Recent Work By Steve Almond

imgresI’ve known Lisa Borders for a decade. We teach together at Grub Street, Boston’s writing center, and see each other every few months at some reading event or another. I’ve always known that Lisa was a great teacher, because her students will happily give you an earful.

I was even more pleased to learn what a fine novelist she is. Her new novel, which follows her 2002 debut, Cloud Cuckoo Land, is called The Fifty-First State. It’s about a photographer in her late thirties who leaves New York City to help her half-brother through his last year of high school, after his parents are killed in a car crash.

So no: not a feel-good story.

Unless you’re the sort of sicko (like me) who is actually interested in grief and how we survive it, and how distant families function, and whether it’s possible to find redemption where you weren’t exactly looking for it.

I was curious enough about all this to seek a further interrogation of Ms. Borders, who agreed to answer a few questions…

9780986010903Alice Rosenthal grew up in the Bronx, in the 1950s, with parents who were (unbeknownst to many of their colleagues, and some friends) card-carrying Communists. I know this because Alice’s older sister, Barbara, is my mother.

When I discovered that Alice was writing a novel, loosely based on her own childhood, I was eager to read it. I’ve long been fascinated by the extremes of American paranoia. What I had not expected when I picked up Take the D Train was how piercingly it would explore the complexity of the Fifties, especially for women with independent minds and inconvenient political views.

The novel focuses on the cautious, married Frima and her more impulsive sister-in-law Beth. The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage provides a harrowing backdrop to much of the action, which is conveyed in prose that is thrilling both for its restraint and precision.

I was curious to know more about how Alice produced such a riveting novel, after years of writing.

I’ve never met Jon Krampner, which is lucky for him because if I ever did meet him I might very well kiss him on the mouth.

Why?

Because I really love his new book, Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, just out from Columbia University Press.

I say this not just as someone who eats a tremendous amount of peanut butter, but as someone who reads a fair number of books. Creamy & Crunchy has what every great cultural history should: a knack for telling the larger story of our country through our shared artifacts.

Krampner’s history of peanut butter is exhaustive without ever getting dry. He lays the facts on thick but keeps the tone playful. It’s one of those books that’s almost shockingly addictive, where you find yourself thinking: Holy crap is peanut butter fascinating! (Note: this is true even for those loonies who turn up their noses at a dollop of Jif.)

Krampner was gracious enough to answer a few questions about C&C for TNB, knowing that many of our readers consume their own weight in peanut butter each month.

 

I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged.   —Paul Ryan

 

Barack has pushed Malia to read some classics, The Grapes of Wrath, Tender Is the Night—she’s reading those, so I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading.   —Michelle Obama

Jennifer Spiegel is a way bigger freak than me. I base this solely on her excellent debut story collection, The Freak Chronicles, a suite of stories that includes among its retinue the tale of college girl stalking Mickey Rourke and a coed indulging in some extracurricular international relations with a Russian street artist. Spiegel’s stories are sexy but never salacious, and deeply humane. Her heroines spend a lot of time traveling the world and grappling with the complicated moral terrain they encounter.

She seems to have a big mouth, so I was wanted to toss a few provocations her way. Here’s what happened…

I’m not going to waste precious time blabbing about how awesome the stories in Cul De Sac are. (You’re busy. I get it.) I’ll only say that I never intended to read the fucking thing. Why? Because I’ve got two small children at home and, like, six other books I’m supposed to read. I only read the thing because I couldn’t not read it. Which is annoying. And also kind of awesome.

STEVE ALMOND:  I wanted to start with a basic question I get a lot as a story writer: Why do publishers view story collections as risky? I have my own theory, but I’m curious what you think.

BRUCE MACHART:  There’s no question in my mind that, as a rule, collections receive only slivers of the big publishing house pie in terms of publicity and marketing attention. We can all point to the exceptions, but it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy among publishers that “short stories don’t sell.” Because they believe this, they don’t want to commit resources (whether it be time or dollars) to promote books of short stories. The surprising result? Well, most collections don’t sell.

I had no idea what to expect when I picked up Marc Schuster’s debut novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. But I’ll admit to some trepidation. After all, the novel’s narrator and heroine is Audrey, a recently divorced mother of two daughters who takes up with a local restaurant owners, and her good friend … Cocaine. I had no idea how Schuster was going to pull this voice off, and feared he’d wind up resorting to the violent mayhem that drives the television series Weeds.

When I met first met Michelle Toth, a dozen years ago, she was pulling together a massive party to promote the work of her favorite artists – a writer, an architect, a photographer, and the wonderful independent filmmaker Shandi Garrison.

