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.

Fairy tales terrified me when I believed in things. On my fifth birthday, one of Mama’s lady friends, Miss Janice, came over for dinner. We weren’t having a party or anything that year, just a quiet meal at the kitchen table with huck-a-bucks for dessert. Miss Janice taught at a university. I remember her as the kind of lady Mama liked: smart, well educated, not the type to wear makeup. She was the first black woman I’d ever seen with short hair. Over dinner, Miss Janice told us about her travels up and down back roads, through abandoned farms, into the backwoods and hollers of the South. She’d been looking for old people to tell her stories, but not just anyone or any story. Her stories had to be particular.

“All your stories come from one town?” Mama asked.

“That’s the thing baby,” Miss Janice said, “There’s more than one Okahika.”

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.

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.

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?”

I turned on the lights and the bulbs clicked to life, trying their best to shine through layers of sticky dust. I ran up and down the rows of the university library’s basement, looking for the chrome bulk that would betray the coin-op typewriter’s hiding place. They upped the cost from a dime to a quarter from Ray’s time to mine. I could almost smell the charred ash when I recalled reading the book for the first time. It had cost him $9.80 to write his masterpiece on saving the power of words from the firemen, one dime and half hour increment at a time.

“Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain momma

Take me home, country roads”

-John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

 

If I were partial to the Denver School of Criticism, I might spend hours coming up with pithy sobriquets for Scott McClanahan. I’d call him the Chaucer of Coal Country, Mountain Bukowski, or some other such shite. I’d focus on the stereotyped version of West Virginia many of us carry in our heads, turn McClanahan’s story into a combo of The Outsiders sacking the Sam’s Club snack aisle and life in the U.S.S.R. circa 1983, a place that really wasn’t that bad compared to the coal-dusted, oxy-encrusted, Trumpist mayhem of today’s West Virginia.

u34+1F!EVWH7ngw7NLVXIcKIKW2pmYA+Gl!w8rbMsYH!BRIAG5OUet9tcq9F2XjffXkZsjELHH1dotzfe59AzyGvF052d2UykJBErmXhkayWsW1OYzkgsRAdZgmVYczu Book Clubbers! In April we’re reading The Book of Joan, the incredible new novel by Lidia Yuknavitch.

The buzz is really building for this one:

The 25 Most Anticipated Books by Women for 2017, Elle Magazine

The 32 Most Exciting Books Coming Out in 2017, BuzzFeed

50 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2017, Nylon Magazine

33 New Books to Read in 2017, The Huffington Post

Most Anticipated, The Great 2017 Book Preview, The Millions

Also: The movie rights just sold!

Be on the lookout for Lidia’s appearance on the Otherppl podcast in the weeks to come.

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On behalf of the entire TNB community, I want to send love and appreciation to Cynthia Hawkins, our longtime Arts & Culture editor, who is battling cancer with uncommon grace and determination. All of us here–and of course I’m referring to our far-flung tribe of writers and editors, both past and present–are deeply moved and inspired by you, Cynthia, and we want you to know how much we care about you and your family.

With this in mind, we figure a good old-fashioned, comment-heavy post here at TNB will cheer you up and give you some more good energy. (All readers are invited to join me in offering positive thoughts on the board below.)

Mircobrew will return in its usual form in early February with 2017’s first batch of new books. For now, here are my ten favorites from 2016, in no particular order, along with a favorite chosen by each of the authors I selected.

I have to admit, looking at this list gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I read a lot of great books in 2016, many of which I wasn’t able to include in this top 10. More than that, I’m amazed at the variety of contemporary American fiction, a range I think is well represented in this list.

Though some people suggest American fiction is cookie-cutter–especially that produced by MFA programs–I just don’t see it. From the experimental to the starkly realistic, from ornate prose to the sparest of minimalism, from comedy to drama, this list is a representation of what I wanted to do with this column. I wanted Microbrew to demonstrate the incredible range of contemporary American literature, and I like to think the column and this list both serve that end.

