Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cut, Electric Literature, Guernica, VICE, New York Tyrant, Juked, Night Block, The Black Warrior Review, Salt Hill Journal, The Collagist, and more.
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Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cut, Electric Literature, Guernica, VICE, New York Tyrant, Juked, Night Block, The Black Warrior Review, Salt Hill Journal, The Collagist, and more.
Get the free Otherppl app.
Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with Katya Apekina. Her debut novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, is available from Two Dollar Radio. Buzzfeed, Kirkus, and Entropy call it one of the best books of 2018.
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.
We play a game where I name a band and he names a band that ends with the last letter of my band. We play until we come around to bands we’ve named already.
We drive in circles whenever we leave the Pacific Coast Highway, not knowing where on Earth we are.
John reads to me from the books he bought in Portland.
All sentient beings have at least one right, he says.
He lights a cigarette and opens the window. Cold salt air rushes my face.
All sentient beings have the right not to be treated as property.
Do you ever feel like property? he says.
All the time.
October 21, 2013
Two Dollar Radio, the Columbus, Ohio boutique publisher of works such as Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps and Joshua Mohr’s Termite Parade, recently announced the addition of a micro-budget film division, Two Dollar Radio Moving Pictures, set to release its first three titles beginning in 2015 with Editor-in-Chief Eric Obenauf’s I’m Not Patrick. Subsequent films will include The Removals, written by Nicholas Rombes and directed by Krilanovich, and The Greenbriar Ghost, co-written and co-directed by Scott McClanahan and Chris Oxley. I recently spoke via phone with Obenauf to learn more about Two Dollar Radio’s crowd-funded foray into indie film.
Scott McClanahan’s Crapalachia (Two Dollar Radio, March 2013), a memoir of growing up in West Virginia, is a brilliant, unnerving, beautiful curse of a book that will both haunt and charmingly engage readers for years and years and years. A compelling, compressed personal history that weaves together threads of heart-breaking and brutal truths with characters evolved into hyperboles of themselves, Crapalachia taunts the line between memoir and fiction, teasing us with the inability to know which is which. Too, like McClanahan’s earlier story collections, the anecdotes and tales that wend upward to form Crapalachia are full of gravel and grit and wit and wonder, stories as rugged and rusty as McClanahan’s upbringing.
Damascus (Two Dollar Radio) is a depressing, raw, and touching novel, the latest tale of lost misfits and depraved losers from Joshua Mohr. Here we find Owen, the owner of the bar Damascus, who dresses as Santa Claus, a man with a birthmark under his nose that makes him look like a modern day Hitler. There is a man dying of cancer, No Eyebrows, who simply wants to be touched. There is Shambles, the jerk-off queen, who is willing to do just that, her marriage recently ended in divorce, haunting the late night bars with no purpose or goal in mind. There is Revv, the bartender, a tattooed drunk whose last act may be one of cowardice. And there is Syl, a controversial artist who brings a wave of doom upon the bar, stirring up trouble from war veterans by depicting dead soldiers in her painting while nailing fish to the already stagnant walls of Damascus.
Well, I didn’t work on it for 10 years straight. I wrote other stuff along the way.
January 08, 2011
“Dislodged from family and self-knowledge and knowledge of your origins you become free in the most sinister way. Some call it having a restless soul. That’s a phrase usually reserved for ghosts, which is pretty apt. I believe that my eyes filter out things that are true. For better or worse, for good or merciless, I can’t help but go through life with a selective view. My body does it without conscious thought or decision. It’s a problem only if you make it one.”—page 5
The first sunny day after the rainy season ended happened to be our day off. From very early in the morning the cement yard in front of the barracks was flooded with noise and an atmosphere reminiscent of the market street of my hometown. The sounds, filling the space enclosed by stone walls as high as a two-story building, caught the attention of two guards perched on top of the watchtower beyond the barracks.
My groupmate, Cockeye, woke me with a shove. He leaned from the bunk below me. “Wake up,” he shouted in my right ear. “I saved a place for you.” He had no doubt just finished placing his own damp quilts on the iron rack outside to air in the morning sunshine.
I was angry with him. In what was left of the morning’s down-time, I’d been trying to keep the smile of Linan from fading. She appeared in my dream only when I was in good spirits, and her image could keep me in good psychological health for several days. I opened my eyes and was about to tell him off, when I remembered that the night before I had asked him to wake me in the morning.
I lifted myself on my elbows, and after sighing for the lost dream, said, “Okay, I’m awake.”
I rolled up my quilts and mattresses as quickly as I could, and took them to the spot that Cockeye pointed out. Hardly had I finished placing them on the iron rack when the cement yard came alive with prisoners dashing from other doors, quilts and mattresses in their arms. What an unpleasant swarm they were! Terrible quarrels broke out as prisoners arrived at the same place simultaneously, trying to occupy the sunniest iron racks.
