The short stories in Paige Cooper’s Zolitude are dark and uncanny, and it takes a while to get adjusted to her world. Even a story like Moriah, which starts off with a woman driving a bookmobile to a remote community of registered sex offenders—a premise that’s odd, to be sure, but still within the bounds of the plausible—may end up taking a sudden turn into fantasy, leaving you to sort out what’s just happened. In this guest essay, Paige talks about discovering another author with a flair for the fantastic, Australia’s Peter Carey. But this is no simple panegyric; Cooper’s nuanced appreciation of Carey’s short stories helps us see certain “gaps,” as she calls them, that we can learn to recognize (as both readers and writers) and face head on.
When we were nineteen my new friend said, “What about Peter Carey, though? Did you read the one where he goes ‘EVERY TIME WE FUCK A HORSE DIES’?” We knew each other from our undergraduate fiction workshop. She was the best writer at the table. This was because she was the best reader. We’d go for spring rolls and cokes at a Vietnamese place off-campus. I never mentioned the demolished copies of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire in my dorm room. Maybe I alluded to the uncracked copy of War & Peace. Mostly I wrote down names she mentioned.
“Uh, no,” I said. I cared about fucking, I cared about horses, I liked capslock. I wrote PETER CAREY in my student agenda. A few weeks or months later I was at the discount bookstore downtown where everything was always remaindered or crap and Collected Stories was sitting on top of a bin of low-fat cookbooks. It became the first book of short fiction I’d ever purchased. Plausibly, it became the first contemporary short fiction I’d ever read (despite having already written two or three short stories in order to get into a creative writing program so that I could, presumably, write more.)
If you’ve read Carey, you’ve probably read Oscar and Lucinda, or The True History of the Kelly Gang, or maybe The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, or one of the more recent ones. He’s got a lot. He’s won two Bookers. My favorite Carey novels overflow grossly, variously gaudy or bawdy, bloated with injustice. Each is giddy and cunning in its own invented or reinvented language. Carey’s short stories are not like that. While they’re as ambitious in premise as his novels, the language is arch, dry, minimal. The stories don’t build worlds, they tack up some scaffolding and walk away.
In the one where every time they fuck a horse dies (a.k.a. “Life & Death in the South Side Pavilion”), the narrator is not sure that his station is still referred to by the Company as the South Side Pavilion, or whether he should still refer to himself as a Shepherd 3rd Class. In a corner of the pavilion there is a bed, a gas cooker, a refrigerator and a television set. There is also a large pool. The rest of the pavilion is occupied by a herd of horses. A woman named Marie shows up sometimes to have sex with the narrator.
The narrator writes letters to unknown superiors, pleading to be relieved of his post because he can’t stop the horses from falling into the pool and drowning loudly and horribly. The narrator knows very little; his world is circumscribed into a bleakly-detailed futurelessness. Reading all this fifteen years ago, I was bewildered then annoyed then excited: the narrator’s constriction was my freedom. I’d never read anything with so many gaps for me to fill. The story forced me to be responsible for it.
Carey could write the fantastic so precisely that it became realism. Other stories that stuck with me from that book: “Conversations with Unicorns,” “A Windmill in the West,” and “The Journey of a Lifetime.” The cave-dwelling English-speaking unicorns living on the line between ignorance and innocence; the fence in the desert on the border of America and Australia; the minor bureaucrat and his fetish for luxury trains: these stories don’t eschew reality so much as opt for a larger one.
Carey was writing realities that could contain the fantastic, and allow it to act as the fantastic does: unpredictably, like emotion. Fabulous or surreal elements defamiliarize the world the same way falling in or out of love does. Reading him, I learned I didn’t have to abandon my imagination and start recording my domestic resentments in order to write literary fiction. (Remember I was nineteen, I liked false binaries.) However, I didn’t learn—not for years and not from these stories—that writing the fantastic doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility for the real.
