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Florence in Ecstasy is your first novel—when you began it, did you know it was going to be a novel?
I tricked myself into starting Florence in Ecstasy–or got tricked into it. While in the MFA program at City College, one of my mentors gave our class the assignment of writing the first chapter and description of a novel we’d never write. The prompt was freeing and it got rid of the voice of judgment that often sits on my shoulder. I wrote what would become the prologue of Florence in Ecstasy (which has survived almost intact in the final version), a few paragraphs about what the book might look like—including that it would involve Italy, a woman’s relationship with her body, and the fractured experience of addiction. After turning in those pages, I decided I wanted to actually write the novel. But I’m not sure I would have ever begun it without that prompt, which allowed me to leap into a larger narrative without the fear of knowing exactly where it would go.
Signora Rosa. Such a delicate name. She must be someone’s grandmother, stout and soft with a halo of white hair; this had tricked me into thinking that she would be soft with me. But she is all hard edges. No sooner have I closed the door than she is there on the stairs with that same side-eyed look. Why? It is almost September. Almost a new month. Only cash, she’d said when she agreed to rent me this bright apartment, even though it was caro, caro, caro. Only cash. Up front.
Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer . His latest novel, Here I Am, is available now in trade paperback from Picador. It is the official June selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.
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She researches genealogy. Collects. Organizes. Obsesses. Discovers distant relatives all along the Adriatic Coast. Roots stretching across continents and seas.
But don’t ask her about cells or strands of DNA. About heredity or the odds of what might be passed down.
Don’t ask her for the truth.
There is a story the family tells. Well-rehearsed. Plausible. By now, she may even believe it herself:
It is a hunting accident that killed her brother fifty years ago. A father, his two grown sons in the woods of Big Pocono State Park.
What they don’t say: These are seasoned hunters, antlers and disembodied heads displayed like trophies in their living room and den.
Someone careless, the story goes, cleaning a gun.
He jogged through the woods, Champ lunging ahead and leaping on and off the trail leading to the Castle.
“Quiet, dummy. You’ll give us away.”
He hadn’t wanted to bring the shepherd, but he’d been halfway through the woods when he’d heard Champ’s collar jingling and the dog had bounded out from the trees. There wasn’t time to turn back. He had to warn the island.
There’d also been no time to change, and he was wearing his Hawaiian robe over his pajamas, clutching the opening at his crotch closed with one hand.
His slippers came off a few times. Sticks and sharp pebbles sliced at the soft meat of his soles. He had to stop where the trail climbed a steep hill, and when he bent over to catch his breath, his stomach convulsed and the ice-cream cake he’d had after dinner splattered on the leaf-covered ground. Champ hopped over and licked at the mess.
June 05, 2017
What is the best part about being considered an “erotic” poet?
People automatically assume I’m having great sex.
June 05, 2017
Anjelica comes on to me like a man, all slim-hipped swagger, relentless, dangling that red, ‘57 T-Bird at me like dessert. Lemme take you for a ride, chica, she sez after acting class. I figure what’s the harm, but Ms Angel Food gets out of hand. I don’t count on her heart-shaped ass, or those brown nipples crammed in my mouth. I don’t count on the Dial-O Matic four-way, power leather seats, the telescoping steering wheel, or the frantic pleasure of her face between my thighs. I admit, I’ve always been driven to sin. But Anjelica’s far from blameless. She rides me hard, week after week, double clutches me into ecstasy, hipbone against hipbone, the dulcet, lingering groan of our gears, grinding. When I confess the affair to my boyfriend he jacks himself off in the galley kitchen, comes all over his unattainable fantasies. He says he doesn’t consider sex between women to be cheating, and begs me to set up a threesome. I tell him the T-Bird’s a two-seater, and watch his face fall. I could end it, but why? All I can say is, I want her for myself. All I can say is, I’m a die-hard romantic. Anyone I do, I do for love.
Kurt Baumeister (KGB) vs. Kurt Baumeister’s Doppelganger (2.0)
Kurt Baumeister’s debut novel, a satirical spy thriller entitled Pax Americana (Stalking Horse Press), was released into the wild on March 15. Baumeister took a brief break from his whirlwind world tour to sit down with his double, Kurt Baumeister 2.0, aka The Creature, aka Baumeister’s Monster, aka The Baumonster, aka simply (and, finally, thank fucking god) 2.0. A wide-ranging, revealing, and at times shockingly adversarial discourse followed. Described by onlookers as something between the ravings of a preternaturally linguistic chimp with dual-personality disorder and a peyote-addled William F. Buckley sparring semi-verbally with a lobotomized Gore Vidal, a third, unnamed transcription agent was able to pen these notes prior to apprehension by the Trump Administration. Details of his or her stay at Guantanamo Bay may or may not be forthcoming. Baumeister and his double remain at large.