Cockeye gave me a knowing look and said, “We were lucky we got here first.”
We squeezed between some of the quilts and squatted, resting for a bit until the bell for breakfast was sounded.
After breakfast, Cockeye returned to our spot between the quilts to repair his plastic sandals. I prepared a basin of hot water, wrapped a towel around my head, and got ready for a haircut. None of the razors in the barracks had been sharpened for months, and I knew the only way to alleviate the awful rough ache the razor would leave behind was to make my hair softer than usual with a hot, wet towel.
On one side of the iron gate, a queue of prisoners held basins and towels. Old Wang, the trustee of the General Service Group, was patiently shaving one head after another. Inmates in the General Service Group didn’t mine stones in the quarry so they kept their body fat while the rest of the barracks looked like walking skeletons. He seemed quite unaware of the cracking noise his razor made. I asked someone ahead of me to watch my basin and, wearing the towel around my head, walked to the toilet, which stood at the opposite end of the cement yard. The toilet had no door, but everyone was used to the lack of privacy.
About twenty prisoners were busily occupied nearby. The prison’s barter market was in session.
“Hey, get out of here! This is no place for display,” Yu Fuchai, the broker, bawled, cradling his homemade scale in his arms to protect it from damage. This market was usually held in the front hall of the barracks, but that day it had been moved outside, along with the shabby quilts and mattresses.
Yu Fuchai, a nimble salesman, stood on a small soapbox in the center of the circle, waving a shirt in the air. Two prisoners who were to be released in a few days stood on either side of him.
“Have a good look first,” Yu Fuchai said seriously to the prisoner on his right. He then turned to the one on his left while squinting at another prisoner, the owner of the shirt who was standing beside me and watching them. The man on Yu Fuchai’s right came to a decision after a moment’s hesitation, and he bought the shirt for four pounds of rice powder. When released, he would need some decent clothes to put on so he could pass for a civilian. It was said that those who were released wearing numbered clothes would have trouble outside. Big Yang, for example, who, when released last fall, had put on his old shirt and a pair of numbered pants before going to a restaurant for his first dinner out, had waited for more than an hour to get his food.
I joined the group in time to see the man pour rice powder from his cloth sack onto Yu Fuchai’s scale. He then took the shirt and departed.
“Who’s next?” said Yu Fuchai in a soft voice. No one responded.
At that moment, as I turned to leave, remembering that I had to have my head shaved, I suddenly caught sight of Ji, a former photographer in his early forties, his wide, bony face half hidden among the others. He seemed unaware of me. His attention was fixed on Yu Fuchai. He then turned to watch the former owner of the shirt pick up his rice powder from the scale and walk away. As I watched Ji, I sensed that he was struggling to make a difficult resolution. He was on the brink of surrendering to the constant pangs of hunger that troubled most of us. Perhaps he would make a decision now; I knew he had frequently attended the barter market as a quiet onlooker. On that day, he was standing on the edge of the crowd instead of in his usual front-row spot. He no doubt wished to avoid being singled out by Yu Fuchai, as he had been on the last market day.
“You can’t get anything unless you give up your suit,” Yu Fuchai had chastised him. “You’d better stop coming here. It’s no place for timid types. Understand what I mean?”
Trade at the market would certainly set a single-day record, with the biggest deal ever having been transacted. I never imagined that one shirt could be exchanged for four pounds of rice powder. An excellent opportunity presented itself to Ji, for there were other prisoners, holding heavy cloth sacks of rice powder, hoping to acquire clothes.
Ji owned a well-tailored blue suit of very good quality, though its style was slightly outdated. He did not put it on for festivals or holidays, but only when his wife came to visit him. To tease him, we had named it the “Visiting Suit.”
Ji kept his Visiting Suit wrapped in a wooden crate under his iron bunk. On sunny days off, he would air the suit on the iron rack in the cement yard and sit quietly next to it. Sometimes we saw him cleaning soiled spots with a wet brush. After brushing the suit for a while, we noticed that he would step back to look at it with half-closed eyes, like an artist admiring his work.
But that day we didn’t see Ji airing his Visiting Suit; we didn’t even see him in the barracks early in the morning. He must have been the first one of our group to enter the cement yard and wait.
Ji was not talkative, and he often looked altogether sluggish. I knew that his prison term had begun when he was forty years old, and that he had lived in a small town on the Grand Canal. He had owned a small photography studio there, which he ran with his wife – his only assistant. He had told me that his business was sometimes very good, especially during festival periods, though nearly all his customers were from the neighboring countryside. “In holiday seasons,” he said once, “I would be so busy, I couldn’t speak to my wife all day.”
