Writ in Water: Interview with Chris McCormick and “Desert Boys”

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Photo by Chris McCormick

This month, I chat with author Chris McCormick, whose terrific debut of linked stories, Desert Boys, follows main character Daley “Kush” Kushner and his friends Robert Karinger and Dan Watts. The book is largely set in the growing desert suburbia of the Antelope Valley, 70-odd miles north of Los Angeles. We talk about what it means to write about the West and live in and write about the desert; we share our mutual love of Louise Erdrich and writing that goes “deeper than geography.”


Joseph B. Horton: Take this however you will. What does it mean to be a Western Writer, or One Who Writes About the West?

Chris McCormick: There are so many definitions and tropes, but my guess is you know you’ve met a “Western” writer when you ask this question and they start squirming. I think that’s the result of a deeply internalized resistance to being categorized. One of my questions in Desert Boys was what happens when certain western tropes—real or imagined—are challenged, what happens when open spaces become grids through suburbanization, what happens when a person grows up longing for community in a place that almost fetishizes self-reliance. I guess a Western writer—at least this one—is someone who grapples with those questions even though he’s suspicious of the premise.

JBH: In the past you’ve mentioned Louise Erdrich as an influential writer, and specifically her debut Love Medicine. I love her and that book dearly, and I’m interested to know more: what, to you, does it mean to write about an isolated or insulated community? Do interconnected stories—from different points of view or not—serve that community best? I don’t think it’s too much to say that you’ll be introducing many readers to the Antelope Valley for the first time. Is that pressure? Opportunity?

CM: Oh, Louise. The first book of hers I read was the novel, Tracks, which begins with one of the most beautiful and devastating first lines in fiction, I think: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” Then I read as much of her work as I could  borrow or buy. From early on, I knew I wanted to write in a language as beautiful and as clear as hers. But it was the structure of Love Medicine that became the biggest influence on this particular book of mine. Whenever you’re writing about a place—especially a place that’s been relatively overlooked in literature—there’s so much pressure not only to get everything right, but to get everything down. I’m upset with myself that I left out specific institutions or aspects of the Antelope Valley that just didn’t fit in this book, like the Performing Arts Center or the AV Fair or the Poppy Festival. People don’t only crave accuracy about the place they call home, we also crave thoroughness. Linked stories provide a strategy to be as expansive as possible without sacrificing the specificity of focus, moment by moment. No one argues harder than I do that stories and novels are completely different forms. But when it comes to book-length fiction, I’m not convinced that linked story collections make up a different form than the “traditional” novel, so much as a different technique.

JBH: I’m fascinated by this line about Karinger’s soon-to-be wife, Jackie Connolly: “She was beautiful in the way people call the desert beautiful, which was to say that although some people actually believed it, most of the time it was said in response to someone else’s denigration of it.” Care to elaborate? I think, for one, that there’s a lot of truth in the defensive invoking of desert beauty.

CM: I’m both glad and embarrassed that you picked that line out—it was one of those lines I wanted people to underline, which meant I probably should have cut it. I don’t know, I think the line speaks for itself. Just as we have permission to insult a family member but would fight anyone outside the family who made the same insult, people in the desert lament the place until someone else calls it boring or ugly. Then, in an act of love, we step up and defend the singular elegance of the yucca.

JBH: Though the entire book thoughtfully considers the desert and life in the desert, I always come back to the story, “The Tallest Trees in the Antelope Valley,” in which Kush helps prepare a neighbor’s yard for giant palm trees. Working as a day-heat novice, he says, “In the desert, the idea of spring was a myth from another culture. It went from winter to summer like flipping a coin, and it seemed as though I’d lost the toss.” It strikes me that I think some people don’t even consider seasons in the desert, that it just exists as it always has, unchanging. Certainly your portrait of the valley talks about what remains unchanged and what changes dramatically. How do you see that change, or the balance between permanence and impermanence?

CM: This is a great question, maybe the question. Part of the mythology of the (white) west is an outlaw culture, a kind of lawlessness allowed by existence on the fringes. Lawlessness might be another way of saying randomness or unreliability. For that reason, I always thought part of the myth of the west was a resistance to permanence, the willingness and dexterity to adapt. The idea of settling there, then, seemed like a paradox to me. In the newer, suburbanized west, there’s been a fierce resistance to change, a distrust of progress. For the epigraph of the book, I use a lyric from Jackson Browne’s song, “The Fairest of the Seasons”: “Do I stay or do I go, and do I have to do just one?” I’m interested in these extremes in the desert—where there is no “fair” season—and curious about the spaces between adaptation and settlement, between leaving and staying.

