about your own work?
VL: I constantly learn from Christina’s wild and beautiful imagination. And yes, it’s true that I grew up writing, reading, and speaking in English, but she’s also played a big part in my education as a bilingual writer. Working with her on the English versions of my books has helped my two brains—the one that thinks in Spanish and the one that thinks in English—connect with each other.
The novel I am writing now is in English, but I am self-translating it into Spanish, sometimes simultaneously. This is of course a very slow—sometimes painfully slow— procedure in which I go back and forth between fragments in each of the two languages, changing minute aspects of rhythm, adjectives, textures. And of course I want to respect the natural “foreignness” that results from this method in both languages—because writing in two languages at once implies that one leaves an imprint of “foreignness” on the other. I guess, on one level, I am trying to allow my two brains—the one that thinks in Spanish and the one that thinks in English—to mix their currents fully for once. A lot of this is thanks to having worked so closely with Christina on my other three books.
Valeria Luiselli was born Mexico City in 1983 and grew up in South Africa. A novelist (Faces in the Crowd) and essayist (Sidewalks), her work has been translated into many languages and has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the New Yorker, Granta, and McSweeney’s. In 2014, Faces in the Crowd was the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. Her novel, The Story of My Teeth, was published by Coffee House Press in fall 2015.
Ali Osworth is a second-year MFA student, the Deputy Editor of The Inquisitive Eater and the Geekery Editor at Autostraddle (a queer women’s digital magazine). She’s writing a novel about GamerGate and will be teaching a class on cultivating a creative internet presence at The New School next Fall. Chat to her on Twitter @AEOsworth.
Jonathan Smit, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Anthony Marraabout his book The Tsar of Love and Techno(Hogarth), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Jonathan Smit: First, I’d simply like to say what a wonderful book this is. And a wonderful read, which may not be precisely the same thing. It addresses a vast and intricate subject in a very intimate, disarming and compelling way. I loved reading it.
My first question has to do with the way the book describes itself—as a collection of stories rather than a novel. It is indeed a collection of stories—with different narrators, speaking to us from different times and places, yet the structure of the table of contents—Side A, Intermission, Side B—supports a view of the book as a unified work, rather than simply a collection of stories with related content. What led you to frame this book as “stories” rather than “novel”?
Anthony Marra: First, thank you for such insightful and interesting questions, Jonathan. It’s been a real pleasure to mull them over the last few days. Originally, The Tsar of Love and Techno was a collection of independent stories, unconnected but for geography. But I began to notice certain images and motifs repeated and I wondered if I could weave these threads together so tightly that each story is necessary to understanding the whole. One critic described the effect as being akin to a series of transparencies laid one atop the next, through which a complete picture gradually emerges, which I love. As for the stories/novel distinction, Tsar exists somewhere in between. The book begins as a short story collection, but halfway through you realize it’s a novel. There’s no adequate term for that in-between space. “Novel-in-stories” sounds silly. “Linked stories” sounds like a dating website. So “stories” will have to do.
JS: One of the elements that most impressed me in the book is your mastery of voice. Could you discuss how you approach voice? Do you discover character through voice or voice through character, or a combination of the two?
AM: My first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is told by a terribly unfashionable, God-like omniscient narrator that can give the provenance of every object in a room and foretell the future of every character. It was a lot of fun to write in that mode, but with Tsar, I wanted to move to the opposite end of the vocal scale. Voice is tough for me since it always presents this chicken or egg conundrum: how do you write a character without already knowing their voice and how do you hear their voice without already knowing them as a character? For me, the answer always comes down to retyping. I retype a story over and over until voice and character merge. Most stories in Tsar I worked on for at least five years, and over that span of time these characters and their voices grew more defined. At its best, I hope, voice becomes a pure distillation of character. “The Leopard” is narrated by a party member in the 1930s, whose voice is studded with sloganeering and sounds a bit like a Constance Garnett translation. On the other end of the vocal range, the title story is narrated by a young man recalling his teenage years through a voice as overwrought and emotive as his adolescent self.
JS: On the subject of voice, one of the more startling and moving moments in the book for me was the moment, in the story “Granddaughters,” where the voice acknowledges itself. The voice is the collective voice of a group of Russian working-class women whose lives share a coherency from infancy to old age. Then, toward the end of the story, you raise the narrative stakes by having the voice acknowledge its own collective essence. How did you arrive at the wonderful notion of a collective voice? And was that moment of self-awareness an aspect of your conception of the voice from the beginning, or did the voice require that moment of you as the story took shape?
