An online culture magazine and literary community Mon, 22 Jan 2018 10:00:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Separation Mon, 22 Jan 2018 10:00:49 +0000  


 Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

S. Merwin


Girl Mother Memory:  Six stories high. Will she make a sound as she flies? Her wisps of hair and wide forehead just like her mother. Get me out of this room. She is too small today and I can’t feel my hands. Turn your back to the windows…Don’t throw her out. That would be wrong…and very bad…Lots of trouble for me. Jail. Blood. Hard cement below. I should make dinner now. Find the warm kitchen. There is no mother here for any of us now. Windows can let me out or hold me in. I want my own lost mother to crush me with love and stop this scream inside my throat. I am thirteen. My sister is six.

To deliberately or accidentally kill a sister, yes, the thought occurred and horrified me. After moving/abducting/hiding my sister and myself, and after our stepmother was kicked out one night with no more than a suitcase, our father moved us into a dilapidated WW-II era, brick apartment building across from the barren, potholed yard of an elementary school. Living on the sixth floor of our building he, or maybe someone else, had the wisdom to put guards on the windows except in his room. Just three, narrow, waist-high windows a small girl body could lean out of and fall without a sound.

Being the oldest child became an occupation for me; a full-time job. My maternal instinct, and the demands of working parents, kicked in to hug, hold, feed, and dress them like dolls. Shape them into who they could be. I was proud of untangling a girl’s hair, making her outfit match or walking her to and from school. A tiny mother in me emerged; too young to be taken seriously yet seriously relied upon for the well-being of younger people. The responsibility filled my days and gave me purpose so my longing and heartbreak for my own mother didn’t entirely crush me.

Being a tiny, efficient, girl-mother gave me a way out, and an identity. Good girls, helpful girls can submerge their own longing and needs to the point they seem not to exist. I birthed not one of them, yet I feel like I was their mother back then. To me, there is unique praise to be had for children masking as adults. Although my uterus has never carried the cells of a fetus, the inside place carries a too-young-for-the-job mother. She is as unseen by others as that ram-like, head-shaped organ of female anatomy. My lived experience of helping raise my sisters made a permanent home deep down in my womb.


That Time I Saved My Self

I’m standing on the cliffs above the ocean and watch a baby fall into the water. Weighted by her white diaper, she sinks. I dive and swim straight down, feeling along the rock wall that darkens as I lose the light from above. I reach for her arm, feeling her flesh and small bone beneath to her wrist. Tiny fingers almost grasp mine. I rush us to the surface and gulp air knowing for certain she is mine and I am hers.

Then I wake up.


Indoctrination and language shape each good little revolutionary. There was “The Group,” our comrades, “the leaders,” and The Revolution to come. So without warning, I imagined, there would be blood and rifles and running. Within the love from my parents, which I never doubted, there was chaos, radical politics, divided loyalties, ignorance, coercion, fear, violence, neglect, and obsession. I wonder now, can I call this part of my life “living in a cult”?  When moved across the country and hidden from my mother, was that really a “kidnapping”? I did “choose” to go when asked, but was in no way mature enough to forecast the irrevocable consequences my “choice” would produce, nor that it might excuse the adults in control from any accountability, nor that dread and regret would become forever constant in my mind. The hierarchy, changed names, secrecy, devotion to a powerful leader, the total submission to a cause and fear of being expelled…it’s beginning to sound like my family reflected in a fun-house mirror, or, perhaps, a cult.


Big Words I Learned (and what they meant to me then)

“There will be a revolution.” (Hide or die)

“The proletariat will share the means of production.” (Poor people will own factories)

“Who is Chairman Mao?”  (The Leader)

“And Marx?” (The Teacher)

“Engles?” (His friend)

“Lenin and Stalin?” (Heroes)

“Read the little red book.”  (Memorize the lesson)

“You must criticize yourself.” (Shame yourself just right)

“We are having a meeting.” (Quiet)

“That’s bourgeois.” (Shame on money and shame on wanting)

“He’s is a Trotskyite and a lumpen element.” (Disgraceful traitor, drug addict, narc to the police)

“Your mother is a bad influence.” (Disown your love; she will lie to you and confuse you)


I made a choice (But, I was eleven)


Good little communists renounce their bougie mothers and earn the righteousness of revolutionaries. I chose to leave my mother. “But, you were eleven!” my shrink reminds me to absolve myself of the guilt. “Eleven-year-olds can’t make those decisions.” Can they not? Yet, how can a child identify her own choice to leave one parent when embedded in her decision is clearly the other parent’s implied demand? I cannot reconcile the desire that was never mine to begin with, but formed words in my mother’s kitchen decades ago. I stopped feeling my body from the neck down and smothered any regret I felt. Her sobs, though, are forever tattooed onto the flat chest of my eleven-year-old self.

My mother’s version is different from my own. Her horror, I’ve been told, was a heart-crushing panic the day she discovered my father’s house empty and her kids nowhere to be found. They left her no forwarding address. I didn’t know the consequences of saying yes to leaving would induce such enduring trauma for all of us. I didn’t know my sister and I would be hidden. Still, I am ashamed of being stolen. Of letting myself be taken. Of not saying no.


1979: I vividly remember the first time I saw a missing child on a milk carton. A photo of a kid on the half-gallon in the cold dairy aisle didn’t compute; a photo of a sweet-faced boy in the wrong place and at the wrong time; much too ironic for me to understand at age twelve. My mother, who I longed for, who I needed to mold my body up against to help find my own shape, couldn’t find me. Is that the real and true story? I ask myself this. Yet, when it’s all too hollow sounding to my ears, something as subtle as a breeze, or the neighborhood tween girls I overhear from my window , even a glance at my own hands so identical to my mother’s, will jostle awake memories on a cellular level. I lost her and she lost me. I remind myself I’m no longer that missing child. I never had a child, but a child went missing and she lives inside of me.

Years later, in a recurring fantasy of rescue and reunification, I am wearing a white dress with tiny purple flowers. It is a warm spring day. Her hands touch my face and the breeze moves under my dress, over the small hairs on my skin. In this dream I am ecstatic to be in her arms. The fantasy intensifies when a few packages from her arrive through a sympathetic relative. Birthday gifts, Valentines, tiny boxes of Easter candies, were mysteriously forwarded to us. The dream of the girl in the flowered dress never came true in the way those kinds of wishes never truly do. I still long for the mother I wanted back then, want now. Her loss is my loss is her loss is the loss of something perhaps we never really had.



My memory is just below the surface; like a swimmer who can see the shore in reach but is still too far out to be seen by anyone on dry land. I see her but she cannot see me for I’ve disappeared in the waves. I scream but the wind whips the sound away. This fear of disappearing instilled vigilance and there’s nothing like trying to hide fear that forces one to over-function; to appear fearless. I can swim back, I say. I am not too far out, I say. After all, I chose to swim out this far, unaware that I could not out-swim the currents. I have another recurring dream: a tidal wave is hundreds of feet tall. Sometimes, I run. Sometimes, oddly, I try to hide from the water. I watch it rise against my window until it crashes through, engulfs me.

Though, that I chose to leave my own mother when I was eleven is a fact I swam away from. I’ve never really been able to label my father taking me and my sister a “kidnapping.” Isn’t that done by a stranger? Hidden in someone’s trunk? It wasn’t as if my hands were tied behind my back or I was knocked unconscious. There was no duct tape or weapon involved. No ransom, if you don’t count the pressure to agree to disown my mother in the process. It was all so normal to move away. “The Group,” after all, needed my dad. So, we were taken, and we did go but I didn’t know that I couldn’t turn back–that I’d gone out farther than my ability to return. Rationale is so very adjustable depending on the state of one’s mind.


The Unconscious Never Knows What Time it Is         

Fear of being left alone, in too big a space, is prehistoric to my birth. To preserve security at any cost, to give away autonomy, to avoid abandonment and isolation, is a full-time occupation. Like dead trees around ancient lakes, there are markers of where my growth went dramatically askew. Generation after generation of children carry things that were not theirs to carry, the invisible unknown from their parents and the world before them, and the world before them as well. Before words and before transformation of trauma. These unknowns travel over space and time, through cells and birth canals, in to and out from a body and a mind. In the margins of my memory a cluster of images exists. Frame after frame rushes by and can’t be made out clearly. I guess at the contents, my body fills in the rest. I call this “anxiety.”


I Am My Mother’s Daughter

I’ve told some necessary little lies

In the effort to protect you and me both

I’m not lying now

I’m placing my truth right where you can see it

I am my mother’s daughter

I’m prone to protect myself and get in front of the day I’m in

You don’t need to remind me to anticipate what I might lose

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to the needs and pain

Of someone else’s child

Or the child I must have been

I am my mother’s daughter

I share my time, love, and money when I can spare it

And often when I really can’t

I talk to people in elevators grocery stores and on the bus

Even if there is no crisis to bond us and especially, when there is

Every one of us was a newborn once before

I am my mother’s daughter

We are lost


More On Little Girl-Women I’ve Met

Another lonely girl lusts after the middle-school clique of barely becoming women. Sadistic girl-women newly empowered with their sexuality who hold the promise to make her one of them. At home she is quiet while her brothers argue and compete to be seen by their outnumbered parents. Her mother sets aside her own hunger as she feeds the boys, giving them second servings before the girls. Girls eat what is left. Heavy male footsteps set the day’s agenda, vibrating the floorboards throughout the farmhouse rooms. The girl disappears while reading her book. In her cutoff jeans and worn shoes, her brown pony tail askew, she eventually becomes invisible, hovering just behind the couch. Soon, she is gone.

The lonely girl becomes a woman and finds herself, again, longing to belong. To whom exactly? She wonders. Yet, she knows. Her mother does not understand her daughter’s inner existence and try as she does to seek her mother’s mind out, really the only mind she wants to know is her own—her mother is still just out of reach. The years pass and the loss sinks under her heart layers. She spends hours awake in the night, replaying the day’s slights and licking her wounds. She cannot hate a mother she is desperate to find; a mother who doesn’t know where her daughter really is. Her anger goes missing and in its place is need and fear and desire and no release and then, shame. She should have become someone her mother would recognize. Sometimes a masochistic girl-body gets hurt. Sometimes a girl just needs her mother to find her.


The Lilac Thief

You are here for such a short time

Your small buds burst open

Fragrant and purple

Picking you now

At night in my neighbor’s garden

Is a petit crime I can justify

Inside this space of loneliness

I still dream

You are so close

Inside the box of small gifts

You managed to smuggle to me

The scent of your last letter

Soaked in your Rain perfume

A treasure

I so guard with my life

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Episode 500 — Clay Byars Wed, 17 Jan 2018 05:08:20 +0000

Clay Byars is the guest. His memoir Will & I is available from FSG Originals.

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I Am As Good A God As The Sun Going Mon, 15 Jan 2018 14:44:25 +0000 For Anthony Madrid


When my footsteps dream me down a street night to the art gallery,
I am wreathes of conjecture among all my salty, caustic alphabets.

In the bright, warm gallery, plastic is the new black is the new gold.
My act is strict. But if anyone asks, it was I who let in the birds.

I’d rather have dogs, but here, birds give my gestures meaning.
They are my only mirror, while I play at godliness in the sun going.

When I am full-bright, in my gate, art goes and goes.
Its path my path parallel. We touch our hands and weep.

I am my heart- black chocolate- more bitter than wine.
I am my clothes- a shroud- white, clear skin underneath.

As good a scaffold built back and down. As good a hanging.
Wherefore animals sounds go go the tiny jealous orchestras.

If repeating flames with pleasure alight here a homing reflection
I will shatter-bounce myself into breaking broken red melted west.

Least of any campfire crusades are the burnt sugar proverbs-
milk money moorings leaking like fruit when I am that wild coast.

Terribly romantic chimney whispers in the spectra of summer
There is blood on my shoulder and disaster near my hottest alms.

A good god stubborn under copper escalator oils velocities of logic
Of course the child-shaped-heart is also exact, undisciplined, emergent

Also an art gallery hung up with black chocolate, birds, dogs and fire-
Without mirror without atmosphere- a lyric in the skirmish of maturity.

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Mailing a Graphic Novel Mon, 15 Jan 2018 10:00:45 +0000


This is a comic.

Not really. But okay.

Comics aren’t Media Mail.


Go across the street, right there. To the comics store. They’ll tell you. They do all their comics parcel post.

But these don’t have advertisements.

It doesn’t matter.

So a book of pictures isn’t Media Mail but a book of words is? Is that it?


But these have pictures and words.

[pause] Hmm. Hey, Diane, would you look at this?

[Postal worker #2 approaches the counter.] This isn’t a comic, Fran, it’s more like a graphic novel.

What? What’s the difference?

This has a story, and the pictures compliment the story. As opposed to the story and the pictures going together, and it being mostly pictures.

[Customer] This is really becoming a larger discussion about literary genre.

[Postal workers stare blankly.]

Never mind.

[Postal worker #2 walks away.]

[Postal worker #1] Okay, listen. I’m going to have to talk to someone about this. I mean, not now. But over the next few days. Media Mail… It’s meant to be educational, is the thing. It’s a special rate for educational materials. Is this educational?


Really. What’s the education here?

That everything is going to be okay. Shit gets fucked up sometimes, but it’s going to be okay.

That’s the message?


[pause] That’s a nice message.

Thank you. So can we send it Media? I mean, it’s a box of books.

See, like a CD. A music CD. That’s Media. But a DVD with a video game… that’s not. It gets confusing.

It’s a box of books. It’s addressed to—

Just because they’re going to a bookstore doesn’t mean they’re books. Because, okay. Say you have a book about playing a card game, and the book comes with a deck of cards. That’s not Media anymore. That’s something else. I have to explain this to people all the time.

But—I’ve been mailing books Media Mail for 20 years. They’re… words. On a page. Printed. Bound. These are books. With words. I don’t—

Just because you’ve been doing something a long time doesn’t mean it’s right.

[Customer purses lips in frustration.]

See, we just don’t know. People these days are taking photos and making those photo books—what are they called, where they put the photos and bind them into a book? You know what I’m talking about?

[pause] I’m not really interested in—



Anyway, they put these photos into a book and have them bound, and then they want to ship them Media Mail. But it’s not Media Mail. Do you see what I’m saying? It gets confusing. I’ve been working here ten years, and I still don’t—I mean, you wouldn’t believe the stuff people come up with. So I’ll have to check on this. I’ll have to check on it and get back to you.

[Customer exhales.] Okay. Fine. I just don’t—

We might be able to, I don’t know. We could mail them Media, just this once. But then I’ll have to check on it. For the future. But you have to understand—

Okay. That would be great.

you have to understand, it’s complicated.

It sounds very complicated.

People don’t get it. They come in here, and they want to ship Media Mail, and… But you understand? What I’m saying?

Yes. I understand.

Okay. As long as you—we can do it this once. Because I’m not sure. You’ve been very patient. People aren’t always so patient. It gets so confusing, and they just—I don’t know. They just don’t understand.

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Episode 499 — Lauren Haldeman Wed, 10 Jan 2018 05:08:34 +0000

Lauren Haldeman is the guest. Her new poetry collection, Instead of Dying, is available now from The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University. It is the winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry.

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Excerpt of Christmas in July, by Alan Michael Parker Tue, 09 Jan 2018 16:26:03 +0000 “Blue the Dog, stay.”

The girl was trying to vomit again, retching, and Blue the Dog was worried, whining with that little huffing noise, his nostrils flaring, his big tail smacking against the leg of the table. The girl had been puking on and off for about an hour, and now, worse, she lay suffering on my porch sofa. I held a cup of spring water to her lips so she could sip, but she wasn’t keeping down even a dribble—her body was being hateful, and making not to stop. She couldn’t calm her singleness: the toxins must be deep in her cells.

I put a mop bucket nearby, thinking she wouldn’t have the strength to get up and step to the railing to vomit on the butterfly bush. The butterfly bush was being so nice. Blue the Dog butted his way past the bucket, though, wedging closer. He wasn’t ready for the next moment, or maybe he was owning this. Blue the Dog sat right there staring into her, the way he does, less than a foot away, having found her and chosen her, and now she was his. Blue the Dog is always who he is: six years old, some Lab, some Pit, some Boxer, some other giant breed, block-headed, with one black ear and one white ear and an underbite, a huge mutt, and the best.

The girl would hang her head off the edge of the couch cushion, open-mouthed, spit and moan, the puke and spittle stringy, her head in the bucket, right in front of Blue the Dog. He stared, uncertain, every once in a while stamping his back feet. He hadn’t once growled at her. I never saw his dander up around her. Blue the Dog doesn’t like children, but he liked this girl.


Blue the Dog had come upon her first, in the woods. We had been moving from the birches toward the clearing to the south, a field and a swamp still to go on the way to my beehives, and even though Blue the Dog had been on a scent, he had broken form.

“Something!” Blue the Dog had said to me.

Blue the Dog talks, no matter that I don’t really understand.

“Blue the Dog? What is it?”


“Okay, buddy. Go see, Blue the Dog. Release.”

Which he had done, because he likes to make his own decisions, cautiously but sure too, all ninety pounds of him low to the ground in a stalking crouch. I had followed—something was there. He had tracked through the scruff and the ferns, the dandelions and the purple clover, run the edge of the meadow in his hunting pose. But then I had lost him. Until he had barked twice, as he was trained to do, come see, come see.

Lying on the ground, she had looked like someone’s laundry, just a balled-up heap of clothes. She had been a ball of pain. She had smelled.

“Stay.” I had given him a shred of deer jerky from my pocket. “Good boy, Blue the Dog.” Then I had tried to wake her up. I had touched her shoulder once, again, and she had moaned, half-conscious, and she had said something I couldn’t make out. I had shaken her a tiny bit, but that had scared me, shaking another person seemed wrong. It wasn’t in the universe I knew.

I think she might have said “Help.” It also could have been “Crap.”

I can always tell where I am outside, more so than in. We weren’t far. What else was I going to do? I don’t keep a phone in the summertime. I’m strong enough: I could haul her home, and help her there. So I had knotted my pouch, pulled her up gently, swung her arm around me carefully, let her weight move her forward but supporting her too. She kept bonking into me with her funny little purse, too shiny a thing. Our walk hadn’t taken twenty minutes, her leaning on me as we had trudged to my house.

Time, glory, and grief. I had felt the chemicals soaking through her clothes, leaching. Which meant I couldn’t let her inside, not that walking cloud of poisons. Thinking smart, I had laid her on the porch instead, where the air would help. If she polluted my rooms we’d both be sick.

I had eased her down slowly onto the cushions, propped her head with a little pillow. She was sweaty, and even though the day was hot, hers was a bad sweat. She had looked gray around the eyes, a light gray around the lips, a bad skin color. She had smelled light gray too, with another color in there, but I hadn’t known what. When I had laid her down, I hadn’t decided whether to take off her purple hat. I could tell she had no hair, and so the hat was probably important to her. A hat full of ego, I had supposed. All of that being, especially at her age, which I had put at fifteen. No one was ever free, I had thought, with this girl lying on my sofa.


Now she was present, toxic on my porch sofa.

Plus there was some of her on me. “Blue the Dog, stay,” I said to him, although he wasn’t going anywhere. “Keep,” I said, a word he might not know.

With Blue the Dog in charge on the porch, I hustled around back, stripped at the outdoor shower, and washed from the rain barrel, scrubbing at my hands and face with birch twigs. After, I chewed a few mint leaves for my digestion and rubbed some lavender into my beard, because I could smell her.

Blue the Dog doesn’t mind if I smell like lavender—he kind of likes it, I think, even if he never says. The bees don’t care.

When I came back around front, clean and dressed, the girl was deep asleep. Blue the Dog lay on the sofa next to her, stretched out along the length of her, kind of on top of her too, together on that narrow couch. I had never seen him behave like this. That’s a lot of dog, a heavy log of a dog on top of a girl.

Blue the Dog looked at me; he had all sorts of words in his eyes. He didn’t know what to feel.

“Shhh,” I said. “Blue the Dog, keep.” Maybe “keep” meant lie on top of a girl.

I ate my five o’clock meal, did an hour of sundown poses out back, facing the ridgeline, ending with the presence of the trees in my arms, upright, joining with the branches, and I soared my energy nicely. It was a good day.

When I came around to check on her, the girl was awake once more, leaning up a little, sipping spring water, and petting Blue the Dog, who was still flattened on the couch, even more on top of her. He was seeing her.

“What’s his name?”

“Blue the Dog.”

“Blue.” She scratched between his eyes: he liked that spot, and squinted in pleasure.

“Blue the Dog.”

She looked at me with feelings in her eyes too. “Be nice,” she said. “Blue the Dog,” she said to Blue the Dog, scratching. Then she seemed to panic: “Who are you? Where am I? Who are you? I remember…being sick…who are you?

I waited. It was not unpleasant.

“Who are you?” she asked again. “Did you carry me?” she whispered. “You carried me,” she remembered.

Who is anyone?

“I mean, thank you,” she said. “For helping. I…I got sick….My name is Christmas.”

I think she wanted to shake hands. I felt a little proud, a feeling I don’t want. I worked to let my singleness collect before I answered. I used one of my visualizations: be like the thinnest branch of pine, be the needles with the wind tickling. Hear the tickling. Lift up into the wind, into the sky…

“Hello? Mister?”

I didn’t realize I had closed my eyes until I opened them, and there she still was.

“Mister,” she said again. I didn’t know why.

“Blue the Dog’s hungry,” I said.

“I’m okay,” she said. She elbowed herself up a little more, not easy under the weight of Blue the Dog. “Uh-oh,” she said. “I’m fine,” she told herself.

“I’m Snow Joe,” I said.


“You asked. Snow Joe. See the truck?”

My pickup, parked in front of the house, has Snow Joe painted on both doors.

“What?” She craned her head. “That’s your name?” She pointed at the truck. “Are those snowflakes?”

“I plow driveways. Truck’s got a plow.”

“It’s July,” she said.

“And your name’s Christmas.”

I stepped by, to go fetch Blue the Dog’s dinner. Blue the Dog jumped off of her, which made her grunt, and then she struggled to sit up more fully, moved as though to stand and follow. I could smell her. Sitting up seemed to hurt.

“No.” I opened, raised my palm to the source of the conflict, calmly, with power. “You can’t come inside.”


“My house. I keep a clean zone. You’re polluted. Lie there.”

Blue the Dog pawed at the screen door, worn from where he paws. He’s right-pawed.

I lowered my hand to steady Blue the Dog. “Stay,” I told him as I scratched his ear. “I’ll bring your food. It’s okay. Hold.”

This was different, not his usual dinner in the kitchen, but Blue the Dog, he’s Blue the Dog. He panted as he lay down by the door and looked at me. I felt he might be getting upset.

“It’s okay. Hold.”

The girl lay back on the sofa, and sighed. She was only gray around her mouth now.

I think she was relieved. I was. But I didn’t know what she was, and I was working with that, too.

“What are you wearing?” the girl asked.

“This? It’s a mekumi. It’s a breathing robe. I made it.”

“Oh,” the girl said.

“Look,” I said. “Do you want to take a shower? I’ll show you. I’ve got an old shirt and some shorts that could fit. I don’t need them. Are you able to stand up?”

“I’m okay,” she said. “I feel better.”

“You’re not okay,” I said, pushing open the screen door. “We can’t trust your clothes. Just smell. You’re reabsorbing.”

“Wow,” the girl said. “You are crazy.”

We did what we did. I mixed his dinner, brought his bowl back outside. Blue the Dog gobbled his squash and venison, slurped spring water. From my cedar closet, I grabbed an old denim shirt and a pair of shorts, snatched a safety pin for the waistband. I couldn’t help her with underwear.

I showed her the clothes.

“I don’t know,” she said, eyeing me, holding up the shirt, deciding. “You’re not a creeper, are you? Okay, I guess…” Her nose wrinkled and squeezed a couple of times, like a rabbit kit. “I really stink.”

Blue the Dog finished, grabbed his knucklebone, and trotted into the yard to chew in the grass, which he likes to do after his dinner. Sometimes I bring food, join him, and we chew in the grass, lying together pleasantly.


We moved in the world. She was steadier: she showered, I waited. When the water stopped running, she could hear me. I asked the stall door, “DO YOU WANT ME TO BURN THOSE?”



“NO!” I could hear she was upset. “THOSE ARE MY CLOTHES!”

I thought not to reply.

I wondered about this girl. I could hear her presence.

When people get angry at me, I take their anger, and then I don’t like that, both of those angers in me.

“WHAT ARE YOUR FEELINGS?” I asked the wooden door.

She wasn’t answering.

I waited.

I admired her silence: the question was too big. What were my feelings? I couldn’t answer either. My life is learning.

The stall door swung slowly open, and she stepped out, dressed, my stained old shirt more of a blanket than a shirt, even though she was pretty tall, the purple hat back on her head. “Thank you.” She handed me my towel. “Here’s your towel. You don’t have to shout, you know. I’m not deaf.”

“Today was nice,” I said.

She looked at me. People look at me.

She kicked at the bad clothes on the ground. Her toenails were painted black. “Can I burn them? Really? People do that?” Her voice was little. “I want to. Not the boots, of course. Can I…can I have some socks, Snow Joe?”


“It’s cancer,” she answered, even though I hadn’t asked. She was feeding the burning clothes into the burn barrel with the burn stick, a hardwood branch I had seasoned, turning over her ruined shirt to make sure of the flame, purifying.

“No one dies,” I said.

She looked at me. “Everyone dies. Me first.”

“No,” I said. “We’re used, we’re absorbed and reabsorbed, it’s all…it’s like one shapeless sponge. The Buddha says, ‘Know the outside as false.’”

She poked the fire harder. She was angry—I felt her anger again, and again, I didn’t want it. I cannot have anger.

Poke, poke, jab, jab, she made the fire spit as the ashes rose.

I waited.

I was saved by Blue the Dog, as I am. Blue the Dog barked at something in the trees, and looked at me for permission, his eyes full of knowledge.

A dog may yearn.

“Release,” I said to him.

Blue the Dog tore off into the garden, whipping around the compost, headed for the pine trees, fixed on a scent or a sound, dog muscles in concert.

The girl and I together watched Blue the Dog run, and what we felt changed to love.

“He’s such a big dog,” Christmas said. “Can I keep him?”

Was that a real question? It hurt.

“Blue the Dog is Blue the Dog,” I said.

“Jay Kaaaay,” she said. “Dude, I was kidding. It’s all right. Snow Joe, it’s cool. I was kidding.”

I didn’t know what we were talking about anymore.

The sun would be going down soon, July a month of hot sun, my favorite next to May and October and November. The girl needed to go home.

“Can I give you a ride? Let’s have a cooling beverage and then I’ll drive you home.”

We were sitting on the other side of the sleeping porch, on the chairs Buster had made me, enjoying sumac tea and the cloudless sky. The seats of the chairs aren’t comfortable, so I usually grab a cushion from the outdoor couch, but the girl had thrown up on those cushions. Buster’s special chairs were hard. He had made allowances for my height, he had measured me, and we had run through our poses together in the sunshine, as we do, and Buster had done well, so the chairs were tall enough for my legs, as he’s a good carpenter, although upholstery wasn’t Buster’s specialty. He did strike a very good mushroom pose, though, rounding in ways that I couldn’t. I had to remind myself not to want what Buster could do, but only what I could do.

I was comfortable as a body in those chairs. A chair is like a car without wheels, I was thinking, a car was a body for thoughts that move, the motion is in me.

“Snow Joe!”


“Listen to me!” Christmas pouted. “I was talking.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“You are such a freakazoid. Yes, I’m ready. I live with my aunt. Does Blue the Dog ride in the truck? My old dog used to get carsick. Can I ride in the back with Blue the Dog? Does he ride on the front seat? Can he come too?”

Driving, we drove. Then we were there. The aunt’s house was a house. I’ve been in houses.

“I’ll come back,” the girl said. “Can I?”

I didn’t say anything.

She gave Blue the Dog a quick hug, grabbed her little girl’s purse, then jumped down, out of the truck, and turned back to look at us.

I looked straight ahead, a good place to look, to see all of the imperfections in the windshield. Glass up close is a lesson.

I had emotions.

“Can I come visit Blue the Dog?”

I waited to know how to answer. Christmas stood there waiting. The engine was running.

“Can I?”

I waited. “Okay,” I said. “If you help.”

“I can help!” Christmas liked that.

“The bees. I will bring in the honey tomorrow. The nectar flow—”


I looked up at the sky. Tomorrow would be a fine day, even a favorite day, hard work and honey.

“Tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at two o’clock.”

“In the afternoon.”

Something made a noise in the corner of the dashboard, on the girl’s side, maybe a trapped Japanese Lady Beetle.

Why did Christmas say, “In the afternoon”?

“Blue the Dog likes you,” I said, and I put the truck in reverse, checked my mirrors, and pulled out of her aunt’s driveway.


ALAN MICHAEL PARKER is the author of twelve books, including The Committee on Town Happiness (Dzanc, 2014). The Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English at Davidson College and faculty in the University of Tampa MFA Program, he has received two selections for Best American Poetry, three Pushcart Prizes, the Fineline Prize, the 2013 and the 2014 Randall Jarrell Award, and the Lucille Medwick Award. He has been called “a general beacon of brilliance” by Time Out, New York.

Adapted from Christmas in July, by Alan Michael Parker, Copyright © 2018 by Alan Michael Parker. With the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books.

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How to Finish a Novel in Only 15 Years Mon, 08 Jan 2018 10:00:59 +0000


1.  Choose a horrific moment in history you know little about, in a country, Argentina, you know little about, but which seems to have troubling similarities to the here and now. Research for years. Images from the Dirty War sear into your mind.


2.  Learn that Hemingway wrote novels at the pace of 300 words a day, no more, no less, stopping mid-sentence if need be. You’re no Hemingway, but it seems pretty reasonable. Buy a marble composition notebook. Stare at the blank page. Treat yourself to a cheap book of Dover Art stickers. Stick a Chagall painting on a blank page. Stare. The painting makes a nice dent in the white space. A box to write around.


3.  Repeat this process every day for the next few years. Chagall, Modigliani, and Kandinsky speak to your project more than other painters, fueling your three main characters. You don’t know why, but whatever works, right?


4.  Worry the 300-word chunks aren’t quite stitching together. Someone in your writing group calls your protagonist a cipher. You’re afraid to ask if that is good or bad.


5.  Consider pursuing a doctorate in Discourse Analysis.


6.  Die of shame when sharing the outline of your novel in your first workshop.


7.  Balk when a posh visiting writer says you really ought to visit Argentina. With what money?


8.  Maybe you have no place writing this novel. No place at all. How dare you write about a place you’ve never been to?


9.  Find curiously cheap airline tickets. Over summer break, visit Argentina. Nearly get stranded:  the airline files for bankruptcy the day after you arrive, cancels all flights. Take a cab to the airport to find the airline office, which hides behind an unmarked door, behind a counter. To get their attention, your husband must walk behind the counter, transgressing airport decorum. Finally, get a voucher on American Airlines, which, ironically, files for bankruptcy later. But, you get home. Adventure!


10.  Throw out your first draft, and some of the characters in it, and rewrite the whole damn book.


11.  Query agents, 10 at a time. Try not to have delusions of grandeur when Dream Agent in batch 1 of 10 writes you a long, beautiful response, one that really gets your novel, and you think, this is it! You’ve hit the big time! The email’s final paragraph begins with “and so it is with deep regrets…”


12.  Use the nice letter to keep throwing yourself at more rejection. Give up around rejection #30. Who do you think you are, anyway? You’ve not written Harry Potter.


