In Vanishing Acts, Jaimee Wriston Colbert’s new novel and sixth work of fiction, the author takes us to the Big Island of Hawai’i, where she grew up body-surfing, listening to stories about the volcano goddess Pele, and later as an adult, on return trips from the mainland, observing the alarming signs of her beloved island’s changing ecosystem, due to drought and other environmental stressors.

Through her storytelling lens, Colbert chronicles the effects of the traumatic transformation Hawai’i is undergoing as its rare species and forests disappear, a theme that also informs her fifth book, Wild Things, a linked story collection set in upstate New York.


“To be without a feeling for art is no disgrace. A person can live in peace without reading [novels] or listening to [music]. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy… The fascists and Communist regimes made use of it… But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic… The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.”

–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel


“Misomusist: n. rare A person who hates learning (also, in recent use: art).”    



With Kundera’s strong opinions and talent for rhetoric come a penchant for overstatement, even hyperbole; an inclination that causes him to contradict himself from time to time. This is the problem with broad pronouncements—statements of absolutes, even from a master like Kundera—there is almost always an exception to the rule, whatever the rule. In this instance, Kundera’s work, and its focus on the political, provides the exception.

Kundera’s concept of the novelist as someone who poses questions (rather than answering them) is a notion I return to often, and his idea on the misomusist’s hatred of learning and art seems linked to that, even though it might not initially appear so. When Kundera speaks of misomusy, he’s speaking metaphorically, not issuing a metal-clad prohibition against “any vestige of the political in art,” even though it sounds as though he’s suggesting just that—that if we want to save poor, little Art from the encroaching idiot hordes we’d better stuff it in a covered wagon and get the fuck out of Dodge.

If we peel back Kundera’s hyperbole, he’s speaking of a problem of degrees, the way too much focus on politics, religion, or commerce (as examples) might negatively impact art. Though Kundera almost certainly wouldn’t approve, you might even extend the point to include too much “artistry,” suggesting that if you are too concerned with pursuing beauty as you see it, whether out of some overly idiosyncratic aesthetic or a lack of more visceral narrative elements like plot and story, you could damage your own art, create something unrecognizable to anyone but yourself.

Set deep in literature’s make-up—perhaps essential enough even to qualify as its DNA—are the ideas of knowledge and progress as identifiable, worthy concepts. We read not only for aesthetics and entertainment, but to expand the scope of our worlds. We read to engage with other cultures and people, to live other lives. And, to some extent, what I want from a writer is their unvarnished perspective on the world. If that view is heavily informed by politics (whether they be governmental or those of race or gender), so be it.

Several of the books I’m covering this month could be considered political, though some are certainly more overt in their politics than others. As someone who writes about politics at times, who has his own strong opinions, I’d say the challenge is (as Kundera has suggested elsewhere) to avoid absolute certainty in your fiction, to maintain some level of impartiality, even though as human beings demanding perfect political neutrality of ourselves is a doomed proposition. Ultimately, you must do what makes sense to you, regardless of what the great Milan Kundera or little, old me say. The only test of success is the reader’s response, the impartial (though always partial) answer to the question, “Does it work?”

ChristineSneedauthorphoto1Why did you think you had the right to write about Paris?

I don’t think that fiction writers need to ask permission. I used to think that we did, but eventually, probably sometime in my mid-20s, I realized permission wasn’t going to arrive at my doorstep from anyone, and so the best tack to take was to go ahead and write whatever I wanted to. If I was going to write about people I knew, however, perhaps then I’d need to ask permission, but I wasn’t planning to. Nonfiction writers do need to worry more about permission than novelists do.

Paris He Said_coverAs Jayne made final preparations to leave New York for Paris during the first few days of June, a heat wave turned the sky ashen with trapped pollution and unshed rain. The people she passed on the street seemed more short-tempered than usual, and no one met her gaze other than schoolchildren who glanced up at her with innocent apathy. For a long time she had assumed that poverty or loneliness, or both, would force her to flee the city, but instead she had met an older man who invited her to trade Manhattan for his home in Paris. She said yes with little hesitation.


Christine Sneed is the guest. Her new novel, Little Known Facts, was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review last week. It is available now from Bloomsbury.

Also this episode: a conversation with Stephanie Barber, author of the new book Night Moves, available now from Publishing Genius Press.


SneedYou wrote a novel, Little Known Facts, about a family in Hollywood.  What business do you have doing that?  For one, you’re not from a Hollywood family.

Hey, it’s fiction – not memoir!  I get to make things up.  I’ve been interested in movies my whole life, in the huge personalities that make films, and in the fascination many of us have with famous people.  I wanted to see what would happen if I wrote about all of these things at one time.


What happened when you did?

I had the most fun of my life.

cover21220-mediumBecause she does not want to be unkind, even when provoked, she will never admit that she was initially attracted to him because of his father.  The two men look enough alike that for the first few weeks she dated Will, it felt as if she were with the famous man rather than his undistinguished son.  She knows that Will suspects this fact; he has teased her about how he is sure that she wishes the actor rather than his boring son were offering to take her to San Francisco for a long weekend, or to Rome or Rio or Montreal, wherever it is she wants to go.  They can travel anywhere she would like to because he can give her many of the same things his father can.  He isn’t famous but he is young and has money, although he isn’t the person who earned most of it.  He also has time, which his famous father generally does not.

Mr. Fulger called when he wanted to see her and she obliged.  For a while it was all very matter-of-fact, like a visit to the library, the reasons for going unequivocal.  Regret rarely played a part.  And there was little premeditation, as far as she could tell.  Mr. Fulger, when not with her, resided on a plane that did not intersect her own, and after her initial period of infatuation had worn off, she had ceased to hope they might meet by chance.  She had tried for a few weeks to find where he lived and worked, but he had remained unreachable, her attempts at tracing him fruitless, and soon she began to feel ridiculous to have spent the effort searching for him–in their tremendous haystack of a city, he was smaller than a needle.  In any case, she did not know what she had expected–certainly not a marriage proposal, nor more permanent terms for their involvement.  It seemed to her that primarily she had wanted acknowledgment of his steadfast desire for her, however infrequently this desire was manifested.  At times she saw him twice a week; others, twice a month.  Even when she was dating another man–a man closer to her age who sought her out in earnest, publicly and otherwise–she answered Mr. Fulger’s phone calls with a yes that triggered the naming of a meeting place, almost always a restaurant or hotel close to the center of the city, rarely the same one.

Are you sure that your stories aren’t based on yourself or on people you know?

They’re not.  I really do make things up.  I’m not doing that “write what you know” b.s.  That’s what my diary’s for, so if you need to fall asleep fast, that’s the thing to read.  (I’m not saying you should read my diary.  It’s full of embarrassing, narcissistic crap.  Boring, yes, but embarrassing too).