The stories in the collection were first published in the 1970s, and re-reading these four in particular I see a little Saunders, a little Barthelme, a little Millhauser. I also see one demographic: straight white men clinging to what little social status is left to them, confused and often pathetic. Perhaps this is as it should be: Carey doesn’t appropriate experiences that aren’t his. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with anyone else’s experience.
There are two female characters in the four stories I’ve been re-reading: Marie and an unnamed sex worker. The woman is professional. Marie is sharp and funny. Both are cannier than their narrating men. Neither does anything but speak a few lines and have sex. Meanwhile, class is central but race is never mentioned. Carey doesn’t even specify the color of the unicorns, because the default for unicorns is also white.
Carey is vigilant about power, class, hegemony, bureaucracy, and morality. However, my suspicion is that, in these stories at least, he cared about injustice only as it affected him. This authorial tightness of scope is a correlate of the narrators’ constricted knowledge. These are minimalist short stories: their ambitions are focused. But if a writer is capable of building a story out of gaps in knowledge, surely that writer can—and would be excited to—make use of gaps in empathy as well.
As a kid I was aware that I read to escape, and I was ashamed. Escapism, I was told, was the opposite of “honest work.” (By this my folks meant homework; though I was also neglecting human connection, which is harder work.) There is a risk, in writing dinosaurs or giant eagles or spaceship romance—all of which I have done, albeit using special literary sentences—that the fantasy-as-larger-reality becomes just a different reality. A straight reality, a white one. Able-bodied, cisgender. An easier reality, where questions of cultural theft, fetishization, the male gaze, white privilege, don’t exist if the author doesn’t want them to.
Part of the work of a fiction writer is necessarily to frame, which requires exclusion. Excluding what’s difficult becomes a kind of escapism that is, yes, legitimately shameful. Let me escape to a place where the only problems are the ones that affect me. You know. Horses, fucking, capslock.
Carey said he didn’t write his latest novel, A Long Way from Home, until now because he had felt it wasn’t his place, as a white Australian, to write about the country’s history of brutal racial violence, but eventually ignoring it became untenable. I can’t speak to his success, but I’d guess there are gaps in that novel. I don’t mean imperfection, which is a given. I mean gaps left open for empathy rather than fact. The process is often painful, the results inadequate. Erect the scaffolding, just don’t walk away. Attend to the gaps gratefully, because the story will make you responsible for it.
I first learned about Leesa Cross-Smith in late 2017, when she wrote an essay about country musician Sturgill Simpson for Oxford American. Well, really, it was as much about her path to artistic success as it was about his, about the inspiration she drew from his work. And she said: “I got here by writing the stories I wanted to write, by not worrying about where the publishers would put me or if my readers would find me. I trust them. They trust me. They’re smart, and they know what they’re looking for. I may not be easily labeled, but I’m here anyway and it ain’t half bad.”
Well, right then, I wanted to see what she had done. So I asked her publisher about what was then an upcoming debut novel, Whiskey & Ribbons, and I’m here to tell you now: This is the real deal. You want to be in on the ground floor of Leesa Cross-Smith fandom, and this is your chance. Go for it.
I call Whiskey & Ribbons cozy and romantic. I talk often of coziness and comfort, because I am (sometimes) a naturally anxious person. Whenever I find myself worried about someone or something, real or fictional, I like to place them in a comforting spot, imagine things when they are safe and right again. In It Chooses You, Miranda July writes, “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.” I rewrite things in my head and fanfic in my brain in order to fix sad endings, in order to make them okay. Coping and hope and holding on are just a few things that inspired me to write Whiskey & Ribbons.
Some years ago, a local police officer was shot and killed. His shift was soon to be over or had already ended, but he never made it home. I thought about him and his family a lot. And after 9/11 I watched a lot of interviews with the widows, specifically… the pregnant ones, the ones with small children… I listened to how they spoke about coping, about grieving, about how it felt when their worlds were turned upside down.