AM: I was drawn to the collective voice in “Granddaughters” because it seemed the natural point-of-view of insular communities, in this case the USSR, a remote town, and a clique of lifelong friends. The moment of self-awareness arrived when I began to consider the possibility of injecting the voice with the gossip, hyperbole, and speculation natural to a group of trusted friends. Since several of the book’s major plot points are first introduced here, the self-admitted unreliability of this narrative voice also raises the stakes in later stories, where things aren’t as simple or one-sided as the granddaughters-version presumes.
JS: In The Tsar of Love and Techno, history, in particular the histories of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, functions almost like a giant web, in which the protagonists struggle to find a sense of purpose beyond the limitations of their circumstances. Could you say something about how you think about history as a constitutive element in narrative fiction? Are there novelists you admire or who’ve influenced you in this respect?
AM: I love your phrase about history being a giant web, both entrapping and connecting these disparate characters. I don’t see myself as a historical novelist—aside from “The Leopard,” every thing I’ve ever written has been set within the past twenty-five years—but I find myself drawn to documenting how the historical and the political seeps into the most intimate personal spaces. Not only can novels catch and record the stories of individuals too small and ordinary to receive notice in a history book, they can also examine where and how political power touches down inside the lives of those farthest from its source, yet closest to its consequences. Mario Vargas Llosa and Edward P. Jones are masters of this. The Feast of the Goat, The War of the End of the World, and The Known World likely shaped me in this regard more than any other novels.
JS: A wonderful example of the above constellates in a single paragraph towards the end of the story “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” in which the personal and cultural costs of the second Chechnya war, the power of the Russian oligarchy, the failure of the Russian state, art, love and personal self-interest collide and resonate in a transaction that’s both powerfully emotional and hugely funny. It’s one of many instances in the book of a virtuosically deft articulation of plot. Could you speak to how you build story in your work?
AM: It’s a good question, but a tricky one. “The Grozny Tourist Bureau” began with two bits of research: the bombing of Grozny’s art museum and the push to create a tourist industry in postwar Chechnya. The story resulted from my attempt to draw those two bits of research together. Regarding the moment in the story you refer to, readers are willing to forgive a lot if an author sticks the landing, and so I build story with an eye to making the ending feel like an echo chamber that resounds and amplifies the emotional and thematic melodies of the preceding pages.
JS: Many of the characters in The Tsar of Love and Techno do bad things and some of them do quite horrible things. Yet none of the characters we meet are so objectionable that they might be described as evil, with the possible exception of Stalin, who is a driving historical force but not an active player in the writing. Do you think about evil as an aspect of human behavior? In the world of the book and beyond it, what do you think constitutes it and allows it to flourish?
AM: We hear a lot about anti-heroes in fiction, film, and television, but more interesting to me is the anti-villain—people who do bad things, villainous things, who occupy the traditional role of the antagonist and yet are nonetheless worthy of a reader’s empathy. Hopefully, Tsar forces its readers to realign their allegiances with characters repeatedly. One of the characters says, “You remain the hero of your own story, even when you become the villain of someone else’s,” which I think is true in this book and in life generally. Evil flourishes because the human mind is so adept at justifying and rationalizing it. This is particularly true in Tsar, where politics and history collude to create circumstances where there are no easy choices and no good choices. I grew up in a Catholic family and went to church and catechism every week when I was a child and teenager. While I’m now an avowed agnostic, I find some of those Catholic virtues come out in my work, particularly the possibility of forgiveness. Both Tsar and Constellation make the case that no one is unworthy of forgiveness, even if only the reader has the power to pardon.
JS: Many of the characters in the book are shaped by the man-made horrors of the places, Kirovsk, Siberia, and Grozny, Chechnya, where they are born and grow up. Yet their allegiance to those places seems unshakable. Could you say something about the power of place and its importance in your work?
AM: In my work, place is often the driver of dramatic action and the context in which a character’s choices become legible. In Tsar, those places (the Arctic, postwar Grozny, 1930s Leningrad) tend to have an extreme quality to them, be it geographical, political, climatological, etc., that magnifies moral choice. I wanted things to happen in these stories, so I set them where things are bound to happen. Throughout, I tried to undercut the stereotypical images western audiences might have of these places. Kirovsk, for instance, is based on the Arctic mining town of Norilsk, which is about as close to an environmental hell as I can imagine. And yet in one of my favorite scenes in the book, a character describes sunbathing with his family on the bank of a polluted lake. It becomes one of his most joyful memories and the very unlikeliness of finding joy in such a grim setting makes it all the more remarkable.