13.  In the meantime, distract yourself by writing a second novel. Oh, just a quick light thing, nothing like the first. Something with a bit of romance. Relatable. Saleable.


14.  A friend says not to stop trying until if you’ve tried 100 agents. The rejections are nice, but from what you can gather you’ve written something too dark, too weird. Wonder if this is code for: you’ve written a yucky book. You are an unrelatable weirdo.


15.  Consider whether this is one of those novels you stick in a drawer. It’s been, what, ten years?


16.  No, no, no, this is not a drawer novel! If this is a drawer novel, what is this life?


17.  Start the slow process of submitting the long-suffering novel to small presses, which is even slower than waiting for agents to reply, which is sometimes never.


18.  In the meantime, try your hand at a third novel, stupidly more ambitious than the first. You’ve heard of novelists writing six throw-away books before getting it right. At the rate you’re going, you’ll have to make it to age 80 for that to happen. But you’re bad at math so don’t try to make this calculation for real.


19.  The election happens. We’re all going to die. No one will ever find your book in a bookstore or a library or even a Little Free Library crammed with molding telephone books and rotten oranges.


20. One day, find a beautiful small press whose credo seems to match your own: read widely, read dead authors, read foreign authors. Why not try one more?


21.  And then score!  Receive that email from the small press that says yes. Yes! It turns out your editor is literally a genius with deep knowledge of obscure ancient literature and a doctorate in philosophy of theater which sounds more colorful than discourse analysis even though you’re not really sure what that entails—and she obviously has impeccable taste. (Try not to flatter yourself.)


22.  Die of shame asking for blurbs.


21.  Hey, wait. You’ve got some blurbs. Didn’t think that would work out.


22.  The weekend before your book launches, vomit repeatedly with anticipation. You will choke on your own vomit and die before the party, or else the nuclear apocalypse will happen, and either way no one will read the book. But, wait, the party itself is glorious. You sell out of books and have a trunk full of leftover cookies. Now bathe in a sea of chicken soup, as you’ve caught the flu. Hey, don’t you have that stupidly ambitious novel on the backburner that you have to throw out and rewrite 80 times? See you in 2028.

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Joseph Osmundson: The TNB Self-Interview Fri, 05 Jan 2018 14:00:31 +0000 How?

I got my heart broken and tried to fix it by sitting down in front of an empty Word Document.  It didn’t work.

How do you feel?


How do you feel now that Inside/Out is out?

Terrified.  I never imagined strangers reading it.  I imagined my friends seeing these words, but they lived through it with me, and so it’s not strange to them.  Reading it now, it’s strange even to me.  It happened years ago.  I don’t recognize the self who would act that way.  I barely recognize the writer, his obsessions, his ticks, his longings, his voice.

How do you feel that people will react now that the book is out?

I just want people to read it.  I want people to agree or disagree.  I want people to identify or to refuse to identify.   I want people to write back. I want people to see themselves in it, or absolutely believe that no human could be this earnest, that hurt.


I got my heart broken and decided to fix it by sitting down in front of an empty Word Document.  It didn’t work.

How did you decide?

I once would have said that the decision was made for me, that all I did was react.  I see now that not being able to make a choice is a mode of choosing, and one that is trying – desperately – to escape responsibility.  I try to choose differently now.  I try to choose.  

How did you decide on the form?

The form was obvious.  The book needed to be fragmented, it needed to shift and pull from various sources.  I started writing it before I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson, but that book cemented it for me.  The separate parts had to accumulate into a story, a narrative, that never quite held.  My voice isn’t Maggie’s, but my pain did feel like hers, my obsession did feel like hers, and my writing, like hers, seemed to  offer some sort of way out.  


I wrote about a broken heart, and how I participated in its breaking.

What made you feel?

My body, my mind.  Being a fragile soul living thing in this outside world.

What made you feel this was a story that had to be told?

I had spent two years loving a person who desperately needed to control the narrative of our love.  He asked me not to share things that happened between us even with my closest friends.  I shared some things anyway, and he always got distant when I did, and so I learned to be private, even with my beloveds, even with myself.  Spectacle, the open display of my wounded heart and body, was necessary to heal.  That it was at his expense still feels dirty, but I don’t know a way around it, and the goal was never to hurt, not even him.


I got my heart broken and tried to fix it by sitting down in front of an empty Word Document.  It didn’t work.

Why are parts of the work redacted?  

There were images in the work before.  I called them receipts.  Like I said in the text, the notion of ‘gas lighting’ didn’t exist in pop culture when I was living through this relationship.  My ex lied about so much and so often that I doubted what I had lived through.  As Sontag taught us, the image seems a fixed point, a moment of trust, proof of something.  The images were proof that my trauma existed in my head, but not only there.  

Why are the parts of the work that redacted explained and not simply omitted?  

We decided not to print the images.  I decided that their absence speaks of something too.  So, like always, I wrote that down.  


I got my heart broken and tried to fix it by sitting down in front of an empty Word Document.  In some ways, it worked, or it was a step in what worked, and I have to admit that the next step was being touched by another.

Why did you decide to write a self-interview and not an excerpt, an essay?

When I got an email from Seth with the subject line NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, I thought he had been reading my Twitter and was worried about me.  2017 has been a year that taught me – again – what loss and pain can be.  When he showed me other self-interviews, I was in love.

We younger writers, we queer writers (to say nothing of women and trans writers, too) are often accused by those who came before of being millennials, self-obsessed, too internal, too self-absorbed, not looking enough to the outside: to nature, to plot, to narrative, to the lives of others.  We’re self-indulgent, everything that’s wrong with the world.  That we inherited a world, a planet, an economy that has been broken by those who came before seems irrelevant to them.  

When this was lobbed at my hero Sharon Olds, I knew it was bullshit.  Interiority is a life of its own, a life worth exploring.  Self-interviews stare this notion in the face, refuse to look away, give it the finger, and insist that it doesn’t matter whether you think our millennial nonsense is worthwhile or not: We aren’t going away.  Here’s what I think.  And here’s what I think, too.  


I write first for myself, and then for the world.

Who did you write this book for?

I wrote first for myself, and then for the world.

Who did you write this book for?

For myself.

Who did you write this book for?

For every lonely faggot who felt bad for crying, for hurting. For every lonely faggot who knows the double pain of feeling pain and then feeling ashamed of that pain.  

Who did you write this book for?

For myself.

Who did you write this book for?

For myself.

Who did you write this book for?

For everyone but him.

Who did you write this book for?

For everyone.  For him.  



Bio: Joseph Osmundson is a scientist and writer based in New York City. He has a PhD from The Rockefeller University in Molecular Biophysics. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Gawker, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, too. His book, Capsid: A Love Song won the POZ Award for best HIV writing and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. With three other queer writers, he co-hosts a podcast, Food 4 Thot, which covers everything from dicks to drama to discourse.

You can find Inside/Out, published by Sibling Rivalry Press, here.

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Episode 498 — Daniel A. Hoyt Wed, 20 Dec 2017 05:08:07 +0000

Now playing on the Otherppl podcast, a conversation with Daniel A. Hoyt, author of the novel This Book Is Not For You, available from Dzanc Books. It is the winner of the inaugural Dzanc Fiction Prize and the official December pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

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January:  Firework, by Eugene Marten Mon, 18 Dec 2017 18:17:27 +0000 Available from Tyrant Books

Sign up now to receive your copy! (Sign-up deadline for this title: December 15, 2017.)

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“An explosive road novel.”  –Vanity Fair

Jelonnek, blue-collar Midwesterner, trapped in a life he is almost sure he wants to escape. Driven by “a great thirst and a great fear of what he thirsted for,” he makes the first real choice of his life when a simple errand to a convenience store escalates into a terrifying encounter.

He finds himself on a cross-country odyssey with a woman he barely knows and her young daughter, in search of escape and a second act. They find shelter and a safe distance at the edge of the country and community, only to be besieged by threats from the outside and, finally, from within. A descent into paranoia, nascent violence and sexuality ensues, culminating in a one-man Armageddon and an aftermath as hopeful as it is horrifying.

Set in a volatile, early-90s landscape of apocalyptic race riots and ethnic cleansing, Firework confronts its subject with an unblinking candor all too rare in contemporary American fiction, pushing the boundaries of political correctness to speak even more eloquently to our current historical moment.

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Impromptu Mon, 18 Dec 2017 10:00:01 +0000

On May 4, 2006, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency published a list essay by Dan Wiencek called “Thirteen Writing Prompts.” Prompt #1: “Write a scene showing a man and a woman arguing over the man’s friendship with a former girlfriend. Do not mention the girlfriend, the man, the woman, or the argument.”

Set go.


[We are off, off, off, off, off Broadway.  We are actually in New Jersey.]

Overture: “Frankie and Johnnie,” by Sam Cooke  (YouTube video version.) [Audience hopefully sees  Program Note* on the flier provided by Trenton’s Tremendous Pork Roll.]

Act 1, Scene 1, Curtain opens as audience glimpses—through kitchen window—a view of shadowy shapes darting, dishes crashing, unintelligible shouts.

Off Stage Narrator Voice 1 speaks one of the six optional opening line(s), selected nightly per Director’s whim and written In the style of [and with profuse apologies to]:

1. [Ernest Hemingway, “Fifty Grand”] “Brutal, just brutal, like sittin’ ringside watchin’ yer last fifty bucks take a dive with a busted-up loser.”

2. [Carl Sandburg, “Fog”] “Anger comes on feral feet … never moving on.”

3. [Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man] “The problem with putting one and one together is that sometimes you get two and sometimes you get three … and sometimes you get one.”

4. [Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Number 43”] “Who hasn’t loved thee? Let us count the broads.”

5. [Anne Rice, Interview with The Vampire] “Lust is one of those emotions that can stir your blood or suck it. The same can be said of a vampire.”

6. [Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat] “‘It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.’ Anger looms in the shape of the I’ve-Caught-You-Now.”

Off Stage Narrator Voice 2 bellows, menacingly, following above-selected option: “Shut the fuck up!”

Shadowy shapes mute immediately, simultaneous with Scurrying Exit, Stage Left, as lights go down.


*Backstage Tech. usually clicks Skip Ad before You Tube sound comes up. Note to audience: If our Tech is a little slow, and a commercial plays, we thank you for suspending your disbelief. Some nights she’s working on homework right up to curtain time.

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Episode 497 — Patty Schemel and Erin Hosier Wed, 13 Dec 2017 05:08:31 +0000

Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Patty Schemel and Erin Hosier. Patty was the drummer for the rock band Hole from 1992-98. Her new memoir, Hit So Hard, is available from Da Capo Press.  Erin is her literary agent at Dunow, Carlson, and Lerner; she helped shepherd the book to publication.

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Laurie Ann Doyle: The TNB Self-Interview Tue, 12 Dec 2017 17:49:18 +0000 The stories in World Gone Missing all explore a central theme: that people don’t become fully visible until they disappear. What brought that theme about?

The truth is I didn’t pick that theme as much as it picked me. Before I even had a thought of a book in my brain, my brother-in-law went missing. Decades later, sadly, he still hasn’t reappeared. Though the opening story in World Gone Missing“Bigger Than Life”—has a similar through-line, I completely fictionalized the characters and specific plot points. What remains true to life is the feeling you get when a loved one seems to vanish into thin air. The best way I can describe it is a sinking, helpless sensation. As the years wore on, I began to see my brother-in-law in new ways. I appreciated his subtle kindnesses and sharp wit, along with his sometimes brash and irrational nature. Thought I’m not sure this would have changed anything, I wish I could have been more compassionate.

As I finished this story and embarked on others, I realized that losing a loved one can bring many conflicted feelings, and conflict is at the heart of fiction. Sometimes a person’s absence can free up a character to do things they’d never done before, wonderful things. Sometimes they find it almost impossible to move on. This realization got me going and I saw both the loss and liberation that absence can bring. Though I had to get a chunk of stories written before that unifying theme floated up.


Why a book of stories and not a novel?

Jim Shepard, winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story, a Guggenheim, and many other honors, likes to joke that he writes short fiction “for the money.” The reality is it is infinitely harder to publish a collection than a novel, because collections don’t sell as well. This has always struck me as odd, because I’ve talked to a ton of readers who live and breathe short stories. But given the economics of short fiction, does that mean the short story is a lesser art? There are certainly professors and authors who view stories as “practice” before the writer settles down to create what truly matters in literature: the novel.

I could not disagree more.

To me, it makes absolutely no sense to pit short and long fiction in competition against one another. Both forms are art. I love the way I can hold a story in my head, relishing all its details right up to the ending. I also love immersing myself in the vast world of a novel, though I often have to reorient myself when I pick up the book to read on. Short stories have been made into more award-winning movies than most people realize, including Brokeback Mountain (Annie Proulx), The Birds (Daphne du Maurier), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote), and a whole host of others. The world needs short and long fiction.

In terms of my own writing, here again, I’d have to say the short story chose me, rather than me it. A while back, I got introduced to the magic of Alice Munro, then the bounty of Best American Short Stories. I started faithfully reading stories everywhere I could find them. At some point, I thought, why the hell not—why not try my hand at writing short fiction? After a decade of work—many say writing a collection of short stories is just as hard as a novel—World Gone Missing is now out in the world. It’s quite a feeling.


How did you come up with all the beginnings and endings, as well as a wide variety of characters, that a short story collection requires?

One of the toughest things about writing short stories is that every word counts, often working not just double, but triple duty! You have to immediately immerse the reader in the world of the story, carry them with you as the tension mounts, and land the piece at just the right moment.

For me, beginnings aren’t usually hard. I’d see in my mind’s eye a woman standing outside a bar (like Lyn in “Just Go”), a homeless man picking through a recycling bin (as in “Hateman”), a stranger posing a question to another stranger in a Safeway line (“Like Family”), and I’d be off and running. But halfway through a story, I sometimes stall. What is really at the heart of this story? Where did my initial enthusiasm go? I have to go back and figure out where I digressed. Another challenge is: How can I go deeper? How can I respect these characters and tell their truths? Endings are usually the hardest of all. My aim is always to find some (but never total) closure to the action at hand, while still giving the reader a sense of what lies ahead. There were stories where I wrote thirty plus endings! Writing World Gone Missing, revision became my best friend. And I don’t expect that to change.

What’s also cool about short stories is that that they can lead not only to movies, but to novels. For example, Kaui Hemming turned her story, “The Minor Wars,” into the amazing novel The Descendants, which became an Academy Award-winning movie. So while I had to invent a lot of beginnings and endings and characters to create World Gone Missing, I have also laid the groundwork for more books to come.


All the stories in World Gone Missing are based in and around San Francisco, which unifies the book. What made you choose the Bay Area?

Though I lived many years on the East Coast, I’m a second generation Californian. In the late 1980s, I made my way back to my home state for good. I moved here for the opposite reason than most people do: not to escape family, but to get closer to my parents, siblings, and the extended Doyle clan. My maternal grandparents’ families immigrated from Italy and Switzerland to Healdsburg, California in the 1880s to become vintners. My mother and grandmother lived in San Francisco during the 1920s. Though my grandmother later moved to the East Bay so my mother could attend UC Berkeley (where my parents later met), she loved taking us grandkids to San Francisco.

When I started writing World Gone Missing, memories of those San Francisco visits kept coming into my mind—the historic carousel in Golden Gate Park, blue Mount Tamalpais on the horizon, the bustle of Union Square. I incorporated many of these details in the stories. No, “incorporated” is the wrong word. These images opened doors to the world of many of the stories in World Gone Missing, leading me to create the characters (and to some extent plot), rather than visa versa.

Basing all the stories in the San Francisco Bay Area was the easiest decision I made in writing this book.


I understand you teach writing at UC Berkeley Extension, as well as the San Francisco Writers Grotto, where you have a writing office. How does teaching affect your writing?

Teaching writing has given me many gifts. Maybe that sounds corny, but it’s true. Teaching requires that I make a deep study of masterful writing. In fact, the first writing class I taught was “Learning From the Masters: Techniques of the Literary Greats.” Of course, I had studied renowned authors in grad school, but now I had to go deeper. To prepare for the class, I examined how Hemingway constructed his dialogue so it sounds real, how Baldwin used imagery to create underlying meaning, what Grace Paley did to make us laugh. In identifying specific techniques and articulating for students what they accomplish, I have learned a tremendous amount. Ten years later, I’m still teaching the “Learning From the Masters” course and it continues to feel fresh.

I also find the dedication and inventiveness of my students inspiring. I’ve taught many talented student-writers over the years, from twenty-somethings to eighty-somethings. Their precise language, unique voice, and original plots amaze me. The way students solve common writing challenges—for example, how to immediately plunge the reader into the story, or use suspense—often gets me thinking in new ways. After class, though I’m usually pretty tired, I find myself scribbling down my own ideas to expand on the next morning.


So what’s up next for you, writing-wise?

I’ve started several flash fiction pieces that I’m excited to finish up after the World Gone Missing book tour is over. I’ve also begun a novel, which takes place (of course) in Northern California. Though I don’t want to give too much away, it continues my emphasis on characters who are missing from the present action, as well as illuminating the intimate connections between people and place, whether they be a shadowy forest, an immense lake, or simply a specific stretch of patched sidewalk. Details of the physical story world always pull me forward.


LAURIE ANN DOYLE‘s new collection of stories, World Gone Missing (Regal House Publishing), has been named a top book pick by the East Bay Express and praised by New York Times bestselling author Edan Lepucki  for delivering “astute portrayals of people who desire connection, hope, and renewal.” Winner of the Alligator Juniper National Fiction Award and a Pushcart Prize nominee, Doyle’s stories and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Jabberwock Review, and Under the Sun, among many other journals. Her work has been anthologized in The Livingston Press Fiction Anthology (University of W. Alabama), Road Story (KY Press), and Speak and Speak Again (Pact Press). Doyle teaches creative writing at the San Francisco Writers Grotto and UC Berkeley. You can find her online at

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Excerpt of World Gone Missing, by Laurie Ann Doyle Tue, 12 Dec 2017 14:33:45 +0000 From the short story “Here I Am”

I’m the last thing people imagine when they think of a funeral director. For this late night house call, I’m wearing a purple dress and heels to match; my nails are painted lavender. I’m hardly the dowdy thing in black the family expected.

The son hesitates, but shows me in. First, I verify that their grandmother is in fact dead: breath and pulse, no, and doll’s eye test, negative. The old woman’s eyes roll right along with her head. Though the hospice doctor’s been here and gone, you can’t be too careful in this business. Last week, some guy in Mississippi woke up in a body bag on the embalming table. It was all over the news.

I sit down with a few family members, who want to talk funeral arrangements. “I’d be glad to answer all your questions,” I say. “Or I could come back tomorrow, if that’s easier.” No, they just want everything over with. I open the brochure, we discuss options, and I tell them about my special.

“For nineteen hundred and ninety-nine dollars,” I say, “you can get a one-day funeral, including a premier velvet-lined mahogany casket for the viewing, all the embalming, cosmetology, dressing, and supervision, two silk flower arrangements, and the use of my S&S superior hearse.” After that, the body is buried in cardboard. Thick, ecological cardboard. A lot of people like that. They did.

I cocoon the grandmother in the flowered bed sheet, line the gurney up with the mattress, and start to slide her heavy body. It doesn’t budge. This has never happened to me before, not with family present.

“Here,” the son says. “Let me help.”

“No, thank you,” I say in what I hope is a professional voice. The last thing I want is for him to help me. But I can’t just yank or shove. The old woman deserves respect. The breath feels stuck in my throat. Finally, slowly, I check the sheet and pull it from where it’s wedged between the bed and gurney. Of course. Now the grandmother’s shoulders slide, then her fleshy legs. When the body’s firmly on the gurney, I strap her in.

“Sometimes it takes a bit of doing,” I tell the son.

He nods.

In the last fourteen hours, I’ve arranged three funerals, made two house calls, set up chairs for a wake and broken them down again, ordered flowers, and filed out more forms with the City and County of San Francisco than I want to think about.

Exhausted, I ride the elevator down to my hearse parked in the basement and drive out into the October rain. North Beach is quiet this time of night. After dropping the body off at my embalmers’, I head back to the office. There is still work to do.

When the doorbell rings, I have to pick my head up from my desk. It buzzes again. I groggily check in the mirror, wipe away the mascara raccooned under my eyes, and straighten my stockings. I live right upstairs from the funeral parlor. People call at all hours.

“Lena,” a man’s voice says.

In the window near the door, all I see is a hat, a stiff gray dome with a red-tipped feather. I don’t know anyone with a hat like that.

“Lena,” he calls again.

“Denis?” I say, opening the door. “I don’t believe it.” We dated a couple years back. Not serious but not not serious either. After my divorce, I swore I’d keep it causal with men.

Denis’s face looks broad and smooth; only a few silvery strands show in his hair. He combs it back now, which makes him look more like the financial adviser that he is—or was. We haven’t been in touch. He’s got the same strong forearms and muscular legs of an athlete that I remember loving. But his eyes, a sapphire blue, are sad in a way I’d never seen.

“Well, hi,” I say.

“You look good, Lena,” he says, taking in my silky dress and high heels. “Wow.” He pauses and moves his eyes away. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s late, I know. I—it’s my mother, Lena. She’s not well. The doctor told me tonight that she may not have much longer. Mom’s always said she wants you to handle her funeral when the time comes. I thought you should know.”

I met Denis’s mother at a viewing. I remember her as small, lively woman with a gigantic smile. His mother was the one introduced us.

He could have called, of course. But that thought doesn’t stay in my head because the rain that’s turned to mist is glistening now along Denis’s broad shoulders. When I reach out and touch his fingers on the door, he doesn’t pull away.

Denis and I dated maybe five or six months. He was surprised by my profession but not in the least put off. Me, I wanted a fling. I talked him into heading across the bridge to Berkeley for a little Zydeco dancing, and he took me to that restaurant in Chinatown where the waiters are so rude all you can do is laugh. I liked to show up sometimes at his door wearing sequins, a white stole, and tiara. He didn’t dress up, but he sure liked how I looked. We took selfies: I’d glam it up and he’d keep his face drawn and serious, or he’d be the big black-suited man with me just in his shadow.

One Friday night, Denis suggested we go for a drink at the Tonga Room in the Fairmount hotel.

“You’ve put in a long week,” he said. “Let’s relax.” Except he was nervous, fussing with his collar stays and dropping nickels and dimes all over the floor. I leaned back and ordered a Mai Tai, trying not to notice. We watched the Tonga’s thunderstorm show, lightning flashing when you least expect it. Afterward, Denis cleared his throat.

“Lena,” he began. “Why—What would you say to our moving in together? Plenty of room at my house. You’re always saying how much you love the view of the Golden Gate.”

My head jerked back, I was that surprised. My divorce had hit hard. I had bought the funeral parlor with my ex and assumed it was for life. My mind went to other men—all the husbands, brothers, fathers—whose bodies I’d bent over, there one day and suddenly no more. My heart began to pound.

“Denis,” I managed. “You know I can’t just move my business across town.”

He nodded and took a sip of water. We talked of other things. But hell if I know what because all I can remember now is Denis’s hollow-eyed look of pain.

We never saw each other again. No big blow up, no bitter words. Denis would phone from time to time, and I’d call back. Until about a year ago. I don’t know why. I kept meaning to.

“Of course,” I say now. “I’d be honored to take care of the arrangements.” Ignoring how late it is, I add, “Why don’t you come in?”

After things ended with Denis, I threw myself into work. I found comfort in its routine, the perfect positioning of flowers, the right combination of songs to honor a life. Putting on a funeral is a huge production, more complicated than a wedding. I’m creating final memories that people will never forget. And I have just one shot to get it right.

Of course, I’ve had a few, what? one-night stands—the guy from the espresso place, the salesman who kept me in guest registries, a married neighbor. But none of these men made me feel the way Denis did—as if I were the only woman in the world.

I usher him into the softly lit foyer. I’ve made the place look like a home, with thick oriental rugs and a long couch that a body—two bodies?—could sink into without a second thought. He glances around uncomfortably. I walk him to the office. It’s filled now with fresh flowers: pumpkin-colored mums, pale lilies, and immense ferns, moist and sweet-smelling.

Denis takes the chair next to mine. He nervously taps a finger on the glass desktop.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Where are my manners? Beer? Wine? I have both.” I pull out two tall glasses from the stocked refrigerator behind the desk and set them in front of us.

He quickly shakes his head. His mother, he says, wants a simple service, the music lively—you know how she loves a good party, Lena—and the food plentiful. Antipasti, ravioli, and cannoli—chocolate and vanilla—from Stella Pastry. He talks faster and faster, looking at me less and less. The desire I’d just felt—I’m sure he felt it, too—begins to evaporate.

The grandmother I’d collected in North Beach comes back to me the next day. They’ve sutured her mouth shut from the inside and plumped her eyelids with caps so they’ll maintain a natural shape. Her skin is firm, and her body, if anything, heavier from the embalming fluids. Getting on the maroon pantsuit that the family wants to see her in should be about as easy as putting a party dress on a pine tree. I lift one thick leg, and tug the pants up, trying not to rip the fabric. The other leg goes even slower. Finally I ease the pants over her hips. Threading the fabric belt around her waist is easy.

A deep quiet envelopes us as I turn to her makeup. I color her lips rose and the eyelids sable brown. I use regular makeup, not the heavy mortuary kind, because it’s natural. I want her to look sleeping, not dead. I blue her hair—just a bit—to brighten its gray under the lights, and tilt her chin down for a peaceful look. The work absorbs me, makes me forget about Denis.


A week later, I’m downstairs getting ready for the party. Fifteen years ago—right after I bought the business from my ex—I threw my first Halloween bash. Now, it’s an annual thing. Put a bunch of San Franciscans in costumes and something interesting always happens.

Denis phoned yesterday to tell me his mother was doing better, still in the hospital but hanging on, at least for now. I invited him to the party.

“Come. You can get out for a couple hours and have fun. Your mother would tell you the same thing.”

Denis said he’d try to swing by. Last Halloween I surprised everyone by popping out of a coffin in a leopard miniskirt at midnight. This year I planned to top that.

I lay a tuxedo-clad Dracula in a coffin and convert a child’s casket into the beer cooler. For a couch, I pull out the longest coffin I have, fit milk crates inside, and stack sofa pillows on top. Tiny ghoul lights with feathery eyes get sprinkled around. The band, Mechanical Heart, arrives and starts to set up.

At nine, the party is coming alive. Marie, my neighbor and part-time bookkeeper, shows up as Marilyn, with more voluptuous cleavage than the star ever had in real life. Her caveman husband wears a cowhide slung over his shoulder and a bone stuck through his ponytail. This leads to predictable jokes about boners. It’s true, I tell them, the dead do get them. Everybody laughs and shots of tequila go around.

The band is deep into their second set—Derek and the Dominos, The Dead, U2—playing so hard that people can’t help but dance. I replenish the cocktail hot dogs and refill the Skittles bowl, and finally get out there myself. I dance with a handsome skeleton, adding a little shimmy here and there, but my usual verve’s missing. Where is Denis?

At eleven forty-five, I signal the band, and Marie and I sneak upstairs. It was her idea—the low-cut black leather vest and micro skirt, the studded boots—she discovered the whole outfit in Fantasy on Folsom. All I did was add the whip. I can’t wait to see Denis’s face.

Marie laces me in and zips me up. We tiptoe down the backstairs and I tuck myself into the casket we’d propped up on wheels. She rolls me toward the band, who’ve begun a loud countdown. At exactly midnight, I jump out.

“Can’t get no satisfaction—” I sing. The last syllable comes out like a low growl and everybody cheers. “’Cause I try and I try and I try—”

Under the lights, I suddenly feel everyone’s eyes on me, and, as if someone threw a switch, my confidence disappears. Here I am surrounded by friends, but now I feel as if none of them knows me: the exhausted me, the lonely me. I scan the crowd for Denis. He’s not here. I go to sing the next word, but nothing comes out. Now people are staring.

A guy tosses a handful of candy corn up in the air. Someone else throws M&M’s. Everything starts zinging—bits of orange, blue, yellow flying past. A gangly orangutan catches Kit Kats in his hairy palms. A French maid holds out her gauze skirt for Starbursts. People laugh.

They think it’s part of the act. The switch flips back on and I snap my whip high over everyone’s heads. They scream and applaud. I grab a fistful of candy from the stage and pitch it back out at the crowd.

That’s when I see Denis, standing uncomfortably alone in the back. He’s wearing a retro bowling shirt with ANTONY stitched over the pocket, patched Madras shorts, and sloppy brown sandals, something that doesn’t look like a costume, but is. Denis is an impeccable dresser, tailored suits, polished wingtips, vests. I’ve always liked that about him. But you know, tonight the shorts look good on him. I flash him a smile.


LAURIE ANN DOYLE‘s new collection of stories, World Gone Missing (Regal House Publishing), has been named a top book pick by the East Bay Express and praised by New York Times bestselling author Edan Lepucki  for delivering “astute portrayals of people who desire connection, hope, and renewal.” Winner of the Alligator Juniper National Fiction Award and a Pushcart Prize nominee, Doyle’s stories and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Jabberwock Review, and Under the Sun, among many other journals. Her work has been anthologized in The Livingston Press Fiction Anthology (University of W. Alabama), Road Story (KY Press), and Speak and Speak Again (Pact Press). Doyle teaches creative writing at the San Francisco Writers Grotto and UC Berkeley. You can find her online at

Adapted from World Gone Missing , by Laurie Ann Doyle, Copyright © 2017 by Laurie Ann Doyle. With the permission of the publisher, Regal House Publishing.

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James P. McCollom: The TNB Self-Interview Fri, 08 Dec 2017 13:00:12 +0000 “Violence and the vote“ are huge issues for modern America. But how does The Last Sheriff In Texasthis story of a sheriff’s election in Beeville, Texas, in 1952, provide a metaphor — an explanation — for Trump’s America?

In both instances, voters baffled expectations by putting a highly controversial figure into office, splitting their communities into angry factions, neither able to understand the other. Trump made no secret of his divisive intentions, but he was elected. Sheriff Vail Ennis, despite the fact that he killed seven men, was voted into office time after time.


That doesn’t explain why.

Not from the point of view of 2017. But it was easy to explain in post-war America. The country was safe. Beeville was safe, a clean, well maintained town, with good public schools. People didn’t lock their doors at night.   The sheriff protected the town. Softies criticized him because he was harsh, but they had criticized George S. Patton during the war for the same reason.

Also, Vail Ennis’s time coincided with the peak of the classic movie western. The sheriff was an icon — the image of the Old West lawman. His 1947 shootout at Pettus, in which he was riddled with bullets but killed his assailants, was covered in Time Magazine. It drew letters of admiration support from all over the country. America wanted to hold on to the Old West images.


And Trump?

Read his campaign slogan: make America great again. It spoke to that same longing for trust and security that many felt had been lost in modern America. Essentially, it was a promise to restore the idealized Beeville.


You see Trump as the sheriff?