In Whiskey & Ribbons, a police officer named Eamon is killed in the line of duty, leaving behind his pregnant wife Evangeline, his best friend and adopted brother Dalton, and a lot of broken hearts. Since I was writing about something so heavy and dark, I wanted to give Evangeline and Dalton a comfy, cozy place to land. I really love snowed-in stories so I made it snow. An ice storm, a blizzard. Evangeline and Dalton are together in the home they now share and six-month-old baby Noah is safe and warm at Evangeline’s parents’ place. Evangeline’s bubbling feelings for Dalton spill over and she kisses him at the piano. I wanted to carefully and respectfully navigate that tricky territory, those romantic feelings.
Evangeline and Dalton have the comfort of their own home, their pajamas, some whiskey, some wine, some music, hot chocolate, coffee, food, a fireplace. And those emotions—intoxicating—are flooding them both from head to toe. Also, during the course of the novel, we hear from Eamon before he is killed and Dalton, too. Dalton’s love life and the search for his biological father. Eamon’s career as a police officer and his changing feelings about that career as he meets and marries Evangeline and how that shifts again once Evangeline is pregnant. He’s a good man who wants to do right by his family and also by the community he’s chosen to serve. I write of the strong brotherhood bond that Eamon and Dalton share. I also write of Dalton’s feelings for Evangeline after Eamon’s death and his feelings about stepping into his new role of surrogate father to baby Noah.
I made an awful thing happen to these characters. A random act of violence shatters everything they’ve ever known and they are forced to deal with that. I wanted to surround them with love and light, to provide an avenue of hope and peace, in spite of all that. Because what interests me is survival and goodhearted people. What interests me is faith and holding on. What interests me is all the different ways we cope and share our humanness. I set out to write a romantic, heartfelt story featuring middle-class African Americans, a story that was at times sexy and funny and sweet, a story set in Kentucky, a story rooted in the South, a story about families, both biological and chosen. I set out to somehow make the dark, sad and crooked, right and bright again.
I met David Hallberg at the midtown offices of the American Ballet Theater, where they’d set aside a conference room for us to talk about his new memoir, A Body of Work. It’s about his relentless quest for perfection, from his earliest days as a ballet student in Arizona to his role as a principal dancer at ABT (and as the first American to hold a position of comparative stature at the Bolshoi’s dance company). But it’s also about realizing that, even though he thought he was pushing himself to the limit, he was really holding himself back—and about how a career-threatening injury drove him not just into physical therapy but into a complete overhaul of his emotional approach to his craft.
As I was reading A Body of Work, I started thinking Jim Bouton’s classic baseball memoir, Ball Four. Both books are by young men who’ve dedicated themselves to their field but find themselves coming face-to-face with the prospect of no longer being able to do the thing they love, far sooner than they’d ever anticipated. Fortunately, Hallberg was able to make the comeback, and as this episode goes online he’s approaching the first anniversary of his return to the stage.
Listen to Life Stories #101: David Hallberg (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (If you’re already an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)
The Language of Trees is the third in Steve Wiegenstein’s series of novel about Daybreak, a fictional utopian community in 19th-century Missouri. I’d not come across the previous two, Slant of Light and This Old World, but it doesn’t matter; you’ll be able to dive into the world Wiegenstein’s created and sort out the relationships between the various characters easily enough—and chances are you’ll get hooked by the story of how the community deals with the arrival of a lumber and mining company looking to acquire the natural resources within Daybreak’s boundaries and the surrounding landscape… which makes this a very timely story indeed. (And, he says, there’s already a fourth novel in the works, which will bring Daybreak into the twentieth century.) Here, he talks a bit about some of the historical inspirations for these novels.
In 2006, I awoke one morning with what I thought was a great idea for a novel.
Before I go any further, let me give you some background about myself. I am a longtime teacher at the college level, and over the years have been fascinated by the utopian movements of the 19th century. There were lots of these communities across the United States in the 1830s and 1840s; the Shakers, Brook Farm, New Harmony, Oneida, are just a few of the most familiar names. I also have a background in creative writing, although in 2006 I had not pursued that interest for quite a while.
