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‘We Can Work Harder to Mourn’: Q&A with ‘Grief Is the Thing …’ Author Max Porter

Max Porter (photo by Lucy Dickens)

Max Porter (photo by Lucy Dickens)

Max Porter’s experimental novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (128 pages; Graywolf) follows a father and his two sons as they come to grips with their wife and mother’s sudden death. They do so with the help of an unusual houseguest: Crow, an anthropomorphic projection of the father’s obsession with Ted Hughes’ 1970 poetry collection Crow. Part mythic trickster, part grief counselor, Crow leads the family through an idiosyncratic and irreverent mourning. His air of mischievousness colors the entire novel, lending it a kaleidoscopic tone that renders the mourning process unrecognizable.

For Porter, who works as an editor at Granta, this unrecognizability is precisely the point. In giving his audience a mythologized, unfamiliar representation of grief, Porter intends for his readers to rethink mourning’s generative possibilities and private grief’s relationship to public life. Via email, I spoke with Porter about his novel and about grief, vandalism, and new languages of crisis.

ZYZZYVA: A lot has been said about how Ted Hughes’ shadow looms over this novel, but less has been said regarding Emily Dickinson and how she informs the novel’s exploration of grief. I’m particularly intrigued by the amended poem you include as the novel’s epigraph. That poem is about the myopia love engenders in us, the way we can’t perceive it as anything other than an undifferentiated totality. Your insertions of “crow” heighten that myopia, so that the poem doesn’t even give us the ambiguous comfort of proportioned freight. Instead, we get the all-encompassing image of crow. What is the relationship of those edits, if any, to how the novel depicts the grieving process? Is the epigraph implying there is a relationship between love and mourning?

Max Porter: I hope the implication is there, yes, that the generative possibilities of mourning are comparable.

The epigraph is a key to the book inasmuch as all my intentions are made visible by the vandalism. If Crow did it, then, yes, it is a statement of his all-encompassing symbolic stature, and a symptom of his hubris, his manic ego. If Dad did it, then it’s a comment—made in hindsight—about the possibility of gamesmanship with the poets we read or become obsessed with, a statement that the vertical axis of influence (Say, Whitman, Dickinson, Hughes/Plath, Dad. Or indeed Canon-Reader via biography) is to be messed with, lovingly. The word “love” is pointedly not obscured; Dickinson’s devastatingly exact repetition is visible, and Crow’s vandalism is hand-written, i.e., an engagement through craft, a note, a doodle, a thought in process.

My relationship with Dickinson is simple. I think she’s the far reach, the inexhaustible, especially if one’s subjects are death, love, faith, sink holes, ecstasy.

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Obsessions: ‘Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts’

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We begin with “Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts,” a piece from Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, a Ph.D. candidate in English Language & Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Rajabzadeh’s poetry has appeared in Poetry Northwest and Modern Poetry in Translation, and she is currently working on a series of essays about immigrating to the United States and growing up Muslim, post-9/11.

She’s closed her Instagram account again. I’ve checked three times in the past hour. I always forget how obsessed I am with her until she closes her account. Last time she shut us out, she had broken up with her fiance. For just a few days before she left, after she had posted the photo of her slender finger with the simple, diamond ring, I thought to myself, “Finally, someone has brought this woman well-deserved happiness.” But then, when she reopened her account, I was met with a slew of photos, self-portraits—sometimes close-ups, sometimes of her solemn face in the mirror—with captions about the darkness that had consumed her. And at nights, I wondered, “Did she end things? Is she just that broken? Or did he end them? Why would he do that to her? Hasn’t she already been through enough?”

I am spellbound by her account—the story of a poet, humanities PhD in exile. I generally do not like following lives. The practice overwhelms me, frustrates me, injects me with envy when photos portray extreme happiness; and when they are melancholy, they surround me in despair. For this reason, I do not have a Facebook account. I am, however, arrested, engrossed, mesmerized by her life.

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A Sunset You Don’t Want to Miss: ‘Slow Days, Fast Company’ by Eve Babitz

babitz.Slow_Days_hi-res_1024x1024“I am quick to categorize and find it saves mountains of time,” writes Eve Babitz in her superb autobiographical novel Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, And L.A. (184 pages; NYRB). Matthew Spector is right when he writes in the introduction to the New York Review Books Classics’ reprint that what sets Babitz’s 1977 novel apart is “the strength and radical compression of its thought.” Although Babitz paints with a broad brush, the resulting images ring approximately true. (And what is there but approximate truth?) Many of her generalizations concern women and men. From the tragedy of Janis Joplin’s death, Babitz reasons that “women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have ‘everything,’ not success-type ‘everything.’ I mean, not when the ‘everything’ isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (where even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent.)” At least once, Babitz claims to be giving up on her own “happily ever after,” but she’s the kind of person who can’t help falling in breathless, cinematic love.