Symbolically. The role, not the man.  Trump has the same harsh attitudes on law enforcement, national borders, guns, etc. But the main similarity is their effect on the oneness of the community, the violent split in the culture. In Beeville, the enmity was immediate, personal. There’s no metaphor more effective than someone glaring at you from across the room. After the Trump election, you could see the bile in the internet … cable news … talk shows … SNL.  The 2016 election magnified — distorted — the difference between red and blue states, west and east. It called to mind the Turner thesis.


The Turner thesis?

In his “Frontier Thesis” published during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner suggested that the American character had been formed by the inland expansion. The west. The frontier. When the Trump rallies started drawing thousands across middle America, the Washington Post was as baffled as everybody else. It sent two reporters around the country “in search of America.” The tone suggested they were going into the Heart of Darkness.


In other words, who are the real Americans — the New England Yankees or the Westerners?

In other words.


But there were no Yankees in Beeville. What were the two sides?

Texas had gone urban in the 1950 census. Things were changing. The Yankees were the urban Texans. Johnny Barnhart, a Beeville boy just out of University of Texas Law, was the prototype.


Did you know Johnny Barnhart?

No.   I knew who he was but I’d never met him. He called me after I came back to Texas in 2001. He wanted to talk about that 1952 election. He was still dwelling on it, trying to sort things out.


You found others who were participants in that election, friends and enemies of the sheriff.

Several were still around.   Fifty years afterward, their memories were sharp, the insights impressive. One or two were poets.


You used them as italicized asides to frame the narrative. A literary device?

Oral histories. One editor said they were remindful of a Greek chorus. I didn’t think of that, but I like it.


If there’s a Greek chorus, where is the Greek tragedy? The defeat of the sheriff? The end of the Old West?

I think it was Johnny. To the end of his life (he died at ninety, a couple of years ago), he dwelled on that 1952 election. Johnny had grown up in Beeville, was the town’s favorite son, the most popular kid at the University of Texas. All he wanted was to come home and practice law in Beeville for the rest of his life. He knew he had done the right thing, but it had cost him all his childhood friendships. He stayed in town a few more years but then moved to Houston.


So if Sheriff Vail Ennis was a consummate icon of the Old West lawman, how was he ever defeated?

Johnny came up with a more powerful icon.


JAMES P. McCOLLOM is a Beeville son who left Texas after college and made a career in international banking, spending four decades in cities in the Northeast and Europe. The Continental Affair, his book about the 1984 collapse of the great Chicago bank, was called “the In Cold Blood and McGuffey’s Reader of modern money” by PW. After Y2K he returned to Texas to pursue several writing projects, including The Last Sheriff in Texas, and is now at work on a book about the mythology of ancient Spain.

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Episode 496 — Bud Smith Wed, 06 Dec 2017 05:08:23 +0000

Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Bud Smith. His new memoir, Work, is available from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

This is Bud’s second time on the program. He first appeared in Episode 373, on July 29, 2015.

Get the free Otherppl app.

Listen via iTunes.

Support the show at Patreon or via PayPal.

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TNB Original Fiction: “Ghosts” by Jamie Moore Tue, 05 Dec 2017 17:03:47 +0000 Ghosts have always been real. I knew that from my dreams, but I never talked about it because no one else did, so I thought I wasn’t supposed to either. They came to see me in my dreams and sometimes stayed as lingering shadows on the wall when I was awake. The really brave ones got close to me, sitting on my chest and covering my mouth so I felt like I couldn’t scream. Those were the mean ones, the ones that wanted something, but I had nothing but my chicken legs under the blanket. The mean ones scared me, but the regular ones were okay. I tried to think that maybe the regular ones had a good reason to be around, maybe they had lived here too and never wanted to leave. The older I got, the more I was starting to think wasn’t just heaven and hell. Maybe life and death both had in-betweens. I don’t know how that fit in the Bible and being the good Christian boy my momma wanted me to be, but I knew these ghosts had been here. I knew they knew things I didn’t know. They just held their place, waiting.

And the other thing was, I only really saw them at night, before sleep or waking up. Never during the day. Except when I saw Theo’s ghost.

I saw it on an afternoon I had followed him after choir practice. He had been in the church with his pop, talking with Pastor Matthews in his office. As I was putting the music book away, I walked the long way so that I would pass by Pastor Matthews’s office. The door was open halfway, and I could see Theo sitting in the red chair in front of Pastor’s desk. He looked serious, his face tight and hands clasped in his lap. I thought about making my friend laugh, like the way I sometimes do during service by making silly faces, and the way his smile makes his eyes squint. I got myself so distracted I hit the edge of the closet door I had left open. Quickly, I plopped the books on the shelf and went back to the music area before they saw me.

As I finished my cleaning-up duties, I looked out the window and saw that Mr. James was getting in his car to leave, but Theo wasn’t getting in with him. Instead, Theo stood in the parking lot for a few minutes, just staring into space. That’s when I saw it, almost the color of a cloud, looking as thin as the film my momma put pictures behind in her photo album. It looked like a full person too, feet to the ground like it was alive. I saw Theo’s mouth moving, and I wondered if he was talking to it, except he was facing the opposite way. My heart was beating like when I drank a soda too fast. What if he saw ghosts too?

He started to walk down the block, and I had to see, so I ran outside. I didn’t even say goodbye to Miss D in the office because I was afraid I’d lose sight of him. I tried to keep my feet quiet as a fox, toe-running to catch up close enough where I could see him but he couldn’t see me. The ghost was still there, gliding along like it was pulled by a string tied around Theo’s belly. It was just shorter than him, features too faded for me to see how old it might be, but the long, braided hair made me think it was a girl.

Theo walked down the street until he reached the bank of a creek. He climbed down that side of the drainage pipe that linked the creek beneath the road and into the soft dirt near the water. It was a downhill slope, and that mud made it slippery, and I was certain he was going to fall. The ghost moved around him, in front and then behind, back and forth, like a shield. Maybe Theo didn’t see the ghost after all, since he had stopped talking, but I didn’t have conversations with my ghosts, either. He seemed to know where he was going, so they didn’t need words.

Theo kept walking, about a block’s length, getting closer and closer to the water until he finally just let his shoes get wet. I stayed at the top of the slope, keeping myself hidden in the bushes. He finally stopped at a rock that sat in the middle the creek. It was as big as the coffee table in my living room and looked that polished shoe black that river stones tend to be. Theo took off his shoes first, then his shirt, and laid bareback on the rock, his face to the sky. The sun shone through the trees overhead and across his chest in a scattered shadow pattern than swam back and forth with each breeze. His ghost didn’t follow him into the sun, but stayed on the bank, slowly fading away with the passing sun rays.

I lifted myself up from the crouching position I had been using to hide and wiped my eyes to see if the ghost was still there. Sun rays can play tricks on you. But then my foot slipped and I slid down the bank, until I landed butt-first in the water a few feet from Theo’s rock.

He sat up, frightened, pulling his knees to his chest like I was a snake in the water about to bite his toes. As I gathered myself, feeling the heat of shame run my blood hot, I realized I had ruined one pair of good pants, and momma was sure to tear me up about it later.

“Satchel?” Theo asked.

I stood to face him. The way I had landed not only got mud on my butt, but the inside of the legs were also wet like I peed myself. “Theo, hey,” I answered.

“What ’cha doing down here?”

“I was trying to see if you were okay,” I said in a half truth. Then I made a full lie, “I saw you walk out by yourself and I didn’t want you to get lost. I was trying to catch up with you to walk home.”

“I’m alright, Satchel, you don’t need to come down here to come after me like I’m some kid. I’m not that younger than you.”

I was scared I made him mad. I flushed again, this time with cold in my muscles like dad’s menthol rub and I grabbed my arms around myself like I was the one sitting here half naked in the garbage creek. Was I supposed to tell him about ghosts in this moment? He’d think I was crazy and I couldn’t stand that thought. I covered it up. “I’m sorry, I guess I was bored and I also wanted to see what you were doing walking all this way.”

“That’s weird,” Theo said, but the sides of his mouth turned up just enough to know meant it in a good way. “Wanna sit?” He pointed to the spot next to him. “At least you could dry your pants.”

I joined him, Theo laying down again on his back, me, muddy butt to the sun. We were quiet long enough for me to watch a water bug jump from one side of the creek to the other – magic hops I imagined Jesus did in that one story. We laid still long enough I thought Theo was asleep; his eyes closed. He had stretched his arms out, hands tucked beneath his head so that I could see the tuft of hair in his armpit. I found myself reaching my face just a tiny bit closer to him, wanting to isolate his smell, but I smelled nothing but leaves and murky water.

“I talked to Pastor Matthews today, like you probably saw,” he started.

I held my breath so he wouldn’t hear my startled pant. “Umm-hmm,” I managed.

“They want me to travel to a big convention, to preach and get some money for the church. They want me to preach like I did before. Whatever everyone thought I did.”

There was a part of this that felt secret, so I tried to hold it gently, to picture each word in my brain. “What do you think?”

“Nobody cares to ask me that,” he said, “and the church needs money. We all need the money. I figure I gotta do it cause what else can we do?”

“I don’t want you to go,” I said before I realized it. I sat up, eyes moving around searching for my next lie if I needed it.

“You got friends, Satchel, why you worried about me?” He reached for his shirt, turned it right side out, and slipped it over his head.

“I’m just siding with you,” I said, “like I don’t want you to go if you don’t want to go.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t want to go.”

“Alright then.”

Theo turned to face me. “It’s nice you care so much about people. How much you worry for other people?”

“Most of the time,” I answered, my first whole truth.

“That sounds like a lot of worry,” Theo said.

Nobody had ever said anything like that to me. I never thought anyone could see all my worry as a real thing. Real as ghosts.

“There was a ghost following you,” I said to him. “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. Something was following you. I can see them sometimes.” My legs started shaking like they do before I cry.

Theo took a breath that sounded like a sigh and the dread wriggled beneath my kneecaps. Then, Theo put his hand on one of my shaking knees to steady it.

“Was it a bad ghost?”

“I don’t think so. I think maybe it was trying to help you.” I stopped shaking, but the tears came anyway, I let them. He couldn’t see me more bare than I was with the truth.

And here he was, seeing me, without having to wipe it away.

“I’mma be okay, Satchel. Trust me. You too.”


JAMIE MOORE is the author of the novella Our Small Faces, a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and an English Professor in central California. Her work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, Blackberry, and Mojave River Review, among others. She is the Literary and Workshops Director for the Mixed Remixed Festival and is at work on a novel.

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Thomas Mira y Lopez: The TNB Self-Interview Fri, 01 Dec 2017 16:20:12 +0000 I imagined this as the book interviewing itself and so the questions and answers here are taken directly from the ten essays in The Book of Resting Places. Questions and answers are inverted so that the questions are taken from essays that correspond to their numbered section and move in ascending order, while the answers begin with the tenth and final essay and move in descending order. I thought this would be a fun way for the essays to poke their heads out and see what their neighbors were up to.


Do you visit dad’s tree?

Often, we leave our bodies in trees. This is not just tree transformation, but tree storage. In Scandinavia, the oak’s said to belong to the dead, not just because it was material for coffins, but because it was a coffin itself. Norsemen would search the woods until they crossed a suitable find, and there they’d bury their loved ones in the slingshot split of its trunk.

So, a proposal: If you’re looking for ways to stick around, there are worse fates than coming back a tree.



When are you most yourself? What is the right memory in the face of all we’ll forget?

The night before my father died. I turned out the lights and walked out of his hospital room and made the mistake of looking back before I closed the door.



Oh that was years ago, who can remember?

My mother did. After my father died, my mother contacted the International Star Registry and paid to rename a star Rafael, Judy, and Tommy. The dedication was retroactive to the day of his death, as if that were when the three of us packed up the wooden planets and relocated once more, shooting forth from earth to star. The International Star Registry has no official authority with which to redesignate celestial bodies (they’re really something of a swindle), but that is all well and good because my mother now prefers to forget there’s a ball of gas out there with our names on it. The dedicatory plaque hangs in a corner of my room.




Is all this done because we want to bring the dead back to life or because, in some sense, we want to keep them dead?  

Collections are mayhem. We make meaning of them in so many ways.



What is to be done when the only thing left alive in a place also destroys it?

Go to an inexpensive bar with friends, stand outside, smoke Gauloises, and drink too many Peronis. Buy a bottle of limoncello and drink it by the water and try to lift a Smart car from the street onto the curb. Fail. Wander into a dining room and pee in the corner. Stack a number of wine glasses into a pyramid. Sit on a balcony and nurse a cut hand. Watch two friends make out. Project long lost faces onto anonymous strangers.



Don’t we all need to get away from ourselves sometimes? 

I told myself he’d be better off dead. I was tired and so was he and it was okay to give up. I thought how if you thinned out Paolo’s face, gave him a darker head of hair, and cast him in dim enough light, you could say: there goes my father.



You did?

It was a lie, but it worked.

Did he believe any of this? Are you nuts?

I tried my best to remember—I walked down Alameda street on a warm November night with a skull painted on my face and my father’s photo in hand.

What did your father do?

My father fell thirty years ago and broke his ankle.



Do you like the earth?

I feel like I could just float off into the air and nobody would notice.

What caused this unforeseen and disastrous event, this irrevocable loss? Is it a ghost? Is it my father?

When my mother tells me she summons the dead into her home, she doesn’t mention if my father is one of them.



How then did a group of people convince itself so thoroughly of the opposite? What sort of person would never want to die?

A ghost isn’t necessarily the one that’s dead.

Are they, then, that same person?

Often, since the dead died at all ages and the family dressed identically and assumed monochromatically placid expressions, it becomes difficult to determine, when looking at a photo, just who is the corpse.



Wouldn’t it feel like the gods?

As if we were visiting a living tomb, as if we were trying to grow the thing on good karma alone.


THOMAS MIRA Y LOPEZ is from New York City. He earned an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona, and his work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Normal School, among other publications. He currently lives in North Carolina, where he is the 2017–2018 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Excerpt from The Book of Resting Places, by Thomas Mira y Lopez Thu, 30 Nov 2017 13:56:05 +0000 My mother announces that when she dies, she wants to be buried like the pharaohs. We talk over the phone and I imagine her sitting in what used to be my father’s green chair, surveying the frames and cabinets that crowd the walls, feet bouncing on the footstool, the black poodle perched alertly on her lap. I ask her why and she cackles back: “Because they get to take all their stuff with them!” She means, of course, that the ruling classes of Ancient Egypt buried themselves alongside their most prized possessions, rooms full of them sometimes, because these objects brought them pleasure and sustenance in the afterlife. My mother neither likes nor believes in immortality, yet she certainly doesn’t mind the idea of always remaining with the things she loves, the things that could fill a room. Or a storage unit. With a location on 135th Street and Riverside Drive, Manhattan Mini Storage is only a mile away from her apartment and “it would be a piece of cake,” she tells me, to move her cremains and other belongings into an eight-by-ten foot, climate-controlled cube. I wouldn’t even have to hire movers.

My mother says many things about her afterlife. At seventy-three, she’s at an age when long-standing intractability rubs up against a mind grown mercurial. First, she asks for her ashes to be laid alongside her parents’ within the low stone wall out back of the Episcopalian church in East Hampton. Next she tells me I’m to drop hers and my father’s ashes into the lake in the Adirondacks where we used to spend summers. “Which one?” I ask, since we stayed at two, Abanakee and Indian. “Oh, Indian Lake, of course,” she scoffs. “Abanakee is man-made!” Now her plan is for me to bury hers, my father’s, and the poodle’s ashes in the field next to her country house in Pennsylvania. “And where will I go?” I ask. “You don’t want to be with us in the country?” “Not really,” I say. “Well then, it looks like you’re out of luck!” And she laughs, the poodle yapping along in accompaniment, until the laugh sounds something like a roar, grown more and more phlegmy as she ages so that now it resembles one of her sister’s hoary outbursts. It’s a way, on some level, of masking the fact she’d rather not be laughing at all.

The Ancient Egyptians lavished such attention on death you could say that they lived to die. Death held such importance because it wasn’t exactly death; instead, the Egyptians saw it as a period of limbo and the afterworld a perilous journey, filled with spitting serpents and fiery lakes, four-horned bulls and monkeys that cut the heads off unwary travelers. At the journey’s end, the dead weighed their hearts against a feather. If the heart proved lighter, then the dead were reborn in another realm. If the heart proved heavier, a monster with the head of a crocodile, the torso of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus devoured the heart’s owner. All in all, a daunting schlep.

The most important event in a person’s life was to build one’s tomb. Wealthy Egyptians commissioned mastabas, monoliths built some thirty feet high from the mud of the Nile, sloping upward like a pyramid sliced off at its base. A mastaba, with its cache of false doors and hidden statues, served as a monumental storage unit: its burial chamber lay hidden underground, the tunnel down to it rocked up with rubble so that the body and its possessions—what was most vulnerable, most inviolable—stayed secret and safe.



THOMAS MIRA Y LOPEZ is from New York City. He earned an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona, and his work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Normal School, among other publications. He currently lives in North Carolina, where he is the 2017–2018 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Excerpted from The Book of Resting Places: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead by Thomas Mira y Lopez. Courtesy of Counterpoint Press and copyright of the author. All rights reserved.

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Episode 495 — Ivy Pochoda Wed, 29 Nov 2017 05:08:58 +0000

Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Ivy Pochoda. Her new novel is called Wonder Valley, available from Ecco Press.

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A. Rafael Johnson: The TNB Self-Interview Tue, 28 Nov 2017 20:16:10 +0000 What is your debut novel, The Through, about?

The novel has two protagonists, Ben and Adrian. Adrian is a dual survivor of Hurricane Katrina and childhood sexual abuse. Her boyfriend Ben can’t make a decision about the future. So, one fears her past, the other fears his future. Then, a slave ship appears over their heads, and they have to figure out what to do. There’s a witch named Cut Mary, a doppelganger, ghosts, even a zombie. And a cat that has two origin stories. The Through also involves the town of Okahika, which I can best describe as a Southern ghost town. There’s one Okahika, but it exists simultaneously in every Southern state.

To be a bit less concrete, The Through is about the dissonance between the observable universe around us and the magical universe inside us. Sometimes those two realities fit together, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the observable and magical switch places. So in the book, we see the observable place in Northport, AL, and the magical place in Okahika, a.k.a. The Through, and characters who navigate both spaces.


What would you say was the chief inspiration behind the book? And how long has it been since the time you had the first kernel of an idea that eventually grew into this book?

About four years ago, I was sitting in a neo-slavery fiction class taught by Trudier Harris. I can’t remember which book we were discussing, but I had a sudden image of a woman carrying something on her head, the way women in West Africa carry things. The thing was huge. I let my imagination zoom out and saw an entire slave ship atop her head. The Through began as an exploration of that image.

Another way to answer that question is that I was an aid worker in Liberia, from 2009-2011. I saw things there that I can’t resolve without invoking some kind of magic or spirituality as an explanation. I’m not a religious person, so that inner conflict became something I needed to explore.


Speaking of that, do you identify as black or African American?

Where’s this going?


What I’m asking, I suppose, is whether you feel like your writing fits into the Black literary canon or the African-American literary canon, or if there’s any useful distinction between the two. Am I making sense?

Toni Morrison said, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” So Blackness was a way of setting us apart, right? We weren’t considered Americans, or at best we had a second-class status. But then we gained the right to vote, to assemble, to hold jobs, to receive an education, and there was some fleeting acknowledgement that a few centuries of systemic racism may have affected our wealth, our families, etc. Later, we started the idea of African-American, in the way some groups are Irish-American or Mexican-American. But I’m not sure the idea holds. Other hyphenated identities include some sort of immigrant journey going from one place to another place, but we’re not immigrants. We didn’t all start out in the same place. So to answer that question, I think the characters grapple with the intricacies of those identities as well. Does that make The Through fit into a particular canon? I don’t know.


So, who are your main literary influences?

When I was an undergrad (University of Texas at Austin), I signed up for the typical World Lit survey class. The instructor went over the syllabus during the first class meeting. The authors were all Europeans, plus an American and a Canadian. I raised my hand and said, “I’m sorry, but I think I’m in the wrong room. I signed up for World Literature, and these authors are mostly from Europe.”

The instructor looked at me and said, “That’s the only world that matters.”



I know, right? I dropped that class and found an African Literature class. The professor turned out to be Bernth Lindfors, who was instrumental in bringing African literature to Western audiences. Through him, I discovered Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Mariama Ba, Wole Soyinka, and a whole “world” I never knew existed. They became my literary influences. Later, I added Morrison, Murukami, Marquez, Hurston, Calvino, Borges, Ducornet, Ellison, and Asturias.

That being said, all my influences aren’t writers. Albert Ayler, this amazing experimental saxophonist, became a huge influence. I’m a fan of Dali, and I mention Willie Cole in the book.


Can I ask two spoiler alert questions about The Through?



Cut Mary gives Adrian a zombie, who turns out to be someone important. I find myself thinking a lot about the zombie. What was Cut Mary’s motivation? A test, something of her own?

Cut Mary is a hard one to figure out. She appears in some of my other stories, but my sense is that she’s lived a long time and learned from her mistakes. Her “gift” might be an apology of sorts. Or an attempt at healing. That being said, I can’t pretend I know all there is to know about Cut Mary.


Ben and Adrian both find a cat named Free Cookie. Their stories don’t match – in fact, they’re incompatible. Who’s right and who’s wrong?

Maybe they’re both wrong. Maybe they’re both right. Or something else happened. That happens in relationships. You and your partner go to the same place, have the same conversation, and walk away thinking two completely different things occurred. But the point is they don’t communicate. The reader sees how distant Ben and Adrian are from each other, but neither of them face that very well, at least not at first.


Last question. I’ve checked out your blog. You’re a fairly political person, but there’s no mention of current politics in The Through? Why is that?

I wrestled with that while I finished the book. I felt like the world was falling in on us, and nothing I wrote addressed that very directly. Unofficial was part of my response, a space to write about politics. As for The Through, part of the task of the writer is to create and hold space for our collective imagination. We have to look ahead and envision possibilities. If we don’t, no one will.


A. RAFAEL JOHNSON is the author of The Through and a fellow with Kimbilio Fiction. He grew up in New York and Texas, but now calls Minneapolis home. He holds a BA in Drama from The University of Texas, and an MFA in Fiction from The University of Alabama. His writing has previously appeared in Kweli, African American Review, Callaloo, and is forthcoming in Spaceship. Johnson co-owns TerraLuna Collaborative, a program evaluation consultancy firm. Johnson is currently working on his next book.

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Excerpt from The Through, by A. Rafael Johnson Tue, 28 Nov 2017 17:05:08 +0000 Fairy tales terrified me when I believed in things. On my fifth birthday, one of Mama’s lady friends, Miss Janice, came over for dinner. We weren’t having a party or anything that year, just a quiet meal at the kitchen table with huck-a-bucks for dessert. Miss Janice taught at a university. I remember her as the kind of lady Mama liked: smart, well educated, not the type to wear makeup. She was the first black woman I’d ever seen with short hair. Over dinner, Miss Janice told us about her travels up and down back roads, through abandoned farms, into the backwoods and hollers of the South. She’d been looking for old people to tell her stories, but not just anyone or any story. Her stories had to be particular.

“All your stories come from one town?” Mama asked.

“That’s the thing baby,” Miss Janice said, “There’s more than one Okahika.”

Before I could open my mouth, Mama pressed her foot into mine. Okahika was where granmè and granddaddy lived. I’d been to Okahika before, plenty of times.

“What are you talking about?” Mama asked.

“Hard to explain,” Miss Janice said. “At first, I found all these references to a town called Okahika, but they were in different states: Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arkansas and so on. I found about a dozen, all through the South. But the stories were so similar that they must have come from the same place.”

“So is there one Okahika or a bunch?”

“That’s what I tried to find out.” Miss Janice rested her hand on Mama’s. “I drove all over the place looking for people who’d talk about Okahika. Most just repeated stories they’d heard themselves.”

A question just popped out of me. “Miss Janice, did you ever find Okahika?”

“Adrian! What have I told you about interrupting grown folk?” Mama snapped.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Miss Janice squeezed Mama’s hand and gave me a smile. “Baby, if Okahika ever existed, it’s long gone now. But you can read what I found out. Here.” Miss Janice handed me a wrapped present. “Althea tells me you’re a good reader.”

I looked at Mama. She nodded, so I opened the present right at the table. It was Miss Janice’s book, The Mythic Southern: Folktales of Okahika.

I remember the book more than Miss Janice. It had a yellow and white checkerboard cover with a picture of a red frog on it. My birthday dress was the same color. e stories had crazy titles like “Bell and Cut Mary Somewhere in the Sugarcane,” “Immamou,” or “Reverend Overtime Gets Himself Together.” “The Queen of the Cats” still scares me. Not the ending of that story, but the moment. I’m sure there’s a better word for the moment. If I asked Ben, he would mansplain at me, then point me to a book on narrative theory or some bullshit. But I’ve called it the moment since I was a girl.

The moment is the jump off. It’s that one little thing that puts everything else into motion. Little Red Riding Hood takes a basket to her grandmother. The Prince’s invitation gets to Cinderella’s house. Once the moment happens, the story starts and there’s no going back. My problem is that the people in the story never know when the moment happens. By the time they realize the story has started, it’s too late. They can look back and say oh that’s when that happened but by then they’re hanging off a cliff. I can handle hanging off a cliff, but not knowing why I’m hanging off a cli until I’m hanging off just bothers me. If I’m in a story, it’s my story. I want to know when it starts.

Miss Janice didn’t know how to eat a huck-a-buck, so I showed her how to loosen the Dixie cup from the frozen Kool- Aid and slurp from the bottom. Mama and her friend visited while I finished mine and opened the book. “The Queen of the Cats” jumped off the page and infected me. I never got loose of that story. When Mama tried to read the story to me before bed, I told her I already knew what happened and didn’t want to hear it again. She kissed me on the forehead and tucked me in, but I stared at the tin ceiling all night as the story ran across the room, up the walls, and out into the night before it came back and curled itself up under my pillow at sunrise.


A long time ago on a cold night, an elderly nun sat in the warm kitchen of the rectory, waiting for the old priest to come home for dinner after performing funeral rites. Their cat Cady curled up next to the stove, half-asleep and half-waiting for the priest to arrive, in hopes of getting a treat. They waited and waited and waited for hours and began to worry, until at last the priest ran into the rectory, disheveled and dirty, shouting, “Arcadia Forsyth? Who’s Arcadia Forsyth?” All the nun and the cat could do was stare and wonder what was the matter.

“Father,” the nun said, “What’s happened to you? And why are you looking for this Arcadia Forsyth?”

“Mother, you would not believe me if I told you,” the priest said. “I can hardly believe it my own self.” The priest sank into a kitchen chair and began to shiver. The nun began to bring the priest his dinner, but then thought better of it and poured him a glass of whiskey.

“Here,” she said, “Warm your bones.”

The priest drank the entire glass in one gulp, then refilled his glass. “What a day,” he said. “I had just performed the last rites and counseled the family. I left through the back entrance of the cemetery to catch the streetcar. It was already dark and I sat down. I must have been tired, because I fell asleep and only woke when I heard a cat’s meow.”

“Meow,” answered Cady.

“Yes, exactly like that,” said the old priest. “So I opened my eyes and guess what I saw?”

“I can’t even imagine,” the nun said.

“Cats of different types: Siamese, calicos, black cats, and so on. And guess what they carried?”

“Carried?” the nun asked.

The old priest lowered his voice. “A small coffin covered in purple velvet pall, and on the pall was a tiny crown of gold, and at every fourth step they all meowed together.”

“Meow,” said Cady.

“Yes, exactly like that!” said the old priest. “And as they came closer, I could see them more clearly. You know how cat’s eyes reflect the tiniest light. Well they came closer, six carrying the coffin, the seventh walking in front like—well look at Cady staring at me. You’d think she understood me.”

“Never mind,” said the nun, “What happened next?”

“Well, as I was saying, the seven cats came towards me solemnly, and at every fourth step they said together, ’meow.’”

“Meow,” said Cady again.

“Yes, just like that, over and over until they stood at the entrance to the cemetery, right next to me, and then they stopped and stared straight at me. I felt a strangeness inside me, I admit. Now look here at Cady! She’s staring at me the way they did.”

“Never mind Cady!” the nun said. “Go on.”

“Now, this is the part. They stared and I stared back until the seventh cat, the one that wasn’t carrying the coffin, said to me, yes, said aloud in a voice, ‘Tell Arcadia Forsyth that Arcadio Fearsithe is dead’ and that’s why I asked you who Arcadia Forsyth was. But how can I tell Arcadia Forsyth that Arcadio Fearsithe is dead if I don’t know who Arcadia Forsyth is?”

“Saints preserve us!” screamed the nun. “Cady, look at Cady!”

And to their shock, Cady stared and Cady swelled and at last Cady shrieked, “What? Arcadio is dead? Then I’m the Queen of the Cats!” Cady ran out of the rectory and was never seen again.


While Ben fixed the sink, I tried to fix my hand. It hurt, itched, burned, tingled, tickled, and ached all at once. I used every ointment we had, but nothing in the bathroom relieved my symptoms. I got frantic. I started crying. My hand felt oversized, like all the blood was going in but none could get out. I suppose I had some idea of relieving the pressure, but I honestly couldn’t think all the way straight. I don’t know why I did what I did. I grabbed a pair of nail scissors, opened them up, and slashed my palm the opposite way, from thumb to pinky, over and over again until a bloody X marked my left palm. e showerhead exploded and rusty-red water splashed into the tub. I felt amazing. Calm, relaxed. Fucking giddy. I giggled again and started laughing, just a little at first, and then louder and louder until I collapsed on the toilet, which shattered into sharp ceramic shards, hurting nothing I cared about.

If Ben understood me, he would leave. My co-workers and clients would run. And this thing, this insect squirming inside me, would have chosen someplace else to hatch. Some place beautiful, full of life and joy and hope and happiness. Not me. I walk, speak, eat when Ben shoves food in my face, fuck when Ben feels like fucking, but that just shows how stupid he is. Only a fool feeds a co n. Only a fool makes love to a dead woman. Only a fool plants seeds in the desert. Whatever’s growing inside me can’t live. It had to die, it had to die.

“Adrian!” Ben stood in the doorway. I didn’t see him come in. “Holy crap, what happened?”

“It’s nothing,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“The toilet. The shower.” His mouth hung open. “You punched a hole in the mirror.”

“No I—” I looked up. We’d hung a large framed mirror next to the sink when we moved in so I could see myself before work. e heavy mirror had cracked in the center, creating long, straight lines extending to the edges and shorter connecting lines between the long ones, like a spiderweb cast in glass.

“I didn’t,” I said as Ben helped me up, “I didn’t do that.” You have to believe me.

“Let’s just get you cleaned up,” Ben said. “You’ve got blood all over your dress.”

I looked down. A ragged, bloody X crossed me just below the navel. I didn’t remember doing that either.

The bathroom sink still worked. I turned on the water with my right hand and let cool water run over my bloody left. Seemed like a waste with the broken shower running nonstop. Ben kept talking. I didn’t pay attention. I stopped enjoying water long ago, but this felt too good, like all the bile inside me got carried off in a flood. I’m not gonna cry. The water felt like every bath before I got dirty, like baptism, like a sudden rain, like a fire hydrant sprinkler on the hottest day of the summer. I felt something else stir inside me, and I let the water carry it off with the rest.

“Oh good,” Ben said. How long had I been standing there? A minute, an hour?