JBH: From “The Immigrants”: “Not just the desert, but all of California was in a severe drought, and as I lay floating [in a pool] on my back, I felt immensely guilty, remembering an old teacher of mine, a farmer, who’d once made us draw bar codes on our faucets to remember that water wasn’t free. But the guilt, as always, passed.” Even now, when drought is much more prominent in the collective mind, I hope, how do we continually allow this guilt to pass?

CM: Guilt is easy, and so is shame. Most of us can build an entire life around guilt and shame, no problem, so long as we feel personally culpable. But collective guilt—the guilt associated with being a tiny, almost negligible part of a problem, even a problem as severe as ruining the planet for some invisible, future population—requires something really difficult, which is imagining the world without us in it. And people have children to raise and bills to pay and lovers to kiss and enemies to fight. I can’t really blame anyone for not thinking ahead, I can only offer my admiration to those who do.

JBH: How do you write about a place when you aren’t living there? (In an MFA program or transplanted across the country, or even in a different part of California or the West…) Even if you’ve spent plenty of time in your literary locale, during the actual act of writing, how do you (re)conjure that place? On the other hand, is it ever easier to be more distant? Does that remove ever prove particularly useful?

CM: Writing down what I know about the place wasn’t hard. The hard part was figuring out what I didn’t know about the place, why I still loved it despite my dedicated attempts for so long to leave. Those kinds of questions tended to be deeper than geography, and no amount of time at home would help or hurt my ability to grapple with them.

JBH: You’ve talked elsewhere about a “mythic” California and the opportunities to both challenge that myth—beaches, Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, say—and at the same time create more myths. (Maybe a moment that speaks to this runs, “…[The townspeople] were also no monolith. Some might say they were persons, not a people. That’s why stories happen. That’s why this story happened.”) The image California actively promotes of itself has been a topic of this series, and recently the New York Times published Parag Khanna’s map and analysis of “superstates” in the country, lines re-drawn based on “common economics and demographics.” Are we in the age of two or ten Californias? A hundred? Are there any shared bonds of Californians, or is this a state of 40 million separate Californians?

CM: This is a good time for me to thank you for the work you’ve been doing at Ploughshares. It’s been an education to this Californian, and a pleasure to read. As a desert kid, I grew up longing for places that seemed, on the map anyway, not that far out of reach: the freedom and glamor of the ocean, the celebrity of Los Angeles, the progressiveness of San Francisco, the racial and ethnic diversity of Oakland, the activism of Berkeley, and on and on. All those myths turned out to be both true and false, all at once, and maybe that’s why myths last. They’re built on the dreams of more than the forty million who call California home. They’re like mirages—another desert trope. They’re there, and they’re not, all at once, and no matter how close you get, they’re always just a little farther down the road.

JBH: Lastly, you had a book tour stop in the Antelope Valley. What was that like? Last month, I wrote about John Steinbeck being variously disowned by the Salinas Valley during his career. Do you worry about this? What is it like reading a book in its hometown?

CM: Variously disowned sounds like the place to be. As a person, I avoid confrontation to a fault. But as a writer, I don’t mind sparking discomfort. It means I’m writing toward the unsteady middle ground we talked about earlier, the place of questions not answers, the place where fiction should live. But I’m glad to say the event in the AV was a huge success, with lots of love from friends and family and strangers alike. If there’s anyone from the AV who detests the book or thinks my take on the AV is unfair or unrecognizable, I didn’t meet them. If they’re out there, I hope they’ll use that frustration in a constructive way by writing their own stories and poems to help create a diverse and nuanced literature of our strange and lovely home. Stories are more fun to write than angry emails, I bet, and definitely more likely to be read.

 

 

Searching for Artifacts: An Interview with Sara Majka

Author photo credit: Chris Ward

Author photo credit: Chris Ward

In the opening piece in Sara Majka’s haunting debut collection of linked stories, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, the narrator announces that she is in the middle of a divorce and about to board a train into a city. Her solution to her problems is “to move from place to place, trying to thread together, if not our marriage and our lives, then something in ourselves.”

In their attempts to find themselves, the characters in Cities I’ve Never Lived In drift through towns that look like they belong to faded photographs of a lost New England. In one story, a character’s parents disappear and his island home can’t be found on any maps. Later, he befriends a woman who looks like his missing mother. In another story, a man sees a younger version of himself in a painting found in an attic. In yet another story, the narrator sees herself as a child in an old museum security tape.

