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Our Cultural DNA: ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

The Library BookIn 1986, a fire at the Los Angeles Central Library raged so fiercely, firefighters noted the strong potential for a flashover –– when a fire spreads rapidly across a gap due to extreme heat. “Flashover” is similar to the effect one experiences reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book (336 pages; Simon & Schuster). It’s difficult to pull away from the story when her incisive research skills and masterful writing work in symbiosis: The Library Book is not just a sweeping narrative recounting the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire, but also an in-depth look at the personal, civic, and global impact a library can have.

Although Harry Peak has long been suspected as the arsonist behind the fire, the precise cause of the blaze remains a mystery to this day. Peak was originally from Santa Fe Springs, but moved to Los Angeles –– as most aspiring actors do –– after a stint in the Army at age eighteen. He never made it to the silver screen, but he did appear on the local news in 1987 when he was arrested on suspicion of arson. He was described by many as a compulsive liar, which is partially why Peak was never indicted. No one could ascertain if Peak was even at the library when the fire started because he continually fabricated and then contradicted one alibi after the other.

In addition to her investigation into Harry Peak, Orlean examines history to add context to why someone would want to burn down a library in the first place: “libraries are usually burned because they contain ideas one finds problematic,” she notes. She harkens back to the Spanish Inquisition, wherein Spaniards created a community gathering around the act of burning books they deemed heretic, such as the Torah. With some trepidation, Orlean even burned a book herself in order to truly immerse herself in her research.

Orlean describes the personal significance of the library institution: for her, the library is a reminder of the trips she took with her mother, to whom she credits for instilling her love of literature. She saw that same parent-child bond mirrored in the present when she brought her son to the library because he –– to Orlean’s surprise –– wanted to interview a librarian for a school assignment. She calls books our cultural DNA, “a code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know.” A library is one of the safest and most open places in a community, and to burn it down would be tantamount to terrorism. For the Senegalese people, Orlean notes, saying “his or her library has burned” is a polite way to address someone’s passing; she shares a cerebral yet heartwarming contemplation of the term:

Our minds and souls contain volumes made of our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it —with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited— it takes a life of its own.

Reading The Library Book is not unlike combing through the stacks of your local branch: it exposes many truths, and offers answers as well as questions. While the fire at the Los Angeles Central Library may be long forgotten –– even when it occurred, it was soon eclipsed in the headlines by the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl the same week –– Orlean’s genuine ardor for this peculiar and overlooked story is adroitly conveyed by her prose—the fuel igniting this literary page-turner.

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Stories Told in Shadow: What We’re Reading This Halloween

Stories Told in ShadowSan Francisco’s most cherished holiday –– that’s right, Halloween –– is nearly upon us. That means it’s colder and darker outside before you know it, so what better excuse to curl up in bed with a (frightfully) good book? In keeping with the spirit of the season, we’ve assembled a list of recommended reads that might just help you keep warm, that is, if they don’t chill you to the bone.

White TearsLaura Cogan, Editor: The dehumanizing violence of American racism and white power is the horror at the heart of Hari Kunzru’s novel, White Tears. I read it earlier this year, as a part of the Tournament of Books (where I offered commentary in the opening round), and though there were aspects that I wish had been developed more, the novel has stayed with me. It can be fascinating when the genre of horror is used incisively (either in film or narrative) to address social concerns. In this regard, Kunzru’s book is timely and memorable—both for its visceral evocation of the way we are haunted, whether we can perceive it and admit it or not, by slavery, and for its treatment of contemporary racism.

As I noted earlier this year, White Tears drives home a serious point about the present-day legacies of our shameful past by making use of the propulsive conventions of the horror genre. But the novel is especially impressive for its layered critique of white exploitation of black Americans in many guises over generations. Issues of ownership, possession, and obsession come up in several forms throughout the book—and interwoven with this motif is a suggested critique of capitalism itself.

Part of the horror evoked here has to do with being disenfranchised. Which is a condition, if we pause to really dwell on it, as essentially horrifying as any. As one of Kunzru’s characters observes: “When you are powerless, your belief or disbelief is irrelevant. No one gives a damn about what you believe. But if some reality believes in you, then you must live it. You can’t say no thank you. You can’t say I don’t want this. If horror believes in you, there’s nothing to be done.”

XPeyton Harvey, Intern: After seeing the live production of X in London, I immediately purchased a ticket to see it again the following week. From the mind of Alistair McDowall comes a play that is exhilarating, mind-bending, and heartfelt. It’s the kind of story that you’ll want to revisit and absorb every detail that you may have missed. The stage production is magical, but the deftly crafted script is able to stand alone and conjures extremely visceral images in the mind of the reader.

 X, its the title befitting its enigmatic plot, serves as a measure of humanity and relationships through the lens of time. The play fuses elements of sci-fi, horror, and thriller; however, at its core it is a exploration of the human condition. We begin on a research station on Pluto with four astronauts: Gilda, Clark, Ray, and Cole. But soon the play’s timeline, like the minds of its characters, grows warped. The start of the play actually falls somewhere near the middle of the chronological narrative. The author presents clues to indicate where we are in the story: a watch only worn in certain scenes, the letter x written, apparently in blood, on the window.

The characters struggle to maintain their sanity as their memories begin to fade and merge together. In Act II, the in-house meteorologist Cole realizes that the station’s main clock and other means of keeping time have stopped working. As a result, none of the characters can tell how long they’ve been away from Earth, or even how many hours they’ve been awake.

Over time –– whatever that word means to them now –– they becomes increasingly less sure of who they are. McDowall adds an eerie levity to the plot as two characters play the game Guess Who, a game with definite questions and answers. Do I have blonde hair? Yes. Am I wearing a hat? No. Before long, the players lose their grip on their identities. Without any reference point to time back on Earth, they become more unstable.

While there are horrifying images of bloody letters sprawled on walls and the ghostly sound of a young girl’s voice, what proves most frightening is the slow realization that there is no escape from the characters’ increasing disconnect from reality.

X delves into the fragility of the human psyche. In one instance, Ray explains that he maintains his sanity by playing recordings of bird sounds: “I try to hold onto birds in particular.” Gilda, near breaking point, replies, “Hold onto X, X in particular.”   The theme of holding on appears throughout the play. We are asked: who are we if we do not possess our own thoughts and memories? What do you hold onto when you are losing your very self?

