Recent Work By Gina Frangello

Elizabeth Searle’s short story, “And a Dead American,” was one of the earliest submissions accepted to Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. In fact, it would not be far-fetched to say that this story—an excerpt of Searle’s new novel, GIRL HELD IN HOME —sometimes served as a reassurance that we were on the right track, back in the early days when so many of the submissions we received . . . well, didn’t actually have any sex in them, despite our blatant pleas for “explicit” material on our call for submissions. “And a Dead American” ended up exemplifying precisely the kind of risky, challenging literary work we sought, while also dealing overtly with bodies and desires. Searle is also the author of the books A FOUR-SIDED BED (new paperback edition in 2011), CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE (produced as a short film in 2010) and MY BODY TO YOU, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Prize.  Her theater work, TONYA & NANCY: THE ROCK OPERA, has been performed on both coasts and has drawn national media attention.

Christine Lee Zilka’s story, “Erasure,” appears in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience, co-edited by Stacy Bierlein, Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza and Kat Meads (Other Voices Books). Zilka is the Fiction Editor at Kartika Review.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as ZYZZYVA, Verbsap, and Yomimono.  She received an Ardella Mills Fiction Prize from Mills College in 2005, placed as a finalist in Poets & Writers Magazine’s Writers Exchange Contest in 2007, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open in 2009.  Zilka earned her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two wiener dogs.  Zilka was brave enough to kick off our series with gusto . . .

It’s hard to know where to begin raving about Tonga, the new imprint of Europa Editions.  But okay, let’s start here: imagine you are a struggling writer, whose debut novel is constantly being complimented by editors as “beautifully written” and “ambitious” . . . but then kicked in the teeth with rejection for being “too dark.”  This is, of course, the fate of many literary writers these days, in a publishing climate where the very definition of literary seems stuck in metaphorical quicksand, going under fast in favor of marketing catch phrases like “tight story arc” and “sympathetic characters”—publishing prerequisites that would potentially have left some of the great novelists of the Twentieth Century, from Kundera to Nabokov, languishing in the rejection pile.  Now, imagine that after considerable time raking up these complimentary rejections, your agent probably about to stop returning your emails, out of nowhere steps up an imprint that boldly declares itself as liking—nay, seeking—“dark” fiction and wanting to publish your novel.  Well, if you’ve been around the publishing block once or twice, you’d probably receive this news with jaded trepidation, expecting to find said imprint operating out of somebody’s basement in Idaho and peddling copies out of the trunk of the editor’s car . . .

If you email Dan Wickett and don’t hear back in fifteen minutes, you immediately assume he’s dead in a ditch.  This guy—founder of one of the early online literary communities, The Emerging Writers Network, and co-founder of the vibrant and multi-pronged Dzanc Books—has got his fingers in so many literary pots that he has to put out an automated reply if he’ll be away from his computer long enough to attend a soccer game or waves of desperation start to ripple across a growing faction of the indie publishing community.  (Full disclaimer: I’m guilty of emailing Dan pretty much daily with some minor emergency or urgent brainstorm.)  Dzanc now even has its own literary conference abroad, the Portugal-based DISQUIET, run by Jeff Parker.  In short, this little indie publisher that could has taken the world by storm, and this shows no signs of stopping now.

Being a literary publicist is no task for slouches.  When you’re paid to buzz a book, the inherent dilemma seems simple enough: why should people believe you about how great something is, when they know you’ve been hired to say so?  The task, then, seems to be a combination of developing a reputation for impeccable integrity when it comes to working only with products you truly adore, combined with cultivating a public persona so that your tastes are themselves trendsetting.  In an industry where most publicists at the corporate publishing houses are bubbly, young and enthusiastic, but too often faceless and with little control over which projects they take on, freelance public relations representative Lauren Cerand is a singular powerhouse of vision and personality.  If there’s a hotter freelance publicist in the country . . . well, there isn’t a hotter freelance publicist in the country.  Specializing in “strategic consultation,” Lauren’s clients range from Barnes & Noble to the Authors Guild to writers as diverse as Meg Cabot and Tayari JonesTime Out New York called her one of the “cultural gatekeepers in the literary world,” and indeed, she is so much in demand that she only takes on approximately one in sixty writers who query her.  She regularly speaks to audiences, from the big boys and girls at Book Expo America in New York, to small-and-intimate local forums like the Pilcrow Literary Festival in Chicago where I first met her—and regardless of the venue she knows how to rock a house.  She also knows how to dress like a cat, what music you should be listening to, and is generally too fabulous to even be called fabulous.