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Although we’ve both lived in Portland, Oregon for years, I met Margaret through a mutual acquaintance at the Association of Writing and Writing Professionals conference in LA. I was about halfway through with her collection of short stories, People Like You, and I was in love with her characters. They were sometimes lost, sometimes broken, but they were always hopeful in some way. It was quickly apparent to me in talking with Margaret that she was someone inspiring, perhaps especially to me. We both write while working in a field outside of writing, while also raising kids. It can be crazy-making, which is likely why it took three months of planning just to arrange a coffee date. Several months after that, when we met for this interview, it was early in the morning and we were both headed to work immediately after.

Margaret’s book was released by Alterier26 Books in Fall of 2015. It was the winner of the Balcones Prize for Fiction and a finalist for the 2016 PEN Hemingway Award. Margaret’s work has also appeared in The Missouri Review, Oregon Humanities, Swink, Propeller Quarterly and elsewhere. I interviewed Margaret on a sunny morning in a Portland coffee shop.

Whether we’re talking about simple book reviews, hardcore literary criticism, or even the deathsport-cum-puffery that goes with writing workshops, it’s easy to make literary opinions about yourself rather than the work at hand. There are a lot of different ways this can happen in reviewing. Some of the more common:

1.  The dispensation of ham-fisted writing truisms (show, don’t tell; adverbs must die; etc.)

2.  The shared personal anecdote, loosely related at best (My word-slinging panda Grimwald brings me a sonnet every night. But you didn’t. And that’s why this is the most horrible dreck I’ve ever read.); and

3.  Conscious mockery, the review designed (through wit, derision, and pithy prose) to show how much better you are than the foolish mortal whose book you’ve deigned to review. (There’s this guy on Goodreads…Actually, there are like three hundred of this guy on Goodreads, but you get the idea…)

I suppose I have a little luxury in the books I review. No one at TNB tells me what to cover, when to read them or where. I just do then say what I think. Simple, right? But not so, not really.

So many of the most famous examples of criticism come from hating a book or an author with a passion, from using that passion and what skill you may have to pen a take-down readers will remember. The goal is perhaps not always to make oneself sound good, but certainly, at the very least, to make the writer or work under discussion sound very bad.

For me, today, book reviewing has less to do with put-downs, more to do with empathy. As a critic, I think you need to be a bit of a chameleon, able to envision each book not just from your own perspective (the white tower of your five-star, ten-point, or four-heart rating scale) but from the standpoint of that book’s best reader, the person the book is intended for even though neither they nor the author have any idea they exist. Rather than the infallibility we sometimes pretend to, book reviewing seems to me a matter of art and hope, maybe even something a little like a prayer. A wish, at least, that the books we’ve chosen will find their best readers, whoever and wherever they are.

Galley fever. That was the diagnosis Michael J. Seidlinger gave me a few months after I started reviewing books at Electric Literature. In all fairness to Seidlinger, it’s possible I’d just given him a list of four books I was going to review (that month? that week? that day?), two of which were (again, possibly) by Salman Rushdie and Milan Kundera. No pressure, no worries.

“Textbook case,” Seidlinger added. “Trust me, man. I’ve seen it before.”

Turned out Seidlinger was right. I did have a case of galley fever. And I still do. In fact, it’s starting to look like this galley fever thing is more or less permanent.

Galley fever: n. The pathological desire to review books. Said desire may conflict with eating, sleeping, and other activities once thought necessary. (In spite of common usage, has nothing to do with viruses, physical temperature, rowboats, or micro-kitchens.)

I started this column so I could put my fever to use; so I could cover more books in less time. It’s working, too. At least I think it is. But there are still issues, laws of time and space to be dealt with. By which I mean reading time and editorial space. The greater problem, to put it bluntly, is that there’s too damn much talent out there in the literary world.

In addition to the latest from one of my writing heroes, Don Delillo, this month’s Microbrew features National Book Award-nominee and literary triple-threat (poetry, fiction, nonfiction), Kim Addonizio, Shawn Vestal, Lori Ostlund, Zoe Zolbrod, and Sean Beaudoin. Obviously, our line-up’s pretty heavy. And that’s a good thing. It’s just that there’s so much more out there. So many books that deserve coverage, so little time. So, get out there and review a book or two. But don’t forget to buy these…