Last night I discussed the fear of poetry with a group of other prose writers. Poems seem to evoke a more common anxiety than other mediums. Rebecca van Laer is a poet-turned-prose writer, and in her novella How to Adjust to the Dark the reader gets to glimpse inside the mind of a poet. We read through the main character Charlotte’s pursuits and failures in love, alongside the character’s own poems, interwoven with literary self-analysis. How to Adjust to the Dark is compelling in its voice and poetic prose, its painfully-relatable romantic interactions, as well as how it makes transparent a writer’s relationship to her writing. I felt seen by Charlotte’s experiences, in which writing is both a life raft and a burden. I spoke with Rebecca van Laer about her history with writing, form, disappointment, and the process that went into her beautiful debut.



As a prose writer for whom poetry holds a lot of mystery, I felt like How To Adjust to the Dark was a really rich and unique reading experience in that you get to hear the narrator’s analysis and interrogation of her own poetry. I found that really fascinating, like I got these glimpses into the mind of a poet alongside her narrative. 


Can you tell me about how you came from a poetry background into becoming a prose writer and how your new novella reflects that journey?


When I took my first creative writing class, I had grand notions of being a writer even though I’d never done more than write in my LiveJournal. As we started to get assignments, I found that writing fiction required a leap of empathy that was quite challenging. Poetry was easier, because I had implicit permission to write from a point of view close to my own. As I began to take more poetry workshops, writing within formal constraints helped me to develop my skills without the complete, billowing freedom of prose. (Within academia, I didn’t have early exposure to either non-lyric poetry or to autofiction, so I didn’t know the full range of possibility in either genre—or in the overlap between them.)


Because of that, it took a while to develop the confidence to try and create my own structure within prose. The novella is in some ways about that—Charlotte looks back on the simultaneous safety and constriction of writing within a received set of assignments and forms, and the book itself shows her (and me) stretching beyond that.


You’ve shifted form, but also the environment in which you write. During the pandemic you moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York. Has your new home affected your writing life? 


On the subject of imaginative leaps, I think I’ve wanted to be an environmental writer since around the time I wrapped up the first draft of HTATTD. Some people accomplish that both living in and writing about cities, but in my early attempts, my urbanite characters were tormented by the specter of climate change in an abstract, theoretical way. Moving upstate has changed my daily life pretty significantly; I have chickens and bees and a garden, and I can spend much more time outside. While the existential experience of living with climate change is a rich well to draw on for fiction, my new set of interactions with creatures, plants, and fungi has given me more concrete conduits for writing about the natural world and its demise.


Bud wrote a new book! It’s out on Vintage, and everyone should be incredibly excited. It’s (unsurprisingly) great. In Teenager, Smith pokes and prods, deconstructs, and blows up a slew of “American Myths.” I love Teenager because you can describe it a dozen different ways to a dozen different people, and none would be wrong. It’s a road book. It’s about the death of the American dream. It’s a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a love story. Naturally, it is all of these things. Bud has crafted a superb novel that is fascinated with the question of what makes us American, but smart enough not to have a reasonable answer. Bud talks about it as a kind of loop: things are invented here, then tried out, exported, and refined, then brought back and tried again. And this repeats. Bud is part of this great tradition. Bud has brought it back and tried again. Bud has written the Great American Novel.  


Below, we discuss the myth of America, the characters in Teenager, and influences that helped shape his book.



I really love the early scene with Kody and Teal smoking: “how do the women in the movies do it, how does Marlboro man do it?” It reminds me of Bruce Springsteen: girls comb their hair in the rear-view mirror and the boys try to look so hard. It really hits on the performance of youth.


I was just talking to someone about why the novel is called Teenager. About how when I was that age, I didn’t really know exactly what I could get away with, that time when you’re just stepping away from your parents and their home, their rules, and as good as home was or as bad as it was, you are yourself for the first time, often in those stolen little moments, often with your friends. You know, the girl combing her hair in the rearview mirror is doing it to be looked at, to see if she is admired by someone in the back seat, but she’s also looking in the rear view to figure out who she is going to be for the rest of her life. And the boys trying to act hard are going to find out how tough they are when they actually have to fight their first fights for looking tough. You learn who you are to the world pretty quick when you’re that age, and you spend the rest of your life fighting against it or surrendering to it. Being a teenager is new and seeing things for the possibilities there, your life can change for the better at any moment. 