JS: One might describe the malevolent and insidious power of betrayal as a primary leitmotif in The Tsar of Love and Techno. None of your characters’ lives are untouched by it. Yet the book ends, very movingly, with a sense of hope or healing, at least on a personal level. How does this relate to your experiences in Russia? Where or how do you see hope emerging out of Russia’s tortured history and troubled present?
AM: Americans don’t have a great track record when it comes to reading Russia’s tea leaves, so I wouldn’t hazard a prediction beyond saying demographic shifts spell trouble for Putin’s brand of ethnic-Russian nationalism. Regarding that sense of hope or healing at the end, I’ll let the book speak for itself.
Anthony Marra is the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which won the National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and appeared on over twenty year-end lists. Marra’s novel was a National Book Award long list selection as well as a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and France’s Prix Medicis. He received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, where he teaches as the Jones Lecturer in Fiction. He has lived and studied in Eastern Europe, and now resides in Oakland, California. His story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, was published by Hogarth in the fall of 2015. Visit http://anthonymarra.net.
Jonathan Smit is a first year MFA fiction candidate at The New School. In addition to fiction, he’s written plays and criticism. His novel-in-progress, Kagan, is set in the present in New York. He’s had work published in Ducts.org and The Brooklyn Rail, and his play, The April Hour, was read at The Public Theatre in New York as part of LAByrinth Theatre Company’s Barn Series of new play readings. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two excellent cats.
Nicole Starczak, on behalf of the Creative Writing program at The New School and the NBCC, sat down with Lauren Groff at The New School in New York City to talk about her book Fates and Furies(Riverhead Books), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Nicole Starczak: Welcome listeners, I’m Nicole Starczak and on behalf of the Creative Writing program at The New School and the National Book Critics Circle, I have the great privilege of talking with author Lauren Groff about her book Fates and Furies, which is a 2015 NBCC finalist in the category of fiction.
Lauren Groff: Hi, Nicole.
NS: For those of you who haven’t read Fates and Furies—which President Obama called his favorite book of 2015—and without giving anything away, I want to give a quick setup before we get into the questions. The book is about a marriage, and the first half of “Fates” is told primarily from the point of view of the husband, Lotto, while the second half, “Furies” is from Mathilde’s perspective, Lotto’s wife. So at the end of the book, what you have are two distinct versions of the same 24-year marriage.
So, Lauren, there is a TED talk by relationship therapist Esther Perel called “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Marriage.” In it, she describes love as to have and desire as to want, and the difficulty in maintaining the tension of both. How does love and desire operate in Lotto and Mathilde’s relationship? Is it different for each of them?
LG: I think love and desire operate differently for each of them. There’s something really interesting in the idea of “love as to have” and the idea of matrimony as this idea of possession. From the beginning, Lotto feels as though he possesses Mathilde. She does not necessarily feel as though she possesses her husband; she possesses herself in very real ways. They both desire each other, but the thing I was most interested in trying to figure out, to ask questions about—because in fiction you don’t get any answers, you get a lot more questions—is what to do with this feeling of possession, this feeling of being right in the world or not. Mathilde is a character who is uneasy in the world, in a way that Lotto is not. A lot of it has to do with his invisible privileges because he was born the way he is. He’s relatively attractive, tall, wealthy, smart. He has all the privileges one could possibly have and she does not in many ways. And how does that work when it’s applied to this very old institution of marriage that has been going through these massive social transformations, particularly in the last forty years? All of these questions are interesting to me and I wanted to think about them harder in the course of writing the book.
NS: While Lotto emerges from the book so clearly, the people closest to his heart all keep deep secrets from him. Why does love for Lotto seem to engender so much secrecy?
LG: Lotto is a character who is relatively narcissistic. I think anyone would say that just looking at him as a character. It’s kind of fun to write a narcissist because everything is about them always, no matter what. When something is about a character, only about a character, even if it’s not necessarily about them, that’s the way that they see the world. So they don’t necessarily have the curiosity to look at other people and to try to imagine what’s happening on the inside of them. So if the people around him have secrets, even though he’s a very smart person, he’s not very perceptive because it would never strike him that people who are close to him, people that he loves, would have secrets. It’s one of those ideas: What goes into making a character? What goes into making a character with a relatively trusting nature, which Lotto has?