Alchemaster's ApprenticeM.M. Silva, Intern: The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers is one of my all-time favorites for many reasons. It takes its readers on a spooky adventure through a disease-ridden village called Zamonia ruled by an “alchemaster” named Goolion. It has the ability to either place you on the rough carpet of your fifth grade classroom, reading the coolest story of your youth or actually bring you into the story itself as the conflicted main character Echo. Echo is an ownerless “crat,” essentially a cat that can speak any language with a slightly different internal anatomy than other cats. This ends up putting Echo in a scary situation, as Goolion needs the fat of a crat for his own evil purposes.

It may sound like the the kind of imaginative fiction you’d read during childhood, but Moers’ novel is a perfect pick for Halloween and might add a little spice to your book list.

The Haunting of Hill HouseZack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: “I think that what we all want is facts,” says Luke early on in Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. “Something we can understand and put together.” Yet in Hill House, as in all great horror tales, “the facts” are exceedingly difficult to come by and increasingly irrelevant in the face of the world’s terror. As the story opens, Shirley Jackson introduces four characters to the imposing and architecturally irregular world of Hill House as a means to investigate just how precarious our notions of logic, self, and sanity can be. Following in the tradition of writers as venerable as Poe and Lovecraft, Jackson understood that the most terrible terrain fiction can navigate is not a fog-ridden graveyard or castle crypt, but the human mind. Her prose is so effective at capturing the anxiety-ridden interiority of her main character, Eleanor Vance, that it’s easy to imagine the strange noises and disturbances of Hill House as merely the product of mental illness. Many readers have noted Eleanor’s similarities to Jackson herself: both suffered under the thrall of a domineering mother and felt increasingly stifled by domestic life.

Of course, Jackson herself professed to critics that she did, indeed, believe in ghosts –– and she writes The Haunting of Hill House with the conviction of a believer. “Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns,” claims the measured and quite rational Doctor Montague, who has summoned these three strangers to Hill House. “We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.” But how to hold onto logic, how to fight fear at a scene like the one Jackson describes during Eleanor and Theodora’s nocturnal stroll of the Hill House grounds: “On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path wide and black; there was nothing else.” It’s difficult to imagine a better treat during the October season than to savor such a passage as Halloween draws near. But the pleasures of Jackson’s novel run deep –– indeed, it’s actually quite hilarious at parts, particularly once Dr. Montague’s brash wife enters the scene –– and there’s no need to shelve the book after the 31st. The Haunting’s closing chapters make it quite clear that, for Eleanor, the greatest horror might not be found in the slanted halls of Hill House, but in being forced to confront the overwhelming loneliness of her life as she prepares to depart. It’s this observation from Jackson that ensures the novel registers as insightful and even profound.

Carrion ComfortBjorn Svendsen, Intern: Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort, released in 1989, is an epic 800-page horror novel which twists the traditional vampire mythos by featuring human monsters. Its title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem about spiritual despair, but the novel is about “mind vampires”— human beings with the psychic talent to control others with only a glance. These mind vampires sustain themselves with the emotional energy of others while forcing them to do their bidding like human puppets. Simmons writes in the introduction: “Absolute power does more than corrupt us absolutely, it gives us the blood-power taste of total control. Such control is more addicting than heroin. It is the addiction of mind vampirism.”

Carrion Comfort opens with a prologue. The protagonist, Saul Laski, is a Jewish man imprisoned in Chelmno extermination camp. There he encounters one of the novel’s perversely evil antagonists, an SS Colonel named Wilhelm von Borchert. Laski is forced into a game of human chess, where the people standing in for pieces are slaughtered when taken off the board. Laski survives the encounter and the war, and by the early eighties, has become a studied psychiatrist with a deep understanding of human violence. He has never forgotten his torture at the hands of a mind vampire, and devotes himself to understanding their rare and terrible talent, and ultimately, to destroying them. While Carrion Comfort is primarily a horror novel about facing adversity, it also balances elements of science fiction and the spy thriller. The novel features multiple characters, and the majority of the narrative is presented in third person. The first person is sparingly used for chapters featuring one of the novel’s main antagonists, exposing the workings of a psychopathic mind to chilling effect.

Carrion Comfort is a powerful meditation on corruption, violence, and the human will, and it is no surprise that it won the Bram Stoker Award the year of its publication. Stephen King has called Carrion Comfort, “One of the three greatest horror novels of the twentieth century.” Need I say more?

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‘Secular and Inconsolable’ by Noah Blaustein

Secular and InconsolableMy goal was to wake with nothing
in my head –– it’s nice to begin a day
having already achieved. Sunlight
on the dead grass of the ski slope.
A lone runner works his way up
the fire road, a dull throb in my ankle
where it twisted on the edge of getting
younger, of celebrating my luck
in still being able to run. Ralph, my friend,
has been trying to convince me for years
that the life of an adult is boring
but I’ve never aspired to the life
of an adult. My wife holds up a diaper,
“A pound of pee.” There’s joy in that.
In another city, strangers excavate
our old lives to make room for our
new ones. Why we don’t say we’re lucky
and leave it at that, I don’t know. “You know,”
I say, “there’s enough water in Lake Tahoe
to fill a canal fifty feet wide and two hundred
feet deep from San Francisco to Los Angeles.”
A full sentence that startles me but I’m
still not ready to say something big,
something about grace and the rhythms
of a body moving from half state to awake
and someone on the stereo is already
asking if this life would be easier
if I had someone else to blame. Outside,
a shriek and giggle –– the girls
we listened to last night
smoke their first cigarette, cough
in the high of transgression, run
through the grass to cheer
camp. My ankle throb synchs
with the sprinklers. I do a Jesus
stretch and my daughter clears
her sore throat like a prop plane.

Noah Blaustein has had published poems in ZYZZYVA, the Massachusetts Review, the Harvard Review, Barrow Street, Poetry Daily, The Fish Anthology (selected by Billy Collins), Orion, Pleiades, and many other journals. Noah’s first book, Flirt, was selected by Kevin Prufer for University of New Mexico’s Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series edited by Hilda Ras. The anthology he edited, Motion: American Sports Poems, was an editor’s pick of National Public Radio and The Boston Globe as well as a Librarian’s Pick of the New York Public Library.

