Last August a photo of Brad Phillips’ book Essays and Fictions was posted on Instagram.  The picture was a close up of Anthony Bourdain’s blurb—he’d only died a couple months earlier—that read “searingly honest, brilliant, and disturbing…” I guess I’m a sucker for excellent marketing, because I wanted to read the book immediately.  I wasn’t patient enough to wait for the novel’s release, and since the Instagram caption said advanced readers copies were available, I emailed Tyrant Books and requested one.

Essays and Fictions is a perfect example of why I love to read. Reading a book for the first time, a book I’ll grow to love, is an intimate process. The words on the page somehow seep into me, and the story stays inside long after the book is finished. The eleven stories in Essays and Fictions painstakingly focus on overlapping subject matter like drug addiction, sex, pain, loss, suicide and love—topics considered ‘disturbing,’ but the writing in this book about these topics is not only beautiful, but deeply sincere.

When I really love a book, I become obsessed and I do this thing: underlining various sentences, posting the underlined sentences on Instagram stories, tweeting sentences I connect with. I google the author, what else have they written that I can read right now? During one of my Brad Phillips k-holes online I found another blurb, The Paris Review said of Brad’s work, “He doesn’t ask to be liked, even by his groupies, but he does want to communicate: ‘I’m not interested in the ones who are drawn to the creator of the work, I’m interested in the ones who are drawn to the content.’”

In Essays and Fictions, I’m drawn to both.

Brad and I corresponded in December 2018, after I finished the book, via a Google doc. The following is what we talked about.

Tabitha Blankenbiller is the author of Eats of Eden: A Foodoir, published by Alternating Currents Press in March 2018. It’s a collection of personal essays, each ending with a recipe. It’s also a coming-of-age story, charting the author’s parallel development as writer, cook, and human. We follow her ambitions and dreams of perfection—at her desk, in the kitchen, and in the realm of friendship and marriage. We cheer her on as if she were our best friend. Because it feels like she is. Sarah Einstein says, “Reading Eats of Eden is like having a delicious leisurely lunch with a smart, insightful friend.” Melissa Grunow says, “Blankenbiller has packaged longing, self-doubt, body image, and love for others and food into fun and fulfilling narrative recipes for living an authentic life.” I agree. She is our companion and our guide.

I first heard Emily Mitchell read over a year ago at a reading series I host in Baltimore. I have a bit of a crush on female writers who explore literary oddity with sci-fi strains (although I have had a hard time defining exactly what that means—I’m thinking a mix of Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ursula Le Guin, and Shirley Jackson), and I was excited to host an author from just a few miles down the road, teaEmily-Mitchell_0035-3297705591-O-199x300ching at University of Maryland, who was exploring similar themes in her work.

She read a story from a forthcoming collection of short stories about a newly divorced mother who takes her daughter to a store to pick out a Companion, a robotic pet designed to help children cope with challenges and build confidence and empathy. Only the divorcee is surprised that, of all the animals her daughter could get, she chooses a spider.

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Michelle Brafman’s debut novel, Washing the Dead (Prospect Park Books, 2015) is, above all things, about the healing power of love and forgiveness, about letting go of the toxic wounds of betrayal and hurt. In fact, Brafman experienced a similar transformative purge; she admits that she felt “fluish” at times when writing it. The novel, told in first person by Barbara Blumfield when she is 17 and also when she is  53 (the two narratives woven together in what Brafman calls a double helix), centers on her family’s expulsion from their Orthodox Jewish community after her mother has an affair with a gentile. After Barbara is called back to the community thirty-five years later to perform the ritual burial washing of her beloved teacher, she is forced to confront her mother’s sins and secrets, as well as her own.

 

JEN MICHALSKI: Washing the Dead explores themes of exile, forgiveness, and redemption in an Orthodox Jewish community in Milwaukee, and you start it off with a bang: an affair. So where did that come from?

MICHELLE BRAFMAN: Yes, the inciting event in the book occurs when the main character, Barbara, discovers that her mother is having an affair, and so begins the family’s exile from their spiritual community. I’ve been told that the story reads a bit like a mystery, and as you read on, you learn that nothing that happens in these opening pages, including the affair, is as it seems. Affairs are complicated, I think. Perhaps they are often less about succumbing to some hot sticky lust and more about escaping an unbearable emotional intensity or healing old wounds or filling unmet needs for love or myriad other motivations. I wasn’t thinking so clinically, though, when I decided to use the affair as a means to launch this family into the diaspora. The idea evolved from digging into my characters’ family history and imagining how the carnage from their secrets might be expressed via misdirected and destructive efforts to secure love.

jerry.gabriel.high.rezJerry Gabriel’s second collection of fiction, The Let Go (Queens Ferry Press, April 2015) is old school. The reader is transported back to a golden age of the long, simmering short story, with its distinctly American milieu—the working class rust belt, boys at the cusp of adulthood, simmering cold war politics. As writer Charles Baxter notes, Gabriel’s characters are “barely hanging on and fear the let go”—of jobs, of identity, of innocence. And yet it’s hard not to feel the affection Gabriel has for them. The collection is less a suicide note of the American dream than a love letter to the tenacity of those caught it its clutches.