I imagined that Ji’s household was a small but prosperous one, similar to those in small towns I had seen in my travels as a high school student. All that was missing was a child, and Ji seemed sorry about that. He remarked to me that he would have had a son or daughter by now had he not been accused of listening to foreign broadcasts and imprisoned as a counter-revolutionary.
Most of the other prisoners disliked working with Ji because he was so slow, and his taciturn manner distanced him from them even more. We few who did chat with Ji were, in fact, curious about his exceptional style of dress, his peculiar way of walking, and the formality of his appearance on the occasions of his wife’s visits. There was a certain amount of respect behind this curiosity, but we behaved among ourselves as though Ji was just something good to joke about. It was our way of entertaining ourselves after exhausting days at hard labor, and we mocked him cruelly when he returned from visiting with his wife.
“Hey, Ji, how goes the ceremony today?” we would ask him.
Not only was Ji’s Visiting Suit the finest piece of clothing in the prison, but those who had seen his wife knew how beautiful and courteous she was.
* * *
It had been on a hot afternoon in the middle of summer, three days after Ji was sent to the prison, that I first saw his wife. While moving stones in the quarry, stripped to only shorts, Ji and I were interrupted by a prison officer who had come to inform us that relatives were waiting to see us in the reform office. Realizing that my mother had come to visit, I was happy at the thought of the bag of rice powder she would soon give me. Rice powder was the only foodstuff allowed in the prison barracks. One simply mixed it with hot water and ate it. I had been in the prison for eight months, and by that point my mother had visited four times, each time bringing a bag of rice powder weighing about twenty pounds. I felt confident that I could survive the rest of my five-year term if she continued to visit as frequently. I was so excited about seeing her that I completely forgot my aching muscles and the sweat streaming down my forehead and into my eyes.
Ji and I walked down from the quarry along a narrow path.
“So who’s here to see you?” I asked Ji as we walked along a dirt road leading to the reform office. He seemed reluctant to answer. The news of a visitor had apparently not lifted his spirits at all.
“It’s my wife,” he said. Unlike most of the husbands hurrying to see their wives for the first visit, he displayed no sign that his wife was waiting for him, neither in his bearded face nor from the way he walked.
“You just got here, didn’t you?” I asked.
He nodded absently. I felt annoyed by his silence. The walk would have seemed much shorter if he had been a bit more talkative. Instead we walked along as though we were headed for the solitary cell.
I considered for a moment that Ji’s behavior wasn’t actually so strange. I had experienced similar feelings during my first days in prison. Remembering how miserable I had been, I knew that he had still not accepted the fact that his old life was gone forever. I was thankful that I was at least mentally accustomed to camp life, that I could firmly resist any feelings about the past, and that I was aware of the lack of connection between myself and the ordinary teenager I had been. I had let go of all my teenage fantasies and ambitions, and sometimes even doubted that once I had shared wonderful times with my girlfriend. Such pleasures seemed as remote as life on another planet.
So it seemed that Ji, suffering in the same way I had during my first days, and as yet unawakened from the dream of his previous peaceful life, was feeling too much pain to understand that I had once felt the same.
When we reached the iron gate of our barracks, Ji stopped and said, “I must change my clothes,” and hurried inside.
The officer, who had followed us, caught up to me and said, “What is he doing in there?”
“Changing his clothes.”
We waited uncomfortably at the gate. There was no shade at all, and the scorching sun was beating on my bare head and back. Sweat was pouring down my face. I felt ready to voice my annoyance, when Ji came out again. He walked to us without a word. I was so surprised that I forgot my irritation, for he had put on his suit. When he’d said he was going to change his clothes, I hadn’t expected to see him wearing such a formal wool suit in the hot sun. The officer was surprised, too. After staring at Ji for a while, he said, “You don’t think you’re going to a party, do you?”
Ji looked as serious as an important guest, walking along with calm and purposeful steps. Yet the front of his suit was already soaked through with sweat.
Watching the man for a moment, I shrugged. My back, too, was soaked with sweat. I decided Ji must have had a few loose screws in his head to wear such a heavy suit on a hot summer day.
“What’s the matter with you?” the officer asked him again, as though Ji were a madman.
Without replying, Ji walked calmly toward the red brick building where the reform office was located.
When we arrived at the reform office, my mother was sitting at one corner of a long table and a slim, beautiful, young woman was sitting at the other. I realized that this young woman, in a patterned blouse and skirt, was Ji’s wife.
She was as serious and calm as he was. Unlike most wives who came to visit, she seemed neither frightened, nor tearful. Instead, as Ji entered the room the corners of her mouth lifted with a half-smile. Watching them, I had the impression that the prisoner and his wife were both making efforts to present themselves well, and preparing their minds like performers about to appear on stage.
