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Dear Diary: An Interview with Esther Pearl Watson

June 20, 2014 | by

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Esther Pearl Watson’s comic Unlovable is based on a found diary, from the 1980s, of a teenager Watson has named Tammy Pierce. Tammy lives in a small North Texas town with her parents and younger brother; her life is banal, poignant, and excruciatingly funny. She clings just above the bottom rung of her high school social hierarchy, awkwardly pursues “hot guys,” and is regularly exploited by her best friend, Kim.

In Watson’s hands, however, this is not a coming-of-age story. Expanding on the details of the diary, she amplifies Tammy’s naïveté and absurdity, capturing the grotesqueness of adolescence, how teenagers live in their aspirations and ideals but also in an amplified shame. Watson’s lines are exaggerated and energetic; her characters are sweaty and ugly, their imperfections magnified as if being scrutinized in a sixteen-year-old’s mirror. You feel, vividly, the humiliation of bodies. Matt Groening has called Unlovable “the great teen comic tragedy of our time.”

Watson has been at work on the series for more than a decade, first publishing it as minicomics and on the back page of Bust magazine. The third collected volume of the strip has just been released by Fantagraphics Books—a lime-green, gold-glitter affair that is apt tribute to Tammy’s fervent aspiration to be a makeup artist.

I spoke with Watson over Skype, calling her in Los Angeles from my apartment in Brooklyn. Though she’s well known in the LA art scene, her voice carries the lilt of her own Texan upbringing.

How is Unlovable different from the original diary?

I started keeping a daily diary when I was thirteen—I hoped there was somebody else out there who felt the need to put down what happened every day. My diaries are impossible to read now because they’re so boring. I would write down what I ate, what I wore, trying to make my life sound normal, but I wouldn’t write that my dad was building flying saucers in the backyard.

“Tammy”’s diary was different. I found it in a gas-station bathroom in a sink. Somebody had unloaded a bunch of garbage, piles of clothes. I hid it under my shirt and ran out to the car and said to my husband, Mark, Let’s get out of here, quick! We read it out loud, driving our beat-up car through the desert. It was less than a hundred pages. “Tammy” talked about friends, this whole cast of characters, and she tried to choose between two guys, which one she would go out with. She would sneak out of her bedroom window to hang out with these delinquent kids who you just knew were using her. And you wanted to yell advice at her—That doesn’t mean he likes you, he wants something else! Listen to your mom! Read More »

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Red Giant: An Interview with Shane Jones

June 18, 2014 | by

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I met Shane Jones in 2009, in Chicago, during the annual AWP conference. Amid the crowded fluorescent labyrinth, I happened upon him manning the Publishing Genius Press table, projecting an aura of calm that seemed delightfully out of step with the usual huckster energy of the book fair. I bought his novel Light Boxes and read it on the plane home, where I was so transported by the world Shane had created that I forgot all about the smells and turbulence of travel by air. I remember tucking the book into my bag and thinking, Whatever this person does next, I’ll read it. Shane and I have stayed in touch ever since.

Crystal Eaters is full of the fabulist inventions that often mark Shane’s fiction—a ravenous sun and “crystal counts,” the idea that we’re born with a hundred crystals inside us, a supply that dwindles until, at the end of our lives, it’s exhausted—but at the core of the novel is a family’s struggle to turn toward one another in the face of unbearable loss. Shane conjures a world that is, in ways large and small, melting down.

Shane and I spoke via e-mail—I was in Andover, Massachusetts, and Shane in Albany, New York—about the new book, fatherhood, death, and therapy.

There are many layers of mythology in Crystal Eaters—surrounding, to name a few, the black crystals, people in the city versus people in the village, the beliefs of Brothers Feast and the Sky Father Gang. “Everyone is eventually fooled into believing in something that doesn’t exist,” you write.

Religion, spirituality, cults—Brothers Feast and the Sky Father Gang are cults—prayer, crystals, myths, folktales, the universe as a system of life and destruction—I’m attracted to these things, and they are players in the book. The idea of choosing something—a value system—and believing in it is very beautiful, even if it’s absurd in the face of death. I’m always surprised when writers say they don’t believe in a god or religion but they believe in creating a world on two hundred pages using symbols. We’re all worshiping something. The city worships things like hospitals and fast food and phones and constant consumption, and I’d say those things are a dangerous kind of worship. I’m more interested in the dirt dwellers, who believe, here, that they have a number of crystals inside their stomachs. I very desperately want to believe in something, and I think writing is a way to dig at this wall. There doesn’t have to be an answer, really. Just the movement. 

As far as being fooled into believing in something that doesn’t exist—as a kid, you’re constantly being sold one fantasy or another. Santa Claus, Sesame Street, the police are the good guys, parents know what they’re doing, doctors will help you with medicine, men protect women, et cetera. These concepts slowly dissolve, or are at least kind of remolded, as you get older. Read More »

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Field Geology: An Interview with Rivka Galchen

June 11, 2014 | by

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Photo: Sandy Tait

In 2008, Rivka Galchen published Atmospheric Disturbances, a novel about a psychiatrist who wakes up one day to discover that his wife has been substituted by a replica. He subscribes to the delusions of a patient (who believes he can control the weather) to explain her disappearance. What James Wood referred to as the narrator’s first-person “double unreliability” made for a richly inconclusive novel about the confusion and mystery of love.

