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Not to have this be an all-out puff piece, but let me try and describe two types of virtuosity I like. Maybe it’s because I spent all summer watching basketball. Dunks and jumpers. Crossovers. If you hate sports, bear with me. But for instance, a jump shot. A technique to it, there’s a purity you can appreciate. That buzzer-beater, last second of the game, or even just pulling up in traffic, as they say, soaking wet; smartly, coolly executed, or from the couch, surrounded by snacks, even watching the pros do it, the effect is weirdly triumphant, gratifying.

Here’s the other type. Because, to get that jumper to go, to have that moment, there’s hours and hours you’ve got to spend, hundreds of thousand of hours, more than shooting, also dreaming, thinking about jumpshots. Let me go ahead and say Jane Liddle’s debut is about murder, not basketball. In that sense, Murder is about nuance. In that we’re all going to die. Right? Sooner or later. And we’re all capable of killing, probably. Consider it that way, and a story, any story is actually, truly, only the details. Fifty-eight murders. Some tragic, some frightening. A funny one or two. Each only a couple of pages. Some like poems. Some, tightly plotted, 3-act short stories. The murder in there about “the Saint,” that was disturbing in a way I can’t exactly explain.

fredmugford_2016As I was putting my underwear on, the right foot got caught. The big toe of the right foot was stretching the fabric. I continued pushing my foot down harder as I was pulling the underwear up by the dark blue waist band. I was stubborn and I wasn’t going to let the underwear win. I was standing balanced on my left foot, in the bathroom, after taking my shower, and my feet, my skin, was still damp, I think that is why the big toe got caught and wouldn’t let go no matter how much I pulled up or pushed the foot down. All this became infuriating, even for the underwear too, because the cotton fabric began to stretch, I could feel the stress it was going under, but I demanded to be right this time, to be the winner, to push my foot through the hole, the second hole, or third, in the underwear, but it just wouldn’t go through. I don’t know if I was willing to tear the underwear, it was a relatively new pair, it was a comfortable pair, still clean and thick and it hugged my contours nice and tight, holding everything in place just right, snug in a word. If the underwear was old, if it had a tear in it, I probably would have sacrificed it with pleasure. The band of the right leg hole had in fact dug itself deep between the big toe and the toe next to it. And by this time I was starting to lose my balance, and on top of the frustration of not being able to push my foot through, I now had the compounded fear of falling and dying from hitting my head on one of the porcelain fixtures inside the bathroom, the bathtub or the sink or the toilet or even the floor or the tiled walls or maybe even the handlebars I installed in the bathroom for my father. And now I lost my balance and was ready to fall over to my right because my right foot was the one that was up trying to go through the hole in the underwear made for the right leg to go through, and I felt myself leaning over to my right, and I had to make an instant decision, should I continue pushing my foot down to get the right foot through the hole before I hit the floor, or should I just let go of the underwear and let the right foot touch the blue tiled floor and let the underwear dangle half on between my legs, or a third choice, which is what I didn’t want, was to just fall. So I chose to let go, with a click of the tongue and a sigh, in frustration, like I was telling myself, no, I didn’t get to win this time, I had to let go, and now I have to try putting my right foot through the right leg hole all over again. My right foot hit the tiled floor with a slap, a sound of naked flesh hitting a hard cool, smooth surface, it was kind of a satisfying sound, even if it sounded hard, nothing like the sound of skin slapping skin, which always leads to some kind of pain, I was thinking of my mother slapping my face real hard, I don’t think she ever did that, and I was trying to think of times I slapped myself on purpose, and I couldn’t, except if it involved pleasure, possibly, which I can’t think of right now.

bernard-grant3637_for-web-useKem drives us through town. Shopkeepers raise blinds, flip open-closed signs. Street workers drop cones, drill, hammer. Then she hops on I-5 and all that’s replaced by morning traffic until we climb Cooper Point and the Worksource logo appears, stamped onto an office building wall towering over a 7-Eleven. In the parking lot her baby bump squeezes past the steering wheel when she leans over to kiss my forehead and drop a sack lunch in my lap. I half expect her to add “at school” to her “Have a nice day.”

I say good morning to Mindy at the reference desk. She smirks and says, “In for another shift, Gene?” I wink and walk past several banks of computers to take a seat between Jeremy and Sam. Nothing behind us but motivational posters on a small-windowed wall. Above us, huge black letters pasted onto white say, SUPPORT BUSINESS, PROMOTE EMPLOYMENT. Up front are classrooms where people learn to write resumes and ace interviews. We never go.

author-photoI’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to speak with me.

You’re very welcome. I suppose it must seem odd though, to be addressing questions to yourself.

 

Indeed. Yet at the same time, I seem to recall your remarking that when you reread this book, by which I mean your recently published story collection This is a Dance Movie!, it almost felt to you as though the work had been written by another person.