If you have any interest in publishing, you’ve heard of Richard Nash—you may count yourself among his more than 70,000 Twitter followers . . . which can at times make him seem more like a popular guitarist or actor than, you know, an indie publishing dude.  In fact, giving an account of Richard’s career—most notably his distinguished stint running Soft Skull Press, during which time he transformed it from a small cult-fave to one of the most formidable indie presses in the country—can’t really begin to address what it is about this guy that has the entire publishing world sitting at attention.  By his own admission, he doesn’t tend to be where the big money’s at—Soft Skull had infamous financial difficulties that partially led to its acquisition by Counterpoint (a move that failed to solve the problem), and now Nash is involved in a highly ambitious start-up company, Cursor, at a time when most people are crying Armageddon in terms of the literary economy.  Yet when Nash talks, people listen—perhaps precisely because of the fact that he is one of the few in the publishing industry to embrace change and upheaval with an unbridled enthusiasm rather than with fear.  Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Richard about Cursor’s pioneering “community based” publishing arm, Red Lemonade, which is currently an invitation-only site, not viewable by the general public.  If Nash’s popularity—and enthusiasm for lit-based community—are any indications, however, Red Lemonade will not be under cover for very long, and soon everyone will be talking about its visionary role in the Brave New Publishing World.

News moves fast.Bombs in Libya, radiation in Japanese food, but I’m stuck.Still stuck on that case that broke earlier this month, about the eleven year old girl gang-raped in Texas.

There is a story I like to gloss over but rarely really tell. The short version goes like this. Soon after my first novel, My Sister’s Continent, was published (while I was almost 9 months pregnant with my son, Giovanni), my mother-in-law stopped speaking to me because she was so appalled by the graphic sexual content of the book. As the story goes—in the glib, cocktail-party version—she refused to even visit Giovanni after his birth.  Although it’s not a “nice” anecdote, this story frequently gets laughs from those who hear it, especially the part about how, every time her ire began to wear off, my mother-in-law would apparently reread my book so as to outrage herself anew. She studied it as if for a test, it seems. My closest reader may well have been my novel’s biggest detractor.

We only started speaking again because she was diagnosed with cancer six months later. “Then I had to suck it up and contact her, or I would not just be pervy but also heartless,” I might finish the story, though that part would be more likely to be greeted with awkward silence than laughter.

***

The cocktail party version of the story leaves out rather a lot, of course. It leaves out the way my mother-in-law screamed at my husband on the telephone almost daily in the weeks leading up to our son’s birth, and even in the hospital hours after my C-section, then two days later, when we’d first brought Giovanni home. It leaves out the way our stomachs lurched every time the phone rang. It leaves out that she insinuated that—because of the sexual abuse themes in the novel—I could be abusing our five-year-old twin daughters: an allegation made as though this were a reasonable conclusion, as though Agatha Christie must be a murderer and Stephen King a kidnapper of injured writers or the owner of a possessed car. When finally pried from the notion that I was a sexual predator, my mother-in-law then deduced that my parents must have abused me, and pronounced them “evil people,” turning her attention to railing against them on the telephone whenever my husband actually took her calls. It leaves out the fact that our daughters had previously been close to their grandmother, and had no explanation for why she did not call or see them for half a year. It leaves out the part about how little I thought, during those months, of the joys of giving birth, so consumed was I with a sense of toxic outrage like battery acid spilling everywhere into my life.

