January 06, 2012
Some behind-the-scenes advice for attending The National Book Awards, or any literary party:
January 06, 2012
Some behind-the-scenes advice for attending The National Book Awards, or any literary party:
April 09, 2011
*From the story “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go.”
Georgie knew before he left that Lanae would be fucking Kenny by the time he got back to Virginia. At least she’d been up front about it, not like all those other husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends, shined up and cheesing for the five o clock news on the day their lovers shipped out, and then jumping into bed with each other before the plane landed. When he’d told Lanae about his orders, she’d just lifted an eyebrow, shook her head, and said “I told you not to join the goddamn army.” Before he left for basic training, she’d stopped seeing him, stopped taking his calls even, said “I’m not waiting for you to come home dead, and I’m damn sure not having Esther upset when you get killed.”
That was how he knew she loved him at least a little bit; she’d brought the kid into it. Lanae wasn’t like some single mothers, always throwing their kid up in people’s faces. She was fiercely protective of Esther, kept her apart from everything, even him, and they’d been in each other’s lives so long that he didn’t believe for a second that she was really through with him this time. Still, he missed her when everyone else was getting loved visibly and he was standing there with no one to say goodbye to. Even her love was strategic, goddamn her, and he felt more violently toward the men he imagined touching her in his absence than toward the imaginary enemy they’d been war-gaming against. On the plane he had stared out of the window at more water than he’d ever seen at once, and thought of the look on her face when he said goodbye.
She had come to his going away party like it was nothing, showed up in skintight jeans and that cheap but sweet-smelling baby powder perfume and spent a good twenty minutes exchanging pleasantries with his mother before she even said hello to him. She’d brought a cake that she’d picked up from the bakery at the second restaurant she worked at, told one of the church ladies she was thinking of starting her own cake business. Really? he thought, before she winked at him and put a silver fingernail to her lips. Lanae could cook a little, but the only time he remembered her trying to bake she’d burnt a cake she’d made from boxed mix and then tried to cover it up with pink frosting. Esther wouldn’t touch the thing, and he’d run out and gotten a Minnie Mouse Ice Cream cake from the grocery store. He’d found himself silently listing these non-secrets, the things about Lanae he was certain of: she couldn’t bake, there was a thin but awful scar running down the back of her right calve, her eyes were amber in the right light.
They’d grown up down the street from each other. He could not remember a time before they were friends, but she’d had enough time to get married and divorced and produce a little girl before he thought to kiss her for the first time, only a few months before he’d gotten his orders. In fairness, she was not exactly beautiful; it had taken some time for him to see past that. Her face was pleasant but plain, her features so simple that if she were a cartoon she’d seem deliberately underdrawn. She was not big, exactly, but pillowy, like if you pressed your hand into her it would keep sinking and sinking because there was nothing solid to her. It bothered him to think of Kenny putting his hand on her that way, Kenny who’d once assigned numbers to all the waitresses at Ruby Tuesdays based on the quality of their asses, Kenny who’d probably never be gentle enough to notice what her body did while it was his.
It wasn’t Lanae who met him at the airport when he landed back where he’d started. It was his mother, looking small in the crowd of people waiting for arrivals. Some of them were bored, leaning up against the wall like they were in line for a restaurant table, others peered around the gate like paparazzi waiting for the right shot to happen. His mother was up in front, squinting at him like she wasn’t sure he was real. She was in her nurse’s uniform, and it made her look a little ominous. When he came through security she ran up to hug him so he couldn’t breathe. “Baby,” she said, then asked how the connecting flight had been, and then talked about everything but what mattered. Perhaps after all of his letters home she was used to unanswered questions, because she didn’t ask any, not about the war, not about his health, not about the conditions of his honorable discharge or what he intended to do upon his return to civilian society.
