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Split Screens: An Interview with Richard McGuire

June 12, 2015 | by


Photo © Maelle Doliveux

Last November, on his birthday, I accompanied Richard McGuire to the emergency room. He was experiencing some excruciating back pain. Richard is an unusually polite and considerate man, but as he waited and waited for some relief, I began to worry about him. I asked a passing nurse about pain medication. She poked her head into our room and explained there was a “code” on the floor—the doctors had been dealing with that.

We went quiet. Richard explained that “code blue” usually meant a death.

Half an hour later, Richard was given a Valium and two extra-strength Motrin. He talked about being in the hospital with his father the night his mother died, the machines all going crazy, the medics rushing in and telling them to leave. When his father died, he said, it was different, more peaceful.

Richard was X-rayed, diagnosed with a severe muscle spasm, and discharged. We headed to a restaurant a block away where far-flung friends had gathered for his birthday dinner. It struck me, as we ordered burgers and martinis, that the past few hours could be a strange and miniature overture to his book, Here, which he had just finished. A birth date, a death date, loving and painful memories, banalities, transient spaces, and always an eye on the time. Here launched a month later and has since become a best seller.

I feel that Here is a very new kind of ghost story. Not a scary one, but a haunting one. What portion of the book was inspired by the death of your sister and parents, and what was the original strip inspired by, or an exercise in?

I think their passing set the tone for the book. You see things differently after going through that experience—the idea of impermanence is made more real, and everything seems fragile. The family home had to be sold. Just emptying it took a while. My parents lived there for fifty years, and the house was packed. My mom hated throwing anything away. All the clothes, the photos, the letters and things that had meaning to them. The only thing I took were boxes of photos and some films my dad shot. I think it helped with the grieving process, looking at all that stuff. Read More »

Haunting Houses: An Interview with Angela Flournoy

June 4, 2015 | by


Photo © LaToya T. Duncan

In Detroit, the Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for generations, and now their home is worth a mere tenth of its mortgage. Oh, and it’s haunted—it’s been that way for fifty years, since Cha-Cha, the oldest son of Francis and Viola Turner, was attacked by a haint one summer night. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, set primarily in 2008, tells the Turner clan’s story as they tend to the elderly Viola and decide what to do with the family home.

Flournoy hangs the family’s personal struggles on the political history of Detroit, tracing their move from Arkansas to the bright industrial promise of midcentury Motor City, the electric environment of the 1967 riots, and the city’s long decline. “Lelah,” an excerpt from the novel in the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review, focuses on the youngest Turner child, whose gambling addiction takes her to Motor City, where she loses the last of her money on a game of roulette.

I met Flournoy near the Review’s offices in north Chelsea. I was late, and Flournoy, elegantly dressed and having just arrived from Detroit, had already enjoyed most of her coffee and was patiently talking on her cell phone. We discussed ghosts, gambling, and the blend of personal and political in her novel.

Your novel is full of Detroit history. Did you hear stories about it from your family?

I did a lot of research. One thing I remember hearing of the ’67 riot is that nobody knew what it was while it happened. Nobody knows that today is going to be the day a riot starts. A lot of people in Detroit actually called it an uprising. So I would apply the facts I learned in my research to a character’s life. Imagine you’re getting off work, or you’re at work, and things just feel weird. Then you hear that something’s happening across town, but no one knows what to call this thing, because no one knows how big it is. It’s more difficult for the individual to frame what’s going on as a whole, what’s happening outside of the details in the personal life. Read More »

Ruthless Levity: An Interview with Our London Editor, Adam Thirlwell

May 29, 2015 | by


Photo: Eamonn McCabe

“As usual the world was powdery and blue, like a rococo miniature. I was driving underneath the tree canopy and behind those trees were mansions and their many vehicles, gently arranged on the drive. It was the world as I had always known it, when being driven by my parents to music lessons or football practice or the first ever parties of my youth, the ones that ended at dawn with everyone staring at each other calmly in a field, feeling tired. That was how I always lived, out here on the outskirts of a giant city: the world occurred to me as a series of impressions seen from the windows of a car.”