So tormented by this internal rage and anxiety were my husband and I that we actually talked to a local pastor about our feelings (separately, I should add; I think we were both mildly embarrassed to be seeking “spiritual help,” which is not generally our collective or individual bag.)  I remember talking with a close woman friend about how toxic the anger felt to me, how I didn’t know how people lived with grudges because of the way they eat away at the soul.  My friend, more practiced in the fine art of anger and grudge-holding than I, rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, what you’re describing is just a typical day for me at work, or having to deal with the cashiers at Best Buy.”

Maybe she was right.  All around me, people seemed not to be speaking to family members or ex-spouses, seemed to be carrying out private wars with the members of their academic departments or a nemesis from their office.  Perhaps I was just not cut out for this anger thing.  And though my mother-in-law had not asked for my “forgiveness” (or contacted me at all), eventually I resolved to forgive her, for my own mental health.  I had come to the realization that Stephen Elliott talks about in The Adderall Diaries, wherein even if anger is utterly justified, who is it hurting?  It may, in fact, have been hurting my mother-in-law.  But I became unwilling to suffer great pain myself just to ensure that she suffer it too.

Before I could call her and essentially offer forgiveness for something she may not have wished forgiven, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Stage IV, inoperable breast cancer.  Is it absurd, then, to admit that I rarely told anyone that I had already decided to reapproach her before she took ill?  Perhaps I was a bit shamed by the fact.  Perhaps I feared it would have made me look simpering or weak.  Swallowing all that hurt, all that rage, all that sense of being misunderstood and attacked, simply because I couldn’t cope with conflict did not seem like something a “strong” person would do.  But once she was sick, everyone seemed to realize that of course I needed to make nice for the sake of the family, and so I contacted her, and she meekly apologized for her “extreme behavior about the book,” and that was the last we ever spoke of the matter.

***

This is not an essay about forgiveness.  Others with more at stake than a vitriolic mother-in-law have written more eloquently on that matter than I could here.

This is not an essay about the grave risks of writing.  Imprisoned writers in China, in Nigeria, would like to have to field my mother-in-law’s scandalized phone calls.

What I know a little something about could only be called the interpersonal consequences of trying to write with emotional honesty.  The way we writers stretch ourselves out on the line, inviting grudges, inviting a fight.  The way I discovered I hated to fight (how had this happened?  I’d kicked my share of little-girl-ass back in the hood when I was a kid.  But my temper, it seemed, had been “gentrified,” and I realized, more than anything else, that I had left the environment of my youth not for a bigger house or even an advanced degree, but because I wanted to be able to live without violence) . . . yet even this being true, I would continue to put my neck out to the blade of others’ criticism or anger when writing.  I would continue to write as if everyone I had ever known was already dead, even though they were not, and even knowing there could be reckoning.

Everything that matters burns.

I believe that.  On the page and in life.

I resist, too, a limited definition of risk, of emotional intensity, that implies a “domesticated” life is a bland life–that marriage and motherhood is equivalent to giving up the burn.  Because there is no greater risk than loving something more than you love yourself, be it a political cause or a child.  I can promise all the young, wild people out there that living a life of intensity does not end when you stop going home with strange men, stop snorting coke in the bathroom of the club, stop starving or cutting yourself, stop sleeping on the floor of the overnight train or ferry on which nobody speaks English, stop living in the squat, stop letting somebody tie you up who probably shouldn’t be trusted to drive a golf cart.  I can promise that self-destruction or partying or adventure is but the surface of risk, and that bigger risks happen later, when you have more than your own body on the line and still dare not to numb out and cloister yourself inward to maintain the illusion of safety.

But I digress.

Writing is risk.  If you don’t feel that when you’re writing, for god’s sake stop.  It’s a shitty job.  Give it up if you can.

It takes a hell of a lot more than risk to be a good and relevant writer, and I’m not sure writers can judge whether our own work has merit in any way other than what it does for us emotionally.  How “good” we are is for others to decide.  But I know from the inside out that risk is the basic, lowest-common-denominator prerequisite.  If you aren’t offending anybody, may I suggest you aren’t doing it right?