The idea I woke up with that April morning was to combine these two interests and create a fictional utopian community in the Missouri Ozarks, the area where I grew up, in the years before and during the Civil War. I figured that the clash of a group of idealists with the troubles of the times would provide lots of opportunity for drama. So I started to write, and for the past eleven years I have rarely gone more than two days in a row without spending time working on the books that have grown out of that initial idea.
The utopian impulse, in the abstract, is a reasonable response to the messiness and inherent unfairness of life. Everyone agrees to a set of principles that will govern their behavior, and from that point on, everyone gets treated equally. That’s the theory, anyway, but history is littered with examples of how that theory foundered on the rocks of human imperfection. The contrast between ideal and actual provides ready-made tension, which appealed to my instincts as a writer.
Viewing utopian communities entirely through the lens of “failure,” though, is a mistake. Success and failure on whose terms? The more I studied these communities, the more I came to respect and even admire their astonishing levels of commitment, the sacrifices members made to advance the community ideal, and their persistence in the face of hardship and external disapproval. The intensely human dramas of aspiration and love grew in importance, while the mere sociological curiosity faded.
The community that drew me the most was the Icarian community, which was composed mainly of French immigrants and lived in the Midwest. Their founder was a man named Etienne Cabet, a prominent socialist who served for a time in the Chamber of Deputies. His radical ideas got him into trouble, and while in exile, he read the work of Robert Owen and wrote a utopian novel, Voyage en Icarie, which gained him attention and a sizable following.
Scholars generally believe that Cabet wrote his novel as a work of social criticism intended to point out flaws in French society, but to the surprise of many, including Cabet himself, many of his followers took it as a blueprint for the establishment of an ideal society. In 1848, Cabet found himself at the head of a group of colonists sailing for New Orleans.
The rest is a story of optimism, disaster, and determination worthy of Victor Hugo. When the group arrived in New Orleans, they were met by the tattered remnants of their advance guard, which had been sent to secure land in Texas but returned with the news that the land they had bought was impossible to settle. Their initial dream thwarted, the colonists made a deal out of necessity to buy the recently abandoned town of Nauvoo, Illinois. They steamed upriver, losing members to cholera along the way, and settled among the ruins of the Mormon temple with Cabet as their president.
But after a few years, Cabet proved to be an unsuitable leader, impractical and autocratic, and the colonists voted him out of the presidency. The vote caused a split in the community; Cabet led a group to St. Louis, while the remaining members relocated to southwestern Iowa. The St. Louis group persisted after Cabet’s death until the coming of the Civil War broke them up for good.
The Iowa group, by contrast, prospered during the war as their land holdings and proximity to a rail line fostered a lucrative business raising beef for the Union Army. A fairly steady influx of new immigrants kept their numbers up, but these new French communists were more radical than the older generation, and the colony split up again in the 1870s, with “New Icaria” occupying part of the acreage and “Young Icaria” the other.
The final dissolution of the colony came in 1898, marking the end of a fifty-year experiment in communal living for the Icarians. Those who have read my first novel will recognize some elements of the Icarian story in my fictional Ozark utopia of Daybreak.
As a native of the Missouri Ozarks, I’ve always been steeped in the history and culture of that region. In popular literature, movies, and TV shows, the Ozarks tends to be portrayed as a hotbed of hillbillies, meth cookers, and throwbacks, but I know it as a much more complicated place. It’s a part of rural America, with all the culture and struggles of rural America, and it also has a distinctive history.
The Civil War history of Missouri is incredibly tangled and not well known; it was characterized by Federal occupation of significant towns and cities, with intermittent and savage guerrilla warfare throughout the rural parts of the state. Large-scale battles were few, but nearly everyone outside St. Louis lived in a constant condition of uncertainty as roving bands of fighters, some affiliated with one side or the other and some simply using the war as an excuse, traveled the countryside engaging in warfare on a brutal, person-to-person level.
Combining these elements—a utopian community, the distinctive landscape of the Ozarks, and the experience of Missouri in the Civil War—I couldn’t resist the opportunity to create a novel series that began in that era and is still under way.
