This story, I swear, has a happy ending.
I’ll start here, though it’s not the beginning: My father is banging on the wall with his cane.
This story, I swear, has a happy ending.
I’ll start here, though it’s not the beginning: My father is banging on the wall with his cane.
Charles Blackstone is the still-fairly-new Managing Editor of the now-iconic Bookslut, a pioneer of online literary culture. I was interviewed by Bookslut in 2004, after its founder and curator, Jessa Crispin, had recently moved from Austin to Chicago. Jessa, who has always struck me as a sexier version of a young Virginia Woolf, soon became a well-known figure in the Chicago literary scene—but Bookslut’s flavor has always been an international one. When your book is mentioned on the Bookslut blog, you get emails from everyone from Richard Nash to random non-writer friends teaching English in Japan. In a culture simply glutted with information, it still seems true that when Bookslut talks, people listen.
February 20, 2012
Rhonda Hughes is the powerhouse behind indie publishing sensation Hawthorne Books. More than a decade old and located in the Pacific Northwest, I had heard of Hawthorne only vaguely until a couple of years ago, when suddenly they seemed to burst as a force to be reckoned with onto the publishing scene, with highly assertive and competent marketing, beautifully designed books, and the kind of wider distribution that seems, to many small indie presses, only a tantalizing dream. They’ve also developed a stable of writers from whom they put out more than one title in fairly close succession, in an old-school publishing model that favors loyalty and cultivating talent/brand above constantly trying to throw All Things New against a wall to see what sticks. Plus, they have a whiff of Chuck Palahniuk cool about them, which doesn’t hurt! Amidst her busy schedule, Rhonda was able to talk with me about what makes Hawthorne tick—and thrive—and some future exciting projects on their list.
January 24, 2012
Closing off our “Six Question Sex Interview” series featuring various contributors to the anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience, we decided to give the lone man in the book—foreword contributor, Steve Almond—a whirl with the questions. One question (in which female contributors had been asked whether they would ever consider having sex with “their” male character from the book) no longer seemed to make sense, and so I struck it from the list . . . although in typical Steve Almond fashion, he had found a way to answer it, actually, in quipping, “Well, I am my male character, and I have sex with myself all the time.”
December 11, 2011
Sheri Joseph is no stranger to writing men. Her novel, Stray, and cycle of stories, Bear Me Safely Over, both happen to feature the compelling, secret-liaison-affair between the two male characters in her Men Undressed excerpt, “The Winter Beach,” and back when I first published her work in Other Voices magazine, that story, too, was from a male point of view. In “The Winter Beach,” I was viscerally hit by Joseph’s ability to turn-on without being terribly explicit; her work was actually less graphic than we’d called for in our submission guidelines, and yet her portrayal of Paul, the younger lover of her protagonist, is one of the most strikingly erotic in the book. She also happens to be the second writer in this interview series to explicitly declare that “tortured men are sexy,” which may admit more about the sensibilities and predilections of women writers than we . . . uh, really wanted to leak out to the public. Joseph was the recipient of an NEA fellowship last year for her new novel, and was also recently a subject in a glammed-up Vanity Fair feature on literary Southern belles—check it, and her, out here . . .
SJ: Maybe a 2? I’ve been writing long enough that I think I’m past worrying about this sort of objection, especially as it’s exclusive to sex. We all have personal experiences in hundreds of arenas, and there will always be those who complain that whatever you’ve depicted (Denver, unicycling, heroin rehab, fundamentalism) is “wrong,” meaning “not like my own experience of that thing.” As fiction writers, our job is to imagine life through the eyes of others. This is what we do. We work to make the details accurate, the desires and emotions plausible, but beyond that a good character is not a type; he is not solely the representative of a group; he is an individual with his own history and predilections. And of all human experience, the sexual is one of the most compelling and urgent; it’s often where fictional characters—same as living people—are most vulnerable and likely to reveal themselves.
SJ: I don’t know about easier, but it’s a lot more fun, and always energizing to a story, to write about a character who wants something in a big bad way. Even better if he wants two things at once, desperately, and those two things are in conflict with each other. Sex is often the desire that can get its claws into a person’s psyche to the exclusion of all else. But I think writers often avoid writing sex for good reason: the real story is elsewhere. What happens in bed doesn’t move that particular story. Or it feels known already, pedestrian, titillating but not useful. So the first requirement of good sex writing is to find the story that really does happen in bed, the character who is revealed there and not elsewhere.
SJ: Kent has fascinated me for a long time: I started writing about him in my first book, Bear Me Safely Over, and continued in my second, Stray, in the opening of which (my piece for Men Undressed, “The Winter Beach”) he’s gotten himself freshly married to a Mennonite lawyer named Maggie but falls back into a dalliance with his former lover, a younger man named Paul. Pinning down Kent’s sexuality is pretty difficult. I’d call him about 65% straight; but if I were going to have sex with him I might rather do it in Paul’s body than Maggie’s.
SJ: I would never want to be that spokesperson making the complaints based in the idea that my own experience must represent some kind of truth about female sexuality at large. I think there are plenty of male writers who write compellingly and convincingly from a female point of view. For my students or other apprentice writers, I advise against getting too caught up in representing the group. Provided you’ve done your necessary research and approach other sorts of people with a curious mind, the truth will come from inhabiting your character fully and intuitively, however different that person might be from you.
SJ: Hamlet—though I might be channeling one or two of my characters who think so. Or maybe Quentin Compson… What can I say? Tortured men are sexy. And apparently—in fiction, at least—I’m drawn to the ones so twisted around with wanting the wrong thing that they’re incapable of a physical sex act.
SJ: I have quite a few examples, but too many people would know exactly whom I mean! I prefer to sublimate all my urges into fiction, thanks.
December 04, 2011
Like many of the writers in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience, Nava Renek is a triple threat. A writer, editor and educator, she’s also no stranger to anthologies, having herself edited the daring Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century, published by Spuyten Duyvil—a veritable Who’s Who of innovative women writers, including several who also appear in Men Undressed. Nava is the author of two published novels as well as the program coordinator of the Women’s Center at Brooklyn College, and—as we discuss here—she goes for the “tortured type.”
NR: I am not at all nervous about what male critics will say about my interpretation of men’s emotions or actions. Isn’t that what writing is all about…looking inside a character, male or female, and trying to find the common threads that connect us all to each other or make us different? In many ways I subscribe to the view that Men are from Mars, but that is just a superficial explanation of our different ways of seeing. Why are they from Mars? What are they getting from seeing and reacting to the world that way? That is what I’m exploring without trying to point a finger or put blame on one side in particular.
NR: Sex is easy to write about because it is almost always a guarantee attention grabber but it is a great platform to explore other topics like emotions, power balance, gender roles etc. It provides a great construct to pull apart common human conundrums. I think few literary writers focus on it because it is a very sensitive and controversial topic. Readers have to be prepared to acknowledge that a physical relationship is part of a “romantic” relationship as well as a relationship in and of itself. Our culture is so laced with puritanical morality that people/writers who do delve into this subject matter somehow automatically find themselves labeled “edgy” or taboo.
NR: I probably already have had sex with him too many times than I care to count. He seems like my type. He picks women up in bars. I’ve been in bars. I’ve been picked up (not recently, though). But it is his back story that I wanted to explore. He really wants his marriage to work, but the dynamics of the couple isn’t working for either him or his wife. So, he really sees no other recourse. He wants to feel loved and emotionally alive, and one aspect of that is to experience passion, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes with different women. I think if he could trade it for an emotionally rewarding marriage, he would. The thing is…in this situation, it’s too late for both the husband and wife. The story captures that sad point when they both realize they’ve committed to something that isn’t working, but neither have the strength or know-how to take on such a daunting task and make changes. I certainly empathize with him.
NR: That’s funny. I work at a college Women’s Center and one of the most annoying (yet common) questions come from men who visit the Center and want to know why there isn’t a “Men’s Center”. I say: “because it’s the world.” I actually love to read writing about female sexuality by both male and female writers. Male writers of course romanticize it more, but still, sexuality at all, written in a tasteful way is very important to include when writing about relationships. What I don’t like is the superficial quality of some “chic-lit” written by women that doesn’t get below the materialistic/kitschy surfaces of the characters and plots. My impression is that the older writers like Roth and Kundera romanticize female sexuality but don’t get to the heart of it where sex for women really has to do with the stimulation of emotions and contains so many contradictory elements that can be both emboldening and destructive.
NR: Of course, my first impulse is to say Heathcliff, but I really haven’t read Wuthering Heights in a long time. Maybe Kafka’s Hunger Artist or the protagonist in Camus’ L’Etranger. Obviously, I go for the tortured type. Not a good sign.
NR: Hum. Wish I could say I didn’t conform to those stereotypes, but alas, I do. How old is Anderson Cooper? (Yeah. I know he’s gay.) Well, at least he has gray hair.
November 28, 2011
“Don’t cry for me when I’m gone,” my father recently told my mother. “I’m ready.”
My mother relays me this at my upstairs apartment. She and my father have lived downstairs from us since 1999, but my father no longer comes to visit because he can’t manage the stairs. If we want to see him we go down there, which doesn’t sound complicated, though it sometimes is. My life moves at the speed of light, and I often go days without seeing my dad. When we do visit, he’s usually listening to the television turned so loud that nobody can hear anyone else speak. His TV is so blaring, in fact, that although my husband and I sleep on the third floor, when we go to bed we can hear the thumping voices of my father’s crime dramas vibrating through our floorboards, mattress, pillows. Sometimes my mother makes him put the TV on pause when we come over, but since my father is essentially deaf, he doesn’t hear us when we speak anyway.
This is hilarious to my daughters, who are eleven and not yet afraid of their own decay. “Hi, Papa!” one of them shouts at the top of her lungs to the other, and then the other hollers back in an old man voice, “Why don’t they ever say hi to me?”
At one point, my dad would have been the first one laughing at this joke. When my mother’s mother was getting old, and someone would ask her if she wanted a glass of wine, she would jump up in alarm and shout, “Lion? What lion?” My father did imitations of her for years. He used to chide her, too, for never eating anything but sweets. Her pantry was jammed full of Little Debbie’s snack cakes, her freezer full of popsicles. He thought it particularly batshit that she wasn’t just addicted to sugar, she was addicted to cheap, crappy forms of sugar. At one time, my father would travel to New York for authentic cheesecake—even in my teens he was known to hunt for the best apple pie all over the state of Michigan, just because. He knew which bakery in Chicago made the freshest doughnuts, and drove across the city for a particularly fine custard cake. “If I ever get like that,” he would say of my old nana chowing on her pre-wrapped brownies and freezer-burned, neon-colored popsicles, “just shoot me.”