 

JEN MICHALSKI: The first thing that struck me after finishing The Let Go (and this is something my girlfriend points out to me all the time, for I do the same thing in my writing), is that, in addition to their mid-western milieu, so many of your characters are at the cusp of manhood (late adolescence or early twenties). Do you feel that your own crossover into adulthood had an impact on your writing life that is reflected in your choice of younger protagonists, or do you feel you are finally at a safe, wise distance to examine the folly of youth (and too close to write about, say, parenthood and mid-life). Or is it something else completely that drives you towards the troubled young souls in your work?

Chris Leslie-Hynan is a very busy man these days. With the success of his first novel, Ride Around Shining, he has been touring on and off for well over the last year. I caught up with him somewhere around Las Vegas to discuss his novel and also some of the biases and expectations he had to confront when writing about race, class, and envy.

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NOAH CICERO:  I finished your book and loved it.

Thanks for giving me a copy, I’m going to read Ben’s now.

I’m lying on a couch being really lazy, writing this.  I feel so lazy lately, I think it’s because I’m going off my medication, Seroquel XR, it basically causes me to sleep 10 hours a night, so I can’t even work a 40-hour week.  I factually don’t have enough energy to do it.  I can’t wake up before 8 a.m., and I can’t work the late shift without worrying about the stupid pill. All because I got really into Buddhism and meditate now and feel happy and okay with everything, so maybe I rewired myself and can go on.

Here are some questions:

Desire Will Set You Free 2

When Yony Leyser wrapped his first film, the documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, Leyser indulged TNB with a round of 21 Questions. Now, Leyser’s back with his second film, Desire Will Set You Free, a feature film he describes as “venturing into docufiction.” Starring Leyser, Amber Benson, Peaches, Nina Hagen, and other faces familiar to the Berlin underground, Desire Will Set You Free tells the story of the relationship between an “American writer of Israeli/Palestinian descent and a Russian aspiring artist working as a hustler, offering access to the city’s vibrant queer and underground scenes while examining the differences between expatriate and refugee life.” Leyser has completed shooting on the film and is now looking to Kickstarter to fund the rest as he’d successfully done with A Man Within. Leyser has blogged in-depth about the making of Desire Will Set You Free at Indiewire along the way, and as the Kickstarter nears its end I asked Leyser just a few questions about Desire Will Set You Free, a project based on his own experiences in Berlin.

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Please explain what just happened.

You just walked in. A Question Robot with an attitude. Hello.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Not my earliest, but when I was five, I pushed a tin can deep into a huge barrel of duck feed, specifically as an act to remember forever.

SeanHartofilis_FC2 cropPlease explain what just happened.

I saw my nieces in the basement. They’re up from Florida and are the best.  

 

What is your earliest memory?

At track practice when I was very little, I overran the finish line and was jumped, for reasons I’ll never understand, by two little boys who I’m guessing were brothers. They pushed me down and pulled my hair and kicked me. Then their mother showed up and did the same to them. I wrote about it in a short story published by The Harlem Times called “The Summer of St. Nick.”  

Photograph of Novelist Katie CrouchBestselling author Katie Crouch (Men and Dogs; Girls in Trucks) has a new book out. Abroad is a quick-moving, high-action read that plays out both our best and worst fantasies of being a young, beautiful foreigner in Italy. Her characters are so perfectly drawn, so wonderfully vivid, you might just confuse them for people you actually know (or have read about in the news!).

levi-neptuneTwenty years ago, in 1994, the internet was very different from today. This was long before blogging, before the idea of social media (Mark Zuckerberg was only ten years old), and two years before Sergey Brin and Larry Page started the project that would end up becoming Google. It was the year that Lycos and Yahoo! (then known as “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”) were founded, that someone registered www.sex.com, and the White House, then occupied by Bill Clinton, moved online at www.whitehouse.gov. It was also the year that Levi Asher founded a website called Literary Kicks at http://www.charm.net/~brooklyn.1 It was one of only 2,738 websites occupying a rather uncluttered and unorganized internet, and it survives today as one of the longest running websites around.

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Please explain what just happened.

We just released our poster and trailer for Hellion into the cyberspace and my mom emailed me to say she couldn’t stop crying. Moms rule.

It seems everyone I encounter in literary circles has had a Cheryl Strayed moment, a moment in which something Strayed has written, as the author of Wild or as The Rumpus’ dispenser of hard truths – “Dear Sugar,” has deeply resonated. For me, it would have to be this “Dear Sugar” response:

“Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same. … So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”

It’s a quote I’d passed along to my creative nonfiction students one semester with my demure modification, “write like a mother fudgsicle.” But that’s what poises Strayed’s work for maximum impact. She doesn’t modify or shy away. She tells it like it is.  And Strayed’s circle of influence is rapidly widening as a result.

author-photo-lower-res-copyOf Maud Casey’s most recent book, Alice Sebold said, “The Man Who Walked Away cast a spell from which I never wished to wake.”

Indeed, this book is spellbinding. Between the mental patients, the overly-confident doctors who treat them, the women suffering from hysteria, the dazzling acrobat, and the man who simply walks across Europe, this book is like a an eerie, unsettling dream that you cannot shake from your head.

Maud and I shared a fascinating discussion about The Man Who Walked Away, in which Maud brought up “ovary belts,” the difficulty in simply being human, and a “hunger for peace.”