It was the first party I’d been to in which the whole point was to connect people to art. More than two hundred folks showed up. Everyone checked out the art. Then we got drunk and flirted and checked out the art some more. Some hooking up transpired.

A few years ago, I went to visit Michael Griffith at the University of Cincinnati, where he teaches in their PhD program. I was there in my usual capacity (i.e. to terrorize students of creative writing). But I was also there in my other usual capacity, which is to lunch with other writers in sad cafes and complain.

The Dream goes like this:

You write a book, a great book, and you send it out to whomever and a few weeks later, out of the blue, someone calls from New York City and says your name. Then the book gets printed and reviewed in the holy places and someone else calls, this time from Los Angeles, and says another name, one you’ve heard of, a movie star name, and the call gets put through and pretty soon there’s a major motion picture in production and your book is suddenly number one on the great list of What Matters. Then a third call comes from Chicago…

I met Emma Trelles more than twenty years ago, a fact that simultaneously amazes and depresses me. We were both members of an informal workshop run by the wonderful writer John DuFresne. Every Friday afternoon, Emma and I would ditch our day jobs and drive up to Florida International University and sit on a patio with a bunch of other wannabes and try to figure out how to make our bad decisions go away.

Emma must have been writing prose back then. But she was clearly another species -– an observer of the hidden signs, impractical and heartbroken, prone to brief bouts of song. A poet, I mean.

I had no idea how good a poet she was, though, until a few weeks ago, when her debut, Tropicalia arrived in my life. I’m on record as a bad poet, but I happen to be a good judge of the stuff, by which I mean that I recognize its essential mission, which is to reintroduce us to ourselves by reintroducing us to the English language.

Emma does this over and over in Tropicalia.

I spent about a happy week trying to figure out which lines to quote. I finally settled on these three, for no other reason than their devastating simplicity:

I keep asking if he’ll try and find me
after we leave this world, in the next place
whatever shining white nothing that entails

I’m sorry, but no one who’s ever been in love hasn’t hankered after this same mystery.

Emma generally works double shifts during National Poetry Month, but she was kind enough to answer a few questions for an old friend, on behalf of The Nervous Breakdown.


Let me start with the mushy stuff: Tropicalia blew me away. I knew you’d gotten better as a poet, but reading the book I got that strange I’ve come to think of as awenvy –- half awe, half envy. The thing that impresses me the most, though, is your patience. The poems here took a long time to reach. Was there ever a point where you were like: Ugh, this is taking too long. I give up.

I definitely felt like it was taking too long. Writing poetry, by its very amalgamating nature, is an art that requires as much dreaming as doing. But I went to work as a journalist right out of grad school. And that’s a devouring job. The only time you’re not working is when you’re sleeping. But I never considered giving up on writing poems. When I wasn’t, I was reading or thinking about them. I made little random notes, sometimes in the margins of my reporter’s notebook, which was the idea behind one of the poems in the book. Even just one  beautiful word or a lyrical phrase reminded me that I was also a creative writer, that I was once an artist and that I would be again.


I love that the book has an overt morality. One of my favorites was “Letter to the Right,” in which you write:

America, I don’t remember who you belong to
Even when I’ve smiled and said thanks, I’ve really meant shut up.

What I admire so much is the sense of sorrow and bewilderment you’re able to put across. It’s not a sermon, so much as a lamentation.

I wrote that around the time the health care debates were raging, and all that incredible bullshit about death panels was playing on right-wing television as if it was actually real. Alleged news outlets and commentators just pimping their lies with no remorse. It made me sick. I literally couldn’t sleep. One morning I got up feeling helpless and I remembered that I could always write a poem and that act might be my only weapon against demagoguery. Except for a word choice or line break, the poem pretty much appears as I first wrote it. I think I had been collecting some of its images in my mind for quite a while.


So you’re a first generation Cuban-American, and the book has several gorgeous poems about Cuban culture. But what interests me the most is how your family feels about your work. Do they get what you’re up to?

My family rules. My husband is a musician and a bookstore manager and my brother is an art director. Both of them support me in myriad ways, from reading my work to designing event flyers to simply cheering me on at my readings. And my mother is my crazy number one fan. She has a file stashed somewhere with newspaper cuttings, or even printouts, of everything I’ve ever written. I hope she’s not passing that thing around at parties.


You’ve got some amazing poems about what it’s like to be a reporter, the crushing artifice of seeing the world in that way. I’m thinking specifically about “Reporter’s Notebook,” which is written as a kind of news story gone awry. Please tell me you turned it in to some unsuspecting city editor.

