Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, Private Citizens, charts the spectacular floundering of four recent college graduates. His eye is so sharp, his characters so recognizable, and his truth so pitiless that I sometimes had to close the book, as if he might read my soul through its pages. This is one of the most provocatively intelligent novels I’ve ever read.
I met Tony at a bar and asked him how the book came about.
David Busis: You said that before you started this book, you were writing pious, well-crafted stories. Did this book come out of a contrarian impulse, or did it come out of a willingness to take a risk that you weren’t willing to take before?
Tony Tulathimutte: Pure desperation. I hadn’t written almost anything for two years. I’d written a story collection that on some deep level I was too ashamed of to even try publishing, because of this issue of piety. The novel I’d been working on ended up dehydrating into a novella. Process-wise it was an important bridge between the older stuff and this, writing at greater length, but stylistically it was still like the old stuff. Once you’ve been writing a few years, it’s hard to let go of whatever little accolade or attention you’ve managed to get and start over with a new approach. But you have to, if you don’t want to stagnate.
Image courtesy of Julian Partridge
Of all the rules that artists follow, this one is paramount: never ever fill in details before the structure is done.
Painters sometimes spend hours sketching before ever touching the canvas. And when they finally do, they build their work slowly, layering in color, laboring on the drawing underneath, roughing in the composition before tightening it up. And once the structure is securely in place, it takes vigilance to ensure it isn’t weakened or lost. Have you ever wondered what an artist is doing when she steps back from her easel and squints? She’s blurring out the details to see beyond them and take stock of the form underneath.
For years, I earned a living by this rule, sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters. Batgirl, Superman, Jimmy Nuetron, Big Bird, Bugs Bunny, Marge and Bart Simpson—hundreds of my original prototypes line the shelves in my studio.
Each figure began with a block of clay. I’d work the shape from all angles, adding and subtracting to it, leaving tool marks everywhere. With every change I’d step back. I’d look at it from above, below, and every angle in between. I often used an old art school trick and looked at it upside down in the mirror, all in an effort to look through the clay and see the structure of the figure underneath.Continue Reading
On its blog last week, the Huntington Library released previously unseen photographs of some of the late Octavia Butler’s papers, which the library catalogued after Butler’s untimely death nearly ten years ago. Included in the collection are some of Butler’s early science fiction stories, contracts, drafts, and notebooks, one of which caught the attention of nearly everyone on my Twitter feed last week.
On the back of one of her notebooks, Butler writes:
I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller list of the LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novel will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I win another award or not. This is my life. I write bestselling novels.
While everyone celebrated the spirit of these words I’m embarrassed to say that I, on some gut level, cringed when I read them. I couldn’t articulate why. I love Octavia Butler—I love the Patternist Series, I love the Xenogenesis trilogy, I love the Parable series. I love Octavia Butler! So, what was my deal?Continue Reading
Not too long ago, as a writer who was based in India, once a colony of the British, and who had once been a “citizen of the world” living in the United States, I wondered, with apprehension, whether my stories would resonate with American and global readers and editors. As a struggling writer, I presumed that great stories surmount barriers of geography and culture by bringing out universal themes. (Theme transcends plot and setting. Theme is a comment on the human condition. Cinderella is not just the story of a poor maid who overcomes the cruelty of her family and lives happily ever after with Prince Charming. The theme of the story reveals that people who are kind and patient are often rewarded for their good deeds.)
Then, fairly recently, I came across the word “relatable.” I did not have a language as convenient as that until then to ponder how my readers might relate to my stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. “Relatable” did not exist in the vocabulary of literary criticism until the mid-twentieth century, according to an article in Slate. In fact, the word has gained currency only over the past decade, writer Rebecca Mead says in her essay on the topic in The New Yorker. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the first and the oldest definition of relatable as “able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating.” The second meaning is more recent: “Able to be brought into relation with something.”
The third and final meaning, and the most recent, is “that which can be related to; with which one can identify or empathize.” According to the OED, the first use of this sense of the adjective dates back to 1965. The term became the buzz of the literary world, including The New Yorker magazine, when Ira Glass, host of a popular public radio program, said, after a performance of King Lear, that Shakespeare is not “relatable” and that he is “unemotional.”
Shakespeare was British and Western, and here a popular literary commentator based in the Western world was calling the Bard “not relatable.” Wasn’t Shakespeare “relatable” universally? Didn’t his plays have universal themes? Aren’t universal themes not “relatable” globally?