This is a world of doubles and lost artifacts. “Perhaps I like the magical qualities of not being able to find a place again,” the narrator says at one point. And yet, Majka’s characters keep searching for a familiar view, for elusive childhood mementos—as if they “had all gone somewhere in a dream together.” If these characters travel in order to find themselves, they are successful in their endeavor: they find versions of themselves again and again.

A few weeks ago, Sara Majka and I exchanged long emails about what draws people to places they’ve never lived in, motherhood, and New England folklore.

Bruna Dantas Lobato: Tell me about the moment when you realized that your stories were thematically linked.

Sara Majka: I had a hard time finding an agent (I finally got my terrific agent, Sarah Levitt, through lucky circumstances just as the book deal with Graywolf/A Public Space was coming through), and so I had a finished manuscript for a year or two on my hands, and I would work on it a little bit each time I sent it out, and it changed dramatically from a loose association to linked stories. I’m a purist by nature so was resistant to pushing it into linked stories, but when I finally committed to it (about a year before it was published), it was easy and made the whole thing make more sense. Once I made that decision, I also wrote two new stories very quickly.

Jonathan Lee—who was at A Public Space and is now at Catapult—helped me think about ordering it, and then my editor, Brigid Hughes, who is also what I would call a purist, would sort of ask how the stories went together, and I figured she was suggesting that they might be more closely linked with a few changes.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Bellevue Literary Press

 

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Bellevue Literary Press was founded in 2005 by Erika Goldman and Jerome Lowenstein, author, M.D., and Professor at New York University School of Medicine, where he also began the Program for Humanistic Aspects of Medical Education. Bellevue is currently headed by publisher and editorial director Erika Goldman, who cofounded the press after over twenty years with a variety of major New York publishers.

The mission of Bellevue Literary Press is ”publishing literary fiction and nonfiction at the intersection of the arts and sciences,” and the press quickly established itself with groundbreaking titles that transcend the simple categories of fiction and nonfiction, art and science.

Just a few of Bellevue’s notable titles include the novel Tinkers by Paul Harding, which gave Bellevue national mainstream recognition when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, The Leper Compound by Paula Nangle, a girl’s coming-of-age story like no other, set in the last years of war-torn Rhodesia, Jerome Charyn’s A Loaded Guna imaginative and unprecedented look at Emily Dickinson that is part biography, part literary criticism,and altogether fascinating, and The Cage by Gordon Weiss, a nonfiction account of the devastation suffered by Sri Lankan civilians when the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009. The Cage was such an important exposé that United Nations diplomat Charles Petrie credited it when reporting on the atrocities committed during the last stages of that war.

Bellevue Literary Press also engages in several outreach programs, most notably within the New York University School of Medicine, where their authors have served as lecturers at the NYU Medical School’s Colloquium of Medical Ethics in the Master Scholars Program, and also guest lecturers at Medical Grand Rounds at the NYU School of Medicine.

Erika Goldman shares with Ploughshares what drives Bellevue’s unique editorial objective, and what it’s like to helm a press that has truly changed the literary landscape, if not, in some small measure, the world.

KF: Your titles all carry such a weight of importance with readers, in part because of the subject matter but also because of the quality of the storytelling, no matter the topic. When you’re choosing a manuscript or working with an author, what qualities would you say contribute to this merging of story with subject, art and science?

EG: While we are committed to publishing books of ideas, it all comes down to the craft; a fine writer can write about any subject and make it compelling.
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“I know that reality and truth are not always the same thing”: An Interview with Christos Ikonomou

Christos Ikonomou
Christos Ikonomou is the author of three short story collections, including Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Archipelago Books, trans. Karen Emmerich, 2016), for which he won the National Short Story Prize. Something Will Happen, You’ll See, a devastating and sparingly written collection of stories about the Greek crisis in working class neighborhoods in Athens, is his first book to appear in English. Ikonomou was born in and is based in Athens, and has just returned from a two week tour in the US with Archipelago Books.

Maria Eliades: Your writing is very sparse. Does the writing start out that way or do you pare it down? I read in one interview, for instance, that you rewrote “Mao” 30 times.

Christos Ikonomou: Yes, I’m doing writing all the time. I don’t write. I rewrite. But yes, most of the times, the first drafts are a little bit larger, bigger, wider, and then I’m starting to trim them down. I’m writing painfully, slowly, so I need a lot of time to get where I think I want the writing. It’s a very slow process for me. I’m writing very slowly.