***

Still, it is perhaps understandable that when my second book, the collection Slut Lullabies, was accepted for publication, David and I did not mention it to his family. This, you see, is one of the perks of being an underpaid independent press writer: I could rest assured that my mother-in-law was not likely to hap upon my book while watching The Today Show or strolling around her local Target. I knew I was going to have a few other people to answer to when the collection came out, but this time, I planned for my mother-in-law not to be among them.  Planning a multi-city book tour and Facebooking and Tweeting about Slut Lullabies within an inch of my life (while ignoring FB friend requests from David’s father and uncle), I planned to simply never let my husband’s side of the family know the book even existed.

As it turns out, my cocktail party story gets progressively less funny from here.

Almost 4 years to the day of her cancer diagnosis, my mother-in-law died, just days prior to my Chicago release party for Slut Lullabies. To the best of my knowledge, she indeed never knew of its existence.

Uh. Mission accomplished?

***

One task of fiction writers is to get inside the heads of their characters. We are the analysts of imaginary people. Writers approach this in different ways. Some, of the organized, Type A variety, may hang bulletin boards on the walls of their offices, with index cards, magazine pictures, notes or diagrams tacked up: things that remind them of their characters like the type of car X drives and the names of Q’s childhood pets, in sequence. Other writers approach the invasion of their characters’ psyches with less deliberation, hearing dialogue in their heads or simply obsessing about a character so endlessly that every drive, every trip to a store, every song on the radio “reminds” the writer of her new imaginary friends. Some of us are all but method actors. But however we approach our characters, in the end we must know them better than we know our closest friends—better than we know our longtime lovers. Our characters are permitted no secrets from us. If they secretly fantasize about someone else while in bed with their spouses, we know every nuance—certainly more than we can possibly say about the people in our real lives. If a character has some quirky way of slicing an apple, some phobia of driving on the highway, we understand this tic to the last detail, even if not all these revelations make it to the page.

We know what haunts them. What drives them. What they believe about themselves and don’t want anyone else to know. Risk entails writing what scares you most—pushing beyond the perimeters of just telling a story via plot and pretty words, and instead reaching something deeper, more frightening and profound. Write until it hurts, and if you don’t bleed a little, it isn’t worth much.

Of course, as Ann Beattie once wrote, “Pain is relative.” For some writers, exploring social anxiety at a party or the threat of parental disapproval can feel like walking straight into a war zone.

Others have to push a little harder to get to the blood.

***

What was it in my novel that terrified my mother-in-law? What disturbed her so profoundly that she could not bring herself to meet her new grandson and made her husband drive six hours alone to see us?

My Sister’s Continent is a work of fiction, not a memoir that revealed our “family secrets.” Further, it was a contemporary retelling of a Freud case study, not likely to be read as “autobiographical” even to the extent that some fiction is, due to its confinement to the perimeters of certain details of that original Freud case.

So no. Although it might be the easiest and cleanest explanation, I do not believe my mother-in-law despised and feared My Sister’s Continent because she thought it reflected poorly on the family—because I had embarrassed them or made them “look bad.” I do not even think it was because she believed (truly, deep down) that I was either a violent person or the damaged victim of some evil perpetrator. For a number of years, I wanted to believe she was that narrow, that literal (incapable of understanding the concept of fiction, or art in general) because I was angry. But my mother-in-law had a master’s degree in psychology. She was a professional woman, and though not “artsy,” reasonably well-read. So while it would be satisfying on one level to reduce her this way, in the end it would be facile.

My mother-in-law read my novel like a woman haunted. When the fever of her rage began to ebb, she would turn to the pages again, poring over them to re-open the wound. Something on those pages had cut her, and deeply. Her outrage was her shell of armor: her defense.

My novel’s greatest detractor may also have been the person impacted by it most deeply—so deeply that she was unable to look at it as merely “fiction.” And ironically, isn’t this what writers are striving for: to transport the reader so completely into the world of the book that its dangers are real and the reader at risk?

***

When somebody dies, a dialogue becomes a monologue. Upon my mother-in-law’s death, I was left with more questions than answers.  Yet, paradoxically, what once seemed the most devastating behavior ever directed at me by another woman now seems a strange kind of compliment . . . if not a compliment I sought or wanted. And so, I am left with pieces of a whole—stories I’ve heard about her childhood and early married life from my husband’s father; what I know of her parents—with which to reconstruct the possibilities for that volatile combustion. The real woman who was my husband’s mother becomes elusive, unquantifiable, now that she no longer draws breath. She becomes a character I try to decipher.