The preface opens with this strange warning: “This is a love story and I apologize; it was inadvertent.” She’s referring to the story of her love of Los Angeles, which, like the city itself, is sprawling and seemingly chaotic: “You can’t write a story about L.A. that doesn’t turn around in the middle and gets lost.” Of course, to love a place means to love the places it comprises. The first time she goes to a restaurant called Ports, she thinks, “I have got to get into this movie.” So she starts waitressing there for free. Of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, she writes: “Forest Lawn is an example of eternity carried to its logical conclusion. I love L.A. because it does things like that.” Even when she leaves L.A., she can’t go long without thinking about it. In Bakersfield, she notices the rows of grapes are “manicured like Beverly Hills.”

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‘If You’re Going to Tell the Story of Slavery, I’m Going to Listen All Day’: Q&A with ‘Homegoing’ Author Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi (photo by Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi’s recently released and critically acclaimed first novel, Homegoing (320 pages; Knopf) moves from late 18th century West Africa to 21st century California, tracking the repercussions of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Gyasi, a graduate from Stanford and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and whose book was just named to the longlist for the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, illustrates how slavery and white supremacy shaped life in the African diaspora by exploring the history of a single family—one branch of which remains in what eventually becomes Ghana, while the other experiences the turbulent history of African America.

By drawing direct lines among the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, British colonialism in West Africa, and institutional racism in the United States, Gyasi makes a powerful statement about how slavery’s impact continues to reverberate in our contemporary moment. A moving exploration of trauma, survival, and perseverance, Homegoing provides a portrait of the African diaspora with unprecedented scope. I sat down with Gyasi in her south Berkeley apartment to discuss how she constructed the novel, the necessity of telling stories of slavery, and how black narratives push the boundaries of realism.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start by talking about how you put this book together. I’m intrigued by how you did so—a lot of it resembles a collection of interlinked short fictions. Did it at any point begin as a short story cycle

Yaa Gyasi: Actually, no, it didn’t. It began as a more traditionally structured novel. It was originally set in the present and focused on the last two characters, [Marcus and Marjorie], and then it flashed back to 18th century Ghana. I wrote about 100 pages that way until I got to Iowa. Then I realized that I was interested in tracking how slavery, colonialism, and institutionalized racism work over a very long period of time—not just the beginning and end, but the movement from the beginning to the end. Then I thought that I might as well try a structure that allowed me to stop along as many historical moments as possible, which is how I came up with the structure you see now. But it took me three years to arrive there, and I never thought of it as short stories, perhaps because I’d been working on this novel idea and just pivoted in the middle of the process. But also, the long arc of the book was more important to me. The accumulation of all of the chapters was more important to me than the individual chapters.

Z: Would you say that that pivot toward the long historical arc was a pivot away from a character-based narrative and toward the historical novel?

YG: I think it’s still very character-based. I wanted each chapter to focus on character and not whatever historical event was happening in the background, though obviously, those events very much informs each of the characters’ lives. I guess maybe it was me coming to the realization that a lot of the themes I was thinking about were better suited to a structure that allowed me to follow a longer through line than just having the beginning and the end. So maybe it was a transition, not away from a character-based novel, but into an understanding of the themes that are important in this book.

Z: It sounds right that it’s still character-driven, but because of the nature of the structure, many of your characters’ stories end right before major narrative arcs resolve themselves. As a reader, I found myself wishing I could continue following characters like Akua and Willie. Did you as the author ever wish that you could revisit some of these characters?

YG: Not really while I was writing, because, again, I had that long arc in mind, so I really wanted to get there. But I think as a project of thinking, I’m always wondering, for example, what would happen if we followed Robert’s family down the line, this lineage of people who think they are white and have always been white? That’s always fascinated me. I could have definitely followed any of the characters in this book and ended up in an entirely different place. That’s really interesting to me.

