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?

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.

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.

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?”

As with many writers, you majored in English literature in college. But unlike most, you did not go on for an MFA. Instead, you went to law school and have been practicing full-time for the last three decades. Why did you take that path? Does that say something about your opinion of MFA programs?

It’s true I came to my writing life, in some sense, rather late. Other than my creative output in school publications, I published my first fiction—as an adult—at the age of 39. I am now 58 with 10 published books to my name, two of those as editor. And my first poetry collection will come out this November. All the while I have been practicing law, the last 27 years with the California Department of Justice. I’m currently a supervising attorney in the Consumer Law Section.

From “The Three Mornings of José Antonio Rincón”

It is true that if pressed, José Antonio Rincón would have denied enjoying the experience because, regardless of the changes he endured during those three days last April, his basic nature remained the same. That is to say, José Antonio was, is, and will always be a contrarian. During his almost six decades of life on this earth his contrarian nature only grew stronger each year, with roots as reliable and resilient as those of a northern red oak. So if you asked him, did you like it, José Antonio? Was it pleasant? He no doubt would frown, purse his lips, and shout, “No, it was hellish!” However, if you said: Oh, what horrors! How did you survive it all? He very likely would smile and say it was all quite delightful, and he would sincerely express his hope that it should happen again and again and again.

Can you talk about the genesis of Here in Berlin?

The idea began as an inquiry into the human fallout from Cuba’s long association with the Soviet bloc. I wanted to find the interesting stories from this globalism—the relationships and children, complications and dislocations—that always accompany political upheaval.

 

Was Berlin your only, or primary, destination?

Originally, I thought of doing a book in three or four parts with stories set in Berlin, in Chile, in Vietnam, and Angola—all places where Cubans have studied, were politically involved, or fought wars. Berlin was my second stop, after Chile, and I couldn’t get enough of the city. I knew pretty quickly that it was where the whole novel would be set.

PROLOGUE

Lilacs were blooming in Cracauerplatz. The Visitor felt disoriented and alone, an outsider, lost without a map. Her atrophied German stuck in her throat. Thirty-one years had elapsed between her last stay in Germany (for an ill-fated job in Frankfurt) and her return to Berlin in late middle age. The city struck her as post-apocalyptic—flat and featureless except for its rivers, its lakes, its legions of bicyclists. She found herself nameless: nameless in crowds, nameless alone. Another disappearance in a city with a long history of disappearance acts.

PROLOGUE

NOVEMBER 2000

Peaches Pocotillo never got to kill anyone anymore. All those years he’d spent perfecting his craft had led to bigger and better things, which in this case meant a mid-level leadership position in the Native Mob, overseeing tribal gang consolidation and farming operations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, even into Nebraska. He had Native Gangster Disciples reporting to him, Native Vice Lords, Native Crips, Native Bloods, Peaches the one guy everyone listened to, the one guy who could get everyone to the table, the one guy who you didn’t want to cross, because, man, he used to kill people for nothing, son.

Mom comes to pick me up at the airport. She pulls up to the curb in a beat-up Camry, my old car when I was in high school. There’s a fresh dent on the front bumper and a long, black scratch on the passenger-seat door. She’s wearing her flannel work clothes, her unwashed hair flecked with white paint. She smells of plaster and sweat and that oily, non-ventilated odor of cheap Chinese restaurants. I give her a hug, but she stiffens, unused to Western expressions of affection. When she smiles, I see her left front tooth has turned brown. Everything is a stab in the heart.

to the stars through difficultiesTORNADO DEMOLISHES KANSAS TOWN

NEW HOPE, Ks. (AP)—The entire community of Prairie Hill, Kansas (population 2754) was demolished Saturday evening by a tornado the National Weather Bureau rated EF-5, the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The twister was 1.7 miles wide, on the ground non-stop for 24 miles and 29 minutes, with a wind velocity of 200 mph.

Over 100 injuries have been treated at the nearby makeshift clinic in New Hope. The town was leveled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins.

“Exactly one wall is standing,” said Mayor Wade Brown. “The front, just the façade, of the old Carnegie library is the only vertical object in the entire town. Otherwise, everywhere I look, there’s nothing but sky. Flattened debris and sky. We’re lucky; we had a 20-minute warning which saved hundreds of lives, but otherwise, we have nothing.”

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

No.

 

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

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

Show Her a Flower, A Bird A ShadowPetal, Feather, Particle

Show her a flower, a bird, a shadow, and she will show you what is simultaneously forming and falling apart. What is both witness and sign along the way on this rough earth, a shell already cracked. She’d thought she could raise a child with only minimal intercession but now, as she was being driven to the hotel, found herself looking up at the ceiling of the car, mumbling a quiet prayer. Her daughter was like her: too quick to do everything.

The girl’s father had been someone she once knew, or thought she had, a man who laid her in repose on the bed and gave her waist a tender squeeze before arranging her hands on top her, placing the right over the left, palm over knuckles. He studied her in that corpse-like pose, letting his glass with the float of lime warm in his hand, before his mouth captured hers.

TLDC cover imageThe lost daughter collective gathers on the top floor of an abandoned umbrella factory in the downtown of a mid-sized city. The group is composed of men who meet weekly to harness their mourning, a delicate practice best not undertaken alone. Along with the roomful of fathers, there is weak tea and a healthy supply of biscuits neither sweet nor tart. A rich store of tissues is hidden in nooks throughout the large, single-room loft that composes the thirty-third floor, out of sight so as not to invite tears. Despite this, crying often ensues, though most of the men use their sleeves.

The fathers categorize their lost daughters in two ways: dead or missing. A dead daughter is deemed a Dorothy, a missing one an Alice. Qualifying their lost girls in this way is a silently endorsed coping mechanism. When a new father arrives, no one need articulate the method of daughter-exit from his life. The others can tell whether he is the victim of a Dorothy or an Alice by the new father’s posture and gait. Father sorrow is best read through the mobile body.

Sanderia Fayes MOURNERS BENCH CoverIndoor plumbing was the last significant change in Maeby, Arkansas, before my mama left town. For as long as I could remember, my family and other colored folks kept our pigs, chickens, cows and all other animals in our backyards, and a little further back, always from the gardens, sat the outhouses. The all-white city council threatened to take the animals away from us if we didn’t clean up our yards and do something about that horrific smell. We didn’t pay them no mind, talked about it after they drove off in their city cars. Reverend Jefferson may have brought it up in one of his sermons, but generally, we went on back to minding our business and so did they until the next time they felt up to performing their civic duties. Then one day the city council members decided to make good on their promises. They bucked up and passed an ordinance that required us to remove all the farm animals outside of the city limits, and to get it done in no time flat. Just for the sake of it, they told us that we must tear the toilets out of the outhouses and replace them with flushable ones. All the grown folks were in a huff about it, especially over the toilets, but since I’d never seen or heard of one, I reserved my passion for when I would know what I was getting upset about.