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Few writers can crawl into a character’s head like Mary Miller. In her 2009 short story collection, Big World, Miller’s protagonists were predominately young women in their twenties.  With her new novel, The Last Days of California, Miller channels fifteen-year-old Jess, trapped in the back of the family car with her secretly pregnant sister Elise, embarking on a road trip from Montgomery, Alabama to California.  Their father’s goal is for them to arrive within four days so they can be among the last American families to be raptured.  Along the way, he encourages the family to witness even though “He didn’t really want all 7 billion people on the planet to be saved.  We wouldn’t be special then.  We wouldn’t be the chosen ones.”

Miller is a recent graduate of the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers. She’s returning to her native Mississippi in the fall to serve as the Grisham Writer in Residence at Ole Miss. We discussed fantasizing about fundamentalism, writing realistically about teenage sex, and why she can’t quit Mississippi.

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1.

On the day we call the cops on him, L. tells me he’s always been a fighter.

No guns, though.  He looks up at me from where he’s hunched, a skinny kid sitting on a rickety chair.  Not before what happened.

What happened before was L. was riding his bike and some bad boys shot him in the spine.  He wasn’t supposed to walk again.  He walks fine now.  He swaggers.  His khaki pants are too big and he cinches up his belt higher than the other boys.  I don’t think he can handle wrestling with the constant creep of a sagging waistline.

220px-FlowersForAlgernonIn my seventh-grade English class, we read Daniel Keyes’ novella Flowers for Algernon, the first-person narrative of a mentally challenged janitor, Charlie, who briefly becomes a genius after undergoing an experimental procedure. It was my introduction not only to an unreliable narrator but also to one whose unusual speech patterns and perspective on the world opened to me the possibilities of the “other” in literature—whether those others were disadvantaged, culturally different, sociopathic, or just plain crazy. It’s difficult enough for writers to get inside the heads of ordinary characters with ordinary problems; writing from the mindset of a person whom one might not even understand—say, a serial killer—or just not empathize with—a narcissist—can seem downright impossible. And when writers succeed, what does that say about the writer?

3543_browning_frankTo read Frank Browning’s latest book The Monk and the Skeptic: Dialogues on Sex, Faith, and Religion is to eavesdrop on series of confessionals, and to be party to the converse positions and erotic agreements of Browning and Brother Peter, a homosexual Dominican monk, a relationship that begins in kitsch surroundings that Jean Paul Gaultier might want to rip off. It is to enter a rich demimonde frocked in drag and incense, at times sensuous and melancholy, at others cavalier and threaded with paradox. The confessions leak from the ecclesiastical to the secular world, revealing the sexual wounds of the Catholic church, the often painful duality required of gay men within the institution. The relationship between Browning and Brother Peter is—in all senses—touching. The Monk and the Skeptic is a remarkable book, full of yearning and transcendence. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to correspond with Frank about his book and to have him elaborate further on some of the questions arising from it. Since then, Time magazine has named Pope Francis ‘Person of the Year,’ an accolade about which I suspect we would both remain skeptical.

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All we needed was a tent but we didn’t have one, because I was supposed to be “at the library” and she was supposed to be “working later on a Friday than usual.” We only had a blanket, some snacks, and water. It was hot just like all the other summer Fridays we’d spent together, but instead of meeting at her best friend’s apartment we were in one of the many little outposts of Griffith Park, committing our adultery on a blanket.

Laura-Fraser-authorI probably don’t have to tell any reader of The Nervous Breakdown that it’s harder than ever to publish a book through traditional corporate channels. And certain categories — like collections of essays — have become virtually extinct, a situation which affects me directly. When I started out telling personal stories as a commentator on NPR in the 1990s, there was a lot of interest in the essay — publishers were looking for the next David Sedaris. These days, though venues have opened up online for individual pieces, and we continue to see themed anthologies  on various aspects of parenting, eating, divorce, travel, etc., it’s very rare to find a collection of essays between covers by anyone other than, well, David Sedaris.

Lilianes-Balcony-206x300“But its language was not language at all,” Kelcey Parker writes. “Music, perhaps, chords of concrete, stone, glass; the melody: falling water.” How very apt. As I’ve been reading through Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony I’ve had a confession on my mind: that I often read for language. I’m not a poet, and I’m not a novelist, but when I read in either genre what I’m looking for so often deals with language—the way words hit like a rock, or fall like water.