The word relatable, as used by Glass and others since, has brought both discomfiture and relief to me as a writer who often writes of cultures and settings different from Western. If Shakespeare is not “relatable,” how could I hope to be relatable? Continue Reading
Zines straddle the border between Fluxist market-dodgers and the reputably tainted world of self-publishing literary dropouts. The difference between a zine and that 50 Shades of Grey-inspired alien erotica novel is function and intention. A zine works as a platform for writing and art that’s too provocative, political, or honest for traditional newsstand publications. According to Barnard College, which hosts one of the primary zine databases, literary zines are not well received, and that’s because literary works already hold a predominant place in the writing world.
As we wait for the results of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, there’s a sense that momentum is building toward a political explosion. A quiet shuffling, for now, which appears like a whisper on the pages of political zines: the most prevalent and useful of the breed. In response to the ISIS attacks on Paris in November, for example, Comedy Zine (a political satire zine) unabashedly suggested campaign slogans for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad such as “Bomb, baby, Bomb!” In a stab more closely related to the presidential campaign, the zine also listed dialogue overheard at a Jeb Bush campaign event as “Vote Bush, third time’s the charm.” The Pulp Zine explicitly criticized voters with “You’re fired, America,” for taking interest in Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.Continue Reading
“It’s awful, watching doom as entertainment,” says a character in Kathleen George’s The Johnstown Girls, one of a number of literary works about the Johnstown Flood of 1889 that started with Walt Whitman’s “A Voice from Death,” a commissioned poem that first appeared in the New York World. The catastrophe was, wrote David McCullough in 1968, the biggest news story since the murder of Lincoln and “the most extraordinary calamity of our age.”
What is the line, I wonder, between “doom as entertainment” and disasters as larger-than-life reminders of the power of nature and the reality of our mortality? Between honoring history and capitalizing from it, between rubbernecking and paying tribute, between schadenfreude and fascination with the details that help us to understand the human condition?
The Flood museum, housed in the old Carnegie Library in downtown Johnstown, stays on the respectful side of the line between exploitation and testimonial, remembering stories of survivors and the more than 2,000 dead through photographs, objects, and a back wall that is a haunting sculpture of wreckage, pieces of houses and wagon wheels and telegraph poles.
Through artifacts and art, the museum assembles a picture of unfathomable loss and destruction and subsequent efforts to make meaning of it: an Academy Award-winning documentary, paintings of the chaos of disaster reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch depictions of hell, paintings that recall the Biblical flood, a clip from a silent film. In it, a woman frantically rides a horse to her ex-love’s wedding to warn him and his guests of the oncoming flood. She dies a melodramatically noble death, cheesy by today’s standards, saving him and his new wife.Continue Reading
This is the start of a monthly journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. I’ve loved this book for many years. It’s scholarly and luminous, unfolding a rich lexicon. Open its pages and whole rivers, chunks of amethyst, living birds, and secret mammoth skeletons tumble forth. This is the realm where Jefferson dreams his dreams. His Virginia is a body of milk and math, bounded by cartographer’s ink and by principles of republican government. In my journal, I write:
But when Jefferson dreams he
does not dream of me
I’m an American poet of mixed European and Afro-Virginian heritage. Some of my ancestors hailed from Louisa, a community adjacent to Jefferson’s home in Albemarle County. Because I come from a long line of free and enslaved Virginians, and because I’m an alumna of the University he founded, Jefferson haunts my intellectual and artistic life. He’s the shadow I can’t quite catch, a mean glint in the mirror. He wouldn’t have approved of my writing. In Notes, he declares:
Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.
Nevertheless, I keep going back to Notes. Maybe I want Jefferson’s blessing. Or perhaps I seek some evidence of my future poet-self seeded there, in his vision for America. I want to find, in Jefferson’s writing, a comradeship-in-language that I and other contemporary American poets might share (aren’t we dreaming, like him?). While Jefferson didn’t conceive of Notes as a literary work, I perceive an ecstatic poetic sensibility within it. Reading this book nourishes my heart. It hurts, too.Continue Reading
I ask about water.
Water in the West, water in the desert, water that saves and water that kills. Water on a tribal reservation: water for ranches, water for livestock, water hauled hundreds of miles by truck, water for uranium mining, water for ceremonies and legends, water for drinking. Water in the Animas River, flooded with arsenic, lead, and other toxic metals in August by EPA efforts to clean up the Gold King Mine to the north in Colorado.