Adam Thirlwell’s third novel, Lurid & Cute, is made up of such impressions—charming, nostalgic, not quite tethered to reality. The unnamed narrator—formerly a child prodigy, he tells us—is a privileged young man who has quit his office job to pursue his art, and who now lives with his wife at the house of his adoring parents. His talent, as he puts it, is mostly for thinking. The observations above occur to him as he drives his bloodied, comatose best friend to the emergency room, having discovered her suffering some kind of hemorrhage in his hotel bed after a night of ketamine and sex.

At thirty-six, Thirlwell dresses like a youngish teenager—silver sneakers, jeans, T-shirts emblazoned with the Eiffel Tower—and looks perpetually exhausted. In our Skype conversation, he had a way of speaking that, like one of his characters, “sometimes seemed like teasing and sometimes seemed like it wasn’t and it wasn’t always easy to be able to tell the two apart.” “Multiplicity! Levity! World History!” he later wrote to me in an e-mail about what he seeks in his reading. “Those kind of T-shirt slogans.”

Your dialogue is very funny. It seems very stylized but then, when you read it aloud, it’s perfectly realistic. Do you have rules for dialogue? Whose do you admire?

Maybe perversely, I love Henry James’s The Awkward Age, which is written almost entirely in dialogue and is therefore almost incomprehensible. Everyone is speaking in intimation and allusion—which is so much like life that the reader has desperately to work out what the degrees of irony and lying are. That kind of flatness seems to me the ideal. There’s a great moment in a Lampedusa essay where he praises the dialogue in Stendhal’s novels, because none of it is celebrated, nothing is quotable. I wonder if in novels, rather than plays or screenplays, the dialogue can become this baroque surface thing, because it’s free to be as close to audiotape as possible, without the burden of meaning anything, or conveying plot. Although I don’t know if this is some kind of London problem—how little is actually said in conversation. Okay, sure, there might be mutual understanding—but the sentences are only nonsense, or nonsense poetry. Read More »

Meet Your New Neighbors: An Interview with DW Gibson

May 21, 2015 | by


DW Gibson. Photo: Chiara Barzini

In cities, trends come, go, and come again; causes rise to prominence, fall by the wayside, and emerge repackaged; neighborhoods flourish or fall out of favor. Condos, cupcake shops, and bike lanes become signifiers; shady buyouts and racist landlords fuel arguments about whether communities are being renewed or decimated.

The word gentrification is in the subtitle of DW Gibson’s most recent oral history, but the author has trouble with it: it’s too broad, he writes, to adequately capture a wide variety of experiences, contexts, and meanings. Several interviewees in his book also seem at odds with the word. One says gentrification doesn’t describe anything in the real world. Another says he doesn’t need to be able to describe it because he knows what it feels like.

To mark the release of The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century, I spoke with Gibson, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, about bringing the human touch to the page, viewing a book as one long panning shot in a film, and the importance of using all the tools at one’s disposal, including cute daughters.

How do you make gentrification something people want to read about?

Most of the books out there are academic or have an academic feel to them. I think the way you get people to care about gentrification is to write about human beings. My goal was to show the human fabric of gentrification. People relate to people, to stories. Read More »

Our Thing: An Interview with Paul Beatty

May 7, 2015 | by


Photo: Hannah Assouline

Paul Beatty’s recurring themes—race and tribalism, human psychology, ambition and failure, and the haunting presence of history—are the heavy ones. But he moves through them with light steps, his precisely choreographed Southern California meander broken by exuberant outbursts of buck dancing and the occasional disemboweling. His early poetry and his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, opened up expansive new territory for writers trying to build an alternative literature, one that found its energy and idiom outside of the traditional American literary complex. But he has always belonged only to himself, unrushed and unburdened by any scene or movement.