Most of the stories’ first drafts were somewhat more expanded, and then as I’ve said, I don’t like using many words. I’m trying to be as brief as I can be in order to convey the spirit of the story so to say.Continue Reading

“I really wanted to just drive and talk with someone”: An Interview with John Gallaher

pexels-photoJohn Gallaher’s book-length poem In A Landscape has the feel of a long, wide-ranging conversation with an old friend. It’s like one of those cross-country car ride conversations when there’s time to talk about anything and everything: the tiny details of day-to-day living and the meaning-of-life questions that keep us up at night. His other books include Ghost / Landscape, with Kristina Marie Darling; Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, with G.C. Waldrep; Map of the Folded World; and The Little Book of Guesses. He lives in Maryville, Missouri, where he teaches at Northwest Missouri State University and co-edits The Laurel Review.

Matthew Thorburn: How did In A Landscape start? Did you set out with the idea of a book-length poem, or did that emerge as you were writing?

John Gallaher: It was all by accident. I started writing one day in October 2009 with no plan, nothing at all on my mind. I had just finished a collaborative manuscript with G.C. Waldrep, and I was in some way, I think, tired of “artistic thoughts.” That’s not a great way to say it. It wasn’t even a full thought. So I just started writing and then, after a while, it kind of fell into a form, so I stuck with it. Continue Reading

Interview with Grace Shuyi Liew, author of Prop

 

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Grace Shuyi Liew is the author of the chapbook Prop (Ahsahta Press, 2016) and Book of Interludes (Anomalous Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in cream city review, PANK, Bone Bouquet, West Branch, and other journals. She is a contributing editor for Waxwing and an alum of Aspen Summer Words, Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, and the Watering Hole.

Grace is from Malaysia and now resides in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she works as a teaching artist while completing her MFA at Louisiana State University. I interviewed her on the release of Prop, which was selected by Kerri Webster as winner of the 2015 Ahsahta Chapbook Award.

How did the sequence and its pauses and divisions come about?

I was thinking about western canons and the lineages they pass down without question. Then the set of poems slowly sprawled into a kind of alternative origin story—a bit expansive, a bit mythical, a bit hysterical about banishment. So connectivity quickly became important. The two sisters that share a tail move from undersea to dry caves to suburbia to nationlessness. Continuity and discontinuity became important. And: movement versus stasis, resignation versus vengeance, longing versus rejecting.

At the time I was also a bit obsessed with sentences. I was paying all my attention to sentences-as-lines, and how they can be unyielding and demanding but also sometimes, paradoxically, they open up a habitable place. Then at one point I started to mistrust them and forced myself to resist this habitable place. So a lot of the pauses and divisions were me trying to write against this sentence-ness. Some poems are choppier, enjambed, ruptured, contingent on immediate focus rather than cumulative attention. Continue Reading

As the Train of Fiction Rolls On, the Space Between

Photo of Rene Magritte by Duane Michals (1965)

Last year, I interviewed Pam Houston about her novel Contents May Have Shifted and the fine line between fact and fiction. “Well, I don’t think of it as a fine line,” she wrote to me in an email.

My task as a writer has always been to take the scenes, the concrete physical objects, the moments, and the sensory details the real world offers, and shape them into story. The shaping is an all-important part of it, and that is why fiction is my true love, but not fiction as in something that didn’t really happen, just fiction as in something for which the shaping is as least as important as the representational qualities. The things that happened to Pam in Contents May Have Shifted are also things that happened to me—and yet, we know language, for all our trying, won’t stand still, won’t mean absolutely.

Words fail us, again and again. Language won’t mean absolutely.Continue Reading

“Ghosts Usually Accompany Me through My Poems”: An Interview with Diane Seuss

A_big_tip_in_Galveston2Words just seem to have more possibilities in the poems of Diane Seuss. They become more flexible, more magnetic, attracting and accumulating meaning and music in a speedy rush to surprise, a hard-won clarity about what it’s like to be here, be human. Diane is the author of three books of poetry: Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press, 2015); Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), recipient of the Juniper Prize for Poetry; and It Blows You Hollow (New Issues Press, 1998). A native of Michigan, she serves as writer-in-residence at Kalamazoo College.

Matthew Thorburn: How did Four-Legged Girl come together? Would you talk about your process—and was it different from your experience with your previous books?