While my mother was talking to me, I could hardly take my eyes off Ji and his wife. Having put my hand on the sack of rice powder my mother had brought, I once more felt safe from hunger. This sense of security was much more important than my mother’s words.
Chief Chai, who sat between my mother and myself, ordered me to listen to my mother. I nodded. I wished that he would leave us alone so that I could tell her that as a growing young man I needed more to eat, and that she should bring more rice powder with her next time.
When Chief Chai turned to look at the Jis, I got my chance. I made a few gestures. I pointed to my mouth with my fingers and my mother understood immediately what I meant.
When Chief Chai turned back I had nothing else to say, so I took the sack and was about to leave. But as I turned to go, Ji and his wife’s meeting again struck me. Ji sat stiffly before his wife. She was speaking in a soft voice, talking about her relatives who had come to visit her since Ji had left home. Controller Dong sat between them, but they ignored him entirely as if he were merely a stone.
Then Ji’s wife lifted her bag onto the table and, in a way that reminded me of how my girlfriend had once shown me her birthday gifts, began to show Ji what she had brought for him. When I glanced at their sack of rice powder, I saw it was only about half as full as mine.
It seemed to me that Ji wore an invisible smile while listening to his wife, and that she smiled in the same manner when he began to speak. He maintained his formal pose and was unaware that he was soaked through with sweat, his suit sticking to his body like a wet towel.
Ji’s wife reached out her hands, calmly, the way she talked, to where Ji’s hands were. Now came the time for visiting wives to cry. With so much left to say, their words escaped them – leaving nothing but sobs. There were, however, no tears in Ji’s wife’s eyes. Nor had she held Ji’s hand tightly as most of the other wives did during their visits. And Controller Dong, who was used to such scenes during the prisoners’ visits, looked awkward.
“She is so lovely,” my mother whispered, half to herself and half to me. Certainly, I thought. But what was just as striking was the transformation of Ji. This was not the Ji who moved stones with me in the quarry, scraped porridge out of his bowl with his index finger, or remained indifferently silent when I’d spoken to him. He was not a prisoner now. He looked like a man who was going to receive an honor from the government.
I watched the couple without missing what my mother said. She told me that she had met the wife on the ship. They had rented a room together at the inn. “The manager seemed to do more for us than she had ever done for prisoners’ relatives before. She allowed us a room on the second floor, which had windows facing south.”
According to my mother, though, Ji’s wife didn’t seem grateful for such special treatment. “I guess she’s kind of inexperienced, for it was the first time she has traveled so far and spent the night away from home by herself. But I like the fact that she didn’t feel inferior. We two will have a lot to talk about this evening.”
Perhaps my mother and Ji’s wife will become good friends, I thought. I hoped so.
The couple’s talk ended. I saw Ji smile gently at his wife. Her eyes responded, but she was so shy that her face displayed only that mysterious half-smile.
All of a sudden, my girlfriend’s shy smile surfaced in my memory, so clearly that I wanted her more at that moment than I ever had. There had been no letters from my girlfriend, and I was not allowed to write to her because Regulation 6 said prisoners were not allowed to write to anyone other than their direct relatives. I felt as though I could put up with the endless hunger, years longer than my term, if my girlfriend were to visit me wearing such a smile.
Ji went in through the big iron gate before me. When I entered the barracks, I saw that he was carefully taking off his suit. He then took pieces of old newspapers and wrapped them inside. After this was done, he took his bowl out of his wooden crate. Running a hand inside the sack his wife brought him, he put a handful of rice powder into the bowl and mixed this with hot water. He blew on his bowl while mixing so that he was able to eat without stopping. I saw his neck move with each gulp he took, and noticed that he still seemed troubled. Sweat streamed down his face as he choked down the food. Once, with the same hand that held the spoon, he rubbed the sweat from his forehead briefly.
I moved to face him, thinking that I might see in his expression some trace of the meeting with his wife. Had he sunk into the past again? Maybe he would like to talk to me about his wife? No, he looked as indifferent as he had been before his wife’s visit. From the manner in which he choked down his food, he appeared as resigned as an old-timer to prison life. He most likely had realized at the time of his arrest that he would be separated from his wife for quite a long period, and would have to meet her in some other place. He must have prepared himself for this before coming to the labor camp.
After that first visit, Ji’s wife visited him every two months. Other prisoners, whose relatives happened to visit them at the same time, also got the chance to see the Jis meeting. All who witnessed their reunions would talk about it after supper. This was how we came to rank Ji in the list of important men among our groupmates. There were five on the list. Our group leader was certainly the most important man of all, and was highly appreciated for his skill in distributing portions impartially. Shen Chenshing, who was held in high esteem for his creative humor at bedtime, was second to him. Next were Chen Jie and me. We were both praised for our hard labor and for assisting weaker prisoners. The fifth was Ji, but his importance was different. Our regard for him was based solely on those occasions when he wore the suit that he left wrapped in old newspapers and stepped out solemnly to meet his wife. At that moment, he far surpassed the rest of us in importance.