Now, a big day out for my father is a trip a mile away to the Entenmann’s warehouse, where he can stock up on enough processed coffee cakes and doughnuts covered in waxy chocolate that an avalanche falls out of his freezer when you open it. He buys whichever ice cream is on sale. If my husband and I go shopping for him and buy an ice cream he deems too expensive, he has a fit.
“Just shoot me,” he would tell us.
But it’s never that simple, is it? You can’t snap your fingers that way. Sometimes, you live to turn into your mother-in-law. You remain trapped inside your body, unable to walk, unable to hear, taste buds faded, increasingly incontinent, napping during the day and awake all night, in chronic pain. Waiting.
Lion? What lion? Indeed.
* * *
I’ve come to think of this past summer as a season of death. An old friend of mine from grad school, blithely handsome and the youngest member of my first writing group, died swiftly and painfully of cancer that had been misdiagnosed for years as a blood clotting disorder. Less than a week after his passing, one of my best friends, Kathy, was diagnosed completely out of the blue with Stage III-c ovarian cancer, spread to her stomach and colon linings as well as her entire lymphatic system. Even my husband’s longtime family dog, who’d never left his mother’s side as she wasted away from cancer and liver failure last year, was—as though part of a sick plot twist—essentially roasted to death in an Indiana heat wave when accidentally left inside a car. Amid all this, I was reading the manuscript of my friend Emily Rapp’s luminous memoir (just sold to Penguin), about her son’s diagnosis with Tay-Sach’s Disease. It was hard reading—not just because of the raw grief Emily so passionately captures and interrogates, but in part, too, because I found myself so floored by the potential horror of watching one’s child die that I began to undermine other things happening around me. How could I call it “tragic” for fortysomething adults—people who had traveled, worked, fallen in love—to be diagnosed with cancer when there were babies trapped inside their own bodies waiting for death? How could I dry heave on my bedroom floor over an elderly dog, or even fear losing my own dad—someone lucky enough to have already lived for nearly a century?
What is the continuum of grief?
One of my close confidantes, the writer Rob Roberge, would quote Baldwin to me at a time like this. He would say that suffering “may be the only equality we have,” and that all pain is real and not easily quantified or measured. Emily herself, when we have emailed about all this, wrote me a beautiful treatise on the importance of friendships, and how the culture often undermines them as trivial, making an impassioned case for my right to love, value and grieve my friends. And on the one hand, these things are true—of course they are. Who would want to live in a world where they weren’t?
On the other hand, emotions, even strong ones, are not equal at all. I don’t mean this in a “privileged liberal guilt” kind of way, i.e. I could be starving in Kenya or a victim of genocide, so how dare I complain?, even if those things may be partially true. I mean it, rather, in a literal, I would push my father under the bus for my children sort of way. I mean it in the, If something were to happen to my kids, the first and most appealing thing I can think of would be to take several handfuls of pills and disappear forever, so that I would not have to live in that kind of pain. I’m not saying I would do it. There would still be my husband, my parents, my friends to consider. I hope I wouldn’t do it. But it would definitely be on the menu. When I think of my father’s impending death, I feel sad—I feel, even, afraid—but I do not think of killing myself.
What does it mean to love by degree? What does this say, too, about my place in my own children’s love-chain? Is this the cycle of life, then? To be prepared to be thrown under the bus, if necessary, by those you value most in the world?
My oldest friend, Alicia, sometimes tells me that if she had to live inside my spinning brain for half an hour, she would have an aneurism. At moments like this, I suspect she may be right.
* * *
Lately, my father sees mice. In addition to being on a dozen strong medications, he’s also got macular degeneration that can cause him to hallucinate spots. For several months, he claimed to see mice scampering across the floor, or to have glimpsed their droppings in corners. My husband would investigate these claims, but could never find a trace of the phantoms my father had seen. My mother began leaving little pieces of Entenmann’s cake in the areas where my father claimed the mice had been, so as to see if any crumbs were missing, but all this resulted in was scraps of cake littered around my parents’ (already-not-winning-any-awards-for-cleanliness) apartment. We even went so far as to call in my cousin Biff, who used to be a rat exterminator for the city of Chicago and now runs his own pest control business, and Biff confirmed that there were no traces of mice in my parents’ apartment, or even in our basement.
Still, my father reported on the mice’s activities almost daily. They came out mostly, it seemed, when he slept. In addition to sometimes seeing them, he also—at night—heard them making their little mice sounds, and sometimes felt them scampering over his body in the dark.
He began to sleep with the lights on.
Soon, he moved out of his bed entirely. My parents have had separate bedrooms since I was five, but he proceeded to move into my mother’s bed, driving her out to the living room couch. One day, when sitting on the toilet, my father called to my mother. He was sticking his foot out in the air and pointing at it.
“Look at that!” he hollered. “My big toenail was definitely longer yesterday. That damn mouse must have been nibbling on it in my sleep!”
My mother then calmly informed him that if he did not recant the completely deranged thing he had just said, she was going to take him to the psychiatric ward immediately.
Upon which, my father sheepishly admitted that perhaps the mice had not given him a pedicure, after all.
After that, my mother called their longtime physician and got a prescription for an anti-psychotic medication, and my father moved back into his bedroom.
* * *
I suppose I should clarify here that my father was never exactly a normal guy. He’s been institutionalized before. Twice. He’s been on antidepressants since I was about twenty, after sobbing at our kitchen table for a couple of days straight to the point that—although I may be misremembering some details because I later fictionalized this in a novel—he wet his pants, unable to get to the bathroom, and my cousin Biff, who then lived next door to us, had to come and forcibly put him in the car. Before I was born, my father went through a period in which he was convinced burglars would break into our apartment, so he stopped sleeping with my mother and took up a vigil on the couch. He became addicted to Valium, and ended up hearing voices that told him to kill my mother and himself—that time, he checked himself into the hospital, no assistance required. While institutionalized, he begged my mother to leave him, but she wouldn’t, even though her hair was falling out in chunks from worry and her doctor had to give her B-12 shots.
Despite his Paxil, my dad has grown increasingly high strung these past twenty years. He keeps a stockpile of food under his bed (mainly baked beans—I guess our family will be having a very gassy quarantine should it become necessary to live on my father’s rations in some futuristic emergency). He keeps decorative cookie jars on every flat surface of his bedroom, though none of the jars contain actual cookies. He spends his mornings reading Star and People magazines, even though he used to be a fan of Royko and Bob Greene in my youth. He would be able to tell you every detail of Paris Hilton’s latest sex scandal or Lindsay Lohan’s rehabs and weight losses . . . except that he can’t actually remember the details because he’s on so much Norco. He usually reads these magazines aloud to himself, repeating most of the words multiple times (Lindsay Lohan and and Lohan and Paris Paris Paris Hilton are no longer longer Linday Lohan and Paris Hilton are no longer speaking to speaking to one speaking to Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are no longer speaking to one another) at the kitchen table, giving my parents’ apartment a distinctly One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest type of vibe. If he watches old home movies of my children, and one of them happens to be jumping or running in the film, he yells out warnings to the television set, afraid they will bust their heads open on the corner of the coffee table, or poke out an eye, even though in fact they are sitting right next to him—the movie having been filmed six years ago—eyes intact.
Shortly after being prescribed his antipsychotic, my mother woke one night to a loud noise. My father, who had dutifully resumed his place in his own bedroom, was writhing around on the bed sobbing. When she asked what was wrong, he told her, “We’re all going to die.” At further prodding he said, “The kids are going to get old and die too, and we’ll all be dead already—the kids are going to die, what’s the point of anything?”
My mother got his walker and brought him to the kitchen table and made him some warm milk and talked him down. In the morning, she called the doctor again. It seemed that my mother had made a mistake: when the doctor prescribed the new medication, my mother thought my father was to take it in lieu of his Paxil. “No,” the doctor explained. He has known my parents since I was in high school. “John is never, ever going off the Paxil. He’s on Paxil for life. This is to be given in addition.”
My father had been off his Paxil for exactly two days.
* * *
How do you measure a life’s worth? In laughter? In orgasms? In money? In how well-loved someone is? In how often they have been photographed? In children borne or raised? In the number of continents on which they have made love? In number of books published? In latest versions of iPads and iPhones? In jazz albums filling a giant trunk in the basement? In years?
We are all specks of dust against the specter of Time. Is ninety years so different from forty in the scheme of things? We are all the walking dead of history.
When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, a failed actor named Paul Tomasello, showed us the movie On Borrowed Time, in which an old man chases Death up a tree. Mr. Tomasello had gone to school with my father—the same school I attended as a girl. He chain-smoked in the classroom. School lore had it that Mr. Tomasello had been diagnosed with lung cancer years prior and given a few weeks to live, but in fact he lived to attend my wedding. He outlived all but one of my father’s seven brothers, two of whom died as children in the flu epidemic and the rest of whom died of various heart and alcohol related ailments such as rupturing an esophagus open while binge drinking. My father dreams almost every night of his brothers. My mother and I rarely figure in his dreams. In his dreams, his brothers are still young, his brother Ted playing the sax; his brother Joe a mildly powerful bookie; his brother Frank on the front porch smiling and waving. In one dream, my father is forcibly taken away on a wagon across a barren white landscape.
“I never took my father out to dinner,” my dad tells my mother, his voice thick with regret. “He worked himself to the bone for us and I never bought him a meal.”
My paternal grandfather died before I was even born. “You were a young man,” my mother assuages. “You had your own life. You didn’t know he would die young. You thought you had time.”
Mr. Tomasello is dead by now, too, of course.
We are on borrowed time with my father, I think daily. But of course, whose time isn’t borrowed? My life moves on at the speed of light: adopting and having kids, teaching, editing, writing, cooking dinner, playing chauffeur to play dates and lessons, helping with homework, packing lunches, attending readings, planning continents on which to make love. How many trips down the stairs will I regret not having made?
* * *
Last month, my five-year-old son, Giovanni, asked to see the house I lived in when I was little.
“Be careful,” my father told us on the way out the door. “You don’t want him to get shot.”
It seemed a strange thing to say in reference to the neighborhood where he chose to raise me, despite my mother’s perpetual urgings that they leave.