“I thought you got cut up pretty bad.” He kissed me on the forehead. “Glad you’re okay. I’m gonna find the main and turn the water off , and then we can start fixing things.”

I was not okay, but when I took my hand out of the water, my palm looked like it always had, slightly red with curving fortuneteller lines. No cuts, no scars. A large cicada flew past my face and landed in the center of the shattered mirror. Then the water shut off, and all the water on the floor drained away through the floorboards until there was nothing left but dust and broken porcelain and blood on my yellow dress.

“Did I get it?” Ben yelled from the lawn.

Yeah, Ben. You got it.


Ben took the car to buy another toilet, mirror, and showerhead. I swept up the broken toilet. I didn’t know what else to do. Once I finished sweeping, I wondered if I could take the mirror down without cutting myself again. I wasn’t afraid of cutting myself, I was afraid of cutting without consequence. Damaging myself left me a problem I could manage. I caused the pain and I could x it. But this get-out-of-pain-free card scared the shit out of me. I didn’t know who I was without pain.

Whatever broke the mirror left the wooden frame intact. I carefully lifted the mirror off of the wall and carried it to the dining room table. I remembered the mirror being so heavy we had to slide it across the floor, but it lifted easily. The mirror took up the whole surface of the table. Sitting horizontally, the frame blended into the hardwood floor and the spiderweb mirror seemed to float above it, untethered. It drew the eye and held light in a way I’d never seen before. Each piece reflected a different part of me. I looked to one side and saw the hem of my dress. Another facet showed my shoe. I saw my ear sideways, a knee, the back of my neck. I pointed in every direction. I looked to one side and saw cracked sidewalks, a wrought iron fence, filthy floodwater, people laughing on a street corner, a little girl, Marcel on top of me, my mother the moment her water broke, a wooden ship, a broom sweeping, me lying in bed looking at a pressed tin ceiling, a frozen glacier, Free Cookie laying in the sun, a pool of cold water. A flying bird stopped in mid-air, turned its head, and said CHEEPER- CHEEPER TAPE!

I spun around and knocked the mirror o the table. Glass flew across the room. Nothing else moved, nothing else made a sound. I scanned the ceiling and the corners. Nothing. There wasn’t any bird in the house.

A chill ran up the entire length of my body. I ran onto the porch. I wiped sweat from my arms and took a few deep breaths. I didn’t remember those places or people. I’d never seen a glacier in real life. But some deep part of me had gone there, known those people. No birds in my house.

Adrian, would you like some water with ice?

No, no, I don’t belong here. It doesn’t matter.

I swept the floors again. I ran my fingers along my palm, looking for something that wasn’t there. I looked in the shards of the mirror, wondering if I would see something else. I changed into shorts and an old t-shirt, and sprayed my dress with stain remover. I sat down and did nothing in particular. I wasn’t thirsty. I stood up and went to the kitchen. Ben had left the cabinet under the sink open, with all the still-wet contents on the floor. From the looks of it, he’d finished the repair but came to my rescue before the cabinet dried. Kitty litter would soak up all the spilled water. I got the bag of litter and the scoop from the laundry room. I bent down to spread out the litter, and then I had an idea. I placed my hands on the wet cabinet wood. Drain, I thought. Seep, soak, swirl, go away, dry up. Follow your path back into the earth.

Nothing happened. I mean my hands got wet, but nothing else happened. I spread out the kitty litter and put the bag back in the laundry room. Just then, I noticed Free Cookie’s food bowl. It was full. It had been full that morning, I knew. I’d filled it. No, I filled it the night before. Had Free Cookie not eaten in a day? In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d even seen her. Yesterday? The day before? Maybe the noise scared her off.

“Cookie?” I called.

Cookie didn’t answer.

“Cookie?” I called again. Cats don’t come when people call them. I poured her food back into the bag, and then refilled it, dropping the food as slowly and loudly as possible. Normally she came running when I filled her food bowl. Nothing.

I looked in all of her favorite napping spots: the porch swing, the living room window, the laundry. She wasn’t there. I checked outside. I wish Ben would just let us hire a lawn service. The backyard looked a complete mess of fallen trees branches, tall grass, and overgrown vines. The front yard looked raggedy, but at least he cuts it once in a while. Last year, he planted a peach tree sapling in the front yard. Never grew an inch. I told him that he needed to cut the grass short so the tree would absorb enough nutrients, but he never does. Free Cookie wasn’t under the tree, not that it provided enough shade for a cat. I looked around the azaleas and hydrangea bushes, along the line of scrub trees that separates our property from the start of e rough at the end of town, and across our tiny, overgrown back yard. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

“Now ain’t she sweet—sweet as a peach—lemme get a look at’cha.”

Pats and the Strickland brothers leered at me from the porch of their dilapidated mansion next door. Mending and Wending Strickland grew up in the house Ben and I rent now. Their family built several more houses and most of this end of town. They came into some serious money, everyone knows. What no one says is how they came into money: the old-fashioned land grab. at vacant lot at the end of town, what Ben calls The Through, used to be an all-black town. The Strickland family chased all the residents out, then claimed their land and sold the entire parcel to the railroads. Yet, when my friends and I formed a charitable investment firm, the Stricklands invested right away, and their old money led to new clients.

As a favor, they rent our house to us for next to nothing. At least I thought it was a favor. e house is a small, craftsman- style bungalow with a small porch leading into the living room. We have a fireplace, but it’s so old and unsafe we can’t use it. Behind the living room is the dining room, and behind that is the kitchen and laundry room. The living room also branches off into a sort of square hallway that leads to our bedroom, Ben’s office, and the bathroom. The house is fine. Small, but there’s just two of us. The house is not the issue. Pats and the Stricklands are the issue.

When we first moved in, couples rented the lower floor of the Strickland mansion for weddings and anniversary parties. Business tapered off, maybe due to how Mending, pasty white and potbellied, would dress up in an old suit two sizes too small and insist on playing host, while his twin brother Wending, tall and scrawny, ate reception food and drank wine in a pair of dirty boxers and slippers. Their friend, roommate, third wheel, Pats would corner guests and rant about ‘them liberals’ until his face turned red. Word got around and people stopped booking. Then the trio decided to remodel the place. To make space, they cleaned out antiques, junk, family heirlooms, and just left them on the veranda. A year ago. Remodeling crews came in and out, but they quit coming months ago. The junk’s still on the porch, getting mildewy. These days, the three of them sit on the porch getting drunk, especially Pats.

Everyone around here calls him Pats, but no one remembers why. I can’t recall anyone ever accusing Pats of having a job, but he always has a bottle of cheap bourbon in a brown paper bag. Every day, he eats breakfast at the cafe up the street by himself, flirts with the waitresses, then ambles down back the to the mansion. In private, women call him Pats the Perv. He hits on every woman he sees, young or old, black or white, single or married. Women come around trying to get people to go to their church and Pats hits on them. Women taking their kids for a walk and Pats hits on them. He’s not one of those men who thinks he’s God’s gift or something. He’s sweaty with bad teeth. Pats is just persistent. He’s the guy who shows up at a bar just before last call, playing the odds. If he just keeps talking, someone will put something in his mouth to make him stop.

The three of them—Pats, Mending, and Wending—came up right here in Northport, went to school together, ate together, chased girls together, grew old together. They spoke in a duet of three people, each finishing the thought of the other.

“Smile for me—ain’t you pretty—come on over.”

I smiled and hated myself. “Morning,” I said. My body became a disconnected collection of parts under someone else’s control. The legs and feet walked past the magnolia that separates their yard from ours. The spine stretched up and forward to push the breasts towards them. The right hand waved, then stuck itself out so the men could paw and kiss its fingers. The feet walked up their stairs and took the body between the men, then froze in place. The eyes saw their dilapidated house and the leer in their grins, the nose smelled cheap bourbon and mildew, the ears heard lust, but none of the senses agreed to share any information, instead locking down, as if each moment in their midst was precious. The thighs and ass felt their thick fingers. The mouth opened into a wide smile and the throat affected a soft, pleasing tone. Only the stomach stayed true to itself, snarling, coiled, furious at them and me.

I am my haint. I haunt my own body.

The men touched my hands, my waist, my cheek, my back. “Ain’t seen you lately—just talking about you—sit a spell.”

“I wish I could, but I’m looking for my cat.”

“Your pussy ran off —gotta be good to the pussy—here pussy, pussy.”

The stomach tied hard knots.

“Have you seen her? She’s gray, with a white stripe on her face.”

“Sounds like some old, wrinkly pussy.” They laughed. My left hand balled into a fist, but the right hand, Jezebel, went behind the back and held the left arm above the elbow.

“Well,” the mouth said. “I’ll check across the street.”

Move, feet! Don’t just stand there.

“Look at the—hair place they got all kinds of—old pussy up in there.”

“Yes well, good talking to you.” They touched the body again, here and there. The feet just stood there. A shadow passed over the lawn. The eyes looked up and saw a long prow, a curving hull, a rudder, an old wooden ship, passing over the treetops, trailing a thick rope that fell into the street. The magnolia tree budded and bloomed. A breeze, warm and salty, blew through the tree. Fragrant white petals fell onto the porch, erasing the stink of old men and old bourbon. Cicadas sang. I ran down the steps and across the yard calling, “Hello! Hello!” as if whoever sailed a flying ship would stop and drink sweet tea. I wanted to ask someone if they’d seen it too, but the only other people around were Pats and the Stricklands. I wasn’t asking them.

Looking up, the ship sat still while the earth and sky moved past. I ran to the trailing rope and grabbed it. The rope felt rough, but a necessary roughness, as if the rope had work to do and couldn’t be bothered to smooth itself out just for me. This was not a rope that would accommodate my needs. I could adapt or let go.

I didn’t have any sort of plan. The ship sailed down Main Street and turned left at the river. I held on and followed, listening to the rhythmic wood creaking overhead. Nothing sounds like a wooden ship. I’d never set foot on a sailing ship and I knew it instantly. The ship stopped just before the fence. I closed my eyes and listened. I heard the wheel squeak and the rudder groan in reply. Wind whistled past the mast. Pictures formed in my mind: dark holds beneath the deck, lined with shelves, chains, and manacles, and a large burn mark on the deck. A shudder began on the tip of the mast, ran along the length of the ship, down the rope, and through my left hand.

A cat meowed. I opened my eyes and Free Cookie stood no more than a dozen feet away. “Hey!” I said, but in my surprise, I let go of the rope. The ship bobbed away like a balloon in a parking lot, upwards, upwards, until I could see nothing of her but a tiny dot in a blue sky.


A. RAFAEL JOHNSON was born in upstate New York to parents from the Deep South. He grew up in New York, Arkansas, and Texas. He studied drama at The University of Texas at Austin, then lived in Austin for over 20 years. He studied fiction at The University of Alabama, and then became an aid worker in Liberia. After returning and teaching at Alabama, he became a consultant in arts-based evaluation for TerraLuna Collaborative, based in Minneapolis. Johnson became a Kimbilio Fellow in 2014. The Through is his first novel.

Adapted from The Through, by A. Rafael Johnson, Copyright © 2017 by A. Rafael Johnson. With the permission of the publisher, Jaded Ibis Press.

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Sorting Mon, 27 Nov 2017 10:00:10 +0000


Sweat rolls down my back and pools into my bra. It’s mid-June in southern Missouri, the heat and humidity an oppressive blanket. Inside, my throat feels clogged with desiccated leaves; a lump the size of a walnut wedges into my gut.

Fact:  Tanned arms held out various Smartphones, gazes misdirected, as a generation of cousins pressed their faces together at my mother’s funeral.

I smile as shutters click, a conditioned response, but inside the tang of bile bubbles in my mouth. Who takes family photos at a funeral?

A welcoming breeze flitters past, ruffling our hair; a rainbow of blonde and brown, natural curls and chemically straightened, and as it does, I taste her in my mouth, rolling my tongue over the grit of guilt and pain and disappointment.

It’s been ten days.  Two-hundred and forty hours of wrestling with the logistics of death, of explaining things to my children, of living when she was no longer.

And yet this is okay, the alternative unbearable. This is how she must have felt the night she crammed candy-colored pills down her throat, her lips parched and parted in desperation to end the pain, to extinguish the life force from within. She topped the mountainous pile of pills in her belly with a substantial swig of alcohol, a coating of dairy cream.

We’re told the fourteen day old scene was “quite serene,” that they had seen worse. But I hadn’t. The gift of a varied imagination is a blessing and curse as gruesome images expand exponentially.

Grotesque vignettes flittered across my lids a million times in those intervening hours. I saw her lying on her bed, her face in a state of ghoulish decomposition.

Until the day of her funeral, I never thought about the last time I would see my mother. In my imagination, a loving bedside scene, mom softened in body and spirit from the harsh realities of her life, the stunning realization that it was over, this hell she had dragged us through. The skin of her hands would be paper thin, a web of blue-violet rivers leading to her heart. She might have pulled my own hands—showing the wear and age of an older woman—to her lips and brushed them with a kiss, that said more than she ever could—that she was sorry for the squelched childhood, for the hateful words, the immature actions, threats, and manipulations.

This is not the way it goes.

She is fifty-six. I do not see her hand; I do not see her face, either.

My last glimpse of my mother is her remains contained within a metal box, one someone might keep a roll of quarters and a stack of singles for a garage sale, customers crawling along with a lifetime of prized possessions tucked in their arms. I won’t see her face one last time.

There is no body.

Somewhere lodged within, my mother felt a psychic connection to the supremely grotesque acts contained within the barbed fences of a concentration camp, her body thrust into a furnace to disintegrate into bits of bone and dust.

She would have detested a cremation.

Fact:  Flesh-eating bacteria invaded her body post-mortem, carving a hollow. The 1000-watt smile dimmed to a mouth filled with graying teeth, loose and wobbly like tombstones, her high cheekbones the color of clay, protruding; a gelatinous canker developing on the side resting on the pillow.

And yet I feel unease that her body has been reduced to a chalky grit that fits into a metal box. I accept that the last time I saw my mother was at the airport, a caravan of vehicles depositing loved ones at the curbside, a hasty hug good-bye, my children in the backseat watching the exchange, a traffic director urging me forward.

Briefly, from the rear view mirror, I glimpsed her as she presented her ticket to the person at the counter, and then slipped inside. Later, she accused me of not loving her, of not repeating those words back to her like a parrot as she exited to the car.

If she uttered those words, I did not hear them. Or perhaps, they rolled off her tongue and I chose not register because they’re said in vain, another empty promise.


It’s been several months since we buried my mother. I have not talked to anyone from that day. Until the phone beckons me closer, a life-line tugging me like a magnet. I dial. It’s a number I am not accustomed to dialing, but it bounces back like a boomerang, the digits flying off my fingers like nobody’s business.

“Hi, baby,” the pitch and timbre sound like my mother’s, so much that for a moment I think I am speaking to her. I must swallow the lump in my throat and spit something out.

“Hi—I wanted to call. See how things are going.”

I listen as she talks about sorting through my mother’s home, the emotional toll rocking her body and spirit. I hear it in her voice: weary and exasperated. Frustrated. She speaks of the struggle of going through my mother’s belongings, of emptying out the house. “I can’t do it alone. But it’s the only way.”

“Your husband?” I ask hopefully. “Jennifer? Jill?”

“They have lives of their own.”

I know this, but maybe in shifts they could work together for the common good.

“And Grandma is no help whatsoever. She takes each object into her hands, holds it to her face, inhales your mother’s scent and wants to talk.”

A pinprick snakes my back. I shudder. No mother should endure the excruciatingly painful experience of sorting her deceased daughter’s belongings.

I think for a moment that I will go to Missouri, work side by side with my aunt and grandmother. This is what good daughters do.

I know how the key would fit into the lock, first a jiggle to the left, a turn to the right. A ribbon of pain would wind through, a dulled sense that what I was doing will never be enough. I’d slip inside, the stench of betrayal singeing my nose, a whiff of decay. I would glimpse the same childhood photographs displayed on walls and side tables, a decades old photograph of me in my nursing whites; her knitting and sewing.

I do not go. I do not see these things. I do not know my mother’s life.

Tired. Weary. Confused. Numb.

“The hazmat team needs to come in first,” my aunt tells me.

My gut rolls over. This is something for blood splattered on the wall, brains blown out; not my mother.

“We’ll call someone, a service.” She says it with such finality, a clean, orderly way of taking care of things.

Silently, I nod, accepting this plan.

“And then I’ll go in, do a cleansing first—something spiritual. I’ll open the windows, light some candles, air it out.”

I recall when my mother moved into this place. She said, “Leslie, it has such good energy. I’m going to make a wonderful life here.”

My aunt continues, “We’ll hire someone to come in and sort through your mother’s belongings—give it to charity. It’s what she would’ve wanted.”

It pains me to think of some woman outfitted in something my dead mother once wore on her battered frame, the fibers woven with psychological pain, cigarette smoke threading its way into the pores of their skin.

I think of the treasures she had cluttering up her home, the dolls in the closet used as models for sewing miniature couture given to young girls like my own, the tiny toy stove that will cook nothing, not even a morsel of hope.

Ghouls:  They slither in clearing out the homes of the dead, piling whole lives into boxes and garbage bags and lug them into donation trucks stamped with the name of the charity emblazoned on the side like Miss Mary Sunshine. The tasteless remains are left to wilt alongside the curb, like my mother molting inside, her body a desiccated cocoon.

Again, the thought crosses my mind: I’ll do it. Five hundred miles and a lifetime of estrangement don’t bother me.

But they do.

I will not leave my children. I will not leave my home, my life, my husband. For a moment, I am proud of my tenacity, to put the people I love the most in this world above my mother. And then, I falter. In what manner does my decision become selfish?

Aunt Sue does not push, she doesn’t even suggest. But I can hear the plea in the space between her words, “It’s so hard.”

My mouth twitches.

“The hardest part is her sewing room.”

I know the space. A room wedged between her bedroom and the living room, the window blinds askew, a place for the cat to perch. I see the bookshelf loaded with titles on self-love, spirituality, the color of her parachute. Tucked on a low shelf is the pastel quilted binding of my baby book and then next to it—my sister’s.

I see the pocket-sized bright blue spelling dictionary in my mind’s eye, its edges bent and scraped, the orange price-tag from Skaggs still affixed in the upper right hand corner.

That spelling dictionary, with pages and pages of words might be the only thing I long for from my mother’s home. Not the dishes she ate her last meal on, not the baby book with images of a newborn me wrapped in a receiving blanket, it’s not the rosebud sheets, or the photographs scattered on walls, and not her sewing.

I do not want her personal affects. I do not want anything with her skin cells or bodily fluids trapped within.

And while I realize the spelling dictionary may contain partial fingerprints and the smell of dust that may or may not be remnants of her skin, it’s the love of words and story that got me through when she could not. This is what I long for.

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Episode 494 — Panio Gianopoulos Sun, 26 Nov 2017 05:08:42 +0000

Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Panio Gianopoulos. His new story collection is called How to Get into Our House and Where We Keep the Money, available from Four Way Books.

This is Panio’s second time guesting on the podcast. He first appeared in Episode 138 on January 9, 2013.

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Episode 493 — Emily Geminder Wed, 22 Nov 2017 05:08:29 +0000

Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Emily Geminder. Her debut story collection is called Dead Girls and Other Stories. It is the winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Prize.

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David Rocklin: The TNB Self-Interview Tue, 21 Nov 2017 22:33:18 +0000 Tell us about your new novel, The Night Language.

But you’re me. Or I’m me. I – we? – already know.

Only one question in and already you’re a meta pain in the ass.

Fine. The Night Language, out on November 14, 2017, tells the story of two young black men – Alamayou, the orphaned son of the Abyssinian emperor, and Philip Layard, an orphan from London’s streets – who find themselves thrown together by war. They’re outsiders who end up in the court of Queen Victoria. There they experience belonging and love for the first true time in their lives, before the inexorable tide of prejudice threatens to pull them apart.


There’s an active and frequently contentious debate in virtually every field of the arts about cultural appropriation. Now, along comes The Night Language, written by someone who doesn’t share the attributes that place his main characters on the other side of the fault lines addressed in the novel. How did you come to feel that you had the right to tell their story?

It’s true; I wrote about people who are different from me. I’m a straight, white, Jewish male, writing about characters who are black, gay, old, English, royal, poverty-stricken, and dead. What right do I have to step into their lives? For me, the answer was “none.” I have no right to do so. I have a desire to. A curiosity to find among our differences, similarities. I start writing from the assumption that I know nothing and am entitled to nothing other than what I earn by empathy and openness and diligence, and that it would be astonishingly stupid of me to pretend that others have no right to be upset at someone like me presuming to write about them. That goes for the characters in my novel as well as readers. Their stories, and the historical, cultural, political and personal forces that have shaped those stories, don’t belong to me. They’re gifted. Like any gift, I treat those stories with respect and awe. I do the best I can with them and hope to get as much right (whatever right means in the context of making up stories) as possible.

I didn’t barrel headlong into this novel with no fear of getting it wrong or worse, transgressing into the appropriation of someone else’s truth. Just the opposite. I went in–once I understood who and what this novel was truly trying to be about–with humility and no small amount of concern that I would depict the characters with respect, honesty, and dignity. I wanted to tell, in the end, a story about the sort of love I hope we all come to know, that sacrifices and endures despite everything that may be arrayed against it. I came to the story of Philip and Alamayou curious about their lives. They, in turn, came to the story not as pawns subject to the white straight culture surrounding them, but as two human beings fighting for a place for each other.

Ultimately, we give our permission to be someone else when we read or write a story. That’s not the same as giving permission to misrepresent or be misrepresented, or to reduce human beings to stereotypes and caricatures. It’s a bestowing of trust that the author will do their level best to move, entertain, and immerse us in their vision of the world. I hope I lived up to that.


You say, “once you understood who and what this novel was truly trying to be about.” Wasn’t it always what it turned out to be, a love story between the characters of Alamayou and Philip?

Alamayou is taken from the real world and heavily fictionalized. Philip is a fiction in his entirety. In fact, Philip didn’t exist in the first draft or two of the novel, and yet they found their way to each other in the story, and fell in love with each other in a way that neither they nor I anticipated when I began to write. Their love story was entirely unexpected, to them and to me. When I began to realize what was happening between them, I thankfully had the good sense to step out of the way and allow their story to take its form.


So your characters coming to life and speaking to each other in unexpected ways is a good thing, not a vaguely 5150 thing?

Can it be both? When I begin something, I roughly outline, but I can’t possibly know where the story will take itself (and me) any more than I can know where a friendship is going to go in the first moments of meeting someone new. I can only hope that the story and the characters surprise me, or inform me that the early decisions I thought they’d make, they wouldn’t make in a million years. When that happens, I know the piece is alive.


What comes first: the theme, the setting, or the character(s)?

It’s usually a convergence of an image and an isolated fact, a throwaway piece of trivia that sparks something for me. The character of Alamayou existed in history, but he was much different than as I’ve drawn him (in life he was much younger, when he came to Queen Victoria’s court, for example). I found a photo of him when I was researching The Luminist and couldn’t look away from that haunted child’s face. I had to know more about this young boy who was taken by force of war from his home in Abyssinia and brought across the world to an unimaginable city, London. So, that was the image; the small fact was the fact that he didn’t live past age 17 in life (I won’t say what happens to him in the novel), and he was always a lonely figure. Image and fact collided, and the thrown sparks were this: I wanted to write a life for Alamayou that he didn’t get to have in reality. That, of course, meant love, and love isn’t worthy of a novel unless it’s threatened.


Are you always this sappy?

Most of the time.


Agree or disagree: Write what you know.

Disagree if that’s all you do. Write what you know, if that’s where the meaning lies for you, but also try to write what you don’t know and, especially, what you don’t want anyone to know.


Are there pieces of you in your first novel, The Luminist, and The Night Language? Pieces you don’t want anyone to know?



Can I ask –



Give us one of your writerly quirks.

My first drafts are always handwritten. My new novel, The Electric Love Song of Fleischl Berger, is contained in (so far) eight full legal pads.


Dude, you are seriously old.

Your point?


Do you mind that it took you this long to get here, to two published novels?

I think I’d mind if I got here and couldn’t remember where here was, or why I came. Wait, what were we talking about?


DAVID ROCKLIN is the author of The Luminist and the founder/curator of Roar Shack, a monthly reading series in Los Angeles. He was born and raised in Chicago and now lives in LA with his wife, daughters and a 150-lb Great Dane who seriously needs to stay on his own bed. He’s currently at work on his next novel, The Electric Love Song of Fleischl Berger.

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Excerpt of The Night Language, by David Rocklin Tue, 21 Nov 2017 17:16:06 +0000 Chapter One

17 December 1900



At last, some daylight.

The sun broke through in the afternoon, following two days of thick black clouds and downpours that had him spending his holiday running from doorway to café canopy. Now, finally, he could paint.

He unpacked his canvas and set up his easel on the path that ran along the blue ribbon of sea between Nice and Monaco. Mixing his oils, he gazed at the vista before him, acquainting himself with the particular shades of sunlight and the way they teased both color and shape from the land. Already he’d painted a good deal of the distant village, and in just two days’ time. A wonderful two days, he thought, in which he got thoroughly lost in his composition while occasionally humming a forgotten adagio. He worked without interruption, oblivious to everything around him. Thinking of nothing, only colors, tones, rims, and borders. Fellow visitors may have passed by him as he worked, or not.

Villefranche clustered under the soft gold dust of the sun’s rays breaking through the last cloud cover left by the passing storm. It was built up against a striated wall of rust-colored rock some six hundred feet high. Above the tile roofs of the homes and the cathedral, wispy tendrils lifted from the cooking fires of restaurants and cafés. Gulls soared down from the ledge in a tight arrow, passing the zigzagging switchback trails carved into the cliff face. In the light they resembled falling bodies clad in white. Their shadows bent across the cliffs as they abruptly pulled out of their dives just before hitting the foaming waves. They flew close, their outstretched wings ruffling the surface of the sea. The wind they rode was cold and strong.

He weighted his easel with smooth stones, then daubed at the cliff paths with a mix of sienna and bay to catch the effect of the last days’ rains. As he worked, enjoying the pleasant briskness of the air and the faint sounds of Villefranche’s townspeople emerging from their homes, he took notice of a sleek canot drifting in on the tide toward the natural stone jetty that stood as the town’s lone port. Such an unremarkable thing, visitors on an outing to the Mediterranean town. The area had gained a reputation for its agreeable weather, its flourishing casinos and fine hotels. The fact that the boat he spied was filled stem to stern with finely dressed ladies in broad seaside hats and immaculate dresses of milk and wheat shouldn’t have held his attention for more than a moment. And yet he couldn’t reclaim the sense of disappearing into his work that he craved, not while the ornate canot drifted toward land.

Muttering curses at his own inability to concentrate, he watched the ladies gather around a figure on the canot, a woman dressed entirely in black. It seemed that they were trying to shield her. The chill, he thought, or the prying eyes of others. Perhaps she was someone of note.

He’d come to Villefranche from Paris for the same reason he always did. The city would grow too hot, too cold, or too close, and he’d find that he needed to step away from his days living and working in the Marais to be alone at the water’s edge, staring at the low leaden horizon line. There had been far too many tourists on his last few visits, and he’d begun considering other destinations he could escape to before deciding to give this spot one last chance.

In any event, it was best to catch the light before him while it lasted. If he just set to working again, he felt confident that he’d make progress.

The painted cliff paths looked good, so he turned his attention to the cove at the base of the village. An excuse to watch the canot, its oars lifted in surrender to the pull of the tide.

A local piloted it, he could tell. They knew how fruitless it was to row once they got close to the stone jetty.

I’ll watch just a bit longer, he decided. Maybe this is a new painting, presenting itself to me.

The black-clad figure struggled to her feet. She was immediately surrounded by the finely dressed women.

A rich invalid, no doubt.

He selected a thin horsehair brush and daubed a bit of gray on Villefranche itself, on its narrow sidewalks that a grown man could span wall to wall with outstretched arms, its descending stairways, down to the sea path and the first shades of aqua. The woman in black got out of the canot, assisted by the others. Her baggy, overly billowing clothing was in fact a formal dress. It was dark and jeweled with some sort of stone that ignited from the sunlight. The woman herself appeared small, stooped, unsteady, and slow.

A rich, old invalid, he thought with a shake of his head. Still, he couldn’t stop staring. A sense of unease slowly rose in him. This is ridiculous, he thought, but the feeling wouldn’t go away. As the rest of the elderly woman’s entourage stepped onto the jetty, a second boat floated in. It was as full as hers had been, with similarly dressed women. They got out en masse, dislodging the feral cats sunning themselves atop and between the jetty stones. So this was some sort of idyllic invasion—the first wave of dowagers on holiday marching their staffs across the path to the small-stakes baccarat tables in Monaco.

He tried to amuse himself, but his hands were trembling. Without being aware, he’d put down his brush. He was stepping away from his canvas, gazing around his position on the path for places to hide. It had been years since he felt so conspicuous and exposed. A voice from long ago filled his head.

We could run.

Calm yourself, he thought. What will passersby think of me? A Negro among good white faces, searching for where to go to ground like a criminal. There’s no reason for this. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Nothing.

He stared at the black-clad figure until she was close enough to make out.

Dear god, it’s her. Victoria, queen of England.

The shuffling old woman’s companions produced parasols. One held hers high above her head, blocking the sun and extinguishing the flare that burst from the queen’s crown.

Move, you idiot, before she sees you.

He ran for cover behind a tall row of wild heather. From there he spied her no more than twenty feet away. Those few villagers out walking were now realizing who moved among them, as if such a thing were normal. They bowed and curtsied and cheered her. La reine! La reine Victoria!

God, how old she’d become. How ungraceful. Time, he thought, wins every argument.

It was her daughter Louise who held the parasol up like a shield against the insistent sun. More than thirty years had passed since he’d last seen either of them at Windsor and suddenly there they were, walking together in another country and not fifty feet from him. Behind them came the usual downstairs help, brought from their normal posts in liveries and dressing rooms out into the light. A lady-in-waiting, a footman, a valet. No one he knew anymore.

The queen walked toward the shoreline, passing his easel while her entourage huddled together against the wind. She lingered a moment at his painting, studying it and smiling wistfully. She looked around for the artist, but he was well hidden.

At the sea, the queen stared at the coming tide. Clouds crept in from the south, covering the sun. The light dwindled. Villefranche by the sea descended into the steely gloom he’d grown used to over the last days.

He remembered that way the queen had of losing herself in her surroundings. Watching her, he wondered if she ever thought of him anymore. Perhaps the passage of all those years had finally swept his name away.

Her time alone lasted fifteen minutes, maybe longer. As the breeze grew bitter, Louise covered her mother’s shoulders with an ermine wrap. The queen leaned against her daughter for support. They returned together to the sea path. There, the queen paused again near the painting. Fleetingly, he thought he saw something alight in her expression. Then it was gone, replaced by a familiar stony resolve.

“Are you well?” he heard the princess ask. “You look pale, Mother. Perhaps we should return home.”

“No.” The queen’s voice was hushed and trembling. “Let us have our holiday. We ought not allow the odd memory to ruin our time.”

“Memory? Is something troubling you?”

“No more than any day.”

Together they continued toward the path and soon to the crags of the jetty, where their entourage split into two. The larger group clambered onto the waiting boats. The canot pilots poled them away from land, onto the swelling crests of the port current. The remaining few walked behind the queen and princess.

