yancy-4-2Can we talk about something other than fetal surgery?

Oh. Okay. Facial reconstruction?

 

On second thought, forget it. Fetal surgery it is.

I don’t mean to be obsessed, but if I were a character, it would be one those formative backstories.

 

See, look at that. Even during an interview you’re starting with backstory.

You can begin at the beginning, or you can work your way back there.

patricide-frontcover600I imagine that many things will be said about D. Foy’s highly anticipated novel, Patricide, over the next few months. There will be much hushed and head-shaking praise levied, not only at the arresting way in which it’s told but also about the subject matter—surviving an unsurvivable childhood.

And yet while this is very much the story of one man’s colossal, cyclonic attempt to remake himself from the shards of an annihilating boyhood, I think that it is much more than that. It seems to me that the true subject of this narrative, is the collision of dreams. The lengths to which parents and children break and remake each other and themselves on this contested terrain, this no man’s land of lovesick, homesick, heartsick dreams.

biosaraAfter school, Rachel comes over and we climb through the craggy hole in the fence and into the park. Everything is wet because it always is but we don’t care. We climb across the hillside to a patch of trees where Rachel likes to smoke cigarettes. We lie back on the grass and I listen to the leaves tap against one another.

“We should have a party at your house,” Rachel says for the hundredth time. Rachel loves parties and lugs me along on weekends. Parties are too chaotic for me but I am a teenager and that’s what we are supposed to do. Says who, I don’t know. Says Rachel. Rachel has streaks of blue in her hair because of course she does. She glitters everywhere she goes.

woo - love love - author photoIt’s been six years since your first novel, Everything Asian. What took you so long?

The short answer is that I’m just a very slow writer. The long answer: As I neared the end of this novel, say the last thirty or so pages, I thought I’d race to the finish line, which is what happened with my first novel. But with this second one, those final pages took longer to write than any other part. And it wasn’t because it was difficult… it was purely psychological. I think I was terrified of a number of things, like what I would do after it was done. Or the reality of how awful the book was (and it was pretty bad – first drafts, you know). But even if all I squeezed out was a sentence or two on a good day, I kept on wringing. So here we are, half a dozen years later.

leah-paris-portraitThey call me llorarita—“the little crier” in Spanish. The word crier looks like the infinitive form of the verb for crying, but it is not.

Books made me cry. Reading aloud, in particular. It was embarrassing until it became valuable—a trick, a trade. The people are thirsty! they said. They wanted my tears. It hadn’t rained for days or weeks in Los Angeles, maybe years. I’d lost count. The asphalt on the streets was sun bleached and salt licks formed in wavy half-circles near the drains on each corner. Like the tops of dog’s noses in the summer. Even the ink in the pens had gone dry.

IMG_0495Every damn day in Religion Class, Sister Anna Banana yapped about the Soviets revving up to start a nuclear war with the new president, Ronald Reagan. She said after the cities burned to Holy Hell, there’d be something called “nuclear winter” that would kill all the plants and food, and it would last a million years. I’ll tell you what, a little bad weather, nuclear or not, wasn’t going to make me go extinct.

I’m already semi-super strong and fast, and I’m the best fighter in the sixth grade. But once World War III kicks off, I’ll need to be impervious to the nuclear wind-chill factor. Even though I was a whole year older than him, my little brother, Jaggerbush, was already immune to freezing weather, drinking sour milk, and the Ten Commandments. I had to practice up. I had a cold war to fight.

JoshWool_Bookshelves

 

Sarah, tell me, is there anything more navel-gazing than a self-interview?

I was just wondering the same thing. If there is, I can’t imagine it.

 

Would you consider your inability to imagine it a personal failure?

One of many.

10459009_10152214303511127_1046608401945286575_oIn a crumbling-stucco corner house off Frazier Street, lived a boy who believed he was nothing at all.  Nightly, his drunk father’s eyes glowed red, and he spit fiery words, but not until fists hailed down on his mother did the boy run for the space between the stove and cabinets. There he crouched crying, “Coward! Coward!”