She was all weather and light gossip through the parking lot. “The Cherry Blossoms are beautiful this year,” she was saying as they rode down the Dulles Toll Road, and if it had been Lanae saying something like that he would have said Cherry Blossoms? Are you fucking kidding me? but because it was his mother things kept up like that all the way around 395 and back to Alexandria. It was still too early in the morning for real rush hour traffic, and they made it in twenty minutes. The house was as he’d remembered it, old, the bright robin’s egg blue of the paint cheerful in a painfully false way, like a woman wearing red lipstick and layers of foundation caked over wrinkles. Inside, the surfaces were all coated with a thin layer of dust, and it made him feel guilty his mother had to do all of this housework herself, even though when he was home he’d almost never cleaned anything.
He’d barely put his bags down when she was off to work, still not able to take the whole day off. She left with promises of dinner later. In her absence it struck him that it had been a long time since he’d heard silence. In the desert there was always noise. When it was not the radio, or people talking, or shouting, or shouting at him, it was the dull purr of machinery providing a constant background soundtrack, or the rhythmic pulse of sniper fire. Now it was a weekday in the suburbs and the lack of human presence made him anxious. He turned the tv on and off four times, flipping through talk shows and soap operas and thinking this was something like what had happened to him: someone had changed the channel on his life. The abruptness of the transition overrode the need for social protocol, so without calling first he got into the old Buick and drove to Lanae’s, the feel of the leather steering wheel strange beneath his hands. The brakes screeched every time he stepped on them, and he realized he should have asked his mother how the car was running before taking it anywhere, but the problem seemed appropriate—he had started this motion, and the best thing to do was not to stop it.
Kenny’s car outside of Lanae’s duplex did not surprise him, nor did it deter him. He parked in one of the visitor spaces and walked up to ring the bell.
“Son of a bitch! What’s good?” Kenny asked when he answered the door, as if Georgie had been gone for a year on a beer run.
“I’m back,” he said, unnecessarily. “How you been man?”
Kenny looked like he’d been Kenny. He’d always been a big guy, but he was getting soft around the middle. His hair was freshly cut in a fade, and he was already in uniform, wearing a shiny gold nametag that said Kenneth, and beneath that, Manager, which had not been true when Georgie left. Georgie could smell the apartment through the door, Lanae’s perfume and floral air freshener not masking that something had been cooked with grease that morning.
“Not, bad,” he said. “I’ve been holding it down over here while you been holding it down over there. Glad you came back in one piece.”
Kenny gave him a one armed hug, and for a minute Georgie felt like an asshole for wanting to say holding it down? you’ve been serving people KFC.
“Look man, I was on my way to work, but we’ll catch up later, alright?” Kenny said, moving out of the doorway to reveal Lanae standing there, still in the t-shirt she’d slept in. Her hair was pulled back in a headscarf, and it made her eyes look huge. Kenny was out the door with a nod and a shoulder clasp, not so much as a backwards glance at Lanae standing there. The casual way he left them alone together bothered Georgie. He wasn’t sure if Kenny didn’t consider him a threat or simply didn’t care what Lanae did; either way he was annoyed.
“Hey,” said Lanae, her voice soft, and he realized he hadn’t thought this visit through any further than that.
Kind of a lot, actually. I’m an only child who’s never had any kind of a roommate, so I got used to getting away with it. Besides, it comes in handy on public transit. I apparently have one of those faces that says: Talk to me. Confess. Strangers sit next to me on buses and start telling their life stories. There’s something overwhelming about being that approachable, and on days when I feel like I don’t have enough to offer in return, which is most days, I ride the bus holding a book and wearing headphones, but sometimes that doesn’t work. I rode into Chicago once with a teenage runaway who had told me all about her boyfriend troubles by the time we arrived, and out of Chicago once with a man who’d just gotten out of jail and needed to talk about it. I ran into a woman I’d never met before in a hotel lobby and she began telling me about the measures she was taking to escape an abusive marriage. A man on a bus in Missouri once sniffed me, and somehow got from inquiring about my perfume as a potential gift for his wife to telling me about the problems in his marriage. Three bus drivers in three different states have proposed to me. Once, I was hungover and limping across an Iowa City parking lot because I’d twisted my ankle the night before, and a man came running over and said I looked like a writer and maybe I could help him, and handed me a cassette tape he said contained government secrets. On my second day in Paris, people came up to ask me for directions in several languages that I didn’t speak. Years ago, in an Amtrak snack car, I sat with some guys who, apropos of nothing, asked me if I thought they’d be extradited from the state they were visiting in order to face drug charges in the state we’d just left. Last week I was standing at the bus stop with about ten people, and a woman walking by ignored all ten other people and stopped and stood in front of me and kept talking until I took my headphones out. She asked me if I was ready to have my palm read, and when I said no, gave me her address and told me she’d be there when I was ready. I’m hoping this is the beginning of a narrative arc that leads to me being told I have superpowers, preferably the zappy lightning bolt kind.
