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.

 

 

Han Kang’s THE VEGETARIAN Wins Man Booker International Prize

han kang_the vegetarianLast week, the winner of the newly refocused Man Booker International Prize was announced to be The Vegetarian, a novel by the Korean writer Han Kang, translated into English by Deborah Smith. Originally published as three novellas, the book is the surreal story of Yeong-hye, a young Korean woman who stops eating meat as a result of a nightmare. This puts her at odds with the society and the people around her, transforming her into a character who echoes Melville’s Bartleby. As the plot escalates, the story comments on the cultural controls placed on women through tradition, peer pressure, and even violence; the agency we have over our bodies; and the roles those closest to us play in our destruction or redemption.

Han Kang beat out the ubiquitous Elena Ferrante to win the prize. The Vegetarian was originally published in Korea and 2007 and is her first work to be translated into English, though her career spans more than two decades. Another of her novels, Human Acts, has since been translated and published in England. Human Acts is a historical fiction book about the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 Korea.

The £50,000 prize is split between Kang and her translator, Deborah Smith. This departs from past Man Booker International Prizes. For the first time, this year the prize was changed to focus on a single book instead of an author’s body of work, and it was a requirement that the book be in translation—as opposed to four of the previous six winners, who wrote in English.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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Immigrant Fiction: Treading the Narrow Path

Image courtesy of FreeImages.com/Francisco Marcondes Gioppo Nunes

Image courtesy of FreeImages.com/Francisco Marcondes Gioppo Nunes

I remember my first years in America from the early 1990s. I was a graduate student of journalism at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, S.C., where I was still finding my feet in the U.S., full of wonder and curiosity—and apprehension. One semester at the university, after I enrolled for a course in feature writing, I struggled to find topics for the periodic writing assignments. As someone from India, I wanted, half-heartedly, to write about Indian or foreign students on campus, holding up their sense of wonder and their challenges. But I hesitated, thinking I would stand out in class. I wanted to blend in with my American classmates. I wanted to—I learned the word later!—assimilate. The professor, a black man, helped me resolve my dilemma. He said I should write about the experiences of Indian and international students because I represented their community. I went on to write several features on Indian students and Asian Indian businesses, including one on a restaurant in Columbia’s Five Points district.

But that was journalism. In fiction, what do “immigrant writers” or “diasporic writers”—writers originating from other countries and living in the New World—write about? Do they choose their theme, characters and setting? Or is the reverse the case? I started reading such writers while still in graduate school in Columbia—Bharati Mukherjee’s short story collection The Middleman and Other Stories and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Arranged Marriage. Some pet themes emerge from the short stories and novels written by such authors. Mukherjee’s work features not only cross-cultural clashes but also the conflict between constructed past and immigrant present. The Middleman and Other Stories centers on immigrants in the U.S. who are from developing countries. The stories depict cultural dislocation and assimilation. Immigrants are also the subject of two of her later novels, Jasmine and The Holder of the World.

Describing Divakaruni’s Arranged Marriage, the San Jose Mercury News said, “For the young girls and women brought to life in these stories, the possibility of change, of starting anew, is both as terrifying and filled with promise as the ocean that separates them from their homes in India.” A more contemporary writer, Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer winner and one of my favorites, also explores similar themes.

The preoccupation of immigrant writers with themes of identity crisis, alienation, duality, cultural clashes and “ethnic” belonging has been lately slammed as the staple of “immigrant fiction.” Do these writers have to write on these themes? Why can’t they transcend these to fit into the mainstream?Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Canarium Books

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With assistance from the University of Michigan, Canarium Books formed in 2008 out of the journal The Canary, which had been founded by writers Joshua Edwards, Anthony Robinson, and Nick Twemlow. Now based in Marfa, Texas under the collective editorship of Joshua Edwards, Nick Twemlow, Robyn Schiff, and Lynn Xu, Canarium publishes three to four collections of poetry or poetry in translation every year.

Canarium Books has compiled a carefully curated catalogue showing a breadth of vision in the style and content of its titles, as well as a commitment to its authors, many of whom are on their second book with the press. Titles include John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, a collection as intellectually ambitious as it is delightfully down-to-earth, Darcie Dennigan’s sharply crafted and many layered Madame X, and The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, translated by Sawako Nakayasu.

Sagawa, described by the New Yorker as “one of the most innovative and prominent avant-garde poets in early-twentieth-century Japan,” had virtually disappeared from the cultural map until Canarium published Nakayasu’s translations. The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa was recently awarded the 2016 PEN prize for poetry in translation.