NS: So, there’s opportunity to manipulate him?
LG: It’s less manipulation because they love him. Everybody in this book loves him, which is one of the other privileges that he has. So, it’s not per say manipulation, it’s more retention of autonomy within this feeling that he has that he knows everything there is to know.
NS: There is a great quote from Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night in reference to Nicole Diver and Rosemary Hoyt. It goes: “Their point of resemblance to each other, and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world—they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them.” Knowing that Fitzgerald published this book in 1934, I initially read it as quite an antiquated point of view. Can you speak on this with respect to Mathilde, who is a modern woman, but who still feels the need or desire to operate through men?
LG: I don’t know that she feels the desire to operate through men. It happens in her life multiple times that she operates through men. She has no power. One of her ways of getting power is to operate through men. Ultimately, she understands, and it’s a very slow dawning that she doesn’t have to operate in the world of men. It’s not necessarily that they were men, which is what she was attracted to, it’s that they have the power and she didn’t. So for her, it was mostly transactional. Although, she also deeply loves Lotto, but she also needs what he has to give her. So whatever the power would have been at that point for her, she would have wanted it. The mere fact of gender would have had no bearing on the story if gender didn’t have the power that it does, even today.
NS: So, you think that gender is essentially coincidental in this story?
LG: No, I don’t think it’s purely coincidental. But I think for her character, in order for her to get the thing that she wants, it’s one of the things that she could have used and she does use.
NS: Moving onto sex. James Salter once said in the Paris Review, “I think the major axis of life is a sexual one.” He was so good with sex, and you’re so good with it. And in this book, sex seems to function in Lotto and Mathilde’s lives so differently. Can you talk about what sex means to them as individuals?
LG: Lotto early on was quite a player and he had a lot of sexual experiences. Mathilde, on the other hand, she’s not cold by any means, she really enjoys sex, but she understands it to be about power in a way that he doesn’t. For Lotto, it was a matter of connecting with another human being. It’s a physical connection that doesn’t require huge amounts of what we were talking about earlier, the intellectual curiosity. For Mathilde, it’s so much more complicated and so much more complex in terms of the dynamic. Like dialogue, sex is a lot of times about power and slight transitions of power, in the moment, but also in general. When I was trying to think of these sex scenes that I wanted to write, and I desperately wanted to make sure there was sex in this marriage because most of the marriages you read about in contemporary literature, and distant literature, there’s almost no sex at all, and if there is, it’s just sort of mentioned in passing as the way that babies are made, but it’s a real and vital part of intimate partnerships. So I looked at this and thought what I really need to do is make sure it’s a dialogue, a dialogue through the body. There are waves of power and return. Even if it’s transactional, there are still moments of twists as with any conversation one can possibly have. There are twists where the other person does something that you don’t expect. It really helped me to think about it as just a silent dialogue.
NS: I want to talk a bit about craft: The physicality of your characters and spaces is so strong. When you’re bringing a detail to life, what’s most important to you?
LG: This is a really hard thing for me. I work really hard at trying to figure out what is the living detail. If I didn’t, my books would be 5,000 pages long and no one would ever read them. When I write, I write in layers. I write lots of quick drafts. The first one will be about four to six months, and they slowly grow over time in terms of how much time that they take up. What happens at the end of the draft is that I throw it out and start over again. Between drafts, it’s interesting what takes place: I tend to lose the things that aren’t the living details of the scene and I gain an idea of what the scene needs in sensory detail. Even though I could spend fifty pages writing about three minutes and go off on poetic descriptions of what’s happening through the window, I try not to because you want to give weight to the things that really matter, or seem to matter, or sort of build a subterranean world underneath the surface world. I only get to that through my repeated processes of drafting and discarding and drafting again.
NS: You write through editing, it sounds like.
LG: Yeah, I do. I write through editing. But it feels as if I’m writing the first glorious draft every time because it has a sort of urgency and momentum. So it’s not as if I’m editing-editing all the time. My ultimate draft, the one after I’ve paid a lot of attention to the words, which does not happen until very late, is basically an editing draft where I take one to two bottles of wine, and my red pen, and I sit there all night long and try to cross out whatever I can possibly cross out. I do a lot of editing, but as I’m writing, I think of it as composition for four years at a time, even though I’m writing the same story over and over.
NS: Were there any writers or projects that influenced Fates and Furies?