Anyway, since I am currently without zappy powers, I find talking to myself in public cuts down on the number of people who trust me enough to launch into personal conversations.
I don’t know. I never listened to it. I didn’t have a cassette player at the time.
I’m the kind of writer who finds people really beautiful and interesting and compelling and lets the world come at her right until the point where I can’t handle any of it, and need to zone out completely for a while. That was one of those days. Or, alternately, I’m the kind of writer who grew up on mysteries and legal thrillers, and I knew that entanglements with secret cassette tapes never end well for the listener. Anyway, like I said, I didn’t have a cassette tape player at the time, and I moved a few months after that, and then I moved again a year later, and that tape got left somewhere in Wisconsin. (IF YOU’RE READING THIS, SECRET AGENTS IN CHARGE OF TAPE RECOVERY, PLEASE NOTE THAT THE TAPE IS IN WISCONSIN. DON’T BE RANSACKING MY APARTMENT IN DC, UNLESS YOU’RE GOING TO FINALLY UNPACK ALL THE BOXES I SHOVED IN THE CLOSET. WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR IS IN WISCONSIN.)
I hope you’re happy.
I think the characters in my book would have moved a lot even if I’d stayed put—short stories are more often than not about transitions. But I got used to moving a lot as a kid, and I got used to, for better and for worse, the possibilities that came with it: there was always something new and shiny and potentially better around that corner over there, there was every two or so summers the chance for transformation. I’m a Scorpio; I like transformation. While I was writing the book I moved primarily for writing. There was a luxury in starting as young as I did—I was 20 when I moved to Iowa for the workshop—and I didn’t have to worry about what a move would mean for my kids or my relationship or the career I’d left to be a writer, because I didn’t have any of that. I had a cat. She liked airplanes. I went where I wanted to, or where they were going to pay me to write. I had finished high school and college early enough that I wasn’t supposed to be in any particular place doing any particular things. There were things for which I felt responsible, but they were not chosen responsibilities, and so it was less damning to be failing at them, and back then even the time I wasted felt like time I’d been gifted in the first place. I got to see a lot of the country that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
When the book came out, there were a lot of reviews or interviews that introduced me as just out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I would be a bit taken aback, because that whole experience feels like it was a very long time ago. It was only five years ago I graduated, but I’ve had four jobs and six addresses since then.
I’m not romantic about MFA programs. I’m in favor of critical analysis of all structures and institutions. I just think a lot of the supposed critical discourse around MFA programs is lazy and sloppy and boring. That’s a pretty self-serving opinion, no? Not really. I’m arguing not against criticism of MFA programs or work that comes out of them, but for better criticism of MFA programs, or more precisely, criticism of the work that leads us into a discussion of process, as opposed to criticism of process as a stand in for discussion of the work. The better formed a criticism is, the more devastating it is. In spite of the fact that I’m a writer with an MFA and I teach in an MFA program, I rarely feel devastated by a criticism of workshop, or “workshop fiction.” More often than not I just feel annoyed by the way the argument is formed. I’ve read reviews where critics call a particular book or story overly workshopped, and I always think How do they know which stories the author workshopped and which they didn’t? I wouldn’t let my undergrads get away with an argument like that, because the premise is unverifiable.