In our group, Chen Jie and I were most interested in Ji’s unique manner, and so we always tried to talk with him, especially when we saw him standing by himself in the cement yard after the nightly thought-reform course. We were patient and restrained when talking with him, usually beginning with polite questions. Sometimes we asked him about his career, sometimes his photo studio or his customers, but every time received nothing more than a simple yes or no. I would exchange looks with Chen Jie, hoping that he would ask about what really interested us, but he wasn’t bold enough to do so either.
Eventually, we did learn a little about Ji. He told us that the suit he wore, when his wife came to visit, was his wedding suit. But that was all he would reveal to us.
We told the others the history of Ji’s suit before going to bed that night. Everyone agreed that Ji still looked like a newly married man when he was wearing his suit. But Shen Chenshing remarked, “Ji’s wedding suit has now become a Visiting Suit.”
* * *
Ji served the first year of his three-year prison term in this way. He would air his suit on holidays and would wear it when his wife came to visit. If we happened to see him come back from a visit with his suit on, we would say, “Hey, Ji, time flew fast for you… Let’s count how many times you should wear your suit before you go free. Eight, nine?”
As time passed, Ji wore his Visiting Suit less frequently. We saw him airing it out only during fine holidays because his wife stopped visiting as frequently as she had at first. The periods between her visits stretched to six months or more. Ji stood by himself in the corner of the cement yard every night as always. We saw under the moonlight that his wide, bone-framed face was filled with sadness. Sometimes we heard him sighing from deep in his chest. It sounded like the groan of a dying man.
Then came a night when Ji seemed at last unable to bear his loneliness and hunger any longer. Too desperate to control himself, he began a conversation with Chen Jie and me. “Do you think my wife has changed her mind?” he asked. We were shocked by his words, for we didn’t expect him to ask us such a question. More so perhaps than the other prisoners, we tended to regard the relationship between Ji and his wife as the most private to be seen in the camp.
Chen Jie stammered, “No, no, I don’t believe your wife would…”
With a deep sigh, Ji said, “But many women do change their minds during their husbands’ imprisonments.”
There was a heavy silence, broken when Ji asked us whether we could help him out with some rice powder. “If my wife comes to visit, I’ll pay you back,” he added, as though he were unsure whether his request would be met. It occurred to me that Ji’s real reason for speaking to us might have been just to get some rice powder. Afraid that we would turn him down, he said again, “I’ll pay you back when my wife comes.”
We, of course, gave him the rice powder he needed, and found him quite grateful. He said that he wouldn’t forget our help.
After Ji left us, Chen Jie and I stood together for a while in the cement yard. Neither of us looked at the other, or said anything.
Gradually we became estranged from Ji. We felt uneasy with him and made excuses to leave whenever he met us on the cement yard and stood beside us. The man we had looked up to with such respect had become an ordinary prisoner. We almost hated him, seeing that he had taken advantage of our naivete. We were sure that if we had asked him about his relationship with his wife, we would have been disappointed with his answers. In short, we decided that Ji was no match for his wife at all.
* * *
It was midday and the sun was scorching my bare head. All the prisoners’ activities were over, and those few who remained in the yard were newcomers. I must go back to the barracks, I thought, and dragged myself to the door. It was silent inside, and I saw that everyone, except for Cockeye, was there resting. Chen Jie was lying on his bunk, humming a folk song from his homeland while staring into space and rocking his legs. As I passed by him he glanced at me as if I were a stranger.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” I whispered.
“What?” he grunted.
I gestured to him to follow, and we went out. I saw Ji, who was relaxing on his lower bunk-bed, watching me, anxiously moving his hands from his side to his chest.
Chen Jie caught up to me as I stepped over a whitewashed cement bench, and we walked partway across the cement yard. The sun’s bright glare seemed blunted only by a narrow strip of shadow cast by the high stone wall.
“So what’s up?” said Chen Jie, leaning on the wall without looking at me.
“I think Ji has sold his Visiting Suit,” I said.
“That’s why you dragged me out here. I already heard about it. Cockeye witnessed the sale to Tong Shanyuan. Nine pounds of rice powder, and Yu Fuchai already got one pound from the trade so Ji should be able to pay us back what we loaned him,” he said loudly and looked at me.
“Don’t talk in such a loud voice. Ji might hear us.”
We stood facing each other, our eyes dazzled by the sunlight burning off the oily cement surface of the empty yard. Except for the rustling sounds the prisoners made while resting in the stale and hopeless atmosphere of the barracks, the yard was silent.