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Clear Blue Skies: ‘Ghost Guessed’ by Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs

Ghost GuessedGhost Guessed (156 pages; Mesæstándar) is an exquisite meditation on grief, loss, and family ties in a world increasingly given over to technology. A combination of prose and photography, the work takes a unique approach to creative nonfiction by telling a highly personal story through the blended voice of co-authors Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs. The book opens in the spring of 2014 as our unnamed narrator finds himself traveling to Malaysia with his wife just three weeks after Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 vanished over the South China Sea. The plane’s mysterious disappearance triggers the narrator’s memories of his cousin, Andrew Lindberg, who similarly vanished in 2009 while flying a single-engine plane near the town of Staples, Minnesota. It’s worth noting that Lindberg is Tom Griggs’ real life cousin, and Ghost Guest features a host of what appears to be authentic family photographs. The ambiguity as to which author can be attributed for the story lends to the spectral quality of the work and blurs the line between truth and non-truth. “The boundaries of reality became fluid,” the narrator states, “and while we knew they would reset, we didn’t know what form they would take.”

These twin disappearances create dual timelines in the book––one in which the narrator recalls his malaise following the financial crash of 2008-09 and the discovery of his cousin’s downed plane in the White Earth Indian Reservation, and the other chronicling his trip to Malaysia as he becomes increasingly unmoored by memories of the past. Threading these moments together is the omnipresence of technology in our lives, as well as the far-reaching absence the death of a loved one can create. “Today it is no longer a question of whether there are images of an event,” the narrator muses, “but a question of what to show from all we have and how to show it to the largest possible audience.”

When we can spend all day scrolling through “an aggregation of social media posts and crime-scene pics, ISIS propaganda and high-end real estate listings, surveillance stills and police bodycam footage,” one might expect we’d find it easier to parse truth from the world around us. Instead, we find “mountain digital archives that hem us in,” and we are left to ponder the same questions the writer does when he reluctantly takes a job photographing foreclosed houses in the Midwest during the financial crisis: “How do you make meaningful work amidst endless images? How do you make shapes from the sea?”

In Ghost Guessed, the ominousness of the Information Age––with its “Predator drones making civilians fear clear blue skies, and the shifting satellite and radar grids recording our lives as they unfolded,” as well as what seems to be the increased occurrence of aviation accidents during the last decade––is set in contrast with the bonds of family. Home photographs from before and after Andrew Lindberg’s death capture stray moments of intimacy among kin, as well as the visible sense of loss seen upon the faces of bereaved relatives. The book’s sparse prose underscores this state with its quiet, humane details, as when the narrator reflects on a mundane occurrence during the search for Andrew’s downed plane: “I remember pulling a sandwich from a cooler and immediately feeling the banality of the moment, the lack of reverence of everyday events amid catastrophe.”

Most of the photographs in Ghost Guessed possess the texture of analog media, a clear reminder of how previous generations used to document their lives on film, compared to the increasing digitization of this era, our memories now reduced to Facebook feeds, Instagram photos, and the ambiguity of “The Cloud.” The narrator observes, “A triangle emerged: camera, society, and sky bound in a system of infinite visible relationships, increasing the probability of finding a pattern we could grasp.” But what happens when no such pattern emerges? Ghost Guessed is frank about the harsh truths of middle age, of finding yourself no more grounded or certain than when you were young. “…I wondered if I’d ever live up to my own expectations,” the narrator reflects, “I could start over and still never get past the beginning.”

It’s fitting then that Ghost Guessed ends exactly as it starts: in uncertainty as murky and grey as the roiling clouds that adorn its back cover. In tracing the lingering hold of technology on us, from disasters in the skies to social media feeds, and the devastating losses that can impact a family for years, Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs have crafted the rare multimedia work that one can declare profound.

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A Harmony Called Survival: Q&A with ‘The Carrying’ Author Ada Limón

The CarryingOne of my first memories of Ada Limón involves a party in Brooklyn nearly 15 years ago. Ada was across the room, in a beautiful blue coat. A mutual friend introduced us, whispering as she did that “her poems are even lovelier than her coat is.” Within months, I knew this to be true.

I am lucky to know Ada: We moved in similar circles in New York in our twenties, and left about the same time. I came home to California, and she moved to Kentucky, while still keeping her ties to Sonoma, her hometown, active with regular trips. (She has read at Flight of Poets, a series I host with Hollie Hardy in Sonoma.)

Over the decades, Limón’s work has honed a deft music against her gift for trapdoor syntax, where suddenly a verse drops us into a plush red heart or clambers out of itself to see the sky. Her poems have also gained tautness and emotional resonance, in particular in her haunting, fiery collection Bright Dead Things, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Limón’s fifth book, The Carrying (120 pages; Milkweed), offers a new chapter in an already beautiful and accomplished oeuvre.

As ever, Limón’s poems keep lighting up the rooms they enter. In response to her fifth book, Ada and I corresponded over the month of September about travel, tenderness, and new work.

ZYZZYVA: I’m catching you on a weekend when you are traveling: let me start with a question about travel and home. We in California are happy to claim you as a Californian, but you live in Kentucky now. As you travel a lot these days between homes or former homes— Kentucky, Sonoma, New York— does the travel affect your writing? Is there any place that feels “more” like home now?

Ada Limón: It’s fitting that I am answering this question on a plane. I spend a lot of time on a plane these days. I’m leaving California and heading back to Kentucky, trading one home for another, if you will. I don’t mind traveling. I get a lot of writing and reading done on planes and trains. Also, I’ll admit, I’m with my dog (who is under the seat and currently holding on to my feet) and my husband. This is my favorite way to travel—with my family. Sonoma still feels like home to me. I still have my small apartment on Moon Mountain (which miraculously survived the fire). My mom and stepdad still live in Sonoma. My father, stepmom, and big brother all live in California, too. It feels like I belong to that land, like I’m a native bird of the Valley of the Moon. But Kentucky feels like home to me, too. We have our house there and our two old cats, and I’ve written the majority of my last two books there. I’m a bit more isolated in Kentucky in some ways and I think that actually can help my writing. Sonoma brings out some nostalgic poems and Lexington brings out some more present “of the moment” poems. But they do both still feel like home to me.

Z: Yes, you have many homes, as it were. And: this is your fifth book! That’s a lot of poems, an oeuvre, even. To me you’ve been someone whose work I’ve admired since, say, Sharks in the Rivers— and before.  How do you feel your writing has changed— both as you’ve written more and as your national stature has grown?