LG: Oh my gosh, so many! There is a truism that says that books come out of other books. It’s my job to be a reader as much as it’s my job to be a writer. I think any book of mine has about a thousand other books in it. Some of the most obvious ones that come to mind when I’m talking about Fates and Furies—I went through this huge Shakespeare phase where all I wanted to do all day long was read Shakespeare's plays. I tried to get through all of them. I failed. I have yet to get through every one of Shakespeare’s plays. I went through a Greek myth phase, where I took a lot of online courses on Greek Tragedy, the Greek hero, the great dramas. Those went in, too. Anne Carson goes in because I love her and she’s possibly my favorite living author. Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge went in. Jane Gardam went in with the Old Filth books, which I love; I think they’re amazing and modern classics. I should probably stop there because if I don’t I will never stop.
NS: What’s on your reading list? Or nightstand? And is there anything surprising?
LG: Yes, but I can’t talk about the surprising things because they’re part of my next project and if I talk about it too much it will die. There’s a new Kelly Link introduction to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber that I want to read again. John Barryman’s The Dream Song, which I haven’t read. Magda Szabo’s The Door, which everybody says is an amazing book, but I have yet to read it. I have so many books on my nightstand it’s threatening to topple the nightstand itself. A lot of them are books of poetry, which ostensibly one could read in a sitting, but they’re so dense that it takes me a long time.
NS: Lauren, thank you so much.
LG: Oh, it’s my pleasure!
NS: It’s been so interesting talking to you.
Again, I’m Nicole Starczak and I’ve been talking about Fates and Furies with author Lauren Groff. Lauren is also the author of Arcadia, The Monsters of Templeton, and the short story collection, Delicate Edible Birds.
And on behalf of The New School and the NBCC, I wish you the best of luck with the upcoming award ceremony held here at The New School on March 17th.
LG: Thank you so much.
Lauren Groff is the New York Times-bestselling author of three novels, The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, and Fates and Furies, and the celebrated short-story collection Delicate Edible Birds. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and several Best American Short Stories anthologies; has won the Paul Bowles Prize for Fiction, the PEN/O. Henry Award, and the Pushcart Prize; and has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Orange Award for New Writers, and the L.A. Times Book Prize.
Nicole Starczak is a first-year fiction student in The New School’s MFA Creative Writing program and the former director of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. You can find her on Twitter @MissNicoStarr.
Julie Goldberg, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Helen Macdonaldabout her book H Is for Hawk(Grove Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Julie Goldberg: Part of the magic of H is for Hawk is how alive your goshawk Mabel becomes—in her body and moods, in her power and playfulness. What was it like to write about her, years later, in such detail?
Helen Macdonald: Writing about her was much easier than writing about my father’s death, my family, or myself! I can recall my time with her that year with crystalline clarity. Grief does strange things to the workings of memory. Back then I wanted to assume her rapturous, wordless, hawkish mind, and I tried, as I wrote, to match my style to that imagined subjectivity. Short sentences to capture her world as a series of fleeting, present moments; lyrical passages to suggest the strangeness of the landscape through the eyes of a hawk. I edited the hell out of most of the prose, but the sections about the hawk — what she was like, how she flew and hunted — they were written fast and hardly edited at all. I’m very sad to say Mabel died suddenly a few years ago of a fluke fungal infection called Aspergillosis that’s been the bane of goshawkers for centuries and kills many wild hawks too. She’s buried on one of the hillsides over which she used to fly. I miss her so much.
JG:The complicated relationship between instinct and training/social conditioning is something you explore throughout the book. Do you think the impulse to pour yourself into the hawk after your father's death came in part from having learned and internalized older narratives of "running to the wild to escape... grief and sorrow," or do you and the subjects of those stories share the same innate drive?
HM: When you train a hawk you’re forced to think deeply about the differences between innate and learned behavior, positive and negative reinforcement, and consider conditioning in both a physical and psychological sense. But not just in the hawk—in yourself also. Hawk-training is not a one-way process. Partly I wanted a goshawk because I knew how hard it would be for me; they’re famed for their fearful nature as much as for their predatory power. Taming it would be a challenge and a deep distraction from grief. Another reason was TH White’s book The Goshawk. Even in my childhood I saw that it was about a man running away from something to train a hawk. I didn’t know what he was running from, back then, but that trajectory, that attempt at a salve or cure—it stuck with me. It was powerful, even at an early age, because unconsciously I’d already bought into that narrative about running to the wild to heal yourself, and I think the same can be said for the subjects of those other, older stories in the book. I’m wary of explanations that see that drive as innate. I think it rests on a palimpsest of historically and culturally-shaped notions of what the natural world is, what ‘wild’ is, and what we need from it. On a related note, there’s an increasingly common argument that we should interact with the natural world because it makes us feel happy, or has other kinds of therapeutic value. I’m scared of a version of nature that is to be valued primarily for its effect on our mood. But it is true that being out there, out in the wind and rain and sun, surrounded by things that are not you: it can change your perspective on yourself and your place in the world.