Many of the protagonists in Skating on the Vertical, the debut short story collection by Jan English Leary, are women on the edge: A young teacher frustrated by a system rigged against one of her immigrant students; a mother desperate to persuade her teenage daughter not to have an abortion; women struggling not to relapse into self-destructive habits in the face of stress. Nobody comes out the other side “fixed,” but they find the strength to push through just the same. In this guest essay, Leary talks about a writer whose emotional depths helped her realize that she, too, not only had stories to tell but could find the means within her to tell them.
I came late to writing fiction, later than most writers. I was in my mid-thirties with two small children and a full-time job teaching French. I’d always been an addicted reader and a lover of language, but it never occurred to me that I could write fiction. I could write analytical essays about other people’s work, but I couldn’t imagine generating stories myself. It was motherhood that brought me to writing, that made me want to explore the intricacies of human relationships through stories.
Back when I was in high school, I read Salinger’s Nine Stories, and my eyes opened to the magic of short fiction. I started reading my parents’ issues of The New Yorker and came to know the work of Eudora Welty, John Updike, John Cheever, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. As a young adult, I loved the work of Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Tobias Wolff, and Lorrie Moore. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s, after I’d been writing fiction for a few years myself, that I encountered the work of Antonya Nelson in The New Yorker and The Best American Short Stories. In her work, I knew I’d found someone who spoke to me not only as a writer but also as a woman and a mother.
Nelson writes about the power of maternal love, but she doesn’t shy away from allowing her characters to have moments of doubt, regret, even rage and to make big mistakes. She is unflinching in her honesty. No one does a better job than Nelson of populating her stories with families that are broken and cobbled together but bound by fragile yet fierce love. Sometimes these are biological bonds; sometimes they are alliances made of marriage. And with Nelson, there’s always a complicated family web: ex-spouses, in-laws, step-children. But what endures are the bonds of familial love.
In the title story of the collection Nothing Right, Hannah is the divorced mother of Leo, a fifteen-year-old whose eighteen-year-old girlfriend, Niffer, is pregnant and is planning to have the baby. Hannah is clear-eyed about the odds stacked against them, but she stands up to take on the bulk of this new responsibility. No saint herself, she drinks too much, is fired from her job for stealing prescription pads, and does her son’s homework for him. But she is first and foremost a mother who opens her heart to her son’s unlikeable girlfriend and then to the premature baby, who spends his first days in the NICU:
Hannah could only assume that the others shared her mixed feelings about the birth; maybe it would be best if the baby did not survive. It had been created by children, after all, and like other approximate projects—the sugar-cube igloo, the lumpy clay bowl—it was possible that they had not gotten it right; they’d used sticks and buttons, string and papier mâché.
But when she saw the baby—less than three pounds, without tear ducts or eyelashes, lacking the ability to inflate his own lungs—she could not wish him gone. Inside his plastic bin he wailed without sound, miniature body plastered with wires, limbs stuck with tubes, smashed blue face under a clear mask. Leo stood by, Hannah’s son the delinquent, done up in surgical garb from head to toe; he was reduced to a set of floating frightened eyes. He turned on Hannah as beseeching a look as she had ever received.
Alcohol abuse, a depressed, post-partum teen who rejects her premature baby, the unexpected maturity of a teenage boy embracing fatherhood at a young age, a grandmother, worried, yet secretly thrilled and ready to help raise this baby—it’s a beautiful evocation of an unconventional family.
In “Kansas,” from the same collection, a complicated, three-generation family lives together in Wichita. The adults in this story are preoccupied by unwanted pregnancies, unhappy marriages, and hangovers, so they don’t notice for several hours that Kay-Kay, the seventeen-year-old of the family, has gone missing with her three-year-old cousin, Cherry Sue. While waiting to receive news of their whereabouts, Kay-Kay’s aunt Anna, the mother of the toddler and, unhappily pregnant again, thinks about what keeps her in this marriage and this extended family:
Four years ago her [Kay-Kay's] adolescence had descended upon the household like a lit match in a powder keg. Now the disaster had passed. Gone were the frightening clothes, angry music, Sharpie-marker makeup. Restored was the pretty child who bathed every day and made conversation with her family. Anna sniffed sentimentally. She didn’t love her husband, but she loved these girls. Her own little one had been a factor in the survival of the other. Another baby might wrest another worthy thing from the shipwreck of her marriage; she might once again help aid the greater good. Without Cherry Sue, she and her husband would have gone their separate ways, but now their fates seemed impossibly knotted…. Cherry Sue loved him, and so would the new baby; children didn’t know any better.
