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woo - love love - author photoIt’s been six years since your first novel, Everything Asian. What took you so long?

The short answer is that I’m just a very slow writer. The long answer: As I neared the end of this novel, say the last thirty or so pages, I thought I’d race to the finish line, which is what happened with my first novel. But with this second one, those final pages took longer to write than any other part. And it wasn’t because it was difficult… it was purely psychological. I think I was terrified of a number of things, like what I would do after it was done. Or the reality of how awful the book was (and it was pretty bad – first drafts, you know). But even if all I squeezed out was a sentence or two on a good day, I kept on wringing. So here we are, half a dozen years later.

woo - love love - book jacketThe best part about being a temp was what Judy Lee had decided to do an hour ago: leave for lunch and never come back. She counted the number of the daily Far Side calendar sheets pinned on the gray wall of her cubicle, twenty-five in all. She rose from her chair and plucked away her favorite, the one where the fat boy with glasses was pushing with all his might to open the door. The joke was that the kid trying to enter the building, Midvale School for the Gifted, wasn’t smart enough to follow the sign on the door that read pull. At some point in her life, she’d owned a shirt with the same cartoon, the silk screen in full color unlike this grayscale image. She’d bought it because she felt sorry for him. She’d done stupid things like that all her life, and she wasn’t even a genius, not even close.

Good Sister

By Stephanie Austin

Essay

austin 5

My sister rocks a 90s scrunchie like no one’s business and still loves The Lost Boys, her knock-off Crocs and silk shirts. She cannot rock adult conversation, the processing of complicated information, or general emotions. She is retarded, if you prefer that horrid little word. She is disabled, challenged, slow like dial-up. You hear the connection trying to start, you know eventually the connection will start, but in the meantime you’re sitting there sighing loudly in frustration, waiting because this has been your whole life, waiting for Sandy to get something. And sometimes when the connection happens, you get a  happy story about the wedding she wants to have at Disneyworld, the bakery shop she wants to open in downtown Phoenix and all the free cookies she’ll give her family, or sometimes you stories about her bullies in high school, her sadness hiding under irrational anger that involves swearing at people under her breath, stalking around, crying in the corner, locking herself in the bathroom because she is different and doesn’t quite understand how she is supposed to fit into the world.

Stand facing east.
There is a seedy dive bar on the corner to your right.

Turn 90 degrees to your right.
There is a tattoo parlor.

Again, turn 90 degrees to your right.
There is always a 15 passenger white van with a graphic photograph of an aborted baby’s head in the clasp of a pair of forceps, ever blocking the entrance to the abortion clinic.

Again, turn 90 degrees to your right.
You’ll see a line of very large people, ever blocking the entrance to the Souplantation.

Bludworth de Barrios horizontal

Can you talk a little about the cover of Splendor, your first book of poems?

Growing up, I was always excited to read a new Christopher Pike book. I remember where they were kept at our local book store, with the other kids’ books on shelves that covered the whole back wall. Christopher Pike books, for the uninitiated, are teen genre thrillers that straddle science fiction, mystery, horror, suspense, and fantasy. Embedded within these stories were questions, or hints of questions, about mortality, time, desire, the limits of human experience, and story-telling itself. I loved the books, even down to their repetitive, marketing qualities—the dreamy, California, quasi-suburban setting of many of the books, the formulaic and familiar narrative devices, and the pulpy covers which always depicted an illustrated scene from the book in bright or neon colors. The covers were a tantalizing snapshot of the world contained within the book.

I wanted the cover of Splendor to have that same feeling of promise and thrill. When I was working with Bri Hermanson, who illustrated the cover, I asked her to conjure a scene of an alien astronaut explorer overlooking an alien landscape, with a nod to the Pike book covers. Bri’s arid, volcanic landscape, done in pink and turquoise colors, feels at the same time desolate and invigorating, which fits the tone of the book. She’s an incredible artist and was really fun to work with.

Being pretty
is how a museum feels

All the money
located in one firm spot

Like
someone owns a mansion and they invite everyone to the mansion

To sometimes
drink wine and listen to smart people think smart things

Wearing perfume
or cologne and spare jewelry and black clothes and shaved legs and clean hair

That
is a museum the location where it’s luxury to gather and hear intelligent things

I heard a story about you: In your first MFA workshop, the professor threw a chapter of your novel-in-progress on the table and said, “This is neo-Faulknerian crap, it’s not why we let you in here, and we’re not going to discuss it.” How did that make you feel?

That’s not quite how it went down, but it’s close enough and better for your telling of it. Anyway, how did it make me feel? It made me feel like a writer of neo-Faulknerian crap, because the man was as sharp a reader as he was interpersonally clumsy. I understood that I needed to find a new way—and my own way—of writing about the South before I could write about it.

 

So you’re a southern writer?

Well, that’s complicated. My first novel was set during the Siege of Leningrad.