I see her reading my novel a second time, knowing the blood the first read drew. Why?

I will never know.

But I can imagine. Because this is what writers do. And in the same way we must seek to find something with which to identify in the most dangerous of our characters—something, even, to love—so imagining the things that cut me and the things that cut her, my frightened and relentless reader, as two sides of the same knife brings a strange sort of closure.

And forgiveness.

 

Recently Jessica Anya Blau, longtime TNB contributor and author of two daring novels, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and Drinking Closer to Home, piloted (I believe rather unintentionally) the concept of the Six Question Sex Interview series.  Her sex interview with author James Magruder was so stimulating (er, inspirational) to her fellow TNBers, that it seemed only fair that Jessica herself should be the next subject of this new series.  Always happy to engage in intellectual conversation with a talented writer (er, dish about sex with someone who writes about it as much as I do), I volunteered to do Jessica’s honors.  What follows is our exchange about her provocative writing, the Big Questions of age and beauty, what the next generation really thinks about its parents’ sexuality, and a few technique tips along the way.

I’ve been contemplating the nature of Stephen Elliott’s appeal.  The author of several books of fiction, including the acclaimed and popular Happy Baby, it was his memoir, The Adderall Diaries, that seems to have catapulted him to the status of a literary “cult hero.”  Many critics have lauded Adderall Diaries as a work of genius–an assessment with which I so strongly concur that I have felt, at times over the past year, like Elliott’s pimp I seem to rave about him so frequently in public forums.  In fact, I might even feel a little creepy about it were it not for the fact that everywhere I go, I meet people who have been as deeply impacted by his work as I, and who are similarly shouting it from the rooftops to the point that they (such as the novelist Karen Palmer) profess to a similar groupie-like embarrassment.

So what’s with this guy?  Why are so many people obsessed with him?  To describe his writing style as “intimate” would be inadequate (he is, perhaps, the most intimate writer I’ve ever read) and yet he possesses an acute sense–deeper, in fact, than that of many writers who divulge much less about themselves in their work–that writing cannot merely be about the writer’s demons, whims or confessions.  It’s an intriguing combination that seems to help Elliott function simultaneously as a spokeswriter for the disenfranchised who have traditionaly existed on the fringe of artistic culture–runaways, sex workers, addicts, masochists–and yet also as a general literary “therapist,” not unlike The Rumpus’ earthy and wise advice columnist, “Dear Sugar.”  For Elliott’s obsession, more so than with any sexual fetish or drug, seems to be the pursuit of truth and art, with living a life of integrity, with the rights of children, and with what it requires to achieve true human connection.  This is the fodder of his work, never in a sanctimonious or distant way, but from the perspective of a desperate, sometimes-drug-addled, dominatrix-hiring seeker whose voice (despite being quintessentially unreliable for obvious reasons) we simply believe.  Reading Elliott–whether in one of his books or in his Daily Rumpus emails–the reader cannot help but be reminded that writing is, first and foremost, a form of communication.  I am not sure I have ever encountered a writer whose body of work–fiction, non, and blog-like–seems to illustrate this more than Elliott’s.  Daringly open, deeply engaged, and equipped with an eerie insight that was hard-earned on the streets and in group homes, one of Elliott’s favorite topics is his own fucked-up-ed-ness, but I’ve got to admit that if I didn’t know so many people who know him much better than I do and promise me this is not some kind of marketing schtick, I might almost disbelieve it because he is so damn wise.  There is a “Physician, heal thyself” paradox about Elliott, but in the end this duality of the artist as a wounded boy-man haunted by demons he makes no effort to hide, yet at the same time the smartest and best (indirect) advice-giver you may ever encounter, is only one of the many intriguing aspects of Elliott’s persona and his work.