JG: Your experience training Mabel and T.H. White's experience training his hawk Gos were (fortunately) very different, as were the personal struggles played out through your relationships with your hawks. Why did you choose to intersperse his narrative so completely and seamlessly with your own?
HM: White’s story was always going to be part of the book because it was part of mine. I’d read The Goshawk as a child and over and over again as I trained and flew Mabel. But it wasn’t until I read through White’s unpublished journals, notebooks, letters and manuscripts that I began to see the book needed more of him. I wanted to pleat his story together with mine partly because I wanted the book to have more than one voice; wanted to pull away from that seamless, smooth and expert voice of the old-school nature writer, which tends to erase alternative ways of seeing, writing, or thinking about the natural world. But mostly I wanted his story to work in counterpoint to mine because both of us made the same mistake. TH White and I used real hawks as a mirror of our imagined selves. White saw the hawk as several different warring versions of himself—something to be pitied, something to fight against, to sabotage, to try and love. I saw Mabel as everything I wanted to be—solitary, self-possessed, powerful, free from human hurts and grief. Both stories were the same story, despite the manifest differences between me and White: together I hoped they would work as an extended meditation on how, when we are talking about nature, we are usually talking about ourselves.
JG: At what point did you know that you wanted to write about Mabel and your experience after your father's death? Did you have a sense of the scale and breadth of the ideas you wanted to explore, or did that grow through the writing process?
HM: Towards the end of that first year with Mabel I began to see what had happened as a story. Not necessarily one that’d be written down, but something that felt older and much bigger than a story dealing merely with the day to day life of a miserable woman and a bird. Years passed before I could think about it being a book. I needed to gain emotional distance, couldn’t write the character of my past self until she felt quite far away, though I could perfectly remember how she felt and thought and spoke. There was a detailed chapter breakdown in my book proposal, but things didn’t go according to that careful plan. The book started to push back as it was written. Many things I thought would be in the book I had to throw out—one long chapter about a literary party in London in the depths of my hawkish depression, for example. Things I never expected to be in the book insisted they should be there; particular repeating lines, thoughts, themes. I spent a lot of time working on the formal aspects of the book, but at the same time I began to think of the writing process as analogous to wrangling a half-tamed animal. It’s an encounter with something you have to listen to very attentively, that may or may not work with you on any given day, that will show you things you didn’t expect or had ever thought of before.
JG: You write that the rarer wild animals become in our lives, the fewer meanings they can hold or resist. And through your relationship with Mabel, you show how something uniquely wonderful and complex can emerge when humans engage with the wild. How can readers (who may not be ready for goshawks of their own) more productively interact with or participate in wildness? To protect the wild world, do you think we need to see ourselves as outside it?
HM: Haha! I absolutely do not recommend goshawks. Falconry’s an exacting art that requires enormous dedication and a lot of free time. Even after a long apprenticeship with an expert falconer, a goshawk is one of the worst birds to start your falconry career with. But you don’t need a goshawk to encounter wildness. It is there in anything that is not human, anything self-willed, working according to its own motives. You can feel wild by watching a spider, legs tensed against silk across your bathroom window. There is a wildness in the healthy functioning of biodiverse ecological systems, and there is a different wildness that comes from understanding that the world is full of things that aren’t us. One of my favorite poets, the late RF Langley, wrote about how meaning can come from the contemplation of the tiniest things in this way: the wings of a grass moth furled like a cigar on an English pub toilet wall, for example. Perhaps you could go outside and look for something very small and alive, an insect of some kind, a thrip or aphid, and regard it very closely, with the greatest attention, for a very long time. That kind of natural-historical observation can literally make the world wonderful. Sometimes I think that being alive to the mystery of a moth on a wall is quietism in the face of environmental disaster. But I hope not. I hope that wonder is what drives the fire to save things that are not us. Of course we are part of the natural world, though we are fast doing our best to destroy it. It’s why I worry that hands-off is not always the best way to preserve nature. Why would anyone fight to save something if they have no knowledge of it and no emotional tie to it?