The Lower Quarter cover art hi res (2)Elizam smiled at the congratulatory email on his screen. It had been his first real job for the Lost Art Register, the first investigative work that had gone beyond a basic due-diligence search to ensure that some painting about to go on auction had not been reported stolen. This had been his first recovery job, and it had been successful. It had been Eli who had recognized the hand of amateurs, who had flown to Kansas City and suspected at first glance two security guards taking a cigarette break outside the art-storage facility from which the small Henry Moores had gone missing. It had been Eli who had followed them for three days, who had got the cops—that old enemy—to the right place at the right time: the moment the thieves met up with their loser local fence, statues stupidly in hand.

movie theater chair 2

At a recent screening of The Gift, a sneakily great psychological thriller partly about, amongst many relevancies, the unknowability of other people, I felt that familiar paranoia. I’d noticed a man in the parking lot on my way in, walking in circles and talking to himself, hands never leaving his pockets. I told myself I was being unreasonable, misjudging this poor guy who, like me, only wanted to pass an idle Thursday at the movies. I bought my ticket and my popcorn. I took my preferred seat in the theater, in the center of the center row. Then the man entered, mumbling louder now, hands still in his pockets. He chose a seat in the first row, reconsidered and moved back one, thought again and moved back a few more. I decided to wait out the trailers in the lobby.

The rise of the movie theater shooting is, for the consummate moviegoer, a threat both mortal and existential. As a writer and a cinephile, I proudly consider myself a member of that special class of Americans—surely a growing class—who feel most fully themselves when situated in front of a screen; for all its ordinariness, no public space seems as momentously personal, to me, as the movie theater. That this secularly sacred place has become a stage for unthinkable, deathly violence is pure tragedy, one that I’ve condemned simply and processed complexly. Choosing between a matinee and a midnight show shouldn’t be a life-or-death decision, but the lurking, random terror of our violent present has leant that choice a terrible new weight. It’s a cruel inverse relation. Americans have never had more reasons to escape to the movies, and yet never has that escape been so dangerous.

AuthorPhoto_StevenGillis

First, I must ask: how does it feel being interviewed by such a remarkably talented and good looking journalist?

Get over yourself. You aren’t all that.

 

Alright. Benchere In Wonderland then, this marks your fifth novel.

Yes.

 

You’ve had quite an impressive career.

I’ve had a career. I would not say it’s been impressive.

Cover_BenchereInWonderland“Take it then,” the partners told him. “We obviously overestimated your grasp of the situation. You clearly don’t get it. Do you honestly think you can sell your work without our firm behind you? Do you think anyone else will – what’s the word you used? – bite? Go ahead then.”

Robert Kloss[Silence]

Do you remember when you rented Born on the Fourth of July to watch at your 10th birthday party?

Revelator CoverAnd often there were those who peddled wares not for the flesh but for the eternal soul as prescribed by the Almighty, for in the progress of this new nation all faiths seemed possible, and all manifestations of the Creator seemed true. Now there were those who gathered in the forests and bathed in the rivers, and so many playing children were unwittingly greeted by the pale, liberated flesh of the godly— oh, to be a lad before those wilting and corpulence, to feel the breath quicken as a sagged woman coos from the brush, or a flaccid man pleads for a roll in the needles and leaves. Oh, to believe with deepest faith that in another’s flesh one finds the Almighty’s light! And there were those who would not murder nor eat the flesh of animals, supping upon only what they found growing from the land. And there were those who uncovered the flesh of men buried, and these were seen wandering with burlap sacks and crowbars and sniffing at the soil. And there were those who lived twelve or more within the same house and worked no jobs, choosing rather to till the soil and raise livestock, to feast upon the bounty of their labor. And here the men slept in rooms across from the women, but no sex frolicked with the other, for to fornicate was considered the foulest sin. And now pregnant women were excommunicated and sent to live amongst the sinners of the land while the implanter of the seed was but reprimanded, for “a man’s lusts are the deepest of all nature’s transgressions” and it was well know that “the female encourages and lures the male.” And some called for an end to priests, for one man should not stand as gatekeeper to another man’s salvation. 
     

AuthorPhoto_JanetSternburg

Were you concerned that people would be put off by the story you were telling? It’s difficult material, your family with its two lobotomies.

I was worried all the time. I knew that life had given me an incredible story to tell—six siblings, two lobotomies: one third of my mother’s family.

 

Incredible, yes. But who would want to read that?

I’d tell people what I was writing and watch as they turned green when they heard the word lobotomy. But it turned out that there was a story behind the story. People have since come forward to tell me they too come from families with mental illness. Allen Ginsberg, whose mother was lobotomized, wrote: “It would seem odd to others…that is to say, familiar—everybody has crazy cousins and aunts and brothers.’ What I first thought was strange turned out to be a universal story.

Cover_WhiteMatterThe Family

IDA SMALL

(b. unknown, Byelorussia; Smalnitsky changed to Small at Ellis Island)

marries

PHILIP GOLDSTEIN (b. unknown, Poland)

Their children (b. Boston), in order of birth starting from eldest

MINNA b. 1904

marries SAM Son DAN b. 1930

JEN b. 1905

Unmarried

BENNIE b. 1909

Unmarried

HELEN b. 1911

marries Lou Daughter JANET b. 1943

PAULINE b. 1914

marries GEORGE Son PHIL b. 1939

FRANCIE b. 1920

marries HARRY

This is the story of a family who made mistakes. Who made choices based on imperfect knowledge—of the world, and of themselves—and had to live with their consequences, as did I, the next generation of that family.

The words “prefrontal lobotomy” were spoken often, common currency growing up in my family. Sometimes I’d hear the term shortened to “frontal” lobotomy. I had no idea what premeant, but it seemed to confer authority, as though the speaker knew what he was talking about. This childhood recognition of distinctions made me—a Jewish, lower-middle-class child—a true citizen of Boston, a city that prided itself on being correct. I really should not have heard any of those words.