I put Giovanni in the car, and we proceeded to drive four miles almost exactly due south on Western Avenue. We passed the church where I used to be an altar girl. We passed the funeral home where everyone I had ever met prior to the age of fourteen held their family wakes—where someday people will gather to pay last respects to my father. We passed my first elementary school, Holy Rosary, which is now a vacant lot overrun with weeds. We passed the Head Start program I attended when I was younger than my son, and the now-shuttered corner candy store where you could go to play Pac-Man or buy drugs. We pulled onto my old street, which is narrow and one-way, flanked on the other side by the elementary school my father dropped out of in eighth grade to work at a factory, and from which I graduated: the first in many steps of running as fast and far as I could to flee my roots. Four scant miles, and yet this is nowhere my son would likely ever be. There at the west end of the street is where my cousin was murdered—shot in gang violence—seven years ago. I pulled into the school playground, where all the teachers park, and Giovanni and I got out of the car. We walked to the playground fence, surveying my old building: a brick two-flat with an awning that used to be green but now just appears a canopy of dirt and rust.
“Papa was born in that house,” I tell Giovanni. “He lived here until he was almost eighty, and then he moved in with us. I lived here until I was eighteen, when I went away to college.”
Giovanni stood silently at the fence. When I was ten and my father was in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer, on the verge of death as was often the case in my girlhood, my mother would come to this fence every day during recess to give me an update on his condition. She and I would hold hands through the fence, even though this was the last possible thing a new transfer student should be doing at a rough, urban public school, and my mother must have realized that as well as I did. She and I were apparently complicit in my social ruin. One day, however, she did not materialize at the fence. I deduced that my father must have died, and she was still at the hospital. I ran screaming from the playground across the street to the concrete steps that did not seem nearly as short or ramshackle to me then as they do now. I pounded on the door yelling, “Daddy! Daddy!” even though there was no possibility that my father was home. Mr. Tomasello, who was not yet my teacher, saw me and came across the street to fetch me. Although he was a frail man with a long white beard—the sort about whom rumors of terminal cancer circulated—and I was a pudgy child, he carried me back across the street, where I was taken to the school office so someone could reach my mother.
Now, Giovanni touched the fence, staring at the little brick house. The air was cold and the sky a dingy gray: the color palette I remember most vividly from my youth, since my father had convinced all the neighbors that their tree roots were getting into our sewerage system, so they all ripped up their trees and cemented over their tiny lawns. That my father could have convinced an entire block full of people to do this seems preposterous to me, but indicative of his status in the neighborhood as a patriarch and a man of wisdom. One of my most vivid memories from my youth is of my father outside with his hose, spraying down the sidewalk in front of our house until it glistened like a bone.
Memories collided in my head like a movie montage gone wrong. A boy I grew up with was shot and killed on a bench in 1989, maybe twenty feet from where Gio and I stood. But there, just across the playground, was where my cousin Laura and I would take her boom box and listen to Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” while lying on our backs looking at the few visible stars, playing the song over and over again until it became the template for both of our lives. I held Giovanni’s hand. He looked up at me. The moment seemed ripe for poignancy.
“This place looks really old,” he said finally. “It looks like zombies attacked it.”
* * *
How do you measure a life’s worth? On December 14, 2011, my father will be ninety years old. He never thought he would live to see his fortieth birthday. When I was born, he said he hoped to live to see me graduate from elementary school. Now it is possible that he will live to see my daughters graduate. When he was a boy, Italian girls still didn’t go out without chaperones. I would say that this was before people were shot and killed in our old neighborhood, but that wouldn’t be true exactly. People were just shot and killed under different circumstances. The neighborhood has a long history of crime, just as it has a long history of family. What is true is that my father raised me there oblivious—or volitionally blind—to the neighborhood’s shortcomings, and conscious only of its strengths. When I went away to college, he cried. I had betrayed the family, in a way. I wouldn’t stay put. I would not learn what he was trying to teach me. He believed I didn’t understand about loyalty. I believed that too. I believed loyalty was cheap. I wanted to be Sabina, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I wanted a life based on betrayals and escapes, and for a time, I created some sexy facsimile of that, although I felt it unraveling in my fingers even as I clutched at it ferociously. In the end, despite years in Madison, London, New Hampshire, New Mexico or Amsterdam, I ended up back in Chicago with my parents living downstairs from me, just as my grandmothers—first my father’s, then my mother’s—resided in our house when I was a girl. In the end, the only thing I was truly capable of betraying was my own fantasy of myself as someone else, someone other than my father’s loyal daughter, who would throw him under the bus for my babies just as he would have thrown his parents under the bus for me. The night his mother died was Christmas Eve, 1980, and within hours of her death my father resumed our holiday festivities—though he was my grandmother’s baby, the one with whom she had lived after all her other sons left home, he did not take the time to mourn alone because he didn’t want to spoil my Christmas. I have taken my father out to dinner plenty of times, but someday when he is gone I will nurse my regrets as he nurses his about his own father: the things I could have done, the more I could have given.
“Sometimes I see things that aren’t there,” I tell my father when I am in my late twenties. “Figures walking into rooms and things like that.”
“Oh, sure,” my father says. “That happens to everyone.”
“Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, I hear someone calling my name.”
“That’s normal,” my father confirms. “That happens to me all the time.”
We are the lion in the house, my father and I, waiting to pounce. On anyone who threatens the family—but first and foremost, on ourselves.
* * *
Once upon a time, my father was a hero. He was trained to drive a tank in World War II, but his ulcer and bad back got him sent home before he could be deployed overseas. Instead, his heroism took place on quieter grounds. Years ago, while hanging out at his men’s club shooting craps with his friends, a young girl, maybe nineteen or twenty, entered the club. She claimed to want a few dollars for the bus, but it is clear to me now, from an adult lens, that this probably wasn’t what she really thought to achieve, walking into a crowded men’s club full of ex-cons and soliciting money, then failing to leave when all the men began suggesting to her the things she might do to earn it. They were laughing, saying the things men say, and the girl was maybe laughing with them, the way some young girls have to in order to survive. Amid this my father stood up, took out twenty dollars and handed it to the girl. “You need to leave now, honey,” he told her, and walked her to the door.
Another time, many years later, my father was having some coffee in the little eating area of Target, when some scruffy teenagers came in. He saw them go to the counter, where one scraped together just enough change to buy a tiny personal pizza, and they all sat around a table while the one who had purchased the pizza ate. The way the others stared intently at the pizza was something my father recognized. Although he always managed to keep his own head above water, he had seen hunger in his life, and it was something he understood. He went to the counter and said quietly, “Give those kids whatever they want to eat, and I’ll pay for it.” The counter girl went up to the teens and told them they could have what they wanted, and they all ran up and ordered food excitedly. My father sat, drinking his coffee, while they devoured their food. He did not speak to them or tell them that he was the one who had paid for their meal. He waited until after they had been gone for a while before he himself left. “I didn’t want them to think I was a masher,” he told my mother, laughing himself off.
He would never relay these stories to me himself. It would seem to him like bragging.
My cousin Biff and his brother; my cousin Laura and her sister; my friend Alicia. The litany of young people who have looked to my father as a stable force in their lives, a father figure, is considerable. Even now, when we take him to a family wedding, men from the old neighborhood—middle aged themselves now—jump up to help him to his seat, to get him a drink, to hover around him talking about old times, to hold open doors.
My mother and I have tried to suggest having a party for his 90th, where all the many people who love him could gather, but he won’t hear of it. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” he says. The trappings of a party—having to maneuver around with his walker, possibly falling down as he often does, or not making it to the bathroom in time—have been added to the long list of things that make him anxious. His world shrinks, month by month, day by day. Recently he realized that although he can still read, he can no longer recite the alphabet or remember the order of the letters. Only Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, on the pages of his morning Star, remain as some reminder of wider terrain. Recently, I was on the nominating committee for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, and nominated my father’s longtime hero, Mike Royko, for inclusion. Although Royko was selected, there was no possibility of my father attending the awards ceremony with me. Those days have passed. When I told him about Royko’s induction, I had to shout and repeat myself several times to get my point across, upon which he simply said, “That’s nice, honey.”
He is on a journey across the white barren land, inside himself, from us. We stand on the periphery and watch him ride away.
* * *
What is love? Is it possible to love by degree? If a love is not the greatest of all loves, is it love at all? Is a life lived to ninety more “full” than one lived to fifty? What if the life lived to ninety was consumed by anxieties, by illnesses, by complexes and regrets? Where does quality intersect with quantity? But what defines quality anyway? Is existence itself “quality” enough?
Sometimes I wonder if I am grieving because I know I will soon lose my father, or if I am grieving for the facets of life my father has already lost.
* * *
“Kill me if I get that way,” I tell my husband and my surrogate brother Tom, after watching my mother-in-law die slowly, unable to speak, vomiting on herself if she tried to sit up, her flesh an empty sack loose around her bones. After listening to my father scream at a god in whom he does not even believe, begging for death, that Christmas he broke his hip and my husband, mother and I had to change his diapers while the antibiotics ravaged him with explosive diarrhea. “I’ll make sure I have enough pills in the house,” I promise. “Do it quickly.”
They look at me patiently. They know I seek to escape the indignity of Death just as I once escaped my old neighborhood. They know I grew up with the mistaken impression that cleverness could exempt me from anything. But I read Emily’s memoir; I go to chemo with my friend Kathy; our phone rings in the middle of the night because my father has fallen again on his way to the bathroom, and the truth is that nobody is exempt. We are all the walking dead of history. This goddamn place looks like zombies attacked it.
* * *
It is a day in late 2011. My father’s oldest friend in the world, Mario, whom he has known since they were three years old, has had his leg amputated and has been convalescing at home. My father has avoided going to see him because he can’t stand the thought of Mario without a leg, and it is easy to avoid things when you are almost ninety, disabled and incontinent and seeing nonexistent mice on the floor. But now Mario’s sister has died and my father has to attend the wake. My mother, who did not know how to drive until she was seventy and learned only when my father’s feet failed him on the brakes and he ran his car into a pole to avoid hitting pedestrians, drives to the funeral parlor. At the door, my father sees Mario in his wheelchair. Other men rush to get a chair for my father, and place it beside Mario. They sit: two old men who used to play in front of the house we were all raised in, when they were younger than my son. They talk: the two of them with legs that are missing like dead brothers, or that no longer work. In the contradictory movie montage of my mind, I have no access to the specifics of their dialogue, but somehow I know there is laughter. I know they call each other “Baby” like Frank Sinatra, as they always have. They are historical relics from a day of covered bridges downtown and chaperones for young Italian girls. Through some accident of mistaken identity or grace, they are still alive.
