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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.

Now playing on the Otherppl podcast, a conversation with Elizabeth Ellen. She has a new story collection out called Saul Stories, available from Short Flight / Long Drive Books. Earlier this year she published a novel called Persona, and a poetry collection entitled Elizabeth Ellen is forthcoming.

Elizabeth first appeared on this program on August 26, 2012, in Episode 99.

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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.

Now playing on the Otherppl podcast, a conversation with Carmen Maria Machado. Her debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is available from Graywolf Press. It is a finalist for both the 2017 National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, and is the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize.

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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.

Now playing on the Otherppl podcast, a conversation with Jarret Middleton. His debut novel Darkansas is available from Dzanc Books. It is the official November pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club

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As with many writers, you majored in English literature in college. But unlike most, you did not go on for an MFA. Instead, you went to law school and have been practicing full-time for the last three decades. Why did you take that path? Does that say something about your opinion of MFA programs?

It’s true I came to my writing life, in some sense, rather late. Other than my creative output in school publications, I published my first fiction—as an adult—at the age of 39. I am now 58 with 10 published books to my name, two of those as editor. And my first poetry collection will come out this November. All the while I have been practicing law, the last 27 years with the California Department of Justice. I’m currently a supervising attorney in the Consumer Law Section.

Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Tod Goldberg. His new novel, Gangster Nation, is available now from Counterpoint Press. 

This is Tod’s second appearance on the program. He was the guest in Episode 320, which aired on October 12, 2014.

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Now playing on Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Vanessa Grigoriadis , author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, & Consent on Campus (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). It is the official October pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

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Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Chelsea Martin. Her new essay collection, Caca Dolce, is available from Soft Skull Press.

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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.

Paris, January 1940

By the time Lena reached the British embassy, her feet ached, the sky was dark and overcast, and a cold wind whipped her face. She climbed the familiar stone steps and pushed through the heavy door. At least she would find a few hours of shelter inside.

Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Ayobami Adebayo. Her debut novel, Stay With Me, is available now from Knopf.

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