This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. My guest today is the acclaimed author, writing teacher and online entrepreneur whose debut novel, This Is How It Begins, is the best novel I’ve ever read in my entire life—

Stop it! That’s private.

 

… Joan Dempsey, welcome to Fresh Air.

[Groan.] Now I’ll never meet her.

 

Oh, come on. Terry Gross isn’t reading your TNB Self-Interview.

Unless she’s actually considering an interview with me.

So, are you sitting comfortably?

Yes, thank you.

 

Then I’ll begin. Your novel, When It’s Over, is set in World War II. Does the world really need another WWII/Holocaust novel?

Certainly, a lot of fiction is set in that time; it’s such a rich, complex period, and I think it continues to fascinate us. There are so many stories to tell. I am always most drawn to those that show how the lives of ordinary people were impacted by momentous historical events. But I think When It’s Over offers some unique perspectives. First, it highlights the lives of refugees who fled the Nazis and managed to reach England during the war, and the prejudice and xenophobia they encountered. While the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII has become well-known over the past few decades, not many people are aware that the British interned Germans as “enemy aliens;” many were Jews and Communists who had narrowly escaped being interned by the Nazis. Another aspect is the Progressive political movement that swept Britain during the war and which led ultimately to the stunning landslide defeat of Churchill’s party in the 1945 election, right after VE day. As someone in my writing group said: how was it possible that Churchill, the great war leader, lost? That aspect of the war has been largely ignored.

What’s one memory that came into your mind recently that you haven’t thought about for ages?

Weird memories come to me all the time – it helps to have siblings who like to remind you of the various horrors of your life – but the one that came to me today was from when I worked at an infomercial company in the 1990s. I think about that time fairly frequently, actually, because every time I see someone who looks like Ed McMahon – which, living in Palm Springs, is pretty frequently; he has a lot of doppelgängers among the retired golfing set – I remember how I worked on his ill-fated Miracle Fryer (the miracle of which was that there was no frying involved – it was a pan that you baked chicken on). But I suddenly remembered the day I realized that the company I was working for might be involved in something nefarious – there was a cult involved, and a defective exercise device, which I recognize doesn’t sound like two things that go together, and it turns out, well, they don’t – and so I emailed the one person I’m still in contact with from that job to confirm that a strange meeting happened where it was announced we would no longer be getting free bagels and snacks…which everyone then intuited was some very bad, bad news for our jobs. (Well, that and because there was talk the government was coming to seize our computers and that we should all delete our Napster accounts.) (It was the 90s.)

So The Disintegrations is a book about a man obsessed with death, who knows nothing about it and is trying to understand it. You call it a novel, yet most of the names that appear in the novel are those of actual people, including the protagonist, who bears your name. Similarly, the book is an investigation into Culver City’s Holy Cross Cemetery. Why shouldn’t the reader just think of this as memoir or creative nonfiction?

Well, this book, as with all my writing, springs from non-fiction, that’s always the departure point. But as a writer I can’t stay within those parameters; as soon as I start writing, it shifts into fiction. To call it CNF or memoir would be an act of bad faith.

How did your early years in New Orleans influence your writing of A KIND OF FREEDOM?

I lived in New Orleans until I was 12. Then my mom and I moved to Connecticut, but because my dad and most of my family were still in New Orleans, we went back all the time, and it’s truly the only place I think of as home. So the rhythm of the city always lived in me. I lost my accent, but the voices of my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, are the earliest ones I remember. I learned to cook in my grandmother’s kitchen in New Orleans East. She taught me what to put in the beans, and that you make them on Monday. At elementary school, we wore K-Swiss tennis shoes with our uniform skirts, ribbed each other at recess, and danced to Jubilee All at assembly. The praline man waited for the end-of-day bell to ring so we kids could charge across the street and buy candy, pickles and potato chips from him. I say all this to say that New Orleans is such a special place, and my memories of it are so vivid. The language, food, music, and demeanor of the city are so rich I felt it would have disadvantaged me to write about anywhere else. More than that, no other place moved me to write about it as solidly as if it were a character itself.

Where are you?

I’m at Legend Upper West because it’s the only establishment within a one-mile radius of campus that isn’t swarming with undergrads. It’s the first day of school. Their excitement is too exciting. It’s a humid day and it feels like summer, and there’s too much libido and lust for learning in the air. I’m sitting here with a bowl of plain white rice.

Hi, it’s nice to meet you. I didn’t realize how different you’d look in person. You’re nothing like your author photo.

Yeah, I’ve aged a bit. Also, I had a baby.

 

That’s cool. Wait, I think I knew you 10 years ago, when you were just starting the research for your first novel. Is this the same book you were working on then?