Ravelton Parlay was a wealthy man and a rational, even calculating one. But that didn’t mean he was beyond belief either in theory or in practice. The guy had faith in spades. Not to mention diamonds, clubs, and hearts. The truth was Parlay had an entire deck of faith—not just in God, but in himself, Capitalism, and America—the sort of clean, clear, core belief structure that had propelled him to greatness and promised to keep him going, to keep him growing ever greater, into eternity and beyond. Of course, Parlay prayed. As a creature of belief—not to mention habit—he prayed morning and night, noon and midday. Parlay prayed working in his office and napping in his dayroom, sitting down to meals and standing up to scream. He prayed in the back seats of limos and the staterooms of yachts, as he strolled the grounds of Bayousalem or hustled through a Righteous Burger photo op. Parlay prayed for his employees, his servants, and even his fourth wife, the beautiful, sexually elusive Kelly Anne. He prayed for the smiley little black kids in Africa, the wizened Asian herdsmen in the Himalayas, and the endangered species —including the ones that weren’t even furry or cute. Heck, Parlay even prayed for the entire world once in a while. Most often, though, Parlay prayed for his beloved country. He prayed for America.
Sing of despair, of days, this song the abyss in you. The ocean is deep but Lake Vostok is deeper still. A person can’t float in it, can’t taste it. A person can’t even see it but only imagine with sonar and drills how cold and dark and still it must be. Although sometimes, somehow, you slip through a borehole into that fossiline water and sink through its radiance, a brightness not seen but felt in the freezing, a place where fathom pulls you to a depth you could never plumb yourself, a true straight line with no handholds to stop your fall. Days pass, and nights come, and mornings—and streetlights flash at dusk and dim at dawn and the garbage men bang the dumpster and the snowplow scrapes the street—and you have to hit the snooze and swim, and find the shore, and heave to land like a first live thing with legs deep beneath the southern pole and lay upon the rocks and just breathe, just for a second, and drink coffee or maybe tea, with cream or maybe milk.
Among this celestial navigation,
under horse and crowns
lies these unrelenting light patterns,
my spiritual eyes are weakened,
my spiritual eyes are awakened,
massive tangled hair in my eyes,
I am the flowers of the dead earth,
in a blanket of darkness,
in a blanket of blackness.
A man you don’t know makes a joke online of which you are the brunt, you know the one—woman, kitchen, sandwich—that old droopy-eyed dog of a joke still rattling around under the stoop, its bark long faded to a hoarse cough. It’s ironic, someone comments, because he’s sooo progressive, a real champion for women, haha! and you wonder what it means when the champions use the same language as the oppressors, their lines interchangeable except that one of them, at the end, elbows you hard in the ribs and says, Just kidding. Tells you, Lighten up, take a joke, like they’re doing you a favor.
And aren’t they? Could be worse—at least they don’t mean it, right? At least someone’s having fun?
Not long after college, you meet your friend Tony* at the bar one evening for happy hour and find him waiting with your favorite drink—gin and ginger, tall, extra ice. He’s the kind of guy who will do that, who knows your drink and buys the first round while you’re stuck in traffic on your way over from work, the kind of guy who does it without expectation—no unanswered debt filling the space between you, crowding one of you out. But tonight he has an eye on the girl you’re with, the way she’s braided her hair and pinned it across the top of her head like a crown and has borrowed your turquoise earrings and listens with her whole body when someone else is speaking. Tony buys the second round too, because, you know, he’s nice like that, and then he stands close enough that his whisper in your ear trails a shiver across your neck, an arrow drawn back in the bowstring, unquivering: She’s deliciously rape-able in those jeans, yeah? And when you don’t respond because you’ve forgotten how to direct words out of your mouth he holds up his hands as if to fend off what he knows is coming, his smile unassuming, even genuine when he tells you, I kid, I kid. His betrayal is such a surprise that you know if you allow yourself a moment to linger beneath its weight it could snap each one of your ribs in half. Instead, you let your drink sit untouched on the table, the ice melting in your glass like a slow goodbye, and then politely refuse—and refuse again—when Tony offers to walk the two of you home. You sure? he asks, it can be scary out there, as if for even a moment you could have forgotten.
all the best moments of my life
have happened underwater,
and you are afraid to swim.
Did you know that the last fatal
shark attack in New Jersey was in 1926,
when your mother’s mother
was a glint in her mother’s eye?
You do not need to be so afraid.
I imagine you are very used to seeing your words in print after nearly two decades as a journalist and columnist. In fact, I saw you contributed music essays to two books published earlier this year. But does it feel different to have your very own work of fiction published? How?
It’s terrifying. I’ve written things in the past that had real consequences. Twice I had my life threatened from stories I wrote. One time in Detroit I was punched so hard in the face my eye was swollen shut for days. The guy hated what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure I was just telling the truth.
With fiction, it’s a different truth, a bigger one (we hope) in that the stories can ultimately define whatever moment we’re suffering through, or bouncing through with joy in our steps. That’s what my favorite writers, like Dorothy Allison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Willy Vlautin, Denis Johnson, Jim Harrison, Harry Crews, and Charles Bukowski always did or do, somehow. I hope I can do a little of that for someone, somewhere. It’s about self-definition, and empathy for the world around us. I’m always terrified I fail at that. So that’s what’s scary.