Fiction Responding to Fiction: Raymond Carver and Jonathan Durbin



Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” is the classic titular story in his collection published in 1981. The original story, entitled “Beginners,” was famously edited by Gordon Lish, and it is longer, containing more hope and introspection. You can hear Carver reading the edited version of “WWTAWWTAL,” and you can also hear him stumble a bit as he eliminates profanity for the air.

The story is one that has been responded to by artists working in various media. Nathan Englander’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” for example, responds directly, with a number of clear parallels, including the title. Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 2015 film, features a staging of the short story, and we hear the dialogue—which forms the essence of the story—throughout the movie.

Jonathan Durbin’s story, “Dad Thing,” published in 2015 in Electric Literature, pays homage to Carver’s story in more subtle ways. Bill, the first person narrator, visits his old friend Neal when home in Los Angeles to see his father, who is in the hospital. Durbin’s story, like Carver’s, takes place in real time, the story unfolding over the course of a lengthy conversation between friends. There’s constant drinking, too—scotch in Durbin, gin in Carver—and, although both stories are rooted in dialogue, much of what is said and meant lies beneath the surface of the texts.Continue Reading

Planetary Poetry


It’s a comet, no it’s a planet, no it’s not a planet, yes it is. What is it about Pluto that so draws us to it? Is it that Pluto is so far away? Or is it just that we always pull for the underdog? Over the past few years, especially, as Pluto’s planetary status has been called into question, the adoration for the planet has only risen. Perhaps, there’s something to the idea of distance, of the unknowable vastness that stretches between us on Earth and the surface of this planet (or dwarf planet or whatever). It is in this expanse, that poetry seems to have found a way to talk about other distances—more of the metaphorical and emotional nature— through the use of planets.

In his poem, “Pluto’s Loss,” poet Paul Guest begins with the line: “Little star, how lost to us you are already” and goes on to elegize Pluto as something that is so small and far away and cold that it’s easy for humans to forget, to not think about, to push out of the mind. However, Guest then brings the poem around to his own thoughts. It’s easier to remember the distances between our own memories—a lost love, perhaps—than it is to think about the distances between planets.

In the end of the poem, though, Guest then makes another twist: it’s also easy, he argues, for humans to be small and distant and forgotten by the heavens. The poems ends: “In that moment, and in this one, I could not be/ more human, to the dead sky/ making apologies heard by no one, by nothing.” Maybe, we identify with Pluto because we too can feel so small and cold and easily pushed out of the mind.Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Query VI

vintage virginia

This is the fourth installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here, here and here.

Query VI: “Productions mineral, vegetable and animal”
A notice of the mines and other subterraneous riches; its trees, plants, fruits, &c.

At root, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is a carefully curated syllabus, a structured list of discussion topics. Throughout the document, and most heavily in Query VI, Jefferson uses lists to elaborate the landscape and productivity of the Commonwealth. His catalogs preserve a lasting record of his attention, but paying attention was no passive enterprise for Jefferson. When we consider his lists, we have to remember the archaic meaning buried within the contemporary definition of the word. “To list” also means to intend, to want, to incline.

If the act of listing is an act of will, then every list is both artifact and verb. This is also true of a poem, which William Carlos Williams described as “a small or large machine made out of words.”

Taking up about a third of Notes, Query VI concludes Jefferson’s catalog of Virginia’s natural resources and connects to his subsequent analyses of society, government, and economic production in the Commonwealth. Despite his observation that “a complete catalogue of the trees, plants, fruits, &c. is probably not desired,” Jefferson furnishes the names of dozens of native species. European-derived crops flourish (or, in Jefferson’s parlance, are “elaborated from the soil”) in the cultivated agrarian spaces of the New World:

The gardens yield musk melons, water melons, tomatas, okra, pomegranates, figs, and the esculent plants of Europe.

The orchards produce apples, pears, cherries, quinces, peaches, nectarines, apricots, almonds, and plumbs.

Continue Reading

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


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.



On Failure: Being a Writer Who Translates and a Translator Who Writes

hands-woman-apple-deskI spent a large part of last spring working in coffee shops all around the Finger Lakes region with a group of writers. One of them had published several novels; another had just signed with an agent and was making revisions to her novel-in-progress; the others were working on the early stages of different projects.

I was in an in-between position. I had finished writing a novel a while earlier and was having trouble deciding whether or not I wanted to continue revising it and send it to more agents, or whether the many rejections I’d already received were reason enough to shelve it for the time being.

This dilemma shouldn’t have stopped me from writing anything else, but to a great extent, it did. It was hard to think about any other piece of writing when this one was still on the operating room table, its fate unclear. I was stuck.

On the other hand, translation projects were coming in steadily, some of them slated for publication, all of them involving payment. While my friends were working on their fiction, more often than not I was translating or editing translations. When they lamented every moment they had to spend working on other projects, I concealed behind my shame at not writing an immense relief that I had translation projects that were due soon and provided me with the perfect excuse. Continue Reading

Good Bad Women: Goldilocks

The Book of Knowledge 1912

We were discussing the character of teenage girl in a fantasy novel. “I like that the girl is not what you expect,” said one writer, “You expect girls to be sweet and innocent, but she’s strong and takes action,” he said.