JG: Now, a year and half after H is for Hawk was first published, what has most surprised you about the response you've received from readers?
HM: I’ve had many letters from people telling me that H is for Hawk reminded them of how it feels to be alone at home with a new baby. That astonished me. But it makes such perfect sense. You’re responsible for this infinitely precious thing. It doesn’t speak. You’re not sure if you’re meeting all its needs. Sometimes you get anxious, worry that you’re doing everything wrong, that somehow you might break it, cause it harm by mistake. And of course, it is an all-consuming and life-changing relationship. Those parallels surprised me a lot, and the letters moved me a great deal. (But I can guarantee that goshawks are far better than babies at flying over wintry hillsides and catching you rabbits for dinner.)
Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator and naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of the bestselling H Is for Hawk, as well as a cultural history of falcons, titled Falcon, and three collections of poetry, including Shaler's Fish. Macdonald was a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, has worked as a professional falconer, and has assisted with the management of raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia. She now writes for the New York Times Magazine.
Julie Goldberg is a writer, teacher and second year fiction student in the MFA program at The New School, where she is the chapbook coordinator. She's working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @julie_goldberg.
Discover the writer's life in New York City. The 2016 Summer Writers Colony at The New School will meet Monday, June 6 through Thursday, June 23rd. This intensive three-week program of workshops, literary salons, and publishing seminars provides a supportive yet challenging atmosphere in which to develop as a writer, whether you are embarking on a new writing project or developing a work-in-progress. Here is a look at the fiction offerings at this year's colony.
Sharon Mesmer returns as the leader of the fiction workshop. Mesmer is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. Her fiction collections are the The Starry Dynamos (forthcoming), Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette Littératures, Paris, in French translation by Daniel Bismuth, 2005), In Ordinary Time (Hanging Loose Press, 2005), and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose Press, 2005). Her poetry collections are Greetings from My Girlie Leisure Place (Bloof Books, 2015), Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008), The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose Press, 2008), Vertigo Seeks Affinities (chapbook, Belladonna Books, 2007), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press, 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (chapbook, ABJ Press, Tokyo, 1997). She teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs of New York University and The New School. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in Brooklyn, New York since 1988.
Fiction Literary Salons
The Sellout by Paul Beatty, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction.
A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty's The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.
Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.
Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court. More information.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, one of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of the Year.
In the beginning, it was easy to imagine their future. They were young and giddy, sure of themselves and of their love for each other. “Dept. of Speculation” was their code name for all the thrilling uncertainties that lay ahead. Then they got married, had a child and navigated the familiar calamities of family life—a colicky baby, a faltering relationship, stalled ambitions.When their marriage reaches a sudden breaking point, the wife tries to retrace the steps that have led them to this place, invoking everything from Kafka to the Stoics to doomed Russian cosmonauts as she analyzes what is lost and what remains. In language that shimmers with rage and longing and wit, Offill has created a brilliantly suspenseful love story—a novel to read in one sitting, even as its piercing meditations linger long after the last page. More information.
Kickstart your writing this summer at The New School! These creative writing workshops are designed to get students producing high-quality writing in short order. Classes begin the first week of June and run through the end of July, either on campus in Greenwich Village or online. Registration for these and other courses is open now at newschool.edu/ce:
Pick Up Your Pens: Kickstart Your Writing Routine On campus with Jessie Sholl Tuesdays and Thursdays, June 2 - July 21 6:00pm-7:50pm
Writing is largely a matter of habit (to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor), yet it’s not always easy to maintain a consistent writing practice. This course offers a supportive push for writers of all levels toward creating and cementing that habit. For both fiction and nonfiction writers, and at any stage of a project—from facing a blank page to a completing a draft of a story—we’ll use exercises, writing prompts, and a constructive critiquing process to improve our writing practices as well as our work.While the focus is on loosening up and kick-starting our creativity, the exercises in this course connect to and explore important features of both fiction and nonfiction writing—including description, voice, character, plot, and revision—as well as ways to apply them to current and future projects. We also read pieces by acclaimed writers about process. By the end of the course, each student has a good start on a new piece or have a clear direction in which to take a piece they’d already begun—and have a solid foundation for a regular writing practice.
