An Honest GhostOur True Nature

Now that the nights were so hot I went to bed late. At night this road is unlit, desolate, anonymous; it exists not on earth but as a path among clouds, miles from everywhere; an infinity separates it from the sleepers who snore in the small indistinguishable houses on either of its sides. Cars were rare and there were stars at night. The black cattle were grazing just beyond the fence; and the chains around the necks of the aristocrats among them tinkled in the darkness. Night music. Most of the houses on the back roads were inhabited by childless couples or old bachelors or widows living alone. But the people who thrive here—and there aren’t many of them—are an interesting species.


Parkerauthorphoto1As we speak, so to speak, your teenage daughter is sitting across from you at your 1950s yellow Formica table. Your cat, having just eaten, is at your feet mewing loudly in search of a lap. Your daughter shushes him without even looking up from the screen on her phone, which is playing a video. The cat leaps onto the table and nestles his head against your daughter’s hair and sweatshirt, trying to get her warmth or attention. Suddenly the phone rings (i.e., Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” plays), and your daughter answers: “Hey Haley, I’m going to take you downstairs.” And exits for the basement to review the American History notes that she just sent Haley as a series of text photos. Would this be the same daughter who inspired the character of “The Daughter” in Liliane’s Balcony?

You could say that. She was with me on my first visit to Fallingwater.

LBalconyBy 1933 the painting is more or less forgotten.

A mad man is rising to power in Germany.

Junior is on his way home to the U.S.

An aging architect of some former renown has no clients or prospects.

And Liliane’s husband has embarrassed her further by paying thousands of dollars to a competing department store (it is this fact that makes her feel most betrayed) to lavish jewels on his most recent conquest.

Holly Hughes by Kara Flannery 2You have been the editor of the annual best Food Writing anthology since its first edition, in 2000. What exactly do you do to “edit” this book?

Well, editing is sort of a misnomer. What I really do is more like glorified dumpster-diving – I cherry-pick essays and articles that have already been published somewhere else, either in print or on line, in the course of the past year. I don’t edit those pieces at all – I don’t need to.  They’re already just about perfect, or else I wouldn’t have picked them. Probably a better name for what I do would be “curator.”

Griffith(c)JenniferDurhamIf I tried to ask Hild questions, what would happen?

Depends on her age. At three she’d study you silently, with great interest, but she wouldn’t see you as a real person. At eight she’d give you a fathomless look that would make you uneasy. At fourteen her eyes would be absolutely impenetrable, but by now you’d be beyond uneasy, because you’d know she was quicker on her feet than you, and more powerful. At sixteen, you’d be fascinated, but frightened: at this point she has a reputation for the uncanny, for killing people or having sex with them, and no way of predicting which. And as she’s the niece of the most powerful king in Britain, it would not pay to even try to mess with her. Towering mind, a will of adamant, and a mother who is beautiful, subtle, and ruthless. You’d have to be very, very nice to her and very, very careful.

bellocqsadeleCarriSkoczekTwenty years ago I published my first book with a small press, and it won an award my hometown newspaper described as “the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award.” My father still thinks that’s the award name, though he says The Prestigious Flannery O’Connell Award. All writers hope that getting their first book published will change their lives. It does, variably. I got a teaching job, also firsthand insight that hardly anyone reads a small press book with a good award except writers and aspiring writers—especially an aspiring writer enrolled in your class and perhaps his mother. One day a student a few years younger than me told me his mother had read my book. I braced myself. I was in one of my grim starter marriages, and my grim father-in-law had weighed in. He’d skimmed my book and grimaced. “Trying too hard to be naughty.” He compared me unfavorably to Shakespeare, whom he couldn’t have read closely.  “Why sex?”

Take down his nameplate. Throw out his cards
Cut up his badge. Tell all the guards.
Cancel his passwords. Prune the phone tree.
Drop him from every directory.