That’s very true. The majority of these stories were written and published between 2008 and 2011.

dance-movie-full-cover-1-1170x1747This is a dance movie! Teenagers are dancing. They are popping, locking, tutting. The teenagers must stay loose, stay low to catch each step. To roll from beat to beat. The teenagers must be careful not to overemphasize the downbeat.

One teenager, a boy named Robert, is dancing down the street. Robert is practicing. He is snaking his arm. He makes it fluid: shoulder, elbow, wrist. Or tries. Several times. The audience feels his pain. The audience knows Robert must master this move. Robert and the other teenagers must win a competition. Robert, in particular, must win this competition in order to get a scholarship the girl laid. Robert must get laid. This is a dance movie!

Robert must get laid by a deadline. To win a bet? Possibly. In this way, this dance movie is also a teen sex comedy. Except this comedy isn’t so funny. Or maybe it’s funny. It’s sort of funny. Its funniness depends upon the audience’s appreciation for schadenfreude. The problem is Robert is likeable, making it harder to laugh at his expense. Or rather, likeable to certain viewers. Robert is likeable because he’s pretty, making him likeable to girls and gay boys, this movie’s target demographic. Most teen sex comedies are about ugly straight boys. Critics rave about these movies because, being ugly straight boys themselves, they identify with their protagonists.

hiresthalia2016_side_benedicte-verleySo you call Experimental Animals a reality fiction. . . . What’s so great about reality?

It’s a trick word: this thing we think is full of facts and histories, but then suddenly we become aware of all that’s invisible in it, all the energies that can’t be represented or known. (I’ve heard there are people who believe that there’s nothing that’s not on the internet.) Then suddenly reality is just a fantasy and all the categories blur. “Realism” was a 19th century phenom that had to do with telling tales of subjects who’d been left out of sight in the popular genres—combined later with a penchant for ‘research.’ Experimental Animals also shows characters and arguments that widen the concept of what we’ve taken for ‘reality,’ to include other kinds of subjectivities.

eacoverInstead of sleeping, my new husband spends his nights out of doors, procuring animals for his next day at work: a basket of rabbits, a glass receiver of frogs, two pigeons, an owl, a dog, several tortoises, two cats. I never considered, but all of a sudden I notice, how Paris adores and despises its animals. In every home at least one pet, and courtyards are lousy with cows and hens, shit on stairs and stones. Paris loves animals more than it hates shit-covered stairs, and women would rather walk their dogs than their children. Not to mention shit is good business—sold to tanners by stooped ladies fighting with spoons over the biggest droppings. Meanwhile, the fanciest dog market at Saint-Germain-des-Prés jacks up prices, and ladies strut up and down Pont Neuf with their fluffy prizes. Regulating this surge in pets, a new law requires dogs to be muzzled, and a tax is announced—from one to ten francs depending on the breed. Now people just toss their animals in the river. So the first pound opens, rue de Pontoise, in the shadow of Notre Dame. Dogs are stuffed behind bars, then hanged or struck on the head. “Well bred, good looking” dogs are stored eight days, then sold back to the stalls, while “mongrels, or those without collars or breed,” live without food or water for three days, and are given to people like Claude who show up to take them. As with humans, “class is determined by breeding and partly by occupation.”

anneraeffcredit-dennishearneYour work is very tied to history and to the effects of cataclysmic, violent events on individual lives. Can you talk a little bit about the role of history in your fiction and fiction in general?

We are all shaped by the past, by our individual experiences and by the combined experience of all human beings. That is what history is. In Spanish the word for “history” and “story” are the same, which makes sense to me. I think I am especially conscious of “history” as “story” and “story” as “history” because of the history/story of my family and also because my father was a historian, so I grew up learning a lot of what we call “history” while at the same time I was learning my parents’ and grandparents’ “stories,” especially those that intersected so dramatically with the Holocaust, war and revolution, all of which are considered part of “history.” For me they were part of the same narrative. What I try to do in my fiction is what all fiction tries to do—evoke the connection between individual lives and the narrative of humanity.

Raeff_JungleAroundUs.inddThe Doctors’ Daughter

“Don’t forget to feed the chickens,” Pepa’s parents told her when they left for the jungle to take care of the yellow fever victims. As if she could forget such a thing. Wasn’t she the one who took care of them, who collected the eggs, swept up the droppings, slit their throats with the scalpel her father had given her for this very purpose? If she had forgotten to feed the chickens, they would have come pecking at the back door, would have jumped onto the kitchen windowsill and poked their beaks between the louvers. How could she possibly forget to feed the chickens?