He listened hard through screams and breaking for his mother’s breathing. Sometimes she went silent, and he wanted to be more than a boy hiding between the stove and cabinet. There he fingered the black abyss of a crack in the linoleum praying, “Fall in. Fall in. Fall in. Fall in,” and one night his father did.

IMG_1857My dad left on a Wednesday afternoon in July. He had made some trial runs; leaving the house late at night and heading off God knows where only to return days later, his clothes wrinkled and stinking of cigarettes and beer, the shadow of a beard growing on his face. But I would never have expected him to leave the day the fish fell from the sky.

photo (3)As we are walking through the park, Mitchell asks me about my nail polish. What is your nail polish? he says and examines my fingers and holds them up to the light.

Mitchell is no fool, knows his color palette. The reason he asks is because the color is translucent and always changing, so it looks different when the sun hits it directly versus when it glints off building windows versus the busses versus when it blinks out in the shade of tree leaves as we pass from the cobblestone street into the park.

478850_301122563314621_807623415_o[1][2]End of summer, 1986. That was the September that I became an angel and went to Alabama. It had been a miserable summer, hot, full of vapid small town people I’d known my entire life. There was no escaping the sameness of it all, except to get a job, save money and leave. I’d found the most boring job possible for a teenager, working at the only movie theatre in town selling old candy at the concession stand. My middle-aged boss was adept at torturing his ragtag staff of adolescent girls, standing too close as we counted every single box of candy and penny at closing. Since I had dyslexia, this took hours, and he used this opportunity to occasionally put his hand on my inner thigh. Summer passed, sticky and in slow motion, and moved into September, which didn’t feel much different.

Who do I dream of, if I do not dream of Sylvie? In whose arms do I imagine myself, if not in hers? In whose embrace do I slumber in my most precious heart?

She was my only. No crush or boyfriend could compete. She was the beginning and end of my experience with falling in love.

Sam’s co-worker Carla is talking about her three-year-old son Rico’s obsession with death. “He says to me, ‘Mama, I don’t want to die. I really, really don’t want to die.’”

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When Willy Vlautin’s first book, Motel Life, came out, I brought it with me to the beach house where my family (parents, siblings, spouses, kids, etc.) meet up for a week every summer. I read it in an afternoon, loved it, and passed it on. By the end of the week no less than six people across three generations were diehard Willy fans. We have all read (and loved) every Willy book since. So, when an advance copy of Willy’s new book recently landed in my hands, I felt I owed it to my family to get this guy on the phone.

Our conversation took place over two hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Willy has a great voice with a lot of gravel and a little bit of twang—he sounds like a really smart country boy who’s read a lot of books. We skipped the usual small talk and went straight into the heart of things: writing, love, life, family, childhood, happiness, drinking, and his latest book The Freewhich happens to be the official March selection of The TNB Book Club.

Willy said way more than is fit to print in a single interview, so here are some highlights from one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had with a stranger:

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Few writers can crawl into a character’s head like Mary Miller. In her 2009 short story collection, Big World, Miller’s protagonists were predominately young women in their twenties.  With her new novel, The Last Days of California, Miller channels fifteen-year-old Jess, trapped in the back of the family car with her secretly pregnant sister Elise, embarking on a road trip from Montgomery, Alabama to California.  Their father’s goal is for them to arrive within four days so they can be among the last American families to be raptured.  Along the way, he encourages the family to witness even though “He didn’t really want all 7 billion people on the planet to be saved.  We wouldn’t be special then.  We wouldn’t be the chosen ones.”

Miller is a recent graduate of the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers. She’s returning to her native Mississippi in the fall to serve as the Grisham Writer in Residence at Ole Miss. We discussed fantasizing about fundamentalism, writing realistically about teenage sex, and why she can’t quit Mississippi.