Every so often, the queen paused to rest. Her servant staff waited, heads bowed, for her to move again.

Well, of course, he thought. She’s old. Ill, maybe. Nothing and no one is forever. Feeling a pang for someone I haven’t seen in three decades is sentimental and foolish. Any moment, the queen and princess would be so far away that they’d never see him, and he could emerge from his hiding place and pick up where he’d left off, carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Yet he wanted to cry out to her, to see if she’d turn around. She would come back to him. What would she say? What would he? Your Majesty, you can’t simply appear as if out of a cloud, rain down all that you carry that rightfully belongs to me—the names, the faces, the nights—only to leave while these memories invade me without regard for my life to demand that I find a place for them. You can’t.

When she was merely a speck on the path alongside the light-dappled sea, he emerged from the hedgerow and told himself that it was time to go. There’d be no more painting and it was useless to pretend otherwise. His focus and desire were gone. Tomorrow, he’d get things sorted. Yes, he’d seen her, true enough, and maybe some memories were dusting themselves off and presenting themselves, but that was all. Nothing had changed. It didn’t matter. He could simply paint in the early morning, return to Paris on the evening train, arrive near dawn a few hours sleep, then unpack and resume the day’s work, and the next. The life he’d made was still there, waiting for him. He was in no danger of being revealed.

He didn’t hear the villagers’ excited talk of glimpsing the queen, or the sea that had silently brought her here. Only his panicking heart and long-ago words ringing as clear as the bell at Saint-Paul. What is love, in the end?

Love is language.

He packed his easel, then turned around on the path that led back to his villa and walked along the sea, trailing the queen until she came to a far dock near one of the fine hotels dotting the coastline. There, she stopped again. In time, she gathered the strength to go inside. By evening, she hadn’t come back out. It was over, this unexpected unearthing of old things from another, far different life. All he had to do was leave.

He took a seat on a rusted seaside bench and watched lights come up in the hotel windows. Over the course of the night those lights extinguished. The storm clouds returned but didn’t bring rain, only a covering that smothered the stars and took the light away.

He could scarcely make out the contours of his hand, held up to the sky. It was as if he’d been erased from the world.

Somewhere inside, the queen slept. He wondered if the ghosts of her own past gathered around her as they did around him. When she departed in the bright morning, he was still there.

For the next three days, he followed her throughout France.


DAVID ROCKLIN is the author of The Luminist and the founder/curator of Roar Shack, a monthly reading series in Los Angeles. He was born and raised in Chicago and now lives in LA with his wife, daughters and a 150-lb Great Dane who seriously needs to stay on his own bed. He’s currently at work on his next novel, The Electric Love Song of Fleischl Berger.

Adapted from The Night Language, by David Rocklin, Copyright © 2017 by David Rocklin. With the permission of the publisher, Rare Bird Books.

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Totoro’s Sad Mon, 20 Nov 2017 10:00:31 +0000


I jump at the sound of my husband’s voice, am doubly startled when I turn to encounter the unblinking eyes of our daughter’s puppet peeking around the kitchen doorway. “Totoro’s sad,” Puppet says.
My heart, bruised and swollen shut, relaxes slightly at what I assume is my husband’s gesture of reconciliation after a weekend when the prospect of divorce had been broached by each of us, more than once. I cross the kitchen and step into the hallway where I find him, his eyes moist with tears.

Two contradictory impulses grip me: comfort my mate and brace myself against his anger. This is the schism carved by two decades of living with behavior I can’t explain, let alone understand. I wrap my arms around him, a natural, instinctive action that feels perilous. It’s a relief when he doesn’t pull away, doesn’t accuse me of fakery or shouting that my gesture comes “too late.” I exhale. My body relaxes. This is what’s right, to stand here in the hallway holding my beloved and have him hold me. This is marriage, so natural. This is what I always expect.

That’s when it comes, that thing I also expect, brace for. The thing I ought to have been ready for but still wasn’t. The thing this time is only a look — not a slap, not cruel words, not even a biting tone. Merely a look. But this look lands like a blow because it comes from my husband, with whom I’m most vulnerable, and inside our home that should be my safe refuge. I see it the moment it happens: He glances down. The sadness slides away. He raises his eyes, stony with contempt.

Angry at me. Angry at his vulnerability. Angry at some phantom he sees when he looks in my direction. A moment ago our connection felt warm and real but so does this hopelessness and sadness, this chill of betrayal. It’s crazy-making to live with this Jeckyll and Hyde, crazy I can’t trust my own husband, crazy I can’t trust my own impulses and feelings, crazy I’m left paralyzed. Bewildered. But what action is to be taken in response to a look that leaves no visible bruises or broken bones, just injuries on the inside that never have a chance to heal?

I back away, around to the other side of the kitchen island, place my palms on the cool granite counter and try to breathe. My mind drifts back to the couple’s therapist we saw — one of many — back when we hadn’t even been married a year.

“This just doesn’t seem like my definition of marriage,” I’d confessed through tears.

My husband passed me a box of tissues.

“Maybe you should change your definition of marriage,” the therapist replied.

It is one of many things about myself I’ve tried to change over the past two decades so that he won’t see me as his enemy, so that he’ll understand me, so that our marriage will be one I can live with. Thrive in. Maybe what needs changing is for me to let go of the wish and the hope that this marriage will ever be anything other than what it is.
I have no ill-will for the person standing in the kitchen doorway with our daughter’s puppet on his hand and a scowl on his face. I’m sorry for the suffering he feels now and for the suffering he endured long before we ever met. Maybe it was then that his emotions became so stunted he now requires the aid of a child’s toy to express them.

It’s a realization that makes me all the more frightened and sad and hopeless because a grown man who needs a puppet to act out his feelings can’t have much capacity for remorse or empathy. Can he? Could he?

I should stop wondering about questions like these, stop wasting time. Time I accept the loss of the marriage I didn’t have — the marriage I expected and that I deserved. Two decades too long, but the only place to start is where I am. The display on the microwave tells me it’s 7:00 am, two hours until the attorney arrives at work, and someone will be there to pick up the phone.

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Gayle Brandeis: The TNB Self-Interview Fri, 17 Nov 2017 14:00:57 +0000

Photo credit: Camera RAW photography

How did writing this book change you?

I started to drink coffee and booze for the first time in my adult life during the writing of this book. There isn’t a direct correlation—the book didn’t drive me to drink—but it feels connected. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I never regularly drank coffee or alcohol until I was 45—an age when many friends are cutting back on both—but it’s true. I started when my husband and I were separated for six months in 2013, and I was feeling a little reckless, a little wild. Part of the reason I hadn’t imbibed for most of my adult life is that for many years, I thought I had acute intermittent porphyria, a genetic metabolic disorder with a long list of contraindications, including alcohol, and my mother, who was working on a documentary about porphyria and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome at the time of her death (a documentary named The Art of Misdiagnosis, whose title I stole for my memoir, a documentary I transcribed and wove in to my memoir) had me convinced a glass of wine could kill me. Coffee isn’t on the forbidden list for porphyria, but when my first cup in college made me feel as if my bones were going to shoot out of my skin, I took this to mean I was too sensitive to enjoy caffeine. I believed this for decades. I had come to see myself as a fragile flower—a label I once took great pains to paste to myself, a label I’ve found challenging but satisfying to peel away. I still don’t consume much of either, but drinking coffee and the occasional glass of wine has helped me see myself as an adult, helped me realize I am far more sturdy than I had imagined. Writing this memoir did the same.

How did writing this book change you?

I started this memoir seething with anger. It seared the page like acid. This was good. I’ve always had trouble facing and expressing anger in my life and it helped me greatly to give it voice, to exorcise it from my body. One of the most satisfying dreams I’ve ever had about my mom was a dream years before her death where I sat across from her at a restaurant table, opened my mouth as wide as it could go, and bellowed “NOOOOOOOOOOOO” like a fog horn from the very depths of my body. The word roared on and on and on and blew her hair back like gale-force winds. A Gayle-force I never used in the waking world. I woke feeling so much lighter inside. Writing my way through anger had a similar cleansing effect. And, much to my surprise, I wrote my way straight into compassion for my mom, straight into a new kind of Yes when I thought of her. By the time I was done writing this book, I appreciated my mom more deeply than I ever had when she was alive.


How did writing this book change you?

It helped me see myself more clearly, my own patterns of silence and denial, the times when I’ve been less than honest in my life. I felt a lot of shame as I confronted these aspects of myself, but I was able to find my way toward more compassion for my own little self, too. And seeing my own patterns more clearly means it will be easier to break those patterns. It has been already.


How did writing this book change you?

It helped me trust myself more. Trust myself enough to know when I was avoiding a scene because I was scared and needed to gently nudge myself forward or when I truly wasn’t ready to write the scene yet and needed to give myself more time. Trust myself enough to amicably switch agents when it was clear my former agent didn’t get my vision for the book (it took months of dragging my feet to act on this knowledge, but I knew it was the right thing to do—I just had to work up the nerve.) Trust myself enough to cut a full quarter of the text from the memoir, knowing I was bringing the book into sharper focus, knowing it had been important for me to write those extra pages but it wasn’t important for anyone else to read them.


How did writing this book change you?

It aged me. I don’t know if I can blame that on the book alone—blame time, blame Trump, blame major abdominal surgery, blame my dad’s death last year, blame losing a lot of weight though illness, through nonsense, then gaining back more than I lost, blame not enough sleep, not enough exercise—but this book definitely carved new grooves into my skin, turned my hair more white beneath the purple dye. I think about Poltergeist or even the new Ghostbusters movie where people’s hair turns white after they return from some other dimension. I delved into my own shadowy places and that journey is written all over me. A friend noted that I’ve been looking more alive lately, though, so maybe the book has changed me in that way, too. It has carved out more space for authentic joy.


How did writing this book change you?

In some ways, it ruined my writing life. I felt adrift after I finished crafting this book, lost as a creative person. I was sure I would never feel the same terrible urgency to write again, that nothing I wrote would ever feel as meaningful or necessary. I was sure I had burned my writing self down to cinders, that I had nothing left pull from, that all other writing would feel empty from that point, forced. But I am beginning to crawl out of that wreckage. I am starting to spark and simmer with new possibilities.


How did writing this book change you?

Less than I thought. I had deluded myself into believing I had healed myself completely by writing this book. I thought I had processed my mother’s death as fully as I possibly could, that I had left no stone unturned inside myself, no emotion unexplored. And then grief, that sneaky asshole, found a way to sneak up and kick me in the throat again and I was shocked. Shocked it was still there even after I had written about it so thoroughly, shocked it still was able to lay me flat.


How did writing this book change you?

More than I thought. I feel more brave than I ever have in my life. I have always been a quiet, shy person; writing this has made it easier for me to use my voice off the page—I am quicker to speak up, speak out. Perhaps part of this is growing older and giving less fucks, but I know writing this book helped me get to this point, too. The book helped me stop holding myself back as much. I no longer have the same tendency to hide, the same tendency to stay silent—or maybe I do, and I’m able to push past it now.


How did writing this book change you?

In addition to drinking, I’ve started swearing. This book has turned me into a fucking hooligan. Really, I don’t swear all that much, just as I don’t drink that much, but I don’t cringe when I do it now; it feels fucking great when I do it now. The fragile flower is gone and good fucking riddance.


How did writing this book change you?

It helped me gain some distance from my own story, knowing that once it goes into the world, it will not be my story anymore—it will be metabolized in a new way by everyone who reads it, will become their own. This feels like a fist unclenching inside my heart.


How did writing this book change you?

On a molecular level, I just feel different. I am letting myself feel proud of myself and my writing for maybe the first time ever. I’ve never been comfortable with the word “proud”, at least not when it comes to myself, but I’m letting myself own it now. I did this thing I wasn’t sure I could do. I made something out of this pain. I wrote the book of my fucking life.


GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement (judged by Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and contest founder Barbara Kingsolver),Self StorageDelta Girls and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a Read on Wisconsin pick, as well as a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her essays, poems and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, and a Notable mention in The Best American Essays 2016. She teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014 and was called a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine.

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Excerpt of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, by Gayle Brandeis Thu, 16 Nov 2017 14:00:39 +0000 Thirty-seven weeks pregnant and I can’t seem to stop crying. This is unusual for me. I tend to be an optimistic person. Relentlessly so. Probably obnoxiously so. I tend to be not just a glass-half-full kind of person, but a person who may just point out that the rest of the glass is filled with sunlight; an everything’s-going-to-be-okay, go-with-the-flow, isn’t-life-amazing type of person—in the world, at least, if not always in my own head.

Part of the reason my first marriage fell apart two years ago was because I didn’t know how to let my husband know when I was upset. I spent way too much time smiling when I should have been honest with him. I kept so much frustration and anger pent up inside, so many silent things accumulating until they turned toxic under my skin. I’ve told myself I won’t make the same mistake with my new marriage, and it appears my body is holding me to that, at least for now. My habitual smile is starting to fracture; whatever has been hiding behind it is seeping out.

Half the time, I have no idea why I’m crying. I cry at the midwife’s office; I cry at our childbirth class. I cry when I learn on Facebook that my nineteen-year-old son, who lives with his dad, was hit by a car as he was riding his bike. He’s okay, it seems, just banged up a bit, but that’s not the kind of news a mom likes to stumble upon on social media, even when she isn’t deeply hormonal. I cry when I get scared I’ve forgotten how to be a mother. It was so easy and joyful when my kids were babies, when they were young, when I created creativity festivals for their preschools, when we made “color meals” together—red bread with green butter, pasta with creamy blue sauce—when we curled up together with books and crayons and silly songs, when we crawled on the grass together to peer at ladybugs and worms. Now my kids are both teenagers—my daughter is almost sixteen—and parental instincts seem to have fled my body.

I always told myself I would be a mom whose kids could tell her anything, but I fear my kids have as much trouble talking to me as I do with my own mom. I love them both with all my heart and worry I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, maybe by smiling too much, by not acknowledging hard things enough, by not modeling how to be real.

I get another voice mail from my mom, this one saying she is driving to my house, saying she is going to spend the night. I leave a panicked voice mail on her phone, telling her it isn’t the right time; I have grading to do—my Antioch MFA students have just turned in their work and I want to get to it before my UCLA Writers’ Program students turn in their work, want to get to it before the baby comes, which feels like it could be any minute now.

“There’s no place for you to sleep,” I tell her voice mail, belly contracting again. Hannah’s been using her bed as a desk and has been sleeping on the couch.

My mom calls back. She’s turned around; she’s on her way home. I am flooded with relief. Relief tinged with guilt, but relief all the same. There’s no way I could have gotten work done with her there, wanting my attention. She gets offended if I so much as glance at a newspaper when she’s in the same room; if I read my students’ fiction in her presence, she’ll find some way to make me feel horrible about it. Likely by inventing some medical emergency. Or telling me about my father’s latest supposed acts of betrayal.

The doorbell rings around 10 p.m. Hannah, camped out on the vintage leopard print sofa, answers it. “Oh, hi, Nana,” I hear her say, and my heart drops to the floor. I walk out of the office, bleary eyed from critiquing fiction. One of my students is writing a novel where a woman and baby die in childbirth and hang around their apartment as ghosts; another student is writing a novel in which a woman suffers horrific pregnancy complications during the Holocaust. Amazing novels, but not the most uplifting of pregnancy reading. This is reality, I tell myself as I read scenes of blood and rot, the baby twisting inside me—it’s good to be in touch with every aspect of reality. When I was pregnant with Arin, I avoided all the pages about C-sections in my childbirth preparation book, and I ended up getting sliced open. Sometimes we’re thrown face to face with the very things we’re trying to avoid. Like my mom, here in my living room. She has a long cushion from an outdoor chaise lounge tucked under her arm. A few ties dangle down from the sides, like tiny insect legs on a huge thorax.

“I can sleep on this.” She pushes past me and lays the cushion on the floor of my office, right behind my desk chair. When she looks up at me, she says, “You look awful.”

“Thanks,” I tell her. “I was just about to head to bed.”

“Okay,” she says, disappointed. There’s clearly so much she wants to tell me, epic tales of her latest persecution. She’s probably been repeating them to herself the whole seventy-five-mile drive from Oceanside. All she can get in, though, is “There’s something wrong with my furnace” before I give her a cursory hug and close myself up in my bedroom. I hate to leave my husband and daughter to deal with my mom, but I am in no state to handle her. I may be able to face painful realities in my students’ novels—in my own novels, even—but my own life is another story entirely. I lie down and my belly collects itself into a tight knot and the tears stream freely yet again.

When I get up in the morning, as late as I possibly can, my mom is calmer; I am less afraid of her. Michael has already left for work. Two mugs sit on the kitchen counter, encrusted with remnants of hot cereal; my mom’s clearly held grits, Michael’s cream of wheat. It touches me to think of them sharing this simple, pale breakfast. My mom has loved grits ever since we had them for the first time in Colonial Williamsburg when I was eight. She always buys boxes full of the instant packets to give to my sister, who can’t get them in Canada. She buys them for me, too, even though I can find them at any grocery store.

“We didn’t have a meal together,” she says, almost mournfully, as if this had been our last chance to break bread. “It feels funny to be here and not have a meal together.”

“Yeah,” I agree, hesitant to say anything else. When I get near her, words harden in my throat, get stuck there, like the grits I’ll have to clean out of the mug later, stubborn as crystals in a geode.

Her face is softer this morning, more open. In fact, she seems to be pouring love and compassion toward me out of her eyes. It makes me flinch.

“I really have a lot of work to do today,” I tell her and she looks predictably betrayed.

“I was thinking of going to my spiritual class, anyway,” she says, her features closing themselves off again. She attends classes given by Nancy Tappe, a woman who developed the concept of “Indigo Children” and has written such books as Understanding Your Life Through Color and Get the Message: What Your Car is Trying to Tell You. The latter talks about how cars are mirrors of our own “internal warning system,” what happens in our Hondas supposedly a metaphor for what’s happening in our souls. My own internal warning system is beeping now, red lights clanging inside me. Get her out, get her out, get her out now.



Photo credit: Camera RAW photography

GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement (judged by Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and contest founder Barbara Kingsolver),Self StorageDelta Girls and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a Read on Wisconsin pick, as well as a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her essays, poems and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, and a Notable mention in The Best American Essays 2016. She teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014 and was called a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine.


Excerpted from The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide by Gayle Brandeis (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.


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Episode 492 — Elizabeth Ellen Wed, 15 Nov 2017 05:08:51 +0000

Now playing on the Otherppl podcast, a conversation with Elizabeth Ellen. She has a new story collection out called Saul Stories, available from Short Flight / Long Drive Books. Earlier this year she published a novel called Persona, and a poetry collection entitled Elizabeth Ellen is forthcoming.

Elizabeth first appeared on this program on August 26, 2012, in Episode 99.

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Joan Silber: The TNB Self-Interview Tue, 14 Nov 2017 20:52:36 +0000 So Improvement is your eighth book of fiction. The last three books—which have done just fine, in my opinion—are books of linked stories. How come you decided to write a novel?

I wrote novels before I wrote stories (I was very backwards that way). At a certain point, I began working on long short stories, and I fell into my own way of connecting them—a minor character in one was major in the next, and the stories were moving toward the same theme. After three books in that form—a form I felt I’d done my best work in—I wanted to return to the novel, to write something with the intensity of a line carried through—while still using the skills I learned in spreading across a web.

My first advance review, in Kirkus, called Improvement, my alleged novel, a story cycle, and I was not at all insulted. Actually, they called it a “kaleidoscopic story cycle”—who would mind that?


Where did the idea come from? Don’t you worry about running out of ideas?

I worry all the time. My worst times are when I don’t have a project.

This book started from two things: Hurricane Sandy and Turkey.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York, I heard a radio report about how some elderly residents of a housing project were managing very well without electricity or water or gas. (My own neighborhood, the Lower East Side, was in the dark zone, so I knew what they dealt with.) I began to think about self-reliance—a topic always dear to me–and the character of Kiki started to form. She’s in her sixties and most catastrophes don’t phase her. I wanted her viewed by her much younger niece, who’s busy getting herself into trouble. Once I’d given the niece Reyna a boyfriend at Rikers Island, I saw the story heightening.

I had wanted for a while to get Turkey—a complex place I’ve happily visited three times—into a story. I gave Kiki a past with a Turkish husband, so she’s lived in a culture beyond Europe and the familiar, and I gave her a few years in the Turkish countryside so she has some basic third-world rural skills.

I wrote the first chapter as a story—to my great joy, it got picked for Best American Short Stories and O.Henry Prize Stories. I didn’t know that it was going to become the first chapter of a novel and that I would spend the next three or four years thinking about it.


So what’s so kaleidoscopic about it?

There are eight chapters, and Kiki and her niece are only in three of them. I wanted to follow a constellation of characters whose lives bear the results of something the niece decides, and we also hear about the aunt’s past. Chapters are set in Richmond, Virginia; upstate New York; Cappadocia, Turkey; and Berlin. I’m always interested in the way events tumble into a chain of consequences, and I love fiction’s ability to move across time at any pace.


Why is the rug on the book’s cover losing some threads?

My own idea was that this connected to the idea of Improvement as repair. I’m not sure if the artist really had that in mind, but the questions of re-payment loom large in the story—how much can ever be made up? Can you make good on a mistake?


You wrote a whole book on The Art of Time in Fiction, and you’re known for writing stories that cover long spans of time. So what’s going on in this one?

Once again, I’ve done things backwards, in that the novel covers a more modest duration than the story collections have (nothing happens before 1970). Well, I did want to make it all one piece. I’m still very into what we call back-story, interested in various ways the past is a live component of current action. Then is often more important than now. I learned this from Alice Munro.


Not to talk politics or anything, but appalling things are going on in the world. What moral value does fiction have?

I’m always happy when someone refers to my fiction as “generous.” In the simplest sense, fiction gets us into other humans’ heads; it trains us in imagining the other. My particular kind of writing picks up characters the reader has forgotten about or scorned or not had in sight. When I was little, my mother, like many mothers of that era, liked to point out, “You’re not the only pebble on the beach.” “I know that,” I would say, but we never really know and it’s fiction’s job to try to convince us. This isn’t everything, but it’s basic equipment.


JOAN SILBER is the author of the story collection Fools, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and nominated for the PEN/Faulker Award. Her first novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. She has published five other books of fiction, including Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize, and The Size of the World, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction and one of the Seattle Times’ 10 Best Books of Fiction. She’s been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in the Paris Review, the New YorkerAgniPloughsharesBoulevard, and Epoch, among other publications. The beginning of Improvement was published in Tin House, nominated for an O. Henry Prize, and included in The Best American Short Stories 2015.

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Excerpt from Improvement, by Joan Silber Tue, 14 Nov 2017 17:43:10 +0000 Everyone knows this can happen. People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. They take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes. But maybe not forever.

I had an aunt who was such a person. She went to Istanbul when she was in her twenties. She met a good-looking carpet seller from Cappadocia. She’d been a classics major in college and had many questions to ask him, many observations to offer. He was a gentle and intelligent man who spent his days talking to travelers. He’d come to think he no longer knew what to say to Turkish girls, and he loved my aunt’s airy conversation. When her girlfriends went back to Greece, she stayed behind and moved in with him.   This was in 1970.

His shop was in Sultanahmet, where tourists went, and he lived in Fener, an old and jumbled neighborhood. Kiki, my aunt, liked having people over, and their apartment was always filled with men from her husband’s region and ex-pats of various ages. She was happy to cook big semi-Turkish meals and make up the couch for anyone passing through.   She helped out in the store, explained carpet motifs to anyone who walked in—those were stars for happiness, scorpion designs to keep real scorpions away.   In her letters home, she sounded enormously pleased with herself–she dropped Turkish phrases into her sentences, reported days spent sipping çay and kahve. All this became lore in my family.

She wrote to her father, who suffered from considerable awkwardness in dealing with his children (her mother had died some six years before), and to her kid brother, who was busy hating high school.   The family was Jewish, from a  forward-thinking leftist strain; Kiki had gone to camps where they sang songs about children of all nations, so no one had any bigoted objections to her Turkish boyfriend. Kiki sent home to Brooklyn a carpet she said was from the Taurus Mountains. Her father said, “Very handsome colors. I see you are a connoisseur. No one is walking on it, I promise.”

Then Kiki’s boyfriend’s business took a turn for the worse. There was a flood in the basement of his store and a bill someone never paid and a new shop nearby that was getting all the business. Or something. The store had to close. Her family thought this meant that Kiki was coming home at last. But, no. Osman, her guy, had decided to move back to the village he was from, to help his father, who raised pumpkins for their seed-oil. Also tomatoes, green squash, and eggplant. Kiki was up for the move, she wanted to see the real Turkey. Istanbul was really so Western now. Cappadocia was very ancient and she couldn’t wait to see the volcanic rock. She was getting married! Her family in Brooklyn was surprised about that part. Were they invited to the wedding? Apparently not. In fact, it had already happened by the time they got the letter. “I get to wear a beaded hat and a glitzy headscarf, the whole shebang,” Kiki wrote. “I still can’t believe it.”

Neither could any of her relatives. But they sent presents, once they had an address. A microwave oven, a Mister Coffee, an electric blanket for the cold mountains. They were a practical and liberal family, they wanted to be helpful. They didn’t hear from Kiki for a while and her father worried that the gifts had been stolen in the mail. “I know it’s hard for you to imagine,” Kiki wrote, “but we do very well without electricity here. Every morning I make a wood fire in the stove. Very good-smelling smoke. I make a little fire at the bottom of the water heater too.”

Kiki built fires? No one could imagine her as the pioneer wife. Her brother, Alan (who later became my father), asked what kind of music she listened to there and if she had a radio. She sent him cassette tapes of favorite Turkish singers—first a crappy male crooner and then a coolly plaintive woman singer who was really very good. Alan was always hoping to visit, but first he was in college and working as a house painter in the summers and then he had a real job in advertising that he couldn’t leave. Kiki said not a word about making any visits home. Her father offered to pay for two tickets to New York so they could all meet her husband, but Kiki wrote, “Oh, Dad. Spend your money on better things.” No one nagged her; she’d been a touchy teenager, given to sullen outbursts, and everyone was afraid of that Kiki appearing again.

She stayed for eight years. Her letters said, “My husband thinks I sew as well as his sisters,” and “I’m re-reading my copy of Ovid in Latin. It’s not bad!” and “Winter sooo long this year, I hate it. Osman has already taught me all he knows about the stars.” No one could make sense of who she was now or put the parts together. There were no children and no pregnancies that anyone heard about, and the family avoided asking.

Her brother was just about to finally get himself over for a visit, when Kiki wrote to say, “Guess what? I’m coming back at last. For good. Cannot wait to see you all.”

“Cannot wait, my ass,” her brother said. “She waited fine. What’s so irresistible now?”

No, the husband was not coming with her. “My life here has reached its natural conclusion,” Kiki wrote. “Osman will be my dear friend forever but we’ve come to the end of our road.”

“So who ran around on who?” the relatives kept asking. “She’ll never say, will she?”


Everybody wondered what she would look like when she arrived. Would she be sun-dried and weather-beaten, would she wear billowing silk trousers like a belly dancer, would the newer buildings of New York amaze her? None of the above. She looked like the same old Kiki, thirty-one with very good skin, and she was wearing jeans and a turtleneck, possibly the same ones she’d left home with. She said, “God! Look at YOU!” when she saw her brother, grown from a scrawny teenager to a man in a sports jacket. She said, “Been a while, hasn’t it?” to her dad.

Her luggage was a mess, very third-world, woven plastic valises baled up with string, and there were a lot of them. She had brought back nine carpets! What was she thinking? She wanted to sell them. To someone or other.

Her brother always remembered that when they ate their first meal together, Kiki held her knife and fork like a European. She laughed at things lightly, as if the absurdity of it all wasn’t worth shrieking over. She teased Alan about his eyeglasses (“you look like a genius in them”) and his large appetite (“has not changed since you were eight”). She certainly sounded like herself. Wasn’t she tired from her flight? “No big deal,” she said.

She’d had a crappy job in a bookstore before going off on her travels, so what was she going to do now? Did she have any friends left from before? It seemed that she did. Before very long, she moved in with someone named Marcy she’d known at Brooklyn College. Marcy’s mother bought the biggest of the rugs, and Kiki used the proceeds to start renting a storefront in the East Village, where she displayed her carpets and other items she had brought back—a brass tea set and turquoise beads and cotton pants with gathered hems that she herself had once worn.

The store stayed afloat for a while. Her brother sort of wondered if she was dealing drugs—hashish was all over Istanbul in the movie Midnight Express, which came out just before her return. Kiki refused to see such a film, with its lurid scenes of mean Turkish prisons. “Who has nice prisons?” she said. “Name me one single country in the world. Just one.”

When her store began to fail and she had to give it up, Kiki supported herself by cleaning houses. She evidently did this with a good spirit; the family was much more embarrassed about it than she was. “People here don’t know how to clean their houses,” she would say. “It’s sort of remarkable, isn’t it?”


By the time I was a little kid, Kiki had become the assistant director of a small agency that booked housekeepers and nannies. She was the one you got on the phone, the one who didn’t take any nonsense from clients or workers either. She was friendly but strict and kept people on point.

I was only a teeny bit afraid of her as a child.   She could be very withering if I was acting up and getting crazy and knocking over chairs. But when my parents took me to visit, Kiki had special cookies for me (I loved Mallomars) and for a while she had a boyfriend named Hernando who would play airplane with me and go buzzing around the room. I loved visiting her.

My father told me later that Hernando had wanted to marry Kiki. “But she wasn’t made for marriage,” he said. “It’s not all roses, you know.” He and my mother had a history of having, as they say, their differences.

“Kiki was always like a bird,” my father said. “Flying here and there.”

What a corny thing to say.


I grew up outside Boston, in a small suburban town whose leafy safety I spurned once I was old enough for hip disdain. I moved to New York as soon I finished high school, which I barely did.   My parents and I were not on good terms in my early years in the city, but Kiki made a point of keeping in touch. She’d call on the phone and say, “I’m thirsty, let’s go have a drink. Okay?” At first I was up in Inwood, as far north in Manhattan as you can get, so it was a long subway ride to see her in the East Village, but once I moved to Harlem it wasn’t quite so bad. When my son was born, four years ago, Kiki brought me the most useful layette of baby stuff, things a person couldn’t even know she needed. Oliver would calm down and sleep when she walked him around. He grew up calling her Aunt Great Kiki.

The two of us lived in a housing project, one of the nicer ones, in an apartment illegally passed on to me by a boyfriend.   It was a decent size, with good light, and I liked my neighbors. In late October of the year that the TV kept telling us to get prepared for Hurricane Sandy, Oliver had a great time flicking the flashlight on and off (a really annoying game) and watching me tape giant x’s on the window glass. All the kids on our hallway were hyped up and excited, running around and yelling. We kept looking out the windows as the sky turned a sepia tint. When the rains broke and began to come down hard, we could hear the moaning of the winds and everything clattering and banging in the night, awnings and trees getting the hell beaten out of them. I kept switching to different channels on TV so we wouldn’t miss any of it. The television had better coverage than my view out the window. Through the screen a newscaster in a suit told us the Con Ed substation on Fourteenth Street had exploded! The lights in the bottom of Manhattan had gone out! I made efforts to explain to Oliver about electricity, as if I knew. Never, never put your finger in a socket. Oliver wanted to watch a better program.