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A World of TV Eyes: ‘The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe’ by D.G. Compton

MortenhoeFrom Google Glass to drone warfare and genetic modification, it’s fair to say that our contemporary world bears more than a passing resemblance to the science-fiction novels of yesteryear. Originally published in 1974, English writer D.G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, recently reprinted by New York Review Books Classics, is a vintage piece of speculative fiction that feels of the here and now, and startlingly so.

Mortenhoe opens on a society that could very well be our own in another fifteen years: a culture rife with economic disparity, where most diseases have been eradicated and the populace is sated by reality television programs that chronicle the lives of their subjects in unnerving detail. It’s an era when middle-class life resembles a “bland, painless, deathless advertiser’s dream.” Enter Katherine Mortenhoe, an average woman who finds herself unexpectedly stricken with a rare terminal illness. Her brain is literally shutting down from its inability to cope with the nonstop rush of sensory information that defines 21st century life.

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A Terrible Twist of Fate, the Birth of a Writer: ‘Will & I’ by Clay Byars

Will & I Clay Byars’ memoir, Will & I (192 pages; FSG Originals), could have opened on the car crash that changes Byars’ life at 20. It could have opened nine months after the crash when surgery that is supposed to fix the nerve damage in his shoulder results in a stroke that leaves him paralyzed and near death once more. It could have even opened on the stroke itself, the dizziness and life receding “to a dreamlike distance.” It could have opened on any one of the many dramatic circumstances punctuating Byars’ life, but instead it opens on a singing lesson.

After his stroke, Byars not only loses the ability to move but also the ability to speak. Gradually, he regains a limited mobility and a shaky, barely intelligible version of his old voice. With the help of his singing coach, Dewin, he learns to control it, or rather he learns how to trust sound waves to do their work. At the end of one of his first lessons, Byars feels his voice come in tune with the piano. “The sound,” he writes, “no longer had a ceiling.” The rest of the memoir follows the author slowly and painstakingly removing the ceilings fate keeps thrusting over him. And he does believe in fate, in a writerly way: “The notion of fate only appears when we consider ourselves as unified consciousnesses moving through time, but such an identity is merely a role—or at least that’s how I’ve come to see it.”

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‘Stealth’ by Etan Nechin, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

ZYZZYVSpring2016coverEtan Nechin is an Israeli-born writer currently living in New York. His work has appeared in such publications as Gravel Magazine, MonkeyBicycle, Entropy, and the Huffington Post, and several other publications in Hebrew. “Stealth” marks his First Time in Print for fiction in English.

Set at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War of the early ’90s, “Stealth” is narrated by a school boy living among a community of artists in Israel. Amid the gas masks, safety drills at school, and trading of U.S. military-themed bubble gum cards, there’s the everyday (and comic) life of a child trying to make sense of the world and his place in it. The following is an excerpt of “Stealth.” You can read the story in its entirety in Issue No. 106, which you can order here.

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‘Hotel Bar’ by Ruth Madievsky, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

ZYZZYVSpring2016coverRuth Madievsky is the author of the collection Emergency Brake (Tavern Books). She is also a  doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s School of Pharmacy, and a research assistant in an HIV clinic in Los Angeles.

Two of her latest poems appear in Issue No. 106: “Wind” and “Hotel Bar.” (Madievsky has been published in ZYZZYVA before. Her poem “Poem for Spring” appeared in No. 103.) Her work, as described by Maggie Millner in an interview with Madievsky, forces “a dialogue between her romantic and clinical inclinations and suggesting the body’s dangerous propensity for betrayal.” “Hotel Bar” could be seen as an example of that. Here it is in its entirety. You can read that poem and “Wind,” too, in Issue No. 106, which you can order here.

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‘Amboise’ by Ariel Dorfman, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

ZYZZYVSpring2016coverAriel Dorfman is the acclaimed novelist, playwright and author of Death and the Maiden. His writing frequently appears in The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New Republic, as well as numerous other magazines internationally. He is a professor of literature and Latin American Studies at Duke University, and his most recent book is the memoir Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.

In his story “Amboise,” Dorfman gives us Lucy and Leo, a couple visiting France, on their way from Paris to see Chenonceau. As they deal with the various hiccups keeping them from getting to their destination, Leo’s determination to see the famous castle before the day is through is fueled by a single thought: “Tomorrow I wouldn’t be alive.” Leo, whose health has been failing, is resolute on killing himself before then. The following is an excerpt of Dorfman’s story. You can read it in its entirety in Issue No. 106, which you can order here.

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The Pain Hard to Name: Q&A with ‘Swallowed by the Cold’ Author Jensen Beach

Jensen Beach

Jensen Beach

The stories in Jensen Beach’s second story collection, Swallowed by the Cold (208 pages; Graywolf Press), demonstrate again and again that self-destruction doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In “Kino,” we meet a young man named Oskar who swears he intended to torch just his own boat, but who ended up setting fire to an entire marina. Oskar happens to work at what seems to be a gay brothel called Kino Club, which an uptight man named Martin frequents. The two encounter each other at a party where Martin’s wife, Louise, gets too drunk. Suffering under the weight of Martin’s self-denial, she’s an alcoholic. It’s a quieter kind of tragedy, but at least as soul-rattling as, say, a car crash that leads to a coma (as in the story “Henrik Needed Help”). By the end of “Kino,” Martin abandons Louise on the side of the road to spend the night with Oskar.

These linked stories, set in Sweden, swivel among troubled lives. If it’s not alcoholism and infidelity, it’s a death in the family, the loss of a limb, a sinking ship, even war. All of this sorrow is thrown against rather prim backdrops: summer homes on the Baltic, apartments in “safe” neighborhoods, a fancy party at a Stockholm museum. Mix in the drama of Scandinavian weather and these settings make for fertile ground for Beach’s tales.

In an interview with him about his book, Beach told me he sought to accomplish what John Cheever did in “The Swimmer”: “It’s just all pain. The entire story is one of pain. And we’re never told the nature of it, or its reasons. Instead, we’re simply emerged in it, experientially.” Beach has accomplished what he set out to do. Swallowed by the Cold covers you in its web of anguish, but you won’t want to thrash yourself free, and you wouldn’t be able to anyway.

ZYZZYVA: I want to start with the question on which interviews often end: What’s next for Jensen Beach? Your first book was a collection of shorter stories. This last one is a collection of longer stories with recurring characters. Are you inching toward a novel?

Jensen Beach: I am indeed inching toward a novel. Inching might even imply a speed which is not yet there. The novel interests me as a form lately for similar reasons that I wrote Swallowed by the Cold, actually. I’m interested in the ways in which a book with a considerable dramatic scope can allow that drama to be explored in its intersections and connections, through coincidence and overlap. Swallowed by the Cold is a book of linked stories; and I find myself very interested in the challenge of that puzzle for this next project, too. So much so that I’m finding a similar motivating energy in writing this novel. At this stage of that manuscript, I’m just producing text. I couldn’t tell you yet what it’s about really. But I am excited by the challenge of holding an even larger number of parts up and seeing how they puzzle together.

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‘Who Will Help the Queen of the Rodeo?’ by Ron Carlson, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

ZYZZYVSpring2016coverRon Carlson is the author of several books of fiction, including Return to Oakpine (Viking) and The Signal (Penguin). He is the director of the MFA Program in Fiction at the University of California at Irvine. His fiction appeared in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 96 and No. 100.

His latest story for ZYZZYVA, “Who Will Help the Queen of the Rodeo?,” savors that time when families have just begun: the children are still children, the time spent together is uncomplicated, and the goodness of the world is palpable—even if we can’t help but know that this idyll is fleeting. Set at the beginning of a summer vacation, reading Carlson’s story now is apt. But it’s the story’s tenderness that makes it a particularly welcoming world in which to enter. The following is an excerpt of Carlson’s story. You can read it in its entirety in Issue No. 106, which you can order here.

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‘Last Dance’ by Lou Mathews, ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

ZYZZYVSpring2016coverLou Mathews has received a Pushcart Prize, a Katherine Anne Porter Prize, National Endowment for the Arts and California Arts Commission fellowships in fiction. His stories have been published in Black Clock, Tin House, New England Review, and many other literary magazines, ten fiction anthologies and several textbooks. His first novel, L.A. Breakdown was a Los Angeles Times Best Book.

Mathew’s story, “Last Dance,” which is from a longer work titled Shaky Town, presents us with a Los Angeles instantly recognizable to many Angelenos. It’s a Los Angeles that’s primarily Mexican American, blue-collar, and community-minded. The residents of Shaky Town know each other well (perhaps too well), and their shared histories are long and complex. The following is an excerpt of Mathew’s story. You can read it in its entirety in Issue No. 106, which you can order here.

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