Can you talk about Kody’s seizures? What was the impetus for giving him this condition? The hallucinatory language of those scenes was almost startling, not just the imagery, but the way in which it is written.


I was thinking of those prophets who had visions, Moses with the burning bush. Maybe Moses had seizures, maybe his reality melted and when it melted, maybe God talked to him, but God was in his head. Once it starts to become like that, well maybe that talking snake in the Garden of Eden isn’t the Devil either, maybe you’ve just cracked your head open. The language in Teenager slips away as hallucination and fantasy opens like a flower. This is a realist work, with the door open for dreams, visions, nightmares, and the little hopes that keep people going. Teal imagining that if they get caught by the police, perhaps she and Kody can share a prison cell for the rest of their life, and have a family in prison, and the children will be born behind bars and eventually grow up in the prison and have their own children, making Kody and Teal happy incarcerated grandparents. To me, the unlikely miracles that Teal and Kody hope for are no different than any of those Bible stories. 


Is there an American Dream? Was Hunter Thompson correct that it died in Las Vegas, or was it somewhere else? Is America an adult playground in the desert or a hamster wheel where every suburb and travel plaza and exit off the interstate looks the same?


The American Dream is just another thing that isn’t real anymore, or ever was. That’s why it’s called a dream, you’d have to leave your physical reality to find it. What we have is just another marketing campaign, for some nostalgic product that didn’t really exist to begin with. I do believe there is freedom for the individual in America, some parts of the globe don’t have this same level of individual freedom. That’s a fact. I love the citizens of this country, the roads that snake through it, the places on the wayside, the surprises. I’d feel that way of any country that’d accept me as a citizen. This earth is beautiful, in its own way, wherever you travel, if you look for the beauty of nature, you’ll find it. But you have to be looking. So really, the dream of the whole world is what I care about. Because it’s people that matter. Me, as an individual, all I can do in America is try to surround myself with friends and neighbors that I care about and try to do my part in caring for them. We do not have a utopia from sea to shining sea here. But it’s possible to make something close to a utopia in the room you are in now, with the people you care about. 



Can you talk about Elvis as America’s Jesus? (an idea thrown out in the book) Who is the new Elvis? 


We don’t have an American Jesus, either. Nobody is kind enough to match the storybooks. Nobody is magnanimous. There’s too much coverage, and all our would-be Jesuses are exposed for their human erroring right out the gate. There’s no way to maintain that facade anymore, the public relations can’t compete. When Elvis was revered, the information about him was as controlled as it ever was with any political figure. In Teenager, the Carticelli family has left the Catholic Church, for what they say has to do with the hypocrisy of priests and what the media has brought to light in regard to the molestation of small children, but that is happening in their own home. In reality, they have left the Catholic Church because the family had to get their daughter an abortion. The unspoken fear being: Is it the boyfriend’s child? Is it the father’s child? Which reminded me of Joseph and Mary and Jesus Christ himself. What child is this? 


Click here to purchase a copy of Grant Maierhofer’s The Compleat Lungfish.


Derek Maine: I’m writing from the train. I am taking the train up to DC, from North Carolina where I live, with my eight-year-old daughter. I am taking her to visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I like reading & writing on a train. I like watching the landscapes pass by, some slow, others more quickly, and I like seeing my daughter with her headphones on, watching her shows while I read and write. Both of us together, but also consciously connected to our entertainments – – – our own distractions. I think about the connection of our lonely consciousnesses a lot, and something of your work stirs me toward these thoughts every time. There’s a line in Gass’s The Tunnel where our despicable narrator says something about his literature being a container for his consciousness. Do you feel any connection to this in your own work? Are you intentional about representing something of the experience of living in your literature? Where do you think these urges come from? Sometimes I worry that I don’t exist without a record of it and creating literature is leaving clues, for someone further along, at some distant, inconceivable date, to decipher, and that my reading is deciphering those clues left for me. Your work gives me a sense of trying to come to terms with having to exist. Peripatet (Inside the Castle, 2019) seemed to me to answer at least some of these questions of how to endure by pointing to literature, art, film, and entertainments generally – – – both the consumption and creation as salvation. I feel a subtle shift with The Compleat Lungfish (Apocalypse Party, 2022), where something more primal (or base, I guess, in Bataille language) is perhaps more than simply a drive to endure but there may actually be a construct of meaning to be found within it, satisfactory enough to contain the possibility of enjoying the struggle (and yet further along the philosophical track than tricking ourselves into imagining Sisyphus happy). Do these two constructs for enduring build off each other, or exist separately, or do you think you have experienced a shift in your thinking? 