For the Ploughshares blog, Joshua Edwards will share what makes Canarium tick, and provide prospective Canarium authors some guidance on how to get added to their esteemed author list.

KF: The press was founded in Michigan and now is based in Marfa, Texas, a location giving new meaning to the term “middle of nowhere,” while also being a ridiculously unique cultural mecca. While not all of your editorial staff resides in Marfa, how does the location contribute to and complement Canarium’s vision?Continue Reading

Shelf Aware Machines

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When I was a kid, I loved the Barnes & Noble in Seattle’s University Village. It was one of Barnes & Noble’s flagship stores, at that time the largest bookstore I’d ever seen: forty-six thousand square feet over two floors. I spent hours in its expansive science fiction and fantasy section, ogling the covers and obsessively reading jacket copy, buying books one or two at a time. As an adult, I fell in love with other Northwest bookstores—Third Place Books and the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, Powell’s in Portland, various dusty and labyrinthine used bookstores in Bellingham—but the University Village Barnes & Noble was the first bookstore I ever loved. I didn’t care that it was a chain bookstore or that it was in a tacky shopping center—I was ten, what did I know? When Barnes & Noble failed to renew its lease in 2011, the same year Borders declared bankruptcy and a huge number of independent bookstores across the country closed, it felt like a piece of my childhood was shuttering its doors.

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Stray Reflections: Korean Literature in France

Photo by hojusaram

Livre Paris, France’s annual largest book fair, took place last weekend, and the invited country this year was South Korea, in honor of the France-Korea Year, celebrating 130 years of cooperation between the two countries.

Interest in Korean culture has grown exponentially over the last few years. Lack of strategic marketing and distribution networks, cultural barriers, and differing conceptions of translations have been major hurdles for the overseas recognition of Korean literature, and their effects still linger; but things are starting to shift. The Korean shelf in indie bookstores is now expanding and being recognized as a major literature alongside its Chinese and Japanese neighbors. In France, small presses have been highly active in the circulation of Korean works: Decrescenzo, founded in 2012, devotes its whole catalogue and a literary magazine to contemporary Korean literature; Actes Sud, a well-known and respectable publisher, also has quite a substantial number of titles to its credit. Korean studies have been flourishing, and the number of French students learning the language is ever growing.

It’s hard to say whether this growing receptivity to Korean literature has been bolstered by hallyu (the Korean Wave of pop culture and entertainement), or whether it’s developed independently—something Livre Paris plays on, inviting manhwa and visual artists like Puuung, popular with the younger generation, alongside famous Korean authors, like Lee Seung-U, Kim Hyesoon, or Hwang Sok-yong. It’s also hard to assess the role exoticism and Orientalist curiosity play in this growing interest, even though they do shape to a certain extent the way Korea and Korean literature have been represented in media. In any case, Livre Paris sought to create transnational cultural connections between France and Korea, to move beyond mere economic partnership. Multiple autograph sessions were programmed throughout the weekend, as well as multiple conferences that both highlighted Korean culture and established a transnational dialog. Roundtables on classical Korean literature, contemporary women writers, and the influence of globalization, to name just a few, took place in the Korean Pavilion, managed by representatives of the country’s major cultural organizations. 30 prominent Korean writers and artists were present in total during the festival; Korean children’s books, K-comics, and ebooks were also showcased.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Sarabande Books

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Founded in 1994 in Louisville, Kentucky by Sarah Gorham and Jeffrey Skinner, Sarabande Books began with a mission to publish and distribute with “diligence and integrity” books of poetry, short fiction and essays. Their first two titles appeared 20 years ago as winners of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry (this year’s reading period for both prizes opens March 15). Now Sarabande publishes 10 to 12 titles per year and has added two regional prizes—The Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature and The Flo Gault Poetry Prize for Kentucky Undergraduates.

Even the shortest selection of Sarabande’s most recent titles shows the press’s impact on contemporary American literature. Kerry Howley’s collection of essays on the lives of two cage fighters, Thrown, made at least a half-dozen “best of” lists in 2014, Caitlin Horrocks‘ collection of stories This Is Not Your City earned a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers distinction in 2011, and Amy Gustine’s collected stories You Should Pity Us Instead with a hot-off-the-press February 2016 publication date is already piling up a year’s worth of accolades.

Adding to their award-winning offerings in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, Sarabande has published a varied and valuable collection of anthologies as well as their Quarternote Chapbooks, a remarkable series of titles from contemporary American poets including Stephen Dunn, Louise Glück, C.K. Williams, and James Tate.

