nicole_dennis_benn_here_comes_the_sun

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Nicole Dennis-Benn. Her debut novel Here Comes the Sun is available now from Liveright. It is the official September pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

 

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excavation coverFall 1986

“Open your notebooks,” Mr. Ivers ordered, stepping backward from us, his eyes blinking rapidly behind his glasses. I saw a glimmer of a smile, and then a furrowed brow in mock seriousness.

“You’re going to use these notebooks to compose journal entries. You’ll turn the notebooks in to me once a week, every week. You can write about whatever you want, so long as there’s evidence of writing somewhere, somehow, in that notebook. Got it?” He held his elbows. He caught my eye.

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This is the first installment of my column, CNF 500. The column will deal with topics related to anything and everything creative nonfiction, and will be 500 words. As essays editor of The Nervous Breakdown, I’m always ready to consider essay submissions of any length for publication. Please email essays to ekleinman at thenervousbreakdown dot com.

I’m going to tell my mom about my writing.

We’re in the International District in Seattle. It’s January. I’ve always liked these types of outings with her. We took the bus from Lynnwood. I’m wearing her coat because I live in Austin, Texas and I don’t have anything warm to wear. It’s a black coat from JCPenney with huge pockets and a fluffy hood.

David Lowery
Please explain what just happened.

The AC just stopped working in my house. Dire circumstances in Texas in July.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Playing with some toy trucks in a sandbox outside a red brick building. I think I was two. This memory might have been significantly bolstered by photographs of the same event. If so, then my other first memory is my grandmother’s face.

7Please explain what just happened.

I read this email from you in bed, took a shower, ate breakfast, then sat at my desk to answer these questions.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Seeing Revenge of the Nerds in a movie theater with my dad and uncle.  Based on the release date of the movie, I must have been almost 3, or maybe they saw it second run and I was 3. Anyway, I don’t remember much of the movie, but I do remember my dad’s hands covering my eyes and ears several times throughout. So I would be looking at this giant image and hearing these loud sounds, then I would see and hear nothing, then images and sounds again.  I’m sure this has something to do with my love of cinema and the quality of mystery and excitement that it still holds for me.

Sister Stop Breathing

What can you do if you want your sister to stop breathing?

Ice her up and drive north. Head to Santa Cruz. There you will find a main street called

Main Street. You can showcase her to people. Go to the Kinko’s parking lot and introduce her. Say, “I bet you didn’t know I had a sister! This is she. She’s made of ice.” The kids will want to touch her arm, and the sister will move in tiny waves. Once you have asserted that the sister exists and she is made of ice, breathe down her frozen face. The sister will begin to melt. The children will scream.

1.

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a white woman who likes black men. I like the stories black men tell and the way they talk and the way they look at me, this way they have of being sure and tentative all at once, and yes, oh yes, I’m not gonna hide it, the hard sweet way they ball. Still, I don’t like having that reputation, white folks–not to mention the sistahs–all thinking I’m just after black cock. So let’s be straight: at the time I’m talking about, the only black cock I was on intimate terms with was attached to Samps, and I wasn’t after Samps, we just…well, OK, we fucked, we fucked a lot, but I want you to know the guy was homeless, penniless, quite likely clinically insane. Believe me, I didn’t have my hands on anything you would want.

Please explain what just happened.

I went out to get the newspaper, and the guy hadn’t come.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Coming downstairs from my bedroom into the kitchen where my mother was. Captain Kangaroo was on the television, and my mother said, “What are you doing up?” In retrospect, if she didn’t expect me up, why was Captain Kangaroo on the TV?

Please explain what just happened.

I woke up, put water on for coffee, and changed my son’s diaper while it boiled.

 

What is your earliest memory?

I’m four years old and lying on a couch at my grandparents’ house with my grandfather in his reclining chair a few feet away. We are kicking it (old school, I suppose).

First Contact

By Rob Williams

Essay

Her name was Nedelia. She was a skinny, shy Hispanic girl, with enormous glasses (just like me) and a faint mustache whispering across her upper lip (very much unlike me—but more about that in a second). In my memory, she is always wearing a light blue skirt, knee-high white socks and a white blouse. She looks lovely, although I never would have said that about her at the time.

Please explain what just happened.

I just followed instructions, hoping that obedience will be rewarded. (I’m still in the “Are You My Mother?” stage of emotional development. Plus, my father was a decorated bomber pilot who taught me, through terror and osmosis, the power of an “I was just following orders,” duty-driven life: it exonerates you of all emotional responsibility!)

When I was in Edinburgh one summer, performing my monologue in the Festival Fringe, there was a remarkable work of conceptual theater called The Smile Off Your Face. The stage manager for my show had texted me late one night, “I just saw the smile on your face and I loved it!” Me being a monologist i.e. perhaps self-absorbed, as well as a bit randy, I thought she had seen the smile on my face, and wanted to see more. But when I texted her back to continue the flirtation I made the somewhat embarrassing discovery that she loved The Smile Off Your Face (the correct name of the show), not the smile on my face, and that she was suggesting I see the show, not that we have illicit relations.

