37 year old me checked in with my past selves, and these are the questions they asked me. 

This is 28. Do we ever stop sleeping with people who treat us badly?

Oh babe, you are in the wasteland right now! It’s a nightmare, isn’t it? I hate to tell you this, but we don’t really learn how to say no to bad sex until we’re in our early 30s. It’s one of the terrible by-products of having lacked any comprehensive education about desire and intimacy. We were taught all the mechanics of reproduction and birth control (not that it always worked – hi 25 and 26!) but not a lot about how to have actual conversations about what we wanted from sex. Couple that with the general self loathing that women are socialised into from girlhood and it’s just really fucking hard to figure out how to tell a dude he sucks (and not in the right way).

I hear that. Why do so many of them have such filthy bedrooms?

So, obvious question, but what’s up with the dragonflies? Why dragonflies?

Well, I’m not traditionally religious, so after my mom’s death, it was very hard to see any way to connect with her. There was just this incredible feeling of goneness. But dragonflies, maybe because of their surprisingly short life span once they transform into gorgeous, iridescent flying creatures, were what appeared to me. It got pretty intense right after she died—so many dragonflies. Because I’m such a hardcore realist, it was hard for me to accept these “visits” from my mom at first, but grief cracks you open in a whole new way. I now understand there’s something out there much bigger than us, and that you simply have to be receptive, porous, and open, and you will receive.

The House of Erzulie is, if I may be frank, chock-full of atrocities and lurid trivia. Is it really necessary to include this level of detail? It’s as though you enjoy making your readers squirm.

You mean the bloodshed, body counts, and madness inherent in my work? Or the graphic depictions of rabies and yellow fever deaths? Well, it is a gothic novel in the truest, literary sense of the word, thus designed to be atmospheric and sensationally distressing. We navigate this world using our senses, so stories that lack sensual detail feel “empty” to me. Hollow. I like to provide an immersive experience. Maybe submerge is a better term, for my stories do invite the reader to a sink into the deep waters of emotion. And yeah, I guess I do kinda enjoy making people squirm.

 How do you feel now that the book is out?

Like a cow jumped over the moon. Like I have landed on pesticide-free virgin grass, which for a cow like me, is bovine heaven. After all, there aren’t too many books written about cows. The Milk Lady of Bangalore may have my mistress in the title but it is really about me: Ananda Lakshmi a.k.a. Blissful Lakshmi a.k.a. Blissful Goddess of Wealth a.k.a AL. You can call me Al.

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?

Tired.

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

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.

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.

1.

Do you visit dad’s tree?

Often, we leave our bodies in trees. This is not just tree transformation, but tree storage.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Yep.

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.

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.)