Chen Jie looked as though he was angry. He wouldn’t have behaved so rudely had he not been hurt severely by Ji trading away his suit. We were on the verge of lunging at each other. But the moment passed; I stepped aside to hide the anger in my eyes.
That night, after the thought-reform course, Ji told me what had happened in the morning. Then he began to beg for my assistance.
“Do you think I’m soft?” I asked him. “You still owe us the rice powder we loaned you.”
Ji opened his mouth, but no words came out. And then with an effort he said, “I don’t think you’re soft. I need you and Chen Jie to help me once more. No one else can help me.”
“Sorry,” I said, “we’ve helped you enough.”
“Even as I was selling my suit to Tong Shanyuan for the nine pounds of rice powder, I knew I shouldn’t. Now I’m afraid that my wife will feel deeply hurt. I’ve decided that I’ve got to get it back, but I can’t handle it all by myself.” Ji spoke urgently, as though I were the only person he could rely on.
I decided in a few seconds. I called Chen Jie out to the yard. We stood in a dark corner and discussed what we would do. We both forgot our earlier disagreement as we constructed a plan for the redemption of the Visiting Suit. Ji stood shamefully in the darkness close by.
Chen Jie finally turned to him and said, “Okay, bring the rice powder and we’ll find them.”
We found Yu Fuchai in the lavatory. I strode over and put my right hand heavily on his shoulder. Yu turned with a start and said, “What’s the matter?” But when he saw Chen Jie, who stood behind me, looking at him and Ji, he seemed to understand, and followed us out without another word.
When we found Tong Shanyuan in the cement yard, he was talking to a group of inmates about his big plans for eating in a restaurant after his release in a couple of days. It took us only a few minutes to take Tong Shanyuan aside and order him to get the Visiting Suit, give it to Chen Jie, and accept the return of his sack of rice powder.
Later, back in the dark corner, I saw a smile appear on Ji’s face. He tried to hide it when Chen Jie looked at him. But Chen Jie suggested we give some rice powder to Ji. I agreed, though I was almost out of rice powder myself.
We remained in the moonlit yard after Ji left. It was very quiet. The moonlight seemed to emphasize the emptiness of the space between the big iron gate and the high stone walls. I thought of my mother, who was probably falling asleep at that time. She always wrote to me, “I get up early and go to bed early, too. I fall asleep as soon as I go to bed. I’ve been used to that schedule since you left home…”
Chen Jie, who stood beside me, suddenly broke into my thoughts by slapping my bare head. “You look strong and more threatening than before because of your newly shaved head. Yu Fuchai and Tong Shanyuan must have been scared by the green light that reflects off it under the moon.”
I answered by slapping him back, and we fought playfully in the empty yard.
* * *
Ji did not return to the barter market after that. He continued to wander around the cement yard at night as before. He grew thinner, his face more angular. He became more taciturn than ever, and seemed to ride out the rest of his term by means of his silence, which we read as a sort of self-confidence. Maybe he would get through it yet, we thought.
Ji would put his Visiting Suit on the iron rack every sunny holiday, and brushed the soiled spots as carefully as before. The Visiting Suit, however, became so full of holes that as Yu Fuchai remarked mockingly, “It is no longer worth even one jin of rice powder.”
During the last year of his term his wife visited him more frequently. And Ji wore his suit each time his wife came, except for her final visit, two months before he was set free. Ji did not wear his Visiting Suit when he was summoned to the reform office. Instead, he wore an old black wadded coat, a prison uniform for winter.
That evening, after the thought-reform course, Controller Dong entered our group and asked Ji, “Today was your wife’s last visit. Why didn’t you wear your suit?” Dong actually seemed angry with Ji.
Rising from his bunk slowly, Ji said, “I couldn’t wear my suit today because a rat has eaten a hole in it.” He took the Visiting Suit out of his wooden crate and spread it on his bunk-bed. The suit was completely worn out. The color had greatly faded and in the front was a gaping hole shaped like a new moon.
Dong, the controller, told Ji to give the suit to him. “I’ll tell the sewing group to mend it.”
* * *
The day on which Ji’s term came to an end happened to be a fine holiday. He put on his Visiting Suit early in the morning. The front chest of the suit had been replaced with a piece of cloth of similar color, in a way that looked as though Ji had put a handkerchief halfway into his top pocket. I watched him for a while, and then walked to Ji’s side because it seemed that he had something to say. I found he was clenching his large hands together, as though to control himself. When he spoke, it was only one sentence: “My wife will come to meet me this afternoon.”
Sure enough, his wife appeared in the afternoon. I was taken aback by her appearance, however. The woman had changed so much that I doubted whether she was really Ji’s wife, the young woman I had first seen three years past. She looked thin, tired, and old. All her former vitality and beauty was gone. The only thing remaining to identify her as Ji’s wife was her shy smile.