At nine-thirty my father called on the phone to say, “Your aunt Kiki doesn’t have power, you know. She’s probably sitting in the dark.” I had forgotten about her entirely. She was on East Fifth Street, in the no-electricity zone. I promised I’d check on Kiki in the morning.

“I might have to walk there,” I said. “It’s like a hundred twenty blocks. You’re not going to ask about my neighborhood? It’s fine.”

“Don’t forget about her, okay? Tell me that.”

“I just told you,” I said.


The weather outside was shockingly pleasant the next day, mild with a white sky. We walked for half an hour, which Oliver really did not like, past some downed trees and tossed branches, and then a cab miraculously stopped and we shared it with an old guy all the way downtown. No traffic lights, no stores open—how strange the streets were. In Kiki’s building, I led Oliver up four flights of dark tenement stairs while he drove me nuts flicking the flashlight on and off.

When Kiki opened the door onto her pitch-black hallway, she said, “Reyna! What are you doing here?”

Kiki, of course, was fine. She had plenty of vegetables and canned food and rice—who needed a fridge?–and she could light the stove with a match. She had daylight now and candles for later. She had pots of water she could boil to wash with. The tub had been filled the night before. How was I? “Oliver, isn’t this fun?” she said.

Oh, New Yorkers were making such a big fuss, she thought. She had a transistor radio so the fussing came through. “I myself am enjoying the day off from work,” she said.   She was re-reading The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton–had I ever read it? I didn’t read much, did I?–and she planned to finish it tonight by candlelight.

“Come stay with us,” I said. “Wouldn’t you like that, Oliver?”

Oliver crowed on cue.

Kiki said she always preferred being in her own home. “Oliver, I bet you would like some of the chocolate ice cream that’s turning into a lovely milk shake.”

We followed her into the kitchen, with its painted cabinets and old linoleum. When I took off my jacket to settle in, Kiki said, “Oh, no. Did you get a new tattoo?”

No. You always say that. You’re phobic about my arms.”

“I’ll never get used to them.”

I had a dove and a sparrow and a tiger lily and a branch with leaves. They all stood for things. The dove was to settle a fight, the sparrow was the true New York bird, the tiger lily meant boldness, and the branch was an olive tree in honor of Oliver. I used to try to tell Kiki they were no different from the patterns on rugs. “Are you a floor?” she said.


JOAN SILBER is the author of the story collection Fools, which was long-listed for the National Book Award and nominated for the PEN/Faulker Award. Her first novel, Household Words, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. She has published five other books of fiction, including Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize, and The Size of the World, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Prize in Fiction and one of the Seattle Times’ 10 Best Books of Fiction. She’s been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in the Paris Review, the New YorkerAgniPloughsharesBoulevard, and Epoch, among other publications. The beginning of Improvement was published in Tin House, nominated for an O. Henry Prize, and included in The Best American Short Stories 2015.

Adapted from Improvement, by Joan Silber, Copyright © 2017 by Joan Silber. With the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint.

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Hybridity Mon, 13 Nov 2017 10:00:21 +0000


For Beachcombers

Who Are Tired of Performing Normal


Surrealism runs through the streets.

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez


I stood in front of the bank teller this morning, trying to perform normal.

Wishing I could just go home, get back to work.

See, I’m building a dream library under the house. I’m modeling it after that book hostel in Tokyo. We’ll climb ladders to sleep in shelves. We’ll metamorphose into books. We’ll wake with bent spines.

But here now instead I’m wasting my time standing under these harsh florescent lights, tying to perform sign-here like I’m not re-living the shame of so many years of bounced checks and closed accounts and begging forgiveness for the overdraft fees that mean the difference between rent and no rent and I’m breathing hard even though I have enough money now and all these blackbirds under my skin start pushing to break themselves out, beaks pressing out from the thin peel of my sun-burned chest, and I keep shifting my position, hoping the teller won’t notice the sharp protrusions.

I just want to go home. Get back to work on my dream library. Burrow and write.




Rationalism says that the “me” at the bank who successfully performed normal was the truth.

I signed there.

But that’s not the story I want to tell.

What if here now at my computer—clack clack fingernails on keyboard—is the place I come to be authentically myself


let the birds out?


Reality is debatable.

We all know that.

Magical realism—or the marvelous real—is often defined in opposition to the limits of rigid rationalism.




Listen: If we’re interested in deep change moving forward, we’re going to have to face reality.

And if we’re interested in deep change moving forward, we’re going to have to look past reality.


We’re going to have to see past normal, too.




As far back as I can remember, my dad carried a video camera with him almost everywhere we went. He filmed the moments that made up his experience. He’d been an experimental animator, had a schizophrenia diagnosis now, refused medication. His appearance and body language alone made a lot of normal people nervous. Add the video camera, and my dad got himself into all kinds trouble.

Storekeepers sometimes warned me: “That old man’s recording you.” Or they just straight up called the cops.

Other people yelled at him. Sometimes they punched him up. They grabbed his camera and smashed it on the cement sidewalk, leaving him standing there, unarmed, with the saddest look in his eyes.

People don’t like it when strange men film them.

But my dad didn’t mean any harm. At home in his basement apartment that smelled like turpentine, he watched the footage and sorted out which parts of his day he’d hallucinated and which parts had been the reality that everyone—including his video camera—could see.

After he’d played back the hours, and separated fantasy from camera-seen reality, he’d start to edit a few of his hallucinations back into the narrative.

He’d put a giant duck on stage with the Honolulu Ballet.

Or the ocean on my head.

Sometimes I did feel as though I carried the ocean on my head.




A half-decade ago, as the South Bay Area finalized its mutation from an artist-class intellectual bohemia into capitalism’s tech-central, bulldozers came for the Spanish craftsman I grew up in.

I sent an old friend to grab the giant arched door, imagining I might incorporate it into a home of my own someday.

But the door just waited, silent, in storage, regal and lonely.




In magical realist literature, we are always interested in doors.

In the ways doors act as borders.

In the ways we might open them, destabilize them.

We are interested in all the doors.

In stepping through them, in repurposing them.

Maybe my problem was that I’d imagined my door would always remain a door.


My artist-class lifestyle these days means we’re on the move every few years—priced out and priced out and priced out.

This last move, my wife helped me make a table out of my old door.

A door can always become a table if it isn’t going to settle down.


So, here we sit in our little house out in the high desert. We’re drawing cartoons and writing recipes and reading fantasies and eating enchiladas and clack clack type-typing about hybridity at my arched wooden door-table.

I click the brass lock open and shut, open and shut, and between chocolate cake and the evening creative brain dump that might turn into a zine or a story, its click click, open and shut. My door, at once a symbol of my family history and a symbol of my escape. My door.

Click click, and I open my door.

Click click, and crawl in.

Click click, and I climb down.

Iron rungs stair-step the way; the dirt and rock walls smell damp as I descend, as I keep descending, into the ruins of my history.




When my father and I stepped out the door of his basement apartment into the glare of a foggy morning and headed down to the beach, he didn’t usually carry his video camera with him.

He brought his metal detector instead.

My father was a beachcomber.

Beep beep. We dug up pop tabs and pennies, car parts and the occasional gold ring.

Beep beep. My father taught me that performing normal wasn’t the only game in town.

We combed sand for the castoffs of tourists and the debris of our own histories. We brought our treasures home, and sorted the fragments.

What will we make of this today?




Down here in my dream library, I type curriculum for my writing students until the pressure of the blackbirds under my skin becomes too much. Deep breath, then, into my belly, and as I exhale, all the birds burst through, blood-covered like newborns at first, but they open their wings and fly. They shake it off. They keep flying.

In my dream library, I tend the wounds of my own hybridity.

And get back to work.

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Stephen Elliott: The TNB Self-Interview Fri, 10 Nov 2017 14:00:38 +0000

The last time I interviewed you you were in the midst of a nasty breakup.  You were nervous, constantly looking over your shoulder, scouting for an exit. I thought, this guy is either a crackhead or he is being hunted. I’d heard about your proclivities and I was ready for a little weirdness, but nothing prepared me for the reality. We were only together for half an hour and it seemed like days. The entire time I felt like we were on the precipice of some great violence. I mean, it was innocent enough in the beginning. You were wearing a white dress made of an unusual fabric, plastic or latex, but with the flow and flexibility of cotton. I remember thinking, I would like a dress like that but I’d be embarrassed to wear it. Your face was all scratched from an accident. Or at least that’s what you said. You’d said you’d been on a bus and there was a crash somewhere in downstate Illinois. You insisted on the term “downstate.” You mentioned a Deer tractor and a forklift and a staple gun. You also mentioned “corn people.” And I thought, Hey, I’m the interviewer. It’s not my job to fact check this motherfucker. So I let it slide. I mean, I’d just gotten out of rehab myself and I didn’t want any trouble. It may sound stupid but I was happy to have this job.

I don’t care about your problems. You think you’re not responsible because you’re an addict, because many people you’ve passed traveling your uneven highway have decided against loving you. To me you’re just like any other narcissist working for some international literary conglomerate thinking that every interview you’re assigned is secretly about you. You should just cash your paycheck and go home to your wife (who doesn’t even like you) and your 2.4 kids and pray that nobody ever does decide to pay attention to your petty bullshit because you would burn like a dry leaf under a magnifying glass.


So you have a new essay collection.


The thing was, nobody seemed to care that you had lied but everybody was very upset that I printed your untruths. The Paris Review called me “The Prince of Dubious Assumptions” and the LA Review of Books referred to me as a “marginalized and debased former poet.” What the hell is a former poet?

I’m not taking the bait. I’m not turning this into an interview about you and your “interesting problems.” First off, the last time anybody read anything in The Paris Review was never. Second, you sit in the room with a killer and you talk to that person like he’s your equal, like his sins have been forgiven by a god you don’t even believe in. Then you say this isn’t about guns. And you vote your faith. And you get the republic you deserve. If anything I’d say this crime has been waiting for you your entire life.


Because I sat and did nothing…

Because you ate at the table with murderers and sat passively while crimes were committed in your name. Because you don’t actually believe in free speech. Because you made offensive jokes when you were a child and also when you were no longer a child attending a state university. Because you lied to people when you claimed to love them and you lied to yourself when you claimed to be capable of love. And here we are. Do you remember the date when you interviewed me last time?


February 5, 2010.

And today is November 6, 2017. Yet nothing has changed in your life. Even those tears are no different from the tears you shed before; equal parts salt, water, and self-pity. But I’ve changed. Because the last time you interviewed me for TNB,  it was just a tiny website with a small but dedicated following and I didn’t care about you. Now TNB is the literary equivalent of Google, a diverse starburst erupting with genius and powered by 1,000 lights of great literature past and future. And yet instead of not caring about you I actively dislike you and that’s how I know I’m not who I once was and I am capable of change.


So this is a self-interview.



I thought it would maybe be interesting if we touched on the 14th essay. The one you didn’t include in Sometimes I Think About It.

I didn’t include it for a reason.


It was called Moon and it was about subdividing your manhattan apartment with office particle board into 7 twin-size compartments, each with an air-mattress, which you then rented to budget travelers on AirBnB. The last line really stuck with me. You wrote, “Anybody who says money can’t buy happiness has never been in love with a whore.”

I stand by that statement.


Last question. Are you guilty of all the crimes you’ve been accused of?



I read an essay the other day encouraging Johns to be healthy and work on themselves emotionally . And I thought, how does one do that? Is there a gym for emotional health that isn’t secretly a cult? The answer, unfortunately, is no. They’re all cults. When a mob forms you have to decide to join the mob or watch your house burn. Ultimately, there is no trajectory in life and it’s also not a circle. Nothing except a river flows inevitably toward a destination. The rest is hopscotch, randomly forward and back. Life is a game of chance and the miracle of it all is that we’ve survived this long and arrived wherever we are. Essentially, we’re all just lucky. This would be a good time to sniff the roses before whatever tragedy next befalls us.


You give new meaning to the term Self-Hating Jew.

Lose my number.





STEPHEN ELLIOTT is the author of The Adderall Diaries and Happy Baby, which was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus and the director of the movies About Cherry and After Adderall.

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December:  This Book Is Not For You,  by Daniel A. Hoyt Thu, 09 Nov 2017 19:13:31 +0000 Available from Dzanc Books

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This Book Is Not For You introduces the world to Neptune―a self-destructive and overly self-aware hero for our times. Neptune’s misadventures are funny, harrowing, thrilling, and sweet, and the novel’s recurring Chapter Ones give a fresh start to the story on each page. Neptune’s bad decisions might make you cringe, but you’ll cheer for him…. An exciting and inventive novel.”  –Craig Finn of The Hold Steady

Utilizing an innovative mashup of genres, ranging from pulp fiction, dark comedy, and metafiction, This Book Is Not for You charts the actions of nineteen-year-old Neptune, a misfit and punk haunted by the death of his parents. Having fallen in with an anarchist group determined to blow up a university building, he steals the dynamite instead, igniting an entirely different brand of trouble: the murder of his mentor; a three-way manhunt; and the mystery of the Ghost Machine, a walkman that replays snippets from his own twisted past. Told in a nonstop chain of Chapter Ones, Daniel A. Hoyt’s debut novel explores the clash between chaos and calm, the instinct for self-destruction and the longing for redemption.

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Excerpt from Sometimes I Think About It, by Stephen Elliott Thu, 09 Nov 2017 14:00:18 +0000 Jimmy Wallet Is Buried Alive

Here is a photograph, undated. Jimmy Wallet is seated, his face turned, the sharp lines of his chin and jaw like an alligator that doesn’t bite. He’s terrifically handsome, with a boyish nose and cheeks, a sly smile, a little patch of beard below his lip, long black dreadlocks past his shoulders. His oldest daughter, Jasmine, sits next to him. People say she should be a model. Hannah is sprawled across Jimmy’s lap, looking at the camera, laughing, Jimmy’s hand covering her stomach. Behind him are his two younger girls, Raven and Paloma, and his wife, Mechelle. Raven looks up to her mother, who is turned and kissing the baby, her lips against Paloma’s mouth and nose. It’s a perfect picture, and soon it will be all over the news.

Jimmy Wallet is in motion now. He’s walking to the store. He has a loping, lazy, long-legged walk, arms bouncing near his waist. He’s wearing baggy jeans, a red sweatshirt, and a sleeve- less leather vest. The day is serene. Jimmy breathes deep, smells the Pacific, the sage from the hillside, the jasmine from the yard. When he left Mechelle, she was cleaning up the house, packing boxes, organizing the children’s things. There’ve been tornado warnings, and Mechelle is worried they’ll have to evacuate. The three younger girls were on the sofa when he left. Jasmine is in Ventura with her boyfriend. Mechelle told him on his way out, “I need some milk crates or something so we can organize.”

So he’s looking for milk crates, and he plans to buy ice cream for his little girls. Some people say Jimmy gives his children too much ice cream, but he doesn’t care. Every good father knows that children need ice cream. He takes the opportunity to light a cigarette. He’s been trying to quit, but not today. The cigarette tastes good. If he takes his time, he’ll be able to have another one. He checks out the sky, which is mottled in patches of soft blue. It’s been raining for weeks. Dark clouds linger over the ocean and beyond the avocado trees looming six hundred feet high on the edge of the cliff abutting La Conchita, a tiny town of 250 people between Ventura and Santa Barbara. Maybe the good weather is coming back. Maybe he’ll take the girls to look for arrowheads later. This area once belonged to the Chumash, and when rain washes down the hillsides, there are secret pockets where you can find artifacts if you know where to look.

It’s January 10, and the world looks surreal. The sun dips in and out of shadow, casting a filmic light across the town. The lawns are wet and look like they’ve been brushed with glaze. The damp air carries a cool salt breeze. In the distance Jimmy can just make out the Channel Islands and the oil tankers sitting on the water, all of it hooded in fog. And there are no birds. Today all the birds are gone.

Jimmy reaches the store and throws his arms in the air. CLOSED. It’s the only place in town to get liquor, gas, ice cream, the basics. The store is located at the entrance to La Conchita, a precarious left turn off the 101 Highway heading south. The gas pumps are on Surfside, the first of the town’s two streets that run parallel to the highway. Jimmy and his family live on Santa Barbara, one of eleven short streets that crosshatch the town. The house is just below Rincon, the higher of the two long streets, closer to the cliff. Not quite against it. A block up the hill is a row of houses destroyed in a landslide ten years ago. Those houses still stand, never rebuilt, the roofs collapsed, beams poking from hills of dirt.

“Hey, Gator,” says Brie. “What are you doing?”

Her hands are tucked in her sweat jacket, her hood down. She lives with her boyfriend, Isaiah, in the same house as Jimmy, up- stairs in the crow’s nest. Isaiah’s father, Charlie, built the room, all four walls made of windows. Brie’s twin sister, Annie, lives with her boyfriend, Griffin, in an Airstream out back. Brie stands with Isaiah and his brother, Orion, and a half dozen others.

“It’s closed,” Jimmy says, jerking his thumb toward the gas station and extracting another cigarette. He gives Brie a look that says: Can you believe it? But then he remembers why everything seems so strange: the highway is closed, which explains the store being closed. The 101 straps against La Conchita like a tight belt, a four-lane concrete barrier between the town and the beach. Normally, the white noise from the thousands of cars rushing between Santa Barbara County and Los Angeles is as constant as a sky without seasons. You live in La Conchita, you learn to ignore the highway. You look west and you see the big blue ocean and maybe some caps from the turning surf, but you never even see the cars.

But today there are no cars at all, and that gets Jimmy’s attention. No cars, no birds. At two points north of town, water accumulated on the upslope faster than it could drain out; the mud funnelled down from the canyons and poured over the railroad tracks, onto the highway. Geologists call it a soil slip, a debris ow no deeper than the roots of plants. Still, the slush is two to four feet high in some places. More than fifty vehicles, including a passenger bus, are stranded. A UPS truck is buried to its window. A Honda minivan that had been floating toward a drainage ditch has been lassoed, its side-view mirror looped with twine and staked to the ground. Three command transports from the re department are there, including the specialized swift-water res- cue team. The swift-water guys wear wet suits and carry a Zodiac in case they decide to do a water evacuation.

In La Conchita it’s like a silent holiday. There are children out, playing in the road. It’s Monday; those children should be in school. But no one’s driving anywhere today. People who would normally be at work in Santa Barbara or Ventura are milling around, riding bicycles, sitting on their porches. A few La Conchitans have crawled through the four-foot drainage tunnel that runs beneath the highway and connects the town to the beach. A group of maybe fifty is down by the tracks, rubbernecking at the rescue site. But by 1:15, after more than six hours, the operation is coming to a close. The stranded motorists have been helped through the mud to a waiting sheriff’s bus and trans- ported to a shelter. The Ventura police department is clearing the cars.

A news crew covering the rescue resets its cameras just down the street and starts doing man-on-the-street interviews. A helicopter passes overhead, swooping up the slope and disappearing behind the ridge. Jimmy cups his cigarette in his hand. He’s stalling now. One more cigarette and he’ll go home.

“We should have dinner on the beach later,” someone suggests to Jimmy as he slides the cigarette between his lips. Dinner on the beach—why not?

A child throws a ball high in the air. An artist who lives three doors down from Jimmy leaves pasta to boil for her two children and stands on her porch, staring across the empty highway to the water.

“Look,” someone calls. “There’s dirt coming down.”


Jimmy and Mechelle have been in La Conchita only three months. They met at Ventura High School when they were both fifteen and have been almost inseparable ever since. It was adolescent infatuation that never faded. They married just out of high school and had their first child at twenty-one. They’re thirty-eight now and still in love.

But the previous year had been hard. Jimmy suffered a back injury on a construction job and has been out of work. He didn’t belong to a union; there was no insurance, no benefits. There was no money, and the family had nowhere to live. Mechelle left him, took the girls and moved in with her grandmother. Jimmy moved in with friends in Pierpont, sleeping on couches. He stayed out late, got in trouble with the police.

Somewhere in that time Jimmy hit bottom. He had no work. He’d lost his wife and his children. It seemed like every morning he woke on a different couch. He called the best man he knew: Charlie Womack. He asked if he and Mechelle and his daughters could maybe come stay with Charlie and his family in La Conchita. Charlie’s answer: “What took you so long?” Jimmy laughed, relieved, and said he’d just been waiting for the right time. To make room for the Wallets, Charlie moved himself into the teepee in the yard. Then he got Jimmy back to work in his construction business.

But that’s Charlie: the biggest heart in Ventura County. Fifty years old, tall and rangy, a musician and a DJ, a legend in the sur ng community for his contributions to the design of the five-finned Bonzer board (and for being the first surfer to ride it), Charlie moved into his house in La Conchita seven years ago and right away set about making it his own. He laid flagstone tile in the kitchen and mixed concrete with orange stain for the counters. He installed a six-burner stove with a hood and a beer fridge outside. He built decks surrounding the house, tended guava trees, brought in a wooden hot tub from 1972. His children— Orion, twenty-six, Isaiah, twenty-five, and Tessa, fourteen—live with him and revere him possibly even more than his friends do.

Also notable on Charlie’s property is a lime-green bus, a beast of a vehicle with yellow and red stripes and a string of dancing zebras. There’s a gigantic deck on top—the best place in La Conchita to watch the sunset—and a recording studio inside. This year Charlie intends to take the bus to Burning Man. Jimmy and Charlie sit out there at night singing songs, Jimmy on bass, Charlie playing guitar. Isaiah joins them sometimes, and some of the neighbors too. Nobody ever tells them to keep it down.

Twelve people live on Charlie’s property, sometimes more. Charlie’s nickname is Llama, like the monks, and they call them- selves the Llama Tribe. Brie does most of the cooking on Charlie’s giant stove. She loves to cook: roast chicken for Charlie and Isaiah, homemade marshmallows for the kids. Mechelle helps. Christina Kennedy from across the street often brings the food.


That’s La Conchita. Some people down the road in Ventura say it’s nothing but weirdos and hippies, but that isn’t entirely true. The town has an undeniably loose vibe, but most people have jobs: lawyers, electricians, schoolteachers, surfers, engineers, musicians. There’s no crime; you can leave your door open at night. Mike Bell, the unofficial town mayor, a retired safety coordinator for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, carts a wagon down the streets and hands out margaritas. People call him Margarita Mike, and he’s friends with everybody.

Jimmy and Mechelle are happy here. They t in. When Mechelle’s not homeschooling her girls, she makes vegan cakes that she sells all over the county, or silk-and-velvet eye rests filled with flaxseed and lavender, to help people sleep at night. Hannah sews, like her mother, makes clothes for her Barbie dolls. Two- year-old Paloma is learning the drums. She’s decided to marry Isaiah but tells Brie she can still live with them.

With Charlie’s help, Jimmy has put his life back together in La Conchita. The two of them build frame houses together, pouring concrete for the base, laying foundation, putting up walls. When Jimmy isn’t working, he lifts Hannah on his shoulders and cruises town with his little girls, Raven carrying a longboard that’s twice as long as she is. Everybody waves at them; it’s like

being on parade. Jimmy calls it Never-Never Land, a paradise for his children.

Beach parties, surfing, community. Sunsets like lipstick on cotton. Whales from your bedroom window. The last place in Southern California a poor man can live with a view of the ocean.

Monday, 1:20 p.m. First a snap, then a pop of white smoke.

The landslide takes eight seconds.

The soaked hillside detaches from the scarp, breaking apart as it tumbles at speeds up to thirty feet per second, dust like smoke above a viscous four-hundred-thousand-ton slab of earth. A collective gasp escapes from the crowd watching the rescue operation. The mud moves like a cement river, makes noises like airplanes piercing the sound barrier, runs like thick soup down the slope, into the retaining wall. The ow rams the wall and shoots thirty feet in the air before blasting through the structure’s center, simultaneously diverting south toward Jimmy’s family. Power lines slap together; a flash crackles above the mud.

“Look out!” yells John Morgan.

Kyle Larson had been loading some things into his car on Rincon. He hears Morgan’s scream and takes off down the hill. Greg Ray, who had been helping Kyle, dives between two cars. A trailer spins over the top of him and flattens the vehicles down to the wheels.

Jimmy and Isaiah sprint toward their home.


The mud fills houses, and the houses pop like water balloons. The slide carries trailers and cars as easily as paper. Below the surface, the trapped vehicles operate as blades, clearing the land of human debris. Phone poles buckle and fall. Everything lifts from, then sinks into, the ground, like fruit in a blender. Countertops crash through garages, dressers spin over shingles, cars ride

upside down across a tide of broken windows and floorboards. Jimmy and Isaiah keep running.

A bus turns over just yards before Jimmy. Mud cakes its fender. Earth plasters its bent grille. Streets disappear beneath mud twenty and thirty feet deep. A roof collapses. That house belongs to Diane Hart, Jimmy’s neighbor. Isaiah and Jimmy scramble up the caved-in roof, onto the top of the mound.

“No, no, no.”

Firemen rush up from the highway, their heavy jackets flapping at their knees. Jimmy digs into the earth, searching for his family. He reaches as far as he can, but it’s almost impossible to get his hands in. As quickly as it fell, the mound has hardened into a dense mass, heavy as granite. His hands fill with splinters and stones as he pulls rocks and beams from the wreckage. Nothing is where it was before.


An eight-hundred-foot shelf of land, pushed up from the ocean eons ago and pounded with near-record rain for two weeks. Most of the rain ran off, leaving the front of the mountain dry and hard beneath its thin, wet surface. But farther up the hill, the water seeped through fractures left from the ’95 slide and soaked behind the scarp like a garden hose filling a swimming pool, raising the groundwater level, saturating a weak layer of clay beneath the mountain. When the mountain failed, it was like a battering ram on ball bearings, the fluid clay deep below the surface carrying the heavy, dry earth above it. It was only a matter of time—the young rocks, the weak material, the near-vertical face, the steep scarp left from 1995, pressured from the ocean like a rug pushed across a hardwood floor, a tug-of-war between tectonics and gravity, the long folds of earth struggling toward their angle of repose.


Search-and-rescue teams are dispatched from Moorpark and L.A. County, the hulls of their vehicles filled with aluminum shoring, video equipment with collapsible necks, gas sensors, wedged cribbing, sound-monitoring devices. The site is quickly divided into disaster zones; round-the-clock support is initiated. Natural gas leaks from pipes twisted like licorice while gasoline spills from vehicles ripped open like sardine cans.

Isaiah hears moaning inside the pile and reaches through the wood, splinters digging into his forearm. Isabel Vasquez, who was visiting a friend, who doesn’t even live here, is pinned beneath an armoire, trapped against an exterior wall. She grasps Isaiah’s hand.

Others are saved too. Diane Hart, a nurse, buried in a closet stuffed with pillows she had made to protect herself from tornados. Kyle Larson, a photography student, moments ahead of the mountain, survives only because of John Morgan’s scream and the thick traction of his heavy fishing boots. Greg Ray, a retired Disney animator, was wedged between the battered trailers and cars in a space no larger than a coffin. He’s pulled from his tomb after three hours.

There are early casualties: Tony Alvis, who led tours on horseback and was said to have known the Los Padres National Forest better than any man alive. Christina Kennedy, who had been putting the final touches on a BMW she had rebuilt in her front yard. Vanessa Bryson, who was supposed to have left town today for a new job at an AIDS hospital in Seattle. And John Morgan, a quiet but friendly man who’d tended the grounds at the naval yard for thirty years and who allowed homeless men to park on his property.

Jimmy digs until he is exhausted, hair matted and soaked with sweat, his arms burning, folded over his knees, working above cracked timber on the perimeter, then throwing a piece of roofing at one of the many camera crews that have descended on the tragedy. “If you’re not going to dig,” he shouts, “then go away.”

The sheriffs seal off the area. Late at night, Jimmy thinks he hears his daughters crying. Monitors are inserted into the ground, electronic ears listening for whispers of heartbeat. Nothing. The geologists say if it rains again the mountain will move, and at eleven the rain returns. Arc lights set above the mounds blur the stars, blending day into night.

Jimmy brings six friends from Ventura, and they help him dig all night. Early in the morning, he drives Jasmine back to her boyfriend’s place, and when he returns to La Conchita, he’s arrested trying to re-enter the area. He’s forced down the road in hand-cuffs, crying, “My family is in there. I’ve been digging for two days!” The battalion chief on duty decides to allow Jimmy to continue with the rescue efforts. When a sheriff warns him that it’s dangerous, Jimmy replies that he doesn’t care if he dies.


On the second day, prison crews arrive in neon jumpsuits. Heavy equipment rolls in. Bulldozers and tractors scratch the mound, searching for spaces. When a void is found, the machinery stops and the prisoners operate in human chains, extracting buckets of earth. Isaiah and Jimmy are allowed to work alongside them. Residents who have left La Conchita to sleep with relatives and friends in Santa Barbara and Ventura sneak back into town along a trail from Rincon Beach.

Thirty hours after the mudslide, hope is all but gone. The birds have returned, but how did they know? The last rescue was made more than twenty hours ago. Dogs troll the earth, snouts pressed into the ground. These are not rescue dogs. They’re trained to smell cadavers. But the air reeks mostly of mineral deposits ripped from the cliff.

Late Tuesday, Jimmy finds Raven’s shoe. Just before he went out for ice cream, he had tucked a jacket over his youngest, placed his bass guitar next to her, and given her a book. Raven liked to feel she had her own space. She was different from his other daughters, louder. Blond hair and blue eyes, like her mother’s father. When she was born she wasn’t breathing and had to be given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She’d been talking ever since.

No man should survive both his wife and children. Jimmy lies in the street and prays.


In the end, there are ten rescues and ten fatalities. Jimmy and Isaiah are credited with saving two lives. Charlie Womack is found dead a few minutes before eleven p.m. on Monday night. Mechelle Wallet is found late Tuesday night and identified by Jimmy at two a.m. Wednesday morning, mud caked on her lips and in her long black hair, her pale skin like plaster.

Hannah, Raven, and Paloma are the last victims to be found. They are next to each other beneath the purple couch they had been sitting on, exactly as Jimmy said they would be. The bodies are brought to the gas station, which had been turned first into a triage center and now into a morgue. Jimmy leans in to smell his children. He presses his nose against their faces. They smell like the dirt and rock of the landscape around them.


There’s a ranch house in Carpinteria, California, five miles north of La Conchita on the 101. Jimmy Wallet lives here with Isaiah and Brie, Annie and Griffin. Brie’s fourteen-year-old brother, Justin, lives in the house, and so does Charlie’s youngest daughter, Tessa, also fourteen. There’s a room for Jasmine too. Jimmy hopes she’ll move in—she’s only sixteen, after all—but for now she chooses to stay with her boyfriend in Ventura. It’s a small house for the survivors of the Llama Tribe, with one bathroom, a small kitchen, and a small yard in the front where they can see the green mountains in the distance. They’ve planted flowers in the front yard. A friend of the family has given them four months of rent for free. The owners are planning on tearing it down within the year.

Brie has lost her taste for cooking, so they eat out a lot. When they sit in restaurants, people point and whisper: Are those the mudslide survivors? So terrible. They don’t fit in here. Carpinteria is a quiet, affluent community with shopping malls and quaint restaurants. It’s a nice place, but you wouldn’t sit on your porch playing music late at night. The engraved wooden sign that greeted visitors to Charlie Womack’s house—MUSIC IS LOVE—now sits in their living room, which is also a bedroom.