I first encountered his work through the Nuyorican Poetry scene in the nineties. I remember feeling that wash of recognition and estrangement that certain books conjure—I was surprised by the familiarity of the voice, and thrilled by the weird, reckless shit it was saying. Paul seemed to come from the world I knew, a world filled with outsiders and cultural polymaths but still thick with the strange incense of African American life—where Amiri Baraka was a comedian, Kurt Vonnegut was black, and Ice Cube was an arch satirist. It was life-changing to see that world animated by Paul’s particular offbeat, backtracking, culture-swallowing genius. Beatty writes laceratingly funny books that often turn on the subject of race, but more than that, his novels are flares sent up—for anyone who happens to be looking—that illuminate the persistent and irreducible feelings that rumble in our deepest places. They’re about hope and failure and loss, the absurdity of systems and the loneliness of being our own weird selves. And they’re about the beautiful consolation of seeing it, really seeing it, in all its pain and nothingness, and laughing.

Paul’s latest novel, The Sellout, comes at an interesting moment in the eternal—and eternally recycled—American “conversation on race.” The protests that have broken out across the country over police violence have had a powerful undercurrent of black humor. My Twitter feed is illustrated with wild, vivid scenes that would be right at home in a Beatty novel: Newsman Jake Tapper in Ferguson for ABC News with a protestor behind him holding up a sign: IS IT OPEN SEASON ON A NIGGA’S ASS???????; CNN reporters getting their microphones jacked midinterview by angry protestors; a (probably doctored) photo of a young black boy riding a hijacked police horse away from the scene of a riot. Years ago, Beatty identified the source of this sort of dark comedy. “African Americans,” he wrote in one of his section introductions for Hokum, “like any other Americans, are an angry people with fragile egos. Humor is vengeance. Sometimes you laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes you laugh to keep from shooting … black folk are mad at everybody, so duck, because you’re bound to be in someone’s line of fire.”

Paul and I had a long talk in front of a single cup of coffee at a café in the East Village. That wide-ranging, candid interview was cursed by the gods of Cupertino and lost forever. Paul, being a mensch, agreed to meet me again at a different East Village café, and just as he started to open up about the path of his career, we were interrupted—our quiet café hosted a comedy night. We fled to yet another café, where we had this conversation. Read More »

Good World to Be In: An Interview with Lisa Yuskavage

April 29, 2015 | by


Lisa Yuskavage in her studio, Brooklyn, New York. Photo by EJ Camp, courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London

Since her arrival on the art scene some twenty-five years ago, Lisa Yuskavage has made a name for herself with paintings that use classical techniques to depict unabashedly taboo subjects. Her creations—awash in radiant, hallucinatory colors and featuring hedonistic heroines unlike anything else in art today—are instantly identifiable. Her latest show, which opened last week at David Zwirner in New York, explores the idea of the incubus and succubus, and includes images of men—Dude Looks Like Jesus, for instance—a first for the artist. “I was thinking a lot about Dürer,” she says. “There’s this obsession with a certain look, which has to do with a revolutionary kind of guy.”

I met Yuskavage, who is fifty-two, at her spacious Brooklyn studio earlier this month, where our talk touched on a variety of subjects, including her process, her past, and her experimentation with Grindr, the gay dating app. We’d intended to take a trip to her favorite bookstore, Ursus Books, afterward, but we stayed at her studio instead, conversing as pale yellow light crept along the floor.

When critics discuss your work, they talk a lot about gaze—whether the figures depicted are inviting us to look or whether we’re intruding upon something private.

It’s interesting because in order to make some of these paintings of men, I did something a few years ago—I didn’t realize why I was doing it at the time. I joined Grindr. I had a Grindr persona. You didn’t think I was going to say that today, did you?

Do you remember your username?

I don’t remember, but I eventually took it down when I almost hooked up with someone. I met someone by accident. My husband has a very nice body, and I took a picture of his torso. He had pants on. I didn’t want to be that vulgar, because I didn’t want to present myself as being just interested in sex.

So I was at Le Pain Quotidien on Bleecker Street having my stupid vegan soup. I was looking at Grindr and imagining the Dionysian possibilities of life. It seemed like the air was full of sex. Not just sex, but hopefulness. Then I see that there’s someone who, whatever you call it, poked me or tapped me. He was ten feet away. I was like looking around and then I saw someone looking around. He was looking for me, and he couldn’t find me because I didn’t exist! Read More »