AL: Thanks for your kind words, Tess. To be honest, the “national stature” is pretty bizarre. The only way that I can think about it is to remember that it’s not about me, it’s about the work. I think, “Look what my poems have done!” as opposed to thinking the attention is on me. Of course, I came home to Poets & Writers –– with a picture of me on the cover –– just late last night, and Lucas proudly put it on the table. I had to bury it under other magazines so I could walk around the house freely. It’s not that I don’t appreciate that generous attention, it’s just that it makes me nervous somehow. Mainly, it means I travel more, give more readings, and so forth.

I wrote The Carrying largely thinking of it as poems for me, for my intimate friends and family. After the kind attention Bright Dead Things received, I wanted to write something that excavated my own personal demons and didn’t hold back, while still focusing on sound and image. Then, suddenly I realized the book was larger than me and I started to think of it as something that might be read beyond my inner circle. So, on some level I hope that any manner of attention –– good or bad –– hasn’t changed my work. But time has changed it. Space has changed it. Life has changed it too.

Z: I love what you say about staying utterly focused on the poems, less on the big distractions of poetry business. I think that’s wise. I’m thinking about the early magic of your work — the lovely trapdoors you make language take, such as lines in this current book like: “ Some days there is a violent sister inside me, and a red ladder/ that wants to go elsewhere.” Talk to me about magic and also where lines like that come from.

AL: I don’t know if I find lines or if I hear them moving around in me and catch them. That line came from the phrase “violent sister”; I had been thinking of those words and how they sounded together. The hard sounds of “violent’ paired with the hissing sounds of “sister” made my mouth feel alive. So that line began with sound and then formed into a meditation. The idea that we have someone inside of us that wants to get out, break the barn doors and go free. I suppose we all have her. Sometimes my lines begin with sounds before I even can make sense of the phrasing or syntax. I love when that happens because it makes the poem-making almost feel more like song-making.

Z: Yes, we do get caught in words. Or: they catch us. A word I noticed in your book, a number of times, was “tender”, or “tenderness.”  As in “uncupping our ears to hear/ the song the tenderest animals made.” Or in the poem called “Against Belonging”: “I’ve named them / so no one is tempted to kill them (a way of offering/ reprieve, tenderness).” Talk to me about tenderness.

AL: It’s interesting you mention that, I keep thinking of that word and how it’s something I’ve been using a lot lately. I love that you notice those things. You and your good ear. I wrote The Carrying at a time when I was trying to be tender to myself and also to the world. At that time (which is also now), the world felt so brutal and so full of hate, I wanted to remember tenderness. To release a vulnerability or skinlessness that allowed me to be freer in my work. When I am suffering in any way (from illness, physical pain, or emotional baggage), I tend to move toward a hardness and a closed-offed-ness and a self preservation that often doesn’t even allow for breath. These poems were me trying to find that breath again, to be soft to the world again.

Z: Ada, I feel this conversation is helping me breathe better as well. I’ve been thinking a lot about carrying, too. Right now, in this terrible moment, I know that this sadness and anger is a weight I keep shouldering. Right after the election it felt so heavy. I don’t know how to carry this, I’d say. Didn’t know how to shift it actually through and in the body, so that I could get on with — well, anything. I am not less angry but I feel a bit more practiced in carrying some of its heft. I love that line in your poem about carrying grief.

How has it felt to you, in these past years, making space for the poems? I talked about fame or having a lot of books, but how has, say, the starkness of this moment shifted your writing? Or conversely, not shifted it?

AL: I think the election just sent us all reeling –– even those of us who knew the underlying hate was there all along. In some ways that admission, the overt hate, the fully exposed racism and bigotry and lack of care of our environment was a great reveal. It exposed what was always there. It was almost a relief not to have to convince people that America was divided anymore. I don’t know if my work shifted, but I think that I see things more clearly in general. I am also better at setting boundaries for myself (still working on this), so that I am making sure I am taking care of myself. I think self-care is a radical act for every one, but especially for women and for women of color. I think, during this tumultuous time, I am learning mostly how to allow for gratitude and rage to live inside of me at the same time. I acknowledge that they both have a purpose, but I also know that I can’t live in rage all the time. No one can. It’s self-destruction. It’s fire. So this book and these new poems I was writing were a way of seeing both the fire and the good green life all at once, and letting those two things find a harmony –– a harmony called survival.

Z: We need to strike that balance, certainly. I was thinking about it this weekend, when I was offline hiking here in California — just really away for the first time in a while. I was thinking about this odd balance of needing to stay vigilant and needing to renew; sometimes all in the same hour, the same day, the same body, the same poem.  But here’s my nerdy confession: sometimes I read a lot of really classic stuff as my form of escape. I just finished the Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey with Bennett, and on a whim, on this long hike, Taylor and I reread Midsummer Night’s Dream — partly because we were hiking through these enchanted groves up here.

Anyway — The Odyssey was great. Midsummer Night’s Dream was so much sillier than I remembered, and parts of it felt oddly wooden, though it does have this lovely little part about how all these things—our loves, our little fantasies, our dreams themselves—are snatched from us so quickly, before we recognize them. The mortal frailty of all our stories. The old lyric theme. “So quick bright things come to confusion” was the line that caught me. And, of course, I thought of Bright Dead Things—hearing an echo, a similar verbal glitter. It made me wonder: who are you reading? Who that’s alive, who that’s dead? What are your sources of inspiration and solace these days?

AL: I love that you read the classics. You know, I was a theater major and one of my favorite classes was the Shakespeare class. I am that total nerd who legitimately loves Shakespeare. I have a good friend, Corey Stoll, the actor, and he and his wife and I can spend a long time gushing about how excellent the musicality of Shakespeare’s lines are. I love reading the classics because you have that opportunity to say things like, “You know Virginia Woolf was really good,” but I also admit that I’m gushing a lot these days about contemporary writers, too. Maybe because there’s the diversity there that makes me feel seen. One of my confessions is that while I’m deep in writing a poetry a book, I can’t seem to read poems. I am such a mimic, it can be dangerous. So I tend to read novels. I love Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Hannah Pittard’s Visible Empire.

Poetry-wise, I just devoured José Oliveras’s Citizen Illegal, Katie Ford’s If You Have to Go, DaMaris Hill’s A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing, Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang, Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, and Erika Meitner’s Holy Moly Carry Me.

