“I Dug the Hole Already, joseph”

 

My beauty a shovel.

A spoon of aconite and arsenic.

In your mouth refusing food.

To beg instead a stylish garter drama.

Prussic acid gimlet.

Open veins bleed hell.

I’ll ring your bell, son.

I will ring your bell.

–Dena Rash Guzman, Joseph

 

The word “revelation” is a popular superlative in literary circles, popular to the point of overuse. It’s not the only one, of course. There’s an element of hyperbole to criticism, one born of multiple impulses: some noble; some less so. Does the critic desire so passionately to illuminate the art before him that he fails it and his audience, falls back on hyperbole because it conveys at least part of what he means to say? Or does he do it for himself, try to prove his own intellect by overstating the success (or failure) of another person’s art?

Did you write your novel about Emilia Bassano Lanyer because you disagreed with a professor?

Well, I heard a talk about Emilia by A.L. Rowse, a British historian who gave a lecture at UGA when I was in graduate school. Rowse was convinced that she was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It thrilled me to think that not only may she have been Shakespeare’s girlfriend, but was a poet herself—and an early feminist! Writing about her brought together two strands of my life that had been separate: my love of the Renaissance and Shakespeare and my feminism.

But Rowse had a low opinion of her character, based (I thought) on his misogynistic attitude. I wanted to question that attitude, so I decided to write about Emilia from her own point of view, as a woman struggling to survive in a time when her life would have been severely restricted and constrained by laws and anti-woman beliefs, yet also a time of excitement and possibility.

October 1576

“No! I won’t go!” Emilia shouted, kicking at the rushes on the floor.

“Stop that and come here, Emilia!” Her mother held out her arms.

Emilia stomped around the room, shouting, “No, no!” Stompstomp. “No, no, no, no, NO!”

“Stop!” implored her mother.

The little girl stood teetering as her mother began to cough. She stood on one foot, then slowly lowered the other to the floor. “Stop coughing, Mama!”

Her mother pressed her handkerchief to her mouth, swallow- ing hard, then sprang up and grabbed her daughter by the shoulders. “You are going to the Countess of Kent, and that’s all there is to it!” Emilia went limp and began to wail as her mother held her tight.

Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Julia Fierro. Her new novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, is available now from St. Martin’s Press.

This is Julia’s second time on the program. She first appeared in Episode 292 on July 6, 2014.

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Why do you sometimes introduce yourself as an elegaic poet?

All poetry is about loss—of people, places, moments—and therefore about time, isn’t it? And that means it’s also about those little moments of joy, when the direction of loss is reversed. As for example, in my poem, “Thaw” in Shimmer, when “the fog / in my mouth melted / like spun sugar” and I recollected the name —“even more beautiful / than the tree”—“liquidambar,” which I had been completely unable to summon.

Memory is so often my subject. I love the Proustian moment—some triggering thing—and an entire past world blossoms open. My memories of the past sometimes seem like paintings I can re-examine, in which I can discover new things.

I have an Updike-ian feeling for the way the music, books, and fashions of our prime moment in time flow swiftly into the past, taking our very sense of self with them.

gleams in a movie,
its lights gems on the plush display
cloth of night, its bridges bracelets.
Yet the shabbiness of a glimpsed
street corner is what gets through,
and mine reaches out from memory to me—
a speaker of its native language—
with this begrimed cornice,
this lintel, this rain- and sun-mottled awning
over the drugstore window,
this black ash on the sill.

It’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying than writing historical fiction. The opportunity to get it wrong, whether the feeling of a place or a time or a person, seems like an insurmountable barrier, before the writing even begins. Creating historical fiction becomes more than simply writing, it becomes research: the reading of books and interviews, listening of transcripts, visiting the locations, trying as best you can to express even a micron of the magic in someone’s life in clumsy, fallible words. Not to mention the issue of the author’s own voice – have they been able to present an accurate depiction of the subject’s life, beyond their own stylistic prejudices? Or worse, has the author merely recited events without the kind of flavor or fervor necessary to engaging reading? It is truly a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, where the very best examples somehow manage to walk the edge of the knife, a strange feat of authorial alchemy that features all these seemingly-contradictory things in perfect balance. To achieve this remarkable result, it helps if the author and the subject share a kind of kinship, where personalities meet across backgrounds, discipline, and centuries to create something simultaneously unique and seamless.