By ten p.m. every night the house is dark. Early in the morning, someone takes Tessa and Justin to school. Twenty-five-year-old Isaiah is the father now, head of the household, responsible for the children and keeping the tribe together. He’s good at it, kind of like his dad was, but a little more practical. He’s returned to working on a construction truck and is fighting to keep custody of his little sister. He watches over Tessa’s schoolwork, and her grades improve from Ds and Fs to As and Bs. He teases her, and she reminds him he’s not supposed to do that anymore, he’s the adult now. “Oh yeah,” he says, messing her hair. “That’s right.”

A lumberyard nearby has offered to donate wood. Isaiah hopes they can persuade someone to give them land so they can build their own house. They dream of moving back near the mountain.

Jimmy’s hair is turning gray. The walls of his room are painted earth red and covered with Buddhist drawings and pictures of his children. There are sticks of willow on the ceiling, which are supposed to keep bad spirits away. He’s been reading books on death and dying, books of poetry, books on spirituality: Highest Yoga Tantra, Tara the Feminine Divine, The Book of Buddhas. He’s trying to homeschool himself the way he and Mechelle taught their children. He wants to write poetry but can’t seem to get it on the page. Instead he speaks his poems to his friends and asks them to remember.

He wears his grief on his outside. It’s hard sometimes to breathe. He searches for other people who have suffered a similar loss but can’t find anybody. His mind floats back to one day in late December. The children were asleep. He and Mechelle were lying in bed, watching footage of the tsunami in Asia, feeling awful for the people on the other side of the world watching their kids float away. They held each other for comfort and they cried. At the time, the rains were just getting started in La Conchita.


One night Jimmy almost gets in a fight at a bar in Ventura when a drunk off-duty fireman tells him he wouldn’t help the people in La Conchita, because they’re living at their own peril. “I would help you,” Jimmy replies, a friend tugging at his arm, trying to keep the two men separated. “I would die for any person in this bar.”

Some people say Jimmy’s doing well, all things considered. As good as can be expected. Some say he hasn’t changed at all, he’s still spiritual, he’s still full of love. He tries to reassure the people around him. But Isaiah worries about him, talks about taking him somewhere so he can get his head straight. He’d like to take Jimmy to Hawaii or Mexico for a little while but can’t imagine how.

Jimmy doesn’t remember where he goes during the day; he doesn’t have an answer for the question of how he spends his nights. He leaves Carpinteria for days at a time. He says every- thing just blends together since the mudslide. He knows he visits Jasmine. And he knows he spends time on the hill.

One night in mid-March, Jimmy pulls the covers and rises from his bed. He gets in his car, gets on the 101, and heads south. The air is cool. He passes an oil plant, its chimney shooting a flame into the night. As he rounds Rincon Beach, a blinking yellow light announces the intersection ahead. He pulls into La Conchita.

More than half the residents have returned, despite warnings. Several days after the mudslide, a journalist asked one of the residents why he lived in La Conchita; the man just pointed west to the Pacific. The reporters are gone now; the houses are dark. There is only the sound of birds and the ocean and the steady whine of cars below. A fence encircles the disaster area, which covers about a quarter mile. Inside the fence, buttressing the mountain behind it, hills of mud and debris rise twice as high as the roofline.

Jimmy lifts the fence at its edge, squats close to the ground, one hand in the dirt, and slips inside. On top of the nearest mound are two yellow-and-red sections of his daughter’s playhouse, held in place by rocks. At the bottom of the piles are toys: a rubber ball, a plastic doll, a torn-up football. The fence is covered in flowers and decorated with red ribbon that spells HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PALOMA. Brie and Isaiah tied it there on March 15, which would have been her third birthday.

This is where he feels most comfortable, where everything was going so well, near his children, the mountain at his back, the ocean spread out in front of him. He comes here almost every night.


Early spring, early morning, and there are already a half dozen surfers in the water. The waves are six to eight feet and seem to run perpendicular to the shore because of the shape of the cove. The water crosses itself, with one set of waves rolling toward the harsh rock outcropping as another set moves in a broad arc toward the beach. The land below the highway in this part of Ventura County curves at nearly ninety degrees, creating a perfect break, provided you don’t stray too far from the cove and get washed across the rocks. Just beyond the pier is the beach attached to La Conchita, the small path beneath the highway its only access point.

A blanket of dark clouds is gathering. The rain may be coming back. A young girl, no older than ten, her hair loose and free, catches wave after wave in the cove. She cuts through the other surfers, riding the water’s sharp edges away from the shore, toward the islands in the distance. She disappears in a tunnel of bright water, then appears again, the ocean bubbly white beneath her. Finally, the wave curls into itself, and the child is flicked from her board like an ant from a lunch table. No match for nature, she spreads her arms wide, a long, thin band attached to her ankle. The board tilts up, dives into the surf. The girl disappears, then emerges moments later.


—Ventura, California, 2005


STEPHEN ELLIOTT is the author of The Adderall Diaries and Happy Baby, which was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. He is the founding editor of the Rumpus and the director of the movies About Cherry and After Adderall.

“Jimmy Wallet is Buried Alive,” from Sometimes I Think About It. Copyright © 2017 by Stephen Elliott. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,

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Episode 491 — Carmen Maria Machado Wed, 08 Nov 2017 05:08:41 +0000

Now playing on the Otherppl podcast, a conversation with Carmen Maria Machado. Her debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is available from Graywolf Press. It is a finalist for both the 2017 National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, and is the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize.

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Rosalie Morales Kearns: The TNB Self-Interview Tue, 07 Nov 2017 22:54:15 +0000 Kingdom of Women’s main character, Averil Parnell, is the world’s first female Roman Catholic priest. We learn early on in the novel that she’s the lone survivor of a massacre of 22 women who were about to be ordained. Why give her such a traumatic backstory?

It wasn’t a conscious decision. The backstory was part of what came to me with the character. And since it shaped her life, it shaped the plot in fundamental ways. She probably wouldn’t have started to have religious visions, or had an affair with the most unsuitable man possible, if she weren’t so traumatized.


Which raises the question: who is a suitable person for a Catholic priest to have an affair with?

Ha! Presumably no one, since they take a vow of celibacy. But you’d think a priest would want someone who’s understanding and comforting and supportive—and preferably non-Catholic, or at least not a parishioner. Someone other than a violent, sociopathic serial rapist.


And the violent sociopath is a Catholic.

Yes, Averil has a great deal in common with John Honig, weirdly enough. That’s one of the things that torments Averil about the affair. Beside the fact that she doesn’t even like him.


What’s with the epigraphs?

I love epigraphs. I know there are people who dislike them, and I hope it doesn’t put them off. A lot of the epigraphs are from writings by medieval European women, mostly mystics. Averil was a historian of medieval Christianity, before the massacre put an end to her scholarly career. The epigraphs give a good sense of the kind of work she would have been immersed in, and also gives an idea of the breadth and variety of women’s religious experiences at that time. Her own visions don’t spring out of nowhere; she’s one of a long line of visionary women.

Other epigraphs come from the U.S. history of radical activism, including the Black abolitionist David Walker (“It is no more harm for you to kill a man who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty”). And then of course there are the epigraphs from the Bible (I love those disgruntled women complaining to the prophet Jeremiah) and from non-canonical gospels.

It’s funny how relevant some of these were. I had put a lot of thought into Averil’s age at the opening of the novel, bearing in mind how long since her ordination, how many years are covered in the rest of the book, etc., and decided that she’s 43 as the novel opens. Then I found that quote from Hildegard of Bingen: “It was in my 43rd year … that a voice from heaven addressed me: O fragile child of earth, ash of ashes, dust of dust, express and write that which you see and hear.”

And then, in the midst of Averil’s obsessive affair with John, we have this epigraph from Hadewijch of Antwerp, whose work Averil had specialized in: “Sometimes also the evil spirit is the cause of sweetness.” It couldn’t be more apt.


You describe the book’s setting as a “slightly alternate near-future.” Have current events caught up with the things you imagined?

I started working on drafts of the novel well before 2000, but then I would set it aside for years at a time while I got my MFA and finished my short story collection. I started submitting it to agents and publishers in 2012. Obviously the Roman Catholic Church still doesn’t ordain women. But in other ways, it’s been kind of eerie how certain aspects of the novel seem more relevant now. I couldn’t have foreseen that The Handmaid’s Tale would be made into a hit mini-series after all these years. Also, in Erda (the former North Dakota, before it seceded), the president is a Black woman, and that’s part of what brings all the foaming-at-the-mouth racist misogynists out of the woodwork. They form a revitalized armed white-supremacist movement called Aryan Revival, with covert help from the U.S. government. At the time I thought that up, I had definitely not foreseen Barack Obama’s career, or the toxic response to it.


About the title: have any mansplainers pointed out that the word “kingdom” by definition can’t be “of women”?

That’s been explained to me. I’m so grateful.


You’re half-Puerto Rican, but your main character isn’t Latina. Could you talk about that decision?

Several answers to that. One is that Averil isn’t a fictionalized version of me. Second, I definitely pictured all the members of the novel’s central triangle—priest, assassin, rapist—as white, with white privilege forming part of their lives’ trajectory. On the other hand, one of the main secondary characters is a Black woman. And the original Erda (before it expanded after the war) was this lovely, hippie-ish utopian community that, besides being non-patriarchal, was also majority-people-of-color. Given my own upbringing, with Puerto Rican relatives and African-American neighbors, that feels like a very safe and loving environment to me.


ROSALIE MORALES KEARNS, author of the novel Kingdom of Women (Jaded Ibis Press), is a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent. She’s the founder of the feminist publishing house Shade Mountain Press, author of the story collection Virgins and Tricksters, and editor of the short story anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women. A product of Catholic schooling from kindergarten through college, Kearns has a B.A. in theology and an M.F.A. in creative writing.

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Excerpt of Kingdom of Women, by Rosalie Morales Kearns Tue, 07 Nov 2017 17:41:56 +0000 Prologue: Make Straight the Paths

 Ciara Neal, bleary eyed at the bar, was vaguely aware that her friends had left. In fact, all the customers were gone except her, and still Fran didn’t call closing time. She hovered nearby, clearing off glasses and muttering. Something about a priest. Then a word that managed to penetrate Ciara’s brain fog.

“Did you say ‘vigilantes’?”

“Drink this.”

Fran slammed down a coffee mug in front of her. It didn’t smell like coffee. Didn’t taste like any tea Ciara knew of. Presumably it was the same stuff that Fran swilled down every night. If she had to guess, she’d have said it was brewed from tobacco leaves.

“I’ve been listening to you mouth off all night,” Fran said, “louder and louder with each beer you put away. And here’s what I have to say to you: quit your whining. How many people even have the chance to go to college?”

“You don’t understand—”

“I got the picture clear enough. Some teacher’s turned on you ‘cause you won’t sleep with him. College ain’t so different from the rest of the world.”

“I’ve finished college,” Ciara said. “I’m in graduate school now. I’m getting a Ph.D. and this professor could ruin everything for me. He’s a big name, he throws his weight around. He says he’ll stop me from getting any more fellowship money. Even if I could afford grad school after that, he’ll blacklist me from getting jobs when I finish.”

“And now you’re telling your friends and the rest of the bar and who knows who else, that you’re going to kill the wretched man if it’s the last thing you do.”

Ciara picked at a forgotten bowl of bar nuts.

“I filed a complaint. It went nowhere. My word against his.”

“So the next step is what, a bullet in his brain?”

“What’s the alternative, walk away quietly while he ruins my life and fucks over anyone who won’t put out for him? Don’t tell me forgive and forget. I’m so fucking tired of hearing that.”

Fran studied the girl. She had a head of auburn hair that reminded Fran of her nieces back in Ireland. Even the personalities were similar. The same blazing anger and beauty, equal parts.

“Here’s the next thing I’m going to tell you,” Fran said. “But for god’s sake don’t go blabbing about it every time you get some beer sloshing through your bloodstream. There are people—women—who feel the same way you do, who’ll help you free of charge and no strings attached. There’s women like that in every town. They’re all around you, if you know where to look.”

“They’ll help me—how?”

“Rock through a window. Slash his tires. Shatter his kneecaps.”

“Do they go any further than that?”

“You don’t want to go that far.”

“Yes I do.”

“Don’t argue with me, girl. Killing’s not a light matter.”

“I want this man to suffer. I’m not going to stop wanting that. I want to hit him back, hard, and move on with my life.”

Fran suddenly felt tired. It took endless work to keep this bar from subsiding into a pile of beer-soaked lumber. But it was her place, all her own.

There had been a time when she was young, and not so watchful as she was now. Men had seemed larger then. Louder. They seemed to have no limits unless the limits were slammed down on their heads like two-by-fours.

“Can you give me their names?” Ciara said.

“Before I do, there’s someone you should talk to first.”


Chapter 1: Advent

For those with ears to hear, voices of long-dead monks still lingered at St. Anthony of Padua’s Monastery in rural Connecticut. The monks had been there for over a hundred and sixty years. They had tended vegetable garden and fruit orchard, cleared underbrush from the forested hills, kept the wide lawns neatly mown. They laid down flagstone paths, repaired church pews, scaled roofs to replace tiles and fix gutters. For visitors they built picnic tables and a playground lined with mulberry and crabapple trees.

Through all that work and all those decades they had chanted and sung, hummed and whispered, together, in mostly perfect unison, Matins and Vespers, Te Deums and Ave Marias.

Then their numbers thinned. The few remaining monks grew old and died. The garden was choked with weeds, the orchard spectral and overgrown. People called the place picturesque when they really meant dilapidated.

But the brotherhood persisted on the other side of that bright dividing line, and the monks were still there, humming and watching, when the archdiocese of Hartford bought the place, and when the two priests arrived to transform it into a retreat house: curmudgeonly Peter Byrne and his idealistic young colleague Marc Cvetko.

Then came the renovations: workshops turned into guesthouses, barn into meeting rooms.

Last year a new one had shown up: a woman priest, of all the daft, new-fangled things this new century had wrought. The monk-spirits were inclined to be disapproving, but they couldn’t help pitying her, knowing the bloody beginnings of her priestly career. And she looked so fragile: sharp elbows and jutting shoulder blades, fever-bright eyes. You would have thought she was recovering from an illness if not for that exuberant dark hair, that reckless smile.

On this autumn afternoon they watched Averil Parnell stride to the playground, drawn by the high, clear laughter that had reached her all the way to the Refectory. Two children were there, a little girl on a swing and an older boy who sat on the carousel reading.

The girl looked to be about four. Averil chose a swing a few seats away, straightened her legs out and lowered her back. On the upswing, with her feet pointing to the sky, her hair grazed the ground. “See, I’m a broom,” she said.

Some of the sterner monks frowned. So undignified.

The little girl tried it herself. “I’m a broom too.”

They could hear the boy behind them: “I don’t know if you should be doing that, Ginnie.”

The two of them, woman and girl, picked up speed, bodies tilting backward on the upswing, forward on the downswing. Averil closed her eyes, concentrated on the headlong rushing sensation and that moment at the top of the arc where she was that much closer to the sun, buoyed up by light and air.

Like an echo to the boy’s anxious treble came another voice, the booming baritone of her colleague Peter Byrne: “Averil. There’s someone who needs to speak to you.”

As she dragged her swing to a stop, Peter noted the playground dust in her hair, the dark eyes looking at him with no trace of embarrassment. How she could have been a pastor of her own parish for all those years was a mystery.

The girl who was with him started speaking before Averil was even close enough to shake hands.

“This conversation is just a formality,” Ciara said. “I’ve already made up my mind. I want him dead, the son of a bitch.”

“There are children present.” Peter tried to hiss, but the words sounded more like a low roar. The monks respected Peter for that voice of his. Barrel-chested, angry men had lungs like a set of bellows. He would have made an impressive addition to their choir.

Averil, alarmed by Peter’s beet-red face, pictured heat and pressure building up inside him like a red dwarf star until some kind of explosion resulted. Whatever stars did, implode, explode. Topple from the heavens.

“Let’s go somewhere and talk,” she told the young woman.

Peter later thought of Ciara’s visit as the beginning of what he called The Onslaught. Some people had known all along that Averil was here at St. Anthony’s now: Her former parishioners at St. Margaret’s. Her off-beat friends from exotic religions: Wicca, Santeria, United Church of Christ. Later, others found out too. People who suddenly became regulars at Mass at St. Anthony’s. People who had never darkened the door of any church prior to that.

But before all that, before The Onslaught, was the first one. The girl with the red hair, was how Peter thought of her, failing to do justice to either Ciara’s age, her hair’s magnificent burnt-gold color, or her majestic anger.


Ciara had never given much thought to religion, hadn’t known what to expect from this meeting with the woman priest. She’d pictured an office like a therapist’s, coffee in styrofoam cups. Instead they sat on the grass near a picnic area. An enormous gray tabby cat showed up and the priest introduced the animal as if it had been invited to observe.

Both the priest and the cat were gazing over at the church, more focused on that, it seemed, than on what Ciara was saying about the harasser, about Fran and her mysterious hints.

“I suppose I had an easier time in college,” Averil said finally. Or, she reflected, maybe she’d been oblivious. Living with Asher had been like being in a cocoon.

“It must be an urban legend,” Ciara said. “Groups of vigilante women. If they really existed, it would be all over the newspapers.”

She waited for a response. Averil said nothing.

“Well, this is an awkward moment,” Ciara said. “You don’t want to lie, I suppose, being a priest and all, but you don’t want to tell me what you know, either.”

“When I finished seminary,” Averil said, “they had an ordination ceremony for the Roman Catholic Church’s first women priests. There were twenty-three of us.”

“Damn. I didn’t realize that was you. I’m sorry.”

The Cathedral Massacre. Ciara was a child at the time but had learned about it later. One man with a semi-automatic weapon and a venomous hatred of women. Averil Parnell was the only survivor.

“What happened to the motherfucker? Pardon my language.”

“People finally reached him, wrestled the gun away. There were some shots fired in the scuffle and the man was killed.”

“You couldn’t even get revenge.”

In the silence Averil heard the unspoken questions: What do you do with the anger? And the young woman’s more immediate, more pressing concern: What should I do with it?

“Anger doesn’t just disappear,” Averil said. “It bubbles along, it surfaces in different ways. You try not to feel it every waking minute. You learn to live with it.”

Right after her ordination, before the years at St. Margaret’s, Averil had been assigned to a quiet parish out in the countryside, nominally to assist the pastor, but actually they wanted her to pick up where her dissertation left off, start the brilliant career in academe they all assumed she would have.

Women she’d never seen before had showed up, made offers. Fuck him, they said, and the horse he rode in on. Of course the bastard was dead, but there were others who could be made to pay. The gun dealer who sold him the weapon. The judge who paroled him after he’d beaten a woman bloody. Hell, anyone who’d ever given him a kind word instead of grinding him into the dirt where he belonged.

Averil wanted no part of it, barely understood what they were talking about.

They returned a few times. What about justice? they said. Isn’t that what your god is all about?

I don’t know what my god is all about, Averil said.

Mostly she worked in the rectory garden. People made complaints about the scarecrow she’d put up. Too realistic, they’d said. The way he’s hanging there—it looks like a real man she’s tied up to that crosspost.

“Learn to live with it?” Ciara said. “That’s your answer?”

Averil stroked the grass beneath her hands, closed her eyes and felt the breeze on her face. As for man, his days are as grass. She had heard that phrase as a child, recognized its biblical cadence but not its meaning, pictured sunny warm days in the backyard. Only later did she wonder about the other possibilities. Days as grass—meant to be cut short? Meant to wilt? Meant to keep coming back?

“You could hang him in effigy,” Averil said. “Then again, in a few weeks it’ll be Halloween, a good time for bonfires.”


“Symbolic revenge. I know people who would help set it up.”

“That won’t do a damn thing.”

“Try it,” Averil said. “For my sake. Before you go back to Fran.”


The monk-spirits fretted over Averil Parnell. Her undignified behavior and general unkemptness they could overlook. More worrisome was her procrastination. Not perhaps a Deadly Sin, but certainly a moral failing.

In her life before the priesthood she’d been a scholar, a historian of medieval Christianity and a rising star in the field. They felt—and Averil did too—that she should get back to her scholarly writing. She was forty-two years old, well past time to produce another book on the medieval women writers she’d specialized in before.

She had been the pastor of St. Margaret’s for ten years—reason enough, she used to console herself, for not returning to her scholarship. Now she had no excuse.

Averil gripped her pen and notebook. A scholar needed to narrow down a topic. Identify a research question. She would decide on something. Now.

She closed her eyes. Nothing.

“I had a fine mind once,” she said out loud to the empty room.

The words had flowed easily all through the child-prodigy years, a high school diploma at age sixteen, graduating college at nineteen. Sailing through her graduate work in history, when the momentous decision was made to accept women to the priesthood. Earning an M.Div. while finishing a Ph.D. and hardly breaking a sweat.

Then came the massacre. The words skittered off into dark corners, crouched down and dug in and refused to come out.

All the words she’d had, they’d done her no good. Her fine mind was no match for blood-soaked horror.

Jesus could not have been clearer: Turn the other cheek. For all you could argue about who he really was, what he thought he was, you couldn’t get around the basic message. Forgive, forgive, and then forgive some more.

Women in the confessional, whispering even in the privacy of the small cushioned booth, memories of being wronged, angry thoughts of revenge, and Averil had said forgive.

When they whispered that the revenge had been taken, she gave them absolution.

God is love. Love is forgiveness.

She thought about Ciara, and about the long-gone scarecrow.

She had torn that scarecrow down, dragged it into the church one evening when the elderly pastor was away, pronounced anathema on the cathedral killer and his straw stand-in. A brand-new priest taking on a power technically reserved for the pope.

“In the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” she had said, using for once the patriarchal language, “in the name of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given me of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth . . .”

She held a lit candle in each hand, raised them over her head as she stood at the altar. Besides not being the pope, she was not surrounded by the requisite eleven other priests, all chanting in unison. Nor was she following the correct wording. Gone was any mention of the possibility of reconciliation, should the sinner repent.

“I deprive you and all your abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, I separate you from the society of all Christians, I exclude you from our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, I declare you excommunicated and anathematized and I judge you condemned to eternal torment.”

She raised her arms and dropped them. The candles clattered onto the altar and went out.

“You are damned, you are damned, you are damned.”

She had never told anyone about this private ceremony. Had never asked forgiveness. Had never considered that she needed forgiveness.

Now, in the peaceful darkness of her rooms at St. Anthony’s, sins suffered and sins inflicted reverberated off each other, a hall of mirrors.

She looked at the empty page as if looking down a long corridor into the past. Not only the murders of her companions, but so many murders before that. A long, vast history of men killing women.

People sometimes asked Averil, obliquely, about the massacre and its effects on her. “How are you?” they would say. “Really, how are you doing?” and she knew what they were asking.

She wanted to tell them about the Black Death, the plague that carried off a third of medieval Europe’s population. The survivors reacted with extremes of behavior.

It’s a punishment from God, some claimed. They fasted, gave away their earthly possessions. They flogged themselves, earning the title Flagellants: holy fools with whips and blood-seeping scars.

On the opposite side were those who drank heavily, gorged themselves on food and sex. We’re doomed anyway, they said, why not enjoy ourselves at the end? Maybe they too believed that the plague was sent by God, or maybe in private they decided there was no God, and this senseless destruction was the proof of it.

Sometimes roving bands of penitents met up on the road with wandering revelers. Averil liked to imagine the scene. One group heading east, the other west, they mingled as they crossed paths and forgot for a moment who they were, which group they belonged to. Ashen-faced penitents took swigs from flasks, boisterous carousers whipped themselves with nettles.

Years after the massacre, when well-meaning acquaintances asked her how she felt, how she survived, Averil wanted to tell them about those encounters during the plague years. She was still there, she wanted to tell them, still on that road.


ROSALIE MARIE KEARNS, author of the novel Kingdom of Women (Jaded Ibis Press, December 2017), is a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent. She’s the founder of the feminist publishing house Shade Mountain Press, author of the story collection Virgins and Tricksters, and editor of the short story anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women. A product of Catholic schooling from kindergarten through college, Kearns has a B.A. in theology and an M.F.A. in creative writing.

Adapted from Kingdom of Women, by Rosalie Morales Kearns, Copyright © 2017 by Rosalie Morales Kearns. With permission of the publisher, Jaded Ibis Press.


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Unspoken Words that Begin with N (even when they don’t) Mon, 06 Nov 2017 10:00:03 +0000


I am watching a dance segment on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, three black males in their late teens or early 20s, performing physical feats that leave me breathless with amazement. They explain that they began street dancing to earn money to help their mother make ends meet. Per usual, Ellen hands them a wad of bills, $10,000, and per usual, I tear up. But then I hear my uncle sneer, “Now don’t go spending it on dope.” My uncle has been dead for years, so I hear this in some dark unquiet corner of my mind, and I immediately scold myself. What? I don’t think that way!

I’m watching a rerun of last year’s BET awards, and in my head I hear, or I should say I remember hearing, “Those blacks, they sure do sing nice.” I am appalled, again. In a drawer, I have tickets for Bruno Mars; we saw Hamilton and are saving up to buy tickets again. I know that these last two things mean nothing, even though I want them to mean something.


When I was a little white girl, my father owned a textile factory in a small city six miles but a world away from the split-level, snowy white New Jersey suburb where we lived. In the 60s, a time when it wasn’t required, he employed everyone. New immigrants with poor English. African Americans. Women. Older workers. Disabled workers.  Hispanics. Vietnam veterans. He hired them quietly, moved them around or up to different jobs according to ability and business needs. He eventually cut every employee into profit sharing; he knew the names of his employees’ families, kids, and spouses.

Dad never taught me about “diversity,” a word no one used back then.  He didn’t have to. I can see him even now, making his daily rounds, telling Fatima, the Egyptian fabric inspector, that her lunch smelled delicious; clapping Marvin, the black truck driver, on the back and thanking him for coming in early; joking with Audrey, the 70ish widow who worked in the retail fabric outlet.

My mother always chirped “Hello” as she walked the factory floor, but I noticed the vibrating vein in her neck, her gaze averted. Later, when I knew more, I found this odd. She’d grown up poor in a mixed-race, immigrant-laden, tenement-lined city, with an illiterate single mother who was “on the dole.” Dad was raised among white people, first-generation Italians, in the only single-family house in a neighborhood of two- and three-family homes.


When, at 17, I fell for a black guy who worked at the stable where I boarded an expensive show horse, my father shook his hand and learned to pronounce his name. My mother worried about neighbors and referred to him as “colored”—the way she described the man in the White House thirty years later.

I am my father’s daughter in important ways, including my relationship to words. I write largely because he read three newspapers a day, because he read me books and told me stories. At the keyboard, in notebooks, as I’m writing in my head, I choose each word with care, with intention. I choose words whose strict meaning and truer subtext I feel I understand.

But there’s Mom’s wordy influence too, and the words of other adults who peopled my childhood, relatives and neighbors on my suburban street, 12 miles and a year or so distant from the Newark riots. These are words that, even 40-some years later, a left-leaning, liberal grown-up can’t escape or forget. Words I abhor, phrases I never utter and don’t believe, meanings I reject.

Still, I hear them. I hear voices of people I once loved saying them and I don’t know what to do about that. How do I respond to those voices in my head? Ignoring them doesn’t work. They’re there, implanted in a way that isn’t silenced by my own silent NO.

At the bank, a little black girl is twirling, singing in a murmur, and I smile at her mother because I miss the joy of watching my own children little and feeling free, children who are now adults. But in my brain I hear, “Silly little ninny.” What?  I know I got those words from Aunt Mary, pointing to the “jitterbugging’ little ninnies” on her Paterson, NJ street. She called me a silly little ninny too, but even as a child, I sensed the tonal shift, something behind the actual words.

I still hear and see my Noni leaning out her tenement window on a block peppered with blacks, people whose names she knew, people it seemed she liked and whose kids she helped watch out for, people who “sure do sing nice.”


In a summer writing class, the lone black teenage student leaves the room several times. In that dark, despicable place in my head, I hear a complaining voice, a long-dead relative muttering about those “lazy jig-a-boos” my “soft-hearted” father hired. My brain betrays and disgusts me, even while I try to ignore it. I step  out to check on him, in part because I want him to return to class, to write and write, in part because it’s a big campus and I’m responsible for him for these two hours, but in part also because I’m worried his stepping out of our all white classroom means…something. It turns out, the boy’s  allergies have flared and he’s been coughing and sneezing in the hallway, shielding classmates—and his so-called liberal white teacher—from distraction.

Why, forty, fifty years on, do I still hear these things in my head?  What does it mean? Chastising myself doesn’t silence them. How near the surface does remembered, imprinted bigoted talk reside?  I know it’s possible not to believe or sanction every random thing that passes through my brain. When he’s done something spectacularly stupid, I don’t really want my husband to “drop dead,” even though I think it, and even sometimes mumble it just enough so that only I hear.  But this is not the answer.

Though I chase those voices away—I know this: this is racism. Silent, unbidden, disavowed, disowned, but somehow still present—decades-old scraps of what then sounded like adult truths heard by a child when her father wasn’t around to throw a cold stare at the speaker.

Do they mean anything about me now?  Is talking about this just me being a whiny self-proclaimed liberal moaning about something she isn’t trying to solve? How does one solve something that lingers in the mind without consent?

I remind myself they are others’ words, not mine, the randomness of memory.  I know I must raise objections when I hear them, but the calculus of that involves my need to feel safe—another problem. I did not speak when a beefy white guy screamed an insult at the lithe young black girl standing next to me in a store line a few weeks ago. I said nothing, paralyzed silent by fear. I did try to move my substantial white body in front of hers. But his words swirled in the air, and I was keenly aware of the children on that long line, impressionable and unformed, listening to those words, filing them in memory.

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Miah Jeffra: The TNB Self-Interview Sat, 04 Nov 2017 14:00:05 +0000 Why do you bite your nails during interviews?

I’m nervous. Actually, I’m terrified that someone will think I’m narcissistic. Or maybe that they will recognize that I am a bit narcissistic. Either way, I have to eat my feelings. Fingernails will do.


It’s a disgusting habit. You know that, right?

So is voting for idiots into influential political positions. I feel my minor defilement is forgivable, considering.


Fair enough. Tell us about your book, The First Church of What’s Happening. How did you come up with the title?

I saw it in a photograph that was part of a 3D collage sculpture by LA artist Nancy Keyes. Do you know her work? She’s brilliant. The photo is a candid image of some folks standing before the sandwich board of a modest church, and it said “What’s Happening.” I thought, yeah, what is happening?


How does that lead to a book title?

The sculpture reminded me of how our behaviors are changing because of the Internet and mobile technologies. Mobile technology has become the new church. It is ritualistic, all-encompassing, and with it, we even take on a supplicant posture.


So, your book is about modern technology?

Not exactly. It concerns how fundamental aspects of our being—perception, love, identity—have been influenced by technological dissociation.


Is it a bleak perspective?

Not at all. I wouldn’t say it’s celebratory, either. I hoped to delve into something more complex with the essays in the book.


You published the book with a small press out of Oakland and Brooklyn, Nomadic Press. Why them?