Z: Ah! So I wasn’t wrong, perhaps –– quick bright things, bright dead things! And, yes, as I was reading the new translation of The Odyssey, I kept saying “This is so good!” –– still half-surprised that it was, and also feeling deeply in awe, though, of course, lasting nearly 3,000 years has to speak for something. Still, those 3,000 years have been so radically imperfect in terms of who has gotten to speak and why, as you say.

I’m grateful to be a critic and poet and reader in this moment — many of those books you mention are favorites of mine, too. I feel there’s this beautiful generation we’ve gotten to be part of and a generation coming up who is knocking my socks off. I mean, the political world feels pretty hard right now, but the wide open future of poetry gives me hope every day.

Z: Can I ask again about influences –– who was formative? Whose work do you find rattling around in your inner ear? Who do you love and maybe also argue with?

AL: To be honest, that’s my least favorite question in interviews. I don’t know why. I really push against it. I mean, it’s a great question and you are right to ask it, but part of me feels like it’s not for me to say. A reader might see some influences in my work and some that I might not even be aware of. I think my problem is that it feels limiting. I feel like I should just open up my arms and point to the sky and say “This!” But, of course, I’m sure my work was influenced. By my teachers, for one: Philip Levine, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, and Colleen McElroy. And then the first poems and poets I loved: Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muriel Rukeyser. But I don’t have anything singular rattling around in my brain—it always changes. I think a lot about music, too. I think I’m as influenced by music and silence sometimes as I am by words. It’s funny, though: I love all these writers and artists, but I can’t compare to them or even be in the same context as them. They aren’t as much influences as benevolent guides I am so utterly grateful for.

Z: Ah, indeed: the big this. And you’re right — here I am hearing a kind of faint Shakespearean echo that may or may not be there, when maybe you never meant it. Poets are fish, swimming through the waters of language. Actually, did you know the human ear is evolved from the gill? That we are sifting air for sound the same way fish sift water for oxygen? I think the poet in anyone would love that. I love your gratitude too.

My final question, then, is about advice — for those people swimming this long, strange swim. Here you are at the fifth book. What’s your advice for those just starting out, and also for those who are doing the risky and hard work of continuing?

AL: Oh yes, the ear and the gill linked forever. I love that. I think I would tell people that in order to keep the work interesting, you have to keep writing poems that scare you. You have to keep pushing the limits and asking yourself the big questions. And it’s not just about the subject, but also about the making. I want to make things that matter. I want them to matter in terms of sound and matter in terms of emotional truth, but I want them to matter in a way that changes me. I write to be changed. I write to grow and become better at being in the world. Everyone is different, of course, but I start by making something that means something to me on a larger level. I steady my breath and jump all the way in. It’s the only way I know how to do this.

Tess Taylor is the author of The Forage House (Red Hen Press), a  finalist for The Believer Poetry Award, and Work & Days (Red Hen Press),  which was named one of the 10 best books of poetry of 2016 by the New York Times. Her third book, Rift Zone, is due out in 2020.

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Post-Consumer Apocalypse: ‘Severance’ by Ling Ma

SeveranceWith Severance (304 pages; FSG), author Ling Ma delivers a fascinating coming-of-age novel, one full of millennial culture, post-apocalyptic adventures, and, perhaps most exciting of all, a zombie-like populace.

Severance opens in New York City, where protagonist Candace Chen works for a Bible manufacturer called Spectra. Throughout the novel, Candace finds plenty of reasons to leave her job, even as she clings to the city that feels so close to her. But after experiencing the strife of the Shen fever, a pandemic which reduces people to automatons who slowly waste away, she ends up traveling far away from an emptied New York with a group of survivors looking for safety.

Interestingly, consumerist culture is a big theme in the novel. The story makes constant references to specific skincare brands, products, stores, and other consumer-related items, giving in-the-know readers something to connect to. However, Ma seems to raise the question of whether even having this connection is a good thing. She presents us with characters of contrasting lifestyles, allowing us to reflect on our society’s sense of materialism and attachment. As the characters’ varying levels of consumption and wealth create barriers between them, it’s easy to ask ourselves to reevaluate how healthy our level of consumerism is, and to what extent dependency on the things we buy is permissible.

Throughout her first novel, Ma alternates between multiple perspectives. Candace narrates every other chapter (with one exception), with the timeline jumping between pre- and post-apocalypse, illustrating Candace’s development as a character. In juxtaposing her attitudes before and after the end of civilization as we know it, Ma emphasizes Candace’s diminishing attachment to the city and all it has to offer, and at the same time demonstrate her renewed growth as she takes on challenges with her fellow survivors.

Yet even as Candace becomes more independent, her past continues to haunt her at every turn. There seems to be the implication that nostalgia for what used to be might be putting Candace at risk, as she reminisces on times spent with her her mom, who immigrated to the U.S. from China, and others before the Shen fever destroyed their world. Toward the end of the novel, we wonder how this state of mind will affect Candace as she reaches her final, fateful decisions.

Severance wonderfully demonstrates how the lifestyles we lead now can have a great impact on our future, and not just in terms of what we buy. Ma also takes a unique and sometimes comedic look at the commonly superficial relationships we have with our acquaintances, especially in the workplace. She shows how this lack of depth in communication with others is reflected in our relation to consumerism and the capitalist system as a whole. But its all done with a pleasingly light touch, despite the story being heavy with death and addressing the pressing issues of our times.

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Leaning into the Tale: “CoDex 1962: A Trilogy” by Sjón

CoDex 1962In CoDex 1962: A Trilogy (515 pages; MCD/FSG), premier Icelandic novelist Sjón manages to transcend conventional genre expectations while still engraining himself within the rich tradition of fables and fairy tales. The trilogy of books, first released to great acclaim in Iceland in 2016, was written over the course of 25 years, with the story itself spanning from the early 20th century to modern day.

For the American release, the author has combined all three novels into one book, designating a genre to each section: Thine Eyes Did See My Substance (A Love Story), Iceland’s Thousand Years (A Crime Story), and I’m a Sleeping Door (A Science Fiction Story). Despite these labels, Sjón does not confine the writing within these respective genres. The prose, translated by Victoria Cribb, exhibits the timeless cadence of a Grimm Brothers’ tale, yet is suffused with a profound nuance and ambiguity that evokes the surreal quirkiness of Italo Calvino (especially his Cosmicomics) or George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.