That same day, in another area of Chicago, Giovanni has his first kiss. In the coat room of his classroom, like generations of boys before him, he asks a pretty blond girl he has known since preschool, “So, do you want a kiss?” and she says, “Sure,” so he leans in for the kill. When I ask him if he kissed her on her cheek or her lips, he shrugs at me and drawls evasively, “Oh, I don’t know . . .” Since beginning kindergarten in September, he has already had four fiancées. As my father and his friend Mario sit in the dim fluorescent light of the funeral parlor foyer, my son gets ready for bed, excitedly reading aloud from the Magic Treehouse series. We “snug” together in the darkness, and he twirls a strand of my hair around his finger absently as he makes the jerky breaths the precipitate sleep.
His life is contained in this moment. In the moment of his first kiss. In the moment of sleepy breath and Mommy hair. In the moment of his brain’s voracious recognition of symbols on a page: letters that form words that form language that form story. My father’s life exists within the single frame of laughter with his childhood friend, as they commemorate yet another death—“doomed,” as Faulkner wrote, to be the ones “who live.” Now. Buddhists tell us to live in the moment, but the moment already contains us, whether we want it to or not. “When I find myself laughing at something now,” my friend Kathy tells me in the tenth week of her chemo, “I feel conscious of it more, and I’m grateful.” She did not choose this gratitude. In an instant, she would trade it back for her old, blithe ways. But it is coming for us all: the recognition of the miraculous ordinary. We ignore it as long as we can, until we can’t anymore. We flash brief and bright against the sky just once, just a hundred, just a million tiny times. Beautiful, singular, vibrant; full of love and pain. Then we are out.
November 21, 2011
Kristin Thiel has been one of the great surprises of publishing Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. An avid writer, reader and editor working out of the Pacific Northwest, she has emerged as a dream to work with, and one of the most enthusiastic champions of the book, pitching in to help book our national tour and mentioning the book in her freelance journalism. Kristin’s beautifully elliptical piece is about a man whose wife suffers from what seems to be vaginismus, and her patient protagonist admittedly stands in some stark contrast to many of the more impulsive or selfish characters likely to populate any anthology “about sex,” reminding readers of the great variance of sexual experience, and among men themselves, fictional or otherwise. Here, Kristin reveals several more surprises, including her ability to insert Anne of Green Gables into a sex interview!
KT: I’m not nervous. In part because I stand within a group of writers, and there is safety and strength in numbers, they say; in part because I can “hide” behind fiction—this is just one guy! one made-up guy telling one made-up story!—and in part because I haven’t received any criticisms (yet), so it’s easier to be brave when no one’s shaking a finger in my face. For me, it’s more nerve-wracking to think about having written about sex—and reading aloud and maybe talking about the sex written and read—than it is to think about the reaction of someone who shares a gender with my narrator.
That said, it is a divided society, and it can be hard to try to understand “the other side.” For me, wanting so desperately to not fit the good-sitcom-wife mold encourages me to accept these challenges.
(UPDATE: I read publicly from the story for the first time last night, and got a great response from men and women alike!)
KT: I don’t think it’s easier; I think it’s easier to write about one of the other great equalizers, and there are a few: employment, food, shelter, relationships (sexual or not but without focus on sex).
KT: I think the challenge he faces is more common than is generally acknowledged—his is a taboo topic within the still-taboo subject of sex in general—and I wanted to submit to the collection’s editors a unique but perhaps quite relatable angle, such as this one. I don’t picture “my man” as my type, no. But he’s hardly a bad guy—I’d introduce him to a friend.
KT: I think there’s always more to say! Not talking more about sex, sexuality, and gender differences and similarities is how we got in some of the messes—depression, insecurity, self-loathing; gender-based violence—that we’re in right now. We should also think about how we can move beyond only men and women undressed.
KT: Gilbert Blythe.
KT: I’m pretty cynical about human beliefs—I’m not surprised the ages reported in the survey are relatively young, and I do find de-sexualization disheartening. But I also have hope that, with thought, more of us would suggest higher ages.
Surveys—and certainly radio-show dissection of surveys!—often encourage people to give a gut reaction to a limited topic. It’s the equivalent of labeling someone across the bar as sexy or not—you consciously or subconsciously decide if you’d want that person to touch you right then as well as what your audience wants you to say, and certainly all you have to go on is physical looks. If asked to be more thoughtful, more people would take into account such things as wisdom, humor, confidence, and success.
And though science and technology will make ever more accessible physical-youth “serums,” I think that, even without that, the current younger generations won’t stand for being de-sexualized as we age. We’re too used to having the world worship and revolve around us
November 19, 2011
Everyone knows something’s afoot in publishing. What that “something” is—Armageddon vs. opportunity; corporatization vs. a leveled playing field brought on by technology—depends on who’s talking. Perhaps these things are all true simultaneously. Nowhere is the change in publishing more evident than with the explosion of the “micropress” over the past decade, especially outside of the traditional hubs like New York or (in the indie arena) Minneapolis. These days, few American cities don’t boast their own independent, micro or DIY book press—or a couple dozen—which are often tied to vibrant reading series or online communities, and only rarely affiliated with universities or other larger institutions.
The upshot of this explosion is myriad and diverse. On the one hand, it is easier than ever before for talented, dedicated writers to find publication, even if their work may not appeal to the trade market of New York. With more and more books coming out from vibrant new presses that have their fingers on the pulse of technology and social networking, “buzz” has certainly become something you no longer need an ad in the New Yorker or a NYTimes book review to achieve, and indie press books can become cultural sensations and attract the kind of press once reserved for those in inner-circle old school publishing. On the other hand, most of these upstart publishers have little-to-no actual funding: with shrinking grants/donations in this catastrophic economy, the resources that kept “the arts” afloat in the 1990s is usually elusive—at least initially—to a spanking new micropress with no conventional distribution. The book industry is moving to further and further extremes of the economy—celebrity writers attract advances in the millions while most fiction, creative nonfiction and journalistic writers (and even editors) work for what would amount to less than minimum wage per hour, or even entirely for free. This widening gulf reflects, of course, much also happening elsewhere in our culture. Consequences of a book industry outside the traditional economic model are both perilous and boisterously beautiful.
My hometown, Chicago, has proven very much a mirror for this nationwide cultural zeitgeist. Once a city of thriving, vibrant newspapers, but with almost no fiction-book-publishing culture, our major papers now downsize and file for bankruptcy (having already all but shuttered book review coverage anyway)—but there is more than one reading series happening every night of the week, and micropresses are taking to farmer’s markets, bars, galleries and storefronts to hand-sell their books as a labor of love that simply can’t be shut down no matter what the economy dishes out. Here, I was able to sit down with two of the young visionaries of Chicago’s indie publishing scene, Victor David Giron of Curbside Splendor, and Caroline Picard of Green Lantern Press, to get their take on how this all started, what it means, and where it’s going.
Caroline Picard: It’s something I’d always wanted to do, actually but when I finally decided to stay in Chicago for an extended period, the fantasy got some teeth. I had been house sitting in Chicago for about a year already, but when I started looking around for an apartment of my own, I found this Milwaukee Avenue loft, where I still live now. It was the perfect place to open an apartment gallery—something I’d also always wanted to do—and I called up an old friend of mine, Nick Sarno, to asked if he’d want to start the press with me. For me the gallery and the press went hand in hand, and actually I think the affiliate communities bear a number of striking similarities as well. The energy of this city, the incredible wealth of cultural activity that happens, along with its DIY ethos, makes it possible to leap into projects headfirst. It’s a very supportive city. Knowing, for instance, that featherproof and Other Voices, and other apartment or start-up galleries can manage made me more brave than I think I’d felt before.
Victor David Giron: I started Curbside to publish my first novel Sophomoric Philosophy (Nov 2010), when I discovered one could do such a thing, start a small press. My background is not in writing / publishing at all, far from it. I’m a CPA and a bar-owner, but have wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember reading them. I’ve always put that desire second to wanting to be financially secure, for a number of reasons, though I kept on trying to write a book in my 20s while working as a financial consultant. I’ve always been attracted to people that are artistic, and have had many friends that are either musicians or artists, but I never really knew anyone who wrote seriously or was familiar with publishing, so to me writing was a very solitary thing, until I met my editor RA Miller about four years ago. As Miller and I worked on finalizing SP, he suggested I try to write short stories or take excerpts of the book and have them published in literary journals as a way to add credibility to myself as a writer. It was during this process that I discovered the world of literary journals and small presses. I found it all quite daunting, but very exciting, that there were all these entities publishing literature that I never knew existed. It drove me to want to start my own and forget trying to get SP published the ‘traditional’ way. It wasn’t until I started hosting literary events at my bar that I discovered so many great presses and literary journals existed right here in Chicago! I was completely blown away. So much so that I approached the Chamber of Commerce of my neighborhood, Logan Square, about selling books by Chicago presses and authors at the local farmers market, something I’ve now been doing since February. At the market every time I’m there I’m always fascinated when people come and observe the table and are astonished at how beautiful all the books are and that they’re all made by Chicagoans. So my perspective on Chicago publishing is all very new, very now, and I’m still blown away by it all.
CP: Yea! I make really small editions—usually from 250-500. The editions of 250 I think of like chapbooks; the editions of 500 usually have silk screen covers. I often try and include images from contemporary artists as well—one or two color plates of an artist’s work that somehow complement the text—so like I’m about to publish a book that investigates the relationship between sound and language by Gretchen E. Henderson. I sent Gretchen some images of Carrie Gundersdorf’s work—Carrie makes these amazing paintings and drawings of light frequencies. And then the three of us talked about how sound waves and light waves might resonate (i.e. how Carrie’s image might influence the experience of the Gretchen’s text). I think about the book as a curatorial site in a way, like how can it be an intimate and portable gallery space? What does an aesthetic experience mean if it’s created by the culmination of different visual, textural (i.e. different kinds of paper) and textual elements? How do you make the cumulative experience seamless, so that no one element of the design is announcing itself? That’s what I go for. I also commission screen printers to make the covers. They almost always have free reign with cover design. That’s another aspect of the project that is really exciting for me, perhaps especially in the way it illustrates a necessary dialogue between the printers and the author’s work. Suddenly one book starts to represent a whole ecology of independent (and often local) effort. Of course this does relate to a personal philosophy, though I’m not sure how I’d codify or describe it except to say that I love having this personal relationship with culture and because I’m so small, I look for projects that wouldn’t make sense on a grand scale—like I love detective murder mysteries, but if one of those crossed my desk (unless it was really weird) I probably wouldn’t publish it: in that instance, it’s likely a bigger publishing house would do better by that book. I try to focus on idiosyncratic texts, albatross projects that resist a definite category. Books that might blow you away if you found them in a thrift store, or an occult shop, or a hostel because they’re unexpected. Like I published an old newspaper from 1821 that had been made by Arctic sailors who were icebound for 8 months. That’s like a crazy (to me) awesome project, but there’s no way we’re going to sell 10,000 copies of it. And maybe it’s more exciting if it’s this quiet little secret?