Kay-Kay reveals an untapped source of maturity in taking care of not only her cousin but also her grandmother, whom they’ve brought along on their adventure to visit the family homestead before returning home safely in time to scold the adults about their neglect. Despite her youth, she’s the most adult member of the family.
In “The United Front,” from the collection Female Trouble, Nelson writes about Jacob and Cece, a couple who are reeling from the news of their infertility. They decide against all logic to go on a vacation to Disney World where they are surrounded by families with children. While walking around the park, Cece fixes her attention on a mother of five with three older children and twin babies in a stroller. “A breeder,” Cece calls this woman who is also pregnant again. Cece and Jacob fantasize about which of the two babies they’d choose to kidnap. Cece stares at babies in strollers, babies in arms, babies she’ll never have. At one point, the mother walks away from the stroller to take an ill-advised roller-coaster ride, given her pregnancy. Jacob watches his wife head over toward the twins:
Cece was gone, on her way over to the children, striding fast on her short legs, leaving Jacob alone to watch. She waved at the big girls, exclaimed over the little ones. She asked to hold the noisy one, reaching out without waiting for permission.
Jacob steeled himself. If Cece took that baby, he would not only have to hire a lawyer and come up with bail money, but first he would have to pluck the child from her arms. Possibly he’d have to streak after her through the crowds, dashing among the rides and costumed characters—all this nonsense that his wife wants so badly to claim a share of—and bring her to the ground. Security here, he was sure, would be exemplary, quick and efficient, sovereign. It would be of no interest to anyone but Jacob that she had waited for a twin to kidnap, waiting for a baby who wouldn’t be as missed.
It was hot and Jacob’s head seemed cooked. The setting was surreal and thoughts of Crystal Lake had made him feel crazy. Sense was abandoning him. He focused on his wife, who was rocking the squirming unhappy child. She had a way with babies, a rhythm in her hips, a friendly smile. Babies had been stolen from her and she’d had no recourse. Her desire was larger than his, she alone understood its power, the force it had to make her behave less like a saint and more like a human. Watching her now, dizzy with sun and loyalty, Jacob pledged himself to her anew; if she ran, he would not stop her. When she ran, he would come along.
The maternal impulse, all the stronger for being thwarted, fuels this woman’s impulse to act, to take what she wants, to justify her imagined theft. Her husband doesn’t share this desire, but he loves his wife so he decides to support her, to will her success in this crime. The story ends on the brink of a decision. Will she or won’t she?
Sometimes, it’s the most unlikely characters who bind families together. The formerly rebellious teenager shows a gift for nurturing; the boy who can’t get his life together steps up to fatherhood at the age of sixteen; a childless woman contemplates stealing a baby from a woman with too many children. Nelson knows how to regulate the burners under her fiction pot, to let things simmer, then boosting the heat when needed to combine unlikely ingredients which deepen the flavor.
Nelson gives me license to allow the mothers and other characters in my fiction to make mistakes that are bad but not fatal. She challenges me to push them to think unthinkable thoughts and even to say unforgiveable things before gaining a measure of redemption. As a writer, I am inspired to take risks, to step outside my fear of failure. As a mother, I recognize a kindred spirit.
For the 100th episode of Life Stories, the podcast where I’ve been talking to memoir writers about their lives and the art of writing memoir, I wanted to do something special. So, in the spring of 2017, I sat down with Kat Kinsman, the author of Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, and Andrea Petersen, the author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety, for a wide-ranging discussion about their personal experiences with anxiety disorder, about maintaining their mental health while dealing with the pressures of their careers in the media industry—like, what does and doesn’t work for them, and why it might or might not work for someone else suffering from anxiety—and about the battle that was then raging to protect our government health care programs. (A battle that we’ll undoubtedly have to fight again before too long.)