The trilogy begins in a German inn, just after World War II. Marie Sophie, a maid, looks after an invalid, a Jewish refugee who had been interned at a concentration camp. After a gentle but troubling prelude, they produce a child formed from clay. He is Jósef Loewe, the narrator of their stories, from its nascence all the way to its conclusion in the present day, when we find Jósef the aging and mildly delusional CEO of a biotech company.

Over the course of the three sections, Sjón introduces a vast array of characters, including a curious little chickadee, a jealous lover, a stamp-collector, the Archangel Gabriel at his most vulnerable, and a genderless android. He deftly employs a close third-person perspective, allowing him to delve deep into the minds and lives of his characters. From time to time, the narrative will halt its ongoing plot to elucidate an incident from a character’s past, or a folk tale that is analogous to the one being composed.

One example arrives in Thine Eyes Did See my Substance, when the story is suspended so as to tell the tale of “The Old Woman and the Kaiser,” in which a young woman in a woodland cottage takes in a hunter later revealed to be the King. Of course, they fall in love, and legend has it she bore his only true heir but raised him in the woods, keeping him from assuming the throne. The book weaves similar stories throughout, adding even more complexity to an already complex plot.

It is difficult not to equate the narrator with the author. Both Jósef Loewe and Sjón were born on the same day in Reykjavik in 1962, and Loewe often discusses the act of storytelling. In this way, the trilogy proves of and about storytelling. Sjón hails from a rich background of traditional Icelandic stories, but he is not derivative –– he is wildly original in his reshaping and expansion of these stories.

Near the end of the novel he writes:

Storytellers are not content merely to have power over their audience’s minds but must also take control over their bodies at the very beginning of their tale by lowering their voices and leaning back, thus compelling their listeners to lean forwards—after all, they’ve come to hear what the story teller has to say. By means of this synchronized shift they establish who is the guide and who the travellers are on the coming journey.

 CoDex 1962 makes the reader feel as though they are engaging with a master storyteller. By the end of the trilogy, one enters into a symbiotic relationship with its narrator (and its author)—we trust Sjón will provide fulfillment in synthesizing the countless elements of the story, and we will be rewarded for following along with his vertiginous adventure. Sjón compels us to lean in close to hear his tale—and the journey is more than worthwhile.

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Merging into a Singular Voice: ‘They Said,’ edited by Simone Muench and Dean Rader

They SaidThey Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (535 pages; Black Lawrence Press), edited by Simone Muench and Dean Rader, is an ambitious, immersive collection that challenges readers and writers alike. Breaking out of traditional ideas of authorship, the book gathers hundreds of pieces of multi-author writing that span multiple genres and formats. At the end of each work is a blurb written by the authors that describes their unique writing process. In the spirit of the collection, we decided to collaboratively read and review the work in the form of a conversation.

Claire Ogilvie: What stood out most to me about this anthology was the conscious noting of the authors’ writing processes and unintentional similarities of those processes across genres. It was interesting to see that many of the works started off as passion projects, or as a joke between friends, and then morphed into something more meaningful that was later published or performed. Some of the contributors, following the styles of their work, described their writing process similarly, like Maureen Alsop and Hillary Gravendyk who poetically note of their piece “Ballast”: “A mirror shone a refused language, the last moon slipped. As to the dreaming craft lightened one moment then another left.” While I didn’t exactly grasp what this described of their process, it did help me better understand the authors’ thoughts and intentions.

Caleigh Stephens: All of the writing about process definitely adds this extra dimension. I found the writing, and the writing about the writing, to be conversational, which helped illuminate the relationship between the authors outside of the piece. Creative writing is often presented as this isolated and individual art, and They Said functions as a challenge to that. The nature of collaborative writing is that it allows the author, as John F. Buckley and Martin Ott note, to “get out of that ‘I’ voice, that sometimes dark, sometimes limiting well of ego.” There’s a focus on process that underlies the entire collection, and while there are many excellent pieces of writing here, the anthology fundamentally is a work for writers and people fascinated by the craft of writing.

CO: I agree that the informal, candid description of processes enhances the work since it gives more background about the authors themselves and their relationship, or the concept of what they set out to write originally, as well as the often unexpected results. The series of poems that features the “The Sea Witch” by Sarah Blake and Kimberly Quiogue Andrews has one of my favorite process notes because, while some of their poems about the Sea Witch are a little cheeky or even slightly humorous (“The Sea Witch Needs a Mortgage for The Land, If Not for The House of Bones”), the poems had an overall experimental nature that the authors explained as “…a bit like a very friendly tennis match wherein one of us starts by making the ball. One of us will write a draft of a poem, as complete as we can get it, and then we send it to the other, who has free reign to add, cut, rearrange, etc.” Blake and Andrews process was clearly one of friendship and trust, which is reflected in their work.

CS: I also found “The Sea Witch” poems to be interesting due to the range of style and tone. With such an intricate and individual art such as poetry, the meshing of two (or more) voices cultivates an atmosphere of exploration. Some authors choose to write back and forth while others merge into a singular voice, becoming indistinguishable. Some, like the cross-genre piece “The Wide Road” by past ZYZZYVA contributors Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian, include both –– writing that hovers between poetry and prose, followed by letters written by the authors that are “about our work-in-progress as a part of the work itself.” The collaboration is embedded into the text rather than being something the authors must work around. “The Wide Road” also stands as an example of the experimentation that pervades the collection. Even beyond those pieces labeled “cross-genre,” there’s an interplay of poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction throughout that results in writing that flouts convention.

CO: It all sort of feels cross-genre to me, like some of the fiction could have just as easily fallen into another category. Like Tina Jenkins Bell, Janice Tuck Lively, and Felicia Madlock’s piece, “Looking for the Good Boy Yummy,” which takes the real events of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer’s life and final moments and then fictionalizes them through multiple perspectives and narratives. In their description of their process, they write, “We chose to tell Yummy’s story in the form of a hybrid comprised of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry because so much has been said about him and each form would reflect a different view. We believed the true Yummy was somewhere in the center of all the accounts.” The authors are intentional about mixing genres to better represent the realities of gang violence and poverty. The fictionalization of the story takes it to an interesting, murky, and political place. Which raises the question: when does a fictionalized account become cross-genre?

