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giffelsauthorphotocredittoTimothyFitzwaterDavid, I’d like to begin, if I may, by saying “thank you” for taking the time to talk with me. I’ve been a big fan of yours for as long as I can remember, and this is kind of, almost surreal for me.

Please. It’s my pleasure. Don’t be nervous. You’ve got five minutes.

 

Some might say that The Hard Way on Purpose is the greatest book written about coming of age in postindustrial Akron, Ohio, in at least the past half-decade. Would you agree?

Considering the publishing industry’s insatiable appetite for essay collections about life in America’s Rust Belt, that’s high praise. Thank you.

Hard Way on Purpose CoverLord, I lived inside those books.

And they were not books that, conventionally speaking, you would choose to live inside, were you choosing to live inside some books. You would choose smart, new volumes: coffee-table books on hibiscus or vintage Vespas, I think, or you would choose something well glossed and shrink-wrapped, written by someone unthreateningly attractive and slightly more clever than you, someone like, say, Elizabeth Gilbert or Calvin Trillin, with whom you could put up for a while, like a hiking partner on the Appalachian Trail. (Yes: you would choose Bill Bryson.)

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Area woman and aspiring writer Jodi Tannenbaum, after a third attempt at getting published by the literary website McSweeney’s (in its “Lists” section), found herself “totally in the middle of that scene from Swingers.”

“You know that famous scene,” she said, “where the guy, not Vince Vaughn… the other guy…he calls a girl he likes and says something embarrassing on her answering machine, so he calls back again to explain, and then again to explain that—wait—what do you mean you didn’t see it?”

Liza Monroy_005Wait, you did what?

I married my best friend for his green card shortly after September 11, 2001. He’s gay and from a Middle Eastern country I call Emiristan to help protect his identity. His student visa was expiring and he would have had to return to live in the closet in a homeland where he could be killed were it found out that he happened to share a gender with the person he romantically loved. I much preferred for him to stay in West Hollywood and with me. In Emiristan, he would likely have had to enter an arranged marriage with a woman, so he entered one with me, instead. Ours had fewer restrictions and no expectations.

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Walter Kirn’s newest book, Blood Will Out: The True Story of Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, is a riveting, chilling, and sometimes funny real-life psychological thriller about Kirn’s fifteen-year friendship with a man whose life story eerily parallels Tom Ripley’s in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Kirn is a witty, sharp observer who will flay himself with the same X-Acto knife precision that he uses to flay his characters. I couldn’t stop reading Blood Will Out—it made me want to dig through my bookshelves, pluck out and reread everything Kirn has ever written.

Saved by the Scallop

MarriageAct CATMy mother’s generous offer to take us to a restaurant we couldn’t otherwise afford would not have been cause for a panicked frenzy under typical circumstances. The night before her arrival, Emir and I scurried around the apartment like squirrels preparing for winter. We buried banking paperwork bearing both our names, photographs of us with the red-suited Elvis impersonator, and Emir’s I-485 forms. My mother had only to see the code I-485 to know what we had done, and we worried she would sniff us out like a German shepherd and fifty-two tons of cocaine at baggage claim.

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When you communicate with your dead brother, you have to do it on the down-low. Communicate with him around other people, but be cool about it. Turn up “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band when it’s on the radio. Sing along loudly, hitting every note and brrrehr-breh-ehr!  The best people will sing along with you. Most people will just sit quietly and listen to you, looking out the window. Some people will try to talk to you while you sing. Don’t answer them. Just keep singing. Play air guitar at the right spot, even though you’ll have to take your hands off the wheel.

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On the morning of September 16, 2013, my writing mentor Les Plesko committed suicide. I heard he fell backwards off the roof of his apartment building. At first, I chose to assume he’d been drunk and walked too close to the edge. I wished I’d been there to catch him. But I learned that when other attempts were unsuccessful, he went to the roof.

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My mother is adamant that I was distraught the evening my father committed suicide. I have no recollection of that. She insists I continued to be very upset the next day. I have no recollection of that either.  In my mind I was stoic, calm, in control, but the events during that time don’t exist in my memory on any type of continuum or even as full scenes. Rather they are present as moments that stand out against a blurry backdrop, so it is possible she is right. I begin to lose details just seconds after my sister finished saying the three words she had called to relay: “Dad shot himself.”

NYWe pile into grungy lofts along lower Broadway, far off on Avenue B, over by the West Side Highway, where our calloused feet turn black from the dust and grime caked on the wooden floors, where we steam up the tall windows with the ecstatic force of our efforts. We are all bargaining for space in these crowded dance classes—an opening in which to toss out a leg, an arm, always negotiating for that extra yard of floor. There is never enough of it, all of us hungry for more emptiness, more attention, more air in which to stretch out our limbs and spines and hearts, to rip through space.

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The Library of Congress breaks down your book into these categories: Children of drug addicts—Massachusetts—biography—drug addicts. What genre would you put your book into?

I really dislike reducing any work of art to a DSM-IV listing. My mother was more than her addictions and mental illness. And I am more than her daughter.

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My mother grabbed the iron poker from the fireplace and said, “Get in the car.”

I pulled on my sneakers and followed her outside. She had that look on her face, distracted and mean, as though she’d just been dragged out of a deep sleep full of dreams. She was mad, I could tell right away, but not at me, not this time.

Her car was a lime-green hatchback with blotches and stripes of putty smeared over the dents. The Shitbox, she called it. We called it, actually. My mother hated the thing so much she didn’t mind if I swore at it. “What a piece of shit,” I’d grumble whenever it stalled on us, which we could gamble on happening at least once a day, more if it was snowing. Far and away the most unreliable car we ever had in our life together, it was a machine that ran on prayer.

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She is engrossed in some sort of looming or woodworking that requires her to wear a bib.

He, in overalls with only one strap fastened, is hammering out a poem. Stuck, he can’t find something pleasing that rhymes with “endeavor.”

She suggests “forever.”

He whispers something under his breath, then raises it an octave and yelps.

828-3886. I recognize the number when I see it flash up on the screen. It’s one of the few phone numbers that I know by heart. We’ve been friends for twenty-two years. Hers were the last digits I learned before we all outsourced our memories to our cell phones. All the other numbers from my past have lost relevancy or don’t connect to the living: street addresses for homes we no longer own, birthdays of grandparents, channels of TV stations, pre-pregnancy shoe size, and of all those landlines long abandoned—hers was the last working phone number.

828-3886. I answer the phone. “Hey, Robin, what’s up?” When you’ve been close friends for over two decades, you can hear the bad news in the sound of their breath. “Oh no,” I said, bracing for the news. “I have cancer.” “What kind?” “Pancreatic.” “Pancreatic,” I repeat with a voice I don’t recognize. Or maybe it’s a finality I haven’t heard in my voice until now. It had started as a slight pain in her abdomen earlier in the year. The initial diagnosis was gastritis.

seattle-awp-starbucks-logoThis week in Seattle (Feb. 26 to March 1), at the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference, anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 writers will congregate in what has become the largest such literary gathering in America. There will be more than 450 panels on every aspect of professional advancement, and a bookfair hosting more than 650 exhibitors, each of whom will pay a hefty fee to be seen among fellow indie presses. A parallel conference of countless off-site events will occur simultaneously, so that anyone with any gumption will have an opportunity to read and promote themselves.

15,000, you say? Does that boggle the mind? Do the colossal numbers to which this professional guild has grown signify the health or sickness of writing?