I’ve read with Stephen at Chicago’s one-of-a-kind queer indie bookstore, Quimby’s; he blurbed my collection Slut Lullabies; we’ve exchanged the odd email here and there and once spoke on the phone.  But I am such a fan that when Brad Listi approached me and asked if I’d like to interview him to celebrate the release of Adderall Diaries in paperback, I basically nearly wet my pants in excitement, and had sent him these long-winded questions within a couple of hours.  Busy as he is, I figured I might hear from him in a week or so.  But because Stephen is about as manic as I am, instead I had the answers in less than 48 hours.

By the way, Stephen himself suggested that I include the Q&As that he “couldn’t really answer.”  But I’d already planned to do that, because his non-answers are answers of a sort, too, so I wouldn’t have had it any other way . . .

***

GF: The Adderall Diaries deeply examines the concept that no one person owns The Truth, and that everyone has his or her own truth.  In the book, you explore the ways your father’s truth differs from your own.  The way you come to accept your dad’s ownership of his version of events feels awe-inspiring and redemptive to the reader, and appears to have been transformative to you as a writer/person.  Can you talk about your process in coming to forgive your father despite the many real abuses done to kids who cannot defend themselves?  In other words, what is the relationship between the subjectivity of “truth” and the real existence of “right” and “wrong” in the actions we perpetrate on others?

SE: Jesus, this is tough question to start with. Here’s the thing, you have to look at this from two places.

From the point of society we need to do a much better job at protecting children and much of that is about money. We need better staff to child ratios in the group homes, better paid teachers in public schools. We need to give more chances to abused children. In other words, more than one chance. They need the kind of multiple chances that children in better homes get.

But from the point of the individual it’s hard to heal without forgiving. It’s not about right and wrong. Your anger might be fully justified but who is it hurting?


Despite the revelation of many intimate details of your life and psyche in The Adderall Diaries, the narrative never feels insular or narcissistic, but rather passionately engaged with the wider world.  Talk about your decision to weave in outside plots, such as the murder of Nina Reiser, and how this may have changed your writing process and the end result of the book.  How do you advise young writers to ensure that their work is “bigger” than a mere confessional tell-all while still being honest?

I appreciate that. But writing a memoir is always narcissistic. Most art and writing is narcissistic. Of course, that’s different from feeling narcissistic. As a writer you have to always remember the reader doesn’t give a shit about you. If you’re not offering the reader anything they’re going to put the book down.

The reader is the most important person with a book. The reader is doing the writer a favor. So any decision that doesn’t take the reader into account is a bad decision. Holding back information because you’re uncomfortable is just as bad as providing too much information because you want to get something off your chest. Everything has to serve the story.

Of course, there is no such thing as a book that everybody likes. The goal is writing your reader’s favorite book.

The thing to remember about honesty is that it’s much more than just not lying. Honesty is bordered by self-knowledge. It’s a goal, but it’s not actually attainable, because to be perfectly honest you’d have to have perfect self-knowledge, and for that you would have to be a person that never changes.


I don’t remember your exact wording, but you wrote once in a Daily Rumpus that the world does not owe artists/writers a living for following their passions and creating the art they want to make . . . I was very struck by this and have brought it up in recent interviews I’ve done about my own work.  I think what you meant is that most of the world doesn’t get paid to do something they love or that is their singular passion, and that artists can’t expect that either–that the economic world is quite separate from the artistic world, and that if you choose not to compromise and get a job that the culture rewards financially, you’re making a choice and have to accept responsibilities and the consequences of that choice.  I deeply agree with that sentiment.  Yet I also believe that it’s unfortunate–even tragic–that art is so devalued by most people, and certainly those in power, and I think you would probably concur.  So I find myself with this paradox: I believe artists “deserve” to be paid, and that their work has true value . . . yet I also believe that refusing to conform to the existing cultural norms of having a work-a-day job is a choice (sometimes a luxury), whether those norms are right or wrong.  Hmm . . . I’m not sure where the question is in here . . . I guess that, in a sea of writers who seem to be constantly be belly-aching about being underpaid, I was very intrigued by someone–especially someone who doesn’t have much money–being bold enough to say that we’ve made our own beds and should perhaps stop whining.  Am I understanding your views correctly, and can you talk more about your philosophy of art vs. commerce?

