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“The Dead Dream of Being Undead”

Part I

 

Once, there were two brothers born nine months apart in the same room of the same hospital in the same manner—the protracted period of ill-timed contractions, the doctor in blue scrubs and white mask, the late-night crowning, the father’s kiss, the death of the mother. And with each child’s arrival and each mother’s passing, the father celebrated and mourned in the only way he’d ever learned to do either: asleep in the arms of a new woman. Christenings were funerals. Cradles were made altars.

Not until their tenth year on a day four and one-half months after the oldest’s birthday and four and one-half months before the youngest’s birthday did the father reveal to the boys they weren’t borne of the same woman and that the woman they’d known as their mother was in fact mother to neither. And it wasn’t until this day in their tenth year that either brother had considered the differences between them, had even recognized there were differences between them other than their nine months’ difference in age.

rituals-of-restlessness-cover-photoSimple. Engineer Kamran Khosravi would die in a car accident. Easy, done. He finished smoking his cigarette with chilling calm, so that for the first time in all the years he had smoked, he could enjoy lighting one cigarette with another and, without wetting his palate, not taste the foul tang in his mouth.

“Does the smoke bother you?” He rolled down the car window.

“No, sir.” The man’s sharp Mongol eyes were darting from side to side, unable to remain fixed on anything. Just like the way he talked, with all those annoying questions.

“Where are we going, sir?” “We have work to do.” “What kind of work?”

He felt less anxious when he talked. He did not want to stay quiet for even one second. Just to talk, about anything. It did not matter what.

bluvaasheadshotWhat prompted you to write Beneath The Coyote Hills?

I was walking down the hallway in a Berkeley motel, demoralized after a disappointing reading tour in the Bay Area to promote my last story collection, Ashes Rain Down. Only six people showed up at my S. F. Central Library event, including three homeless folks, fewer at Book Passages in Marin County. I’m thinking, “What’s the point? Maybe I should quit.” Not writing, but give up trying to gain attention for my work. To hell with it!

It hit me at that moment how obsessed we all are with success and failure, myself included. It’s in our DNA, our collective madness. The cause of so much despair and moronic Donald-Trump boasting. Right then, the concept for the book popped into my head. I had to write about this madness.

beneathcoyotehills_cover-copyI had a normal childhood until Pop lost his job and took up the bottle. Mom became depressed soon after. My brother Zack and I would arrive home from school to find her lying glumly on the couch watching TV in her nightgown, too blue to greet us. Still, I got good grades, made the junior high varsity baseball team, was popular enough. Though nothing compared to my brother Zachariah: two years older, first in the state in the 440 yard dash, class president, ladies’ man. Zack was still big brotherly in those days; he showed me the correct way to slide into base, advised me on my swing, helped me with algebra. He seemed to know everything, born like a computer with many gigabytes of information pre-stored in his brain.

summer-she-was-under-water-front-only-for-screenSam’s parents leave early the next morning to float down to the marina and fill up the newly repaired motorboat with gas. From the screened porch Sam and Eve drink coffee after their breakfast and watch the older Pinskis take their positions on board. Sam’s father turns on the motor and fiddles with the choke, a cigarette limp and unlit in his mouth. Pat and Karl Pinski seem to operate from some unspoken code, one in which the past is never mentioned, one’s current desires are never articulated, and allusions to the future are always vague but predictable. The only reason Sam can think of as to why someone would want to live in a minefield after a war is that they’d know where all the remaining mines are buried.

michellecroppedDo you feel weird interviewing yourself?

Um, not really.

 

Say more.

When I was in junior high school, I wanted to be Phil Donahue (not to be confused with Dr. Phil who is neither as smart nor as badass). I raced home during my forty-five minute lunch break, turned on the tube, made myself a sandwich, and tried to figure out what piping hot question Mr. Donahue or one of his audience members would ask next. I prepped for these sessions by interviewing myself, using a hairbrush as a mic, and trust me, it was a whole lot easier guessing my next question. After the show was canceled, I moved on to Oprah, Charlie Rose, and my current idol, Terry Gross.

bertrand-courtRIPE

Phil Scott, January 20, 2005

 

I’m hungry. But that’s not why I’m standing in front of the McDonald’s on Columbia Road at 4:37 on a freezing cold Tuesday afternoon. I’m waiting for Amy Solonsky.

A week ago, I watched her fall on her heart-shaped ass trying to get off the #42. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years, but I recognized her hair — miles of black curls — and her glasses with the tiny purple rectangular frames. Graphic artists sport hip eyewear as a rule.

I was standing across the street, so I couldn’t help her up. She put her hand on her swollen belly right away and smiled with her eyes closed, as if she’d just heard some good news. She didn’t notice me until she brushed off the tumble and was about to cross the street. I let her decide whether or not to come to me, and I was so glad that she did. “Phil,” she said, and hearing my name coming out of her mouth moved me. Ever since I saw her, I’ve wanted something, but I don’t know what it is, as if I’m kicking back on my couch after a grueling shoot, my bones aching, an ice cold beer in one hand, remote in the other, clicking and clicking, searching for a ball game, an old movie, a Law and Order rerun, anything that will unlatch me from myself.