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly six years since I uploaded my first Life Stories interview, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have talked to so many fascinating people about their experiences, and about how they’ve striven to communicate their experiences to others. There’s several more interviews already in the pipeline, and while the schedule has been somewhat erratic at times, I’m hoping to establish a steady rhythm in 2018. I hope you’ll continue to join me for those conversations!
Lauren Marks was an actress in her late twenties when she went to Edinburgh in 2007 to direct a friend’s play in the city’s annual Fringe Festival. One night, they went out to a bar, and she was in the midst of a karaoke number when an aneurysm in her brain burst. When she regained consciousness, her ability to communicate with the people around her was massively impaired. A Stitch of Time is the story of her recovery from that aphasia—which was so severe at one point that she lacked a conscious interior voice.
There’s a lot of personal story packed into Lauren’s memoir, and into this conversation. We talk about her frustration at what felt like a parent’s attempt to co-opt her “story,” about her then-boyfriend’s attempt to essentially treat her brain injury as an opportunity to “reboot” their relationship, and about how the injury forced her to fast-track a re-evaluation of her life that had already begun. As she explains, “It’s not unusual for someone twenty-seven in New York to say, ‘This is not enough for me. Do I take a dramatic turn?’”
“I promise you, I did not want to write a memoir. That was not something that I would have wanted—I didn’t even like to read memoirs at the time. It is a weird choice to go from I’m struggling to conjugate a verb and to then think, yeah, I’ll be a writer, great idea! But also, what else could I do?
“I couldn’t do anything entirely independently anymore. I mean, lucky for me, my physical self is okay; I didn’t lose my ability to walk, I can still dress myself, things like that. But I couldn’t manage an independent life. The fact was decided, I was going to be at my parents’ house; I’d be with my parents, in my childhood home, for a while: decision made. I was not an actor, I couldn’t memorize any more, so: decision made. I couldn’t go through a textbook so: decision made, no longer Ph.D. student.
“As these things were off the table, so to speak, then it was much easier to say, well, I’m a writer because I’m writing. I don’t think that means I assumed this book would ever eventually come out to any kind of general audience. But writing is what made me able to write. The more I could write, the better I could write.”
And, as her writing improved, Lauren began to learn more about the neuroscience behind her condition, and that education makes its way into the memoir as well. And we discuss how she drew inspiration from the life stories of Helen Keller and… Casanova?
Listen to Life Stories #99: Lauren Marks (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (If you’re already an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)
When Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich was in law school, she did a summer internship at a Louisiana law firm. She was firmly against the death penalty, and then they asked if she would be prepared to work on the case of convicted child murderer Ricky Langley. Attempting to familiarize herself with the case, she was overwhelmed by memories of being molested by her grandfather—and though her career as a lawyer was pretty much over before it had even begun, her future as a writer was just beginning.
In The Fact of a Body, Marzano-Lesnevich writes about her efforts not just to confront what had happened to her and her sister, and how her family had suppressed it, but also to understand Rickey Langley—not to sympathize with him, as we discuss in this interview, but to understand what drove him to commit his crimes… and how his attempts to seek help before then had gone unanswered.
During our conversation, she also described one of the long-term effects of her grandfather’s molestation, how even as an adult her body would sometimes “freeze up” in a dissociative state—and how, since the writing of this memoir, that had stopped. It led us to discuss the clich&@33; about memoir writing, which is that it’s supposed to be cathartic, a notion she vigorously challenged:
“When I was working on this book, I can’t tell you how many people said to me, ‘Oh, you’re writing a memoir? That must be so therapeutic!’ And I would always want to bite back at them: ‘Not if you’re doing it right!’/p>
Right? If you’re doing it right, you’re dredging up all this stuff, and you have to go into the complexity of it that maybe you didn’t force yourself to think about in the past. And that is not really therapeutic; in fact, it’s often deeply disturbing and unsettling—and there were times working on this book when I just could not be around other humans.”