My questions might all be like this. And I want you to feel comfortable ignoring every aspect of my bullshit and talking about whatever you would like to talk about, for as little or as long as you like, if you do not connect in any way to my babbling. There exists, I think, these beautiful moments (almost like sparks, and just as fleeting, bright, & explosive – charged with an energy we cannot bottle or contain) where two consciousnesses are in synch, where one idea flows to the next and our thoughts are like radio waves floating through the air on a journey to locate that other consciousness and create that spark. You use repetition in this work (and across your works) and nod to it, sometimes in a self-deprecating way. I love it. There is one image in particular of the narrator in a bathtub, in Chicago I think, reading Bolaño or Exley (or both). It shows up in both Peripatet and The Compleat Lungfish. When I read about this moment in time, I feel less alone. I feel like I was there, with the narrator, because I was once, and because the moment that I was there I felt lonely, and then reading your description of the moment, a personal, private moment, I feel less alone as a reader. I think great literature can do that for the reader, but what about for the other end of that exchange – does a connection with the reader complete a work for you or is a reader incidental (or a burden). Do you think of a reader when you are working? How so or why not?


I promise this whole exchange won’t be like this. I am like this today. I don’t know why. I get older, though, and I let it happen however it happens.


Grant Maierhofer: Thank you for this. One of the things I miss most about living in Chicago is the trains. I used to think I read more because I have just kind of gotten dumber with time, and probably there’s some truth to that, but part of it too was living in Chicago and having that guaranteed thirty or so minutes between locations. I hope to take more Amtrak trips in time because I do feel there’s something really literary about that kind of travel–Mathias Enard’s Zone is probably my favorite illustrations of this, though there’s that Evenson story–I think it’s called Munich but that doesn’t seem right, it’s more fucked up than Zone–that I think’s in Altmann’s Tongue


I do tend to think of writing in terms of containing consciousnesses, though it’s probably less direct than it was when I was starting out. I started writing because of this feeling of a kind of overflow when I was in rehab in my mid-to-late teens. I liked and still have fondness for AA and NA, and I’ve had very positive experiences with therapy, and medication, and being in treatment. When I was in there, though, the second time, it became clear that there were thoughts I was thinking, and feelings I was having, that wouldn’t be addressed in meetings. Maybe this isn’t exactly correct, but it’s how I felt. I started to think about writing, and music, and art more generally, as things that could address the discomfort, and ugliness, and anger and just directionless energy, and I think if nothing else time has proven this to be true, for me. 


I also, and I don’t know why this is, but I also hated the notion of dying without leaving something behind. I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation since I was seven or so, when I was put into an outpatient program for a kind of generalized misery my family and teachers were concerned about. The flipside I guess, of thinking often about killing yourself, is an amplified sense that you might soon die, and with that there was a panic that I hadn’t done anything to leave a mark, and writing, and art came in as a possible solution to this problem. 


Part of the trouble with thinking like this, though, and arriving at writing because of personal emotional and mental health concerns, is that I’m operating from that space first and foremost rather than one of simply loving literature. Because of that I enjoy Gass’ estimation and writing in Gass’ vein because although it was probably split down the middle for Gass between motivation via aesthetics and motivation via frustration and emotion, whereas for me it’s probably closer to 20/80. Books as containers, then, of documents of recording, of experiential things, tend to appeal to me far more than novels or memoirs or collections that succeed really well at being great novels, great memoirs, or great collections. An actual container of consciousness looks far more like Daniel Aaron’s Commonplace Book than it does A Little Life. I can appreciate the latter but I’m always going to get far more from the former. 