While his wife waited outside the big iron gate, Ji shook hands with me. I turned my eyes to Ji’s Visiting Suit and then to his wife, both worn out since I had first seen and admired them three years ago. I recalled the first time that Ji’s wife visited him, the occasion when Ji exchanged his Visiting Suit for rice powder, the way he moved his mouth when he was watching the barter market, and his desperate sighs in the cement yard late at night. When I moved my eyes from Ji’s Visiting Suit to his wife, I wondered what had happened to her during the period in which she had failed to visit Ji. Had she had some experience similar to Ji’s with his suit?
As I stood watching the Jis, I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I thought of my groupmate Chen Jie, who had died in the quarry, crushed by huge rocks, the year before. He had also witnessed the couple’s meeting and helped Ji as much as I had. Had he been standing next to me to see them reunite, he would have tapped me on the bare head and said the parting words that I was unable to get out of my mouth.
Ji walked out of the big iron gate and joined his wife. Those of us who had lived with him for years followed him with our eyes. We imagined walking with him. And then for the first time we too walked out of the big iron gate. Turning back, we saw that Controller Dong and a few other officers had also stepped out of the reform office to watch until the couple had disappeared from sight.
I’d been inventing a new kind of filmmaking called The Unveiled Animal (how it’s germane to Derek and Mired’s bizarre, sadistic tale will soon be clear, as will my plan for revenge against my brother). It revolved around the notion that the cinema needed to evolve past actors, scripts, contrived scenes, fraudulent emotion. Movies needed to shun closure and happy endings.
July 21, 2010
JE: Okay, so before I talk about Josh Mohr the writer, I just wanna’ say that I love the synergy Josh and his publisher Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio have going. A publisher and a writer helping each other help themselves. Josh is writing great books and hustling (I’m guessing not for huge advances), while Eric is really working to connect Josh with readers, and doing his damndest to make Josh a successful author (not just a title). I was one lucky sonofabitch to have had such a synergy with Richard Nash at Soft Skull. Sadly, in an industry where most writers are hung unwittingly out to dry, this is a rare situation.
A few words on Josh, the writer: Josh is one of those writers I like best because he writes stuff I would never write. Approaches narratives in a way I wouldn’t approach them. Pushes himself (and me) out of his comfort zone. That excites me. Josh’s characters rescue burnt sofas. Push their lovers down stairwells. Wallow in dumpsters. And his language never ceases to surprise. Josh’s second novel, Termite Parade, was recently unleashed on the world, only a year after his successful debut (Two Dollar Radio’s first bestseller), Some Things That Meant the World to Me.
I got drunk and interviewed Josh when I should have been writing. I’ll bet he was drunk too, and should have been writing.
JM: No paranormal bodice-rippers, per se, but I do have a bitchin’ idea for a new vampire book. I know, I know, the kidz are tired of vampires… but they’ve never seem them like this before…
Imagine: a young male vampire joins the navy and he’s stationed on a submarine. Once they’re underwater, it’s always dark, so he can “vamp out” 24/7. The tag line can be “It’s always midnight at 10,000 leagues!” And on the cover, it could have a sub with fangs sticking from the front. You know, John, if we actually wrote that as a screenplay we could both retire!
But about squalor, I can’t say that consciously I’m attracted to it. I like hyperbole, exaggeration; often the stakes are the highest for those bottoming out, either literally, psychologically, or both.
So for example, in my new book Termite Parade, the hyperbolic incident is that a man drops his girlfriend down the stairs. It’s an aggressive image, but these sorts of things happen all the time. It’s ostensibly a story about betrayal; it’s the same story if the man cheats on the woman–that’s just as devastating a betrayal, though its violence isn’t grounded in physicality, but emotion.
Infidelity, though, isn’t interesting to me. I want metaphors that indict us at greater volumes than the ones we’ve come to accept as pedestrian. I want to use inflated imagery to lure readers into the narrative and often that leads me into grim circumstances.
I always start with image. For Some Things, I knew I wanted to write about a broken home, but that territory has been trampled so much over the years, I needed a new way into it. So I decided to literally break the home: its rooms drifting away from one another like the separating continents.
Once I’d established the surreality, all bets were off in terms of “rules,” so as Rhonda told me more about who he is as a real person (and yes, I do believe our characters are real people), I filled the blanks in from there. I revise compulsively; that’s where the real hard work happens, where the clay gets molded into sculpture.
Termite started from an exercise I heard that the poet Robert Haas uses: he’ll spend months working on one poem, rewriting and rewritng, trying to earn that last line (the pay-off line in any poem). But this is actually just the beginning: because then Haas uses that pay-off line as the first line of a new poem (the one he’s been interested in all along). The logic is that his imagination will go to skyscraping places if he uses the “pay-off” as the beginning, to build up from it as a foundation and traverse into daring terrain.