I think you’re understanding my views correctly. I’m in favor of more funding for the arts in a very general sense. But who would get that funding? And people would still complain that they weren’t getting the scholarships, grants, etc.

I was awarded a Stegner Fellowship that funded me for two years and it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Still… I had already written three books at that point, and continued writing books after the funding ran out.

I understand journalists who are upset because they can no longer afford to do in-depth stories but I don’t understand writers who think they are owed a living for writing a novel they want to write. And I actually think it’s a very negative space to be in, since everybody (or almost everybody) has a job when they write their first novel. I think what happens often is people associate the money they’re paid for their art with the value of their art, and that’s a disaster for the work.

When I finish writing something I always try to get as much for it as I can, but I never (or almost never) write it for that reason. I’m able to write whatever I want because I keep my expenses extremely low. I don’t have children; I pay cheap rent. Sometimes I worry about my financial security, but never in terms of writing. When I think of how I’m going to scrounge some money I never think, “I should write something.”


Speaking of money: we both grew up in Chicago, around the same time, in neighborhoods where being a writer was basically unheard of as a profession or aspiration.  It never occurred to me to major in Creative Writing in college because that seemed like something a kid with a trust fund would do, whereas my parents were below the poverty line, and my dad had never finished elementary school . . . now you, of course, have a background of economic hardship–living in group homes or on the street–that even far surpasses mine.  Can you talk about your process in coming to identify as a writer/artist and whether you found your “class” background to be a barrier, an asset, or both?

Well, that’s tricky. I left home when I was thirteen and slept on the streets for a year and then I was made a ward of the court (full story on that here: http://therumpus.net/2009/04/where-i-slept/). I spent the next four years in group homes and went to college on a scholarship. But before that I lived in a nice house. We weren’t rich, but we were certainly middle class.

All I’m saying is it’s not a competition.

I never really identified as a writer. I was a history major in college. But I always wrote a lot. I never imagined it as something I could do as a profession, and I guess I was right about that. I did start publishing at some point, and then I got that fellowship, and it was all really kind of sudden. Like, I sent these two novels to the slushpile of a new publisher (MacAdam/Cage), and they bought both of them for $18,000 a piece, and I got the fellowship to Stanford a month later.

I think traveling across many social classes has mostly helped me as a writer and a person. Middle class, group home, Stanford. I think that’s mostly an asset, on the whole.


In The Daily Rumpus as well as in your books, you write a lot about love, desire, loneliness, attachment and sex–to say that you have a romantic temperament would, I think, be a distinct understatement, and I mean that in a good way, the way it’s also true of, say, Steve Almond.  Yet you’ve indicated in some of your writing that you don’t think you’re really cut out to be in a long-term relationship, and that you remain immature for your age.  Given that commitment can come in all shapes and sizes, can you talk about what it takes, in your view, to be in a successful longstanding relationship and what constitutes the “maturity” for this to be possible?

I don’t think I can.


Your book tour for The Adderall Diaries was one of the most unusual and comprehensive in the history of book tours–it would probably be fair to say that you may officially be the “go to” guy now on the topic of touring!  What do you counsel all new writers to do when their books come out?  Is there anything you did that you wouldn’t do again or feel was either not successful or was more trouble than it was worth?

I don’t think I would do any of it again because I’ve already done it. When people ask me how to market their books I usually say they need to do something that nobody else has done. If it’s the thing you’re supposed to do when marketing a book then people are already doing it and it’s probably worthless.

The most important thing is to write a great book. That’s 50%, at least. If you can do that you have a chance. If you can’t do that the odds get longer.


How has launching The Rumpus and writing The Daily Rumpus impacted your life?  Discuss the rewards of The Rumpus and what, in general, drives writers (outside of any economic impetus) to take time away from their own work to help other writers, generate cultural dialogue and foster community.