In her new story collection, American Innovations, Galchen, who has a background in medicine, returns us to worlds in which weird things happen. A woman watches the objects in her Brooklyn apartment leave of their own volition; a student of Library Sciences develops a third breast; refrigerated string cheese won’t stay put. Galchen’s stories suggest oppositions that dissolve in their own reversals: real things take on the patina of the artificial, while the fantastic and strange can feel more real than what we call real life. To read her stories is something like using a map without contours or coordinates; it’s impossible to plan your trip.

Over e-mail, Galchen and I discussed fiction’s relationship to field geology, the peculiarities of the short story as a form, and the allure of McDonald’s. Galchen is exhilaratingly imaginative, precise, and generous.

Why is the story a form you return to?

Short stories feel found to me—I like that about them. Of course, they’re actually not found, they’re written, just as novels are written, but they seem to have a more dense and unchangeable core than novels do, or at least it seems like one reaches the immutable core faster.

I like how stories can feel like some shiny thing on the ground, something that might be malachite, or might be a fragment of a comet, or might be a rusted old ignition. The writing process for a short story feels more like field geology, where you keep turning the thing over and over, noting its qualities in detail, hammering at it, putting it near flame, pouring different acids on it, and then finally you figure out what it is, or you just give up and mount it on a ring and have an awkward chunky piece of jewelry that seems weirdly dominating but that you for some reason like. I could be wrong about field geology here.

Where do you find your stories?

Sometimes I wonder if it’s immaterial things rooting around to find their material. For example, I have a story set in large part in a McDonald’s, there’s a young girl at the center of it, it’s in many ways a kind of love story, but why McDonald’s? McDonald’s was just sitting there in the old costume trunk of the back brain, and there was some inchoate emotion trying to play its little tune, and for whatever congregation of reasons McDonald’s was ideally useful to that emotion. It gave it the right language—probably in part because of that weird residue of how enchanting McDonald’s used to be when we were kids, how it was all an outsize luxury. And then, of course, it looks so different to us today. I think it has something to do with the question, What is it fiction is actually good at? What can it do that’s not better done with, say, a long piece of journalism, or a photograph, or a TV show? And that, in turn, has something to do with the intangible murk from which stories start to organize themselves. That intangible murk is the part that feels found to me. Read More »

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Always on Display: An Interview with Joshua Ferris

May 19, 2014 | by

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Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/Hachette Brown Group

“The mouth is a weird place,” says the dentist-narrator of Joshua Ferris’s new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. “Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate—where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul may just fail to turn up.”

It’s not just dentists who peer into dark spaces. Fear that the soul may fail to turn up is everywhere in Ferris’s work. To date, he has explored the human search for soulfulness in the anonymizing ecosystem of an office (Then We Came to the End); in the repercussions of an isolating, untreatable disease (The Unnamed); and repeatedly in words themselves. A short story like “The Fragments,” published in The New Yorker last spring, is constructed from snippets of half-caught conversations. It takes as its subject the not-quite-bridgeable gap between overhearing and understanding, between the sound of a sentence and the meaning inside. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour turns this artistic interest in misunderstandings into an impressive investigation of faith and doubt. It’s a novel full of existential humor, and the laughs start before the book has even begun. Not many American writers, searching the Bible for an appropriate epigraph, would have found their eyes alighting on this one:

Ha, ha

—Job 39:25.

I met Ferris on a Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. We talked about his desire to shift his writing away from what he calls “the over-manufacture of the imagined” to a more “face value” approach. We also discussed the ways in which he envies the sense of belonging religion can offer, and why literary critics could afford to lighten up when it comes to funny fiction. “We don’t exist in the world solely to grow goatees and stroke them,” he told me. “We’re here also to make one another laugh.”

I heard that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour started its life as a detective novel called The Third Bishop. How did you find your way from that original idea into a novel about baseball and religion, narrated by a dentist?

Ten years ago, I was despairing of writing any book at all. I had about 250 pages of the novel that eventually became Then We Came to the End, and those pages were wanting. So I put them away and eventually gave myself over to a very different manuscript. It was about a kid who had been thoroughly indoctrinated into a cult and was convinced that his strange view was the worldview. I was interested in the borderland that exists between a cult and a religion, and especially fascinated by Joseph Smith and the evolution of Mormonism.

After Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed were published, I ended up coming back to that story of an indoctrinated kid. Slowly it evolved into the story of a private detective investigating a possibly ancient religion. In a way, the books you almost wrote on the way to finding the final novel will always be more interesting than the published version. They’re a more colorful record of the writer’s life. But with the help of my two editors I came to see that the private detective, who’s inherently a kind of mediating narrator, or a cipher, wasn’t working for me either. I needed a narrator right at the center of the novel, encountering the religion for himself. He eventually became a dentist because I need my characters to have jobs in order to feel real to me. People have to work. I thought, Why not make him a dentist? It doesn’t get any more real world than that. You’re getting in there every day and making shit bleed.Read More »

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A Marvelous Crutch: An Interview with Brad Zellar

April 25, 2014 | by

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McKenna. Corsicana Tumbling Academy. Corsicana. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Douglas. Beverly Hills. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Fellowship Church. Grapevine. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Reveille VIII, Texas A&M mascot. College Station. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Texas City, “The town that would not die.” Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Cory and Justin, Bull riders, in San Antonio. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Execution of Jerry Martin. Huntsville Prison, Walls Unit. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

Brad Zellar’s writing has appeared in daily newspapers from Minnesota and in an expansive blog called Your Man for Fun in Rapidan; he has chapters and essays in collections like The 1968 Project and Twin Cities Noir, and occasionally he writes fiction, which he tells me he publishes “under an assortment of fake names.” But he’s most comfortable writing about photographs, as he did in the book Suburban World: The Norling Photos, and in his most recent project with the photographer Alec Soth, the LBM Dispatch.

Named for and printed by Soth’s limited-run publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, the Dispatch reimagines the iconic American road-trip photography book as a series of small newspapers, each of which chronicles a quick trip Zellar and Soth have taken through a different state or territory. Previous Dispatches have covered Michigan, Ohio, and California’s “Three Valleys—Silicon, San Joaquin, and Death.” The most recent includes images and stories from the Texas Triangle.

I wanted to know about the writing process for the Dispatch, and how Zellar chooses the issues’ many quotations from historical and literary sources. But I was most curious to hear his thoughts on writing to accompany images. Not quite a photo-interpreter in the Berger/Sontag tradition (though he is a great writer in the “how to look” sense), Zellar embraces photography as a fan, and he’s not afraid to let images do the talking when necessary. In Zellar’s work, photos are windows, excuses for curiosity—above all, the Dispatch embodies the devotion to stay curious.

A lot of your work, here and elsewhere, has accompanied photos. How does it affect your own writing to know that pictures will share its space? How does it make you think about your purpose as a writer?

The public library in my hometown had a terrific collection of photo books when I was a kid. I was an obsessive reader, but it was from those photo books that I formed my first real impressions about what the world looked like. And they played a huge role in cementing a resolve that I very much wanted to travel and see that world. I used to spend hours hunched over William Eggleston’s Guide, the first Diane Arbus monograph, and a book of vernacular American photographs called The Champion Pig.

From an early age I used to write stories based on photographs, and I’ve never really stopped. I have a large collection of found photos, I like to take photos myself, and I just get a kick out of looking at pictures and trying to animate them with words. I love that photos represent so many possible realities, and they’re sort of a laboratory for exploring points of view. You have the people in the pictures, obviously, each of them a different voice with a different version of whatever story is being told, you have the people outside the frame or lurking in the peripheries, and then, of course, you have the photographer. Read More »

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The Smithereens of Collapse: An Interview with Bill Cotter

April 18, 2014 | by

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Photo: Leon Alesi

Issue 208 of The Paris Review includes Bill Cotter’s story “The Window Lion,” which pairs remarkably well with his new novel, The Parallel Apartments. In fact, they’re related—but I’ll let Cotter talk about that. The novel is the sort of book that invites opposing adjectives: it’s sexy and repellant, “brainy” and full of “heartfelt joy” (Heidi Julavits); it’s comic but also relentlessly, tragically sad. I spent much of my time while reading the novel trying to articulate its tone. I got this far: “the image of Walt Disney’s dick was a revelation.”

Cotter agreed to a talk on the phone—he lives in Austin, Texas. We spoke for well over two hours, about writing, reading, the idea of “a Texas novel,” and his day job as an antiquarian book dealer and restorer. He has an excellent vocabulary and an imagination thats far-out and fantastic.

While reading, I was reminded of a favorite quote, from William James—“To better understand a thing’s significance, consider its exaggerations and perversions … learn what particular dangers of corruption it may be exposed to.” The novel, especially with regard to sex and relationships, seems a distorted version of reality, a kaleidoscope of exaggerations.

I like the idea that verity can be glimpsed by bending mirrors and chipping lenses. In fact, I don’t know how to get at the truth of characters in any other way. I don’t know how to send characters on movie dates, have them play tennis on a sunny day, or sit them down for turkey and mashed potatoes. In order to get at them for real, it’s necessary, for me, to dress them in silly clothes, hack off their fingers, smear them with ptomaine, then stick them between the sheets or pitch them starved into a cage or just let them rush around erecting bearing walls too weak to hold up the trembling rafters. It’s in the busted minds of troubled offspring, or among bones not quite picked clean, or poking out of the smithereens of collapse that I think the true truths are found. Read More »

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