Sadly, yes. It took me ten years to birth this book and ten hours to birth my daughter. The book was way more painful and I cried a lot more.

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.

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.

Kurt Baumeister (KGB) vs. Kurt Baumeister’s Doppelganger (2.0)

 

Kurt Baumeister’s debut novel, a satirical spy thriller entitled Pax Americana (Stalking Horse Press), was released into the wild on March 15. Baumeister took a brief break from his whirlwind world tour to sit down with his double, Kurt Baumeister 2.0, aka The Creature, aka Baumeister’s Monster, aka The Baumonster, aka simply (and, finally, thank fucking god) 2.0. A wide-ranging, revealing, and at times shockingly adversarial discourse followed. Described by onlookers as something between the ravings of a preternaturally linguistic chimp with dual-personality disorder and a peyote-addled William F. Buckley sparring semi-verbally with a lobotomized Gore Vidal, a third, unnamed transcription agent was able to pen these notes prior to apprehension by the Trump Administration. Details of his or her stay at Guantanamo Bay may or may not be forthcoming. Baumeister and his double remain at large.

Brian SmithI imagine you are very used to seeing your words in print after nearly two decades as a journalist and columnist. In fact, I saw you contributed music essays to two books published earlier this year. But does it feel different to have your very own work of fiction published? How?

It’s terrifying. I’ve written things in the past that had real consequences. Twice I had my life threatened from stories I wrote. One time in Detroit I was punched so hard in the face my eye was swollen shut for days. The guy hated what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure I was just telling the truth.

With fiction, it’s a different truth, a bigger one (we hope) in that the stories can ultimately define whatever moment we’re suffering through, or bouncing through with joy in our steps. That’s what my favorite writers, like Dorothy Allison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Willy Vlautin, Denis Johnson, Jim Harrison, Harry Crews, and Charles Bukowski always did or do, somehow. I hope I can do a little of that for someone, somewhere. It’s about self-definition, and empathy for the world around us. I’m always terrified I fail at that. So that’s what’s scary.

Romalyn TilghmanYou really carried around notes for this novel for several decades?

Yep. Those notes have lived in the garages of nine homes in five states during that time. I was 24 years old when I was hired to work with local arts councils in Kansas, and although I’d grown up in Manhattan, Kansas, the rural communities I was visiting could’ve been on the moon. I became fascinated by these towns and wondered why some had a certain energy about them and some didn’t. What was in the water that made people in one town walk faster than those in the next town over? And my, did those towns have feuds! Each competed to have the best arts council, seemingly still carrying animosity from the Civil War days of Bloody Kansas.

Peg Alford Pursell-Dec 2016Do you think it’s necessary to start off with a self-conscious question acknowledging that you are talking to yourself publicly?

No.

 

Good, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get straight to the heart of the matter. What do you most want others to know about your book, Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow?

The book is an accumulation of many years of writing, a slim volume, but in the words of Antonya Nelson “to call it slim would be a mistake…” The collection of hybrid prose (flash fiction, prose poetry, et al) is short but intense. The cover, which is a detail from a beautiful painting by the amazing David Kroll, is meant to draw the reader into a much different kind of beauty than what the painting might seem to offer, into a penetrating concentration of a world of perhaps terrible beauty in its clear-eyed look.

Lindsey Drager 2015Tell us what The Lost Daughter Collective is about, concerned with, proposing.

The Lost Daughter Collective presents the story of a Wrist Scholar who tells his shadow-puppet obsessed daughter the narrative of the Lost Daughter Collective, a group of men who communally cope with their lost girls qualified in two ways: missing (deemed Alices) or dead (deemed Dorothies). It is also the story of the Fathers of Lost Daughters, a group of men who communally cope with their lost girls, telling each other the narrative of the Risk Scholar and his daughter who plays with shadow. In the middle of all this lies the mystery of one father whose daughter is neither missing nor dead but “otherwise lost.”

To put it less concretely, this is a book about what it means to be daughtered, particularly by men—historically, academically, and in domestic spaces. It is also a book about storytelling, whose stories we trust and why we trust them. It is a book about gender politics and gender identity and therefore it is as much about how we read and misread books as it is about how we read and misread bodies.

ss-mugYou received a lot of rejections before you finally started publishing and exhibiting your work. Do you have a favorite?

Yeah, an agent in NYC wrote to say I should take my typewriter and put it on the top shelf of my closet and then nail the door shut. I didn’t hate her but when I heard she died a while back, I felt pretty good.

 

Do you feel pretentious doing a self-interview?

Yeah, sort of.

 

Who are your favorite characters in BigCity?

Bitch Bantam, Slab Pettibone, Fritter McTwoBit, FuzzyWuzzy the Bear.