VDG: I’m a hard-working guy, most certainly to a fault. I remember before my first day at work after college, going downtown in my suit, and my dad was like “hey, remember, show them you’re Mexican.” I find that sort of attitude driving everything I do and has thus far resulted in my having a fairly successful career in business. And I’m trying to bring that sort of attitude toward what I’m doing with Curbside. In the beginning, when I didn’t really know what I was doing (not that I totally do now, there’s still a ton I’m learning) Curbside was just something I was doing on my own. But as I started publishing work by others I quickly realized I needed to bring on staff to help develop and fulfill this vision that I started having for CS. At first my friend Stephanie Waite Witherspoon was helping me out, but she unfortunately had to step aside. Recently I’ve been able to bring on Jacob S. Knabb, Editor-in-Chief of Another Chicago Magazine, as a partner in charge for developing our book catalog, along with editors Lauryn Allison and Leah Tallon, and I feel like we have a nucleus of a strong like-minded team now. My friend Garett Holden, a multi-media artist based in New York, has been helping CS by making reading videos and curating the art we’re publishing, and my other friend Karolina Faber has been doing some great design work. Like featherproof, which does such an amazing job at what they do, I see one of CS’ goals to make beautiful printed books. However, I’m interested in making it be a multi-media experience, online and in print, and a place that publishes art and literature that’s accessible, easy for non-literary types to get into, and ultimately celebrates this idea of urbanism, of lives intersecting lives, and reflection. I’m also very interested in utilizing contemporary publishing tools like print on demand, e-books, and paying artists on a royalty structure to make the business profitable and sustainable, making it be so that those involved are rewarded if the projects are successful. Though I’m excited with what we’ve done thus far and the projects we have in store, we’re very young and have a long way to go.
CP: I’m still super excited about this new collection of short stories I published by Erica Adams—they’re sort of like this sexy, almost Victorian fairy tales. Each one is quite short and in each piece, the first person protagonist has to negotiate some new trial. But you know, it’s like everything’s a little bit off—like there are twin sisters the protagonist hangs out with who keep monkey doubles in cages in the basement. Or the creepy man who comes to dinner and give the little girl dolls in front of her parents. Sometimes the protagonist becomes an animal because she doesn’t want to get married. In other instances her father cuts off her hands, in another story she tries to drown her brother—it’s awesome. Super creepy, really beautiful imagery. On top of which Erica is this incredible collage artist, so we were able to integrate some of her visual work throughout the book. Ach! I could talk about it forever, but really it just comes down to me loving my job.
VDG: Ok, but I need to tell you about two. First, we just published Piano Rats, a debut collection of delectable prose poetry by a 20-something Chicagoan that calls herself Franki Elliot. She’s not from a writing background, in fact up until this book has never been published before, but her work is strikingly accessible and real, awkwardly reflective, and I loved it immediately. The book was designed by a fantastic Chicago artist Shawn Stucky and thus meets the idea we have of combining art and writing. The second is Chicago Stories : 40 Dramatic Vignettes by Michael Czyzniejewski, coming out in April 2012. It’s 40 short fictions told in the persona of a famous Chicagoan, from Barack Obama to John Hughes. It’s designed and illustrated by another great Chicago artist Rob Funderburk. Stories of the city, lives intersecting lives, art, all very Curbside. We have a few more projects lined up that I’ll keep to myself for now. I’d love to work on a slam poetry compilation at some point. Also, an urban, techno-themed adventure or surrealistic novel, something like that.
CP: It probably just depends on your goal. I think in general there is a great push for collaborative efforts. It’s sort of like an ethical pill that dropped in our water supply—and I don’t think it’s just in writing. I think it’s probably prevalent in most types of work, certainly it’s present in the art world and I have heard it’s in the world of philosophy too—probably medecine and probably science: we are encouraged to work and think in groups; while I hadn’t thought about it before, incorporating a range of mediums is probably another extension of that same line of thought—and, I’ll be honest, I love it! I love that I live in a time where people are collectively inspired. Just as I love that I different forms of low-impact self-publishing (twitter, facebook, ebooks, blogs) are such a vibrant part of life right now. As you pointed out it’s something we’ve all benefitted from tremendously, i.e. the more people are engaged in a thing together, the bigger the audience, the more that audience is then likely to grow, splinter and form other flanking groups: suddenly we have a big and vibrant Chicago literary scene. It’s awesome! And at the same time, I don’t think it has to be necessary. Maybe it’s just fashionable right now—I mean, I could imagine trends shifting in another direction…I like the way collaboration can help mediate self-interest, just as I like the way it facilitates relationships, but I also think that independent thinking and aesthetic freedom are important. While I’ve always had a hard time defining my goal before I got there, I can imagine someone being interested in a very rarefied aspect of writing or art—say oil painting (what do they call them, “Painter’s painters”?) and all they do is make oil paintings and no one who doesn’t know about painting has any clue why this dumb thing is of value, but the people who do know painting, they’re like, “O my. Wet on wet paint! What a sexy paint maneuver!” And then they fan their faces like children caught with a dirty magazine.
VDG: Cross-collaboration makes sense to me, I think it’s necessary, and I just find it very interesting from an artistic point of view. I love the idea of combining art forms, love seeing how an artist interprets a written work with an illustration or a video. I view writing as not just a form of communicating stories, emotions, or histories, but as a way of documenting them. And the way this is done is obviously changing and though I’m used to and prefer printed books and CDs / albums, I realize that the way we absorb all this information is rapidly changing. I’m excited about how with technology the doors of expression are opening, allowing for some pretty dynamic collaboration of different art forms. Sure some things are lost in the process, but as artists I think we need to figure out how to use these forms to our advantage.
CP: It just seems like the system as we knew it wasn’t working. It also seems like that system hadn’t really been working for a while—I have a friend who used to work at a Barnes&Nobles in 2003 and he used to come from work talking about how the company was cutting corners. Even then!(There is a great project around those empty stores, actually, called Fleeting Pages . I don’t think the closing of Barnes&Nobles is due to the failure of the book. I think it has more to do with an endless appetite for more and more. It’s impossible to create and maintain a business if you have to each year generate more revenue than you did the year before. While I think of that impulse as part of our cultural make up, to some extent that impulse is creating so many problems—even environmentally. As a die-hard optimist, I think of this time now as being one of transition and change, not necessarily demise. We have an opportunity to navigate this unstable ground and redefine what we need from the book, how we want to create and (even) sell it. The world of publishing has seen other types of change in other decades, like I came across this article ages ago and it’s hilarious how excited everyone is to make a sexy and (kind of) outlandish office. They had tons of money back then! Now we like don’t have any, so we’re in a different situation. What happens now is very much up to us—the people who are working within the book world and those who support us. I like it because I feel like it means we get to make up at least some of our own rules. Speaking of the future, though, I really love this post about our future– even if it is a little depressing.
VDG: My sense is that publishing is going through the normal pains of evolution from a “business meets technology” point of view. Big companies that have established business models get comfortable and only focus on maximizing investor or shareholder wealth. Thus when new forms of doing business arise through technology or other means, their natural instinct is to resist instead of spending and time and money into new unproven business models, so they tend to ignore or even stifle new models that are arising around them, until its too late and, sadly, fall apart. So I think that’s what’s happening now in publishing. I find it fascinating that even websites like Newpages.com that claim to support independent publishing scoff so at ‘micro’ or ‘print-on-demand’ presses. You have a lot more tools now so someone like me, who has no clue what publishing is all about but is motivated, can in a relatively brief period figure things out and start a small press, and because of that there feels like there’s an explosion of it. But over time as these new business models are evolved, you’ll probably see a contraction of these micro presses, though it does seem like there will now be more opportunities for creative folks who want to share their art to connect with others, and that I think is a very good thing. I terms of current professional being fearful of not having a job in this new paradigm, skills like editing, communicating and branding, reaching a certain audience, are going to be needed. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to deploy them in this new way of publishing.
CP: The nice thing about making small editions is that the overhead is significantly less. And to be honest, when I started I didn’t make any money. None. Now, seven years later, the first 2 books I published have paid for themselves. The third one is a close follower-up. So it’s a long game, and the sales are slow, but if you make a good book, especially with such great readers out there—people who are dedicated to independent presses—it works out OK. I work off of grants (The Green Lantern Press is non-profit) and private donations and book sales. Most recently I also started an on-line book store, The Paper Cave, where I sell other indie press titles in addition to Green Lantern titles. It’s another mechanism to try and gain more financial independence in the distribution game. And, man, every six months or so SPD, (my main distributor) mails me a check and that is a really fucking sweet day.
VDG: For me, as I have no clue how the NFP business model works, I’ve financed it myself through my day job as an accountant. I have though found that using tools such as pre-orders are helpful to ease the financial burden, and I’m working towards a model where publications pay for themselves, and also trying to incorporate designers and artists into the royalty-like structure, in cases where it makes sense. And also, with the added staff to Curbside, I definitely see party / event promotion as a way to generate revenue—plus it’s a fun way to do so. I love seeing people get together and mutually enjoy an event.
CP: O man! It’s cheap! It’s awesome—there are tons of people working on tons of very cool projects. I think because it has been overlooked for so long, and maybe too because of its industrial working class roots, combined with a colorful activist past there is a really interesting DIY spirit. People are compelled to make their own culture here. No one is waiting to be discovered. I think that sort of thing is happening in other easily overlooked cities as well (I was in Providence this summer and it has a pretty vibrant, idiosyncratic art scene, as I’ve also heard does Detroit) but the incredible thing about Chicago is that there is an audience! And many of the cultural producers in the city have ties to academic institutions, so I think there are some institutional threads woven throughout the every day grass roots dialogue. Because of the overall (and relative) affordability of the city, people can take risks to explore the consequences of those institutional voices in their own way. And suddenly you have a great music scene, a dynamic literary scene, an art scene, an experimental theater scene—all within the guise of our shared, Midwestern, concrete jungle. It’s so so cool. I love it here.