As a person who finds value in good criticism, I’d rather read the review that gives me something to learn from or something to argue against or something that clearly situates the critic’s aesthetic desires, than a review with some vague assertion that the problem with the book is workshop, even if that more specific review might be harder to read because I couldn’t dismiss it offhand. For example, I wrote a book that opens with a teenage girl having sex with two brothers in the same night and ends with arson. My book may have any number of problems, but those problems are not that there’s no action, or that all of the plots are all interior, so when I see criticisms like that I think either the critic’s Saturday nights are way more interesting than mine if arson and brother-sex don’t register as action, or the critic is reaching into a laundry list of gripes about contemporary or “mfa” fiction, instead of taking the time to precisely articulate their gripes with my book, and then I disengage, instead of engaging, which is the opposite of how discourse works. The funny thing is that reading criticism of books is almost exactly like being in an MFA program and reading workshop letters. Reading a review that says the problem with any particular book is that the author went to “workshop,” is like getting a workshop letter that says “The problem with this story is that I don’t like your shoes and I assume you were wearing them when you wrote it.” Until and unless you’ve actually fleshed out the argument linking those things, I’m going to assume they’re unrelated.
They hurt. Grammy always said suffer for beauty. It applies to both footwear and writing.
Sigh. No, you read on the internet that there’s a story in my book where a black child has a white mother and a white grandmother who is not very kind to her, for reasons both race-related and not. Because I am also a black person with a white grandmother, some people seem to have assumed that story is true, in spite of the fact that my actual grandmother herself married a black man and had four black children, and has probably never been to Tallahassee unless it was when she was working as a traveling saleswoman, and has probably never been in a country club, unless it was when she was working as a bartender. Also, I did not burn down my high school and I did not lose my virginity the day that Tupac died. I write realism, but creation of a convincing illusion is my job. I don’t understand why people think it’s cool to be all wink wink nudge nudge aren’t you really writing memoir? I don’t go around asking people how often they get away with faking their way through their jobs, and pretend it’s a compliment. Then again, I guess most people’s jobs aren’t to be liars.
Talking about my book makes me feel like a stage parent, jumping in to answer the question my kid should have answered on his or her own. I wrote words and sent them out into the world as a book, and if they’re not enough to speak for themselves without me explaining them, then there’s really no point in talking about them at all. If you want to know about me, or what I think about things, you should ask me questions. If you want to know about my book, or what it thinks about things, you should read it.
I don’t know. Juggling multiple jobs and a public/private self is kind of tricky sometimes. Don’t you think it’s kind of weird that I picked a career as a writer in part so I could basically sit around the house all day in my pajamas thinking about words and not having to deal with anybody, and then the reward for that career working out beyond my wildest dreams is that I am a professor and a mildly public figure and I have to talk to people all day all the time, often in this public and explicitly performative way? Doesn’t that seem strange to you? I like the moments where those interactions transcend the performative, and they make everything worth it, but it’s sometimes hard to predict when they’ll come around.
I don’t like that word. I don’t even know what that word means.
Only when I’m responding to questions that were framed that way. Part of why I don’t like the term “outsider,” is that it implies that “inside,” is the actual center of things, that the space we think of as “inside,” is somehow fixed or inherently desirable. In most of my work there is no proper and unproblematic center. Partly this a function of having written a book in which some of the characters come from backgrounds where they are marginalized, and don’t want to fully assimilate into anything so much as they want to be themselves and not have that limit their possibilities. In a broader sense though, it’s a product of the book being set in and therefore in part about a particular cultural moment— a moment in which there is less and less of a blueprint for adulthood, where there isn’t an official threshold to cross to be a grown person. That may be a frightening thing on occasion, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
No. There are eight stories and only two are about adolescence. The book is, I guess, substantially about the gulf between the people we discover we are and the people we imagined we’d be someday.