Below is a conversation between novelist Mesha Maren and copy editor Jude Grant–the copy editor Maren worked with on her first novel, Sugar Run, and her new novel, Perpetual West. You can order a copy of Perpetual West right here.



Mesha Maren: Before working with you on my first novel, Sugar Run, I had no real sense of what copyediting a work of fiction entailed. I was surprised and very delighted to learn that you would point out more than just my horrific misuse of commas. In that novel, I remember specifically being pleased at how well you kept track of physical descriptions of my characters. At one point in the book I described a woman’s breasts as “full” and at another point “perky” and you asked me if I felt that these descriptions were compatible. I was delighted and shocked at that level of specificity and it made me wonder about how you go about keeping track of details about fictional characters that even the author has not been able to manage?


Jude Grant: Note-taking, note-taking, note-taking. One of my weaknesses as a reader, especially when reading for pleasure, is that a character’s physical attributes just aren’t that interesting to me. Black hair? Blond hair? Don’t really care. (If pressed, I’ll champion “perky” over “full” breasts, but that is strictly personal preference and is an opinion without literary merit.) So my style sheets tend to be detailed, especially when it comes to characters’ physical traits, not because I think the proofreader will necessarily benefit from having that information but because those are the kind of details that are less likely to stick in my head. What characters say (content and language used) and how they behave are a different matter—all that deeply resonates and imprints on me. If characters were nothing but talking heads, I’d be happy (there are reasons I’m not a writer).


Once, I accepted a novel that was part of a long series, which I had not previously worked on. This kind of project is particularly tricky because you have to rely on style sheets from previous copyeditors, and those style sheets tend not to be cumulative; that is, they’re book specific, not series specific. So I was quite surprised to get a cover memo noting in bold caps that the protagonist’s name was Diane, not Diana. This was a character who’d appeared in all books in the series, yet at some point both the author and the copyeditor got her name wrong, and in more than one book, and it was readers of the author’s blog who pointed out the error and were (rightfully) not happy. 

This piece was originally published on December 5, 2018. It is now accompanied by a dramatic reading performed by the author.

◊ ◊ ◊

My notes for a potential story about Brad’s face on the evening of November 8, 2016

Start with some general thoughts about Brad, maybe just the grass in Brad’s backyard and his cool studio/garage area. Focus on the small stuff that I like about Brad. How nice it was for him to invite us over for the election suicide party. How the night is blurry, and how I don’t really remember my children being there, but instinctively feel that my children were there to witness to Brad’s face. Relate that there, at Brad’s house, Brad’s face happened. Share that to this day Brad’s face on the evening of November 8, 2016 haunts me as a vacant, soul-baring portrait of American loss. Write something clever, call it “a piercing reflection of a deeply fucked moment.” Talk about the not-Brad things of the evening? Maybe throw in the junk food we stress ate in the car on the way to Brad’s, or how beautiful Jenny was in white. Potentially allude to the future we’re living and the one that might occur. Transition through the hope then, the fear then, and end with the reality now. It’s hard to talk in a controlled manner about a hell we’re all in, but like try to do that for a few sentences. For sure talk about Brad’s face once more, right here at the end.


Hello. My name is Joseph Grantham. I edit this website. I’m also an artist (see above). I asked some writers and friends to recommend some short stories to you, the readers of this website. All I asked was that they do this in 3-5 sentences. Other than that, there were no guidelines. I’ll start.


“Victor Blue” by Ann Beattie


This story is from Beattie’s first collection, Distortions, and it is written in the form of journal entries, composed by an elderly man who spends his days taking care of his ill wife (“Mrs. Edway,” as he refers to her). He cooks for her, takes care of her violets (one of them is named “Victor Blue”), reads novels to her, and whenever he and his wife have to make an important, or not so important, decision, they vote on it, each writing down their answer on a piece of paper and then holding it up for the other to see. Do they want a kitten or a puppy, do they want to hang up the embroidered Eiffel Tower picture which was a gift from Mrs. Edway’s cousin, should Mrs. Edway kill herself or continue living in pain? Beattie wrote this story when she was in her mid-twenties and you’d never know it.