VDG: Well, as a life long Chicagoan who has travelled quite a bit but always felt most comfortable calling this place my home, I do like to think that Chicago is welcoming. It’s liberal, and as Caroline says, there’s a loyal audience here whether it be in music, art, sports, literature. People who live here and practice artistic disciplines are hard working, usually balance it all with a life full of responsibilities, and I think it shows in the work that’s produced and the events. Before writing and publishing my thing was music. Back in the early 00’s I just remember how many shows and bands there were all the time, so many great venues to enjoy indie music at, and there still are. Now with writing I realize the same sort of thing’s going on where there’s all these events and people attend and get into them. I’ve been to a few events outside of Chicago and they pale in comparison. So it’s fun if you’re a writer or lover of words, it’s great, and it’s here now.
November 07, 2011
Vanessa Carlisle runs a blog called “Gorgeous Curiosity,” and it suits her. Whether blogging on a break from her Occupy LA tent, deciding to eschew the traditional publishing game and self-publish her debut novel, A Crack in Everything, or intently dissecting the class politics of stripping, I have been consistently impressed with the zeal with which this Comparative Lit PhD candidate, writer, dancer, editor and sometimes-sex-worker approaches life, work and play. Her generosity of spirit, sense of fun and intellectual searching are all apparent in her short story, “In the First Place,” which appears in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. The last time I saw Vanessa, her open friendliness (and likely her long blond hair) inspired my five-year-old son to proudly proclaim, “I think a lot. And I’m very cute and a lot of girls like me,” nearly causing me spit out my Lillet. Like the young sex therapist/prostitute (we had some interesting discussions about that distinction among the editors when Vanessa’s story first rolled in) of “In the First Place,” Vanessa seems to have the magic touch on men of all ages! Here it was my pleasure, as always, to talk with her about Freud, Nietzsche, sex toys, and the sexiness of Italians . . .
VC: Oh please. Men have been writing from a woman’s perspective since ancient Greece. Sometimes they get it “right,” meaning a lot of women recognize themselves in the character, and sometimes there’s a note of falsity. Women will do exactly the same thing writing from men’s POV. So what if I got my guy “wrong?” Don’t most people get themselves wrong like three times a day, anyway? Besides, I have a strap-on.
VC: It is not harder to write from the perspective of a man chasing sex than the perspective of a man washing dishes, because as far as I’m concerned, all people are concerned with sex at all times, even if they are actively repressing or mourning their sexualities. In other words, washing dishes equals chasing sex. I don’t think of sex as an “equalizer,” except that we all have some basic commonality of having a sexuality. But we all have appetites for food and water, too, and the variance in the kinds of food we desire, what our pathologies with food are, are so immense we rarely talk about hunger the way we talk about sexual desire. I think all Americans have a screwed-up sexuality, and the basic question is: how bad is it? And if it’s not that bad, then you’re fighting the giants, since the entire media establishment is designed to make you feel guilty for any measure of sexual health or desire. So. Literary writers shy away from this because they all secretly think Freud is God and that they couldn’t possibly have anything new to say about sex. I’m kidding. A bit.
VC: Would I have sex with him! Oh yes. Yes indeed. My character was inspired by people I’ve met in my thirteen years in the sex industry. I am drawn to the men who are actively trying to understand their relation to sex as it is transactional in current American society, men who are conscious that most of their sexual relationships have been transactional in some way, and are really struggling to figure out their desires, their levels of empowerment or emasculation, and their feelings about their own aging as sexual people. This story lead to the bedroom because my narrator has a reckless streak, borne of years of apathy. This is a turning point for him. Turning points are sexy.
VC: I’d love for a male writer to tackle a female character who is constantly horny. A woman who is already turned on in the world, not just responding to the men or women she sees. I think most of the female who have been described this way were prostitutes or desperate older women, and I wonder what it would look like for a male writer to write a horny woman he really respected?
VC: Ok. I’m 32. At Burning Man this year I met a man in his fifties who I am still sorry I didn’t seduce. His name is Scarecrow. I want him. Help me find him! Also, I think it’s important to remember that in Italy, everyone is sexy until the day they die. Why? I don’t know. But I’m learning Italian.
November 01, 2011
I’ve been a fan of Aimee Parkison’s from the moment I read her short story, “Baroness with Green Eyes,” which she submitted to Other Voices magazine something like twelve years ago. Her award-winning collection, Woman with Dark Horses, had not yet come out from Starcherone Books, but the way Parkison wove formal experimentalism with intense characterization and psychology let me know immediately that she was a writer with something new to impart, who could titillate both the brain and the emotions in equal measures. Her story in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience, “Cradled,” is similarly complex, its narrator one of the most damaged and damaging, yet also perhaps willing to go the furthest for love. I was thrilled to recently blurb Parkison’s forthcoming collection—this is a writer whose ruthlessly beautiful unpacking of gender and desire should truly be experienced by a vast explosion of readers. I feel fortunate to have been able to encounter her work way back when, and to pick her multi-faceted brain a bit further here . . .
AP: A very nervous 10. Writing fiction always makes me nervous – whether I’m writing about sex or anything else. Sex is complicated to write about, but so is every other human emotion. What makes sex more challenging to write about is that so many people are fascinated by it but also have so many hang-ups, and that’s often where the fascination comes from but also the strongest desire.
When I first read about the anthology and its concept, I remember thinking – oh, this will be so fun to write. Then, I sat down to write and kept throwing the pages away. I realized how difficult it would be, especially because part of the challenge was not to shy away, but to write in a way that was as explicit, as convincing, as open, and as honest as possible to the male character’s sexual experience.
AP: Sex is a great equalizer, much like love, death, and hunger. For a fiction writer and reader, it’s also a “point of view” challenge — a real creative risk that takes a leap of faith, moving from the mind of the reader to the mind of the point-of-view character and back. When you’re reading about hunger, if it’s well written, you should feel hungry. When you’re reading about pain, if it’s well written, you should hurt. When you’re reading about sex, if it’s well written, you should be feeling those same emotions. I think that’s what makes it so uncomfortable to write about sex. . . because the process of writing is connected to the process of reading, and the desire moves from one mind to another.
Few literary writers write about sex because “serious” writers don’t want to be dismissed as writers of “erotica,” which is usually labeled as writing that exists for an audience that wants to “get off” by reading fiction. The myth is that the “literary” audience, who wants to appreciate great literature and “serious” fiction, doesn’t want to read about sex, but this myth is changing because the contemporary literary audience is becoming much more open minded than in the past.
However, some magazines and presses have this weird “mainstream” verses “porn” thing, so that conservative publications do not feature explicit stories about sex. This is probably the same reason why there’s a strong divide between porno films and Hollywood films. People define the audience so differently that actresses are very particular about what types of films they will be associated with because of the judgment and labels that come with certain roles for certain audiences.
I think that’s why so few literary writers seem to focus on sex. It’s a risk because it might seem like the work “isn’t right” for the literary audience. However, Men Undressed tries to break those boundaries by providing serious fiction about sex and desire – something that might appeal to many different types of readers – the sophisticated literary audience and also readers who like erotica and want to read sex in a new way.
AP: My story’s protagonist narrator is secretly in love and in lust with his best friend Richard, a sexual predator of women, a sex addict, and a “genius with olive green eyes.” I was drawn to the protagonist’s story because his desire was so painfully exquisite. He was in love with a man who desired to possess beautiful women, so he had to learn how to become one.
AP: The “virgin/whore” mentality is just a mentality, not a lifestyle.
AP: Joe from Great Expectations. Don’t ask me why. . . .
AP: As people get older, they become more attractive if they’ve accomplished a lot with their careers. A “sexy” person who’s in the “second half” of his or her life is someone who’s sexy because the person is really successful, talented, accomplished, and great at his or her job. Talented people doing what they love, that’s smokin’ – I can think of several people, men and women, who are like that. It’s like they catch fire at a certain point in their lives and never stop burning. No one else can hold a candle to their light.
October 23, 2011
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a complicated writer, in the best sense, with fingers in many pots. A playwright and novelist, she also edits “Her Kind” at Vida: Women in Literary Arts. She has written extensively about being a Jew of mixed race, and in the anthology Identity Envy: Wanting to Be Who We’re Not, she depicts her love affair with a beautiful and brilliant Muslim woman, exploring the complications of sexual, racial and religious labels in terms of identity formation. Likewise her story in Men Undressed, “Nude Studies on an Affair,” is among the most passionate—if sometimes violent—in the anthology. Amid all this, it isn’t surprising that the intense Ben-Oni takes sex as seriously in “real life” as she does on the page, boldly eschewing the trendiness of casual hyper-sexuality that permeates our culture, and digging for the deeper meaning beneath. I think I’ve developed a bit of a literary crush on her, and I invite you to read along and get your crush on too . . .
RBO: This is already happened. Upon hearing I’d contributed to Men Undressed, a male friend of mine who writes literary criticism lamented that a whole book in which women write from the male POV was a bad idea. When I’d pointed out he’d yet to read it, he admitted that it was “the concept” that bothered him altogether, but never really could explain why. This struck as strange because, again, he hadn’t read a single piece, and that it was not a concept book but one constructed around a theme. While I can’t speak for him, I believe there’s already an assumption the contributors would adopt a sort of “hyper-masculine” persona, imitating voices ranging Tucker Max to Ernest Hemmingway, and that second, women, in order to be sexually powerful, have to assume almost a laughably macho POV. I also believe there’s an underlying assumption that women can only imitate, period, the male POV in general, and that it can never be considered authentic. Quite honestly, I have to laugh and ask: So… who wrote Memoir of a Geisha? I realize there’s a distinction between popular fiction and literary fiction, but if we are going to talk concept, then Memoir of a Geisha is an excellent example of assuming a different racial/social/sexual persona. Throw in gender as well. And for the record, I’m not nervous about the theme itself; I’m nervous about the reviews of the quality of the writing.
RBO: Sex is many things, depending on the circumstances: connection, reconnection, power, subjugation, trust, risk. Writing about sex in 2011 is not the same as writing it in, say, Henry Miller’s time, and yet I don’t think most of the country’s attitudes toward sex and sexuality have changed. We are bombarded with sex and more open depictions of different sexuality, but have attitudes really changed? For instance, you have kids in the suburbs watching Lady Gaga ravish another woman in “Telephone,” but does this really help young gay teenagers in school? It seems quite honestly pop culture has been quite focused not on sex, but garnering strong reactions from it. I think some literary authors avoid it for that reason because they don’t want to distract from the quality of the work. I know that’s been my fear.