The Daily Rumpus email was supposed to be just a bunch of links to interesting things on The Rumpus. Instead it became just a free-write, where I just write about whatever I’m thinking. Sometimes I make up stories. Often I think about things like marketing, connecting, relationships, love. A little about sex. Or I review things I’m reading and seeing. It’s gotten to the point where I spend two or three hours on it every day. It’s replaced long form writing as my creative outlet. For a while I fought against it, but now I embrace it. I just love writing them. It feels so fulfilling. I don’t know what they’re going to mean in the larger picture of my “career”, but that’s also because I don’t know what shape literary writing is going to take. It feels like a whole new form. I don’t know if anybody else is sending out an email of new literary writing every day.

As far as what drives writers to foster community, to take on editing projects and create publishing houses, I think it’s all of a piece. Those that are pushed to do those things are probably also gaining some creative substanence from doing them. But hell if I know.


What are you most excited about right now?

I’m excited to see Animal Kingdom tomorrow night. But you’re asking something else. I’m definitely curious to see how all of this turns out.


For those readers who don’t subscribe to The Daily Rumpus and may not have heard you wax rhapsodic about Roberto Bolano, whose Savage Detectives knocked me on my ass as well, will you riff a little here on why he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and everyone should go out and read him immediately?

I was talking with a writer about Bolano’s 2666. He hadn’t read it but said he heard it was so good it made you not want to write. I told him it was the opposite. It was so good it made you only want to write. It also made you aware of what would be required from if you were to do that.


Elaborate on this line from The Adderall Diaries, and the way this fact impacts your own life, identity and choices as an artist: “The books of our time have little to do with the destruction of the self.  We expect our bards to survive, to figure things out.”

I guess what I was saying is I’m a mess.



Recently, in the fine media tradition of griping about how sick everybody is of talking about something—and thereby talking about it more—I read a tweet that quipped, “Can we stop talking about the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 already?”

The answer is no.

These days, it can be hard to believe in corporate publishing.The proliferation of pink-covered chick-lit beach reads, of C-list celebrity memoirs, of “literary fiction” seeming to have morphed into “morally inspirational books that appeal to middle-aged-lady book clubs”—well, it’s enough to all but make a girl give up on the galleys she receives from the Big Boys of New York publishing.I mean, sure, the occasional intimidatingly-smart, ultra-hip book by a twenty-or-thirtysomething white boy with shaggy hair still slips in among the drivel now and again to give us all a thrill; sure every year or so one or two foreign-born writers get championed as that season’s exotic thrill . . . but these moments can seem not only fewer and further between, but somewhat repetitive in and of themselves.Is there, for god’s sake, anything new and daring happening at the big conglomerates these days?

Things to do on Twenty-Seventh Birthday:

1) Hit Louis Vuitton to get replacement foot for one that fell off tote

“Mmm, your skin’s soft as silk.”

So what’s with the nipple on the cover of Slut Lullabies?  Are you trying to embarrass people on the train?

You’re at least the fifth person to mention public transportation in relationship to my cover.  When I first showed the cover photograph—which was taken by my dear friend Susan Aurinko, to people, several immediately said we should crop out the nipple so readers wouldn’t be afraid to take it on the bus.  My editor, however, fought the good fight for nipple inclusion, pointing out (rightly so I think) that anyone who wasn’t afraid to read a book with a title that seems to indicate musical porn wouldn’t be scared off by a little Seinfeld-esque nip action either.  I’ve got to admit, though, that since the book has come out, quite a few people have mentioned the looks they get on the train while reading it.  This makes me very happy.

It is dangerous to summarize an Emily St. John Mandel novel.Spoilers would abound in any description, but also a synopsis of Mandel’s thriller/mystery plots would risk trivializing or reducing this immensely talented writer’s work.I’ll limit myself, therefore, to saying that The Singer’s Gun, Mandel’s sophomore novel, is about a man named Anton who grew up with parents who sold stolen goods.Anton himself has worked with his beautiful and cold cousin selling fake passports, but has hankered after the “straight” life and tried to attain it.Of course he finds—as all characters find in fiction, and indeed most people find in life—that it is entirely difficult to outrun your past, and if you are serious about doing so you will probably need to make some pretty unpalatable sacrifices along the road to freedom.