Okay. Now, on to the main event.



“Good Old Neon” by David Foster Wallace


“Good Old Neon” is about a man who killed himself in 1991, told from the perspective of his post-death existence outside of time, written by a man who killed himself in 2008, published in 2004. It feels impossible to distill a ~40 page story that works on so many levels of thought and heart into 3-5 sentences, which is basically the premise of the story itself: that linear time and language are inherently limiting modes of describing the dimensionless flashes of perception that color each person’s interiority with significance, but until we die, we can only use one word after another to relate ourselves. Since his first successful lie at age 4, or arguably birth, the protagonist placed himself at the center of a “fraudulence paradox,” which meant that the more he tried to be something he wasn’t, the less he felt like the ideal image he performed, and “…the more of a fraud [he] felt like, the harder [he] tried to convey an impressive or likable image of [him]self so that other people wouldn’t find out what a hollow, fraudulent person [he] really [was].” What hits me so hard about “Good Old Neon” is the vagueness about its audience: the post-death protagonist addresses himself the moment before his death in a car, but he also makes lovingly dry meta-asides to another reader (from who, at least in the confines of a reader-author relationship, David Foster Wallace didn’t view himself as so apart), and I can’t help but feel witness to some similar shade of dialogue Wallace could’ve worked out with himself before his own death. The message of the story, to me, is not to succumb to our self-imposed limits; the message is in the beauty of trying, at least for a moment, to describe what it was like to be human. 


– recommended by Megan Boyle, author of Liveblog



“A Man Came to Visit Us” by Brandon Hobson


Your question is so difficult to answer.  I read and reread and am taken up by so many stories all of the time — both ancient and modern.  But the story foremost in my mind is always the most recent one I have accepted for NOON.  And at this minute, it is the unearthly stunner by Brandon Hobson — that is jammed with mystery and passion –“A Man Came to Visit Us” (due out March 2021).  


– recommended by Diane Williams, founder of NOON and author of The Collected Stories of Diane Williams



“Recitatif” by Toni Morrison


I assign this every semester to my English 102 students, out of The Norton Introduction to Literature. Despite the fact that I read this twice a year, it gets me every time. This story is a good example of why fiction is a superior art form; it says more about big broad important topics, like race and class and friendship and memory, than any piece of nonfiction ever could. This statement will probably offend a nonfiction purist if they happen to read this, whoopsie.


– recommended by Juliet Escoria, author of Juliet the Maniac

Rita Banerjee interviews author David Shields about his book, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention. Listen below:


Below is an excerpt from the transcript:


Rita Banerjee:    David, thank you so much for talking to me about Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump. I really enjoyed reading the book; I thought it was compelling and a really fast read. I just wanted to start off by asking you a question about the form of the book and its composition. You often call this  a curated diary or a thematized journal, and it seems like there are six major acts to this book, everything ranging from “A rage to injure what has injured us” to “Apocalypse always.” How do these major themes tie into one another and build up to the book’s final epiphany?