Sarabande’s careful expansion over the years extends beyond book publication. The press produces the online resource Sarabande in Education, which provides reading guides and interactive material for educators, runs a writers’ residency program at Bernheim Arboretum and Research forest near Louisville, and operates Sarabande Writing Labs, which delivers arts education to underserved communities in Kentucky.

For Ploughshares, Editor-in-Chief Sarah Gorham shares her insights on Sarabande’s place in independent publishing today, and gives readers and writers a preview of where the press is headed in the immediate future.

KF: Sarabande’s first two titles were Lee Martin’s short fiction collection The Least You Need to Know, and Jane Mead’s poetry collection The Lord and the General Din of the World. Martin has since gone on to publish several books of fiction and nonfiction and been nominated for the Pulitzer; Mead has collected Guggenheim, Lannan, and Whiting accolades. That’s quite a one-two punch for your first two authors, and your track record of plucking talent from the slushpile and prize entrants continues to be strong. What distinguishes a Sarabande author? How exciting is it to see your writers rise in respect and recognition?
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The High Art of Food Literature. Seriously?

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“The writer who never talks about eating, about appetite, hunger, food, about cooks and meals, arouses my suspicion as though some vital element were missing in him,” wrote the Italian writer Aldo Buzzi, in his book, The Perfect Egg: And Other Secrets.

Yet, writers who write primarily about food are called food writers, not just writers, as though writing in general or about the more serious subjects—whether fiction or nonfiction—ranks higher in the literary canon. Food writing brings to mind gastronomy, a luxury or a pursuit of the leisurely and well-heeled. Recipes? Puttering around in the kitchen and writing about the food prepared? Food is the domain of the frivolous, perhaps? Chef and writer Michael Ruhlman ponders this perception in an article in The Huffington Post. He wonders why writing “about what is all-important” should need justification.

For a long time, when I described myself as a food writer, the word got stuck in my throat like a fish bone. I was raised in Bengal, India, a region where fish dominates the diet. Could I be a “food writer” and be, well, a writer or an author? I started a blog years ago to document the food of my childhood and the experiences of cooking with my mother, now 80 years old. I began writing personal essays and features for a popular website, In Mama’s Kitchen, which unfortunately folded last year. The food I wrote about rooted me in a small town in the heart of India and my first forays into the kitchen of my mother as a child and adolescent. But I also sought to transcend the label of a food writer and be a writer of fiction and essays that shed light on the human condition.

Ruhlman says, “Cooking dinner is not a chore or a hassle, not simply the fulfillment of a bodily need, or even an indulgence, but is in fact fundamental to our humanity.” I am unsure about the cooking part—even though I delight in it—but food certainly is more than indulgence or even biological sustenance. The other attribute that makes us human is the ability of telling stories, says Ruhlman. Yes, stories! Food sure does tell stories, and food writers—the greatest of them, in any case—can create abiding literature that reflects human character or the history and culture of a place.Continue Reading

Circumflexes and censorship: on the French spelling reform

Photo by Alan Levine

Photo by Alan Levine

Behold: a diacritic has got an entire country in an uproar. And of course that country is France.

Let’s rewind a bit: in 1990, the Académie Française, prestigious gatekeeper of all things French, proposes a spelling reform that generates countless pamphlets and petitions to “save the French language.” Ultimately nothing much happens, the old spellings remain overwhelmingly present in textbooks. Twenty-six years later, the reform becomes official: starting in September, textbooks will integrate the recommended changes, starting with the circumflex. This accent, placed over vowels, is either a vestigial “s” (as in forêt) or a way to differentiate between homonyms. In a number of words, though, the Académie decreed that it no longer served any real purpose. Hence the suggestion: keep the circumflex when it reflects an etymological evolution, remove it elsewhere unless its absence causes confusion. Other aspects of the reform include simplifying the spelling of many words: nénuphar (water lily) can now also be spelled nénufar and oignon (onion) becomes ognon.

This has sent countless French people in a tizzy, for whom the reform amounts to nothing less than linguistic censorship. #JeSuisCirconflexe hashtags, a highly problematic reference to #JeSuisCharlie, have sprung up all over social media. And yet, here’s the most baffling part of the story: no one is forcing anyone to do anything. The Académie will not be sending a language police taskforce to your home if you decide to keep using the circumflex. The new spellings are alternatives: both old and new forms are allowed to coexist without one being marked off as wrong. Why then the general outcry?Continue Reading