Jack Driscoll is one of the most respected short story writers working today. He is not the most famous, but he is widely admired, especially among writers, as a craftsman whose work serves as a model for other writers to follow. The appeal is clear—his enormous compassion for his flawed characters; his gift for shining the spotlight on the kind of people and places that are so often overlooked both in literature and life; and his distinctive voice, which nimbly tightropes between high and low, vernacular and lyrical,  comic and wise. His characters say things like “Christ on a bike” and “piss in one hand and wish in another and see which one fills first.” But their insights and vocabulary can also fly to great heights. “The idea of a million pilgrims desperate to put a knee down in this nothing town suddenly adjacent to God and heaven confounds even the dreamer in me,” says one of the book’s precociously eloquent adolescents.

Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Nathan Hill. His bestselling debut novel The Nix is now available in trade paperback from Vintage. 

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Florence in Ecstasy is your first novel—when you began it, did you know it was going to be a novel?

I tricked myself into starting Florence in Ecstasy–or got tricked into it. While in the MFA program at City College, one of my mentors gave our class the assignment of writing the first chapter and description of a novel we’d never write. The prompt was freeing and it got rid of the voice of judgment that often sits on my shoulder. I wrote what would become the prologue of Florence in Ecstasy (which has survived almost intact in the final version), a few paragraphs about what the book might look like—including that it would involve Italy, a woman’s relationship with her body, and the fractured experience of addiction. After turning in those pages, I decided I wanted to actually write the novel. But I’m not sure I would have ever begun it without that prompt, which allowed me to leap into a larger narrative without the fear of knowing exactly where it would go.

Signorina.

Signora Rosa. Such a delicate name. She must be someone’s grandmother, stout and soft with a halo of white hair; this had tricked me into thinking that she would be soft with me. But she is all hard edges. No sooner have I closed the door than she is there on the stairs with that same side-eyed look. Why? It is almost September. Almost a new month. Only cash, she’d said when she agreed to rent me this bright apartment, even though it was caro, caro, caro. Only cash. Up front.

Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer . His latest novel, Here I Am, is available now in trade paperback from Picador. It is the official June selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

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She researches genealogy. Collects. Organizes. Obsesses. Discovers distant relatives all along the Adriatic Coast. Roots stretching across continents and seas.

But don’t ask her about cells or strands of DNA. About heredity or the odds of what might be passed down.

Don’t ask her for the truth.

There is a story the family tells. Well-rehearsed. Plausible. By now, she may even believe it herself:

It is a hunting accident that killed her brother fifty years ago. A father, his two grown sons in the woods of Big Pocono State Park.

What they don’t say: These are seasoned hunters, antlers and disembodied heads displayed like trophies in their living room and den.

 Someone careless, the story goes, cleaning a gun.

Available from Tyrant Books

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“Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book is a furious exhalation of love and hurt and hate and tenderness and anger. This is a chronicle of a couple coming together and breaking apart. There is courage in these pages because so much of what McClanahan details is ugly and desperate and raw–everything, food, drink, love, heartbreak, to excess. The writing is so intimate you want to reach into the book to save this man from himself but you can’t. That impossibility is what makes this book so memorable, so powerful.” –Roxane Gay

“McClanahan’s prose is miasmic, dizzying, repetitive. A rushing river of words that reflects the chaos and humanity of the place from which he hails. He writes in an elliptical fever dream so contagious that slowing down is not an option. It would be like putting a doorstop in front of a speeding train. This is not a book you savor. It is one you inhale.” –The New York Times

“Part memoir, part hillbilly history, part dream, McClanahan embraces humanity with all its grit, writing tenderly of criminals and outcasts, family and the blood ties that bind us.”
Interview Magazine

“McClanahan’s prose is miasmic, dizzying, repetitive. A rushing river of words that reflects the chaos and humanity of the place from which he hails. [McClanahan] aims to lasso the moon… He is not a writer of halfmeasures. The man has purpose. This is his symphony, every note designed to resonate, to linger.”—New York Times Book Review

The Sarah Book is Scott McClanahan’s continuation of the semi-autobiographical portrait he’s been writing over the years about his life in West Virginia. This one is his portrait of love.

He jogged through the woods, Champ lunging ahead and leaping on and off the trail leading to the Castle.

“Quiet, dummy. You’ll give us away.”

He hadn’t wanted to bring the shepherd, but he’d been halfway through the woods when he’d heard Champ’s collar jingling and the dog had bounded out from the trees. There wasn’t time to turn back. He had to warn the island.

There’d also been no time to change, and he was wearing his Hawaiian robe over his pajamas, clutching the opening at his crotch closed with one hand.

His slippers came off a few times. Sticks and sharp pebbles sliced at the soft meat of his soles. He had to stop where the trail climbed a steep hill, and when he bent over to catch his breath, his stomach convulsed and the ice-cream cake he’d had after dinner splattered on the leaf-covered ground. Champ hopped over and licked at the mess.