Huh, I thought. Do we expect girls to be sweet and innocent? If you’re like me and you used to be a teenage girl, or, maybe you’re not like me, but you know someone that used to be a teenage girl, then perhaps you don’t expect them to be sweet and innocent. Based on your keen powers of observation and the belief that teenage girls are people, you expect girls to be diverse and complex, like the rest of us. Why then, if real girls have all the characteristics of real people, do we expect fictional girls to have few or none?

Marina Warner, in her critical analysis of fairy tales From the Beast to the Blonde, argues that the way we tell stories about women and girls serves a social project. That project is usually to reinforce the dominant power structure and to warn against challenging that structure. A closer look at the story of Goldilocks serves to illustrate this process.Continue Reading

Our Ladies of Perpetual Sorrow


There’s something happening with the personal in writing, and Jason Guriel’s highly circulated Walrus essay “I Don’t Care About Your Life” wants to warn us about it.

“I Don’t Care About Your Life” isn’t as polemical as it sounds. For one, its title doesn’t so much reveal Guriel’s hand, as lampoon precisely the under-achieving self-referential voice that the essay goes on, at greater critical distance, to critique.

Then the actual argument is relatively light: Guriel advocates for the suspicion of “personal” writing in criticism, where personal is defined stylistically by conventions like the first-person pronoun. Yet, as he further historicizes and theorizes “confessional criticism,” the path toward a coherent and consistent sense of personal writing feints and digresses. In focusing on critics, Guriel implies that writing “about” a cultural product and writing about oneself are distinguishable and potentially mutually exclusive modes. Taxonomically, it’s unclear where personal writing ends and the “confessional” begins—or if, according to this framework, they overlap entirely.

This particular slurring elides the point that the writer of personally inflected criticism is not composing a diary entry. She’s choosing to refract personal anecdote or revelation through the investigation of an object or text (though fellow lapsed Catholics might interject that it’s all the more “confessional” to disclose, as it were, through a partition). This refraction may obfuscate both writer and object; it may alienate the reader from both. Or it may bend light in both directions.Continue Reading

Waiting to Write

Like any writer I dream of being awarded a life-altering grant or winning the state lottery, or at the very least, the heart of some word-loving benefactor, a silver-haired sugar mama or daddy who’ll rescue me from hard labor, no strings attached, simply for the satisfaction of seeing my words released into the universe. Centuries ago artists and writers had patrons. Some still do. The British had the dole.

In his essays “Sacked” and “On the Roof,” Geoff Dyer remembers living on the dole as a golden age when the safety net of Britain’s welfare state allowed Housing Benefit to pay his rent and Social Security to provide him money to live on.  The first twenty-five years of his life were cushioned by “free health care, free school, free tuition at university, a full maintenance grant and then – the icing on the cake—the dole!” The relative economic freedom Dyer and his “doley” friends experienced nurtured a whole generation of aspiring actors, dancers, writers, and musicians. Dyer calls the dole “the equivalent of waiting tables in New York.”

For the time being I’ve chosen the employment Dyer mentions to support my writing, that is, the life of waiting tables. My decision five years ago to leave a steady office job worried family and friends, but the gifts of a service industry job continue to do me good. In the right place with the right establishment, a writer can make good money on a flexible schedule, her mind left free to ruminate without too much responsibility.

Waiting tables, however, is not like living on the dole. Besides sleeping with a pillow under jammed knees and forever scrutinizing the tableside manners and tipping habits of friends, working dinner services leaves a writer in NYC unable to attend readings and events that help establish friendships and beneficial connections. Most significantly, restaurant serving, like all other work that pays the bills, diminishes time at my desk. But we all must grind, and this is the ages-old challenge of being an artist: how to survive and create in a society that values its art and culture, to a great extent, in terms of economic viability and success?Continue Reading

Fiction Responding to Fiction: James Joyce and John Updike

APOne of John Updike’s early and most anthologized stories, “A & P,” from Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, is a modern retelling of James Joyce’s “Araby” from The Dubliners. While almost 50 years pass between their publications, both stories consider how a boy’s romantic crush leads to heroic deeds that are ultimately unfulfilled. It is clear that Updike used “Araby” as a model for his story, both mirroring and updating key elements.

In “Araby,” the first person narrator is in love with his friend’s sister who lives on his street. Again and again, Joyce presents us with images of this idealized woman as the boy observes her standing outside of her home, a building with a “brown imperturbable face”:

She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

Because the Dublin of “Araby” is so dark and constrained, the lamplight is key here, as it lights up everything about her, and allows us to see her as the narrator does. She is, literally and figuratively, above the narrator, and we feel his adoration for her in the way that he describes her. As a student at the convent, she is clearly drawn as a madonna figure but there is also—as often with Joyce—a bit of the whore symbolism woven in as well, as we end with a look at her undergarments. The narrator is dramatic in his love for her and that dramatic tendency returns at the end, in his epiphanic moment, as his disillusionment reaches its peak.Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

vintage virginia

This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading