Where were you on the evening of December 3, 1979?

I was in a living room with a brown shaggy rug, tangled curls flying, rag doll clutched under my armpit, enormous headphones clamped around my toddler ears. I was dancing, my mouth plugged by my right thumb. A stretchy black coil connected the headphones to a cord, which ran to the wooden wall unit, which held my father’s record player. A 45 spun round, the needle’s gentle connection to the grooves sending the sound—maybe the Eagles; the Bee Gees; Earth, Wind and Fire—back through the wire to my ears. My parents sat on our nubby couch smiling, looking on. This is where everything begins, and where everything ends.


Where will you be on the morning of March 1, 2018?

Probably hiding. My book, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, comes out that day.

Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Troy James Weaver. His new novel Temporal is available from Disorder Press.

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Terry, you have a new poetry collection titled Ruin Porn. What’s the story behind that title?

“Ruin Porn” is a term coined by Detroit writer/photographer Jim Griffioen in Vice Magazine; he critiques the aestheticizing of destruction, which he saw firsthand in many artists’ responses to the devastation within the city of Detroit. By focusing on the “beauty” of abandoned and crumbling buildings and neighborhoods, we ignore the human and economic costs to the communities.

At the same time, we are in the midst of profound disintegration of our society and our culture—the dissolution of gender roles, fragmentation in social relationships and in the psyche, degradation of the environment and of civil society, and the decay of the spirit. I can’t imagine what else to be writing about. “I cannot turn my eyes away…”

Biologists demand a garland
of children, but I have neglected
any theory of origins.
My oven holds another cake,

fluid with cream, a complex miracle
of light and language, Miles Davis
on the radio, friends coming by.
Meaning-filled, the rich batter.

Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. Her new novel Call Me Zebra is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is the official March pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

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I’m thinking about dislocation. About place. Wondering how to set myself in it, like Wallace Stevens’s jar in Tennessee, so I can change the place and the place can change me. An exchange. A connection. But then again, I just reread his poem and the jar gives nothing back to its surroundings. This wasn’t the story I remembered from school. I remembered a more generous jar.

I’m wondering how to make a scene that another person can enter into through words on the page and feel welcome in this story of displacement. I want you to feel out of it while you’re here, like I tend to feel, but in a nice way, so you might want to come back.

Y’all come back now, ya hear!

So, I hear you’ve written another book.

That’s right. It’s called The Infernal Library and it’s a study of dictator literature, that is to say books written by dictators, that is to say the worst books in the history of the world. I trace the development of the dictatorial tradition over the course of a century, starting with Lenin, then exploring the prose of Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, et al before arriving in the modern era where I analyze the texts of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and assorted post-Soviet dictators (among others). It’s a bit like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, only the books are terrible and many were written by mass murderers. It can also be read as an alternative cultural history of the 20th century, with implications for our own troubled times.

Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Elif Batuman. Her debut novel The Idiot is available in trade paperback from Penguin.

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How did I get from standing on the bimah for my son’s bar mitzvah three years ago to visiting my son at the adolescent wing of a psych ward? Raphael is here on a 72-hour hold, a “5150.” This is where a social worker from the Psychiatric Emergency Team (PET) evaluates a person under 18 to see if he is at risk to himself or others. This is the first time my son has been put on such a hold related to his escalating drug use. I drive somewhere down the 605 towards Santa Ana to a hospital with an adolescent psych unit. I am buzzed into a locked unit. I enter and sign in, looking eagerly around for Raphael. The large room where the visits take place has posters on the wall. Some are informational—rules—others are friendly with pleasant scenes and inspirational quotes, but it doesn’t take away from the stark, institutional look. This will not be one of Raphael’s favorite places for a psych hold. Subsequent adolescent wards and treatment centers we pass through will have bright murals, and I will not remember where this one was, that it was only a waystation to the next step that I had hoped would arrest the downward slide. But the physicality, the geographic location, of this first 72-hour hold he goes on, will mostly be a giant blank in my memory. I’ve been told that trauma can do this, above and beyond the normal menopausal memory loss.

Your book Getting Off is about your struggle with sex and porn addiction, but it’s also about your journey towards shame-free womanhood, so I’m just going to ask you what everyone’s wondering—did you ever get into bestiality porn?

That’s what everyone’s wondering?

Well you write that some porn is bad, right? What about sloshing? Is that bad too? If I like bestiality and sloshing does that mean I have a problem?

I think you may have misunderstood something. Did you read the book?

How about hentai?

Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Willy Vlautin. His new novel Don’t Skip Out On Me is available from Harper Perennial. It is the official February pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

This is Willy’s second appearance on the program. He was the guest in Episode 258, on March 9, 2014.

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The House of Erzulie is, if I may be frank, chock-full of atrocities and lurid trivia. Is it really necessary to include this level of detail? It’s as though you enjoy making your readers squirm.

You mean the bloodshed, body counts, and madness inherent in my work? Or the graphic depictions of rabies and yellow fever deaths? Well, it is a gothic novel in the truest, literary sense of the word, thus designed to be atmospheric and sensationally distressing. We navigate this world using our senses, so stories that lack sensual detail feel “empty” to me. Hollow. I like to provide an immersive experience. Maybe submerge is a better term, for my stories do invite the reader to a sink into the deep waters of emotion. And yeah, I guess I do kinda enjoy making people squirm.

Adelaide Randolph does not meet me at the airport. Instead, she sends the intern, Owen, to fetch me. A scrappy little man-boy who looks as if his mother has just finished scrubbing him up for church waits outside the curb at baggage claim, holding up a sign that reads “Mueller: Belle Rive Plantation.”

He offers his hand and I pretend not to see it. Handshakes are the Devil’s germ-delivery system.

“Hey, I’m Owen. Flight okay?”

I nod as he grabs the handle of my wheelie bag and steers us out to the parking lot, his mouth going the whole time.

Hey! You showed up! I didn’t think you would.

Well, I almost didn’t when I heard you were doing the interview.


I’m not that bad…we go way back, after all! I think of us as brothers, almost twins.

Says you. I already have an identical twin, thank you very much. Come on, let’s get this over with.


All right, all right, anything you say. So: for most of your career, you’ve published poetry and literary essays. But now you have two books out, companion pieces, one a book of poems, House of Fact, House of Ruin, while the other is a book of long form journalism, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age of Refugees. About ten years ago, you began to write these essays, in part about refugee issues in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. And you’ve also written about the situation in Libya just before the second civil war broke out a few years ago, as well as your trip to Iraq just as ISIS was establishing itself in the region. Can you explain how a poet came to write about these issues?

What I’d like to get Romeo to understand
if he weren’t already dead is that
all I do is check my mail.

I do not keep an altar in my bedroom—
candles flicker not around my temporary tomb
I am not allowed to keep a pet in this apartment
so I was thinking icons might actually be someone to talk to or
ask things of

and Leonardo DiCaprio has gotten so young
smoking a cigarette against that orange sunset