CS: The beauty of the collection is that although each section is labeled by genre, the works are able to move beyond those confines and tell their stories in the most authentic way possible. Thanks to the collaborative aspect, not in spite of it, the writers feel free to challenge themselves stylistically. Some pieces came out of literary games –– authors adding two sentences at a time or working in “antonymic translation.” On the whole, the stakes don’t feel very high in those examples, and often the works aren’t perfect, but this doesn’t lessen the anthology’s ultimate impact. As Cynthia Arrieu-King and Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis write, “We play and I still feel astonished by what happens when we do.” This is an inspiring collection precisely because it brings up more questions about the nature of writing than it answers.

CO: Yes, the most impressive aspect of this anthology is its commitment to collaboration –– from the editing, to the writing of the introduction, the collaborative reviews of the material inside, and the pieces themselves. It’s collaboration within collaboration, and even if a piece didn’t necessarily resonate with me I always respected the craft of the poem, or story, or genre-breaking-rule-defying piece in front of me. It’s all so thoughtful and intricate. You can tell from the effort shown by the contributors and the editors that it’s a labor of love, and as a writer and reader that’s what interests me.

Caleigh Stephens and Claire Ogilvie on their process: Claire and Caleigh originally (and quite candidly) had no idea how to go about writing a collaborative review of a collaborative anthology. The entire review-writing process was an extended conversation, as they picked out individual sentences and pieces to share with the other while reading.They came to appreciate the art of “collaborative writing” all the more after giving it an honest attempt one Sunday afternoon. Distracted by IKEA locations, yerba mate, and the current state of U.S. politics, they holed up in Claire’s living room and decided that they wanted their review to reflect the ongoing dialogue they had about the work. In short they would describe their own artistic collaborative process as “in cahoots.”

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: R.O. Kwon


R.O. Kwon’s first novel, The Incendiaries, is published by Riverhead (U.S.) and Virago (U.K.). She is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Noon, Time, Electric Literature, Playboy, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. She has received awards and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Born in South Korea, she’s mostly lived in the United States.

Kwon recently spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about The Incendaries at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

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‘Just Us’ by Paul Wilner

Supreme CourtThe Rape Guy approaches the podium,
with practiced confidence, Jimmy Stewart smiles.
He knows the ropes,
been through this drill before.
He lives around the corner from my brother-in-law,
who says he doesn’t know him but his wife is
“delightful.’’ I’m delighted. Aren’t you?
Who wouldn’t be? Just a drunken
grope and grab, lurch and lock,
his Irish Catholic pal
always ready to turn up the noise,
set the stage. Dominis vobiscum,
the Latin Mass is still the best.
Closeted libido, directed who knows where,
Three in the room.
Three’s a crowd, three’s company.
Company man. It’s all good.
Ask around, ask anybody.
Justice for all, stop the
witches. Burn the bridges,
burn the bras. Burn the
evidence, wipe the screens.
No one saw what they didn’t
see. The sea is calm tonight.
We all see what we want
to see, we all want what’s
best for the child. Baby,
let me be your loving Teddy Bear.
I don’t want to be a tiger,
tigers play too rough.
I don’t want to be a lion
‘Cause lions ain’t the kind
You love enough.
Look at that face.
Would I lie to you?
Were you lying
that night? Or upright
when we came
to save your very soul
and lose our own. Gladly.

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Relevant and Relatable: ‘American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time’ by Tracy K. Smith

American JournalAmerican Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (120 pages; Graywolf) delivers on its promise of introducing readers to some of our most important contemporary American poets, both well-known and emerging. Moreover, the writers featured in it are a reflection of the diversity of the United States, which is what one would hope for in a collection curated by the current U. S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. In addition to featuring a racially diverse group of writers, there are poems by old and young, female and male, and straight and gay poets (although queerness is not a theme that is really explored in it, except in Terrance Hayes’ “At Pegasus”). Clearly, there is a wealth of perspective in this book, making one wonder whether a collection that attempts to appeal to such a broad audience might read as too general or watered down. This isn’t the case.

The poems in American Journal both celebrate and critique the American “way of life.” There are poignant portrayals of small-town and rural America (not to be confused with white America) in poems like Oliver de la Paz’s “In Defense of Small Towns” and Vievee Francis’ “Sugar and Brine: Ella’s Understanding,” as well as nods to urban America, such as in Major Jackson’s “Mighty Pawns,” a witty poem about a tough and brilliant kid from Philadelphia who “could beat/any man or woman in ten moves playing white.” There are also honest appraisals of our frequent complacency in the face of injustices meted out by our government in Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War” and in Layli Long Soldier’s “38,” which is something of an anti-poem that recounts in a nonlinear fashion the Abraham Lincoln-sanctioned execution of thirty-eight men from the Dakota tribe. Near the beginning of the poem, Long Soldier alerts readers:

You may like to know, I do not consider this to be a ‘creative piece.’

I do not regard this as a poem of great imagination or a work of fiction.

Also, historical events will not be dramatized for an ‘interesting’ read.

Therefore, I feel most responsible to the orderly sentence; conveyor of thought.

That said, I will begin.

You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38.

Other poems touch on other relevant social concerns: Tina Chang’s “Story of Girls” and Donika Kelly’s “Fourth Grade Autobiography” speak to our increasing societal awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse—an awakening facilitated by the #Me Too movement. One of my favorite poems in the book, Eve L. Ewing’s “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went on Then,” is an intimate and recognizable portrayal of contemporary school life, but I can’t read it (especially its final lines) without thinking about recent school shootings.  The poem characterizes several members of this school community, painting an especially vivid portrait of a student named Javonte Stevens:

Sing of Javonte’s new glasses,

their black frames and golden hinges that glint in the sun,

and his new haircut, with two notched arrows shorn above his temples.

Another of the strongest poems in the book, Danez Smith’s “From summer, somewhere,” is a must-read about the police killings of black boys that is written from the perspective(s) of the dead boys. It’s a compact poem packed with power. Here is a couplet from the poem: “history is what it is. it knows what it did./ bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy.”

Elsewhere, universal themes such as familial strife, forgiveness, and death are addressed in poems, such as the highly memorable “Reverse Suicide” by Matt Rasmussen and “becoming a horse” by Ross Gay. In Gay’s poem, which manages to be both down to earth and spiritual—humbling, really—the speaker reflects:

But it was putting my heart to the horse’s that made me know

the sorrow of horses . . .

Feel the small song in my chest

swell and my coat glisten and twitch.