Empty his desk. Clear off his shelves.
Take his computer. Cancel his cell
Move his EA to some other floor.
Turn out his lights and lock the door.

hildThe child’s world changed late one afternoon, though she didn’t know it. She lay at the edge of the hazel coppice, one cheek pressed to the moss that smelt of worm cast and the last of the sun, listening: to the wind in the elms, rushing away from the day, to the jackdaws changing their calls from “Outward! Outward!” to “Home now! Home!,” to the rustle of the last frightened shrews scuttling under the layers of leaf fall before the owls began their hunt. From far away came the indignant honking of geese as the goosegirl herded them back inside the wattle fence, and the child knew, in the wordless way that three-year-olds reckon time, that soon Onnen would come and find her and Cian and hurry them back.

The-Best-Food-Writing-of-2013I made it through 32 years without tasting a McRib. Over three decades spent tasting and eating all other manner of offensive foods—yet a McRib had never passed my lips, until last Thursday. I can’t say I regret my meal. It goes deeper than that: a sense that I gave in, sheeplike, to a national phenomenon whose promises—no matter how meager—were always going to fall short of my expectations.



“Now, none of us knows what to expect from Mavis Wilkerson,” my mother said, looking back in my direction from her position in the front passenger seat.

Several white sheets fluttered in the wind, hanging loosely to clotheslines. I’d started counting them a ways back, as my father drove us, winding in-and-out through back country roads.

In those days, I often found myself sitting in the backseat of my parents’ white Oldsmobile, driven from one supper to the next across the expanse of the Texas Panhandle. The trip to the Wilkersons’ farm was no different.

renee1So what’s Dollface about?

About 416 pages.


No, c’mon, seriously what’s it about. Don’t you have one of those pithy elevator pitches handy?

Well, um, okay, here goes… Dollface is a novel about a flapper who falls in love with two mobsters from rival gangs during Prohibition Chicago.


“You don’t smile much, do you,” said the man next to me.

“Smiling gets me into trouble.”

“I’m sure it does.” His eyes wandered the length of my body, from my shoulders to my shoes. I wondered if he could tell that I’d faked my stockings and that my seams had been drawn on with an eyebrow pencil. I tucked one leg behind the other, hop­ing to hide my ingenuity.

It was Friday night and I was at the Five Star, sitting next to this nameless man who’d just bought me my second bourbon.

What girls, what girls. Everyone stopped
to admire our pinafores on every street in town.
To the Ben Franklin we’d trot, pennies in hand for sweets.
You liked the chocolates and I,
butterscotch. Old lady already? I’m not even old yet by what they say it is
but a maid is not a maid when mending stops and all decay. Drama, you say,


I first learned to knit while living in Dublin, Ireland the fall after my mother died. I was 20 years old and felt profoundly alone in the world for the first time. Having suffered a dance-related injury to the point I couldn’t walk, and stuck living with my elderly Auntie Peggy and the few books she kept on hand, I was bored out of my mind. To pass the hours and to get to know each other, she suggested we knit. It sounded like a terrible idea to me – I have not the smallest bit of patience and was sure I’d fail miserably at the project. But stranded as I was in a foreign country with only two television stations and a raft of religious books to distract me, I became willing as only those who have no other options become willing.

PHOTO-CRIS-MAZZA-CROPPEDWhen my graduate school mentor and longtime friend, Cris Mazza, first told me over dinner that she was writing a memoir about—among other things but pretty front-and-center—her lifelong inability to reach orgasm, my reaction can only be described as…well, pretty much begging her not to.  Despite some fairly personal short essays on TNB, I am, bluntly, chickenshit as a nonfiction writer: I have never attempted a book length memoir, and the mere thought of divulging any of the ugly, raw kinds of truths that would make any memoir worth reading fills me with enough terror that I might rather become the author of Harlequin Romances rather than “go there.”  My god, I told Cris, do you really want your new students in every workshop knowing these details about your physical being—do you really want to have to deal with all your male colleagues knowing this crap in faculty meetings?  I needed an extra glass of wine on Cris’ behalf, and when she later sent me an excerpt of the book, I believe I urged her all over again to rethink the endeavor…