Diane Seuss: Each collection has been the result of its own unique process. Four-Legged Girl came together after writing poems over a few years that reflected my obsession with the nature of desire. When I looked at those poems I saw a kind of trajectory that was not necessarily chronological but did move through a process of being captivated by desire (a true captive), rescinding desire, and finally coming to a new kind of desire that was not about romance but, frankly, about poetry. In my world, poetry is a placeholder for a larger spiritual and intellectual process. When I wrote the title poem, the image of the girl with four legs was the frame I needed for the freakdom of the whole manuscript. She is the purple creature who rose out of the whole shebang. The big poem in the book’s center, “I can’t listen to music, especially ‘Lush Life,’” became the drain around which the rest of the poems swirled, and in fact the image of the hub could be considered the collection’s structural metaphor.Continue Reading

Compensation and Nuance: An Interview with Michele Hutchison

2016-03-23 14.52.51Michele Hutchison is an editor, blogger, and translator of both Dutch and French living in Amsterdam. For this interview, we’re talking about one of her latest projects, La Superba, a novel written by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer recently published in the US by Deep Vellum. Pfeijffer is known in the Netherlands for both his prose and his poetry, and this is the second novel of his that Hutchison has translated. La Superba is a semi-autobiographical account of a Dutch poet living in Genoa. The novel has won multiple awards, including the Libris Literatuur Prijs and the Tzum Prize for most beautiful sentence.

Graham Oliver: Tell me about that Tzum Prize. Did that add some weight when translating? Did you seek out those sentences first, or did you try to keep yourself unaware of which sentences they were?

Michele Hutchison: Yes, I did worry about those sentences and to be honest, I think other sentences in the translation worked out better. So if you were going to look for a Tzum contender in the English edition, I think you’d choose something different. Translation’s always like that—you try to pick up elsewhere what you’ve dropped along the way. To be more explicit, I’m talking about compensation, often discussed in translation circles. I try to compensate by imitating the author’s style where possible. For example, if he’s used alliteration in a passage, I might not be able to replicate it at that exact same point, but I hope to get it in somewhere.

GO: In the book, the protagonist mentions how he’s frequently approached when in his home country of the Netherlands when he’s out in public by people who recognize him. Do you have a sense of how true this is? While we have a few iconic writers in America, I can’t imagine there are many who worry about being recognized every time they go out in public.

MH: Remember that the protagonist is an unreliable narrator who lives in a fantasy world, so everything should be taken with a pinch of salt. That said, it’s actually true that Ilja is a very famous figure in the Netherlands and does frequently get approached in public. He’s a large, striking-looking man so it’s easy to recognize him. Actually, he was primarily known as a poet before he broke out as a novelist with La Superba which won a major prize. It’s hard to imagine, but poetry is a major art form in the Netherlands. Poets are famous here and poetry is well-respected. Ilja has won a lot of prizes for his poetry including a recent grand slam of three awards in a row for his latest collection, Idylls. Add to that a writer who has an amazing stage presence and is a great performer and yes, you’ve got a national celebrity.

I’d like to add that in real life he is quite modest. I’m concerned about Americans not getting the dry Dutch sense of humour in the book. The Dutch are quite self-deprecating and don’t mind having a laugh at their own expense.Continue Reading

Look Deep: An Interview with Ranbir Singh Sidhu

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Ranbir Singh Sidhu writes stories, essays and plays, takes photographs, and dreams of making movies. He was born in London and grew up in California. His first novel is Deep Singh Blue (Unnamed Press), which the novelist Alex Shakar calls “a work of ferocious bravery, intelligence, and art.” He is the author of the story collection Good Indian Girls (Soft Skull) and is a winner of a Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. His stories appear in Conjunctions, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, and many other journals.

Titi Nguyen: How did this book come about?

Ranbir Singh Sidhu: I was working in Sri Lanka staying with a friend when we discovered the maid had been using the house secretly as a brothel when we were away—and not only that, but she was also using it as a love nest for a very serious Sri Lankan VIP. Things got a lot stranger very quickly, with death threats and all sorts of threats flying around—and as my friend was out of the country at the time I found myself in the firing line of a lot of screaming.

In the middle of all this, to distract myself, I wrote a comic story about a Sikh kid who announces one night at dinner that he’s decided to become a Jew. I drew on my own family for the dynamic—it was the first time I’d ever done anything like that and I enjoyed the sense of liberation it offered, to take people I knew, a world I knew, and transform it yet keep the heart of who those people were. I’d always been suspicious about autobiographical fiction, but this one foray offered a conversation with my childhood that I’d never had before. The story never went anywhere, but the character of Deep was born then, and it was out of getting to know him that the novel emerged.Continue Reading