Conescu_WilliamFor starters, William, tell us about your new novel, Kara Was Here.

It’s sort of a literary ghost story-mystery-character story-humor/suspense novel hybrid.

 

Obviously.

It tells the story of this charming, life-of-the-party actress, Kara Tinsley, who moved from North Carolina to New York to make it…and didn’t. And she has died suddenly at thirty-four.

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You’ve been working on this book for five years. Presumably, then, you’ve bored several hundred people at holidays and cocktail parties, talking about your novel that’s “almost” done.

Czeslaw Milosz once said that when a writer is born into a family, the family is finished. The same could be said of writers and parties.

 

Motherland_FINALHannesburg, December 1944

 

When Liesl heard the noise from the cellar, her hand shook and the coffee spilled. The liquid spread in claws across the counter, its color neither brown nor red nor black, but some combination of all three, earthen and old. A hopeless feeling rose in her chest. She had discovered the grounds deep in the pantry yesterday, tucked behind a post, in a tiny tin next to a tiny pot of jam, both labeled in the first wife’s hand. It was surely the last real coffee in all of Hannesburg, boiled with the last of the morning coal, the sharp selfish heaven of its scent rising toward her face. Then it splashed everywhere.

cooper.t.photo © Ryan PflugerDon’t you just love writing?

Yeah. It’s so fun, quick, and easy.

 

Were you surprised to be included on The New Yorker’s 20 under 65* list?

Yes, totally. That was crazy. Such an honor. Although in truth, I would gladly give back the honorific to be five inches taller. It sucks being a short dude (except when I’m in Miami, New York, or Southeast Asia). See the chapter entitled “40 Successful Men of My Stature or Shorter” (pg. 215) in Real Man Adventures for further explanation.

 

Instead of just telling me to go read a chapter in your book, why don’t you tell me about Real Man Adventures.

I have a lot of them in the book.

realman_pb_cover_FINAL_PRWhy They’re Called Passports

Partial transcript of a telephone conversation I had with a representative of the U.S. Department of State ¹ [after having my passport renewal application rejected and returned in the mail]:

ME: I don’t understand what the problem is. You have my fee, you have my correctly filled-out application, and you have a letter from a surgeon saying that I had sexual reassignment surgery and have lived as a man for several years.

Rope

By Peter Swanson

Poem

Please take away the stench of Scotch,
The horror of champagne, the idle chat,
The skyline in its Technicolor dusk.
Take me back to when I didn’t do it,

To when I didn’t know how surprised
A man looks when, with certainty,
He knows he is about to die,
And does not understand the reason why.

Still Writing by Dani ShapiroScars

I grew up the only child of older parents. If I were to give you a list of all the facts of my early life that made me a writer, this one would be near the top. Only child. Older parents. It now almost seems like a job requirement—though back then, I wished it to be otherwise. A lonely, isolated childhood isn’t a prerequisite for a writing life, of course, but it certainly helped.

My parents were observant Jews. We kept a kosher home. On the Sabbath, from sundown on Friday evening until sundown on Saturday, we didn’t drive, we didn’t turn on lights, or the radio, or television, and I wasn’t allowed to ride my bike, or play the piano, or do homework. This left me with a lot of time to do nothing. Most Saturday mornings, I walked a half-mile to synagogue with my father while my mother stayed home with a sinus headache.

Our house was silent and spotless. Dirt, smudges, noise—any kind of disarray would have been unthinkable. Housekeepers were always quitting. No one could keep the house to my mother’s standards. Every surface gleamed. Picture frames were dusted daily. Sheets and pillowcases were ironed three times a week. My drawers were color-coordinated: blue Danskin tops perfectly folded next to blue Danskin bottoms.

Dani Shapiro credit Kate UhryReally? Three memoirs?

I know.

 

So what is it? A narcissistic disorder? Or do we need a new category for this in the DSM-IV?  Memoirmania, maybe? 

You don’t pull any punches, do you? Okay. So I wrote three novels. Then a memoir. Then another two novels. Then another memoir, which was a total surprise. That one—my memoir Devotion, nearly knocked me over. I literally almost fell down when I realized what I was doing. A spiritual memoir? Really? After that book, I thought I was done with the form. But now I’ve gone and written yet another memoir, sort of. I say sort of, because Still Writing, my new book, is about writing.  But stories of what formed me as a writer found their way in there. So, yeah.