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Although we’ve both lived in Portland, Oregon for years, I met Margaret through a mutual acquaintance at the Association of Writing and Writing Professionals conference in LA. I was about halfway through with her collection of short stories, People Like You, and I was in love with her characters. They were sometimes lost, sometimes broken, but they were always hopeful in some way. It was quickly apparent to me in talking with Margaret that she was someone inspiring, perhaps especially to me. We both write while working in a field outside of writing, while also raising kids. It can be crazy-making, which is likely why it took three months of planning just to arrange a coffee date. Several months after that, when we met for this interview, it was early in the morning and we were both headed to work immediately after.

Margaret’s book was released by Alterier26 Books in Fall of 2015. It was the winner of the Balcones Prize for Fiction and a finalist for the 2016 PEN Hemingway Award. Margaret’s work has also appeared in The Missouri Review, Oregon Humanities, Swink, Propeller Quarterly and elsewhere. I interviewed Margaret on a sunny morning in a Portland coffee shop.

Barrett, Igoni (Victor Ehikhamenor)Just like Sean Carswell’s self-interview, I, too, asked my wife, Femke van Zeijl, who is a journalist as well as being the only person who knows why I dread dreaming of toilet bowls, to ask me questions as if she didn’t already know the answers. And then I rewrote her transcription.

 

First of all: why aren’t you interviewing yourself?

Because I know what questions to ask myself that I find impossible to answer—the kind of questions we keep asking until the day we stumble off this mortal coil. And so, in my head, this self-interview had grown into an existential issue that would require an entire novel to answer. I consider the publicity-oriented parts of writing as disparate from the creative process. The public appearances, the press interviews, etcetera, are all part of the writer’s job, yes, but interviewing myself is too close to the creative process. Thus I figured I would turn to my in-house journalist, since she knows nearly everything there is to know about me. That’s the closest I could come to a self-interview. Besides, journalists enjoy meeting deadlines, while I almost unfailingly miss mine.

Majka, Sara (Chris Ward)Is there anything you wished you could have talked about the book?

I kept waiting for someone to notice the dots–to ask why, online, a lot of times the dots on my book are yellow but on the actual physical book they’re orange. Also, the author photo, I thought someone might ask about the background, because it has striking green and white stripes. I wanted to be able to say that it was at a park in Philadelphia, that my friend, Chris Ward, was taking pictures of me in nature, with trees, and then I saw the striped shed and asked about it. I figured he would say that it was a bad idea but he also liked the idea.

1429283316376There’s a lot of motherhood in your collection. Why?

Writing and motherhood rolled in on the same thunder, flashed with the same white electric. I’d just finished grad school and I read Louise Erdrich’s memoir and her babies slept in their baskets while she wrote. I was jolted awake by motherhood, and it seemed to me that the world was too.

Motherhood was also a foreign land. It amazed me, and I wanted to describe everything I saw. The pressure to write was acute, and because my days were bounded, insular, but with this exalted view, that tension intensified.

But then I ventured outside, and the air still echoed from the thunderstorm, but let’s say my mother was there, my mother-in-law, my grandmothers—there were women and children everywhere—and it turned out that what I was seeing was at once universal and personal.

Louise Miller_select_8744So, you are a pastry chef and your protagonist Olivia Langford is a pastry chef…is this really an autobiography thinly disguised as fiction?

It isn’t! I’ve never lit any of my places of employment on fire, or had any affairs with people at work, or lived in the country. All of the characters of The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living are fictional, as well as the places, the town and the plot.

But I did lean on many of the everyday details of my life. I have spent the greater part of the last twenty-two years in a professional kitchen, so it was delightful to get to play with the images and tastes and textures I experience every day. The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living is not only my debut novel but the first novel I have ever written. It was comforting to write about something so familiar while learning how to actually write a novel. That task alone felt like a big enough leap.

9781101981207.City Baker's GuideThe night I lit the Emerson Club on fire had been perfect for making meringue. I had been worrying about the humidity all week, but that night dry, cool air drifted in through an open window. It was the 150th anniversary of the club, and Jameson Whitaker, the club’s president, had requested pistachio baked Alaska for the occasion. Since he asked while he was still lying on top of me, under the Italian linen sheets of bedroom 8, I agreed to it—even though I was fairly certain that baked Alaska would not have been on the menu in 1873. But Jamie was a sucker for a spectacle, and his favorite thing on earth was pistachio ice cream, which his wife wouldn’t let him eat at home.

headshot for InterviewsI hate the theater. Why does Sheila insist we go? A man my age has no time to spare. I study a floor map hanging on a wall in the lobby, noting the exits and locations of the men’s rooms.

“Come on, Oliver,” says my wife, pulling at my arm. “We’re on the second floor.” She starts walking toward our seats, waddling to and fro. Her fire engine red hair speaks to the massive crowd: I’m hair. I’m hair. Make way, I’m hair.

I turn to follow her and freeze. My father is at the bar. I recognize his stance, shoulders back, a commanding Army officer, ready to salute. A leggy brunette yaks in his ear. Orange overhead lights tan his skin a leathery brown and it changes him, makes him younger. He needs a shave.

Irina & AllisonFive Questions/Five Dresses

Who: Authors Irina Reyn and Allison Amend.

Where: A Diane von Furstenberg sample sale in the Flatiron District of NYC.

What: Irina purchased a discounted oversized scarf; Allison came out with a cute dress (A-line, not wrap), and a black eyelet top.

How Much: That’s not polite to ask. Let’s just say everything was steeply discounted.

Present: Every single woman in Manhattan. And two men.