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.

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

Stop it! That’s private.

 

… Joan Dempsey, welcome to Fresh Air.

[Groan.] Now I’ll never meet her.

 

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

Unless she’s actually considering an interview with me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.

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

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

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

No.

 

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

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

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

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

 

Do you feel pretentious doing a self-interview?

Yeah, sort of.

 

Who are your favorite characters in BigCity?

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

Sanderia Faye Author PhotoHave you always written?

I wrote little stories when I was very young and was encouraged by my high school English teacher to study creative writing in college. My family wasn’t about to have me spend four years at a university learning to write. I believed them and ended up with a BS in Accounting. Later, an editor for a newspaper overheard my conversation about sports, and was so impressed with my knowledge that she hired me as a freelance feature sports writer.

But it was not until the late nineties, when talk show host Oprah Winfrey, encouraged people to follow their passion that I got serious about it. I had no idea what I was passionate about, so I mimicked Oprah as a way to figure it out. She ran a half-marathon; later I ran the same one. She then trained and ran a marathon, and so did I, but I still felt empty inside until one day my friend said “I believe it’s writing.” Then I remembered how excited I was when my high school teacher had suggested I study creative writing, and how disappointed I was when my family didn’t agree with her. I believe not writing was why I felt the emptiness. (I feel it now when I’ve gone too many days without writing.) A few months later, I wrote my first thirty pages, which was required for the admissions application to Arizona State University and now I’m here.

d11112b022aIs Everyone Loves You Back really your first novel, or do you have five more hidden in your desk?

I wish I had five novels stashed in my desk. But no, this is really my first novel. I did start one back in the late 80s. I got about 50 pages in and showed it to a writing class. Big mistake. One of the other writers, an experienced editor, or so I thought at the time, told me I had no idea what I was doing, that my pacing was all wrong, more like a short story than a novel, and that I would run out of steam unless I made an outline and slowed things down. Now that I am recounting this, I wonder why I didn’t just make the outline and keep on going? But I didn’t. I put the book away and never finished it.

unnamedWhy did you write Wedding Bush Road?

Because I needed to, and no one else could have.

 

Isn’t that kind of self-involved.

Perhaps, but it’s true.

 

Don’t you write for an audience.

If I start engineering a story to appease some notion of readership, the story risks losing its propulsion and integrity. I want to tell the story that I need to tell, not what I think someone needs to hear. I trust that the novel will find its own readership.

hiresthalia2016_side_benedicte-verleySo you call Experimental Animals a reality fiction. . . . What’s so great about reality?

It’s a trick word: this thing we think is full of facts and histories, but then suddenly we become aware of all that’s invisible in it, all the energies that can’t be represented or known. (I’ve heard there are people who believe that there’s nothing that’s not on the internet.) Then suddenly reality is just a fantasy and all the categories blur. “Realism” was a 19th century phenom that had to do with telling tales of subjects who’d been left out of sight in the popular genres—combined later with a penchant for ‘research.’ Experimental Animals also shows characters and arguments that widen the concept of what we’ve taken for ‘reality,’ to include other kinds of subjectivities.

maMy favorite questions involve food so let’s start there. What did you have for breakfast today?

My husband and I have been going to this diner in Eagle Rock since I moved to LA in 2011. They have traditional diner fare, but they also have a Thai section of the menu (the place is run by Thai women). Our favorite thing to order is a dish called Dr’s Special. It’s basically a stir fry with chicken, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and tomatoes, and it’s really really good. It comes with two ice-cream scoops of rice. I like to add a combination of Thai chilis and fish sauce to this and spice myself out. I also had a glass of apple juice and a coffee.

katherine-a-sherbrookeYou’ve said Fill the Sky, while fiction, is based in part on an actual trip you took to Ecuador. Is it true a shaman spit cologne on you?

Yes, as crazy as it sounds, that part is true. It was the first shamanic ceremony I had ever experienced. None of the others were quite so…sticky.

 

Wait, you didn’t go running from all shamans after that?

Actually the harder part, is when a shaman tells you things about yourself you know are true at some level and yet still don’t understand, or are unwilling to admit.

 

Like what?

Well this particular shaman basically told me I was “tired,” which I took offense to since I had left the company I had founded a year before and had been napping religiously ever since. How could I be tired? What he meant though, I understood later, was that I had yet to find what gave me fuel in my life, and so I was destined to feel continually drained if I didn’t figure that out.