The chickens had been Pepa’s idea, after all. Her parents had not approved at first. “What do we know about keeping chickens?” they said. But they seemed to forget that in the beginning they had not known any of it. They had not known how to cook beans, had not known the taste of fried bananas or the Spanish word for rice, had not known how to hang mosquito netting or the sound of monkeys screaming in the night or that you had to bribe the health inspectors as well as hide the water cistern when they came around every so often looking for what they called “standing water.”

maMy favorite questions involve food so let’s start there. What did you have for breakfast today?

My husband and I have been going to this diner in Eagle Rock since I moved to LA in 2011. They have traditional diner fare, but they also have a Thai section of the menu (the place is run by Thai women). Our favorite thing to order is a dish called Dr’s Special. It’s basically a stir fry with chicken, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and tomatoes, and it’s really really good. It comes with two ice-cream scoops of rice. I like to add a combination of Thai chilis and fish sauce to this and spice myself out. I also had a glass of apple juice and a coffee.

China_Final_2_BleedsOriginally published in 1937, And China Has Hands, the final published novel of literary gadfly and political radical H.T. Tsiang (author of The Hanging on Union Square), takes place in a 1930s New York defined as much by chance encounters as by economic inequalities and corruption. Tsiang shows us the world of 1930s New York through the eyes of Wan-Lee Wong, a newly arrived, nearly penniless, Chinese immigrant everyman who falls in love with Pearl Chang, a biracial Chinese and African American woman who wanders into his life.

And China Has Hands editor and Tsiang scholar Floyd Cheung writes in his Afterword: “H. T. Tsiang, like his characters, sometimes seems like a man living at the wrong historical moment. He wrote about the double-consciousness of the Asian-American experience before the category of Asian-American was invented. He depicted a half-Black, half-Chinese character before the rise of multiracial consciousness or mixed-race studies. He performed the role of a trickster critic during a time when audiences wanted a native informant. He railed against Chiang Kai-Shek at the very moment that Chiang was being named Time Magazine’s “person of the year.” In addition, he endured Chinese exclusion, the Great Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy era. In short, Tsiang sailed against the wind and tides during his time in the U.S.”

katherine-a-sherbrookeYou’ve said Fill the Sky, while fiction, is based in part on an actual trip you took to Ecuador. Is it true a shaman spit cologne on you?

Yes, as crazy as it sounds, that part is true. It was the first shamanic ceremony I had ever experienced. None of the others were quite so…sticky.

 

Wait, you didn’t go running from all shamans after that?

Actually the harder part, is when a shaman tells you things about yourself you know are true at some level and yet still don’t understand, or are unwilling to admit.

 

Like what?

Well this particular shaman basically told me I was “tired,” which I took offense to since I had left the company I had founded a year before and had been napping religiously ever since. How could I be tired? What he meant though, I understood later, was that I had yet to find what gave me fuel in my life, and so I was destined to feel continually drained if I didn’t figure that out.

finalcoverTess hung up the phone and fought against an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. She wasn’t willing to accept her inability to help, to do something. She had pulled it off four years ago, the last time Ellie was sick. She’d done the research and found just the right medical team to blow away the odds and usher Ellie into remission. But that same team had now told her friend, her dearest friend, that she would be lucky to get another six months—nothing much they could do. And in her desperation, Ellie had already decided that flying off to Ecuador to work with shamans, or medicine people, or whatever they were called might be her only chance at survival. How had she failed her friend so completely?

“Jonathan!” She yelled from her chair.

yancy-4-2Can we talk about something other than fetal surgery?

Oh. Okay. Facial reconstruction?

 

On second thought, forget it. Fetal surgery it is.

I don’t mean to be obsessed, but if I were a character, it would be one those formative backstories.

 

See, look at that. Even during an interview you’re starting with backstory.

You can begin at the beginning, or you can work your way back there.

lamar-herrin-author-photoA question to clear the air: Are you one of those authors who follows a set plan of attack, the ending included, or one who follows his nose and hopes his nose is inspired?

Here’s an extended metaphor, and it’s the best I can do. Say you’re taking a canoe ride on the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio (where I once lived) to Louisville, Kentucky (where I have visited).   Distance approximately 100 miles. You know Cincinnati and to a lesser extent your destination, Louisville. You know the larger towns and cities along both banks, and the major tributaries. You intend to get to Louisville, that is, your ending of your novel, and you have certain characters and certain events (those towns and tributaries) in mind. But you have never been on the river. The currents, snags, small islands, smaller tributaries, the drudgery of day to day paddling—the dispiriting drudgery, the innumerable temptations to give up. You know it all in the abstract, but you don’t know what it’s actually like. Everything could change in a day, and Louisville, if you ever reach it, might not bear much resemblance to the city you have in your mind. That combination of the mapped-out and the powerfully and subtly unforeseen is, metaphorically, how I’d describe the writing of a novel.