RBO: It wasn’t hard for me because I had a specific man in mind that I wanted to write. For him, it’s not the great equalizer at all. It’s release from his own world in which he’s lost, and for the woman as well in her own situation, and yet it does not make them equal. He is a translator of dead languages and English tutor, and she is a foreigner, the bought wife of a wealthy political machine. Their affair also sheds light that neither is free, and that their entanglement is a struggle to hold power over the other. I would certainly not have sex with my protagonist. Not in a million years. I’ve known a lot of men like him, and in retrospect, am very happy– and relieved– that I avoided the advances they made. For me, for better or worse, sex is about profound connection. I know I am quite out of place in the modern world, but I have to be in love and this has cost me personally a lot of relationships. It is hard for me to admit that as a writer because it seems outdated, but at the same time, you can then imagine for me that writing “Nude Studies of an Affair” was quite a challenge for me.
RBO: Intriguing. I would be interested in reading such an anthology, but curious as to how they would not write as other male writers have in the past. Would you and the other editors set guidelines, or simply choose which pieces you believe provide a fresh outlook?
RBO: Hands down: Detective Jack Yu in Henry Chang’s Chinatown Trilogy. I don’t usually read mystery novels, but after a recommendation from a friend, I quickly got sucked into the world of his first book Chinatown Beat. Jake Yu has such a strong, singular presence as a man haunted by guilt and many a regret, an outsider caught between two worlds of his Chinatown roots and his duty as a police officer. It’s gritty and real, and Jack Yu comes off both eloquent and unsentimental, which in my eyes makes him all the more sexy.
RBO: Actually, my first philosophy professor at NYU whose name escapes my mind. She taught the Intro class and I was taken by her from the first day. She was from the U.K., and in her 60s, and wore these black wrap dresses by Diane von Furstenberg (who is also smoking hot). The guys in my class were also nuts about her. She was very reserved, had a perfect silver (and I mean it shone) bob, and spoke carefully and would always turn her body in a way that seemed like she was en pointe. I, um, spent a lot of time in her office discussing The Crito and asking whether I could use Fanon in a paper; I had just started reading Wretched of the Earth and thinking it revolutionary, was trying to impress her. She ended up writing me a recommendation for a fellowship for graduate school some years later, which I received, and we had plans to have dinner to celebrate but then something came up. Another person who is absolutely gorgeous and had a huge influence on my life is the poet Mark Rudman. He’s in his 60s now and I more or less had a crush on him from day one. He caught on, I think, but he didn’t too, if you know what I mean. He ended up also writing me a fantastic recommendation (and more than one at that) and we did have dinner together. I think he thought of me as a kid though. I looked really young at 22, like I was a teenager. Come to think of it, I had a crush on a lot of my professors at NYU both male and female. For better or worse they remained simply that: crushes and the source of much frustration…
Okay, let’s get two things out in the open: 1) Steve Almond is not The Dust, and 2) I freaking adore this guy. When talking about someone who has made a minor career of being a provocateur (his major career is as a writer, and no amount of argumentative antics really seems able to undercut that, thankfully), an admission of Full Scale Almond Love is, perhaps, to situate oneself on one side of a debate or divide. I’m not just talking about the hyper-conservative Right, whom Almond regularly takes on with both scathing and hilarious results—even many people in the literary world have mixed feelings about him. Criticisms include being overly self-promotional—right here on TNB he was once called a “brand,” in the negative sense—though in my opinion, those who dismiss Almond’s work on this basis are not really paying attention. If anything, his “crime” was being ahead of his time: almost any writer participating in web-culture, sending out mass emails, debating an idea in a comments section, or launching a Facebook fan page, could now be accused of the same libel. So although views may differ about the role writers should have in marketing their own work, in this era of low-emissions book tours and tell-enough-to-make-us-wince confessional memoirs, I’ve come to think of Steve Almond as a fairly restrained guy, actually. He’s also someone who lives a life about way more than hype, and has put his money—literally—where his mouth is. So here’s some truth: Steve Almond has a pretty big mouth. Here’s some more: he’s also far more driven by his own principles and an obsessive-if-idiosyncratic love of Art than by the pursuit of money or conventional success. For these reasons, as well as his raucously diverse publishing career and the fact that I’ve long found him one of the most emotionally compelling short fiction writers working today, I was excited to pick his brain for this column . . .
SA: “Connoisseur” is charitable. My career is basically an ongoing car crash. But it’s an instructive car crash. I’ve finally admitted, after ten years of sort of squinting at it, that partnering up with a corporation is an unnatural thing for a creative writer to do. There’s an inherent conflict in motives. This became super obvious in my dealings with Random House. They wanted me to write bestsellers and I, um, failed. Whatever merit my books had as literary artifacts, they were a bust as commodities. It was a humbling and humiliating experience. But it did force me me step back and ask: What do I really want in a publishing experience? The answer was perfectly clear. I want to find an editor who will push me to do my best work. I don’t want a big advance or a fancy lunch at a New York City bistro. I’m done dreaming that particular American dream.
So my recent projects are really just about finding more organic, personal ways to put books into the world. I signed on with Lookout, which is a tiny press, because my editor, Ben George, was clearly going to kick my ass to make the stories better. My own experience suggests that writers tend to be happier with smaller presses. There’s more attention given to their work — by which I really mean the literary merit of that work – and less to its commercial prospects.
But, see, that’s just me. I’m not suggesting that the young writers out there are fools to seek the imprimatur of a major New York house. If that’s what motivates them to do their best work, they should aim for that. In the end, everyone who publishes literary fiction and non-fiction is doing the work of angels and fools. There’s no one who’s in it for the dough. So my point isn’t to bash the corporate presses. My point is that writers should spend as much of their time and energy as they can stand worrying about the one thing they can control (if imperfectly) which is their work. Because that’s the real struggle, and the real accomplishment: to write a great book. The rest is gravy.
SA: Yeah, I made some mistakes. But they were all mistakes I’d probably make again. For instance, five years ago, I sent a bunch of editors two chapters of what I intended as a short appreciation of Kurt Vonnegut. Random House wanted a different book – a collection of essays. My gut told me that I should stick with Vonnegut. But I went with the money. It was a dumb move. Your gut always knows the right answer. That’s the lesson. But in terms of regrets, the major ones have to do with my own work ethic, and impatience. I don’t look back at my career and say, ‘Gee, that was a dumb deal.’ I say, ‘Maybe you should have slowed down and spent five years writing a novel, you numbskull.’
SA: Another way of looking at it would be to consider the larger generational shift. When you and I were coming of age as writers, there was no such thing as self-publishing, or blogs, or Twitter. You had to go through filters (magazine editors, agents, book editors) before your voice could be registered in a public way. As a 20-year-old, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to write about my life for strangers, or to invent stories and expect others to read them. There just wasn’t the same sense of entitlement, which is the undercurrent of your question, I think.
And I do worry that my DIY books send the wrong message: Hey, don’t wait for The Man to publish your stuff. That’s bullshit. So whenever I read from them, I always stress that I didn’t put out my first book until I’d spent a decade writing short stories, and that young writers shouldn’t even mull over publishing until they’ve got something worth publishing, that they should focus on making decisions at the keyboard. Blah-blah-blah. You know my rap. I’m not sure how much it resonates.
The bottom line is that writing is a lonely, dogged, doubt-provoking pursuit. It runs against our cultural habits of thought and feeling. As a people, we’ve become far more impatient and inattentive and narcissistically needy. But literary art is almost never composed without tremendous patience and attention. And a good editor is essential to that end. History tends to sort out the phonies.
What I lament isn’t the potential deluge of not-very-considered books, so much as the decline in sustained reading as a leisure activity. I don’t mean the intellectual and emotional grazing of the Internet. I mean sitting down with a book, alone, in a quiet place, with no screens around, and engaging the imagination of another human. So my hidden agenda with the little DIY books is really for them to serve as a gateway drug to reading.
SA: What happened, really, is that I just got tired of trying to be a “serious young writer,” which I wasn’t very good at anyway. So I allowed a more natural voice to emerge, and – as happens when you grow up in a family where deep emotions are suppressed – I found this voice wanted (or more likely needed) to speak in blunt emotional terms. I have great admiration for writers who are able to convey deep emotion with subtlety. And for writers who take a more cerebral approach. But the one thing I can do, or try to do, is to push my characters into emotional danger. In the end, I’m more concerned with feelings than ideas. Or maybe I should say that (to me) the most interesting ideas are feelings. What I see when I look at the world, and America in particular, is a culture that is terribly estranged from its own feelings, and therefore acting out in cruel and senseless ways. So my stories and essays are my little attempts to face up to the truth of what’s inside me, and to get other people to do the same thing. I’m comfortable with that mode of writing at this point. But I was terrified of the first few stories I wrote where I really let it rip. And so were most of my friends. But I’d rather err in the direction of sentiment than nihilism.
SA: I am an American. And I do write about “politics.” So I can’t really argue if someone applies those labels. But my persistent aim – like any sane person – is to address morality. That’s our hang-up as a species. We’re aware of our poor behavior. And what fascinates me about America is that we’re this country with all this privilege, and these wonderful abstract values. And yet the way we behave – and allow our leaders to behave – is pathologically childish and destructive. The great mystery is why. It’s not because Americans are evil. That’s too easy. I see this disjunction arising from people who are living too far from their own internal lives, whose tears are, to an astonishing degree, disconnected from their causes for grief. The collection isn’t some concerted effort to diagnose the country. But I am writing about the moral displacement that most Americans suffer from, and about the loneliness that makes us so susceptible to the monetized distractions whirling around us.
SA: My parents are psychoanalysts. No rumor there. But the reason there are so many unhappy moms in my work, I suspect, is because my mom was quite unhappy when we were growing up. And though she herself would deny this, my brothers and I, and our father, were incredibly disrespectful and dismissive of her. It’s something I’ve always felt awful about. Not that my mom is some passive pushover. She’s a tough customer, one of six women in her Yale Medical School class, which included several hundred men. She’s an accomplished analyst, the author of two acclaimed books, and, a fantastic grandmother. But the specter of her unhappiness clearly haunts my work. And she really was quite unhappy when we were young. She had three kids in two years, was trying to finish her residency, and live up to the domestic demands of the mid-Sixties. She’d never put it this way, but she just got a totally raw deal. And, of course, as my brothers and I grew older, we aimed a lot of our own abuse at her. Her great crime was that she was ready to forgive us anything. This is a lot of what men do, in my experience: the convert their fears and doubts into anger, then aim at the women closest to them. This is also why I work hard (though not always successfully) to make sure that Erin is happy. Because her happiness is the key to the entire family system.