So I wrote a short story using the image of a man dropping his girlfriend down the stairs as its climax. I worked on it for about eight months, got it to where it was ready to publish. Then I yanked the climax and used it as the point of entry to what eventually grew into Termite Parade.
I don’t write with an outline or any kind of plan; I like the reckless discovery of surprising myself with each plot point. Of course, this leads to lots of wrong turns–maybe why I have to revise so much–but I dig that wanton, blind strategy of building story without any scaffolding around it.
I’m not a superstitious person, been known to walk under a ladder or two in my day. I’m happy to talk about what I’m working on now. I challenge myself with every book to try and tackle some literary feat of such an encoded nature that only I’ll notice. For example, in Termite Parade,”my goal was to try and create as much chaos on the page in the climactic sequence as Sam Shepard‘s play Buried Child. I’m not sure if you’ve seen a production of it or not, but by the time the action hits its peak, all hell has certainly broken loose. Shepard is one of my heroes.
I read a lot of plays because it reminds me not to rely too heavily on thought process, to let my “actors” characterize themselves on the page, via dialogue, gesture, and body language. Obviously, thought process is important, but when it’s overused/abused, interiority brings the narrative to a screeching halt.
In this new book (tentatively titled Machines that Ache in Their C: Drives), I’m working on an ensemble piece, hopefully a distant, debauched cousin to a Robert Altman film. These first 3-novels have been a cycle, all set in San Francisco at the same time, overlapping characters, locales, imagery and themes. Some Thingsintroduced a bar called Damascus, and a bunch of Machines takes place there.
The book is about an anti-war art show. A painter has put together 12 portraits of dead American soldiers. During the art opening, she nails a cat fish to each canvas, so as they hang, the room will smell like death, decomposition: it will remind the studio audience back home that soldiers are dying on their behalves. Some folks take umbrage with the artist’s expression and hostile shenanigans ensue. Where would we be without hostile shenanigans?
Of course, it’s about 38 other things, too, but that’s the only one that makes a tidy synopsis. It’s by far the most fun I’ve ever had on the page, though that might not be saying much: Termite Parade was quite a wrestling match. I’m not sure I won.
Well, I was pretty busted up by the time my manuscripts made it to Eric and 2DR. And that’s not a typo, I meant “manuscripts”… plural. My first agent couldn’t sell Some Things (Pun intended). In fact, she told me to write a 2nd book and forget about number one, and when she couldn’t sell the 2nd, she fired me. About a year later, after regrouping and finding new representation, 2DR bought Termite Parade and we were able to piggyback Some Things onto that contract.
That’s why it felt like such a coup for the indie press when Some Things went on to make O Magazine’s Top 10 reads of ’09 list. I mean, people kept saying that the material is too grim, that it isn’t commercially viable, and here’s O, one of the most mainstream publications going and they pick it out of the haystack. I was stunned, wonderfully stunned. They changed that book’s life, and I’m immensely grateful.
Two Dollar Radio only puts out four or five titles a year. It’s Eric, his wife, Eliza, and Eric’s younger brother, Brian. And that’s it! That’s the whole shop. So it’s a family thing and that grassroots feeling permeates the whole experience. I love it. I’m very comfortable on the fringe. I like that role of being underestimated. There are very few expectations of me, and so if something goes well, it’s just gravy. I feel like I’m playing with house money… except in this particular example there’s no money. Or a house.
For any aspiring writers out there, don’t just assume that one of the big, swanky corporate publishers is the right fit for you. Especially if your material is transgressive, prurient, etc. You might be better served with a smaller house that won’t consider your book to be a failure if it sells 3,000 copies. Every writer should have an editor that shares your vision of the book’s identity. You don’t want someone who’s trying to water down your material simply to fit you into a shiny marketing box. I’ve definitely found that invaluable synergy with Eric and Eliza. It’s worth much more than a big advance.
I also think it creates a huge camaraderie between us because we’re doing it all ourselves. There’s no marketing or sales departments. It’s just us shaking trees, making the phone calls, pimping books. Probably because of all my years playing in crappy bands, but I like being involved with that stuff. The thing I’m the most scared of as a writer is investing 3, 4, or 5 years writing a book, and it comes out and vanishes without a trace. Unfortunately, it happens all the time–good books get lost in the shuffle (and bad ones get hype because of nepotism). So I can use my anxiety about this phenomenon as gasoline to hop on the phone or send a batch of emails or cyber-stalk those that need cyber-stalking. I’m a pro-active cat when it comes to these sorts of things.
Last thing I’ll say about 2DR, and maybe this is all that needs to be said: I just tattooed their logo on my shoulder. That should speak to how I feel about them. And so to end with another of those dastardly cliches, the proof ain’t in the pudding, folks, it’s inked on my skin.