Diverse as they are, the poems in American Journal flow into one another, mirroring the melding of experiences that makes us who we are as a nation. This fusion is partly a result of the poems being grouped into thematic sections. Often, poems on opposite pages, such as Rasmussen’s “Reverse Suicide” and Charles Wright’s “Charlottesville Nocturne,” or Ada Limón’s “Downhearted” and Gay’s “becoming a horse,” address strikingly similar subject matter. It might also have been interesting to juxtapose poems that speak to each other in a different way—that also enact the tensions that are particular to a culture defined as much by similarity as by difference. For example, it might have created a pronounced tension to run Lia Purpura’s “Proximities,” which addresses police shootings, but from a perspective of privilege, next to Smith’s “From summer, somewhere.” As it is, they’re placed far from each other. While this may show the difference in the closeness to danger for each poem’s subject(s), this is a point that may be lost on readers.

Overall, American Journal serves as a strong overview of the poetry of our current moment. And in a time in which the only thing most of us seem to agree on is that we disagree—at a time when our nation is in what esteemed journalist Carl Bernstein has dubbed a “cold civil war”—it is refreshing to read a books that unifies our diverse perspectives.

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I Have No Formula: Q&A with ‘The Secret Habit of Sorrow’ Author Victoria Patterson

The Secret Habit of SorrowVictoria Patterson’s eye is trained on Southern California. But she’s not only writing about the Los Angeles we know from cinema and television screens. Her stories trace tales of disappointment and regret across the senior living centers, grocery stores, and backyards of cities like Long Beach, Newport Bay, Costa Mesa, and others. Much like the work of Alice Munro, each of the stories in her latest collection, The Secret Habit of Sorrow (224 pages; Counterpoint), read as though they could be the start of a novel, with a breadth of complexity to her characters and the trying situations they find themselves in.

We come to Patterson’s cast of flawed protagonists at particularly vulnerable moments in their lives. Whether they’re attempting to raise a child apart from the instability of a drug-addicted partner or reeling from the mistake of  sleeping with a parent’s new boyfriend, Patterson approaches their stories with a generosity that doesn’t belie the poor choices they’ve made or the unfair hand they’ve been dealt, and a keen level of detail that makes their victories –– however minor –– feel earned.

Victoria Patterson recently spoke to ZYZZYVA about her writing process, the delicate balance of drawing material from real life, and more.

ZYZZYVA: You are one of the few contemporary writers whose short stories suggest for me a life beyond their page count, to that point that I’m halfway surprised when I reached the end of many stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow –– as it seems to me that the characters and their struggles could continue on. As someone who is also an accomplished novelist, do you know whether a project will be a short story or novel right from the start?

Victoria Patterson: The writing process is still mysterious to me. I like to let stories take me where they want to go, so in that regard I have no specific page count in mind.

But I do usually know early on whether the material will manifest itself as a novel or a short story. With both, there’s an enormous amount of note taking and daydreaming before I begin to attempt words on the page.

Z: The stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow span from a period that includes 2006 to the present. I noticed in the Acknowledgements that many of the stories are listed as appearing in slightly different form in their original publications. Is that a valuable part of the creative process for you, being able to revise stories when they are ultimately put together for a collection?

VP: I like to think that I’m getting better as an artist as time passes, so it’s only natural for me to revise stories that have already been published. At some point, I have to leave them alone. At some point, a story is done. But why not go back and improve them, if I can? Especially from a distance of years, which gives me a better perspective and a detachment, so I can ideally be more ruthless.

Z: Tone is such a delicate thing to control on the page. But the details you select really speak to the mood of your stories; for instance, I love the kind of dismal description we get when serial philanderer Nick watches his new girlfriend sitting at the end of a dock in “Paris”: “Nick likes how she looks casual and sexy. She could be in an advertisement for Viagra or mutual funds. The sun is down but it’s still light, a long pink spray across the skyline, and overhead a mottled half moon the dirty white of cauliflower.” Those lines tell me everything I need to know about Nick’s midlife existence, without any dialogue or internal monologue. How much is tone on your mind as you’re writing?

VP: Wasn’t it Michelangelo Antonioni who said that life is made up of small moments, not major ones? Life is also in the details, the ones that a writer’s eye catches. No one can teach this. So much of tone comes from an accretion of details lurking in the background. I think for me this comes intuitively and with practice and revision. I have no formula. Sometimes I luck out; sometimes it just takes time and revisions.

Z: Just as much as Nick or any of the other individuals who populate your stories, Southern California itself feels like a character in this collection. What is it about Southern California that continues to be an influence on your work?

VP: Southern California is my terrain. It’s in my blood. It’s what I know best.

ZYZZYVA Volume 33, #1, Spring 2017Z: “Appetite” first appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 109. It’s a story that deals with writers and motherhood, yet neatly sidesteps any of the clichés associated with stories about both. One frequently hears about writers who get in trouble with their family members for writing about them, but “Appetite” is unique in that it explores the perhaps predatory nature of the writer who draws from their personal life: at one point the narrator, a writer, reflects on her intimate relationship with her friend Claire and remarks, “For a moment I imagined myself as a parasitic, ballooning animal sucking off Claire’s shrinking body.”

As a writer, do you find there’s a balancing act in taking inspiration from real life relationships without veering into that more predatory category?

VP: That’s always something I’m considering.

I was listening to a Maggie Nelson interview with Brad Listi on his Otherppl podcast, and they were discussing this very thing. Listi quoted Norman Mailer as saying–and I’m paraphrasing everything here – that a writer who is afraid to offend people is like a surgeon who is afraid to cut. Maggie made the point that expectations are gendered and especially with mothers, saying that no one likes to imagine mothers as surgeons cutting anything.

There’s pressure on female writers. We’re supposed to be nice, not brutal truth-tellers, especially if we’re mothers. It’s culturally frowned upon to do otherwise. I’m working against this.

Ugly is ugly, though. Bad behavior is bad behavior – it doesn’t matter who it comes from. There’s a fine line. I’m not saying go all out and be a vulture. But at the same time, it’s imperative that I be willing to challenge those archetypes.

In my work, I’ve tried not to censor myself, and I’ve lost a few relationships and burdened others. But so far, I don’t regret it. My current thinking goes: If I’m going to be uncompromising with others, I have to be willing to be even more uncompromising with myself.

Victoria Patterson is the author of the novels The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award, the 2009 Story Prize, and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches at Antioch University’s Master of Fine Arts program. You can read her story “Appetite” in ZYZZYVA No. 109.

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