Here’s how the show worked: you sat in a wheelchair, blindfolded, and got rolled around some space whilst different people, male and female, asked you to feel their Adam’s Apple (awkward, if you are straight) or whispered lascivious double-entendres in your ear (awesome, if you are straight) or stood you up and pushed you backwards onto a bed and asked, “Are you in love?” (horrible, if you are married and your marriage is on the rocks). At the end of the show, back in the wheelchair, someone removed my blindfold, and I stared at a man who told me, “Please put a big smile on your face. Now, whatever you do, keep smiling.” As I am obedient (see above), I obliged. Then I was wheeled away from him, slowly, backwards. And he started crying, weeping really, tears streaming down his face. This raised the conundrum: Do I honor my word and keep smiling? Do I empathize and stop smiling? Or do I feel manipulated and tell him, Are you kidding?

It was very confusing. I kept smiling, thinking, Are you my mother?

What would you most like to be asked?

That, to me, is the perfect opening question to any interview.  I wish more people would ask me about my writing process, rather than just about the content of my books.  I certainly don’t mind being an advocate for bipolar disorder, but I consider myself a writer first.

 

Okay, fine.  Where are you at this very moment, as you write this interview?

The same place I always write at — a little café in Beverly Hills called Le Pain Quotidien.  I find I write better out of the house, away from tempting distractions.  They let me sit here and scribble for hours, just me and a latte and a cup of gazpacho.  I’m so grateful to the café I mention it in the acknowledgements of my last book.  Come to think of it, I also referred to it in the epilogue of my first book.  I’m a café junkie, I guess.

 

It’s a pretty crowded place.  Isn’t it too noisy to write?

I wear earplugs, plus they always play classical music, which doesn’t bother me.  I have a certain rhythm in my head when I write, and classical doesn’t interfere with that.  Rock and jazz and more contemporary types of music, especially anything with lyrics, totally wreck my pacing.  Some people’s voices, if they’re too loud and nasal, also derail me.  Since when did it become okay to shout in public?  I think everybody should whisper — the world would be a much nicer place, full of secrets.

 

So the café gave birth to two books.  What are they about?

The Dark Side of Innocence:  Growing Up Bipolar is a childhood memoir about what it was like to grow up with a disease that at that time had no name.  I had no diagnosis, I just knew that there was something very, very wrong with me.  The book starts with a suicide attempt when I was seven years old, and continues with my increasing struggles with mood swings, alcohol, cutting and other self-destructive behaviors.  It ends when I’m eighteen years old, on my way to college.  I had gained a certain amount of insight by then, and was sure I was leaving all my problems behind me — which of course, I didn’t.

Manic:  A Memoir covers my adult life with bipolar disorder.  I describe how I managed to be a successful entertainment attorney, representing the likes of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones and major motion picture studios, while secretly battling this devastating illness.  I also examine the impact of the illness — and my secrecy — on my relationships with various men.  I like to say that Manic was written from the inside out:  I tried to give the reader a visceral sense of what it’s really like to be bipolar.

 

Are you manic right now?

Nobody ever asks me that, although I think they secretly want to.  I suspect they’re afraid of insulting me.  The answer is no, I’m not manic at this time.  You would know if I was:  I’d be writing so fast there’d be no time for punctuation or grammar.  When you’re manic, you have to get your thoughts out of your head THIS VERY MINUTE, or you feel like you’ll explode.  Although I get an awful lot down on the page when I’m manic, I later discover that most of it is gibberish.

 

Do you think there’s a reason that you’re bipolar?

You mean like a higher purpose, a destiny?  At the risk of sounding pretentious, absolutely.  I attempted suicide on a grand scale on a number of occasions.  I never should have survived, never in a million years.  I think there has to be a reason why I’m still alive.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s to tell my story and allow others to learn from it, and to feel less alone.  It’s possible that I’m deluding myself, but I rather like this delusion, so I’m sticking with it.

 

 

Please explain what just happened.

I ate some roasted cashews. I walked my dog. I drank a glass of water. I wondered whether the sudden sensitivity to hot and cold in one of my teeth indicated the presence of a cavity.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Lying on the floor in the living room in a sort of upside-down tumble position, yelling letters of the alphabet and then calling out as many words as I could think of for each letter. I think this occurred last Tuesday.

When I was in elementary school, my motto was “Another day, another A.” I didn’t go around chanting it in the hallways or anything like that; I wasn’t quite that smug (at least not publicly). This mantra of mine was more like a private joke, something my mother and I could laugh about when I got home each afternoon. After all, school was so easy. Why shouldn’t I boast about it? It made us both giddy. And as I piled up A’s, I also piled up awards: scholarship awards, citizenship awards, perfect attendance awards. I looked forward to the end-of-year assemblies, daydreaming about the accolades I might receive this year. By the time I reached fourth grade, Mrs. Corbet’s class, my obsessive grade-mongering was beginning to take on maniacal proportions.

Please explain what just happened.

Everything? Nothing? It’s hard to say—I’m a planner, probably due to my compulsive nature, so I’m always looking more to the future than the past. But, I did just send out a pitch packet for my (hopefully) forthcoming graphic novel Terminus. I’ve also been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2. A lot.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Running around outside my house on the South Side of Chicago, wearing Superman sandals.

 

If you weren’t a writer, what other profession would you choose?

I’m fascinated with how cities work, especially the manner in which space is allocated and utilized. If I had the chance to go back and do it all over again, I’d probably work in city planning.