“Water is life. It’s sacred, it’s powerful,“ Charlissa says. We’re in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, in a writing classroom at Diné College, the oldest and largest tribally-controlled college in the country. I’m asking the students about the importance of water on the rez. Charlissa says she remembers when a corroded drum in town broke, filling the main street with water. A flood, for a moment, in the middle of the desert, a river on the asphalt.
Amber tells the story of her elderly family members who live along the Animas River and now have to drive two hours to buy water for themselves and their livestock. She wonders if they will be able to stay in their home. Rantrivia grew up on a ranch, and she talks about the difficulties of towing water—the cost of gas and car repair, the time away from work—for her family and their 360-gallon barrel. For some, it is a weekly decision to have water or a working car on a sprawling reservation larger than West Virginia.
“Other people take water for granted,” Candra says. “My senior year of high school, we got our water shut off…It was a struggle. They said there was something wrong with our filtration, so my brother was the one who had to dig out the whole thing and replace it.” When I ask her if the water was contaminated, she isn’t sure. There are many ways water can turn dangerous here. “But my brother was really cautious with it. He used gloves.”Continue Reading
What is your writing routine? What does it look like when you sit to write? Any special rituals?
I am so glad you asked. It’s really pretty great. I sit at my computer, and I check Facebook for, like, ten minutes. Okay, haha, twenty minutes. And then I write. Sometimes I outline, sometimes I do research. Once, I bribed myself with M&Ms to get through my edits.
Julia Alvarez keeps a bowl of water on her desk when she writes. Can you tell us about your own writing routine?
Yeah, huh. I’ve been getting this question a lot. I mean, I just… I sit there. And I write. I don’t even listen to music. I mean… Wait, don’t look sad. I’m sorry. Listen, you don’t actually believe that about the water, do you? Next to her computer? Come on! Sorry, wait, I’ll try again. I, um, I’m there at my desk. And I have—wait, this is interesting! I have some postcards on my desk! Of places I like!
Hemingway wrote standing up and claimed to be done by noon and drunk by three. How about your writing routine?
I understand that you want a window into my brain, I get that, or maybe you want some special trick, like something I do before I start writing every day, and if you do that thing too, all your problems will be solved. As if I know what I’m doing. I just… I don’t know what to tell you. A movie of me writing would look like a person sitting at a desk and writing. It’s like, What’s your email routine? You just sit there and answer email, right? Listen, I don’t mean to be cranky, because I’m flattered that you care. I just feel like I’m disappointing you.Continue Reading
When my mother, born in America to Israeli parents, first met my father in Tel Aviv, she said she knew he was right for her because he was an American living in Israel. As a young woman who grew up in transit—constantly being moved around between the two countries—she recognized in him a kindred spirit: someone who spoke, lived, and loved both ways.
They married and had me, and whether they’d planned it or not, I came to embody this combination of the two of them: an American-Israeli and an Israeli-American. I grew up in Israel, spoke a semi-intelligible mixture of both languages, read books in Hebrew and English, watched movies without subtitles, and sported a funny accent.
I also wrote from a young age. Darkly dramatic poetry in Hebrew as a child, then short stories in English as a young adult. But as I grew older, writing became harder to do. Anxiety and self-doubt took the place of simple pleasure, and I had to psyche myself into creating new things. I still read a lot and dreamed of a career as a writer, but some of the magic was missing. The reading was slow going, doing any kind of artistic work was a struggle, and I looked around for different paths.
Then, out of the blue, I found translation. I say “out of the blue” because even though the notion was always inside of me, a seed of meaning that formed and informed my life, it hadn’t occurred to me to make it my livelihood until a coincidental encounter landed me my first small gig. I then sought out part time work at a translation company while completing my bachelor’s degree in literature and art at Tel Aviv University, working from Hebrew into English and from English into Hebrew. When that company closed, it was simple and natural enough to keep going, self-employed. I translated legal and business materials for newspapers and companies, and experimented with translating short fiction for a workshop I participated in at the University of Haifa and just for kicks. The sensation of bringing a bit of beauty from one language to another was exhilarating: English into Hebrew was fun because it let me share writing I loved (such as short stories by J.D. Salinger and Jonathan Safran Foer) with my Hebrew-speaking friends. Hebrew into English was a new, more foreign world: I could deliver some of my favorite things about Israel outside of the country. One day, I decided, I wanted to translate an Israeli novel into English.Continue Reading