On Location: Writing from Art at The Met
On campus and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Star Black Mondays through Thursdays, June 1 - June 11 11:00am - 4:00pm
New York City has a long tradition of artistic exchange and collaboration between writers and painters and of exchange between writing and the visual arts. Kenneth Koch and Larry Rivers, John Ashbery and Jane Freilicher, and James Schuyler and Fairfield Porter were close friends and collaborators. Derek Walcott and e. e. cummings both painted and wrote, and photographers like Rudy Burckhardt documented friends creating art in their studios The class splits its time between The New School, where we share our writing, and the city’s preeminent art museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Students meet at The New School from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., break for lunch, and reconvene on the steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art at 2:00 p.m. We spend the remaining time exploring its collections and writing flash fiction and “ekphrastic” poems, prose poems, and flash fiction responding to art. We spend the first week writing in The Met’s European Painting Galleries, Sculpture Courts, Medieval Art and Armor Collection, and Costume Institute. The second week is devoted to writing in the 20th Century Wing, Contemporary Art and Photography Galleries, Asian and Islamic wings, Rooftop Outdoor Projects, and Egyptian Collections. On the final Thursday of the course, the class visits and writes at the nearby Neue Galerie, located at Fifth Avenue and 86th Street, then enjoys a picnic and an outdoor reading in Central Park.
Advanced Fiction Writing: Revise and Polish On campus with John Reed Tuesdays and Thursdays, June 2 - July 21 8:00pm - 9:50pm
The workshop is an opportunity for writers to speed their creative and technical maturation. This course is for students who are beyond introductory courses and are ready to take their writing to a higher level. Workshop time is dedicated primarily to student work; assignments look toward and initiate tasks commonly encountered by aspiring writers. The intention of the course is to help individuals prepare themselves and their work for the next phase of their vocation, be it approaching editors, agents, and literary journals or applying to graduate schools. These subjects are addressed realistically and reasonably, with the quality of the writing always foremost on the agenda.
From Silence to Poem Online with Richard Tayson June 1 - July 31
Beginning and advanced writers work on dismantling silences in their lives and generating poems from personal experience. We work in a safe, functional community to open hidden places within ourselves. The heretical Gospel According to Thomas says, "If you do not bring forth that which is within you, that which is within you will destroy you. If you bring forth that which is within you, that which is within you will save you." This notion informs our work together, enabling the writer to follow the poem's impulse in order to break old habits and write something challenging and difficult.
MFA in Creative Writing '03 alum Sean Manning was profiled in aNew York Times feature of Rhapsody Magazine, for which he serves as Executive Editor. Rhapsody Magazine brings literary fiction to in-flight reading on United Airlines:
As airlines try to distinguish their high-end service with luxuries like private sleeping chambers, showers, butler service and meals from five-star chefs, United Airlines is offering a loftier, more cerebral amenity to its first-class and business-class passengers: elegant prose by prominent novelists.
Writing at the New School offers Continuing Education courses in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, dramatic writing, journalism, writing for children and special topics. Our short form students go on to publish articles with national newspapers and magazines, from The New York Times to Cosmopolitan to Vice. A great many of our long-form students have gone on to sell books to large and small publishers. In 2013, our students, alumni and faculty published over 35 books; in 2014, over 40. Our authorial successes include some of the biggest names in writing: Mario Puzzo to Jack Kerouac to Madeleine L’Engle. And our faculty is made up of an exciting array of contemporary authors who are also dedicated teachers.
Additionally, Creative Writing at The New School offers an internationally renowned Master of Fine Arts, and a Summer Writers Colony, open to both degree students of the School of Undergraduate Studies and Continuing Education students.
MFA in Creative Writing faculty member Jeffery Renard Allenhas been awarded a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction! Allen is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Song of the Shank (Graywolf Press), named one of New York Times' 100 Notable Books of 2014, as well several other books of fiction and poetry. Guggenheim Fellowships are awarded annually to scholars, artists, and scientists on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise.
Paul Auster, the internationally acclaimed author of Sunset Park, The Invention of Solitude and The New York Trilogy, among many other works of fiction, poetry, memoir and translation, joined faculty member and MFA Nonfiction coordinator Honor Moore to discuss his latest memoirs Winter Journal and Report from the Interior, as well as the craft of nonfiction. The Nonfiction Forum took place at The New School on Monday, December 8, 2014 in front of a packed room of students, faculty, and members of the NYC community.
The Audiograph series, produced by MFA alum Luke Wiget, broadcasts digital audio about the people, publications, and events of Writing at The New School.