We also talked a lot about the true crime genre, from the reasons writers choose to write about certain crimes to the creative effort that goes into developing a narrative rooted in the bare facts of a case.
As I was talking with Andrew Forsthoefel in the spring of 2017 about his 4,000-mile walk across the United States, which he writes about in Walking to Listen, I asked a kidding-but-not-kidding question: “So, what were you walking away from?” Because you don’t set off on foot to talk to random strangers unless there’s something you don’t want to deal with at home—but, as Andrew explains, the journey actually forced him to confront everything he’d been dealing with since his parents’ divorce a few years earlier.
And while he did talk to people that he met along the way, I realized that for the vast majority of his journey, he was out there alone with his own thoughts; as I told him, he could just as easily have gone up to the top of a mountain to meditate, but instead he chose to put one foot in front of the other. He agreed:
“It was a long, drawn out, movement-based confrontation with myself, which is what happens in the caves, in solitude, on top of the mountain. It was a similar experience. And the punctuations that you mentioned of the people I got to meet along the way… the people had a way of enhancing all the inner exploration I was having.
So I would do all this inner exploration on the road alone, and then I would meet someone at the end of the day. And I would be able to ask them authentically, sincerely, a question I had about my own exploration, and their experience of it. If I had spent the day dealing with sadness, I might meet someone at the end of the day, and get to talk with them, and the conversation might lead toward sadness, and I could hear about how they navigated that kind of thing.
And I came to realize that each person was a unique wellspring of information, of experiential information. And I could lean into that [wellspring], and drink from it, and we could share in that together.”
Listening to this conversation again a few months later, I was struck by Andrew’s thoughtful determination to really listen to others—to meet them with the full force of his empathy, even when (as we discuss) what they’re telling him is rooted in prejudice and hate. In a political climate where pundits make a lot of noise about “listening” to “forgotten” Americans, Andrew’s story offers a model for genuine conversation.
In the early months of 2017, I met the British concert pianist James Rhodes, who had come to the United States to discuss Instrumental, “a memoir of madness, medication, and music” as the subtitle puts it. Rhodes has a fascinating personal story: He’d played the piano some in his adolescence, then gave it up for a career in financial publishing. When he was twenty-eight, he decided that if he couldn’t be a musician, he’d be an agent for musicians, and reached out to one of the best agents around, who agreed to take him on as an apprentice.
But then they met, and the agent, having asked Rhodes about his interest in music then inviting him to play his own piano, realized that Rhodes was meant to be a musician. And so he went into training—but, in upending his entire life like this, Rhodes was forced to confront his memories of being repeatedly raped by one of his teachers as a child:
“Look, the childhood stuff was always there. I’d never dealt with it, and the one thing I realize now is… you just can’t run away from this stuff. You can’t go through that amount of trauma as a kid and just pretend everything’s fine and push it down and get what seems to be a normal job, have a normal relationship, and pretend everything’s okay.
It just—it doesn’t work. It comes out sideways, and… Because I never did any of the work around it and looked at it in detail, I ended up in real trouble, real quick… Several suicide attempts, nine months in various locked wards, and it was… it was really tough. It almost killed me.
But I got out the other side. And it took some time, but, again, thank God for music, because when I did get out, I had a piano. And the piano doesn’t talk back, and the piano doesn’t have bad side effects, and it doesn’t mess with your head too much, and it kind of kept me on an evenish keel.”
Instrumental is a powerful memoir of surviving sexual trauma and coping with mental illness, but it’s also a work of fierce advocacy for the power of music—Rhodes hates the term “classical music”—to make a difference in our lives. And so our frank and uncensored conversation takes on everything from what’s wrong with today’s classical music scene to the consequences of living in a society that makes an admitted serial sexual assaulter its political leader to the legal battle that threatened to keep this book from ever getting published.
Listen to Life Stories #96: James Rhodes (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (If you’re already an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)
photo: Dave Brown
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