SA: I don’t think any self-respecting editor or critic would try to dismiss sex as trivial. It’s composes far too much of our selfhood. The great con of the modern American marketing machine is to strip sex of its emotional and psychological importance. And I do think this process (what I call “pornification”) causes some folks to mistrust sex as a literary subject. That’s really just sad. Because human beings are never more themselves than when they’re having sex. We don’t just undress our bodies. All that lust and doubt and shame and hope – that’s the true subject. So it does make me sad when I feel authors eliding that part of their characters’ identity. And, I should add, I was equally sad when I read Nicholson Baker’s new book, House of Holes. It was very funny, and a real turn-on. But it wasn’t about sex as an emotionally dangerous experience. It was about the fantasy sex that porn already provides.
SA: I’m working on a crappy novel. This is (for the record) my fourth crappy novel. It’s going … crappy. But the truth is, a career should be marked by failures. That’s how you get better, I guess. You try to do things you can’t do. That’s what I’m telling myself, anyway, as I crap out each new and disappointing sentence.
October 16, 2011
The problem with a “Six Question Sex Interview” concept is that you can’t ask follow-up questions. Lidia Yuknavitch is a writer who begs follow-up questions (so people, we’re just going to have to conduct them via the comments boards), especially to questions generated to all 28 writers of a given anthology—Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. For example, if I were interviewing Lidia alone, I’d have asked about her forthcoming novel, and why women writers like ourselves (Lid was my editor for my own first novel, also inspired by a Freud case study) are still so obsessed with Freud: are we still castrating him; are we fucking him through the generations, both or neither? I’d have asked how a publishing industry in which almost all agents and fiction editors are female still manages to be an illustration of a fundamentally male power base (easy answer: shareholders. More complex answer: I guess maybe we’ll tackle that in the comments.) And so on. An eternally, volitionally provocative writer and thinker, Yuknavitch was the author of one of last year’s hottest and most innovative memoirs, The Chronology of Water. A longtime member of the FC2 editorial board and co-founder of Chiasmus Press (as well as the short-lived but luminous two girls review), she’s been a fellow fighter in the indie publishing trenches for as long as I can remember. Here, true to form, she plops her figurative balls on the table and—to my delight—throws down a French gauntlet or two to American readers . . .
LY: I don’t fell nervous at all, actually. So I’m a zero. If there is a male critic out there who is going to point a finger at me for “getting it wrong,” when what I have created is a space of desire that is always already available inside language itself – inside its fits and starts, its presence and absences, its reaching to name and glorious orgasm of temporary meaning which is also its own death of meaning (for something named can never be the thing itself)—what kind of chump would misunderstand women writing male desire as faux lady boner or ladies in campy drag? I mean, we are writers. I guess I’d have a brief sit-down with this male critic human, preferably over a scotch, and attempt to school him on the idea that there is no territorialism to language and the body. The only territorialism, colonialism really, is the market and the gendered (male) power structure of the publishing industry. But even thinking about having to educate yet another human about that makes me sleepy…
LY: Well if we are talking about world literature, I think a large number of literary writers bring sex and sexuality to the forefront of their work. In America, the publishing avenues most open – you know – green light for SEX – are market driven. Porn, Erotica, Thrillers, Romance, Horror, other genre writing. So it’s both an open field for an American woman writer writing about sex and simultaneously a narrow field. Literary writers then face a double whammy – if you spill your juices too far outside the lines of a certain sanctioned version of “the sexual,” (i.e. don’t say pussy or cock or cunt or vag or cum too much) you risk losing your special status as a literary writer, you might, for instance, becomes an “edgy” writer (read: market risk) or a “counter culture” writer (gasp), AND you risk toppling over into mass market genres – which incidentally is where the money lives. This is less so in, say, France. French writers get quite a kick out of our endlessly missionary writerly positions. Lots of other countries do too.
LY: My character is old. He’s lumpy. He’s covered with scars and age and the barnacle skin of living a commercial fisherman’s life. He’s nomadic. Not intellectual – and yet quite wise about living a workers life – a life committed to labor of a body. He’s isolated from the regular socius and lives within a specialized tiny community of male workers that spend more time on water than land—like marine life. He’s alienated from almost everything but his body, his labor, his physical existence. So his sexuality is not “specialized.” His being gay is not a special category to his existence. It’s an extension of his entire being and corpus, and thus when he expresses himself sexually, he is man, woman, father, mother, son, daughter—as we all are figured and disfigured by and through language and desire.
You bet I’d have sex with this guy. Though neither of us are exactly straight.
LY: Well on the one hand, all of literary history already writes that story. So I don’t see why we’d need that book – certainly there is no need for a counter balance. Jeez. Hello? See: History of Western Literature. Ha. But I do think we’ve only begun to truly write our bodies as women. Certain periods of national or world crisis seem to breed fissures through which female sexuality may be written, enunciated…but then they seem to suture shut and the market takes over again, both inscribing us in side a set of boneheaded cultural codes about the clean and proper body AND stealing our speech away…Speed way of saying it:
“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.”
― Hélène Cixous
LY: Orlando or Frankenstein.
LY: Um, Kathy Acker was older than 44 when I met her and all I can say is mop up on aisle 5: lidiapuddle. See also Elfriede Jelinek. Gah.
October 10, 2011
Elizabeth Searle’s short story, “And a Dead American,” was one of the earliest submissions accepted to Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience. In fact, it would not be far-fetched to say that this story—an excerpt of Searle’s new novel, GIRL HELD IN HOME —sometimes served as a reassurance that we were on the right track, back in the early days when so many of the submissions we received . . . well, didn’t actually have any sex in them, despite our blatant pleas for “explicit” material on our call for submissions. “And a Dead American” ended up exemplifying precisely the kind of risky, challenging literary work we sought, while also dealing overtly with bodies and desires. Searle is also the author of the books A FOUR-SIDED BED (new paperback edition in 2011), CELEBRITIES IN DISGRACE (produced as a short film in 2010) and MY BODY TO YOU, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. Her theater work, TONYA & NANCY: THE ROCK OPERA, has been performed on both coasts and has drawn national media attention.
Maybe a ‘6’—but I have ventured into tricky sex territory before in my fiction, including a three-way Menage novel (A FOUR SIDED BED). Though I am pretty private and quiet in real life, I find my writer self is very uninhibited in writing about sex. My UNDRESSED sex scene is a story excerpt from my new novel GIRL HELD IN HOME, based on a true crime, in which a middleclass teenage boy discovers a teen girl being ‘held’ as an unpaid servant in the home of a wealthy family who control her visa. The boy wants to help her and also just plain wants her. What drove me to delve into the male mind was that the male in question is a teenager. As a mom of a teen-to-be, I feel a need to know about hormone-hyped boy-life—And I wound up concocting in GIRL HELD IN HOME my favorite sort of sex scene, one in which ‘play’ turns unexpectedly serious and even dangerous. I liked all the moral ambiguities ‘at play’ in the scene and story. Basically once I entered my boy character’s mind, I couldn’t get out until I/’we’ had ‘done the deed.’
I agree about sex being an ‘equalizer,’ and one activity in which almost everyone feels a bit vulnerable and exposed. In that sense, I find it easier to write about men in the sexual world than I would writing about men wielding power in a workplace, say, which is an alien situation for me. Sex, I can relate to. But I think many writers dread to tread there for the reason you mention in question #1: that old high-schoolish fear of being pointed at and mocked if you get it wrong. But to me, a challenge in writing is like catnip, especially a challenge in erotic writing.
Well, ‘he’ is a fifteen year old boy and no, I would not have sex with anyone only a few years older than my son. What drew me to ‘Joezy’ was in fact the vulnerability of a teenage boy who’s still a virgin and whose hormones are outa control, even as this particular boy struggles in a strange and confusing situation to do the right thing. I want him in his all-American blundering way to try to ‘help’ the hostage girl he discovers. At the same time he desperately ‘wants’ her and wants her to want him. So it’s a fraught situation and that’s how I as a writer like it. I like this earnest bold Joezy even though I can’t ultimately like what he does to or with this frightened teenage girl. As a writer, I like my mix of feelings—because it all keeps me on my toes and I hope will keep the reader on his or her toes too.
Hmm, well, dare I say this: I love a writer like Philip Roth, and love to read his erotic writings, but I do not think he renders female sexuality convincingly. Which works out fine in the very male world of his writing. I look to writers like him and John Updike in the RABBIT books to help explain to me how a certain kind of man views women. What would I like male writers in general to know about female sexuality? I’m no expert. But I’d just want them to respect the depth of the differences and to think outside the box, particularly the TV/movie/porn box. I’d simply want them to attempt as they would with any character to enter the woman’s POV as well as her skin.
Mmm—how about Mr. Rochester in JANE EYRE. Repressed sexy can be the best sexy.
Well, my husband does pop into mind. He’s 10 years older than me and I’m up past the point of no return, according to your survey. We’ve been together over twenty years. Time has changed both of us physically of course, and my husband’s wild long kinky hair is now wild, long, kinky and grey. But underneath, he is still the same tall, intense, intelligent, witty, gentle man I fell for ages ago. But I know we are lucky and such luck is rare.
I am actually surprised the gap in the survey you cite is not bigger between men and women—in our culture, in our hopelessly Hollywood-ized minds, I see a striking difference between how movie stars are treated as they age. Guys in their 60s like Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood (and granted, they’ve both still ‘got it’)—are seen as plausible leading men and are cast in sexy roles. Usually opposite a woman in her twenties. (Maybe it’s just me but the older-man/much-younger-woman combo is a total turnoff; watching that onscreen I find myself wondering what the woman is really feeling). It’s much rarer with older women stars to go on in romantic leads, though in recent years eternally sexy exceptions like Helen Mirren, Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep (who seems sexier onscreen these days than in her younger years!) can give us all hope. Meanwhile, in humble real life, I know of many longtime married couples (my parents included!) who are still having fun. I can only in the end know my own experience. And after 20-plus years, my husband and I are hanging in there, together.