Nomadic is an exciting literary community. I say community over press, because their commitment is to publish work that brings writers into conversation with one another, and to maintain a vibrant literary village through an ambitious assembly of events. They are a wonderful organization. And, they have killer taste. (laughs, ostensibly to self). Some of my favorite Bay Area writers are published through them.


You also run your own press, Foglifter. Tell us about that.

I started Foglifter with Chad Koch. It’s a press devoted to queer literature and aesthetic.


What does that mean?

I can’t tell you, but you know what it is when you see it. (laughs). We look for work that is beyond merely queer-identified writers—though we seek that, too. We are interested in marginal, transgressive, dare I say experimental, work (I loathe the term experimental, since all writing is an experiment), in both form and content. Submissions are open now for our Spring 2018 edition! And, we are working with RADAR Productions to produce a queer POC manuscript this summer.


You identify as a queer writer. What does that mean to you?

It means everything to me. It means I can probe along the margins. My perspective is quite duplicitous. I am white and cis-male, so I have navigated circles of privilege; I am also a queer kid from a low-income background, so I have navigated outside of the circles of privilege, simultaneously. I can code-switch, and that has allowed me a particular kind of cultural vantage. I’m indebted to my identity.


What other writing projects are you working on? Anything you can reveal?

I have a completed novel manuscript, entitled Highlandtown, that concerns the issues of displacement and racism in a poor Baltimore neighborhood targeted for an urban renewal project—a theme park in the theme of Baltimore itself. I also just finished a book of short fiction, The Violence Almanac, that examines the role of violence in our culture. And, I’ve begun working on a novel, The Summer of the Locusts, that explores the friendship between two boys living in a West Virginia trailer park. It examines poverty, domestic violence, and socially constructed masculinities, through the lens of pre-teen boys.


Does all your writing have a social justice theme?

Doesn’t most writing? My stuff is simply written with the idea of social justice in mind.


These are all big, heavy themes.

Yeah. I recognize that.


So, you don’t have a sense of humor?

I ask myself this all the time! (In fact, I’m asking myself this right now). I think when most people meet me, they wouldn’t imagine I write about such grave subjects like domestic violence, infanticide, racial profiling, poverty. I tend to be a fairly light-hearted person. I dance in public. I make pubescent jokes about butts and farts. Maybe writing is my venue for getting serious. Aren’t all writers exhibiting multiple personalities? (Not to be confused this with MPD, of course). I write about that which I have a hard time understanding. Writing helps me figure things out. It’s cheaper than a therapist.


Is it working?

(maniacally laughs, and doesn’t stop)



MIAH JEFFRA is from Baltimore. They have been awarded the New Millennium Fiction Prize, The Sidney Lanier Prize for Fiction and the Clark-Gross Novel Award; a finalist for the Arcadia Prize in nonfiction and New Letters Fiction Prize; a Lambda Literary Fellowship in nonfiction; a Ragdale Fellowship; and residencies from Arteles, Red Gate, Ragdale and The Hub City Writers Project. Jeffra serves as editor of Foglifter Press, and teaches writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at Santa Clara University and San Francisco Art Institute. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and roommates, both human and canine.

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Excerpt from The First Church of What’s Happening, by Miah Jeffra Fri, 03 Nov 2017 14:00:53 +0000

To An Ex-Lover, after A Natural History of the Senses

When I was sixteen, I saw an alien. True story. My mama and I were watching television in our narrow low-rent Baltimore rowhouse when we heard our dog, barking with a particular urgency. Mama asks me to go investigate. I walk to the back, flip the floodlight switch and open the door. And there, at the end of our narrow concrete sliver of a yard, is Eggroll, looking up at a chest-high figure with an oblong luminescent face and large black eyes, staring directly at my smaller-than-average, teenage, presently and keenly vulnerable self. And immediately, without even a flash of hesitation, I shit my pants: a small, yet substantial, perfectly compacted brown nugget bullets from my butt-cheeks like a backfired slingshot. I could feel the velocity of that single turd shoot against the lining of my poly-cotton Voltron pajama bottoms, the betrayal of years of self-control, the pastel illustrations of Once Upon a Potty flashing into my mind’s eye, as I waddled back to my mother with a face whiter than Ann Coulter. Ann Coulter. Wearing an eggshell bikini. On a foggy day. In a salt mine.

Vision is a tricky enterprise. All we truly perceive are configurations of shadows and light. True story. 127 million photoreceptors detect light stimulus, becoming electrical impulse along the optic nerve to the brain, and then a chemical, the mind, an open file without a name. And from this, we begin to make sense of our world.

My niece at nine months, beginning to crawl. One day I watched her amble directly into a piece of furniture, head-first. She thrusted with determined hands and knees, without hesitation, right into my sister’s backless Wayfair barstool. Did little Mackenzie not see the metal legs? Why did she careen right into that pain, the boo-boo on her forehead? It appeared as if she hadn’t seen the stool at all. Shadows and light, electrical impulse, chemical, an open file. And then, my sister, mommy to the rescue: She said, “Chair”. Baby stare. “Chair”. Baby stare. “Chair”. Baby stare. Now, the open file has a name: language, a label, the sign.

Neurolinguist Richard Gregory argues that seeing is entirely hypothesis, reliant on experience and memory. We encounter a particular configuration of shadows and light, and that configuration is then matched to the closest file we have in our database. Your brain is a file clerk, searching for the match. Whatever matches closest is then pulled up and projected onto our mind’s silver-screen. And that is what we see—not what we perceive, but what we see. Everyone knows a filing system is unsuccessful without explicit labeling. Labels are language. In essence, language becomes more our eyes, than our eyes.

Do you know the story of the Aztec genocide? The great, advanced civilization that initially and fatally opened its arms to Cortes’ swords? They had a myth: The god of rebirth, Quetzalcoatl, promised to return one day from the East on a bed of clouds, to bestow upon the Aztecs the fortunes, the white hot heart, of the morning star. And then one day, in the dead middle of a millennium, upon the horizon, fishermen saw what they believed to be, approaching from the East, in billowing white, the promises of that morning star. See, the Aztecs were not sea-farers. And the billowing sails of Cortes’ ships, well, the Aztecs didn’t have a file for that, and those sails wound up becoming a different kind of promise.

And this is how you perceived me: a promise, a myth. I wonder what the story was that begat your creation of me. But I was not seen, that is certain; you were searching for a match. The language of the story you knew before you never knew me projected onto your mind’s silver screen, before I even approached. And the Hollywood dream you thought you saw was all light and shadow, along the walls of a cave. And so you opened your heart, as if you hadn’t even seen that I was only strong enough to conquer—not love—and you careened right into that pain. I am sorry for that.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I didn’t really see an alien. I saw a possum on our back fence. The floodlight wasn’t strong enough to pick up the chain-link at all, but it could reflect the rodent’s iridescent fur on the top of its head, pointed down to keep a watchful eye on the threatening stance of my vicious Shih Tzu mix. The pose in illumination suggested the shape of that most common of mediated aliens—the bulbous head and sunken long face. My hypothesis was dead wrong. I didn’t have a file in my database for something as odd as a possum on a fence in an inner-city Baltimore neighborhood. And, of course, what were my mama and I watching in the living room before the encounter? Mulder and Scully, forever engrossed in their sexually frustrated tete-a-tetes between science and magic. But in my mind’s eye, in my memory, I still see that four-foot alien staring directly into my being as clear now as it was then, crystal enough to make me drop a stink pickle in my drawers.

When you don’t collect much data, you don’t have much in your database.

Recently, after watching a performance on YouTube, Ann Coulter called out Beyoncé for her salacious, female-demeaning lyrics, as an ironic parallel to the accusations of Trump’s equally recent gender blitz. Ann tweets: Beyoncé, cited by Michelle Obama as role model for her daughters, sings about “pussy curvalicious, served delicious.” Oh my. I just fainted”. End tweet. Ann was probably promenading victorious at this burn, this apparent demonstrated hypocrisy of the smug liberal elite. However, what Ann didn’t realize during that cock-sure strut in her proverbial pencil skirt, was that the woman she perceived mouthing those lyrics was not Beyoncé at all, but Nikki Minaj. Ann defended her mistake by saying, “they look so much alike.”

Black woman. Beyoncé. Black woman. Beyoncé. Black woman…

When you don’t collect much data, you don’t have much in your database.

This tells me how we perceive one another: educated guesses, inaccurate file names, projected images, subservient to language. This tells me that if you were to see me clearly, you would have had to learn my language. Or, to learn a language beyond your own. Beyond the language of myth, and even beyond the language of billowing sails. This tells me that we all need to learn as much language as we can, to quit running into things that are there that we can’t see. This tells me that if we commit to this—you and I, all of us—maybe then we will finally escape the shadows of the cave.


MIAH JEFFRA is from Baltimore. They have been awarded the New Millennium Fiction Prize, The Sidney Lanier Prize for Fiction and the Clark-Gross Novel Award; a finalist for the Arcadia Prize in nonfiction and New Letters Fiction Prize; a Lambda Literary Fellowship in nonfiction; a Ragdale Fellowship; and residencies from Arteles, Red Gate, Ragdale and The Hub City Writers Project. Jeffra serves as editor of Foglifter Press, and teaches writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at Santa Clara University and San Francisco Art Institute. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and roommates, both human and canine.

“A Natural History of the Senses” is reprinted by permission from The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic Press 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Miah Jeffra.

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TNB Original Fiction: “Searching in Dust” by Ashley Perez Thu, 02 Nov 2017 15:11:35 +0000 I turned on the lights and the bulbs clicked to life, trying their best to shine through layers of sticky dust. I ran up and down the rows of the university library’s basement, looking for the chrome bulk that would betray the coin-op typewriter’s hiding place. They upped the cost from a dime to a quarter from Ray’s time to mine. I could almost smell the charred ash when I recalled reading the book for the first time. It had cost him $9.80 to write his masterpiece on saving the power of words from the firemen, one dime and half hour increment at a time.

I had $9.80 in my pocket and the whole night ahead of me.


ASHLEY PEREZ lives, writes, and causes trouble in Los Angeles. She has a strong affinity for tattoos, otters, cat mystery books, and actual cats, but has mixed feelings about pants. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She runs the literary site Arts Collide and does work of all varieties for Women Who Submit, Entropy, Jaded Ibis Press, Midnight Breakfast, and Why There Are Words. Her work can be found at The Rumpus, The Weeklings, Red Light Lit, and others. You can find her on Twitter at @ArtsCollide.

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Episode 490 — Jarret Middleton Wed, 01 Nov 2017 05:08:46 +0000

Now playing on the Otherppl podcast, a conversation with Jarret Middleton. His debut novel Darkansas is available from Dzanc Books. It is the official November pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club

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Support the t-shirt fundraiser for the Salesses Family.

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Cody Deitz: The TNB Self-Interview Mon, 30 Oct 2017 16:52:30 +0000

Since the prospect of a conversation with myself bored me, I decided to talk with my good friend and fellow poet Jackie Hymes—thanks, Jackie!

How did you come to write poetry? Or, what drew you to poetry?

Like most writers, probably, I’ve always been a voracious reader. And I’ve been fascinated by poetry pretty much as long as I can remember. My parents always had plenty of books in the house, including some old literature anthologies and poetry collections from when they were students. I remember I enjoyed reading through Robert Frost in particular, and also Anne Sexton and this collection of Romantic poetry. Keats in particular seemed to have this interesting charge that kept my attention. It didn’t occur to me that poetry was not a popular interest.

It wasn’t until early in college that I realized there were contemporary poets who worked seriously on their craft and sort of made a living from it (though we all know how that works). Though I flirted with other areas of study like mechanical engineering (I wanted to work on cars), I was always most passionate about reading and writing–and I found in poetry an intellectual and emotional challenge that captivated me.

Fast-forward some years and I couldn’t imagine not writing poetry. It’s such an integral part of my life and I think that will always be the way it is. It’s in my blood; poetry as an art seems to want something from me, though I’m still not sure what.


A lot of your poems, such as the ones in your chapbook, are autobiographical. Why did you choose to tell these stories through poetry rather than as nonfiction prose?

That’s a great question, and one I’ve thought a lot about. The poems from my chapbook grew out of a class I took with the impossibly incisive poet Leilani Hall, where we were tasked with composing a series of poems through a historiographical or documentary lens. When I asked myself what was important to document, what I could actually speak to with some authority, I couldn’t think of exploring anything else but a private sort of history.

So I guess you could say the form was decided before the content, but I did ask myself a lot about how the subject matter was refracted through the verse form in ways that were different from various other prose forms. And what I think the verse form does is lay bare the subjectivity inherent in documentary writing, regardless of genre.

Rather than some pretense of neutrality, lyric poetry invites a subjective reading of a history, and in that way maintains the charge of that history in ways other forms can’t, or at least not to the same degree. One is invited in the subjectivity of lyric poetry that works to document to give value to the imagined and mis-remembered–helping us to realize that it’s not only the physical or factual details of a history that compose our memory of that history, but all the peripheral things, too.


Other poems of yours contain instances of the speaker interacting with other poets, writers, or philosophers. What do you think these interactions do to the form of these poems? How do these mental interactions affect the line?

Those poems can’t help but absorb some of the qualities of the figure with whom the speaker is interacting–that’s part of the point, I think. Part of my interest there is the way the poem can act as a kind of liminal space between the speaker’s consciousness and that of the particular poet or figure, etc. There’s a certain playfulness there for sure, where the speaker can imagine how that interaction might play out, but there’s also an investment in reverence, lineage, and identity.

For example, a poet who has appeared in my work a couple of times is Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg was one of the first poets whose I work I absolutely fell for, and I feel like I came to know a particular kind of empathy through his poetry. So interacting with him through a speaker can be a short-cut to try and tap into that empathy, as well as to explore issues of influence, and so on. Plus, if we’re being honest, it’s fun to talk to poets we like, especially when that’s no longer a possibility in the physical world.


What is your ultimate goal as a poet? In other words, what do you hope your words, out there in the world, will do?

Man, that is a huge question. I can already smell the existential dread.

I suppose my ultimate goal as a poet is to write poems that do what all great poems do: bridge the gap between one person and another, between one person and his/her experience, between a person and the world. I hope my poems generate the kind of empathy that requires people to rethink their assumptions about themselves, their neighbor, and the world, and invest in a deeper, more nuanced understanding of all those things.

It’s a tall order, I know, but you did use the word “ultimate,” and I do think this is possible. The generation of this kind of empathy probably just happens in such small, often invisible ways that we don’t recognize it. At the very least, it feels like a worthwhile pursuit.


What are you working on right now? How do you want your poetry to evolve?

I’m currently working on my first full-length collection. I’m actually close to have a completed manuscript, though I anticipate the revision process will take a while yet. This next collection is not working in the same documentary vein; it’s focus is exploring the tension and relationship between one’s physical environment and their inner world and experience.

Having lived all my life in the mountainous and/or urban spaces of Southern California, driving from Los Angeles to my current home in North Dakota was a powerful experience. To come up against that incredible expanse of empty space felt almost baptismal, and I was actually unable to write for weeks. What could I possibly say to that void? But over time, and as I continued to ask questions, those questions themselves turned into poems, and the book started to take shape.

I don’t know if I give much thought to how I want my poetry to evolve. In many ways, I feel like I’m still asking the same questions and exploring the same themes that I was years ago–I suppose there’s enough mystery in some of these big questions to sustain me. I do hope that I can resist becoming overly metaphysical in my work, and stay grounded in the earthly. The temptation to leap into the ether is definitely one I content with, and have to watch out for.


What’s the most challenging part of writing a poem?

For me, the hardest part is in the final stages. I write in a pretty regular schedule, so there’s always something I’m working on, and I really enjoy the building and revising process, but just before I call it “done” is a tough part of the process. I struggle to recognize when a poem is doing the thing it seems to want to do. I’m still working on understanding the cues that tell me “yes, this is done.”


What’s your favorite title of a poem or poetry collection ever?

That would have to be Tony Hoagland’s collection, What Narcissism Means to Me (2003) followed somewhat closely by Jeffrey McDaniel’s Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (2013). Titling books of poetry well is incredibly difficult.


You’re pursuing a PhD. What are your current scholarly focuses?

Yes, I am. I’m obviously interested in contemporary poetry, especially the contemporary lyric and the way the more traditional elements of the lyric translate through various other forms and movements.

I’m also interested in literary Modernism. I’ve written some on Wallace Stevens and James Joyce, but I’m also interested in modernism as an international movement. It’s fascinating to me to study how and where what we recognize as modernism appears at different times in different countries.

Another area that’s been intriguing me lately is more postmodern American fiction, especially as involves and plays against the rise of science fiction as a major sub-genre. The fact that books like Neuromancer still feel so contemporary really blows me away–and worries me a little, too.


That’s all I have for you–thanks!

No, no. Thank you, Jackie, for humoring me.

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Bridge Mon, 30 Oct 2017 16:52:18 +0000 In the dark corners of my apartment
I see my brother, thin and tall
like a flesh-covered bridge,
standing in a shadow he’s somehow come to own.
I can hear his voice, see his broad shoulders
at the jail telephone,
one hand holding onto the aluminum cord
and the other pressed up against the wall,
his rough knuckles white like brick.
And now I’m in his shadow
and we are together
and I put on another pot of coffee
because it’s going to be a long night crossing
this nervous bridge, my anxiety rattling
around in me like a pill-bottle almost empty.
I’ll need help if I’m going to make it,
if I’m going to land this plane on the runway
that is reality out of the sky that is my head,
which, now, is more like black ice and I’m
the car, too. All this dark cannot compare
to your dark, I’m sure. Your dark has teeth. I just hope
we can open our eyes before the moon lies down
and makes all the werewolves human again,
so I can see you through the dark and we
can be more than just metaphors like needles and open windows
and your shoes left by the door, more than
hand rails and abandoned buildings,
because I can’t ever reach you through all this language,
can’t build a bridge that will support my weight,
keep me from falling into the obsidian night.

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Whining and Dining Mon, 30 Oct 2017 10:00:33 +0000

I can be a difficult guy to dine out with. Just ask my long-suffering wife. I’ve run restaurants my entire adult life so I know how the sausage is made. Literally. I’ve held every position in the front of house and have been in management for over a decade. And a five-year stint as a food writer had me visiting an average of a hundred restaurants a year. I can walk into a restaurant and notice immediately if it’s in trouble. The stink of death from a formerly cutesy but now failing ‘pan-Asian soul food’ concept? I’ve smelled it. Insouciant management, disinterested waitrons, off-season ingredients – I can root it out like a pig during truffle season. A quick perusal of a menu will tell me whether or not the chef is having an identity crisis. It’s a talent that means I’ll always have a job; unless that job is to be an enjoyable dinner companion.

And I can’t switch it off. Lighting too high, music too low, a table sitting unbussed for too long or guests milling at an unattended host stand all bother me more than say, the Syrian refugee crisis. I’ll hold up a wine glass and note not only spots but also a light effluvium of lint speckling the rim. They need to change the rinse-to-sanitizer ratio in their dishwashers, I’ll say. If the servers were polishing with microfiber cloths then lint wouldn’t cling to the stemware like the last Cheerios in the bowl. It’s pithy observations like these that explain why my wife would rather relive the 2016 presidential race – what felt like all 137 months of it – than go out to a restaurant with me.

This hyper-vigilance is causing a strain on our marriage. Romantic dinners are compromised by my inability to ignore pretentious menu language or service staff that describe squab as “kind of like chicken.”  A quick lunch will have me lamenting aloud the number of appetizers coming from the hot line – “Don’t they know time is of the essence? The chef should focus on compelling cold items that can be prepared quickly by the garde-manger so the grill can pump out the entrées faster.” My wife could easily be an Olympic gold medalist in eye rolling.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t have her share of peccadillos; particularly as it pertains to food. She doesn’t cook, for instance. She was living alone in a studio apartment when we first met, and she kept her silverware in the oven. “Why not?” she asked when I raised upturned eyebrows at her. She’d never turned it on. To her, the oven was just another area to store things.

On the odd occasion that she does venture into the kitchen to attempt something involving the microwave, she has the most endearing (read: maddening) habit: she never closes the cupboard doors. It’s taken me close to a decade to become accustomed to living in a home that always looks like it’s been freshly ransacked.

I realize of course this is nothing. Compared to me, her culinary transgressions are mere grains of Himalayan pink salt on an endless loup de mer. Whereas I’m so insufferable her misery index usually hovers somewhere between “agitated” and “three weeks in Abu Ghraib.”

Early in our marriage, we were having dinner at a much-lauded West Hollywood boite. She was a vision; flaxen hair resting on alabaster shoulders, Nordic cheekbones and a clinging dress that protruded in all the right places. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be there. Until our entrees arrived. My onglet was slathered in sauce, cantilevered over a mound of smashed Yukon golds. My wife caught me frowning thoughtfully at my plate.  “What’s wrong?” she asked, immediately regretting her question as I inhaled deeply and began my dissertation. “This is all wrong,” I exclaimed, and then proceeded to do a line-by-line breakdown of the dish. ‘“The steak is piled onto the potatoes. Not only does that make the underside soggy, but the heat they exude is cooking my perfect medium rare into a greying medium well. And any chef worth his salt will sauce the plate; not the protein. Saucing steak is an apology. It means he’s either embarrassed by the cut – reduced bordelaise will not turn hanger steak into a ribeye – or he’s hiding the fact that he’s overcooked it. This sauce is everywhere, obscuring what should be a gleaming Hubba Bubba pink center.” I wasn’t done. Protruding like little mailbox flags were contiguous spears of charred asparagus. “It’s November!” I was almost shouting at this point, “Where are they getting this asparagus?” The final insult was a sprig of rosemary incongruously perched atop this monument of ineptitude. My wife saw a steak. I saw a teetering ziggurat of sadness.

My words came out in a torrent. I wasn’t so much speaking as ejaculating paragraphs; so busy steamrolling that I failed to notice my wife’s eyes cloud over like the windows of an abandoned retail space. I was the conversational equivalent of the guy who’s still throwing punches at the air after being pulled off of the body he’s already beaten unconscious. This was on our anniversary.

It’s not just at tony brasseries with Frette linen and hand-blown stemware. It can happen anywhere. Ramen houses, taco trucks, vegan holes-in-the-wall; even at a barbecue joint. Just recently we were dragging coarse hunks of cornpone across a spent plate of smoked pork ribs when the number of service staff bumped me. There were too many bussers on the floor. I was on the verge of an exhaustive delineation of how management needed to adjust their staffing matrix. About how bussers and servers cost the same by the hour, but that bussers don’t generate revenue. Servers do. The restaurant just needed to train the servers to do more side duties, thus reducing their labor cost and increasing sales while the servers made more money because they’d be tipping out fewer subordinates. I was going to say all that. But something stopped me.

It was a quote I’d heard years ago from an Italian chef I was interviewing for a story. We were discussing what makes for great cuisine when he offered this; a good chef adds ingredients when he wants to improve a dish, he told me. But a great chef takes them away. He was right. Pasta aglio olio needs nothing more than a splash of lime-green olive oil and fresh garlic, anything else masks its beautiful simplicity. Thirty-five toppings stretching from stuffed crust to stuffed crust will never beat the margherita pizza’s Holy Trinity of torn basil, zingy San Marzanos and some so-fresh-it-drips fior di latte. In essence, the more you add, the less you get. He could have just as easily been talking about my marriage. My usual unsolicited observations were just a wilting radish rose on the edge of the plate – I’d have a much better dish without it. So out they went. I bit my tongue – and it worked. For the first time in a long time, we got to enjoy dinner the way most couples do; as foreplay. If you catch my drift.

Critiquing restaurants is fun. Sleeping on the couch is not. So, I now use my restaurant powers for good; a Pavlovian stimulus/response reminder that less is more. Instead of remarking that ‘my salad has been served on a warm plate’ or that the runner has placed my entrée with the protein portion facing away from me, I’ll ask, ‘how was your day?’ And actually listen. Turns out the person across the table is a lot more important than what’s on it.

Unless it’s salted caramel budino. That’s something we can both agree on.

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Megan Stielstra: The TNB Self-Interview Fri, 27 Oct 2017 14:00:05 +0000

I’m not sure what to ask myself right now besides do you want some more wine? So for the purposes of this self-interview, I will answer the top ten questions people have asked me about The Wrong Way to Save Your Life since it came out, in order of most frequently asked.


One: How is Sophia?

My buddy Sophia is five years old and fighting a bitch of a brain tumor. There’s an essay in the book called “We Say and Do Kind Things” about the first few months after her initial diagnosis at two-and-a-half, and how she and her mom, my dear friend Sarah, taught me to choose kindness over fear. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people asking about her health. Thank you for those emails. Thank you for caring about this little girl and her family who I love so very much.

The answer is there are good days and bad days. The answer is fuck cancer. The answer is she’s a small child being treated with Vineblastine, which was developed in 1958 for adults with fully developed bodies and fully developed brains. The answer is only four percent of federal funding for cancer research is spent on childhood cancers. The answer is she takes my breath away.

You can read more about her story here, and I wrote a follow-up essay for Tin House during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

When I finished the essay about her, I sent it to Sarah for her approval and any corrections or cuts she wanted me to make. I was nervous; this was her story, not mine, and I had to do it justice. Her response is something I will carry with me forever: “It is your story. It’s everybody’s story. If we keep thinking that the hard things in the world belong to someone else, that we don’t have a part to play, then none of this will ever get better.”

She was talking about pediatric cancer. But she could have been taking about anything.

We’ve performed this essay together for 2nd Story. I hope you’ll listen. I hope you’ll hear her voice.


Two: How do the people you write about feel about you writing about them?

The Chicago Reader asked them. All of them. My dad, my husband, my best friends and colleagues and former employers, the realtor who saved us from foreclosure, and most importantly, my nine-year-old son, whose answer made me cry: “I love knowing that my mom writes about me because it means she loves me. She probably writes about that, too. But I don’t like it when she gets up so early in the morning to write. She needs to stay asleep so she’s healthy. Also: there’s no right or wrong way to save your life.”


Three: Did you really dissect all those deer hearts?



Four: How do you keep writing when the world is a shitshow?

I turned in the first full draft of this book in the summer of 2016 and rewrote it that fall, in the final months of the presidential campaign. There are seventeen essays, all about fear, and rewriting a book about fear during that time was a mind-fuck. The Access Hollywood Tapes had just come out and so many of my students were writing about sexual assault. My son, then eight, came home from the playground and asked what pussy meant. I watched Trump rallies online, the violent rhetoric directed at black people, Latinx people, Muslim people, queer people, disabled people, women, i.e. everyone I know and love. This is not theoretical for me. This is my family. And even if it wasn’t, I want to be a person who gives a shit about everyone’s families, not just her own.

I teach creative nonfiction, and we had class the day after the election. I emailed everyone and said they didn’t have to come, but I’d be there if they wanted to join me. They did. All of them. There were two guys in the class and they each brought in something for all of the women in the class. Thirteen cupcakes. Thirteen flowers. Their first thoughts were of these thirteen women and the stories they’d told about assault. That moment, on that day, was important for me in thinking about why I keep writing and teaching. Stories matter. They help us see each other.

That said: some days I don’t write. Some days I drink. Some days I cry. Some days I imagine, with an uncomfortable clarity, launching myself into the sea. But then there’s the next day and I have shit to do and a kid to raise and people to help in whatever ways I can: my vote and my voice and my teaching and my writing and my body in the goddamn street.


Five: How do you tell all these personal things? Aren’t you scared?

Yes. I am scared. All of the time. Here’s a better question: what gets me through?

Answer: Every day, for nearly twenty years, I’ve sat in rooms with young people who are writing to save their own lives. They put their hearts on the page and they hand those pages to me. I better damn well be worthy of them. bell hooks: “I don’t think for a minute that we can be teachers who invite students into radical openness if we’re not willing to be radically open ourselves.” There’s an essay in my book called “F,” about self-harm. I first read it to the students at Interlochen Arts Academy when I was there as a visiting writer. I was nervous to write it, and nervous to hear it aloud, but they were so brave in their work. I wanted to be brave, too.

Answer: In Chicago, the performance community and the literary community are tangled together in all sorts of ways. I didn’t start writing personal essays to publish; I wrote them to perform. There’s a safety in that. It’s about the moment, the live experience. I don’t have to worry about my dad in Alaska, or my ex in New York, or my kid ten years into the future reading it. It’s me and the fifty or a hundred or five hundred people here in the moment. Live Chicago audiences have been supporting my work for years. They hold me to the highest standard of excellence. If I’m phoning it in, they will tell me. If I’m dancing around the truth, they’re clear as day: Do better. Work harder. We work.

Answer: I want this world to be better for my kid and your kid and everybody’s kids. I think art has a place in that.

Answer: I could write “Here is My Heart,” because Nicole Piasecki wrote “Maybe We Can Make a Circle.” Or maybe vice versa. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Both of those essays together get us closer to the truth.

Answer: I write a lot about postpartum depression, which knocked me on my ass for a couple of years. I was, quite literally, on the floor. And while I was down there, other people stood up. Other people yelled and fought and taught and wrote and tried. And now I’m up. I’m here. I’m fighting. I’m yelling my face off because I can and there are other people right now who can’t, who need to take care of themselves and their health and their families and their communities. We need each other. We’re all we have.


Six: “This is more of a comment than a ques—”



Seven: What are you reading right now?

Kelly Sundburg’s forthcoming memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl, which gutted me. Heart Berries, by Terese Marie Mailhot. Lidia Yuknavitch’s new Misfits Manifesto. Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith. The music issue of The Believer, with this incredible essay by Melissa Febos where she recorded her own orgasms. And I carry a ratted copy of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby around in my bag because jesusgod I need to laugh.

If we don’t laugh we’ll jump off the roof.


Eight: There’s one really long essay that sort of runs through the whole book?

Have you read “All Apologies,” by Eula Biss? I love its architecture—a concise, lyrical list of apologies, both personal and political, that tangle together and collide at the end. I wanted to try that same structure, but about fear. What always happens with me is I get an idea, and I make tons of plans and outlines, and when I finally write the thing it comes out as something different entirely, like that Frank O’Hara poem about sardines and oranges. My attempt at a concise, lyrical essay ended up at 60,000 words.

I came up in the performance community in Chicago, and having an outside eye on the work—a director, a producer, an editor—is second nature. I gave that beast of an essay to my editor and my agent, both brilliant women who I trust completely, and we talked it through on an epic conference call where I drank a pot of coffee and paced the length of my apartment. Somewhere during that conversation—I don’t know how else to say this—I saw it. I saw how the book would work. We’d break the essay into four parts per decade of my life—ten, twenty, thirty, forty—and section the whole collection in a similar way.

A lot of reviewers have mentioned that it feels more like a memoir than an essay collection. This is what gives it that feel, I think.


Nine: What are you working on now?

A novel. It’s very weird.


Ten: Where did the title of the book come from?

Our building caught on fire, and I had five minutes to get my kid and out the back door. I wrote about it for the New York Times, and then expanded it for the book. After it was published, there were a lot of comments, which as a rule I don’t read because they’re a trash heap but in this particular instance, a stranger wrote me through my personal website, and across all my social media channels, and she looked up my work email in the directory at my job and said, THAT WAS THE WRONG WAY TO SAVE YOUR LIFE. I stared at that email for a long time. It was a big realization for me, like lightbulb, lightning bolt, ton of bricks. 

People are going to come after us no matter what we say. We may as well say things that matter.


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