Steve, that makes me laugh because I have no doubt you brought all kinds of little surprises to your own editors over the years. There is a part of that poem that was indeed the lede to a feature story I wrote when I was the art critic at a newspaper. My editor at that time, the blessedly cultured Robin Berkowitz, emailed me saying the beginning reminded her of a Tennyson poem. Can you imagine that? At a daily! Of course, it stayed with me, and a few years later when I wrote the poem, I worked in some of his lines from “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.”


You write about music a lot, so I think you need to talk about your own work as a musician. Also, for bonus points, please explain what “noise music” is to the John Mayer fans.

Does anyone listen to John Mayer? I have been a big music fan (and snob) for many years now and I used to write a lot about local music. Eventually I wrote about Ed Artigas, a guy who ran an indie label down here and played music in great bands like Bling Bling and Map of the Universe. Ed convinced me to start a band with two other women. Even though I didn’t know how to play, I thought, why not? So I played a rather shitty bass, sang, and wrote songs. We performed at all the music holes in town, at a few festivals, and even in Austin. When our guitar player left the band, we asked another musician we adored to play with us. I wound up marrying him.

Noise music may be defined as a collaboration of instruments and players without any rehearsal, predetermined composition, or any inclination at blending sound or melody. A driving principle might include chaotic assaults on the inner ear, which, in turn, can cause auditory kinds of hallucination. Noise music is freaking loud and it hurts and the only people that can abide listening are the ones playing it.


The poem “Lorca Is Green” astonished me. Was he the poet who made you want to be a poet?

Lorca is one of the poets who keeps me writing and learning my craft. I read “Poem of the Deep Song” at least once a year. There’s always someone I come across at just the right time who rescues me from my own thinning language or subject matter; when I first started writing seriously, I was bowled over by Denis Johnson, Toni Morrison, James Wright, and Lorna Dee Cervantes. But there are a lot of factors that went into me wanting to be a poet: my friendships with musicians and artists, my evergrowing obsession with birds and the natural world. I grew up in South Florida, and as a girl, I drafted poems in my head whenever we visited the beach. I wanted to describe the ocean, the light, the sound of gulls and water slapping the bow of our boat. It was my way of remembering.


When I first met you, too many years ago, you were working for an insurance company (I think). As a poet, how do you make ends meet?

I forgot about that. I had a lot of dispiriting business jobs before I started writing. It literally changed my life. I pretty much make a living the same way I have for years now: writing articles, features, and reviews, editing, teaching, really whatever is tied to language. Juggling all these jobs takes effort and a sort of patchwork, faith-based approach to money, which is not an easy thing for a daughter of immigrants, or for anyone. But if you want the freedom to make art, you have to give up some security.  And, I might add, that this kind of toil all goes back into the same well from which my creative work comes.  I’m pretty much living and breathing letters.


What’s next?

Another book of poems, a book of non-fiction.  More writing and reading. As I type this I see it sounds monotonous, but it so isn’t. Writing is all about discovery, and in this way, it reminds me of hiking, especially through unfamiliar trails and woods.  I love wondering what comes next.


***

 



Emma Trelles is the author of Tropicalia, winner of the 2010 Andres Montoya Poetry Prize (University of Notre Dame Press, February 2011). She is also the author of the chapbook Little Spells (GOSS183) and the editor of OCHO: The Travel Issue and MiPOesias Magazine’s American Cuban Issue. She has been a featured author at the Palabra Pura reading series at the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago and at the Miami Book Fair International. Her work has appeared in publications such as Verse Daily, Gulf Stream, 3 AM Magazine, Poets and Artists, Newsday, the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, and Organica. She is a regular contributor to the Best American Poetry blog; read her rambles here.



Some years ago, I returned to Miami, where I spent the early Nineties eating Cuban and sexually humiliating myself. I was there to teach a seminar, the subject of which was –- if I’m remembering this correctly -– How to Never Sell More Than 1000 Copies of Any Book You Ever Write.

I once watched Bruce Machart teach a class. It was a humbling experience. Machart was eloquent and funny and inspiring. He made me think about fiction –- the mechanics of plot, specifically, but all of fiction really -– in an entirely new way. When the class was over, I asked, only half-joking, if I could audit.

So here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure Joe Daly is a nice guy. I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy hanging out with him. He’s a textbook example of the sort of person I write about in my new book, Rock & Roll Will Save Your Life. Which is to say, he’s deeply invested in music as a means of reaching the vital emotions inside himself.

For this reason, I looked forward to reading his recent piece, “Five Bands I Should Like, But I Don’t. At All.” The world of rock and roll is full of sacred cows, after all, and one of the perverse pleasures of being a Drooling Fanatic is watching a few of them get gored. I’m always up for good goring. Ask anyone.