David Shields:    Thanks, Rita. The book is indeed broken into six chapters. What is it, this culture that we are living in, which seems qualitatively different from previous political cataclysms? As a citizen of the republic, what could I do to address it? There is or was something riveting about the Performer-In-Chief. There’s something in him – we can all pretend that we’ve turned it off, and maybe some of us have. I wanted to explore this mixture of revulsion and attraction. Not to any political stance of his, but to his performative chops. I’m a big fan of the idea that great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings. On the one hand, my intellectual self is actively opposed to him; I’m doing all kinds of things to contribute to his defeat.. But there’s this other quite primitive part of me that is fascinated by the fact that he is still President. So I just kept a journal. Every day I’d walk around the house with my headphones on. I’d be flying back and forth from CNN to MSNBC to Fox News, from Christian talk radio to NPR to local news. I read every book about and putatively by him. I listened to every episode of the Howard Stern Show with Trump and I watched every episode of The Apprentice. With this onslaught of media coming in, it almost felt as if I were in a war zone. That was important to me, to just gather all of this stuff. I had hundreds upon hundreds of pages of this stuff, but I wanted to organize it into a very carefully structured pattern. =This book is organized within an inch of its life. Among the many things I find exciting about collage, is that it can boundary jump. One of the pleasures of writing this book for me, and I hope for a reader, is you never know what’s going to come next. I can cut to anywhere I want to go as long as I am getting a deeper purchase on Trump. The whole excitement of this form is that you’re not just making a fictional gesture or essayistic gesture or a stand-up comedy gesture. You can pull from any possible pot of clay, so long as you are deepening your investigation. I also hope that it almost feels for reader that you are spying on the writer as he is going on this existential adventure. And the reader kind of feels like, “this is actually adding up to something.” One of the chapters, “A rage to injure what’s injured us,” is really about Trump’s childhood. There is a wonderful line by Robert Hass from his great poem“Bush’s War.” He says that there is a rage to injure what’s injured us. Without turning Trump into simply a psychoanalytic category, he was demolished by his father. He’s hugely projecting that anger elsewhere. Then there’s the chapter “The frenzy of the visible” in which he’s trying to experience love through the media. There’s this amazingly interesting feedback loop in which he’s watching TV watch him watch TV watch him. It’s like Being There  times one hundred, in which he’s trying to experience love through media forms. Out of his broken childhood, he became incapable of human love. Out of that incapacity, he attempted to live within a sort of “mediaverse,”hoping and believing that somehow the big TV in the sky would love him back. The big message of the book is that he may destroy the planet out of the rage that has injured him. The final revelation of the book is that the thing that will save us is Trump’s self-destruction. There’s such profound self-loathing that animates his hatred. I argue that before Trump destroys the planet, he’ll destroy himself. The book is making a very clear argument about how brokenness leads to lovelessness, how that lovelessness leads to an over investment in media culture, how that media culture can in no way can yield a love that he wants, how out of that emptiness creates a huge drive of destruction, and how the possible saving grace is that he finally will self-destruct. It’s a beautiful and terrifying circle.Hidden within these 400 paragraphs is this relatively tight psychosocial argument of the book. It’s really a very specific investigation – how destruction comes from in its own woundedness, how it projects itself outward, how it often defeats itself through self-loathing.






One sentence from each book I read in 2019, in the order I finished them.


It must have been horrible for him to create me and then lose control of the narrative in this way. In these investigations of why and how, I am hoping to uncover an origin story. It had happened, but not the way I told it in the book. Let’s see here, let’s see. Now that I was looking at them full on, I could see something coming out of their chests, from their hearts, like glow-in-the-dark string. People should just wear glass with electric lights inside. I crack my knuckles and open up my emails. Call me when you’re tired of wasting this life. You guys are from an effed-up time. It was as though she volunteered to become an adult before she was ready, and something was sucked away from her, and suddenly she could be sad at any moment without ever knowing why. Comedy for me is watching someone perform open heart surgery on themselves because no one else will. Anyway, there’s some writing on sex addiction for you, darling sister. That’s not the right question. Peace, peace, peace, happiness, happiness, happiness. Cringe denotes embarrassment, fleeting shame. People like us are often herded together slowly by the invisible will of the damned, fake-happy. He went into seizures. He was Goth when he felt like it. He hates his job and what he really wants to do is make art and be happy. I guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down. I, wretched, was there, sitting in this office, and I was to tell my wretched story. The book goes on even if it’s closed. Life was the only thing.

I Have a Terrible Feeling is a series of weekly drawings, cartoons, and sketches by poet Adam Soldofsky.

I Have a Terrible Feeling is a series of weekly drawings, cartoons, and sketches by poet Adam Soldofsky.

I Have a Terrible Feeling is a series of weekly drawings, cartoons, and sketches by poet Adam Soldofsky.

I Have a Terrible Feeling is a series of weekly drawings, cartoons, and sketches by poet Adam Soldofsky.

In December, the TNB Book Club will be reading You Can See More From Up Here (Golden Antelope Press), by Mark Guerin.


Sign up by November 15th to get your copy and join the club!